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NDR: Open letter to PM

In News Reports on August 18, 2019 at 4:03 pm

Dear Prime Minister,

I was at the Jewel at Changi Airport today and until you mentioned it in your speech, I had forgotten that you had spoken about this several National Day rallies ago. I usually switch off when you talk about infrastructural changes; you almost always refer to one project or another in every NDR. It makes me think of you as a property developer more than a PM!

But I was at the Jewel today….

It was a magnificent structure and that indoor waterfall-cum-forest concept was simply breathtaking. Like most malls, the place was filled with eating outlets and I am glad that most aren’t priced out of reach of the ordinary person. Stores are varied.  Everything was well laid out. And thankfully, the crowd had thinned considerably since Jewel opened a few months ago.  Yes, you delivered on what you promised. (But can cut ticket price for canopy walk or not?)

I raise this because I am probably among many people who don’t think too much about the sort of long-term planning that goes into the making and re-making of a country. I think I yawned through what you said about Greater Southern Waterfront when you mentioned it at yet another NDR some years ago. But I sat up this time when you raised it.

That’s because I can see how the city port is emptying out and I have a view of Pasir Panjang container terminals from where I teach at the university campus in Kent Ridge. I have always wondered what would replace my view. Now, I hear you say it will be a Punggol by the Bay. I see a government with a long-range view, with every step in place.

But it was when you spoke about climate change that it truly dawned on me that as a people, we need to figure out what we’re putting in place for future generations, lest they be “ashamed of what our generation did not do”, as you put it. I was glued to the TV when you sketched out the possible ways of safeguarding our land against rising sea levels. Polder or reclamation? Or several Marina Barrages along the shore? I live in the east, you see, one of those low-lying places.

I like this sort of sharing of challenges and possibilities. It is, in my view, far better than simply presenting the future-as-designed-by-the-Government. This is a reason we do not think big picture or long-term – because we already have a government to do it for us. Yes, it is the duty of a Government to deal with challenges, but increasingly people would also want to be a part of the discussion. Failing which, you will have a people who only look for incentives, subsidies and immediate relief to current problems – and whine when they don’t get what they want. A weak people.

There is plenty of negativity in Singaporeans these days methinks. We might be ranked No. 1 in the UN Human Capital Index, but we prefer to talk about the amount of stress that is put on our children to reach that potential. We might have more than 1,500 centenarians but we wonder if we really want to live so long, physically impaired and with medical bills to pay. Some people don’t even think Nas is correct about Singapore being a wonderful place.

This time though, I doubt that anyone can complain too much about what is being done on the education front. I seem to be seeing another Jewel in the making. After expanding university places, successfully branding polytechnics as equal to JCs, ridding ITE of its moniker It’s The End, making changes to streaming and PSLE, we have come back full circle to pre-school education. Those cuts in pre-school education fees are deep, and I wonder why no one saw the anomaly earlier. How can it be that pre-school education is so much more expensive than main school education?

I am glad the subsidy scheme will be extended to include more of the middle income group: that sandwiched generation who aren’t poor enough to pass means tests but not rich enough to spend freely. This is one segment of the population who live the typical Singapore way – a working couple with kids in school, living in a HDB flat and who probably have elderly parents to look after. The Pioneer Generation package and soon, Merdeka Generation package, is a relief to these hardworking families and it is good to know that they will have money to pay kindergarten fees. It will help level the playing field at the start of a Singaporean’s life, although I am quite sure the better-off will find more ways to ensure their progeny stay ahead sooner or later. The sharp edges of meritocracy always need blunting.

I listened closely when you talked about retirement and re-employment age because I am going to hit the age-group soon. I think many people will question your assertion that people want to work longer. (I can just see people arguing that they have to, simply to keep body and soul together because of CPF rules on what can be withdrawn and when). I wish you had given figures on how many people actually worked beyond the current retirement age of 62. Even if seniors are keen to work, will employers keep them on,  especially since CPF contributions will be raised? You have heard, I am sure, many accounts of employers who know they have to make an offer of employment but simply make it too hard for seniors to stay on.

But back to the big picture.

I wish you spoke more about the Singapore identity in your English speech. I know you lauded the Malays for building a unique identity which differentiates them from Malays in the region and Muslims elsewhere. I also think that in this current climate of US-China tensions, your Chinese speech can be interpreted as a call to the Chinese community to be citizens first and ethnic Chinese second. But what of the nation as a whole?

One reason I slept through the infrastructural bits of past NDRs is because I can’t help but feel we are focusing on the physical facade rather than the intangible values and aspirations we have as a people. We use this phrase often: a better life. But is this to be measured in GDP terms only? Or in rising incomes? It has always bothered me that our hard-headed government doesn’t have a soft touch to stir the soul. If I can describe your message in one line, this might suffice: We have to send our kids to school earlier and we have to work longer, but we’ll have a better environment to live, work and play in. Not very rallying.

I, for one, am grateful that we have a government which delivers. We should never sniff at long-range thinking and long-term plans. We know we have a clever government but a government that’s too clever by half will result in a weak people that will turn to it for every need. Worse, a government which charges arrogantly forward with its plans – and leave the people behind.

But, hey, we can’t have a perfect government.

I think ours is pretty good liao.

 

 

 

 

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On this day, our country’s 54th birthday, we wish that…

In News Reports on August 9, 2019 at 1:00 am

Inspired by Professor Tommy Koh’s article on birthday wishes for Singapore, I asked people on my Facebook wall for their own top three wishes. And they shouldn’t just copy parts of the Pledge, I said. More than 100 people responded. I won’t say that they are representative of Singaporeans; they are just people who happen to have seen my post.

Some wishes are universal, asking for happiness, progress and prosperity (sound familiar?) and some were clearly dictated by the news of the day, such as the brouhaha over an ad and a video and the ubiquity of personal mobility devices. If the news on how Singaporeans are among the most over-worked (or hardest working?) people on earth appeared a day earlier, work-life balance might have featured more often on the list. Some wishes can  be described as populist – like free education, free health, no GST or some discounted variation of all three. It also appears that not many people are convinced that the G puts Singaporeans first, with some calling for a further tightening of its foreign workers policy.

I also should not forget this constant refrain: to have CPF returned to the people at an earlier age.

Still I can see a few common themes emerging, and they have to do with:

a. Civility and respecting the views of others

I think this wish stems from a sense of disappointment over how the Internet is home to bickering quarters who give no quarter. One poster said he wished we would cultivate “a habit of listening to others around us instead of constantly trying to shout over each other”. There were other variations, such as being able to “argue respectfully” and to “learn the tools for critical thinking and constructive civil discourse, rather than relying on silencing opponents by filing police reports, censorship, character assassinations, or issuing takedown orders”.

Personally, I am heartened by such wishes. There is just too much hatred and nastiness on the Net. At times, I wonder if extreme views are truly held or simply expressed as a form of one-upmanship. I believe we call this the politics of outrage. There were also a few who called for more critical ability to distinguish between fact and opinion, and not to follow “blindly” some fad or other. Of course, this leads to calls for the education system to do more to nurture such ability.

There is one facet to this which I think is worth elaborating on – the phenomenon of the silent majority. Sometimes it is the vehemence with which some people hold the line that prevents even moderate voices from speaking up. It is emotionally draining to converse with people who simply will not see another point of view and resort to ad hominem attacks. Actually, it is more frightening to talk to the articulate, whose command of the language leaves you unable to respond in as elegant a manner. Then there are those who can cite “facts” and “figures” which sound real enough but which really require you to fact-check.

Holding a respectful, civil discussion is actually a tiring – but do-able – exercise. In fact, my own experience on Facebook shows that discussion among people is usually better than a dialogue between two individuals which usually descends into a slanging match. That is because in a group, different individuals, besides having different perspectives, have different pockets of knowledge and expertise which can be brought to bear on the discussion.  I have always been grateful to posters who dig up or share expert information to shed more light on an issue in the news, thereby shoring up the shortcomings of  MSM.

