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Of course we trust the G!

In News Reports on December 8, 2017 at 1:40 am

So the Prime Minister talked about trust during last month’s People’s Action Party convention – and how distrust between the government and the governed will destroy the country.

I wonder why he’s talking about the level of trust because the people’s trust has been manifested in so many different ways over the years. We trust the G to use the Internal Security Act well even though there’s no recourse to the courts. We trust the G to use its powers over the media appropriately to further the country’s ends, rather than its own. We trust the G not to act on Section 377A which criminalises homosexual acts because it said it wouldn’t. (We also have to trust that the PAP will always be in power)

We trust the G so much that we want it to fix every single problem, like the choping of seats in hawker centres. We trust the G to build a world-class transport system – and it obliges by taking over some former private sector functions of the SMRT. We trust that the G knows enough about religion when it brands or bans someone as a “radical preacher’’.

So what more trust does the G want from the people?

Is it unanimous, universal approval for its policies? That can’t be. Because while we trust that the G is filled with clever, well-meaning people, we don’t think that it always knows best. Besides, people will argue, chafe and complain because policies always affect one segment or another. Is the PM referring to criticisms online from the insane or inane crowd? Bear in mind that some criticisms are valid and that not everyone is insane or inane. In fact, an insane and inane person can sometimes make good points. So no need to tar everything and everyone with one brush or to impute unsavory motives and hidden agendas to someone who says something contrarian.

You see, trust has to be two-way as well.

But trust shouldn’t be blind nor absolute. The G must realize that it is always the more powerful party in any situation. This means that there should be clear rules of engagement to prevent smaller beings from being overwhelmed. The trouble is, these rules are getting murkier. How does it decide for example to haul someone to court for contempt (cue Li Shengwu), but not others who make more egregious remarks? Why does it see the need to respond robustly to some people (cue Kishore Mahbubani) but not others? Since when is a journalist’s questions to legitimate authority become the subject of an Official Secrets Act investigation?

Executive discretion is a privilege awarded to the G by a sovereign Parliament. But the randomness with which it decides to use this discretion isn’t encouraging civil engagement. Sometimes, it acts according to the letter of the law; sometimes it invokes the spirit. But always it says, the rule of law. And who can argue with that?

Take the rules on subjudice. Is it all right to petition the G to drop charges against civil activist Jolovan Wham or should we expect the Attorney-General to issue an edict that this is illegal activity? Can we play a recording of a foreign speaker – not Skype – in an indoor assembly without a police permit? Is a Facebook post calling on citizens to gather on the Padang to celebrate the inauguration of a new President a call for an illegal assembly?

Because we’re not sure, we take the line of least resistance. We do not speak. We do not do. We don’t want a bad record or bad name in this small country where everyone knows everyone.

I know what the G will say : Trust us. The G, with a 70 per cent mandate, will do what is “right’’ and only pick on the people who are the real troublemakers. The G knows what it is doing because it is privy to information which, unfortunately, it cannot make public. Therefore, trust us. Because we know who to trust.

Trust isn’t a very good asset when so much power is in the hands of the G. That’s why the elected presidency was conceived, no? To prevent a rogue government from raiding the reserves? Think about it. If the PAP turns all bad or another untried and un-tested political party holds the reins, what sort of havoc can this cause?

I’m not talking about just the reserves here, but the laws governing free speech, media and security. It is to the advantage of any party in power to have such wide discretionary powers, but not for society at large nor in the country’s long-term interest. The PAP knew this during Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s time when it looked like it might be in danger of losing power. Hence, the elected president (whose powers have been calibrated since…)

But there are other levers of power that we have entrusted the G, and its super-majority in Parliament, with. This means we will always have to depend on electing good men and women to ensure that power isn’t abused. The PAP is right to insist on honesty and integrity as key attributes of elected politicians. What it doesn’t say is that this is because the political system is so weighted in favour of those who form the government, who can decide to make the OB markers a noose and act according to the letter, not the spirit, of the law.

So to answer the PM: We have a great and, almost unhealthy, trust in the G.

Or maybe, we’re just apathetic.

 

 

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SMRT saga: Is it an “anyhow can” attitude?

In News Reports on December 6, 2017 at 12:15 am

It could be that the pumps weren’t switched to automatic mode or the float sensor was too submerged in mud to send out an alert. Never mind the specific cause of the flooding in MRT tunnels on Oct 7, they all boiled down to lack of maintenance. Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan calls it a failure of organizational management.

We have a nice media. In other countries, those SMRT employees who have been sacked, disciplined or who have quit would have been corralled and asked some questions about why they did or did not do some of the things they were supposed to. But there’s nary an attempt to chase them down. Perhaps, there is the thought that the SMRT might take legal action against them and in these days of tightened OB markers, the media think it better to let the court process take its course?

I was more or less hoping that the investigation panel will shed light on that phrase “deep-seated cultural issues’’ which CEO Desmond Kuek will never be able to live down. But I guess that wasn’t part of the investigators remit.

Clearly, cultural issues which are deep-seated are what is termed euphemistically as “legacy’’ issues. I would dearly love to know if Desmond Kuek succeeded in replacing those who have helmed positions from his predecessor Saw Phaik Hwa’s time? Of course, this doesn’t mean that every long-time staffer is a laggard or recalcitrant, but it would give an idea if the new(ish) broom swept clean or left the corners un-dusted.

That’s about top management. What about the rank and file? What I find troubling is the attitude of the bad apples in the SMRT barrel. They seem to have taken no pride in their work. How prevalent is this sort of “anyhow can’’ attitude is among our people here?

