Archive for the ‘News Reports’ Category

We don’t look like a police state, do we?

In News Reports on March 14, 2018 at 12:55 am

I think we should slow down. I don’t mean being satisfied if the economy grows by 0.1 per cent. I mean the pace at which legislation is being introduced and passed under the all-encompassing phrases of national security and maintenance of law and order.

The Law ministry has been extremely busy in recent time, what with amendments to the Penal Code in the offing, new bail terms, tightening the Criminal Law Temporary Provisions Act, allowing IMDA officers to search premises of filmmakers whom they think are up to no good and ensuring that the next City Harvest-type of scandal doesn’t let the perpetrators off with a slap on the wrist.

A bit further back in time, there was the codification of rules regarding speech about the judiciary under the Administration of Justice Act and the Protection against Harassment Act against stalking and hurtful online remarks, plus changes to the Public Order Act on mass events and to get building owners to tighten security on their premises.

Truth to tell, I am feeling constipated. Before digesting one law, we are faced with another and yet another. I wonder how the Members of Parliament cope, with their full-time jobs, town council duties, advisory roles in grassroots, sports and trade union groups. Not to mention writing letters (not to the courts anymore) for constituents and making their presence felt in the constituencies. Oops! I believe they have families too. Do they really have time to read draft Bills critically? Or is it enough for them to agree with the “principles’’ in the legislation and leave the fine point to legal experts in the G?

Because you can’t quite argue against principles, especially if they’re phrased in a black-or-white way, such as “Would you rather have this (insert legislation)? Or would you rather have the country destroyed by terrorists, chaos on the streets, communal riots?’’

The G is a dab hand at such “do-or-die’’ scenarios and those who disagree with the “do’’ look like they are advocating “death’’.

Now Parliament has before it the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill, which is due to be debated in the House next week. I am sure the G will say that this is urgent, given that terror attacks can happen “any time’’.  Among other things, the Bill includes a communications stop order. This means pesky busybodies have to refrain taking photographs and video during a security operation. I blame the idea of such a stop order on idiotic media outlets elsewhere which air “breaking news’’ of operations.

But it seems that while governments elsewhere can rant and rave about how operations are compromised in the name of free speech, they aren’t able to do much about it. (One analyst said he knew of no other jurisdiction which has such powers).

It is different here. Because of the ruling party’s majority in Parliament and because people here place a premium on security above all other values.

I ask you this: Are Singaporeans always okay with measures that curb their freedom of expression or movement when it is done in the name of national security? Frankly, besides those who are constantly derided as the “vocal minority’’, most don’t give a damn. But we should care, lest this new terror era is used to justify measures that give the G too much control over what we say or do whether in crisis or non-crisis situations. Or if the “vulnerability’’ narrative that we are a fragile multi-racial and multi-religious nation gains so much traction that we dare not say or do anything, even if what we say or do is done in the interest of the country.

One lawyer suggested that the expanded  powers be “”confined within very strict perimeters vis-a-vis its usage’’ and for more information on the types of situation where the order could apply, to “avoid the impression that (Singapore) is becoming like a ‘police state’.’’

Six civil society groups have also banded together to urge the Government to narrow the definition of “serious incident” in the Bill that gives the police special powers. I agree because the Bill will cover situations that “seriously threaten public safety” – even if there is no disorderliness. The executive will have the final say-so on the seriousness of the threat.

The groups contend that the Bill “treats peaceful protests in the same way as terrorist violence, but they are fundamentally different, as they are non-violent and do not threaten public safety.”

They argue that with existing strict laws against assembly, the police are already “empowered to respond to them as they would any prohibited activity, and have done so”.

“Special powers are not needed,” they added.

More conservative types will say that they can always use Hong Lim Park for such activities. This is Singapore: tidy and organized. And some will brush off the misgivings of the groups because they have already been tagged as “liberal types’’ who will make such “human rights” noises.

I think the groups need more support, with more citizens expressing their sentiments on the Bill. Because once the law is passed, it is there for any G to take advantage of it for whatever end it has in mind.

For example, I saw this assurance that the “special powers” in the Bill cannot be invoked for “routine operations’’ – which makes me wonder what constitutes routine operations.

Would, for example, a deranged man holding someone hostage in his flat be constituted a routine operation? Or trying to get someone who is attempting to commit suicide off the roof? Or a narcotics sting operation?

In the first case, the authorities can argue that security operations shouldn’t be compromised because there is a threat to life and limb. So please don’t go posting pictures of police mounting the stairs. For the second, the authorities can argue that such scenes shouldn’t be circulated because it would only give ideas to wannabe suicide victims. For the third, there’s the argument that drug syndicates shouldn’t be tipped off about the way officers conduct drug busts.

One thing’s for sure, we have a very clever government and there will be responses for every doubt/suspicion/question that we may have for the exercise of its powers.

I am sure some people would also say: What’s wrong with that? We should leave such matters to professionals.

We have such implicit (or is it explicit?) faith in the authorities even though the balance of power between the government and governed will shift in a very big way.

What would be next then? That police can barge into homes on the mere suspicion of wrong-doing? Or that IMDA officers can seize laptops because legislation to pre-empt the proliferation of fake news says they can? (Oh. That legislation might be in the offing too).

I don’t like it. Because it means we must  hope that the authorities and their agents do not abuse their power in the process of carrying out their (very broad scope of) duties. Because if they do,  we, the people, can effect a reversal of policies only once every four or five years.

I read an ST Forum Page letter writer who said we should not mindlessly question the G, especially during times of crisis. I agree. The questioning should come before or after the crisis has passed. This is the “before’’ period.

I hope the MPs give the Bill a thorough going-over. I don’t want to live in a police state, even if it only looks like one.


I don’t know, but I can only suspect…

In News Reports on March 8, 2018 at 7:36 am

I suspect that the People’s Action Party ministers aren’t too happy about what happened in Parliament this morning. I suspect they thought Ms Sylvia Lim would roll over and apologise, just like her fellow Workers’ Party MP Leon Perera did in January.

In fact, I suspect that they thought that merely repeating themselves loudly over the issue of the timing of a GST hike would be enough to extract a retraction and an apology from Ms Lim.

Note, please, that these are merely suspicions on my part.

What are they based on? On the apoplectic look on Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat’s face as he got up to help Leader of the House Grace Fu in her admonition of Ms Lim’s “deplorable’’ conduct. (I couldn’t see the rest of the frontbenchers because I was assigned a seat in the public gallery that faced the backbenchers.)

I base it on Ms Fu’s inability to counter Ms Lim’s response nor even to comprehend it. She asked whether Ms Lim was withdrawing her statement which the G had been mighty unhappy with, when she had clearly said no. She asked for the “basis’’ of Ms Lim’s suspicion, when the MP’s whole speech was a chronology of events that led her to her “suspicion’’.

I also base it on how the PAP usually sticks to the moral high ground with plenty of sound and fury, brooking no opposition to what it would consider an upright stance. But in this case, the ground was cut from under its feet. They couldn’t break down Ms Lim’s defence.

Maybe my suspicions are baseless and they are quite happy with how it all turned out, but that would be too unbelieveable.

The issue boiled down to whether MPs are entitled to raise their suspicions or make allegations in the House without evidence.

To re-cap, Ms Lim had said that she suspected that the G had intended to raise GST this year but was forced to delay it because of public backlash. People were reminding the G about earlier pronouncements on having enough money to last till the end of the decade.  The G was, therefore, “stuck’’ because it had to, well, stick to its words.

