May 27, 2017

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Authors Posts by Bertha Henson

Bertha Henson

Bertha Henson
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Bertha was formerly Associate Editor of The Straits Times and worked as a journalist in Singapore Press Holdings for 26 years.

by Bertha Henson

I RECALL reading Dr Benjamen Gussen’s piece in ST in January and thinking to myself: this can never fly. So I was surprised to see that Mr Peter Ho had raised it as an example of thinking beyond national boundaries in his final S R Nathan lecture.

Dr Gussen, a law lecturer in the University of Southern Queensland, had proposed that Singapore and Australia set up a charter city in Australia. Think of it like a Special Economic Zone. Except that his concept was quite extensive, with equity partnerships and a constitution with a 10-year transition period after which the residents can choose their own representatives. He even called his hypothetical city Dilga. You can read it here.

Dr Gussen saw it as a demand and supply problem. Singapore needs space; Australia has plenty. Both sides have plenty to offer each other in terms of resources and know-how. It will be win-win.

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Why did I dismiss it out of hand? After all, it is true that Singapore needs space and Australia isn’t far away. There are plenty of Singaporeans working and living there. I suppose it’s because I’m used to the idea of Singapore as a little red dot on the map. Plus, immediate problems of national identity come to mind. We are a country that doesn’t even allow dual citizenship and chafes at the presence of so many foreigners within its borders. Then there are practical problems, like should charter city residents do National Service?

I’m afraid the cons came to mind much faster than the pros. Mr Ho is right to say that we shouldn’t let our physical size constrain our thinking. Perhaps, we wear our little red dot badge rather too proudly. Perhaps, we’ve been so conditioned by the vulnerability narrative that we only think in terms of what we can do here, get people and products here and how to prosper here. Mr Ho, a nice man, said it’s natural that we cling to what we’re familiar with and project the future from what we know of the present. But given the accelerating change that technology brings, the present is not a good predictor of anything.

Acknowledging that establishing a charter city would be difficult, he said: “But even if this specific idea may not gain much traction, it raises this possibility – that the idea of Singapore need not be confined to this small island.”

Have we done what we can with the space we have? At 719 sq km, Singapore is now 25 per cent bigger than it was two centuries ago. Late last year, the G said a new method which doesn’t rely so much on sand will be used to add to Pulau Tekong. We’ve built artificial islands, like Jurong, we’ve built upwards and we’re building downwards . Over the past two years, we’ve been talking about digging tunnels and developing spaces underground. We already have caverns to store liquid hydrocarbons and ammunition. We can also also build more intensively (we’re not as densely populated as Hong Kong), while, hopefully, remaining a liveable city.

Dr Gussmen and Mr Ho are futurists who believe that we should think about living somewhere else or even virtually – while still remaining Singaporean.

Mr Ho gave examples of what a few other small countries are doing to extend their boundaries – and he doesn’t mean land reclamation.

There is Luxembourg, with just 600,000 people, which is reaching for the stars. It introduced legislation in November last year to let companies own resources such as platinum, obtained from space. It has set aside money and attracted American companies dealing with the space industry. We shouldn’t laugh because the country happens to know quite a bit about space. It founded one of the largest satellite companies in the world. It’s no space cadet.

By the way, Singapore has a space and satellite industry too. It currently comprises 30 companies and employs 1,000 people. Late last year, the G said that the industry is a new cluster it will focus on growing.

There is Estonia, with 1.3 million people, and where babies get a digital identity at birth that would allow them later as adults to sign contracts and do transactions. It is pioneering e-residency, said Mr Ho.

“You may live abroad. If you become an e-resident of Estonia, you can use some of the digital services available to Estonian citizens, such as setting up an Estonia-based company. E-residency helps Estonia generate business activity for Estonian companies, from independent contractors to small companies with clients worldwide. More than 18,000 people have since become e-residents,” he said.

Come to think of it, if this concept was applied here, it would solve our manpower shortage problem. It’s like having Singapore permanent residents who live somewhere else. One condition needs fulfilling though. Singapore would have to be a really, really Smart Nation which is extremely “networked”.

Then this may happen: “In the future, digital platforms can tap into labour based abroad, without even setting up a Singapore-supported industrial park abroad. Such platforms, like Konsus, already exist. Konsus matches high-end independent contractors or freelancers with projects, including when the freelancer and the project client are based in different places. If cross-border supply of services increases, Singaporeans may be able to work with co- workers and clients based abroad, as if they were physically present in Singapore.”

Mr Ho thinks that Singapore is capable of overcoming constraints because, ironically, its small size makes it easy to change course – or do a course correction – quickly. Quick changes are inherent in Singapore’s DNA, which was why it succeeded from moving from Third World colony to global city.

But who’s going to steer the boat and will the people row? It comes back to politics and leadership.

“A key source of Singapore’s strength has always been our people’s trust in fair competition and just reward for effort and achievements, compassion for the unfortunate, and a restless yearning for continuous progress. The points on trust and compassion bear emphasising. This has to be carefully fostered by the leadership because, without it, it would have been impossible for our leaders to forge consensus on far-reaching policies and tough trade-offs between different priorities, interests, and groups.”

The above is from his fourth lecture.