Former top civil servant Lim Siong Guan referred to this in his lecture last month: “We have to move away from what appears to be a prevailing attitude on the part of many workers in Singapore, an attitude of “satisficing”, which means “aiming to achieve only satisfactory results because the satisfactory position is familiar, hassle-free, and secure, whereas aiming for the best-achievable result would call for costs, effort, and incurring of risks”.

“When we avoid “trying our best”, but simply do what is good enough, we are in fact cheating ourselves of what is possible given our individual talents and abilities.’’

We seem to have given up on the mantra of being the best we can be, which include doing the nitty-gritty, mundane tasks well. I suppose it’s normal to chafe at having to grind away at a series of small stuff which nobody sees and aspire to handle bigger, higher profile projects. But if you can’t do the small things well, what makes anyone think that you’re capable of anything bigger?

I wonder if the cultural narrative that has been circulating for sometime is correct for our people. You know, about fulfilling aspirations and chasing rainbows…

People do not jump from, say, school, to gliding on a rainbow. There’s a long hard slog in-between, unrewarding and out of sight, for a pay-packet which we all think could be better. We’re no longer kiasu about making sure everything is tip-top, and more willing to cut corners because no one’s really watching.

We’ve got to bring back the idea of excellence.

 

Back to Blogging

In News Reports on November 26, 2017 at 11:09 pm

Hello! I’m back. So what should I talk about? The news – or the lack thereof?

I suppose I can continue writing the way I used to write for The Middle Ground – temperate, moderate and with a disinclination (most times) to emote. It’s a disciplined process of fact-gathering, checking and rational analysis. Now I’m back to blogging…which gives me leeway to rant (!) and rave (!) since I don’t have to worry about bringing the entity (and other people) into trouble! So fun!

Okay, I’m joking, more or less. Some habits die hard. This space is not going to be that much different from TMG, except that I’ll probably get frillier and fluffier. I have learnt to my great dismay that people prefer the sort of stuff which takes me five minutes to write. And you can even make money off them!

In TMG, we were worried about image and personality. We didn’t want to be seen as schizophrenic, writing clickbait stuff, listicles as well as pontifications and sermons.

But this is MY blog, and I seriously don’t much care about my image. Just know that it’s from me, I and myself. Take it or leave it! There!

Now that my arrogant acclamation is over, what WILL I write about?

It will still be about the news and what I think needs greater dissemination. I am thinking of packaging a morning round-up, much like I do now on my Facebook page. I want to do this because I am aghast at how people don’t think it necessary to keep up with important developments. I wrote dozens of columns over several months, for example, on the implications of a reserved elected presidency, but too many people only woke up to the fact that they will have only a choice of Malay candidates when the poll was called. In the end, there was just one choice. Or, no choice.

It looks to me like I should have written those columns with a view to making it a meme. Or it should be absolutely one-sided, like websites which shall not be named

Something with headlines like this…

a. Are you happy that you will be voting for a Malay (and only a Malay) for president? (Oh dear! I am stirring up trouble…)
b. Did you know that OTC is NOT Singapore’s first elected president? (How dare I suggest that our sovereign parliament was not right to pick Wee Kim Wee!)
c. How can Tan Cheng Bock lose his court case to have OTC as Singapore’s first elected president? (I think I have steered clear of contempt of court)
d. Yeah! It’s Halimah! (That should be safe…)

It’s unfortunate that people prefer extreme ideological positions articulated emotionally – and in short order. Conspiracy theories are much easier to grapple with than contextualization. Yet a method must be found to shake citizens out of apathetic inertia and to think deeper about what affects us now and in the future. (The irony is that some people will say this line applies to that 70 per cent, while the 70 per cent will go hear! Hear!)

If a 10-things-you-should-ask/know will do the trick, then why not? It will, however, take supreme journalistic skills to condense a weighty issue into 10 short and, hopefully funny, points. That’s why most posts add hyper-links for the full story – which most people don’t read.

I will, nevertheless, try here under 5Ws and 1 H.

So let’s say this is about the SMRT trains which came into contact with each other.

What happened: One train kissed another train which wasn’t moving. Driver no time to elak. So, 38 passengers got injured. (No one died)

Where: At Joo Koon station along East-West line. (Get your own map)

When: On Nov 15, about one month after “flooding’’ incident and two days after Transport Minister said in Parliament everyone will do better. (Yes, very suay)

Who: You mean blame who? Thales, engineering company, said sorry because “contact’’ had to do with the new signaling system it was installing.

Why: Complicated process. Trains have a protective bubble. This bubble disappeared and then second one appeared – but also disappeared later. Something to do with train moving from old to new signaling system. Or maybe the other way around.

How(?) : You mean “how come’’? Dunno. Still investigating specific problem. First time for Thales.

How (??): You mean “how can”? Donno. Old and new signaling system on the same line somehow.

How (???): You mean “how liddat’’? So part of East-West line, between Joo Koon and Gul Circle, (get your own map!) shutting down until June to get problem fixed. Passengers got to take bus in-between (LTA and SMRT paying)

That took me 10 minutes to write. If you’re happy enough with such reporting, then I have not much to worry about. I wouldn’t have to go into signaling issues, rail reliability, deep-seated cultural issues and who foots the bill for what, much less what or who else should get the blame. In fact, most people would probably jump from this short post to draw their own (uninformed) conclusions.

If I sound sour here, it’s because I am. Its obvious that most people don’t want to think too much or even care enough about the whys and wherefores of anything. They prefer short summaries and entertainment, probably both at the same time.

