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A slight commotion over a motion

In News Reports on November 6, 2019 at 1:35 am

Sylvia Lim is the bad one.

Low Thia Kiang is a decent guy who actually ran Hougang Town Council competently but…

Pritam Singh and Png Eng Huat had been duped by the two above-mentioned.

Faisal Manap, as town council chairman, doesn’t have the gumption to do the right thing, that is, remove the first two from their town council posts or, at least, make sure they don’t have oversight of finances.

Chen Show Mao was the only one who was left scot-free. He didn’t speak – nor was he spoken of.

That’s how the People’s Action Party painted the elected Workers’ Party MPs yesterday, during the debate on a motion spearheaded by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat. At least that’s how it came across to me.

The motion was to get Parliament to affirm the importance of MPs “maintaining high standards of integrity and accountability”. No one quarrelled with that, not even the WP. But then comes three other limbs…

If this was supposed to be a show of force by the 4G leaders to get the WP to eat humble pie or “swallow the bitter pill” as Mr Heng put it, then it wasn’t a very robust one.  Six PAP office-holders spoke and only one PAP backbencher, Mr Sitoh Yee Pin, who stuck to recounting the difficulties he faced taking over the Potong Pasir town council from veteran opposition MP Chiam See Tong. I am not sure what point he was trying to make. Also, I had actually expected more PAP MPs to pile in.

Mr Heng’s opening was a rambling  one hour, as he chronicled the WP’s eight-year journey through different auditors and three courts, leading to the High Court judgement on Oct 11. That was what limb No. 2 was about: The findings said that Mr Low and Ms Lim had acted dishonestly in their roles as town councillors and that their conduct lacked integrity and candour.

Mr Heng gave examples galore, from the Oct 11 judgment, previous judgments and what the auditors, including the town council’s own auditor, had said about not getting access to documents and emails, particularly those surrounding the appointment of their “friends” as the town council’s managing agent after the 2011 general election. The agent, FMSS, did not go through a tender, charged higher fees than the past agent, and operated in a system that was devoid of checks. “Allowing your friends to help themselves to public funds – that is a tale that belongs to the Third World, not Singapore,” he said.

Limb No. 3 was about how the two were still holding on to their appointments in Aljunied-Hougang town council – Ms Lim is the vice-chairman, while Mr Low is a member. Four weeks had passed since the judgement was made but there’s been no word from the WP about putting its house in order, Mr Heng noted.

Limb No. 4 is the “actionable” part: That the town council should do right by its residents  by getting  the two MPs to recuse themselves from having anything to do with money matters.

This is the key point. Mr Heng said the residents were owed an apology. Auditors and Parliament had been consistently misled by the WP members who had maintained that the appointment was above aboard or had given excuses for why no tender was called. The judgment had called them out on their lies. Anybody else would have been chastened by the findings. Any company or charity would have made sure such personages had to quit or be removed from important roles, especially involving money.

“Playing the victim or the underdog may be par for the course in politics, but there are important mayors at stake – public finds, residents’ monies, the estates that Singaporeans come home too. We cannot sweep things under the carpet,” said Mr Heng.

After he spoke, it seemed like the WP MPs were intent on picking on specific points, asking him for a slew of clarifications. A flustered Mr Heng tried answering the points, before demanding that the party engage on the key issues of transparency, accountability   and moral standards. But Ms Lim, the most persistent questioner, wasn’t done yet. She spoke from her prepared text and here’s where things took a turn: Mr Heng asked for an adjournment or a recess.

I found it astonishing that the PAP didn’t seem to have anticipated the WP’s main line of defence: that the House was having the debate before the Nov 11 deadline for appeals against the judgment. In her speech, Ms Lim said that WP intended to appeal and it was therefore “premature” to have the discussion in Parliament before the court had the final word on it.

Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong had got up for his turn to speak, but Mr Heng beat him to the mic to ask the Speaker for an adjournment. When Mr Pritam Singh who objected, he said he needed time to consider his response to Ms Lim.  Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin agreed on a 10-minute recess.

So those of us in the gallery were left twiddling our thumbs as the House emptied out, presumably for the PAP to decide on strategy. The word, subjudice, hung heavy in the air. Ms Lim seemed to be referring to this aspect of the Administration of Justice Act, known as contempt of court, that having a discussion in the House might prejudice the coming appeal case.

When the motion was made public, I was under the impression that the appeal window must have already closed for the motion to be up for debate. Even so, I had wondered if discussing the issue would affect the “second tranche” of hearings to determine the quantum of damages the WP MPs were liable for.

But while Mr Heng spoke, he was clearly apprised of the open window. He said that in “the interim” – whether or not the WP decided to appeal – something must still be done about ring-fencing the two MPs. But now that Ms Lim had given a positive answer, the PAP seemed to have been taken by surprise.

Right on cue, it was the question Mr Heng lobbed at Ms Lim when the House reconvened: Did she consider the motion subjudice? But Ms Lim wouldn’t be drawn into agreeing or disagreeing, merely sticking to her  point that the appeal case might well turn up different findings of law or fact. (I think she thought she would be walking into a trap.)

Nominated MP Anthea Ong had intimated the same thing when she got up to speak, questioning the appropriateness of discussing the matter. “I am concerned that any comments that we make now, while possibly protected under certain parliamentary privileges, could still potentially fall under contempt of court.”. But when Ms Indranee Rajah, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, asked if she was concerned about “subjudice”, Ms Ong said she was not legally-trained, reiterating that she was “uncomfortable”. She also wondered if other regulatory levers could be used to achieve the same end, especially since a Parliament resolution  has no binding effect.

I wish the frontbench had gone further to explain this issue of subjudice. Mr Heng let Ms Lim’s answer pass while other office-holders said that the issue was about what to do in the interim pending the outcome of the appeal case to safeguard residents’ interest. Hence, not subjudice. Ms Rajah also said that it was not subjudice, and enunciated carefully that the House was accepting “the findings as they are, not about the rightness or wrongness of the judgment”.

It was something that the PAP side should have clarified right away in the beginning. After all, this was what Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam did when he raised the issue of the suicide of a teenager in Parliament in 2016, even though the case was still pending in the courts. He said he will not be liable for sub judice as the minister is also a public official.  Public officials can make statements “if they believe it to be necessary in the public interest – even if there is a hearing pending”.

Even so, it is up to the court to assess whether there is sufficient basis to have the person alleged to have committed contempt be brought to court, or whether the application should be dismissed. Perhaps, Mr Heng was daring Ms Lim to do so? (This is purely speculation.)

I also wondered if the motion should have been amended to make clear that the “recusal’ was an interim measure until the outcome of the appeal. This is because the PAP’s motion also opened up another line of inquiry: Was it so sure that the AHTC entity, represented by a three-member independent panel, would not appeal as well? Both Ms Lim and Mr Singh noted that while the WP MPs were liable for damages, it was for the plaintiffs to prove the legal burden of proving loss – something which the plaintiffs had tried to argue against.

The motion, to me, seemed more like an opportunity to reprise the failings of the WP by quoting liberally from past judgements and auditors’ statements. One particular phrase Justice Ramesh Kannan used in his finding surfaced at least six times from the PAP side: WP’s myriad attempts to “varnish a veneer of credibility”  to camouflage its premeditated plan to replace CPG with FMSS.

Senior Minister of State Edwin Tong was even more detailed than Mr Heng in his exposition. He reiterated the finding that  Mr Low and Ms Lim had engineered the process of appointing the managing agent, leaving other town councillors in the dark.

He listed the auditors’ complaints that emails and documents were not made available to them, and that the town councillors were either tardy or obstructionist. It was only in the High court trial last year, he noted, that emails regarding the FMSS takeover from CPG were revealed. Most damning was one email which had Ms Lim instructing the managing agent to “sanitise” its draft documents on the appointment, so that it could “pass the auditors’ eyes”.

Ms Indranee Rajah was sharpest with retorts, suggesting that by failing to take action, WP would lose “all moral authority” if it tries to impose ethical standards should, say, an official or PAP MP, run foul of the law.

The WP MPs, particularly Ms Lim and Mr Png, kept asking for clarifications from the PAP side when its speakers went into detail. On suggestions that important documents had been kept from the auditors, Ms Lim said that “bad record keeping is not the same as hiding”, drawing some derisory laughter in the House. To those who repeated the judge’s words about breach of fiduciary duties, she maintained that the case actually surfaced “new law” as there was no such concept before this.

Mr Faisal was put on the spot a few times when asked what he, as town council chairman, would do now in the wake of the judgement. Besides declaring his full trust in his fellow MPs, Mr Faisal also referred to the independent panel – from whom he had heard nothing. He also said that taking any action against his fellow MPs would be going against the mandate given by voters in the 2015 general election. Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee took him to task for wanting to wait for directions while Ms Rajah told him that the voters’ mandate didn’t include allowing the MPs to act dishonestly.

