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Town council suit: Low defends FMSS appointment

In News Reports on October 16, 2018 at 11:52 am

I knew there would be fireworks but I didn’t think the trial would start with a bang, with Senior Counsel Davinder Singh accusing Mr Low Thia Kiang of attempting to reduce his cross-examination time by insisting on having a Chinese interpreter on board. He called the request a “stunt”, a term which Mr Low’s lawyer, SC Chelva Rajah objected to. In any case, it was quickly resolved with a pledge by the defence that the interpreter would be used only when Mr Low found it easier to express his thoughts in Mandarin.

This beginning, however, set the tone for the rest of the exchange between the veteran Workers’ Party politician and the former People’s Action Party MP, who is acting for the independent entity that is Aljunied-Hougang town council. It got testy at times with Mr Singh chiding Mr Low for laughing on the stand. Mr Low once shot back at the end of an exchange: “I am not that stupid, Mr Singh”.

With the two auditors out of the way, the court yesterday turned its attention to the defendants, which include two other WP MPs, Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Pritam Singh. Mr Davinder Singh opened his cross-examination by getting Mr Low to agree that the role of a town councillor was above party politics, and dedicated to serving the interests of residents who pay service and conservancy fees. The words “honest town councillor” would pepper most of Mr Singh’s questions.

For the next three hours, the focus was on the circumstances leading to the appointment of FM Solutions and Services as the town council’s managing agent, which is a key plank of the plaintiffs’ suit to get the defendants to account for $33million they had paid out. The defence had always contended that it had little choice but to appoint the company led by the husband-and-wife team, Ms How Weng Fan and the late Danny Loh, because the former managing agent, CPG Facilities, did not want to continue with its job at Aljunied Town Council.

Mr Singh took Mr Low through emails and correspondence in the first week of WP’s takeover of Aljunied GRC in May 2011 to make the point that contrary to the WP’s assertions, it was never its intention to retain CPG.  Rather, it was “crystal clear”, said Mr Singh, that the party wanted CPG “out right from the start and at all cost” for the benefit of Ms How and the staffers at WP-run Hougang TC. That was why Mr Low suggested that a company be set up, and this accomplished before the week was out.

“You’ve come to this court to talk about politics but instead what you were doing was putting politics above the residents,” he said. Mr Low denied the charge repeatedly and claimed that FMSS’ establishment was a “contingency plan” put in place to ensure that residents had a smooth transition from one party to another.

It wasn’t a good day for Mr Low.

He was forced to admit that he did not look at the contract between CPG and the former PAP town council, whether to ascertain its terms and conditions or see if  any penalties would be incurred for breaches such as a sudden pull-out. Yet, FMSS was allowed to levy the same rates as CPG. Mr Singh deemed his attitude  “reckless”, which got Mr Low’s hackles up.

Mr Singh claimed that a series of communications between Ms How and CPG in the first week on the transfer of town council documents, including its financials, also indicated that CPG would not be retained as managing agent. Mr Low, however, contended that the transfer was merely to effect a change of management from the PAP to WP.

Mr Singh also alleged that the communication was carefully crafted so that CPG would think that its estate management work would be done “in-house”, that is, directly by the town council. He said this was done so that the WP would not be pressured into calling for a tender, leaving the field open to only FMSS.

There were quite a few issues regarding FMSS, which was suggested by Mr Low and incorporated within a few days after the 2011 general election, such as:

a. Why pick people who didn’t have the experience of running a town with 40,000 units to manage the estate instead trying to retain a tried and tested one like CPG? Mr Low reiterated that FMSS was an alternative fallback plan because he was uncertain if CPG would stay on. He acknowledged later that he didn’t ask CPG, nor did CPG indicate, if it wanted to pull out  to continue. Not until May 30.

b. Why didn’t WP simply employ Ms How and have salaried employees as was the case with the Hougang TC which had been under direct management of the MPs? Mr Low’s case was that direct management took up too much of an MP’s time and would not offer staff a career path. It was best to outsource the job to a reliable and trustworthy managing agent, which Ms How had proven herself to be in Hougang TC.

c. But why set up a company which would have as profit as one of its objectives? Mr Low  said he didn’t consider this as a factor. Mr Singh then claimed that it was to persuade an initially reluctant Ms How and Mr Loh to continue working for the town council.

Mr Singh also noted that Mr Low had said in his affidavit that he thought the introduction of a new company would inject competition into the estate management  business and would be an attractive option to for other opposition parties which managed to win wards in elections. “You wanted a start-up to boost the work of opposition parties,” said Mr Singh. Mr Low replied that he was talking about the positive outcomes that a start-up in the market could bring.

As I said, it wasn’t a good day for Mr Low. Mr Singh kept his questioning tight, requiring   yes or no answers. His key message was that Mr Low did not exercise “due diligence” in the running of the town council, and wasn’t behaving like an “honest town councillor”.

The cross examination continues tomorrow and we might hear more about the pullout of Action Integrated Management (AIM), which the defendants claim had left the town council stripped of software. All we got today was how, even in the initial week, WP had asked CPG for the financial records and a meeting with its  computer vendor, because it wanted to upgrade its in-house system to incorporate Aljunied’s data.

Mr Low corrected Mr Singh: “Upscale, not upgrade”.

Mr Singh thanked Mr Low for correcting his English.

In reply, Mr Low thanked the lawyer for having a higher regard for his command of the English language than the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Town Council trial: An accounting or political issue?

In News Reports on October 13, 2018 at 3:24 am

First, an admission. I was in court only for a day, and not even the full day, to hear the lawsuits involving the Workers’ Party town council. I caught the final part of KPMG’s Owen Hawkes testimony in court and the beginning of Price Waterhouse Coopers’ Goh Thien Pong’s cross-examination on Thursday.

It was, to put it plainly, tedious listening. Files were piled high around the lawyers and the witnesses and plenty of references made to this or that page, file, email, correspondence, invoice, serial number, payment voucher, work order and other terms that bean counters would be more familiar with. This meant that there were frequent spans of silence as lawyer and witness – as well as judge – try to, literally, get on the same page.

If there was anything to be gleaned from the six days of proceedings reported in The Straits Times, Channel NewsAsia and TODAY, it is that every single thing discussed, ordered and paid for in a town council had to be nailed down in black-and-white. Not only that. They must be filed in the relevant column, relevant document and signed off by the relevant people. Which means that the different parties must know about standard operating procedures of the town council which, again, has to be put down somewhere in black-and-white, and not merely in the form of instructions or guidelines via email. And all this must fit in with the Town Council Financial Regulations that govern all town councils. Phew.

Yup, it’s a bureaucracy that’s bound with red tape. I guess a layman, including me, would either yawn or gasp at the incredible amount of verification and cross-checking that has to take place and wonder about the necessity of some steps. Signing off on something, for example, doesn’t mean you’ve read it or checked it – but it must be assumed that you’ve done your due diligence. And does it matter if you’ve missed a step when you are sure others have done their part?

Rules are rules, the two auditors made clear. They must be uniformly and consistently applied.

So what are the lawsuits about? Here’s a quick re-cap:

  1. It isn’t just one, but two lawsuits. They were filed by Aljunied-Hougang town council (via an independent panel) and Pasir Ris-Punggol town council, which belongs to the People’s Action Party.
  2. The two lawsuits are filed against the same people though: three WP MPs who held/still hold positions in the town council, and five others including the managing agents who run FM Solutions and Services. In addition, the plaintiffs want WP MPs Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh to pay more than $2m in damages because a higher-priced architect was hired for seven of 10 contracts.
  3. The lawsuits are about a sum of some $33.7m which the auditors calculate and contend were improper payments for various reasons: like paying more than the town council should have, not having proper documents or no documentation, missing signatures, all while there is a conflict of interest as the managing agents also hold town council positions.

