June 24, 2017

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Authors Posts by Bertha Henson

Bertha Henson

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

By Bertha Henson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True. But hard truths.. hard truths.

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

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

 

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by Bertha Henson

IT WAS bound to happen. With news of the millions Tiong Bahru FC amassed from its fruit machines, there have been calls to keep these one-armed bandits confined to the two casinos.

Yet, there are more than 100 clubs – whether it is an NTUC Club or an exclusive country club – which has such misleadingly-named gambling contraptions. And you don’t have to pay a $100 entrance fee to get into the premises.

What you have to do, though, is be a member of said club or society. That’s because the machines are supposed to be “private’’, under the Private Lotteries Act. Located in the basement of People’s Park Centre, with 29 machines, Tiong Bahru FC has more than 18,000 members, according to its latest annual returns filed with the Registry of Societies, as reported by The Straits Times (April 23).

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Given that Tiong Bahru FC reported S$36.8 million in total revenue in the last financial year, that works out to roughly S$1.27 million for each machine, or just over S$100,000 per machine each month. That’s plenty of arm muscle or finger pressing every day in the club.

A check through newspaper reports showed that clubs view them as a big attraction. There’s the National University of Singapore Society Clubhouses, Singapore Cricket Club, Changi Swimming Club, Changi Airport Recreation Club and Keppel Club. NTUC Club has several jackpot rooms all over Singapore, in places such as Ang Mo Kio, Bedok, Tanjong Pagar and Pasir Ris.

Of course, the G exacts its pound of flesh by imposing 9.5 per cent of annual gross turnover. This was put in place in 2011 because, gulp!, clubs said that an earlier proposed 12 per cent duty was too high now that casinos have surfaced in Singapore.

Casinos don’t seem to have affected the clubs’ takings equally. In fact, according to Business Times, the Automobile Association of Singapore had S$4.27 million in 2015, up from S$3.39 million the previous year. It has about the same number of machines as Tiong Bahru FC. So while revenue is growing, its takings are small beer compared to what the football club is raking in.

And this brings us to the question of just what those jackpot machines do for Singapore football – besides minting money. Tiong Bahru FC’s Bill Ng of the $500,000 donation fame, has always made no bones about his financial model for football.

He did the same to Hougang United FC and both clubs can afford to thumb their noses at any subsidy the Football Association of Singapore can funnel. Most S. League clubs operate on an annual budget of between $1.2 million and $1.5 million, and cannot do without the $800,000 annual subsidy.

“The public has to understand that we do not have any other source of revenue at this juncture. Hence the success of jackpot operations is critical,” he told TNP in October last year.

“This is the only artificial revenue that we can rely on at the moment. Any club with an eye towards financial self-sustainability must be prepared to look for alternative revenue streams as we may have to phase it out in the next five years.”

What the jackpot earnings have been spent on now appears to be the subject of police questioning. Besides monthly accounts and yearly audits, it isn’t clear what stipulations were put forth when the clubs obtained their licence to install fruit machines. At the very least, the club should be expected to use the revenue for its own purposes and in its own interest.

If so, it gives rise to the question of whether it is alright for $500,000 to be drawn from the Tiong Bahru FC account for the Asean Football Federation to build a Football Management System.

Mr Ng’s “jackpot” modus operandi is not without detractors who object to using gambling as a way to finance football. That was what Tampines Rovers chairman Krishna Ramachandra said last year about depending on an activity that has been known to wipe out the life savings of retirees.

There is, therefore, a moral issue here, and given the amounts amassed by Tiong Bahru FC, it would be safe to say that the punters aren’t there because they like football. In fact, its 18,000 members is significantly more than the 600 members of Geylang International FC, an S. League club. Another S. League club Balestier Khalsa’s 1,000-plus members also pales in comparison to that of Tiong Bahru FC.

But high-minded words aside, Mr Ramachandra is in a bit of a pickle now because he is on Mr Ng’s Game Changers slate as vice-president. In a TNP report today (Apr 24), he focused on the use of gaming revenue rather than the act of gaming. “I think the authorities have always had very clear and extensive rules and regulations on the jackpot operations.”

“I do not see that as an issue. Ultimately, the clubs need to ensure that they utilise the profits in a responsible manner and one that furthers the mandate of that club, be it a social or recreational or sports club.”