There is this term that is now very much in vogue: “safe spaces”. It’s supposed to refer to a forum where you can say what you like without fear of being condemned or laughed at. And it’s usually private or closed-door. I do not see how closed-door discussions advance the understanding of the majority of the masses who are “out” door. The usual excuse is that frank discussions can inflame passions. I am not sure. I have a few rabid types on my wall and my sense is that most people know what to expect from them and take their comments in their stride. In a discussion, we must welcome all types including the irrational and the emotional. I think we are capable of having a mature discussion without resorting to fisticuffs.

b. A transparent and humble G

It says a lot about how pervasive the G is in our lives that we connect our birthday wishes with the state of the State. There are wishes for the G to be more humble, generous and emphatic and to treat the people as citizens, rather than “resources” or a “statistic for reporting””

One poster wanted “more transparency and accountability of government, buy-in of citizenry, instead of policies and decisions rammed through”. Another one: “No more overly broad Bills/laws placing outsized power in the hands of politicians, leaving ordinary citizens to rely on the hope that all politicians (and future politicians) can be trusted to use these powers judiciously.”

I suppose they are referring to laws like the Protection from Online Harassment Act and the changes to the office of President, issues which have discomfited citizens, even though the G will maintain that there was enough consultation with a parliamentary select committee convened for the first, and a constitutional commission for the second. There is a sense that the G is being given carte blanch to intervene in people’s lives based on (let me count the ways) the need to uphold law and order, or maintain social harmony, or prevent foreigners from influencing the political system.

I know most people want more checks and balances in the system and it appears to me that the G would have to do a lot to recover some ground with those who think it has been high-handed and arrogant in recent time. What should console the G is that more of the wishes was about getting the G to change than getting it thrown out.

Perhaps with an eye on the succession plans of the People’s Action Party, there were a few who called for a G unafraid to make bold moves and to have a diversity of talent within its ranks rather than, I am guessing here, ex-civil servants and ex-generals.

c. A freer, more diverse media

This was a bit of a pleasant surprise to me. It was number one for a few people and one even said that it was his only wish for Singapore. I can only presume that they see a free media (in this case, it seems that they are referring to mainstream media) as a kind of panacea for several ills. A freer, more independent media would hold the G to account, demand transparency of processes and include a diversity of views for dissemination. Of course, birthday wishes being just wishes, there is nothing about how this can be achieved.

There are plenty of other wishes I have left out that ranged from freeing students from stress and giving more help to Singapore firms. You can read them here. The picture I get is that Singaporeans very much want to be a mature, peaceful and civilised society, led by a G that recognises their worth as citizens. As birthday wishes, they don’t seem like very much to ask for.

I think the next step is to think about how we, the individual citizen, can make those wishes come true.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is it because I’m Eurasian?

In News Reports on August 7, 2019 at 1:40 am

Hello, I am Singaporean.

I know that going just by my name, a fellow Singaporean who doesn’t know me wouldn’t think it. They always expect someone “lighter” in colour. After I open my mouth, theirs drop. Because, hey, I speak better Singlish than they do! I explain that I am Eurasian and I see the gears in their brain working, figuring out what part of my face/body belongs to which side of the family.

Then comes the inevitable “So your parents are….?”. I tell them my ancestry. Sometimes, they go further and ask for country of origin. These days, I  wonder if I should be flattered that they are interested in my origins or offended that they should presume to ask me for such personal details. I think that if  I had asked the same question of those same people, they would give me their parents’ occupation rather than the dialect group (it’s usually the Chinese who are curious by the way). I wonder also how many can give an answer if I ask which province in China their ancestors came from.

Race is a topic that has been increasingly pushed to the front of my consciousness in recent years. I would have shrugged off any queries about my race in the past but I am starting to look at it differently. Have I become (yikes!) more sensitive?

I know a lot of people hark back to the “good ole days” when races live in peace and harmony and everyone could speak a bit of Malay and Hokkien to get along. But I think we’re looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses. My first experience of outright racism was when I was in primary school.  My Chinese mother was publicly taunted by some Chinese men for being with an “ang moh”, that is, my father. She was close to tears. He was dreadfully angry. I was so damn frightened. There was nothing “casual” about it.

But for the most past, I am ambivalent about my race. Maybe it’s because I’ve developed some sort of “double consciousness”, knowing that I am “different” yet inhabiting the world of the majority and adopting their world view. People can laugh at my race and I laugh along – unconsciously. Is this a right response from a member of the minority?

My “lived experience” might have much to do with it.

I wasn’t discriminated against in school but actually treated like a precious flower (positive discrimination) because I seemed so exotic to my fellow schoolmates, mainly Chinese. The fiercest types always took me under their wing. Out in the workplace, I was admired for being able to speak Mandarin, even of the half-past-six variety.

Of course, people ask me questions that reflect their stereotypical image of a Eurasian, like whether I was educated in a convent school. (I wasn’t). I have even been told to my face that I must sing and dance very well because…Eurasian. And before you ask, no, I don’t know how to cook feng.

Again, I shrug off such comments. Now I wonder if I should be offended at people’s presumptions, such as more inane questions like “how come your hair so dark?” (my mother’s overpowering genes?) or “why your name so funny?” (yours isn’t?), or “you have what kind of blood? (red?)”. The worst one: “you must be very havoc” (no, but I can cause some).

Over the years, we’ve been treated to complaints about casual racism. With the Internet playing its megaphone role, I’m left wondering if more people are getting more easily offended or whether it’s always been the same – but louder. And I’m wondering if I have been wrong all these years about how I “feel” about the race.

The movie Crazy Rich Asians, for example, provoked a minor controversy here because the minorities are being cast in subordinate positions while the Chinese took the “privileged” parts.  I followed the comments, arguments and counter-arguments with interest but I couldn’t decide how to “feel” about it. Non-plussed is a good word methinks.

I’ve written about the NETS E-Pay ad and the video that was produced in response. You can read it here. What I didn’t write about was how conflicted I felt. Should I get angry about the ad because minorities are angry and even some intellectual members of the majority Chinese are speaking up for them? If I am not angry even though I am a minority member, should I search deep into myself and ask why?

Should I get angrier/equally angry/less angry/not angry at the video that was produced in response? Should I understand that they are entitled to express themselves because their feelings were hurt, as some quarters have tried to explain?

In hindsight, I think my response wasn’t that of a minority member but of an “older” person. I am more surprised than angry that the ad made it from conceptualisation to distribution. And I cannot get my brain around statements that the video is “just a rap” or how “f***ing it up” is just a phrase, can be excuses for vileness and vituperation. Then I also see comments about how old fuddy duddies should get up to speed with the new thinking and new phrases of the new age. I wonder if I can turn the comments around: Old fuddy duddies aren’t dead yet and is it too much to ask that the younger people respect their norms on civility?

The episode has raised some interesting questions for the individual (of any race) to ponder over, to examine the depths of their attitudes towards each facet of the issue, including whether the G is a good neutral arbiter of racial issues and how heavy a hand it should have. I wonder, for example, if social media is making me feel inadequate as a minority member because I am not speaking up louder about injustices (perceived or real). I wonder if I should be embarrassed or thankful that I don’t feel I’m treated differently on account of my race.

Frankly, it is easy to play the victim card and indulge in the politics of outrage because there is an expectation that the majority should sit down and shut up when we speak. We can turn ourselves into champions for a cause protected by the idea that nobody should deny me “my feelings” especially those who have not “walked in my shoes”.

I think it’s good to confront such questions as an intellectual exercise rather than give vent to our emotions. When we engage the brain, we end up with a cooler head. We see beyond our own feelings, see the feelings of others and see what is in the best interest of all tribes. We do not say or do what is expected of us, or what is fashionable. We take a step back and do not let our emotions rush us into judgment.

I have concluded that I should be comfortable in my own skin, and be the individual (regardless of race) that I am. This is not to say that minority races do not face discrimination; they do. It is also not to say that the majority hasn’t made some forced sacrifice for inter-racial harmony; the loss of Chinese-language schools, the near complete erasure of dialects being some examples.