Some new information that wasn’t available to the auditors at that time emerged during the trial, such as how some documents were already delivered to the PRPTC when it took over Punggol East from the WP in the last General Election and some emails giving reasons for hiring one contractor over another. Both auditors, however, stuck to their positions that as far as they were concerned, payments were improper, policies were inconsistent  and that whatever controls that were said to be in place were simply insufficient.

If you go by the book, it looks like the plaintiffs have a strong case because most of point c is accurate. But this is a court case, which means the defendents have a lot to say about why things are what they are and it doesn’t mean that they have neglected their duty to serve the residents or didn’t exercise enough oversight.

So the defence lawyers  Chelva Rajah and Leslie Netto, beyond contending that some of the auditors’ sums were wrong, have raised other issues that are more “accessible’’ to the laymen. This includes how the opposition had been stymied by the PAP machinery right from the beginning and how the auditors did not take into account “human’’, “social’’ or “emotional’’ factors involved.

“I am an accountant,’’ said KPMG’s Mr Hawkes at one point when pressed about whether he took into account possible job losses in the town council should the original managing agent, CPG Facilities, be retained by the WP to run Aljunied-Hougang TC.

He added: “While I do understand these are employees of an organisation and there is a potential they would lose their jobs … What we’ve been asked to do is to account for the cost of AHTC in taking on one of two managing agents.”

Nor was “trust’’ an element that accountants considered when doing its work, when Senior Counsel Rajah suggested to him that the FMSS husband-and-wife owners Danny Loh and How Weng Fan were “reliable and trustworthy” individuals known to the elected town councillors for “many years”.

“Trust is not the control, but is in fact the enemy of control,” he replied adding later that he didn’t think there was total trust between the MPs and the managing agent because the MPs were kept out of the loop on some conversations because the agents wanted to be in “self-protection’’ mode.

“Notwithstanding that you know somebody and trust them, you can’t forgo control,” Mr Hawkes added. He also contested the point that the MPs were happy with the work of FMSS, or they wouldn’t have held back some $250,000 in payments in February 2015 to make up for its deficiencies.

Lawyer Mr Netto, however, was positive that theMPs would have a different view: “I think we’ll have to listen to the MPs when they come on the stand. I think you’ll see that they are happy.”

At another juncture, Mr Rajah asked PwC’s Mr Goh: “Did your report deal with the factors, the compulsions that caused the defendants to seek the assistance of (FMSS early on) to prevent the intended tripping of (AHTC)?”

Mr Goh replied: “We don’t consider emotional factors.”

“That is a factor of political life,” Mr Rajah said.

The hiring of FMSS is a major plank of the plaintiffs’ case, as the managing agent was also signing off on payments to itself.

Here’s where the defence is making much hay of what happened in 2011: That it was CPG, the PAP’s former managing agent, who wanted out of the contract and yesterday, it transpired that it could only continue to work if it used a certain computer system which had been pulled out of use. That system is the much-touted system run by Action Integrated Management, a PAP-owned company.

The auditors stuck to their guns on how CPG should have been persuaded to stay on to serve out the rest of its contract – or put out a tender.  Retaning CPG would have saved the town council costs. Instead it resorted to the expedient option of using agents who were not familiar with running a far bigger place than they are used to.

The two auditors took every blow as they came, sticking to the script on the need for proper financial controls and oversight.

There were two points when KPMG’s Mr Hawkes was caught flat-footed. He couldn’t give a direct answer when asked how to account for why the G had openly said it had no problems with WP waiving a tender for a managing agent at that time and hiring FMSS. He also said he did not know that the secretary of the previous PAP town council, Mr Jeffrey Chua, was also managing director of CPG and had shares in CPG’s holding company. Still, he said:  “The question is not whether there is a conflict of interest. The question is how severe is it and what are the steps taken to manage it.’’

Mr Hawkes recovered considerably when the argument turned to whether the town council could even have worked effectively as it was “stripped’’ of its computer system. He conceded that even though the town council had a hard time initially trying to introduce and scale up a new computer system, everything should have been in place after five years.

PWC’s Mr Goh, however, drew some laughter in the courtroom when he insisted that processes must be followed to the letter, like attaching photographic evidence that polling stations for the last general election had been set up according to specifications before paying the contractor, even though Mr Rajah noted that the GE has “come and gone’’.

I don’t have the list of witnesses but it appears to me that CPG should be called to the stand to expound on its side of the story. It also seems that more information should be available on the practices of other town councils, such as whether they too parked similar contracts under project management services that had to be paid for, rather as part of the managing agent’s duties.

For example, Mr Rajah told Mr Hawkes that the former managing agent, CPG, had also charged the PAP town council similar fees, adding: “But you reviewing the project documentation thought otherwise?”

Mr Hawkes replied: “That is correct, and it wouldn’t be the first case (where a client has disagreed with an accountant’s definitions)… Our view was that this fell under basic services, at least in part.”

I wonder if other auditors agree.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the defence keeps referring to the elephant in the room, the residents under the WP’s charge, in the cross-examination. Mr Netto kept asserting that the residents are happy, something which the auditors should have considered as services that have been “satisfactorily delivered”. Those who are flummoxed by the complexity of this case will probably have the same question.

Mr Hawkes’ retort: “The suggestion isn’t that the lifts didn’t work and the streets are dirty,” he said. “Having been to Hougang on many occasions, it’s not some kind of ‘Mad Max’ or wasteland…

“It’s the management of the town council’s affairs itself, rather than the maintenance that concerned us.”

In other words, this is an accounting problem, nothing to do with politics as far as the auditors were concerned. It is about financial propriety and controls which is probably an arcane subject to most residents.

It must be noted that the case so far has only involved the defence lawyers and auditors. The plaintiff’s lawyers have yet to make their case nor have the politicians taken the stand. That’s when we can expect fireworks.

CNA and ST episodes: About trust and transparency in the media

In News Reports on October 12, 2018 at 2:16 am

I have been waiting to see if MediaCorp would do an ST, that is, be compelled to reveal more details of what looks like a scandal which had erupted in its organisation. But it seems that MCS has decided to hold its tongue. I am talking about online reports which have surfaced regarding the termination/sacking/resignation of senior journalist Bharati Jagdish.

I am not in the habit of sharing posts from online news sites, but I gather that The Online Citizen’s post on her departure was, in the main, accurate: That she had left the company in the wake of a parliamentary exchange that had mentioned her reporting.

If you haven’t been following the debate on ministerial salaries and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean’s defence of the salary framework in Parliament on Oct 1, here’s a run-down.

DPM Teo referred to a reported published on Channel NewsAsia’s website on an interview with Banyan Tree Holdings chairman Ho Kwon Ping. Among other things, Mr Ho talked about ministerial salaries.

This is the part which DPM Teo referred to, when the report appeared on Sept 30:

At one point during our interview, he includes Singapore ministers in this group. 

“My salary is decided by the board and my salary is lower than the ministers so I probably belong to the group of people who might be considered mediocre, unfortunately.”

His salary, including benefits and a bonus, according to Banyan Tree Holdings’ 2017 Annual Report was over S$2.5 million, so it’s certainly not lower than ministers’ salaries.

“Lower than ministers? Really? I’m shocked,” I say.

“Well, but I don’t know about everything. All I can say is that we are still every year winning corporate awards for transparency and disclosure, so whatever those  guidelines are, we are definitely one of the best. I try, But that doesn’t mean you may find me in every way, walking the talk.

This is what DPM Teo said in Parliament about how well-meaning people with a deep interest in politics have misconceptions about ministerial salaries.

I read Mr Ho Kwon Ping’s extensive interview with CNA, which was published yesterday.