And no, he doesn’t want any rules on fruit machines tightened.

The FAS saga has opened a whole can of worms – both legal and moral.

 

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By Bertha Henson

SO MANY accusations left hanging in the air. Allegations of financial impropriety and other shenanigans – all left unsaid. What are we to make of the statements of protagonists in the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) saga and the police action? Everybody’s been coy about joining the dots because they might not draw a pretty, and maybe even defamatory, picture. Here, however, are six points that seem the subject of contention:

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a. That $500,000 donation
It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Mr Bill Ng’s claim that this donation in 2014 intended for local football went instead to supporting the Asean Football Federation (AFF) led to an escalation of tensions between past and contending challengers for the council.

Did he know or not know? General secretary Winston Lee produced documentary evidence that he did but Mr Ng then said that Mr Lee coerced him into signing the letter and putting it on his club letterhead.

Was ex-FAS president Mr Zainudin Nordin involved in asking him for the donation? Mr Ng said it was Mr Lee but an acknowledgement letter was addressed to Mr Zainudin. Sport Singapore has asked for an audit of such large donations. Both Mr Zainudin and Mr Ng seem to be good friends. Mr Ng even asked the ex-MP to chair Tiong Bahru Football Club (FC) when he stepped down from the FAS earlier this year. He declined the offer as he was given a post of Deputy Principal (Development) at ITE College.

b. Whose money is it anyway?

It appeared to have come from Tiong Bahru FC which Mr Ng owns, going by the cheques signed. It went to the FAS which passed it to the AFF. Now why this sum had to go through the good offices of the FAS is another question. Why not a direct donation?

c. So what if FAS was the channel?

If so, how is it that other council members seem to have no knowledge of such a large donation, which amounts to half of what could be used to run a football club? Is this a sign that the old establishment, as so many in the fraternity had alleged, is elitist and secretive? Mr Zainudin, president since 2009, only held council meetings four times a year unlike his predecessor Associate Prof Ho Peng Kee, who did so once a month.

d. How did Tiong Bahru come to have so much money anyway?

The club has 29 jackpot machines on its premises which rake in about $37 million last year, more than the $35.8 million FAS budget. Those machines aren’t illegal and appeared to be Mr Ng’s chief method of turning around ailing clubs. The corporate had experience in gaming operations, having set up a casino in Cambodia. According to TODAY, the club paid its 15 employees S$2.073 million in salaries last year and put in an additional S$528,000 for staff training, uniforms and staff welfare. But spending on its football team was a more modest S$169,000.

His other two clubs, Hougang United and Woodlands Wellington, also have jackpot machines although not of the same number. In 2014, Hougang United made a $2million profit and Mr Ng made a point of returning the FAS its $800,000 subsidy.

e. So if it’s not illegal, then what’s the problem?

There are questions about an audit during the saga of Hougang United and Woodlands Wellington intending to merge in 2014 which was later ruled as unconstitutional. In March 2016, however, Sport Singapore ordered FAS to do an audit on the merger and clubs sitting out of the S. League. This is, apparently, still on-going. It also told Woodlands Wellington, which is sitting out of the S. League, to cease making money from the machines and move out of the premises.

f. Does the saga have anything to do with Mr Ng’s companies?

He founded private equity firm Financial Frontiers and is a director of six companies.

ST reported that in his company’s portfolio is an ESW Manage, which is a sponsor of Hougang United, and also had Mr Zainudin Nordin and Woodlands Wellington chairman Gary Tan as directors. It might not be a surprise that those in the football fraternity have commercial ties but there is the issue of whether proper disclosure of interests was made to relevant parties.

Mr Ng’s wife Bonnie Wong is the listed owner of Polygon Ventures, landlord of the Tiong Bahru club’s 2,583 square foot premises in the basement of People’s Park Centre. The club pays rent of about $80,000 a month or $31 per square feet. TODAY’s checks showed that other basement units in People’s Park Centre are charging between S$2.92 and S$11.23 per square foot in rent. The only unit charging S$31.50 per square foot in rent is located at street level, and measures only 200 square foot.

