March 23, 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.

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by Bertha Henson

WE’LL all be hearing more from Mr Peter Ho, the former head of Civil Service, because he’s been picked to give the Institute of Policy Studies series of lectures. TODAY ran an interview with him on aspects of the civil service. Perhaps, he could expand on some points he made in his interview when he gives his lectures.
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1. Mr Ho said that increasing complexity of policies and higher order needs of the populace means coming up with new ways, such as more risk management, to solve problems.

”It’s not that traditional tools are no longer important; tools like cost-benefit analysis are still relevant. But cost-benefit analysis in a complex environment, in and of itself, may not provide you with the complete answer. Cost-benefit analysis is quite linear, and traditional tools don’t help you get your arms completely around complex problems.”

(What traditional tools are less important then? Can he cite instances when the solution did not address the problem because traditional tools were used? Was there a moment of epiphany for him?)

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2. We don’t know when the interview was conducted, whether before or after the Prime Minister said that he didn’t want to be surrounded by naysayers. But clearly, he agrees that the rules-bound culture has to change, going by his message to the younger generation of civil servants.

”Your job is to find ways to improve Singapore’s position and the lot of Singaporeans in a period of accelerating change and uncertainty. Of course, you’re not going to be criticised for following the rules, but if you want to lift the quality of your policies and plans, and raise the level of good governance practised in Singapore, then it cannot be just about saying: “I followed the rules.” Instead, it should be that “I tried to make things better.” The basic misconception some younger civil servants may have is that what worked well in the past will be what propels you into the future successfully. Our civil servants must be able to keep up with the pace of change. You have to ask yourself if the rules, plans and policies still serve the purpose for which they were designed, or if we need to change them in order to do things better. ”

(There’s no point speaking in generalities. Can he enlighten with examples when sticking to the rules is to the detriment of policy outcomes? Or when rules work against the desire of the public service to be emphatic or to “have a heart’’. Can he also tell what rules have been changed because they are no longer relevant. Would policies on single mothers be one of them?)
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3. Mr Ho talked about the need to be bold which is more difficult now because the basics have been achieved and Singapore is now “competing at the top’’.

”Today, of course, you still want that spark — that ability to think boldly about the future. But the big challenge now is, how much risk are you prepared to take? These are serious risks because we’ve achieved so much, that a bad miscalculation can mean losing it all. The stakes are much higher.”

(Can he give examples of what areas require bold but risky changes? Would the report of the Committee of the Future Economy or the reserved Presidential Election be among them? If so, what are the risks involved? Also, the general perception is the G prefers to make “tweaks’’ rather than take bold steps – or is this the wrong perception?)
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4. Mr Ho talks about how many ingredients go into making a judgment call.

“…every major decision and every major policy are not an exercise to find the right answers. They are always an exercise in making the right judgment — not a hard right or hard wrong — but a balanced one that serves the best interests of the majority and the country. You cannot make everybody happy. Also, judgments always have to be revisited now and then — to go back to my point that things are changing. What seems to be sensible now may in a few years’ time no longer be sensible. You have to be prepared to constantly change.”

(Again, examples are needed. But there’s another point to consider: The public service shouldn’t think that a change is an acknowledgment of a mistake and therefore paper over the “change’’ as something that is a natural follow through of the old policy. When policies make a sharp turn, the people must be brought on board in understanding the changed circumstances or even objectives. Would he consider that enough explanation was given for the sudden announcement of the increase in the water price? Could Hong Kong’s seizure of the Singapore’s Terrexes be better explained to the people as an example of the changed geo-political realities that Singapore faces?)
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5. This wasn’t touched upon but hopefully, Mr Ho will pick up the subject in one of his lectures. The civil service has always been accused of “group think’’ with its top echelons being a closed circle of like-minded individuals. That so many top civil servants cross into the political sphere doesn’t add to people’s confidence that radical or bold ideas can surface from the G. One example is how the Committee for the Future Economy is stuffed with Old Economy members. Singapore’s Establishment seems to be a closed rank of people who went to the same schools and move in the same circles with very few gaps allowing for “mavericks’’. Please do not use the sole example of Mr Philip Yeo. He’s just one man.

