Archive for the ‘News Reports’ Category

Stay safe, SAF

In News Reports on February 11, 2019 at 10:58 am

AFTER four training deaths in 17 months, I had expected the Defence Minister to talk more about the inherent risks of military training.  Instead Dr Ng Eng Hen said: “It is not true that we cannot train safely if we want to train realistically.” I guess he couldn’t have said otherwise. Not if he wanted to re-assure wives and mothers who wondered if their sons and husbands were stepping into a minefield when they stepped into their army boots.

Then again, the Singapore Armed Forces had a perfect zero score for a few years after a disastrous 2012, when four of its own died. Dr Ng thought the safety measures put in place then worked. But why not now?

The C word – culture – was invoked often. He didn’t call it bo chup although he did refer to “slack” practices. But he was clear about where the responsibility for instilling a safety culture laid – the commander level. Commanders will be “marked” down if safety lapses were detected even if nothing untoward happened. And the rank-and-file will be empowered to point out and even stop unsafe practices as and when they see them.

Beyond that, Dr Ng was hard put to explain what he meant by a “safety culture”. At one point, he told an anecdote about two Nordic countries which built a bridge, each from its own end. When the bridge was constructed, one country had half the fatalities of the other.

I suppose it’s about everyone possessing an antenna that can detect danger and which will sound an alarm before harm is done. I presume from what he said about culture was that SAF doesn’t have a strong antenna or good enough sound equipment.

Enter the new office of Inspector-General.

Much was made about the person being at a high enough level to report to the Chief of Defence Force. “If the Chief of Joint Staff calls you, you will listen,” Dr Ng replied when asked how the office could be compared to the current Safety Systems and Review Directorate, set up in 2013.  I wish he had said more, to dispel cynicism about yet another bureaucratic structure set up to save the day. I wish he would confirm if he is talking about BG Kelvin Khong.

Will the office prevent another casualty the likes of Singapore sons Gavin Chan, Dave Lee, Liu Kai or Aloysius Pang?

In September 2017, Third Sergeant Gavin Chan was flung out of his Bionix vehicle when it overturned on a steep embarkment during a night-time exercise in Queensland, Australia. He had been half-out of the turret giving directions on reversing and he didn’t want the head-lights on lest they gave their position away to the “enemy”. Safety lapses occurred but there was no negligence.

In April 2018, Corporal First Class Dave Lee collapsed after a fast march and wasn’t treated adequately or evacuated quickly enough. He succumbed to heat stroke. One SAF officer has been charged in court and six others will face military probes.

On Nov 3 last year, Corporal First Class Liu Kai, 22, was crushed when a Bionix vehicle reversed and ran over the Land Rover he was driving during a training exercise in the Lim Chu Kang area. The Committee of Inquiry has completed its report. Police are investigating.

On Jan 19 this year, Corporal First Class (NS) Aloysius Pang, 28, was crushed between a lowered gun barrel and the cabin of the howitzer he was called in to repair. He was taking part in an artillery live-firing exercise in New Zealand while on reservist duty. A committee of inquiry of independent (but unnamed) members, has been set ip.

IT WAS painful to hear how corporals Liu and Pang died. Dr Ng had pictures and graphics put up on the TV screens in Parliament. Because they were still “open” cases, he would stick to the facts, so as not to point the finger at anyone and anything, he said. But even as he took the House sombrely through the last moments of two men, what he did not say seemed more important than what he said.

To keep a long story short, Corporal Liu was driving the Land Rover, with a trainer, a regular Captain in the passenger seat. They were trailing a Bonix when the Bionix received “enemy fire”. The captain wanted Cpl Liu to speed up and overtake the Bionix but the big vehicle started reversing. In fact, it started veering into the Land Rover’s path. The Land Rover, at this time, was just 19.8 m away from it, not even close to the 30m safety limit. Cpl Liu started reversing but it took just 8 seconds for the Bionix to run over his side of the Land Rover.

So what happened? The Bionix had a rear guide who was signalling frantically to the two men in the Land Rover. He was seen mouthing into the helmet intercom which was the only means of communicating with the Bionix driver. But the driver continued reversing. Dr Ng said the intercom was working well earlier and the matter was now with the police. You go figure.

Some outcomes: Horns and rear view mirrors and cameras will now be fitted at the back of heavy vehicles. The trainer will join the crew, and not tag along in another vehicle. Reversals can only take place with the explicit consent of the rear guide.

