Archive for November, 2018|Monthly archive page

Heng in there, Singapore!

In News Reports on November 23, 2018 at 11:50 am

So is this the end? I mean, the end of the national gossip game of who will become Singapore’s 4th Prime Minister?

Mr Heng Swee Keat, 57, has been named 1stAssistant Secretary-General of the People’s Action Party. That means, if the leadership succession is really as orderly as the PAP says it will be,  he will take over as Prime Minister once Mr Lee Hsien Loong steps aside. Sooner or later, at one party convention, Mr Heng will assume the mantle of PAP secretary-general as well –  unless Mr Lee asked, like his late father did of Mr Goh Chok Tong, to be allowed to stay on in the party job for a while.

When media reports said that party sources were expecting Mr Heng to be first among equals among the 4G leadership, I thought to myself how things had gone one big round. After all, that was the talk last year and early this year, that Mr Heng would helm the post by virtue of his age and term in office. He would be Deputy Prime Minister because he is older and more experienced than the other two touted front-runners, Messrs Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ye Kung, both of whom haven’t hit the big 50. Then PM Lee nixed the idea and we’re told that all would be announced in good time.

It’s good that the leadership issue has been decided because the uncertainty was breeding too much speculation among the population. It must have been stressful for the three men, who despite whatever they or others have said about collective leadership, would have known how much scrutiny they were being subjected to, both in and out of political circles.

Recall how there were many more front-runners not too long ago. Their names have been quietly left out as pundits started narrowing the field. Last weekend, party sources revealed that Education Minister Mr Ong was no longer in the race, by virtue of being left out of the PAP Central Executive Committee’s list of nominees for party posts. Nevertheless, he was still nominated by the rank-and-file – and made the cut. What I would give to know how the 3,000 or so cadres split their votes!

When it came down to the wire, the Internet was abuzz with opinions about the two men, Finance Minister Heng and Trade and Industry Minister Chan. Anecdotally, netizens seem more in favour of Mr Heng than Mr Chan.

Mr Heng earned plenty of goodwill when he chaired the Our Singapore Conversation, an extensive and intensive political exercise to get feedback after the PAP’s dismal 2011 poll showing. The outcomes of his Committee for Future Economy didn’t get much as many bouquets. But most people know him who has been in public service for a very long time and who had been steering Singapore’s finances. He is seen as a “nice’’ man, so much so that even his attempts to upbraid opposition politicians in Parliament seemed too much out of character.

As for Mr Chan, a former general, his informal behavior and folksy mode of speech endeared him to the grassroots. But there were those who thought he lacked the gravitas that marked Singapore’s prime ministers.

Some say that all this speculation is none of the people’s business, because it is an internal party matter. Some say that things will go on just the same, regardless of whoever is in charge since there doesn’t seem to be a standout candidate. Yet others wonder if the leadership was being divided into factions which are unable to come to an unanimous choice. How much hard bargaining, if any, was there?

Of course, the PAP would never disclose any internal politicking and would probably even deny it, even if there was. In the PAP world, there is no such thing as harbouring political ambitions.  Politics is a call to service, with the chosen one gracefully accepting the mantle.

So, what now?

It looks like a Cabinet reshuffle should come next. After all, both deputy prime ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam aren’t in the PAP’s CEC and the 4G leaders should be given an even higher profile now.

How will Mr Lee position his men and women in Cabinet? Will there be one DPM or two DPMs or a First and Second DPM, to take account future succession planning? Note that when Mr Goh became PM, he had the late Ong Teng Cheong as 1DPM and Mr Lee as 2DPM. But it was Mr Lee who acted as PM in Mr Goh’s absence.

But the Cabinet’s game of musical chairs doesn’t matter as much now as how Mr Heng will lead the PAP in the next general election due by January 2021. It will be a 4G show, we’ve been told, and it would be interesting to see if PAP strategies or tactics have changed.  It would a good time to announce a new vision that is not only economically-driven but also socially-oriented, and an agenda that will energise Singaporeans rather than make them deaf to motherhood statements. Perhaps, also, the 4G will think harder about whether to invoke LKY Thought in their words and deeds, and dare to forge ahead on their steam.

