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That Kim-Trump deal – in short

In News Reports on June 13, 2018 at 12:25 am

An inside look at how the joint declaration between US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was made:

DT: Hey Rocket Man! Nice haircut! You don’t mind me calling you Rocket Man do you?

Kim: So long as I can still call you the senile one..you’re going to be 72 soon you know. Happy birthday!

DT: Words…just words. We’ve gotta figure out some more words now coz the world’s watching…

Kim: We can have more words if you pull out your 32,000 soldiers.

DT: You kidding me! Moon will kill me. In time, okay? In good time, as the Singaporeans will say. Maybe in my life-time. Maybe not.

Kim: Well, then it’s hard for me to dismantle my nuclear weapons. It’s my best asset, you know.

DT: Hey, it’s your only asset! You’d better say you’d do something about it. And let in the inspectors to check that you’re not just shifting it somewhere else. The words “verifiable and irreversible’’ have gotta be in there somewhere.

Kim: Like you say, in time, in good time. You think it’s easy to give a time-line? We’re not as efficient as the Singaporeans. You have to give me something more.

DT: Woah! Deal-making huh. That, I know something about. By the way, you know if you knock out your nuclear sites, I’d have to take away my nuclear umbrella right? We’re not just talking about North Korea but the Korean peninsula. The whole world will be safer!

Kim: I’m willing to commit to denuclearization – but without a timeline, and without the words “verifiable’’ and “irreversible’’. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

DT: No can do. My guys have been telling me how you been going back on your words.

Kim: That was my father. I am not a chip out of the old block.

DT: No two Kims are the same? Hahah. Come on, gimme something. What about that stuff we talked about a couple of months ago… Closing one missile testing site…you told me that was do-able.

Kim: No problem! But we can’t put it in words

DT: Then the remains of our boys killed in the Korean war. And the Japs want their people back too.

Kim: No problem! We can say we’re working on the POW/MIA remains, but I really don’t know what the Japs are up. We already said that of the 12 Japs, eight were abducted are already dead and four never even entered the country.

DT: Oh well, I suppose Abe will have to get back to you on it.

Kim: My turn. Lift the sanctions.

DT: You gotta be kidding me. You’re lucky I’m not piling more to it. Anyway, you’ve been sniffing around in Beijing recently right? I’m sure you got some kinda deal.

Kim: Then you stop your war games. They are an unnecessary provocation. They raise tensions. Not good for peace. You look insincere if you have military drills while wanting peace.

DT: Hmmm…That could be tough. I didn’t raise it with my defence boys and I think they’re already working on the next one…

Kim: You can always say that it is expensive. You know, flying bombers from Guam and then back? Don’t you always say you know what to do with money?

DT: That’s a thought. But it isn’t fair! Everyone knows if we stop a drill, but nobody knows if you’re dismantling your arsenal or not!

Kim: I already said I am blowing up one testing site. You can check that.

DT: Okay. I’ll stop the games, but it isn’t going to be in the statement.

Kim: Deal!

DT: Hmm. You think the world’s gonna like our agreement? I have to sell it to the pesky media, you know. Wish I could be you and just tell them what to say…

Kim: You can say it was a better meeting than the NATO one you came from. Or you can say you don’t have much time because you have a birthday party you have to rush home too.

DT: I guess it’s good to say we’ve started talking. What about saying that we’ll commit to establishing a new bilateral relationship. Emphasis on the word “new’’.

Kim: Yes. I’m sure analysts will say something about a new era, new chapter, a first step or whatever.

DT: Okay. Then I’ll commit to not calling you Rocket Man anymore.

Kim: And I won’t call you senile. Deal?

DT: Deal!

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There’s no humility nor respect

In News Reports on June 6, 2018 at 1:50 am

When the proposal for a second Singapore conversation was raised in Parliament, I tried hard to be optimistic. I wrote a column about how we should hear out the 4G leaders and start a new relationship between the government and the governed. I said we should put behind whatever misgivings we may have about G policies in the past and forge ahead with a new group of leaders. I concluded by saying that I would hold Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat to this promise in his speech:

“The fourth generation leadership will listen with humility and respect. We will consider all views with an open mind, and adjust our course accordingly. We will communicate the thinking behind our decisions clearly. We will bring Singaporeans together and give everyone a role to turn good ideas into concrete action.’’

In a second column, I suggested that the conversation be aimed at measures to reduce social stratification which would mean a re-examination of all types of policies which might be hindering this.

I am beginning to think I was too optimistic.

With all humility and respect, I think the 4G leaders are “losing it”. I refer to the responses to commentators who have tried to give constructive views and raise questions. There was, for example, ST commentator Chua Mui Hoong’s column about “parking”. In the light of the bigger problems facing the country, like a stunted High Speed Rail project, it’s a small issue. But the policy to do away with free parking at schools for teachers seem to have taken on a life of its own.

Ms Chua did a good job debunking some of the myths circulating online about free parking for grassroots leaders and Members of Parliament. The Clerk of Parliament said that MPs park for free at Parliament House.”Members of Parliament (MPs) do not have offices in Parliament House and do not require full-time parking here. As authorised persons to Parliament House on sitting days or when they are here for meetings to perform their official duties, MPs park their vehicles at the restricted carpark at no charge.”

She concluded by suggesting, politely, that “it might be more equitable to have MPs pay for hourly parking at Parliament House”.

After its publication in the Sunday Times, there was a next-day response from Leader of the House Grace Fu. It was an exercise in obfuscation. First, she appears to contradict what the Clerk had said:

The article, “Do MPs and grassroots volunteers pay for parking?” (June 3), creates an impression that MPs get free parking at Parliament House. 

You expect then to be told what parking fees are being levied. But you get this:

Elected MPs who drive pay for an annual permit that allows them to park in Housing Board carparks, in order to do their constituency work.

This payment, which Parliament deducts from the MPs’ allowances, is deemed to cover the occasions when they park at Parliament House to fulfil their duties.

So MPs do pay an annual parking fee in HDB carparks that are presumably in their own constituencies. But she doesn’t say how much or how it compares to a season parking licence that a normal HDB dweller has to foot. Then comes this intriguing line that this same payment is “deemed to cover the occasions when they park at Parliament House”.
I suppose she could have fudged the issue by saying that MPs are levied an annual parking fee, which covers both HDB and Parliament carparks.  Instead, she used the word “deemed”. It looked very much like an after-thought.
It would have been less contentious if she stopped right there, but she chooses to add some snarky remarks.

Political office holders, like civil servants, also pay for parking at their ministries and agencies. This payment generally covers the occasions when they visit other ministries and agencies on official business; and if they have to pay for public or commercial carparks in the vicinity, they are reimbursed.