 

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by Bertha Henson

a. IT’S the end of Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC) because the last bastion, Braddell View, is going en bloc. Don’t remember HUDC? It’s the predecessor to the executive condo, except that it’s still built by HDB. It’s for those who just missed out of a new flat because they earned too much to be eligible for one. Oh, and if you’ve been to a HUDC flat, you know the apartment sizes are bigger than those in exec condos. Seriously worth paying for…then.

b. Paying for a taxi ride is going to be a different experience soon. You can pick to pay by the meter or have a fixed payment set at the start of the ride. The cab companies, minus the biggest player ComfortDelGro, are joining up with Grab to launch JustGrab for the fixed payments. There’s still the usual GrabTaxi if you want to pay by taxi. So you’d better have the app on your phone because you might just be standing along the road, hoping to flag a taxi down and finding that they’re passing you by. 

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c. UniSIM is now SUSS. This is not a joke. The former little private institution which is gearing up to be Singapore’s sixth university will be re-named Singapore University of Social Sciences to reflect its focus on social courses. Not everyone is enamoured of the name change with some people pointing out that SUSS also has finance and business degree courses. Seriously, that’s a small thing. Look at Nanyang Technological University which keeps adding non-tech courses all the time…

d. Businesses are getting more help. More than 85,000 employers here will receive about S$660 million in Wage Credit Scheme (WCS) payouts, with small and medium-sized enterprises getting 70 per cent of the sum disbursed the end of this month. Not a big deal you say because you’re just a paid grunt? Well, you’ll have to remember that some of this money should go into supporting the wages of those who earn $4,000 a month and below. For them, it’s something.

e. We’re into fake news big-time. Thirteen People’s Action Party politicians, including a Cabinet Minister, have had their Facebook profiles faked. They look like them but aren’t by them, in what is known as a phishing attempt to get data. They’ve all been taken down so you can’t see what the fake Chan Chun Sing said and how it compares to the real Chan Chun Sing’s tone of voice. It isn’t known who’s behind this prank/attack. Needless to say, the politicians AREN’T laughing.

 

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by Bertha Henson

NOW, here’s the thing. You can expect a stiff response to a civil society activist who complains about being incarcerated. But you don’t expect the same response to a 74-year old woman who lives alone.

It seems that Police and Prisons Department believe in meting out the same treatment to everyone, regardless of age or type of crime. The sanctity of their Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) is critical. Officers should leave their brains behind and refer to the book.

So Madam Gertrude Simon wrote to the ST Forum Page to say that elderly people should be treated better by the police and recounted what her mother went through over the weekend of March 4. Madam Josephine Savarimuthu went to Ang Mo Kio South Neighbourhood Police Centre to presumably report a missing pawn ticket. That is, she went to seek help.

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Because we are a smart nation, the police officer could immediately see that there was an outstanding warrant of arrest for her in 2016 for a town council-related matter. She was taken, handcuffed her daughter claimed, to Ang Mo Kio police station and then to the State Courts and then to Changi Women’s Prison.

What did the agencies say? They made an issue of her declining to contact anyone, not even for someone to bail her out. “If she had accepted the bail offer, she would have been released that day, and attended court another day,” it added.

In other words, it was her fault. She need not have spent time in jail; she chose to.

Obviously, police officers are not very good at dealing with old people who can become flustered and forgetful when they are stressed. Then you have to reckon with this stubborn streak that they have about not “bothering’’ their children; that they are able to take care of themselves.

You would have thought some officer would have the initiative to ask to see her belongings to find traces of her next-of-kin, or go down to the house, which must be in the neighbourhood, to gather some clues. This, presumably, would not be SOP. And of course, the police don’t want to seen as favouring someone with (gasp!) an outstanding warrant of arrest.

