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An era is over

In News Reports on March 29, 2015 at 10:55 am

It’s over. Seven days of mourning and shared sorrow. Who would have thought that half a million people would wait for hours, whether day or night, whatever the weather, to bid goodbye to someone? Who have thought we would queue along the roadside in the rain to watch his cortege go by, that we would yell LKY, LKY and strew petals on the road as he went on his last journey?

Singaporeans did it. Not because they were sheep or suffering from mass hysteria,  but because of a deep, abiding attachment to the man. They probably can’t even explain it, not by dissecting his policies in detail or by calculating the pros and cons of his leadership. To many, he was, in the words of his younger son, an “orang besar’’. Bigger than anyone they ever knew, who commanded every stage he was on, whether here or abroad.

This was LKY.

And so thousands carried umbrellas and wore ponchos just to watch the cortege whizz by. Others were glued to their television sets, picking out the dignitaries in the University Cultural Centre sitting silence for Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s last entrance before an audience.

I was one of those in front of the TV watching the State funeral along with my mother. The pictures were grainy. The heavens had opened up after a week of humid weather, for Singapore’s chief gardener. The Lee family walked in the rain. The lines of uniformed citizens were drenched to the bone. I wondered about whether musical instruments used by the SAF band would be destroyed in the rain. I wondered if children would catch cold. I tried to identify the roads. Anything, anything. To stop myself from wallowing in the mood of the occasion. I didn’t succeed.

Who could? You watch fervently, hoping that the State flag wouldn’t slip off the casket, that the coffin bearers wouldn’t, gasp!, lose their grip and you wondered if Mr Chiam See Tong was all right in his wheelchair. You try to keep count of the gun salute and wish you could see the plane formation in the grey sky. You make out the lines on the Prime Minister’s face and saw his puffy eyes. All of us were trying to take in every moment of this time in history. We didn’t want to miss anything.

As the Prime Minister took to the stage to deliver the first of 10 eulogies, my mother hoped out loud that he would hold it together. For a while, we thought he would succeed without a hitch. He was in “political speech mode’’, that is, until he turned personal. He had to pause after he said he had tried to spend a quiet moment meditating alongside his father’s casket before the ceremony. I don’t know about you, but I cried. Not for the man in the casket, but for his son, who was so determined to carry out his national role of Prime Minister, that he never once said “Papa’’. (By the way, this is not an indictment.)

Every day over the week, I learnt something new about our first Prime Minister as people started trotting out anecdotes about their interactions with him. Today was no different. Former MP Sidek Saniff told of how Mr Lee advised him to borrow an overcoat from Dr Ahmad Mattar and a pair of boots from Mr Goh Chok Tong when he had asked him if he was equipped for a trip to China. Mr Sidek was also the most emotional, bidding farewell three times as he turned to the casket.

Long-time grassroots leader Leong Chun Loong recalled how he got testy when the firing of firecrackers was mistimed during a Chinese New Year event. You can’t run a country if you couldn’t get such a little thing right…(How like the man, I thought. The perfectionist. But isn’t it true that most of us try to run before we have even learnt to walk? We want to do the “big stuff” when we can’t even do the small things…)

Both President Tony Tan and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong told of Mr Lee’s great respect for office. When he was no more Prime Minister, he would always defer to Mr Goh and Dr Tan, like making sure that it was he who visited the President and not the other way round. Never mind that it was Dr Tan who wanted to pay him a visit while he was ill.

Mr Goh also said something that will probably set some quarters buzzing: that Mr Lee “never muzzled’’ anyone. He was a man of great intellect who put forth his views forcefully, but he was open to being converted if the arguments convinced him. Former Cabinet minister S Dhanabalan said much the same. Mr Dhanabalan seemed unsettled by descriptions of Mr Lee as a “pragmatist’’. He was an idealist too – or he would have simply courted the Chinese majority instead of pursuing the ideal of a multi-racial society, he said.

I think all of us listened especially closely to the last speaker, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, who delivered the eulogy on behalf of the family. We know now what it was like to have a famous father. How Papa was seldom around and how they always took their family holidays nearby, like in Cameron Highlands. And how he found out about his parents’ secret wedding at Stratford-upon-Avon in England only upon reading his father’s memoirs. There were little vignettes of family life – like how they left birthdays “unmarked’’ until recently and how Papa and Mama were delighted to have another grandchild while they were in their 70s. Frankly, he sounded like a son who missed his father even before he died.

In my mother’s living room, I recited the pledge, hand on heart, and sang the national anthem. The State funeral had ended, and I left for my own home.

I could see the streets come back to life, slowly. People started emerging from their homes to do whatever they usually do on Sundays. My mother’s neighbor left his flat at the same time as I did. We wondered if our younger and not-so-young leaders were of the same calibre as Mr Lee…How? It was a sombre ride in the lift.

As I walked back to my home, I realized that I had not bumped into any cyclist or handphone-staring pedestrian on the pavement – because there weren’t any.

I also noticed something in the air. The rain was over. The air was fresh. One era has ended. A new one has begun.

Majulah Singapura.

A reporter’s notes on Mr Lee

In News Reports, Politics, Society on March 24, 2015 at 2:55 am

If there was one man I was really terrified of, it was Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I thought it was because I was so much younger than the man, until I realized that people far older than I and who had met him far more often, felt the same. I guess it was the way he stared at you and that interrogative tone he used while talking to you. It seemed to me that he was always sucking in his breath when he had to answer any question from me as though he’s thinking “what am I supposed to do with this stupid young thing?!’’

But no, he never lost his cool with me. I think he saw me as a young journalist who could be “taught’’ or set on the right path, so to speak. He was not a man for small talk and that was part of the terror. Your brain got no rest, even when you were having (very healthy/fruity) lunches with him. Even questions on the type of refrigerators on sale seemed to be mere data to him, like some kind of proxy on Singaporeans’ values or indicator of economic wealth. You feel like he was collecting answers on everyday life because he was using them to plug some gaps in a big picture he was drawing in his head.

My ex-colleagues and I who had been invited for those lunches would come up with a list of issues that we will broach with him. Yes, we were interested in them, but it was also so that he could launch forth – and we could eat. So long as we listened, we didn’t have to sound stupid answering his questions.