Applying the same principle, teachers now pay to park at their primary places of duty. But no one is suggesting they pay again when they visit other schools to attend meetings.

I am flummoxed at her conclusion.  What has a minister’s parking spot in his ministry to do with his parking spot in Parliament. Is she saying that if political office-holders (she seems to have forgotten that many MPs aren’t) pay for both sets of parking, teachers who visit other schools would have to do the same?

I think she would have done better to clear this mis-impression in the column – that Parliament House carpark is not open to the public and intended only for staff and MPs. Because what comes to mind are plenty of empty spots on prime land, since Parliament sits so infrequently.

It appears that while Ms Fu had read the piece on parking, she failed to see the piece in the same newspaper on plain speaking. But Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat evidently did, going by the missive his press secretary Lim Yuin Chien wrote to ST Forum Pages.

It is a disheartening piece of prose, reminiscent of the response that two other 4G leaders Desmond Lee and Janil Puthucheary had penned a month ago – to the same commentator, ex-ST editor Han Fook Kwang. Both pieces seem intent on misinterpreting the message.

So Mr Han laments the use of abstract terms when talking about issues that affect people

What does equipping Singaporeans with a “global mindset and skillsets” mean to someone worried about holding on to his job or who has just lost it. What does an education system with “diverse pathways and multiple peaks of excellence” mean to the parent struggling to help her children cope with school work?

He suggested some down-to-earth methods of sending the message, which will demonstrate empathy and re-assure people. Instead, Mr Heng has misinterpreted it as encouraging “pandering and populism”:

Mr Han begins by urging ministers to speak plainly – to use simple language. His column then morphs into a dare to ministers to make sweeping promises.

For example, he wants ministers to assure people that if they had “a full working life in Singapore, in any job… when you retire at 65, you will have enough to live a good and decent life”.

“We will make sure it happens,” Mr Han urges ministers to say, “don’t worry about the details or how we will do it.” 

Mr Heng said that plain speaking must also include telling ‘hard truths’ (a Lee Kuan Yew phrase), such as how old age needs will go up and people will have to work longer, save more while working or have less to spend in retirement. Journalists and commentators must also speak plainly, he added.

Then there is a plug for the People’s Action Party which Mr Heng said never flinched from giving the truth and a swipe at Opposition MPs for preferring to engaging in a debate over the proposed rise in Goods and Services Tax during elections, rather than in Parliament.

I admit that I was surprised at Mr Han’s advice about “telling people not to worry about the details or how we will do it”. This is not because I suspect he prefers populist government but I have always held that it  would be better for a government to tell all – and in plain words too – instead of taking on a nannying role. There is, however, no shame in the G making promises. After all, political parties are elected based on their manifesto – which is a bunch of promises.

The letter ends this way:

Voters in many countries, developed and developing, have learnt through bitter experience what happens when unrealistic election promises are broken.

Politicians and journalists who advocate simplistic policies lose credibility, faith in democracy is undermined, and ultimately, voters or their children bear the cost.

The easiest five words to utter in politics are: “I promise you free lunches.” But that’s not plain speech. That’s pandering and populism.

I don’t know many readers saw Mr Han’s column as a call to pandering and populism. I certainly didn’t. The 4G leaders seem to be seeing shadows everywhere. They are coming across as prickly and thin-skinned.

Why couldn’t the letter have been written this way:

I thank Mr Han for his column on plain-speaking. It is correct that politicians should phrase their messages in simple and empathetic terms for the layman. We do try, and we acknowledge that we don’t always succeed. I wish to add that Mr Han neglects to say that plain speech also means telling the full truth. It is easy to make promises but the electorate would also have a part to play in fulfilling it. I doubt that they will be satisfied with “don’t worry about the details or how we will do it”. The 4G leadership wants to forge a new relationship with the people, which must also mean alerting them to the pitfalls and hard work ahead. We intend to do so – and yes, in plain words. 

I think that would be a nice way to get a point across, rather than the hectoring/smart-alecky way demonstrated by the two letters. If respected MSM columnists who are not unknown to G get this kind of opaque and befuddling response (in Ms Fu’s case) or a blistering lecture (in Mr Heng’s case), what more lesser mortals? Is the 4G leadership taking a hard line to show that it can’t be bullied? Or to destroy the credibility of well-read columnists whom it considers members of a “vocal minority”?

It doesn’t seem to me that they are listening “with humility and respect”. Nor are they keeping an “open mind”. Not even communicating the reasons for its decisions clearly.

Wherefore the next Singapore Conversation? Or would it be at the ballot box?

 

PS. I used Mr Heng’s name because I don’t think his press secretary would have written the piece without his go-ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A national conversation about class?

In News Reports on June 2, 2018 at 2:05 am

In all the discussions about social stratification, I always look out for the voice of the well-off parent. What does he or he say about the current clamour? About how well-off parents   leverage on their social networks, use their social capital or pour their financial resources into the upbringing of their children?

We hear little from them in public, probably because it would be impolitic for them to speak in the current environment.

The concept of closed circles isn’t a new one. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned it in a National Day rally speech in 2013.

“ The system has to be open, meaning there cannot be barriers to entry. Outstanding students must always be able to make it to the top to get into these institutions and you cannot have a closed, self-perpetuating elite – I am here, my children are here, you are not in this magic circle, you cannot come in. Some societies become like that. We must never become like that. We must have many pathways in our system, an open system so students can come in. If they do not fit, they go out. If later on, they develop, they could come in.’’

He announced that the Direct Schools Admission policy would be expanded and that places in schools set aside for students whose parents are “unconnected’’.

Five years later, we’re still grappling with closed circles.

I can’t help but think we are pussy-footing around the issue. It’s very Singaporean to make a dramatic statement, and then moderate it with a “but’’. That is, things aren’t so bad after all.

So Raffles Institution has a less diverse student population now, “but’’ 53 per cent of the boys still hail from public housing. That’s a dubious “but’’ given that it’s not representative of the population in public housing.

Income inequality is high “but’’ not if you take into account transfers to the lower income. In other words, they are not as badly off as a plain Gini co-efficient demonstrates.

There is no poverty line in Singapore “but’’ we can roughly use $1,300 a month because that’s what the National Wages Council seems to think is the right amount. The “but’’ is mine, by the way.

All that moderation is compounded by a paucity of statistics. Asked by TODAY to respond to an article on social stratification, the Education ministry said that eight in 10 schools today have a “relatively balanced mix” of students, with at least 5 per cent of students from both the top and bottom socio-economic quintiles.

I don’t think such a statement sheds any light on the issue. If social stratification is threatening to tear society apart, then it behoves the G to give us some statistics to chew on. Does the class divide coincide with racial lines, for example.

