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Is this the end of the FamiLEE saga?

In News Reports on November 24, 2020 at 3:47 am

I sure hope so.

I’ve had enough of the troubles of this family, the public statements and the use of the court’s time and energy on matters that I’m not so sure are of grave national import. Even the dramatic aspects of Lee versus Lee (or the State versus Lee) doesn’t stimulate the senses anymore. 

I’ve read the 98-page judgment by the Court of Three Judges which suspended Mrs Lee Suet Fern from practising for 15 months. So the lawyer can’t do any work here, but it seems that doesn’t really matter since she is registered as a lawyer in Hong Kong. 

I had to read the judgment a few times because I’m just a layman. The judges tried to untangle all the words that have been said by all the parties to determine who was telling the truth and who was lying, and even what the late Lee Kuan Yew would have thought at that time. Shorn of all the legalese about “implied’’and “imputed’’, “putative’’ and “precedents’’, it boiled down to this:

  1. Did Mrs Lee “act’’ as LKY’s solicitor when she prepared the last will? She shouldn’t have, because her husband benefited from the will. 
  2. If she didn’t “act’’ as a solicitor, should she, as a lawyer, have known better than to advise her father-in-law especially since her husband would gain from the new will? 

So there are two levels here. The first is more serious than the second. I thought to myself the number of times people have told me that “as an educator’’ or “as a journalist’’, I should know “better’’. I’m glad that I’m not a lawyer who has to keep his legal hat on wherever he is and with whoever he talks to. 

At the risk of over-simplifying the process, the court got involved because the Disciplinary Tribunal of the Law Society of Singapore wanted her struck off the rolls. The Law Society got involved because it got a complaint from the Attorney-General’s office. So it was the State that complained, not a mere citizen who believes he was bamboozled or befuddled by the smart talk of a lawyer. 

I can’t carry on opining unless I give a gist of the FamiLEE saga. So bear with me.

It started with the Lees’ family home in Oxley Road and whether it should be demolished or preserved. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that his father wanted it demolished initially but had changed his mind. His two siblings, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, said he wanted it razed. 

But the nail in the coffin (pardon the pun) was LKY’s seventh and last will, which re-inserted the so-called demolition clause and gave the three children equal shares in the estate. Will Number 5 and 6 didn’t have the Demolition clause and would have given Dr Lee the biggest share. (There was also something about two carpets for Hsien Yang, but I won’t go into that.) 

It’s that last will that is now the nub of the case against Mrs Lee. Although it went through probate and nobody raised objections, the Attorney-General’s Office took issue with the involvement of Mrs Lee, a lawyer of 37 years, in getting the will signed and executed. She should have recused herself, it said, because of conflict of interest – her husband gained materially from it. 

The court went through every single step right up to when LKY signed the will on Dec 17, 2013. 

First question: Did LKY regard his daughter-in-law as his lawyer? 

No, he was still talking to Ms Kwa Kim Li, who had drafted the earlier wills and was in fact in touch with her about changing Will Number 6 to give the children equal shares, even as late as Dec 13, 2013.

So the first charge about Mrs Lee acting as LKY’s solicitor got thrown out. 

Second question: Who initiated the changes? 

At first, Mrs Lee said that she was acting on instructions from LKY about the reverting to the first will, but her story changed later. She said it was LKY who told Lee Hsien Yang about reverting to the first will and the younger son set about getting it done. As he had to catch a flight to Brisbane that day, he got his wife to contact Ms Kwa to get it settled. But Ms Kwa wasn’t contactable (she said she never got the email), so Hsien Yang told her to settle it herself quickly lest LKY lose his temper about the slow pace. Ms Kwa wasn’t called to give evidence, by the way. (From the judgment: Ms Kwa was not subpoenaed to give evidence because the Testator’s estate had asserted privilege over the documents pertaining to the Last Will and to her engagement as the Testator’s solicitor)

So it was Mr Lee Hsien Yang who was behind the process and his wife was acting on his instructions. 

Third question: Was there anything wrong about the will LKY later signed? 

Here’s where some contradictions surfaced.

At first, Mrs Lee said she had the first will with her, but both she and her husband later changed their minds and said he was the one who forwarded it to her. The court settled on her original statement. 

So, she somehow has a copy of the first will with her, but (and here’s a significant but) it wasn’t the final first will. It was just a draft of the first will. She said she didn’t know.

The court examined this draft and the final first will and found that there were a couple of discrepancies. For example, there was no gift-over clause in the draft will that was later signed, indicating what would happen should any of LKY’s children die before him. Also missing was a provision that PM Lee would pay for the maintenance and upkeep of the house for as long as his sister is staying in it.

Mrs Lee assumed that what she had on hand was the correct first will and gave it to LKY as such, adding that it gave equal shares to the children. She didn’t check its veracity as anyone with legal training would have done. She got her ex-colleagues to witness the signing the next day, Dec 17. The court said that the process was done in “unseemly haste’’.

I have to pause here to tell you about the ministerial committee that got involved earlier regarding the house. The three-member committee had been corresponding with the siblings and were told about Mrs Lee’s involvement. The about-turns in testimony came about when the process became a legal matter with the Disciplinary Tribunal’s involvement. The judges surmised that the changed testimony was because Mr Lee Hsien Yang didn’t want to be seen as playing a role in the process in answers to the ministerial committee. So, according to the court, some lies were told. 

What has been puzzling to me is why the Demolition clause was not much canvassed during the trial. The issue isn’t merely about whether the couple were conspiring to get more of their inheritance, but whether LKY knew that reverting to the first will meant including the demolition clause – and had intended it to be so.  In fact, that would be a point of public interest, not whether a daughter-in-law or a lawyer was acting for LKY. 

The judgment said that LKY’s discussions with Ms Kwa did not involve “replacing the Sixth Will with another will, nor about reinstating either the First Will as a whole or the Demolition Clause in particular.’’

I know that learned legal types will say that the court can only deal with the evidence brought before it, but I can’t help but feel that the case dwelt on everything but the elephant in the room. Earlier, the Disciplinary Committee tried to paint a picture of a conspiracy to defraud a frail old man, with his daughter-in-law, a lawyer, knowingly out to deceive him. The court however, believes that the case isn’t that serious. “Moderate degree of culpability and harm’‘, was how the judges put it.

Frankly, I thought the case would be thrown out since the court decided that there was no solicitor-client relationship between LKY and Mrs Lee. That would have led to disbarment.

 But it seems that just being a lawyer is good enough (or bad enough) for a  court to decide on how culpable the person is the business of drafting wills. Even though there was no material harm. So, she was remiss in her duty, did not do due diligence and seemed more concerned for her husband than doing right by her father-in-law. 

The court decided on a 15-month suspension. In my view, it seemed more like a signal to other lawyers to be careful about doing work that can be construed as legal than a stern admonition for Mrs Lee.

As the judges said, LKY seemed content with the last will, after changing it six times. He lived for more than a year without re-visiting it. 

As for the harm caused in this case, the material harm was that the Testator (LKY) ended up signing a document which was in fact not that which he had indicated he wished to sign. The fact that the Last Will and the First Will were materially similar was fortuitous, and does not discount the fact that the potential harm could have been far more severe than the actual harm that eventuated.’’

By this, I suppose the court meant that there could have been other significant changes and this might have slipped by LKY. And that one of Singapore’s greatest minds, himself a lawyer, wouldn’t be able to detect the changes because of age and sickness. Hm. 

 At the end of the day, I am not sure what to make of this case. I question the haste in getting LKY to sign the will when Ms Kwa was actually available. But I can also understand how children would jump to attention when a parent who is ailing wants something as important and final as his will changed. 

It can’t have escaped people’s notice that Mrs Lee Suet Fern’s case follows that of her son, who was recently fined $15,000 for contempt of court. Other cases have invoked the FamiLEE saga in some form while at least one more is in the pipeline. 

I am sticking to my earlier position that PM Lee should simply have sued his siblings for defamation and put a full-stop to saga. Now, he can stay silent or reiterate his non-involvement with his relatives’ legal problems, but the actions of government machinery will still be laid at his door, whether justifiably or not. 

Political transition’s ambiguous timeline

In News Reports on November 10, 2020 at 6:25 am

Singapore has had only two leadership transitions – with a third on the way. And the way looks bumpy. You have the Prime Minister talking during the general election about staying on to help Singapore through the Covid-19 crisis. 