I remember my first overseas trip with the man. He was then still Prime Minister and was making a trip to Malaysia. He was going to see Tunku Abdul Rahman in Penang and then hop over to Kedah and Langkawi island. He practically jumped  out of the car before it had come to stand still because he saw the Tunku waiting for him at the porch. He did not want to keep the former Malaysian premier waiting. He spoke loudly to the bent old man, because the Tunku had become hard of hearing. His solicitousness towards the Tunku touched me. The way he held his arm and sat with him… Clearly, Mr Lee knew how to treat his elders, never mind their sad/bad history.

It was quite a different treatment he meted out to a foreign journalist who had barged in on a press conference during the trip. The Caucasian man, who told Mr Lee he was actually attending another event in the same building and had taken the opportunity to gatecrash, had asked some human rights question. (I can’t remember what) Mr Lee returned with a stinger on whether he was asking him if he beat his wife.  And that the journalist should have done some homework before asking questions. And come visit Singapore.

I don’t know if you’ve seen Mr Lee angry…it was not a pretty sight. The journalist sat subdued and silent throughout. I felt like going over to pat him on his shoulder but thought again: Stupid bugger! Think you can just swing by and take on Lee Kuan Yew without doing any homework?

I’ve covered him on several occasions, feeling very much like an inadequate young journalist. Because he was THE man, he had to be reported fully. It was so stressful…

I recall how in Penang I left the press delegation en route to an official dinner at a hotel and took a trishaw to a telecom building in Georgetown to file my story. I returned in time for dinner rather smug that I had finished my work before any of my colleagues – and that I could finally eat in peace. Except that Mr Lee decided to get up to make a speech…The media crew thought this was it then, we’ll never be in time to get to our hotel in Batu Ferringgi to file.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. I approached a nearby table of towkays in my most ingratiating manner and asked if anyone had a car phone that can reach Singapore. One of them did. Phew! By the way, in case you’re thinking, there were no cellphones in those days. No internet also.

Mr Lee was responsible for giving me the biggest journalist scoop of my career. After one of those healthy/fruity lunches, I asked if he was willing to be interviewed about his son’s cancer. That was in 1993. The then DPM Lee Hsien Loong had been diagnosed with lymphoma, at the same time as DPM Ong Teng Cheong. Besides the “human interest’’ potential that such an interview would have, there was also the big question mark over political succession should the worst happen to the younger Lee. (Insensitive question for a father to answer, but come on, surely, anyone would want to know what he thought?)

Mr Lee thought for a while and said that it might be a “good idea’’ to have the interview. Terrified, I told my bosses he said yes. I had a more than two-hour interview one-on-one with the man at the Istana, with an information officer who was recording everything. (There was an awkward moment when she had to interrupt the interview to switch cassette tapes.)

Mr Lee was forthright enough; he knew what he wanted to say. He also knew what he did NOT want to say. How, in heaven’s name, was I going to ask him what the illness would mean in “big picture’’ terms? I had to ask him three times, in three different ways, at three different points of the interview before I thought I got a full answer. Once, he laughed off the question by saying that anything can happen, like anyone could get hit by a car, for instance.

One reply:  “Singapore needs the best it can get. If Singapore can get a man who has never had cancer and will never get a relapse and who is better than Loong, then that man is the answer. But if it can’t, then you take the best that’s available. Right?”

But what would happen to the political succession plans if the worst were to happen to BG Lee, I asked, hoping that this was specific yet polite enough to get an answer.

His reply: “Well, unfortunately, it’s a fact of life. We may be lucky and it may not come back. So the problem may not arise. If the problem arises, the answer may have to be found in two or three persons to do the things he has been doing. That is life.”

I tell you now that I felt very, very sorry for Mr Lee then. And I felt very, very bad. I was a cad trying to pry open a private space for public consumption. I could see and feel the depth of his emotions then.

What followed later though was near-comical.  Mr Lee wanted to see the article before publication. I said I had to ask my boss first because we normally wouldn’t allow it. (Very brave right?) Well my boss said yes and the print-out was duly faxed over to the Istana. Note that these were the days when printers were of the dot-matrix kind and you can’t adjust the size of type. I got the fright of my life the next day when I got a phone call at home from the newsroom that Mr Lee wanted to see me in the Istana that afternoon. Oh dear! Was it so badly written? Did I get anything wrong?

He started by complaining about the quality of the print – too faint, too small, difficult to read. I told him I would tell my boss to buy new printers (such good scapegoats bosses are!) Then he asked if I thought the article was too long. I said I had run it past colleagues who thought the length was fine. He damn near shouted at me: But they are your colleagues!!! What about ordinary people?? Oh dear, this young person did not want to tell him it was not a done thing to show drafts to outsiders but I ended up telling him that if it was about Mr Lee and his son, everybody sure read everything. (Okay, I put it more elegantly than that)

It transpired that he wanted to give me more information because he thought there was something “missing’’ in the piece. Then he told me of his son’s meditation. I scribbled away, thinking what a fantastic newsmaker he was for volunteering more interesting information without being asked to.

The story was published in The Sunday Times and picked up the world over.

I had covered him as a journalist a few times since but I will never forget the interview(s) because it was the most intimate moment I have ever had with the man. I saw him then as a politician, a statesman and a father. Whatever his bullying tactics, his terrifying demeanour and fierce outbursts in the public eye, I had managed to catch glimpses of the private man. I think some of my ex-colleagues had a lot more experience with him especially in the course of writing his books. I can only offer you a few paltry insights.

Once, I sent him a note saying that I was unable to turn up for lunch because I was ill. He returned the note with a message that he hoped I would be all right soon. It is to my great regret that I have lost the note. But I still have that full transcript of those interviews with some of his comments written in red.

I will cherish them.

PS. I found that cancer story online http://ourstory.asia1.com.sg/dream/lifeline/lee1.html

No man like him

In News Reports, Politics, Society on March 23, 2015 at 12:55 pm

And now the grieving starts. I had a look again at the television broadcast of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s announcement of his father’s death. I saw it at 8am online – but you know how live streaming sucks. Now I see clearly how tough it must be to remain prime ministerial when it’s your father who has just died. Nobody would fault Mr Lee if he broke down in tears instead trying so bravely to hold them back. But he did. The son remained prime ministerial.