Among other things, he suggested pegging Ministerial salaries to the median salary of Singaporeans. He also suggested an independent Commission to decide the actual quantum. And Mr Louis Ng, in an earlier similar interview, also suggested that there should be public consultations…

…But even Mr Ho, who is well-informed and has a deep interest in politics, has some serious misconceptions. He claimed, for example, that his salary is lower than the Ministers.

Sir, fortunately, the interviewer had checked, done the homework, and pointed out to Mr Ho that his salary, including benefits and bonus – I would not mention the figure, but it is significantly higher than that of Ministers and certainly not lower than Minister’s salaries.

Sir, otherwise the misrepresentation could have been carried widely and spread more disinformation.

The only news media which contacted Mr Ho for a response to DPM Teo’s remarks was TODAY. :

Mr Ho said it was unfortunate that the Channel NewsAsia interview had given an impression “which not only made me seem quite ignorant or untruthful about my own remuneration, but also critical of the amount of ministerial salaries”. 

“I was not ‘corrected’ by the interviewer — I was referring to basic salaries and she used my total compensation instead. Anyone in the corporate world will realise the two are quite different,” he explained.

Mr Ho stressed that he had never criticised the “absolute level of ministerial salaries” and “fully agree that their work is more important to the nation than my own business enterprise”.

“I have reservations about how they are computed and pegged,” he said.

In an interview with news site Mothership a few days later, he reiterated his position:

 “I have absolutely no reservations about their absolute amount, which I have always publicly argued is more than justified not only because of their contributions, but in order to ensure that the entire public sector… will never need to succumb to the open or hidden corruption in both developing or even very developed countries.”Ho said that he could imagine that the way the interview was structured, “it would seem as if that actually I was not entirely truthful, that I was trying to make a dig at ministerial pay”.

That’s far from the truth, he said emphatically.

Ho clarified that he was in fact referring to the process of basic remuneration rather than the absolute amounts, adding that he was not “corrected” by the interviewer.

He was referring to basic salaries and she used his total compensation instead, before concluding that “anyone in the corporate world will realise the two are quite different”.

This is all so intriguing.

So what did he say and what did the reporter do? At this point, editors would have to get into the picture to find out if the reporter made an error, misinterpreted comments and, worse, fabricated quotes. If editors stood by the story, they would have not amended the report – but they did.

Mr Ho’s answer on how his company won corporate awards for transparency was deleted. Instead, the new quote is this: “Well, but I don’t do much you know, ministers care for the country and I belong to the mediocre class.”

Then there was this paragraph inserted, as well as an Editor’s note.

(When asked for his comments by TODAY a day after this interview was published, Mr Ho said that “I was referring to basic salaries and she used my total compensation instead. Anyone in the corporate world will realise the two are quite different. In his clarification, Mr Ho stressed that he had never criticised the “absolute level of ministerial salaries” and “fully agree that their work is more important to the nation than my own business enterprise”.)

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article suggested that the interviewer had highlighted Mr Ho’s total compensation during the interview. This point was in fact not made during the interview. We apologise for the error.

The next thing we know, the reporter in question was no longer in the organization. I have no idea what happened in the interim, but I can see several issues worth examining, especially in this era when so much is said about “trust’’ in media.

First, you don’t need to put out fake news to stir the pot. You can put out the facts – but in the wrong places.

Second, DPM Teo trusted the mainstream media so much that he actually commended the reporter for doing her homework in “correcting’’ Mr Ho. Mr Ho contests this point. If you have been in the business long enough, (and DPM Teo is not a journalist) you will see that the paragraph on Mr Ho’s total salary look like it had been inserted into the story and he looks like an idiot who tried to rescue himself by saying he doesn’t know everything including, presumably, his salary. A tenacious reporter, as  Ms Bharati is known to be, wouldn’t have let something go like that in the course of the interview.

Third, it could be that Ms Bharati found out later, after the interview, that Mr Ho isn’t a “mediocre’’ salaryman and thought it was  important to make the point to provide “balance’’. If so, she should have contacted Mr Ho with the information during which he would probably have corrected her assumptions about total compensation package or basic pay.

Fourth,  did Mr Ho say those things about his company being among the best or not? Is this a fabrication or just an editor exercising judgment that the point was not worth the space used? Deleting a quote and replacing it with another is easy to do in the online space. But it’s not professional unless an explanation was provided to those who had noticed the change.

Fifth, I can’t imagine how a senior journalist like Ms Bharati could even think that it was right to insert that paragraph on his pay and make it look like she had tackled him on it. A rookie reporter could have made the mistake, because he or she doesn’t have the skills to navigate a difficult story. Even so, it would have been caught by a sharp-eyed editor who would have asked: “Wow. Ho Kwon Ping doesn’t know how much he’s paid? Really?’’

Some people have asked whether Ms Bharati deserved the sack or whatever euphemism that MCS wants to come up with. My position is yes. And this is despite knowing that Ms Bharati is a far better interviewer than most in the profession. Why? I am going to get up on a high horse now and say “journalistic ethics”. Her report had led to a misconception about Mr Ho being raised in no less august a place than Parliament, and by a personage no less than the DPM. It casts a pall over her previous work, as legitimate questions will be raised about whether due diligence was exercised over her past reports. DPM Teo actually owes Mr Ho an apology for, ironically, relying on his faith in MSM. That seems to me grounds enough for a dismissal.

I suppose I will be criticized for being harsh. But severe disciplinary action is the standard editorial policy for mistakes that don’t seem to be a result of carelessness, bad language use or lack of expertise. I don’t know if MCS did so, but it should have a disciplinary inquiry to get to the bottom of the matter, at least as a cautionary tale to its own staff on what not to do.

What is troubling is how readers are more interested in the scandal that engulfed The Straits Times earlier this month, rather than this more pertinent lapse in professional ethical standards. Most people are (still) all agog about who did what when TOC broke the story on the demotion and deployment of two editors over their respective relationship with a subordinate. Sex sells, I suppose.

For readers, what should matter is whether these illegitimate relationships affected the quality of ST, and therefore, the readers’ interest. It doesn’t seem to have had that effect.  What’s worse is ST’s response, It was paltry and unsatisfactory to say the least.  If it had decided to take the heat, then it should have reported the case like it would any scandal.

In the case of CNA, however, there is no excuse for silence given the very public nature of the issue: DPM, ministerial salaries, Parliament and a prominent Singaporean. It is interesting that rival MCS didn’t touch the ST scandal, nor did the Singapore Press Holdings stable of newsrooms report on Ms Bharati’s departure. I hope MSM realises that this omission merely confirms the need for media that is outside the duopoly.

What the ST and CNA episodes also show is how the two media organisations have very different standards when it comes to reporting their own shortcomings, compared to other people’s shortcomings.  It used to be that news media come down much harder on their own than on others, because it must have the credibility to demand transparency and openness. This is how trust is built up, when the public knows that the media holds itself to higher standards than the rest.

Because what can a journalist say to a newsmaker who responds with: “Why should I tell you anything when you don’t tell me everything?’’

 

WP town council case: It began a long time ago…

In News Reports on October 9, 2018 at 4:02 am

I feel like I have been taken back in time, to right after the 2011 General Election. That’s when the Workers’ Party wrested Aljunied GRC from the People’s Action Party. I remember at that time, I actually thought I had gone even further back, to the aftermath of the 1991 General Election, when WP’s Low Thia Kiang took over Hougang.

That’s because old news is coming back to the fore, of the difficulties that opposition faced when it had to run a town council. So old battles are reprised, old wounds re-opened, and we see that the boils have continued to fester.

So the entity that is Aljunied-Hougang Town Council is suing seven people, including three WP MPs, for the return of $33m which it claims had been wrongfully paid out to its former managing agent and other contractors. It’s got two audit reports to back up its case with a list of lapses as long as your arm.

