Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Dream Teams

Spiderman II is hitting the big screen this week. Everybody wants to be a superhero these days.

The Education Study Team (1979) that revamped the education system was first dubbed the "Daring Dozen". Detractors said they dared to show up for work at 8 am on the dot, and knock off at 5 pm sharp. Principals remember them for the fear they struck into their hearts by announcing themselves on the telephone as "Goh's men".

It appears the 2001 cohort of anointed political stars were christened the "Super Seven". The 4 that still remain are Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Khaw Boon Wan, Ng Eng Hen, and Vivian Balakhrishnan. 3 fell out of the constellation: Raymond Lim, Cedric Foo and Balaji Sadasivan.

The 2006 round-up groomed 3 more millionaire ministers, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew and Ministers in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu and S. Iswaran. "Tiresome Trio" comes to mind.

The new ensemble from 2011 comprise Tan Chuan-Jin (Manpower), Lawrence Wong (Culture, Community and Youth), Heng Swee Keat (Education), Chan Chun Sing (Social and Family Development) and Sim Ann (Minister of State for Education and Communications and Information). The freshly knighted "Fabulous Five" is expected to form the core of the People's Action Party's fourth generation leadership.

The youngest of the lot, at age 39, hails from the National Population and Talent Division (NPTD), which gave us the nefarious Population White Paper. Putting 6.9 million people on an island of 710 square kilometers is akin to loading the Sewol ferry with 3608 tons of cargo -  over three times more than the maximum recommended weight of 987 tons. But at least she doesn't declare open war on the "lunatic fringe" and call citizens names like "bigots". What did one newly minted minister just say? "Sometimes, I think we should just call a spade a spade. These actions by those who peddle hate are not acceptable, repulsive even."

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Changing Of The Guard

Singapore had 5 attorneys-general (A-G) in the past 8 years, compared to the nearly 40 years served by preceding incumbents Tan Boon Teik (25 years) and Chan Sek Keong (14 years).
  • Steven Chong, 2012-2014
  • Sudresh Menon, 2010-2012
  • Walter Woon, 2008-2010
  • Chao Hick Tin, 2006-2008
  • Chan Sek Keong, 1992-2006
  • Tan Boon Teck, 1967–1992

Reacting to the new normal, lawyers speculate that higher powers "desire to limit" the office terms, given the wide extent of the A-G's powers. That could be sheer balderdash, as the political incumbents have always weighted heavily on continuity, and sneered at the slightest hint of change.

During Chong's term, one senior civil servant was acquitted of corruption charges, and an academic had his conviction overruled on appeal - after serving an undeserved jail term. And if the public prosecutors don't have a water-tight case, the pastor of a mega church may have reason to rejoice. The mainstream media argue that charges against former chiefs of the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) and Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) were tendered before he was sworn into office, but much of the mud slinging took place during his term. High profile cases like these must have justified setting up a Media Relation Unit to soothe over controversial charge decisions.

Which makes one wonder why South Korea's Prime Minister had to resign his office. After all, he was not piloting the 6,825-tonne ferry Sewol, nor was he directly in charge of the lax safety standards that may have led to the disaster. President Park Geun Hye voiced profound regret at the systemic and regulatory failings, and could have fired some lower ranking front line officers. Then again, standards of accountability are higher in a First World country.

Friday, April 25, 2014

A Heart For Truth

If there's one good reason for writing her book "A Heart For Freedom", it is on page 262. Six years after the 1989 event, the mainstream media (Washington Post, New York Times) had shifted the responsibility for the Tiananmen massacre from the Chinese government to the students. For Chai Ling, the bottom line about Tiananmen is that student leaders had never expected, hoped for, or anticipated the Chinese government would actually open fire on its own citizens. She led an orderly withdrawal from the Square, but the solders had already started shooting on the western side of the city, where citizens of Beijing took to the streets in protest. Write she must, "so that the next movement could be grounded in truth, not based on cover-up lies by the government".

Even when she had earned a Havard degree after escaping to America, employers there were afraid her association - she was one of the "21 Most Wanted " students at Tiananmen Square - would affect their China business. Younger sister graduated top of her class in medical school, but was not allowed to practice medicine in China because of Chai Ling's involvement. Her father, who joined her in America in 1996, was given a special message from China, "If Chai Ling continues to join the movement, there will not be any good consequences for all of you".

