March 25, 2017

Authors Posts by Bertha Henson

Bertha Henson

Bertha Henson
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 WAS about to write about the much-condemned Syonan Gallery when news broke that the G had changed its mind about the name. I was going to say that my father would turn in his urn if he knew about the name.

First, he would have said it was really Syonan-to, not Syonan. Then, he would have said it was not the Light of the South but the Dark of the Night. Finally, he would curse and swear at the historians and members of the advisory panel which the National Library Board (NLB) said it had consulted before alighting on the name.

Seriously, the NLB’s rationale for the name is no rationale at all. It merely reiterated the importance of remembering that period. It did not say that it had considered alternatives and discarded them. It merely stated that “no other name captured the time and all that it stood for”.

Nor was the public outcry about burying or erasing the past, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong alluded to when he weighed in on the matter. What people were asking for is some sensitivity to those who would rather not remember how they had to use banana money and watch kith and kin die while Singapore was so grandly named Syonan-to. No one would object if the gallery was called simply Japanese Occupation of Singapore.

What people were asking for is some sensitivity to those who would rather not remember how they had to use banana money and watch kith and kin die while Singapore was so grandly named Syonan-to.

Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim had defended the name when he opened the exhibition on Wednesday: “Some among older Singaporeans who lived through that dark period feel that the name legitimises the Occupation. Others among them say that Syonan was a painful fact of history, and we should call it what it was.” It was not, he said, about glorifying or legitimising those years.

He repeated this in his statement last night but there were also these lines: “Over the past two days, I have read the comments made on this issue, and received many letters from Singaporeans of all races. While they agreed that we need to teach Singaporeans about the Japanese Occupation, they also shared that the words ‘Syonan Gallery’ had evoked deep hurt in them, as well as their parents and grandparents. This was never our intention, and I am sorry for the pain the name has caused.”

He said the Syonan term had been used before in an exhibition called When Singapore was Syonan-to. There was no problem then. I can’t think why anyone would object to the phrase – it is accurate and factual. But sticking Syonan onto the word Gallery simply makes it too glamorous-sounding.

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I read reports in mainstream media (MSM) which quoted old-timers saying that it was fine to name the gallery Syonan and I wished my father was alive to say something different. I have also heard others who say that it was a good way to enthuse young people because it sounded so intriguing. Far better than Memories of Old Ford Factory. If so, then we aren’t quite honouring our forefathers, are we? We’re just interested in getting young people on board.

I had thought about how easy it would have been simply to bow to public opinion and rework the name instead of coming to its defence. After all, this was not about reversing policies or opposing fundamental tenets.

In fact, we even have the politicians and NLB saying that they had expected the public outcry. Why do it then?

In a nod to the public outcry, the signs were tweaked before the grand opening. The new signs now reflect its full name, Syonan Gallery: War and its Legacies and include the phrase, An Exhibition at Former Ford Factory.

And it will be changed again.

No one would object if the gallery was called simply Japanese Occupation of Singapore.

Said Dr Yaacob: “I have reflected deeply on what I heard. We must honour and respect the feelings of those who suffered terribly and lost family members during the Japanese Occupation. I have therefore decided to remove the words ‘Syonan Gallery’ from the name of the exhibition, and name it ‘Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies’.

“The contents of the exhibition remain unchanged. They capture a painful and tragic period in our history which we must never forget, and which we must educate our young about. It is vital for us to learn the lessons of history, and reaffirm our commitment never to let this happen to Singapore again.”

Yes, the exhibition is a lesson of history and for the G, this episode is a lesson on communication. I can only think that the NLB, historians, advisory panel and whoever else was involved in picking the name simply didn’t have the pulse of the people. It is distressing.

I applaud the G for making the change. It takes courage to admit and rectify mistakes, especially right after putting up a defence. My father would applaud this too.


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by Bertha Henson

SO WE now have plans on how to achieve 2 to 3 per cent growth in the next decade, which the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) said was an “appropriate” and “realistic” target. We should be contented with that pace, unlike the fast growth we’ve achieved in the early years.

The CFE report has phrases which only bureaucrats and PR spinners use, like developing capabilities and promoting synergies. Translation: How to get people and companies to work together so that they can do more. Underpinning all that is an openness to new technologies and developing deeper and new skills.

There’s a lot of nitty-gritty, like having more modular training courses and helping mid-career workers learn while earning a salary. Then there’s the call for a “one-stop” portal that incorporates training, education and career development. Available jobs and job projections might as well be thrown into the mix too.

Yes, people must shift their mindset about learning, which shouldn’t stop after leaving school. The SkillsFuture initiative is one such big change. The programme was lauded by the Economist in its Jan 14 issue. It described this as “the most joined-up approach”, where employers and the G work together to tease out skills that will be relevant in the future.

The report has another “skilling-up” suggestion on expanding the deployment of Full-Time National Servicemen (NSFs) with skills relevant to National Service (NS) vocations. From November last year, Mindef will allow NS enlistees to indicate their preferred vocations. The committee suggested cyber-security as one area. What we can expect: Men who can walk straight into a meaningful job after their stint.

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But there’s still the question of the absolute number of people needed to push the economy. Is a 2 to 3 per cent growth dependent on the current demographics, including the foreign manpower policy? We can have a highly skilled population, but numbers still matter. Re-hiring ages can be pushed back. Stay-at-home mums can be wooed back to work. Flexible work arrangements can entice some people to join the workforce. So what are the excess numbers that can be thrown back to productive work? We need to know this because the economy can’t be powered on skills alone, but also on the number of workers.

