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Archive for January, 2019|Monthly archive page

HIV data leak: MOH has plenty of explaining to do

In News Reports on January 29, 2019 at 4:05 am

So, when the personal particulars of 1.5 million people were hacked, we’re told immediately and the spectre of a state-sponsored cyber attack was raised. They even dared to dig into the Prime Minister’s medication records! But, hey, never mind your personal data, they’re not of any commercial value anyway.

The key takeaway was that Singapore is in the gunsights of mischievous, mysterious beings and we should batten down the hatches, like have a more complicated password to our computer.

What about the personal particulars of 14,200 HIV patients being in the possession of someone unauthorized, and worse, leaked online? What weight or public attention should be given to this?

I was reading all the media reports today, including the Health ministry’s statement, and I would describe it as the unveiling of a horror story. Someone has a list of HIV-positive people here, and can blast the details online for family, friends, employers and total strangers to see. The list includes particulars of some 2,400 “contacts’’ as well, who are, presumably, people they slept with. This includes their phone numbers.

In a case of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted, MOH made much of “working with relevant parties to disable access to the information’’.  I guess this is about working with social media companies and tech giants to stamp out signs of publication.

It added: “While access to the confidential information has been disabled, it is still in the possession of the unauthorised person, and could still be publicly disclosed in the future. We are working with relevant parties to scan the Internet for signs of further disclosure of the information.’’

In other words, whatever information that has appeared in the public domain has been scrubbed out, but there’s no guessing when more will pop up later.

Which all looks well and good until you start reading about the circumstances of the “leak’’. We’re told that the authorities had been led on a merry dance by American Mikhy K Farrera Brochez, 33, who obtained an employment pass to work here in January 2008 – despite being HIV-positive. His HIV test came back positive at a SATA clinic at first, but his partner Ler Teck Siang, a doctor, connived with him to dupe the authorities.

It’s not clear what happened to the SATA clinic results, but Brochez took a second test at a Commonwealth clinic where Ler was practicing as a locum. That’s when they swopped blood samples and Brochez got his employment pass. In 2011, he obtained a “personalised’’ employment pass.

In the next few years, he taught at Temasek polytechnic using forged credentials, and even set up a child psychology practice. He enjoyed fame when The New Paper featured him in 2010, as a child prodigy who enrolled in Princeton University in the United States at 13, who could converse in eight languages and had numerous awards to his name. The article was headlined “He didn’t know he was gifted’’.

You can start counting the number of agencies he duped during his stay here.

Then in October 2013, someone seemed to have tipped off the Manpower ministry about Brochez’ HIV status. It had to do with the original SATA data re-surfacing. MOM wanted to cancel his permit but the fraudster said he could provide proof that he did not have HIV. So the couple, who were living together, repeated the blood swopping exercise. MOM was duped again.

Note that from March 2012 to May 2013, Ler was head of the MOH’s National Public Health Unit. MOH thinks it was during this period that Ler accessed the records. Maybe to check if his partner cleared the test? Maybe he downloaded the data into a thumb drive?

In May 2016, however, things started unraveling for the couple. Brochez was found guilty of possession of a ketamine and cannabis mixture, and investigations revealed that his educational certificates were forged and he had lied to the authortities about his HIV status. He served 28 months in jail and was deported upon release in April last year.

As for Ler, he was in even deeper trouble.

To cite the MOH statement:

He was charged in Court in June 2016 for offences under the Penal Code and the Official Secrets Act (OSA). In September 2018, Ler was convicted of abetting Brochez to commit cheating, and also of providing false information to the Police and MOH. He was sentenced to 24 months’ imprisonment. Ler has appealed, and his appeal is scheduled to be heard in March 2019. In addition, Ler has been charged under the OSA for failing to take reasonable care of confidential information regarding HIV-positive patients. Ler’s charge under the OSA is pending before the Courts.

It isn’t clear if additional OSA charges were levelled against him or whether this was the 2016 charge.

But what the MOH said later was even more intriguing.

In May 2016, MOH had lodged a Police report after receiving information that Brochez was in possession of confidential information that appeared to be from the HIV Registry. Their properties were searched, and all relevant material found were seized and secured by the Police.

Nothing has been made public about the confidential information in his possession – nor about the “relevant material’’ seized.

All was quiet until two years later.