So many things have happened since the announcement of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s  death in the early hours of the morning. Flags are down half-mast, people are streaming in to pen their condolences in books that will be kept for posterity, the great and good the world over have sent messages. They praised him as a visionary leader whose counsel on geo-politics was sought and who cut through the chase. There was no bullshit about him.

I was taken aback when I read that Dr Henry Kissinger, now 91, recalled how Mr Lee’s first words on their first meeting was “You make me sick’’. It had to do with the US involvement in the Vietnam War and how some top American academics had wanted the country out. Mr Lee wanted the Americans to stay. “That took courage,’’ said Dr Kissinger as ST reported today.

Singaporeans can take pride in how world leaders regarded their first prime minister. Messages via official channels and even social media have come from world leaders, including Malaysia’s Najib Razak. The Brunei Sultan has already called at Sri Temasek where Mr Lee’s cortege has been placed for a private wake. Indonesia’s Jokowi is coming to the funeral on Sunday.

In fact, my worry is that with him gone, would the international glow on Singapore fade too? Mr Lee’s international stature had much to do with how much regard big countries had for this little red dot, as his successor Mr Goh Chok Tong himself testified. New leaders would stop by Singapore to take his counsel and I am still a little pissed that US President Barack Obama didn’t do the same. It is too late now for him to meet the man he described in his White House message as a “true giant of history’’. Harrrummph.

Major media have spewed forth obituaries, some positive, some negative. Even as they lauded his achievements as a pragmatic politician who took Singapore from Third World to First, they also highlighted the more draconian aspects of his “reign’’. References were made to detention without trial, political prosecutions/persecutions and the chewing gum ban. From the Western media was this tone: “Singapore is successful BUT’’, rather than “Singapore is successful DESPITE’’. A Foreign Policy commentator even called him the world’s “most successful dictator of the 20th century’’. I can’t decide if it was derogatory term or a backhanded compliment. Go read for yourself. The Economist called him the “wise man of Asia’’ while recalling descriptions of Singapore as “Disneyland with the death penalty’’ and “Pyongyang with broadband’’. I want to harrrummph again…

Of course, there were obituaries and tributes that were “over the top’’, with nary a negative word. I guess we should expect this. Sometimes what’s said reflects a depth of feeling, sometimes, a sheer lack of words.  After all, we are not used to expressing emotion, according to some survey. Also, it is not “nice’’ to say bad things about a man who is dead, however glad you are that he is. (Shut up, will you?)

Yes, I have been reading obituary after obituary. I can’t get enough of them. It is so interesting to have the man viewed through different lenses. Some facets have come out. I was so surprised to read Mr Lee Hsien Yang saying that the family bathed by ladling out water from those big dragon-motif salted egg jars, and that his parents did so for almost six decades until a shower was finally installed in the bathroom in 2003 after his mother had a stroke.

My goodness!

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Mr Lee was well-known for being frugal and for his distaste for ostentation. I remember once walking behind him with my eyes glued to a hole in the singlet he had on under his CYC shirt. This was no ordinary man who knew about ordinary things or cared about the material stuff. He once told me of how his refrigerator had been in family since forever and asked me what sort of fridges were on sale now. I don’t know Sir, I’ve never bought one, I told him. I felt like sinking into the floor…

Then there was former Speaker of the House Abdullah Tarmugi who said that Mr Lee was the only MP who always sent him a note explaining his absence from Parliament. Again, I went “my goodness!’’. You mean the rest of the MPs…?

Anyway, this was a man who stuck by the rules. It showed discipline and an inclination for order. Would that others follow his example.

Now we will be treated to (or is flooded with?) more black-and-white footage, some of which we’ve never seen before. We will be facing reams of text and old photographs. The older generation will have a fine time pointing out to the young ones who’s who  seated/standing near the young Harry Lee. Old names will surface again, the likes of Ong Pang Boon, Jek Yuen Thong, Toh Chin Chye and other members of the Old Guard, both living and dead. Already, I hear the “silent’’ majority speaking up, talking of water rationing days and other hardships they faced while bringing up a brood of children. Now, as my mother would say, “people are born into air-conditioning’’ and still think life sucks because they can’t afford a new car or house.

I hope our young people are taking it all in. His many books on his ideas and thoughts can be heavy going but, surely, plonking yourself in front of the television to watch some local history isn’t too strenuous an exercise?

I hope they get to know the man. PM Lee said “we won’t see another man like him’’. I agree. Not here, not in the future, not anywhere.

I’m glad that we can boast that we had a man like him.

NOTE: President Obama did meet Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I apologise for my error and am swallowing my Harummph.

Bringing bloggers to heel Part 2

In News Reports on March 20, 2015 at 7:20 am

The Singtel/Gushcloud saga is so interesting. It throws up all sorts of ethical issues in the media and about the nature of competition.  Is it kosher for a client and a social media marketing agency to get people to slam rival products? The consensus is that it is not and even Singtel’s CEO has come out to apologise for its “whack-the-rivals’’ campaign in the hope that people will subscribe to its own telco plan.

It’s like negative campaigning, except that you don’t know who’s waging it and don’t know who’s being paid to be part of the campaign. I think we see the parallels in politics – smear or whispering campaigns and poison pen letters denouncing the other party. It’s very hard to track down the source.

Some people will point to political ads in the United States which attack the other candidate’s character. But unlike a whispering campaign, we also know who is behind the ad. Hence, we imbibe information or misinformation with our faculties fully informed. At least, we have our antennas up.

(By the way, the campaign was for Singtel’s Youth Plan. That’s telling. It – or at least the staffer who got the sack – thinks that young people are like sheep, who enjoy reading about products being slammed and will follow their own-generation heroes of the blogosphere.)

The thing is, there seems to be no watchdog that looks over such marketing tactics. The Singapore Code of Advertising Practice doesn’t apply, says the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore which comes under CASE.

CASE executive director Seah Seng Choon was reported saying in TODAY: “As far as this matter is concerned, we are not certain whether the information put out by Gushcloud is an advertisement, because it is not clear whether Singtel authorised all the content released by the bloggers contacted by Gushcloud.”

This is so odd. So a client must endorse something before it becomes an “advertisement’’…

ASAS chairman Tan Sze Wee then said the campaign did not constitute advertising, citing the SCAP’s definition of an advertisement, which refers to any form of commercial communication for any goods or services, regardless of the medium used, including advertising claims on packs, labels and point-of-sale material.