The attitude is to trust the powers-that-be and complain when anything goes wrong. Our brains only work once every four or five years. In-between, we delegate our thinking to someone else.

That’s why I get upset when I see obfuscation and lack of transparency in what I read in the news media. Legitimate questions not asked (and now they can even come under the Official Secrets Act!) and information gaps not plugged really bug me no end. I am also tired of seeing G statements to media queries which say nothing but the obvious.

That’s why I worry about the transformation of the media industry into an assembly line serving out of a central kitchen, like Singapore Press Holdings. Methinks that non-competition leads to mediocrity.

I’ve said before that we deserve the media we get because we won’t pay for professional standards. But I still don’t think the answer is more online journalism, although it’s a cheaper platform. The answer is to have a reading public that demands more from the media and stands behind the media in its quest for information.

I wouldn’t consider myself part of the “media’’ now since I’m just blogging. In fact, I can tell off people who presume to tell me to report this or that! (Hey! You’re not paying for my hobby!) But I will promise to enlighten where I can, ask questions that aren’t asked (and try, in my limited way, to get answers) and even raise a laugh or three.

Welcome to Bertha Harian.

The PAP and the People – an old married couple?

In News Reports on July 6, 2015 at 6:30 am

Dr Ng Eng Hen, the People’s Action Party’s organising secretary has described the relationship between Singaporeans and the PAP as that of an “old married couple”.

Here’s the story:

Tan Ah Seng, 59, looked at the toilet roll. The wife has bought that deluxe, superior multi-ply roll again. He’s been telling her that a normal toilet roll will do but she insists on the top-grade, which costs three times more. And yet, she still complains about the allowance he gives her every month. He could hear the wife’s movements in the kitchen. He knows the drill, half boiled eggs and white bread again. It’s been the same breakfast for the 35 years. Same ole, same ole…

He flushed.

He opens the cupboard and puts on the usual corporate attire of white shirt and tailored pants. Time for work. He hopes the trains work today. Yesterday evening, he got an earful when he came home late because the wife couldn’t believe that Singapore’s trains break down. She wants him to get a car. When, or how, did she get that way, he wondered. Thirty five years ago, she was the ideal soul-mate, who agreed with him on everything, even to the point of sterilising herself because he thought they should stop at two.

He smiled.

Their two sons have done them proud, he thought, although he was regretful that they stopped at one kid each. As for the wife…

He hears her calling for him, and braces himself for another nagging session about her allowance. She thinks he’s keeping money away from her, forgetting that he was merely saving for their old age. In fact, he wants to downgrade to a studio apartment arguing that it was too big a place for them now that the boys have moved out, but she wants to continue living in the maisonette. That was the cause of another blazing row. He ended up sleeping in a hotel that night. When he came home in the morning, she seemed chastened. She even let him have two cups of kopi-o, instead of restricting him to one.

He sighed.

There she goes again, asking if they could get a live-in maid because she can’t cope with the housework. Doesn’t she realise that he is 59 and there’s that young punk looking to take over his job? He dips his bread into the egg, refusing to answer her.

“Old man, are you deaf? Why don’t you ever listen to me? Live with me for so long you take me for granted is it?’’

“Aiyoh, what you want me to do? I keep telling you we can move out if the house is too big for you! Why don’t YOU listen to me instead!’’

He took up the newspapers to read. He is internet-savvy but he thinks there are too many crazy people online. In fact, he thinks most of them should be sued. He wonders if the wife goes on the Internet while he’s at work. Is that why she is getting so cranky? These days, she doesn’t even call herself Mrs Tan. She goes by her maiden name. Why? Was she ashamed to be his wife?

He pursed his lips, smeared with egg yolk.

Okay, fair enough. He hasn’t been spending much time with her. He needs to re-capture that old intimacy. He remembered how her eyes lit up when he bought her a bouquet of roses the other day. The trouble is…roses die and that glow on her face only lasted while they lived. How to please her? My goodness, he thought, is their marriage in trouble? Not after all this time surely?

He shakes his head, continuing to read about the latest court case. This Roy Ngerng…very bad. The wife thinks he’s cute though. She likes how he is asking for CPF to be returned to the people, (“You should get your own money back,” she had told him!). And she doesn’t like the idea that he has to work till he’s 62. It doesn’t matter how many times he told her that he’d rather work as long as he can, even past 62, than stay stuck at home with her. (Of course, he never tells her that.)

The phone rings.

He hears her answer it and then…silence. This is happening too often, he thought. Is she seeing someone? Can’t be. She’s 55. Then again, younger men, including foreign men, have been known to prey on older women. Good thing the bank account is in his name then. He isn’t about to give her the second key. But who is that on the line??

He grits his teeth.

He would punch anyone who touches his wife. Let him try seducing her, he thought to himself. He’s looked after her for so long, attended to her every need, he was the breadwinner, the hardworking husband, the good father…how can she even think of someone else?

He calms down. It was unworthy of him to think this way. Their fates are tied. They’ve been through so much together; they have a shared history. No one can change that. Yup, they can’t revise history.

The wife returns, face aglow.

“Who was that?’’ he asks nonchalantly.

“Oh just someone from church…,’’ she replies.

“Who?’’ he asks.

“Janet lah,’’ she replies, looking away from him.

He took up his briefcase. All’s fine. The wife is going to play mah-jong and doesn’t want him to know. He decides not to kick up a fuss.

As he went out the door, she reminds him to get another roll of toilet paper, deluxe, superior, multi-ply.

He nods.