Even if the speeches were repetitive, there were points made that might have escaped the attention of those who haven’t been following the saga closely, such as how the court case was initiated by an independent panel nominated by the WP to represent the town council entity, and not by the National Development ministry nor the HDB.

I guess this was to make clear that the Government or the PAP didn’t have any part to play in the court proceedings and to stress that the motion was about ethical standards that MPs should be held against, that is, a non-partisan motion. Several times, the PAP side spoke of honour, integrity, accountability and even humility that the WP should display in light of the court judgment.

But this was a point that Nominated MP Walter Theseira was uncomfortable with. He said that the motion was for AHTC, a political entity of elected MPs, to take a certain course of action. “I’m uncomfortable, as a non-elected member, in participating in what may be a political resolution.” Both he and Ms Ong abstained from voting.

Mr Pritam Singh rounded up the “defence”. Mr Low, although present, did not speak. Mr Singh described the timing of the motion as “highly unusual for a legal system that places  an exacting premium on the rule of law as a defining characteristic of the country”. He wanted the PAP to explain its true motive for the motion being raised before the case was concluded. Parliament, he said, should not be “prematurely hijacked as a substitute for the judicial process when the window for appeal…has not closed”.

He said that parliamentary motion or no parliamentary motion, it was for the AHTC to decide what to do with its members. If the issue of recusing the two MPs came up during a council meeting, then a decision would be sought. He, himself, however, would not vote in favour of recusal.

By then, it was way past 7pm. Mr Heng got up to round up the debate. It was a little garbled. He made mistakes such as talking about an “on-going appeal” (not filed yet) and how Ms Lim had admitted that the discussion was not subjudice (she didn’t). At one point, he talked about working with the WP to draw up some basic principles for a code of conduct for MPs both inside and outside the House, which led me to wonder if a new motion would be raised. But no. It was still about the need for ethical standards and “clean politics”. He also said the Government would now be “forced to express its concerns” to the AHTC independent panel. So is this the next step then?

You can’t help but wonder what the seasoned ministers, such as Mr Shanmugam, Mr Khaw Boon Wan or Mr Teo Chee Hean, would have said if they had joined the debate. But this was clearly a 4G show with Mr Heng making it clear that the 4G would retain integrity as the hallmark of the PAP.

The House approved the motion with all nine WP members (including the three NCMP members) saying nay and the two NMPs voting to abstain. I wouldn’t call it a PAP victory or a WP defeat. It would actually have been to the PAP’s advantage to wait until the court appeal window is closed, so that it would be certain of the WP’s position before proposing a motion. And it should have made clear from the outset about whether talking about the motion would be contempt of court.

Last point: didn’t the PAP speakers compare notes earlier so we wouldn’t be hearing the same things over and over again?













Is it because he’s a foreigner? (He’s not)

In News Reports on November 1, 2019 at 3:20 am

Below is from the Institute of Policy Studies survey on fault lines released earlier this week. I admire how quickly the researchers incorporated the incident into the survey.

“At this juncture, it is useful to consider a contemporary incident which unfolded at the time of the (survey’s) release. The video of a condominium resident verbally abusing a security guard went viral in late October 2019, with the resulting fallout on social media spotlighting the callous classist comments made by the resident — a JP Morgan employee of presumably foreign Indian origin (Yong & Iau, 2019).

“Much of the online discourse, both measured and vitriolic, 1) called for punitive action to be taken against the resident, including arresting him, investigating his educational credentials, dismissing him from his job, and / or deporting him; 2) referenced the resident’s foreign origins and his treatment of the local Singaporean security guard in articulating a prevailing local-foreign class divide; and 3) referenced the resident’s ethnic and foreign origins as the raison d’être for his undignified outburst (HardwareZone Forum, 2019).

“The above incident provides a clear vignette of how immigration and class issues (and race to some extent) can intersect, as well as some expectations of government involvement to mitigate immigration and class issues.

“Netizens often referenced CECA (a bilateral comprehensive trade agreement between India and Singapore enabling freer flows of labour) as an adverse state-of- affairs that should be addressed by the state. In the same vein, security associations, unions and politicians expressed desire for more legislation to protect the rights of lower-paid workers and robustly penalise abuse or harassment of the latter (Tang, 2019; Yong & Iau, 2019).’’

The researchers forgot to include religion. Listening to the video, the man clearly thought that the rules on parking in his condominium were not equally enforced for Hindus who celebrate Deepavali, and for those who celebrate Chinese New Year. Is this a reflection of how even researchers are chary about discussing religion? Or maybe they didn’t see the full video…

In my view, this incident  reflects everything that is horrible about us. The consequent  baying for blood, with online petitions and threats to the man and his employer speaks volumes for how low-class we are. I don’t condone what the man did. He lost his temper and started swearing. He took it out on the security guard doing his job instead of directing his ire at the Management Council, who comprise his fellow-owners.

He should have just said: “What? This is what the MC said? Stupid rule! I’m going to talk to them! Idiots! They don’t have visitors who come and see them or what? Ok, uncle, I won’t cause you any more trouble. But can close one eye or not and just let my visitor park? Promise they will leave by….’’ After all, according to media reports, he addresses the older man as Uncle.

You might  have realised by now that I did not name the man. Because I think the naming and shaming has gone on far enough. If you can earn a reproof even from the mild-mannered Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam,  a fellow Hindu who celebrates Deepavali, then you are in hot water indeed.

But the scenario played out at his condominium is really a familiar one. Condo residents don’t have to be foreigners to have bad manners – and they can be of any race too. From my balcony in my old condominium, I have witnessed too many times the commotion between residents and security guards at the entry gate.

So, first, let’s admit that Singaporeans aren’t angels either. Most of us, at one time or other, have lost our tempers unreasonably. The difference is that we’re not caught on video. Even if we were, I am not sure the level of vitriol would be so high. Just think about Briton Anton Casey in 2014.

I wager that any time there is trouble, there would be this deep down hope or even expectation that the troublemaker is a foreigner so that we can indulge in some nationalistic (or xenophobic) ranting. If the person is a citizen, never mind also. Some aspersions can still be cast on how they look, what they say, how they say it, where they live, the jobs they do and so forth. You can throw stones anywhere and everywhere. You can’t however, ask that they be deported. Because, well, citizen.

In this man’s case, I daresay people jumped to the conclusion that he is a foreigner because of his accent. If they had watched the video, he did talk about flashing his IC. Now we’re told he is a citizen, albeit a new one, because he married a Singaporean.

And even that seems to troublesome to some people, who say that he only met his wife because he was allowed to work here.

The interrogation then goes deeper and deeper, into how he got here. And, of course, who is to blame for his presence.

The IPS survey showed that almost half of all respondents, cutting across age, race and educational level, wants the G to play a bigger role in mitigating immigration issues. This is one policy, if mismanaged, which will be laid at the G’s door. On other fault-lines, such as race and religion, the calls were more subdued.

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This is to be expected because the G holds the immigration tap, which can be opened to cause a flood or tightened to amount to a trickle. Since 2011, immigration policies have been changed and fair employment practices introduced to make sure attempts to hire locals are made before resorting to foreigners. This is something we must acknowledge. So what more do we want?

Here’s what this Forum Letter writer said : “Immigration policies are not just about numbers. The quality of immigrants, such as education level and skills, should be considered.

“The authorities have information and data that they use to make policies. They should share the information with the public so that we can better understand the rationale of the policies. They should also present a breakdown of all foreigners here, including occupation, country of birth, age profile, average income and living conditions.’’

The G has always been averse to giving citizens a detailed breakdown of foreigners residing here, probably thinking that more information would generate more heat rather than light. Can we, for example, really come to an agreement on the “type’’ of foreigner we should welcome? Would it be based on ethnic, economic or other considerations? (Usually, economic reasons are the forefront.)

But what is clear is that, when the G considers giving citizenship to the 25,000 or so permanent residents annually, it tries to keep the overall ethnic ratio the same.

The issue, however, is less about who is given citizenship than the composition of the resident population, which is now at 5.7 million. Of this number, Singapore citizens make up 3.5 million. The rest are foreigners. Does the G only look at economic reasons for their entry, or also their ethnicity, what they do and where they live after they get a pass?

The IPS survey indicated that it is the more affluent among the population who worry about mismanaging immigration. Researchers posit that this is because they believe they face competition for jobs as well as in the private housing market (HDB is out of bounds to foreigners).

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Both aspects are worth looking into because they are part of our lived experiences. It is hard for the retrenched PMET (and they are among the biggest group) to accept that he is redundant while he sees so many foreigners looking extremely employed, striding around his old workplace. Despite fair employment rules, there is a niggling suspicion of a back door entry, especially for Indian nationals.

Already, one political party, the Progress Singapore Party, has indicated that it will make CECA, the trade agreement between India and Singapore, an issue. Established in 2007, it is seen as a backdoor method of letting Indians work in Singapore. The G’s position is that any Indian national would still have to meet its immigration criteria to be admitted. But under CECA’s intra-corporate transfers, it seems that companies based in India can relocate its own employees here – no quotas imposed. It is time the G clarified CECA before it gets too hot to handle and make Indian nationals here a target of xenophobic attacks.

