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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Honouring LKY

In News Reports, Politics, Society on April 11, 2015 at 2:57 am

On Monday, some very important questions will be asked about how we should honour the memory of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Now, I am NOT being sarcastic because I DO think something should be done to keep him or at least his thoughts alive beyond merely ensuring re-prints of all his books. So the MPs have come up three suggestions which I suppose will generate a bit of debate given how everyone has something to say….(I’m just going by my FaceBook wall)

The three:

1. Have his face imprinted on coins and dollar notes.

I like this idea.

After all, given that we have our first President’s face on dollar notes…why not? It’s something that our currency board can do quite easily and I rather like some variety of faces on my dollar notes…. And Mr Lee himself never said no. He was against monuments built for him and I suppose that would mean statues and busts. He wouldn’t be against being in the hands of bankers or fishmongers would he? He was a man of the people and everyone would have a bit/a lot of him in their wallets…He was concerned about economic development and our Singapore dollar is super-strong, a reflection of the man as well.

Of course, those who don’t like him might want to deface their notes. But that’s their lookout. If defaced so much that it is no longer accepted as legal tender, too bad…That will teach people to be careful with their money! Hey, that’s another LKY maxim!

2. Re-name Changi Airport after him

Not a popular choice it seems even though he was the man who moved the airport from Paya Lebar to Changi. And SIA pilots are sure to remember the man who thumped them and threatened to replace all of them! There are plenty of precedents abroad. Charles de Gaulle airport in France, JFK in the US. Better, methinks, than Ho Chi Minh city?

People will have to get used to saying “I have to get to LKY tonight’’, “Planes delayed at LKY’’ and “Did you get any duty-free booze at LKY?’’ But we Singaporeans can get used to anything….One argument in favour: Besides Singaporeans, foreigners will be forced to be educated on the legacy of LKY as well…His name will be remembered forever, far and wide. Hurray! The Singapore dollar, on the hand, is only circulated on this tiny red dot.

So why unpopular? Methinks people rather like the term “Changi’’, more than the LKY name for the airport. I like Changi too…It is so Singaporean. And we don’t need to ape the ways of foreign countries do we?

3. Have a Founder’s Day for him

Quite a popular choice, since it’s likely to be public holiday. So should it be on the day of his death, March 23? Or his birthday, Sept 16? Some people, however, think it should be a PLURAL Founders’ Day – for all the first-generation leaders since he wasn’t the sole architect of Singapore.

I’m not sure about this since he would probably tell us to “stop this nonsense and go back to work’’. Also, what would we DO on Founder’s (singular) Day? Re-play old broadcasts and enact scenes from LKY’s past? Have mass readings of his books? Hold an LKY festival? Or should the day simply be a day that’s marked on the calendar like Teachers’ Day, Racial Harmony Day, Total Defence Day or Youth Day? That is, no public holiday…but the school children will have to do something…?

As you can tell, I am personally not in favour of this. I am also not in favour of preserving his Oxley Road home given that it is the family’s wish to have it demolished. We should respect their wishes.

Monday’s sitting is sure gonna be interesting…

PS. Actually why don’t we name a battleship after him? And I don’t mean steamboat.

Furniture buying

In News Reports, Politics, Society on April 10, 2015 at 10:12 am

The Cabinet reshuffle has led to speculation that the general election, due by January 2017, could be held early, according to a TODAY report. Plus, the PAP G can reap an “LKY dividend’’, from the goodwill demonstrated by the populace in the aftermath of the first Prime Minister’s death. It’s a minor reshuffle, with Mr Masagos Zulkifli elevated to full minister and becoming second minister in both the Home and Foreign ministries and Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew taking on a second portfolio.  Messrs Lim Swee Say, Chan Chun Sing and Tan Chuan-Jin have done some portfolio swopping. Me, I am still tickled by the idea of our multi-tasking Cabinet, who are members of the A team, said the Prime Minister.

So I went furniture shopping…

Me: I’m looking for some cabinet…can you advise me please?

Salesman: What sort you looking for? Kitchen cabinet? Shoe cabinet?

Me: Actually, something more multi-purpose…can put shoes, books and all kinds of knick knacks. Maybe for the living room…And maybe another for my bedroom with drawers for underwear and cold weather clothing.

Salesman: For living room ….how big?

Me: Ah…something adjustable, stackable. In case, I accumulate more stuff over the years…Somethings I just cannot throw away, you know…last forever.

Salesman: You want with glass panels or open shelving? Glass can show off your ornaments….Or you want them covered so you can hide stuff …

Me: Hmmm…open shelving must dust everyday…But very good to show off my Lee Kuan Yew books. But maybe put at the bottom because they are very heavy. Some glass doors for me to show off stuff I’ve bought from abroad or some sg50 mementoes…

Salesman: Different size compartments? All same size? We can stack small ones and some got double the size. Or we can have separators within compartments.  Everything adjustable…

Me: Maybe some have two separators so I can put stuff of different colours in one stack…Hmm…your cabinets come in white? Difficult to maintain or not? Can get rid of stains easily?

Salesman: Don’t worry Ma’am. We have all sorts of cleaning fluids. Just dab and like bleach, stains go off. Case-trusted and CPIB-approved. But don’t use too much or the wood will get rotten…

Me: What? Your cabinets all made of wood? I thought something stronger…

Salesman: Ma’am, then you looking for filing cabinet – we have cast-iron one…

Me: Don’t need filing cabinets…got computer. Just sell me one living room cabinet, soft compressed wood, white, with big and small compartments and shelves that can adjust up and down. Some got glass panel, some don’t. Do you have shoe cabinet?

Salesman: Of course! Very cheap. Very good. But stock only come in October.

Me: Aiyah, I think don’t need then…I buy from NTUC.