This article was first posted on The Middle Ground at http://themiddleground.sg/

Yup. I’m writing there now in case you didn’t know

Feet planted firmly on the ground

In News Reports on June 11, 2015 at 11:44 pm

The Middle Ground – quite self-explanatory methinks. It’s the space between two extremes. It’s broad. It’s moderate. A space that isn’t about ranting or raving or shoving people to a point of view. So….it’s neither here nor there? I suppose the idea is to cover many viewpoints, but it doesn’t mean that TMG per se won’t take a position. That position will be based on this principle: We believe in the development of an active and accountable citizenry which needs to be equipped with more, not less, information to make decisions for themselves.

We live in an era of too much information. We are so overwhelmed with information and detail that we can’t tell what’s relevant or significant or what gems are hidden in the sand. I’m always frustrated by incomprehensible news reports. I grit my teeth at unanswered questions or worse, questions that were not even asked. I have always thought that if an information junkie like me, who reads news reports voraciously, can’t fathom the what and especially the why of developments deemed worthy of publicity, then how can most other people?

What is the significance and implications of, say, Medishield Life or China’s threatening noises in the South China Sea or Dr Mahathir’s diatribes on Malaysian PM Najib? Important news, boringly-written, makes the reader go “…again..same/old…same/ old….So why should I care?’’

I’m hoping TMG will be able to cut to the chase and yes, make important stories interesting. I have always maintained that news is exciting; it’s the journalist who made it boring. Hands up those who have been following the City Harvest trial. I confess that I’ve left off reading the reports although it is significant that a megachurch is in court and you wonder if followers in other churches and religious organisations have been similarly, allegedly, duped.

Capturing reader interest accounts for the many different story-telling styles that have emerged especially with the facility of online tools. Therefore, let me give you 10 things you need to know about the City Harvest trial… I’m sure people will appreciate this. But guess what? It means some other people would have to read through all the reports and come up with the 10 points. And you would have to trust those people to get the most important 10 points and not just give you a dumb list. You would also like it better if the 10 points were beautifully written, even funny. That sort of work, however, takes even more talent than long-form, boring but accurate writing.

So that’s one of the things The Middle Ground will do: make the news manageable enough for you to declare yourself at least halfway informed on most things, and fully informed on the critical stuff that we think you should know about. (Yes, it has to be “we think’’ because there must be selective curation and editing of stories or we’ll die typing).

Of course, there will be plenty of space for opinion. By that, I mean, informed views. TMG will have plenty, put forth in a way that hopefully doesn’t grate on too many nerves or sound too self-righteous. Tone is everything. A little wit and humour is good. You can pack a lot in a humorous or satirical line but you’ve got to hope that your readers are on the same wavelength…

If there’s one big section that will mark TMG as different from Breakfast Network, it will be the News-U-can-use section. Here’s where I should elaborate on the other meaning of The Middle Ground. It’s also about the needs of the middle income group of Singaporeans – working adults with school-going children and elderly parents to support. They need help to lead their lives, work at their careers, bring up children and take care of the elderly. These are busy people torn in several directions with varied responsibilities. TMG will try to keep them happy, healthy and wise…

I end here by telling you that I am NOT the prime mover of TMG. I had to be persuaded. Reason: I was torn between maintaining my current relaxed lifestyle and the lure of being in the hectic business of news, views and news-you-can-use. So nice to just be a blogger or even a “social influencer’’ and write what I want whenever I want. But it is not to be…

Tomorrow, you will be introduced to the prime mover of TMG.

I’m in the middle of something…

In News Reports on June 11, 2015 at 12:19 pm

I have been off blogging for a while because I have been thinking about how to do a new news/views website. I miss Breakfast Network – that pro bono passion project which almost became a business until bureaucracy got in the way.

I like blogging, I do. I like the ability to say anything about anything with no one standing over my shoulder. I like breaking out of the usual news report/column/long form styles that restrict journalists’ ability to play with the language. Content is king, but story-telling can take different forms.

Plus, as a blogger, I don’t always have to draw a line between news and views. I can get self-righteous and indignant and emo. It’s just my take. It’s personal! You can tell that I’ve never really cared about getting eyeballs. I use a free WordPress platform. I don’t ask for ads. I don’t even care about putting up a visual which I have been told time and again would increase the number of eyeballs to my blog.

I just want to write.

If blogging was more “professional’’, I would add links to sites so that you will have more information. I would even spell-check (!) and re-write my pieces.  Instead, I am sorry to say that most of what you read are first drafts – and I do wish sometimes that I had someone who can cast a second eye over my work. Every writer needs an editor.

But it isn’t journalism. It isn’t original content. It isn’t pure reportage. It isn’t neutral. Of course, you can argue that professional journalism isn’t “neutral’’ or “pure’’ either, as it is grounded in editorial directions, government policy, corporate interests and the narrative of the day as dictated by ….someone else?

So can blogging and journalism be combined? Can aspects of social media be “professionalised’’?

I think so. Some of the rules of journalism can and should be imported, especially attribution and verification. There is one other principle that online journalism should apply: putting things in context and giving perspective. Very few things are really “new’’ or “astounding’’, yet a rape case or an administrative blunder takes on the proportions of a Titanic disaster (even in MSM) when the truth is, not all women are rape victims and the administrative wheels do run very well most times.

But I think that sticking to pure reporting and pure commentary might be going the way of the dodo. Why? Because most people don’t want to read TWICE – and you’d be lucky that if people read one piece from start to end. So news and views (of others and even the writer) have to be married and the baby would have to be presented in the way that best catches the eye of the beholder.

