berthahenson

Archive for the ‘News Reports’ Category

First POFMA case: About facts or interpretation of data?

In News Reports on January 17, 2020 at 12:20 am

I thought Singapore’s first POFMA case would be swiftly despatched. But no, it’s going into Day 2 today.  

I should have known better. This wasn’t a case between an individual who thinks that he has been wrongly accused by the G for publishing incorrect information. This was a political party which would have wanted a bigger stage to make its point. At 5pm, the Singapore Democratic Party still hadn’t finished making its case that the Manpower Minister was wrong to issue it with Correction Directives on employment/retrenchment statistics that the party had published.

An even bigger, public stage had been denied to the SDP earlier in the morning. Because it’s an appeal case under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, the recourse to the courts was by way of an originating summons. This meant that the case would be heard by a judge in chambers. SDP would have its say, the G side would have its say, the judge will ask questions and, hopefully, give a quick ruling. This would be line with promises to make the court process quick and easy. The SDP, however, wanted to convert its originating summons to a writ of summons so that it can have its say in open court. It also wanted to call the Manpower ministry as a witness to clarify the statistics.  

I was disappointed when SDP didn’t succeed in its application, even though this would mean a new hearing date and a lengthier trial process. I thought the first case of POFMA deserved a public airing. But it was not to be. 

Deputy Attorney General Hri Kumar Nair, representing the G side, told reporters that Justice Ang Cheng Hock agreed with him that there was no special reason for the case to be heard in open court.

It seemed that only two cases have made the cut so far. The first was in 2006 when the court allowed a case that Ms Chee Siok Chin was involved in to move from chamber to court. Mr Nair said that was because she had another case pending in open court which dealt with the same issues. I asked him about another case between clan associations Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan and Ngee Ann Kongsi that The Straits Times had referred to in an earlier news report. He was less certain of this (I’m not sure if the SDP raised it) but a check showed that the judge moved it because one side was disputing the facts of the case, and it is only through a writ that documents can be obtained through the judicial process known as “discovery’’. 

Mr Nair said that all other requests for open court hearings had failed, even on constitutional matters such as when human rights lawyer M Ravi filed a legal challenge against changes to the elected presidency in 2017.

The SDP was, of course, aggrieved. 

Speaking to reporters, Dr Chee said that job security and employability issues, including the hiring of foreign PMETs, are of “immense public interest”.

“MOM’s case is that there are interpretations and opinions,” he said. “And that being the case, the public should hear from both sides… The fact that MOM has not publicly stated its reasons for rejecting our application, all the more the public then should be able to hear it for themselves in this court.’’

That bit of legal wrangling took more than an hour. Ten minutes later, both parties were back in chambers. The SDP side was represented by its secretary-general Chee Soon Juan (yup, the Miss Chee cited above is his sister), chairman Paul Tambyah and vice-chairman John Tan. 

And I thought the saga which began on Dec 14 when the  SDP was told to append the Correction Directions on two Facebook posts and one article it posted online would be quickly settled… 

Since the case was heard in chambers, we can only depend on what the SDP leaders tell us about what happened. Mr Nair, a former PAP MP, declined to speak, saying that the case had not ended. In fact, he hadn’t even begun to give the G side of the story.

I thought to myself: Surely, it can’t be so difficult for the judge to decide whether the two falsehoods which the Manpower minister pointed out were really falsehoods? It’s either yes or no, isn’t it? 

Based on what the SDP leaders said had happened in chambers, many other aspects came into play, so much so that I was beginning to think that hearing was about the exercise of POFMA in general, rather than about specific falsehoods. 

To summarise, the SDP thinks that POFMA should be directed at “obvious’’ and deliberate falsehoods rather than interpretations of data and fine details, such as the number of data points and the time frame. In other words, POFMA was wrongly used in the SDP case. 

The facts the SDP put out are verifiable and based on the ministry’s own data, said Dr Chee. MOM’s objections had to do with finer details, such as whether the right time-frame or correct denominator was used. There will always be disputes over how the data is used, what sorts of data and conclusions drawn, and “we can argue till the cows come home’’, he added. The minister, however, was putting out data in different ways to make the point that SDP was wrong. She was also maintaining that some people would misinterpret the SDP data, although POFMA doesn’t cover interpretations of fact, Dr Chee said.