In my view, the issue is worth a thorough whole-of-G examination. We should turn over every stone in our fiscal, housing, education, social policies to see what sort of active G intervention is needed to ensure the openness of the Singapore system.

Efforts seem piece-meal – there is KidStart for underprivileged children, the expansion of MOE kindergartions and now, mixing rental and owner-occupied flats in future projects.

Perhaps, we should also look at co-curricular activities in schools.

Last year, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said some co-curricular activities are “far too ethnically defined”.

Football is dominated by Malays and sports like table tennis, volleyball and basketball appear to draw Chinese, although some schools like Dunman and Jurong Secondary have been deliberate in forming multi-racial basketball teams, he noted. In contrast, football in Singapore in the 1970s and 1980s was very multicultural, he said.

“How about the rest of the world? You have all sorts of countries playing basketball, volleyball and table tennis. In our region itself, the Indonesians, the Filipinos, are top in basketball and volleyball. We are trapping ourselves too easily, and it is not difficult to change,” he said.

What about the role of ethnic self-help groups and Community Development Councils? Are self-help groups perpetuating closed circles or should the G intervene to direct help through CDCs? Are the grassroots organisations run by the People’s Association too oriented towards providing activities for public housing residents or should it play a bigger role in encouraging social mixing?

It’s a worthy topic for the 4G leaders to handle, one that should draw the participation of Singaporeans from all walks of life in the proposed second Singapore conversation. It has a firm objective, unlike the multifarious first Singapore Conversation.

We can all bring our minds to bear on it – and possibly hear from those who have kept their opinions to themselves.

I mean, why should a well-off parent not send his child to the top school he used to study in, pile enrichment lessons and private tuition on the kid and stop him from making friends with the lower classes in case the friends turn out to be a bad influence?

Another conversation? Hold that cynicism

In News Reports on May 19, 2018 at 1:41 am

And at the end of five days of parliamentary speeches, we are going to have…another conversation? I suppose we should wait for the details on how this coming conversation will be conducted before being consumed by cynicism.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, originator of the first conversation, said this second one will reach different age groups, such as millennials, Gen X, Baby Boomers and Pioneers and different segments such as unionists, grassroots leaders and volunteer groups. I don’t suppose it will be much different in its conversation coverage, that is, it would include anyone and everyone. In fact, that 2012/13 exercise included 47,000 Singaporeans from over 40 private and non-profit organisations in over 660 dialogues. I think many might have forgotten we later had the smaller SGFuture dialogues a few years later, on imagining a Singapore in 50 years.

The eye-rolling has already started.

My eyeballs went up into my brain until I recalled that the Our Singapore Conversation wasn’t a bad exercise. Really. And it did culminate in tangible policy changes especially in housing, transport and healthcare. Rules allowing more singles to live in public housing, the change of PSLE format and the introduction of Medishield Life are some notable examples. The pity is that the G is quite bad at referencing the policies to what the people had said in the Our Singapore Conversation. Hence, the eye-rolling now about the prospect of another No action, Talk only exercise.

I covered that OSC exercise quite extensively and gave the final report a thumbs-up. Among other things, it included views which would ordinarily be confined to what has been described as the vocal minority, such as: “As citizens, we sometimes feel that the government could trust us more. At the end of the day, we may not always agree with the government’s decisions. But we would like to have more information to make an informed assessment and to arrive at conclusions of our own.’’

There were several calls for engagement and inclusivity, a compassionate meritocracy and how the nature of governance needed “updating’’, along with the “talents’’ and “temperaments’’ involved.  Singaporeans let it all hang out.

Will another conversation lead to more of the same sentiment? Or is the 4G leadership more concerned with the process of forging bonds through engagement, rather than its tangible results?

Looking back over events of the past two years or so, I have come round to thinking that such engagement would be good for the 4G leaders and the people. This is because recent events have rocked my Singaporean core (I can speak for myself only).

Here are some worries that run through my Gen X head:

  1. Effectiveness of the G: The recent public transport woes, while being addressed, has led to the perception that the G and its companies aren’t as efficient and top-class as they are made out to be. This, despite constant exhortations that Singapore should pursue excellence and exceptionalism.
  2. Vulnerability of the G: The FamiLEE saga has shaken sentiments about the leadership of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who has been accused by his own siblings of being, among other things, power hungry. He has chosen not to sue for defamation, which makes him an open target in elections.
  3. Temperament of the G: The recent Select Committee hearings on fake news proposals showed a G that tended not just to demolish arguments, but also to belittle people – a 1G practice.
  4. Opacity of the G: Information is still hard to come by, especially with the re-surfacing of the use of the Official Secrets Act and the way contempt of court laws are being selectively applied. And I still don’t understand why parliamentary proceedings can’t be broadcast live.
  5. Paucity of the G: This has to do with the talent induction process, with the parachuting of ex-military men into key positions. It gives rise to worries about the the small talent pool Singapore has and how big a part group-think plays in policy-making.
  6. Heavy-handedness of the G: This is my biggest beef – pushing through a race-based reserved presidency in Singapore. I will add though that the G could only do this because people were sleeping while the discussions were going on.

Now, the G is filled with intelligent people, and will have a counter-argument to every point made above.

  1. There are numerous indices which tout Singapore’s efficiency and so forth as Number 1. On balance, this is a good G.
  2. Parliament has no problems with PM Lee Hsien Loong’s leadership, even if his siblings do.
  3. The G has a policy of robust replies to counter views that it believes to be wrong.
  4. Secrets are secrets, and contempt of court laws aren’t applied willy-nilly. The rule of the law must be upheld – to the letter.
  5. Judge not a man by his background but what he can bring to the table.
  6. An activist race policy is needed to maintain multi-racial harmony.

In any case, my list above will be viewed as out-of-touch with the sentiments of the so-called silent majority. They will be concerned with bread-and-butter issues, whether they will get a flat, have a job and have enough savings to retire on. This means that the G must make sure the Industry Transformation Maps are executed properly to create higher-paying jobs, calibrate taxes to bankroll future social spending, and have an immigrant policy that will top up – and not overwhelm – the Singapore.

In other words, delivering material goods and a higher standard of living are most important to the people.  This is true for my parents’ generation because they started from a low base, and even for my generation – but I would worry if the next generation only cares about scaling the material ladder when they are already living in plenty.

Signs are that the young people want a bigger say in how this country moves ahead.  This idealism should not be dampened. I don’t think that they want a G which talks down to them, and uses “trust’’ as a euphemism for “we know best’’. Nor would they be convinced by the constant public profiling of the G with its numerous G-commissioned surveys which almost always support the G position. There is such a thing as “too good to be true’’. But hey, that’s not the business of this Gen X-er. Let the millennials dictate the dialogue.