The IPS survey also showed that “distance”mattered. Most respondents set their ideal limit on the proportion of foreigners in the vicinity at 20 per cent at most. Take a look below for how the proportions change depending on whether they asked about the neighbourhood, block and school level.


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The sense of being overwhelmed by people who look different, talk different and act different can be manifested in different ways. It leads to a kind of prickliness about having to share facilities or jostle with each other at the market. Unlike the HDB estate, the ethnic quota policy does not apply to private property, and some condominiums have an imbalanced spread of ethnicities.

What sort of imbalance? When you believe you are beginning to see more of one ethnic group and less of another – and you know they aren’t tourists.

The Chinese community, the majority here, is the most concerned about the impact of an immigration influx. The IPS researchers used the term “especially poignant’’.

“Several factors could contribute to this: 1) inflows of non-Chinese immigrants with varying norms and cultures, and 2) inflows of Chinese immigrants with differing norms and cultures relative to local-born Chinese,’’ said IPS researchers.

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I will stop pussy-footing around the subject and just come right out and say that it is probably the near ubiquitous presence of Indian nationals in certain areas that is disconcerting. Unlike the Chinese nationals, they tend to stick to themselves and hold themselves apart.

I daresay citizens will open their hearts and wallets to foreign workers in low-paid jobs who get bullied by citizens, but it’s quite another thing to have well-paid foreigners throwing his weight around locals.

The much-vilified man exemplifies the kind of fault-lines that differences  in socio-economic class can lead to. He flung his status –  “I paid $1.5m’’ – at the security guard. He made clear that being able to afford private property means that he shouldn’t be treated like some HDB flat dweller. I suppose he could mean that he considered HDB residents  an inferior species of being or I could be generous and assume he believes that the HDB residents are criss-crossed with even more parking rules. . (The poor man doesn’t realize that it’s easier for visitors to park in an HDB estate so long as you can find a lot).

It is bigoted sense of entitlement, as Mr Tharman put it.

I would not hesitate to say, however, that a lot of people suffer from the same condition, whether it’s about loudly demanding to be served, insisting on being first or putting someone else down whether because of who we are, what we earn or the type of house we live in. There is little respect of the person on the other end of the transaction. This is one of the less salubrious outcomes of a meritorious system – and some of us are guilty of it too.

Already, the IPS survey is sounding some alarm bells. There are too many people who say they feel comfortable interacting with people from the same income level. The flip side is also true – they find it too hard to mix with those out of their income bracket.

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The issue of forging friendships across class lines becomes more pressing. The recent fuss about Raffles Girls School’s relocation to Braddell as “to allow our girls to reach out more to the ordinary Singaporean’’ caused a stir. The staff member of the top school quoted by The New Paper might be well-meaning and even right to express this belief, but it was seen as downright insensitive and evidence of an elitist mindset.

Never mind that what was said or not said. . Just applaud the move and call for more outreach work and a breakdown of class consciousness in schools.  The guys have National Service to build up ties with other people of different races and socio-economic status, the girls have no similar rite of passage.

Back to the man in the middle of all this. He has apologized to the security guard, although some still say it’s too little, too late and insincere. His employer has been alerted and I would think his Singaporean wife would be worried to death about the loutish behavior of Singaporeans who can’t accept that people, whether foreigners or locals, are fallible. Their words and actions are far worse than what her husband had displayed. In shaming the man, they shame the rest of us.

We should look instead at the calm composure displayed by the security guard and emulate his behavior. And we should promise ourselves that we would never look askance at people who are merely doing their (thankless) jobs.



SDP rally: Between reason and rhetoric

In News Reports on October 20, 2019 at 11:19 pm

The good thing about being at a rally that is not held within the election period is that you can absorb what the speakers say without getting caught up in “election fever’’. There’s little to complicate your mindset, which would have been bombarded with reams of news articles about “he said, she said’’ and the barbs being thrown left, right and centre as is common during an election campaign. The atmosphere is more clinical, with less of the chanting, cheering and jeering that makes an election rally, especially one held by an opposition party, exciting in staid Singapore. 

 So the sceptic in me pondered over what the Singapore Democratic Party politicians said at the podium in Hong Lim Park on Saturday, just as if they were just a line-up of suited-up speakers at an indoor event titled: What the People’s Action Party did wrong.

 The SDP is the first opposition party to declare that it has started campaigning for the general election, although it concedes that it had no clue when it would be held except that it must be before April 2021. It didn’t want to be caught on the backfoot in case a snap election was called along with the minimum nine days of campaigning before polling day, said its chairman Paul Tambyah. 

 From what the nine speakers and the SDP paraphernalia proclaimed, it is campaigning on a plank of three Nos. 

Will Singaporeans bite?

 1.  No to 9 per cent GST. 

Okay, this is a vote getter. Nobody wants to pay higher GST which applies to poor and rich alike. If I want to split hairs, I would say the line should be rephrased to No to any rise in GST because the G didn’t say it will go the full hog all at once. What Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said during the Budget debate in 2018 was that the tax will go up sometime between 2021 and 2025 and probably sooner than later.        

 It does look foolhardy for a political party to “promise’’ to raise taxes when it’s more usual to say “read my lips, no new taxes’’ George Bush-style. In fact, the SDP cited the proposed rise as a broken promise, quoting Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s assurance in his 2015 budget speech that there was no need for increased taxes. 

What Mr Tharman actually said was that the G had enough for at least the rest of the decade, a pointed repeated by the Prime Minister in November 2017. So it doesn’t seem that any U-turn has been made. 

The question then turns to whether people believe that the G has no resources or no other channel to turn to to fund a rise in social spending for the aging population. The SDP recommends instead a rise in income tax for the well-off, return of estate duty or increase in stamp duties, among other things. Oh, and there was the ever-popular cut in ministerial pay. It didn’t say what all these increases would amount to in revenue. 

The SDP also believes that if push comes to shove, then a tiered GST would be better for citizens: exemptions for basics like rice and water, the usual for other goods and services, and a luxury tax for jewellery and fancy cars. 

 It didn’t say how a tiered GST could be drawn up except that this will be well within the ability of the G. It’s a pity that it didn’t give examples of how this has been implemented elsewhere. The reason for the plain GST system we have now was ease of implementation, little chance of tax avoidance and to eliminate the escalating lobbying for even more exemptions which would water down the GST system. 

 According to Mr Heng, a rise in GST from 7 to 9 per cent would bring in the equivalent of 0.7 per cent of GDP each year or about $3.4 billion going by 2018 GDP figures. Entrepreneur Alfred Tan, an SDP newcomer, however, went to the extent of suggesting that this was a ploy to raise ministerial salaries, as a rise in GDP is one component in the pay formula.

Cost-of-living has always been a popular opposition plank.

Everyone knows things are more expensive now compared to five, 10 years, 20 years ago. But nobody really wants to do the maths on the purchasing power we have now compared to then, because of a rise in real wages. 

SDP members cited a litany of fee increases since the 2015 General Election from utilities to carbon to digital services. There was, strangely, a “sugar tax’’ cited by secretary-general Chee Soon Juan, even though the proposal hasn’t been accepted by the Health ministry, much less introduced.

Fee rises are irrefutable facts (they happened or they didn’t) and a PAP response would mean reprising the reasons for each fee rise. This isn’t about to translate into snappy slogans like this line that drew applause : “Singapore is the most expensive city in the world’’.

It was repeated so often that I asked my students to fact check this. The result: This Number 1 accolade was given by the Economic Intelligence Unit which helps companies calculate allowance and compensation packages for expatriates. The survey included a basket of different costs such as international school fees and babysitter rates — so we’re not exactly talking about locals eating hawker food or taking public transport.

Where the opposition is on more solid ground is on the plight of the elderly poor, who have seen their wages stagnate for many years, exacerbating the income gap in Singapore. Dr Tambyah cited a piece by Assoc Prof Irene Ng from NUS department of social work which estimated that in 2017, 11 to 13 per cent of Singaporean households were in absolute poverty and about a quarter were in relative poverty. The speakers didn’t propose a minimum wage floor as I had expected. And of course, I wouldn’t expect them to talk about the G’s recent moves to raise the salaries of cleaners and security guards. 

That’s always been the shortcoming of rallies – it’s a one-way affair. 

 2.  Say no to 10 million population. 

 I confess I was a little flummoxed by this because what’s been etched into my mind is 6.9 million by 2030. Who gave this 10 million figure and when is Singapore, already peopled at 5.7 million, supposed to reach that number? None of the speakers gave details beyond citing Mr Heng as the source. 

So a check showed that Mr Heng said this at a university dialogue in May. Maintaining that Singapore’s population density was not excessive, he cited former chief planner Liu Thai Ker, who said in 2014 that Singapore should plan for 10 million people for it to remain sustainable in the long term. That was the only time the number surfaced in mainstream media. 