In the case of Corporal Pang, whose death is now being investigated by a COI, there were even more blanks. He shouldn’t have been at the place where the barrel was being lowered if safety processes were followed. The gun commander should have shouted Clear Away and Standby and checked that there was no one in the way before lowering the gun. Dr Ng gave the process and even showed a training video. But he didn’t say if this had happened. There were also three red emergency buttons in the howitzer, but he didn’t say if any was pushed.

The self-propelled howitzer, in use for the past 15 years with no mishaps, takes just nine seconds to lower itself to the horizontal level.  Dr Ng also made it clear that the Corporal Pang wasn’t new at repairing howitzers, had a refresher course last February and had already worked on 10 howitzers  so far. Also, he was to do only basic repair work. Higher level repairs were assigned to a regular mechanic. In this case, there was such an expert mechanic, of 16 years experience. The gun commander is a Third Sergeant on his eighth in-camp training.

Dr Ng didn’t try to paper over the tragedies. Instead, he said with a choke in his voice: “We must not forget why we suffer them”. Those were pretty strong words which make a change from the usual “wake up call” speeches. So suffer them we must if we do not want to be invaded, like Kuwait was by Iraq in 1990, or have shipping and air routes blocked, as is the case now with Qatar.

“This imperative of NS and our national defence does not absolve or reduce the accountability of the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) and the SAF in any way to ensure safe training.

“On the contrary, it compels Mindef and the SAF to do all that is humanly possible to prevent training deaths for NS men because we are fully aware that precious sons have been entrusted to us by their families,” he added.

For a while, I thought Dr Ng was a mass of contradictions. Training is inherently NOT safe then, correct? I can, however, reconcile this by looking at zero fatality target as an aspiration, even f it can’t be a rule. What’s also useful is to separate incidents based on systemic flaws from those based on human error. You simply can’t account for human frailties. Third Sergeant Gavin Chan, for example, was operating his Bionix in a black-out to avoid being sighted by “enemies”.

What happens now?

That safety time-out has been lifted for some units but there’s still no word on what has or would be changed. Dr Ng repeatedly said that this was a “command” issue, which means that he would leave it to the SAF to make any announcements. One interesting bit emerged about the necessity of the SAF’s other non-operational duties, such as organising the National Day parade. He said he would leave it to them to say what will or won’t be done.

And of course, there is this question of where “command” starts and stops. It was asked by Workers’ Party NCMP Dennis Tan, who referred to the resignation of  the Taiwanese Defence minister over the death of a soldier and the sacking of the Admiral in charge of the US seventh fleet. It was almost an invitation for Dr Ng to resign. The minister gave him pretty short shrift about “posturing and politicking”.

It’s not the time, I suppose, for recriminations. Let’s see what the SAF, especially the Inspector-General, says and does.


















HIV data leak: MOH has plenty of explaining to do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for Ler, he was in even deeper trouble.

To cite the MOH statement:

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

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

But what the MOH said later was even more intriguing.

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

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

All was quiet until two years later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


No lawyers please, we’re academics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess I sound far too sympathetic now, correct?

So let’s change the topic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But a legal challenge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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








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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the narrative, in my words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All I can see is bullying.

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






FamiLEE saga: Where’s the consistency?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The AGC said it had no response to its queries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s no consistency in this narrative.

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

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

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

Where’s the consistency?

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

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

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



WANTED: transparency in social and health services

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust must be accompanied by transparency.





10 things that got Singapore talking in 2018

In News Reports on December 19, 2018 at 3:06 am

Has it been an exciting year or not? You judge.

1. Who will be Prime Minister?

It was three, then two and finally, the winner emerged! Mr Heng Swee Keat was anointed first assistant-secretary general of the People’s Action Party which put him directly in line to succeed PM Lee Hsien Loong, the current secretary-general. Mr Chan Chun Sing is now second assistant secretary-general. Cabinet changes early next year will cement the sucession. We’re still waiting for that next Singapore Conversation that was promised in the Presidential Address. It’s akan datang, Mr Heng said. The question now is whether the country can expect more of the same style of politics from the 4G or a vision to keep Singapore going especially since….