For myself, I would like to put my list behind me and open my mind to what the 4G leadership wants to achieve for Singapore. I welcome the next series of conversations because it will give a sense of what the young leaders stand for and how much of a break from the past we can expect.  Methinks we should all get behind the 4G leadership in starting a new relationship between the governed and the government

From reading the speeches, it is clear that the issue of social inequality and mobility will take centre stage. It is a big bone to chew on because it would involve every aspect of our lives – from how to give our less well-off children a good start to creating more spaces for social interaction.

I would hold Mr Heng to this promise in his speech: “The fourth generation leadership will listen with humility and respect. We will consider all views with an open mind, and adjust our course accordingly. We will communicate the thinking behind our decisions clearly. We will bring Singaporeans together and give everyone a role to turn good ideas into concrete action.’’

Let the conversation begin.

 

 

 

The flat is old – but gold to me

In News Reports on May 14, 2018 at 11:47 pm

I will be moving back into my mother’s flat soon. It is a five-room HDB flat, where I had spent most of my growing-up years. It is also more than 40 years old, one of among 7 per cent of all flats here.

When I brought renovation contractors to the house, they wondered at the pristine condition of the walls and floor tiles. They advised me not to replace the original terrazzo flooring, because such tiles weren’t available anymore. They even suggested retaining the more than 20-year old carpentry works in the three bedrooms, again, because you can’t find such high-quality work anymore. I almost wondered if they wanted my business.

It helps that my mother is a house-proud neat freak, possessive of every single item in the flat. Many people have urged her to sell, especially some years ago when such big flats in mature estates commanded a hefty premium. She used to show me flyers from real estate agents on how much flats like hers had sold for, and who among the neighbours had made a killing selling their flats.

I have never taken her suggestion to sell seriously, even as she painted visions of moving into a smaller flat which would be easier to house-keep. I didn’t think she would be comfortable in a different neighbourhood at this late stage of her life. She is, after all, the doyen of the block, an original resident who had moved in as soon as the flat was ready for occupation in the 70s.

Of course, my mother now grumbles about how the flat price is going down and evinces some regret at not moving out earlier and buying a second, new, BTO flat. After all, that’s how most people are “rolling’’ their HDB homes.

Flat prices are a big theme in Singapore now, as people wake up to the fact that a 99-year lease isn’t forever and that such homes would lose their asset value or even be seen as an encumbrance in the upgrading race.

I wondered at all the angst that surrounded the March announcement that not all old HDB blocks would undergo the selective enbloc resale (SERS) process to be torn down and rebuilt. Only 4 per cent or 80 sites have been picked so far, we’re told, and the G has warned people not to buy old flats with the expectation of getting a windfall under Sers – and a new replacement flat in the same area.

It is the HDB version of speculators who buy units in condominiums with enbloc potential, except that while these speculators can actually start the ball rolling with sales committees and so forth, the HDB speculators are at the mercy of the G.

I laughed when I read about how people peruse maps to locate possible blocks which could undergo Sers as an investment opportunity. Did they think this is like one of those HDB programmes where there is a commitment that blocks will have a lift that stops on every floor, or upgraded toilets? It is not an automatic programme, not even for three-room flats.

Methinks there is too much confusion surrounding the concept of a home in Singapore.  In the early days, we were told that a home-owning society will have more reason to care for the shelter they possess and hence, the land. We’ve more or less succeeded in that objective.

But very soon after, home ownership became an investment asset, to be sold after the five-year moratorium to afford its owners some extra money to jump to the next bigger, subsidized flat or into private property.

Then came the upgrading programmes which we’re told would increase the asset value of our homes. In the meantime, there were the former HUDC flats which meant another windfall for residents who banded together to sell en bloc. Prices went up and up.  In 1995, Sers came along.

The home is such an asset that it can be pledged as part of the CPF minimum sum. More recently, the call has been to the elderly to unlock the value of their flat by downgrading or selling back part of the remaining lease to the HDB – which won’t garner much income if they have been living in the same place all their lives.

Singapore University of Social Sciences labour economist Walter Theseira was reported in ST  as suggesting a halt in the use of CPF savings for home purchases. It caused a furore but it transpired that what he had suggested was a re-calibration, with a greater focus on health and retirement needs.

Then yesterday, the issue became the main plank of an MP who spoke in response to the President’s Address in Parliament. People’s Action Party’s Cheryl Chan, whose Fengshan ward is full of old flats, suggested that flat valuation be based not on comparing past market transactions but on “its remaining lease, length of time occupied by current owner, and its right-sizing potential”. This will enable older homeowners to unlock their cash, right-size (or downsize) to a smaller unit, and move nearer to their children if they prefer.

She also suggested that the loan structure using CPF, now available to members up to age 55, be reviewed.

Stopping the use of CPF for housing would be politically controversial, to put it mildly. But re-designing the loan system, shortening the loan period or capping the amount that could be drawn from CPF are ideas to be explored. The final result may mean more time must pass before a household owns a home but I doubt there are many other countries where residents get to be home owners when they are only in their 20s, or when they get married. We’re lucky that way.

Here’s a thought: besides systemic changes, we might want to build a culture where the house is not seen as an investment opportunity but as a home. This might come about if home ownership is not so easy to achieve. Renting shouldn’t be a bad word, especially in the early years of working life. We might treasure a property more if we took longer to get it. (I will now take cover…)

These days, you see all sorts of advice online on when to sell your flat before it loses its value and which old flats are still commanding high prices. Young people balk at buying old flats now because of their low resale value. Older folk wonder if the flat will be as good an inheritance to leave for their children as they had thought.

The schemes to unlock the home, like the lease buyback, applies to three-room and smaller flats, allowing people to age “in place’’. This doesn’t apply to my mother’s five-room flat, but she can opt for a smaller flat and get a Silver Housing bonus or she can rent out a room.

I persuaded my mother that neither option worked. She would have to give away precious possessions collected over 40 years if she moved into a smaller place. And she would be uncomfortable with a tenant in the house.

Besides, I wanted the flat for myself.

It’s old, yes, but it’s in a neighbourhood I grew up in and it’s bigger than my own flat. In any case, the lease would outlive me and whoever I leave the flat to shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Still, I wait to see what the G will say to the problem of old flats, like whether we can hope for an increase in value. Then I can thumb my nose at those who think I’m throwing away good money after bad by spending on renovations.

But even if nothing happens, it’s still home to me.

That’s the most important thing.

 

Takeaways from the Malaysian GE

In News Reports on May 11, 2018 at 12:58 am

So the Malaysians have spoken. And we should congratulate them…for what exactly? That they have effected a change of government? That’s not really our business. Or that they have managed it peacefully through the electoral process?