Even though it wasn’t a policy pronouncement, it does show that Mr Heng was “open’’ to a more populated country, providing the SDP with a point of attack. Given the fracas over 6.9 million, Mr Heng might want to clarify what he meant when he cited someone else’s figure. Is this the new objective and by when? How is Singapore gearing up in terms of infrastructure? 

Any politician will know that anything to do with population will inevitably open a new flank in the immigration debate.

The SDP went on a predictable tirade over how foreigners will be flooding the island, taking over jobs that the now-retrenched local PMETs used to do. It’s a hot button issue, said to be a prime cause for the PAP’s loss of votes in the 2011 general election. What the SDP didn’t say is how the influx has been slowed down since then and that some fair employment rules are in place to ensure that Singaporeans are always employed first.  Like the Progress Singapore Party, however, it raised the issue of the free trade agreement between Singapore and India which committed the little red dot to accepting Indian nationals for work here. I believe Singaporeans would like to know more details about this. 

3.  Say no to CPF minimum sum scheme. 

Another hot button issue. The SDP reduces the debate to a matter of choice: citizens should be free to decide if they want to use all of their CPF or leave their money in it. It was yet another “broken promise’’ from the PAP which moved the withdrawal age from 55 to 62 in 1999, to 65 today, its speakers said.

This is a rather sleight of hand on the part of SDP. Citizens turning 55 can withdraw anything beyond the minimum sum, and start getting pay-outs when they turn 65 under the CPF Life annuity scheme. SDP’s Khung Wai Yeen even scoffed at Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s declaration at this year’s National Day rally that the CPF withdrawal age remains at 55 and that anyone who says otherwise is spreading “fake news’’.

Mr Khung, speaking in Mandarin, cited the case of a man who wanted the pay-out term reduced to 20 years, that is, until he turned 85. The man had argued that he had no children to leave his money to, and would like to have a comfortable retirement with his wife. His request was turned down. 

The trouble with the CPF scheme is how terribly complicated it is to understand. Allowing the man to reduce his pay-out period would encourage others to make the same request. What happens then to the annuity scheme’s pay-out to others? The administrators would have to reckon with a smaller, indeterminate pool of funds to make sure everybody else has enough to keep body and soul together till they die. 

The speeches were preceded by a concert and a carnival-like atmosphere with booths covered by tents in SDP’s trade-mark red, selling Dr Chee’s books and other SDP paraphernalia. Besides Mr Alfred Tan, there were two other new faces in the line-up of speakers, entrepreneur Robin Low who spent much of his speech decrying the G’s tax on big motorcycles and marketing and content strategist Min Cheong who believed that workplace bullying is an issue worthy of national attention.

I have to say I felt sorry for the PAP. People jeered when pictures of the PAP leaders went up on the video wall. Policies are reduced to pithy slogans and rhetorical questions. Dr Chee said the SDP prided itself on its research. He had impressive lists of facts, quotes and dates. While all might be true, the question is whether all the facts were presented, the context in which the “new” facts were introduced and what accounted for the changes in the facts.

That, however, is a job for the PAP. It will be uphill because the PAP’s method of policymaking goes over the heads of most ordinary people. Singapore’s policies are too complicated to chart on an A4 size sheet of paper. Just look at the many-headed CPF system which deals not just with retirement, but also housing, medical costs, education loans and investment.  People will have to be very well-informed to see that one change to one thing would have a knock-on effect on something else, and that what might be good for the individual might be detrimental to the body politic. 

The speed at which changes are made – notwithstanding “expert’’ committees set up – doesn’t help in getting “buy in’’ from the people either.  (Can someone explain Careshield Life in a few sentences?) There is some merit in stretching the consultation and discussion process beyond just a few hours of one-sided debate in Parliament. It’s messy but it might get more people interested in understanding the details rather than resign themselves to a fait accompli. Some sacrifice of efficiency to gain a fuller public consensus or understanding would serve the country better in the long run. 

Nor is it enough to belabour the “trust” issue as the magic formula for a functioning democracy. I don’t think it’s a matter of whether people trust the G to do the right thing, but about being sure that it has picked the right thing to do. It’s about the people gaining more control of the levers, rather than only having a say on who operates the train once every few years.  

The ballot box cannot be the sole repository of all the complaints and woes, hopes and dreams of citizens. That’s how freak elections come about. 

I blame Yale-NUS

In News Reports on October 8, 2019 at 1:46 am

I wish the Members of Parliament never raised the issue of that cancelled Yale-NUS course. I wish that the Education Minister had just said that this was a matter for the universities to settle, without any need for parameters from the Government. That someone would point out that Yale-NUS College had cancelled the programme of its own accord.

But no, some people HAD to ask the G for pointers. So the pointers came, although frankly, I would think that any academic here would probably know the OB markers that surround what they say or do in the institutions of higher learning. Anyway, they got spelt out, in some detail too.

I had wanted to join in the discussion on the Yale-NUS’ cancellation of its programme earlier, but refrained because I had nothing good to say about how the liberal arts college handled the matter. Every day brought more and more revelations. What I had thought was just a badly conceived enrichment course with a title that should be a red flag to a bull turned out to be a compulsory, credit-worthy course that had to go through a curriculum committee.

Frankly, I had never considered that there would be any kind of G interference leading to a pull-out. Serious. To me, it was simply astounding that a course like Dissent and Resistance filled with speakers who have done some dissenting and resisting would make the cut.   It was simply too one-sided. (Not to mention the rather strange workshop about making posters.)

What some people thought had been a case of suppression of academic freedom was contradicted by Yale’s own investigations. The Yale authorities, both over there and over here, stuck to their argument that the course was pulled because it lacked academic rigour. I will take it as face value, although I do wonder why Yale-NUS saw the need to inform the Education ministry of what it had done.

Nevertheless, I heaved a sigh of relief that the question of whether the G intervened in the affairs of an Institution of Higher Learning had been laid to rest. The issue was, in fact, eclipsed by a Yale-NUS versus Alfian Sa’at feud. It’s made for interesting reading because Mr Alfian wouldn’t let the college’s allegations that he had been un-cooperative and resistant about making changes to the course, stand. He’s a playwright, so we got treated to some superb writing.

I sympathise with him, especially if it is true that the  college set standards of academic rigour that  was not communicated to him. It also makes me wonder if the same rigour is applied to similar Learning Across Boundaries’ courses in Yale-NUS. It’s supposed to be “experiential learning” and I am still flummoxed about how such a course would be assessed academically besides a tick against the box on Class Participation.

Now, we have a “they say, he say” situation, and the intriguing question of whether it was going to pay him $600 (he say) or $3,300 (they say) for helming the course and whether he was specially invited or answered an open invitation by Yale-NUS to conduct the course.

Then comes Parliament. Sigh.

This is the question from People’s Action Party MP, Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar: To ask the Minister for Education (a) what are the reasons and concerns leading to the cancellation of the Yale-NUS programme “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore”; (b) whether the cancellation of the programme signals a more controlled and rigid education environment in our education institutes; and (c) whether this curtails academic freedom and the critical discourse necessary for academic richness and excellence in our education institutes.

Dr Intan is an assistant professor in the Singapore Institute of Technology and a doctor of Philosophy in Information Studies. I don’t know why an academic needs the minister to explain the reasons and concerns for the cancellation when the Education ministry, so Yale-NUS said, had nothing to do with it.  As for question (b), isn’t that something that Yale-NUS should answer? After all, it cancelled the course on its own. About (c), as an academic, she is better placed to answer the question than the minister.

Then there is this question from PAP MP Seah Kian Peng: To ask the Minister for Education whether there are clear rules on what topics and activities are or are not allowed in our autonomous universities.

I am not surprised that he was the MP who asked the question. He was, after all, the MP who pointed out that the meeting between civil society activists and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad in the wake of the Malaysian general election smacked of treason. In response, the Education minister drew up four parameters, mainly on institutions keeping to their mission to educate, but resisted becoming too prescriptive.

What Mr Ong Ye Kung did say though is that institutions should, at the minimum, “not undertake activities that expose their students to the risk of breaking the law”.

“They should not work with speakers and instructors who have been convicted of public order-related offences, or who are working with political advocacy groups funded by foreigners, or who openly show disloyalty to Singapore,” he added.

I can see the various university authorities coming up with their own blacklist even if the minister didn’t want to. 

Nominated MP Walter Theseira, also an academic, asked similar questions about the reasons for the cancellation. He also asked “whether and under what conditions political dissent and activism in the Singapore context is a legitimate topic of academic inquiry in our autonomous universities (AUs)”.

He got a yes answer from Mr Ong.

“Political dissent is certainly a legitimate topic of academic inquiry. Our students read and assess classic works by revolutionary figures such as Marx, Engels, Lenin, Sun Yat Sen or Mao Zedong. It would also be valuable for students in the social sciences to examine critically present-day issues, such as the causes and implications of protests against climate change or globalisation, or the demonstrations currently happening in Hong Kong. Students can and should also discuss the implications of such political developments for a small country like Singapore. Such open academic inquiry will continue.”