They still have the moribund economy to see to, the GST to raise, the moves towards a digital society and the dive in old HDB property prices. Not to forget that the younger lot have to deal with a Malaysia that has Dr Mahathir Mohammad at the helm, and a more assertive China.

The man who fronts Singapore isn’t going to have it easy, especially since there are still citizens around who can compare his performance with not one or two but three prime ministers.

From now till then, we’ve been told we’ll be seeing a lot more ministers walking the ground. I am looking forward to shaking Mr Heng’s hand and wishing him well.

Congratulations, Mr Heng.








Roast the boar and call a pig, a pig

In News Reports on November 23, 2018 at 12:51 am

Every year, my mother buys the Chinese New Year zodiac commemorative coins as keepsakes. So she was asking about the Year of the Pig. I told her it’s the Year of the Boar. She looked at the newspaper pictures of the coins that the Monetary Authority of Singapore is putting out for 2019. It looks like a pig against a kampung backdrop. I told her boars are found in kampungs too. She harrumphed. As she should.

Why hasn’t someone asked the MAS why it has decided to rename the animal in the Chinese zodiac? I can’t recall ever going through the Year of the Boar. I googled the term and found that boar and pig are used interchangeably – so it’s not incorrect. But it’s the pig which hogged the search list.

Is the boar a nod to political correctness or some worry that Muslims here would be offended by an animal in the Chinese horoscope? If so, then the MAS should have minted more boar-like pigs on the coins. And merchants should be told not to adorn shopfronts with pigs.

Yet, there are reports that the Muslims here aren’t at all perturbed by a year being named after swine. They can’t eat pork or touch pork, but does this mean they can’t look at the image of a pig or contend with the idea that there is something known as the Year of the Pig? Nor is anyone forced to buy the coins if the concern is about manhandling the image.

Since nobody asked MAS why, I can only speculate that MAS doesn’t seem to credit our Muslim community with some common sense. Or maybe it will cite chapter and verse that the term is used elsewhere or interchangeably. Or maybe it will accuse me of provoking religious sentiments.

The wonder is that the Chinese community here isn’t saying something about the Boar versus Pig dissimulation. The fact is, we’re used to the pig. Perhaps, its members think that it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to raise the matter lest they be accused of being insensitive – a term which is very easy to bandy around no matter which side of any divide you’re on.

Still, it hasn’t stopped non-Muslims from raising a ruckus when some fast-food chain decides to go halal with turkey ham.  But it’s one thing to slam a commercial company which bases its decision on dollars and cents and what the market will bear. It’s another thing to question an agency as august as the MAS about re-labelling an entire year and tampering with tradition.

The Chinese here know that as the majority, they are expected to give more than they take. Nevertheless, I think they should be able to keep their pig.




The contentiousness of socially conscious hawker centres

In News Reports on November 22, 2018 at 9:05 am

I can’t help but do a double-take at Dr Amy Khor’s assertion that social enterprise is the wrong term to describe the operators of 13 hawker centres here. The right label is “socially conscious’’ enterprise, she said. I wonder if that means they are like banks and developers who have corporate social responsibility emblazoned on their mission statements.

Okay, I am sorry if I am cynical. But I do wish that the “misinformation’’ was corrected from the start instead of being turned into an accusation later on. In fact, I wonder what the difference between the two is for her to make such a distinction suddenly.

After all, that was how the Hawker Centre Consultation Panel described them in its 2012 report:

New hawker centres could be managed by social enterprises with funding and  and other support from the government for the operation, management and upgrading of the centres and the necessary subsidies to achieve its objectives. This management model is one where the daily operations are run by the social enterprise but still takes directions and instructions from a board of directors who are appointed by the government. Under such a model, the government could explore co-managing the centre with the social enterprise for an initial period to lend its expertise in hawker centre management to the latter.

Then it helpfully elaborated on the term in a footnote:

A social enterprise is a regular business that maximises profits to deliver social impact such as hiring ex- offenders. It is considered “for profit” when it is invested by private investors who take equity stakes. It is considered “non-profit” when the full profit is either ploughed back to the parent non-profit organization or fully retained in the company to create maximum social benefits without giving out any returns to investor shareholders.