The agencies, probably in anticipation of arguments that the old lady was traumatised, made it clear that she “did not show any sign of being traumatised, and was alert when in police custody.” At the same time though, they also said that she was restrained at the hands and legs as part of Prison’s SOP, “which include preventing persons in custody from harming themselves.” But she wasn’t traumatised, was she? So why would she harm herself? Ahhh….that SOP again.

The saving grace was that the old lady was put in a medical ward and given her medicines. She stayed the weekend at the G’s expense. When her daughter finally knew what happen, she tried to see her mother on Sunday but couldn’t because it wasn’t visitation day. I don’t know about you, but if it was my mother, I would have barged through the prison gates and raised an almighty stink. Hey, this is an elderly person we are talking about, not an able-bodied pai kia.

MP Louis Ng would probably have cited this as an example of the public service without a heart. Should rules and SOPs be adhered to strictly even though a little empathy and common sense would serve better? It boggles the mind that the police could have forgotten that their strict adherence to SOPs was a factor that accounted for their late response to the Little India riot in December 2013.

Consider also what her summons was about. According to the old lady, it involved the wrongful placement of potted plants outside her flat, which amounted to an offence involving a $400 fine. Hardly a hardened criminal.

The agencies’ response is really, to put it bluntly, horrible. If the purpose was to maintain an image of immoveability because of a “duty to uphold the law”, it succeeded.

I wish the response would have been this instead:

We learnt with much regret what Madam Josephine Savarimuthu had to go through over the weekend when she was remanded at Changi. In hindsight, we could have done more to track down her next-of-kin and spared her the ordeal of incarceration. Law enforcement officers must uphold the law but they should also be sensitive in their one-on-one dealings with members of the public. While abiding by SOPs is important, this does not mean that no discretion is afforded to officers handling individual cases.

We will be looking for her missing pawn ticket.
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Read part 1 here.
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by Bertha Henson

Here’s what we think of the response from the men in green on the subject of personal data.
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We refer to the letter by Mr Darryl Lo on the labelling of our recruits’ portraits using their NRIC number.

Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC) recognises that making available our recruits’ portraits, labelled together with their NRIC numbers on a platform accessible to the general public, was an oversight. We apologise for the mistake. (What do you mean “recognise’’ this oversight? Why not just say apologise for making available portraits and NRIC numbers?)

In order to make the BMT graduation parade a memorable and meaningful event, BMTC uploads soft-copy portraits of our recruits online so that they may share these with their family and friends. This effort has been warmly received by the recruits. (It’s great that you want the recruits to feel good so score 1 to you. Are you saying that want to do good, also kena tekan??)

Previously, the soft-copy portraits were labelled manually via a different system, such as the use of the recruits’ Platoon, Section and Bed Number. However, for the most recent graduating BMT cohort, the labelling was auto-generated via the scanning of the recruits’ SAF identity cards for the purpose of speeding up the process. This resulted in the portraits being labelled by NRIC numbers. No other personal data were released. (Blame technology)

BMTC immediately removed the link to the portraits by noon the following day, when the oversight was realised. We are reviewing our procedures to prevent a similar recurrence. (How was the oversight discovered?)

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Other questions:

a. How many soldiers got their face and NRIC numbers publicly splashed? A few thousands?

b. How long in all were they in the public space? Remember that a minute is a long time on the internet.

c. How was the “oversight’’ discovered and who was responsible, besides the machine, for this oversight?

d. How did this come to pass when just a month ago, the personal data of 850 soldiers were stolen? Sure, it’s not related but wouldn’t there be a higher level of alertness after that?

e. Will Mindef or SAF be penalised under the Personal Data Protection Act? Probably not as it does not apply to G agencies. So what sort of oversight (not the same as “oversight’’ above) is being exercised over the protection of personal data by G agencies?

Seriously Mindef/SAF, you need to do more to show people that you are capable of being cyber-warriors that the minister has painted – and not a leaky vessel.
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Read part 2 here.
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by Bertha Henson

I HAVE been swimming four times a week for the past four years. Okay, I’m lying. I have bouts of down time which usually last a couple of weeks. The last bout lasted two months, until the middle of February.