2. The rich are getting richer while the poor are…

About 100,000 people? Or 200,000? We’re not sure because there is no poverty line or minimum wage level. But questions are being raised about whether meritocracy is really working well enough for those at the bottom to climb up the socio-economic ladder. The issue of inequality was brought to the fore by academic Teo Yue Yenn who wrote the book This is the Face of Inequality, which, among other things, asked if Singapore’s social policies were too rigid to do much uplifting anyway. A television documentary on the issue is now more remembered for the way some young people in the lower educational streams seemed to have resigned themselves to their lot in life because they are not as “smart” as their peers.

3. But is the nation Smart? 

The SingHealth hacking scandal was a blemish in the glossy brochure that glamorises Smart Nation Singapore. The benefits of going cashless even when topping up cash cards, the advent of driverless cars and the installation of smart lamp-posts were thrown in the shade by the loss of more than million people’s personal records, including the medication needs of the PM, to hackers. The pause button was pushed. It looks like it’s all down to people’s sloppiness, kiasi and kiasu attitudes when it comes to preventing, detecting and reporting glitches. But in the usual Singapore style, the work must go on…

4. Even if the High-Speed Railway can’t

The joy Malaysians felt at the return of Dr Mahathir Mohamad as Prime Minister was matched by the pall that fell over Singapore at the prospect of having to deal with the cantankerous 92 year old again. Drama was played out in the media, with public statements from the Malaysian side about stopping/postponing the billion dollar project (now postponed), the price of water and the building of the crooked bridge. New tensions emerged in the form of air and sea space and who has the right to fly or sail in which area. Officials on both sides (which Dr M described as twins) will talk in the second week of January. In the meantime, one Malaysian vessel is still in Singapore waters. With Singapore Coast Guard and Navy keeping watch. And that’s not fake news…

5. Which is going to be harder to come by…

After a parliamentary committee received representations from cyber-security experts, academics and civil society activists. Expect laws, including against tech companies, to govern online speech. At one stage, the committee’s hearings morphed into a history lesson of pre-Singapore independence. Historian P J Thum’s version of history, very uncomplimentary to the PAP, got the panel’s hackles up. They were raised even further when Dr Thum and a few others met Dr M for a dialogue, which some viewed as an attempt to solicit outside intervention in Singapore’s politics. The issue didn’t die. In the aftermath of the exchange of words, TheOnlineCitizen published an article from a contributor who had used another man’s identity. It was deemed as criminal defamation.

6. And which was used again in another case of fake news…

This time, it was online site States Times Review which ran an article which was picked up by Malaysian media alleging that the PM and Singapore were complicit in covering up former Malaysian PM Najib Razak’s 1MDB tracks. The site was shut down and re-opened as the Singapore Herald, which was again banned for articles commenting inappropriately on the Singapore-Malaysia row. FaceBook has refused to remove all traces of the site while one blogger is now facing charges for sharing the original offending article. They are expected to be fodder for the upcoming fake news legislation which online media, including yours truly, is now bracing itself for.

7. But it’s the house which really matters no?

So everyone was in a tizzy when they were told that their old  HDB flats might be worth nothing when their 99 year leases were up. It seems that some people were buying up old flats expecting to reap a windfall when the Selective EnBloc Re-development or SERS comes to their neighbourhood. They skipped the word “selective’’. Now that the flat isn’t the capital investment asset it was made out to be,  they now have to be content with more upgrading exercises to shore up the value. This includes a new Voluntary En-Bloc Redevelopment Scheme, which will allow for some re-development – except that you might not live to see it. But hey, housing prices are coming down – in case, you’re thinking of buying one.

8. And what about getting around? 

Commuters who had enthused about the promotions and discounts when companies with ride railing apps started operating here had to moderate their expectations when Uber was grabbed up by Grab. Regulators had to grapple, belatedly, competition laws, licensing of an increased pool of drivers and complaints about threats to the livelihood of taxi-drivers. They also had to contend with the one, two, three-wheeled contraptions – manually, battery- or electrically-powered – that started perambulating on pavements, roads and open spaces. Shops selling personal mobility devices and bike-sharing companies found themselves saddled with new rules. And cyclists found that they would be responsible for where they left their bikes. That is, not just anywhere.