The audits make it look like the WP was trying to run a provision shop with its kakis, instead of a professional outfit with proper rules and financial processes. It has shades of the National Kidney Foundation saga, which ended up with the new entity bankrupting former executives, also backed up by an auditor’s report.

Over the years, there is the sniff of cronyism and the hint of fraud hanging over the heads of the WP. Yet, despite several mentions, no criminal charge has been brought against anyone in the town council although there were various mentions of breaches of the Companies Act. More recently, the Town Council Act was amended to plug loopholes regarding the duties and liabilities of town councilors.

Accountants and lawyers will probably have a field day dissecting the fine print of the charges and mulling over terms like fiduciary and statutory duties. The laymen will gasp at the dollar amounts and wonder if their service and conservancy charges as well as G grants were put to good use, even if no money had gone into other people’s pockets.

But a town council is not a charity, like the NKF, which is surrounded by a thicket of safeguards over donor’s money. It is a political organization, run by politicians, who would naturally rope in politically like-minded people to lend them a hand, hopefully, gratis. It has an incentive to prove itself worthy of its electoral mandate and out-perform its political rivals.

The town council’s lawyer Davinder Singh worries about the WP turning the court case into a political soapbox. His worry is well-founded because which opposition party would not portray itself as the injured party driven to circumstances because of shackles placed by a more powerful force? WP’s lawyer Chelva Rajah in fact asserted that the PAP had a track record of making “things difficult  for opposition-run town councils”

So the memory recall machine is put into high gear, with affidavits filed on how, for example, the Housing Board terminated its Essential Maintenance Service Unit contract and computer services for Hougang Town Council, and Mr Low had to find alternatives. Mr Low’s town council also had to leave the premises it occupied within three to four months of notice, and his request for an extension of time was rejected.

The memory machine also kicked out some other episodes like the CPG pull-out of Aljunied TC in 2011. CPG  had openly said it was difficult to service an opposition town council when it also had contracts with PAP-led ones. Since the hearing started on Friday, there was this question raised about why CPG wasn’t retained, especially since it was cheaper.

The WP’s response  in court was based on its 1991 history – and practical politics. Pre-empting a similar 1991 withdrawal by the HDB, the WP said it made contingency plans involving its old managers in Hougang TC which later became corporatized as FM Solutions and Services. In fact, when it put out a tender after gaining Aljunied GRC, none of the three estate management companies put up a bid.

There was also the embarrassing matter of Action Integrated Management systems (AIM) which the G admitted was a $2 PAP company, handling town council backend work for all the PAP town councils. It pulled out of Aljunied too, leaving WP, or so WP says, having to re-work a system which had to be scaled up from serving a single seat ward to a GRC. It took ages. Hence, lapses.

The AIM saga, circa 2012, is probably an episode that the PAP would rather forget. It could, in fact, be said to be the spark that ignited the today’s flames. Hitting back at that time, the PAP pointed to the tangled web of conflicting interests in the WP town council, and this attack continued with the WP’s failure to secure its auditor’s unqualified green light for its finances almost every year.

Then came the threat to hold back HDB grants, the recourse to the courts, the public accounting of what lapses had been fixed and what had not, and the setting up of an independent panel to supervise the TC, which took out this civil suit now led by Mr Singh, a former PAP MP.

In between, there was a general election in 2016, which resulted in WP losing its single-seat ward of Punggol East and a smaller vote share for Aljunied GRC and Hougang.

What new revelations can we expect from this court case, besides some firm numbers fixed to WP’s list of alleged wrong-doings? One issue is about the classification of projects and whether they should be considered as part of the managing agent’s basic fee coverage or as separate projects to be paid for. That accounts for $1.2m of the sum in contention. An interesting point was raised about how this was the past practice of the previous PAP town council.

This court case is framed as a legal issue of recovering money owed to residents, but no one is under illusions about the ramifications of the result, whether it goes one way or the other. If the WP side managed to defend itself successfully, then there will be a fuss about how this rigmarole which was several years in the making is a colossal waste of everybody’s time. There will be plenty of red faces on the PAP side.

If it goes the other way, I doubt that the seven people named as plaintiffs have deep enough pockets to pay large sums if the verdict goes against them. Mr Low might well have cause to repeat his line about being “sued till pants drop’’. Bankruptcy would disqualify the three MPs from standing for re-election.

I believe the laymen would view this as political persecution even if it is really legal prosecution. You can prevent the spread of fake news but not people’s perception of real news.

That’s politics.

 

 

 

CNA survey: Class is the great divider

In News Reports on October 2, 2018 at 3:32 am

There’s quite a good ChannelNewsAsia documentary, Regardless of Class, on television which stars Senior Minister of State Janil Puthucheary. What’s more interesting is that it is underpinned by a survey of about 1,000 Singaporeans aged 18 to 74, who were asked for their views on  the social divide.

Here are some key points:

a. Half of the respondents think class is the biggest social divide while only 20 per cent picked out race or religion.

This means that our perception of fault lines have changed. It’s how much you earn and the socio-economic status you have or are perceived by others to hold, that will pull society apart. But what if class lines coincide with race?

b. Here’s how the respondents perceived the characteristics of the upper class and the lower class.

Upper class: Able to speak good English, plan ahead and domineering. That view is held by more than 90 per cent of respondents. Also, more than 90 per cent described the group as “arrogant” and “luckier” than the less well-off.

Lower class: Friendly, caring and tend to speak Singlish. More than 90 per cent of respondents picked the first characteristic. Only 3

If it sounds familiar to you, this is because it has echoes of the much-derided social studies guide book for students which described the characteristics of the those with different socio-economic status. Like how the high SES eat in fine restaurants and those at the other end prefer hawker centres.

c. This bit is about sense of belonging to the country. It isn’t clear here how CNA divided the respondents into upper and lower classes, but the two groups were asked how dear their country was to them.

Upper class: 70 per cent felt a strong sense of belonging while 76 per cent declared themselves proud to be Singapore

Lower class: 46 per cent felt they belonged here while 50 per cent evinced feelings of national pride.

d. The two classes also place different importance on the impact of education. The lower class mentioned education as a way out of poverty, while those in the upper classes didn’t even mention it. Perhaps this is because the upper class have already grasped the education quotient. You can see this in the different attitudes of parents and students  in IP schools, and those in the Normal stream

IP students and their parents:  expect at least ‘A’s and to go to university, locally or abroad.

Normal stream students and their parents:  expect a pass in all their subjects and a little bit of improvement, and also to get into the Institute of Technical Education.

Are any of the findings, beyond getting numbers pinned on them, of surprise to you? The documentary had some heartbreaking interviews with Normal Stream students talking about being looked down upon, and security guards about abuse from residents whose estates they serve. There was an unnamed individual who works at McDonalds who declared her “invisible”. They spoke matter-of-factly, which made their comments more poignant.

Income inequality is a perennial hot topic which was re-ignited by the publication of academicTeo You Yenn’s book, This is what Inequality looks like, in which she argued that some policies intended to help the poor could actually be hindering access instead. (She wasn’t interviewed in the documentary, which was a surprise.) Singapore’s Gini co-efficient is among the highest in the world, at 0.450 last year. After taking into account G transfers and taxes, it’s 0.401. The G has tried its level best to explain that the figures do not reflect the interventions at ground level, such as subsidies, the different methodologies employed in the calculation of the index and how a large swathe of the population pay no income tax at all. But it doesn’t wave away  the fact that the Gini co-efficient is high.

We’re breeding a society of haves and have-nots with those sandwiched in-between believing that they belong in the have-not category. Hence the angst over ministerial pay and complaints about grants and subsidies pegged to housing type. But better a culture of envy, methinks, than a culture of resignation. One part of the survey which reflects this resignation: Only half of the people from the lower class were confident that their next generation’s financial situation will improve.