You have my word: Together with my older colleagues like Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, as well as the 4G ministers, I will see this through. I am determined to hand over Singapore intact and in good working order to the next team.”

I thought then that he was attempting to placate people who thought that the A team shouldn’t have left the management of the crisis to the B team. Poor Heng Swee Keat. 

Then former Cabinet Minister S Jayakumar raised the possibility of PM Lee Hsien Loong staying in place for the full term and even to fight  the next general election in 2025. He said that “changing horses in mid-stream’’ doesn’t make sense. If the PM agrees, what does that do to his pledge that he would like to step down before his 70th birthday in February 2022?

I thought again, poor Heng Swee Keat. 

Over the weekend at the People’s Action Party conference, the PM talked again about staying on. 

Leadership renewal remains one of my top priorities. But as I have explained, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact, it is my duty to see our nation through the crisis, before I hand over responsibility for Singapore in good shape to the next team and into safe hands. I ask you to support me and my whole team – older and younger MPs, office holders and backbenchers. We will do our very best to fulfil our duty at this critical time.’’

I searched for signs of an endorsement of the 4th leadership but other than that they were leading initiatives and getting feedback, nothing further was said about them stepping up. There was no rousing call to cadres to show support for the younger team, but more an injunction to party members to put their backs into making sure the party stayed relevant. 

His 2018 speech to PAP cadres was more fulsome: “The 4G team has been in Cabinet for several years now. Many of them joined in 2011. Some joined earlier, others in 2015. They have been tested in several portfolios. At the same time, they are working with each other, and learning to complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

It is a team of able men and women, with a good combination of skills amongst them. They are gaining experience, willing to serve, and most importantly, with their hearts in the right place. I can see them gelling as a team, and am confident that they have what it takes to lead Singapore. I hope that you will join me in giving your whole-hearted support to the new CEC and our 4G leaders.’’

Given Singapore’s opaque partisan politics, it is natural for the people to read “signs’’ to foretell the future, whether they are real or not. 

Following GE2020, I listened carefully to PM Lee’s speech at the opening of Parliament and wondered why he said almost nothing about the 4G. His speech is better remembered for his castigation of free-riding voters who wanted both a PAP government and an opposition presence in Parliament. 

On the outside looking in, the succession process looks terribly unwieldy and wobbly, despite the PAP’s boast that it takes leadership renewal seriously. 

The first transition from Lee Kuan Yew to Goh Chok Tong had never gone off-course, despite the late Mr Lee’s grumblings about how his deputy wasn’t his first-choice pick. The late Mr Lee’s criticisms of Mr Goh’s lack of charisma and wooden demeanour seemed to have backfired if the idea was to de-legitimise Mr Goh as successor. In fact, Mr Lee’s blunt honesty about the “gentle man’’ led to a wave of sympathy for the underdog, sandwiched in the hierarchy between the father and the son. 

Mr Goh declared that he would walk in his “own shoes’’ rather than try to fit that into his predecessor’s gargantuan ones.

You can say that, barring the Kennedys, our current Prime Minister had the best and most extensive tutelage for the job, both at home and in political office. Everybody knew the lay of the land; nobody would attempt to make a pitch for the top job, especially with Mr Goh and the late Mr Lee still in the Cabinet. 

The baton passed smoothly from Mr Goh to the current PM in 2004. No surprises. This second handover was like a “done’’ deal, given that Mr Lee had been a deputy prime minister for 14 years and early declarations by Mr Goh that Mr Lee would be his successor.

So what happened in the third generation? My guess is that PM Lee left the succession plan too late. One of chess pieces was knocked off the board in 2011 when Mr Ong Ye Kung, now Transport minister, didn’t make it in the general election along with the rest of the Aljunied GRC team.

PM Lee seemed content to try individuals out in different capacities to see who would rise above the others while leaving it to the 4th generation to decide among themselves on who would be their choice of leader. It was such a slow process that even Mr Goh weighed in, to tell the ministers to “get a move on’’.

From the 2015 election till the Covid outbreak early this year, I believe most people felt that the 4th generation was in the driver’s seat. We’re told several times that they would be making the decisions, and that the veterans would take a back seat. Both Mr Teo Chee Hean and Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam became Senior Ministers which Singaporeans have come to think of as the pre-retirement stage. Mr Heng became Number 2 in the People’s Action Party as First Assistant Secretary-General and holds the sole Deputy Prime Minister job in the Cabinet. 

I had great hopes in the leadership of Mr Heng, whom I thought performed superbly in the education and finance portfolios and as chairman of the Our Singapore Conversation. I wanted to see him perform like a Deputy, and more than just a Finance minister, never mind how important the portfolio is. I don’t think he succeeded. I also did not like that he had to front a couple of parliamentary altercations with the Workers’ Party MPs. It seemed uncharacteristic of his personality and more like attempts to look “tough’’. 

Despite unveiling four Budgets, he was eclipsed by Covid-19 taskforce co-chairman Lawrence Wong, who was also picked to make public the PAP’s preliminary post-mortem of GE2020 and has excited pundits who view him as a front-runner in the PM stakes. I thought yet again: poor Heng Swee Keat. 

So what’s happened to the succession plan? Is it on track? Because the “signs’’ are not clear. 

I doubt that Mr Heng can live down his “East Coast plan’’ election speech any time soon, but should that be a deciding factor? As for the election results in his East Coast GRC, you can argue that he propped up the PAP team to prevent it from slipping into opposition hands, or that he should have done better. 

Mr Heng’s technocratic ability is not in doubt, but some people think that this is not enough for the job. Note that Mr Goh suffered from the same compliment/drawback : that while he was able, he was not inspiring. The difference, however, is that no one ever believed that he would be re-routed from the job.

If Mr Heng is still their man, the 4G leaders should be rallying around him too – publicly. After all, in November 2018, they said in a joint statement: “Now we have a consensus that the team will be led by Swee Keat.” It can’t have escaped people’s notice that it was Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, not Mr Heng’s political contemporary, who said the 4G leaders were in “complete unity’’ behind Mr Heng. 

Prof Jayakumar said that whether PM Lee Hsien Loong retires two years from now or a few years later, the exact timing is not the critical issue. “What is important for Singapore is that there is no abandonment of the strategic impulse to plan for and execute an orderly succession.’’ 

I wondered at that. Of course, a successor must be appointed. Nobody lives forever.  

And while Prof Jayakumar is right to say that horses should not be changed mid-stream, it is also true that most Singaporeans have been prepared for the change for some time. To have the status quo remain – that would, in fact, be a change. 

Parti case: The news from Parliament

In News Reports on November 4, 2020 at 2:14 pm

The news is: Mr Karl Liew will be charged with perjury tomorrow. This announcement comes after a ministerial statement in Parliament earlier today which I don’t really know how to describe. I will stick with a neutral term, like, eye-opening. 

I guess many will rejoice at the State’s decision, and I can anticipate calls for a similar pound of flesh to be excised from the father, Mr Liew Mun Leong. 

But after the more than two-hour monologue in Parliament by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, I am still trying to wrap my head around the processes involved in the legal system. I am convinced by his arguments, however, that the police and prosecutors were  right to charge Indonesian Parti Liyani for theft. They are clean. The system is clean. But Mr Shanmugam’s delivery is so powerful that I am wondering if Ms Liyani is clean.

Not that he is about to re-open the case nor judge the rightness or wrongness of the acquittal. He made that clear from the start. He had to refer to the case, the judgments and the investigation process and the results of the review to answer questions that have been raised about the impartiality of the legal system, he told Parliament. His intent was to assure the House that everyone gets a fair shake in the Singapore system, whether a foreign domestic worker or a corporate chieftain. The David-versus Goliath end result was really evidence that the rule of law is working, he said. 

So he took the House through the steps taken by the police and Attorney-General’s Chambers which led them to proceed to charge Ms Liyani. There was no reason to doubt the authenticity of the police report Mr Liew made, nor question his motives, he said. In fact, Parti herself had admitted initially to taking 10 to 15 items of male clothing without permission – a statement she later retracted. 

He asserted that there was no “influence peddling’’ on the part of the Liew family to subvert the process. The higher ups in the police and prosecution didn’t even know about the case until it broke in the media. As far as the public officers were concerned, it was just another theft case, one of 14,000 that are filed annually.