Salesman: Okay ma’am. I have a Class A type living room cabinet for you. Very good to display, very multi-purpose. People see …sure to go waaah…I can also offer you Class B type cabinet for your bedroom. For your socks and all that…Sometimes, can put in living room as well if living room cabinet suddenly collapse because you put too many things….

Me: Your stuff so lousy ah???

Salesman: Not lousy. Very good. Don’t believe me you just ask people…they will all kee chiu…

Me (dubious): Hmm…how much and when can you send over?

Salesman: Depends on how many compartments and how big each compartment. But don’t worry, still below market rate. Let me calculate…

Me: I don’t mind paying if you sure it’s good quality…so when delivery?

Salesman: Arhh Ma’am, you have to carry home yourself and assemble yourself. Got instructions…very easy to follow….Ma’am! Ma’am…don’t run away…Still haven’t shown you our kitchen cabinets!

One Cabinet and musical chairs

In News Reports, Politics on April 9, 2015 at 12:28 pm

The problem with reporting on news of a Cabinet reshuffle is that no one wants to say anything bad about anyone. So if someone gets promoted or moved, commentators will try to second-guess the Prime Minister’s intentions, and invariably come up with answers to fit the PM’s choice. No one says, not in public anyway, that he/she botched up the job and so got moved to another. Nor would anyone say that so-and-so’s posting is a sop to a segment of the population or because of intensive lobbying.

That’s what makes reporting Singapore politics so dull – everybody wants to be politically correct. (It really is the best thing to do since acceptable guesswork is better than negative speculation.) Of course, privately, everyone has their own ideas or conspiracy theories about what’s really happening behind the scenes. And because of the general election has to be held soon, everyone makes a link, even though there might be none.

What did the PM say? “These changes are part of continuing leadership renewal, to build a strong ‘A’ team for Singapore.’’ Gosh, I wonder if the PM realizes that the use of an A team means there is a B team, in reserve…If he does have a B team, we should be glad – because there seemed to be so few people we can draw on that the Singapore Cabinet has to play musical chairs and with some people straddling two chairs…

So what’s the big news this time around? MSM went to town with how the Malay/Muslim community now has a second full minister in Mr Masagos Zulkifli, besides Dr Yacob Ibrahim who is Muslim Affairs minister and minister for Communications and Information.

The PM said having two full ministers reflects the “progress of the Malay community’’ and observers have echoed this.

Said former NMP Eugene Tan in a commentary in TODAY: “This demonstrates the coming of age of the role of Malay politicians in our national leadership. And they are handling significant portfolios at the full ministerial level. While numbers should not be the sole measure of political relevance and effectiveness, the fact that Malay ministers are tasked with handling non-traditional and even sensitive portfolios is significant.’’ (I suppose he’s referring to Mr Masagos being second/second minister in Home and Foreign ministries – each now has a truly multi-racial team at the helm. In Home affairs: Mr Teo Chee Hean, Mr S Iswaran and Mr Masagos. In Foreign affairs: Mr K Shanmugam, Ms Grace Fu (female somemore!) and Mr Masagos.)

Then you have ….

Mr Zainal Sapari, MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC: “This would definitely dispel the notion that there is a racial quota with regard to the number of full Cabinet ministers that the Malay community could have.” (There is no quota…this is a meritocracy no?)

National University of Singapore (NUS) political science don Hussin Mutalib: “it helps to soothe the feelings of the community, since the … Indian community, despite being smaller than the Malay community, has always had a larger and disproportionate share of Cabinet appointments”. (So there should be a quota rather than a system based on meritocracy?)

NUS  political science lecturer Bilveer Singh: “It’s good for the country and it’s healthy for democracy, because I think the Malay community has made a lot of progress and this is symptomatic of the progress that the Malay community has (made), and they should be represented at the highest level.” (And what about other communities, like the Eurasians or women? No progress?)

Association of Muslim Professionals chairman Azmoon Ahmad: “It will create impetus for the community and encourage us and give us the confidence that Malays can succeed.” (What are you saying? That Malays lacked confidence in the past about succeeding?)

Before you pounce on me…I want to quickly say that I exaggerated my remarks in the parentheses to make a point: I so dislike this idea of connecting representation to race/community.

I would rather people say that Mr Masagos got promoted because he has all the right qualities for the job. Period. It is not a reflection on his race/community – whether progress or regress. After all, we do not encourage stereotyping by race do we? Like connect certain negative attributes to certain communities? Likewise, I wouldn’t make a big deal if a woman breaks through the glass ceiling of any company or in the Cabinet. She’s a good, capable person – who happens to be a woman. Just like Mr Masagos is a good, capable person – who happens to be Malay.

Now, I had someone tell me that I can’t understand because I am not a member of the community. Correct. But it would distress me to think that the Malay community needed such assurances that a Singaporean. regardless of race, cannot rise to the top of the tree based on pure merit. Or that it needed to be “soothed’’ because other communities have “got ahead’’.

Dr Hussin said something else which puzzled me: That ‘some quarters may look at his Islamic profile with a certain unease’’. Hmmm. What does that mean? I looked up his community credentials for clues. All I got was that he chaired Muslim welfare group Perdaus, and started its humanitarian offshoot Mercy Relief…

Then comes this musical chairs over the NTUC, Manpower ministry and Ministry of Social and Family Development.

So NTUC’s Mr Lim Swee Say who had publicly stated that he would like to retire isn’t about to be allowed to. He’s going to MOM. Only in Singapore can you have someone jump from one side of the fence to the other. In fact, right across the line. In a Facebook post yesterday, Mr Lim assured unionists that he will continue to be “pro-worker” while also being “pro-business”. “After all, the two are not necessarily in conflict. They are the two sides of a same coin.” You don’t say!

You have pundits agreeing about this ideal situation – and it really makes me wonder why people just don’t suggest a direct switch – MOM’s Tan Chuan-Jin should go to NTUC then instead of moving to Ministry of Social and Family Development! But of course, people can always make a case for this switch, like how he’s “well-placed” for the job since he had to deal with workers in difficult situations.

