Archive for May, 2018|Monthly archive page

Another conversation? Hold that cynicism

In News Reports on May 19, 2018 at 1:41 am

And at the end of five days of parliamentary speeches, we are going to have…another conversation? I suppose we should wait for the details on how this coming conversation will be conducted before being consumed by cynicism.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, originator of the first conversation, said this second one will reach different age groups, such as millennials, Gen X, Baby Boomers and Pioneers and different segments such as unionists, grassroots leaders and volunteer groups. I don’t suppose it will be much different in its conversation coverage, that is, it would include anyone and everyone. In fact, that 2012/13 exercise included 47,000 Singaporeans from over 40 private and non-profit organisations in over 660 dialogues. I think many might have forgotten we later had the smaller SGFuture dialogues a few years later, on imagining a Singapore in 50 years.

The eye-rolling has already started.

My eyeballs went up into my brain until I recalled that the Our Singapore Conversation wasn’t a bad exercise. Really. And it did culminate in tangible policy changes especially in housing, transport and healthcare. Rules allowing more singles to live in public housing, the change of PSLE format and the introduction of Medishield Life are some notable examples. The pity is that the G is quite bad at referencing the policies to what the people had said in the Our Singapore Conversation. Hence, the eye-rolling now about the prospect of another No action, Talk only exercise.

I covered that OSC exercise quite extensively and gave the final report a thumbs-up. Among other things, it included views which would ordinarily be confined to what has been described as the vocal minority, such as: “As citizens, we sometimes feel that the government could trust us more. At the end of the day, we may not always agree with the government’s decisions. But we would like to have more information to make an informed assessment and to arrive at conclusions of our own.’’

There were several calls for engagement and inclusivity, a compassionate meritocracy and how the nature of governance needed “updating’’, along with the “talents’’ and “temperaments’’ involved.  Singaporeans let it all hang out.

Will another conversation lead to more of the same sentiment? Or is the 4G leadership more concerned with the process of forging bonds through engagement, rather than its tangible results?

Looking back over events of the past two years or so, I have come round to thinking that such engagement would be good for the 4G leaders and the people. This is because recent events have rocked my Singaporean core (I can speak for myself only).

Here are some worries that run through my Gen X head:

  1. Effectiveness of the G: The recent public transport woes, while being addressed, has led to the perception that the G and its companies aren’t as efficient and top-class as they are made out to be. This, despite constant exhortations that Singapore should pursue excellence and exceptionalism.
  2. Vulnerability of the G: The FamiLEE saga has shaken sentiments about the leadership of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has been accused by his own siblings of being, among other things, power hungry. He has chosen not to sue for defamation, which makes him an open target in elections.
  3. Temperament of the G: The recent Select Committee hearings on fake news proposals showed a G that tended not just to demolish arguments, but also to belittle people – a 1G practice.
  4. Opacity of the G: Information is still hard to come by, especially with the re-surfacing of the use of the Official Secrets Act and the way contempt of court laws are being selectively applied. And I still don’t understand why parliamentary proceedings can’t be broadcast live.
  5. Paucity of the G: This has to do with the talent induction process, with the parachuting of ex-military men into key positions. It gives rise to worries about the the small talent pool Singapore has and how big a part group-think plays in policy-making.
  6. Heavy-handedness of the G: This is my biggest beef – pushing through a race-based reserved presidency in Singapore. I will add though that the G could only do this because people were sleeping while the discussions were going on.

Now, the G is filled with intelligent people, and will have a counter-argument to every point made above.

  1. There are numerous indices which tout Singapore’s efficiency and so forth as Number 1. On balance, this is a good G.
  2. Parliament has no problems with PM Lee Hsien Loong’s leadership, even if his siblings do.
  3. The G has a policy of robust replies to counter views that it believes to be wrong.
  4. Secrets are secrets, and contempt of court laws aren’t applied willy-nilly. The rule of the law must be upheld – to the letter.
  5. Judge not a man by his background but what he can bring to the table.
  6. An activist race policy is needed to maintain multi-racial harmony.

