Friday, April 18, 2014

Watch Their Lips

On Tuesday night, Channel NewsAsia (CNA) aired an exclusive interview with head of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) General Moeldoko. His official Facebook page documented the remarks, "Once again I apologise. We have no ill intent whatsoever to stir emotions. Not at all. Second, relations between the two countries are on the mend. There've been communications among leaders. Singapore's Chief of Defence and I have spoken".

Quickly on Wednesday, Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen - presumably the Singapore's Chief of Defence referred to in the interview - welcomed General Moeldoko's comments with much glee, and said the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will reciprocate by resuming bilateral cooperation with the TNI.

Then early on Thursday, General Moeldoko spoke to Indonesian media at the President's Office in Jakarta prior to the start of Cabinet proceedings to clarify his views. He made it quite clear that the apology had been for the fact that the decision to name the ship was final and would not be changed. To avoid further misunderstanding, the head of TNI's public affairs Fuad Basya confirmed in writing, "the TNI Commander was expressing his regrets that the naming was final and would not change."

Before the matter is finally laid to rest, one needs to understand what Ng meant when he said "The SAF will reciprocate General Moeldoko's positive intentions". If he interpreted the positive intentions to be renaming the Indonesian warship "Usman Harun" to "Usman Harun", there's nothing new to add. After all, Mah Bow Tan did commission global branding company Interbrand to rename "Marina Bay" to "Marina Bay", and it cost the taxpayers all of $400,000. We may need NSA's record of the Ng-Moeldoko conversation to settle this.

This say-something-first, clarify-something-else-later thingamajig comes in the wake of the Financial Times interview in London where the possibility of a coalition government in some future day was first recorded. When General Moeldoko said the episode has been a "learning process", he must be referring to the lessons culled from the prime minister's clarification thought process.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Fight For Independence

This could be a clear, cut and dried case of harassment. Organisers of the Pilipino Independence Day Council Singapore (PIDCS) allege they are being harassed by anonymous callers demanding the cancellation of the June 8 takeover of the Ngee Ann City's Civic Plaza. The Protection from Harassment Act 2014 was tabled, and passed, in Parliament on 3 March this year. A fine of up to $5,000, a jail term not exceeding 12 months or both awaits those who engage in stalking, defined as activities which an offender should reasonably know would result in harassment, alarm or distress.

The aggrieved PIDCS say they do not plan to make a police report because doing so may escalate tempers into an event of seismic proportion. Think Little India instead of Tahrir Square. The cops may demand immediate reinforcement of 1,000 more men, and the only way to meet this supply at short notice is to fly in the expensive but reliable Ghurkhas. And then there is the potential disaster of epic ramification, the banning of alcohol along Orchard Road. All we need is  some minister to make a site visit and sniff the air.

Sensitive nostrils aside, there is this provocative use of the Marina Bay Sands (MBS) and Singapore Flyer silhouettes to promote the carnival. Both symbols were also showcased prominently in the "cringe worthy" video sponsored, and quickly taken down, by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB). This has to be another clear cut case, of copyright infringement. Unless MBS has given their full hearted endorsement, in view of the large number or foreigners employed at their establishment.

The use of the "interdependence" word may be key to the heightened emotive reactions.  An independent Singapore should be able to stand on its own feet, without the crutches of alien elements. But that's not what Baey Yam Keng implied, "The Filipino community has been contributing to Singapore in the workplace and helping to take care of Singaporean families". Grossly out of touch, Baey is blissfully unawares that Burmese and Indonesian domestics are now preferred as they are less likely to demand their day off and complain about having to wash the family car. And contribution to the work place sure sounds better than taking away Singaporean jobs.

Independence warriors don't give up easy - children of the EDSA Revolution are involved here - and the June 8 gathering will be happening, come rain, sun or haze. Forget about Geylang, Ngee Ann City's Civic Plaza is the hottest place to be.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Priority Payoffs

The monthly Singapore Demographic Bulletin (SBD), provides the latest data on population, births, still-births and deaths. For the whole year of 2013, there were 39,874 live births in Singapore. Of this number 28,028 were registered by nationality to Singaporean fathers. 21,274 of these kids were born of a Singaporean father and a Singaporean mother.

The Government announced a couple of weeks ago that every Singaporean child born next year will receive a special Jubilee Baby Gift to mark the 50th anniversary of the country's independence. Qualifying parents hoping for gold coins, a year's supply of pampers or free education will be sorely disappointed.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu said the the gift pack is likely to include less than 10 items, and "We are not looking at, for example, free education and free childcare for the babies". More likely, expect to see subsidies, Medisave top-ups, and one-off vouchers, in the fashion of the Pioneer Generation Package.

Grace Fu was with Teo Chee Hean and others at the boondoggle in London's Victoria Park recently, for which a budget of $4.4 million was committed for the Singapore Day 2014 picnic. Assuming that 30,000 Singaporean babies will be brought into the world next year, and the same level of largesse extended to the tiny tots, each child could enjoy a windfall of $146.