As for the much put-upon Attorney-General Lucien Wong, the House was told that he  recused himself from anything to do with the case when it blew up later not because he was a friend and former fellow board member with Mr Liew, but because he had great differences of opinion with the man in those days. (Woah. How many of you thought otherwise?) 

I was wondering how open the minister would be about the case, which had exercised the minds of Singaporeans since September. Public sympathy was for the maid, helped by a pro bono lawyer and a non-government organisation. On the other hand, Mr Liew was castigated on social media so much that he left all his corporate positions, including chairman of Changi Airport Group, to spare the companies pain. 

Before Mr Shanmugam spoke, Leader of the House Indranee Rajah asked that a Standing Order which restrains comments on court cases in Parliament be waived, given the public interest and the need to put to rest suspicions about the application of the law of law here. That was a hint that we’d be hearing quite a bit. How much? 

The minister went into the case with a fine tooth-comb, referring to investigation processes, notes from the Attorney-General and comments from the State Court judge who had sentenced Parti to 26 months jail, and the High Court judge who later acquitted her. He came armed with eight appendices detailing what she was said to have filched or picked up from the trash, inconsistencies in her statements to police and on the stand and, more interestingly, how not all 51 items were part of the break in the chain of evidence. 

While he was clearly annoyed at Ms Liyani’s inconsistent statements, he also had tough words for the Liews, whom he said adopted a “cavalier attitude’’ towards identifying items when they were not sure of their provenance and indiscriminately ascribing values to them. They should have treated making a police report more seriously.

In case you forgot, High Court judge Chan Seng Onn acquitted Ms Liyani because he wasn’t convinced that the Liews’ motive for making a police report about the theft was proper. He was inclined to think that they could have made the move to stop their former maid of eight years from returning to Singapore and complaining to the Manpower Ministry about being illegally deployed at the afore-mentioned Karl’s house. 

Karl wasn’t a reliable witness as well. For example, he had testified that a Gucci wallet, a Braun Buffel wallet and a Helix watch were given to him by his family members. Yet none of his family members could recall this. Hence, the charge tomorrow.

Then comes the rather damning lapse in investigation: it took police more than a month to followup on the police report Mr Liew made on 30 Oct 2016, by which time anything could have been done to the supposed purloined items. This is the “break in the chain of custody’’ of evidence part.

Given the parliamentary waiver, I thought Mr Shanmugam would also talk about the prosecution’s conduct of the trial, which will be reviewed by a disciplinary tribunal. Alas, he said he would rather not talk about the case since it could involve penalties. In fact, he said House Leader Indranee Rajah and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh agreed not to get into this matter. 

So we will have to wait to hear about that infamous DVD player which didn’t work perfectly. Earlier today, Ms Liyani released a media statement which threw in another instance of supposed prosecutorial shenanigans during the trial – a Gerald Genta watch that works only when shaken.  

The fresh points Mr Shanmugam revealed earlier today:

  1. Although Ms Liyani did threaten the family about complaining to MOM as she was sent packing on 28 October 2016, she didn’t actually say what the complaint would be about. In course of reviewing the case after the acquittal, investigations produced an eye-witness who said that Ms Liyani was referring to the “short notice’’ period she had been given. Also, her maid agent twice offered to help her make a report with MOM but she declined. She did so only after she was charged the next year. 
  1. The break in the chain of custody only covers the items contained in three bags left in the Liew’s house. But there were also items like a Prada bag and a pair of Gucci sunglasses that were found on her when she was arrested on her return to Singapore on Dec 2. 
  1. Her dismissal wasn’t “sudden’’. The Liews had been harbouring thoughts of dismissing her since mid 2015 because they suspected that she had been filching stuff. Mrs Liew saw a maid agent a few times after that. But the family made up its mind in September the next year after Mr Liew found that his power bank was missing.  Ms Liyani was dismissed on the same day the new maid arrived for work. She had suggested that she was dismissed because she had said “no’’ to working in Karl’s house the week before. 

Mr Shanmugam made it plain that he wasn’t contesting the judgment, which was final. The court, he said, can only rule based on the evidence put before him. In this case, the prosecution didn’t think that the reason for her dismissal was material to the case, and focused their attention on the alleged theft. Nor was the judge apprised of what she had actually said about complaining to MOM.

He stressed that this was evidence untested in court. “But since this has come up during the further investigations, as to whether the Liews committed an offence, I am duty bound to set out in this House. I cannot come here and go through the facts without telling you that we have this further information which only came about because the further investigations into the Liews’ conduct was directed by the AGC.’’

Several times, he said that he was giving context about the case, to show how the police and prosecution came to the decision  to charge Ms Liyani. For example, was there any reason at that time for police to doubt the authenticity of the police report or that she had been dismissed on suspicions of thieving? 

“We are not here discussing whether the specifics of the conduct of the trial were right or wrong. My task before this House is to set out what happened, and what we have found out since the High Court judgment and based on that, examine whether there are any systemic issues, and whether there was any influence-peddling.’’

I thought Mr Shanmugam tried very hard not to put himself on the spot. He was trying to debunk views that the system favours the powerful with facts, including dredging up Establishment names who have got the stick in the past. At the same time, he was trying to explain how the legal system works, that is, it is normal for courts to disagree on conviction or sentences. Ms Lyani’s case belonged to the 10 per cent of appeal cases to a higher court which quashed the conviction or reduced the sentence. 

But he was clearly protective of his Home team. While stating that lapses must be dealt with, and action taken against officers involved, he was sympathetic towards his “over-worked” crew.

Singapore’s 1,100 investigating officers deal with 66,200 criminal cases a year. Including full-time National Servicemen, the ratio of police to population is 0.23 per cent compared to Hong Kong’s 0.39 per cent, he said. As for the specific officer involved, he referred to his heavy caseload as well as being beset by personal problems.

So what will change after this?

  1. The AGC will from now “seriously consider’’ looking into allegations of perjury or other serious offences should such findings arise in court judgments or legal proceedings. I am perplexed by this because I’ve always thought that was the case.
  2. The AGC will draw up guidelines for the valuation of items in property offences.
  3. Police will ask accused persons for their language of choice and inform them that they can ask  for an interpreter at any time. 
  4. Police will take better quality pictures, in colour, with items properly displayed for identification. If you’re wondering about this, Ms Liyani was shown black and white photographs of the items at first.
  5. The workload of investigating officers will be reviewed and the police are looking into online case management systems. 

Of course, Mr Shanmugam said a lot more about upholding the rule of law and being swift to stamp out all vestiges of corruption or influence peddling. You can read them in the mainstream media.

I’m all agog over just one point he made: He said that if People’s Action MPs were found wanting in some way, even if it wasn’t anything criminal or unethical, he would have a chat with the relevant MP over a cup of coffee. “When they leave, the issue is usually resolved. And if it is not resolved, Then they don’t remain as MPs.’’ 

My goodness! Which MPs have been invited to lim kopi with the minister?

Truth and trust, but no info

In News Reports on October 30, 2020 at 1:51 am

I wanted to write this yesterday but I was waiting to see if there would be a fuller response on why academics Cherian George and Donald Low were “dis-invited’’ from a webinar on Public Discourse: Truth and Trust that was supposed to be held on Sunday. 

The mainstream media has finally reported this befuddling change of heart by Raffles Hall Alumni, which dropped the two men without even the courtesy of informing them, so we’re told. 

Instead, there was an apology from its spokesman to alumni members about the change on the RHA Facebook. Then there was a terse statement on how such events were only for  alumni members and “developed at the organiser’s discretion’’. 

The subtext : everybody else should just shut up because this is an “internal’’ thing. Since the statement, the spokesman seems to have decided to stop speaking altogether. 

Well, he might not need to make its reasons public, but surely the two men deserve an answer – as well as those who signed up for the webinar, including non-alumni members. Instead, posters of their talk were quietly replaced over the weekend with two new panel members taking the stage, speaking on the same issue of Truth and Trust. 

At a basic level, the RHA action was downright rude and terribly unprofessional. At a higher level, what Truth and Trust?

Then comes this weird spectacle of RHA denying that it has any links with the National University of Singapore – and vice-versa. Raffles Hall, the residential college itself, also said it has no links to the alumni. The operative word is “autonomous’’. So it seems that the decision was RHA’s alone, or it has been made to carry the can.  

Nobody seems to have probed NUS further on whether it had communicated with the alumni organisers about the event, even though the two men kept mentioning “NUS’’ in their responses to the media. 