The truth is there has always been casual racism of the unthinking variety and it’s too much to expect that everyone will be “sensitive” or “politically correct”. But the important thing is we have set up formidable barriers to prevent institutional racism from setting in.

On my part,  I will not let comments that begin with “You, as a member of the minority, should know better” affect how I feel about myself or about my race or my place here.

Hey, I am Singaporean.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PSP launch: Having your cake by looking at it

In News Reports on August 3, 2019 at 11:57 am

Dr Tan Cheng Bock said he could only reveal the cake but not its ingredients. So those who went to Swissotel Merchant Court hotel hoping for details about candidates and constituencies were disappointed. But I figured that he could at least talk about what type of flour he used, in terms of agenda and policy proposals. Alas, that was not forthcoming either.

All we got from the public launch of the Progress Singapore Party was its proposal to have the voting age lowered from 21 to 18, just as neighbouring Malaysia has done. Singapore is “behind the times”, said Ms Michelle Lee, a Central Executive Committee member given the job of connecting with the younger people.

Yes, this time, we got to hear from other members of the CEC, some of whom gave a short summary of the why and how they got involved in politics and the issues close to their hearts.  They fielded some questions, but it was still Dr Tan who stole the show with a half-hour speech that was an expansion of his previous script when he met the media last week.

Dr Tan spoke of the “ethical framework” of the party: independence, transparency and accountability would underpin its proposals and actions. (I suppose that’s the cake-stand) He repeated his call for transparency in the appointment of office-holders. (Read here) Even if the person was the best man or woman of the job, “seeds of doubt” would be sowed, he said, leading to an erosion of trust.

One thread running through the speeches and answers was the employment of foreign talent. The party wants to know what impact the Singapore India Comprehensive Economic Co-operation Agreement, which allows free flow of talent, has on the country. “How many local jobs have gone to Indian professionals? And how many Singaporeans have gone to India?” asked Dr Tan. Making sure that jobs go to locals first and getting Government-linked companies to leave the local space to SMEs was also a consistent theme. It reminded me very much of the agenda of the Singapore First political party.

I thought the party would raise Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing’s announcement of extending the scheme to get in top foreign tech talent to Singapore – but nobody did.  A question on how the party would have handled the current  E-Pay advertisement and video saga received a garbled response. I gather members were too busy preparing for the launch, which had both a morning and afternoon session.

But, seriously, there was not much else that was new.

The usual hot-button topics like ministerial salaries and the stressful education system elicited applause from among the audience of some 500 people. Issues like income inequality, CPF, healthcare costs need to be addressed, we’re told, but revised proposals would need data, which would only be forthcoming if the party members got into Parliament to ask for them.

I thought this was a bit like putting cart before horse. So proposals are contingent on their entry into Parliament?

I suppose we have to recognise that opposition politicians are on the back foot when it comes to access to data that would help them in policy work. Journalists and academics find it hard enough to pry information from the bureaucracy. What more opposition politicians…

If policy proposals are not based on good, comprehensive data, then it will have to be differentiated in terms of key principles and ideology. The PSP doesn’t have an ideology, said Dr Tan last week. And it doesn’t want to be populist either, said his assistant secretary-general Lim Lee Yung Hwee today.

To a question on the CPF withdrawal age and retirement adequacy, Mr Lim Lee said the party would need more data because CPF has so many elements attached to it, like housing payments and healthcare costs. Work has to be done to see what section should be pared down to add more to the retirement fund. As for withdrawing everything in the CPF account at age 55, he said this would depend on whether safety nets are in place in case too many people fritter away their savings before the end of their lives. I asked him later if this meant that we won’t see anything before the election since “no data” – and was told that there would be some proposal, based on available information. Hmm. Ok lah.

Clearly, the PSP is campaigning for votes based on its contention that the ruling People’s Action Party has changed its style of governance and needs to go back to its original values. This is a seductive line given that there is some queasiness over the G’s new tools to deal with dissent, such as the Protection against Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act. Dr Tan made much of the “climate of fear” pervading Singapore which induces some people to “complain in whispers”. “Speaking up,” he said, “should not be seen as ingratitude or betrayal”. Nor is a leadership of like-minded people (he was very dismissive of scholars and generals) using old methods enough to take Singapore to a higher level.

He had some choice words for Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who warned against “adversarial politics”. It was the PAP which engages in adversarial politics, he said, recalling a quip by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2008 that he would have to spend time “fixing” opposition politicians if they entered Parliament.

But what took the cake was his response to Mr Heng’s rebuttal on airing the FamiLEE saga in Parliament. Dr Tan had said Parliament was not the place to discuss family matters. Mr Heng said that on the contrary, it showed how transparent the G was willing to be. Dr Tan asked how a parliamentary session dominated by one political party could be transparent, especially when opposite side, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, could not be present to give their side of the story. (He didn’t say the party whip was lifted although I personally didn’t notice any difference in the way the PAP MPs spoke – whip lifted or not)

Dr Tan’s jibe, however, did bring something home to me. Too often, we’ve been told that we should move along because Parliament has discussed the matter, the law has been passed and everything has been recorded in Hansard.

But issues, quickly dispatched, are not always dusted off so easily. It takes time to bake a cake that everyone will eat and enjoy. I myself have faith in the institution of Parliament as a place for differing views and contentions so that the best solution, which may not always be the G’s position, can emerge. So long as the PAP backbenchers hold up their end of the bargain by making the G accountable, I can countenance even a one-party Parliament. But now, it appears that people need to get into Parliament just to ask for information as well.

Perhaps, I was too hasty to judge the cake by its (lack of) ingredients. The cake-stand, while inedible, looks quite nice too. I hope it’s sturdy.

*My apologies for getting Mr Lee’s surname wrong. It’s LEE. Not Lim.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is it because he’s Chinese?

In News Reports on August 2, 2019 at 1:08 am

I don’t wonder any more about why people don’t want to talk about race. Anything you say can be mis-interpreted. Worse for you, if you are inarticulate about expressing your views.  The only phrases that would be acceptable are how we should “increase multi-racial tolerance” (or is it harmony?) and grow as a cohesive nation “despite our race, language or religion” (and sexual orientation?).

We’re becoming a fractious people, belabouring over the extent of an offence and even whether it is, in fact, offensive. And offensive to who? With what sort of consequences? We will either shrug off the “offence” or go to the other extreme to paint doomsday scenarios with the usual slippery slope arguments.

Of course I blame Internet. Racist comments are excised from the mainstream conversation because the objective is to maintain the peace and to be “sensitive” to people’s feelings. But comments carry on being uttered anyway on the universal megaphone known as social media. What was private can easily be made public and, as in the case of the Nair siblings’ video, dramatised for further effect.

I have been looking at the “offending” ad on E-Pay and the “offending” video in response. (I am using quotation marks advisedly).

What’s the genesis?

The ad is a publicity campaign by NETS, “to communicate that e-payment is for everyone”, it said in a statement apologising for any hurt the ad had caused.

“The campaign was in connection with the unified e-payment initiative, a multi-agency effort led by Enterprise Singapore, where NETS was appointed as the master acquirer to handle payment transactions and drive adoption of e-payment in small food businesses.”

NETS engaged HAVAS Worldwide as its creative agency, which then engaged Mediacorp’s celebrity management arm to cast television actor and deejay Dennis Chew as the face of the campaign. Or rather, Mr Chew became several faces, including female and brown.

I gather that the draw of having Mr Chew is his television drag persona as the neighbourhood busybody Auntie Lucy, adorned with wig, lipstick and plucked eyebrows.

Mr  Chew, said NETS, was picked because he’s well-known for his ability to portray multiple characters in a single production. “He appears as characters from different walks of life in Singapore, bringing home the point that everyone can e-pay.” (Note the phrase “walks of life”, not different races.)

I suppose he would be a recognisable face to heartlanders who patronise hawker centres, where E-Pay was being rolled out. I think this is the part where the players involved fell down. They think their target audience, which is the majority of people here (read: heartlander Chinese), would chuckle at the sight of Mr Chew impersonating other faces/races.