In May 2018, MOH received information that Brochez still had part of the records he had in 2016. The information did not appear to have been disclosed in any public manner. MOH lodged a police report, and contacted the affected individuals to notify them.

What an exercise in ambiguity! What did the authorities do at this stage to plug the leak? What does “any public manner’’ mean? Apparently, it is not through online channels. Did he attempt blackmail? And how many affected individuals were there? At this point in time, did the authorities still believe there was no need to make public the news that some information had been stolen?

In any case, in this same year, coincidentally, MOH instituted additional safeguards, including a two-person approval process to download and decrypt information, against mishandling of information by authorised staff. It also disabled the use of unauthorised portable storage devices on official computers in 2017, “as part of a government-wide policy’’.

I don’t how else to describe the above except to use the term “cover-up’’.

According to ST, Mr Chan Heng Kee, permanent secretary at the MOH, said the ministry looks at “several factors’’ before deciding if it should go public. Besides patients’ interest and well being, there was whether the information was secured or publicly disclosed.

“Whether there is a continuing risk of the information being exposed even if we were able to secure. And also the concerns that individuals might have, should the incident be made public.”

He also said: “Certainly in the case where the information has been contained, we would take a more conservative approach.” (And would that have been what exactly?)

The other reason, he said, is that more than half those affected – about 8,000 – are foreigners who will be difficult for the ministry to contact.

I find the above answer astonishing. The excuse is, it’s too difficult to do, so we didn’t see the need to contact everyone. Or is MOH worried about litigation by litigious foreigners? I also cannot understand how it is NOT in the patient’s interest to warn them that someone might have stolen their data and might use it against them.

Is that why the OSA charges against Ler haven’t been heard in court yet? It’s been pending for at least two years. MOH didn’t want the news out before it secured everything?

Parliament is sitting on Feb 11. Again, I hold the forlorn hope that some hard questions will be raised by Members of Parliament.

I have had enough of officials telling us when they should give information that affects people or what sort of information should be made public. I have also had my fill of people who say we don’t have to know everything, and that we should let the G handle everything.

I think our brain should work more than once in every four or five years.

 

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No lawyers please, we’re academics

In News Reports on January 20, 2019 at 1:31 pm

So my employer is in the news. It’s going to be tough for me to say anything. If I write something that sounds like praise or support, I risk flak for toadying to the paymaster. But say anything critical and I risk getting gagged – or worse. Just to clarify, my employer is the National University of Singapore, where I am a part-time lecturer with the Communications and New Media Department.

So, of course, I have been following the news reports about the university closely. I wasn’t surprised that TODAY got wind of the departures of academics from the department I work in. After all, it IS the communications department and can be expected to be “leaky”. (I am NOT the leak). It had a high-profile head in Professor Mohan Dutta who made the news when he had to postpone a university talk by Dr Cherian George, a former Nanyang Technological University lecturer now teaching in Hong Kong.

When Prof Mohan left the university last June, some people put two and two together and came up with five; that he was somehow told to go because he was “politically incorrect” in inviting a “politically incorrect” academic. This, despite how word of his resignation had been floating around for at least a year and academics were asked about their choice of head should one be selected from among faculty.

So, much was made of “eight departures in eight months”, with the reason given as “differences” with the new head, Prof Audrey Yue. You can read the report here.  I couldn’t figure out the “differences” because five left before she became the head, and she hadn’t even been around the whole semester; she was on sabbatical. Perhaps, the “differences” stemmed from not wishing to report to a professor who had only recently returned to Singapore? Prof Yue, a Singaporean, joined the university just the year before. But that can’t be, since it is normal for academics of calibre, whether local or foreign, to parachute into leadership positions.

I also found it odd that the report only featured academics who had left, and not anyone who stayed who could give another view of the departures. Still, eight resignations (for whatever reason) out of a faculty of 32 members is quite a lot. Some re-shuffling of duties and classes had to happen. And it didn’t help that Prof Yue had decided to embark on a curriculum review that was to take effect in the following academic year.

Personally, I had always thought there were too many overlapping or  “inactive’’ subjects (what we call modules) in the department and some don’t seem structured to allow a student to advance academically during their four-year degree course. In other words, the store of knowledge or skill isn’t being widened or deepened, it just gets battered again and again (my words). You look at the titles of what is on offer in the curriculum and you wonder if there can be a lot of difference learning about both Governance and New Media and Media and Communications Regulation, for example.