What happened between the invite and the dis-invite is now open to speculation. For a seminar on Truth and Trust, it’s just ironic that no one seems to want to take responsibility and give reasons for the change in speaker line-up. 

Even replacement speaker Arun Mahizhnan, Special Research Adviser at the Institute of Policy Studies, said he wasn’t given a “full briefing’’ on how he came to be invited. Now, this is astounding. The organisers didn’t even apprise him of the background? He has since pulled out of the event.

This is what happens to Truth and Trust when nobody wants to say anything. People make links – even if they are false – because you really cannot expect people not to think, even if they don’t talk. 

So was the change of heart to do with the backgrounds of the two academics and the new book they have written, PAP versus PAP : The Party’s Struggle To Adapt To A Changing Singapore? Did someone important object to their coming presence and the air-time the book suggesting reforms to the PAP’s mode of governance would get? 

Professor Cherian George is a media studies professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, who had a very public and acrimonious separation from the Nanyang Technology University in 2015. He was also a former Straits Times journalist. 

Prof Donald Low is now professor of practice at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Institute of Public Policy. The former Administrative Service Officer was with  the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy till 2018.

Both men have had run-ins with authority. Both are also prolific commentators on the Singapore political, social and economic scene and have published books and essays. Their latest book contains a selection of their past columns updated to reflect recent events such as the 2020 general election and the Covid-19 outbreak.  

I don’t know if RHA organisers have read it, and whether something in it made them change their minds about inviting the duo. I’ve read it already and as someone who follows their work, I wouldn’t describe their essays as surprising. 

True to form, Prof Low questioned the PAP Government’s obsession with accumulating the reserves, called for the introduction of a wealth tax and wants some universalisation of social safety nets. Prof George stuck to his favorite topics on the media, policies on race and the government controls on speech. They are not diatribes or rants, but considered pieces to get the People’s Action Party to re-think its approach to governance to keep up with the times. Of course, telling the PAP that it can do better wouldn’t make for comfortable reading for the Establishment, but that is what public discourse is all about, right? 

So what happened? Why was the duo considered unsuitable for an audience of graduates and alumni members, who would doubtless have their own views on governance? They are not students or even undergraduates to be shielded by a higher authority worried that they would be influenced by different ways of thinking.

The first thing that would come to mind is that RHA had acted on its own initiative to invite the two men, until the “higher-ups’’ got wind of it when the posters went out. Pressure was then brought to bear on the alumni, even though you will find nothing in the rule books about “governance’’ and ties with other agencies. (Cue statements on “autonomy”) Unless you have a whistleblower or a mole, all looks neat and tidy on the surface. 

So, it’s either that RHA changed its mind, or someone else made RHA change its mind but doesn’t want to be in the picture. And everybody is too embarrassed to say why. 

I’m embarrassed too. I will take at face value the RHA’s stance that it is “autonomous’’. I note, however, that it is not a flat-out denial that it didn’t cave in to pressure from somewhere. If it had exercised its own mind, I am surprised that it was so cack handed in the way it handled the matter. Today’s graduates aren’t even savvy enough to dissemble to tell a good lie, like having to replace the duo with speakers on a more time-sensitive issue, like the American presidential election.  Nor are they even honest enough to give the full facts.

RHA’s Mr Yuen said: “We continue the important conversations on today’s (social) media world, where we apparently can no longer trust what we read, see or hear.” 

I wonder if he’s being ironic. 

I don’t know if the webinar will still carry on with just two speakers, ex-journalist  Al Ramirez Dizon and NUS lecturer Shobha Avadhani, who was originally listed as the moderator for the original panel. 

But given the fiasco, I think it should be called off. RHA should save itself even more embarrassment. 

Right that NUS po mata

In News Reports on October 23, 2020 at 8:05 am

The National University of Singapore did the right thing to file a police report on supposed sexual offences committed against two of its female students. I don’t know what the technicalities are – whether it is being filed on their behalf or if it was simply to say that it thinks a crime has been committed. Probably not the former, since the two students are insistent on protecting their privacy, refusing to be named or to give their ages while speaking to the media. 

Let me first declare my interest as a university staff member and as someone who knows Dr Jeremy Fernando from a stint I did at Tembusu College where he worked before he got fired. I will try as best as I can to be clinical about what I have to say. 

I was shocked when I read the ST headline which said that he had been sacked because of accusations of “sexual misconduct’’. I wouldn’t have thought him capable of it. I don’t know about you, but my idea of sexual misconduct amounts to more than just “inappropriate behaviour’’ by a teacher or even sexual harassment.

TODAY’s headline was more prosaic, based on the NUS spokesman’s words: NUS Tembusu College lecturer sacked following 2 complaints of inappropriate behaviour.

I wondered if ST had “hardened” the headline since all the spokesman said was: “An internal investigation was carried out and Dr Fernando’s conduct was found to have fallen short of the standards of professionalism that the university expects of a teaching staff. Based on the findings of the internal investigation, Dr Fernando, a non-residential teaching staff, was dismissed by the university.”

You would think there was no “sex” involved, but something else. Even if “sex” was involved, from what the spokesman said, it seemed more innocuous (?) like being in close physical contact during class or trying to date a student. Or he might have written emails that are far too friendly for comfort.

These are all assumptions and speculation, because the university didn’t give details. In any case, such fraternisation is frowned upon and a misbehaving staff member who violates the university’s code of conduct can expect to be hauled up for disciplinary measures and even sacked. It is an internal matter, and I’m pretty sure many big companies have similar policies as well with regards to superior-subordinate relationships or sexual harassment allegations.

Imagine my even bigger surprise when I went on to read the students’ accounts of what happened in the ST, which was why the headline was the way it was. This wasn’t a case of a too-friendly teacher putting an arm around a student or whispering sweet nothings to her, it smacked of sexual assault. It was blatant, intentional and absolutely horrible. 

So there’s a wide gulf between the NUS statement and what the students said happened to them. What gives? Is NUS playing it down or are the students playing it up? It’s a legitimate question especially since a man is now been accused of being a sexual predator – and not just a teacher who “forgot himself’’ when he was among female students. 

Sexual assaults demean a woman in the worst way possible. I get angry when I see misogynists asking why women would want to put themselves in a vulnerable position by getting drunk in male company. It is as bad as saying that a woman deserved to be raped because she dressed provocatively. In fact, when students are in the company of a teacher, they should expect to be taken care of, not taken advantage of. 

To hear the two students say it, the opposite happened. The two women did not want to file a police report, and we have no clue what they said to the university authorities. Did they report it in the same way that they told the media? If they did, why did  NUS pussyfoot around with weasley words like “inappropriate behaviour”? Was this to protect the two students, to protect the  teacher or to protect the reputation of the university, which hasn’t had good press lately? 

I can only surmise that the university authorities didn’t realise that the students would say so much to the media. Or maybe they thought that the two would put a lid on it, even though in these social media days, nothing can be kept private for very long. Someone knows or thinks he/she knows and the internet will be on fire. 

Then comes the second point about making a police report. Plenty of people have weighed in about whether the two girls should have done so and bring the man to justice. To many, a police report would nail down somewhat the veracity of the accusations as making a false police report is an offence. Also, given the public allegations, Dr Fernando seems to have got off quite lightly with a sacking. 

Legal types have said that no investigation can be done if no police report has been filed. There is the opposite approach: if the allegations are false, Dr Fernando can sue the women and The Straits Times. ST must be on very sure ground that he did what the women said to avoid a massive libel suit. Yet, nothing has been heard from Dr Fernando so far. Does his silence lend weight to the severity of the accusations? Maybe it does. 

Now the university has changed its mind and filed a police report. It has suddenly decided that the allegations were serious enough to warrant action. Still, it applied another weasley term “intimate association with an undergraduate’’, a notch above “inappropriate behaviour’’.

Some, like women’s group, Aware, think that NUS may have felt legally obligated to file the police report because of clause in Section 424 of the Criminal Procedure Code. 

This says that: Every person aware of the commission of or the intention of any other person to commit any arrestable offence punishable shall, in the absence of reasonable excuse, the burden of proving which shall lie upon the person so aware, immediately give information to the officer in charge of the nearest police station or to a police officer of the commission or intention. 

Aware does not think that the university should have filed a report since the two women wouldn’t. And it thinks that the clause on mandatory reporting isn’t enforced nor consistently followed anyway. 