We don't know what kind of pressure Dinesh Raman's mother faced when she decided to throw in the towel and relinquish all claims, disputes, issues and matters whatsoever relating to, arising from or in connection with the untimely death of their son while under custody of the state. We do know she was not in court when the "amicable settlement" was read. She probably didn't want to hear the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) running him down as a secret society member who did not complete his O-levels. Little do the officials understand about the love of a mother.

The authorities may think that the financial settlement - a sum that is not disclosed - will effect closure, but history is not complete until the final story is told.
Tiananmen 1989, NOT Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza

Thursday, April 24, 2014

From First World To Third

We don't know where Michael Barr get his facts when he wrote that the trigger for the fresh wave of xenophobic fear is traceable to former Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng’s 2005 decision to engage in massive intake of foreign workers to avoid an anticipated recession. We do know that a "population czar" behind that National Population and Talent Division (NPTD) was responsible for the flood of immigrants that has wreaked havoc on our infrastructure and now threatening the very fabric of national unity.

We are not the only one facing decimation by pro-alien policies. But at least Ed Miliband, the leader of UK’s ousted Labour Party, has the grace to admit that his party got it wrong on immigration and being worried about the arrival of foreign workers in Britain is not necessarily racist:
“Worrying about immigration, talking about immigration, thinking about immigration, does not make them bigots. Not in any way. They are anxious about the future.”

If only our own politicians recognise the folly of their ways. We hope Barr is wrong, but his thesis is that the hole that has been dug will certainly bury us all:
"The government is desperately trying to modify its development model to reduce reliance on foreign workers — for example increasing the level of prefabrication in construction processes — but there is no sign that it is willing to seek out a radically new development model that will solve the problem."

He must be reading into acting minister for manpower Tan Chuan-Jin's words when the general told Wall Street Journal, “We will continue to welcome global investment and manpower because it provides the basis for a vibrant and dynamic economy”. Put plainly, regardless of what voters may feel or say, being increasingly outnumbered in their workplaces, communities and public spaces by a population of foreign workers is the new normal.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Play Nice

Worst case scenario
If the Singapore Police Force (SPF) is still having nightmares about General Custer's last stand at Little Bighorn, it's understandable. The general was also outnumbered by Indians. This time the numbers could be bigger, 10,000 if everything goes according to plan. This time, they are decidedly determined not to be caught flat-footed (again).

Yesterday the police reminded organisers of public events that a permit is generally required in Singapore for any assembly or procession under the Public Orders Act if the gathering intends to:
a) Demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person, group of persons or any government;
b) Publicise a cause or campaign; or
c) Mark or commemorate any event.

A former committee member of the Pilipino Independence Day Council of Singapore (PIDCS) said previous applications for a permit, such as for one similar gathering at Hong Lim Park, were submitted 1 1/2 months to 3 weeks in advance. The police guidelines do accept submissions as late as 4 days before the actual event. If partial or full road closure is required, applications must be turned in at least 21 days beforehand.

June 8 is 46 days away. Kind of early to speculate if PIDCS co-chairman Rychie Andres will stand by his earlier statement about going ahead with the big bash at Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza. Police said they have heard nothing from the organisers. The Philippines Embassy is awfully quiet too. Former president and now Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada is busy in Hong Kong apologizing for the death of 8 tourists in the August 2010 Manila hostage crisis. The loudest ringing endorsements seem to emanate from Tan Chuan-Jin, Lee Hsien Loong, Warren Fernandez, Kirsten Han - the list is long, and some quarters say, smacks of treachery.

But hey, rules are rules. The PIDCS may be simply taking a leaf from the elections department, giving the shortest notice permissible so that the opposing side has the least time to react.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Big Push Is On

Before the advent of the internet, the best modes of spreading news were telephone, telegram and tell-a-girl. Latter must still work, since Senior of State for Finance Josephine Teo and Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor have just been charged to explain the details of the Pioneer Generation Package (PGP).

Sure, everybody knows about the PGP, thanks to the close resemblance to the other hated acronym, PWP. 7 in 10 have heard of it, but 2 out of 5 could not name a single benefit. One plausible cause is that, according to the original roll-out plan, letters informing the eligibles will be sent out only in August 2014, a date closer to the rumored up-coming general election. The other reason could be because there are no real benefits of speak of.