Is a 2 to 3 per cent growth dependent on the current demographics, including the foreign manpower policy?

We can tweak (again) all the childbearing and child caring incentives but what have been done so far don’t seemed to have moved the birth rate very much. Yesterday, the baby numbers for 2016 was announced: 33,161 Singaporean babies were born last year, about 600 fewer than in the previous year (2015). The 2015 figure of 33,725 is only around a 1.6 per cent slight increase from 33,193 in 2014.  The country’s total fertility rate, which measures the average number of children per woman is now 1.20.

The population is ageing and we’ve to think about whether economic strategies can fund expanded social policies that will be needed. There’s a reference to this in the report which said that “rising domestic expenditures due to ageing and global changes in tax rules will necessitate a review of Singapore’s tax system.”

What global changes in tax rules? The CFE report cites the OECD Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project, which involves developing international standards to tackle tax planning strategies used by companies to exploit tax loopholes. Translation: Stop companies from hiding tax money.

The CFE wants the current tax regime to hold: It must be broad-based, progressive and fair while remaining competitive and pro-growth. In any case, we should gird ourselves for some tax changes which CFE co-chairman Mr Heng Swee Keat promised will only be made after consultation.


The big question of foreign manpower

What about the elephant in the room, foreign manpower? Recall that our fast growth in the 1990s was propelled by the influx of foreign workers.

The 2003 Economic Review Committee report said: “We must continue to welcome global talent to augment our indigenous talent pool. While we have many talented Singaporeans, the pool is much smaller than in cities like London, Shanghai, Boston or San Francisco which draw people from larger hinterlands as well as from all over the world. We need a wide range of talent to supplement our own. Our openness to global talent will be a key competitive advantage for a Singapore that aspires to become a leading global city.”

“We need a wide range of talent to supplement our own.”

In the 2010 Economic Strategies Committee report, the tone changed slightly to, “we have become more dependent on foreign workers, who now make up almost one-third of the total workforce. Whilst this is comparable or slightly lower than what is seen in several other global cities, we have to manage this dependence and not let it increase indefinitely.”

This time, there is no mention of foreign manpower in the executive summary. There are some mentions, however, in the reports of the sub-committees:

a. On Future Corporate Capabilities and Innovation

Review current work pass schemes to facilitate entry of more startup founders and key executives who are prepared to anchor their growing businesses in Singapore.

b. On Future of Connectivity

To catalyse our future economy, Singapore must distinguish itself as a place where the entrepreneurs and innovators of tomorrow want to bring their ideas to fruition. In addition to strengthening our local talent pool, our manpower policies and talent attraction schemes must strategically target the right people and businesses to support the future key growth clusters such as the digital economy, advanced manufacturing, urban solutions, healthcare, hub services, and logistics.

c. On Future Jobs and Skills

To meet the needs of the future economy, Singapore must continue to remain open to talent from around the world. The Government’s approach, when processing Employment Pass (EP) applications, has been to assess criteria related to the individual’s salary, education qualifications and experience. Going forward, the Government should consider greater differentiation when granting EPs, to also take into account the firm’s commitment to fair consideration, as well as the economic spin-offs from and growth potential of the firm’s activity.


What then of the policy on foreign workers?

So the CFE acknowledges the need for foreign input. In fact, they are necessary for the development of “deep skills”. A BT columnist noted that many of the “deep skills”  such as data science, cyber security expertise, artificial intelligence, robotics, are at a nascent stage in Singapore but are already available elsewhere at advanced levels.

“We can ill afford to wait until our domestic skills in these relatively new areas are mature enough to be internationally competitive, which could take years. The disruptors of our businesses – who use the best skills in the world – are already at our gates. We, too, need state-of-the-art deep skills, now and in significant numbers, in our companies, financial institutions and government agencies,” he said.

He is right. It will take time to build skills locally. Singapore needs a jump-start. We’re already looking at a mismatch between available skills and jobs. You can’t train retrenched PMETs as quickly as you can find a foreigner to fill a skilled job. Perhaps, you can, if the whole society has imbibed a training culture that allows workers to move between jobs seamlessly. That isn’t going to happen any time soon.

You can’t train retrenched PMETs as quickly as you can find a foreigner to fill a skilled job.

The CFE must already know that deep skills are present elsewhere and while the G might throw money and incentives to get local start-ups going, they would be just too small in number to generate more good jobs for the future.

When asked about the role of foreign manpower, the other CFE co-chairman, Mr S Iswaran said: “The policy on foreign workers has to complement the needs of economy and also balance that with the needs of our population. So it’s about investing in our people, and making sure that their skills and capabilities are up to mark so that they can participate in opportunities, but also recognising that there may be certain gaps in the market.”

Translation: We will train our people well, but also hire foreigners to fill places locals can’t fill. He might be talking about construction workers and domestic helpers!

Is the coyness due to worry about the political cost of raising the foreign talent issue? This G has never shied away from making tough decisions. Unlike in the past, however, these decisions will need to be accompanied by plenty of political persuasion and assurances.

One way is to penalise companies which don’t hire many locals and which won’t add very much to the “future” economy. Instead, welcome those who have a strategy on manpower hiring and transferring of skills. Then we might be pleasantly surprised if growth surpasses the 2 to 3 per cent projected.

There’s just one big problem: Other countries want them too.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Bertha Henson

WHAT if someone who doesn’t look Malay and speaks bad Malay, but Malay is clearly stated on his or her identity card and both parents are Malay, wants to stand in a presidential election reserved for Malays? What if he or she doesn’t belong to the Sunni majority? What if he or she is married to a non-Malay who doesn’t practise Islam?