Nobody’s drawing any links in the above except to state the facts. Clearly, Mr Ng had been under some auditing pressure even before he threw his hat into the FAS electoral ring. So is he trying to obstruct the process as he has been alleged to?

Let’s wait for the next match.

 

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By Bertha Henson

OVER the past few days, we’ve been deluged by eulogies on the late Cabinet Minister Othman Wok. Every facet of the man who died at age 92 on Monday (April 17) has been polished to a high shine, whether as a father, Malay leader or national politician.

Threading the eulogies is one theme: his commitment to multiracialism. It is a term that some might take for granted, especially if they belong to the majority race. It is a term some may bristle at, because of perceived discriminatory acts or an unintended racist joke they’ve heard. Doubtless, some would also view the speeches as politically-oriented, to bring together society when race and religion seem to be such potent divisive forces.

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I choose to see Mr Othman a little differently: as a man who placed his convictions above his comfort and convenience. This is no pragmatic Singaporean who jumps on the bandwagon and hitches himself to a rising star. This is a principled man who went against the popular tide.

It must have been so difficult for him to put his lot in with the People’s Action Party in the early days of Singapore. It was far easier to stay within the comfortable confines of the then majority community of Malaya. We’re told about how he was called unmentionable names, had his campaign posters smeared by faeces and faced death threats from communal rabble rousers.

I can hear his fellow Malays accuse him of disloyalty to the community which unlike, the Chinese, is infused with a common religious identity: “Why turn against your community – or your God?’’ I can even hear well-meaning non-Malay friends suggesting that he “take cover’’ and enjoy the benefits of staying put in a place where there was a national commitment to promote the advance of the community. Think of all the racist remarks that can be made against him and multiply its force several times – and think of what such pressure would do to his family.

Why would anyone choose such a dangerous road? It defies pragmatism and common sense.

I raise this because we’ve made such a virtue of pragmatism that we ignore what it means to abide by principles. We hedge principles with compromises and plenty of grey areas. Mr Othman, we are told, had two days to settle his affairs in Kuala Lumpur before receiving a summons to stand in the contentious 1963 elections on the PAP ticket. Then racial riots broke out.

Being a community leader would really mean something in those days. You would have to placate or persuade your own community to your point of view while dealing with suspicions of outsiders who wonder if you have a hidden agenda. To do this at a time when rabble rousers were calling for your head calls for, well, a cool head.

Mr Othman introduced the Administration of Muslim Law Act for Singapore Muslims. And he joined the pioneer National Service contingent. Both made important statements on what it means to be a Muslim Singaporean in secular Singapore.

I think today of the degree of harmony we have here even if we do get the occasional racist remark being made. Compared to Mr Othman, we have very thin skins that are easily pierced by some speech or act. Yet we all gave up something precious for this place called Singapore, whether they are Chinese dialects, open prayer calls or language-medium schools. A give-and-take attitude is hard-wired in our DNA.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described the people here as an “obstreperous’’ people in 1965, refusing to be cowed by threats or seduced by promises. It is an interesting choice of word, given that Singaporeans are more usually known as sheep these days. Are we still an obstreperous people who would go against conventional and pragmatic wisdom because we have a cause to believe in? Would we risk life and limb? Mr Othman did.

Thank you, Sir.

 

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Mr Zainudin Nordin, President of the Football Association of Singapore; marking StarHub's appointment as official broadcaster and principal sponsor of the LionsXII in 2012.Image by HealthSX at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

by Bertha Henson

THERE’S something to be said about having free and open elections: It allows questions to be aired in the expectation that answers will be given.

I am not a football fan but the saga surrounding the Football Association of Singapore’s (FAS) upcoming April 29 elections has been riveting. Some might say that challenger Mr Bill Ng’s questions regarding a $500,000 donation he (or his Tiong Bahru FC) made was a distraction and that more attention should be paid to the plans of both teams that are contesting the election.

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I don’t think so.

What it shows is that an electoral process brings more scrutiny and urges more transparency from office-holders and those vying for the job. So world football governing body Fifa finally realised that for decades, the FAS was breaking the rules by having officers appointed by the G. After seven years on the job, Mr Zainudin Nordin has stepped down to pave the way for elections. FAS is usually headed by an MP, and the past list included those who have made it into ministerial ranks such as Mr Mah Bow Tan and Mr Ho Peng Kee.