I asked him if making “misleading’’ statements which POFMA also covers, was applied then.  He replied that the term used by MOM was “false statement of fact’’, not misleading. 

Both Dr Chee and Dr Tambyah said that this point on “how the average person would understand the facts’’ was also raised by the judge. They told the judge that average person would look at the facts published based on his own experience of having to compete with foreign PMETs who are willing to work for less. “And there was enough data, plus published data from mainstream media,’’ maintained Dr Tambyah. He added that the average guy isn’t going to get into statistical analysis and data sets which only academics like himself would be interested in.

Asked about the cost of the hearing, Mr John Tan said the party had spent more than $900 so far on filing fees. Part of this sum includes $500 for the filing of Originating Summons, according to existing court rules. This is higher than the $200 fee individual appellants have to pay because the SDP is standing in court as a political entity. The party had wanted all three representatives to speak at the hearing but the Supreme Court’s practice directions stated that only one legal counsel represented in each party can make submissions and question witnesses. In this case, it was Dr Chee himself since the SDP did not engage a lawyer.

Later in the evening,  the SDP  put out its own news report of what happened in chambers – and I was wondering if the G side would put out its own. (That’s the trouble when there is no objective observer of an event.) What the G did do, however, was put out a statement saying that the AGC will address the issue of  the time period of the labour statistics today when it presents the MOM’s arguments to the judge.

No doubt, the AGC will do more than that.

So were the facts SDP put out “facts’’ or were the facts “twisted’’ and therefore false, and where does interpretation of nitty-gritty data come in? Whether the decision goes one way or the other, let’s hope the judge will shed more light.

 

What statements did SDP make that got it POFMA-ed?

 

#1: Local PMET employment has been going down

 

What SDP presented:

  • “Local PMET unemployment has increased” (Nov 30 Facebook post). The image below was also posted in a Dec 2 Facebook post, showing a drop in local PMET employment.

red graph

What MOM said:

  • “The number of local PMETs employed has increased from 1.17 million in 2015 to 1.3 million in 2019,” according to the Comprehensive Labour Force Survey

local pmet employment

How SDP responded:

  • SDP presents graph and best-fit line above, showing number of “unemployed resident PMETs” rising from 2010 to 2018.

unemployed res pmets

  • SDP also takes issue with MOM using the term “retrenchment” in elaborating on the correction orders.

 

#2: Singaporean PMET retrenchment has been going up

 

What SDP said:

  • The party’s population proposal had come “amidst a rising proportion of Singaporean PMETs getting retrenched” (8 June article).

What MOM said:

  • (1) There has been no rising trend of local retrenchments from 2015-2018

number of retrenched locals

  • (2) There has been no rising trend of local PMET retrenchments from 2015-2018

number of retrenched local pmets

  • (3) The number of local PMETs retrenched as a share of all local PMET employees has declined from 2015-2018

number retrenched local pmets per 1000

How SDP responded:

  • SDP said there is a rising PMET retrenchment trend if 2010-2018 figures are used, instead of 2015-2018.

pmet retrenchment trend 2010 2018

  • SDP argued that MOM compared local PMET retrenchment figures against the total number of local PMET employees, while SDP compared it against the total number of all local retrenched workers – in line with Straits Times and Yahoo! Singapore news reports. Below is the chart ST published on March 19 last year.

st_20190315_xretrench_4694464

 

 

photo6127593089624287442

 

My thanks to NUS undergraduates Daryl Choo, Liang Lei, Wong Shi Ying and Sean Lim for helping me with the reporting and research. 

 

 

2019: The good, the bad and the ugly

In News Reports on December 30, 2019 at 1:13 pm

You’ve probably had your fill of reviews of what happened in 2019 or the decade – as well as predictions and projections for the future. Sorry. But here’s another one. It’s my own personal take on changes in Singapore, an opinion piece which anyone can agree or disagree with. Please note the word “personal”.

The good

This doesn’t affect me but it’s good that more people have access to public housing with rise in income ceiling from $12,000 to $14,000 for BTO flats and consequent rise for executive condominiums. What was even more heartening was how housing grants would now apply to first-time buyers of any type of flat, even resale flats. That’s a marked relaxation of HDB rules. 

Personally, I’ve always thought the HDB subsidy scheme was an unfair one – because it knocked me out of the public housing market. No nuclear family. Busted income ceiling. I would have preferred a housing voucher for every individual, and a little more if you’ve tied the knot or had children. Then you pick your choice of housing and top-up the rest. More equitable no?

