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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

CNA survey: Class is the great divider

In News Reports on October 2, 2018 at 3:32 am

There’s quite a good ChannelNewsAsia documentary, Regardless of Class, on television which stars Senior Minister of State Janil Puthucheary. What’s more interesting is that it is underpinned by a survey of about 1,000 Singaporeans aged 18 to 74, who were asked for their views on  the social divide.

Here are some key points:

a. Half of the respondents think class is the biggest social divide while only 20 per cent picked out race or religion.

This means that our perception of fault lines have changed. It’s how much you earn and the socio-economic status you have or are perceived by others to hold, that will pull society apart. But what if class lines coincide with race?

b. Here’s how the respondents perceived the characteristics of the upper class and the lower class.

Upper class: Able to speak good English, plan ahead and domineering. That view is held by more than 90 per cent of respondents. Also, more than 90 per cent described the group as “arrogant” and “luckier” than the less well-off.

Lower class: Friendly, caring and tend to speak Singlish. More than 90 per cent of respondents picked the first characteristic. Only 3

If it sounds familiar to you, this is because it has echoes of the much-derided social studies guide book for students which described the characteristics of the those with different socio-economic status. Like how the high SES eat in fine restaurants and those at the other end prefer hawker centres.

c. This bit is about sense of belonging to the country. It isn’t clear here how CNA divided the respondents into upper and lower classes, but the two groups were asked how dear their country was to them.

Upper class: 70 per cent felt a strong sense of belonging while 76 per cent declared themselves proud to be Singapore

Lower class: 46 per cent felt they belonged here while 50 per cent evinced feelings of national pride.

d. The two classes also place different importance on the impact of education. The lower class mentioned education as a way out of poverty, while those in the upper classes didn’t even mention it. Perhaps this is because the upper class have already grasped the education quotient. You can see this in the different attitudes of parents and students  in IP schools, and those in the Normal stream

IP students and their parents:  expect at least ‘A’s and to go to university, locally or abroad.

Normal stream students and their parents:  expect a pass in all their subjects and a little bit of improvement, and also to get into the Institute of Technical Education.

Are any of the findings, beyond getting numbers pinned on them, of surprise to you? The documentary had some heartbreaking interviews with Normal Stream students talking about being looked down upon, and security guards about abuse from residents whose estates they serve. There was an unnamed individual who works at McDonalds who declared her “invisible”. They spoke matter-of-factly, which made their comments more poignant.

Income inequality is a perennial hot topic which was re-ignited by the publication of academicTeo You Yenn’s book, This is what Inequality looks like, in which she argued that some policies intended to help the poor could actually be hindering access instead. (She wasn’t interviewed in the documentary, which was a surprise.) Singapore’s Gini co-efficient is among the highest in the world, at 0.450 last year. After taking into account G transfers and taxes, it’s 0.401. The G has tried its level best to explain that the figures do not reflect the interventions at ground level, such as subsidies, the different methodologies employed in the calculation of the index and how a large swathe of the population pay no income tax at all. But it doesn’t wave away  the fact that the Gini co-efficient is high.

We’re breeding a society of haves and have-nots with those sandwiched in-between believing that they belong in the have-not category. Hence the angst over ministerial pay and complaints about grants and subsidies pegged to housing type. But better a culture of envy, methinks, than a culture of resignation. One part of the survey which reflects this resignation: Only half of the people from the lower class were confident that their next generation’s financial situation will improve.

So many schemes have been enacted to alleviate the plight of the poor, and we can only hope that new pre-school initiatives would give those at the bottom a push to get to the same starting line as every other child. Then, there are now housing plans to put rental and owner-occupied flats in the same area, to promote social mixing. But there are still concerns that this won’t work as people have different needs.

The calls to be an inclusive society should be accompanied by tangible actions. I don’t think it is enough for the G to enact new or more schemes for the poor. And while I lament the different attitudes people have towards rich and poor, I acknowledge that you can’t police what people say or feel about themselves and others. Cultural changes  take a long time.

There is a simple action that I wish to propose, which would test the empathy of the upper classes for those who are less fortunate.

You know the Singapore bonus, GST rebates and other payouts  that are now in pipeline? They have always been contentious because they are given out based on different criteria like household type or family income. How often have you heard the grumble that rich people don’t need $100? I think the Finance Ministry should consider including an option to let those who don’t need the pay-out to re-direct the money somewhere else. Perhaps, the money could go into a pot to be divided among those in need, like public assistance recipients.

This could be a standard feature for all future G pay-outs.

I think this will be a good gesture. Far better than calls to raise the marginal income tax rate, because it is also voluntary. It might well be that too few people would give up their pay-out, which only reflects on us as a society, or it would be a tangible way to show that we are serious about being an inclusive society, regardless of class.

How about it, Finance ministry?