But I prefer the way he discussed leadership in his second lecture.

“Change requires leadership, because it means leading people out of their comfort zone. Getting them to change is an act of will. The future-fit leader has to persuade his people to believe in the need for change, instil confidence in change, and empower his people to change.

“Successful leaders of change also make their people brave enough to express their opinions, change their behaviour, take risks, and learn from failure. They tolerate mavericks – even if they do not embrace them – because all future-fit organisations need mavericks. They are the ones who are prepared to challenge conventional wisdom and come up with the ideas that can change the rules of the game.”

Yup. Everyone needs to open up their minds, challenge orthodoxy and even slaughter some sacred cows. And if it’s done in the country’s interest, no one should be batting an eyelid. That’s the way to find our future.

Majulah Singapura.

 

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by Bertha Henson

MR PETER Ho isn’t like Mr Ho Kwon Ping, the entrepreneur who threw a couple of grenades when he was the first to take on the S R Nathan lectures. Nor is he like Mr Bilahari Kausikan, the veteran diplomat who made no bones about what he thought about soft-headed approaches in diplomacy. Mr Ho, the former head of the Civil Service who gave his fourth and final lecture yesterday,  is gentle and scholarly. His lectures can also be described as an attempt to get people to understand that…

a. The world is moving is so fast that it is well-nigh impossible to predict problems.

b. Today’s problems are so complex and intertwined that new approaches which encompass the big picture are needed to solve them – and even then, not everyone will be happy.

c. Singapore needs a new, broader mindset that goes beyond the traditional idea of a national identity bounded by natural borders if it wants to prosper.

It is in his fourth and final lecture that Mr Ho makes his recommendations for the future. The first three are a lead-up to his point about not letting Singapore’s constraints get us down. The above points probably over-summarise his lectures, which were extremely scholarly and delved deep into how to develop a mindset to deal with the unexpected.

So here is a selection of quotes that struck me, as well as my one cent worth of thoughts.

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Besides Black Swans, he talked about Black Elephants

“The black elephant is a problem that is actually visible to everyone, but no one wants to deal with it, and so they pretend it is not there. When it blows up as a problem, we all feign surprise and shock, behaving as if it were a black swan,” he said, giving the example of how the British establishment didn’t think that Brexit could happen and was caught flat-footed when it did.

Nope, he didn’t give a Singapore example of a Black Elephant which is cross between the black swan and the proverbial elephant in the room.  Perhaps, the swelling of the foreign population in Singapore in the late 2000s could well be one of them. It needed an election and a backlash over the White Paper on Population to get the G to rethink its foreign manpower policies. As for a Black Swan event, there’s the 2003 Sars crisis which Singapore responded to magnificently with a Whole-of-Government (WOG) approach. See next point.

He talked about a WOG approach to coming up with solutions

“But while Whole-of-Government may be an imperative for dealing with wicked problems, it is not easily achieved. Governments, like any large hierarchy, are organised into vertical silos. For Whole-of-Government to work, these vertical silos need to be broken down, so that information can flow horizontally to reach other agencies.

“It requires not just a lot of effort but also a real change of culture to surmount this instinct to operate within silos, in order to make Whole-of-Government work properly. Often, the leader must nag his people to remind them that the Whole-of- Government imperative takes precedence over narrow sectoral interests and perspectives.”

Nope, he didn’t give any examples of difficulty. Rather, he gave examples of how the G was already taking this approach, which includes establishing institutions which work in the WOG way, such as the National Security and Coordination Secretariat and more recently, the Smart Nation & Digital Government Group.

He talked about the difficulties of challenging the official view

“But even if they try to do that, it is not always easy for the planner or policy-maker to challenge the official future, especially when that future is consistent with an organisation’s biases and preconceptions. Those who articulate a radically different future are at danger of being branded as subversive or lacking a sense of reality. So they will have a real incentive to make their scenarios more palatable for their audiences. But in so doing, they also inadvertently reduce the impetus for the organisation to confront uncomfortable alternative futures and to prepare itself for them.”

Maybe the paragraphs above reflect his thinking about the paucity of naysayers and the dangers of groupthink, which was a hot topic recently. Note, however, he is taking an organic approach – that all big hierarchical institutions have the same problems.

He talked about mavericks

“Some will argue that leaders should be more tolerant of mavericks. My response to this is “Yes, but only up to a point.” A maverick is a maverick only if he is fighting the establishment. If he believes enough in his ideas, he ought to have the courage and conviction of his beliefs to push them, even against resistance. If he gives up the moment he runs into some opposition or official rebuff, then in my book, he is not a maverick. I think this is a sound approach. It is essentially a Darwinian process in which only those who have thought through their ideas, and are prepared to stand up and defend them, deserve the chance of a second hearing. Some mavericks will survive.”

This was in his second lecture, delivered on April 19. So it wasn’t directed at a certain someone who wrote an unfortunate Facebook post.

He referred to the blame culture

“When things go wrong, as they often do, how do we respond? Do we just look for someone to blame, or do we work to solve the problem? A blame-seeking culture can be both destructive as well as unproductive. It might satisfy a human impulse to hold someone accountable. But it certainly does not solve the problem.”