It also wants to know if students are told about the “NUS policy’’ of mandatory reporting.  The subtext, I suppose, is that students won’t complain to the university authorities and get help, if they realise that they have to go through the court process, for example. The trauma of re-living what happened  would be too much for them. 

I don’t think much of the way my employer has handled this case. But I do think that alleged sexual predators should get their comeuppance. Or, to put it another way, due process must be accorded to them since the matter is now in the open. 

While the university wants to protect the privacy of the students involved, it has to realise what sort of signal this would send to would-be predators who think they can get off easily because the victims wouldn’t want the publicity and the university doesn’t want to get a bad rep. 

I would add that more than just the privacy of two students are involved. there are faculty members and academic staff too who would like to know that one of their own has been justly treated and not maligned and condemned unfairly for alleged criminal trespasses.  

NUS can’t not report to the police now, given that the women spoke openly to the media. In fact, I think it should make it a policy to take the lead on crimes of a sexual nature perpetrated on its students, go to the cops, afford legal protection and act as a shield for them in some way. Stand in front of them, protect them from the glare and make it clear that no sexual predator will get away with what they’ve done. Plant a flag in the ground, even if the police aren’t able to take the case further. That, to me, is the right and honourable thing to do.

PS. Actually, I am wondering if the laws allow the police or the Attorney-General’s to open investigations even without a police report.  Surely, if the media reports that a robbery has taken place, the police wouldn’t be twiddling their thumbs waiting for someone to file a report? 

PWM vs MW : Name your salary

In News Reports on October 21, 2020 at 2:11 am

Some years ago, I had the benefit of former Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say’s folksy wisdom. He was explaining to me how the Progressive Wage Model works. He persuaded me about advantages of such a system as compared to having minimum wage. You can read the interview here. https://berthahenson.wordpress.com/2014/08/31/chatting-with-lim-swee-say-part-2/

Of course, that was at the start of PWM which was being introduced for  cleaners. One reason they are paid so poorly was because their clients don’t pay them enough, he said. It made sense to me. Why should a management committee of a condominium pay for a more expensive cleaning contractor when a cheaper one is available? After all, both do cleaning jobs. (Not clean? Complain and threaten not to renew contract!). Likewise for security guards. Why pay more if the job is essentially the same year after year? Nobody really thinks about the person in the uniform whom you see day-in and day-out. He’s like a piece of furniture. 

The PWM model looks complicated because it is complicated. It means a baseline has to be established on the minimum level of work that should be paid for. You can call it the minimum wage for that sector. Then there must be a process for them to move up from there – and this should depend not just on seniority but also how much more the person can do, such as, say, with machines or how many training certificates he’s picked up to show that he has aptitude. If a cleaner learns to operate a machine that enables him to clean five blocks of housing instead of three in the past, he should be paid more. Correct? 

But this means you must get all the companies to agree to these points on the ladder and you can bet that many will cow peh cow bu. Because there will be those which are too small to refine their services and will find themselves unable to stick to the PWM plan, which includes making sure that staff get training and certification at different levels. (I am not sure if this on the workers’ own dime or the company’s) Security companies, for example, had resisted this move initially as too onerous to implement. 

Now, how to compel this? Laws have to be passed with a licensing and regulatory regime. This was done for both cleaning and security agencies. 

But you’ve also got to be fair to the companies and give them time to up their game before throwing the book at them. That’s because if cleaning companies can’t make the mark when the deadline comes around, there goes their licence… 

It also means some kind of enforcement regime to ensure that those who have licences will comply and not anyhow pay any wage they want because desperate people will agree to even exploitative terms. 

Beyond the initial burst of publicity, there hasn’t been much light shed on the difficulties of implementation, except that everybody knows it’s taking too long. Eight years later and only three sectors, including landscaping, have been ring fenced by PMW. I wonder, for example, how many cleaning and security companies have folded since PWM and how many people have been thrown out of employment. Did they get jobs? There’s not been much reporting on the fall-out, just the accolades.  

It’s the same argument against minimum wage isn’t it? If you set a minimum wage that employers die, die must follow, it’s likely that some can’t afford to do so and will have to close shop entirely. There will be more unemployed people. On the other hand, those who earn more than minimum wage might just have employers revising their salary schemes downwards – although, seriously, I can’t believe that there is no legal or union protection against such action. 

The current argument about the pros and cons of a universal minimum wage therefore resolves on the magnitude of job losses, depending on which academic journal, surveys and country reports you read. 

Magicking a minimum wage across sectors, however, looks far simpler than carrying out the PWM.  We can’t deny that people should have the dignity of holding down a job that can keep body and soul together. So it is a popular move. In fact, it has moral worth. (Please nod in agreement)

But recall that someone has to pay for others to hit the minimum wage mark. That must be us, you and I. Just like the PWM for cleaning, security and landscaping service, it’s the people in condos, offices and so forth who have to pay the companies who bid for the contracts. There should be bigger $ numbers on tender bids, because contractors cannot keep undercutting each other to stay afloat or maintain their licence. 

That’s how it should work in theory. But I don’t know if bids have actually gone up over time even as low wage workers get paid more. It must have although it would be nice to see some past and present tender bids for cleaning and security services as well.

The point is, if we think an action is morally worthwhile, we must be prepared to pay the price.

Remember also that employers can hire – and fire. I asked Mr Lim about what would happen if an employer decides to fire a cleaner who deserves more pay because of more certification.  He said there were safeguards and that a cleaner who moves to another cleaning company would take with him his new “credentials’’ to ask for more pay. 

Again, I don’t know if this is happening. A recent CNA report said that a 2018 study published in The Economic and Labour Relations Review showed  that “re-sets’’ in the cleaning industry were done regularly. It needn’t be about re-setting wages, but giving shorter contracts or changing terms on leave days. This means that the PWM, for some workers, is a minimum wage only and not a salary progression ladder.

In fact, the phenomenon will not be dissimilar to the minimum wage conundrum: it encourages employers to keep as many workers at minimum wage levels, replenishing staff with new blood whenever some workers get too senior to pay. If this is the case, then the whole premise of PWM – tying wages with productivity and job scope – comes to naught.

What are the numbers? 

Through PWM, the wages of the lowest 20th percentile have registered an annual growth rate of 4.4 per cent from 2014 to 2019, as compared to 2.3 per cent in the five years before, said NTUC’s Koh Poh Koon.

For workers covered under the PWM, the scheme has raised their wages by around 30 per cent between 2013 and 2018, he said. But they represent only about 15 per cent of all the workers in the lowest 20th percentile of salary ranges. 

What is 15 per cent? Add 40,000 in cleaning, 36,000 in security and 3,000 in the landscape industry and you get 79,000. That means another 525,000 or so among the 20th percentile who are not covered. 

Why is the spread of PMW so slow? 

“For PWM to have traction, it takes time to build a strong working relationship with industry associations and relevant government agencies, which is needed to overcome possible impediments or challenges in implementing a PWM,” said Dr Koh. 

Making the PWM mandatory may also require sector agencies to identify “appropriate regulatory levers” to ensure the model’s scalability across the industry, and these take time to be developed and applied. Businesses, he said, also need time to adjust human resource practices and for existing contracts of outsourced services to be completed so that new contracts take on the new manpower costs. 

So it is a cumbersome process. Nor can it be left static. Regulations and guidelines will have to change with the circumstances and be updated regularly. Is the wait for the extension of the PMW to other sectors worthwhile? Are there still kinks that have yet to be ironed out in the first three sectors so that we can be assured of its superiority to minimum wage? 

The other question is whether the PWM can really cover all low-wage workers. Are they all slotted so neatly into sectors that can be governed by tripartite arrangements? 

In my view, we’ve been arguing about the PWM and minimum wage in conceptual terms. I believe that we can accept that, morally, a rich country like Singapore should have the capacity to raise the earnings of the poorest. What then is the practical approach and will it be sustainable? Should we restructure the labour market, do so by fiat or even re-define take-home pay as income earned as well as grants like Workfare Income Supplement?

The solution might  also well be a combination of sectoral  PWM, and MW for the rest.  The next lot to come under PWM are the lift and escalator maintenance sector. I gather food and beverage will come later. But I find it hard to imagine PWM being put in place for the petrol station attendant, the kopi tiam uncle and the guy employed in a small minimart. 

In theory, the PWM is superior because it isn’t an “artificial’’ inflation of wages but tied to productivity measures.  But the question is whether the wait is worthwhile or a more immediate/temporary patch is needed for low-wage workers.