In any case, my list above will be viewed as out-of-touch with the sentiments of the so-called silent majority. They will be concerned with bread-and-butter issues, whether they will get a flat, have a job and have enough savings to retire on. This means that the G must make sure the Industry Transformation Maps are executed properly to create higher-paying jobs, calibrate taxes to bankroll future social spending, and have an immigrant policy that will top up – and not overwhelm – the Singapore.

In other words, delivering material goods and a higher standard of living are most important to the people.  This is true for my parents’ generation because they started from a low base, and even for my generation – but I would worry if the next generation only cares about scaling the material ladder when they are already living in plenty.

Signs are that the young people want a bigger say in how this country moves ahead.  This idealism should not be dampened. I don’t think that they want a G which talks down to them, and uses “trust’’ as a euphemism for “we know best’’. Nor would they be convinced by the constant public profiling of the G with its numerous G-commissioned surveys which almost always support the G position. There is such a thing as “too good to be true’’. But hey, that’s not the business of this Gen X-er. Let the millennials dictate the dialogue.

For myself, I would like to put my list behind me and open my mind to what the 4G leadership wants to achieve for Singapore. I welcome the next series of conversations because it will give a sense of what the young leaders stand for and how much of a break from the past we can expect.  Methinks we should all get behind the 4G leadership in starting a new relationship between the governed and the government

From reading the speeches, it is clear that the issue of social inequality and mobility will take centre stage. It is a big bone to chew on because it would involve every aspect of our lives – from how to give our less well-off children a good start to creating more spaces for social interaction.

I would hold Mr Heng to this promise in his speech: “The fourth generation leadership will listen with humility and respect. We will consider all views with an open mind, and adjust our course accordingly. We will communicate the thinking behind our decisions clearly. We will bring Singaporeans together and give everyone a role to turn good ideas into concrete action.’’

Let the conversation begin.





The flat is old – but gold to me

In News Reports on May 14, 2018 at 11:47 pm

I will be moving back into my mother’s flat soon. It is a five-room HDB flat, where I had spent most of my growing-up years. It is also more than 40 years old, one of among 7 per cent of all flats here.

When I brought renovation contractors to the house, they wondered at the pristine condition of the walls and floor tiles. They advised me not to replace the original terrazzo flooring, because such tiles weren’t available anymore. They even suggested retaining the more than 20-year old carpentry works in the three bedrooms, again, because you can’t find such high-quality work anymore. I almost wondered if they wanted my business.

It helps that my mother is a house-proud neat freak, possessive of every single item in the flat. Many people have urged her to sell, especially some years ago when such big flats in mature estates commanded a hefty premium. She used to show me flyers from real estate agents on how much flats like hers had sold for, and who among the neighbours had made a killing selling their flats.

I have never taken her suggestion to sell seriously, even as she painted visions of moving into a smaller flat which would be easier to house-keep. I didn’t think she would be comfortable in a different neighbourhood at this late stage of her life. She is, after all, the doyen of the block, an original resident who had moved in as soon as the flat was ready for occupation in the 70s.

Of course, my mother now grumbles about how the flat price is going down and evinces some regret at not moving out earlier and buying a second, new, BTO flat. After all, that’s how most people are “rolling’’ their HDB homes.

Flat prices are a big theme in Singapore now, as people wake up to the fact that a 99-year lease isn’t forever and that such homes would lose their asset value or even be seen as an encumbrance in the upgrading race.

I wondered at all the angst that surrounded the March announcement that not all old HDB blocks would undergo the selective enbloc resale (SERS) process to be torn down and rebuilt. Only 4 per cent or 80 sites have been picked so far, we’re told, and the G has warned people not to buy old flats with the expectation of getting a windfall under Sers – and a new replacement flat in the same area.

It is the HDB version of speculators who buy units in condominiums with enbloc potential, except that while these speculators can actually start the ball rolling with sales committees and so forth, the HDB speculators are at the mercy of the G.