The G contended that this meant that the G was being dishonest with the people – that it was saying one thing but intending to do something else. Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam was the first of the blocks that Friday, insisting that Ms Lim was dishonest and hypocritical. He wanted her to withdraw her statement.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat weighed in too, and added a statement the next day asking for a retraction and apology. Then his senior minister of state Indranee Rajah weighed in on Facebook. It became “official’’ and “formal’’ on Tuesday, when Ms Fu read her statement calling formally for an apology.

Now, going by what Ms Lim said today, she had discussed a response with Speaker Tan Chuan Jin on Monday. While she was told to expect Ms Fu to say something, she was not told when. So when Ms Fu made the statement on Tuesday, she was on the way to Parliament on Tuesday. (Question: why isn’t it in the Order Paper?)

Ms Lim recounted the various statements made by ministers in recent time and made the point that while economists and members of the public were speculating about the impending GST rise, there was no response from officials quelling it. Nor was there any definitive statement that the tax would not go up this year.

“The Government contributed to this suspicion by its non-denial of reports and economist predictions of an immediate GST rise,” she said. “Based on the sequence of events, I believed the Government could have intended to raise the GST at this Budget. Thus, during the heat of the exchanges at the Budget round-up I articulated my suspicion.

“In doing so, I believed I was doing my duty as an MP to convey ground concerns, reactions and confusion. I did not accuse the Government of being untruthful as alleged and neither had I intended to accuse the Government of dishonesty.”

She added: “I do not accept the over-characterisation the PAP MPs have put on my words and intentions, based on their own interpretation, borne out of over-active imaginations and oversensitivity.

“Since the Government has now refuted that it had any intention to raise GST immediately, I can accept that my suspicion then may not have been correct.’’

In other words, she was entitled to her suspicions based on how she had interpreted the sequence of events, which was also something that economists and the media shared.

Her coup de grace came later, when she quoted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as telling Parliament at the close of the Oxley Road debate:

“If MPs believe that something is wrong, it’s MPs’ job to pursue the facts and make these allegations in their own name, decide whether something seems to be wrong. And if you think something is wrong, even if you’re not fully sure, then come to this House, confront the Government, ask for explanations and answers.”

She asked if there was one standard “when the PM’s name needs to be cleared and another standard when we are talking about raising taxes on the people’’.

Watching the proceedings, I couldn’t help but pity Ms Fu.  She repeatedly spoke of how MPs should not abuse their parliamentary privilege and described Ms Lim as falling short of parliamentary standards of conduct.  “It is expected of us to bring our views forth here but if the facts were wrong and we have said that the facts were wrong – we have not had this plan of floating balloons and then only to retract after public pressure, that’s just plainly non-existent, it’s a figment of imagination- but she continued with this accusation, it’s deeply disappointing and deplorable.’’ She put Ms Lim on notice that she would be sent before the parliamentary select committee on privileges if she did the same the second time.

I suppose Ms Fu’s point was that Ms Lim should never have said anything about her suspicions, because the G has already said it need not raise revenue at least four times. Full stop.

She didn’t counter Ms Lim’s sequence of events nor try to explain why there was no word from officialdom countering the speculation of an immediate GST hike.

Mr Heng tried to help by talking about how the Budget is a secret. Ms Lim agreed and had a deft response: “I think that’s actually part of the whole issue. Only the Cabinet knows the truth. And as I’ve said in my speech earlier, the Government has said it’s refuted that it had any intention to raise the GST this year. I do not know the truth. So I can accept that I may have been wrong but I do not accept that my suspicion had no basis and I do not apologise.’’

She has something there. Nobody knows what the G intends or doesn’t intend to do given the opacity of G business. We simply have to trust its public utterances, which it defines as the “facts’’. If we do not, do we deserve to be called dishonest for believing that the G could be dishonest?

Okay, MPs should have higher standards of discussion in Parliament, which Ms Fu said is different from “economists and analysts outside the House’’. If so, do we really expect Opposition MPs to not raise suspicions (oops! Bad word) or question the G’s intentions? That’s a line the PAP can hold with its own MPs, but not others.


The most that the PAP got out from her is this:  “I can accept that my suspicion may have been wrong but I do not accept that my suspicion had no basis and I do not accept that I have failed or been derelict in my duty as an MP to this House.’’

The difference between Ms Lim’s utterances and Mr Perera’s on MediaCorp’s editing of parliamentary speeches is that there were facts to show that Mr Perera did not tell the truth about the episode. He misled Parliament to score political points.

In Ms Lim’s case, the issue is far greyer – and complicated by how her suspicion might actually be shared by some people.

It had looked like a stale-mate at one time until Mr Low came in to give everyone a face-saving way out.

“I think there’s nothing wrong for the Government to come up earlier to say that, look, we don’t have intention to raise GST at this budget, and that would have cleared the air and the confusion on the ground.

“And now, it’s clear that the Government has no intention to raise GST at that point in time and Ms Lim’s suspicion wasn’t really correct at that point in time.’’

Will this be the end of the matter? I certainly hope so. If this is an example of the 4G leaders displaying their “toughness’’ or “mettle’’, then they would have done better to pick something more winnable.


A lot of people need to say sorry

In News Reports on March 7, 2018 at 1:24 am

So there’s another apology in the offing in Parliament, making it the second time the Workers Party will be ticked off for remarks made in the House this year. In January, Mr Leon Perera ate humble pie when he had to concede that his remarks about MediaCorp’s editing of parliamentary speeches were misleading. Now it is the party chairman’s turn to face the PAP chorus of condemnation.

It’s getting a little over the top.

So the G is unhappy that Ms Sylvia Lim voiced her suspicion that the Government had intended to introduce a GST hike immediately, but that it backed down after test balloons it floated got a negative response. She said that people noted that leaders, including Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, had said the Government had enough money till the end of the decade.

“I rather suspect myself that the Government is stuck with that announcement. Otherwise, if their announcement had not been made, perhaps we would be debating a GST hike today,” she added.

Frontbenchers Mr K Shanmugam and Mr Heng Swee Keat got into a flap, with Mr Shanmugam getting absolutely testy with adjectives like “dishonest’’ and “hypocritical.’’ That was Friday’s fireworks. The mild mannered Mr Heng unleashed a fierce press statement the next day calling for an apology,  which he reiterated on Sunday. On Monday, Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah weighed in on her Facebook.

Then, yesterday, Leader of House Grace Fu asked for permission to make a statement in Parliament. And there you have it: an official demand for a withdrawal and apology by the end of Thursday. It seems that Ms Lim, who was not in Parliament then, is asking for time to make a statement in the House, possibly at the end of the Committee of Supply debate which should end this week.

MPs, even from the People’s Action Party, have had to apologise for their unparliamentary remarks in the past. Two had to do with bringing “hearsay’’ into the House. Like Mr Sin Boon Ann in 2009 who read out a letter from someone he did not know criticising The Straits Times for its reporting of the Aware saga. Although he did not verify its contents, he said he “would not be surprised if it were true and would be very concerned if it is’’.

Or like Mr Ong Kian Min in 2000 who related how a grassroots leader had told him about being unfairly cut out of a business deal by a government-linked company. He, too, did not do his checks.

I think PAP’s Mr Louis Ng came close to the line when he told the House last week about civil servants being too afraid to speak up for fear of damaging their career prospects. He did not name them or give specific instances. He wasn’t told to apologise but did get ticked off by Minister Ong Ye Kung for making “generalisations that tar the entire service with the same brush”. It was a gentle rebuttal compared to what was dished out to Ms Lim.

Parliament is an ownself-check-ownself entity. That’s because MPs have privileges in the House that no one else has. You can’t sue an MP for defaming you or accuse an MP for prejudicing a court case. Unless Parliament itself thinks that you’re out of line. Which means that  you are in for the high jump.