So the principle is fine and it comes down to the practice: who is teaching it and how it is going to be taught.

The minister referred to the Yale-NUS fiasco.

“I much prefer the test of an ordinary Singaporean exercising his common sense. He would readily conclude that taking into consideration all the elements and all the personalities involved, this is a programme that was filled with motives and objectives other than learning and education. And MOE’s stand is that we cannot allow such activities in our schools or IHLs,” he said.

I like his first part on exercising common sense, which Yale-NUS doesn’t seem to have much of. Instead Yale-NUS, by its own incompetence or ignorance, has given the ministry a platform to say what it will “allow” in schools. These OB markers have always been vague, giving academics some room to experiment. I’d rather that they stay vague.

There is a third part to the NMP’s question: “What can be done to assure AU staff and students that they continue to have the academic freedom to responsibly and critically examine social and political issues in Singapore?” 

If he was hoping that Mr Ong would give a blanket assurance and some general statements on non-interference in academic work, he should be disappointed.

Because, in Singapore, anything that the G pronounces becomes another OB marker that is staked closer to centre.  University authorities wouldn’t just black-list people with criminal records, but start policing tighter to include, say, people with known anti-Establishment views. Topics which are by its very nature, contentious, would be watered down. Students would be told that some questions are off-limits. The mantra would be to play safe.

Am I exaggerating? I wish I was.

I wish the G would take seriously the idea that people are afraid of what it might think of them, even if they aren’t political luminaries or civil society activists or are just flattering themselves. I can’t say it better than Dr Theseira in his adjournment motion: “What concerns me is that it will become difficult for Singaporean academics to examine and teach contentious topics because the standards must always be exacting, perfect, lest one is accused of subversion, flawed scholarship, or activist motivations. If we ask for unrealistic perfection in our critical academics, our scholars will be biased towards the safe and the status quo. This is a hidden danger that threatens us all. It encourages a sloppiness of thinking, a belief that it is safer to regurgitate received wisdom than to seek new answers.”

It also doesn’t do this country any good if more and more people refrain from saying or doing anything for fear that what they had said or done in the past will be pulled out as an example of a character defect that disqualifies them from being in certain arenas. What’s worse is if organisations and agencies take the cue from here.

For example, I don’t know Mr Alfian personally, but I looked up his 1998 poem, Singapore You are not my Country, that was cited in Mr Ong’s speech as an indication of his brand of political activism. Mr Ong chose to read out only a few lines, which is a pity because the poem, which is rather lengthy, is a lot more nuanced than those few lines. It made me wonder if his use of the poem is an example of how more, not fewer, people should be educated in the humanities, lest they take lines of poetry out of context! I would dread to think that other people will unthinkingly jump to the conclusion that Mr Alfian’s literary work is beyond the pale, simply because a minister has referred to a few lines of his poem.

Back to my lament about MPs’ questions.

Many, many years ago, a colleague asked a very important person for his views on how our media covered a certain event. I was appalled – and glad that the VIP ignored the question and went on to answer others. I asked my colleague later why he asked the question and his answer was that it would be very good if the VIP endorsed the work we did. But what if he didn’t, I asked. Does this mean we have to change everything because we asked him for an opinion and therefore must think it worthy of action?

He never saw it that way. He looked to the person for affirmation and endorsement – when there is no need to in the first place.

We can think for ourselves.

There is no need to go to the G for everything.
















Slow and steady SDP

In News Reports on September 28, 2019 at 10:28 am

So I paid $39 for the Singapore Democratic Party manifesto. Actually I paid for a coffee-table book which contained colourful pictures of SDP members until page 118. Then the manifesto surfaced and continued for another 35 or so pages. I skimmed through it quickly, realising belatedly that I had read most of it before, in the last general election and in the policy papers the SDP had been producing over the past year.

So I had to ask what the difference was.

Vice-Chairman John Tan said that there were no “substantial changes” but there had been some “updating”. Like what, I asked. That’s when chairman Paul Tambyah, whom I’ve always thought of as the brains of the party, chimed in.

There was still a fundamental difference, he said, between the Government’s Medifund, Medisave and Medishield programmes and the SDP’s universal insurance coverage model. Even though Medishield Life now covers existing pre-conditions (an SDP proposal, he said) and there is Careshield Life, the healthcare system is still a patched-up montage compared to SDP’s plan of individual CPF payouts (average $50 a month) and Government money ($10.5b a year) into a single National Health Investment Fund.

There is a kink though, something which Dr Tambyah acknowledged. The SDP’s calculations took into account its complaint that G expenditure on healthcare is too little. But Government health expenditure has more than doubled. It rose from $3.9 billion in 2010 to $9.3 billion in 2016. And this means some changes must be made to the numbers.

As for education, its proposal to abolish streaming (an SDP proposal, he said) has been overtaken by events no? The education ministry has announced that PSLE results would group students into strength of subjects in secondary school rather than categorised into Normal or Express streams. Dr Tambyah replied that there was still some streaming, into Special Action Plan schools and Integrated Programme schools.

It is common to hear the SDP cry “copycat”, and today’s launch of its manifesto at The Colonial@scotts was no different. Many of its proposals, said Mr Benjamin Pwee who joined the SDP this year after resigning from the Democratic Progressive Party, had been “adopted by the Government and echoed by PAP MPs”.

Mr Pwee said there was “an important segment” in the manifesto about the running of town councils, which the SDP will have to do if it won a seat or more in Parliament.  “We have spelt out in detail how we are going to effect a smooth and seamless takeover of the running of the estates as well as described how we are going to be transparent and accountable in running town council operations,” he said.

That got me flipping through the book, which also has that old chestnut about ministerial salaries, by the way. (No prizes for guessing the SDP position).

Compared to the policy papers the SDP put out on healthcare, housing, education and immigration, the town council segment looks like an afterthought. It doesn’t say how the transition will be effected and gives general statements on how it will run a town council with full-time MPs who will put in place a “transparent and accountable system” for residents and pass over savings to them.

I asked Dr Tambyah later why liberal values, such as freedom of speech and law and order matters, were not in the manifesto. (It wasn’t in the earlier one either, although the SDP under Dr Chee Soon Juan seemed to be a prime proponent of these values. Dr Tambyah said it was a common thread in all the policy papers and it was already well-known as part of the SDP DNA. It seems that the SDP is really focused on bread-and-butter issues although recent developments, like the fake news laws and fear of foreign intervention, could have provided the party with much ammunition.

Anyway, what I’ve written above is the media engagement part of the launch. It lasted just half an hour before the man came in for the public part of the launch. By then, more than 100 people had gathered in the room. Dr Chee Soon Juan, SDP secretary-general, took questions from the floor.

I asked him how he thought the 4G leaders of the PAP would campaign in this election and how different they would be from their predecessors. He described the 4G leaders as “dislocated from society”, having themselves led successful lives. “They’ve had it good in Singapore and think that everyone is like them.” Previous leaders had to struggle with nation building, he said, and the 4G leaders shouldn’t be relying on past successes to chart the future.

Clearly, the SDP believes that the general election will be held this year, even though it isn’t due till April 2021. It has upgraded its website, staked its claim on two GRCs and three single seat wards, launched its manifesto and will even hold a pre-election rally in Hong Lim Park in November next month. It has unveiled its programme in a deliberate and calibrated manner. It has got its act together so far. Not for the SDP tiny plans for constituencies and neighbourhoods. It wants to get into the big picture so that people would “vote for the SDP, not just against the PAP”.

That’s a pretty ambitious message.

Now, what is the Workers’ Party up to? And is the PAP going to talk about its manifesto as well? It will be nice to hear from the contenders, because it means that we, the citizens,  can make an “informed” vote when the election rolls around.








Long Live the PAP?

In News Reports on August 30, 2019 at 1:30 am

With a title like, Is the People’s Action Party here to stay?, you can bet that I flipped to the back of the book to find the answer. I was rather bemused at Dr Bilveer Singh’s parting shot: “Would it not be a duty and obligation for the one-party dominant state to think of Singapore and its interests to prepare an alternative government to continue administering the Republic in the best interest of its people?’’

So I had to ask the good professor whether he thought it was even conceivable for the PAP to think this way – prepare for its own demise. His answer was that one-party states do not last long (Singapore has the longest staying ruling political party in the non-communist world by the way). Rather than wait for a schism in the PAP to lead the opposition to power  – or worse, for the country to get a rude shock if the PAP was suddenly overthrown, the PAP, which prides itself on serving the national interest, should draw up a contingency plan.

Clearly, Dr Singh, who lectures political science at the National University of Singapore, believes that the PAP should stay on – for a myriad of reasons, including an Opposition that is unprepared and has no desire to form the government in the near future. Any erosion of authority should be – and more likely to be – a gradual evolution than revolution.