But I was most puzzled by this statement in the ST report regarding Mr Chan Chun Sing:

Meanwhile, the labour movement will get a new chief earlier than expected. Mr Chan, 45, who is now NTUC’s deputy secretary- general, will take over as secretary-general on May 4. He was previously expected to be voted in as labour chief during the next NTUC central committee elections in October.

Now, it looks as though it was the PM who decided that Mr Chan should be NTUC sec-gen. Yet much was made about Mr Chan having to get endorsement from the NTUC rank-and-file at its delegates’ conference in October.

Anyway I checked. The NTUC Central Committee promoted Mr Chan from deputy to full sec-gen yesterday morning. (Yup. Well-timed). And he still needs to get through that conference, which is held once every four years, which will vote in the 21 members of the Central Committee. Then the committee needs to decide on the various posts.

As for Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew, who is now also Second Defence Minister. I don’t know what to say… Don’t you think he has enough to do in Transport?

PS. I would like to congratulate Mr Masagos on his promotion and for the rest of the ministers, good luck in your new portfolios!!

When vocal minority meets silent majority

In Politics, Society on April 3, 2015 at 8:00 am

A discussion between Vee Meng (vocal minority) and Si Meng (silent majority)

VM: “….what did say? ’’

SM: “…erm…what? Didn’t say anything…Eating my prata lah….’’

VM: “You haven’t been listening? That’s the trouble with people like you…so contented with your lot! Can’t you see so many things are wrong here? People can’t say what they want! The media is muzzled! We rank so low on human rights watch! We just care about money, money, money! Everything here is geared for the rich people, big business. We, the ordinary citizens of Singapore, are being trampled on and we don’t even know it!’’

SM: “That bad ah…I thought we’re always Number 1? You want to share another prata?’’

VM: “You should read more, especially what people are saying on the Internet. Then you’ll realise that this is not paradise and why people are buying homes in Johor and even, get this, staying there for their retirement!’’

SM: “Ya, I bought a place in Iskandar for investment and got burnt… Did you read about property prices here coming down? Shiok! I want to buy a new place, but then my old place now too cheap to sell….’’

VM: “Can you don’t just think about yourself? Think about single mothers who don’t get much help! Think about the old lady who collects cardboard and the old man who works at McDonalds! They should be enjoying their retirement! What kind of society are we becoming?’’

SM: “What? They didn’t join CHAS ah? Very good. Very cheap. My parents even better. Just wave PG card and get discounts everywhere… I hope cheng hu PG me when I turn 65.

VM: “My dear, dear Si Meng, you’re not connecting with me…I give up on you…You are the sort of people who just go with the flow, comfortable with your job, your HDB flat, your car…your little life…apathetic and couldn’t care less…’’

SM (slightly distressed): “Okay, okay. Of course, got some things wrong here lah. Like, I wish PSLE not so hard because paying for my children’s tuition is killing me.

VM: “Ah good. Something we agree on at last… We have a crazy education system that is driving parents nuts. Your children no longer have a childhood because they have to start running the rat race since kindergarten. Every school is a good school? Pah! It’s a myth! Even ministers don’t send their children to neighbourhood schools. The system just wants to churn out people for the economy. This ITE/poly thing…what master craftsman they want to produce? This place simply can’t afford to have more graduates so they want people to be happy to become master craftsman. We’re just digits in this economy, nuts and bolts to make the machinery run. Just soul-less people.’’

SM: “Eh? So cheem. I just want my children to get As and get good jobs.  Just don’t become cleaner or road sweeper.’’

VM (sarcastic): They won’t. Most of the jobs taken up by foreign workers already…

SM: “Oh ya. I also don’t like so many foreign workers around. Too crowded here already. They don’t even clean or sweep properly…

VM: “Talking about foreign workers….you agree with me that we must treat them well, right? You know their employers make them eat stale food? I still don’t think their living conditions are as good as the cheng hu say, never mind the new rules. We must treat these people better…and not subscribe to the capitalist demands of businesses who just want to profit from their sweat and blood.

SM: “Eh, my maid get day off every Sunday…’’

VM (in full flow):  “And look at the abuse of power. The ISA is still around. People are getting sued. Some kid rants on YouTube and cheng hu takes him to court! Just because he dissed Lee Kuan Yew! He’s non-conformist, like me! We should counsel people like him, not use the law on him!

SM: “Ya…his parents should just cane him…so boh tua, boh suay….”

VM (ignoring SM): “Have you seen what the Western media are saying about Singapore? All these controls on society. We always have some campaign or other. Laws against littering, graffiti and now this public drinking ban. We can’t even buy chewing gum here!’’

SM (placatory) : “You want chewing gum ah? I brought some from Malaysia. Before GST.’’ (passes chewing gum)

VM (making big show of chewing gum as an act of rebellion): I am thinking of starting a petition and get all the civil society types to sign. Maybe I’ll even book a slot at Hong Lim Park and get people to speak up. You should come along and see what this is all about…A good education.’’

SM: “Saturday? Not free lah. Got errands to run, send kids for enrichment class, dinner with in-laws…where got time?’’

VM (desperate): “Not even to ask for your CPF to back?’’

SM (lights up) : “Ya! Ya! I want my CPF! What age again we get it back? Can’t remember…When are we supposed to get GST rebate ah? And this Singapore Savings Bond thing…good to buy or not?’’

VM (shakes head): “I give up on you…You should be ashamed to call yourself Singaporean. Like sheep. Please don’t tell me you’re one of those fellows who queued 10 hours to go past the old man’s casket? Do you even know why you’re honouring him? Have you thought about PAP hegemony, repression, Operation Cold Store (no, not Cold Storage) and the Marxist conspiracy? Don’t you recall all that gerrymandering, political bullying and how the opposition always gets screwed? I know we should respect the dead but are you trying to turn him into a cult figure?’’