The official report says over 9,000 Singaporeans living, working and studying in the United Kingdom and Europe were entertained and fed on Singapore Day. The math says $488.88 per person. Which is more than 3 times what a baby will get, if a similar size budget has been allocated for the Jubilee Baby Gift. Then again, the frolicking picnickers are of voting age. The babies of next year won't be eligible to vote for at least two decades, by which time a coalition government could be in place. It's a no-brainer where the goodies will be distributed.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Story Of Rank Incompetence

Martin Meredith goes beyond the subject of his book, devoting quite a lot of space to the people and politics around Nelson Mandela, and dwelling into the mistakes that plagued his political party during and after his time in office.

The leader of the rainbow nation wanted to set a new style of leadership, free from the greed and corruption for which the apartheid National Party rule was renown. But no sooner had his African National Congress (ANC) come into power, the cracks in the system begin to show.

The new dispensation offered opportunities for the black elites ensconced with power, which they seized with alacrity. One of the first acts of the new parliament was to vote for huge increases in the salaries and allowances of ministers, members of parliament and the president. Ministers' monthly salaries were raised to a level which was three times more than what the average worker earned in a year.

South Africa faced no international threat of any kind. Indeed, some ANC politicians argued that there was no need for a navy at all, only a national coast guard equipped to protect fisheries  from foreign trawlers; as for the air force, they suggested that its existing fleet of jet fighters was adequate to deal with any foreseeable circumstances. But key ministers embarked on a massive arms procurement programme - submarines, frigates and fighter jets. The $5 billion spending spree designed as such provided many opportunities for kickbacks to greedy officials.

ANC leaders treated the public sector, in effect, as a spoils system. They set up a secret network of four companies, called the Chancellor House Group, to acquire contracts in order to channel funds back to the party. The objective was to ensure that the ANC elite had the means to entrench themselves in power forever or, as party leader Jacob Zuma put it memorably, "until Jesus comes back".

The ANC administration was riddled not just with corruption but also with rank incompetence. Because of a failure by government ministers to plan ahead, South Africa was hit by an energy crisis in 2008 that caused widespread economic disruption.  Advances that the government made in providing housing, piped water and electricity to poor communities were soon over shadowed by failing education, health and other public services.

This is a book about South Africa, but the parallels to our daily headlines are frightening.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Food For Thought

The Sunday Times printed in full the interview by Financial Times's chief foreign affairs columnist, Gideon Rachman. Except the menu for lunch at the Park Terrace of the Royal Garden Hotel in London, with prices indicated. Maybe they wanted to steer clear of Baey Yam Keng's gaffe with the $2.50 nasi padang meal plus bandung drink and Teo Chee Hean's $1.80 chicken rice.

The FT Rachman, obviously distracted by the delicious piece of grilled halibut and prime minister's pistachio crème brûlée - both largely untouched, it was noted - made an ill attempt at humour when he asked Lee if he always knew he would go into the family business, into politics.

When the guy who told pork chop soup on tap and free smoke at open windows jokes failed to respond in like vein, Rachman was rudely reminded that the PM has successfully extracted apologies and damages from media organisations, including the FT, for suggesting the Lee family has benefited from nepotism.

But humour at others' expense is par for the course. Racham wrote that the Japanese occupation of Singapore in the second world war, the west’s mishandling of the revolution in Ukraine, China’s fear of separatist movements and the bankruptcy of Iceland, all provoked an incongruous chuckle or a broad smile.

Still, the light banter provided invaluable inputs. Such as the day when the PAP is not running Singapore. “It could well happen,” he reportedly replied mildly. “I don’t know how it will work but it could happen.” Lee has told us on more than one occasion that 20/20 vision is not his forte. Maybe it was the effect of the pricey Hildon water - our own drinking water, if everything is going on as planned, by now should contain 5 percent sourced from the toilet bowl - as Lee went on to ruminate on the scenario of a coalition government, “It may not be one team in, one team out, it may be more complicated – you’re getting used to more complicated than that in Britain now.”

Taking cue from Lim Wee Kiat who reflected on his MH370 commentary and then made a grovelling U-turn, Lee is now saying that "a stable two-party system is naive." He clarified via Facebook post that the possibility of Singapore having a coalition government was not what he had in mind, what he meant was that there could be a day when the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) is no longer dominant. Now that's plenty to reflect about.

It's not just the housing shortage, rising health care costs - Singapore hospitals just hiked the A&E admission charges - and regular train breakdowns, dirty money is afloat. Asked if Lee has noticed an inflow of funds from Switzerland, the reply was, “I don’t know where the money comes from.” Rachman was making discrete reference to Singapore being discussed as the new safe harbour for footloose international money. That can't be a stable system in play.