It can’t be for lack of money to hire other actors, given that E-Pay is a big push in our Smart Nation initiative. It is more like some not very smart people failing to take into account how an Indian or a Malay would feel about having a Chinese impersonating them. I mean, have people at The Celebrity Agency forgotten how its own company MediaCorp was fined in 2017 for featuring a Chinese actor  as a black man with black face makeup in an episode in I Want To Be A Star ?

I know the counter: What about Gurmit Singh who played contractor Phua Chu Kang? No Chinese got offended. Let’s face it: Gurmit could pass off as a Chinese character anytime. Also, the Chinese community here is probably less “sensitive” to other ethnic groups portraying them. Why? Because they are in the majority here and hence, are more secure about their place in society. They can laugh at themselves, and think that others should laugh along when the same gimmick is applied to them.

But a joke to a big group is a reminder to another from a small group about how small they are and how easily they can be poked fun at. It is, in other words, not funny.

Remember the kerfuffle in May last year when a Caucasian American girl in the donned a cheongsam for high school’s prom night, boasted about it on Twitter and was accused of cultural appropriation by, ahem, “non-whites”? And that was just a dress.

Some have raised the continued popularity of drag queen Kumar’s shows which also poke fun at the races. But the audience members who pay to see Kumar perform know what to expect. Methinks this is different from having something pushed into your face for your attention, like an ad.

Workers’ Party secretary-general Pritam Singh put it best when he said on FaceBook that the ad left him non-plussed (confused/bemused/unsure how to react).

“That is probably a reflection of my own threshold for what I consider to be distasteful or offensive or perhaps even how thick my skin is,” he said. “But my lived experience is different from someone else’s. If one experiences racism all the time, he/she would logically respond differently and feel like a lesser citizen.”

I agree. Face it. How many people looked at the ad after the news broke to decide if it was offensive or not? If you do not find it offensive, then others who complain must be over-sensitive. Right? If you think it is offensive, then those who think it isn’t must be insensitive. Right?

I am pretty ambivalent about the ad, but that’s just me. But I don’t have to be in advertising to know how some people on the ground would react. And I definitely wouldn’t have put a name tag on the brown faced “Indian”. The fault, therefore, lies with the big boys who put out the ad; they should have known better.

Nevertheless, I wonder what accounts for the sudden rise in political correctness over the years? This is Singapore, not the United States with its history of slavery and segregation. As different communities, we’ve lived together long enough in harmony not to have to tip-toe around each other for fear of being perceived as insensitive.

Which brings me to the video which was put out in response.

I think the video was a crass production, a vulgar, over-the-top response to the ad. Given how in-your-face it is, I wouldn’t call it satirical – as some people have. Could the siblings have made the same point without castigating the Chinese community? I would have aimed my fire at the people behind the ad, who may or may not be Chinese.

What’s interesting is the G’s response. I wish it had weighed in after the ad appeared,  rather than only after the  video went viral. Though politicians were careful to criticise both the ad and the video, the brunt of the criticism fell on the siblings, to the point of having their livelihoods affected. So ChannelNewsAsia, an arm of MediaCorp, dropped Mr Subhas Nair from its musical documentary because it “strongly objects to all such offensive content which threatens racial harmony and will not associate with individuals who intentionally create such content”.

The thing is, individuals will make mistakes, get emotional and act impulsively. I don’t know what the siblings are going through now with so much public attention on them, but we haven’t heard a peep from them. They might want to think about proffering an apology to those they’ve offended.

On the other hand, organisations and companies have protocols to adhere to, and have more heads looking at an issue. I have no doubt that NETS et al never intended to denigrate other races with the ad. As I said, they are just not very smart people who didn’t think carefully when coming up with a marketing concept. In fact, it’s a wonder that the E-Pay ad made it through from conceptualisation to final dissemination without anyone raising a red flag.

I have a strange feeling that the outpouring of ministerial angst is about laying the groundwork for hate speech laws. I hope the G remembers that individuals are merely human beings who love, hate and sometimes lose their heads. But we should expect more from organisations and institutions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will Cheng Bock’s appeal to the Merdeka generation work?

In News Reports on July 26, 2019 at 9:27 am

I am very used to opposition parties listing all the People’s Action Party’s failings from way back when, and being scant with praise. So I thought Dr Tan Cheng Bock had interesting pitch, particularly for the Merdeka Generation and older. The 50 to 60 somethings had all been beneficiaries of the PAP system and they should have noticed that the PAP has “changed” in recent years. It is therefore incumbent that they make sure the country is back on track, to put back the “soul” into the “beautiful facade”.

Here’s the punchline: They should join him (Dr Tan) and his Progress Singapore Party, because the PAP has lost its way.

There was no drastic tearing down of the G’s policies at this morning’s press conference at Merchant Court hotel to launch the party, beyond a reminder that he had been an early critic of the G’s foreign talent policy. Programme proposals would come later, Dr Tan promised.

Instead, he gave broad brushstrokes on why he decided to form his own party.  It had to do with the erosion of the governance system, particularly over issues of transparency and accountability.

Pressed on this, he spoke about the opaque process of appointing office-holders, mentioning Temasek Holdings’ Madam Ho Ching, wife of the Prime Minister, by name.

Later, he  referred to the FamiLEE fight over the fate of the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s Oxley Road House. Parliament, he said, shouldn’t be used as a platform to air family disputes, referring to the Parliamentary session in July 2017 held for PM Lee Hsien Loong to answer questions of abuse of power, accusations levelled by his two siblings.

Another example he gave:  the constitutional changes to the office of the elected presidency to include multi-racial representation which, when it was first conceived, was a position based on merit. He probably had this in mind when he spoke about the ball always being passed to the courts to make decisions which should be within Parliament’s ambit; he had unsuccessfully challenged the G’s decision to date the timing of the elected presidency in such a manner as to require a Malay president.

So is Singapore’s newest political party the last throw of the dice by a 79 year old with an axe to grind against former party comrades? He would have joined the Workers’ Party or the Singapore Democratic Party if so, he said in answer to a question about being labelled a PAP  “traitor”.

“I didn’t change; the PAP changed.”

I’ve known Dr Tan since the days I was a rookie reporter in The Straits Times many moons ago. Then, he was known as Mr Feedback (the predecessor of Reach). Parliament meetings in the 80s and 90s were rather more colourful despite the almost non-existent opposition, because of backbenchers like Dr Tan, Mr Heng Chiang Meng and Mr Chng Hee Kok, who took on the front bench as equals. I empathised with Doc (as he is known) when he voted against the Nominated MPs Bill in 1989 despite the party whip being in place, and felt glad when the compromise was that it was for every Parliament to decide if they wanted such members within in the House. I wondered how he felt when the NMP was institutionalised as a permanent feature in 2010, four years after he left Parliament.

He is like a dog who refuses to let go of his bone. I have seen this in his feisty exchanges with ministers in Parliament. Then he threw his hat in the ring for elected presidency in 2012, and staked a “claim” on contesting the next presidential election in 2017. He went to court to argue against the timing of the presidential election. He failed. He’s now gunning for a place in Parliament as head of a political party.

Bull terrier.

Perhaps, he wanted to get his back on the G for depriving him of the presidential route into politics? Or maybe he was inspired by Dr Mahathir Mohamad who effected regime change in neighbouring Malaysia? The media pressed him with such questions about his motivations, to which he had a standard answer: He was entering (re-entering?) politics for the good of the Singapore people. From most people, I would consider such phrases as typical of politicians trying to win votes. From Dr Tan, however, I confess to hearing a ring of sincerity. This is a man who could be enjoying retirement and the company of grandchildren, but is instead going up against the political party he belonged to for close to 30 years.

Dr Tan acknowledged that he is no spring chicken and that he worries about the fate of the party without him. He denied that his party comprised mainly grey heads who might not be able to appeal to the younger generation, despite the grey heads forming the majority of his red-and-white tee-shirt contingent. He said the younger ones will be unveiled over time. (He would have done better to pass the mic to members of the party’s Central Executive Committee who were on stage with him, if he wanted to dispel the perception of  the party as a “one-man show”).