I was glad that the review was being done, although I too have been a victim of some breakdown in communications (ironic I know since we are in the communications business!) I thought that one of my subjects was being scrapped when it was only being deferred. I suppose if this was just another company, internal screw-ups in communications wouldn’t be newsworthy. But there was the impression that undergraduates were being left “stranded”, bereft of lecturers and subjects to take up.

Of course, there was some confusion over the number of modules offered, dropped and so forth, simply because nothing had been decided nor approved yet by the higher-ups. Perhaps, Prof Yue should have made the review process public for both faculty and students, but then again, that would risk unnecessary panic among staffers who think they wouldn’t have a job and among students who have an eye on certain modules for their later classes.

I guess I sound far too sympathetic now, correct?

So let’s change the topic.

I was surprised to read the longer article in TODAY on Jan 6 about why academics teaching arts and humanities subjects quit or don’t stay for long. It seemed quite a stretch to go from a department in a faculty to maligning two universities for being focused on chasing rankings. Was there really an exodus of academics? There aren’t any hard numbers and the universities themselves were stingy with info. So we have to take the universities’ word that turnover rates were “not high”.

Academics who left the university, and Singapore, sounded so angry in the interviews. Very unfavourable mention was made of the Provost. So it is no surprise that the university authorities were upset. But what was a surprise was that it mounted a “legal challenge” which resulted in the article being “taken down”.

I re-read the article (I had it printed earlier) for signs of defamatory content, but concluded that the academics were expressing their opinion based on their experience in the university. Is this a quarrel over facts? Or merely academics holding a different opinion from the university authorities about the sort of weight that was being put on research or teaching? Was the problem a systemic one or were they just unhappy that the university didn’t think their work was up to scratch? Was the net cast wide enough to come to the conclusion that both universities were focused on rankings?

One thing that I thought might have crossed the line was what an unnamed academic said about the Provost’s “haphazard approach of gaming various ranking systems”.

Of course, on the whole, the universities didn’t come off well based on those interviews with five named academics, and I am not sure how many un-named ones. NUS is a well-regarded university, and to have its reputation attacked would have repercussions on staff, students and others thinking of joining the university in some capacity or other. I, for one, would expect the university to respond vigorously.

There are many ways a newsmaker can respond to accusations made by people which are published in the media. He can point out factual inaccuracies.  He can ask for the right of reply. He can engage in a good old fashioned debate on why the article was unfair. He can trot out people who agree with him. A university has so many channels to disseminate its point of view, even if the original media outlet denied it of its use.

But a legal challenge?

The latest is that we now have the five academics making a public statement standing by what they said.

They added: “As academics with collective experience in many countries besides Singapore, we believe that freedom of expression and active public debate are foundational to scholarly excellence and the advancement of human knowledge. We are unaware of other situations where media reporting responsibly on the opinions of faculty have been subject to “legal challenge” from a university.

“As individuals who care about Singapore academia, we are saddened by this apparent intolerance. We hope that the situation will be quickly resolved in a manner that will not be discouraging to our fellow academics in Singapore, or those who may contemplate working there in future.”

I am sad too. I would have thought a university would have a thicker skin and would have tried to parry every thrust and put in a few jabs, rather than using the law as a shield. According to ST, NUS responded by saying that while it welcomed diverse views, constructive feedback and robust discourse, it wished that the article was impartial and factually accurate. The spokesman also lamented that the article did not adequately represent the university’s position, even though its clarification was sought.

All this is simply too puzzling. What were the factual inaccuracies? And what replies did it give to the media that went un- or under-reported? Can we have a look so that we can come to our “own conclusions in a fair and objective manner?” which is what the university said it wants?

I think NUS should drop (or at least specify) the legal challenge it is pursuing against TODAY. It is a good, even great, university and it has plenty of people with the bandwidth to respond to accusations or do the defending.

What are we teaching our students if we reach for a gag order without giving reasons for it? Or if we shy away from a debate? Let’s be classy about it.

PS. The university has never, ever had a problem with my blog posts. May this happy state continue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sg-Msia relations: Where’s the red line?

