Archive for December, 2018|Monthly archive page

10 things that got Singapore talking in 2018

In News Reports on December 19, 2018 at 3:06 am

Has it been an exciting year or not? You judge.

1. Who will be Prime Minister?

It was three, then two and finally, the winner emerged! Mr Heng Swee Keat was anointed first assistant-secretary general of the People’s Action Party which put him directly in line to succeed PM Lee Hsien Loong, the current secretary-general. Mr Chan Chun Sing is now second assistant secretary-general. Cabinet changes early next year will cement the sucession. We’re still waiting for that next Singapore Conversation that was promised in the Presidential Address. It’s akan datang, Mr Heng said. The question now is whether the country can expect more of the same style of politics from the 4G or a vision to keep Singapore going especially since….

2. The rich are getting richer while the poor are…

About 100,000 people? Or 200,000? We’re not sure because there is no poverty line or minimum wage level. But questions are being raised about whether meritocracy is really working well enough for those at the bottom to climb up the socio-economic ladder. The issue of inequality was brought to the fore by academic Teo Yue Yenn who wrote the book This is the Face of Inequality, which, among other things, asked if Singapore’s social policies were too rigid to do much uplifting anyway. A television documentary on the issue is now more remembered for the way some young people in the lower educational streams seemed to have resigned themselves to their lot in life because they are not as “smart” as their peers.

3. But is the nation Smart? 

The SingHealth hacking scandal was a blemish in the glossy brochure that glamorises Smart Nation Singapore. The benefits of going cashless even when topping up cash cards, the advent of driverless cars and the installation of smart lamp-posts were thrown in the shade by the loss of more than million people’s personal records, including the medication needs of the PM, to hackers. The pause button was pushed. It looks like it’s all down to people’s sloppiness, kiasi and kiasu attitudes when it comes to preventing, detecting and reporting glitches. But in the usual Singapore style, the work must go on…

4. Even if the High-Speed Railway can’t

The joy Malaysians felt at the return of Dr Mahathir Mohamad as Prime Minister was matched by the pall that fell over Singapore at the prospect of having to deal with the cantankerous 92 year old again. Drama was played out in the media, with public statements from the Malaysian side about stopping/postponing the billion dollar project (now postponed), the price of water and the building of the crooked bridge. New tensions emerged in the form of air and sea space and who has the right to fly or sail in which area. Officials on both sides (which Dr M described as twins) will talk in the second week of January. In the meantime, one Malaysian vessel is still in Singapore waters. With Singapore Coast Guard and Navy keeping watch. And that’s not fake news…

5. Which is going to be harder to come by…

After a parliamentary committee received representations from cyber-security experts, academics and civil society activists. Expect laws, including against tech companies, to govern online speech. At one stage, the committee’s hearings morphed into a history lesson of pre-Singapore independence. Historian P J Thum’s version of history, very uncomplimentary to the PAP, got the panel’s hackles up. They were raised even further when Dr Thum and a few others met Dr M for a dialogue, which some viewed as an attempt to solicit outside intervention in Singapore’s politics. The issue didn’t die. In the aftermath of the exchange of words, TheOnlineCitizen published an article from a contributor who had used another man’s identity. It was deemed as criminal defamation.

6. And which was used again in another case of fake news…

This time, it was online site States Times Review which ran an article which was picked up by Malaysian media alleging that the PM and Singapore were complicit in covering up former Malaysian PM Najib Razak’s 1MDB tracks. The site was shut down and re-opened as the Singapore Herald, which was again banned for articles commenting inappropriately on the Singapore-Malaysia row. FaceBook has refused to remove all traces of the site while one blogger is now facing charges for sharing the original offending article. They are expected to be fodder for the upcoming fake news legislation which online media, including yours truly, is now bracing itself for.

7. But it’s the house which really matters no?

So everyone was in a tizzy when they were told that their old  HDB flats might be worth nothing when their 99 year leases were up. It seems that some people were buying up old flats expecting to reap a windfall when the Selective EnBloc Re-development or SERS comes to their neighbourhood. They skipped the word “selective’’. Now that the flat isn’t the capital investment asset it was made out to be,  they now have to be content with more upgrading exercises to shore up the value. This includes a new Voluntary En-Bloc Redevelopment Scheme, which will allow for some re-development – except that you might not live to see it. But hey, housing prices are coming down – in case, you’re thinking of buying one.