And while he might balk against joining opposition parties, he isn’t averse to having their members cross over. In the CEC were Ms Michelle Lee, formerly of the SDP and Ms Hazel Poa, formerly of the National Solidarity Party.

Hearing Dr Tan speak, he seems to have plenty of support, including from the enigmatic Mr Lee Hsien Yang, who has been accompanying him on a couple of his morning jaunts. Mr Lee, Dr Tan said, isn’t a party member but he is welcome to join – on the party’s terms and not to advance any personal agenda.

But what exactly are his party’s terms? What are its aspirations? Who is he fielding?

His opening remarks painted a picture of a political party ready to take over, a “unifying alternative”. The PAP cannot be the only option for Singapore, he said.

But those remarks were tempered during the question-and-answer session, with Dr Tan saying he was open to having a loose alliance with other parties and gaining at least one-third of the seats in the next election to deny the PAP the ability to amend the Constitution. He also doesn’t want to be Prime Minister. I suppose he is a gardener planting the seeds of a political party that would be the PAP of old, with the values of its founders.

He wouldn’t be drawn into talking about the number of candidates or constituencies it would be contesting besides denouncing as ”fake news” reports that the party was eyeing certain GRCs, such as West Coast where his old Ayer Rajah ward is located.

Now it remains to be seen how his remarks about a “changed” PAP go down with the people, especially the Merdeka generation. I think his examples of recent political events will resonate, even with members of the Establishment.  Methinks he has “ammunition”,  but there is one big thing going against him: the economy.

He confessed that a worsening economy would make people worry about changing the status quo. It was something his party had talked about – and factored in, he said adding that details would be given later.

I think a lot of people would like to know about concrete plans the party has that would alleviate their bread-and-butter problems.  For most folks, charges of concentration of power, possible abuses or even a “changed” PAP, would have to be weighed against material advantages that a strong government can bring to the country. That’s a fact given the pragmatic culture we have here that places a premium on comfort.

Still, politics is going to get more interesting here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our name-less culture

In News Reports on July 17, 2019 at 1:48 am

I have a hashtag, #berthablowsup, that I use on my Facebook wall. It’s a crowd-sourced moniker to help readers know that such hash tagged posts are my comments on the journalism that I read, not about my opinions on the issue at hand. Of course, there are some who can’t see the difference, and anyhow whack only. I am getting tired of explaining the difference.

There are some who simply disregard any point I’ve made to launch an ad hominem attack on me and my erstwhile relationship with MSM. Then there are those who quickly join the chorus of posters who are proud to pronounce that they’ve stopped subscribing, reading or viewing reports on local developments. Both groups are stuck in their silos and are, I think, pretty unreachable – or gone case. I am now hoping instead to reach those who want a greater understanding of the media, and give them pointers on how to read the news “critically” rather than just wash their eyes over the words.

Why should readers learn to read “better”?

Mainly because we don’t have much choice of reading material on local developments, never mind whatever anyone says about online options. The fact remains that only MSM has the resources to cover the Singapore beat well. The Singapore Press Holdings group has given up trying to make each of its newsrooms unique in the types of stories they cover and the perspective each holds. This is in the name of cost-effectiveness and harnessing synergies.

So, there is no need to read two SPH dailies because what appears in what would appear in the other sooner or later, like food from a central kitchen. One difference that has surfaced:  the English language newsrooms (rah-rah and bland) and the Chinese language newsroom (less rah-rah and spicy). You need to be bilingual.

I am glad that MediaCorp is still around to give the broadcast version. I am also pleased at  TODAYOnline’s continued presence, even in its emasculated form. Because I can countercheck whatever is in SPH with the MediaCorp side. Of course, sometimes, this doesn’t work because both sides are just as bad, and I have to look for original material to understand what has been said – or not said.

When I see standards slipping, I don’t just blow up, I want to cry. In this post-truth world, journalism standards must be set even higher. It’s not enough to say “we publish the facts; not fake news”. Readers and viewers shouldn’t be seeing work that is riddled with information gaps and grammatical errors. We shouldn’t be seeing ridiculous headlines or motherhood statements in big font that won’t make any reader read on even if the report is a gem. We shouldn’t have to do research to find out what had led to a particular news development, much less try to find original source material. You can just call up #berthablowsup” for a whole list of examples.

I believe that MSM must set the standard in at least one area: sourcing, attribution and verification. Who said what and are their assertions checked and double-confirmed? You don’t need to be a journalist to know about the 5Ws and 1H. Yet increasingly the first W, who, is being wiped off news reports.

Journalism is about people, and people have names. Even dead people. What does it say about journalism in Singapore when you have a mother talking about something innocuous but only wanted to known as Ms or Mrs Whatever? It says that the journalist can’t be bothered to search among the hundreds and thousands of mothers who would be willing to be named. It makes the reader ask if Mrs Whatever is a real person or a figment of the journalist’s imagination. It also means that Mrs Whatever can say whatever she wants because no one can identify her.

So, there are good reasons for names. It adds credibility to the news report.

In fact. names are not enough for transparency purposes, at least, in the books of old school journalists. Age is added because it could explain why an older person’s view, for example, is different from a millennial’s view. Occupation also gives readers a better sense of the newsmaker’s perspective. For example, a cleaner is not going to view news about a pay increase in the same way his boss does.

So, the next time a journalist asks you for your name, age and occupation, do give. Help readers make sense of your view. Let them know that a “real” person is talking.

On the flip side, what does it say about us as a society if we are so unwilling to put our names down to what we say? That we are ”shy”? Or that we are “scared” in case we said something wrong? That our employer, family, colleagues will shun us or laugh at us and the G will somehow blacklist us? This isn’t the 1960s or 70s, it’s the new millennium.  Be bold, man. Put your name to what you say.

(I am beginning to see even more of this namelessness in my interactions with young people. Asked for their names, they usually just tell you which school, faculty or group they belong to. No one wants to stand out, by giving the name their parents gave them.)

I had started writing this column earlier but I decided that I must finish writing it today after I read a TODAYOnline report about a kerfuffle over a billionaire’s efforts to beautify common areas in Sentosa Cove. The billionaire declined to be named “due to privacy concerns for his young children”  – a reason that I think any parent can give whether they are rich or poor.  I mean, you can argue that criminals shouldn’t be named because of the impact on their children.

The report talks about “residents” yet, only one resident is named. What’s worse, it talks about an anonymous letter which appears to be the spark that’s burning up Sentosa Cove.  I do not know why the property’s management should even take seriously the complaint of a coward. Nor do I understand why TODAY should even give it any play. If the coward wanted publicity for his cause, he got it.

We have to get out of this no-name business. The media should try even harder to persuade people to identify themselves before inflicting their views on the reading public. It’s the message, not the messenger, did you say? But the messenger is an important part of the message.

If a person die, die declined to be named – and there’s no other person to turn to to answer the question – then the media should tell readers why, instead of “he/she who only wanted to be known as”. Think about it. Why wouldn’t Princess or Spiderman be names people want to be known as?

Do I hear mumblings about the ”fear” factor? I can understand if speaking up would lead to loss of life, limb and career suicide, but too many times have I seen no names attached to views that are about innocuous subjects. The media should not encourage people to indulge in paranoia. Nit obody said journalism was easy.

Yet sometimes we see the media leaving out names even when they are given. I am referring to the myriad official and corporate spokesmen who make the news and usually have their names down in press releases. But they’re nameless to the public.

Journalists should never sacrifice name to save space, a reason which is especially inapplicable in the online arena. Putting names to spokesmen would make them conscious of their responsibility to speak intelligibly to the public. It puts a human face on officialdom and corporations. It is not a matter of being “shy”, it’s about the spokesmen facing up to their role as spokesmen.

Yesterday, I saw a news report that only named the chairman of the Public Sector Data Review committee, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean. I would be okay with it if not for the report adding that the panel has four ministers (unnamed) and non-governmental experts (unnamed).

It said: ‘‘The non-government members on the committee were chosen for their experience and expertise in technology and data security in their respective fields”. Okay, so who are they?