SM: “Aiyah…I…. queued… because…he…is…Lee Kuan Yew. Good enough reason for me. Eh, can you don’t talk so much or not? Tiring to hear..And where is that prata? Still haven’t come yet?!! What kind of service is this???’”

A reporter’s notes on Mr Lee

In News Reports, Politics, Society on March 24, 2015 at 2:55 am

If there was one man I was really terrified of, it was Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I thought it was because I was so much younger than the man, until I realized that people far older than I and who had met him far more often, felt the same. I guess it was the way he stared at you and that interrogative tone he used while talking to you. It seemed to me that he was always sucking in his breath when he had to answer any question from me as though he’s thinking “what am I supposed to do with this stupid young thing?!’’

But no, he never lost his cool with me. I think he saw me as a young journalist who could be “taught’’ or set on the right path, so to speak. He was not a man for small talk and that was part of the terror. Your brain got no rest, even when you were having (very healthy/fruity) lunches with him. Even questions on the type of refrigerators on sale seemed to be mere data to him, like some kind of proxy on Singaporeans’ values or indicator of economic wealth. You feel like he was collecting answers on everyday life because he was using them to plug some gaps in a big picture he was drawing in his head.

My ex-colleagues and I who had been invited for those lunches would come up with a list of issues that we will broach with him. Yes, we were interested in them, but it was also so that he could launch forth – and we could eat. So long as we listened, we didn’t have to sound stupid answering his questions.

I remember my first overseas trip with the man. He was then still Prime Minister and was making a trip to Malaysia. He was going to see Tunku Abdul Rahman in Penang and then hop over to Kedah and Langkawi island. He practically jumped  out of the car before it had come to stand still because he saw the Tunku waiting for him at the porch. He did not want to keep the former Malaysian premier waiting. He spoke loudly to the bent old man, because the Tunku had become hard of hearing. His solicitousness towards the Tunku touched me. The way he held his arm and sat with him… Clearly, Mr Lee knew how to treat his elders, never mind their sad/bad history.

It was quite a different treatment he meted out to a foreign journalist who had barged in on a press conference during the trip. The Caucasian man, who told Mr Lee he was actually attending another event in the same building and had taken the opportunity to gatecrash, had asked some human rights question. (I can’t remember what) Mr Lee returned with a stinger on whether he was asking him if he beat his wife.  And that the journalist should have done some homework before asking questions. And come visit Singapore.

I don’t know if you’ve seen Mr Lee angry…it was not a pretty sight. The journalist sat subdued and silent throughout. I felt like going over to pat him on his shoulder but thought again: Stupid bugger! Think you can just swing by and take on Lee Kuan Yew without doing any homework?

I’ve covered him on several occasions, feeling very much like an inadequate young journalist. Because he was THE man, he had to be reported fully. It was so stressful…

I recall how in Penang I left the press delegation en route to an official dinner at a hotel and took a trishaw to a telecom building in Georgetown to file my story. I returned in time for dinner rather smug that I had finished my work before any of my colleagues – and that I could finally eat in peace. Except that Mr Lee decided to get up to make a speech…The media crew thought this was it then, we’ll never be in time to get to our hotel in Batu Ferringgi to file.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. I approached a nearby table of towkays in my most ingratiating manner and asked if anyone had a car phone that can reach Singapore. One of them did. Phew! By the way, in case you’re thinking, there were no cellphones in those days. No internet also.

Mr Lee was responsible for giving me the biggest journalist scoop of my career. After one of those healthy/fruity lunches, I asked if he was willing to be interviewed about his son’s cancer. That was in 1993. The then DPM Lee Hsien Loong had been diagnosed with lymphoma, at the same time as DPM Ong Teng Cheong. Besides the “human interest’’ potential that such an interview would have, there was also the big question mark over political succession should the worst happen to the younger Lee. (Insensitive question for a father to answer, but come on, surely, anyone would want to know what he thought?)

Mr Lee thought for a while and said that it might be a “good idea’’ to have the interview. Terrified, I told my bosses he said yes. I had a more than two-hour interview one-on-one with the man at the Istana, with an information officer who was recording everything. (There was an awkward moment when she had to interrupt the interview to switch cassette tapes.)

Mr Lee was forthright enough; he knew what he wanted to say. He also knew what he did NOT want to say. How, in heaven’s name, was I going to ask him what the illness would mean in “big picture’’ terms? I had to ask him three times, in three different ways, at three different points of the interview before I thought I got a full answer. Once, he laughed off the question by saying that anything can happen, like anyone could get hit by a car, for instance.

One reply:  “Singapore needs the best it can get. If Singapore can get a man who has never had cancer and will never get a relapse and who is better than Loong, then that man is the answer. But if it can’t, then you take the best that’s available. Right?”

But what would happen to the political succession plans if the worst were to happen to BG Lee, I asked, hoping that this was specific yet polite enough to get an answer.

His reply: “Well, unfortunately, it’s a fact of life. We may be lucky and it may not come back. So the problem may not arise. If the problem arises, the answer may have to be found in two or three persons to do the things he has been doing. That is life.”

I tell you now that I felt very, very sorry for Mr Lee then. And I felt very, very bad. I was a cad trying to pry open a private space for public consumption. I could see and feel the depth of his emotions then.

What followed later though was near-comical.  Mr Lee wanted to see the article before publication. I said I had to ask my boss first because we normally wouldn’t allow it. (Very brave right?) Well my boss said yes and the print-out was duly faxed over to the Istana. Note that these were the days when printers were of the dot-matrix kind and you can’t adjust the size of type. I got the fright of my life the next day when I got a phone call at home from the newsroom that Mr Lee wanted to see me in the Istana that afternoon. Oh dear! Was it so badly written? Did I get anything wrong?