So many schemes have been enacted to alleviate the plight of the poor, and we can only hope that new pre-school initiatives would give those at the bottom a push to get to the same starting line as every other child. Then, there are now housing plans to put rental and owner-occupied flats in the same area, to promote social mixing. But there are still concerns that this won’t work as people have different needs.

The calls to be an inclusive society should be accompanied by tangible actions. I don’t think it is enough for the G to enact new or more schemes for the poor. And while I lament the different attitudes people have towards rich and poor, I acknowledge that you can’t police what people say or feel about themselves and others. Cultural changes  take a long time.

There is a simple action that I wish to propose, which would test the empathy of the upper classes for those who are less fortunate.

You know the Singapore bonus, GST rebates and other payouts  that are now in pipeline? They have always been contentious because they are given out based on different criteria like household type or family income. How often have you heard the grumble that rich people don’t need $100? I think the Finance Ministry should consider including an option to let those who don’t need the pay-out to re-direct the money somewhere else. Perhaps, the money could go into a pot to be divided among those in need, like public assistance recipients.

This could be a standard feature for all future G pay-outs.

I think this will be a good gesture. Far better than calls to raise the marginal income tax rate, because it is also voluntary. It might well be that too few people would give up their pay-out, which only reflects on us as a society, or it would be a tangible way to show that we are serious about being an inclusive society, regardless of class.

How about it, Finance ministry?

 

 

 

Let’s not even talk about quality journalism

In News Reports on September 30, 2018 at 3:05 am

One day, I am going to post something controversial on my Facebook wall, and see whether it gets picked up as news. I know it’s common to share posts online, even if they are dubious and incredible. But it should not be common for FB posts to make it into the news media. Unfortunately, FB “reporting’’ is becoming, well, common.

If my post does make it as a news story, along with other posts commenting on the original one, I will issue a denial. I never posted that, I will say. It was my nine-year old nephew who did so. Then the outcry will be about how the post was set to “public’’, and hence, it’s fair game. How would anyone know that the poster wasn’t me? My answer will be: the journalist should have verified it with me before attributing it to me. I keep wondering if anyone checked with Prof Tommy Koh whether he really posted that one-liner on challenging the constitutionality of Section 377A that has opened the debate on the criminalization of homosexual sex. Everybody assumed it was him. What a laugh it would be if he said that it wasn’t him, but his grandson.

The current angst over the proliferation of fake news skirts the issue of what constitutes journalism. And I mean journalism, not even quality journalism – which is what the parliamentary select committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods keeps referring to as a counter-measure to fake news. The key principles of journalism (basic or quality) are verification and attribution. Only with both then we can say that we have the facts or something close to the truth, because the sourcing is unimpeachable.

I have always hated the term “citizen’’ journalism, because it degrades the journalism profession. So a controversial photograph by a “citizen’’ journalist makes the rounds and people immediately leap into comment mode. This isn’t journalism, this is an eye-witness account of something that happened. A journalist would have dug into the whys and wherefores to present the complete picture, and not just talk about what he saw or heard. Then comments would be tempered by more information, and not just based on knee-jerk reactions.

Yet too often we see news stories that are made up of a whole lot of FB posts strung together – and no notification to the reader on whether they have been checked and verified with the source.  We see online petitions making the news without being given a clue about who started it. Readers seem take it on faith – that somebody else has done the checks and it must be true.

Increasingly, it appears that news must be something that has appeared on social media, has got online tongues wagging or has gone viral. Preferably with a video.  You would think that nothing newsworthy happened in the pre-Internet era and the “irate netizen’’ is a new species of human being. Yet, at the same time, there will be those who say that these “irate netizens’’ aren’t representative of the whole or the silent majority. Nobody knows – because the people whose job it is to find out the views of the silent only reported the vocal ones. So easy. They are all online.

So, yes, I am distressed at the way FB reporting seems to have taken over news media, including traditional news media.  The reporting on the fall-out of the meeting between the Singaporeans and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad was a Facebook affair.  You get the sense that journalists were watching for a post to appear from anyone of the protagonists – so that they can quickly write it. It is fastest finger first.

The G has got wind of this technique too, which is why some announcements and views are on Facebook. Journalists are probably primed to watch out for them so that they can “break’’ the news first. Also, some newsmakers have mastered the art of writing on FB, adopting a conversational tone that is accessible to readers rather than the jargon of press releases that their public relations people dreamt up. For journalists, it is a Godsend to have quotes that can be cut and pasted without causing readers to stumble over polysyllables.

Then the job is done.

The job is NOT done. If journalism is about FB reporting, then any Tom, Dick and Bertha can do it. It takes a facility with the English language and fast fingers. (I have both). Beyond taking the trouble to verify the post (which any intern can do), the journalist’s job is to go beyond the obvious, by asking for clarifications, elaboration and motivation. These should be reflected in the article. Even if they got no answer, there must be an assurance that the requisite checks were made.

It cannot be that the reading public must take journalists at their word.There must be transparency about the reporting process to legitimize the writing.  That is why a named person is usually accompanied by age and occupation, to assure readers that this is a real person, not a cooked up quote, among other things. That is why expanding on survey methodology is as important as reporting the results of the survey. That is why the context of a newsmaker’s words is important, like whether he said something in a speech which meant he was prepared to make the point, or an interview, during which the words could have been pried out of him.

Increasingly, there is the door-stop interview, where newsmakers actually invite journalists to pop up somewhere to talk to him because he is already prepared to say something. I see much fewer instances of “ambush’’ interviews where the journalists corner newsmakers at public events for comments. If there were more, then the journalists didn’t say that they had exercised the initiative to do so.

Basic journalism is hard to do. It is what distinguishes professional work from the work of online commentators and eye-witnesses. I will be first to admit that I rely on the reporting work of traditional media to write commentaries, but I am beginning to wonder if I should. Many of us already have access to FB posts. It also doesn’t take a genius to find the original press statement and the original survey that was published as news. Those who don’t have the time to read might appreciate a filter which summarises and gives key points. But those who do will find that there is very little value added by the journalist to the original piece of information.

You might not agree but I see a fraying of journalistic standards with bad headlines, gaps in stories and how stuff the journalist cannot fathom are put in “quote marks’’ instead of explained. (If you want examples, you can call up #berthablowsup on FB.)

I notice that most people believe that quality journalism is about investigative reporting. It is one part of it, yes, and it is rather more difficult to do and takes a much longer time because people simply don’t like to put themselves in the public eye.  But I have little reason to read an investigative report if I have no faith that the run-of-the-mill type of stories have been properly sourced and attributed.

Get the basics right first.

And I haven’t even touched on incomprehensible content…

SingHealth COI: How bo chup can you get?

In News Reports on September 29, 2018 at 5:08 am

When ex-SMRT chief Desmond Kuek raised “cultural issues’’ as a reason for the train operator’s mishaps, he didn’t say exactly what he meant. We had to surmise that they had to do with disregard for standard operating processes and even safety protocols, lack of rigorous checks and an overall lackadaisical attitude towards maintenance works. Hence, delayed train service, flooded tunnel and even deaths.

But SingHealth IT chaps take the cake when it came to blunders. What emerged from five days of public hearings into how health data of 1.6million people could have been hacked is a bo chup culture. Some phrases to illustrate this: “don’t know got problem’’, “not my problem’’, “not a big problem’’, “normal problem’’, “other people’s problem’’.

It’s disconcerting that such attitudes prevail at a time when there have been so many exhortations to stay alert to cyber intrusions and so many examples of the harm that can be done. You wonder at first if security and protection protocols are keeping pace with the progress of Smart Nation initiatives. You also wonder if the problem is “technical’’, because technological advances, changes and “solutions’’ occur in leaps and bounds before you can catch your breath. There’s simply too little time to keep pace with yet another genius hacker.