In this instance, the method employed by Gushcloud does not constitute advertising as it does not specifically promote Singtel’s services,” Associate Professor Tan added.

This is another odd thing. So the operative word here is “specifically’’. Although it is clear that Singtel wanted to promote its Youth Plan, the bloggers didn’t say so and went on attack mode instead. So clever. It seems to me that the SCAP has to be updated if it wants to take into account the kinds of creative advertisements that marketeers can come up with.

Paid bloggers have been around for some years but no one has said anything about ethical guidelines to protect the unwary consumer. I was thinking that this should be something for the Media Development Authority but I have since been pointed to the Infocomm Development Authority guidelines:

 A Licensee must not engage in unfair methods of competition. An unfair method of competition is an improper practice by which a Licensee seeks to obtain a competitive advantage for itself or an Affiliate in the telecommunication market in Singapore, for reasons unrelated to the availability, price or quality of the service or equipment that the Licensee or its Affiliate offers.

The clause above only applies to telcos but it seems to me it might apply to any type of commercial practice as well. The Federal Trade Commission in the United States, for example, has updated its advertising and endorsement guidelines for the blogosphere to make clear that even bloggers must be subject to disclosure practices.

“The issue is – and always has been – whether the audience understands the reviewer’s relationship to the company whose products are being reviewed. If the audience gets the relationship, a disclosure isn’t needed. For a review in a newspaper, on TV, or on a website with similar content, it’s usually clear to the audience that the reviewer didn’t buy the product being reviewed. It’s the reviewer’s job to write his or her opinion and no one thinks they bought the product – for example, a book or movie ticket – themselves. But on a personal blog, a social networking page, or in similar media, the reader may not expect the reviewer to have a relationship with the company whose products are mentioned. Disclosure of that relationship helps readers decide how much weight to give the review.’’

The commission also had some FAQs, including this:

 Isn’t it common knowledge that some bloggers are paid to tout products or that if you click a link on my site to buy a product, I’ll get a commission for that sale?

First, many bloggers who mention products don’t receive anything for their reviews and don’t get a commission if readers click on a link to buy a product. Second, the financial arrangements between some bloggers and advertisers may be apparent to industry insiders, but not to everyone else who reads a blog. Under the law, an act or practice is deceptive if it misleads “a significant minority” of consumers. So even if some readers are aware of these deals, many readers aren’t. That’s why disclosure is important.

And it actually has some social media examples. Here are two:

1. A skin care products advertiser participates in a blog advertising service. The service matches up advertisers with bloggers who will promote the advertiser’s products on their personal blogs. The advertiser requests that a blogger try a new body lotion and write a review of the product on her blog. Although the advertiser does not make any specific claims about the lotion’s ability to cure skin conditions and the blogger does not ask the advertiser whether there is substantiation for the claim, in her review the blogger writes that the lotion cures eczema and recommends the product to her blog readers who suffer from this condition. The advertiser is subject to liability for misleading or unsubstantiated representations made through the blogger’s endorsement. The blogger also is subject to liability for misleading or unsubstantiated representations made in the course of her endorsement. The blogger is also liable if she fails to disclose clearly and conspicuously that she is being paid for her services.

2. A college student who has earned a reputation as a video game expert maintains a personal weblog or “blog” where he posts entries about his gaming experiences. Readers of his blog frequently seek his opinions about video game hardware and software. As it has done in the past, the manufacturer of a newly released video game system sends the student a free copy of the system and asks him to write about it on his blog. He tests the new gaming system and writes a favorable review. Because his review is disseminated via a form of consumer-generated media in which his relationship to the advertiser is not inherently obvious, readers are unlikely to know that he has received the video game system free of charge in exchange for his review of the product, and given the value of the video game system, this fact likely would materially affect the credibility they attach to his endorsement. Accordingly, the blogger should clearly and conspicuously disclose that he received the gaming system free of charge. The manufacturer should advise him at the time it provides the gaming system that this connection should be disclosed, and it should have procedures in place to try to monitor his postings for compliance.

I have come across too many advertisers who will pay good money for a journalist to write something nice and positive as a disguised editorial. They don’t want their company logo displayed or for any sign that marks the article as an advertisement or editorial. This is to lull readers/viewers into thinking that independent judgement has been exercised and there was no lure of the lucre. The MSM has honed its rules and guidelines over the years but the blogosphere is the new cowboy town. So many companies are teaching people how to up their social media profile and market on social media these days… I hope that they will also include some ethical guidelines that everyone involved should adhere to. I know of at least one blogger who thinks it better not to disclose paid connections in case the reader gets turned off and actually conducts workshops on how to make money from blogging.

Frankly, I am appalled. I am even more appalled to read an ST report on what bloggers involved in the campaign said in their apologies.

A 21 year old said: “I…apologise to anyone affected for posting negative comments towards M1 (while on a Singtel campaign) and not explicitly stating or revealing that I was on a campaign with Singtel”. But he added that he had not lied, and that he had been “unhappy” with his service provider, M1.

Another 21-year-old said she too was fed up with her telco’s service : “I didn’t know that the techniques used in the campaign were against the law. I thought they were fine since those deliverables mentioned in the brief were already acknowledged and agreed upon by Singtel, an established corporation that has years of expertise in working with advertising agencies,” she said “All in all, I have realised my mistake and will do better next time by ensuring that all of my works are executed ethically.”

I wonder how long they have been doing this, that is, not disclose that they are being paid for certain posts. I guess their clients and Gushcloud are probably happy that they don’t. In fact, I wonder if social media marketing agencies have a set of guidelines that bloggers must adhere to – or risk getting booted out of the network.

Is this something for Case or the Competition Commission to think about? Or should these watchdogs adopt a buyer beware approach and stay hands-off? This cannot be, because there are standards on traditional advertising. Advertising/promotions/endorsements on social network are even more insidious.  To repeat what the FTC said: “..on a personal blog, a social networking page, or in similar media, the reader may not expect the reviewer to have a relationship with the company whose products are mentioned. Disclosure of that relationship helps readers decide how much weight to give the review.’’

Because I am an old(er) person, I thought I was being too much of a fuddy duddy about requiring standards of bloggers. So I asked my class of undergraduates to come up with a code or some guidelines for paid bloggers.

Here it is:

1. Bloggers must disclose any commercial or personal connection with the product or service they are pushing. That is, that they are being paid by WHO/WHAT company or that it is their cousin’s restaurant.