The committee is also supported by an expert group consisting of seven international experts and industry professionals.” Right, and who are they again?

What are readers to make of such information when there is no name? Take it on faith that they are really experts? Are we dive into the archives? Or is there some significance  in having seven experts instead of six or eight? In any case, the full list is here.

Of course, there are occasions when newsmakers simply won’t give names. And because they were not officially released (I am guessing here), no one dares even try to identify them. Like how there’s no attempt to find out which doctors were disciplined after Hepatitis B outbreak because the minister didn’t want a “blame culture”.

Another instance was Mindef’s studious silence over the members who sat on the committee of inquiry investigating the death of actor Aloysius Pang. We are told that it would be chaired by a State Court-nominated Judge (unnamed). Other members, said Mindef, are “a consultant medical specialist, a member of the External Review Panel on Singapore Armed Forces Safety (ERPSS), a member of the Workplace Safety and Health Council, and a senior-ranked national serviceman”.

ST noted that “the statement did not name the members” but isn’t it more pertinent for ST to ask Mindef why? Why the secrecy? It doesn’t help Mindef’s case to shroud investigations in mystery.

I believe some of you reading this will say that I am expecting too much of journalists. I am not. These are time-honoured principles of good reporting, imposed to give readers a clearer picture of the world, including who said what. It’s about transparency and accountability, both on the part of the media and people who make the news. (And I am not even talking about anonymous sources here – that’s another column.)

We fall for fake news because we trust what we read, or we never thought that we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t be similarly  naive when reading G pronouncements and MSM announcements. That same discerning eye must be cast over everything we read. We must demand more, not less, information and the least that MSM can do is to tell us exactly who said what or did what.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A brisk jalan-jalan through Singapore’s past, present and possible future

In News Reports on July 11, 2019 at 2:04 am

I am jealous. I am jealous that a foreigner who lived here for three years knows more about my country’s history than I do, have gone to places here that I didn’t know exist (Bukit Chandu War Memorial and the HDB museum anyone?) and traversed the country from west to east on foot – in one day.  I am even more jealous that he’s put together a charming book that used landmarks here as a jump off point to talk about Singapore’s past and present and a possibly worrying future. Great concept!

I am talking about the book Singapore Singapura – From Miracle to Complacency, by former BBC journalist Nicholas Walton. I am so jealous that I was delighted when he got a couple of things wrong, like mis-spelling Kallang and Buona Vista. Also, I have no idea what “long mee” is (noodles with a lot of fatty stuff, like pig’s tail).

From the title, I had expected a Western-style diatribe against the Singapore style of paternalism and authoritarianism wielded over a sheep-like population living in sanitised and anti-septic surroundings. But Mr Walton eschewed condescension, and has put forth a rich portrait of the “ultimate” city-state which, like the old Genoa which was the subject of his earlier book, might be in danger of a slow decline.

I admired how Mr Walton walked the line between praise and provocation.  He was effusive about how the early leaders made the best of opportunities presented and delivered economic performance reports that underpinned their electoral legitimacy. (LKY appears a lot.) He understood that a hard-working population alert to the precarious position of the country would be willing to trade off personal freedoms for a better material life. He noted that the country had exceptionally talented civil servants .

After the “miracle” comes the inevitable “but”. His key point is that circumstances have changed, but our people, civil servants, leaders and policies don’t seem to be changing fast enough if the country wants to remain exceptional. Hence, complacency.

Mr Walton’s insights into Singapore’s complacency are nothing I haven’t heard before – especially from old(er) people. Such as how we’ve forgotten or ignored the vulnerability  narrative of a small island (a dinghy) trying to navigate a tumultuous sea. The reasons for the country’s success – its small size makes policy implementation easier but also means bad policies can sink it quickly; its geographical position is a reason for its success as a trading port and airport but that could be undermined by shorter cuts made through land (think of a possible route through Kra Isthmus) and regional airports and airlines gearing up as competitors; its conformist population bred on its education system might not produce innovators and the radical ideas to bring the country to the next stage. “Easy wins”, he writes, “are in the past”.

It is a not a cheem book and some observations seem pretty sweeping.

For example, he seemed to have dismissed the abilities and fortitude of our young people here based mainly on his reading of Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Tan. ”The “most intriguing insight from the book”, he said was how the outlook of the protagonist, SPG Jazeline differed from her mother.

“”She craved the tantalising lifestyle advertised by social media, glossy magazines, and the glitzy boutiques of Orchard Road. Such a dissonance between generations is not exactly unique to Singapore, but it should be of particular cause for concern there. The Jazeline generation had replaced hard work and a sense of vulnerability for extreme complacency and the search for an easy way out. The miracle had built a good life for the people of Singapore, but rather than appreciate that, they wanted trinkets.”

I doubt his evidence but I appreciate his well-intentioned warnings. I still think though that the word Complacency in the book title shouldn’t be in capital letters.  It strikes me that somewhere, an editor intervened to suggest that the book should have a “bottomline”. The C might as well stand for conventional wisdom – like how the education system, while excellent at producing numerate and literate students, was stressful; and how the meritocratic system was being criticised for advantaging the well-off.

Okay, I am not doing the book justice.

It is a delight to read if you don’t want to take it too seriously as an analysis of Singapore or use it as a crystal ball. It is very cleverly written, even funny, testimony to Mr Walton’s skills of observation, interviewing techniques and style of writing.  The common thread is a foreigner sweating his way through Singapore via GPS.  He  comments on what he sees and draws upon research and interviews to make conclusions about certain themes. I enjoyed his walk through industrial Jurong, the original engine of Singapore, West Coast, Kampung Bahru, Chinatown right through to Marine Parade. I enjoyed it much more than he did, given his frequent laments about the Singapore humidity and blistered feet.

It made me think that we, too, might do better to open our eyes to our surroundings than keep them glued on a miniature screen – quite a bugbear of his.

I enjoyed the various bits of history that we do not learn much about in school – Chinese funerals which turned into riots, brothels and the luminaries who got roads named after them. – as well as his acidic comments and descriptions of some landmarks. For example, Fusionpolis, Galaxies, Innovis, Launchpad@One North were “names that could come from the mind of a six year old boy on a sugar high in a Transformers factory”.

I cringed, however, when he pointed out a sign in the National University of Singapore campus which told students how to cross the road.  “These were not primary school children who needed prompts from overly sensible cartoon characters, but students at Asia’s best (or second-best if you ask NTU students) university. “When in doubt,” it seemed to say, “instruct, rather risk a non-optimal choice.” This mollycoddling was no route to fostering soft skills”.

I felt sad when he wrote about Singapore’s “troubled relationship with nature”, bulldozing green areas to make space for human living. “I have few few complaints about this. After all, Singapore cannot accept sentimentality without a purpose.”

The book is interspersed with interviews with Establishment types, civil servants, civil society activists and ordinary people. No politicians, unless you consider historian P J Thum one. They enter the book at the relevant “places” to talk about their area of expertise.  There was Dignity Kitchen’s Koh Seng Choon, Tomb Whisperer Raymond Goh and ex-Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin. Professor Kishore Mahbubani, whom the author describes as “sage-like”, pops up very often, especially  in the last chapter, Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal.

Here’s where the book took its most serious tone – whether the G is brilliant or bold enough to come up with changes that could be upsetting and risky.

“This, with a certain amount of expert prompting from Professor Mahbubani, placed the charge of complacency on the shoulders of the government, rather than just the people. The citizens could be forgiven their complacency, just as they could be forgiven for feeling aggrieved about immigration, for their relentless zero-sum approach to coaching children through exams, or favouring a predictable career as an accountant rather than gambling everything on a start-up. The government, however, has a different job. It had the responsibility to make difficult decisions before they were necessary rather than simply manage pressures.”

Mr Walton asked if the G was micro-managing too many areas, like putting restrictions on the annual Pink Dot carnival. He wondered if the tough restrictions on expat employment were at odds with Singapore’s need for talent, and the reason for Singapore’s continued reliance on cheap foreign labour despite knowing its effect on productivity.