To recap, the PGP has three main prongs:
a) Subsidy for bills at hard-to-find Specialist Outpatient Clinics (SOC);
b) Medisave top-ups, which are useless if you don't have real hard cash for the co-payment;
c) MediShield Life, which is yet to be fully defined, but guaranteed to raise health care cost with higher than existing premiums for PGP and non-PGP types.

Teo and Khor may explain it differently, but they really should consider packaging free chicken-rice during their exhortation plan. Packet meals - like those distributed to boost supporter turn-outs at election rallies - fill an empty stomach, not indigestable subsidies.

That's the easy part. The difficulty will be explaining why those born one day after 31 December 1949, or obtained citizenship one day after 31 December 1986, are entitled to zilch. Not even a cheap consolation prize like the Gift Pack they are doling out to babies born next year. For a senior citizen's rumbling stomach, even baby food will suffice.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Wit, Candour and Angst

Timothy Eugene Garlock must have felt he's not one of the welcomed visitors in our midst, now that his commentary has been deleted. As an American citizen, he can't be accused of harboring vested interest in the looming Battle Royale for Ngee Ann Civic Plaza.

Singapore is unique that its citizens are called names by its elected leaders. "Quitters" and "moaners" came from Goh Chok Tong, Lee Kuan Yew preferred "champion grumblers" (National Geographic, Jan 2010). Of late, the labels are getting uglier, "bigots" and "xenophobes" are now de riguer. Worse, when the slurs are hurled by a general presumably sworn to defend his countrymen.

Explaining the 150th World Press Freedom ranking of the mainstream media here, Reporter Without Borders did write, "in Singapore, (where) the authorities are on edge". Fortunately we do have on record someone saying, "Do you believe everything you read in the Straits Times?"

Since most of the politically incorrect posts have been redacted, we won't know what is the disgrace and abuse allegedly attributed to Singaporeans. We do know that Singaporeans are fully capable of writing with wit, candour and angst. The following samples were culled from the social media pages of u-know-who:

First the angst:
"we do welcome visitors, but not when they climb over your head.
i was at botanic gardens sometime back with my daughter for a picnic. we were in this Pavilion with out picnic mat, books n foods for about an hr. then this group of philipinos both male and female decided that they wanted the place, they started putting their stuffs around us, taking off their shoes and putting them next to our food. i got fed up, packed up and when we were about to leave, 1 guy said "THANK YOU, YOUR COUNTRY VERY BEAUTIFUL, HAHAHAHA" THE WHOLE GROUP LAUGHED. i would have punched the guy in the face if my daughter was not there.
Dear PM, this is what common folkes like me are getting from these people.
before saying i dun know what its like out there, i spend the first 10 yrs of my working life overseas in many countries, never have i shown disrespect to the people in my host countries.
BTW, national day was over a drink at a pub with the few Singaporean i can find, not a mass gathering in the heart of the city."

Then the candour:
"Dear LHL,
Please consider properly the comparison you've made with Singapore. You do realize Singapore is a small little island, which is privileged enough to be called a country. I don't know if you realize how big London and every other country on the Earth is. See... London is huge and by huge, they have cities and a thing called 'Capital', which is England. Singapore, however, is an island itself and has no such opportunity to have a capital, therefore we are known as Singapore, Singapore.
Comparing Singapore to London feels like a joke which I find extremely hilarious. Hence, please do some of us the favour of not comparing us, an island, to a country that has cities and a capital.
Someone who has thought long and hard and feels sad that you made such a comparison."

And finally the wit:
"I'm so happy to have such an understanding leader in Mr. Lee. It's good to celebrate the Independence of Philippine. However, would it be unfair to only celebrate Philippine's Independence Day? Could it be made a public holiday for us to celebrate with them? I mean, come on, let's go the extra mile in celebration. Let us celebrate for the rest of the 189 nations too. Let us not be a disgrace by showing grace to other nations. I wouldn't mind having an extra 189 days of public holidays... Let's show the world that Singaporeans are the most welcoming of all nations."

If listening to Singaporeans is such an ardous undertaking, just heed the voice of Timothy Garlock: "Remember, Singaporean citizens must come first above all other regardless of their nationalities".