He started by complaining about the quality of the print – too faint, too small, difficult to read. I told him I would tell my boss to buy new printers (such good scapegoats bosses are!) Then he asked if I thought the article was too long. I said I had run it past colleagues who thought the length was fine. He damn near shouted at me: But they are your colleagues!!! What about ordinary people?? Oh dear, this young person did not want to tell him it was not a done thing to show drafts to outsiders but I ended up telling him that if it was about Mr Lee and his son, everybody sure read everything. (Okay, I put it more elegantly than that)

It transpired that he wanted to give me more information because he thought there was something “missing’’ in the piece. Then he told me of his son’s meditation. I scribbled away, thinking what a fantastic newsmaker he was for volunteering more interesting information without being asked to.

The story was published in The Sunday Times and picked up the world over.

I had covered him as a journalist a few times since but I will never forget the interview(s) because it was the most intimate moment I have ever had with the man. I saw him then as a politician, a statesman and a father. Whatever his bullying tactics, his terrifying demeanour and fierce outbursts in the public eye, I had managed to catch glimpses of the private man. I think some of my ex-colleagues had a lot more experience with him especially in the course of writing his books. I can only offer you a few paltry insights.

Once, I sent him a note saying that I was unable to turn up for lunch because I was ill. He returned the note with a message that he hoped I would be all right soon. It is to my great regret that I have lost the note. But I still have that full transcript of those interviews with some of his comments written in red.

I will cherish them.

PS. I found that cancer story online http://ourstory.asia1.com.sg/dream/lifeline/lee1.html

No man like him

In News Reports, Politics, Society on March 23, 2015 at 12:55 pm

And now the grieving starts. I had a look again at the television broadcast of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s announcement of his father’s death. I saw it at 8am online – but you know how live streaming sucks. Now I see clearly how tough it must be to remain prime ministerial when it’s your father who has just died. Nobody would fault Mr Lee if he broke down in tears instead trying so bravely to hold them back. But he did. The son remained prime ministerial.

So many things have happened since the announcement of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s  death in the early hours of the morning. Flags are down half-mast, people are streaming in to pen their condolences in books that will be kept for posterity, the great and good the world over have sent messages. They praised him as a visionary leader whose counsel on geo-politics was sought and who cut through the chase. There was no bullshit about him.

I was taken aback when I read that Dr Henry Kissinger, now 91, recalled how Mr Lee’s first words on their first meeting was “You make me sick’’. It had to do with the US involvement in the Vietnam War and how some top American academics had wanted the country out. Mr Lee wanted the Americans to stay. “That took courage,’’ said Dr Kissinger as ST reported today.

Singaporeans can take pride in how world leaders regarded their first prime minister. Messages via official channels and even social media have come from world leaders, including Malaysia’s Najib Razak. The Brunei Sultan has already called at Sri Temasek where Mr Lee’s cortege has been placed for a private wake. Indonesia’s Jokowi is coming to the funeral on Sunday.

In fact, my worry is that with him gone, would the international glow on Singapore fade too? Mr Lee’s international stature had much to do with how much regard big countries had for this little red dot, as his successor Mr Goh Chok Tong himself testified. New leaders would stop by Singapore to take his counsel and I am still a little pissed that US President Barack Obama didn’t do the same. It is too late now for him to meet the man he described in his White House message as a “true giant of history’’. Harrrummph.

Major media have spewed forth obituaries, some positive, some negative. Even as they lauded his achievements as a pragmatic politician who took Singapore from Third World to First, they also highlighted the more draconian aspects of his “reign’’. References were made to detention without trial, political prosecutions/persecutions and the chewing gum ban. From the Western media was this tone: “Singapore is successful BUT’’, rather than “Singapore is successful DESPITE’’. A Foreign Policy commentator even called him the world’s “most successful dictator of the 20th century’’. I can’t decide if it was derogatory term or a backhanded compliment. Go read for yourself. The Economist called him the “wise man of Asia’’ while recalling descriptions of Singapore as “Disneyland with the death penalty’’ and “Pyongyang with broadband’’. I want to harrrummph again…

Of course, there were obituaries and tributes that were “over the top’’, with nary a negative word. I guess we should expect this. Sometimes what’s said reflects a depth of feeling, sometimes, a sheer lack of words.  After all, we are not used to expressing emotion, according to some survey. Also, it is not “nice’’ to say bad things about a man who is dead, however glad you are that he is. (Shut up, will you?)

Yes, I have been reading obituary after obituary. I can’t get enough of them. It is so interesting to have the man viewed through different lenses. Some facets have come out. I was so surprised to read Mr Lee Hsien Yang saying that the family bathed by ladling out water from those big dragon-motif salted egg jars, and that his parents did so for almost six decades until a shower was finally installed in the bathroom in 2003 after his mother had a stroke.

My goodness!

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Mr Lee was well-known for being frugal and for his distaste for ostentation. I remember once walking behind him with my eyes glued to a hole in the singlet he had on under his CYC shirt. This was no ordinary man who knew about ordinary things or cared about the material stuff. He once told me of how his refrigerator had been in family since forever and asked me what sort of fridges were on sale now. I don’t know Sir, I’ve never bought one, I told him. I felt like sinking into the floor…

Then there was former Speaker of the House Abdullah Tarmugi who said that Mr Lee was the only MP who always sent him a note explaining his absence from Parliament. Again, I went “my goodness!’’. You mean the rest of the MPs…?

Anyway, this was a man who stuck by the rules. It showed discipline and an inclination for order. Would that others follow his example.

Now we will be treated to (or is flooded with?) more black-and-white footage, some of which we’ve never seen before. We will be facing reams of text and old photographs. The older generation will have a fine time pointing out to the young ones who’s who  seated/standing near the young Harry Lee. Old names will surface again, the likes of Ong Pang Boon, Jek Yuen Thong, Toh Chin Chye and other members of the Old Guard, both living and dead. Already, I hear the “silent’’ majority speaking up, talking of water rationing days and other hardships they faced while bringing up a brood of children. Now, as my mother would say, “people are born into air-conditioning’’ and still think life sucks because they can’t afford a new car or house.