2. This disclosure must be right at the top of the post. Prominent. Conspicuous. You need to be blind to miss it.

3. Better still, they should stick their sponsor’s logo or that of the social media agency they belong to as well.

4. They shouldn’t use any kind of euphemism to disguise their connection, like “in appreciation…”. So it must be XX paid for this or sponsored by XX or I got a free dinner or a $10 voucher for doing this. (There was some discussion about how specific bloggers should be about payment, like I got $10.20 cents but the class felt that this might be too intrusive. But the class thinks that readers should be made aware that click-throughs ecetera will earn the blogger a commission)

5. Bloggers must be specific in their review like compare what’s so good about XX compared to YY and ZZ. In other words, they should set some kind of benchmarks if they want to be “good’’ reviewers. They should also give an idea of how much time they spent reviewing the product/service so that readers can gauge if the review was intensive/extensive enough.

6. All reviews must be from “first-hand’’ experience, that is, it is not enough to take nice pictures and say this product/service is “great’’!

7. No smearing of rival products or services.

8. Bloggers must not cherry pick good points but also include the bad points for an “honest’’ review.

9. Bloggers should admit if the blog is not written by them but by ghost-writers in the social media agency or by the sponsor (although which blogger would actually say so, I wonder)

Actually, the ethics the class espoused are the same for journalists. Except that journalists have a whole body of work they can rely on, plus editors to steer them right and a lot of institutional memory. They belong to an entity which can fight commercial interests on the same level. Most of them are probably salaried employees as well.

But young bloggers, some not even out of school, aren’t being schooled in any publishing/broadcasting principles. One of Gushcloud blogger cited earlier thinks “smear tactics are okay because she thought Singtel said so’’! I hazard a guess that most bloggers are simply thrilled to have an audience and to be able to make some money in the process. There is no bigger agenda than to get more eyeballs and make more money.

I AM a fuddy duddy so I will say this: If people read you, including people who don’t know you or who are less clever than you or who are over-trusting, you have an obligation to the truth in all its messy glory. You have to be worthy of the social influence you wield.

A full life and a good death

In News Reports, Politics on March 18, 2015 at 3:46 am

My late father was one of those early PAP pioneers who went into the kampongs to see how electricity and water could be delivered to residents. To hear him talk, Singapore was a muddy place, a Tower of Babel – and poor. But the people had bright eyes. Sharp eyes. They weren’t beaten down or down cast. They just wanted someone to lead them.

For the majority, that man was Lee Kuan Yew and the first generation of PAP leaders. It always seemed odd to me how an overseas educated lawyer could have connected with the hoi polloi. Perhaps, it was because, as my mother always enthused, Lee Kuan Yew was such a handsome man when he was young. His education was a plus – the people wanted their children to be like him. These days, the people turn up their noses at scholar-leaders as out-of-touch elitist technocrats….How things have changed.

But my late father grew increasingly disenchanted with the PAP in his later years and ended up cheering the opposition at their rallies. He always found himself a spot near the front of the stage. I am not sure what caused the swing, but I think it had to do with the size of his pension. He was a retired policeman with bullet wounds on his body – and the pension was miserable. He thought he had been forgotten. But, and this he was grateful for, he was entitled to first class medical treatment. He joked that he would need to have a heart attack to enjoy them. Well, he had a few…

When Mr Goh Chok Tong took over as Prime Minister, my Dad made sure to meet him so that he could grasp his hand. He wanted to see if Mr Goh had a firm handshake. My father came home to pronounce that Mr Goh’s eyes widened, but that he had a good, strong grasp. Even so, for my father, the jury was still out. I wonder what he would have made of Mr Lee Hsien Loong, earlier known as BG Lee – or seed of Lee to those who know Malay. But he didn’t live to see the changeover.

Mr Lee, 91, is now in hospital with pneumonia. He was a man of my father’s generation, a man’s man. These are the men who didn’t mind a bare-knuckled fight in an alley. They were alpha-males, not new age sensitive guys. They were autocrats, firm in their belief that a firm hand was needed for the greater good of all. Our parents and grandparents will remember those days when they “followed’’, convinced that it was in their best interest to do so. The flip side, of course, is that they had no other choice. There was no other power base seeking their vote; the Barisan Sosialis having walked out of Parliament.

I don’t think anyone would deny that fundamental liberties were not high on the citizens’ list of priorities then. They wanted homes and jobs. Politics was reduced to being able to deliver those goods. Some people were run over as the PAP bulldozed its way to its objective, with homes and land acquired compulsorily and the Stop at Two policy enforced through warnings that your kid might not get into a good primary school (yup, even then!) and incentives for women to have their tubes tied through painful ligations. MNCs were wooed to jump start industry; there wasn’t much talk of developing our own brands then methinks. Families, familiar with the war-time chaos in the recent past and in the region, cried when their sons were called up for National Service in its early days. Singapore was “hot housed’’.

History will decide if the benefits were worth the damage. But, however revisionist history may be, it cannot ignore the universal acclaim that has been heaped on this little red dot nor the statistics that prove how far we have come.

The elder Lee has been in hospital since Feb 5. He is a lightning rod for controversy. Even members of his first Cabinet didn’t always seemed to have agreed with his policies. Succeeding generations with different priorities thought his hold was too tight, even draconian. They think he passed down those traits to successive leaders – despite the changed environment. The move from Third World to First wasn’t just economic. Education (which the elder Lee wish women didn’t have so that they would be happy producing babies!) ensured that mindsets were changed too. Yet Mr Goh Chok Tong, while insisting that he was wearing his own shoes, still followed in the elder Lee’s footsteps especially on two routes: ensuring the PAP’s total dominance in Parliament (remember lift upgrading and jumbo GRCs?) and promising more good years economically. Both were hard to achieve given the changing voter appetite and the already high economic base Singapore was operating on.

Truth to tell, I consider the younger Lee very much a reformer. He tried to reform the PAP’s anti-welfare policy and its mass production of people for the workforce. He loosened regulations for public assembly. Detractors will always say too little, too late. But the fact is, they happened. If my father was alive today, he would be a pioneer of pioneers, a centurion. I wonder what he would have thought of the Pioneer Generation Package. I think he would have said it was his due although he would be glad that my mother would have some State support. I wonder what the elder Lee thought of the policy changes over the past five years or so, especially post-2011 GE. Would he have called them populist?