I suppose I can trot out the usual excuses like no time, crowded pool, rain etcetera to justify my sloth. Truth is, as anyone who exercises regularly knows, it’s so hard to get back into the groove if you’re out of it so long. So during the two months of inactivity, I did what I’m sure no doctor would recommend: I ate less. I figured that less exercise should be accompanied by less calorific intake. After all, my mantra is, I exercise so that I can eat whatever I want.

People say that even if the rain was pouring down or the pool filled with screaming kids, there’s always the gymnasium or other exercises that are weather and child-proof. I agree. Except I think swimming is the least disruptive of all exercises both pre-and post-wise. At least for me.

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I just change into my costume, drape a towel around myself and my feet in flip flops and take the lift to the ground-floor to the condo swimming pool. I do so in the mornings, when children are already in school and tai tais haven’t readied themselves for public exposure. Neighbours always ask me the same question when they see me in the pool: “Isn’t it cold?” I tell them it’s cold only if you decide to stay put in the pool, which is surely not the point of the activity.

I am no swimmer, frankly. I’ve always feared water and won’t get into a pool where my feet can’t feel the floor. I swim breast-stroke only and keep my head above water all the time. I do not wear goggles or a swimming cap. I find them “fussy”.

While I don’t know how to tread water, I am very good at walking, jogging and doing a whole bunch of exercises in the pool. I don’t know if they qualify as aqua-aerobics but they are, believe me, tiring.

When I am done, usually in 40 minutes, I get out of the pool, drape a towel and proceed home for a bath. It’s so much easier than getting into jogging gear with socks and the right shoes. And then having to get out of them.

How did I get myself back in the groove? By that most mundane of methods: looking in the mirror. People who exercise look healthier. I look thinner but unhealthy. Then there’s the other big difference between people who exercise and those who don’t: watch the way they walk. The fitter person seems to float on air while the sloth drags his weary body. I was starting to “feel’’ heavy.

Then there are the eight sets of swimming costumes that lie un-used in my wardrobe. I hesitate to get into them because I’m worried about looking flabby. Yet I know I will get flabbier if I don’t get into them. I did the next best thing: I bought myself another swimming costume. Now…if you buy something, you will use it. I don’t regret paying for the new costume because of what I have been able to receive in terms of healthier skin and lighter feet.

It also means I can eat more.

 

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by Bertha Henson

WHO would have thought civil servants would feature so much in the Budget debate? You have MPs who think the system (not civil servants) lack heart and more can be done to improve empathy levels. This, coming after several luminaries, including the Prime Minister, talking about the need for naysayers in the public service rather than people who respond with “three bags full”.

This time, they feature prominently in the debate on the Town Council Amendment Bill, with opposition MPs suggesting that G officials in the Ministry of National Development will be less than neutral over the operations of town councils.

I suppose the mental image that the Workers’ Party has is this: A bunch of civil servants barging into Aljunied-Hougang town council office, rifling through cabinets and accessing computer records because of some suspected wrong-doing on the town council’s part. Or entangling the town council in reams of red tape by asking endless questions because they have oversight powers. And leaving the wards of Ministers alone because, as civil servants, they wouldn’t want to get into the bad books of their political masters.

WP’s Pritam Singh said : “The MND risks becoming a tool of the ruling party of the day to fix the opposition.”

With MND oversight, allegations of partisanship would naturally arise given that a PAP minister is overall in charge. The perception of bias will always be there despite the PAP’s efforts to deny it.

His fellow WP MP Sylvia Lim said: “It is not possible to argue that the ministry is a politically neutral body as recent history unfortunately belies that claim.”

She gave the example of the General Election campaign in 2015, when the Ministry was “an active campaigner against the Workers’ Party, issuing statements practically daily on the alleged misconduct of AHPETC”.

She also said, without elaborating: “To take another example: we have also seen past records of how the Ministry advised a PAP TC how to make good a breach of the Town Councils Financial Rules, quietly behind closed doors, without any media release on the same.”