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.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Reflections Of Lim

Lim Wee Kiak couldn't be more wrong when he said that Singapore Airlines (SIA) has better media management than Malaysia's handling of the MH370 incident. A senior Yahoo executive was furious when SIA spokesman Rick Clements told CNN that there were no casualties after SQ006 turned into the wrong runway on the night of Oct 31, 2000, and crashed into a construction vehicle, killing 83 of 179 passengers aboard. Screaming his frustration on TV, he asked aloud how could that be when he personally saw a fellow passenger in his first class section burst into flames?

“Everyone here knows who the dead are but we were still crying back in Singapore and up till now, we know nothing. You owe us an explanation!” a Singaporean woman shouted at SIA CEO Cheong Choong Kong. The brother of a man who died in the crash was also not impressed by Cheong's lame excuses. “Tell the press the true story,” he said. “Don’t hide any more. Are people’s lives more important or SIA’s reputation?” It all sounds so familiar, only the angry voices were not PRC Chinese.

Lim had to eat humble pie - with a side order of grovel sauce - for different reasons. He dared suggest that the MH370 incident "revealed glaring gaps in communications among ASEAN countries". Foreign Minister K Shanmugam couldn't have been pleased. Lim didn't just stop at undoing regional relations, he ventured further into territorial security, "This episode into may give China a reason to say they should manage the airspace over South China Sea." This time it's the Defence Minister's turn to facepalm.

In a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Senior Parliamentary Secretary Sam Tan made the official position clear: the remarks by Lim, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Foreign Affairs, "do not represent the views of the Government".

The Nee Soon GRC Member of Parliament (MP) once told Workers’ Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang “I will quote (from your speech then) one more time. And maybe your hearing aid has to be (turned) up a little bit.” Maybe all of us, Lim included, need to have our hearing checked. How can the chair of the Government Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Foreign Affairs not speak for Defence and Foreign Affairs?

If there's one good reason to distance yourself from this controversial character, it should this defence of ministerial salaries by arguing that a reasonable payout helps maintain "dignity" for politicians dealing with media:
"If the annual salary of the Minister of Information, Communication and Arts is only $500,000, it may pose some problems when he discuss policies with media CEOs who earn millions of dollars because they need not listen to the minister's ideas and proposals. Hence, a reasonable payout will help to maintain a bit of dignity," Dr Lim told LianHe ZaoBao in Chinese.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Justice Is Blind

This would be a real joke if not for the seriousness of the offence. Mr Mahalingam was originally arrested for rioting, then the charge was downgraded to obstruction of a public servant. He faces up to 8 years in jail and/or a fine if found guilty.

Mahalingam's alleged crime was to fail to disperse as instructed by police officers, and to insist on entering Belilios Road which had been closed off by the authorities. His lawyer said that his client was not trying to enter the road, he merely wanted to wait for his brother whom he said had gone into the area to relieve himself.

The misunderstanding could have been cleared before anyone was dragged to court. Here the laughing matter stops being funny.

Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Subramaniam, the officer who made the in-situ decision to arrest Mahalingam - reportedly because “no advice or persuasion was going to make him change his mind” - told the court: "I'm not able to recognise the accused now, as my encounter with him then was brief."

Special Operations Command officer Lim Ke Wei, who provided his standard issue hand-cuffs to effect the arrest, also testified in court that he could not recognise Mahalingam.

When Inspector Lee Tian Huat of the Criminal Investigation Department was asked if he had “any evidence that the accused man had used any force or any behaviour that prevented the officer from discharging his duty”, the law enforcer said, "No".

Of the 25 Indian nationals charged for various offences, from rioting to failure to disperse, 6 have pleaded guilty and sentenced to between 15 and 18 weeks’ jail. Makes you wonder how many languishing behind bars, or the lot that was so promptly deported, were positively identified.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Recounting History

The last advice Uncle Ben passed to Peter Parker in the first Spiderman movie was "With great powers, come great responsibility". When US Secretary of Defence Chick Hagel said something along those lines, General Fan Changlong was not amused, "We will make no compromise, no concession, no trading, not even a tiny violation is allowed. The Chinese military can assemble as soon as summoned, fight any battle and win."

The vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, and Defence Minister Chang Wanquan, took umbrage at Hagel's comments made at the Asean defence ministers meeting about the Daiyu islands controversy ("The Chinese people, including myself, are dissatisfied with such remarks"). In Hawaii, Hagel actually said he would "prod" Chinese leaders towards responsible behavior. Given the sensitivity of the topic, even a Facebook "poke" may not be welcomed.