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Chan Chun Sing, talks about taking an “inclusive approach” in the presidential election. By that, he means that the Community Committee screening candidates will probably be more indulgent towards those who declare their affiliations to a community.

“By adopting an inclusive approach, we are allowing more people to be identified with a certain community. Our approach is quite different from the approach suggested by some other members who want to be even more clearly defined as to who forms what community,” he said.

By that, he means that the Community Committee screening candidates will probably be more indulgent towards those who declare their affiliations to a community.

Nicely said but the G cannot suppress more visceral, even primitive, feelings from surfacing just on its say-so. You can just imagine what voters will say, especially now that there will be a photograph of the candidate on ballot slips: “But he doesn’t look like a Malay!” Or what television viewers well-versed in the language will say about his vocal skills when he goes on television to make his pitch.

That’s the problem when race is a factor during elections. Mr Chan said that the Group Representation Constituency format which includes a minority member hasn’t faced such problems. But the GRC is a slate of candidates presented to a constituency. There might be rumblings if the non-Chinese candidate in a GRC doesn’t look the part, but it’s a whole different ball game when someone is put before the whole electorate as belonging to a certain race. The Malays might say: “Okay, he’s Malay”. The Chinese and Indians will wonder: “What sort of Malay is this?”

As Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh said: “Should there be residual doubts about how the Community Committee makes its decisions, the presidency could be anything but a unifying office not just for Singaporeans in general, but the respective minority race in particular.” He had asked about religion and language being part of the mix in determining ethnic identity.

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There’s the flip side too. What about a Chinese candidate who doesn’t speak Mandarin and looks more like a Malay than a Chinese? The G can argue that the candidate is standing in an “open” election so it doesn’t matter, but that somewhat overturns the principle that “all communities” must be represented, no? After all, there is a Chinese sub-committee for screening as well.

There’s the other opt-out option: the candidate who is standing in an “open election” can declare that he DOESN’T belong to any race according to changes to the Presidential Elections Act approved yesterday. That makes everything even weirder. So a candidate can deny the CIMO category on his pink IC, yet presume to speak for all races, none of which he belongs to?

According to ST, MP Vikram Nair asked if the “other minority communities” would be a catch-all for those who do not fit into the Chinese, Indian and Malay ethnicities? Mr Chan replied that Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean had made clear in Parliament last November that this referred to groups with some degree of history, permanence and established presence in Singapore, such as the Eurasian community. A check with Hansard showed that Mr Teo also said that a person who does not fall within one of the three racial groupings may still contest in open elections. So that means an American-born Caucasian who became a Singapore citizen can still stand for election, although what this does to the five-term hiatus trigger for a reserved election is not said. It doesn’t matter?

I have always maintained that highlighting race as a quality for eligibility is a dangerous thing. Merit and credentials for the job should be good enough. The G might think that it is catering to communities’ wishes and that we should acknowledge that race is never too far from the surface.  What it has done, however, is simply to entrench the differences among Singaporeans rather than lay stress on commonalities.

Merit and credentials for the job should be good enough.

This is, I supposed, part of the activist approach to managing race relations that Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam talked about at a forum last week. “It is anything but laissez-faire. And I think one of the reasons you’re seeing the reactions you’re seeing in the West today is because of a laissez-faire approach to ethnic relations.” He pointed as examples of activism the HDB integration policy to prevent ethnic enclaves from forming, and the wearing of school uniforms. He didn’t mention the presidency in his speech but it can safely be presumed that it is another such action.

The thing is, those examples can also be viewed as not giving in to racial sentiments and to make sure that Singapore looks like one country regardless of race. The presidency brings race right smack into an individual’s face, multiplied by the number of voters.

In a column published in ST today, an ST journalist said that it would be “a pity” if questions like those Mr Singh raised surfaced again “among a vocal few”, “[for] it would detract from the presidency as a unifying symbol, and the fact that a president, regardless of which community he is from, is, above all, a president for all Singaporeans.”

It is, of course, too late to do anything about the presidency. Come September, we will have a Malay president. The majority Chinese population, most of whom are probably not following the issue will wake up one day and suddenly realise that a Malay has walked into the top post without opposition, or that he has a choice between two Malays.

The same questions will be asked all over again. And they might not be as polite as questions asked in Parliament.


Read our past reports on the elected presidency here:

  1. Constitutional changes: More NCMPs, smaller GRCs and changes to elected presidency
  2. Elected Presidency: Sacred cow or sacrificial lamb?
  3. Proposed changes to the EP: All you need to know
  4. EP changes: Can we not have reserve elections next year?
  5. EP changes: Is shareholder equity the best way to judge a potential President?
  6. EP changes: When to stop clipping the President’s wings
  7. White Paper on EP changes: Council of (powerful and private) Presidential Advisers
  8. White Paper on EP changes: Not cast in stone
  9. White Paper on EP changes: A bigger presidential pool
  10. White Paper on EP changes: The short version
  11. Elected President: Debate on changes starts today and we hope it won’t end soon…
  12. Next Presidential Election for Malay candidates
  13. Elected Presidency: All tied up with a multi-racial bow
  14. Senate, not elected presidency, the way to go: Workers’ Party
  15. Elected Presidency: Who cares?
  16. September date with a Malay president


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by Bertha Henson

KILLER-COP Iskandar Rahmat will hang after all. Unless the President grants him clemency, which will happen when the moon turns green. He has been convicted of murder, not manslaughter or some other charge which involves killing people but doesn’t quite amount to murder.

Now, if you thought that murder had to be pre-planned and thought through before the deed is done, you’re wrong. The idea “can be formed on the spur of the moment, just before the actual killing takes place”.