In News Reports on January 14, 2019 at 9:32 am

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan gave MP Ang Wei Neng the shortest answer during the debate on his statement on Singapore-Malaysia ties earlier today. Mr Ang had noted that plenty of Singaporeans shop, eat and do business up north, so how should they react or act now with the spat going on. Dr Balakrishnan replied that it was for Mr Ang to express himself. Then turned and sat down on his seat.

At the outset, it does seem like a silly question. Surely, we don’t need the G to tell us how to act or react? But then again, what if our reactions or actions do more damage to whatever behind-the-scenes wrangling that is going on between two countries? After all, there’s been plenty of mixed messaging. So The Straits Times today for example said Singapore welcomes the easing of tensions, while other media chose to angle on Singapore’s protest note to Malaysia. Should we “relax” – or get angry?

Going by what Dr Balakrishnan said in Parliament earlier today, we should get angry. (But that’s just me).

Here’s the narrative, in my words.

It was Firefly which wanted Seletar airport to be fitted with the Instrument Landing System or ILS. That’s because the Malaysian authorities require that its airlines (Firefly is a subsidiary of Malaysian Airlines) use airports which have this radar system which is supposed to be safer for planes landing and taking off. Singapore obliged, and let Malaysia know one year ago, but had no response until last November. That’s a very last-minute reaction considering that Firefly was supposed to operate in December. In any case, Firefly couldn’t fly. No license from Malaysia.

The argument from Malaysia, especially Transport Minister Anthony Loke, was that the planes would be flying over Pasir Gudang which meant that no tall building could be built there. He didn’t say that for decades, private planes and charter flights had been winging their way along the same route, without ILS. They’re not banging into buildings there, a few of which are  taller than HDB blocks here. So what’s this about restricting the port’s development?

So aviation authorities on both sides met in late November and managed to iron out some things, including how ILS will start from Jan 3 even if Firefly couldn’t fly. Then someone up north pulled a strange stunt, putting out a note to airmen about some restrictions surrounding the air space over Pasir Gudang. This was later withdrawn for an even more draconian note, delivered on Christmas Day, stating that the area within 2,000 ft and 5,000 ft was now for military use only. That means that planes would have to make a high jump at take-off or landing.

This “permanent restricted area” edict  was supposed to take effect on Jan 2, a day before ILS kicked in. What this means is that normal flights in and out of Seletar airport were affected, unless they got approval from Malaysia. The minister didn’t say how big the disruption was, but this continued till Jan 8, when bilateral talks led to the suspension of the restriction.

All these provocations put paid to Malaysian talk about easing tensions earlier. At sea, Malaysia never did completely withdraw its vessels either. If you recall, it extended its port limits in the sea off Tuas so much that it even exceeded its old 1974 claims on territorial waters. Singapore did a tit-for-tat – and more. It lodged an application with the United Nations Law of the Sea to ensure that any country which wants to re-draw boundaries would have to consult Singapore, and vice versa. This prevents any unilateral application to a third-party to recognise border changes.

The end of 2018 was a busy time for Singapore ministers. Dr Balakrishnan disclosed that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was worried enough to send Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat to Kuala Lumpur to speak to premier Mohamad Mahathir. He didn’t disclose the contents of the meeting. But I daresay it was to call out Malaysia for not practising what it preaches. Politely.

I can only assume that since Jan 9, planes from Seletar have re-started flights over Pasir Gudang, without the ILS. Suspending the radar system was Singapore’s quid pro quo for Malaysia de-restricting the area. Both suspensions would be  for a month, and Dr Balakrishnan didn’t say what would happen after that. Presumably more kinks would be ironed out as Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan was supposed to meet his counterpart later this month. I would give my left arm to be a fly on a wall and to ask Mr Loke what MP Lee Bee Wah asked in Parliament: “Did you miscalculate height, Mr Loke? Or were you flipping prata?”

But even while planes might have started flying, the sea was getting crowded. Notwithstanding the Jan 8 goodwill demonstrated by the countries’ foreign ministers, Singapore was shocked to read about five Malaysian vessels in Singapore waters the very next day. Then there was the public spectacle of the Johor Mentri Besar Omar Sapian on one of the boats. This was happening even after the two ministers had agreed to set up a joint working committee to sort out the maritime issues. What sort of provocation was that? What were the Malaysians up to? Was this a case of good cop, bad cop? Or left hand not knowing what the right hand was up to? Insincerity or plain insubordination? These questions were asked by a few MPs including Mr Vikram Nair and Mr Pritam Singh.