Or is the fundamental problem a “cultural’’ one, that is, it is an attitude problem rather than an ability problem? It seems like this is more the case despite repeated statements that the hacking was a sophisticated exercise.

You don’t need a cyber brain to discern the import of the near-comical series of “confessions’’ .

From what I can gather, here’s what happened:

First, the hacker used a publicly available hacking tool to get into an end-user workstation. This was easy because the station was using an old version of Microsoft Outlook that had not been patched to deal with this tool. This happened in August 2017.

Once in, the hacker started sniffing around from December 2017 and May this year. He found that there were inactive administrative accounts that connected to the medical records database. These accounts should have been de-activated or firewalls introduced because the data had already been moved to a private cloud. Somewhere else. One administrator account also had a silly password : P@ssw0rd.

Once through to the next level server, he started making bulk enquiries for data. Because this system didn’t have rules to detect such queries, he was able to exfiltrate data from June 27 to July 4.

His snooping was stopped by a staffer, Ms Katherine Tan, who wasn’t clear about what she was supposed to do with the knowledge. Her boss, Ms Teresa Wu, told her to ask colleagues but no one replied to her email.  Ms Tan assumed that someone would have escalated the matter upstairs by now. (No, she didn’t say that was her boss’ job, going by the COI news reports.)

During the investigations into the breach, one compromised server, which was at the National Cancer Centre, was found. It hadn’t been patched in 14 months.

What’s worse is that the higher-ups already knew that there was a vulnerability in the system way back in 2014, when a disgruntled staffer decided to tell a vendor about the loophole. His bosses were alerted to his action and he was sacked for the ethical breach. They didn’t check the veracity of his claim about a loophole.

Even when it became clear that there was an attack, they didn’t even think it was a serious security incident. Or at least not a reportable one.

It could have been classed as a series of unfortunate events or a comedy of errors if we weren’t also exposed to attempts to re-direct responsibility or shabby excuses.

Some examples:

  • Mr Clarence Kua, deputy director of the Chief Information Officer’s Office at the Integrated Health Information System, said he was more concerned about the ethical breach by the staffer than his allegation of vulnerability. That was because that appeared to be what his CEO boss, Dr Chong Yoke Sin, was interested in. He even admitted that he wasn’t a person to exercise initiative, but to take orders. His reporting officer, Ms Foong Lai Choong also thought that the “case was closed’’ with the dismissal.

(In other words, I just do what my boss says)

  • Then, there was Mr Tan Aik Chin, a senior manager at the NCC, who said he “inherited’’ the server after a colleague quit and another died. He did so out of “goodwill’’ even though he had little technical expertise and was in charge of business. In fact, this server seems to be nobody’s child. Ms Serena Yong of iHIS didn’t even know who was supposed to be managing the server, or whether iHIS had oversight of it.

(Which also means: How did this become MY problem?)

  • Mr Wee Jia Hou, cluster information security officer at iHIS, said he didn’t have a framework for reporting cyber-threats. He depended on Mr Ernest Tan Choon Kiat, who is in charge of security management, to alert him. He merely glanced at emails which referred to the matter.

(Nobody told me about a problem, not loudly anyway)

  • But during that critical period, Mr Tan was on leave and Mr Wee made no arrangements for “cover’’ either. When Mr Tan returned on July 18, he thought the whole fuss was just a malware investigation of a front-end workstation, and therefore not a ‘’reportable security incident’’. Even if so, it wasn’t his job to escalate the matter. That was Mr Wee’s job.

(It’s not a problem, and even if so, it’s not my problem)

What can we make of all this buck pushing, deference to authority and lack of initiative, personal accountability and responsibility? I suppose it would be tough to deal with “human” folly and foibles but it does seem that the whole electronic medical records system need a dusting down or an external audit of systems and processes to ensure clear reporting lines and timeliness of alerts.

What I am a little surprised by is why the COI didn’t go further back in time to ask why internet separation hadn’t been employed earlier, like it was for other government agencies. The response from the G that they had been assessing its suitability for the healthcare sector  for the past two years doesn’t seem to hold much water given that it took just two days or so to effect the change. Perhaps, this wasn’t the part of the COI’s remit…

I just hope this sort of bo chup culture doesn’t prevail in big organisations. How can we trust them with data if they don’t think it’s worth going the extra mile (or just the right mile) to protect them?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next GE is likely a vote of confidence in next PM

In News Reports on September 25, 2018 at 1:04 am

In Singapore, a good politician is a reluctant politician, at least according to the People’s Action Party.

You have to be persuaded first to enter politics and become a candidate and that any sacrifice made in terms of salary is worth it because you will finally acknowledge that serving the country beats any cut in pay. Then you’ve got to be persuaded that having yourself and your family come under scrutiny is par for the course in the political arena. Perhaps, you’re told that, luckily, Singapore isn’t like other countries where the paparazzi follows your every private move. Here, they only follow your public moves – and don’t worry, these can be orchestrated and organized down to the last detail because your support network is a strong one.

And don’t even think that you should be Prime Minister. That’s because ambition in the political realm is frowned upon – or you will seen as more interested in acquiring power and status than in service.  So keep your head down, do your own little job well and if your peers like you and what you do, you might find yourself thrown up as first among equals. Oh. And if that happens, make sure you are suitably humble.

This is paradox of politics in Singapore.

I started thinking about the above after Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam put out the lay of the political/PAP land in a speech yesterday. It was the most expansive that I’ve heard so far on how the PAP elects its leaders, something that will happen late this year.

Yes, we know that the PAP cadres elect the members of its policy-making Central Executive Committee, which is almost a mirror of the Cabinet. And we know the members in turn select those among themselves to head the different party positions like chairman, secretary-general and so forth. We even know that those who didn’t make the electoral cut can always be co-opted into the CEC.

What we don’t know is how the candidates for the CEC were nominated in the first place, and whether cadres – the backbone of the PAP – always succeed in putting up its own candidates who may not already be in positions of power. There was just one occasion I can recall when this happened. Ayer Rajah MP Tan Cheng Bock was catapulted into the CEC decades ago, which given the current tension between the person and the party, is probably not something the PAP leadership wants to be reminded of.

We also don’t know exactly how many votes each elected member got, a bit like how we don’t know how different candidates in a Group Representation Constituency did in his or her own precinict – unless someone in the know tells. That means getting someone to leak the information – or the information is selectively put out to make someone look good/bad.

What’s interesting is that Mr Shanmugam has confirmed how much of a top-down leadership the PAP has. He noted that in Singapore, each minister typically anchors a group representation constituency (GRC) with several MPs.

“The cadre members are usually based on branches so… if you don’t like the prime minister, within Cabinet if you can get about seven to eight ministers on your side, it’s a fair bet that they will be able to swing their cadre members from their branches and their GRCs,” he said.

“So then you form a team either quietly, as happened in the early 60s, or openly, and then you stand for elections at the CEC.

“And if you get the majority, and then you tell the prime minster you are no longer secretary-general of the party, please step down. That’s how a coup takes place.”

He calls it a coup. Leadership challenges “don’t do the country any good”, he said, especially in a small country like Singapore, where it will have a wide impact – on not only politics, but also other areas like the business environment.

I suppose others might counter that such challenges are part and parcel of the workings of the democratic process. After all, we do have general elections and by-elections. I pity any aspiring Prime Minister who is bursting to put forth his vision and egotistical enough to say that he is best suited for the job. This is a disqualification. Sorry.

Of course, coups, or democratic processes, can swing to the other extreme, when party leaders are deposed again and again, like in Australia, and this means the top job of prime minister changes too. Supposedly, a large country like Australia can absorb the impact of frequent leadership changes. In Singapore, with a G wielding a very visible and even heavy hand, consequences could be tumultuous as people start to worry about the stability of policies.