So decision-making is an imperfect process. There’s so little time to come up with a solution, which can’t please everyone anyway. But surely holding someone accountable is not just a human impulse but also the right thing to do, just as we reward the meritorious? It is part of the process of transparency, which he didn’t touch on.

He said that Singapore can be more than a little red dot on the atlas.

“The central question that is posed in this evening‟s lecture is whether Singapore is merely a price-taker, or whether it has the ability to influence and alter the factors that shape the future?

“A thread running through all these four lectures – and this evening‟s in particular – is a hopeful view that even small city-states can influence, shape, and even create, not just markets, but also their operating environment. It is a belief in this view that hope can be redeemed for even a little red dot like Singapore.”

This was from his final lecture where he referred to small countries like Estonia and Denmark which envision e-nations in their future. But that is the subject of another column.

 

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by Bertha Henson

IT DIDN’T escape notice that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wasn’t at the biggest diplomatic event held in China over the weekend. The guest list was filled with luminaries including his counterparts in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. There were in all 29 heads of state or government. Singapore was represented instead by Minister Lawrence Wong.

Asked why the PM Lee wasn’t there, he said that the invitation was decided by the Chinese.

So on Sunday, PM Lee was giving out flowers to his Ang Mo Kio constituents on the occasion of Mother’s Day, rather than hobnobbing with other leaders over what seemed to be the most ambitious economic project in recent time.

His absence in Beijing is intriguing and only serves to raise questions about whether Singapore and China had papered over their differences since the seizure of Singapore Armed Forces vehicles by Hong Kong authorities in November last year. Or are the Chinese still pissed off at Singapore’s lack of empathy over its position on the South China Sea?

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You wonder if the invitation was extended to a Deputy Prime Minister or a senior co-ordinating minister like Mr Khaw Boon Wan. After all, Mr Wong, in charge of national development, told the media himself that Singapore didn’t have any infrastructure projects under the One Belt, One Road initiative. In fact, he spoke more about “brokering’’ opportunities for Singapore banking and city planners.

Even as it seemed that the PM had been snubbed by the Chinese, we’re told that a Chinese delegation is in Singapore to discuss leadership development. The Singapore side was led by Mr Teo Chee Hean, who is also Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister-in-charge of the Civil Service. The Chinese were headed by Mr Zhao Leji, Communist Party of China (CPC) Politburo member and Central Committee Organisation Department Minister.

Is this a meeting of political equals? Or should we be glad that a Chinese delegation has deigned to visit Singapore even as China chose not to invite its PM over for its biggest shindig? And we’ve been asserting that Singapore is its “all-weather friend’’ – who also wants to be a friend to all. In other words, we don’t want to take sides. The question then is the definition of an “all-weather friend’’.

All this illustrates the rather prickly situation of the little red dot. Obviously, the Chinese want Singapore firmly in its camp, and might even be wondering why a Chinese majority country isn’t behaving like Muslim-dominated Malaysia and Indonesia or a Catholic country like the Philippines.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung tried to explain this in TODAY : “In Singapore, we have a majority Chinese population. But other than the Chinese traditional culture, what is very deeply rooted in Singapore is a collective awareness that there is also the tradition and wisdom of the Malay and Indian cultures. We are small, and we are open. We have been very much affected by Western cultures, but basically, we are still an Oriental* society.” Presumably he means Oriental as Asian opposed to Occidental or Western, rather than the perception that Oriental means Chinese.

To business people here, the chief concern is probably whether the political atmosphere would affect the economic environment and their chance of exploiting the massive One Belt, One Road project.

It doesn’t help to read about the deals inked by Asean counterparts with China, even though most of them are for infrastructural projects which aren’t relevant to Singapore.

Is the initiative a boon or a bane for Singapore?

There is the question of whether the plans for rail links cutting through Europe, Asia and Africa would affect Singapore’s premier port status. Maybe not, as the One Belt initiative includes a maritime route which cuts through Singapore and it’s still cheaper to go by sea.

Then again, there is the other question of whether ships will skip Singapore since the Chinese are helping different countries build their ports and industrial parks along the route. “With the Belt and Road (initiative), new infrastructure will be built all around us… Trade routes will be adjusted as these new roads and ports get built and developed,” noted Mr Wong.

That’s why Singapore is going full-speed to expand its port and airport facilities to gear up for the competition, he said.

The competition looks daunting. We’ll need to make and save money, if we don’t want to ask for Chinese money. And even if we do, there will be an insistence that significant projects must remain in Singapore hands rather than those of foreign (Chinese) companies.

It’s interesting that after Chinese leader Mr Zhao met PM Lee at the Istana, a statement was released which affirmed the “strong and substantial relationship’’ between the two countries. (Of course, nothing was said about the snub)

The statement also harked back to the old days: “The two leaders noted that bilateral relations dated back to 1976, when then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew first visited China, and 1978, when then-PRC (People’s Republic of China) Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore. Mr Lee and Mr Deng provided a strong foundation for the friendship and cooperation that the two countries now enjoy.’’

That was a long, long time ago. Circumstances are different now and China is a mighty power with the ability to project its military and economic might. Singapore is its biggest investor and it is Singapore’s biggest trading partner. How do we proceed from here and on what basis so as to secure our own independence and prosperity? Despite exhortations about strong ties, everything still looks pretty murky.