Mr Balakrishnan didn’t reply directly except to say that he got along with Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah and Economics Minister Azmin Ali. I can only surmise that it is another way of saying that the Johor Government was acting on its own or without the consent of the Federal Government. Which of course makes you angry when you think about how Singapore had always acceded to Johor’s request for treated water whenever there was a drought or shortage. The last time was just earlier this month. One MP asked if this gesture was even appreciated. Mr Balakrishnan took the opportunity to expand on the neighbourly approach which Singapore had always taken, giving three times as much water to Johor (16million gallons a day) than what was stated in the water agreements (5mgd).

Perhaps, this is the nub of the matter: We are so…nice. Not too long ago, we agreed to postpone the construction of the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur High Speed Railway at Malaysia’s request for a small “abortive cost” of $15million. But what seemed like a good start to a relationship with the Pakatan Harapan Government in KL looks more like a mirage.

Mr Balakrishnan admits that Singapore is “consistently boring” in its diplomatic approach. It doesn’t engage in megaphone diplomacy, and abides by agreements made. But this doesn’t mean that it would take every knock lying down, he said. It has “sharp elbows” and will hit back, he said. He gave the example of the cancellation of the joint meeting on Iskandar investments which was supposed to take place today. Even KL acknowledged that it would be imprudent to have such a meeting at this time.

He was replying to MP Alex Yam who was blunt about how Malaysia seemed to be ignoring Singapore’s repeated admonitions to “don’t do this”. What can Singapore do, he asked, if Malaysia continued to display such disregard and kept “crossing red lines”?

(Nobody talked about military action to safeguard sovereignty but you can tell that the words were floating in the airspace in Parliament.)

Hmm, was a red line crossed in the first place? The minister was put in a bit of a spot. lines should be drawn only after much deliberation and circumspection, he said. Some negotiations are better done behind closed doors. Yup, I agree. An open commitment to a red line would mean that action would have to be taken if they were crossed – or the red lines might as well be tomato sauce.

Instead, Mr Balakrishnan  spoke generally about the need for a strong armed forces and Total Defence and even suggested that such questions be directed at Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.

I think people can’t help asking what Singapore would do if more and more Malaysian vessels make Singapore waters their home. Mr Balakrishnan kept insisting that problems between the two countries will always crop up because of our shared historical baggage – and that no one should be surprised. I think the surprise is that the Malaysians would go so far as to destroy their own airline and test the resilience of the Singapore Navy for I-don’t-know-what benefit.

We might be able to come up with Newater to safeguard our water supply but we can’t move our geographical position.

All I can see is bullying.

As far as this citizen is concerned, that red line is looming.

 

 

 

 

 

FamiLEE saga: Where’s the consistency?

In News Reports on January 7, 2019 at 1:57 pm

I am beginning to like this word “optics’’. It can stand for so many things, like different perspectives, varying points of view, how things can play out in the public eye or in someone else’s eye. So I’ll just say the “optics’’ surrounding the latest twist in the Lee family saga is making me cross-eyed, weary and teary.

For those with blurry memories, the FamiLEE  saga has to do with a public quarrel that blew up in the middle of 2017 between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his two younger siblings, Hsien Yang and Wei Ling, over the demolition/preservation of the Oxley Road house that their father left them on his death.

There were allegations and counter-allegations, acrimonious emails and Facebook postings and an a two-day airing of the Lee laundry in Parliament. The issue in a nutshell: PM Lee said his late father was open to the idea of preserving the house; his siblings said he was dead set on demolishing it.

Of course, that’s a very condensed version I’ve given above. The FamiLEE saga (as was the tag given to a series of reports in old The Middle Ground website) was a lot more colourful and even conspiratorial, with words such as “secret committee’’ and “abuse of power’’ thrown in. Many big names were dragged into the picture, including Mr Lucien Wong, the current Attorney-General who was then PM’s personal lawyer.

Singapore was transfixed by the sight of members of the first family at each other’s throats.

As for the fate of the house, the upshot was that the G came up with three scenarios for its future, each with some kind of preservation value to it, last April. This, it said, was for a future Government to decide once Dr Lee Wei Ling no longer lives in it. I wrote about this here.