The hawker centre social enterprise is a registered non-profit company that tenants out hawker stalls to create viable livelihoods for small time individual hawkers, the low income and the less privileged locals to provide affordable food to the community.

The model isn’t quite the same though because the G isn’t quite intervening in the management once the tender has been awarded. It now seems to be having a change of heart.

The SEHCs are supposed to put back half of what they make into the community. Did they do so? They have to hand in audited accounts to the National Environment Agency every year. The model has been in place for three years. According to Dr Khor, none of the five enterprises made an operating surplus.

What can we deduce from that? So they made no money at all, and therefore cannot give anything back? How long will they take to break even? Or is this because they spent too much money marketing the centres to create “vibrancy’’? Is the model broken? Are we asking too much of these SEHCs?

Instead we are told that the model is “generally sound’’ with assertions about “good outcomes’’ (like a higher rate of tray return!). Plenty of “happy’’ anecdotes from hawkers peppered the speeches of the two ministers who replied to questions from MPs in Parliament on Monday. And this comes right after Dr Khor slammed well meaning people for passing on generalisations, incomplete information and “unhappy’’ anecdotes.

I am going to sound like a broken record here: Fake news happens when there is no news. It took a pretty long time for us to get answers to questions that were first raised by food critic K F Seetoh in August. The SEHCs themselves were pretty closed mouth choosing only to correct misinformation. (And more, which you can read here.)

Monday was when we heard a full accounting of the operating costs of hawker stalls and what they have to pay the SEHC.

Here’s a quick run-down from Dr Khor:

Stall rental: The median rental of stalls in SEHCs is about $2,000 per month, not $4,000 per month as some media reports have claimed. The highest is 3,700. Yes, the median rental is higher than the median rental of $1,700 a month elsewhere but the SEHC stalls are larger: 10 to 21sqm compared to 5 to 13sqm.

Operating costs: Service & Conservancy Charges (S&CC) at SEHCs are between $110 and $350 a month, within the range of $130 to $450 a month at the rest. (This was said by Dr Khor although I would think S&C charges aren’t decided by the SEHCs but town councils.)

Cleaning costs: Table-cleaning fees at SEHCs are between $300 and $550 a month, within the range of $200 to $830 a month at the rest. Those at SEHCs have centralized dishwashing facilities which, at one SEHC, cost about $700 a month. Other hawkers with no such facilities have to hire dishwashers paying each up to $1,500 a month.

So that’s the cost part. What are the safeguards?

The SEHC can’t change the charges to hawkers or implement new – even optional – costs without letting the NEA know. So that $600 optional professional consultation fee levied by Fei Siong to Ci Yuan Community Club Hawker Centre in a “miscommunication’’ to hawkers had presumably been cleared by the NEA. (The wonder is that the grassroots leaders who throng the community club don’t seem to have heard anything.)

What about other contractual terms such as 24-hour operations, penalties for closures and onerous termination clauses? Obviously, the NEA is clueless or it wouldn’t have demanded that such terms be changed from January. Also, obviously, it has no idea of hawker complaints. Or it turned a deaf ear to them. Or directed the hawkers to the SEHC.

I mean, to think the SEHCs had to be directed to hold feedback sessions with hawkers…It boggles the mind.

Unless of course, the SEHCs are really just private companies with other pre-occupations, which should be left to decide how to run the business. You know, like mall management. In fact, some mall managements do quite a lot to drive footfall into their buildings with fringe activities, free shuttle service and flea markets. You know, like SEHCs are supposed to do.

I will grant the SEHCs this: Why should they operate with a bigger heart unless they have help to do so? Did SEHCs (not the hawkers) get any help in the form of programmes or grants or subsidies from the G or taxpayers to get the job done? Only now do we hear of 50 per cent subsidy for centralized dishwashing services. And that’s only for the first year.

All I can say is that the NEA has left the SEHCs too much to their own devices. Dr Khor prefers, however, to put it this way: “NEA will rebalance its soft touch regulatory approach towards SEHC operators and exercise greater oversight to safeguard hawkers’ well-being.’’ The word “rebalance’’ has been used several times by her.  Likewise, the word “re-calibration’’.

She might as well have said: “We didn’t pay much attention to the SEHC before. Maybe we should have. We’ll start doing so from now.’’