Still, I think very highly of the HDB system and have always wondered what the fuss over the flat’s 99-year lease is about. That issue seems to have over-shadowed any housing policy or innovation we have experienced. I am staying in a flat which is more than 45 years old, depreciating by the year and would be quite happy to outlive it if possible. Many minds, including those outside the official channels, are working on this problem – which shouldn’t be a problem if the flat is a home and not an asset.

The other “good” thing that happened in 2019 is how we seemed to have licked the problem of public transport, with trains that run on-time and buses galore. Never mind the rail reliability statistics  that the G keeps trotting out to convince people that everything is running smoothly, public transport users know that the changes are real and for the better. By the end of next month, the first three stations on the Thomson-East Coast line will open for business. I’m just hoping the whole line will be finished before 2024, when it reaches my neck of the woods.

But we all know that there is a price or fee or fare to pay for efficiency and quality.  Can we keep paying the fares that we now do? The issue is less about what the transport operators are making or losing, but about how the changes, especially to the bus operating model, are being paid for by taxpayers, through subsidies from the Land Transport Authority that run into billions. Something’s gotta give.

What has been given up though is streaming in secondary schools. No more Normal or Express, at least for an initial  25 schools next year. From 2024,  we will give up the labels entirely. I have a vested interest in this because my nephew will be in Primary Five next year and will be among the first cohort of guinea pigs going through the new PSLE scoring system in 2021. Hopefully, he gets into a secondary school that has already done away with streaming.  In fact, I wonder if it is good to have the secondary schools make this transition all at once, instead of over a period of time. Because there will be some schools with Normal and Express students and some with the new subject banding classes. How liddat?

The bad 

The projected economic growth used to be 0 to 1 per cent. Last month, the G announced that it has narrowed it further, from 0.5 to 1 per cent. I suppose we should be thankful for small mercies. I grew up in the days when it was normal for GDP growth to hit double digits and we’re pained whenever it goes down. Slow growth is now the new normal. Reading the news on the economy and the labour market, however, has been an exercise in gymnastics with the media floundering between warnings and rah-rah hype.

Facts are important but so are perceptions. And the perception is that retrenchments are on the rise (not true), that more PMETs are being laid off (not true but they form a bigger number of those retrenched) and that new graduates will have a harder time finding permanent jobs (need to wait for job hunting statistics). It doesn’t help that familiar retail names like Home-Fix, Sasha and DFS are closing shop or sizing down. I took a stroll through East Village at Simpang Bedok yesterday. So many empty units. I wonder how the shops in Orchard Road fared during this year-end season or are they hoping for a fillip next month when Chinese New Year rolls around? I wonder if new graduates will be picky about jobs or take the first job that comes? Or will they become Grab drivers?

Which, of course, brings me to the gig economy which caused such turmoil on Singapore’s pavements this year. I don’t think anyone can say that the G handled the pavement war between pedestrian and PMD rider very well. Never mind the panel and the codes drawn up, PMDs exploded in homes, caused fires and injured people.

The G had to play catching up: moving up the deadline for the “right” kind of PMDs, lowering the speed limit and finally banning them from pavements. I’m glad they have been removed from my path but I think even the most impatient pedestrian wouldn’t have minded giving delivery riders a bit of time to adjust their mode of transport. To think that there are 7,000 people who use PMDs to deliver food to door-steps. And more amazingly, to think the G came up almost overnight with $7 million to get them to trade in their devices.

It was uncharacteristic of the G not to anticipate the fall-out. It was also uncharacteristic for those affected to swarm Meet-the-People sessions to express their grievances. It is probably a cautionary lesson for the G to be careful about making sudden decisions that affect the wallet.

Now, I’m hoping that I’ve written everything factually because …POFMA!

I don’t like it even though I can see the need for some kind of law because of the real threat of disinformation (which, by the way, can also come from the powers-that-be). But the Singapore version tilts the power balance too heavily towards the G. I was hoping to see the G execute it in a way that would convince people of the dangers of disinformation to the fabric of society. But instead it picked four insipid examples which  seem more concerned about its own standing than the safety of society. You can read my piece here.