8. And what about getting around? 

Commuters who had enthused about the promotions and discounts when companies with ride railing apps started operating here had to moderate their expectations when Uber was grabbed up by Grab. Regulators had to grapple, belatedly, competition laws, licensing of an increased pool of drivers and complaints about threats to the livelihood of taxi-drivers. They also had to contend with the one, two, three-wheeled contraptions – manually, battery- or electrically-powered – that started perambulating on pavements, roads and open spaces. Shops selling personal mobility devices and bike-sharing companies found themselves saddled with new rules. And cyclists found that they would be responsible for where they left their bikes. That is, not just anywhere.

9.  Is it safe to eat anywhere?

Nothing gets a Singaporean more excited than talking about food. Well-known establishments, such as Mandarin Hotel and Spize, dished out poisoned food, leading to one death and excruciating pain for more than a hundred people. Talk of a link has been pooh-poohed by the National Environment Agency, which attributed the cause to poor personal hygiene and kitchen habits. But less well-known – and humbler – establishments got the spotlight too when food blogger K F Seetoh started campaigning for a better deal for hawkers operating in centres run by social enterprises. Confused talk about high rents, extra fees and cost of management services followed – until the NEA decided that it would play a bigger watchdog role to keep operators and hawkers happy. As it should. After all, Singapore is gunning for a United Nations heritage award for its hawker centre.

10. Finally, let’s talk about sex.

The proposed changes to the Penal Code include plenty on sex crimes, such as tougher penalties for those who prey on minors. Also a crime: marital rape, which husbands were previously immune from. But nothing was said about Section 377A, which criminalises homosexual sex, a bugbear of the LGBT community. Some leading Establishment members, such as Professor Tommy Koh and Mr Ho Kwon Ping, have taken up the cause for its removal, prompting counter-petitions from the pro-377A lobby. Uncharacteristically, the Government is taking a back seat. It won’t move until the “community’’ does and we really don’t know what that means…







Sg-Msia relations: Let’s drop this “twin” talk

In News Reports on December 13, 2018 at 5:02 am

We’ve been getting lessons in geography, cartography and navigation over the past few weeks. I’m glad because I think many people in this small country can’t point north, know just how big or small 2-hectares of land is and calculate distance base on time travelled, rather than in kilometres.

Now our lessons have moved into sea and air dimensions, with history thrown in. The one thing connecting them all: the concept of sovereignty. That is, the power (internationally recognized) to control a certain area, and it’s not just the land mass.

So Malaysia is describing the current spat with Singapore as an issue of sovereignty. The neighbor up north says that it is within its rights to extend its port limits because the waters belong to the country, according to a 1979 map. And so does the air space which planes landing in Singapore’s Seletar airport would have to fly through.

Singapore agrees that the maritime problem is a sovereignty problem. It has been owning the sea space, like, forever, until Malaysia decided to claim it in October. As for air space, Singapore argues that the issue isn’t about sovereignty, but who controls the planes flying in the space. For that, there are international players, like International Civil Aviation Organisation, which are involved as well.

We’re at an impasse, although there are signs of a Malaysian climbdown over the maritime issue. It has pulled back all but one vessel in Singapore waters and said it wants to discuss the dispute with Singapore next month. This is not before, however, pulling a stunt like asking for both sides to refrain from venturing into the disputed area. Singapore said no, as it should, because that would be conceding its sovereignty over the area.

I’m not sure I like the idea of having a Malaysian vessel in Singapore waters over Christmas and the New Year, even if it was ringed by Coast Guard boats and the Singapore Navy. It is not a guest, it is an invader.

I suppose both sides would be careful not to provoke an “accident’’, which sort of reminds me of what it must be like for sailors of different nationalities who patrol the disputed areas in the South China Sea. If an “accident’’ does happen, Singapore made it clear that this would be Malaysia’s fault – its vessels shouldn’t be there in the first place.

(I was actually thinking that if Malaysia wants to station a boat there, we should have a plane hovering in that air space above Johor’s Pasir Gudang. But, hey, that would be a churlish gesture.)

Singapore produced videos of the Singapore navy’s work in the disputed area and Malaysia now has its own video too. While the Singapore video is “real-time’’, the Malaysian video narrated by Malaysian Transport Minister Antony Loke is a simulation of the effects he claims having a flight path over Johor would have on Pasir Gudang. Singapore now says he’s got his mathematics all wrong when he talked about planes crashing into hypothetical cranes and tall buildings.

And Mr Loke’s fears about how the Instrument Landing System would compromise safety is unfounded. It isn’t just computerised, Mr Loke, there’s a pilot there too at the controls of the planes. Planes from Seletar used that same route too, manually, but there wasn’t a chirp about sovereignty then.