The elder Lee is in hospital, hooked up to a ventilator. A lot of good wishes and plenty of unkind words are floating around the ether. I think those with only unkind things to say should shut up. There will never be a perfect politician. Even a “popular’’ politician will be unpopular with those do not like their populist policies. Already, some are wishing for the good ole firm hand of the old Lee, believing that the younger Lee is pandering to people’s peeves. They prefer the Hard Truths because they can’t make up their minds about the Hard Choices placed before them. How often have you heard people say that they wished the education system was “simpler’’, because they are lost in the maze of educational opportunities for their children. In fact, they are not even sure that they can take advantage of it because they cannot grasp the implications of a choice and if they do, lack the capital, in money or social terms.

I wonder though what the elder Lee  would make of the fissures today. How an old hoary chestnut like whether Thaipusam should be a public holiday came to be resurrected as an issue. How those in HDB flats resent those in private property and those in private property resent those living in Sentosa Cove. How locals and foreigners don’t get along. And how we became a nation of individuals looking out for ourselves more than for each other. I think the grand old man would have simply ordered everyone to shut up and sit down…Like it or not, he glued everyone together.

Now, the elder Lee’s condition has taken a turn for the worse and it appears that the state machinery is gearing up for the inevitable. The man has had a good long run, a full life and whatever his detractors may say, he took us to this point in time. I don’t think, given his age, that I should wish him a speedy recovery. Rather, I wish him a good death. That he will go peacefully, surrounded by family.

How to smear elegantly

In News Reports, Writing on March 17, 2015 at 2:12 am

So StarHub and M1 are pissed that SingTel appears to have employed a social media agency to complain about their services. SingTel denies this, according to TODAY. It was not its brief, it said. So it seems to be saying that it did not hire Gushcloud to do a smear campaign, but just to get more people to sign up for its Youth Plan – or something. But the agency decided (on its own?) to leverage on its network of social influencers to bad mouth the two other telcos. An “internal brief’’ was leaked by blogger Xiaxue whose relationship with Gushcloud is, to put it mildly, complicated.

Among briefing points: the influencers are to share with its readers how they are fed up with the other telcos and have plans to sign on another plan. And to hint heavily that they are moving to SingTel’s Youth Plan.

Sigh.

Anyway, since social influencers need a brief on smearing, here are my tips…

1. Always say that you are doing it for the company’s good, and that you hope it will take criticism constructively. Then launch into its failings in point form.

2. Don’t make specific accusations that you can’t back up, just ask enough uncomfortable questions such as “Is your company going to survive this debacle?’’.

3. Say that it is not just you who have experienced bad service etc but your friends as well. And they must be correct because they are all your FB friends.

4. Apologise in advance if you have hurt the company’s feelings when you talk about its failings, then go on to talk about how it should emulate its rivals.

5. Say that you are doing an analysis of the merits and demerits of companies in the industry – but then again, you’re just a layman so it might not be scientific. And to please forgive

6. Adopt a sad tone. Say that you have been a fan/customer/client since you were six years old. But since you are now all grown-up, you’ve wisened up to its tricks and regret that you have to part company.

7. Use big words that sound slightly legal. That will make the company sit up and worry that you are going to sue. That might even earn you a rebate, discount or free gift.

8. If you want to be nice, use terms such as how it can “further’’ improve, “better’’ enhance whatever it does so that it won’t feel that it is THAT bad, just not very good.

9. Use backhanded compliments, such as how you love the taste of the food, but you had diarrhea after eating or how you think it provides incomparably great service, but should fix its faulty products.

10. Damn it with faint praise: Your products are “not too bad’’, your service is “okay’’ and your company might just be able to retain its customers for the foreseeable future, and even gain one or two new ones.

11. Sign off nicely. Thank you so much for listening to me vent. Here’s wishing your company all the best in its future endeavours. Then use a nice pseudonym such as iloveXX (XX is company name). Remember to add a smiley emoticon.

Enjoy.

A non-cynical response to National Day 2015

In News Reports, Politics, Society on March 16, 2015 at 6:06 am

So it’s going to be a long holiday in August…a four-day weekend! Hey, if Polling Day was tagged on Thursday Aug 6 or Tuesday Aug 11, it would be five days of no work! But, sheesh, we would have to vote before leaving town or come back early enough to vote. We DO want to be in town for the general elections don’t we? But if the GE wasn’t held in that period, would we stay in town for the National Day/SG50 celebrations alone?

I don’t know why there is so much cynicism towards the SG50 celebrations. Some people think it is just SG50 fatigue. The drum roll started too early and we are tiring of the beat. News everyday about all the grassroots groups, schools and commercial types getting on board are becoming wearisome. That red dot with SG50 stamp is so wide-spread that it is ceasing to be meaningful. I wanted to get on the bandwagon too. I wanted to get a grant from the celebrations committee for a book to commemorate SG50…but then, there will be so many, many books I gather. As well as films, exhibitions, songs and whatever creative way anyone can think of to talk about this nation.

Hopefully, the people behind the celebrations pulling the strings will be able to build things up to a climax, on National Day. On that day, I hope a lot of people take in the celebrations at home (by staying in the country) and as many Singaporeans abroad return to see how Singapore celebrates its 50th birthday. Serious.

People ask a lot of black-and-white questions about whether it’s patriotic to go away at this time. It’s not unlike the angst every year when people take a holiday during the Chinese New Year period instead of hanging around for reunion dinner with the extended family.   I am sure there will be people who go away because it’s not often you get such a long break that isn’t part of annual work leave. And there will be people who say there is “nothing to do’’ in Singapore anyway. Or people who say we don’t have to be at home to celebrate, we do so in our hearts.

I just look at it this way. Your granddad/mom or dad/mom is having his/her 70th

/80th birthday bash and wants his/her whole family to be around. The most enthusiastic takes over the organization and even the most distant relative, whom you see once a year, expects an invitation. Sibling rivalries are tamped down and we seat squabbling relatives far from each other. Everybody is determined to have a good time or at least not to let the grand old man/lady down, even though we think he/she might be the devil himself/herself. And when the birthday cake is rolled out, we sing the birthday song lustily and throw in several yam sengs.

What counts is the years that have passed and the whole family still made it through – more or less. That’s my poor analogy for SG50.