Disinformation is bad, and so too, leaked info. The health authorities, already red in the face the year before for the data breach of patients’ personal particulars, had to face a trial in the court of public opinion when it disclosed in January that HIV patients’ personal  data was in the hands of an American con man. Then came the data leak of 800,000 blood donors’ particulars in March, and the probable leak of 2,400 Defence ministry and SAF personnel earlier this month. The G made strenuous efforts to draw the line between public and private sector liability, insisting that public service standards were as high as those spelt out in the personal data protection laws for the private sector.

When it comes to private information made public, the CPF Board takes the prize with its ripostes to individuals who complain about being denied their CPF funds for some reason or other. You can say that the CPF Board gave as good as it got, but there is such a thing as having some empathy for those who don’t know the CPF rules or who are in such dire straits that they took to complaining in public. Don’t liddat leh.

The ugly

The Workers’ Party town council saga which has been brewing for so many years still hasn’t come to an end. The High Court said in October that the town councillors had acted dishonestly and in breach of their fiduciary duties towards the town council, and that their conduct had “lacked integrity and candour”. It left the question of reparations for another time. Then the G stuck its oar in to ask why the fingered town councillors who are also MPs haven’t recused themselves from their town council posts. The opposition’s reply was that it was appealing the court decision and it was none of the G’s business anyway.  The WP later said the decision was made for them to stay on. So the National Development ministry sent a letter reiterating the demand with an added warning that further regulatory actions might be needed to compel compliance. The G can flog the issue with all its might, but the horse still hasn’t died.

Quarrels are always ugly, aren’t they?  Especially if it’s about race, religion or language. A brother-and-sister pair probably got more attention than they bargained for when they put up a vulgarity-laden video decrying the Chinese population’s insensitivity towards minorities because of an advertisement that had a Chinese male actor dressed up for the minority parts. The term, brown face, came into the spotlight here. Then there was the case of a man of privilege who disparaged a security guard for trying to levy a fee for the man’s condominium guest. Online vitriol spread far and wide with speculation about his citizenship, identity and even whether he had forged papers to work here (not true).  I thought it was a pity that the new anti-doxxing laws weren’t invoked. A greater pity: all the anti-foreigner angst (even though he’s a citizen) was brought to the fore. You can read my piece here.

My last and ugliest point about  2019 is the seemingly unending spate of bright kids who do bad things, like take pictures or videos of women in the shower, molesting them or engaging in some kind of lewd behaviour. Why liddat leh?

Before I forget, 2019 is also notable for NOT being an election year. If it took place, I don’t know if it would have been good, bad or ugly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The execution of Pofma

In News Reports on December 21, 2019 at 1:18 am

So the fake news law has been invoked four times, each as insipid as the next. I had thought the first few salvos would be clear-cut examples of what is true or false, something that we can all get behind. Also, I had thought it would be about false statements that will rattle society to its foundations.

But no.

The first one, against opposition politician Brad Bowyer, was about, according to the G, how his whole Facebook post, which does have at least one clear boo-boo, misleads people to think that the G controls the commercial decisions of Temasek Holdings and Government Investment Corporation of Singapore. The second one is levelled at States Times Review which alleged that a whistleblower had been arrested. The third was about the Singapore Democratic Party’s confused understanding of retrenchment numbers and the last was how the big picture context on the education of Singaporeans vis-a-vis foreigners was not taken into account.

Before anyone starts nit-picking my summaries or that I am ignoring specific substantial points and providing a misleading picture, I attach here the link to  Factually, the G’s website, where its correction orders have been placed.

To re-cap, Pofma defines a “false statement of fact” as a false or misleading statement which a reasonable person would consider to be a representation of fact. This can be wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears.

We’ve been focused so much on what is false that we’ve hardly paid attention to what is misleading. Any writer knows that you can present the facts in any way or what is in journalistic parlance known as, the angle. Call it the coloured truth, but still based on facts. Also, any writer knows that the newsmaker referred to would be ultra-sensitive to how a picture has been painted that he or she thinks is contrary to the message being put out.

But I am getting ahead of myself here. There is the second limb of Pofma, which is whether Pofma has been applied in the public interest. The law says this is about whether those false or misleading statement were prejudicial to security, public health, safety, tranquillity, public finance, relations with foreign countries, influence election outcomes, incite enmity and hatred among groups of people and finally, diminish public confidence in any State organ.

Since that’s pretty broad, the issue then is about how prejudicial or dangerous those false or misleading statements are that would require the G to step in.