China's pugnacity may have been encouraged by a contribution to the April 14, 2014 issue of Forbes. The author is a politician from Singapore:
"China’s reliance on historical claims necessitates considering what its fleets did in the past, way before Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas and Vasco da Gama arrived in India. More than six centuries ago Emperor Zhu Di of the Ming Dynasty sent out a large fleet of trading ships to explore and trade with the rest of the world. His choice to command the expedition was Grand Eunuch Zheng He (1371–1433). Zheng He was born and raised a Muslim in what is now Kunming City in Yunnan Province. He was captured by Ming Dynasty forces around 1381 and taken to Nanjing, where he was castrated and subsequently sent to serve in the palace of Zhu Di, who was then the Prince of Yan and would later become Yongle Emperor.
Over the course of nearly three decades (1405–33) Zheng He led seven westward expeditions, which were unprecedented in size and range. They spanned the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, and reached as far as the east coast of Africa. The ships used for these expeditions–more than 400 feet in length, based on archaeological evidence–were many times the size of those Columbus used to sail across the Atlantic.

These expeditions amply demonstrated the power and wealth of the Ming Dynasty. More important, they left a lasting impact on the countries visited: Numerous masjids (mosques) in the region are named after Zheng He, commemorating his contributions to the local communities.

If historical claims can define jurisdiction over waters and oceans, the Chinese can point to the fact that 600 years ago they sailed these waters unchallenged."

The aforementioned Ming dynasty (1368–1644), despite all its glory years, was finally considered to have lost the Mandate of Heaven and collapsed before the rebel leader Li Zicheng and a Manchurian invasion.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Cosmetic Law Enforcement

Demonstrating the elasticity of law
Who is the law here? Instead of being taken to task by the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) or its equivalent in the legal system, Woffles Wu has been censured by his peers.

The Singapore Medical Council (SMC) suspended the plastic surgeon from practice for 4 months for getting his 76-year-old employee to "save his own skin" (pun from the tribunal proceedings) instead of owning up to driving his custom job Mercedes over the city speed limits.

The celebrity 54-year-old doctor had pleaded guilty to "abetting" senior citizen Kuan in providing misleading information to the Traffic Police on two occasions, about the 11 September 2005 and 10 November 2006 speeding transgressions, and was given a maximum fine of $1,000. Many in the legal circles, including ex-police woman Sylvia Lim, opined that he should have been charged under Section 182 of the Penal Code. The AGC refuted the experts, "On the facts of this case, as there was no major accident or injury". Even when precedents were highlighted where Section 182 had been invoked in several cases not involving major accident or injury.

The Disciplinary Tribunal (DT) who made the decision to suspend Wu on 21 February 2014 did not come to their weighty conclusion because of any Hippocratic Oath type consideration about saving lives. The tribunal cited his lack of integrity and lack of remorse as the primary reasons for the suspension: “Instead of setting a good example for younger practitioners to emulate, the Respondent’s dishonesty had tarnished the good name of the profession."

That plus Wu's personal address to the DT just before the proceedings concluded, stating that he thought it was a common practice to furnish false information to the Traffic Police (in Singapore) for such offences and that "even some senior medical practitioners were doing so.”

In plain language, it's all bad for business. All those medical tourists might just decide to skip the cowboy town and hop over to Thailand or Malaysia. Where medical doctors and law enforcers have a healthier respect for the law.

The unruffled Woffles is taking the minor upset as just another speed bump. His Aesthetic Surgery & Laser Centre clinic will be manned by locums (ironically defined as a person who temporarily fulfills the duties of another, driving duties hopefully excluded), while he goes on holiday and prepare for the World Masters Squash Championship in Hong Kong in July.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Creative Talent

Eyes brows were raised when the Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA) announced that Singapore beat 43 other economies with a top score of 562 for problem solving. The prime minister was over the moon, "Who says Singaporean students are rote learners?" The test comprises 4 to 8 computer based questions, including how to set a thermostat and determining the shortest distance between two points. Identifying the Higgs boson particle is definitely off syllabus. One member of parliament put a damper on the celebrations by writing that while Singapore teens have been proven to do well in problem-solving, Singaporeans still fare poorly in spoken English and lack confidence in articulating their views.