It’s easy to be caught up in the Malaysia Boleh frenzy of the past 48 hours or so, to look admiringly at the chanting and clamour and to get absorbed in the twists and turns that led to the swearing-in ceremony of Dr Mahathir Mohammad as Malaysia’s comeback prime minister. So exciting! Even inspiring! Historic! Epochal!

At the back of our minds, there is this little voice which asks: “Can the same thing happen here?’’ I have no doubt at all that the Malaysian example will inspire the opposition politicians and supporters here to up the ante in the run-up to Singapore’s own general election due by January 2021. In fact, the 3G to 4G changeover in the G presents an opportunity for the opposition to call in the votes, because by the 4G leaders’ own admission, they haven’t earned the right to lead.

But I think that’s getting ahead of ourselves. There are other significant takeaways from the Malaysian GE, beyond demonstrating that a political party that has been in power since 1957 can be felled at the ballot box.

  1. If voter discontent is widespread, no amount of re-drawing of boundaries or denial of political party registration because of “lack of documentation’’ is going to help the incumbent.
  2. Implementing fake news laws, especially right before an election, isn’t going to intimidate people into sticking with politically correct speech and behavior. In any case, the campaign period is too short for any executive or judicial intervention to sway the votes.
  3.  Racial politics is not bigger than national politics. I am guessing here that Malaysians of all races were more upset at the IMDB scandal which had reached the international stage, than tempted by any appeal to racial loyalty.
  4. That populist promises, such as the abolition of the Goods and Services tax, the re-introduction of fuel subsidies and the rise in minimum wages, might have something to do with the opposition’s win. Perhaps, they counted for more than the money that the BN was throwing at different segments such as the civil service.

What I found interesting also is what happened post-election, that is, the frantic hours before Dr M was sworn in, particularly the reading of the Federal Constitution, the role of Malaysian royalty and members of the establishment.

It seems clear that the institutions of the State weren’t prepared for the scenario of the BN actually losing. Hence, some people hit the books and came up with Article 43 of the federal constitution which  states “the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (YDPA) shall first appoint as perdana menteri (prime minister) to preside over the cabinet a member of the House of Representatives who in his judgement is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the members of that House”.

The constitution makes no mention of political parties or political coalitions, allowing ex-premier Najib Razak to report initially that the polls have resulted in a “hung’’ Parliament. By his reading, it should be Madam Wan Azizah heading the government because her Parti Rakyat Keadilan  had the most number of seats, or the Barisan National could still entice some elected MPs to switch-over to its side. It was not to be.  The PKR and the three parities behind the Pakatan Harapan alliance led by Dr M made sure that they threw their support behind Dr M. They cited “the letter of the law’’.

This is when the cynic in me wondered why Mr Najib didn’t consider the step of changing the constitution while he was still in charge to ensure his longevity. Or why he didn’t get his legal team to get all legalistic over constitutional interpretation. I suppose he decided that even if the “letter’’ of the law was in his favour, its spirit was not, as the people of Malaysia had demonstrated.

The Malaysian royalty, always a political force to be reckoned with, had to come out to deny that it was delaying Dr M’s swearing-in. The royals and Dr M have had a rocky relationship, with Dr M trying his utmost to clip their wings in his previous tenure as PM.

The King and the sultans are a foundational pillar in the country. Their roles are largely ceremonial, but highly influential. Who knows what would have happened if they dragged their feet given such a split in the vote. It made me wonder about similar foundational pillars in Singapore. Would this be akin to the “unifying’’ role of the elected president should the country be placed in a similar position?

What was intriguing was the role three people seemed to have played in tipping the royal scales in favour of Dr M. The Straits Times reported that the Chief Secretary of Government, Tan Sri Ali Hamsa, who heads the civil service, Inspector General of Police Tan Sri Fuzi Harun and a senior member of the Armed Forces met with the King to impress on him the need to get Dr M sworn in quickly.

Are our institutions similarly independent enough to hold the line to see to the fulfilment of the people’s wishes? The answer must be yes.

But while the Malaysian election offered some insights on the workings of democracy, as citizens of a sovereign country, we should be more concerned with what the change happening in our next-door neighbor means for us.

This phrase pops into my mind – better the devil we know, than the devil we don’t – except that we’ve had some bilateral experience with Dr M’s leadership. We must hope that our 4G leaders are up to the challenge of handling our neighbor, and ensuring that our national interests are protected. They must keep in mind that they are dealing with a  man from the Lee Kuan Yew era – even if he is 92 and is going to be prime minister for just two years.

 

I am sold on bold – but what bold moves?

In News Reports on May 8, 2018 at 1:05 am

The thing I remember most about the previous Presidential Address to Parliament is about the need for Singapore to get its politics right. And if you recall, plenty of changes were indeed made, such as increasing the number of non-constituency MPs and more importantly, to the office of the elected presidency.

It looked like Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was laying the foundation for a strong political structure for his successor and the next generation of leaders to govern effectively. But besides putting more steel into the backbone, the next question is how to flesh it out, so to speak.

Frankly, a lot of the spadework has already been done. At almost every National Day rally, for example, the PM has promised changes to the landscape or cityscape, with regional nodes where communities live and work together in wonderful surroundings. Now, the 4G will have the pleasure/pressure of seeing those buildings and gardens come up, something which will depend on whether the State has enough money to keep those promises, which is contingent on an ever-humming economy. (Let’s not talk about the coming GST hike)

With a political structure, security measures secured through Parliament and a blueprint for the economy set by the Committee for the Future Economy in place, it’s time for the younger leaders to show what they can do with what their predecessors have laid down.

It’s going to be tough, given that the 4G leaders are starting from a high base. As President Halimah Yacob said:  “We may feel that we have more to lose now. We may be tempted not to go for bold changes, but instead be content to tweak things at the margins. That would be the wrong approach.”

This was to me the most significant point of her speech. But what sort of bold moves can we expect? To the extent that sacred cows will be led to the abattoir?

Expectations are now high given what the 4G leaders (through the President) have pronounced as their statement of (bold) intent. How will they go about demonstrating this through word and deed? For that, we will have to wait till next week for ministers to respond formally to the Presidential Address.

I’ve always thought that the younger leaders are starting with a handicap. It is hard to show your imprint if the G keeps insisting that everyone puts up a collective front. We have no idea what the 4G leaders argued for or are most passionate about in Cabinet meetings. We don’t know if their vision is much the same as the older members.