There is a committee of MPs which decide whether there has been abuse of such privileges and which can mete out penalties. It was convened  in 1986, after the late WP MP J B Jeyaretnam refused to apologise for comments he made about executive interference in the judiciary and police abuse.  (If he had uttered them outside the House, he could be accused of contempt of court). He was fined $2,000 for abusing parliamentary privilege, and another $25,000 for publishing a distorted report of the committee’s proceedings in five newsletters and $1,000 for not declaring a pecuniary interest in a question he raised.

Were Ms Lim’s alleged transgressions as bad as any of the above?

There is plenty of public confusion over why the PAP chose to be so tough on this. If you do not focus on the words Ms Lim used but the message she conveyed, it was this: A lot of people thought the GST would go up now, and were unhappy. But in the end, it was delayed. This is probably because the G had to stick by its promises not to raise it till the next decade which some people had noted. If the G hadn’t said anything before about this, Parliament would be discussing the hike now.

The G leapt to the conclusion that this showed some nefarious thinking on its part. Ms Fu said there were no “test balloons’’ on this, as if test/trial balloons are such a bad thing. (It is a silly government which does not float test balloons, fly a kite, test waters before making a major policy announcement if only to re-calibrate what it wants to do.)

Instead, the PAP is taking the moral high ground, citing times when the big wigs have assured the people that there was enough revenue to last till the end of the decade. Ms Fu cited these as “facts’’. These are facts insofar as this was what the ministers said in public. If we trust the G, we must take it as face value.

The trouble is that in the run-up to the Budget, there has been so much noise about the GST that one can’t help but think it’s on the way.

Even economists thought so. There is, for example, a well-publicised report from DBS Bank on Nov 28 which said it expected GST to go up by two percentage points this 2018 Budget.

TODAY reported its  economist Irving Seah as saying: Hiking the GST is politically challenging given its regressive nature. In this regard, timing is crucial. With the next General Election (GE) due (by January 2021), policymakers will have to act fast… the GST is perhaps the most direct and effective tool in terms of raising tax revenue.’’

The TODAY article actually made clear what the G has said:

While political leaders including Mr Lee and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam have said the Government has enough revenue for its current term, the economists believe that any GST hike will be introduced before the next GE.

It quoted another analyst, CIMB economist Song Seng Wun as saying: “Nobody likes an increase in taxes, it is a huge political task to explain to the public why such an increase is needed. The hikes will likely be carried out under the current term, so as to allow the next generation of leaders to focus on other issues.’’

Now, look at what ChannelNewsAsia said in commentary on Feb 13:

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat’s comments in Budget 2017 to “raise revenues through new taxes or raise tax rates” and a comment from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his speech at the PAP convention in November 2017 “that raising taxes is not a matter of whether but when”, has led to wide speculation that an increase in the GST rate could be announced on Feb 19 when the Budget 2018 statement is delivered.

The speculation has been further fueled by a subsequent comment from Senior Minister of State for Finance Indranee Rajah that “we’re still working on the when”.

Here’s what 12 economists canvassed by Bloomberg said as reported on Feb 14:

Almost all the economists surveyed expect an adjustment to the goods-and-services tax, but only six said it will probably be imposed as soon as this year. Five are betting on 2019 or later.


All through-out these discussions and debates, there hasn’t been a single peep from the G that the economists might be better off looking at other financial matters than coming out with numbers on how much, and when. There might have been “no contradiction’’ between what the G said and did, as Ms Rajah put it, but there was also “no clarification’ done either.

Hence, the near-universal surprise when the GST hike was delayed.

So why did so many intelligent people ignore the “facts’’ – the past assurances of the G? They didn’t think they would hold because politics/practicality would take precedence over promises? That the G was a fundamentally dishonest one? And what about the less intelligent layman? Did they or didn’t they grumble about the thought of an immediate GST hike? Is it so bad if they thought the G had listened to them and therefore, delayed the hike? It would have been double kudos: The G not just listens to feedback but is also good at keeping its promise.

I can agree with past cases when MPs retracted and apologized for the remarks because they were clearly beyond the pale. But in this instance, accusation appears aimed at everyone else outside the House who might have thought the same way Ms Lim did. Is it because she used the word “suspect’’?  That she was aping coffeeshop talk instead of giving evidence for her suspicion (which will be terribly hard given the opacity of Cabinet work.  That she didn’t phrase her “suspicion’’ in a more acceptable way?

What if she had said: “People had expected the GST rise to kick in immediately and some had wondered if public backlash was the reason for the delay.’’

I think Ms Lim should say sorry so that we can move on.

Perhaps, she should say: “I apologise for the remarks I made implying that the government has been dishonest. I was swept up by the tide of comments from economists and people who thought that the GST would kick in soon. I also would have expected that any government would refrain from raising GST given public feedback. I was wrong to think so. The Government was merely being upfront and honest and was sticking to a promise made. My suspicions, though shared by many, were baseless. I thank the Government for its clear, unequivocal clarification of facts concerning the GST rise.’’

I suppose the “trust’’ word comes into play here. If the G said so, it will be so. And by the way it is arguing the case with Ms Lim, quite a lot of people owe it an apology.

Don’t you agree?


Not a nice nor clear debate on the Budget statement

In News Reports on March 2, 2018 at 6:24 am

The trouble with sparks flying in Parliament is that we tend to focus on the sparks and not how they were ignited. Sometimes, we don’t even care to see if sparks should fly in the first place.

So we’re all agog now at how the Workers Party MPs locked horns with the People’s Action Party bigwigs when the opposition politicians declared they cannot vote for the Budget Statement because they disagreed with the 2 percentage point hike that is supposed to take place between 2021 and 2025. MPs Low Thia Khiang, Pritam Singh and Sylvia Lim were roundly castigated by Ministers K Shanmugam and Heng Swee Keat for their “dishonest” views which were also described as ”unwise” and ”hypocritical”.

Did any side gain political points from their sparring? I think the PAP lost quite a bit because their ripostes came across as hectoring and bullying. This is especially the case when the WP might well be articulating what segments of the population think – and which deserve more considered responses from the  G.

For the G, it was a chance to educate the people on the ins and outs of the Budget, including the mathematics that many now find hard to grasp what with the calculation of Net Investment Returns Contribution and the different revenue sources. I’m not sure they took it.

So I have been trying to come to grips with some issues, like…

That 50 per cent cap on long-term returns on the reserves.

It’s more or less the same reiteration that we should not dip into the reserves because, as MP Lee Bee Wah said, it’s like selling your house to pay your current bills. (I can’t help but think that if the people agreed to downgrade, why not?) Or the reiteration that the current Budget surplus is “one-off” and we shouldn’t think that we’d always strike 4D.

The answers revolve on fiscal prudence. I think the G should just say – or can only say – that it took a political decision to only use half because it’s a good number: Half into reserves so that it will keep on accumulating, and half for use. Very fair right? If we want to shift this position, we don’t know whether future returns will still be as good and do we really want to save less in our piggy bank?

But aren’t we also talking in a vacuum since we don’t know…

The size of the reserves?

OCBC economist Selena Ling told a forum that in the absence of public information about parameters such as the size of the reserves and the rate of return on investing them, “any speculation…is quite meaningless”.

It seems like she’s saying that unless the G decides to tell all (and it says it won’t to protect the reserves from currency speculators) we can only talk in general, philosophical terms. That philosophy, as Mr Heng put it, is: “If as soon as we need more money, the first thing we do is relax the rules, that is the surest way to change Singapore’s basic orientation – from saving and building for the future, to living for today and letting tomorrow look after itself.” .

Therefore, 50 per cent.