The reality is that creativity takes many forms. The Inland Revenue Authority (IRAS) came across some clever ideas to get cash out of the Productivity & Innovative Credit (PIC) scheme:
  • Use fake documents to claim for non-existent purchases or inflate invoices;
  • Create shell company to claim for purchases of equipment;
  • List relatives and friends as staff to meet minimum number of local staff requirement
Depending on your perspective, these guys have been pretty productive - maximising output by minimising costs. Naturally, IRAS is not pleased.

They set up a 9-member task force in August 2013 to bust these creative types. Considering the PIC scheme was created in 2010 to boost productivity, one wonders why it took so long for someone to wake up from slumber and discover the missing money. Of the 158 cases investigated, only 49 were solved, involving a total of almost $3 million. Who says Singapore has no local talent? You just have to know where to look.

Here's the last word from Hri Kumar Nair:
"However skilled you are at problem-solving and however many hours you spend at your desk, you will not likely make a strong impression in the business world if you are unable to communicate your thoughts and ideas effectively."
The corollary to this is that, despite all the hot air ventilated, the trains are still breaking down.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Watch The Right Stuff

Onscreen violence
The good news is that the DIY clothes hanger antenna works (thanks, anon@4/01/2014 7:18 PM), the band width was sufficient to pull in the digital broadcast signals. Then one starts to realise that the high definition programming was pathetic. Definitely not enough content to justify the expense for a new full 1080p HDTV with DVB-T2 compliant digital tuner electronics.

And then there were the unexpected cuts. We are talking about the "Karate Kid" movie screened recently, where scenes of Afro-American Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) being roughed up by a mainland Chinese playground bully were snipped off. Yet we have on RazorTV, the uncensored assault of a motorcyclist by an angry Ang Moh on a public road. Right, no bones were broken, so the cops didn't have to come into the picture.

Media Development Authority (MDA) is spending big bucks on another survey in an effort to engage Singaporeans since traditional TV is not doing the job. Last year's poll reported that the 17,000 residents surveyed watched 29.4 hours of programmes on TV, computer and mobile phone every week, 7 hours more than in 2011. The increase was attributed to the expanded distribution of content using online and mobile platforms. There was no data on TV reach alone.

Nielsen’s most recent study indicates that Americans aged 18-24 watched a weekly average of about 22-and-a-half hours during Q4 2013. That was a 47-minute drop-off from Q4 2012, which in turn had been down more than 2 hours from the year before. TV is not dead - yet -  research suggests that online video tends to act as a complement rather than a replacement for traditional TV. But that's American TV.

Here in Singapore, the 5" smartphone or 10" tablet screen is definitely more engaging than a 55" large screen TV.  The difference is that we don't have to watch the "right"  news.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Exploiting Tragedies

It's a well known fact. Politicians here exploit personal tragedies for their selfish agenda. Those banners and wreaths at funeral wakes are just another venue for their advertising space.

Earlier we had one female eliciting campaign mileage from a hawker stall helper who was unfairly shamed about his tattered attire. Now we have another riding on the news of the sad demise of a young man who died from head injuries during the OCBC Cycle Singapore event.

As a cabinet minister of means, he could have demanded a proper accounting of the unnecessary death. Why was the steep slope of the Benjamin Sheares Bridge, designed for use as a high speed expressway, selected for a bicycle route? Initially reported as a crash, it is now attributed to a fall. Fall from a one meter height that resulted in a cracked skull, and blood clots that dealt the final blow.

Sid Tyler, a prominent member of the Pasadena City Council from 1997-2009, also fell on March 28, 2014, while riding his bicycle in Pasadena on Thursday. Neighbors said that Tyler was cycling on California Boulevard in Pasadena, signaled for a left turn and then lost his balance on his bike and crashed into the street. He was wearing a helmet. He sustained a severe neck injury in the accident, and was taken off life support on Friday at Huntington Hospital.

Someone should call for an audit of those bicycle helmets. One suspects those fancy headgear are more cosmetic than life saving. Earlier dominant "hairnet" style form of helmets offered acceptable protection from scrapes and cuts, but only minimal impact protection. Advances of the late 1990s and early 2000s in retention and fitting systems replaced the old system of varying thickness pads with cradles for more precise adjustment to the rider's head. It also resulted in the back of the head being less covered by the helmet.