My own view is that the 4G should try and make a clean break from the past in some way or other. I recall the excitement when the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew stepped down for Mr Goh Chok Tong to take over. Mr Goh promised a kinder, gentler nation – which many interpreted as moving away from the tough love (?) Mr Lee exhibited. Mr Goh was also very concerned about the intangibles, such as the values Singaporeans hold, even as the economy powered up and delivered more material progress.

I think there are two areas which the 4G leaders can be said to already “own’’: Gearing up for the future economy and changing the concept of education as a paper chase exercise.

Mr Heng Swee Keat has been doing much of the first bit as Finance Minister and he is now responsible for seeing through the Industry Transformation Maps. But the other big change is the speed at which the future economy is sweeping through Singapore, whether we like it or not.

Our laws and regulations are, for example, trying to catch up with the changes in the ride-hailing and bike-sharing economy. How fast can we deal with fintech, as newer, speedier financial instruments are dangled in front of the laymen?

Transforming industries will be a slow process with results that can only be realised years later. But agility is needed to handle new economy changes – and to convince old economy to shift. This could mean encouraging the set up of new types of companies dealing with data and AI – as well as getting an elderly person to go cashless.

It will also mean convincing Singaporeans that we don’t have all the brains to achieve this, and this would mean having to import them. This will be tough given the aversion some quarters have towards foreigners, despite their slower rate of importation. Note that Mr Heng himself had floated a trial balloon on the need for a re-calibration of the foreign worker policy.

I think the education sector is the best field for the 4G leaders to demonstrate its mettle. It is good that two 4G leaders had been tasked in the past to handle the ministry, each with a clear focus. This showed that education was clearly a 4G affair. Mr Ng Chee Meng, who handled the mainstream schools, has since moved to the NTUC, so Mr Ong Ye Kung, who dealt with higher education and skills training, is the only one with the ball.

It is through this 10 years of compulsory education, and beyond, that many of the ideals espoused in the President’s address can be fulfilled, whether it is tackling social inequality or building a Singapore identity.

Some changes have been made on the education front, such as to the Primary School Leaving Examination which will take place in a few years – although it will be said that the “bold’’ move would be to do away with it altogether. “Applied learning’’ is also a core tenet in secondary school.

Then there is the shift away from academic grades to a skills and practice-oriented education that will lead to meaning jobs. In fact, the pronounced emphasis on skills is making some people worry that we’re going to the other extreme of denigrating the worth of a degree! (A Prime Minister with no degree?) Yet, for others, the change can’t come fast enough, as most parents are still set on seeing their children with a mortar board on their head.

But change has indeed begun. I see the SkillsFuture programmes as part of attempts to change the mindset of parents. If the parents think such programmes are good for their own careers, then they might not be so averse to setting their children on a technical path and to realize that learning is forever.

What will be worth watching are programmes to level up underprivileged families so that their children will be at the same starting line in primary school along with their more privileged peers.

Now this is new.

We’re shifting from the problem of getting more babies born, to the kind of support we’re giving to the babies that we do have. We must hope that KidStart and the changes at pre-school level will have an impact on pulling up the bottom of the population.

But once in the school system, what happens? Will the best still be with the rest or will there still be closed circles where they interact mainly with their own “kind’’? How can we make sure our children from different socio-economic circumstances cross paths more often and grow up together?

That requires a hard look at admission programmes, school resources and alumni ties because, try as Mr Heng might, every school is not a good school in the eyes of parents. Parents used to be assured that even if their children aren’t in top schools, so long as the end point is a university graduation ceremony, everything will turn out fine for their kids. That concept too is being turned on its head with the current skills-oriented emphasis.

It is a confusing period we’re in.

Madam Halimah said the new leaders “will need to listen to the views and feelings of the people, and by their words and deeds, show that they have heard; yet never fear to lead and mobilise public opinion to support difficult policies in the long-term interest of Singapore’’.

She added that trust between Singaporeans and their leaders does not pass automatically from one generation to the next.

“That right cannot be inherited.’’

Well said. Now we wait to hear how the new leaders will do this next week.

Something for the 4G leaders to consider: Please allow the broadcast or streaming of parliamentary sessions live. I happen to think it’s a small move, but it might be bold in your books.

 

The thumping of PJ Thum

In News Reports on May 1, 2018 at 2:35 am

I had wondered how the parliamentary Select Committee would respond to the academics’ petition about their colleague, Dr P J Thum. When the riposte came, I was somewhat surprised at the accusations. They were about how Dr Thum and his fellow academic, Dr Philip Kreager, were “subverting the parliamentary processes’’ of a sovereign nation.

What were the accusations based on?

  • Dr Thum had “input’’ in the statement drafted by Project Southeast Asia as well as the open letter signed by academics round the word. Both had called for an apology from the committee for maligning his credentials and his work. Dr Thum is the Project’s “co-ordinator’, while Dr Kreager is the chairman. Dr Kreager was also shown to be actively lobbying on Dr Thum’s behalf.
  • Both men are also the only two directors of Observatory Southeast Asia UK Ltd, which had received US$75,000 in funding from an entity connected to Mr George Soros, the billionaire financier who has a penchant for interfering in the affairs of other countries. The company, which the G claims has a political agenda, had tried unsuccessfully to set up a Singapore branch. Hence, they were not just academic colleagues but business partners and political activists as well.
  • Given the similarity between the statement and the online petition that secured the signatures of 280 academics round the world, Mr Charles Chong, who chairs the select committee, implied that the petition was authored by Dr Thum or Dr Kreager or both. In other words, it wasn’t a spontaneous academic outpouring of support for Dr Thum’s “battle against parliamentarians in an ex-colony’’.

The committee’s responses left me befuddled.

If all the above, gleaned from, among other things, the inadvertent release of email correspondence, are true, so what? It is natural for friends and colleagues to rally around someone they believe to have been mistreated. It is also natural for that someone’s input to be sought.

I suppose the committee wanted to point out elements of “dishonesty’’ that might not have been obvious to the academics who put their names down. Perhaps, the committee hoped to persuade the audience that if Dr Thum could be dishonest about this, what about everything else that had come before?

I wonder, however, whether said academics will be dissuaded if Dr Thum or Dr Kreager were upfront about its origins. Maybe they would argue that the content of the missive was more important than its authorship.  Would there be even more signatures if Dr Thum had made a personal appeal for support?

The parliamentary committee is weaving a tangled web of foreign intervention, dark money, conspiracy and subversion. It’s beginning to look like Dr Thum et al were involved in a cloak and dagger operation to undermine Singapore politics which the G is on a concerted campaign to destroy.

Mr Chong wrote: “We must protect our independence and the institution of Parliament. The information now available suggests that there has been a coordinated attempt, with foreign actors involved, to try to influence and subvert our parliamentary processes. This is a serious matter.”

I wonder what’s next.