*According to the Mandarin speech delivered by Mr Ong, the appropriate word is Asian.

 

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Cyber attack

by Bertha Henson

I’M WRITING to you now because you’re the only one whose physical address I have. I only have email addresses for all my other friends. I’m sorry if you find it difficult to read my handwriting. I am so used to typing that I am not sure how to hold a pen. So I am using a pencil, so that I can erase ugly writing easily and, thank goodness, I still have a rubber from my Primary School days.

First, I hope that things are fine on your farm. Rearing chickens and growing vegetables don’t require the Internet right? Or are you logged in to that giant brain which is now in a coma? I feel envious of you. At least, you deal with real worms and not those which make you WannaCry. You know what I’m talking about right? Some NSA fellow in the US lost some spying software and now some jokers are holding a lot of people to ransom.

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I’ve been somewhat paralysed over the past few weeks and hopefully, by the time you read this (if nothing goes wrong with flight controls and air traffic), this time of stasis is over. In any case, I am using carbon paper while writing so that I can post a duplicate letter by sea-mail.

Right now, I’m re-learning everything, like what to do with my hands and fingers now that my cell phone is useless. I have taken to pen twirling and using one of those Fidget gadgets that’s become so popular.

Do you know how terrible it is to live without Google? I can’t answer queries in class as quickly as before or finish my assignments on time. I actually had to go to the library to do research. You should see us there…like monks in medieval times copying out notes. Lectures were even almost cancelled because the passes that get us into the lecture halls couldn’t work. We had to call the firefighters to break down the door. It was the first time I saw someone wield an axe in front of me.

Everything has changed.

My grandmother got sick and decided to see the sinseh instead of going to hospital. She’s worried that the hospital will prescribe the wrong medicines now that its system is down. So she had some needles poked into her and we managed to find a traditional Chinese medicine shop to buy the herbs and whatnots to brew her medicine at home.

My father says things are crazy in his office because he can’t get access to his files on the computer. He stopped storing hard copy versions a long time ago. All his old paper documents had been shredded to comply with the Personal Data Protection Act.

The good thing is that the worm hasn’t burrowed itself into the train system so we’re all still travelling from Point A to Point B. Except that sometimes, the doors at Point B can’t open. Our train operator made it clear it was a signalling problem and had nothing to with the malware although those of us stuck on board really wanna cry.

I can still reach my friends through the landline and watch free-to-air TV. My father bought a transistor radio as well because he said that’s the most reliable communication system we have. I think he’s paranoid.

He doesn’t want us to touch anything electronic or technological because he’s afraid of cross-infection. He wants to buy patches but they’re only available via the Internet, which of course, has died here. By patches, I mean a software that upgrades the computer system, defending it from cyber attacks. Think of it as a band-aid for a cut wound. He wants to buy plenty because the wound is still bleeding. I told him to also get bandages, in case he gets into an accident in his driverless car.

My mother says hi and wants to know how you keep uncooked food fresh when you have no refrigerator. I told her you kill your food or harvest your food every other day. She didn’t know, because she never went on a school exchange programme like I have.

The good thing is that I am getting more sunshine – and rain. I meet my friends more often and visit relatives in their home even though it’s not Chinese New Year. That because I can’t stay cooped up in my room staring at my blank computer. I am actually getting used to talking again. Having face-to-face conversations is such an exciting experience, especially when there’s no ring tone to disturb the flow.

I have to stop here because I have to recite the anthem of the Smart Nation. I think you are wise to stick with Mother Nature, even though we’re slowly killing her. But, at least, she can’t die overnight.

Sincerely,

Your Internet-savvy friend

 

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by Bertha Henson

I AM glad that Dr Tan Cheng Bock applied to the courts for a decision on whether the G’s calculations on when to call a reserved presidential election is constitutional. After a quick burst through Parliament albeit after six months of deliberation by a constitutional commission, the judiciary will now have a look at the trigger mechanism.

This is a contentious portion, couched by the G as a way to preserve minority representation but seen by Dr Tan’s fans as a way to keep him out of the coming contest. This is due in September, so it’s likely that the courts will move fast and make a speedy decision.

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Opposition MPs who have raised questions about the timing of reserved elections during the debate on the changes to the presidency have been given short shrift. The G’s tactic was to turn the guns on the MPs, suggesting that they were impugning the office of its top lawyer by asking for more details on how he came to the conclusion that Singapore was now in its fifth presidential term without a Malay president.

The Attorney-General (AG) had dated the start with the late Dr Wee Kim Wee’s exercise of an elected president’s powers. Detractors like Dr Tan argued that Mr Wee was an appointed president who took on the expanded powers because the changes to Constitution were made during his term of office in 1991. Dr Tan, himself a former presidential candidate, argued that the count should begin with the term of the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong, who won the first presidential election.

Clearly, this is not a topic that the G wishes to engage anyone on. The Ministry of Communications and Information gave a terse reply to Dr Tan’s press conference which he had called on March 31 to contest this point. He did not raise any new points, it said.