It’s the prerogative of the PAP to decide how it wants to pick its leaders. Those who think the Prime Minister should be elected by the people have got the wrong end of the stick. This is not how the parliamentary system works. Even in a presidential system, like in the United States, the leader must first be thrown up by the party grassroots to face the public at large in an election. As for whether Singapore is ready for a non-Chinese prime minister, it’s really up to the PAP cadres to decide – or the ministers who can influence the cadres to decide. Evidently, for example, the Reform Party and the Workers’ Party think that Singapore is ready for a non-Chinese prime minister, going by the secretary-generalship of the parties. Why? Because that is what will happen if either party takes the majority of the votes in a general election.

So what was Mr Shanmugam’s speech in aid of? I suppose it’s to assure Singaporeans that the leadership renewal will take place, that is, the Prime Minister will step down as he said he would by 2022. And that the 4G leaders are now hard at work, assessing who among them (not himself or herself) will be first-among-equals.

Mr Shanmugam said: “If they have chosen, then it’s less likely, not impossible, but less likely that they will go against whoever is in power.”

That’s illuminating because Singapore has never had to deal with public intra-Cabinet struggles, because the past and current prime ministers have been so dominant and the succession issue settled way in advance.

In fact, you sort of wonder how the public will take to the next prime minister who will emerge in the manner that Mr Shanmugam sketched out. Hopefully, the PM-select will be able to shed any self-effacing façade and project himself and herself as a strong leader. Because he will suddenly be thrust before us. Face it. Can members of the public really judge who among the 4G is better than the other given they all look and sound the same? Doubtless, we will be told to trust the judgment of the collective.

Mr Shanmugam noted that the person selected to be the next prime minister will have to face the general election. “And then Singaporeans will have a say, and if you’re not good, you will be out,” he said.

It seems to me that the next general election is going to be framed as a mandate or vote of confidence in the next prime minister. So for those who hanker after a vote on who should be prime minister, this is it then.

Give the facts, the FULL facts

In News Reports on September 21, 2018 at 2:31 pm

In the report by the Parliamentary Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods are a few interesting paragraphs about maintaining public trust in institutions. The end result is a  recommendation that public institutions “emphasise the timely communication of information to both pre-empt and respond to online falsehoods, and recognize the role of participation, transparency and accountability in ensuring public trust in how public institutions respond to online falsehoods’’.

But the discussion was a lot bigger than that.

Note that the committee’s recommendations relate to how to deal with falsehoods per se rather than than issues of accountability and transparency. But broader recommendations about governance were also made by representors. The committee said that these reiterated the importance of well-established principles such as communication, transparency, participation and accountability. It added that there were several suggestions urging the G to:

  • – Explain the rationale for public policy decisions;
  • – Be candid about failures and problems faced;
  • – Undertake continuous and transparent communication with the public;
  • – Involve the public in policy and decision-making processes;
  • – Demonstrate willingness to be held accountable by the public; and
  • – Foster civil society and an active citizenry.

More specific proposals include enacting a Freedom of Information Act, to enable the public to get information from public institutions. Related recommendations were made to establish an ombudsman, to assess what classified data could be disclosed, to regularly de-classify archival material, and to investigate complaints against public institutions.

The basis of the recommendations: Strong trust in public institutions makes it harder for deliberate online falsehoods to take effect. It also makes it easier for public institutions to effectively intervene in crises.

While the committee thinks the suggestions are valid and well-meaning, it said that representors didn’t go far enough to, for example, assess the extent to which the G now explains policies or consider how national security interests would crimp transparency. In other words, there was no evidence on the extent of gaps to be addressed. Nor was there a direct relation made between these issues and deliberate online falsehoods. In other words, they lacked “specificity’’.

It sent off the recommendations to the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, which has oversight of citizen engagement efforts. The MCCY’s response is a seven-page statement listing all the efforts to engage the public, from Remaking Singapore and the Our Singapore Conversation to getting input on what to with the rail corridor and having Silver Ambassadors to explain policies to the elderly.

I suppose representators were too polite to make a direct link between lack of transparency and the uptake of falsehoods. I will say this: It is the perception that citizens are not being told everything that leads them to explore other avenues of information. It is the perception that information is being “spinned’’ to put policy makers in a good light. It is the perception that mainstream media, the G’s main channel of communication, isn’t giving all sides of the story, even if they do report accurately.

Panel member and Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong said during one of the public hearings: “On the ground, there would have been some erosion of trust. There is a perception in certain quarters that the mainstream press is pro-ruling party, or pro-Government, and in some quarters they say mainstream media has now swung the other way.”

Yes, we’re talking about perceptions here. It is a slow drip that has less to do with the prevalence of fake news and more to do with the frustration over not getting full answers.

I will give one example: The Prime Minister’s answer to a question from a parliamentarian on the amount of bonuses ministers received. The PM spoke only of performance bonuses and referred to the framework established on calculating ministerial salaries. Is it any wonder then that people would start asking about other salary components such as the National Bonus and take a stab at calculating how much each minister makes? This is how falsehoods are created, with The Online Citizen making the error of saying that the PM earned $4.5 million a year.

Nor is the G’s fact-checking site Factually any clearer in debunking the falsehood.

It said: The Prime Minister’s norm salary is set at two times that of an MR4 Minister (that is, $1.1m). His $2.2 million annual salary includes bonuses. The Prime Minister does not receive a Performance Bonus as there is no one to assess his performance annually. He does receive the National Bonus.

So what is the National Bonus anyway? We’d have to do our own calculations based on the KPIs in the matrix developed for the bonus. And isn’t it the case that although he gets no performance bonus, the Prime Minister’s National Bonus can go up to 12 months while it’s capped at six months for the rest of the Cabinet if KPIs are exceeded ?

The mainstream media, meanwhile, faithfully reports the “debunking’’ without adding any value nor asking any questions.  In the meantime, TOC has put up another calculation of the PM’s salary…

Where there are gaps in information, others will step in to fill it. There is little point in indulging in self-righteous indignation over misinformation and rumours that arise because of a natural tendency for people to close the information loop. Also, because as the Select Committee itself pointed out: the falsehood has far greater traction (and retention) among people than the correction. Why create such opportunities for the curious, the mischief-makers and the malicious?

So the G has a big part to play in curbing the spread of disinformation beyond wielding the stick. Likewise, the mainstream media.

A 2017 Reuters institute report said that only 23 per cent of the people here think the media is free from political influence. Academic Shashi Jayakumar who spoke on the need for public trust during the hearing, said that ways should be found to help newspapers The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao “again be seen as the pre-eminent news sources, bar none, in the eyes of the Singapore public”. Note the word “again’’.

It has always been my thesis that the G should leave MSM alone to do a professional job, so that we can all be exposed to quality journalism.

Another important point to note that the media landscape has changed substantially.

Professor Thio Li-ann, whose views were quoted liberally by the committee, for example, describes MSM as “a public forum, exposing people to a wide range of speakers, unanticipated topics and viewpoints, and exposing viewpoints to a diverse public’’. She said that this would allow citizens to engage with a range of representative views of issues, in order to understand where other citizens are coming from, and for facilitating compromise and overlapping consensus where possible.

This might be the case some years ago when even a monolith like Singapore Press Holdings pursued a competition policy among its stable of newsrooms. But news reports are now served out of a common kitchen and put in different packaging. A reader would do as well having a copy of the free New Paper, because the same stories can be found in the paid Straits Times and Business Times. Diversity of news and views and the variety of discussion has narrowed. There is less to read – and a paywall for premium content as well. According to the Nielsen Media Index Report 2017, only 55.9 per cent of adults read print and online newspapers in Singapore today.

Prof Thio added that people who choose to go online to obtain their news are “denied this exposure to differing viewpoints’’. Online news sites would beg to differ and argue that they offer viewpoints that do not exist in the mainstream media.