That’s what the Supreme Court ruled when Mr Wendell Wong appealed against the judgment. Of course, it would be better if there was clear evidence of planning, like how Iskandar came ready with a knife to kill Tan Boon Sin. But, if it can be proved beyond reasonable doubt that he had the intention to kill at the time of the killing, it’s murder.

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Now this is a tough call because the only one who can answer the question would be the killer himself since the dead cannot speak. He’s not likely to say stuff that would send him to the gallows.

In fact, Iskandar argued that he only intended to “rob and run” and that he acted in self-defence because the father and son had attacked him. The elder, because he found out that he had been tricked into taking $600,000 worth of valuables from his safe-deposit box, and the younger, who came charging at Iskandar when he got home.

Except that it wasn’t clear if the elder man knew that he had been tricked at all. He had been co-operative about being part of the supposed sting operation which Iskandar cooked up. Plus, he was a 67-year old with a knee problem and Iskandar, 34, could have run away quite easily if attacked.

Then there were the 23 stab wounds mainly to his face, neck and chest. The “overwhelming number and severity of the wounds” showed that Rahmat had “an intention to cause death”.

As for the younger man, his attitude wasn’t that of a man who was rushing home to disarm an imposter. He walked out of his office with the expectation of returning to work, going by what his colleagues said. The court said he was probably going home to help his father, who was not fluent in English, make a police statement.

He reacted when he saw Iskandar with his father’s limp body. Iskandar said he merely wanted to get away and didn’t realise the knife was in his hand when he swung at the man who was standing between him and the door. But the younger Lee had 17 stab wounds to his face, neck and scalp – “vulnerable” parts of the body, the court pointed out.

“The sheer number of times he had stabbed and cut the man showed that Rahmat must have intended to cause his death,” said the court. Or there would be need for Rahmat to “retaliate with such ferocity and brutality” against a much lighter and unarmed man.

Iskandar tried also to plead diminished responsibility, in the hope that a mental condition would let him get his head out of the noose. But he only brought this up long after his arrest in 2013.  By then, the G psychiatrist had examined him and found him to be clear and lucid. He even stressed that he had no mental problem.

The case is over. Unless the moon turns green. But for the men and women in blue, it’s a big stain on their uniform. May the spot be scrubbed out…


TMG covered the Kovan double murder case extensively. Here are our past stories:

  1. Kovan double murders: Trial opens
  2. Kovan double murder: Where’s the murder weapon?
  3. Kovan double murder: Accused takes the stand
  4. The 5 lies of Iskandar (according to the prosecution)
  5. Cop to hang for killing father and son
  6. Kovan double murder: Victims’ family speaks
  7. Kovan Double Murder Appeal: Attack was ‘fierce and ferocious’, says prosecution


Featured image Murder’s weapon on the table by Flickr user Maarten Van Damme. (CC BY 2.0

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by Bertha Henson

A WHOLE thicket of rules and regulations now govern the news media, from the dinosaur-era Newspaper and Printing Presses Act and Class Licensing to registration of websites.

Then there are the unseen OB markers which shouldn’t be crossed even though your words don’t amount to anything criminal. Plus, there is the Sedition Act and the myriad clauses under the Penal Code which can land you in jail.

Now, we are awaiting proposed amendments to the Broadcasting Act, which is really two years late. The hope is that the promised consultation on the changes will materialise given that it will affect nearly everyone, both content producers and consumers.

So what is the Law ministry thinking about now since the Supreme Court has ruled that the Protection from Harassment Act doesn’t cover entities, and there’s some confusion over what should be done about “false statements”? In the aftermath of the judgment, its spokesman said that it will “study the judgment and consider what further steps it should take to correct the deliberate spreading of falsehoods”.

The Workers’ Party has jumped into the fray and got an answer from the G on whether it would amend POHA. Frankly, the G would have just needed to make clear that “victims” of harassment could include entities, for G agencies to be covered under POHA. That is, anyone and any group can claim to have been victims of “harassment”, which could be stalking or the butt of online jokes or the subject of an online CSI.

In any case, the ministry has said it has no intention of changing POHA.

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How now?

So if not the POHA, what then? And how has it come to pass that we need rules to curb fake news? In the past, a public admonition would be enough to knock people into the dust. Then there was the concept of right of reply. In 2012, the G came up with its Factually website to curb misinformation. Evidently, it’s not of much use.

A government agency might pursue the defamation route but according to lawyers, there is some confusion about whether this is allowed. There is the Derbyshire principle — a common law principle in Britain and other countries that bars a public body from suing a citizen for defamation so as not to discourage free speech. Is this applicable here? While public figures have sued for falsehoods which ruined their reputation, there is no record of G agencies having done so.

It might have escaped people’s notice, but the estate of the late Lee Kuan Yew tried to invoke the legislation against teenager Amos Yee in 2015 – but the charge was quietly dropped. Now, you can’t defame dead people. For a while, it does seem like the POHA could be an alternative defamation suit! Now we’re in for a more confrontational approach, thanks to the US presidential election and Brexit.

“The Government strongly believes that the scourge of false information must not be allowed to take hold in Singapore, lest it weakens our democratic society and institutions,” said the Law Ministry.

“At a time when false information can affect election results, contaminate public discussions and weaken democratic societies, it is important for the Government, as well as corporations and individuals, to be able to respond robustly to false statements that could poison public debate and mislead decision-making.”

“Everyone, including the Government, should be entitled to point out falsehoods which are published, and have the true facts brought to public attention.”