There is now a “stock take” of SEHCs. What’s puzzling is why the G is insisting the model is fine when the review isn’t even over. After all, Dr Khor has declared that the G is open to other business models for hawker centre operations. Already, people are talking about having co-operatives run the show. If radical changes should be taken, so be it. Why constrain the review by insisting that everything is really, really okay?

You know, it’s okay to be wrong sometimes.








The year is ending and it’s getting chilly

In News Reports on November 22, 2018 at 2:06 am

A few weeks ago, I shared a column published in the Economist about contempt of court laws in Singapore on my Facebook wall. It had a caricature of three very agitated-looking judges looking at a computer screen. I thought the image was funny – for at least three minutes – until a Facebook poster asked if this was a case of scandalizing the judiciary. I deleted the image.

I suppose if the G really thought it was a scandalous image of our judges, then it would slam the Economist, especially since it is available in print here and online too. Then what about the rest of us who helped to publicize the image? I believe online distributors have never been tagged along with the original source in any legal confrontation, but it’s better to be safe than sorry – lest you earn yourself a parliamentary mention.

When the G denies that any of its laws have a “chilling effect’’, I wonder who it’s trying to kid. It can cite figures and surveys to show that everything is business as usual, but this is not true. It is correct that we think very hard before we open our mouths or thump the keyboard, but the truth is, we simply do not know when we’ve crossed the line on what is appropriate and what is not.

I wouldn’t have been so wary about sharing the caricature on social media if there was not the example made of civil society activist Jolovan Wham who said something negative about the judiciary here in comparison with the one in the north. (I am being careful here). A lot of people have said worse things but Mr Wham looks like he’s being singled out for preferential treatment, which could be the result of his past run-ins with the law on matters that in Singapore could amount to civil disobedience. That special treatment took place under tightened Administration of Justice laws which relied on the “risk’’ of bringing the judiciary into disrepute, rather than a “real risk’’.

So why would anyone risk it? Then there is the example of Mr Li Shengwu, whose private FB post was deemed as contempt of court because of a word he used. So is this case also about who he is, that is, son of an estranged sibling of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, besides about what he said?

That is the unique nature about Singapore’s OB markers, which I teach as a university module. Every semester, I worry that I would come across as “brainwasher’’ if I defend the G, or a “rabble-rouser’’ if I don’t. Worse, it is tough to discuss the issue when the students are un-informed. They do not know who is Mr Lim Chin Siong or Mr Tang Liang Hong, nor even Mr J B Jeyaretnam. (Hint: Opposition politicians)

When I look at their project work, I feel dismayed when they seem to think that any criticism of the G, or comment on race and religion, could be construed as crossing the OB markers, and thereby deserving of opprobrium. I tell them that the G is not so thin-skinned and that society is not so fragile as to fall apart at the mere mention of race. Why aren’t they pushing the boundaries, I ask. At which point I caution myself: Why am I asking them to do so?

The flip side is this: I also feel dismayed when I see them jumping on the popular bandwagon, like attacking the mainstream media without justification or calling for a poverty line or minimum wage because others are doing so. It’s very vogue to be anti-G. At several points, I have suggested that they give the current policies a chance and actually take them through the mechanics of Workfare Income Supplement or the Progressive Wage Model. Then I worry that they may think I am a government mouthpiece.

Recently there have been new OB marker cases, like that of the five Singapore Civil Defence Force NSFs who took and distributed pictures of a Bionix crushed against a Land Rover, killing the driver. The SCDF filed a police report against them, presumably because those pictures were taken in a protected area where army training is being conducted. There is, therefore, a possibility that the Official Secrets Act could be invoked.

Since it is a police case, it’s hard to say much about the matter. I doubt that the NSFs thought very much about the consequences of their actions beyond how it was too good a picture not to share. It wasn’t a gory picture, and it wasn’t fake news. It was taken at the wrong place – and disseminated.

They might have broken the law but they did the public a favour by showing the incident to be a lot more serious than what the original Defence ministry statement had made it out to be: that a soldier was “involved in a vehicular incident’’. Such mealy-mouthed statements do nothing for the credibility of Mindef, especially when backed with pictures.  And now, two weeks later, we learn that there was a trainer in the jeep along with the driver who died. It took a parliamentary question to get the answer.