Social media leads the reading pattern with its click-baits as “headlines’’….such as….I didn’t think I would go crazy until I read this…This is the most amazing thing you’ll ever see in your life…ecetera. Buzzfeed et al think that listicles are the way to go. Then there are sites which believe extremism works best – always get angry and make people angrier. There are also sites which think making a mountain out of a molehill is the way to go – as well as  repeating old news because they worked the last time …so why not again?

How does one even begin to conceptualise a news site then? The easiest way is to set it up as a foil. Just put it against MSM and make sure most of the angles and types of stories are different. Then tout the site as “alternative’’. Better still, as anti-establishment. Or as a useful addition to the parched MSM landscape.

Nothing wrong with it.

But then a person who wants to be fully-informed would have to read both mediums – and make up his or her own mind about what he or she feels about what they have read. Yes, feel. Most times, reading/watching is more about “feeling’’ than about being “enlightened’’. (Tip: Always make sure you end the piece well, rather than let it taper off….)

The other way is to curate or edit effectively, selecting topics of interest to the readership or alerting them to news that they will make them lead better lives. The trouble today is that we have too much news and too many facts – and we don’t know what to do with them. In fact, sometimes we’re so numbed by the news that we become indifferent to happenings elsewhere. A news organization should make sense of the news – especially what they mean.

So what is this new website going to offer? More Breakfast Network stuff? Actually, I have been describing it as Breakfast Network plus plus. The people behind it, which includes me, have decided to name it The Middle Ground. We start on Monday.

To be continued tomorrow…

Caught in the middle: Residents in AHPETC

In News Reports, Politics on May 5, 2015 at 8:14 am

What do you think?

Can you live with the consequences of your vote? So if your town council runs out of money, you will just have to suffer lift breakdowns and dirty corridors until the next general election? That’s the Workers’ Party position. How it operates is something between the party and the voters – not for the G nor the courts to intervene in, it said.

It’s so interesting. The WP lawyer in court even backed it up with past ministerial exhortations about the consequences of the vote. Residents shouldn’t expect to be bailed out if they voted in people who can’t manage the estate.

Anyway, some background:

The G wants the court to let it appoint independent auditors to go over the WP town council’s books and reclaim funds that have been wrongly disbursed. It will only release $14 million in grants to the town council, if the independent auditor is in to see that the money is managed properly. For example, if the WP wants to spend $20,000 or more, the independent auditor has to sign off on it.

Things are getting critical because there’s only enough money to sustain the Aljunied, Punggol East and Hougang estates till June. And that’s because it hasn’t made two sinking fund payments for cyclical works, according to the G.

The WP looks to be trying to head off the installation of an independent auditor (if the court says okay) by having its own external accountants and a financial consultant. But the G has dissed its efforts as “lukewarm assurances’’ citing the lack of experience of at least one of them.

What a state of affairs!

What’s interesting is that the WP is throwing back to the PAP its own argument about voting the “wrong’’ people. It’s the PAP G which said residents are responsible for their vote, so why is the G turning to the courts to intervene? In fact, it is up to the G to decide how to disburse the funds and it has already said it would review the Town Council Act. So why doesn’t it just do so and make the system more robust?

Another argument: Only the Housing Board and residents can go to the courts for redress.

Hmm. Quite smart.

The G wants to deal with this as a “legal problem’’ which needs the court’s adjudication while the WP wants to portray it as a “political dispute’’ that shouldn’t be any business of the court.

The problem with long sagas is that most people have short memories. So did the WP do any wrong that required such action by the G? Here’s what people reading about the court saga will remember: There was something about arrears, its managing agents having conflict of interest and some unaccounted money somewhere. Oh. And the Auditor-General’s report which said that there were plenty of “lapses’’ but didn’t say anything about a crime being committed.

They might remember the WP saying how no one wanted the job of managing agent and how it had just 90 days to sort the groundwork for the enlarged town council – and wasn’t this a bit tough on them? And the WP said it would fix its internal problems by itself while the G said it would fix the Town Council Act.

I am going to say it again: This is all sooooo interesting. It’s like the days of the late Ong Teng Cheong who wanted to test the elected president’s powers vis-à-vis the G. That took place in the courts too. Now we have another unique experiment in Singapore taking the same route.

I wonder what the residents in the opposition ward think? The elected presidency challenge was more hypothetical. This case, however, affects the lives of people living in one GRC and two single-seat wards. There hasn’t been much of a ruckus raised by residents, not even after the PAP put out fliers asking them to take the WP to task – or at least get answers from the party. Nor has any noise been heard about a petition that was initiated. The community groups in the area haven’t said a thing either.

Actually, I was thinking that if the WP had a case and the court agrees that the G shouldn’t bring the issue to court, what if a resident did so instead? Remember how a resident went to court to try and force a by-election in Hougang?

It would be good to know the mood of these hundreds of thousands of people in the opposition wards. How would they react to their own MPs’ position: You voted for me, so you have to live with me until the next GE when you have to decide whether you should keep me or throw me out. You know that don’t you?