Mr Heng makes the point that this cap is constitutionally enshrined, which means its more or less sacred. But there’s the other argument that the NIRC was introduced in 2008 and changed in 2016 to include Temasek Holdings. The G also has to contend with the other cynical view: The constitution has been changed before and there’s no problem with the PAP getting a majority to get this done.

I think the best thing that can be said about the G is that it could have succumbed and taken  this route because it would popular. (No one likes being taxed) But there is also the other argument that by stubbornly sticking to the cap, it is unnecessarily hoarding reserves. Academic Donald Low has asked whether we need huge reserves (or whatever is the amount) to fend off currency speculators if our economic fundamentals are sound. We might need to dip into our reserves to buy Singapore dollars to prop it up against attacks but he’s convinced that this would be a short-lived and very bad experience for speculators once they realise that it’s too hard to keep it up.

I don’t think this point was addressed.

There was another point raised by Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin about  the International Monetary Fund describing the size of Singapore’s reserves as excessively prudent . “IMF’s opinion is that a good enough amount of reserves would be 27 per cent of our GDP or $113 billion. I read that MAS’ foreign exchange reserves alone as of January 2018 are around $369 billion or 88 per cent of GDP… ” She asked for a “thoughtful, easy-to-understand response.

Mr Heng’s response as reported in ST:  The IMF’s guidance is meant specifically to address capital flight risk, which is the risk that Singapore dollar deposit holders will switch out into foreign currency because of loss of confidence in Singapore’s currency.

I leave you to decide if the above is easy to understand

The NMP also asked about a suggestion from OCBC economist  Ms Ling to split the reserves into two parts: One, to generate the NIRC, whose amount could be publicly disclosed, and another to be kept secret, to deter currency speculators.

Mr Heng said he had considered it, but did not think it a sound move as there would still be speculations over the secret portion. Furthermore, MAS’ official foreign reserves are already public data and it would not be wise to reveal more, as it could attract currency speculators whose profit motive, as seen during the Asian financial crisis, “can destroy countries”, he said.

I’ve always thought that the use of adjectives is, to use another adjective, “bad” unless it is elaborated in a way people can understand. So if official foreign reserves are public, this means there are some numbers to work on – unless economist types think this is a gross under-estimation which make any calculation meaningless?

In any case, the WP seemed to have made some calculations…

Regarding land sales

WP’s Mr Singh suggested that not more than 20 per cent of the value of average land sales over 20 years, or 20 per cent of land sales for that year, whichever is lower, be used to fund spending. Land sale proceeds are  now ploughed into past reserves and is part of NIRC.

The answer is no because, among other things, it could lead to hasty selling of land simply to fund expenditures. Also, it would take a long time for the G to take back the land, like 99 years, after the lease expires. Or i “So, if you are rigorous about it, you really ought to be spending no more than 1 per cent of that land sale proceeds (each year), even if you want to use land sale proceeds, because that is what the land is worth for a year.”

Which makes you wonder how much is 1 per cent and what really would be 20 per cent as Mr Singh suggested. I was kaypoh enough to check up land sale proceeds. For 2017, it’s estimated at $8,237,185,000 which is a 30 per cent decrease from the year before.

I leave you to calculate whether this can offset…

That 2 percentage point increase in GST

Which is projected to raise revenues by 0.7 per cent of GDP a year or $3.2 billion, before accounting for the amount needed to fund GST vouchers. I think there is some confusion over what exactly the tax is supposed to fund : long-term spending, which would give those who believe the reserves can be used since its the next generation which will benefit, or something more near-term, that is, from 2021.

Mr Heng said the 2 percentage point GST increase “will not fully cover our expenditure needs, but only make the fiscal gap more manageable, in conjunction with other measures to manage expenditure”.

Earlier in his Budget statement, he said average annual healthcare spending will rise from 2.2 per cent of GDP today to almost 3 per cent of GDP over the next decade. This is an increase of nearly 0.8 percentage point of GDP, or about $3.6 billion in today’s dollars. More healthcare spending alone will use up the increased GST revenue.

So somehow or other, we have to find the money for this, going by the G’s calculations on future spending.

If the G keeps flogging this point, I think most people won’t have trouble understanding the rationale for added revenue. Of course, the question is which way.

In conclusion, I think the ministers were unnecessarily harsh on the WP MPs. The fact is that many people can’t make sense of why the G sees a need to float a GST trial balloon so far ahead of time, and then surprise the people with an akan datang tax. I don’t think it’s “dishonest” for WP’s Ms Lim to suggest that the G might have taken public backlash into account when it decided to delay the tax. It is speculation, sure, and unless Parliament thinks it is not the place to bring up issues that the public are, even irrationally, talking about, then how is the G going to dispel speculation?  Post on FB? Give a statement? Just so as not to concede any points to WP?

It is the same for WP Mr Low’s assertion that bringing up the GST now is a “distraction”. People do wonder why Parliament is now talking about a tax rise that will take place a few years later, after this current Parliament is dissolved for the next election. It seems to me more like something that should be in a political party’s manifesto, rather than a pre-emptive move from a government to tell the next government what to do.

Actually, much depends on how the motion to support the Budget statement is framed for the MPs. Does passing the Budget mean that MPs agree that the GST should be raised by a certain percentage within a certain time-frame? This, even though we don’t have enough detail of the checks and balances or size of the offset package?

Mr Heng argued  that the WP’s stance amounted to one in which it “must know ev-erything” before deciding on anything. “I think if I had taken that approach, if previous finance ministers had taken that approach, that I must know every item of expenditure before I can support you, before I know how much to raise, we would have been in serious deficit long, long ago.”

I don’t think past finance ministers or finance ministers anywhere in the world have done what Mr Heng did: announce a tax raise in advance. So his statement is pretty moot. In any case, I think it is common sense to want to know the full facts of the case before saying aye or nay.

The motivation behind this announcement, as Mr Heng put it, is to be upfront and honest about future needs. That’s laudable but it also leads to an expectation that the issue is something that can be discussed further, whether among the financially-savvy types or the layman.

If the ministers’ words to the WP are representative of how the G will respond to questions about the reserves, the Budget and the tax, then we mere mortals might as well shut up and sit down.







How not to draft a cliche-laden speech

In News Reports on February 26, 2018 at 1:37 am

I do this almost every year in the hope that MPs will get the hint and not bore those who want to follow parliamentary proceedings. We’ll be listening to two days worth of speeches (or reading them)  in response to Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat’s Budget statement from tomorrow. I am hoping NOT to hear something like this one below: 

I thank the Finance Minister for a prudent and far-sighted Budget. It is a Budget for the future. It addresses our recurrent spending needs and also helps us deal with the challenges of an ageing population (insert relevant statistics here).

We must invest in our young (add Edusave point?), but also take care of the old. After all, we all have to grow old some day (Must say this for empathy!) But we must be careful about making too many inter-generational transfers which will burden our children and our children’s children because of our imprudent policies. We must make hard choices and do the right thing for Singapore.

Sir, I thank the Minister for the Sg bonus. It is an unexpected hongbao. This is reflective of the way Singapore shares the fruits of its economy. Some people will say that this shows that we can afford not to raise the GST. They fail to realize that this is a “one-off’’ bonus because of (cite reasons here). We may not always be in such a favorable situation next year or the year after. (Insert something about winds of change, technological disruption, globalization etc)

But we must still find some way to fund our future spending. The NIRC is already at its maximum of 50 per cent, overtaking all other revenue streams. Someone has to pay for the critical infrastructure and increased social spending that will come (Insert here some statistics on increased healthcare spending).