I believe most people thought the saga had ended with the PM having the last word in Parliament in July that year. He wouldn’t sue his siblings, he said, even though they had defamed him. He also hoped that the acrimony wouldn’t be passed down to the next generation.

To quote him: Little did I expect that after my parents died, these tensions would erupt, with such grievous consequences and after so many years I would be unable to fulfil the role which my father had hoped I would. So I hope one day, these passions will subside, and we can begin to reconcile. At the very least, I hope that my siblings will not visit their resentments and grievances with one generation upon the next generation and further, that they do not transmit their enmities and feuds to our children.

But alas, it was not to be. In the same month, Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s son, Li Shengwu, found himself the subject of contempt of court charges because of a private Facebook post he had written. Then came application and counter-applications on whether the AGC could actually serve a summons on someone who made the statement outside Singapore. The Administration of Justice Act which codifies contempt of court laws, says yes. But the Act wasn’t in place then. It was activated a few months later, in October.

In September last year, Mr Li, 33, an economics professor in Harvard University, won the right to appeal the AGC’s decision. The question at hand: whether the Act could be applied retroactively.

So, yup, we haven’t even got to the door of the court yet to discuss the substance of his posting. If the door is opened, we’ll have yet another round of FamiLEE saga although I’m quite sure the AGC will do its level best to keep it to what Mr Li said in his posting.

Now, the AGC has turned its sights on the wife of Mr Lee Hsien Yang, calling on the Law Society to investigate Ms Lee Suet Fern for professional misconduct. This has to do with the role she played in getting the late Mr Lee to sign his last will, which included the now-infamous demolition clause. During the 2017 saga, PM Lee made public a statutory declaration in which  he described the “suspicious circumstances” surrounding the drafting of his father’s final will. This, even though a grant of probate certifying its validity was issued in October 2015, just months after Mr Lee’s death.

Now we all know Ms Lee had some part in it, but the question then was more about whether she had exercised “undue influence’’ on her father-in-law, thereby  making the will invalid.

There was also the suggestion from PM Lee that his brother and wife had contrived to deprive their sister of a bigger share of the house, even as the demolition clause was re-inserted.  PM Lee had said that even Dr Lee had misgivings over the couple’s role, which Dr Lee has denied vehemently, releasing correspondence to show that her sister-in-law had tried to be helpful.  (Read this and this)

The AGC made clear that it wasn’t the validity of the will that was being questioned now, but the professional conduct of Ms Lee. There is a one-liner about how the younger Mr Lee got a bigger share of the estate as a result.You can read the statement here.

The AGC wants some direct answers from the Lee couple on whether Ms Lee, a lawyer in private practice,  was involved in the drafting of the will in some way or other. And whether Mr Lee had lied when he said it was drafted by Lee & Lee lawyer Kwa Kim Li. Ms Kwa has denied this.

The AGC said it had no response to its queries.

I checked the files.  Mr Lee Hsien Yang did say this in a Facebook post on June 16 that year: “Stamford Law did not draft any will for LKY. The will was drafted by Kwa Kim Li of Lee & Lee. Paragraph 7 of the Will was drafted at LKY’s direction, and put into language by Lee Suet Fern, his daughter in law and when he was satisfied he asked Kim Li to insert into his will.”

Later, he also said this: “My father’s Final Will of December 2013 was a reversion to his 2011 will on his express instructions. The 2011 will was drafted by Ms Kwa Kim Li of Lee & Lee.”

Today, he said this on his FB page, adding Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam into the mix: “This was his re-signing of his 2011 will in which Minister Shanmugam was involved.” He also said that the facts had been made known for years and that the AGC had some correspondence that should be released. (Brace yourself.)

As someone who followed the saga closely, I am also confused about who did what when and where. There were seven wills involved and plenty of characters. You can read about them here. The conclusion that I came to then was that the demolition clause was in an older will, drafted by Ms Kwa, taken out and then inserted without her knowledge. And that Ms Lee played a part in getting the house retained for Dr Lee.

Allegations of professional misconduct had surfaced then, but not in a big way. So it does seem odd that the AGC started asking questions only in October last year.