 If the G can identify the workers (maybe that 32,000 who take home less than $1,300 a month) who fall through the PWM net, for example, the taxpayer might be willing to ensure that they take home more. It could be via tweaking the Workfare Income Supplement or other welfare levers. See it as a moral imperative or adjusting the value of labour, with the taxpaying public willing to bear the cost. In fact, revise the term minimum wage to living wage.  

Instead of talking about solutions, however, we’re being distracted by  the spectacle of unionists “insulted’’ by comments Workers’ Party MP Prof Jamus Lim made.  Rather than a peevish response, they would gain some kudos  if they explained why the PWM is taking so long to be extended and have a response on whether the model could cover those who fall through the sectoral cracks. 

If not for opposition’s consistent nagging, I doubt the committee reviewing the speed of the PWM would have been set up. So let’s hope it has some answers. In the mean-time, can unionists please refrain from distracting people from the issue at hand. 

Just as nobody has a monopoly on compassion, nobody has a monopoly on wisdom too – whether folksy or not. 

Strengthening the power of the vote

In News Reports on October 14, 2020 at 2:39 am

When you’re a rookie reporter, you just do as you’re told, especially when covering an event as momentous as a general election. So I was told to attend an election rally and note down everything that every speaker said. The shorthand course all reporters had to go through proved handy, until the speakers broke out in dialect and other languages which meant an instant translation in the head transmitted to the hand holding the pen. Remember that there was no Internet in 1988 and I’m not even sure if I carried a pager. So let’s not even talk about smartphones. 

The grave importance of the media during election time was brought home to me when every single rally reporter had to face the Editor with the big E to regurgitate what was in his or her notebook. At the end of the lengthy debrief, you’d be told to contribute a few paragraphs or even just two lines to a more senior journalist who would patch an article together. When you get out of the room, you’ll see an anxious queue of reporters waiting to go through the same process. In the meantime, it was past midnight. 

This rookie reporter was told that this was normal during an election when editors with a big E would have their political antenna finely tuned to assess every word, bit of information and photograph that would go out to the public. I thought to myself: “Oh. So it’s like this then.’’ 

But what I didn’t know was how anger and frustration were building up in the newsroom as senior journalists started chafing at the meagre print space that was devoted to covering Singapore’s general election. The Straits Times only devoted two full pages, the same space it gave to the Johor Baru by-election that was happening at the same time. An afternoon meeting was called for all election journalists to hear what the Editor had to say. He was armed with old copies of past GEs to make the point that the current coverage was similar. 

Except that this was not a “similar’’ GE. 

Parliament had two opposition MPs by then, and several notables were on the opposition slate. This wasn’t going to be a PAP walk in the park even though there had been plenty of walkovers. It was an acrimonious meeting with calls for the editors to have a bit of “spine’’. As a rookie reporter, I held my tongue even though my jaw dropped at such a display of outspokenness. I thought to myself: “Oh. So it’s like this in the newsroom then.’’ The upshot was: more pages were added.

I gathered that the small coverage was to give the idea that the general election was a “non-event’’ since the people were generally satisfied with their lot. Older folk will remember the phrase: the ground is sweet. 

You learn a lot of things when you cover the elections even though points of significance might not have hit you at that time. So I wrote about changes to electoral boundaries and dutifully sourced for reactions, instead of questioning the whys and hows. I tried to differentiate between election rhetoric and substantial points, only to realise that people prefer to listen to rants and considered it a form of censorship if the media, for example, did not publish opposition politicians calling the PAP side “eunuchs’’. People wanted their emotions captured, even though they knew that promises such as free water and electricity simply cannot be kept. I covered walkabouts without thinking much about the role of grassroots groups in turning out the vote. 

But beyond whatever editors might have decided as editorial policy for these sensitive times, I have also come to understand the forces at play at the very fundamental level of electoral processes. Even as people delight in hearing rude comments about a leadership that is much respected but not much loved, they didn’t seem to realise that some structural changes to the electoral system weren’t conducive to fair play and allowing them an informed vote. 

So every four or five years, we have a frantic nine days of campaigning to elect our representatives. Before you can even recognise the names and faces of new candidates, the poll is over. So how did each of us vote? The way we’ve voted all the time? That would seem like a fair bet. 

There is a touching belief that the PAP government will make it all come out right after Polling Day. After all, it has put in place structures to uphold democracy, like the Group Representation Constituency to ensure minority representation and the Non-Constituency MP scheme to make sure opposition voices are heard. And don’t forget there is the town council to teach MPs about financial prudence and the elected president to safeguard our reserves. 

But peel back this veneer and there is a lot that is wrong about the structure, never mind its high-minded stated objectives. The subtext is about extending the longevity of the PAP almost to the extent of embedding it into the political system. I am inclined to think that if it could carve a permanent role for itself now and forever, it will. In fact, it can, given its supermajority in Parliament. It is about the power, yes, and the PAP believes that it is the only organ which can wield this power for the long-term benefit of Singapore. 

In a way, this is true. After all, changes to government could mean changes to policy. Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate change accord. Nearer to home, Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia thought of tearing up the agreement with Singapore on the High-Speed Rail. How is Singapore to embark on long-term plans to mitigate the impact of climate change if the government cannot be assured of its place for decades to come? 

But we can’t be talking about entrenching a government like some dictatorship. The solution is for citizens to take back control and take part in the political process so that the PAP cannot say that it alone has all the answers for Singapore’s future.  The alternative is for the PAP to answer calls from the people who place a premium on fair play, accountability and transparency. For citizens, it must start with understanding the electoral process and strengthening the power of the vote.

So I wrote a book on it.  Please buy. 

Yes, this is an ad. 

Teaching students to learn

In News Reports on September 23, 2020 at 3:46 am

A long time ago, in another life, I was asked by a journalism professor if I practised “national development’’ journalism. I had no idea what he was talking about. He told me somewhat sheepishly later that that was one thing academics do – look at real life and try to frame it based on concepts. I thought the only concept that was needed was common sense and that framing it in a particular way was, well, academic. 

The boot is now on the other foot since I am, ahem, a (pseudo) academic. 

I don’t teach students with an interest in journalism the various concepts that underpin the work, except ethics. I was employed as a “practitioner”, which means I put a premium on principles and practices, and not paradigms and parameters. A university is a place to train the brain, and not fill it with content that cannot or will not be used later in life. 

So the news that my employer, the National University of Singapore, will be setting up a College of Humanities and Sciences filled me with great interest, especially the line about having a format to teach students the foundations of literacy, numeracy and critical thinking. I think many people would do a double-take reading this. It sounds so basic doesn’t it? That after so many years of schooling, students will be taught their A, B, Cs and one, two, threes? As for critical thinking, hasn’t that been the buzz phrase for some time in the mainstream education system? 

After close to eight years of teaching, I can tell you that our undergraduates have their A, B, Cs and one, two, threes down pat. The trouble is, some of them only want to learn more about A, B, Cs, and others want to focus on numbers. So you have this great divide with humanities students fainting at the sight of data and those in the hard sciences swooning at the thought of writing an essay. One thing they have in common: they don’t ask questions. They’d rather give answers. 

If the two-year foundational modules can train the brain to think in cross-sections, cut through spaces, connect the dots and see the blanks, I think we have the makings of a student ready to delve into a specialisation that would ready him or her for the workforce. 

I’ve made it sound too easy. Here’s the academic way: expose them to different intellectual approaches and inter-disciplinary frameworks and acquire deep knowledge and key competencies relevant for the 21st century and in line with their aspirations. 

Chope. They should also be able to express themselves, orally or in writing. 

Although the two faculties, arts and social sciences and science, will be retained, it seems that some drastic pruning of modules and tweaking of mindsets will have to take place. With two years of a common curriculum, departments would have to squeeze more into its specialist subjects for those who want to major in them in their third and final years. 

They will also have to keep an eye on the hiring market.

It has always been the case that their graduates have difficulty finding jobs on graduation and if they do, would collect a smaller paycheck than their peers. 

To put it bluntly, what does a degree in history or chemistry equip you for in the real world? Is this a prerequisite for any kind of job? I recall that when a whole cohort of us graduated during the mid-80s recession, most entered the, you guessed it, teaching profession. Of course, they are those who become real experts, collecting higher-level degrees that enable them to teach others or to join think tanks. That’s not many. 