We are all glad that we still have enough to spend till 2020 and that the GST is only going up  between 2021 and 2025. Nobody likes to pay more taxes (Empathy point!) but the Minister has given us some room to prepare for the 2 percentage point increase. He has also promised that this will be accompanied by a GST offset package and rebates. I hope he will be generous because the rise in GST will have an impact on households, especially the lower income (Empathy point!)

It is natural (?) for people to think we should dip more into the reserves and not raise the GST.  But this will be the start of a slippery slope. We risk killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Our reserves are meant to be used only in desperate situations (Rainy days?Insert past examples here). The same principle applies to those who think we should raise the NIRC beyond 50 per cent. As the Minister has pointed out, it will risk depleting our reserves. We should not take the easy way out. We must bite the bullet. We should not kick the can down the road for our future generations to pick up.

Sir, Singapore is admired around the world for her fiscal prudence (Cite some indices here). This is why we have a strong credit rating and a strong Singapore dollar. We must maintain this position. In fact, this is why the minister is able to shift the funding  principles when it comes to big critical infrastructure projects that take a long time to complete. By leveraging on our strong credit position and using our reserves to guarantee more borrowing in the bond market, we are spreading out the cost over several years instead of depending on the current generation to pay for everything. (Must say this slowly. Good point)

It has been reported that banks and insurance companies are excited at the prospect of a more active bond market.  I hope am sure that the critical infrastructure (cite the projects) will bring in the revenues that can re-pay the loans, so that the future generations will not be burdened with higher increases . It is right that we find more ways to fund our needs. This is a more equitable way of sharing costs across the generations.

To be able to meet our needs and aspirations, we must train and re-train and inculcate a culture of continuous learning. I am glad that our productivity figures are looking better if only because there are fewer foreigners working. We must remember that there is no such thing as a free lunch and that others are looking to take away our lunch. In this regard, I welcome the introduction of the Industry Transformation Maps for our companies to work together and create higher-value jobs. (Need example?) I also applaud the move to integrate Spring Singapore and other agencies into one body. It is a step in the right direction and is reflective of the whole-of-government approach.

Mr Speaker, Sir, our objective must be to build a prosperous and inclusive society. We must make sure no one is left behind. The extension of the Wage Credit Scheme will help those lower down the ladder while the rise in Basic Stamp Duty will further level the playing field between the haves and the have-nots. We must monitor closely the Gini co-efficient and take steps to prevent the development of an underclass. Society must not be allowed to fracture along class lines.

I am also pleased  that steps are being taken to implement a carbon tax. Sir, Singapore may be a small country but we must do our part to combat climate change. The minister’s proposal is timely since  this year is designated as Singapore’s Year for Climate Action. We must, however, learn from the experience of other countries which have implemented the tax. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

In conclusion, I thank the Minister for his comprehensive overview of Singapore’s economy and his roadmap (framework?) to lead Singapore forward.

I support the Budget Statement.





Selling GST rise will test 4G leaders’ political mettle

In News Reports on February 21, 2018 at 1:39 am

So we all heaved a sigh of relief that the Goods and Services Tax isn’t going up this year, or the next year or the year after. If you think about it, it would be quite silly for the G to raise the tax from the current 7 per cent when it’s just announced a massive surplus of $9.6 billion. Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat was quick to say that this surplus wasn’t a “structural’’ thing, that is, don’t expect a repeat performance every year. But it’s still so way ahead of its own projections of $1.9 billion that people will think that his ministry is very bad at forecasting or wonder if all those trial balloons about having to expand revenue streams is just so much hot air.

Then comes the SG bonus or between $100 and $300 for every adult Singaporean. You would think that a G which keeps harping about not having enough money for the future would stash this $700 million away. It’s small beer, sure, compared to the rest of the money that is going into a rail fund and to pay for Eldershield premiums. But, hey, we’ve been brought up to believe that every penny counts.

So a GST rise too soon is out of the question.  If the G had gone ahead with it, you can bet that the opposition politicians will make hay of it – for breaking a promise to defer a tax rise for this decade. In fact, the time frame we’ve been given is between 2021 and 2025.

Which G in the world announces higher taxes four years in advance? They are usually secret stuff, done quickly to prevent any escape from the tax net or impact on the markets.

Does this mean that people have some wriggle room to lobby against the tax before the deadline? And how would the G cope then with such “populist’’ pressures? It is an extremely confident Government which can make plans for the next Government. Because it assumes that the ruling party will continue to be in power after the general election due by January 2021. And we don’t even know who might be leading that future Government,  because the People’s Action Party 4G leaders haven’t decided.

So what will happen between now and 2021? You can bet your last dollar that you will hear these arguments:

  1. Just use the reserves lah. Got more than $1 trillion right? After all, the President is a former PAP MP.
  2. Raise the 50 per cent cap on using net investment returns; you’ve got enough MPs to muster a constitutional change.
  3. You added Temasek into NIR framework in 2015, cannot add another government company ah?
  4. Why only such a small increase on buyer’s stamp duty for people who can afford $1-million properties? Raise it further or hike up marginal income tax to get the rich to re-distribute money.
  5. Cut your own ministerial salaries and we can build a hospital or two.
  6. Already going to have carbon tax and some kind of Netflix tax. Not enough ah?
  7. Never mind about the GST offset package, don’t you know GST is a regressive tax? The poor will get poorer.

I suppose it’s natural. No one wants to pay more tax – or we think somebody else should pay it. Which only makes you wonder why the G wants to open a window for such attacks. The cynical would say that this is so that it can decide later NOT to raise tax and win the kudos of the people. No one really wants this particular promise kept anyway. The empathetic would say the G is giving us all time to get used to the idea and even somehow prepare ourselves (quickly go buy everything you need now!)

What is clear is that the G has some explaining to do because some of its actions and concepts seem contradictory to the layman, including myself. I ask that economists excuse me my ignorance if I put the issue this way:

We’ve always been taught to be prudent with money. The elected president is in place to make sure a government cannot anyhow, to use the popular phrase, “raid the reserves’’. (Not that we know how much we really have for that extremely rainy day). So the idea was that a government can only spend the interest from the reserves. This is how any conservative investor would behave – keep the capital protected or even guaranteed and only spend the interest income or dividend. People can grasp this idea.

Then this net investment income framework was changed in 2008 to net investment returns. So some financial gurus will calculate what is the expected long-term returns on assets from Government Investment Corporation and Monetary Authority of Singapore. These are stable entities which don’t do risky things. We hope that those gurus got their numbers right because how far into the long-term can they see? And is the president equipped with enough financial advisors to give her/his assent/dissent to the rate? But never mind. The numbers are too mind-boggling for the layman.

Then Temasek, a rather more active player, was thrown into the mix in 2015.  The reason it was late in the list – it’s more difficult to come up with a way to calculate the return rate, said then Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. It can’t escape some people’s attention that its addition was fortuitous because we would have been hard put to finance our expenditure in 2016.

I think the G would have to go back to brass tacks and explain the reserves from Ground Zero. It’s got beyond what people can grasp.

The conservative will ask: So we are actually just predicting what the long-term rate will be and then skim off half? (The G has said that is a much better way of smoothening out how much it can use every year, then having to depend on interest earned year by year. So there’s a point there.)

The less conservative will ask: Just raise the cap a bit and we get more money immediately. There’s, after all, still the rest of the money to add to the reserves. (It’s a point that’s gaining traction and even proposed by economists. The G will need to come up with a better answer on why it considers 50 per cent a magic number. And not 55 or 60, as academic Donald Low has pointed out.

Then there is the question of why the marginal income tax rate was not raised for high-income earners or some sort of wealth tax imposed to help reduce income inequality. After all, so many rich – and foreign – people settle here because they pay lower taxes than in their homeland. Singapore has even been mis-labelled a tax haven!