It intoned: “The Legal Profession (Professional Conduct) Rules (“Professional Conduct Rules”) requires that lawyers do not place themselves in a position of conflict. Where a person intends to make a significant gift by will to any memberof the lawyer’s family, the lawyer must not act for the person and must advise him to obtain independent advice in respect of the gift. This rule applies even if the lawyer is related to the person making the gift. ” 

(The last line makes me wonder if Ms Kwa, a niece of the late Mrs Lee Kuan Yew, should have been drafting wills for her elderly relative all these years! )

If the saga hasn’t made you cross-eyed yet, good for you.

But it’s also making me weary and teary for a few reasons.

There are too many questions surrounding the accusations against the Lee son-and- mother.  In Mr Li’s contempt of court case, it does seem like arbitrary prosecution, given that some people have said a lot worse things about the judiciary in much more public forums that aren’t set to “private”. Opposition politician Kenneth Jeyaretnam, for example, had actually asked to be sued.

That July, the authorities acted almost immediately against Mr Li. In this new allegation of professional misconduct, they really took their time. (Maybe it’s because the complaint is 500 pages long?)

There’s no consistency in this narrative.

Then there is the role of AG Wong, who “recused” himself from the case and left it to his deputy Lionel Yee to handle. I know a lot has been said about separating the professional from the personal and how honourable people would be able to draw this line. But I happen to think that the AGC is too important an institution to have any blemish, even a perceived one. Mr Wong’s talent and ability should be weighed against the public perception of the independence of the institution. He seems more of a liability than an asset to me.

If the AGC (I mean the institution) really wants to be consistent, it should have levelled charges of criminal defamation against the Lee siblings. Just because the PM doesn’t want to take up a civil defamation doesn’t mean that the AGC cannot act independently. Right?

After all, the accusations of impropriety and abuse of power by the PM’s own siblings who are both respected members of the Establishment are far more damaging to the G than remarks of a failed election candidate published in The Online Citizen.

Where’s the consistency?

That’s why I am getting weary and teary. I can’t see anything clearly anymore. The optics are so bad.

By the way, here’s a list of reports and columns on the saga that The Middle Ground published. Start from the bottom. Not boring. Promise. 

  1. FamiLEE saga: Who’s involved (Jun 17)
  2. FamiLEE saga: Is a grant of probate really final? (Jun 17)
  3. FamiLEE saga: Somebody should just sue (Jun 17)
  4. FamiLEE saga: PM Lee’s version of events (Jun 16) 
  5. FamiLEE saga: Let a third party tell all (Jun 16)
  6. FamiLEE saga: The past three days (Jun 16)
  7. FamiLEE saga: How Lee Suet Fern got LWL her inheritance, according to leaked emails (Jun 15)
  8. FamiLEE saga: Singaporeans react with confusion, humour and CSI skills (Jun 15)
  9. FamiLEE saga: From 38 Oxley Road to 1 Parliament Place, not just a family affair (Jun 15)
  10. FamiLEE saga: Headlines around the world (Jun 15)
  11. FamiLEE saga: Now about that mysterious ministerial committee (Jun 15)
  12. Not just a famiLEE affair (Jun 14)
  13. Third generation Lee weighs in (Jun 14)
  14. “We do not trust Hsien Loong as a brother or as a leader. We have lost confidence in him.” (Jun 14) 

     

 

WANTED: transparency in social and health services

In News Reports on January 4, 2019 at 3:24 am

We’re ignorant people. Either that, or we’re too trusting. We’re ignorant when we talk about how the poor need help, without knowing whether they already got help or the types of help that are available. Or we trust that somehow help will get to them. Or we’re just lazy thinkers, accepting that something is good for us because someone says so.

I got to thinking like this because of two articles that appeared in The Straits Times recently. Since both are “premium”, I’ll take the liberty of summarising the key points. The first is a piece by a veteran in the social work scene, Mr Gerard Ee. He wrote a commentary published on Jan 3 calling on a change in the way we – or rather the 4G leadership – view poor people (I am eschewing all forms of political correctness here). They’re not problems to be fixed, but assets, he said.

“Social services, when positioned to help those who have fallen behind, are inherently communicating that their users have failed to fit in or to contribute to the larger scheme of things.This is reinforced when the process of accessing resources requires service users to accentuate their needs. This makes the people involved feel like they or their situations are problems. They constantly surface “needs”, which are the raw materials for the proliferation of service provision,” he wrote.