Studies of helmet use by injured cyclists were published from the late 1980s, some in Australia, both before and after helmet legislation concluded both for and against the encouragement of bicycle helmet wearing and/or bicycle helmet legislation (McDermott et al, 1993, "The effectiveness of bicyclist helmets: a study of 1710 casualties", Journal of Trauma). This debate continues, apparently without consensus. At least this is healthier discourse than "remember to vote for me".
Former professional cyclist on descending Sheares Bridge

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Lapses In Government Agencies

One of the most "rewarding" departments to work in any organisation is procurement. Under the euphemism of "guanxi" or other innocent sounding excuse, many palms have been greased. The art of the finesse is to make it look legit. Like the Public Utility Board (PUB) $112,400 ruse of splitting 13 higher-value purchases into 46 instances of small-value purchases to bypass the bureaucratic call for open tenders. Taken to the extreme, one can buy a Herman Miller chair with petty cash.

Our intrepid Auditor-General(AG) has discovered 12 of 35 lapses in public sector tender exercises may be attributed to "laxity in the area of procurement". The current standard operation procedures (SOP) apparently allow for:
  • waiving competitive offers based on weak grounds;
  • letting certain bidders alter their bids after the tender has closed;
  • and not disclosing the evaluation criteria upfront in tender documents.
Suddenly it's all too crystal clear how $2 companies like Action Information Management (AIM) can swing multi-million contracts in their favour.

The 5 ministries fingered by the AG are not exactly the smaller outfits likely to hide under the radar. They include:
  • Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (c/o Lawrence Wong);
  • Ministry of Education (c/o Heng Swee Kiat);
  • Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (c/o V Balakrishnan);
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs (c/o K Shanmugam);
  • Ministry of Home Affairs (c/o Teo Chee Hean).
The ministries lay blame on human error, not the absence of rules and procedures. Hmmm, didn't someone just tell the Brits that it is the people, not the system, that is keeping Singapore clean? Quoted as example is the $322.77 million contract for the National University of Singapore's University Town that went haywire. Contract was terminated and the National Research Foundation (NRF) officers involved quickly exited to other departments, leaving no trace for accountability. One NRF chap was responsible enough to stay behind, and duly counselled. There is no mention of how many millions were lost and buried at the site.

Chairman of the Centre for Public Project Management Cedric Fool - there's no other way to spell his name after this - thinks public officers should be rewarded for good practices, not disciplined for flouting the rules. Spare the rod and spoil the child, and that's how a culture of laxity is pervading the system.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

April Fooled

Today's the day when print media used to plant a fictitious story as a joke, and everyone has fun in spotting the spoof. But the humour is lost when they hike the utility charges on one page, and talk about offsetting the suffering in another.

As the numbers go, 800,000 households are supposed to receive up to $45 million in utilities rebates. The Ministry of Finance calculates this should cover 3 to 4 months of utility bills for families living in one- and two-room flats. That's approximately less than $20 per month for these folks. After the 3 to 4 months of relief runs out, they may have to resort to washing up in public toilets and using candles for illumination. That's not funny at all.

The permanent secretaries who perpetuate this one-hand give, one-hand take charade sure has a sick sense of humour. A cynical salesman who demonstrated the Draco set-top box (STB) - which is needed when digital television broadcast is finally rolled out by end 2016 - said that when they waived the $100 television fee, they were already planning to rip us off on pay-TV charges. The cable or mioTV option costs more than $20 a month.  There's good reason the newer public housing flats don't have a central master antenna, free to air (FTA) broadcasts is going the way of the dodo.

The Draco STB retails at $129. Or you could buy a new TV with a digital tuner conforming to the DVB-T2 standard. Early adopters who bought the DVB-T tuner just got plugged. There's talk the STB will be provided free for the needy; electricity charges are extra costs.

Maybe those folks whose utility bills are in the region of $20 a month weren't supposed to watch television. Maybe they are supposed to stay quietly in their darkened room to save energy; every hour for them is a lights-out Earth Hour. And since their homes will be kept in the dark, no one will notice there are poor people in developed countries like Singapore. Kishore Mahbubani, who has just been named by leading British current affairs Prospect magazine as one of this year's top 50 world thinkers, was the first to say poverty in Singapore has been eradicated. Now that's funny.