Then there is the case of the States Times Review.

When I received a WhatsApp message which shared the “news’’ of Singapore’s supposed illicit involvement in Malaysia’s 1MDB sage published in The Coverage, I was flummoxed. That was because I had no idea The Coverage was a sensationalist outlet prone to provoking Singapore. I read it and dismissed it as scurrilous nonsense immediately. It was too fantastical, libelous and it looked intent on capitalizing on the current not-so-hot relationship between the two countries by dragging even the sacred water agreements into the fray.

Then I saw that I had missed another WhatsApp message from the same person: “I think it’s fake news.’’

I guess he thought I would be interested to know that such “fake news’’ was floating around. We know what happened next. The G used the force of its authority and tools in its arsenal to attack the originator, The States Times Review. Still, there were some surprises. Like how the Monetary Authority of Singapore decided to make a police report alleging criminal defamation. Woah. So it’s taking it upon itself to make this a criminal case on behalf of itself and the G?  A criminal defamation suit, by the way, can land people in jail. It isn’t about asking for damages.

I have said before that the whole saga seemed to be aimed at laying the groundwork for proposed fake news laws in Singapore. On Monday in Parliament, Mr Edwin Tong hinted as much when he talked about Facebook’s refusal to take down STR’s post because there seemed to be no threat of imminent violence or physical harm.

I can understand FB’s position because it would be setting a precedent if it blocked something on simply a government’s say-so. Because its standards apply world-wide, it must have a high threshold. In any case, there has been no objective test of the falseness of the allegations – even if the rest of Singapore believes the remarks to be patently nonsense

Then on Tuesday, another OB marker case emerged when the premises of The Online Citizen were raided and equipment removed.  Regulator Infocomm Media Development Authority had filed a police report against it, for criminal defamation. You would think that a regulator would have many tools at its disposal to circumscribe the activities of websites or at least have a channel of communication with the source. The usual responses like calling for a right of reply, issuing a letter of demand or throwing the Internet Code of Practice against the site seemed to have been dispensed with. The sledgehammer came out.

It’s not even clear what the offending article/articles were but we hear from MSM that it was about a September article which criticized MP Seah Kian Peng for hitting out at historian P J Thum’s meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. The scurrilous phrases had to do with corruption and tampering with the Constitution written by a contributor. Two months have passed since the IMDA took this action, which seemed like  a belated ‘gotcha’ moment.

It is no small thing to have police officers, however polite, barge into your home to seize your computers. My mother would have a heart attack if this happened to me at our house. Already, she is suggesting that I kill this piece if I do not want some kind of midnight knock on the door.

As you can see, I am being terribly unfilial here. Of course, I feel the chilling effect – and the heat from my mother – but if we all do, then what does this mean for a citizen’s ability and right to join the national discourse,  however, ill-informed and irrational he or she may be? But there is an obligation, though, on the part of news sites to curate and fact-check citizen’s comments – or they would be no better than a post-box or a loud-hailer. They, too, must give citizens a level of protection against themselves even as they revel at the idea of being a platform for controversial views.

The latest news now is about The Independent Singapore being threatened with a lawsuit from NTUC Foodfare for two articles claiming that the social enterprise was bullying hawkers. No amount of journalistic euphemisms such as “allegedly’’ or “supposedly’’ can take the sting out of the focus of the article – that a hawker had died because of the long work hours stipulated by NTUC Foodfare.

The website publisher has respondedsaying that there’s material evidence for its claims. And it appears that the site is after bigger fish – questioning the role of NTUC in the business landscape.  All I wonder is whether NTUC Foodfare had a chance to give its views before the two articles were published. It is well and good to give the small man a voice, but it doesn’t mean shutting out the big boys from the conversation

I think both the G and the people have to come to some sort of accommodation about what constitutes free and fair speech, and the terms of engagement.

The G and other big boys should be cautious about using the sledgehammer against citizens. Big boys always have the upper hand and recourse to a lot of actions before resorting to the most drastic.