Which begs the question of : Why now?

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan asked if Malaysia was raising technical issues because it wants to take over the airspace arrangements put in place since 1974. “Out of the blue in October, suddenly they started a row in air, in water. What’s next? Land transport, too? I wonder why.’’

If the authorities are befuddled, what more us lesser mortals?

Perhaps, the answer lies in something a lot deeper – a resentment of Singapore’s growth. As Malaysian political strategist Rais Hussin put it in a scathing article in the Malay Mail: “When Singapore was expelled by Tunku Abdul Rahman and declared its independence in 1965 —- having first joined Malaysia in 1963 —- it kept growing and growing to a size, at least in GDP, that is somewhat on par with Malaysia now, if not a fraction more.

“This is why we need to be blunt, just as Singapore is blunt to us often: without Malaysia providing all forms of auxiliary support, be they passive or active, in terms of stability provisioned, and concepts like Asean Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality, all of which Kishore Mahbubani himself, a Singaporean, ask his country not to take for granted, Singapore would not be where it is.

“Thus a small gesture of kindness to Malaysia, even an appreciative word, would be nice. Instead Singapore often takes a holier than thou approach.’’

He complained about Singapore’s legalistic approach, forgetting that a legalistic approach would have led to Malaysia coughing up more than $15m in abortive cost for deferring the High Speed Railway.

The fact that he can talk about inflicting “pain by a thousand cuts”  if Singapore interdicts its ships shows how he little regard he has for our (to use a Malaysian word) sensitivities.

I wonder why, after more than 50 years, Malaysia is clinging to this umbilical cord of history. I resent the constant exhortations to remember that we are “brothers’’ and now, “twins’’ as popularised by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

We were separated almost at birth and have since pursued different paths. Malaysia might be geographically bigger and a little older, but we are two sovereign nations with our identities and aspirations.

If Malaysians want to keep invoking the “twin’’ analogy – and who’s the bigger and older one – it is free to do so. There is no need for Singapore to adopt the same approach.

I was aghast therefore when Mr Khaw described the analogy as a good one, although he probably meant it as a jibe: “As twins, we ought to embrace each other and help each other grow, and help each other succeed and celebrate each other’s achievements. Then I think it is so much better.”

Earlier in the week, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu described the relationship in the same way:”We are connected in so many ways. We go to Malaysia for shopping, we go to their place for business, we visit their people all the time. This kind of brotherly or sisterly relationship is one that we really want to continue and to protect.”

Perhaps, 3G leaders can carry on using this abang-adik relationship in their public comment, but I hope the 4G leaders, who were not even born during the 1965 separation would start a new chapter without such historical baggage.

We are neighbours and we want to be neighbourly. That’s enough.

As Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said recently: “Do we want to move forward constructively to prosper thy neighbour, or do we want to colour yet another new generation with beggar thy neighbour policies?”

He said he has met various younger Malaysian leaders since May, and they have expressed the hope that they want to work closer together.

Our relationship has gone back to the times when Dr M held the premiership. That was a generation ago, maybe more.

We should let a new generation of leaders define the relationship.



Taking the measure of Malaysia – and our leaders

In News Reports on December 6, 2018 at 2:39 am

Some of you might know this Singlish phrase: about how if you are weak, others will “makan’’ you. It’s not about someone eating your lunch, but trying to swallow you up if you display a weak point. So you have your armour on and someone thinks he sees a chink.  He tries to chisel away at it to make the hole bigger.

The phrase always comes to my mind when I read about yet another Malaysian attempt at chiseling. I thought we were done with land space connectivity issues even though I think $15m sounds quite little for the supposed abortive costs the Malaysians have to pay Singapore for deferring the High Speed Rail project. The payment deadline is next month, by the way.

Okay, there’s still the proposed crooked bridge between the two countries which the Malaysians think can be built without Singapore’s concurrence or support. I wonder if this engineering feat will cost more than the billions for the HSR project. In any case, like the Malaysians said, it’s not our problem.

Then there is the perennial water pricing issue which Malaysians have reduced to a soundbite: “Why are we selling water to Singapore at such a low price and buying it back at such a high price?’’ It sounds seductive until you know that that the high price Malaysia pays for treated water is a very subsidized price. And it is being re-sold to ordinary Malaysians for much higher. You know what? The Malaysians could always treat their own water, if they can do it at much lower cost. In any case, there is an agreement to talk about it – may it just stay that way.