I hope our young people are taking it all in. His many books on his ideas and thoughts can be heavy going but, surely, plonking yourself in front of the television to watch some local history isn’t too strenuous an exercise?

I hope they get to know the man. PM Lee said “we won’t see another man like him’’. I agree. Not here, not in the future, not anywhere.

I’m glad that we can boast that we had a man like him.

NOTE: President Obama did meet Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I apologise for my error and am swallowing my Harummph.

A full life and a good death

In News Reports, Politics on March 18, 2015 at 3:46 am

My late father was one of those early PAP pioneers who went into the kampongs to see how electricity and water could be delivered to residents. To hear him talk, Singapore was a muddy place, a Tower of Babel – and poor. But the people had bright eyes. Sharp eyes. They weren’t beaten down or down cast. They just wanted someone to lead them.

For the majority, that man was Lee Kuan Yew and the first generation of PAP leaders. It always seemed odd to me how an overseas educated lawyer could have connected with the hoi polloi. Perhaps, it was because, as my mother always enthused, Lee Kuan Yew was such a handsome man when he was young. His education was a plus – the people wanted their children to be like him. These days, the people turn up their noses at scholar-leaders as out-of-touch elitist technocrats….How things have changed.

But my late father grew increasingly disenchanted with the PAP in his later years and ended up cheering the opposition at their rallies. He always found himself a spot near the front of the stage. I am not sure what caused the swing, but I think it had to do with the size of his pension. He was a retired policeman with bullet wounds on his body – and the pension was miserable. He thought he had been forgotten. But, and this he was grateful for, he was entitled to first class medical treatment. He joked that he would need to have a heart attack to enjoy them. Well, he had a few…

When Mr Goh Chok Tong took over as Prime Minister, my Dad made sure to meet him so that he could grasp his hand. He wanted to see if Mr Goh had a firm handshake. My father came home to pronounce that Mr Goh’s eyes widened, but that he had a good, strong grasp. Even so, for my father, the jury was still out. I wonder what he would have made of Mr Lee Hsien Loong, earlier known as BG Lee – or seed of Lee to those who know Malay. But he didn’t live to see the changeover.

Mr Lee, 91, is now in hospital with pneumonia. He was a man of my father’s generation, a man’s man. These are the men who didn’t mind a bare-knuckled fight in an alley. They were alpha-males, not new age sensitive guys. They were autocrats, firm in their belief that a firm hand was needed for the greater good of all. Our parents and grandparents will remember those days when they “followed’’, convinced that it was in their best interest to do so. The flip side, of course, is that they had no other choice. There was no other power base seeking their vote; the Barisan Sosialis having walked out of Parliament.

I don’t think anyone would deny that fundamental liberties were not high on the citizens’ list of priorities then. They wanted homes and jobs. Politics was reduced to being able to deliver those goods. Some people were run over as the PAP bulldozed its way to its objective, with homes and land acquired compulsorily and the Stop at Two policy enforced through warnings that your kid might not get into a good primary school (yup, even then!) and incentives for women to have their tubes tied through painful ligations. MNCs were wooed to jump start industry; there wasn’t much talk of developing our own brands then methinks. Families, familiar with the war-time chaos in the recent past and in the region, cried when their sons were called up for National Service in its early days. Singapore was “hot housed’’.

History will decide if the benefits were worth the damage. But, however revisionist history may be, it cannot ignore the universal acclaim that has been heaped on this little red dot nor the statistics that prove how far we have come.

The elder Lee has been in hospital since Feb 5. He is a lightning rod for controversy. Even members of his first Cabinet didn’t always seemed to have agreed with his policies. Succeeding generations with different priorities thought his hold was too tight, even draconian. They think he passed down those traits to successive leaders – despite the changed environment. The move from Third World to First wasn’t just economic. Education (which the elder Lee wish women didn’t have so that they would be happy producing babies!) ensured that mindsets were changed too. Yet Mr Goh Chok Tong, while insisting that he was wearing his own shoes, still followed in the elder Lee’s footsteps especially on two routes: ensuring the PAP’s total dominance in Parliament (remember lift upgrading and jumbo GRCs?) and promising more good years economically. Both were hard to achieve given the changing voter appetite and the already high economic base Singapore was operating on.

Truth to tell, I consider the younger Lee very much a reformer. He tried to reform the PAP’s anti-welfare policy and its mass production of people for the workforce. He loosened regulations for public assembly. Detractors will always say too little, too late. But the fact is, they happened. If my father was alive today, he would be a pioneer of pioneers, a centurion. I wonder what he would have thought of the Pioneer Generation Package. I think he would have said it was his due although he would be glad that my mother would have some State support. I wonder what the elder Lee thought of the policy changes over the past five years or so, especially post-2011 GE. Would he have called them populist?

The elder Lee is in hospital, hooked up to a ventilator. A lot of good wishes and plenty of unkind words are floating around the ether. I think those with only unkind things to say should shut up. There will never be a perfect politician. Even a “popular’’ politician will be unpopular with those do not like their populist policies. Already, some are wishing for the good ole firm hand of the old Lee, believing that the younger Lee is pandering to people’s peeves. They prefer the Hard Truths because they can’t make up their minds about the Hard Choices placed before them. How often have you heard people say that they wished the education system was “simpler’’, because they are lost in the maze of educational opportunities for their children. In fact, they are not even sure that they can take advantage of it because they cannot grasp the implications of a choice and if they do, lack the capital, in money or social terms.

I wonder though what the elder Lee  would make of the fissures today. How an old hoary chestnut like whether Thaipusam should be a public holiday came to be resurrected as an issue. How those in HDB flats resent those in private property and those in private property resent those living in Sentosa Cove. How locals and foreigners don’t get along. And how we became a nation of individuals looking out for ourselves more than for each other. I think the grand old man would have simply ordered everyone to shut up and sit down…Like it or not, he glued everyone together.