I figure a full answer on what high income earners give in return to society is very much needed. And it has to go beyond how they create new jobs, fund new ventures and give Singapore a cosmopolitan cast essential for a global financial centre. My hope is that the G doesn’t answer by saying that they would all be scared away if more was asked of them. This won’t be unlike the argument that we’d be raiding the nest egg if we went 100 per cent of NIR, which no one is asking for.

Here’s another concept that would be difficult for the layman to grasp: statutory boards and government-linked companies borrowing to pay for infrastructure projects. (The media can’t seem to decide if this is new or not since HDB already issues bonds to build homes.)  The G paints this as an equitable way to even out who pays for projects like rail lines and airport terminals. It’s not the current generation but today’s young people who would reap the benefits – and pay for it themselves when the time comes to collect. Other governments elsewhere do it but here, in Singapore, we’ve always been told to spend within our means because we don’t know what the future holds. And not to borrow from loan sharks.

I am, of course, simplifying and magnifying some of the above but I don’t think I am exaggerating the amount of political work the G would have to do to explain Singapore’s financial position and why GST has to go up.

I can anticipate some of the responses: That the G could have just let the GST be (see points 1 and 2). But it chose to be honest with the people at the expense of losing political capital. Honesty, however, must be accompanied by more information and explanation to the people, lest they only grasp headlines and miss the context.

I suppose this is where the 4G leaders will be tested on their mettle since it is likely that they will lead the next election campaign. We’ll probably be hearing more about “trust’’ – that the G is doing the right thing.

But trust cannot be blind.


The news: as and when the G is ready

In News Reports on February 10, 2018 at 4:09 am

I have been wanting to write about the Official Secrets Act ever since it was announced in November that an HDB officer had been charged in court for breaching it but refrained from doing so in case my comments would be viewed as subjudice. When Mr Ng  Han Yuan was finally sentenced to pay a $2,000 fine in late December, I was away from the country. I am reminded of it again when I read today that Mr Ng had been re-deployed. And I think the topic deserves even greater airing now because a select committee has been set up to explore the issue of deliberate fake news.

What has one to do with the other? Plenty.

They are about the practice of journalism which I will loosely define as the search for the truth, that is, not fake news.

To recap, Mr Ng pleaded guilty to passing confidential information about the impending establishment of a HDB resale portal to a reporter, who then tried to chase the tip-off by canvassing for more information from other parties, including the HDB. Ms Janice Tai of ST was given a “stern warning’’.

I find the episode troubling because the article she was working on was never published. In the past, journalists have been taken to task or invited to a lim kopi session because they had written articles which the government would rather not have made public. And they have held their own or fought the matter.

You can read one veteran journalist’s anecdotes here.

It is an unwritten pact between officialdom and journalists that official confirmation is needed for a tip-off before an article about the government sees the light of day. In this case, according to ST, the journalist had the consent of her supervisors to “chase’’ the tip-off that the HDB officer had given her while they were on a date.

“In the course of checking out the story, Ms Tai approached various parties, including property agents and the Singapore Institute of Surveyors & Valuers (SISV), for their views. She also sent HDB a list of questions. This raised the alarm within the Government about a leak after both SISV and Ms Tai approached them about the story.

“According to Ms Tai, she told Ng she was planning to e-mail questions to HDB officials and others in the private sector to get their views. He noted this and asked her to let him know what their responses were.

“In July, when the sensitive nature of the information became clearer, Straits Times editors decided to hold off on the story till an official announcement was made.’’

You can read ST’s full  version of events here:

The above account is normal in the day-to-day operations of journalists. As a journalist, I have been told many times not to chase a story because, among other things, a minister wanted to announce it first. Editors don’t always agree to the request, especially if the matter is already widely known or “in the public domain’’, and some bargaining will take place. We might ask to break the story the day before, or bargain for an even fuller story or exclusive when the announcement is finally made.

In the HDB case, all those unwritten rules were followed, going by the ST report..

I believe most editors take the line that reporters must “report’’ and get to the bottom of any story they are chasing. They are urged to do their jobs to the best of their ability, and leave the editing decisions – including whether to publish/broadcast – to the higher-ups who deal with the political ramifications and what-not. It’s not in the DNA of editors to tell reporters to nip their reporting in the bud, unless editors had already agreed with officials to lay off the story for some reason.

Of course, journalists know about the OSA and how wide and sweeping it is. It is easy for any G agency to cry “OSA” because it seems that anything and everything about the G can be secret information so long as the person giving it and receiving it aren’t authorized to do so.

But work carried on because an OB marker seemed to have been settled between officialdom and journalists. The line was drawn on the publication of information, rather than based on the letter of the law.

Yet the G continued its investigations even after ST decided to hold off the story. Why? Did it get wind that ST would be publishing the story? Despite the editors’ decision to hold off the story, did Ms Tai continue to ask questions about it? ST’s own timeline isn’t clear.

In the light of what has happened, I wouldn’t be surprised if editors and reporters re-think the way they do their work since asking questions or calling for confirmation can land you in breach of the OSA.

In other words, the HDB case has set a new benchmark for the practice of journalism in Singapore. The OB markers have been pushed inwards.

This is so terribly bad.

It would easier for all if the Official Secrets Act was more closely defined so that both officials and journalists are left in no doubt about what is secret and what is not. Is it a secret because very few people know of it? Or is it sensitive information that affects the financial markets or national security? Or both?

During the court case, the prosecutor didn’t dwell on the sensitivity of the information disclosed even though he might have cited its impact on the HDB resale market like potential sellers or buyers withholding their actions. Instead the concern was about giving confidential information that he was not supposed to give.

Rather, the prosecutor said that the HDB had been “significantly inconvenienced’’ by the leak because it had to push forward its announcement  to October even though it was slated for launch in January 2018.

I consider this a bad turn of phrase because it implies that the G should not be subject to “inconvenience”. The fact that the announcement had been brought forward also showed that early publication can be made without too much untoward impact. In the usual course of things, a bargain could have been struck for ST to obtain the exclusive in October, or to be given more information than other media if this was intended for wider dissemination. Nothing like this appeared to have happened.

Should Ms Tai have gone to the HDB first, rather than canvass other players for information? Note that Ms Tai’s probing led the SISV to ask  questions of the HDB, which must have been surprised or annoyed at the leak. Truth to tell, I have always advised reporters to get as much information from other sources, before going for official information. This is because of a game of “no comment’’ that some officials play, in the hope that with too little information or no confirmation, the reporter will “drop” the story.

I am giving this insight into the profession as practised in Singapore to show that journalists have a mighty tough job extracting information from officialdom. Yes, the OSA (or some form of it) is also used in other jurisdictions, such as the United States. But I echo what lawyer Jack Lee said in a  TODAY article about how in contrast to Singapore, the default position in some countries is that “governmental information should be publicly disclosed, and withholding such information is seen as the exception rather than the norm”.

How are we to deal with the phenomenon of deliberate fake news when it is not easy to get real information from the G in the first place?

Or if the mainstream media itself is coy about reporting constraints on its profession?  I note, for example, that a second reporter was involved, but whom ST did not name in its article. Nor did ST  report, until Mr Ng was charged in November, that it was being investigated or that its reporter had been held overnight in a cell.  The media usually doesn’t refrain from reporting that other people are being investigated – and they do so assiduously – so why stop when it’s about itself?

I presume the G knows that this episode will cause, to use a popular phrase, “a chilling effect’’ on journalists. It might well brush this off by saying this is a one-off instance or that “good’’ journalists will know what to do and not to do.