So can I ask that we see this year’s National Day this way instead of tainting it with sourness? That we do not link the party with our constant pre-occupation with MRT breakdowns, the coming elections and the foreigners in our midst? Or who is getting free tickets or not? Or why there are some freebies and not others? Let’s not dampen the mood so early in the year over some thing that will happen several months later.

A response which FAILS

In News Reports, Politics on March 12, 2015 at 6:13 am

When I read Mr Donald Low’s commentary in The Straits Times recently headlined, Budget 2015: In deficit, yet very prudent at heart, I thought that I learnt something. (In fact, he posted his views on my FB wall as well a little earlier). Like many people, including MPs, I was concerned that we were going too much to the left that we have “nothing left’’, to borrow a phrase from an NMP which received a lot of thumping from her other colleagues in the House.

But I am not a bean counter/economist so I am not clear about whether the “spending’’ will really affect the country’s financial position and what it means for future spending. So we are in deficit. To the layman, a deficit is a “bad’’ thing, as it is spending more than what you earn. Maybe to a trained economist, it might well be a good thing as it might lead to more spending by other people. Or something like that. I don’t know. So I have asked many times about what a “deficit’’ really means.

Mr Low suggested “concerns about fiscal sustainability are mostly misplaced’’.

“The main reason is that the Singapore Government presents its Budget position in a conservative way. Some revenues are excluded and some “expenditures” should not be wholly counted as spending in the current fiscal year. Consequently, Budget surpluses are understated and deficits overstated.’’

Ah….that’s interesting, I thought, so we may be panicking for nothing. He talked about how land sales are excluded as revenue, how the Constitution already puts a brake on fiscal spending and what is seen as expenditure might well be defined as capital transfers.

He did a lot to allay my concerns.

Somebody else also dug this up for me: For the 2011 Budget by way of official Singapore accounting had a $3.8 b surplus. By International Monetary Fund accounting standards, the 2011 Budget had a surplus of nearly $38 b. To further provide a sense of proportion that’s missing from this debate: the $38 b surplus would put Singapore at no. 7 for national budget surpluses in the world, between the UAE and Qatar.

Ooh. Even more interesting.

Then comes a letter from the head of the Government Parliamentary Committee on Finance and Trade and Industry, Mr Liang Eng Wah.

MR DONALD Low dismisses the dangers of spending beyond our means (“Budget 2015: In deficit, yet very prudent at heart”; last Saturday).

He is right that the Government is fiscally conservative. But he is wrong to be dismissive about the concerns raised by me and other MPs that social spending must be sustainable.

Government spending is going up steadily. The new social programmes – for example, Silver Support, higher subsidies for health care and MediShield Life, and the Pioneer Generation Package – are necessary and right.

But we must proceed carefully. As our economy matures and growth moderates, revenue growth will slow. Spending programmes, once committed to, cannot be cut back without the utmost pain and political resistance, as seen in every advanced society. There will be constant pressure to spend more; indeed, Mr Low’s article is a prime example.

Moreover, often, more government spending alone has not solved social problems. Many countries went overboard on welfare with the best of intentions but with unintended results, including massive unsustainable deficit. Now they are forced to cut back and restore financial sustainability, with the harshest impact on the young.

Mr Low ignores this and argues that if something cannot be financed sustainably by the Government, with its ability to pool risks, it cannot be done by households either, which is an unacceptable outcome.

This is a false dichotomy between two extreme choices. Every society must support those with less, find the right balance between personal responsibility and state welfare, and muster and safeguard the resources to meet essential needs.

No government can spend to meet all possible wants, or ignore how its spending will impact individual and family responsibility. Singapore is no different.

Mr Low had earlier posted an intemperately worded version of his commentary on his Facebook page which asserted that “there is something inherently flawed with the concept of sustainability”. Significantly, he omitted this radical claim from last Saturday’s commentary in The Straits Times. But he has not retracted his earlier version, which was circulated widely online. Instead, he described it (on Facebook) as a “rant”, and thanked a Straits Times journalist for turning his “rant against the sustainability prudes into an op-ed”.

How are we to read a commentary which represents, not the writer’s sincerely held position, but a pose to gull us into believing that he holds reasonable views?

If I were grading this article, I would give it an F. Because it doesn’t engage Mr Low’s points at all. Everybody wants a “sustainable budget”, even Mr Low I would think. But the big question is whether we are all talking about the same “budget’’. What goes into the definition of surplus, deficit, spending and revenue? I would have thought that Mr Liang would take issue with Mr Low’s point that the G isn’t painting a true picture of the country’s finances. That it is deliberately being opaque for some (nefarious?) reason

I also fail to see how Mr Low is asking for MORE spending in his article. What I got from it is that he’s telling people not to worry about over-spending because we ain’t..

What is more upsetting to me is how Mr Liang chooses to side-track into whether Mr Low’s views are “sincere’’. Why?

I can’t help but think he’s annoyed at this portion of Mr Low’s article.

One cannot applaud higher social spending that meets real needs on the one hand, and criticise it for not being sustainable on the other. Such a critic has an obligation to explain how those needs can be met without State support, or take a stand to argue it should be cut back if he believes it is a luxury that those with lesser means should not spend on. Failing to do so is just as irresponsible and populist as the people who call for more spending without saying how it would be financed.’’

In other words, if MPs are worried about sustainability (and we all are), then why aren’t they looking at whether some spending should be cut or how more revenues should be raised? I so agree. In fact, isn’t this what the G keeps accusing the opposition of? What alternatives do you have to what you criticize or worry about? Is it enough to merely say we should be “cautious’’?

But what gets my goat is his mention of what Mr Low wrote on his FB wall which he calls an intemperate version. I hate to get into the same ad hominem fallacies that Mr Liang engaged in. But I don’t suppose Mr Liang has ever said anything in private at any time of his life that contradicts/exaggerates/diminishes his public views….

So, postings on a FB wall are now evidence of a person’s sincerity? The place we put pictures of our leftover lunch? We do not write on my FB the way we would if something is intended for widespread publication. I’m sure no MP speaks the way Mr Liang writes either.

It’s disappointing. There I was thinking that Singapore has moved away from questioning people’s agenda/ motivations and that public discourse has shifted into an analysis of content. How can the level of public discourse be raised if this is the sort of “right of reply’’ we see?