Doubtless, the FAS is a tough organisation to manage given its myriad clubs, tournaments, programmes as well as the attention paid to it by people at the grassroots. That the G has a hand in its running isn’t surprising since it gives out grants to sports bodies, that is, taxpayers’ money of more than $2 million annually to FAS. Its other major donor is the Tote Board, which used to disburse some $25 million to the FAS annually, but which will now do so through Sport Singapore (SportSg).

Members of the public who are interested in the management of FAS can turn to its annual reports but in the main, the concern is about crowd turn-out, football rankings and whether goals of the football kind are being delivered given the resources poured into the sport. It takes an electoral process to bring matters out in the open, whether among those with a stake or the community at large. Of course, like all elections, there will be agendas and strategies, like rubbishing the old to make way for the new.

Now the FAS is embroiled in controversy with questions raised over the past year about its handling of money, including donations. There have been particularly feisty exchanges between Mr Ng and the FAS through the person of General Secretary Winston Lee over what happened three years ago. To put it bluntly, they are accusing each other of lying.

So what are the issues involved?

The key point is whether Mr Ng knew where the $500,000 donation was going to go. He claims it was for local football but it went to the Asean Football Federation (AFF). There’s no question that the AFF received the money – although it fumbled about whether the money was from the FAS or Mr Ng’s Tiong Bahru FC. The FAS has a paper trail, including a letter setting out the terms of the donation, which Mr Ng, rather improbably said was drafted by the FAS and which he was somehow made to sign.

In any case, even if the money had always been intended for AFF, the question is why such a big sum, which is about half the income of an S-League club, should go to outside entities at a time of a struggling football scene here.

Another issue is whether the sum was properly recorded somewhere. So far, not a single person in past councils has come out to say he had knowledge of the sum. What’s worse is that most people evinced surprise.

Then comes the question of why Mr Ng chose to raise the matter now instead of three years ago. Is this an election gambit to allege improprieties in the FAS which he, a challenger, will want to clean up?

In the middle of it all is the deafening silence of ex-chief Zainudin, which the FAS said was the person who solicited the donation. Mr Ng, however, denied this and pointed his finger at Mr Lee.

Mr Zainudin must know by now that he would have to say something lest gossip and misinformation fill in the blanks, thereby impugning his reputation. To say nothing because he is not standing for the upcoming election is a bad excuse for something that happened during his tenure.

Which brings me back to the point of having democratic elections. They are complicated and fussy affairs and there might even be those who say that such “disagreements” should be dealt with behind closed-doors so as not to give Singapore football a bad name. If so, they forget that it was “closed-doors” which gave rise to the current controversy.

To a spectator, the FAS looks like the Augean stables. It might be better for the challengers to discuss sweeping and mopping up operations first, before moving on to pronouncing grand visions. SportSg has ordered FAS to give a full account of the donation. Hopefully, it will be done before the elections so that there will be more clarity.

Good luck to Singapore football.

by Bertha Henson

SO THE G is thinking about what to do about “fake” news. I am flustered. How heavy a hand will it take? What happened to the “light touch” approach? I can hear people screaming about why I am supporting fake news. I’m not. I don’t think the word “fake” and “news” even go together.

Do we have a big fake news problem here? How big is the problem? Some anti-establishment people will say news in the Mainstream Media (MSM) is all fake, because it’s calculated to make the G look good in the headlines and in the telling of the story. The thing is, even if the stories are complimentary, they aren’t based on false information and you would have to trust that the MSM has all the information it needs to make a judgement call.

I think governments around the world like to look good. They get angry at being caught out on a lie, failed promises and botched programmes. Every government would like its media to be its propaganda machine. The test is whether the people will regard the media as such and ditch it altogether as untrustworthy. Woe is the government which puts such a tight rein on the media that even its most important messages cannot reach its intended audience.

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Fake news sites, or sites that have some fake news, used to be dominated by those who have political agendas. Increasingly, the industry has turned in good money too. Witness The Real Singapore’s (TRS) rise and demise.