I laughed when I read about how people peruse maps to locate possible blocks which could undergo Sers as an investment opportunity. Did they think this is like one of those HDB programmes where there is a commitment that blocks will have a lift that stops on every floor, or upgraded toilets? It is not an automatic programme, not even for three-room flats.

Methinks there is too much confusion surrounding the concept of a home in Singapore.  In the early days, we were told that a home-owning society will have more reason to care for the shelter they possess and hence, the land. We’ve more or less succeeded in that objective.

But very soon after, home ownership became an investment asset, to be sold after the five-year moratorium to afford its owners some extra money to jump to the next bigger, subsidized flat or into private property.

Then came the upgrading programmes which we’re told would increase the asset value of our homes. In the meantime, there were the former HUDC flats which meant another windfall for residents who banded together to sell en bloc. Prices went up and up.  In 1995, Sers came along.

The home is such an asset that it can be pledged as part of the CPF minimum sum. More recently, the call has been to the elderly to unlock the value of their flat by downgrading or selling back part of the remaining lease to the HDB – which won’t garner much income if they have been living in the same place all their lives.

Singapore University of Social Sciences labour economist Walter Theseira was reported in ST  as suggesting a halt in the use of CPF savings for home purchases. It caused a furore but it transpired that what he had suggested was a re-calibration, with a greater focus on health and retirement needs.

Then yesterday, the issue became the main plank of an MP who spoke in response to the President’s Address in Parliament. People’s Action Party’s Cheryl Chan, whose Fengshan ward is full of old flats, suggested that flat valuation be based not on comparing past market transactions but on “its remaining lease, length of time occupied by current owner, and its right-sizing potential”. This will enable older homeowners to unlock their cash, right-size (or downsize) to a smaller unit, and move nearer to their children if they prefer.

She also suggested that the loan structure using CPF, now available to members up to age 55, be reviewed.

Stopping the use of CPF for housing would be politically controversial, to put it mildly. But re-designing the loan system, shortening the loan period or capping the amount that could be drawn from CPF are ideas to be explored. The final result may mean more time must pass before a household owns a home but I doubt there are many other countries where residents get to be home owners when they are only in their 20s, or when they get married. We’re lucky that way.

Here’s a thought: besides systemic changes, we might want to build a culture where the house is not seen as an investment opportunity but as a home. This might come about if home ownership is not so easy to achieve. Renting shouldn’t be a bad word, especially in the early years of working life. We might treasure a property more if we took longer to get it. (I will now take cover…)

These days, you see all sorts of advice online on when to sell your flat before it loses its value and which old flats are still commanding high prices. Young people balk at buying old flats now because of their low resale value. Older folk wonder if the flat will be as good an inheritance to leave for their children as they had thought.

The schemes to unlock the home, like the lease buyback, applies to three-room and smaller flats, allowing people to age “in place’’. This doesn’t apply to my mother’s five-room flat, but she can opt for a smaller flat and get a Silver Housing bonus or she can rent out a room.

I persuaded my mother that neither option worked. She would have to give away precious possessions collected over 40 years if she moved into a smaller place. And she would be uncomfortable with a tenant in the house.

Besides, I wanted the flat for myself.

It’s old, yes, but it’s in a neighbourhood I grew up in and it’s bigger than my own flat. In any case, the lease would outlive me and whoever I leave the flat to shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Still, I wait to see what the G will say to the problem of old flats, like whether we can hope for an increase in value. Then I can thumb my nose at those who think I’m throwing away good money after bad by spending on renovations.

But even if nothing happens, it’s still home to me.

That’s the most important thing.


Takeaways from the Malaysian GE

In News Reports on May 11, 2018 at 12:58 am

So the Malaysians have spoken. And we should congratulate them…for what exactly? That they have effected a change of government? That’s not really our business. Or that they have managed it peacefully through the electoral process?

It’s easy to be caught up in the Malaysia Boleh frenzy of the past 48 hours or so, to look admiringly at the chanting and clamour and to get absorbed in the twists and turns that led to the swearing-in ceremony of Dr Mahathir Mohammad as Malaysia’s comeback prime minister. So exciting! Even inspiring! Historic! Epochal!