I think the whole episode is regretful because it means that it would be prudent of journalists to wait for G announcements, rather than “scoop’’ it.  Such a practice would blunt the inquisitiveness of journalists, especially since a lot of news in Singapore emanates from the G. While this would be convenient for the G as it can schedule its timing of announcements with no disruption of its workings, I don’t think this is what the G wants or should want.

It only reduces the credibility of journalists at a time when good journalism should be supported. The problem in Singapore is not that there is too much fake news, but getting more people to believe that real news is coming out from the duopoly without fear or favour.

I think that when the G talks about fake news, we should also ask whether it is putting more obstacles in the way of obtaining real news or creating a climate in which the process of finding the truth, which is already laborious, is also dangerous.



It should not be Young versus Old

In News Reports on February 9, 2018 at 2:19 am

A long, long time ago, I sat on a panel that was supposed to look at the sort of trade-offs the country would have to make to cater to both the young and the old. Note that this was at a time when lifts did not stop at every floor and there was no clamour for wheelchair accessible buses. We came up with a list of everything we thought should be done for both the young and the old. We assumed then, as I think some people do now, that we had access to a bottomless pit of money.

We didn’t think about how raising the retirement age might retard the career progression of young people. We didn’t worry about whether the young should start financing the retirement needs of the elderly who may not have enough CPF savings put by.

Unlike today, when we’re constantly warned about crossing the demographic rubicon, we simply did not think deeply about the emergence of a tussle for resources between young and old or the development of a “silver’’ lobby. That point seemed a long way coming.

Now, the infrastructure for the old has been put in place (lifts at every floor, ramps and so forth) and I consider the implementation of CPF Life and Medishield Life among the best achievements of the current government. I applaud its foresight especially when I see how my neighbourhood has turned grey with so many wheelchair bound uncles and aunties buying groceries and hawker food. I will be one of them some day, I always say to myself.

Having crossed the middle-age line, I can’t help but be annoyed when I read about young people raising questions about their own future because the elderly are in existence. I wonder if they’ve watched Solyent Green.

I have an old-fashioned view when it comes to the elderly – that what they want, they should get. I suppose I will change my mind if their voice becomes so loud that they hurt the rest of society with their demands. (More old age homes, fewer kindergartens!) But the elderly in Singapore aren’t like that at all. They would rather do manual labour than ask their children for help because they will always say their children have their own families to take care of.

There will, of course, be exceptions.

I doubt that those who are past their 40s and married with children would take the same view of financing the needs of the elderly as some young people, because they probably already do so in some way in giving monthly allowances or drawing on their own Medisave accounts for their parents’ healthcare. They will cheer attempts to lighten their burden, like the Pioneer Generation benefits that their elderly parents can draw upon for medical bills. And frankly, they probably wouldn’t want their parents to work till retirement age because old people should enjoy the twilight of their lives.

But times they are a-changing.

Singapore is going through a very interesting period where it’s become more common for those same parents to help their children set up home, than for children to give them allowances once they start work. It’s because both parents usually work and can afford to lavish more on their children – and for longer. In fact, it can be argued that the usual age-dependency ratio might not apply because the future-old are in a far better position to support themselves than the current-old. The flip side, however, is that if they can’t, they have only one or two children to call upon for help given the small family structure of today.

Will our future-old be like our current-old in terms of attitude towards help? I don’t think they will turn to their own children for handouts, but they will not be as uncomplaining. They will ask for more government support from that bottomless pit,  or Pioneer Generation benefits even if they aren’t pioneers.

I somehow think this would be less of a problem if some old-fashioned values stay intact.

I worry when we go great guns about having the young reach for the skies and fulfill their potential and aspirations. It’s a noble thing, but searching for this road to the end of the rainbow cannot be at the expense of the children’s duty to their parents. Even if parents don’t ask for anything, the children should just “do’’.

I am amazed when I hear would-be graduates talk about the kinds of jobs they would like to have and whether they will be paid a good enough salary for their needs and wants. I doubt that many factored in what amount of their salary they should give to their parents. Their parents might not need it, but it could be looked at as the cost of defraying food and lodging which they would have to pay for if they moved out of the family home. It is a good habit and brings young people slap against the reality of having to fend for a household, which they would have to do in good time. Frankly, even a token sum would do and most parents are likely to spend the money on the children, than on something for themselves.

If this sounds old-fashioned, it is. It’s filial piety.



TheSugarBook: Keep a close eye or close one eye?

In News Reports on February 8, 2018 at 2:54 am

A long, long time ago, two reporters came up to me to say that they had come across a gay bar and felt that this should be reported. I asked if there were children involved. They said no, and that, in fact, it only allowed in males above 21. I asked if there was drug use on the premises, they said they couldn’t tell but probably not. I asked why they thought we should publish the story. They said “people must know’’, “there’s a gay bar!’’, “maybe got hanky-panky’’.

My reply was that they were adults who knew what they were getting into. There were also other such bars so this isn’t the first. Publishing such a story would only raise the hackles of some segments of the population, who would demand that it be closed down. The authorities, reacting to the force of public opinion, might just do so. In any case, don’t they suppose the authorities knew of the existence of the bar?

My approach was a live-and-let-live one. If there was no criminal activity involved, why do we see the need to highlight a bar for homosexuals and push the authorities into a corner to do something about it? Do we want the authorities to start policing what consenting adults can or cannot do in private?

Another time, another reporter came up to me to report that a certain couple was intending to hold an orgy in their HDB flat, and had advertised online for participants. I asked what he was intending to do – go undercover? Report the orgy as news? Or report the fact that they used the internet to ask for participants? He’s a young man, like the other two, and I suppose for young people just out of school, such activities just seem too outrageously delicious not to be reported.

I nixed the story because I said the couple can do whatever they want in their own flats and if he intended to go “undercover’’, he should watch out for underage sex. There’s no need for a report on the orgy itself. These are things that some adults do, I said while feeling very, very old. Let them be. Do we want a Singapore hemmed in by moral rules imposed from the outside or let the individuals police their own ethics, if this was indeed an ethical issue?

Those are editorial judgments I made and I daresay there will be those who say that such participants should be named and shamed, and such activities, outlawed.

Morals are such a tricky subject. And I know well enough the power of the media to create excitement and agitation by highlighting happenings that, for some people, are downright immoral. I take the view that we must let society evolve at its own pace and let adults be guided by their own conscience, religious or moral standards.

Not many know, for example, that there are licensed brothels here, which is a nod to the lascivious nature of Man. But they do their business quietly, out of public sight – unlike streetwalkers who do open solicitation, which is disallowed. We, to put it colloquially, just close one eye.

When do we require the authorities to step in and draw a line?

When public animus is clear, like when heartlanders appeared to have reacted strongly to having sexy films in the neighbourhood cinemas in the late 80s, as deciphered from a vote swing away from the People’s Action Party. This paved the way for the introduction of restricted (artistic) films and a more nuanced film classification system. There was no total ban on the films. People of age can still watch such shows, but no longer in neighbourhood cinemas.

The reason for my long preamble: the parliamentary discussion on TheSugarBook, an app that matches young women who want to paired with older men – and vice versa. The terms Sugar Daddy and Sugar Baby leave people in no doubt that money is involved somehow – a more comfortable lifestyle for the young woman provided by the older man, who may or may not be married. It is a private transaction, even if morally dubious.

Unlike other sites offering similar “partnerships’’ which operate in deep, dark corners of the web, the Malaysia-based site is very “in-your-face’’. For example, the site says that “TheSugarBook is made up of a large quantity of students in colleges and universities. These sugar babies often benefit from the mentorship, generous allowances, exotic vacations and shopping sprees across the globe.’’