It’s odd that the G feels that it is being curbed from addressing falsehoods in some way. It has plenty of resources to put forward its point of view, but it is not content with that. It wants an acknowledgement that the purveyor of fake news was wrong, and to set it right.

On principle, it looks reasonable that everybody, big or small or company or G agency, should be entitled to equal protection under the law. Experts surveyed by TODAY seemed to think so.


Wider effect

But this is to under-estimate the deadening effect such a move will have on freedom of speech, which seems to be a very bad phrase in Singapore. There are other reasons a government doesn’t do or say things even if it thinks it is right to do so.

It could simply choose to sue for defamation, for example, but there is no tradition for this. Why? Because the impact on the wider society is far greater than the good it does? This is not to say that the G is without protection. It is immune to law suits under the Government Proceedings Act.

In terms of freedom of speech, the balance has always been tilted in the G’s favour. It has the most resources and the biggest reach.

So it didn’t win in the most recent case. Does this mean it needs another mechanism to get its way in the future? Will this hammer be applied to everyone who makes a wrong statement, or restricted to entities with a big enough reach?

If the latter, there are plenty of levers it can pull. If it encompasses everyone or anyone, the G would have to maintain an army of fact-checkers to stop false statements from going viral online. Of course, It could also say that it will only invoke the mechanism for egregious cases – and to trust that it will be used sparingly.

How ironic! The job of calling out people, including those in power, on lies and mistakes is usually the responsibility of news media. The checks are the readers and viewers – and those in the industry. There was – and still is – an editorial code of conduct in most news media to ensure transparency and accountability. To stop the G from playing policeman, it falls on the rest of us to do the job. Pointing out mistakes is an unpopular thing but it is far better than to have the G weigh in, whether with a heavy hand or a light touch.

The G would say that respectable news media have no need to fear, so long as they publish the facts.


The job of checking

Now, here’s the truth about facts:

Some facts can be checked easily; some aren’t easily verifiable especially with a deadline looming. Some are simply impossible to obtain such as when ministries claim not to keep records or use the word “sensitive”. Some can’t be reported because of the Official Secrets Act or Administration of Justice Act. Some facts might lead to public discontent, and there’s the OB marker to think of. Some facts might cause social unrest, and then you’ll have to be wary of running foul of the Sedition Act even though there was no intended malice. Some facts are withheld because newsmakers think that is the best way to kill a bad story. Some facts could be out-dated.

Any journalist will tell you that Singapore is not a place where facts are given out freely. Corporations and G agencies tend to be protective of their information, possibly because they think new information will somehow rebound on them. Better to keep silent than give more information which can become ammunition.

Mr Ho Kwon Ping said this at a forum recently: “Access to information enables the public to robustly debate and articulate ground-up responses to the pressing societal issues of today. An information-rich society is all the more important since we’ve seen, in the recent US presidential elections, how social media can easily distort facts and even manufacture dis-information”.

So let’s re-write this phrase: “The Government strongly believes that the scourge of false information must not be allowed to take hold in Singapore, lest it weakens our democratic society and institutions”.

Let’s try this: “The Government strongly believes that more access to real information must be given to the people, so as to strengthen our democratic society and institutions”.



Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Bertha Henson

IS ANYONE really telling the truth in this post-truth world? In fact, have you ever heard such a thing as “alternative facts“? And if you happen not to like the news, do you dismiss it as fake?

First, let’s get the phrase right. Fake news is deliberate and malicious, like that put out by Macedonian youths during the US presidential election.

Fake news is not about mistakes that come up in the course of reporting and publishing – which happens because journalists are fallible creatures. An American reporter apologised quickly when he reported that a bust of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. had gone missing in the Oval Office. He just didn’t see it.

Nor is it fake news when the media decides to alight on a certain angle. That is a question of editorial judgment, which you can agree or not agree with. You can’t call it fake although you might say it is “slanted”.

Here’s a local example from yesterday’s news reports:


TODAY: WP, Law Ministry spar over harassment law

The Workers’ Party (WP) cautioned yesterday against amending the Protection from Harassment Act (Poha) to allow the Government to invoke a provision to deal with falsehoods, saying it would “vigorously oppose” any such move.

In response, the Law Ministry said last night that the WP had misrepresented the issues and the Government’s aims as being about seeking protection from harassment.

ST: Recent case about falsehoods, not harassment

The Law Ministry said yesterday that the Workers’ Party (WP) had misrepresented the Government’s position on a law that provides protection against harassment and false statements, after the opposition party suggested that the Government would be changing the law to protect itself from harassment.

In a sharp response, the ministry said: “The Government has never said that it needed protection from harassment. Nor does the Government intend to amend POHA (Protection from Harassment Act) to protect itself from harassment.”


The ST put forth the Law Ministry’s case more forcefully than TODAY, which presented it as a disagreement. Neither counts as fake news.

If you’re reading this, please note that this is a commentary, which can be an argument for something or other based on the facts or an article that hopes to shed more light on an issue. In this instance, we’re hoping to explain the fuss over the Protection from Harassment Act or POHA which is the subject of a ping pong game between the G and the Workers’ Party.

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At the risk of over-summarising, here’s a quick and dirty run-down:

The Law Ministry isn’t happy that the majority of the three-judge Court of Appeal said there was no need for The Online Citizen (TOC) to notify its readers that a particular interview it had with Dr Ting Choon Meng accusing Mindef of brow-beating and bullying him contained false statements. The judges said that POHA is not meant for entities such as Mindef to use but is a low level remedy for individuals who have been harassed by others. Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon differed, arguing that the law is not just for people who have been harassed but also to remedy false statements that have been made.