Now, the elder Lee’s condition has taken a turn for the worse and it appears that the state machinery is gearing up for the inevitable. The man has had a good long run, a full life and whatever his detractors may say, he took us to this point in time. I don’t think, given his age, that I should wish him a speedy recovery. Rather, I wish him a good death. That he will go peacefully, surrounded by family.

A non-cynical response to National Day 2015

In News Reports, Politics, Society on March 16, 2015 at 6:06 am

So it’s going to be a long holiday in August…a four-day weekend! Hey, if Polling Day was tagged on Thursday Aug 6 or Tuesday Aug 11, it would be five days of no work! But, sheesh, we would have to vote before leaving town or come back early enough to vote. We DO want to be in town for the general elections don’t we? But if the GE wasn’t held in that period, would we stay in town for the National Day/SG50 celebrations alone?

I don’t know why there is so much cynicism towards the SG50 celebrations. Some people think it is just SG50 fatigue. The drum roll started too early and we are tiring of the beat. News everyday about all the grassroots groups, schools and commercial types getting on board are becoming wearisome. That red dot with SG50 stamp is so wide-spread that it is ceasing to be meaningful. I wanted to get on the bandwagon too. I wanted to get a grant from the celebrations committee for a book to commemorate SG50…but then, there will be so many, many books I gather. As well as films, exhibitions, songs and whatever creative way anyone can think of to talk about this nation.

Hopefully, the people behind the celebrations pulling the strings will be able to build things up to a climax, on National Day. On that day, I hope a lot of people take in the celebrations at home (by staying in the country) and as many Singaporeans abroad return to see how Singapore celebrates its 50th birthday. Serious.

People ask a lot of black-and-white questions about whether it’s patriotic to go away at this time. It’s not unlike the angst every year when people take a holiday during the Chinese New Year period instead of hanging around for reunion dinner with the extended family.   I am sure there will be people who go away because it’s not often you get such a long break that isn’t part of annual work leave. And there will be people who say there is “nothing to do’’ in Singapore anyway. Or people who say we don’t have to be at home to celebrate, we do so in our hearts.

I just look at it this way. Your granddad/mom or dad/mom is having his/her 70th

/80th birthday bash and wants his/her whole family to be around. The most enthusiastic takes over the organization and even the most distant relative, whom you see once a year, expects an invitation. Sibling rivalries are tamped down and we seat squabbling relatives far from each other. Everybody is determined to have a good time or at least not to let the grand old man/lady down, even though we think he/she might be the devil himself/herself. And when the birthday cake is rolled out, we sing the birthday song lustily and throw in several yam sengs.

What counts is the years that have passed and the whole family still made it through – more or less. That’s my poor analogy for SG50.

So can I ask that we see this year’s National Day this way instead of tainting it with sourness? That we do not link the party with our constant pre-occupation with MRT breakdowns, the coming elections and the foreigners in our midst? Or who is getting free tickets or not? Or why there are some freebies and not others? Let’s not dampen the mood so early in the year over some thing that will happen several months later.

A response which FAILS

In News Reports, Politics on March 12, 2015 at 6:13 am

When I read Mr Donald Low’s commentary in The Straits Times recently headlined, Budget 2015: In deficit, yet very prudent at heart, I thought that I learnt something. (In fact, he posted his views on my FB wall as well a little earlier). Like many people, including MPs, I was concerned that we were going too much to the left that we have “nothing left’’, to borrow a phrase from an NMP which received a lot of thumping from her other colleagues in the House.

But I am not a bean counter/economist so I am not clear about whether the “spending’’ will really affect the country’s financial position and what it means for future spending. So we are in deficit. To the layman, a deficit is a “bad’’ thing, as it is spending more than what you earn. Maybe to a trained economist, it might well be a good thing as it might lead to more spending by other people. Or something like that. I don’t know. So I have asked many times about what a “deficit’’ really means.

Mr Low suggested “concerns about fiscal sustainability are mostly misplaced’’.

“The main reason is that the Singapore Government presents its Budget position in a conservative way. Some revenues are excluded and some “expenditures” should not be wholly counted as spending in the current fiscal year. Consequently, Budget surpluses are understated and deficits overstated.’’

Ah….that’s interesting, I thought, so we may be panicking for nothing. He talked about how land sales are excluded as revenue, how the Constitution already puts a brake on fiscal spending and what is seen as expenditure might well be defined as capital transfers.

He did a lot to allay my concerns.

Somebody else also dug this up for me: For the 2011 Budget by way of official Singapore accounting had a $3.8 b surplus. By International Monetary Fund accounting standards, the 2011 Budget had a surplus of nearly $38 b. To further provide a sense of proportion that’s missing from this debate: the $38 b surplus would put Singapore at no. 7 for national budget surpluses in the world, between the UAE and Qatar.

Ooh. Even more interesting.

Then comes a letter from the head of the Government Parliamentary Committee on Finance and Trade and Industry, Mr Liang Eng Wah.

MR DONALD Low dismisses the dangers of spending beyond our means (“Budget 2015: In deficit, yet very prudent at heart”; last Saturday).

He is right that the Government is fiscally conservative. But he is wrong to be dismissive about the concerns raised by me and other MPs that social spending must be sustainable.

Government spending is going up steadily. The new social programmes – for example, Silver Support, higher subsidies for health care and MediShield Life, and the Pioneer Generation Package – are necessary and right.

But we must proceed carefully. As our economy matures and growth moderates, revenue growth will slow. Spending programmes, once committed to, cannot be cut back without the utmost pain and political resistance, as seen in every advanced society. There will be constant pressure to spend more; indeed, Mr Low’s article is a prime example.

Moreover, often, more government spending alone has not solved social problems. Many countries went overboard on welfare with the best of intentions but with unintended results, including massive unsustainable deficit. Now they are forced to cut back and restore financial sustainability, with the harshest impact on the young.