I am not sorry for TRS but have always wondered if the Sedition Act was the only tool available to bring the site down. The Class Licence Act was only invoked after the heavier legal weapon was wielded. In its review, I’m hoping that the Ministry of Law won’t take the easy way out and suggest legislation to crack down on “fake news”. I say this because there are other tools which can be applied first – and are sometimes applied. For the individual, it is the Protection from Harassment Act and defamation laws. In Singapore, however, it seems that the review is to protect the interest of the State after its failure to utilise the Protection from Harassment Act.

Of course, the interest will be defined as the preservation of law and order and social harmony concerns. The phrase is “right of reply”.

I suggest that the G looks at all the weapons in its arsenal before resorting to drafting a Bill for a speedy route through Parliament.

My question is: Is the G already doing enough to put its point of view across in the first place? Does it give enough information so that people wouldn’t fill the gaps with speculative comment? Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that the PUB price hike could have been explained better. So too the disastrous and out-of-touch move to call a permanent exhibition, Syonan Gallery.

Which brings me to one of the weapons which the G has said would counter misinformation and gossip: The Factually website. Launched in 2012, way before other governments around the world introduced their own channels, it is now a shambles.

The “trending articles” are old articles which people are still reading, like what is Zika, probably because of its re-emergence, which the website doesn’t explain. Quite a few old issues re-surface because they become current, like why GST is imposed on waterborne tax. This is probably because of the impending price rise – which the website doesn’t explain.

There is a piece on “Why are electricity tariffs rising?”, dated July 2016, when every household knows it has gone up again on April 1. The U-save rebates are therefore dated, which is a pity given that the G had announced a rise in the last Budget. Sometimes, the G doesn’t know how to help itself.

Factually’s “news” section is a hotch-potch of articles that are lifted from MSM, which only propagates the perception that they are G mouthpieces. Increasingly, there are re-writes of press releases, supposedly by Ministry of Communications and Information staffers and FAQs on policies which the ministries put up as annexes to the media in the hope that they will be published.

There are some attempts to debunk “fake news” and name the perpetrators but in the main, it’s more a regurgitation of G policy than a head-on clash. The biggest take-down was during the haze or when sites and bloggers were named.

The most recent posts of such kind had to do with remarks attributed to Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in October 2016.

States Times Review (STR) article “Law Minister K Shanmugam: Eurasian Singaporeans are Indians” is a disgraceful fabrication. The Minister never said any of the things STR attributes to him. Indeed, he never said anything about Eurasians nor were there any questions posed to him about Eurasians at the IPS conference. It is malicious of STR to spread such vicious falsehoods, calculated to sow discord among our different ethnic groups. The Government will review STR’s post and decide whether to take further action against STR.

STR gave its response on its own website.

Editor’s note:
States Times Review report news without fear or favour, and will not entertain the Lawless Minister. States Times Review operates under laws of the Australia government, K Shanmugam is welcome to sue us under the Australian judiciary. As a Law Minister, resorting to police reports and lawsuit threats as the first response to criticisms speaks volume about the sad state of political affairs in Singapore.

Sometimes, it’s oblique, like this one before the September 2015 General Elections.

There have been claims on some online websites that the Government will raise the GST after the forthcoming General Elections to fund increased spending planned in the next term of government. There is no basis to these claims, and they are inconsistent with what the Government has recently stated.

In the 2015 Budget Statement in February, DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam stated that the revenue measures the government had already undertaken will provide sufficiently for the increased spending planned for the rest of this decade.

Given that this is on the Factually website, it’s going to be tough for the G to change its mind…

Why doesn’t the G confront fake news perpetrators directly, like Snopes or PolitiFact, especially when policies have been distorted?

My view is that the G has to show that it has done more to resist the fake news plague before it embarks on something heavy-handed.

MPs have been a disappointment. No question was asked of the minister in the last sitting earlier this month when he spoke of the review. Last month, there was one question from Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera, who wanted to know how the webpage selects falsehoods to respond to.

Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said the site aims to clarify “widespread or common misperceptions of government policy, or incorrect assertions on matters of public concern that can harm Singapore’s social fabric”. It was concerned with facts, not opinions, he added.

Going by Factually, we’re doing pretty well on the fake news front. The G has very little fake news to debunk. Which makes you wonder why a review is even needed.