The twist is that Justices Andrew Phang and Chao Hick Tin relied heavily on Law Minister K Shanmugam’s focus in Parliament on “victims” during the passage of the Bill in 2014. They also referred to TOC’s publication of Mindef’s response and how Mindef had enough resources to put its point of view across.

Now it seems that the Law Minister is saying that the two judges were wrong to mis-read his intentions this way. The thing is, how did Parliament view the Bill – or does it matter at all now? What is the issue here: the freedom to make false statements? The courts, from District to High to Court of Appeal, had no doubt that the article in question contained falsehoods.

The falsehoods were:

(i) MINDEF had knowingly infringed Dr Ting Choon Meng’s Singapore Patent 113446, with the intent to
subsequently apply to revoke his patent upon his legal challenge; and

(ii) MINDEF waged a ‘war of attrition’ against Mobilestats, by deliberately delaying the court proceedings in Suit 619 of 2011 and asking for more trial dates than necessary, thereby increasing legal costs

(Editor’s note:  Only (ii) was found to be false. We apologise for the error)

Given that these have been ascertained, what is the next step?

The journalistic practice is to say “sorry”. A correction will be published and a notification put on the offending online version as well.

What about the argument that Mindef was given the right of reply? Yes, it was, in a separate link. This is like putting a right of reply in the letters page of newspapers – which sometimes leaves first-time readers wondering what the issue was about because they have no recourse to the earlier article. MSM do this if they are convinced that it was a matter of a difference of opinion, rather than facts. Facts are sacred.

According to the original article posted on Jan 15 in 2015, TOC said that it had “sent a request to Mindef to comment on this article”. “We will publish their response, if any, when they reply”. This is pretty odd because the questions weren’t asked before the article was published but after. Mindef replied five days later on Jan 20 on its Facebook page. In the interest of balance, news media usually try to get the other side of the story as well, unless it was a piece of breaking news which demanded immediate publication.

Would all the row have been avoided if Mindef’s input was incorporated in the earlier piece? Truth to tell, TOC wouldn’t have had much of a story then. Why? Because if it had believed Mindef, then there was no story on the small man being bullied by the big boys because what Dr Ting alleged was not true. If it thought Mindef’s response was only a matter of opinion, then possibly there could be a story on either:

a. Mindef, Dr Ting still clashing over the patent rights issue. (See TODAY example above)

b. Mindef: Dr Ting’s allegations not true (See ST example above)

Either approach might have gotten TOC off the Mindef hook, although some might view it as succumbing to intimidation tactics rather than using a journalistic perspective.

So did TOC print fake news to put Mindef in a bad light?

What can be said is this: It didn’t verify the facts in the pursuit of a good story.


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by Bertha Henson

IT IS not what the Court of Appeal said about the Protection from Harassment Act that is important, but what the G is going to do.

The Court of Appeal said the G cannot be defined as a person under the Act, that is, it is not an entity which could feel emotionally or psychologically distressed by falsehoods. It also held that The Online Citizen (TOC) need not notify its readers about the falsehoods which it had published regarding Dr Ting Meng Choong’s allegations that Mindef was out to do him in.

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Now, this was a two-to-one judgement with Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon holding the dissenting opinion. The other two judges Chao Hick Tin and Andrew Phang said that a reading of Parliamentary reports when the Bill was going through Parliament in 2014, showed that Law Minister K Shanmugam was focused on giving “people” a “low-tier remedy” against harassment. Mindef is not “people” and has plenty of resources to make its side of the story heard, they said.

Here comes the Law Ministry itself.

It said that the G’s policy was to “allow natural persons, as well as the Government and corporations” to use the Act. (So it seems the two judges mis-read Mr Shanmugam? Or did he mis-speak?)

It noted the courts had agreed that TOC had indeed published falsehoods such as Dr Ting’s accusation that Mindef had deliberately infringed his patent on a medical device and was waging a “war of attrition” by dragging out a trial to wear him out financially.

Although TOC had published Mindef’s response in full and linked it to the Dr Ting article, Mindef went to court to get TOC to make clear that the article contained false statements of fact, so readers would know immediately on reading.

The case went from District Court to High Court to the apex Court of Appeal with the majority ruling that only “natural person can rely on the provision to get those who have published falsehoods to also publish corrections and the true facts”.

This is an interesting case which touches on who can use the law to press publishers into making corrections, even if the erroneous or misleading story doesn’t distress any one person emotionally or psychologically.

The two judges had read Mr Shanmugam’s answers in Parliament in one way, while CJ Sundaresh Menon read it in the opposite way. For example, what to make of Mr Shanmugam’s answer to Workers’ Party Pritam Singh’s question on whether the “persons” referred to in Bill could be corporate entities? Mr Shanmugam’s swift response was to refer to the Interpretation Act which, by the way, would be a yes.

The two judges said his answer was sandwiched between other responses and his speech was mainly about redress for victims. It was, they said, a “generic answer”. The CJ, however, said that in the absence of clarity, it was the Interpretation Act that judges must turn to for answers.

Likewise, is the existence of falsehood enough to justify the courts taking action? The two judges said it would not be “just and equitable” and came down on the side of TOC which they said had tried to give a balanced picture by publishing its response and providing a link.

“Additionally, Mindef was anything but a helpless victim. It is a government agency possessed of significant resources and access to media channels. In the present case, Mindef was able to put across its side of the story through traditional media as well as on its Facebook page.”

CJ Menon, however, thought that TOC’s actions were “insufficient” and “inadequate” to draw attention to the falsehood and the true facts in the case. In his view, getting TOC to merely notify readers that the article had false statements was a “low-level restriction”.