At the back of our minds, there is this little voice which asks: “Can the same thing happen here?’’ I have no doubt at all that the Malaysian example will inspire the opposition politicians and supporters here to up the ante in the run-up to Singapore’s own general election due by January 2021. In fact, the 3G to 4G changeover in the G presents an opportunity for the opposition to call in the votes, because by the 4G leaders’ own admission, they haven’t earned the right to lead.

But I think that’s getting ahead of ourselves. There are other significant takeaways from the Malaysian GE, beyond demonstrating that a political party that has been in power since 1957 can be felled at the ballot box.

  1. If voter discontent is widespread, no amount of re-drawing of boundaries or denial of political party registration because of “lack of documentation’’ is going to help the incumbent.
  2. Implementing fake news laws, especially right before an election, isn’t going to intimidate people into sticking with politically correct speech and behavior. In any case, the campaign period is too short for any executive or judicial intervention to sway the votes.
  3.  Racial politics is not bigger than national politics. I am guessing here that Malaysians of all races were more upset at the IMDB scandal which had reached the international stage, than tempted by any appeal to racial loyalty.
  4. That populist promises, such as the abolition of the Goods and Services tax, the re-introduction of fuel subsidies and the rise in minimum wages, might have something to do with the opposition’s win. Perhaps, they counted for more than the money that the BN was throwing at different segments such as the civil service.

What I found interesting also is what happened post-election, that is, the frantic hours before Dr M was sworn in, particularly the reading of the Federal Constitution, the role of Malaysian royalty and members of the establishment.

It seems clear that the institutions of the State weren’t prepared for the scenario of the BN actually losing. Hence, some people hit the books and came up with Article 43 of the federal constitution which  states “the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (YDPA) shall first appoint as perdana menteri (prime minister) to preside over the cabinet a member of the House of Representatives who in his judgement is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the members of that House”.

The constitution makes no mention of political parties or political coalitions, allowing ex-premier Najib Razak to report initially that the polls have resulted in a “hung’’ Parliament. By his reading, it should be Madam Wan Azizah heading the government because her Parti Rakyat Keadilan  had the most number of seats, or the Barisan National could still entice some elected MPs to switch-over to its side. It was not to be.  The PKR and the three parities behind the Pakatan Harapan alliance led by Dr M made sure that they threw their support behind Dr M. They cited “the letter of the law’’.

This is when the cynic in me wondered why Mr Najib didn’t consider the step of changing the constitution while he was still in charge to ensure his longevity. Or why he didn’t get his legal team to get all legalistic over constitutional interpretation. I suppose he decided that even if the “letter’’ of the law was in his favour, its spirit was not, as the people of Malaysia had demonstrated.

The Malaysian royalty, always a political force to be reckoned with, had to come out to deny that it was delaying Dr M’s swearing-in. The royals and Dr M have had a rocky relationship, with Dr M trying his utmost to clip their wings in his previous tenure as PM.

The King and the sultans are a foundational pillar in the country. Their roles are largely ceremonial, but highly influential. Who knows what would have happened if they dragged their feet given such a split in the vote. It made me wonder about similar foundational pillars in Singapore. Would this be akin to the “unifying’’ role of the elected president should the country be placed in a similar position?

What was intriguing was the role three people seemed to have played in tipping the royal scales in favour of Dr M. The Straits Times reported that the Chief Secretary of Government, Tan Sri Ali Hamsa, who heads the civil service, Inspector General of Police Tan Sri Fuzi Harun and a senior member of the Armed Forces met with the King to impress on him the need to get Dr M sworn in quickly.

Are our institutions similarly independent enough to hold the line to see to the fulfilment of the people’s wishes? The answer must be yes.

But while the Malaysian election offered some insights on the workings of democracy, as citizens of a sovereign country, we should be more concerned with what the change happening in our next-door neighbor means for us.

This phrase pops into my mind – better the devil we know, than the devil we don’t – except that we’ve had some bilateral experience with Dr M’s leadership. We must hope that our 4G leaders are up to the challenge of handling our neighbor, and ensuring that our national interests are protected. They must keep in mind that they are dealing with a  man from the Lee Kuan Yew era – even if he is 92 and is going to be prime minister for just two years.