9.  Is it safe to eat anywhere?

Nothing gets a Singaporean more excited than talking about food. Well-known establishments, such as Mandarin Hotel and Spize, dished out poisoned food, leading to one death and excruciating pain for more than a hundred people. Talk of a link has been pooh-poohed by the National Environment Agency, which attributed the cause to poor personal hygiene and kitchen habits. But less well-known – and humbler – establishments got the spotlight too when food blogger K F Seetoh started campaigning for a better deal for hawkers operating in centres run by social enterprises. Confused talk about high rents, extra fees and cost of management services followed – until the NEA decided that it would play a bigger watchdog role to keep operators and hawkers happy. As it should. After all, Singapore is gunning for a United Nations heritage award for its hawker centre.

10. Finally, let’s talk about sex.

The proposed changes to the Penal Code include plenty on sex crimes, such as tougher penalties for those who prey on minors. Also a crime: marital rape, which husbands were previously immune from. But nothing was said about Section 377A, which criminalises homosexual sex, a bugbear of the LGBT community. Some leading Establishment members, such as Professor Tommy Koh and Mr Ho Kwon Ping, have taken up the cause for its removal, prompting counter-petitions from the pro-377A lobby. Uncharacteristically, the Government is taking a back seat. It won’t move until the “community’’ does and we really don’t know what that means…







Sg-Msia relations: Let’s drop this “twin” talk

In News Reports on December 13, 2018 at 5:02 am

We’ve been getting lessons in geography, cartography and navigation over the past few weeks. I’m glad because I think many people in this small country can’t point north, know just how big or small 2-hectares of land is and calculate distance base on time travelled, rather than in kilometres.

Now our lessons have moved into sea and air dimensions, with history thrown in. The one thing connecting them all: the concept of sovereignty. That is, the power (internationally recognized) to control a certain area, and it’s not just the land mass.

So Malaysia is describing the current spat with Singapore as an issue of sovereignty. The neighbor up north says that it is within its rights to extend its port limits because the waters belong to the country, according to a 1979 map. And so does the air space which planes landing in Singapore’s Seletar airport would have to fly through.

Singapore agrees that the maritime problem is a sovereignty problem. It has been owning the sea space, like, forever, until Malaysia decided to claim it in October. As for air space, Singapore argues that the issue isn’t about sovereignty, but who controls the planes flying in the space. For that, there are international players, like International Civil Aviation Organisation, which are involved as well.

We’re at an impasse, although there are signs of a Malaysian climbdown over the maritime issue. It has pulled back all but one vessel in Singapore waters and said it wants to discuss the dispute with Singapore next month. This is not before, however, pulling a stunt like asking for both sides to refrain from venturing into the disputed area. Singapore said no, as it should, because that would be conceding its sovereignty over the area.

I’m not sure I like the idea of having a Malaysian vessel in Singapore waters over Christmas and the New Year, even if it was ringed by Coast Guard boats and the Singapore Navy. It is not a guest, it is an invader.

I suppose both sides would be careful not to provoke an “accident’’, which sort of reminds me of what it must be like for sailors of different nationalities who patrol the disputed areas in the South China Sea. If an “accident’’ does happen, Singapore made it clear that this would be Malaysia’s fault – its vessels shouldn’t be there in the first place.

(I was actually thinking that if Malaysia wants to station a boat there, we should have a plane hovering in that air space above Johor’s Pasir Gudang. But, hey, that would be a churlish gesture.)

Singapore produced videos of the Singapore navy’s work in the disputed area and Malaysia now has its own video too. While the Singapore video is “real-time’’, the Malaysian video narrated by Malaysian Transport Minister Antony Loke is a simulation of the effects he claims having a flight path over Johor would have on Pasir Gudang. Singapore now says he’s got his mathematics all wrong when he talked about planes crashing into hypothetical cranes and tall buildings.

And Mr Loke’s fears about how the Instrument Landing System would compromise safety is unfounded. It isn’t just computerised, Mr Loke, there’s a pilot there too at the controls of the planes. Planes from Seletar used that same route too, manually, but there wasn’t a chirp about sovereignty then.

Which begs the question of : Why now?

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan asked if Malaysia was raising technical issues because it wants to take over the airspace arrangements put in place since 1974. “Out of the blue in October, suddenly they started a row in air, in water. What’s next? Land transport, too? I wonder why.’’

If the authorities are befuddled, what more us lesser mortals?

Perhaps, the answer lies in something a lot deeper – a resentment of Singapore’s growth. As Malaysian political strategist Rais Hussin put it in a scathing article in the Malay Mail: “When Singapore was expelled by Tunku Abdul Rahman and declared its independence in 1965 —- having first joined Malaysia in 1963 —- it kept growing and growing to a size, at least in GDP, that is somewhat on par with Malaysia now, if not a fraction more.