Mr Low ignores this and argues that if something cannot be financed sustainably by the Government, with its ability to pool risks, it cannot be done by households either, which is an unacceptable outcome.

This is a false dichotomy between two extreme choices. Every society must support those with less, find the right balance between personal responsibility and state welfare, and muster and safeguard the resources to meet essential needs.

No government can spend to meet all possible wants, or ignore how its spending will impact individual and family responsibility. Singapore is no different.

Mr Low had earlier posted an intemperately worded version of his commentary on his Facebook page which asserted that “there is something inherently flawed with the concept of sustainability”. Significantly, he omitted this radical claim from last Saturday’s commentary in The Straits Times. But he has not retracted his earlier version, which was circulated widely online. Instead, he described it (on Facebook) as a “rant”, and thanked a Straits Times journalist for turning his “rant against the sustainability prudes into an op-ed”.

How are we to read a commentary which represents, not the writer’s sincerely held position, but a pose to gull us into believing that he holds reasonable views?

If I were grading this article, I would give it an F. Because it doesn’t engage Mr Low’s points at all. Everybody wants a “sustainable budget”, even Mr Low I would think. But the big question is whether we are all talking about the same “budget’’. What goes into the definition of surplus, deficit, spending and revenue? I would have thought that Mr Liang would take issue with Mr Low’s point that the G isn’t painting a true picture of the country’s finances. That it is deliberately being opaque for some (nefarious?) reason

I also fail to see how Mr Low is asking for MORE spending in his article. What I got from it is that he’s telling people not to worry about over-spending because we ain’t..

What is more upsetting to me is how Mr Liang chooses to side-track into whether Mr Low’s views are “sincere’’. Why?

I can’t help but think he’s annoyed at this portion of Mr Low’s article.

One cannot applaud higher social spending that meets real needs on the one hand, and criticise it for not being sustainable on the other. Such a critic has an obligation to explain how those needs can be met without State support, or take a stand to argue it should be cut back if he believes it is a luxury that those with lesser means should not spend on. Failing to do so is just as irresponsible and populist as the people who call for more spending without saying how it would be financed.’’

In other words, if MPs are worried about sustainability (and we all are), then why aren’t they looking at whether some spending should be cut or how more revenues should be raised? I so agree. In fact, isn’t this what the G keeps accusing the opposition of? What alternatives do you have to what you criticize or worry about? Is it enough to merely say we should be “cautious’’?

But what gets my goat is his mention of what Mr Low wrote on his FB wall which he calls an intemperate version. I hate to get into the same ad hominem fallacies that Mr Liang engaged in. But I don’t suppose Mr Liang has ever said anything in private at any time of his life that contradicts/exaggerates/diminishes his public views….

So, postings on a FB wall are now evidence of a person’s sincerity? The place we put pictures of our leftover lunch? We do not write on my FB the way we would if something is intended for widespread publication. I’m sure no MP speaks the way Mr Liang writes either.

It’s disappointing. There I was thinking that Singapore has moved away from questioning people’s agenda/ motivations and that public discourse has shifted into an analysis of content. How can the level of public discourse be raised if this is the sort of “right of reply’’ we see?

Methinks Mr Liang also needs an education in the role of editors. Yes, they turn “rants’’ into something publishable – that’s their job. And that’s because they see something in the “rant’’ worth sharing, a germ of an idea, an argument. They try to draw it out. In fact, it was very nice of Mr Low to thank the journalist because most editors don’t get thanks for working on someone’s article.

This sort of responses from politicians will only drive views underground. There are people (like me and probably plenty of others) who really want to LEARN something and appreciate different perspectives.

How is this kind of response (so 1980s…) good for Singapore?

* Now I am worried that someone will look at my primary school essays, my diary and my FB wall, of course, to make the case that I am not sincere.

KISS: Keep it sweet and simple

In Money, News Reports, Politics on March 11, 2015 at 12:06 pm

I think everyone wants to know how they can use that $500 the G will give under SkillsFuture and for what sort of training. I guess the details are going to be worked out. Already there are calls to expand the programme, so that senior citizens can pick up new hobbies, for example. Already there are complaints that the money is too little for any real specialized training. Most people forget that some courses are subsidized and if you are above 40, the courses are subsidized 90 per cent and that $500 might well be enough to defray the cash portion.

Thing is, we have to be clear what SkillsFuture is for. It’s not to take up any old course but to help advance your current skills set and for those in a rut, pick up skills that might help them move into a second career. In fact, I can imagine a whole new industry of trainers of basic and esoteric skills asking for WDA accredition so that their courses will come under the SkillsFuture.

So the idea is to have individuals take control over their own training although how they are going to get time-off from their employers is another thing altogether. Seriously, SkillsFuture is useful for those who are already thinking of going for courses and can work out the timing on the own. For the vast majority, they will have to be pushed. Or their bosses have to be pushed.   Methinks it makes better sense to expand the current incentives for companies to send their employees for training and have the G pick up even more of the tab for this. Okay, I know this will be unpopular but there should be a bond attached so that workers won’t jump ship after they get another certificate or diploma. I’m sure that is a reason employers balk at sending their workers for training – best to get the most out of their workers NOW than waste time getting them trained for some other boss.

Not so long ago, the NTUC suggested setting up a SkillsSave account for every worker. I suppose the SkillsFuture programme is something like this. I think the G should go further and consolidate all its “training’’ programmes into one – from cradle to grave. So there is the Child Development Account run by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, which morphs into the Post-Secondary account run by the Education ministry and now SkillsFuture run by the Manpower ministry. Doesn’t it make better sense for all these schemes to come under an individual’s name? And on retirement age, what leftover will go into….voila! the CPF Retirement Account!

I mean, wouldn’t it be wonderful for citizens not to have to remember so many things and have the G streamline as many of its policies as possible and adopt its much vaunted whole-of-government approach?

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