That is so intriguing.

Of course, the People’s Action Party side came out hammer and tongs accusing the WP of impugning the integrity of the civil service. Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee had a wonderful quote about how Ms Lim seemed to think that civil servants are “timorous souls” who would “kowtow” to their boss’ bidding.

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Aljunied Hougang Punggol East Town Council

No one would dispute that the Act needed updating. The still on-going saga over the finances of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East town council showed up the loopholes on conflict of interest and corporate governance. The G suddenly realised that it couldn’t move on certain things, like order a TC to yield up records and submit information. There was also no “stick” it could wield.

Mr Lee made an interesting point about how AHPETC broke the “unspoken compact” which began when town councils were formed in 1989: That town councillors and elected MPs would proactively fix problems that arise or report suspected misdeeds to the police or Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

In other words, that TCs would “ownself check ownself” just like Ang Mo Kio town council did when it reported its general manager to the police. So if the WP’s finances had been in fine shape, there would be no need for more oversight measures? Hmm.

At the heart of the debate is whether town councils are political bodies. Taken to the bitter political end, MND shouldn’t intervene in a TC’s affairs at all and let residents live with the consequences of their choice. But the G realises that people think it is an administrative issue and expect the G to deal with problems everywhere, including opposition areas.

It’s a tricky balancing act. With MND oversight, allegations of partisanship would naturally arise given that a PAP minister is overall in charge. The perception of bias will always be there despite the PAP’s efforts to deny it.

In fact, it might add fuel to the view that the management of housing estates should go back to the way it was.

According to the feedback given to REACH which had a public consultation process on the Bill, some people had suggested that HDB or MND take over the functions. Or if there must be a regulator, the role could be given to the HDB “so that regulatory decision are one-step removed from political office holders”.

There was also an interesting suggestion that TCs be merged with HDB branch office with chairmen appointed by MND. The elected MPs could form separate committees to guide the work of the new set up to implement infrastructure projects. “This would ensure that the towns are managed fairly, regardless of the party in power.”

Such suggestions, however, would mean unpicking the whole town council structure. It’s like making the elected presidency an appointed office.

I wish that there was a direct response to Ms Lim’s proposal that Auditor-General’s Office could be tasked with auditing town councils on a rotational basis as a substitute for MND’s oversight. There is also her suggestion that an independent Housing Tribunal, chaired by a judge and experts in housing matters, be authorised to mediate and adjudicate disputes relating to the management of public housing.

These are political approaches, of course, to safeguard the independence and autonomy of town councils. They might well be cumbersome and there’s no guarantee that “bias” charge will be overcome.

Do voters really care though?

It’s clear that the WP was tardy and less than transparent about its finances. This might have led to its loss of Punggol East and its shaved margins for Aljunied and Hougang in the 2015 general election. But it can be also argued that if its offences were so egregious as the G makes them out to be, then voters would be moved to eject it altogether. They didn’t.

The amendment Bill actually gives voters less reason to care about who runs their town council. That’s because the law gives the G more powers to supervise, provide oversight and pick up the pieces. Even lift upgrading and replacement are penciled in

HDB residents can really have their cake – and eat it.

 

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by Bertha Henson

SO THE Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) have decided not to appeal against the four-year jail sentence for Joshua Robinson. It has put out a statement to say why: Robinson pleaded guilty which spared the girls the ordeal of going through a trial, the two girls were above 14 which means he did not commit statutory rape, and they had consented to sex.

Not rape. Not outrage of modesty. So the charge against Robinson was sexual penetration of a minor under 16 years of age, which is punishable under section 376A(2) of the Penal Code. The AGC said that this was the most serious charge that the prosecution could have brought on the case. And no, there’s no caning under this clause but a maximum of 10 years jail.

It looks like we weren’t right to say that the girls were sexually assaulted since what he did was not rape nor molest, even though one of them had a mental breakdown after her intimate encounter with Robinson. I suppose the girls were seduced by the American mixed martial arts instructor into consensual sex. Or at least some sexual grooming took place.