“This is why we need to be blunt, just as Singapore is blunt to us often: without Malaysia providing all forms of auxiliary support, be they passive or active, in terms of stability provisioned, and concepts like Asean Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality, all of which Kishore Mahbubani himself, a Singaporean, ask his country not to take for granted, Singapore would not be where it is.

“Thus a small gesture of kindness to Malaysia, even an appreciative word, would be nice. Instead Singapore often takes a holier than thou approach.’’

He complained about Singapore’s legalistic approach, forgetting that a legalistic approach would have led to Malaysia coughing up more than $15m in abortive cost for deferring the High Speed Railway.

The fact that he can talk about inflicting “pain by a thousand cuts”  if Singapore interdicts its ships shows how he little regard he has for our (to use a Malaysian word) sensitivities.

I wonder why, after more than 50 years, Malaysia is clinging to this umbilical cord of history. I resent the constant exhortations to remember that we are “brothers’’ and now, “twins’’ as popularised by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

We were separated almost at birth and have since pursued different paths. Malaysia might be geographically bigger and a little older, but we are two sovereign nations with our identities and aspirations.

If Malaysians want to keep invoking the “twin’’ analogy – and who’s the bigger and older one – it is free to do so. There is no need for Singapore to adopt the same approach.

I was aghast therefore when Mr Khaw described the analogy as a good one, although he probably meant it as a jibe: “As twins, we ought to embrace each other and help each other grow, and help each other succeed and celebrate each other’s achievements. Then I think it is so much better.”

Earlier in the week, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu described the relationship in the same way:”We are connected in so many ways. We go to Malaysia for shopping, we go to their place for business, we visit their people all the time. This kind of brotherly or sisterly relationship is one that we really want to continue and to protect.”

Perhaps, 3G leaders can carry on using this abang-adik relationship in their public comment, but I hope the 4G leaders, who were not even born during the 1965 separation would start a new chapter without such historical baggage.

We are neighbours and we want to be neighbourly. That’s enough.

As Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said recently: “Do we want to move forward constructively to prosper thy neighbour, or do we want to colour yet another new generation with beggar thy neighbour policies?”

He said he has met various younger Malaysian leaders since May, and they have expressed the hope that they want to work closer together.

Our relationship has gone back to the times when Dr M held the premiership. That was a generation ago, maybe more.

We should let a new generation of leaders define the relationship.



Taking the measure of Malaysia – and our leaders

In News Reports on December 6, 2018 at 2:39 am

Some of you might know this Singlish phrase: about how if you are weak, others will “makan’’ you. It’s not about someone eating your lunch, but trying to swallow you up if you display a weak point. So you have your armour on and someone thinks he sees a chink.  He tries to chisel away at it to make the hole bigger.

The phrase always comes to my mind when I read about yet another Malaysian attempt at chiseling. I thought we were done with land space connectivity issues even though I think $15m sounds quite little for the supposed abortive costs the Malaysians have to pay Singapore for deferring the High Speed Rail project. The payment deadline is next month, by the way.

Okay, there’s still the proposed crooked bridge between the two countries which the Malaysians think can be built without Singapore’s concurrence or support. I wonder if this engineering feat will cost more than the billions for the HSR project. In any case, like the Malaysians said, it’s not our problem.

Then there is the perennial water pricing issue which Malaysians have reduced to a soundbite: “Why are we selling water to Singapore at such a low price and buying it back at such a high price?’’ It sounds seductive until you know that that the high price Malaysia pays for treated water is a very subsidized price. And it is being re-sold to ordinary Malaysians for much higher. You know what? The Malaysians could always treat their own water, if they can do it at much lower cost. In any case, there is an agreement to talk about it – may it just stay that way.

We had a far stabler bilateral relationship when ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak was in charge, even though he too tried to play the bogeyman card in his last days by re-opening  the Pedra Branca issue which we thought had been dealt with in 2008. But with the Malaysian election over in May this year, returned premier Mahathir Mohamad said he was dropping the case which had been filed before the International Court of Justice in The Hague the year before.