“I would never have argued that Singapore’s government did not know the challenges it faced, or that it did not have superb thinkers and administrators. But, perhaps, it was no longer truly brave, and there were a host of VUCA challenges on the horizon that required brave answers rather than technocratically competent ones. They were on a small dingy in a savage ocean, and to flourish rather than simply survive would take the spirit of 1965. The good professor was not convinced that this would happen.”

It was a sobering enough conclusion, given that we are on the cusp of a leadership change. If anyone wants a quick sweep of Singapore’s past, present and possible future, this is a great read. It should be far less intimidating than Seven Hundred Years: A  History of Singapore, now on sale in bookshops everywhere, and probably more entertaining. I am bracing myself to read that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Noisy protest versus quiet exodus

In News Reports on July 7, 2019 at 9:14 am

An interesting debate is happening in social media about how Singapore should view the protests (or is it riots?) in Hong Kong – and even what people here really, really think about it. Do we scoff at the protests as the antics of young people who have too little to lose or view the breakdown of law and order with “sadness and bewilderment” as one local commentator said? Are there people here who applaud the bravery of the protesters/rioters or see this a people movement against authoritarianism?

I don’t think anyone here can speak for the majority of Singaporeans,  not for the intelligentsia nor for the ordinary folk either. But I think “bewilderment” is a fair term. It is not bewilderment in terms of hand-wringing “How can they do such things?” or “Don’t they have better things to do?” but a rather more complex one that speaks to the environment and political culture we have here.

You have the cynical who point to the list of laws that would nip any sort of protest in the bud.  There is always some rule or other that will prevent any kind of group (or even solo) demonstration that doesn’t fit into the typical Singapore street scene. You need to know the law well, the relevant regulations and all the permits to apply for – which can be denied. Is it any wonder that the Singapore way is … to do an online petition?

Then you have those born and bred in the era of peace and plenty and decry any disruption to daily life as an infringement on their right to work, commute and be productive citizens. Maybe the Merdeka or Pioneer generations will also have some of Singapore’s history to fall back on, and you will hear old tales of blood and gore which they don’t care to be repeated.

There is the fearful, who might quietly congratulate the HK protestors and wish they had the gumption to do the same because they have grievances that they can’t get addressed. I think there is also the lazy, who do not get off their butts but choose to lament loudly online about how they are not being heard, and how it is no use even they are.

I believe that we have some in-built mechanism that makes us object to “public” displays of expression. We’re even too shy to do good in public, according to a survey by the Kindness movement. When some groups do so (think candlelight vigils), we watch in trepidation for public and official reaction. In Singapore, there is a very strong sense of “don’t make waves”, “don’t rock the boat”. Instead, we have officially sanctioned dialogues and forums (closed door if it’s a contentious topic) and the people are exhorted to contribute to the communal good, rather than question fundamentals which have worked for Singapore or challenge the official orthodoxy.

I think a lot of people here are okay with the political culture of the G knows best and people should keep their heads down and just carry on working. We accede to this compact in return for job security and material wealth, and the promise of a better future for our children. A protest that could cripple Shenton Way or Marina Bay Financial Centre? Closed shops and offices? Traffic in gridlock? We tell ourselves that we’re more pragmatic than that. We just want to work, go to school, make money, live in a hopefully bigger and bigger house and take plenty of holidays abroad.

Maybe we will do something if our way of life and livelihood are threatened, like how the 6.9 million population target for 2030 disclosed in 2013 was so unpopular with the people that a protest (or is it assembly?) organised against it drew 5,000 people (5,000!) at the officially sanctioned venue, Hong Lim Park.  People do not want to see a Singapore flooded with foreigners who crowd our neighbourhoods and transport system and who might even be taking over our jobs. This wasn’t a “vocal minority” talking, but people who constitute the bedrock of Singapore.

Such sights are rare in Singapore and is probably a reason why the White Paper on Population has never made much news since. It isn’t just the people who don’t want to rock the boat, the G doesn’t want it shaken either.

For Hong Kong, the June/July demonstrations are no longer novel. There were two other big scale ones before. It might explain why the protestors have to resort to wilder antics to make themselves heard, like storming the Legislative Council building. And maybe why the HK police let them do it too, so as to justify any tougher action later on. One possible lesson: if you let the genie out of the bottle, it’s hard to put it back in.

So will a protest a la Hong Kong happen in Singapore?

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked the question in 2015 after “umbrella movement” protests  against proposed electoral reforms in Hong Kong. He said both places are alike, yet different. He talked about property prices in Hong Kong which put homes out of reach of young people. That could be the underlying cause of the protests rather than, in this case, the Extradition Bill itself which might just be the spark. Many news reports have said the same, citing the housing policy as the root of all that bad feeling.

I’m sure there is some legitimate worry about political dissidents and activists being hauled to some Chinese gulag; the Chinese government doesn’t have a great record of dealing with opposition.  People will risk all because all is really nothing. If everything in Hong Kong is hunky dory, would the legislation still create such a fracas? Or would the people see it as a price to pay for material comfort?

Another point is that Hong Kongers did not elect their leaders unless you consider 6 per cent of the electorate voting as an “election”. The distance between the masses and the leadership is a construct. There is no bond which engenders trust. Whatever you might think about Singapore politics, all citizens exercise the vote, which ties the governed and the government in a common destiny.

Then there is the looming presence of China. Some have argued that the young people there have no idea of what China is like today, and have been fed tales of a backward, repressive country rather than the vibrant, modern economy it is today. Clearly, young Hong Kongers think they have developed a separate identity and culture which they are proud of and see as being threatened. I sometimes ask myself what would have happen if Singapore had remained in Malaysia. It would have been hard to retain our own identity. It would be natural for the Malaysian government to want to keep its province in line rather than have ”one country, two systems”.

But from news reports, it seems that the protestors do not want Hong Kong to go it alone. Their demands are specific and relate to the Bill. Nor do I think China would ever kick it out.

So the solution seems to be for China to create economic conditions for Hong Kong to thrive and for young people to envisage a better life for themselves ahead. In fact, pundits have suggested that this is how Singapore managed to keep the genie in the bottle. But this assumes that people do not care about “higher order” goods like democracy and individual rights which are sometimes viewed here as bad values of the Western kind.  It’s always bread-and-butter first.

I think that’s the case here. For now. People don’t really case about privacy issues or freedom of speech, preferring to let the G lead the way. But increasingly, a well-fed people will start to think about higher order goods as an entitlement. What would be worse if they also don’t think they are as well-fed as before. Then the G will have a big job delivering on several fronts.

I don’t think we will ever go on a rampage in the streets because it is simply not our way. But the outlets of expression must be well utilised, ventilated and acknowledged. It’s a tragedy that our elected parliamentarians (read: ruling party) seem to have no problems, for example, approving the fake news legislation so quickly. I agree that only a small proportion of the population care enough to make noise. But small or not (is it 100,000 or 500,000 Hong Kong protesters and does it matter?), the more important question is whether more time should have been spent persuading them to a certain point of view – rather than dismissing them as irritants.

Our placidity is both a boon and a bane, methinks. We won’t protest but we expect to be heard or at least have our views acknowledged. Another option: If the people here don’t think there is a better future for them here, whether in terms of bread and butter or higher order goods, they know they can signal at the ballot box.

Or, they can also simply vote with their feet. That’s the trouble with being relatively well-fed, well-educated and well-regarded in this world. We’re accepted in most places. So I don’t think there will be a massive protest about any issue, not now or in the near future. That’s too noisy. The disaffected will just sell their house, take out their CPF and quietly go away. Is this good or bad?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Reluctant Editor pulls no punches

In News Reports on June 28, 2019 at 4:39 am

Of course, the first thing I did when I got hold of P N Balji’s book, The Reluctant Editor, was to see what my ex-boss said about me. Balji had asked me some questions about my two-year stint in The New Paper newsroom where I was seconded to in the wake of the Toh Chin Chye affair in 1996.