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The AGC’s decision isn’t going to please the 26,000 or so people who signed a petition to put Robinson away for longer. It would be quite a wonder, however, if the AGC did appeal. As I said in an earlier column, the AGC would have to concede that it was somehow wrong to ask for a jail-term of four to five years especially since it said it had looked at precedents. Changing its mind and asking for a higher sentence for Robinson means that past offenders had an easier time of it. Recall, for example, the 51 men who charged with having sex with an under-aged prostitute. They were jailed for between four and 20 weeks each.

More importantly, I doubt if the AGC wants to be shown as bowing to popular opinion or “public disquiet”, as Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam put it.

After all, this would make a mockery of the Administration of Justice Act because outside forces have caused a change of heart. (What’s pretty amazing is that no one in authority has said that it’s wrong to comment on the case given that the appeal limit is not up.)

What would the AGC do the next time there is a public outcry over a punishment that the layman finds inadequate for the crime?

Don’t get me wrong. As far as I’m concerned, Robinson should be castrated whether the girls consented to sex or not. He’s 39, they’re 15. The age gap should have nailed him, as well as filming of the sexual acts. It seems that there are gaps in the law. The AGC said it would be reviewing the law with the Law ministry.

Commenting on this latest announcement, Mr Shanmugam said: “If we don’t think the sentences, based on precedents, are adequate, then we consider what can be done. I do think that the sentences for such offences committed by Robinson need to be relooked at. That is why I have asked my Ministries to study this.”

Well, at least that’s something. It’s good that the AGC did some explaining of the law although I wished it would have said why it agreed to the sentences being run concurrently instead of consecutively.

Maybe, that’s for the judge to decide and written grounds have yet to be made public. It would make for interesting reading.

 

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by Bertha Henson

THE Direct School Admission (DSA) programme is doing away with its general academic ability tests.

People are going hurrah because it means that their non-Gifted kid can make it into their school of choice because they have another talent that is not exam-smarts.

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That is, if they clear the talent competition for entry. That is, if the school nurturing the specific talent pool is not on the other side of the island. That is, if the school nurturing said talent and achieving non-academic awards do not ignore Ah Boy’s academic work in the process.

That is, if Ah Boy clears his PSLE in the first place. If he doesn’t make the DSA cut-off point, will he be booted out?

Parents of Gifted children have been told their kid will always get a place based on their results. But the DSA isn’t about getting a secondary school place but a guaranteed, booked-in-advance, choped-already programme. That means, no need to worry about how PSLE results turn out, got place already. So, they will still go for the DSA route.

Parents of “ordinary kids’’ will be looking at the niche programmes and wondering if their kids have the requisite talent for, say, robotics or soccer. If not, they will think about sending the kid to enrichment programmes or a sports academy so they can ace whatever interview or competitive process. It’s a different kind of tuition.

Principals of ordinary schools will be wondering if they can even fill the 20 per cent DSA quota space. They’re not top in any sport or talent but merely struggling to bring all its students up to speed. These would be the garden-variety type of schools which, by the way, is still a good school although not the best. So shy if they can’t fill the space…

Parents and principals will be wondering if schools really have the teachers for these niche programmes. Are they experts or have at least mastered some aspects of the programme or are they themselves learning along with the kids? Does the National Institute of Education prepare teachers for such programmes? If principals decide to bring in outside experts, can these experts actually teach?

This is not to pour cold water on the Education Ministry’s changes to the DSA. It’s to show that people, especially parents, will view changes differently depending on their perspective and their knowledge of their childrens’ abilities. Change always leads to more questions.

We just have to be careful about not starting a different kind of rat race.

 

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by Bertha Henson

IT’S a reflection of how powerful the G is when it gets whacked even for stuff that’s not under its purview. I’m talking about the uproar over the four-year jail sentence for American Joshua Robinson, probably the most high-profile sexual offender in Singapore.