But in general, Mr Najib was far friendlier to Singapore than Dr Mahathir has ever been. Singaporeans buy property in Iskandar, Singapore developers are involved in joint projects. Malaysians still travel to Singapore to work, or live here as permanent residents. Singaporeans do not consider Malaysians “foreigners’’, so integrated are they in the Singapore workforce. By all accounts, Mr Najib and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong get along, but this relationship has been fodder for critics of Singapore, who try to make malicious connections between Mr Najib’s current legal woes and Singapore’s banking system.

It has always seemed to me so odd that the same people who accuse Singapore of being unbending, unsentimental and rule-abiding, should suddenly see the country as a nefarious conspirator working in the shadows to help out a “buddy’’.

Those of us with long memories probably have no illusions about what a Dr M government means for Singapore. Even when he was a guest here last month, he couldn’t help jibing about Singapore’s junior status as the smaller twin. In fact, if I were to put out every belittling remark he has said about the country since he came into power, I could be accused of inciting disharmony.

Malaysia now thinks it sees other chinks in Singapore’s armour – water and air links. Only the G has any real clue about what has been happening behind the scenes that has led to the recent public explosion of statements, emails and historical facts. In fact, I doubt if the Singapore G would have said anything if Transport Minister Anthony Loke did not complain to Malaysian Parliament on Tuesday about Singapore’s “unilateral’’ decision to broadcast a navigation system for Seletar Airport.

This Instrument Landing System would require planes to make their approach over Johor, which Mr Loke said would inconvenience residents and jeopardise port operations at Pasir Gudang. He said Singapore was informed of Malaysia’s position on Nov 28 and 29 but the Republic went ahead with its plan on Dec 1 anyway.

“It is not our stance to take a confrontational approach with any party, much less our neighbours. But this involves our sovereignty, which the Malaysian government will defend in the strongest terms. This involves our airspace, which we will defend, and the interest of Johoreans,” he said.

What he didn’t say was that the Transport ministry here had been raising the issue with his officials since last December, in meetings and in emails – but received no response. Or that Singapore’s right to manage the space had been in place since 1974. Or maybe, he simply didn’t want Seletar airport to take off as an airport for commercial flights, especially since the first client would be Malaysia’s own Firefly.

Still, Mr Loke went on about “reclaiming’’ the airspace over Johor in stages as a matter of “sovereignty’’. He didn’t seem to consider the point about making sure planes don’t collide in mid-air in the congested airspace, or that other countries also let other foreign parties handle parts of their airspace in terms of safety.

Now that he has been reminded of this,  he now claims that Malaysia has better capacity to manage the area. “I understand there are safety issues that needs to be considered, but I am not asking for the airspace to be returned next month.’’

But it’s probably still no-go for Firefly in the meantime? What’s happening at Seletar Airport?

If there was any unilateral action taken, it was by Malaysia which, on October 25, gazetted extended port limits for Johor. Despite protests lodged by Singapore, vessels from the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and Marine Department Malaysia have been venturing into Singapore’s waters over the past two weeks.

It seems that both countries are looking at different maps. Singapore said Johor Baru port limit now “extends beyond even the limits of Malaysia’s territorial sea claim in the area, as set out in Malaysia’s own 1979 map, which Singapore has never accepted”.

Guess what? That 1979 map showed that Pedra Branca fell under Malaysia’s territory. Didn’t we win the case and didn’t Malaysia just drop its claims over the island? Now the port limits are even further? It boggles the mind.

Dr Mahathir has denied the encroachment. “We can measure to see if it is true or not, but we had not touched their border.”

The wonder of Malaysian politicians is that they always make everything public, and have no qualms slagging off their neighbour. Here, the politicians only go public when cornered. It is reflective of the measured, rational style of Singapore’s leadership. But there is really only so much belittling we can take. So far, the 3G leaders have been doing the talking. Will the 4G leadership take a new approach?

Time to take out a measuring tape, and not just for defining the borders.





SingHealth COI: About keeping your head down

In News Reports on December 1, 2018 at 2:13 am

So I asked the doctor if I could send my mother to Changi General Hospital for physiotherapy instead of Singapore General Hospital. Closer to home, I said. But no, she would have to go to the polyclinic to get a referral to a doctor at CGH and then proceed from there.

What about a letter from him for CGH? Cannot. Aren’t they part of the same cluster and have all our medical data on electronic databases? Yes, but still cannot. Then can I use his medication prescription for later at a polyclinic pharmacy, rather that buy them now at the hospital? He doesn’t think so.