Truth to tell, people raise old points all the time and it is probably good politics to respond to them because politics is about persuading people to your point of view, even if you have to do it for the umpteenth time. Dr Tan’s misgivings are shared, at least by this writer. To have race thrown into the political mix after such a long silence is puzzling enough. To activate the mechanism immediately looks like too much haste.

It isn’t apparent that the Malay community welcomes its coming shot at the office. In my view, it wouldn’t hurt to have an open election for the next president to test the assumption that minority candidates wouldn’t be elected, that is, if the Malay community is able to forward an able and willing person to try for the job. But that is only my view, and not a legal view. The AG doubtless would have legal arguments on his side which we have yet to hear.

Dr Tan’s application allows the issue to be raised, albeit in a different forum, so that laymen like me will have the satisfaction of seeing all points of views canvassed.

I find it intriguing that the application is about how the new clause in the Presidential Elections Act might not be consistent with new amendments to the Constitution which allow for reserved elections. So is this a drafting problem rather than a fundamental one?

It’s not too far of a stretch to say that there is plenty of cynicism over parliamentary proceedings, especially the speedy passage of legislation. The People’s Action Party’s stranglehold over Parliament is one reason for the “efficiency’’. But even in the days of still fewer opposition MPs, parliamentary select committees were formed to scrutinise important legislation. No such committee has been set up for years.

Are backbenchers up to the job of debating the G which would have its battery of civil servants, including the AG, giving advice? I have always wondered about the work of Government Parliamentary Committees that are supposed to specialise in fields of government and hence be better informed for debates. The media gives GPC leaders the privilege of naming them as such when they speak up but what do these GPCs actually do? Do they convene meetings or meet their resource panels (if any) to discuss forthcoming legislation?

The opposition MPs are supposed to check the G – or that’s what they say about the role. To give them credit, they do ask some pointed questions, but they seem incapable of coming up with coherent alternatives; witness the Workers’ Party’s (WP) lame proposal to replace the elected presidency. Nor did they advance any further on the queries they raised regarding a reserved election. End of debate. Bill passed. Business ended.

Save the WP MPs, nobody seems too bothered by the decision that the first elected president is different from the first president to exercise the power of an elected president. This must be because they agree with the G, even though this is only based on the AG’s say-so.

So someone outside Parliament decided to turn to the third arm of the State: the judiciary. Obviously, Dr Tan did not raise a frivolous piece of litigation since the court has accepted the application and even set a date for a meeting. His argument makes sense to the layman: those long in the tooth will remember voting for the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong and I daresay no one will ever refer to Mr Wee as “the first president to exercise the powers of an elected president”. To most, Mr Ong was the first elected President. Period.

You might say that Dr Tan has a vested interest in getting the timings changed so that he can throw his hat into the ring. He had said, after all, that he would be contesting, but that was before the changes to the legislation. (Read more about it here) But even if he succeeds in his court application, it is no longer a walk through the presidential park for aspiring candidates of any race. Dr Tan, for example, might not be able to meet expanded criteria on corporate experience.

His legal challenge, whether motivated by self or public interest, is a welcomed one. Let the AG speak. Let Dr Tan’s lawyers speak. Let learned eyes look over the legislation. The judiciary is after all another avenue of check and balances. We deserve more explanation and elucidation, whatever the final outcome of the application.

 

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by Bertha Henson

MAVERICK politician Dr Tan Cheng Bock has gone to the High Court to contest the G’s calculation of when a reserved election should be held.

He has consulted a Queen’s Counsel (QC) in Britain who shares his opinion that the G did wrong by specifying that the calculation should start from the term of the late Mr Wee Kim Wee, who exercised the powers of an elected president when the Constitution was first changed to allow for this.

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According to the G, this means that Singapore is currently in the fifth presidential term without a Malay in the top job. The coming election due in September should therefore be reserved for candidates from the community.

Dr Tan held a press conference on Mar 31 contesting this calculation, which was the advice that was given to the G by the Attorney-General (AG). By his reckoning, the start date should be from the first open election held for the presidency, which would make the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong the first elected president. If so, this would mean that only four terms have passed without a Malay president and the coming election should therefore be open to candidates of all races.

The G has maintained that it was abiding by the AG’s advice and that Dr Tan raised nothing new in his press conference. Opposition politicians who had asked the same question in Parliament were also told that the AG, the G’s top lawyer, had looked at all legal issues surrounding the timing.

In his Facebook post announcing the legal challenge today, Dr Tan did not say what the QC had advised in terms of calculation except to give his view that “section 22 Presidential Elections (Amendment) Act 6 of 2017 as it stands is unconstitutional’’.

The relevant clause in the legislation which was approved by Parliament on Feb 6 this year, reads:

Dr Tan wants the court to decide if the clause is consistent with Articles 19 B (1) and 164 (1) of the Constitution which introduced the mechanism of a Reserved Election. You may read the clauses here.

“After receiving Lord Pannick’s reply, I felt I could not keep his legal opinion to myself. It would be in public interest to have the Court decide which legal view is correct – Lord Pannick or the AG,’’ he wrote.

Through law firm Tan Rajah and Cheah, he filed his application to the High Court on May 5. The application was accepted and the first pre-trial hearing will be on May 22.