I am getting tired of responses such as “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about’’. That’s because I never know when I would be singled out for preferential treatment over a lapse that I wasn’t even aware of. Likewise, I am getting tired of phrases such as “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about’’. Sure, but I don’t appreciate other people poking around my computer even if there are  only pictures of my Lego construction work to see.

On the other hand, websites which claim to speak for citizens will find that adhering to journalistic practices is the best way to keep the conversation between both sides going on a fair and equal basis.

We should speak up – and be fair when we do. We should base our opinions on facts – and point out the absence of other facts. And the G must remember it doesn’t do itself and the country any good if we have to keep watching what we say, so much so that we’d rather shut up.

That is surely not what it wants.



(No) Thanks STR. You just justified fake news laws

In News Reports on November 13, 2018 at 12:19 am

I hope we’ve seen and heard the last of Mr Alex Tan, the founder of the now-defunct (?) States Times Review and a former collaborator of the definitely-defunct TheRealSingapore.

I have always thought that the right way to deal with such fringe sites is to ignore them. Their claims of real news and independent commentary would make any journalism student blush. Not that they care very much about the ethics of the profession anyway.

Which was why I was surprised when TODAY decided to take Mr Tan’s announcement of a website’s shutdown a few weeks ago so seriously as to have an interview with the man. Reading the report, Mr Tan,  now resident in Australia after the TRS saga in court in 2015, was a mass of contradictions.

He said he was worried that the proposed fake news laws were targeted at him. (He’s right to be worried. In 2017, the site was named as one of two sites which peddled fake news. The second one is All Singapore Stuff, which is now infamous for its doctored picture of a collapsed rooftop in Punggol.)  He said he would turn to blogging, with content unchanged –  as if the different online mode would make a difference.

Then he said he was not worried and that he would take everything the G could hurl at him.

In any case, he continued publishing.

Now, I have to read about him again in the traditional media, thanks to a Malaysian online portal which seemed to have taken his meandering conspiracy theories about Singapore’s involvement in the 1MDB saga seriously. Or, at least, felt that his accusations were in line with the sort of “news’’ it publishes.

When I was sent a WhatsApp message on the article linking Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with the 1MDB scandal in a screaming headline, I wanted to ignore it. But fake news is sensational, so I read it. I gulped at the article’s gumption, which contended that the price of water sold to Singapore and the High Speed Railway negotiations were some kind of quid pro quo for covering up the money trail from 1MDB.

The WhatsApp sender said that it was “probably fake news’’ , which made me wonder why he shared it with me in the first place. I guess it’s because not many people know of the Malaysian online portal, The Coverage. At first, given the look of the site and the colours, I thought it was linked to The Star. Then there was the mention of the whistle-blowing Sarawak Report in the article, which seemed to lend credibility to the allegations. There was even “a source close with (sic) the Prime Minister’’ if I recall correctly. (The site can’t be accessed anymore and I am digging into my memory bank).

I don’t, however, recall that it attributed its content to STR, which would have made me upset about wasting a few minutes of my life reading it.

Then the G started weighing in, first with the Singapore High Commission in Malaysia putting out a press statement denouncing the report in The Coverage. It said that the basis of the article was STR. This was followed by  a flurry of pronouncements aimed at STR. It was almost as if someone thought: Ahah! Here’s our chance!

Even so, I found news that the Monetary Authority of Singapore had filed a report against STR for alleged criminal defamation surprising. I can’t find a past instance when a public agency has alleged libel, although I can understand why the central bank is so unhappy about having its integrity “impugned’’. I  recall how in 2013, the Council of Private Education tried to sue Ms Han Hui Hui, a move which raised questions about whether a G agency could take such action against a private individual. In any case, the case was dropped. Then there was the Defence ministry’s 2017 attempt to use the Protection from Harassment Act on The Online Citizen. That failed because the courts said the law was meant for individuals. (I am so grateful that the Administration of Justice Act with its contempt of court rules only applies to the judiciary – and no one else.)

What wouldn’t have surprised me would be news that Mr Lee had decided to sue, since he was so clearly being targeted in the article, much like he did for blogger Roy Ngerng in 2015.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam has weighed in too, giving a political dimension to the allegations, which had been given a “nasty and malicious twist”.