This is not something I condone. A Sugar Baby who trades her affections and attentions (even if those are the only commodities) for a Prada bag and good restaurant meals? Go buy your own bag, baby! Why be a “kept woman’’ in this day and age?

Yes, I am being judgmental. I agree with the G that such sites “commoditise and devalue” relationships, encouraging young women to “demean their self-worth”.

But that is my view, which I won’t impose on others. Nor would I insist that my standard should be the community’s standard.

The question is whether we should expect official intervention.

Recall that in 2013, there was a public outcry over the Canada-based dating site, Ashley Madison. The G  banned it, because it “aggressively promotes and facilitates extramarital affairs and has declared that it will specifically target Singaporeans’’ The site was added to its list of “a limited number of sites as a symbolic statement of the types of content which the community is opposed to”.

Said the then Media Development Authority: “It is against the public interest to allow Ashley Madison to promote its website in flagrant disregard of our family values and public morality. We will therefore not allow Ashley Madison to operate in Singapore and have worked with the Internet Service Providers to block access to the site.”

Note that there are ways to get around the ban. The site was hacked in 2015 and 32 million users had their details exposed. The New Paper combed through the data and found 4,751 e-mail addresses with the  “.sg” suffix — which indicates a Singapore domain address.

You can say that a ban doesn’t work – so why have it?  Or you can say that the G shouldn’t even have tried policing morals because these are consenting adults. I take the view, however, that the G simply has to do something in response to public opinion and also because of its position on the primacy of the family. It would be hypocritical not to take some kind of action although we can debate till the cows come home about the appropriate course.

No one can argue that Ashley Madison encourages marital fidelity.  I think if Ashley Madison wasn’t so “in your face’’ and honest about its target audience, it might well have gone under the radar, like so many extra-marital flings.

The G didn’t talk about banning TheSugarBook in Parliament. It stated its “collective” point of view – and it is entitled to it. I don’t think that this amounts to  “moral policing’’. There is no action being proposed to stop this willing-buyer-willing-seller practice.

According to Minister Desmond Lee, the police will keep “a close eye’’ on the website, as well as the individuals who use its services. “For instance, if there is any procurement of sexual services for payment, the police will take enforcement action under the Women’s Charter, including possibly against the website and its owner,” he added.

In other words, so long as there is no crime committed, it’s accessible. (The site, by the way, has an age limit.)

I think it is a reasonable official position to take.

My question is: why do the MPs see the need to bring the matter to Parliament? I don’t think the public outcry was anything like that for Ashley Madison which thumbs its nose at the institution of marriage.  If the G moves to ban the site, it would have to start doing the same for other sites where money is exchanged for “companionship’’, or be accused of double standards.

Now, it is NOT banned. And congratulations to the politicians who have succeeded in drawing even more attention to it.

Sometimes, it is better to live and let live.









The amazing coyness of the ST/PAP

In News Reports on February 4, 2018 at 12:25 am

I read the ST articles on the PAP’s internal protocols this morning and I don’t know if I should be upset with ST or the People’s Action Party. Both, I guess, for such a lame report/response to something which the courts have brought up – whether it’s appropriate for MPs to write letters to the courts on behalf of their constituents.

I guess I am upset because:

  1. ST decided to downplay the MP who wrote the letter, although this is the first thing that any reader would want to know. The introduction of the story should be: The MP in the centre of a controversy involving a petition letter to the courts has been identified as Dr Lam Pin Min of Seng Kang West single-member constituency.
  2. Then it would be important to tell readers HOW he was identified. In its “identification’’, ST wrote innocuously that it was “according to the letter that Sengkang West MP Lam Pin Min wrote’’ but we know that the judge never revealed the name of the MP according to news reports. So did ST get hold of the letter from the court or the accused’ lawyers? Or did Dr Lam come forward or did the PAP name him?
  3. It would have been useful to tell people if Dr Lam was a new MP who might not know the ropes. But this background is missing: He has been an MP since 2006. ST can add that he is also Senior Minister of State for Health and Transport – although the retort can be that his official position has nothing to do with his duties as an MP.
  4. A lot more questions should have been asked of Dr Lam.

ST  has four pars on Dr Lam which are problematic :

First par: Dr Lam told The Sunday Times he had sent a letter of appeal to the Traffic Police last February on behalf of Tang, when she approached him at his Meet-the-People Session (MPS) to appeal for a reduction in charges.

(So she has ALREADY been charged? And this is the first time he ever saw the resident? It’s a good thing he wrote to TP instead of AGC because according to the PAP’s protocols: /The MP may write to the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) under these two conditions – if charges have not yet been brought against a person, and if the MP is appealing for the AGC to not pursue charges./)

Second par: “She shared with us the circumstances leading to the accident and that she was regretful and intended to plead guilty,” he said.

(In Dr Lam’s letter, he said that Tang Ling Lee – whose appeal against a week’s jail term for colliding with a 27-year-old motorcyclist was eventually dismissed- had only “accidentally brushed a motorcyclist resulting in the motorcyclist sustaining some injuries”.

But the victim, Mr Vikaramen A. Elangovan, suffered multiple fractures requiring a dozen operations in two months and was warded in hospital for 69 days after he was hit by the car Tang had been driving.

“These statements are regrettably misleading if they correctly reflect what she had conveyed to the MP,” said Justice See in judgment grounds issued last week.

So Dr Lam would have known by now that she lied to him about the circumstances which were far more serious. What does he think about what he did now? After all, the judge had called it troubling)

Third par: On April 18 last year, Tang saw Dr Lam again at his MPS and said she would be charged in court on May 2.

(So she WASN’T charged yet? There’s a contradiction here)

Fourth par: Dr Lam said an appeal letter for leniency was given to her by hand on the same night in a sealed envelope, addressed “to whom it may concern” at the State Courts, as there was “some urgency” since the case would be mentioned in two weeks’ time.

(According to PAP protocol, urgency is defined as “in the next few days’’ not in two weeks’ time: / In urgent cases, such as if the court hearing is in the next few days, MPs may sometimes use their discretion to give letters by hand to residents to be used in court./)

5.   Other questions for Dr Lam include:

  • Did Dr Lam know about the PAP protocols such as how he should be writing to the Law ministry instead?
  • Is this the first time he has written to the courts on behalf of his constituents?
  • What exactly is in the letter?

Maybe the questions were asked but not answered or some kind of pressure was brought to bear on ST to downplay identification and highlight the existence of protocols. Some questions that could have been asked of party whip Chan Chun Sing:

  1. Are these internal protocols made known to MPs? If so, how did Dr Lam, MP for more than a decade, not know?
  2. Has Mr Chan spoken to Dr Lam about the matter and is any disciplinary action being considered? Or is Dr Lam’s action acceptable to the PAP?
  3. If MPs can write appeal letters to the courts for urgent cases, how is this different from attempting to influence the judiciary in sentencing which for the layman would have constituted subjudice?
  4. Does the PAP have guidelines on what sort of appeal letters to the courts can be written? MPs in the past have written character testimonials, for example.

These are questions which any journalist would ask. The fact that they were not, leads to questions about the news instincts and professionalism of the paper. If they were and ST was somehow constrained in reporting the answers – or given non-answers – then this looks bad for both ST as well as the PAP. It will only add to the cynicism surrounding traditional media: that it will treat the PAP and the G with kids’ gloves but come out charging if the subject had been a member of the Opposition instead.

I know what some people will say: That it is good enough to have any kind of story on the issue. After all, the MP was identified and the PAP talked about its protocols.

No, it is not “good enough’’. We must demand more transparency from the media and politicians or we will soon be satisfied with reading official pronouncements or corporate PR spiel. And worse, we will be speculating about the gaps and be accused of “fake news”.

In the era of fake news, we need more information, not less.