It is good that there is widespread support for quality journalism, even though 60 per cent of the people here agree that the average person can’t tell good journalism from rumours and falsehoods.

The answers on how to raise the standard of journalism are predictable: Ramping up training and fact-checking – except there’s the question of who’s going to pay for this at a time when subscriptions go down and digital advertising doesn’t translate into big bucks. It can’t have escaped Select Committee’s notice that “fact-checkers’’ are a near-extinct breed in news organisations, accompanied by high staff turnovers, whether forced or voluntary. Even MSM editors lament the tremendous amount of resources that would have to go into verifying sources and checking facts. What journalism faces is a worldwide industry problem: The old business models aren’t good enough to ensure quality journalism – and good profits.

The panel said that commercial challenges aren’t within its remit, but is something the G and media organisations themselves have to think about. In my view, a suggestion by ex-journalist Nicholas Fang bears greater consideration. He proposed to separate the news functions of news organisations from the rest of the business, and be held under a not-for-profit umbrella where the sole mandate is to deliver excellence in journalism. The funding of local news organisations could be modelled after the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in Britain, which is funded principally by an annual television licence fee charged to all British households, companies and organisations using any type of equipment to receive or record live television broadcasts.

It will probably be met by howls of protests.  Journalists will never make big bucks under such a system and consumers will scream at having to pay for news. Someone, however, has to foot the bill for quality work. Please do not apply to the G, because this means the media will never be free of the charge of being under “political influence’’. The whole Singapore media landscape bears a re-look.

What about online media? The committee says that the same standards of professionalism should apply online and offline. I agree, and I would add that there should be no double standards when it comes to access to official sources of information. MSM might carp about how online sites play fast and loose with the facts; they don’t say that it is far easier for them to obtain the facts compared to online media.

But if MSM finds it difficult to maintain its fact-checking resources, then I don’t know how online sites can do it. Funding must come from somewhere.

Want quality journalism? Pay for it.

Fake news report: It’s what comes next that is more important

In News Reports on September 21, 2018 at 7:24 am

So, at the end of the day, legislation to curb fake news looks like a sure thing. (I am not going to say it will happen because I must give Parliament the dignity of being able to say no). Reason: Current legislation isn’t good enough, especially in terms of curbing the quick spread of disinformation. Also, we now don’t have laws to compel the likes of technology companies like Twitter and Facebook to do anything. These social media platforms have to be accountable too.

Hence, laws.

That’s my one-cent worth of summary of the tome produced by the Parliamentary Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods. It’s really no surprise to me that some kind of law would be in the pipeline going by the way the committee handled the public hearings. Almost every representator was pinned down on the necessity for some sort of action to curb fake news.

Those who thought that current laws were good enough were wrong and they didn’t have evidence to prove that people here can discern fact from fiction, the panel said in its report.  As for the definition of fake news which had some people worried that it might be used to curb legitimate dissent, the panel said that falsehoods can be independently verified and the courts here have historically done so. So there!

It’s a massive report, albeit repetitive. If anyone needs a primer on fake news and examples to go with it, it’s recommended reading. The pity is that the examples are from the world over and the only significant Singapore example is the defunct TheRealSingapore, which had the Sedition Act thrown at it for spreading disinformation and creating dissent.

A lot of attention was paid to foreign State and non-State actors out to break social cohesion here by employing such “non-kinetic’’ warfare tactics. The pity is that not much light was shed on this for national security reasons so much so that we are left with assertions that cyber warfare is already happening here – and will continue to happen. Again, worldwide examples peppered the report and there was a brief reference to the SingHealth hack (which isn’t about fake news by the way but stealing). A significant portion was dedicated to big, bad Russia’s shenanigans.

Did the committee’s report allay fears that any new laws or regulations would be abused by the powers-that-be? Face it. That’s really the objection to fake news laws isn’t it? That the G would somehow use it to tamp down any opposition – and throw you in jail for it too.

The might of the elephant in the room was mentioned here and there, for example, in the discussion on who should decide on what is fake:

Representors raised concerns about whether Executive action would be credible. There was concern that Executive action could feed fears over the abuse of power. It was also pointed out that Executive directions would not be able to deal with falsehoods spread by the Executive. That said, both Law Dean Associate Professor Goh (Yi Han) and law academic Associate Professor Eugene Tan explained that judicial oversight of Executive action would serve a crucial balancing role in ensuring the propriety of the Executive’s exercise of discretion.

Civil society activists had tried to pull the elephant’s tail, by advocating a Freedom of Information Act and the introduction of an Ombudsman to investigate public complaints of executive excess. The supposition, methinks, is that more information is needed to counter fake information and a check on the G needed if it tried to do any kind of “cover up’’. The committee countered this by saying these were big issues and too multi-faceted a feature for the committee to take into account. The ball was, instead, lobbed to the G.

As there are countries which have such legislation and institutions, the Committee suggests that the Government studies the experience of these countries, and whether having a Freedom of Information Act and an ombudsman will help in dealing with deliberate online falsehoods.

As for allegations that such laws would produce a “chilling effect’’? To answer the question, the committee referred to the testimony of Mothership, the online news site.

Mothership testified that they did not experience a drop in traffic, nor a drop in contributions, comments and engagement on its platform as a result of being covered by the Broadcasting Act licensing regime. This suggested the need for circumspection in assessing the extent of any potential “chilling effect”. The prospect of a “chilling effect” should be dealt with through calibration in the powers deployed; the answer cannot be to do nothing at all.

The committee quoted liberally from Professor Thio Li-Ann’s representation to make the point that free speech isn’t being circumscribed.

She had said: “There is no human right to disseminate information that is not true. No public interest is served by publishing or communicating misinformation. The working of a democratic society depends on the members of that society … being informed not misinformed. Misleading people and … purveying as facts statements which are not true is destructive of the democratic society and should form no part of such a society. There is no duty to publish what is not true: there is no interest in being misinformed.’’ 


Her  argument is that fake laws would protect “the marketplace of ideas’’ by driving out what is false so that people can come to conclusions based on the facts. In other words, it is a promotion of the democratic process.

Okay. So, if legislation is more or less to be expected, what did the committee propose to ensure that the net isn’t cast so wide that it catches every single lie, piece of satire, prank and deliberate falsehoods to bring down the country?

Methinks we should pay attention to two critical phrases that were used in the report: Prescribed threshold for intervention and criminal culpability. In other words, how bad should things get before the law kicks in? And how heavy should the law come down on purveyors of lies?  Should it be different strokes for different folks?

Representors said the threshold for intervention has to be based on a combination of factors such as magnitude and nature of impact, type of content and intent and identity of perpetrator and so forth. Also there are different degrees of disinformation and different sorts of lies.

On this, the panel recommended:

Criminal sanctions should be imposed on perpetrators of deliberate online falsehoods. These deterrent measures should be applied only in circumstances that meet certain criteria. There should be the requisite degree of criminal culpability (i.e. intent or knowledge), in accordance with established criminal justice principles. There should be a threshold of serious harm such as election interference, public disorder, and the erosion of trust in public institutions.

So no, the committee didn’t pin down weightages on each factor or draw up a matrix. In any case, we shouldn’t expect it to hammer in the nuts and bolts. What’s good is that it has taken into account different facets and motivations for spreading falsehoods and advises a calibrated approach. It remains for someone somewhere to draw up the “criteria’’ and translate it into legal language.

So, dear reader, I am leading you down to this point: The committee produced a pretty general report, replete with examples and backed up by experts both local and foreign. The G can now say that it has embarked on an extensive public consultation exercise. But the real bite of fake news laws will be what will be drafted by the executive. And that should mean a second round of scrutiny on “threshold’’, “criminal culpability’’ as well as penalties imposed.

I am hoping that a Select Committee to scrutinize the Bill will be formed. But I am not betting on it.