“It brings in 1MDB, it brings in (former) prime minister Najib, and says that our PM and Singapore Government were corrupt and complicit in the money laundering on 1MDB, and that that is why Singapore got favourable deals and Malaysia was soft on water price (and) gave us a good deal on HSR (High-Speed Rail). Absurd allegations,” he told reporters.

He also pointed out that the China Press in Malaysia had run the story too. This meant that the story was making it into the mainstream of Malaysia as the China Press is said to be the second largest Chinese-language newspaper over there.

“The natural question is, why did they publish these falsehoods – probably knowing that there is no basis … It is obvious also to anyone who publishes them that the allegations … will try to damage the prime minister and seek to damage Singapore,” he said. He described the actions as “very curious’’.

It would appear that this  STR saga is checking off all the boxes on the difficulty of nipping fake news in the bud.

The Infocomm Media Development Authority threw the Internet Code of Practice at STR. This says that an Internet Content Provider shall “deny access to material considered by the Authority to be prohibited material if directed to do so by the Authority’’. STR refused to do so, so the Internet Service Providers (also covered by the Code) stepped in to deny access to the site.

Prohibited material, by the way, covers  “material that is objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws’’.

Then a request to Facebook to do the same was turned down.

Right on cue, Mr Shanmugam said FB’s response showed that legislation is needed. “FB cannot be relied upon to filter falsehoods or protect Singapore from a false information campaign.’’ It seems that the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods have a firm case when it recommended that there be legally valid and binding orders to compel technology companies because a “request by the Government for them to do so may not be enough’’.

I had a look at FB’s community standards on False News.

It says this: “Reducing the spread of false news on Facebook is a responsibility that we take seriously. We also recognize that this is a challenging and sensitive issue. We want to help people stay informed without stifling productive public discourse. There is also a fine line between false news and satire or opinion. For these reasons, we don’t remove false news from Facebook but instead, significantly reduce its distribution by showing it lower in the News Feed.”

Mr Tan is still venting on his STR FaceBook page. He said that he would shut it down in two weeks and left a little tit-bit for his fans. He will be passing on the mantle to someone else based abroad, who might call the site the Singapore Herald. Now, that is a name that brings memories.

I said on my own FB wall a few days ago that I wish Mr Tan and STR would simply disappear. I can just see how the G will turn the current fuss into a case study on the lack of legal teeth to deal with recalcitrant peddlers of fake news. You know what? I would rather navigate OB markers than have to run up against the law.

No thanks to Mr Tan.








PAP changes: Casting around for a star – and a script

In News Reports on November 12, 2018 at 5:53 am

So everybody’s trying to guess who’s going to be the next Prime Minister after yesterday’s People’s Action Party convention.

But what do we know?

  1. We know who’s got the most votes for 12 places in the policymaking Central Executive Committee, as well as the two with the next highest votes who have been co-opted, namely, Dr Ng Eng Hen and Ms Josephine Teo.
  2. We don’t know how the divine dozen fared in the polls. Was Mr Lee Hsien Loong, the PAP’s secretary-general, the top vote-getter? We don’t know what the PAP cadres thought of the three front-runners – Messrs Chan Chun Sing, Ong Ye Kung and Heng Swee Keat – because we don’t have any voting numbers either. But we know Mr Ong was voted in, unlike the last time when he had to be co-opted.
  3. We know whose name wasn’t on the ballot: the two Deputy Prime Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam (so he’s definitely out of the running) and Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan. Mr Lim Swee Say and Dr Yaacob Ibrahim have been left off the list too, which is no surprise given that they had relinquished their ministerial portfolios earlier. (The CEC is practically a mirror image of the Cabinet)
  4. We know that there were at least 19 names on the ballot. According to ST, Messrs S. Iswaran, Lawrence Wong, Desmond Lee, Janil Puthucheary and Alex Yam, the only backbencher on the list, didn’t muster enough votes to make it into the CEC.
  5. We know that it really doesn’t matter who made the cut because the CEC has the power to co-opt another four members.

So what will we know next or what will be allowed to know?

We know that with the withdrawal of the 3G leaders, there are now five senior vacancies: chairman, vice-chairman, first and second assistant secretary-generals, as well as treasurer. If you recall what Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said recently, how this new hierarchy is staffed would give clues on the leadership transition.