You can say the dangers of a freak election, which the PAP has warned against, is subtext in the book. But I would also describe it as an examination of the political culture that the PAP has engendered over the past 50 years, and the tools that the party, as the incumbent, has at its disposal to perpetuate its longevity. So what would have to happen for the PAP “to go’’?

The book, which runs to 302 pages including appendices on what other political luminaries have said about the PAP’s future and electoral results over the years, is a good text-book for students. It sets Singapore’s political history in chronological order right up to this year when two new parties, People’s Voice Party and Progress Singapore Party got themselves registered and Mr Heng Swee Keat was appointed Deputy Prime Minister. Dr Singh analyses the outcomes of the 2011 and 2015 general elections and why voters turned against the party in 2011 but returned in droves in 2015.

There is a chapter on Malaysia’s landmark election last year which returned the maverick Mahathir Mohammad to power as head of the opposition – and whether this would be replicated in Singapore.

Dr Singh, who has a text-book on Understanding Singapore Politics to his name, thinks it would take a huge scandal like the 1MDB saga, severe corruption and mismanagement and a splintered, fractious ruling party – which the PAP currently shows no signs of being.

“Singaporeans view the PAP not just as a ruling party to be elected every four or five years but a long-term governing compact that has successfully delivered political, economic and social goods since 1959.’’  The voter’s DNA has become used to the PAP, creating a “Pavlovian-type transactional ruler-ruled pact,’’ he added.

Dr Singh doesn’t pull his punches when he discusses how the PAP would not be entering the coming general election, due by April 2021, from a “very big comfort zone’’. The “mother of all issues’’, he says, is trust and confidence in the ruling party and government, also a consistent theme in recent ministerial speeches.

He cited commentaries on recent happenings such as the Hyflux saga, the SAF deaths, the SingHealth hacking, the SMRT breakdowns as raising question marks over the PAP’s vaunted efficiency. That the Chinese language LianheZaobao ran a critical editorial, and other heavyweight commentators have raised the issue of a supposed loss of touch showed that “issues of the capabilities of political leaders and the growing divide between the political elites and the masses have become mainstreamed’’.

“To that extent, will issues relating to the credibility and whether there is a growing trust deficit between the rulers and the ruled in society becoming hotly discussed in the coming general elections remain to be seen’’.

Before you ask, yes, he did raise the “Lee Hsien Yang factor’’, but he has no more insights than any political watcher on whether the Prime Minister’s brother will enter the electoral ring, save to say that there will be implications and ramifications if he does.

I wished that Dr Singh would go into greater detail on other factors that would lead to an extension or diminuation of the PAP’s hegemony such as:

  • How will the PAP capitalize on the legacy of its founding father, the late Lee Kuan Yew, as a reason for its continued dominance? While Mr Lee’s passing had an effect on boosting the PAP’s votes, will there come a time when a generation of Singaporeans look more at what the PAP can do now, rather than its track record, when they vote? As for the current and older generations, will they agree with the Progress Singapore Party, led by ex-PAP member Tan Cheng Bock, which appears to be campaigning on how the PAP has “lost its way’’ ?
  • Is the PAP’s network, which extends beyond government to the bureaucracy (through the Civil Service and statutory boards), workers (through the National Trades Union Congress), to community groups (through the People’s Association), to the economic sphere (through Government-linked companies) and the military, a boon or bane to voters? Or is it another reason for the voters to acquiesce to the status quo because Singapore simply cannot afford a plural political system?
  • Will social media play a bigger part in raising political consciousness of Singaporeans, such as placing more importance on non-material goods, such as individual freedoms and human rights? Or will those who are lagging behind economically magnify their material grievances to some effect?
  • Will the PAP rank-and-file start to demand more say in the selection of its leaders or is the PAP leadership convinced that its cadre approach will hold despite a better-educated base?

Dr Singh refers to Law and Home Minister K Shanmugam’s remarks that the PAP will stay in power till at least 2029, or two election cycles. Maybe we will have another book before then. With a title that is less click-bait please.

So, is the PAP here to stay? Well, it depends on how you define “here to stay”.





Preetipls saga: The level of Chinese tolerance

In News Reports on August 23, 2019 at 2:02 am

Ask you: If the Preetipls video about the “brown face” ad was allowed to stay up online, would someone in the Chinese community respond with a similar one? I don’t mean a polite riposte, but one as profanity-laced and as explicit in target as the siblings’ video?

I think there is a possibility, although people’s first instinct would be to make a police report. Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam thinks it’s a probability which is why, he said, the G didn’t want to take chance of having the Internet filled with “attack videos”. So the siblings were censured and warned about breaching Section 298 of the Penal Code. “You think others would do something similar now?” he asked.

Some would say that Mr Shanmugam was indulging in the slippery slope argument, and that the citizenry on the Internet would have decried such videos and forced them out of existence. Mr Shanmugam doesn’t think so, citing the experience of other countries which have allowed hate or offensive speech to creep into the mainstream discourse and become “normalised”. Singapore, he said, was not a unique nor superior country.

Then comes the question of whether the video was really hateful or offensive. Most of the people in the audience he spoke to at the National University of Singapore agreed that it should be taken down. They found it offensive, but didn’t say why. I can only presume that they were turned off by the profanities. It was an own-goal for the siblings whom I think wanted to goad people into a judgment about the brown face E-pay ad that was the source of their discontent.

We can go on and on about what to feel and think and whether what we feel and think is “right”. No one should tell us how to feel and think but I do think it’s time to ask ourselves why we feel and think in a certain way.  (Sorry, did that sound complicated? Anyway, you can read my post here about being a minority confronted with race issues. )

Mr Shanmugam conducted a three-hour seminar yesterday, asking questions of and taking questions from the audience. He had powerpoint slides with statistics. I wish more politicians would talk to the public this way, rather than conduct a top-down lecture. This is not to say that I agree with everything Mr Shanmugam said. Nor do I think he wished for that. Let’s say that such a style of conversation allows room for disagreement and engagement.

What I took away from the seminar was this: How the Chinese majority feels and thinks is probably more important than what the minority community feels and thinks. Because if the Chinese community took offence and responds in kind to the siblings’ video, then “the minorities will be the losers in such a conversation,” as Mr Shanmugam put it.

This, I think, is the flip side of Chinese privilege. The Chinese may not even realise that they are being casual racists when they make flippant comments about minority members, but it also means they have a higher threshold of tolerance when they are the subject of racist comments. That comes from being secure in the position of the dominant majority. This is why the Chinese community isn’t fussed about Gurmit Singh’s Phua Chu Kang persona. I wager that Mr Singh is probably not even viewed as non-Chinese – he’s half Chinese. You don’t see the minorities taking offence either, although if we want to be scrupulously fair, the Phua Chu Kang portrayal was worse than Dennis Chew holding up plates of food in the E-pay ad.

Nor did many people take offence at Ms Preeti Nair’s unflattering portrayal of a Chinese woman in a cheongsam celebrating Chinese New Year in an earlier video. I can only assume that the Chinese who had watched the video laughed it off, while the minorities were ambivalent. But what would have happened if she had donned a tudung and made stereotypical comments about Malay/Muslims celebrating Hari Raya? The uproar from the community would have reached the heavens!

So when is a joke taken too far and what is our level of tolerance towards casual racism? How even-handed should our policies be towards different races? Or should we let societal norms – we can take pot shots at the Chinese but not the minorities – rein?

Mr Shanmugam thinks that Singapore has become “”more race conscious” but “less racist”, as evidenced by surveys. “Therefore, we are more quick to accept that others might take offence. In the past, if anyone had complained about it, they would have dismissed you.”

That’s quite counter-intuitive. You would have thought more complaints meant more racism. Perhaps, it’s all about how you argue the case: It’s not about more racism but more people saying that racism is unacceptable. Is it therefore good to be “race conscious”? Or should we disregard “race” as a factor?

We can’t disregard race at all in Singapore, not when it’s pushed into our face by the G’s ethnic policies. So you have the CMIO categories to fill in on forms, ethnic quotas in housing estates and guaranteed minority representation during general elections. The Chinese majority didn’t raise a fuss about the right of a Chinese to sell his flat to a Malay or Indian  (although it’s probably less of a problem than a Malay having to find a Malay to sell his flat to). The Chinese majority didn’t complain that it wasn’t democratic to discriminate against the majority who might wish for more of its own kind in Parliament.

I think the Chinese would have complained more if they bothered to keep up with the process that led to an elected presidency with a race element in 2016. They didn’t, at least, not enough to derail the process. In fact, the complaints came from the other side: minorities were upset to be singled out for some kind of special protection.

So race can’t be disregarded because we’re not allowed to, and because the G thinks that’s the way to ensure we can all live together peacefully within the rules. Unless, of course, future generations of Singaporeans think differently and there already signs that they are less racist than their forefathers.