Some possible answers:

  1. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote and thought the WP would do a good job. It hasn’t, so I have to live with it. Never mind rubbish piled up to the nth floor.
  2. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote and thought the WP would do a good job. Even if the WP doesn’t, I reckoned that the G wouldn’t just let things be because we’re all taxpayers aren’t we? And that grant is really taxpayers’ money.
  3. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote and thought the WP would do a good job. But it’s been hobbled so much that it can’t perform and now it’s being bullied and we, the residents, have to suffer. If the PAP didn’t try to “fix’’ the party, we’d all be okay.
  4. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote but it didn’t matter to me whether the WP did a good job of running the town council or not. I voted them to speak up for me in Parliament. The estate is a bit smelly and dirty but that’s the price you pay for exercising your vote.
  5. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote which was why I DIDN’T vote the WP. So why are PAP voters being penalized? Should I move out?
  6. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote but I thought all those other checks by grassroots organisations which purport to represent us would keep the town council in line.
  7. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote but this is too high-level for me to intervene. How can I make a difference? I am powerless – and that’s why the G should intervene to protect me. It’s no longer a party thing, but a national issue.
  8. Yes, I always knew the consequences of my vote and I also know that at the very last minute, the G will still rescue us because it risks looking heartless if it doesn’t.

Anyway, it’s in court now. Even if the residents decide to band together and say something, would it be subjudice? I don’t even know what subjudice is anymore.

TRS kena Part 2

In News Reports on May 4, 2015 at 2:14 pm

I was a little puzzled by the Media Development Authority’s order to The Real Singapore to shut down. Not that I would miss TRS. I am puzzled at the way the law and media regulations look like a badly sewn patchwork.

The kindest thing I can say about the G’s move is that it is still wondering how to handle the wacky online world.

So the MDA couldn’t do a thing about TRS in the past because it based its operations abroad. That means it didn’t come under the ambit of the Broadcasting Act.  Until December that is, when Yang Kaiheng, a Singaporean, and his Australian fiancé, Ai Takagi, started “running their operation from Singapore’’, said the MDA.

I wonder if running an operation FROM Singapore is the same as running operation IN Singapore because I gather that the couple were nabbed while on a trip here from Australia in February. So, they weren’t based here but the servers were? Administration? What?

In any case, a couple of months passed…before the cops, not the MDA, acted. Why didn’t the media regulations kick in first (in December?) if the MDA is so keen to protect the reading/viewing public? Instead, it gets into the act after the couple got the book thrown at them.

I can’t help but wonder if somebody made some mistake here… Did someone think that TRS would automatically shut down or suspend itself after the couple got charged? And when it didn’t and continued to have those allegedly seditious posts accessible online and operated business-as-usual, that someone realized that TRS wasn’t going to play ball? Or were the criminal charges levelled simply so as to keep the couple in Singapore? (By the way, Yang has been allowed to leave Singapore to attend to his sick father.)

I had a look at the Sedition Act which can be used against any person who “ prints, publishes, sells, offers for sale, distributes or reproduces any seditious publication’’. The penalty: fine not exceeding $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or to both, and, for a subsequent offence, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.

I am not going to say more about this because the case is before the courts. And that is what makes the MDA move even more puzzling. By ordering a shutdown, hasn’t it prejudiced the sedition case against the couple? Or is it going to split hairs and say that it was not referring to the seven charges which refer to specific posts when it made the order – but on other matters posted on TRS?

There are too many questions surrounding this issue which I am sure is being watched by anyone who has a website.

In its statement, MDA said TRS published “prohibited material as defined by the Code to be objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public order and national harmony.’’ I looked at the Code on what was considered “prohibited material’’ and I guess it would be this one:

(g) whether the material glorifies, incites or endorses ethnic, racial or religious hatred, strife or intolerance.

It also said that “TRS has deliberately fabricated articles and falsely attributed them to innocent parties. TRS has also inserted falsehoods in articles that were either plagiarised from local news sources or sent in by contributors so as to make the articles more inflammatory.’’

You know, I didn’t know the MDA also policed a site’s errors and plagiarism…But I suppose if a site does so with the intention of inflaming passions and increases eyeballs while raising eyebrows, then there’s a reason for its intervention.

The statement goes on about how “at least two out of TRS’s three known editors are believed to be foreigners – Takagi is Australian, while another editor Melanie Tan is believed to be Malaysian’’. “The foreign editors were responsible for several articles that sought to incite anti-foreigner sentiments in Singapore.’’

Hmm…Is the problem one of having foreign editors? Is this something all websites must guard against? Or is this about foreigners trying to incite anti-foreigner sentiments here? How does the MDA know that the foreign editors were responsible when it is so tentative about how many editors the site has in total and even the nationality of the third?

The landscape is way too complicated.

Even though all websites come under the statutory class licence requirement in the Broadcasting Act, the MDA decided two years ago that some big sites which report on Singapore to Singaporeans should be licensed with a $50,000 bond. If TRS was based in Singapore, maybe this licensing route would suffice to keep it in line given its 1.2 million unique visitors a month.

Then the MDA also decided that some websites, never mind how fledgling, should register once they decide to go commercial (I declare my interest here as the former editor of Breakfast Network), I thought, ah, maybe TRS would be cornered here, given that it charges six figures in ad space a month. Then again, no, because, I think, it didn’t have a Singapore-based company.

Then TRS moved here.

It’s a bit ironic that it was the good ole Class Licence requirement that was held against it after all the fuss made about earlier tweaks in regulations.

Some people have said that the unprecedented application of the Class Licence requirement reflected the “light touch’’ of the G. In other words, it waited till “now’’ to actually use it. But they forgot to say that the Sedition Act charges came first.

We need a lot of clarification here…but how to ask/answer questions when the court is involved? The court action and the MDA move are not separate issues – or are they?

Sigh.

Where oh where is that promised review of the Broadcasting Act?