Said Dr Tan: “I believe this question can be answered without confrontation or hostility. Both the Government and I have the nation’s best interest at heart. It is in nobody’s interest to have a Reserved Election that is unconstitutional.’’

 

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Bertha in coffee shop

by Bertha Henson

SO SOME people are kicking up a fuss over what Minister Chan Chun Sing said about the above question while referring to jobs. It seems that he was trying to tell his audience of polytechnic students not to keep thinking about landing their dream jobs immediately but to find meaning in whatever job they’re in. Is this a good analogy? Many people are trying to stretch the analogy, which I was told was made in a spontaneous speech. You have people castigating the minister for suggesting to young people that they can pick anyone to marry, or that he was telling them to be content with whatever job they have. Worse, some are making it “personal’’.

I have been wondering about my own career after graduation and whether I married the one I love or love the one I married. I can say that in my undergraduate days, I was actually infatuated with banking and flirted with the idea of working in a bank and counting money. I had a couple of bank suitors after graduation but eventually plumped for journalism. Not because I love journalism. I didn’t know a thing about it and wasn’t even sure I’d like him/it. I decided on him/it because he/it would make a better provider. Serious. It paid better.

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Maybe it’s because I belong to a generation where being able to provide for the family – I mean the first family with Mom and Dad – was a deeply ingrained duty of children. Even if there was no romance in the job, I told myself I would stick it out – and succeed. A decade later, I was asked to list a hobby for a company book. I wrote that “work is my hobby’’, to the astonishment of my colleagues then. Maybe they thought I was trying to curry favour with management. I don’t care. It was the truth.

More than two decades later, I am still wedded to journalism although I’ve divorced the company. I sometimes ask myself if I should have worked in a bank, which was, after all, my first love even though not as good a provider. The thing is, you never know if you’ll be happy doing your dream job unless you’ve tried it out. It’s like a couple for whom the honeymoon is over and business of living together starts. You could get along comfortably with each other, or you could grate on each other’s nerves.

I have come across too many people who wish they’re doing something different from what they originally wanted to do. For them, I advise a trial separation or a long holiday, like no-pay leave or a sabbatical, to re-charge their life. But since marriage is a death-do-us-part affair, it does mean that people have to make the effort to work at it. Effort which must start from the day you made your marriage vows. It’s no point starting a new job with a long face and making yourself feel worse by focusing on the things you don’t like.

I don’t think this is said often enough because we’re now so concerned about living the dream rather than making a living: people are being PAID to do a job and that job, however dis-likeable, should be done well.

If the unhappiness is overwhelming and affects your ability to justify your salary, then get a divorce. Play the field or maybe there is already a suitor waiting in the wings. Okay, I too am guilty of extending the analogy and no doubt, have succeeded in riling up some people. Just allow me this: Get an internship in your dream job, then you’ll find out whether you can live with the person you love. If you can, the question posed above is moot.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Bertha Henson

WHAT is the weight of public opinion? It is heaviest during election time, when everybody gets to vote. How they vote is science and for political parties and academics to interpret. Only the individual knows why he voted the way he did – and sometimes not even that.

Public opinion, that vague phenomenon, can be viewed in a positive way as reflecting the community sentiments which may or may not be based on rational grounds. Politicians know that they have to get public opinion on their side to be voted in or to simply garner support for an agenda.

Or, public opinion can simply be viewed as the baying of the mob. Whether you think it’s positive or negative depends on which side of the fence you are on. So if public opinion is aligned with your own views, it must be correct and something must be done about it. If it doesn’t, then those who hold such views are misguided, ill-informed or just plain idiots.

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When Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam talked to TODAY about the weight of public opinion in the review of laws, I did a double-take. It seemed odd to me that such a tough minister would consider public reaction a factor until I read this further along in the story: ‘’But it doesn’t mean automatically you agree with it. You must assess it, whether it is also fair. So, there are two parts to it — one, whether it is fair; two, what does the public believe is right.’’

He’s speaking generally, he said in his rebuke of academic Donald Low.

As an example, he spoke of American Joshua Robinson, a mixed martial arts instructor who had sex with two 15-year-olds and showed an obscene film to a six-year-old. Many saw the four year jail term as too lenient. Mr Shanmugam had directed his ministries to re-look this.

In the TODAY story, however, is this:

A deputy public prosecutor, who declined to be named, had reservations about reviews being announced soon after a case concludes in court.

“When the Government says these things, it ties our hands,” he said.

This is a pertinent point. Sometimes it’s not so much public opinion that matters – since they can always be dismissed – but the opinion of a powerful person.

The former G lawyer didn’t give an example but you wonder what prosecutors will do now since the minister announced last month that there will be a review of maid abuser penalties. This comes after a Singaporean couple was convicted for starving their maid. The man was sentenced to three weeks’ jail and a S$10,000 fine while his wife was sentenced to three months’ jail.

Commentators are also waiting to see what sort of measures will be taken against so-called fake news, and announcement that came immediately on the heels of the G’s failure to get the courts to agree that it can use the Protection from Harassment Act.

Unlike past Home Affairs and Law ministers, Mr Shanmugam – who holds both portfolios – is well-known for speaking up about court cases.