Methinks Mr Liang also needs an education in the role of editors. Yes, they turn “rants’’ into something publishable – that’s their job. And that’s because they see something in the “rant’’ worth sharing, a germ of an idea, an argument. They try to draw it out. In fact, it was very nice of Mr Low to thank the journalist because most editors don’t get thanks for working on someone’s article.

This sort of responses from politicians will only drive views underground. There are people (like me and probably plenty of others) who really want to LEARN something and appreciate different perspectives.

How is this kind of response (so 1980s…) good for Singapore?

* Now I am worried that someone will look at my primary school essays, my diary and my FB wall, of course, to make the case that I am not sincere.

KISS: Keep it sweet and simple

In Money, News Reports, Politics on March 11, 2015 at 12:06 pm

I think everyone wants to know how they can use that $500 the G will give under SkillsFuture and for what sort of training. I guess the details are going to be worked out. Already there are calls to expand the programme, so that senior citizens can pick up new hobbies, for example. Already there are complaints that the money is too little for any real specialized training. Most people forget that some courses are subsidized and if you are above 40, the courses are subsidized 90 per cent and that $500 might well be enough to defray the cash portion.

Thing is, we have to be clear what SkillsFuture is for. It’s not to take up any old course but to help advance your current skills set and for those in a rut, pick up skills that might help them move into a second career. In fact, I can imagine a whole new industry of trainers of basic and esoteric skills asking for WDA accredition so that their courses will come under the SkillsFuture.

So the idea is to have individuals take control over their own training although how they are going to get time-off from their employers is another thing altogether. Seriously, SkillsFuture is useful for those who are already thinking of going for courses and can work out the timing on the own. For the vast majority, they will have to be pushed. Or their bosses have to be pushed.   Methinks it makes better sense to expand the current incentives for companies to send their employees for training and have the G pick up even more of the tab for this. Okay, I know this will be unpopular but there should be a bond attached so that workers won’t jump ship after they get another certificate or diploma. I’m sure that is a reason employers balk at sending their workers for training – best to get the most out of their workers NOW than waste time getting them trained for some other boss.

Not so long ago, the NTUC suggested setting up a SkillsSave account for every worker. I suppose the SkillsFuture programme is something like this. I think the G should go further and consolidate all its “training’’ programmes into one – from cradle to grave. So there is the Child Development Account run by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, which morphs into the Post-Secondary account run by the Education ministry and now SkillsFuture run by the Manpower ministry. Doesn’t it make better sense for all these schemes to come under an individual’s name? And on retirement age, what leftover will go into….voila! the CPF Retirement Account!

I mean, wouldn’t it be wonderful for citizens not to have to remember so many things and have the G streamline as many of its policies as possible and adopt its much vaunted whole-of-government approach?

Master of nothing

In Money, News Reports, Society on March 11, 2015 at 11:29 am

My class of undergraduates told me recently that they had to do a compulsory module to get themselves “future-ready’’. They told me of how they were being taught to write a first-class resume, by filling it with stuff that employers want to read, and how to ace job interviews. I was frankly flabbergasted that undergrads would need to learn such techniques that can easily be “googled’’. A compulsory module? Sheesh. Employers would need even more skills to cut through the façade, to find the true person underneath the polish, methinks.

I think about how I have come across too many job entrants who seem to want a work-life balance even before work starts. And how they were more keen to know what the employer can do for them, rather than what they have to give to employers. Now, I suppose they will camouflage their motivations under a veneer of earnestness and politesse. And their resumes will be filled with community service and plenty of “outside courses’’ to show off their versatility, never mind that they hate them. How fake!

If there is something I wish could be taught, it is the value of having a good work ethic. Of how you can’t get that big salary and promotion at once or even in the immediate future. How you can’t compare what you do and what you get paid for with what your bosses do and get paid for. How you should start by doing the small stuff instead of insisting on “policy’’ or “strategy’’ work. In other words, never mind that fancy degree, you still have to learn to walk before you run.

This got me to thinking about the recent debates in Parliament about education, learning and training. I like what Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said about having mastery of skills. We’re no longer just talking about lifting all boats with a rising tide or creating peaks of academic excellence. We’re talking about achieving master craftsman status. It reminds of the guilds of old when the title of master is only conferred after years of apprenticeship. There are now Place, Earn and Learn programmes for the technically inclined to serve paid internships at companies and who will then be given the option to stay on the job on graduation. It’s a good thing. But what happens after that?

Amidst all that talk of mastering skills, I haven’t heard much being said about the stamina needed to become a master. What do we see today? People who job hop for an extra $50 a month, who think that their job scope is too small, who actually believe that they have flattened their learning curve in a year. How long do the young people stay on in one job these days I wonder before they get dissatisfied with its rewards or complain about “burn out’’? I think people prefer to short-cut their way to bigger pay, and that means going to the next highest bidder. I don’t know about you but I look askance at a serial job hopper, never mind their protestations that they changed jobs, switched companies to “learn something new’’ or for bigger challenges. They will say that they are “mobile’’. But if you don’t stay put in one job long enough to know everything there is to know about it, how do you even begin to say that you mastered something?

Because of the tight job market, it’s easy to find jobs that pay $50 extra. What happens is that even the mediocre gets rewarded in the frantic hunt for heads. So after a few years of job switching, someone has a fancy job title which does not reflect the brain power or the skills the title implies. Think about it. Don’t you know people like this? Then there is another group who like the glamour of working in big companies, so that everyone else will go waah no matter that they are a small cog in the machinery. I even know of well-educated people who do not even want to name the companies they work in, because they are small SMEs.

Moving from white collar to blue collar…Look at the aircon repairman, the car mechanic or the plumber. These are small SMEs who complain about not being able to get foreign labour. The locals don’t think it’s worthwhile training to be the best aircon repairman, mechanic or plumber. If everyone thinks that way, how can we pay them more for better service and expertise. In fact, they prefer to go into the crowded F&B market, preferably to be their own boss.

Yup, a mindset change is needed. A new eco-system. An improved work culture. They sound like meaningless phrases that are now so often bandied about. Yet the problem is real. Nobody will be a master of something when people keep jumping ship for a few bucks more. At the moment, the prize is not about being at the top of your game in the long-run and earn big bucks, but a bigger and bigger pay packet as quickly and as frequently as possible.

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