I would have thought the G would be savvy enough to point out fake news that no one can argue against, such as fake photographs of collapsed buildings or a bomb explosion somewhere in Singapore take never took place – at least for the initial cases. Even a health scare that some food item is tainted would have made it into my books. Instead, the four correction directives are more akin to the G’s usual “right of reply” – but backed by law.

Recall that the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act was amended in the 80s to compel foreign publications to run the G’s side of the story to any of its offending or erroneous articles – on pain of circulation restrictions and blanked-out advertisements. They had to run the replies in full.

The strategy was about hitting the media in the pocket. The late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was upfront and honest about his intentions.

Pofma, however, has been portrayed as a necessary weapon to protect the public from fake news purveyors . We were fed information about how misinformation had led to some really terrible outcomes in other countries.  And then we have these four limp/lame cases targeted at opposition politicians and parties…

Are they really corrections or Government rebuttals/responses/assertions? Is it so terrible for the public to believe that Temasek or GIC is Government-controlled? (And they will continue to do so anyway.) Do people agree that government spending on education should be taken into account when talking about scholarships and bursaries for local and foreign students? How much context is enough? Is the wrong use of proportions really worthy of the use of the law?

The initial cases disappoint because there are too many grey areas that people can argue over. It has become a case of “The Government has said so, so challenge it if you dare.”

I can’t help but think that Pofma is a stroke of genius on the part of the G, as it now finally has a tool to compel the telling of its side of the story, and add a little hectoring as well. There will be no more fights in court about whether a news site should or should not append its response, because there is the pain of a fine or jail time for non-compliance. (Later, you can appeal the decision but you must comply – or else)

Some people will say I am splitting hairs, but I think it is important for the G to be scrupulous in its use of Pofma – lest more cynicism builds up over the “real” reason for its use and we begin to behave like the people who ignored The Boy who cried Wolf.

Looking at the examples, the G could have simply continued the practice of giving official responses, rather than get what it wants the Pofma way.  Engaging people is pretty standard fare for any government anywhere in the world. In fact, the G (except for the CPF Board) very seldom engages online commentators and it’s quite sad that these initial forays have to be backed by the law. Yes, engagement is tiring and takes time but that’s part and parcel of political work. I also note that one reason for Pofma is that it is fast-acting. The initial cases, however, don’t even seem to bear marks of urgency. The first Pofma, for example, was issued 12 days after the post was published.

Now, the G is making much about how it isn’t curbing free speech (so get it right Washington Post and The Economist!). These are correction orders and people can still read the original posts. That’s true. Some people actually laud it as fair. Now that we’ve seen it in practice,  I think it’s just lazy engagement.

If members of a neutral body had charge of Pofma, would they have lit upon the four cases for action? I doubt it. Why use the law when the public interest element is low, and the public is probably not even interested? The agencies should do their own engagement.

Would the body have tried to impute motives like this? “These false and misleading statements by the SDP have a singular objective – to stoke fear and anxiety among local PMETs.”

Or would it have expounded on the rationale of policies as “additional clarifications” like this? “Our admissions system ensures that no Singaporean student is deprived of a place by a foreign student. Having a small proportion of foreign students in our schools and institutions brings diversity into classrooms and helps our students develop cross-cultural competencies, a key skill in today’s world.”Likewise, many Singaporean students receive scholarships from, and study in, other countries. We are all part of an inter-connected global ecosystem. Singapore has benefited greatly from establishing such linkages and forming people to people friendships with different countries and cultures. Having some foreign students in our education system enables many more Singaporean students to enjoy similar benefits.”I doubt that such statements would have come from an independent body. Because they look like political statements.

I don’t think much of the argument that people can always appeal against a Pofma order.  Nor do I think we should be grateful that it is just a correction order, and not a take-down directive.

The question is not about what people can or cannot do, but what the G should or should not do.

I look forward to another Pofma which I can give my full-hearted support to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Screen Shot 2019-11-01 at 10.37.12 AM.png

 

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).

Screen Shot 2019-11-01 at 10.42.45 AM.png

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.

 

Screen Shot 2019-11-01 at 10.53.06 AM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-11-01 at 10.45.18 AM.pngScreen Shot 2019-11-01 at 10.49.28 AM.png

 

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.

Screen Shot 2019-11-01 at 10.39.56 AM.pngScreen Shot 2019-11-01 at 10.40.42 AM.png

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.