But why? His answer was to go ask Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

I rather thought he should go and ask him himself but maybe, there is such a thing as separation of the political and public service. Maybe this was what National Development Minister Lawrence Wong meant when he said that public officers should engage the public and “co-create’’ solutions. I thought to myself that there doesn’t need to be an engagement ‘’exercise’’, but merely a question of being alert to interest of citizens and bringing up improvements to the powers-that-be.

I am reminded of the encounter after reading the summation to inquiry panel on  the SingHealth hacking incident. There are 16 recommendations including technical ones about adding security filters and no-brainers such as using a more complicated password than P@ssw0rd. But we all know that whatever SOPs are in place are no good if the people can’t be bothered to follow them. Or worse, people follow them to the letter rather than hark to the sentiments behind them – which is for efficient and effective problem-solving. (Like banning the sale of rum and raisin ice cream after hours because it contains alcohol.)

If anything, the COI hearings illustrate the depth of complacency pervading the environment of those in charge of our health data. I called it bo chup culture in one column but I think I should also add that it’s about not wanting to rock the boat, or the worry about getting blamed or being singled out as a troublemaker.

I thought about how the employers were more intent on punishing an employee who wanted to move out, rather than consider the helpful advice from the vendor he courted about lapses in the system. I thought about the kiasuism in making sure there was really, really a breach before sounding the alarm. This is to avoid having bosses breathing down their necks and working with “no day, no night”. 

I thought about the guy who discovered the breach and was credited for alerting his boss – who did nothing. I think credit should be given if that same guy took his suspicions elsewhere when he realised his boss was sitting on the problem.

Our standards have become so low that we praise people for doing their duty and earning their salary. The flip side is: we lay no blame on those who don’t.

Plenty of wags have commented that this attitude of keeping your head down is more pervasive than we think. It is an organizational culture that breeds silence and consent, not one that encourages initiative and action. If this is true for big public sector agencies, then we are in big trouble. The private sector has the profit-making imperative to kick employees out of their complacency so as to gain market share, or to get a lead on rivals. Their bonuses and sometimes, even their continued employment, depend on it. The public sector has what? Random audits by the Auditor-General? A complaints box? A rehearsal or drill that they are prepared for because they know when it’s coming?

We’ve been hearing a lot about cultural issues lately. SMRT Mr Neo Kian Hong, made a remarkable declaration two weeks ago that  the “deep-seated cultural issues” of human error or failure characterised by his predecessor Desmond Kuek do not exist within the SMRT. That was a bold move, and he must hope that no major lapses occur on his watch or he would have to put it down to the usual excuse of “technical issues’’.

I don’t think Mr Kuek made himself popular with SMRT staff with his comments, because it tarred everyone in the organization. But I think he was brave to actually blame “people’’ because we are so averse to making people feel bad. So if a few people let down an organization, should we dismiss the whole barrel? Of course not, but it would be good if the rest of the apples realize that they too had a part to play in letting the bad ones rot to such an extent.

I happen to think that this approach of keeping your head down and not attracting attention is something that is embedded in our psyche. I see it all the time when I ask my class of undergraduates if they have any questions and I get no response. I’m sure it prevails even among those whose job it is to ask questions. Either because we’ve lost the art of asking questions or we simply don’t think we should do any asking because it’s considered so, so rude.

Taking initiative, like interrupting a class with questions, is even worse. You’ll be accused of wanting the limelight and “spoiling the market’’. You’ll be accused of adding to other people’s workload and raising expectations. No one wants to stand out and be noticed. It’s not Singaporean to be ambitious, not even for politicians.

However “smart” we are as a nation, it’s the people who are the source of good and bad. If people don’t take pride in their work, or in whichever organization they belong to, then they really just are cogs in a wheel. At a national level, we see it everywhere. We live our own lives and do our own thing. We think nothing will happen if we speak or take action – and we don’t even want to try.

It’s depressing.

I want to say that the encounter with the doctor was just a blip on an otherwise very good day at the hospital. I have always been impressed by the service and civility of the staff in SGH, from the security guard to the receptionists to the front-line nurses. This is one organisation with a culture of excellence and professionalism. Its record might have been marred by high-profile incidents, especially by senior people, but its rank-and-file have much to be proud of.

I guess Mr Neo feels the same about SMRT.