I am sold on bold – but what bold moves?

In News Reports on May 8, 2018 at 1:05 am

The thing I remember most about the previous Presidential Address to Parliament is about the need for Singapore to get its politics right. And if you recall, plenty of changes were indeed made, such as increasing the number of non-constituency MPs and more importantly, to the office of the elected presidency.

It looked like Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was laying the foundation for a strong political structure for his successor and the next generation of leaders to govern effectively. But besides putting more steel into the backbone, the next question is how to flesh it out, so to speak.

Frankly, a lot of the spadework has already been done. At almost every National Day rally, for example, the PM has promised changes to the landscape or cityscape, with regional nodes where communities live and work together in wonderful surroundings. Now, the 4G will have the pleasure/pressure of seeing those buildings and gardens come up, something which will depend on whether the State has enough money to keep those promises, which is contingent on an ever-humming economy. (Let’s not talk about the coming GST hike)

With a political structure, security measures secured through Parliament and a blueprint for the economy set by the Committee for the Future Economy in place, it’s time for the younger leaders to show what they can do with what their predecessors have laid down.

It’s going to be tough, given that the 4G leaders are starting from a high base. As President Halimah Yacob said:  “We may feel that we have more to lose now. We may be tempted not to go for bold changes, but instead be content to tweak things at the margins. That would be the wrong approach.”

This was to me the most significant point of her speech. But what sort of bold moves can we expect? To the extent that sacred cows will be led to the abattoir?

Expectations are now high given what the 4G leaders (through the President) have pronounced as their statement of (bold) intent. How will they go about demonstrating this through word and deed? For that, we will have to wait till next week for ministers to respond formally to the Presidential Address.

I’ve always thought that the younger leaders are starting with a handicap. It is hard to show your imprint if the G keeps insisting that everyone puts up a collective front. We have no idea what the 4G leaders argued for or are most passionate about in Cabinet meetings. We don’t know if their vision is much the same as the older members.

My own view is that the 4G should try and make a clean break from the past in some way or other. I recall the excitement when the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew stepped down for Mr Goh Chok Tong to take over. Mr Goh promised a kinder, gentler nation – which many interpreted as moving away from the tough love (?) Mr Lee exhibited. Mr Goh was also very concerned about the intangibles, such as the values Singaporeans hold, even as the economy powered up and delivered more material progress.

I think there are two areas which the 4G leaders can be said to already “own’’: Gearing up for the future economy and changing the concept of education as a paper chase exercise.

Mr Heng Swee Keat has been doing much of the first bit as Finance Minister and he is now responsible for seeing through the Industry Transformation Maps. But the other big change is the speed at which the future economy is sweeping through Singapore, whether we like it or not.

Our laws and regulations are, for example, trying to catch up with the changes in the ride-hailing and bike-sharing economy. How fast can we deal with fintech, as newer, speedier financial instruments are dangled in front of the laymen?

Transforming industries will be a slow process with results that can only be realised years later. But agility is needed to handle new economy changes – and to convince old economy to shift. This could mean encouraging the set up of new types of companies dealing with data and AI – as well as getting an elderly person to go cashless.

It will also mean convincing Singaporeans that we don’t have all the brains to achieve this, and this would mean having to import them. This will be tough given the aversion some quarters have towards foreigners, despite their slower rate of importation. Note that Mr Heng himself had floated a trial balloon on the need for a re-calibration of the foreign worker policy.

I think the education sector is the best field for the 4G leaders to demonstrate its mettle. It is good that two 4G leaders had been tasked in the past to handle the ministry, each with a clear focus. This showed that education was clearly a 4G affair. Mr Ng Chee Meng, who handled the mainstream schools, has since moved to the NTUC, so Mr Ong Ye Kung, who dealt with higher education and skills training, is the only one with the ball.

It is through this 10 years of compulsory education, and beyond, that many of the ideals espoused in the President’s address can be fulfilled, whether it is tackling social inequality or building a Singapore identity.