I think we should have pressed Mr Shanmugam more about what he thought about the E-pay ad. Clearly, he didn’t find it as offensive as the video. The ad was more a case of being “unthinking” – and complaints would probably have been dismissed in the past. Those in the audience who found the ad offensive said that it demeaned other races (not okay for a Chinese to act as someone not of  his race) and how other races shouldn’t be viewed as costumed caricatures. Mr Shanmugam pointed out the dangers of taking political correctness too far, by mandating, for example, that nobody should impersonate race, and even another gender.  He asked if people found the ad offensive as an afterthought, in the light of the publicity surrounding the issue.

I think the ad was offensive because it was aimed at the Chinese-speaking heartlander, rather than the population as a whole. It was conceived – thoughtlessly – as an inside joke for the Chinese community who watch him on television. Mr Chew is unknown to the non-Chinese. So the Chinese might smile at the sight of him in drag or in a tudung, but the non-Chinese would simply ask why the company couldn’t afford to pay other races to be featured in the ad. I daresay that if it was Gurmit Singh who had the role, there would be a great deal less fuss, or even no fuss.

I was glad that Mr Shanmugam reiterated that the siblings had a right to express themselves – although the tone of expression was beyond the pale. This is not about clamping down on the right to say what you feel or think, but about realising that how you say it is as important.

This is not a rap, just a ditty. I hope it passes muster as a sanitised summarised version of what the siblings were trying to say.

Hey you Chinese people

Can’t you see what you just did?

You think you can be like me or him?

Who are you trying to kid?

It’s not funny when you wear a tudung

Or put a bindi on your face

Because we’re not costumes,

We’re members of a race.

Sure, we can clown around,

Crack a racist joke or two

But let’s see if you like it,

When the majority is not you.









NDR: Open letter to PM

In News Reports on August 18, 2019 at 4:03 pm

Dear Prime Minister,

I was at the Jewel at Changi Airport today and until you mentioned it in your speech, I had forgotten that you had spoken about this several National Day rallies ago. I usually switch off when you talk about infrastructural changes; you almost always refer to one project or another in every NDR. It makes me think of you as a property developer more than a PM!

But I was at the Jewel today….

It was a magnificent structure and that indoor waterfall-cum-forest concept was simply breathtaking. Like most malls, the place was filled with eating outlets and I am glad that most aren’t priced out of reach of the ordinary person. Stores are varied.  Everything was well laid out. And thankfully, the crowd had thinned considerably since Jewel opened a few months ago.  Yes, you delivered on what you promised. (But can cut ticket price for canopy walk or not?)

I raise this because I am probably among many people who don’t think too much about the sort of long-term planning that goes into the making and re-making of a country. I think I yawned through what you said about Greater Southern Waterfront when you mentioned it at yet another NDR some years ago. But I sat up this time when you raised it.

That’s because I can see how the city port is emptying out and I have a view of Pasir Panjang container terminals from where I teach at the university campus in Kent Ridge. I have always wondered what would replace my view. Now, I hear you say it will be a Punggol by the Bay. I see a government with a long-range view, with every step in place.

But it was when you spoke about climate change that it truly dawned on me that as a people, we need to figure out what we’re putting in place for future generations, lest they be “ashamed of what our generation did not do”, as you put it. I was glued to the TV when you sketched out the possible ways of safeguarding our land against rising sea levels. Polder or reclamation? Or several Marina Barrages along the shore? I live in the east, you see, one of those low-lying places.

I like this sort of sharing of challenges and possibilities. It is, in my view, far better than simply presenting the future-as-designed-by-the-Government. This is a reason we do not think big picture or long-term – because we already have a government to do it for us. Yes, it is the duty of a Government to deal with challenges, but increasingly people would also want to be a part of the discussion. Failing which, you will have a people who only look for incentives, subsidies and immediate relief to current problems – and whine when they don’t get what they want. A weak people.

There is plenty of negativity in Singaporeans these days methinks. We might be ranked No. 1 in the UN Human Capital Index, but we prefer to talk about the amount of stress that is put on our children to reach that potential. We might have more than 1,500 centenarians but we wonder if we really want to live so long, physically impaired and with medical bills to pay. Some people don’t even think Nas is correct about Singapore being a wonderful place.

This time though, I doubt that anyone can complain too much about what is being done on the education front. I seem to be seeing another Jewel in the making. After expanding university places, successfully branding polytechnics as equal to JCs, ridding ITE of its moniker It’s The End, making changes to streaming and PSLE, we have come back full circle to pre-school education. Those cuts in pre-school education fees are deep, and I wonder why no one saw the anomaly earlier. How can it be that pre-school education is so much more expensive than main school education?

I am glad the subsidy scheme will be extended to include more of the middle income group: that sandwiched generation who aren’t poor enough to pass means tests but not rich enough to spend freely. This is one segment of the population who live the typical Singapore way – a working couple with kids in school, living in a HDB flat and who probably have elderly parents to look after. The Pioneer Generation package and soon, Merdeka Generation package, is a relief to these hardworking families and it is good to know that they will have money to pay kindergarten fees. It will help level the playing field at the start of a Singaporean’s life, although I am quite sure the better-off will find more ways to ensure their progeny stay ahead sooner or later. The sharp edges of meritocracy always need blunting.

I listened closely when you talked about retirement and re-employment age because I am going to hit the age-group soon. I think many people will question your assertion that people want to work longer. (I can just see people arguing that they have to, simply to keep body and soul together because of CPF rules on what can be withdrawn and when). I wish you had given figures on how many people actually worked beyond the current retirement age of 62. Even if seniors are keen to work, will employers keep them on,  especially since CPF contributions will be raised? You have heard, I am sure, many accounts of employers who know they have to make an offer of employment but simply make it too hard for seniors to stay on.

But back to the big picture.

I wish you spoke more about the Singapore identity in your English speech. I know you lauded the Malays for building a unique identity which differentiates them from Malays in the region and Muslims elsewhere. I also think that in this current climate of US-China tensions, your Chinese speech can be interpreted as a call to the Chinese community to be citizens first and ethnic Chinese second. But what of the nation as a whole?

One reason I slept through the infrastructural bits of past NDRs is because I can’t help but feel we are focusing on the physical facade rather than the intangible values and aspirations we have as a people. We use this phrase often: a better life. But is this to be measured in GDP terms only? Or in rising incomes? It has always bothered me that our hard-headed government doesn’t have a soft touch to stir the soul. If I can describe your message in one line, this might suffice: We have to send our kids to school earlier and we have to work longer, but we’ll have a better environment to live, work and play in. Not very rallying.

I, for one, am grateful that we have a government which delivers. We should never sniff at long-range thinking and long-term plans. We know we have a clever government but a government that’s too clever by half will result in a weak people that will turn to it for every need. Worse, a government which charges arrogantly forward with its plans – and leave the people behind.

But, hey, we can’t have a perfect government.

I think ours is pretty good liao.





On this day, our country’s 54th birthday, we wish that…

In News Reports on August 9, 2019 at 1:00 am

Inspired by Professor Tommy Koh’s article on birthday wishes for Singapore, I asked people on my Facebook wall for their own top three wishes. And they shouldn’t just copy parts of the Pledge, I said. More than 100 people responded. I won’t say that they are representative of Singaporeans; they are just people who happen to have seen my post.

Some wishes are universal, asking for happiness, progress and prosperity (sound familiar?) and some were clearly dictated by the news of the day, such as the brouhaha over an ad and a video and the ubiquity of personal mobility devices. If the news on how Singaporeans are among the most over-worked (or hardest working?) people on earth appeared a day earlier, work-life balance might have featured more often on the list. Some wishes can  be described as populist – like free education, free health, no GST or some discounted variation of all three. It also appears that not many people are convinced that the G puts Singaporeans first, with some calling for a further tightening of its foreign workers policy.

I also should not forget this constant refrain: to have CPF returned to the people at an earlier age.

Still I can see a few common themes emerging, and they have to do with:

a. Civility and respecting the views of others

I think this wish stems from a sense of disappointment over how the Internet is home to bickering quarters who give no quarter. One poster said he wished we would cultivate “a habit of listening to others around us instead of constantly trying to shout over each other”. There were other variations, such as being able to “argue respectfully” and to “learn the tools for critical thinking and constructive civil discourse, rather than relying on silencing opponents by filing police reports, censorship, character assassinations, or issuing takedown orders”.

Personally, I am heartened by such wishes. There is just too much hatred and nastiness on the Net. At times, I wonder if extreme views are truly held or simply expressed as a form of one-upmanship. I believe we call this the politics of outrage. There were also a few who called for more critical ability to distinguish between fact and opinion, and not to follow “blindly” some fad or other. Of course, this leads to calls for the education system to do more to nurture such ability.

There is one facet to this which I think is worth elaborating on – the phenomenon of the silent majority. Sometimes it is the vehemence with which some people hold the line that prevents even moderate voices from speaking up. It is emotionally draining to converse with people who simply will not see another point of view and resort to ad hominem attacks. Actually, it is more frightening to talk to the articulate, whose command of the language leaves you unable to respond in as elegant a manner. Then there are those who can cite “facts” and “figures” which sound real enough but which really require you to fact-check.