Now, the Law Ministry didn’t describe the article as “fake news”, which it said “has become a major problem for many societies” and destructive of the institutions of democracy.

“The Government notes the dissenting judgement of the learned Chief Justice, and the reasons the Chief Justice has given for his views. The Government will study the judgement, and consider what further steps it should take to correct the deliberate spreading of falsehoods.”

Oh dear. What’s next?



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by Bertha Henson

WHEN you think about the SAF Terrex issue, what comes to mind? Perhaps, these points:

a. China must be really angry with Singapore to instruct Hong Kong to seize the vehicles. In other words, nobody believes that this is a Hong Kong administrative measure, no matter how the politicians spin it.

b. China doesn’t like Singapore training in Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province, but then again, we’ve been doing so since 1974… So what gives?

c. China bullies or bribes whatever countries it can and we happened to be on the bullying end.

A fourth point that has been ignored but should be part of the discussion is this: The annual Singapore- China Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) meeting did not take place last year. Why?

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This council meeting, which started in 2003 and usually takes place in October, is co-chaired by Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli and Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean. It’s a pity that the question of why it didn’t happen wasn’t asked in Parliament when the SAF Terrex issue came up. Has it been cancelled or postponed and was the decision made pre- or post-Terrex?

A commentator said that cancellation of the meeting was the “biggest indication of Singapore-China relations falling to freezing point”. Mr William Zheng Wei, a Chinese national who became a Singaporean in 2003, posted a column on his WeChat account, which was translated into English and published in The Straits Times (ST) on Saturday. He used to be the editor of the online edition of Singaporean Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao and then chief editor of and, the online editions of the Hong Kong daily South China Morning Post.

He said: “By holding the armoured vehicles as a trump card, China chose to postpone the JCBC meeting and thereby not give Singapore a chance to raise the issue face to face, knowing full well Singapore would try to do so.”

Mr Zheng didn’t pussyfoot around whether China is responsible for the seizure. He said China was “smart” to have vehicles seized in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

It’s playing weiqi or the Chinese chess game of Go, employing strategies that are indirect rather than confrontational to achieve an objective. 

Thus, the issue of the seizure is between the Hong Kong authorities and Singapore, with China hovering in the background like a shadow.

Singapore seems content to keep it that way. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong didn’t raise the matter with anyone in Beijing; he wrote to Hong Kong chief executive C Y Leung. In fact, Singapore has actually gone a notch up – or down. The problem should be sorted out between the shipper, APL, and Hong Kong customs. As far as Singapore was concerned, the nine vehicles are Singapore sovereign property and should be returned “immediately”.

“Immediately” is a demand that is usually accompanied by “or else”, but not in this case. That would be too confrontational. In any case, what leverage does Singapore have over Hong Kong or big brother China? To take a softer stance, however, would mean open season for any pirate (sovereign or otherwise) to seize Singapore’s property while it’s en route to some place. How do you tell someone to return your property when you’ve allowed someone else to keep the booty in the past?


A strategic game

Mr Zheng said that the Chinese move to make it Hong Kong’s problem means the seizure can be strung out using the excuse of delayed paperwork. It also means there is no reason for China and Singapore to “talk” about the issue since it isn’t really a “bilateral” one. Singapore and China can remain cordial and civil, giving both sides “room to manoeuvre without losing face”.

Is this happening?

Definitely, since Hong Kong hasn’t even said anything about why the vehicles were seized in the first place. Singapore officials have been running back and forth to discuss the status of the vehicles – and with nothing to show.

No dialogue has been opened between the two countries either.

It’s likely that a lot of back channels are being used among the triangle of Singapore, Hong Kong and China officials to get to the nub of the matter. And it’s not likely we’ll know what’s happening behind closed doors. Plus, the code word is “don’t speculate” – lest it jeopardise whatever is happening or not happening out of the public eye.

So let’s refrain from speculating and ask some questions instead. Does China want something from us in return for the Terrexes? (Read: blackmail). Maybe a more accommodating position on the South China Sea which China insists is its property even though an international tribunal say no? Or is this about Singapore’s relations with Taiwan?


Who rather than what

After all, when Singapore established diplomatic ties with China in 1990, Chinese Premier Li Peng had said Beijing would not be “too disturbed” by its continued use of military training facilities in Taiwan. “We sympathise with Singapore’s position and understand its need to build a strong defence force. On this matter, suitable arrangements will be made,” he said.

On this point, Mr Zheng offered a fresh perspective. It has to do with who is in charge of Taiwan.

He noted that the military co-operation between Singapore and Taiwan dated from the Kuomintang days.

“In China’s eyes, Singapore’s partnership with KMT was, of course, not so much of a problem, because KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have a consensus on ‘one China, two interpretations’.”

Mr Zheng noted that the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew visited Taiwan regularly without protest from China for 20 years from 1973. But between 1995 and 2000, Mr Lee stopped the regular visits, and after 2000, he never visited Taiwan again.

The year 2000 was when the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party led by Mr Chen Shui-Bian dislodged the KMT from power. The KMT, however, bounced back in 2008 under the leadership of Mr Ma Ying-jeou. Under Mr Ma’s presidency which lasted till May last year, “cross-strait ties were peaceful and stable, the possibility of war was extremely low, hence Singapore-Taiwan military exchanges were not a big issue,” said Mr Zheng. He might have added that Singapore even hosted a historic meeting between Mr Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November 2015, the first meeting of leaders in 66 years.