Some changes have been made on the education front, such as to the Primary School Leaving Examination which will take place in a few years – although it will be said that the “bold’’ move would be to do away with it altogether. “Applied learning’’ is also a core tenet in secondary school.

Then there is the shift away from academic grades to a skills and practice-oriented education that will lead to meaning jobs. In fact, the pronounced emphasis on skills is making some people worry that we’re going to the other extreme of denigrating the worth of a degree! (A Prime Minister with no degree?) Yet, for others, the change can’t come fast enough, as most parents are still set on seeing their children with a mortar board on their head.

But change has indeed begun. I see the SkillsFuture programmes as part of attempts to change the mindset of parents. If the parents think such programmes are good for their own careers, then they might not be so averse to setting their children on a technical path and to realize that learning is forever.

What will be worth watching are programmes to level up underprivileged families so that their children will be at the same starting line in primary school along with their more privileged peers.

Now this is new.

We’re shifting from the problem of getting more babies born, to the kind of support we’re giving to the babies that we do have. We must hope that KidStart and the changes at pre-school level will have an impact on pulling up the bottom of the population.

But once in the school system, what happens? Will the best still be with the rest or will there still be closed circles where they interact mainly with their own “kind’’? How can we make sure our children from different socio-economic circumstances cross paths more often and grow up together?

That requires a hard look at admission programmes, school resources and alumni ties because, try as Mr Heng might, every school is not a good school in the eyes of parents. Parents used to be assured that even if their children aren’t in top schools, so long as the end point is a university graduation ceremony, everything will turn out fine for their kids. That concept too is being turned on its head with the current skills-oriented emphasis.

It is a confusing period we’re in.

Madam Halimah said the new leaders “will need to listen to the views and feelings of the people, and by their words and deeds, show that they have heard; yet never fear to lead and mobilise public opinion to support difficult policies in the long-term interest of Singapore’’.

She added that trust between Singaporeans and their leaders does not pass automatically from one generation to the next.

“That right cannot be inherited.’’

Well said. Now we wait to hear how the new leaders will do this next week.

Something for the 4G leaders to consider: Please allow the broadcast or streaming of parliamentary sessions live. I happen to think it’s a small move, but it might be bold in your books.


The thumping of PJ Thum

In News Reports on May 1, 2018 at 2:35 am

I had wondered how the parliamentary Select Committee would respond to the academics’ petition about their colleague, Dr P J Thum. When the riposte came, I was somewhat surprised at the accusations. They were about how Dr Thum and his fellow academic, Dr Philip Kreager, were “subverting the parliamentary processes’’ of a sovereign nation.

What were the accusations based on?

  • Dr Thum had “input’’ in the statement drafted by Project Southeast Asia as well as the open letter signed by academics round the word. Both had called for an apology from the committee for maligning his credentials and his work. Dr Thum is the Project’s “co-ordinator’, while Dr Kreager is the chairman. Dr Kreager was also shown to be actively lobbying on Dr Thum’s behalf.
  • Both men are also the only two directors of Observatory Southeast Asia UK Ltd, which had received US$75,000 in funding from an entity connected to Mr George Soros, the billionaire financier who has a penchant for interfering in the affairs of other countries. The company, which the G claims has a political agenda, had tried unsuccessfully to set up a Singapore branch. Hence, they were not just academic colleagues but business partners and political activists as well.
  • Given the similarity between the statement and the online petition that secured the signatures of 280 academics round the world, Mr Charles Chong, who chairs the select committee, implied that the petition was authored by Dr Thum or Dr Kreager or both. In other words, it wasn’t a spontaneous academic outpouring of support for Dr Thum’s “battle against parliamentarians in an ex-colony’’.

The committee’s responses left me befuddled.

If all the above, gleaned from, among other things, the inadvertent release of email correspondence, are true, so what? It is natural for friends and colleagues to rally around someone they believe to have been mistreated. It is also natural for that someone’s input to be sought.