Clearly, people don’t see the line between the executive and judiciary. Or maybe they are too afraid to slam the judge in the case because that might put them in contempt of court. If there’s anything you want to fault the G over, it’s how the Attorney-General’s Chambers had originally asked for a four to five year jail sentence. Even that, however, is debatable since the G maintains that everything is up to the discretion of the AGC.

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Asked about the matter, Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam said: “The decisions on which charges to proceed is a matter within AGC’s discretion. AGC makes the decisions based on precedents, and what kind of sentence is meted out depends on previous cases… Having said that, my understanding is that AGC is looking into this.’’

Robinson, 39, pleaded guilty to nine charges: Three for sexually assaulting the girls, five for making and possessing obscene films and one for showing an obscene film to a six-year-old girl. Another 20 charges were taken into consideration during sentencing. Among the 20 are four more counts of having sex with the minors and 12 for making obscene films.

For the first charge, the maximum penalty is 10 years jail and fine. For possession of obscene films, he could have been jailed up to six months or fined $500 for each film, up to a maximum of up to $20,000. Statutory rapists in the past have gotten sentences that ranged from five to 20.5 years.

Of course, each case is different. The heaviest sentence was 20.5 years jail time and 24 strokes of the cane.

So can we whack the AGC then?

The case is a volatile mix. A foreigner who is muscular and trained in the martial arts. Who deals with children. Who takes pictures of sexual acts and keeps the largest stash of porn police have ever seized from an individual – 5,902 obscene films, including 321 films of child pornography.

Who, despite being arrested, continued his deviant behaviour while on bail. Who even preyed on a six-year-old while her father was in close proximity.

What utter brazenness!

It’s no wonder that people are calling for his head. An online petition calling for a higher sentence said: “Is this the message our Singapore Government People’s Action Party is intending to send worldwide: “Spray paint our city or slander our government officials and you get it worse off than if you rape and sexually abuse our children”?

Threaded through the statement is a certain an animus against foreigners here: That they can’t get away with dirtying our city (think Michael Fay and the European graffiti artists) or saying bad things (think foreign journalists and authors), but they can do what they like otherwise. It doesn’t help that some foreigners have been in the news, like Yang Yin, who, on the other hand, got his jail term increased to 11 years in all, instead of six. (Please don’t speculate on whether there are different rules for “white’’ people; that’s unworthy.)

Given the public outrage, should the AGC appeal for a higher sentence even though it more or less got what it wanted? Would bowing to popular opinion be a case of mob justice? Or would it concede that it should have asked for more? Then again, it’s really up to the judge to impose the sentence, whatever the AGC might say.

Gasp! Are we interfering with the administration of justice given that the case is not yet over because there’s still a week to go before the appeal time limit is up? Mr Shanmugam, while conceding that there was “public disquiet’’, said that this wasn’t an appropriate time for him to comment on the case. And probably for the rest of us too.

The AGC has 14 days from the date of sentencing (Mar 2) to appeal. By then, we should know whether it has appealed, as well as why it did so – or didn’t.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Bertha Henson

FOR the past two days, I have been wondering if I should write something about the imam who was said to have uttered insensitive phrases about Jews and Christians. I asked around and have been flooded with advice, ranging from no, because it’s a sensitive topic and no, because you’re a non-Muslim to yes, because this is an open society tolerant of different views and yes, because it would be good to have a non-Muslim speak who is not, ahem, Mr K Shanmugam.

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As an outsider looking in, I find the issue fascinating although I’m sure Muslims wouldn’t favour my choice of word. I will, therefore, be writing this very tentatively from a non-Muslim point of view and more importantly, from the perspective of a fellow citizen in a multiracial, multi-religious society in a secular state.

The Law and Home Affairs Minister’s comments in Parliament about suspending the unnamed imam from preaching have ignited a firestorm among Muslims on the Internet. The imam had, at Jamae Mosque last month, reportedly recited a prayer in Arabic that said “God grant us victory over Jews and Christians”, among other things. A whistle-blower uploaded a video of what he said. It went viral.

From what I read online, Muslims are upset, and many wonder if the imam’s words which are spoken to the faithful attending Friday prayers were taken out of context. Many erudite Muslims have been offering their opinions on the matter and citing religious sources.