The baby, the bathwater and the bathtub

In News Reports, Politics on May 2, 2015 at 12:24 am

Everybody is reading tea leaves again. You can be sure that every time the Prime Minister opens his mouth from now, people will speculate on whether it would be an early election held way before January 2017. I have given up guessing dates but my tea leaves, or rather coffee grounds, tell me that all seats will be contested and eyes will be on wards bordering the Workers’ Party cluster in the east. At least, I sure hope so….I live there!

So what can be gleaned from PM Lee Hsien Loong’s speech on May Day? It was all about exceptional leadership, like the sort his father and the first generation of ministers provided. And the difficulty of recruiting good men and women into leadership positions. He didn’t say that they would be for the People’s Action Party – presumably because it’s a given. In fact, he hardly mentioned his party at all except when he reminisced about the late Lee Kuan Yew’s early days with the NTUC.

He has set the agenda for the next election: “..leadership renewal is the most important issue. It is not doing more or spending more as some would like you to think. It is who will lead Singapore into the future and it is our future at stake and our children’s future. Because if this government fails, what is going to happen to you, to all of us to Singapore?’’

The thing about leadership renewal as a mantra is that it has been the case for nearly every general election that I can remember save the years when the PAP put the elected presidency and the need for MPs who can run town councils centre-stage. Of course, there were plenty of other issues the PAP threw in, like vote for upgrading and deny racial politics ecetera.  But the theme of getting a team in place for the future is like listening to a tape recorder after re-winding.

Is it going to get any traction? Can it compare with the WP’s theme of needing a check in Parliament? Remember that Singapore lost a Foreign Minister in George Yeo. That’s a high profile job that is responsible for Singapore’s high profile on the international stage. Despite expressions of Mr Yeo’s exceptional ability, the PAP couldn’t fight the WP tide.

I suppose one reason leadership renewal might resonate now is that PM Lee isn’t getting younger. He’s 63. Leadership renewal was less of an issue during PM Goh Chok Tong’s time was because we all knew who was going to take over his job when he stepped down. Now the guessing game isn’t just about when the GE will be held, but who is going to step up to the PM’s plate. (You realise that we no longer have a First or Second DPM? Both Mr Tharman and Mr Teo are equal players although it is Mr Teo who steps up in the PM’s absence.)

The other issue is what it means to have an exceptional team.

PM Lee said this of the outpouring of emotion from the people when his father died: “I think his passing reminded people that exceptional leadership made a big difference to us and I think it has caused many people to pause and to ask ourselves are we sure we don’t need that kind of leadership any more, that quality of leadership anymore. Of course Mr Lee did not do it alone. Part of his greatness was that he brought together exceptional people to form an outstanding team.’’

As evidence, he also cited the numerous foreign leaders who came for the funeral and even flying their own national flags at half-mast.

So is PM Lee talking about “tough love’’? Hard truths and no holds barred kind of leadership that the late Mr Lee epitomized? He was after all, not a “gentle father figure’’ but a hardnosed mobiliser and, some might even say, hardboiled mobster.

I don’t think the late Mr Lee was the right leader for the turn of the century but I have sometimes wished that he had come out to lay out the law of the land and just point the waaaay. This is especially so when discussion gets too fractious.

I really want to know, for example, what was it that the late Mr Lee wanted to say in Parliament post-GE which his son didn’t allow him too. My guess is that it’s some kind of harangue about navel-gazing and going on about COEs and property prices when the world is out there ready to eat our lunch. The PM told his father that he and his team would handle it by themselves.

This is pure guesswork but I suppose he thought Mr Lee might do more harm than good by speaking up to a population which is no longer dominated by the first or second generation Singaporeans. Also, he wouldn’t want his father to help bolster him and the younger lot, and risk looking even weaker especially after a weak showing in the GE. Just saying.

There is another point in his speech I found disconcerting. He talks about how Mercedes still needs Lewis Hamilton to win the F1 championship even though it has an outstanding car. “The car can’t drive itself.’’ So those people who think it’s okay to try out a different team to lead the government because there is still the civil service to run the show should be “very careful’’.

Hmm. The civil service SHOULD be able to run the show despite a change of political masters no? That’s how it works elsewhere, so why can’t it work here? What is the relationship between the civil service and the government-of-the-day, especially when so many ministers are ex-civil servants?

I ask this because I was very taken by the speech made by Public Service Commission chairman Eddie Teo published in the media last week:

“The distinction of the role between the politician and public servant has started to become blurred.

“The upside is that the politicians will have strong support from public servants when they need to sell government policies. But the downside of the change is that it will be more difficult for the public servant to behave in a non-partisan manner as the public will see him as intrinsically linked to the ruling party, perhaps even occasionally justifying the party line. It was not an issue in the early days because the old-generation public servants never had to worry about another political party taking over government from the PAP.

“But GE 2011 has caused some of our younger public servants to worry about what to do if there are more and more opposition MPs in Parliament or even if there is a change in political party, and not just in government, maybe a few general elections from now.’’

There is something very wrong here. Are the fates of the civil servants so inextricably tied with that of their political masters that we have to be “very careful’’ if we exercise our right to put in a different political team? We risk the country going down the drain because the civil service can’t function as well with someone from a different party? Surely, ministers are NOT super civil servants.

You can already see attacks on the civil service when something untoward happens in the Workers’ Party town council. There is a perception that civil servants might not be even-handed in its dealings with the PAP and WP town councils, with those living in the opposition wards being worse off. It might be an unworthy perception but it is one that will dog the civil service if the distinction of the role between the politician and public servant is not clarified. We can throw out the party in power because we disagree with its politics or politicies but we must always be able to have faith that the civil service can and will carry on on behalf of the people.