What he wrote:

The tension, uncertainty and fear in the newsroom were made worse after it was announced that Bertha Henson, then a senior editor with The Straits Times, would shore up the editing process. She was a tough taskmaster not known to mince her words when presented with shoddy work. In characteristic Bertha fashion, she pronounced in an interview: 

The New Paper was a chaotic place with not enough disciplined editorial procedures. The front-end editors were not setting enough standards. The newsroom was as apprehensive to receive me as I was to go there. There was a sense that I was there to crack the whip, so to speak. And that I would bring ST’s conservative and strait-laced values into the newsroom. 

Urgh. My fearsome reputation!

In any case, I wouldn’t take back a word I said to Balji, but I would like to add that the newsroom picked itself up very quickly and took to the organisational changes, some of which survived for a very long time, very well.

The above, in journalistic language, is a just a side-bar.

The book itself is a racy read. It’s a collection of anecdotes grouped under various themes, with his run-ins with the G as well as with the corporate men being a dominant thread. I don’t think there is any living journalist in Singapore who can cast such a wide net of anecdotes; Balji has chalked up nearly 40 years of journalism in five different newspaper newsrooms, including the now defunct New Nation. He also had the privilege of being involved in the establishment of two titles, The New Paper for the Singapore Press Holdings group, and TODAY for Mediacorp.

Balji said in his author’s note that the book doesn’t pretend to be a memoir. It definitely doesn’t read like one. Nor does it offer an examination of the nature of journalism in Singapore, crowded by sophisticated official and unofficial controls. So no reader should expect the book to be anything like Cheong Yip Seng’s OB marker, My Straits Times story, which was published in October 2012.

Cheong, the ex-editor-in-chief of SPH English and Malay language newspapers, sought to give a chronological account of trials and travails of print journalism through the Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong years and to set them in the larger national, regional and even international geo-political context. Where Cheong tries to explain, Balji merely reports. Where Cheong offers hypotheses, Balji just recounts. It is straight-forward, no-frills writing focused on controversies he had faced, supplemented by some fresh interviews with journalists past and present.

When Cheong published his book, I was totally taken aback because he told tales which I thought I would take to my grave. Balji gave more tales, including a few which were before my time, like how the Prime Minister’s Office was incensed when the New Nation broke what is known as an embargo on the Chinese New Year message and published the speech before it was supposed to.

The book contained his account of the TNP newsroom’s biggest screw-up, naming ex-Cabinet minister Toh Chin Chye as a drunk driver charged in court. He reveals the inner workings of the disciplinary committee convened to investigate the error and the culpability of the journalists involved, and how $300,000 was paid to Dr Toh as compensation.

He also had some interesting throwaway lines that have been circulating on the grapevine but never, I believe, put starkly in black-and-white

On the G’s reception of Cheong’s book :

‘The Government’s reaction to the book came surreptitiously and without any public statement. Cheong’s appointment as non-resident ambassador to Chile in 2010 was not renewed when it ended three years later; more tellingly, when OB Markers was reprinted, Lee Kuan Yew’s endorsement disappeared from the book. The government was unhappy that one of its most trusted journalists had embarrassed it so publicly.”

This unhappiness about the book came out into the open in a tussle between the G and Dr Lee Wei Ling in 2016 but nothing has been said about the consequences for the author, who has maintained a studious silence

On the removal of Han Fook Kwang as ST editor, in the aftermath of the 2011 General Election:

”Every political journalist and editor becomes hypersensitive when it comes to election reporting, with editors scrutinising reporters’ copy with an eagle eye. Those who have tried to demonstrate some form of independence and fairness in their reporting and editing have paid a high price. The Straits Times editor, Han Fook Kwang, was sidelined and made managing editor after a rare display of fairness in political journalism when he gave the Opposition, especially the Workers’ Party, more editorial space than what was allocated previously.” 

Neither men were interviewed for the book. Or maybe they were asked, but declined. That was one failing of the book. Some sections were supplemented by interviews; some weren’t. You have to wonder why.

But you can’t fault Balji for sugar-coating G intervention in the media – he doesn’t. He spoke directly of  “officialdom’s media policy of using fear, intimidation and the force of law to get the media to tell every nuance of the Government’s side of the story and downplay dissenting views”.

Did he give evidence? Yes. He wrote of several incidents which got the G riled up, like TNP’s factually accurate reporting of the downing of a Super Puma helicopter in 1991 which the G said was a contravention of the Defence Act and how that same reporter was detained overnight by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau which wanted to know if he bribed narcotics officers for stories.

The G’s tactics were not always so blunt. Balji referred to the frequent off-the-record briefings that ministers and senior civil servant held, and still hold, with senior editors which “hung like an albatross among many editor’s necks”.

Why?

 When reporters uncovered stories on which editors have already been briefed, such stories had to be held back until the official announcements are made. Editors also found themselves hemmed in when they evaluated stories, because they always had to bear in mind what had been discussed with the ministers.’

I have had the same experience too many times both as a reporter and an editor. To be told that your scoop can’t be published because it had been discussed at  a high-level briefing is the most demoralising thing to say to a reporter and the fastest way to blunt journalistic inquisitiveness. I remember asking my boss what else I should know so that I won’t go chasing them – it was a jibe that was not appreciated.

As an editor, I have had to deliver the same message to go-getting reporters. And then I have had to pussyfoot my way around reporters’ copy to ensure that the “official line” was correctly reflected. Was journalistic independence compromised? Of course, unless editors had managed to get their way at the briefings on what they saw as important for readers. As Balji wrote in his book, there were editors who fought back or managed to navigate the terrain to reach their desired destination.

Balji wrote, of course, about his experience running TNP and TODAY, but they were scattered through different chapters. Tantalising bits and pieces surface like the pressure from the late SPH chairman Lim Kim San for TNP to turn in a profit or else. He describes his 10 years as editor as his university of life and mentions the people who were in the newsroom liberally, citing their go-getting instincts and creativity.

The TNP of old that was in Times House at Kim Seng Road is the most amazing little paper I know. I agree with Balji that its reporters are among the toughest, and its artists among the best that can be found in Singapore. You will never see the likes of the old TNP again, with its big, bold and confrontational headlines. It was balance of sex, crime and sport but with enough explanatory journalism to keep the G off its back. Now, it’s just a free mini-ST.

Methinks Balji should write a full book on TNP, its rise and hey days and how it had to conceptualise and re-conceptualise its editorial formula to gain more advertising and greater readership. He should document its rocky start, when he was deputy to Peter who was editor of the new product. They would be good pointers for anyone who wants to create a start-up. He could give more examples of how TNP covered stories that the big aircraft carrier, ST, also did. This is important as people tend to forget that there are many ways to tell a story, and from different perspectives.

Then he should follow up with another book on starting up TODAY for the rival Mediacorp. I recall the consternation among SPH senior editors when told that one of their number had gone to the other side and will be taking them on.

Balji writes matter-of-factly that he was restless after being at the helm of TNP for so long and had asked a foreign posting, which was rejected.  So when a head-hunter called to ask if he would like to start a newspaper, he took the job. I have often wondered how Balji felt about his former colleagues who thought he had “sold out” to the competition. I recall the disdain some people felt about a tabloid editor taking on the mighty ST.

In his book, he talked about heart-stopping moments on launch day because the printing company, which had never taken on an order for 300,000 copies a day, was having trouble getting the presses to operate smoothly. He didn’t pull back his punches when he talked about how the SPH marketing tried to scare away advertising by rubbishing the upstart and how its circulation department staff followed the trucks that were delivering the newspaper so that they would have an idea of its distribution strategy.

It’s time to record this piece of media history for posterity. I only hope that if Balji does take this on, the two companies would co-operate with information and documents.

As Balji himself said in his author’s note:

Both newspapers broke new ground in Singapore media history: The New Paper as the only afternoon newspaper ever to top 50,000 in daily sales; and TODAY for unlocking The Straits Times stranglehold on the morning newspaper market. 

I know what Balji will say to me when he reads this column: Bertha, why don’t you write a book? I’m still thinking, Balji. Still thinking.