You’d ask then how help should be “delivered”? He doesn’t have a definite alternative but expounds on the idea of getting the community itself together to see what they can do: like getting orders for large baking contracts which the poor can fulfil during festive seasons. You get the idea? It’s about helping people helping each other and themselves, and creating a kinder, gentler neighbourhood not just about schemes and means-testing.

The G should be the Guardian which safeguards this space, he wrote. It should be the convener of gatherings that allow the community to come together. It should allow problems to be aired transparently so that people know what they have to solve. ”

“Unless concerns are clearly defined and acknowledged, people cannot or will not see the need to cooperate and resolve them. Usually when concerns are raised, our leaders cite a programme or scheme that is already dealing with it. This says that the status quo is good enough and no improvements are necessary,” he added.

This line above resonated with me. You can’t deny that we have an effective bureaucracy with a myriad of help schemes. When asked, it will say how many people have been “reached” or “helped” through this or that scheme. It’s almost as if some KPIs have been met although we wouldn’t know since we have no basis of comparison or assessment. Is the “reach” is wide enough or should we just go oooh over big numbers? Is it “meaningful” help? Instead of telling us that the schemes are being “reviewed regularly” or “monitored closely”, can we have proper audits?

Or maybe, we should be asking ourselves why the G is so much front and centre in this sector. Is this about the G giving “more” help or about the people taking back the responsibility we have for each other with the G as a facilitator? Mr Ee doesn’t seem to be telling the G to butt out or stop discounts, grants and subsidies. Instead he wants the G to protect the community space in which good things can happen.

He raised this issue which has cropped up time and again:

“I find it disturbing to see community centres being leased out to fast-food operators and other businesses. Surely, residents can go to the mall in the town centre should they desire such products, and surely the community centre management can utilise its facilities to reach out to residents who may find it difficult or not gratifying to visit the mall as a routine. In any case, community development and resident engagement can certainly be more than making it convenient for people to get fast food.

“The optimising of community resources for rental revenue gives the impression that the Government is subsidising business at the expense of meaningful community engagement and development, as it is not transparent how the revenue is ploughed back into the community, apart from maintaining infrastructure. It also signals the depreciation of the community as its space is being encroached upon or even colonised by commercial interests. If this is not the correct impression or intent, the leaders should reassess some of their positions or decisions in these areas.”

Now, Mr Ee is not some opposition politician ranting away about the use of People’s Association resources. He is a respected member of the Establishment who is uncomfortable about how increasingly, the community space is being “colonised by commercial interests”. The G, I’m sure, has sound economic reasons for letting the PA collect rent – which maybe goes into subsidising courses? You see, as Mr Ee pointed out, we don’t know.

I’d think that the best method is to let the MP in charge of the area, or the community groups’ adviser as is the case in opposition wards, decide on how to use the space. And how they use the space would be a useful reflection of their priorities to voters, much like town council management.

The second article was written by Senior Health Correspondent Salma Khalik who talked about the kinks (or is this systemic?) in the Medishield Life scheme and whether it lived up to its promises. For one man, it didn’t.  Medishield Life allowed Mr Seow Ban Yam, 83, to claim only $4.50 cent for two eye operations at the Singapore National Eye Centre which cost more than $7,500. This had to do with claimable limits set by the CPF, which is much lower than the subsidised bill. Mr Seow was, in fact, hit with a double whammy. He had a second operation a few months later  but because it was in the next “insurance” year, he had to pay  deductibles twice.

Below is the breakdown of one of Mr Seow’s bills published in ST.

So is  this merely an anomaly or is this something that affects more people we don’t know of? Ms Khalik thinks that thousands of patients are affected going by the difference between claim limits (low) and subsidised fees (high). This calls into question how claim limits were set and why public healthcare institutions seem to be charging such high fees.

Again, this has to do with transparency but I’d bet my bottom dollar that when Medishield Life was first discussed, most of us just glazed over the numbers even if we could follow the arguments. This is when experts should step in and point out the flaws. But it also means that we should never allow ourselves to swallow comforting phrases like how Medishield covers nine in 10 subsidised patients.

As Ms Khalik said: “It would be interesting to know, three years after the launch of MediShield Life, if it does truly fully cover nine in 10 subsidised patients as it was meant to, or if the number has been eroded over time. This is information the Government owes the public a duty to disclose.”

Trust must be accompanied by transparency.