In a debate, you try to win over the other side to your point of view. But when politicians get involved, I would think that the objective is usually not to persuade the other side, but to win over the audience. So as an interested member of this audience, this is my view.

I think it is perfectly all right for the Select Committee to quiz Dr Thum over his assertion that the G is the biggest liar of all with regards to Operation Coldstore in 1963. It was a chunk of his submission along with recommendations about media literacy and freedom of information. I am not surprised the committee didn’t question him on other parts of his paper, which had been canvassed before in its previous hearings.

Reading Dr Thum’s submission, I had expected that after taking a big swipe at the G, his recommendations would be about how to restrain the excesses of a dominant government. But he seemed content to level that big swipe and go back to neutral gear.

I don’t see how any government would be content to let the record stand unchallenged.

My own (layman) view is that Dr Thum dented his own academic authority when he said he did not take the words of Chin Peng, the former secretary-general of the Communist Party of Malaya seriously because memoirs are usually “self-serving’’ (my words) and not as rigorous as contemporaneous material. Interesting point, except that he also dismissed contemporaneous material which showed that the British were convinced that a communist insurrection was about to take place.

These two points would have been enough material for anyone interested in that period of Singapore’s history to chew over.  Instead, the committee also quizzed him on foot notes and names of communists who are said to have done this or that, over six hours. You can call it a pain-staking interview or a tedious interrogation to wear down a controversial G critic. The jibes and asides about Dr Thum’s academic ability, even likening him to a Holocaust denier, did not help the committee’s case.

Methinks people are upset about the way the hearing was conducted, rather than the right of the committee to question his submission.

I have to say that Dr Thum’s manners before the committee undermined his own credibility. First, he waffled over his credentials, which invited a jibe from the select committee that he is really an unpaid appendix of Oxford University, and not an “academic historian”. I don’t care for the committee’s brutal response which was contained in its reply to the open letter; I got the point the first time.

Second, unlike Facebook’s Simon Milner who was steadfast under relentless grilling and maintained a serious mien throughout, Dr Thum came across as cavalier and even jocular in his responses, which he accompanied with  facial antics before the television cameras . Mr Milner has more reason than Dr Thum to feel aggrieved: He was questioned about events that happened overnight across the world about what his boss, Mr Mark Zuckerberg, said about data privacy.

As a member of the audience, I lapped up the thrusts and counter-thrusts of the saga. But the saga has two facets that worry me.

First, is questioning parliamentary conduct or accusing Members of abuse a form of “subversion’’? It sounds like a very big word to use, almost on par with showing contempt for the judiciary. How “privileged’’ are the proceedings of Parliament?

Second, doesn’t this episode lend credence to the perception that it is best to stay away from perceived troublemakers? Being a critic, even a constructive one, can be a lonely thing. Too many Singaporeans do not wish to be tainted by association. Has no one wondered why the academics here, save a handful, did not sign the open letter? Is this out of self-preservation or political conviction?

Sigh.

This latest episode only gives my mother more ammunition to nag me to shut up.

 

 

PS. If anyone wants to know why I didn’t put my signature down on the open letter (I am a part-time academic), it’s because I already have my own platform to say whatever I want, in the way I want.

 

 

 

 

What the tea leaves say about the Cabinet reshuffle

In News Reports on April 25, 2018 at 4:28 am

The tea leaves at the bottom of my cup tell me that Mr Chan Chun Sing is leading the pack. That’s what everyone is trying to discern from the Cabinet reshuffle isn’t it? Despite various exhortations to look at the leadership team as a whole rather than as a compilation of individuals, that’s what people are most interested in: Who will be Singapore’s next prime minister?

Given that there is no new Deputy Prime Minister and none of the really, really heavyweight portfolios like Defence, Foreign and Home Affairs and Transport changed hands, we’re left with deciphering why who is being given what sort of job.

I must quickly say that tea-leaf reading is an imprecise science (if it can be called that) and I might as well use a crystal-ball (if I had one). Or I could also say that I am a political observer making an analysis based on published information. Or you can dismiss me as a fraud with no academic credentials to speak of.

Most of the top level portfolio changes had been predicted before. Mr Heng stays at Finance and will see through the work of the Future Economy Council. Mr Ong Ye Kung takes over his ex-colleague Ng Chee Meng’s portion of education. Mr Chan is helming trade and industry, described as he as a full minister in solo charge even though old hand S Iswaran is minister in charge of trade relations.

More interesting is how Mr Chan retains the position as deputy chairman of the People’s Association, is still in charge of Community Development Councils and now has the public service under his belt.

I had thought that Mr Ong would take over the public service division, having been in charge of the public sector innovations. The public service is an important stakeholder in the community, just like the National Trades Union Congress which Mr Chan helmed for three years. It is usually supervised by a Deputy Prime Minister, which in this case, is Mr Teo Chee Hean. Now Mr Chan can add another medal to his chest.

DPM Teo still has a long list of “concurrent’’ jobs: Strategy Group, Smart Nation and Digital Government Group, National Security Coordination Secretariat, National Population and Talent Division and National Climate Change Secretariat. DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam retains oversight of the Monetary Authority of Singapore and the productivity fund.

Now what about the other two supposed front-runners?

Mr Heng, the most senior of the three who has had the education ministry under his belt, is also helping out the Prime Minister with the National Research Foundation. In fact, the Finance ministry has not one or two but three full ministers, including Ms Indranee Rajah and Mr Lawrence Wong. It might show the great focus the G is putting on getting Singapore’s finances right although, rather strangely, the ministry has no junior ministers or even a parliamentary secretary.

Mr Ong, the most junior of the three, seems to have been “contained’’ in the Education ministry. It is a heavy weight ministry no doubt, but he relinquished his position as Second Defence Minister in this reshuffle. And we all know the importance of the defence job.

The media and other political analysts have variously described the trio as having being given “depth’’ in their jobs rather than having to double up at other ministries. I suppose if they had been spread into other ministries, it would be called giving them  breadth of exposure. That’s the problem with tea leaf reading, you can read them whichever way you like.

My own tea leaves say that the trio are expected to sink their teeth in these meaty portfolios and judged on their outcomes, leaving the older ministers to contend with the more strategic portfolios like defence and foreign affairs which need deft navigation in a world with Donald Trump and Xi Jing Ping. They don’t have anything to do with hot potatoes like home affairs and transport – very high-profile jobs which invite controversy.

Likewise, it is odd that Mr Iswaran, a 3G member, is taking the post of Communications and Information Minister, which means that he will be tackling the fake news troubles and the unfinished business of reviewing the Broadcasting Act. The expectation had been for Dr Janil Puthucheary to step up.