And unlike members of the public who can face contempt of court charges, he said in Parliament last year (Mar 1), “public officials like myself can make statements if they believe it to be necessary in the public interest – even if there is a hearing pending. Amongst other things, public confidence in the police must be maintained.”  This is in response to public speculation that 14-year old Benjamin Lim had committed suicide as a result of police investigations.

There is also the forum of Parliament which conveys immunity to its members.

He has never been one to keep quiet.

Some examples:

a. Mr Shanmugam’s comments at a public forum in May 2010 on Malaysian drug trafficker Yong Vui Kong sparked a judicial review of Yong’s clemency process. Mr Shanmugam said: “If Yong escapes the death penalty, drug barons will think the signal is that young and vulnerable traffickers will be spared and can be used as drug mules.”

Yong’s lawyer, Mr M Ravi, felt that Mr Shanmugam’s comments could prejudice the decision of the President to grant clemency. The review was dismissed in August 2010 because it was argued that – constitutionally – Cabinet, in which Mr Shanmugam is a member, could in fact advise the President on matters of clemency.

b. In April 22, 2015 he said the actions of the boy who attacked foreign worker to practice martial arts was “sickening conduct, the kind of conduct that you would not approve if somebody did it to animals.” Earlier that week, the boy was sentenced to 10 days jail. The Attorney-General Chamber’s appeal a few days later for stiffer sentencing was dismissed. You can say that the judge wasn’t influenced by what he said. But it does cast a pall over the verdict if it went the G’s way.

c. In April 2015, he came out strongly to castigate the man who slapped teen terror Amos Yee, saying in a Facebook post: “Rule of Law means respecting the legal process. If everyone starts taking the law into his or her own hands, then we will no longer be a civilised society. I hope that the attacker will be caught quickly, and is dealt with appropriately.”

He is right to warn against vigilante action, but it would have been better coming from the police. Because people would expect that the culprit, since he’s been the subject of ministerial comment, would be dealt with heavily by the courts. The man was sentenced to three weeks jail.

d. He nearly made a police report when Ms Sangeetha Thanapal misrepresented his comments online in August 2015. Her Facebook post was “inaccurate and seditious”, he said. But he later decided not to do so after meeting her as she had no ill-will. Ms Thanapal on her part apologised on Facebook, saying what she had posted earlier was “unjustified”.

e. More recently (Oct 22, 2016), he announced that he would be filing a police report over “completely false” allegations made by sociopolitical site States Times Review. The site claimed that Mr Shanmugam had said that “Eurasians are considered Indians” for Presidential candidacy and downplayed the chances of a Eurasian becoming the President.

In his Facebook post, Mr Shanmugam expressed shock that “such outright falsehoods” could be spread online.  A check by TODAY the day after his post found that no report had been filed yet. It is unclear if a report was eventually made.

Now, a minister making a police report carries a lot more weight than reports filed by ordinary people. Face it, not everybody’s opinion is equal.

It is correct that public opinion should play a part in our laws. Some archaic holdovers like the criminalisation of oral sex has been thrown out of the window and the death penalty is only mandatory for egregious cases. Marital rape might well make it into the books. These are a reflection of changing societal norms and expectations.

But what if some people think that the laws of defamation here are too strict? And that more young people are getting soft on drugs as was reported in MSM today?

Then a judgement call must be made about what is fair and what is right for Singapore. This is what we elected people for, as representatives of Parliament and not as delegates. We vote them to exercise their judgement on our behalf.

It’s not always public opinion that matters or has an impact, minister. It’s yours. If you’re carrying a big stick, maybe you should tread softly.

 

Featured image from Minister K Shanmugam Sc’s Facebook page.

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by Bertha Henson

LUXURIATING in his favourite place, Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump decides to make a long-distance phone call. He knows it will be a historic moment, hence the gawkers in his playground watching the President do his thing.

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Trump: Hiyah Kim, old buddy, how’s the famine coming along? I mean, family.

Kim: Bzzzccckrracccc

Trump: I can’t hear you. The Chinese… they’re wiretapping you huh? Well, the Russians are listening in to mine. Plus the CIA, NSA, FBI and a whole lot of fellas.

Kim: Brzzzcckkk… hell…. oh… brrccsssk

Trump: I’m just calling to tell you that Carl Vinson is going to your part of town. The boat, not the congressman. Michigan as well. The boat, not the state. Just me trying to tell you not to play with your nukes…Okay, buddy?

Kim: Brrrzzzccckk… reta… ccckkk… ate… brrrcsssk live… brrcsk miss…

Trump: You ate what? Missed me? Aw shucks. I’ll come over if you like, but you seriously have got to calm down. You’re making Seoul so nervous. The Japs are jumpy too. We’re all coming to get you.

Kim: Brrzzzccck….Beijing…bbrrzzz military..brrrzzzccckkkkk

Trump: Your buddy Beijing? Hey, they’re just making noises. They don’t even want your coal. And they’ve already said they don’t mind a surgical strike. So I’m thinking of doing a Syria on you.

Kim: Brrzzccchhh…doing sixth missile test. You don’t frighten me, Mr Trump. Pyongyang will not succumb to threats by the hegemonic United States.