Holding a respectful, civil discussion is actually a tiring – but do-able – exercise. In fact, my own experience on Facebook shows that discussion among people is usually better than a dialogue between two individuals which usually descends into a slanging match. That is because in a group, different individuals, besides having different perspectives, have different pockets of knowledge and expertise which can be brought to bear on the discussion.  I have always been grateful to posters who dig up or share expert information to shed more light on an issue in the news, thereby shoring up the shortcomings of  MSM.

There is this term that is now very much in vogue: “safe spaces”. It’s supposed to refer to a forum where you can say what you like without fear of being condemned or laughed at. And it’s usually private or closed-door. I do not see how closed-door discussions advance the understanding of the majority of the masses who are “out” door. The usual excuse is that frank discussions can inflame passions. I am not sure. I have a few rabid types on my wall and my sense is that most people know what to expect from them and take their comments in their stride. In a discussion, we must welcome all types including the irrational and the emotional. I think we are capable of having a mature discussion without resorting to fisticuffs.

b. A transparent and humble G

It says a lot about how pervasive the G is in our lives that we connect our birthday wishes with the state of the State. There are wishes for the G to be more humble, generous and emphatic and to treat the people as citizens, rather than “resources” or a “statistic for reporting””

One poster wanted “more transparency and accountability of government, buy-in of citizenry, instead of policies and decisions rammed through”. Another one: “No more overly broad Bills/laws placing outsized power in the hands of politicians, leaving ordinary citizens to rely on the hope that all politicians (and future politicians) can be trusted to use these powers judiciously.”

I suppose they are referring to laws like the Protection from Online Harassment Act and the changes to the office of President, issues which have discomfited citizens, even though the G will maintain that there was enough consultation with a parliamentary select committee convened for the first, and a constitutional commission for the second. There is a sense that the G is being given carte blanch to intervene in people’s lives based on (let me count the ways) the need to uphold law and order, or maintain social harmony, or prevent foreigners from influencing the political system.

I know most people want more checks and balances in the system and it appears to me that the G would have to do a lot to recover some ground with those who think it has been high-handed and arrogant in recent time. What should console the G is that more of the wishes was about getting the G to change than getting it thrown out.

Perhaps with an eye on the succession plans of the People’s Action Party, there were a few who called for a G unafraid to make bold moves and to have a diversity of talent within its ranks rather than, I am guessing here, ex-civil servants and ex-generals.

c. A freer, more diverse media

This was a bit of a pleasant surprise to me. It was number one for a few people and one even said that it was his only wish for Singapore. I can only presume that they see a free media (in this case, it seems that they are referring to mainstream media) as a kind of panacea for several ills. A freer, more independent media would hold the G to account, demand transparency of processes and include a diversity of views for dissemination. Of course, birthday wishes being just wishes, there is nothing about how this can be achieved.

There are plenty of other wishes I have left out that ranged from freeing students from stress and giving more help to Singapore firms. You can read them here. The picture I get is that Singaporeans very much want to be a mature, peaceful and civilised society, led by a G that recognises their worth as citizens. As birthday wishes, they don’t seem like very much to ask for.

I think the next step is to think about how we, the individual citizen, can make those wishes come true.











Is it because I’m Eurasian?

In News Reports on August 7, 2019 at 1:40 am

Hello, I am Singaporean.

I know that going just by my name, a fellow Singaporean who doesn’t know me wouldn’t think it. They always expect someone “lighter” in colour. After I open my mouth, theirs drop. Because, hey, I speak better Singlish than they do! I explain that I am Eurasian and I see the gears in their brain working, figuring out what part of my face/body belongs to which side of the family.

Then comes the inevitable “So your parents are….?”. I tell them my ancestry. Sometimes, they go further and ask for country of origin. These days, I  wonder if I should be flattered that they are interested in my origins or offended that they should presume to ask me for such personal details. I think that if  I had asked the same question of those same people, they would give me their parents’ occupation rather than the dialect group (it’s usually the Chinese who are curious by the way). I wonder also how many can give an answer if I ask which province in China their ancestors came from.

Race is a topic that has been increasingly pushed to the front of my consciousness in recent years. I would have shrugged off any queries about my race in the past but I am starting to look at it differently. Have I become (yikes!) more sensitive?

I know a lot of people hark back to the “good ole days” when races live in peace and harmony and everyone could speak a bit of Malay and Hokkien to get along. But I think we’re looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses. My first experience of outright racism was when I was in primary school.  My Chinese mother was publicly taunted by some Chinese men for being with an “ang moh”, that is, my father. She was close to tears. He was dreadfully angry. I was so damn frightened. There was nothing “casual” about it.

But for the most past, I am ambivalent about my race. Maybe it’s because I’ve developed some sort of “double consciousness”, knowing that I am “different” yet inhabiting the world of the majority and adopting their world view. People can laugh at my race and I laugh along – unconsciously. Is this a right response from a member of the minority?

My “lived experience” might have much to do with it.

I wasn’t discriminated against in school but actually treated like a precious flower (positive discrimination) because I seemed so exotic to my fellow schoolmates, mainly Chinese. The fiercest types always took me under their wing. Out in the workplace, I was admired for being able to speak Mandarin, even of the half-past-six variety.

Of course, people ask me questions that reflect their stereotypical image of a Eurasian, like whether I was educated in a convent school. (I wasn’t). I have even been told to my face that I must sing and dance very well because…Eurasian. And before you ask, no, I don’t know how to cook feng.

Again, I shrug off such comments. Now I wonder if I should be offended at people’s presumptions, such as more inane questions like “how come your hair so dark?” (my mother’s overpowering genes?) or “why your name so funny?” (yours isn’t?), or “you have what kind of blood? (red?)”. The worst one: “you must be very havoc” (no, but I can cause some).

Over the years, we’ve been treated to complaints about casual racism. With the Internet playing its megaphone role, I’m left wondering if more people are getting more easily offended or whether it’s always been the same – but louder. And I’m wondering if I have been wrong all these years about how I “feel” about the race.

The movie Crazy Rich Asians, for example, provoked a minor controversy here because the minorities are being cast in subordinate positions while the Chinese took the “privileged” parts.  I followed the comments, arguments and counter-arguments with interest but I couldn’t decide how to “feel” about it. Non-plussed is a good word methinks.

I’ve written about the NETS E-Pay ad and the video that was produced in response. You can read it here. What I didn’t write about was how conflicted I felt. Should I get angry about the ad because minorities are angry and even some intellectual members of the majority Chinese are speaking up for them? If I am not angry even though I am a minority member, should I search deep into myself and ask why?

Should I get angrier/equally angry/less angry/not angry at the video that was produced in response? Should I understand that they are entitled to express themselves because their feelings were hurt, as some quarters have tried to explain?

In hindsight, I think my response wasn’t that of a minority member but of an “older” person. I am more surprised than angry that the ad made it from conceptualisation to distribution. And I cannot get my brain around statements that the video is “just a rap” or how “f***ing it up” is just a phrase, can be excuses for vileness and vituperation. Then I also see comments about how old fuddy duddies should get up to speed with the new thinking and new phrases of the new age. I wonder if I can turn the comments around: Old fuddy duddies aren’t dead yet and is it too much to ask that the younger people respect their norms on civility?

The episode has raised some interesting questions for the individual (of any race) to ponder over, to examine the depths of their attitudes towards each facet of the issue, including whether the G is a good neutral arbiter of racial issues and how heavy a hand it should have. I wonder, for example, if social media is making me feel inadequate as a minority member because I am not speaking up louder about injustices (perceived or real). I wonder if I should be embarrassed or thankful that I don’t feel I’m treated differently on account of my race.

Frankly, it is easy to play the victim card and indulge in the politics of outrage because there is an expectation that the majority should sit down and shut up when we speak. We can turn ourselves into champions for a cause protected by the idea that nobody should deny me “my feelings” especially those who have not “walked in my shoes”.

I think it’s good to confront such questions as an intellectual exercise rather than give vent to our emotions. When we engage the brain, we end up with a cooler head. We see beyond our own feelings, see the feelings of others and see what is in the best interest of all tribes. We do not say or do what is expected of us, or what is fashionable. We take a step back and do not let our emotions rush us into judgment.

I have concluded that I should be comfortable in my own skin, and be the individual (regardless of race) that I am. This is not to say that minority races do not face discrimination; they do. It is also not to say that the majority hasn’t made some forced sacrifice for inter-racial harmony; the loss of Chinese-language schools, the near complete erasure of dialects being some examples.

The truth is there has always been casual racism of the unthinking variety and it’s too much to expect that everyone will be “sensitive” or “politically correct”. But the important thing is we have set up formidable barriers to prevent institutional racism from setting in.

On my part,  I will not let comments that begin with “You, as a member of the minority, should know better” affect how I feel about myself or about my race or my place here.

Hey, I am Singaporean.