We had a far stabler bilateral relationship when ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak was in charge, even though he too tried to play the bogeyman card in his last days by re-opening  the Pedra Branca issue which we thought had been dealt with in 2008. But with the Malaysian election over in May this year, returned premier Mahathir Mohamad said he was dropping the case which had been filed before the International Court of Justice in The Hague the year before.

But in general, Mr Najib was far friendlier to Singapore than Dr Mahathir has ever been. Singaporeans buy property in Iskandar, Singapore developers are involved in joint projects. Malaysians still travel to Singapore to work, or live here as permanent residents. Singaporeans do not consider Malaysians “foreigners’’, so integrated are they in the Singapore workforce. By all accounts, Mr Najib and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong get along, but this relationship has been fodder for critics of Singapore, who try to make malicious connections between Mr Najib’s current legal woes and Singapore’s banking system.

It has always seemed to me so odd that the same people who accuse Singapore of being unbending, unsentimental and rule-abiding, should suddenly see the country as a nefarious conspirator working in the shadows to help out a “buddy’’.

Those of us with long memories probably have no illusions about what a Dr M government means for Singapore. Even when he was a guest here last month, he couldn’t help jibing about Singapore’s junior status as the smaller twin. In fact, if I were to put out every belittling remark he has said about the country since he came into power, I could be accused of inciting disharmony.

Malaysia now thinks it sees other chinks in Singapore’s armour – water and air links. Only the G has any real clue about what has been happening behind the scenes that has led to the recent public explosion of statements, emails and historical facts. In fact, I doubt if the Singapore G would have said anything if Transport Minister Anthony Loke did not complain to Malaysian Parliament on Tuesday about Singapore’s “unilateral’’ decision to broadcast a navigation system for Seletar Airport.

This Instrument Landing System would require planes to make their approach over Johor, which Mr Loke said would inconvenience residents and jeopardise port operations at Pasir Gudang. He said Singapore was informed of Malaysia’s position on Nov 28 and 29 but the Republic went ahead with its plan on Dec 1 anyway.

“It is not our stance to take a confrontational approach with any party, much less our neighbours. But this involves our sovereignty, which the Malaysian government will defend in the strongest terms. This involves our airspace, which we will defend, and the interest of Johoreans,” he said.

What he didn’t say was that the Transport ministry here had been raising the issue with his officials since last December, in meetings and in emails – but received no response. Or that Singapore’s right to manage the space had been in place since 1974. Or maybe, he simply didn’t want Seletar airport to take off as an airport for commercial flights, especially since the first client would be Malaysia’s own Firefly.

Still, Mr Loke went on about “reclaiming’’ the airspace over Johor in stages as a matter of “sovereignty’’. He didn’t seem to consider the point about making sure planes don’t collide in mid-air in the congested airspace, or that other countries also let other foreign parties handle parts of their airspace in terms of safety.

Now that he has been reminded of this,  he now claims that Malaysia has better capacity to manage the area. “I understand there are safety issues that needs to be considered, but I am not asking for the airspace to be returned next month.’’

But it’s probably still no-go for Firefly in the meantime? What’s happening at Seletar Airport?

If there was any unilateral action taken, it was by Malaysia which, on October 25, gazetted extended port limits for Johor. Despite protests lodged by Singapore, vessels from the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and Marine Department Malaysia have been venturing into Singapore’s waters over the past two weeks.

It seems that both countries are looking at different maps. Singapore said Johor Baru port limit now “extends beyond even the limits of Malaysia’s territorial sea claim in the area, as set out in Malaysia’s own 1979 map, which Singapore has never accepted”.

Guess what? That 1979 map showed that Pedra Branca fell under Malaysia’s territory. Didn’t we win the case and didn’t Malaysia just drop its claims over the island? Now the port limits are even further? It boggles the mind.

Dr Mahathir has denied the encroachment. “We can measure to see if it is true or not, but we had not touched their border.”

The wonder of Malaysian politicians is that they always make everything public, and have no qualms slagging off their neighbour. Here, the politicians only go public when cornered. It is reflective of the measured, rational style of Singapore’s leadership. But there is really only so much belittling we can take. So far, the 3G leaders have been doing the talking. Will the 4G leadership take a new approach?

Time to take out a measuring tape, and not just for defining the borders.





SingHealth COI: About keeping your head down

In News Reports on December 1, 2018 at 2:13 am

So I asked the doctor if I could send my mother to Changi General Hospital for physiotherapy instead of Singapore General Hospital. Closer to home, I said. But no, she would have to go to the polyclinic to get a referral to a doctor at CGH and then proceed from there.