Looking at the changes as a whole, which is what the PM wished, extensive changes have been made in the lower ranks so much so that all 16 ministries but one is experiencing personnel changes.

Much is also being made about four private sector MPs being inducted into government. I agree that it makes for a more well-rounded Cabinet, balancing out the public sector-dominated Cabinet. It’s to be welcomed to be sure, but the PM really doesn’t have many choices of new recruits, given that former public sector MPs have already been given political appointments.

Now, everyone is saying that things will be clearer at the next reshuffle, when someone will be pushed to the fore. You don’t need to read tea leaves to predict that. Time is running out if the PM is to stick to his deadline of stepping down at age 70, or in 2022.

In fact, one gauge would be who emerges at the top at the People’s Action Party’s own elections due this year. Or who is given charge of the party’s next general election campaign due by January 2021.

Unless we are going to be told, again, that anything that emanates from the G or the PAP is a leaderless, collective 4G effort.

Time for me to switch to coffee.

 

 

The 4G team needs a softer tone

In News Reports on April 20, 2018 at 11:18 am

The Singapore Cabinet is about to be re-shuffled any time now. Which accounts for the popularity of tea leaf reading as well as futile attempts to pry new information from the 4G ranks of ministers.

What have we heard so far?

That Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat would be happy to retain his current portfolio: “I’ll be very happy to continue my job as finance minister. There are many things that we need to do as I announced in the Budget.”

That the labour movement’s Chan Chun Sing operates at the Prime Minister’s behest:  “Where I go, what do I do, that’s the Prime Minister’s prerogative so if there is any change, wait for the Prime Minister and his announcement.” (The talk is that Education ministry’s Ng Chee Meng will move over)

That Second Manpower Minister Josephine Teo, tipped to take over from Mr Lim Swee Say, advocates patience: “I don’t think we have to wait very much longer till the Cabinet reshuffle is announced. We should just be a little bit more patient and we will come to that.”

ST speculated that three veteran ministers will leave the frontbencher in this reshuffle: Mssrs Lim, Yaacob Ibrahim (Communications and Information) and Lim Hng Kiang (Trade and Industry). All three are in their 60s. All declined to talk but ST’s tea leaves showed that farewell plans are  “afoot’’ in their respective ministry.

ST went further to suggest who could take over their jobs. Besides Ms Teo for Manpower, it suggested that Mr Chan could cross over to MTI while Mr Janil Puthucheary takes over MCI.

The person who is really doing the brewing, PM Lee Hsien Loong, gave away just one important piece of information: Don’t expect a new Deputy Prime Minister. He’s probably aware that people thought they would see a new name in the DPM ranks, which would be a clear signal of succession at the highest levels. But it is not to be.

With this delay or postponement, the common chorus from the G now is that the people should look at the collective, the big picture, the problems ahead and the policies – and not be obsessed with the individual. The point is whether the 4G team can work together.

I would add another point: Would the 4G leadership be any different from the current one? What sort of tone of government will the team set?

Given the opacity of government operations, we can only gauge this from their public utterances and behavior.

We were told, for example, that the last Budget was mainly a 4G enterprise. If so, it was a pity that the main thing people remembered about the Budget was the exchange between the PAP ministers and the Workers’ Party. It was a distraction from the big issue of how to fund social spending in the future, which was an opportunity for various younger ministers to put forth a new vision. The impression was one of bullying, however hard the ministers try to make the point about truth and lies over the imposition of a higher GST rate. In fact, the older generation would have done a better job of demolition methinks.

You can read my piece here.

Given that the 4G team was said to have taken more control of the Government and the legislative agenda in recent time, then the parliamentary highlights over the past year have been sobering. It’s been a slew of laws that involve security issues, such as the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Act that was pushed through by Mrs Teo in her capacity as Second Home Minister.

We might applaud the 4G’s commitment to protect Singapore, and even agree with each individual measure. But the pace of legislation is suffocating, leaving the overall impression that to protect the country, we need draconian laws over our words and actions.

Perhaps, what has been happening is some kind of foundation-laying exercise to ensure that the new PM is in a strong position to take over the reins. That might account for the rush to  push through tough legislation before the baton finally changes hands. It now looks as though we should brace ourselves for some kind of law on fake news when Parliament re-opens for business next month.

You know, I applauded the setting up of the Parliamentary Select Committee to collect views from the public on tackling deliberate online falsehoods. Now I regret it. Going by what has happened so far, the right time for such a committee is after the legislation – or non-legal measures – have been proposed.

That’s because we’re still no closer to a consensus on what would constitute a deliberate online falsehood that deserves our condemnation or criminal sanctions. With a draft legislation, we would be able to pore over the words of the law and have a more fruitful exchange of views and even give input for the final legislation. I doubt that Parliament would ask for such a committee, given that the G seems anxious to get this out of the way.

Then comes the committee’s ripostes to all challenges over the way it has conducted the hearings. I believe that everyone should have a right of reply, including the G.  It is for the people to weigh the arguments and come to a conclusion which they can express, hopefully, without fear or favour.

But the politicians’ replies should be tempered by the knowledge that they always, always have the upper hand and the stronger arm. For even a well-meaning commentary by former ST editor Han Fook Kwang on the importance of perception to be trashed by 4G ministers who accused him of saying that politicians should not question academics is a bit of an over-reach.

In case I am accused of over-generalising, you can read both the commentary and the response  so that you can assess them for yourselves.

I agree with the thrust of Mr Han’s column that “Singapore’s fourth-generation leaders have to find their own way to deal with the messy, noisy world that is full of other ideas and narratives”. The new generation of voters require different handling. I would add that handling even the old generation requires some finesse these days because of the quick pace of change in technology.

Younger people won’t be content with repeated assertions, nor would they be happy if they thought they were being brow-beaten by rational, intellectual and high-minded arguments. Nobody wants to look stupid – even if they are. Older people, on the other hand, want to live in a society that doesn’t leave them behind as it rushes pell-mell into the smart future.

So what is the tone we have managed to glean so far? I think it is a hard, uncompromising one. Even arrogant. Described as “robust replies’’. It is as if the 4G leaders want to convince people that there is steel in their collective spine; that they are no softies. It might work if there was a master persuader in the ranks, but we hear more  motherhood statements instead.

The news from the G has mostly been “hard’’: about big data, smart nation moves and the upgrading and overhaul of places and infrastructure. There is little sense that we are being engaged at a more, for want of a better word, spiritual or personal level. There’s no appeal to the heart; only hard, rational demands made of the mind.

For all we know, the 4G team could be great policy wonks and well-loved by the people who know them. But politics – and this is where the G doesn’t seem to get it – is about public perception. You might be right, but you have to persuade people that you are.

And, sometimes, you can be nice too.