Now, however, Taiwan has gone back to DPP rule under Ms Tsai Ing-wen, who rather infamously created waves when US President-elect Donald Trump took a congratulatory phone call from her.

Mr Zheng offered this advice: That Singapore distinguishes between the pro-independence and pro-unification camps in Taiwan.

He doesn’t say how. But it’s a neat idea, as it involves only re-calibrating Singapore’s relationship with Taiwan to demonstrate its commitment to the One China principle. It’s neat because it doesn’t involve Singapore compromising its position on other issues that have to do with China, such as over the South China Sea, and having to follow China’s lead all the time.

Then again, how do you do this?

And if done, will we get our Terrexes back?


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Bertha in coffee shop

by Bertha Henson

MY MOTHER rang me on Wednesday evening in a heightened state of excitement. She had caught “me” on TV.

Except that it wasn’t me, but a parody (poor one) of me, on The Noose. I thought my mother would never know, because she watched the news, not The Noose. So while I was watching The Borgias on the Internet, she was urging me to switch to Channel 5.

I’ve known for some time about the character known as Bertha Haryani, which I supposed is a take-off from the name of my blog, Bertha Harian. Except that I never use the blog now that I have The Middle Ground website. An undergraduate student of mine informed me of it in August and more recently, people have been sending me screen shots and videos. I decided, after my mother rang me, that it was time to check out my caricature.

Screenshot of The Noose on Toggle at 6:19min.
Screenshot of The Noose S9 Ep4 on Toggle at 6:19min.


Screenshot of The Noose S9 Ep5 on Toggle at 16:46min.
Screenshot of The Noose S9 Ep5 on Toggle at 16:46min.

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First off, whoever hit on the dim idea to portray me probably knew me when I was in my 20s. That was the era of suits, chunky earrings and chokers. Today’s Bertha never dons a coat or suit if she can help it and uses ear studs and one of those thin chains that is supposed to make you healthier.

Second, Bertha isn’t fluent in Malay. She can manage a few sentences but it doesn’t flow as smoothly as the TV character played by Siti Khalijah. So some expert advice for the Noose-room: More Singlish works better.

Some idiosyncrasies are portrayed correctly, like how I can’t stand the heat. More expert advice:

I always have a foldable fan with me, even while reporting.

Go ask your news colleagues.

It is true that I am not an elegant person off-camera, but I think I would be the same on-camera. I know this, which is why I stick to words, not pictures and video.

My mother was both aghast and amused. My brother thinks I should trademark the name Bertha Harian although I don’t know what good that would do. Others who’ve seen the clips think it’s hilarious and were rather more interested in my own reaction to the antics of The Noose.

I have been flamed, called names, caricatured and cartoonised for such a long time that nothing fazes me anymore. But this is the first time I have actually been parodied (or lampooned?) on free-to-air TV. Not once, but as a more or less regular feature.

I am terribly flattered. Somebody actually thinks I am well-known enough for local audiences to recognise what I would have thought was an “inside joke”. It’s nice to be among the ranks of the Bee Bee See and Xin Hua Hua.

What bugs me is this:

Why use a caricature when you can ask the real thing to come on The Noose.

Come on, people at The Noose, I dare you. You only have to foot cab fare.

You see, I too can get quite tired of doing The News.


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by Bertha Henson

BECAUSE he happens to be a Senior Counsel? Mr Tan Chee Meng is the Deputy Chairman of big-time law firm WongPartnership and you would have thought he knew enough about Singapore law to know that his sons must serve their National Service obligations as Singapore citizens.

Never mind that. What’s curious is why The Straits Times (ST) chose not to name him in its article, when Channel NewsAsia and TODAY did. One reason could be it felt that Jonathan Tan Huai En’s evasion of National Service (NS) for 10 years had nothing to do with his family? Yet, family was the reason Tan, now 28, said he had to keep from donning a Singapore Armed Forces uniform.

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Along with his mother and two siblings, he had migrated to Canada in 2000. That would have made him about 12 years old. In fact, the prosecution made much of how he completed his primary school education here.

One reason for moving: He couldn’t cope with Chinese language classes here. And the reason for staying there: He had to look after his mother who was suffering from depression and felt a duty to take care of his younger brother, now 25.

Why didn’t the father go along with the family? According to news reports, it was “due to a lack of employment opportunities overseas”. Well, well. Maybe legal eagles aren’t so mobile after all.

Tan received Canadian citizenship in 2005, and continued to study and work there, graduating from the University of British Columbia with a Master of Engineering in Clean Energy and getting a job at a multinational corporation. He never renounced his Singapore citizenship.

Then duty called. In 2005 and 2006, notices to register for NS were served on him three times and visits made to his father’s registered Hillview home here. It isn’t said in news reports what the senior Tan told Mindef then. Three years later in 2009, however, the lawyer called to say that his son wanted to renounce his citizenship and asked if his liability could be waived. The answer was no. Jonathan had been classified as a defaulter and had to serve his NS before anything could be done about his pink IC.

Tan’s defence is that he only knew of his NS liabilities in 2013, when his grandfather fell gravely ill and Tan wanted to visit him. His mother then told him that he would be arrested upon setting foot in Singapore. So it seems he is ignorant of the law and his parents had never said anything about the NS call-ups…

Tan returned on May 5, 2015, and reported to Central Manpower Base (CMPB) the following day. He enlisted last January. His younger brother Isaac has also returned to Singapore and is under investigation. Why did he return? Said Tan’s lawyer: “The only reason why he’s back today is because he needs to resolve his issues, otherwise he’s in a state of flux (and) can’t renounce his citizenship.”

The prosecution is pushing for a five-month jail term.



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