What about a letter from him for CGH? Cannot. Aren’t they part of the same cluster and have all our medical data on electronic databases? Yes, but still cannot. Then can I use his medication prescription for later at a polyclinic pharmacy, rather that buy them now at the hospital? He doesn’t think so.

But why? His answer was to go ask Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

I rather thought he should go and ask him himself but maybe, there is such a thing as separation of the political and public service. Maybe this was what National Development Minister Lawrence Wong meant when he said that public officers should engage the public and “co-create’’ solutions. I thought to myself that there doesn’t need to be an engagement ‘’exercise’’, but merely a question of being alert to interest of citizens and bringing up improvements to the powers-that-be.

I am reminded of the encounter after reading the summation to inquiry panel on  the SingHealth hacking incident. There are 16 recommendations including technical ones about adding security filters and no-brainers such as using a more complicated password than P@ssw0rd. But we all know that whatever SOPs are in place are no good if the people can’t be bothered to follow them. Or worse, people follow them to the letter rather than hark to the sentiments behind them – which is for efficient and effective problem-solving. (Like banning the sale of rum and raisin ice cream after hours because it contains alcohol.)

If anything, the COI hearings illustrate the depth of complacency pervading the environment of those in charge of our health data. I called it bo chup culture in one column but I think I should also add that it’s about not wanting to rock the boat, or the worry about getting blamed or being singled out as a troublemaker.

I thought about how the employers were more intent on punishing an employee who wanted to move out, rather than consider the helpful advice from the vendor he courted about lapses in the system. I thought about the kiasuism in making sure there was really, really a breach before sounding the alarm. This is to avoid having bosses breathing down their necks and working with “no day, no night”. 

I thought about the guy who discovered the breach and was credited for alerting his boss – who did nothing. I think credit should be given if that same guy took his suspicions elsewhere when he realised his boss was sitting on the problem.

Our standards have become so low that we praise people for doing their duty and earning their salary. The flip side is: we lay no blame on those who don’t.

Plenty of wags have commented that this attitude of keeping your head down is more pervasive than we think. It is an organizational culture that breeds silence and consent, not one that encourages initiative and action. If this is true for big public sector agencies, then we are in big trouble. The private sector has the profit-making imperative to kick employees out of their complacency so as to gain market share, or to get a lead on rivals. Their bonuses and sometimes, even their continued employment, depend on it. The public sector has what? Random audits by the Auditor-General? A complaints box? A rehearsal or drill that they are prepared for because they know when it’s coming?

We’ve been hearing a lot about cultural issues lately. SMRT Mr Neo Kian Hong, made a remarkable declaration two weeks ago that  the “deep-seated cultural issues” of human error or failure characterised by his predecessor Desmond Kuek do not exist within the SMRT. That was a bold move, and he must hope that no major lapses occur on his watch or he would have to put it down to the usual excuse of “technical issues’’.

I don’t think Mr Kuek made himself popular with SMRT staff with his comments, because it tarred everyone in the organization. But I think he was brave to actually blame “people’’ because we are so averse to making people feel bad. So if a few people let down an organization, should we dismiss the whole barrel? Of course not, but it would be good if the rest of the apples realize that they too had a part to play in letting the bad ones rot to such an extent.

I happen to think that this approach of keeping your head down and not attracting attention is something that is embedded in our psyche. I see it all the time when I ask my class of undergraduates if they have any questions and I get no response. I’m sure it prevails even among those whose job it is to ask questions. Either because we’ve lost the art of asking questions or we simply don’t think we should do any asking because it’s considered so, so rude.

Taking initiative, like interrupting a class with questions, is even worse. You’ll be accused of wanting the limelight and “spoiling the market’’. You’ll be accused of adding to other people’s workload and raising expectations. No one wants to stand out and be noticed. It’s not Singaporean to be ambitious, not even for politicians.

However “smart” we are as a nation, it’s the people who are the source of good and bad. If people don’t take pride in their work, or in whichever organization they belong to, then they really just are cogs in a wheel. At a national level, we see it everywhere. We live our own lives and do our own thing. We think nothing will happen if we speak or take action – and we don’t even want to try.

It’s depressing.

I want to say that the encounter with the doctor was just a blip on an otherwise very good day at the hospital. I have always been impressed by the service and civility of the staff in SGH, from the security guard to the receptionists to the front-line nurses. This is one organisation with a culture of excellence and professionalism. Its record might have been marred by high-profile incidents, especially by senior people, but its rank-and-file have much to be proud of.

I guess Mr Neo feels the same about SMRT.