 

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Pokemon catchers along Orchard Road.
Pokemon catchers along Orchard Road on Sunday (Photo: Sean Chong/TMG)

by Bertha Henson

I am getting old(er), so I don’t recall how many times I have seen plans to re-fresh and re-vitalise Orchard Road. An undergraduate doing her thesis on pop culture asked me last week about Swing Singapore, which was decades ago but which I still remember as a teenager. I was there! It was boring, walking the pedestrian-only road with deejays doing their best to hype the crowd. Except that everybody was just waiting for something to happen – rather than make it happen.

The plans to revitalise Orchard Road sounds fun, but it’s really more of the same thing as in past plans. Allowing more pedestrians and activities (buskers still need a licence no?) and festivals at open places, making Orchard Road pedestrian-friendly – which actually is if you consider the sidewalks are extremely wide, even without the suggestion to close off one lane. Have you ever had trouble walking along Orchard Road?

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We’re told there will be a Design Incubator, which sounds like a term that should remain in one-North or Science Park, showcasing local talent. Should we get excited about having scramble crossings?

It seems to me we are putting cart before horse and exploring ideas without understanding why Orchard Road is the way it is now – and what is it now, exactly?

What are we concerned about? That tourists are staying away from the street? Or locals giving it a miss? That there’s a parking problem? That retailers are complaining about lack of business? Even if the G goes about laying the infrastructure (and take away all the green lungs in the area), what’s the bet that people will come?

Don’t we recall the hype that accompanied the openings of ION Orchard, 311@Somerset, Knightsbridge, Orchard Central and Orchard Gateway? Have we considered that the road is too malled-up with stores that are too fancy and high-priced – that is, if we are thinking about getting locals down.

In any case, locals are well-served by the strategically-placed suburban malls. Neighbourhood centres are bustling with plenty of activities organised by town councils and commercial operators. Why go to Orchard Road? For high-class dining and high-price boutiques?

If it’s the high-priced parking that’s the problem, then there are at least three MRT stations there, so is the solution really to get everyone to go car-lite if they want to go there? If people are still attached to their cars especially if they’re shopping. Again, this is only if we’re thinking about local participation.

If the idea is to court foreign tourists, then what sort of effort have been made to ask them for their views on Orchard Road? Why have a plan which is without their feedback? Surely, we can’t be conjuring things from our imagination rather than based on information. If Orchard Road is losing out as a shopping destination, what else would tourists be looking for? Plenty of happenings everyday and night?

I took at look at Orchard Road’s website for events this month. There is Fiesta on a Great Street, from April 21 to 23 and we’re called upon to “ feast on local favourites and new gourmet classics presented by Baker’s Oven Patisseries, Café O, Good Chance Restaurant, Keng Eng Kee Seafood, Potluck and Rice Bowl”. It doesn’t say if the fare is discounted but 20 per cent of proceeds go to the Singapore Red Cross. So, it looks like a charity programme. You can also pay $29.21 to attend a masterclass with five chefs. Don’t know how this adds to vibrancy. There will be “local acts”, but don’t know who or where they will play.

Maybe everybody’s preparing to hype the Great Singapore Sale (GSS), which over the years, is beginning to look more like attempts to get in the Chinese tourists. The GSS, which used to be an Orchard Road staple, extends to heartland shops too although you see fewer taking part, so why go to Orchard Road?

Okay, maybe Orchard Road is supposed to be a place to jalan-jalan, window shop and look at the myriad complexions and modes of dressing of the people who are there. I, for one, find the activity entertaining. But it also makes me feel like a fish out of water – most of them don’t look like me. So is Orchard Road really for foreigners because I have no reason to be there except to shop at Kinokuniya in Ngee Ann City. I’d rather sit in a coffeeshop or a café in the heartlands – and feel at home. Our foreign workers probably feel more at home in Orchard Road if you go by the congregations that mass in open spaces having picnics on weekends.

This is really odd because in big cities, the foreign tourist sees more locals at their prime spots than their own kind. It’s part of the tourist experience to able to see locals doing their own thing, so to speak.

As I said, maybe I am getting old(er). I didn’t see Orchard Road in the same blasé light when I was a teenager. Then again, I have it on good authority that teenagers now have so many more places to flock to than in my time.