I suppose the committee wanted to point out elements of “dishonesty’’ that might not have been obvious to the academics who put their names down. Perhaps, the committee hoped to persuade the audience that if Dr Thum could be dishonest about this, what about everything else that had come before?

I wonder, however, whether said academics will be dissuaded if Dr Thum or Dr Kreager were upfront about its origins. Maybe they would argue that the content of the missive was more important than its authorship.  Would there be even more signatures if Dr Thum had made a personal appeal for support?

The parliamentary committee is weaving a tangled web of foreign intervention, dark money, conspiracy and subversion. It’s beginning to look like Dr Thum et al were involved in a cloak and dagger operation to undermine Singapore politics which the G is on a concerted campaign to destroy.

Mr Chong wrote: “We must protect our independence and the institution of Parliament. The information now available suggests that there has been a coordinated attempt, with foreign actors involved, to try to influence and subvert our parliamentary processes. This is a serious matter.”

I wonder what’s next.

In a debate, you try to win over the other side to your point of view. But when politicians get involved, I would think that the objective is usually not to persuade the other side, but to win over the audience. So as an interested member of this audience, this is my view.

I think it is perfectly all right for the Select Committee to quiz Dr Thum over his assertion that the G is the biggest liar of all with regards to Operation Coldstore in 1963. It was a chunk of his submission along with recommendations about media literacy and freedom of information. I am not surprised the committee didn’t question him on other parts of his paper, which had been canvassed before in its previous hearings.

Reading Dr Thum’s submission, I had expected that after taking a big swipe at the G, his recommendations would be about how to restrain the excesses of a dominant government. But he seemed content to level that big swipe and go back to neutral gear.

I don’t see how any government would be content to let the record stand unchallenged.

My own (layman) view is that Dr Thum dented his own academic authority when he said he did not take the words of Chin Peng, the former secretary-general of the Communist Party of Malaya seriously because memoirs are usually “self-serving’’ (my words) and not as rigorous as contemporaneous material. Interesting point, except that he also dismissed contemporaneous material which showed that the British were convinced that a communist insurrection was about to take place.

These two points would have been enough material for anyone interested in that period of Singapore’s history to chew over.  Instead, the committee also quizzed him on foot notes and names of communists who are said to have done this or that, over six hours. You can call it a pain-staking interview or a tedious interrogation to wear down a controversial G critic. The jibes and asides about Dr Thum’s academic ability, even likening him to a Holocaust denier, did not help the committee’s case.

Methinks people are upset about the way the hearing was conducted, rather than the right of the committee to question his submission.

I have to say that Dr Thum’s manners before the committee undermined his own credibility. First, he waffled over his credentials, which invited a jibe from the select committee that he is really an unpaid appendix of Oxford University, and not an “academic historian”. I don’t care for the committee’s brutal response which was contained in its reply to the open letter; I got the point the first time.

Second, unlike Facebook’s Simon Milner who was steadfast under relentless grilling and maintained a serious mien throughout, Dr Thum came across as cavalier and even jocular in his responses, which he accompanied with  facial antics before the television cameras . Mr Milner has more reason than Dr Thum to feel aggrieved: He was questioned about events that happened overnight across the world about what his boss, Mr Mark Zuckerberg, said about data privacy.

As a member of the audience, I lapped up the thrusts and counter-thrusts of the saga. But the saga has two facets that worry me.

First, is questioning parliamentary conduct or accusing Members of abuse a form of “subversion’’? It sounds like a very big word to use, almost on par with showing contempt for the judiciary. How “privileged’’ are the proceedings of Parliament?

Second, doesn’t this episode lend credence to the perception that it is best to stay away from perceived troublemakers? Being a critic, even a constructive one, can be a lonely thing. Too many Singaporeans do not wish to be tainted by association. Has no one wondered why the academics here, save a handful, did not sign the open letter? Is this out of self-preservation or political conviction?


This latest episode only gives my mother more ammunition to nag me to shut up.



PS. If anyone wants to know why I didn’t put my signature down on the open letter (I am a part-time academic), it’s because I already have my own platform to say whatever I want, in the way I want.