Trump: You must be using an iPhone… I can hear you perfectly well. Made-in-America? Anyway, I don’t mean to frighten you. I’m not a frightening person. I just sack people, evict them, defame them, insult them and put up walls to keep them outside. I don’t kill people. You, on the other hand…

Kim: It is the prerogative of a sovereign nation to protect itself against outside threats. Our nuclear missiles are not offensive weapons even though they have weird names. They are also meant for decorative purposes at military parades, of which I have many.

Trump: Hmm… I hear you’re even aiming them at Darwin in Australia. What have you got against kangaroos and sheep?

Kim: Who is a sheep? I am Kim Jong Un, all-powerful leader of the hermit kingdom. I am prepared for all-out war. My people are hungry but my military is strong. We have good missiles which sizzle even when they fizzle. We are now putting up a live-firing display to welcome your boats.

Trump: If you’ve got missiles…why are you detaining US citizens? That’s not playing fair. You’re not going to poison them like you did with your half-brother at the KL airport right?

Kim: They are alive. I need hostages who can act as my shield. Also, I would like some US currency and an iPhone or two.

Trump: You wanna do a deal? I can throw in a free trip to Disneyland for you and you can stay at one of my hotels. Okay?

Kim: Tha….BOOMMMMZZZZ…KAPOW

Trump: Kim? Is that one of my guys hitting a bullseye?

Kim: No. One of my guys. Misfired.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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By Bertha Henson

WHY are people getting so upset with the news of school mergers, especially at the junior college (JC) level? It’s a no-brainer right? If junior colleges are emptying out, then might as well close them now or merge. It’s such a rational, efficient thing to do. Reading the reactions, the unhappiness boils down to these nine questions.

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1. How is it that our so-efficient G can misjudge birth rates?

Well, the G keeps saying that it is based on information available at that time – and probably thought that its pro-baby policies will work. The last two JCs built were Innova which was founded in 2005 and Eunoia which opened its doors this year. So maybe if you look at the birth rate of the cohort that would enter Innova in its first year, it still looks like it can be filled. Except that later on, Singapore couples didn’t cooperate. Tsk. Tsk.

2. But that doesn’t explain Eunoia, does it?

Ah. But that’s a special JC that caters to the cohort studying in Catholic High School, Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, and CHIJ St Nicholas Girls’ School. They will move to the JC as part of the Integrated Programme (IP).

Okay, Eunoia could have waited until next year and moved into one of the JCs’ vacated premises. Could have saved money. But it could be location as well. Eunoia is in Mount Sinai, and will move to its Bishan premises in 2019. Oh wait. Maybe it could still move into an empty campus before money is spent on yet another set of buildings…

3. So, the JCs that will be merged all don’t have IP feeder schools? What does this mean? I have to make sure my kid gets into a secondary school with IP so that they can progress right through to JC and university?

Oooh. Looks like that’s the best bet. Because JC is usually seen as the next step into university, unless your kid is a very bright polytechnic student. Through-train you know… even if this means less choice…

4. How did MOE pick the eight JCs anyway? Just because no IP?

Hmm. It says “geographical’’ distribution. So it’s about spreading them out equally. Like Meridian JC, which is in Pasir Ris, and Tampines JC. So they’re getting stuck together at the newer Meridian campus. Don’t forget that Temasek and Victoria JC are also in the east.

Then there’s Innova JC and Yishun JC merging to be on Yishun grounds. MOE said Yishun was picked because it’s more “accessible’’ than Innova, although Innova is newer. Maybe it also has to do with cut-off points. Innova is at the bottom of all 19 JCs, as reported by The Straits Times. MOE isn’t saying anything about it.

5. Wait a minute, why should cut-off points have anything to do with whether a JC disappears?

Hmmm. Guess MOE thinks there’s no point in having such poor performing JCs. Seven of the eight JCs that are merging are actually clustered at the bottom of the ladder, which means that their students aren’t, ah, as good as the rest. Elitist, but perfectly rational. Okay, there’s something to be said about preserving the school’s heritage and making alumni happy but you know what is said about “scarce’’ resources and so forth.

6. But if it is a matter of geography, Hwa Chong Institution and National JC are right across the road…

They’re IP and good performers and probably with strong alumnus that will kpkb . Just disregard what MOE said about geography, it doesn’t know how to spin doctor.

7. Why so sudden anyway? Some of the kids are already looking forward to entering JCs of their choice, especially those near their homes. Quite demoralising isn’t it?

The G will probably say that there’s never a good time to make such an announcement. If the mergers are delayed, then what are the chances that parents will allow their kids to apply for a JC that’s going to be closed? Rather than sound the death knell, just kill it off quickly.

8. That’s heartless when you think about the people who have been to the schools and have fond memories.

True. But hard truths.. hard truths.

9. Has it got to do with the G changing its mind about having more people going into university?

Well, it said it’s aiming for 40 per cent of the cohort by 2020, but it’s a declining cohort so the absolute numbers will probably remain about the same as now. Although it’s likely that when it came up with that figure, it didn’t think about the birth rate then. Or maybe it figured that the polytechnic route would also yield more university graduates. Then again, polytechnics are facing declining enrollments too. Are you thinking that this will have a knock-on effect on the capacity of our universities? That something will be done about polytechnics too?

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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