It’s interesting to see how many different takes there are on one phrase and the deep discussions that ensue.

In the meantime, non-Muslims are looking on.

In these times of increasing religiosity, communities need to be careful about being misinterpreted. “Victory’’, in this instance, might well be a spiritual or religious conversion rather than defeat in the martial sense, as some Muslims have said.

The trouble is, the non-Muslim can only judge the words literally and depend on the whistle-blower, himself a Muslim, to say why he thought it was offensive. (It reminds me of how Christians are usually careful about using the word “crusade’’, so as not to offend the sensibilities of Muslims, even though you could be crusading against poverty.)

Whatever the imam said, I would like to think it was between him and his flock. If any member of his flock finds what he said objectionable, then the matter should be taken up with his religious superiors. I was surprised that the imam was “exposed’’ in this way; I didn’t think video-recording was allowed in a mosque. It took planning. It might well be that earlier complaints fell on deaf ears, and the whistle-blower believes this is the best way to gain attention. But I think it’s the worst way, however well-intentioned.

Muslim Affairs Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said: “While it is correct to whistle blow when one sees wrongdoing, one must also ask whether the manner in which this is done is appropriate, or if it sows more discord and causes tension in our society.’’

Mr Shanmugam weighed in on this point as well: “The right thing to do though, is that when a matter like this is encountered, it should be reported to the Police, and not put out on social media. That will allow police to focus their investigations on the subject of the complaint.

“If instead, the matter is publicly posted, it could lead to a groundswell of feelings, in this case, both from Muslims as well as non-Muslims. It could cause confusion about religion, and increase tensions and so on.’’

I wouldn’t even go so far as to report the matter to the police.

Why get the State involved in an issue that should be resolved by the faithful? Yes, there is the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act which I had always hoped was more preventive than punitive in nature. But even with the law behind it, the State is a blunt tool, and cannot take into account the different levels of knowledge and religiosity among people of faith. Let the religious authorities police their own leaders. (Unless some people believe that the religious hierarchy has lost its legitimacy and authority, which means opening another can of worms.)

I read with some consternation this exchange between Mr Shanmugam and Opposition MP Faisal Manap.

 

Mr Shanmugam: Can I ask the member whether he thinks that it is all right to quote from a text and encourage violence against others? Can I have a direct answer, please?

Mr Faisal: Madam (Speaker), from my own knowledge, the verses in the Quran are always in the context of giving out mercy to the people and the universe.

Mr Shanmugam: That is not the question I asked, and I didn’t refer to the Quran. Do you think it is all right for someone to refer to any holy text to encourage violence either by quoting directly or speaking, encouraging such violence? Yes or no?

Mr Faisal: It is wrong, Madam.

Mr Shanmugam: Thank you. That is a question the police will be considering. Thank you.

 

Oh dear! I am unfamiliar with the Quran, but I know that parts of the Bible make for blood-thirsty reading, especially the Old Testament. It cannot be that mere mention equates encouraging violence? Or does it? And is this a matter for the police?

In fact, I wonder why, if the statements were so objectionable as to be a security threat, that the Internal Security Department did not step in earlier. Surely, it would have its eyes and ears on the ground and the imam seemed to have said the same words before. A “lim kopi’’ session might have been enough to put things right.

But then, the video was made public. Non-Muslims are watching. The response must be public too or there will mutterings of cover-ups or some nefarious shenanigans taking place in secret. The G has made it clear that everyone involved, including whistle-blower and imam, will be investigated. I presume the police will be looking at the motivations behind their words and actions. I will shut up on this because I have to.

I wish that people will not think of social media as the place for all things objectionable or what they consider objectionable. Also, sometimes what you see or hear isn’t the full story. The truth is usually more complicated. Sometimes, a quiet word in the right ear can do more for peace and harmony than a loud-speaker, especially if directed at the wrong crowd.

 

Featured image by Pixabay user aditya_wicak. (CC0 1.0)

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