Generalist degrees make you a Jack/Jill of all trades and master of none. Your generalist training might enable you to switch from one job to another, train and retrain for some other role but the fact is that, these days, everybody must have something special to offer in the marketplace, especially the digital marketplace. What this means is that someone who intends to major in literature would need some knowledge of, say, data analysis and artificial intelligence, if he hopes to be of use to tomorrow’s employer. This would apply even if the graduate decides to go into business for himself or herself.

It’s no surprise to me that my employer National University of Singapore, wants to change tack. It doesn’t have a choice given the competition against five other universities now in steady state phase. It can expect falling enrolments, along with falling subsidies. Without changes to the academic structure, faculties and departments risk becoming boutiques for the few who are intent on pursuing passion and not paycheck. 

The question is whether this is good or bad for our young people’s future. 

I have always thought that our graduates come out “imbalanced’’. We do not deliver the confident young person, equipped to think deeply and express themselves. An arts student might write beautiful prose conjured out of nowhere, but will have difficulty writing about, say, the results of a survey because the data looks frightening. A science student can probably roll chemical compounds off his tongue, but be tongue-tied when asked to make a sentence with them. What’s worse is that some are terribly proud of being literate but not numerate, or numerate but not literate. Too bad, folks, both are considered necessary assets these days. 

I’m not even going to talk about expressing ideas or reporting what they know or have read. Their written phrases sound like they have come out of a textbook, while immediate oral answers leave you wondering about the point being made. I happen to think there is too much stress on academic writing, when they have not even mastered the basics of writing clearly and simply.

I daresay most people would think I am exaggerating. I am not. Most students I know aren’t reading beyond “essential references’’. There is not enough unique thinking especially towards open-ended questions, much less a tradition of enquiry. There are very, very few students I have come across who can frame a question clearly. 

I think the principle behind the proposed changes is for the good (and I am not saying that just because I am an employee). We will be equipping students with the ability to…learn. I hope to see results when students complete the two years and start on their majors. What sort of insights will they bring to the subject? Will they view stuff differently from their older counterparts?

More importantly, will I get a livelier class?

Get the GPCs involved in gender review

In News Reports on September 22, 2020 at 3:36 am

How things do NOT change. I recall some 30 years ago I wrote a plaintive column about how I am NOT a superwoman. I said that I felt the weight of expectations on me: to perform on both the work and family front. A modern woman (and this was the late 80s by the way) was expected to juggle so many concerns and responsibilities that something had to give, I said. 

Even today, I wonder at my peers who seem to have succeeded on all fronts, becoming a good wife, mother and holding down a high-powered job without even the need for a long sabbatical. Okay, they probably had foreign domestic help. 

So, there will be a review on the needs of women and societal mindsets. It will be government-led, which means we should see some tangible results. Perhaps, the bigger number of women in Government and Parliament has something to do with the initiative which makes you wonder why Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam made the announcement. 

Frankly, I was surprised. I would have thought that the more pressing issues would be about polarisation between locals and foreigners or closing the income gap. There wasn’t much information given about the “lack’’ of equality that would make such a review timely. We’ve always been told that we are “getting there’’, and, as with everything else, it’s about whether the speed is fast or slow.

I was even more surprised that he cited the spate of voyeurism cases recently as a reason for the need for a philosophical approach towards gender equality. He didn’t say if  the objectification of women by young, educated males who indulge in peeping tom activities is a growing trend. Nor did he give figures. But what he said would warm the cockles of any woman’s heart: “It should not be approached as penalising an offence. It should be viewed as penalising a gross violation of fundamental values’’. Supposed mitigating factors like the man’s academic prowess will count for much less, if at all. 

Given what he said, the first thing I would expect is a change to the Constitution. 

The word “gender’’ has to be added to this clause on equal protection:  Except as expressly authorised by this Constitution, there shall be no discrimination against citizens of Singapore on the ground only of religion, race, descent or place of birth in any law or in the appointment to any office or employment under a public authority or in the administration of any law relating to the acquisition, holding or disposition of property or the establishing or carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation or employment.

Then we wouldn’t have had to bicker like we used to in the past over gender parity.

Like, how female civil servants couldn’t get medical benefits for their spouses and dependents while their male counterparts could. Like, how single mothers couldn’t get HDB housing easily. Like, how the Penal Code used to be silent on marital rape. All three policies have been changed, after much lobbying by women’s groups over an extended period of time. These are tangible changes based on a shift from the patriarchal system that has underpinned society for so long. It says that women have a “value’’ that is no less than men. 

This is not to say that women didn’t have some privileges by virtue of their gender. The Woman’s Charter allows a married woman to own property in her own name and to sue for maintenance after divorce (equalised a little by allowing exceptions for men who can’t do so.) Then there is the male’s eternal bugbear: that a woman can scream rape or molest without any consequences if she is shown to be a liar. The man, however, is tarred for life whether or not he committed the crime. I think Mr Shanmugam and company need to prepare themselves for this attack even as they look at voyeurism cases. 

But there will be more than the legal aspects involved. The review will look at issues at home, like family violence, gender stereotyping and discrimination in the workplace, among others. That’s a gigantic brief and I wonder how prepared we are to discuss the issues in some depth. Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xue Ling said that it would be a whole-of-society exercise with women’s groups involved and at least 10 “engagement sessions’’ for now. The first dialogue has already started. 

I believe something as big and deep as gender equality deserves more than just dialogues and feedback. It requires information, research and a lot of academic work. It requires first, an examination of the status quo, with statistics, and the forces that led to the current situation. It requires people to chew over numbers and look at policies – before they start emoting about the fairness or unfairness of it all. There should be a more structured plan, lest it seems like an exercise to distract Singaporeans from other issues or worse, paying lip service to the feminist cause. 

I recommend that the newly-formed Government Parliamentary Committees be put to good use to lead discussions on aspects of policies under its purview. They are in the best position to summon data and get a resource panel of experts to examine issues. 

For instance:

  • The Manpower GPC should have all data on employment of women in the workforce and their salary levels to examine wage disparities and assess if they would have enough for their retirement needs. 
  • The National Development GPC should look at whether housing policies need to be further tweaked for single mothers and how many women are leading households as sole breadwinners. 
  • The Social and Family Development GPC should have data on dual families and the adequacy of childcare arrangements, as well as support groups for widows and single mothers. 
  • The Health GPC could look at whether women have enough access to screening for breast and ovarian cancer and whether company medical benefits are equal for both men and women. 
  • The Trade and Industry GPC could examine the state of “home’’ businesses by housewives to earn extra income and whether more such flexi arrangements can be made for them without contravening some rule.  

Their findings can be made public to allow for more feedback and consultation. It would also be a good for MPs to showcase their expertise and political chops over national issues than a mere mastery of constituency matters.

Although the GPCs comprise People’s Action Party MPs, there is also nothing to stop the Workers’ Party from submitting its own paper based on the “division’’ of duties that Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh has drawn up – nor other political parties.   

A White Paper is supposed to be ready in the first half of next year. There’s enough time for inputs to be gathered. This concerns half of Singapore. Let’s all give it some serious thought.

Maid’s acquittal and the (non) use of common sense

In News Reports on September 12, 2020 at 2:39 am

Over the years, I have read plenty of court judgments, usually containing several pieces of case law and precedents to buttress some legal point. I have to take time to understand them. But the court judgment on the acquittal of the maid in the recent controversy involving an establishment figure was a breezy read. It looked like the Justice Chan Seng Onn merely applied a lot of common sense. 

Now, common sense, I can understand. Which makes me wonder why the same common sense was not applied right from the beginning, October 26, 2016, when Parti Liyani, 46, was told to leave the home of Mr Liew Mun Leong where she had been employed for the past eight years. 

Here’s a brief for those who have been living under a rock:

Parti was told to leave the Chancery Lane house on Oct 28, because she was believed to have been filching things from the family over time. Two days later, Mr Liew filed a police report against Parti after finding out that she had some of the family’s belongings stashed in three boxes that were to be sent back to her in Indonesia. She was arrested when she returned to Singapore on Dec 2. The trial was held in March 2018 and Parti was sentenced to  26 months jail. Her pro bono lawyer appealed the conviction and she was acquitted earlier this month. 

The fall-out has been tremendous, with a promised review of the “system’’ and Mr Liew, 74, taking early retirement from his corporate positions, including the chairmanship of the Changi Airport Group.