It got me thinking about the NTUC. What happens to the NTUC should the PAP lose more seats or even lose power? Maybe nothing as the symbiotic relationship is between the PAP and the NTUC, which is like a holding fort for some would-be candidates and a testing ground for others. (Note: symbiotic is not tripartite which is G-employer-union.) I once asked Mr Lim Swee Say about the relationship and he said there were non-NTUC unions as well and opposition parties are free to tie up with them or form their own version of the labour movement. Interesting.

So PM Lee is right about being “very careful’’ about our vote. Throw out the bath water (the PAP) and the baby might go as well (the civil service) – and we also risk over-turning the bathtub (the NTUC)?

He might be right but it doesn’t seem right, does it?

The Slap

In News Reports, Society on May 1, 2015 at 1:01 am

So many views have emerged over the slapping of Amos Yee that you can’t say a thing about it without someone emerging to… slap you down.

In case you didn’t know, Amos breached his bail conditions by posting online again complaining about his bail conditions and describing how his father had hit him, especially when he wanted to go to court in his pyjamas. His well-meaning bailor who put up $20,000, a stranger to him, pulled out because Amos wouldn’t abide by bail conditions. Then another stranger turned up in court yesterday to slap him in front of the media.

I’m summarizing the range of views here and my apologies if I left out any strand of thought

a. Those who clapped loudly along with the slap thinking that it’s about time the boy got his comeuppance. After all, he is undeniably rude and abusive and has no qualms about spreading his vitriol in public.

b.  Those who clapped quietly because it’s not right to condone violence on others and agree that the stranger shouldn’t have taken matters into his own hands. But they’re still gleeful that he did what they have an urge to do themselves if they could or had the guts to.

c. Those who say the stranger shouldn’t have done what he did because it’s just plain wrong. And have no views (I don’t know how it is possible to stop the brain from going there) on whether Amos deserved one tight slap or not.

d. Those who say that those who clap loudly or quietly are wrong because they are really piling on a troubled kid who just might have been abused at home by his father whom he himself described as a “killer’’ and a “bastard’’.

e. Those who say that the stranger was merely doing what his parents should have done (but of course the stranger is wrong), although they don’t know what the parents have done over Amos’ formative years.

f. Those who say that violence on others, whether by strangers or relatives, cannot be condoned. They do not subscribe to the “spare the rod, spoil the child’’ type of upbringing which they say is old-fashioned and out-dated thinking. Besides, it’s also cruel.

g. Those who think everybody should shut up especially if they are not child psychiatrists, do not know Amos or his family and, oh yeah, because the case is before the courts.

h. Those who heap abuse on anyone who differs with them, indulging in ad hominem attacks and engaging in vocabulary almost close to Amos’ quality.

i. Then they are those who conflate the slap with a whole host of other issues surrounding Amos, such as whether a 16 year old should be tried in an adult court, whether the Sedition Act is too heavy for what he did, whether he was being prosecuted more for his anti-LKY rants rather than seditious remarks on religion, why others who attacked him aren’t also being prosecuted….you name it, you can attach a whole lot of issues to Amos.

Before anyone asks, I belong to group b. I got vicarious pleasure from seeing the slap administered. But that is about as far as I would go. We all refrain from acting from basic/base instincts because we’re civilized people who abide by the rules of society and by the law. My regret is that no member of the media or any cop collared the stranger to find out who is he, why he did what he did, and to throw the book at him for executing some version of “mob justice’’.

I know I will be attacked by those who disagree with my group b choice and will call me all sorts of names and declare their “disappointment’’ ecetera. I suppose I can be politically correct – and keep quiet. I wanted to be, because I think that’s what Amos wants – the glory of public comment/interest. And I didn’t want to give him that. Besides, silence is great no? You can’t get into trouble for shutting up. Or if you want to say something you know will get you attacked, you use a pseudonym or set up a fake account or something. But that would be cowardly. So, by that measure, Amos is a hero for saying what he did online so openly….

The Amos issue excites comments because it touches on the law (why the Sedition Act?), court processes (strange bail conditions), freedom of speech (is this more about the anti-LKY rant?), upbringing (unresolved teen issues?), family circumstances (too lax/tight?) and yes, even child/teen abuse whether at the hands of parents, strangers or the State. All of us think we know a bit of the different facets and even have some pretty firm views on parenting styles.

Parents look at Amos and wonder if they are keeping a tight enough rein on what their kids do online. They will put themselves in his parents’ shoes and wonder about how the Yees brought him up, whether he was simply beyond their control – and thank their lucky stars that their own children are well-behaved, or so they think. There will always be an element of self-righteousness and even hypocrisy because we do NOT know his family background and we’re NOT child psychiatrists – but we think we know it all. The thing is, you can’t stop people from having a view, at least, over his public actions.

Likewise, we are all products of our own upbringing and know of people who turned out well or not, because or despite of family circumstances. So we base our judgments on our own experience and anecdotal evidence. To each his own view, I say. We can agree to disagree on any aspect but I think we must and should agree that the stranger was in the wrong to slap him if we are to live in a society based on law and order. And we must and should let the courts proceed with its case without anyone on the outside prejudicing the process or hoping to influence the outcome.

BTW. The Slap is the title of a 2008 novel by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas. At a barbecue, a man slaps his neighbour’s son, who has been misbehaving without any intervention by his parents. Plenty of drama after that. Some characters believe the boy should be taught some discipline, others think the police ought to be brought in to investigate the slapper. And there’s a range of positions in between. Very good book.

* my apologies. He is being prosecuted under the Penal Code