After Mr Lee as secretary-general, the next two top slots are first and second assistant secretary-general. This is a bit like first and second DPM (told you it’s a mirror image). As for who decides who gets what job, that’s up to the CEC members themselves.

Given that this college of cardinals is now filled mainly by 4G leaders, this means they should have the most say on who should lead them. Mr Lee has already said he wouldn’t interfere in their discussions, and the younger team seemed to have been in a huddle over the past few months to secure a consensus.

When will we know this? In a few weeks time when the CEC meets. That when the real show starts.

The change in the cast of actors is intriguing to watch. But I can’t help but think about the pressure the star performer will face when the curtain finally parts. It isn’t just the 4G leaders who have been trying to reach a consensus, there’s plenty of talk on who will be leader among the polity itself. It isn’t enough for the lead actor to have the backing of his peers, he needs to demonstrate to the audience why he deserves top billing as well.

But the audience doesn’t have any clue about what sort of performance the entire cast will put up. The 4G leaders have always emphasized its collective position, rather than point to individual characters who are making their mark.

Given its collective persona, is there then a distinctive style that separates them from the earlier leadership?

The year started on a high note, with President Halimah Yacob calling on the younger leaders not to be afraid to make bold changes. We’re told that the year’s Budget is in their hands and would have their imprint.

The response from the 4G leaders, in the person of Mr Heng, was to pledge a new compact with the people, with more interaction with the people. But there is no sign of a second Singapore conversation, unless we count the multiple-minister walkabouts which end in closed-door dialogues. Or the various interviews they gave on television, over radio and in print.

What we remember instead is a year in which Mr Heng and Ms Grace Fu, also elected into the CEC, tussled with the Workers’ Party on the proposed rise in GST, and the town council law suits against some WP leaders which, to many, smack of the old-style PAP confrontational politics even though the suits were initiated by an independent panel.

We recall the grilling that the Parliamentary Select Committee gave to some representors, especially historian P J Thum, at the hearings on deliberate online falsehoods. We see the tightening of OB markers, with new laws to secure public order and lower thresholds for contempt of court indictments. The 4G leaders have given some very vigorous responses even to moderate comments in the media, demonstrating that they have a pretty short fuse despite the promise to listen to opinions with respect and humility.

On the bread-and-butter level, I’m sure many are glad that the MRT is working well, after so many hiccups. But we are now told that the worth of our HDB flats, once touted as an ever-appreciating investment, will go down to zero eventually. We have to face the facts of course, but it’s hard to digest, especially for those now trying to sell off their old properties.

And I haven’t even started on about jobs and cost-of-living.

Perhaps, the 4G is intending to make its mark in education, breaking the Singaporean mindset away from the emphasis on grades and the reliance on connections that give those from privileged families a headstart. Several announcements have been made to this effect, whether about polytechnic students’ admission to universities, pre-primary programmes and how international rankings might not give a complete picture of Singapore’s higher education landscape.

Perhaps, these tweaks will have an impact on another big set of issues they have to deal with:  the merits and demerits of meritocracy, its impact on social mobility, and whether elitism has seeped in too deep into society to be uprooted. These are philosophical and cultural issues that would have to be factored into policymaking.

In this respect, they suffer from an image problem. They are viewed as products of a system which has nurtured them, buffeted by the ever-controversial ministerial salary issue, in a closed elite of technocrats bound by old school/public service connections. Even the CEC doesn’t have a single backbencher in its ranks.

Their vigorous defence of the social support system in place – Workfare Income Supplement, Silver Support Scheme, Progressive Wage Model – doesn’t give much room for alternative viewpoints. Instead, increasingly, the blame seems pinned on the people at large, for not being able to see beyond their noses and sniffing at the less well-off.

In other words, I don’t see any kind of political or governing style emerging from the 4G leaders. What’s worse is I think they will make a virtue of continuity of policies and style, even while they deliver lectures on Singapore’s vulnerabilities in an increasing complex world.

The cast is acting out the same old drama. Hopefully, the unveiling of the star will be accompanied by a change of script.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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









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

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

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

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

Now I’m waiting for Volume 2.