This does not seem to be a case of an appeal judge overturning the sentence of a lower court on some legal point or another, resulting in some lesser punishment. This case led to an acquittal of the David versus Goliath variety with all charges quashed. A mere reading of the judgment would make anyone wonder whether the odds were stacked against the maid right from the beginning by one side of the legal system, right up to the district judge. 

I confess that when news first broke in March 2018 about trial, I was horrified at the scale of the thieving, amounting to some $34,000, and how the maid was devious enough to try “smuggling’’ the items, including plenty of brand-name goods, back to Indonesia. District Judge Olivia Low said then that “the quantity and variety of stolen items showed that (Parti) took these items out of greed, and not need, and certainly not because she was into recycling or ‘up-cycling’ as the defence has called it’’. She described Parti’s request for Mr Liew’s son, Karl, to have the boxes of loot shipped to her as a “brazen act of committing theft right under their very noses’’. 

I can imagine how the case would have affected the imaginations of many maid employers. Stories were no doubt told in hair salons and over tea, about disloyal maids who  steal from their bosses and how employers should be alert about “missing items’’ in the home. There could even be sympathy for the Liew family, which had been conned by a maid they thought was loyal. 

How the tables have been turned! 

Now there is an outpouring of sympathy for the maid, admiration for her pro bono lawyer, Mr Anil Balchandani, and, predictably, disgust at the behaviour of a well-off family who came across as petty, conniving and, to put it mildly, cheap. (They deployed her illegally to work in Karl’s house. She was paid $20 each time. Only three occasions , said the Liew family. Every week, she said.) 

Media coverage of the first trial has been patchy. During the initial sentencing, the judge castigated the defence lawyer for bringing up “irrelevant issues’’ and Parti for not showing remorse. Parti had maintained that she only took items that the family wanted to dispose of or had left in the trash. She said others were her own belongings, had been left behind by an earlier maid, or had been given to her by a friend.

At the appeal stage, a lot was clarified. The “stolen” items included a DVD player valued at $1,000 (which cannot play DVDs), two Longchamp bags worth $400 (which she picked up from garbage thrown away in the posh neighbourhood), a Gerald Genta watch worth $10,000 (knocked down from $25,000), two white iPhone 4 smartphones with accessories valued at $2,056 (outdated models probably thrown away by Karl and his wife), 115 pieces of clothing valued at $150 each (some of which are Parti’s, given by friends or taken from the trash – this includes a tee-shirt the family had used as a rag), and bed linen (said to be from Habitat in the UK, but which Parti bought from IKEA).

To this layman, it appears that Justice was re-doing the trial, that is, going over old ground and coming up with different conclusions. The key issue was whether the prosecution had proved its case beyond doubt or whether there could be “improper motives’’ or collusion among the family members to frame Parti for theft.  At the earlier trial, not much emphasis appeared to have been given to the threat Parti levelled at the Liews before she left: that she would complain to the Manpower ministry about being made to work at two homes. This left some doubt as to the motives for the police report: that it was to stop her from talking to MOM lest the family be penalised or barred from employing maids. 

There was some legal nitty-gritty but quite a lot of the judge’s findings was based on common sense. For example: 

  1. You don’t have to read crime novels or watch CSI on television to know that when people report a theft, police will go and check out what’s missing and won’t tell the supposed victim to carry on using the supposed loot. And this should happen even if the supposed thief has scooted off. Police only visited the family some two months later. 
  2. You don’t need a business mind to know that valuation of properties and assets should be done independently, rather than rely on the word of an interested party as to their worth. And that when you catch them out inflating a price, like affixing $25,000  for a spoilt Gerald Genta watch, you should start wondering about the prices affixed to the rest.
  3. You don’t need to be cynical to start doubting someone who says he can’t remember, mistook items as stolen,  says he bought something even when it hadn’t been in production at that time or says he wears women’s clothing that’s too small for him. 
  4. You have probably never used a DVD player before if you don’t think of testing it by inserting a DVD in it to see if it works. The prosecution’s “sleight-of-hand’’, by demonstrating to the court that the player’s hard drive was working, instead of the more usual method of examining whether it plays DVDs (not working) is worrying. 
  5. You don’t need to be legally trained to know that the burden of proof lies with the prosecution and not the defence, which was admonished for not calling up a hardware store seller to testify that the maid had bought the forks and spoons herself. 
  6. You don’t need much common sense to figure out that people won’t steal something they don’t need or even use, like a pair of $2 chopsticks. 

Much public anger has been expressed since the verdict, suggesting that action be taken against the family for making a false police report or to compensate Parti for what she had gone through. 

I am sure there are people who genuinely believe that they have been wronged and will make a police report seeking redress, even though the perpetrator is already out of the country. Mr Liew himself described it as his civic duty.  Perhaps, the family had hoped she would be caught entering the country later and punished according to the law, or prevented from entering. 

This certainly seemed to be what happened. The police didn’t do much until she entered the country in December that year, which means her name must be on a blacklist. That could also be why the police only called on the family after her arrest. Whether this is SOP, I don’t know. 

What should be borne in mind, however, is that Mr Liew wasn’t the one in the dock. And for the judge to cast doubts on the motives of the Liew family doesn’t mean he or his family members are irrevocably guilty of having “improper motives’’. To tender an apology, as some people have asked for, would be implying this. 

Whether they harboured such motives or not, the case is so terribly tawdry: the idea that a family of Mr Liew’s status would go after a maid because she took items that were damaged, frayed, spoilt, used or fit for disposal. There was even “one leather “Vacheron Constantin” watch with unknown value’’ (which turned out  to be a fake) and a $50 Helix watch that was actually a corporate gift. 

People who are not affluent will pick up discarded stuff in the hope that they can be repaired or still be of use. I can understand this trait even if the Liews, the prosecution and the district judge couldn’t. But that benefit of the doubt was not given to Parti. Rather it seemed to have been conferred on the Liews instead. 

Why are people angry? I believe it is the result of a perception that people in high places or members of the Establishment elite in Singapore have it too good. That they will get a pass while the lower orders get it in the neck. That they will get better treatment and can afford better counsel, while less privileged will have to depend on charity and the largesse of others. That their strong “connections’’ in the Establishment will either speak up for them or work behind the scenes to smooth the way for them. 

(The statement that Attorney-General Lucien Wong had not and will not have anything to do with the case adds to the perception of a tight-knit elite community. He recused himself for personal reasons which I take to mean refers to having sat on the same Capitaland board as Mr Liew in the past. Mr Wong also thought it necessary to make the point that they were not friends.)

Are these worthy thoughts? Or the crowing of the envious on seeing the great, humbled? Why do such thoughts even surface? 

I will make some generalisations here. It has to do with discontent over  more tangible matters – that bosses will not get the rap but subordinates get the sack (think of recommendations of committees of inquiry), that an under-privileged person will have his dignity undermined by agencies determined to preserve their reputation (think CPF Board and Ministry of Social and Family Development), by suggesting that the better-educated are more suited for rehabilitation that the rest (yet another court case), and by not imposing a tax on the rich but denying the need for a minimum wage. 

The current public dismay is fed by such sentiments, whether they are wrongly or rightly held.

It is not helped by well-meaning persons (I am referring to Temasek) suggesting that Mr Liew’s achievements, as a businessman and a corporate head honcho, be borne in mind when people subject him to the court of public opinion. Mr Liew is a big boy who can speak for himself and his family. And he did. 

I believe Mr Liew did the right thing to step down from his corporate decisions, because public opinion is affecting the image and reputation of the agencies he was involved. It is difficult for people who, having been convinced that he might have done something wrong, to separate the personal from the professional. It is, after all, a trait that we have imbibed – that honesty must be the basis of all dealings and any hint of dishonesty should be stamped out.

But rather than turn the guns at the Liews, the focus should be on the processes and integrity of the system that allowed such a travesty of justice to reach this stage before it was, thankfully, averted.

 If the legal system sees fit to take action against him or his family later as a result of this case, and is successful in securing a conviction, I am quite sure his myriad contributions would play a part in mitigating any sentence. 

As Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said: “We have to find out what happened, why it happened and then deal with it. And be accountable. That’s the best way to build trust in public, in the system. To come out in public and say what steps we have taken once the reviews are done.”

This review should be done soon, to stop the spread of sentiments that the small guy will always, always lose any fight against the big boys.