All I am asking is whether we’ve taken a hard look at why Orchard Road is the way it is, before moving on to grand plans which require construction and hoardings. Take away words like “revitalise”, “rejuvenate” and “refresh”, and ask why is Orchard Road so dead first.

 

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by Bertha Henson

FOUR top-ranking civil servants were huddled in the subterranean sound-proof room, tasked with the mission of drawing up a list of issues that cannot be publicly discussed, not even in Parliament. Their new assignment comes after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that sensitive issues such as whether Muslim women in front-line jobs should be allowed to wear the hijab should be discussed behind closed-doors. After closing the steel-reinforced doors with a double-locking mechanism, the bureaucrats, known fondly as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, got down to work.

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Mr War (cracking knuckes): Well, the boss has already given us the hijab for the no-go zone. What else should be eliminated?

Ms Famine (cracking melon seeds): I don’t know why though? There’s always the Parliamentary Committee of privileges which can hammer down bulimic MPs who throw up everything and anything…

Mr Pestilence (popping a health supplement): That’s because Parliament is not a contained facility and we risk the virus getting out and infecting people. Remember we just had a resurgence of Zika?

Mr Death: The bell tolls. I hear. Death knell.

Mr War (ignoring Mr Death): I recommend a scorched earth policy, where everything to do with religion is out. Like mosque-building, church fund-raising, temple celebrations, Thaipusam, Christmas and how much hongbao to give relatives on Chinese New Year…

Ms Famine: That’s piling too much on the plate. We would be starving people of information and they’ll just go for a diet of fake news. Maybe just foreign imams using village bibles and church leaders who think they can sing should be added to the menu.

Mr Pestilence: I already said I could bug everyone and stop things from going viral… Why do we even need a list?

Mr Death: Leave it. To me. I will. Meet. Everyone.

Ms Famine (sweeping shells onto the floor): Surely, people won’t refrain from partaking of the City Harvest? Such appetising food for thought! Too harsh, too lenient or just right… ?

Mr War (impatient): Well, the AGC is applying for a criminal reference, so we shouldn’t talk about it. I also say we shouldn’t allow discussion on terrorist attacks unless they are accompanied by nation-building and societal-bonding terms.

Mr Death: Death. To terrorists. In London. Stockholm. Egypt. Everywhere. I will. Be. Busy.

Mr Pestilence: But we haven’t dealt with who should be invited to such closed-door discussions. People whom we’ve already inoculated?

Ms Famine: Then, they won’t have very much to chew on since we’re sure they would swallow everything anyway.

Mr Death: Walking. Dead. People.

Mr War: At least the rules of engagement will have been set and we won’t have loose cannons destroying our fortified policies. Think of closed-door discussions as a barricade against attacks.

Mr Death: SGSecure.

Outside the bunker, fire and brimstone rained on the surface. The Four Horsemen traded bureaucratic jargon as they worked on their policy paper, oblivious to tremendous on-goings outside because of their double-locked, steel-reinforced, sound-proof bunker. Mission accomplished, they were going out for air when they found that the doors had malfunctioned. Mr War couldn’t punch through steel. Mr Pestilence couldn’t infect the locks while Ms Famine’s shrill screams went unheard.

Mr Death: Death. Comes. To us all.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Bertha Henson 

WE KNOW the terms by now: fake news, post-truth, alternative facts, truthful hyperbole. Maybe not the last term, which was coined by US President Donald Trump to mean, presumably, an exaggerated, embellished fact which he believes doesn’t make it a lie.

Countries around the world are grappling with the fake news phenomenon in many ways, through laws, code of conduct, fact-checking sites and community action. Even Russia, said to be behind countless hacking attempts, has its own tracker of fake news. It has a webpage which lumps together articles which says “Fake’’, with data “not corresponding to the truth”. They include articles from the New York Times and Bloomberg.

Political leaders round the world are raising a ruckus over how the phenomenon appears to be undermining liberal democracy and, presumably, their chances of getting elected or re-elected. Populism, fuelled by conspiracy theories and fed by feelings rather than facts, are threatening to destabilise a political and governing framework based on reason.

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The Germans want to fine the tech companies; the tech companies are taking steps to flag fake news and advertisers want some distance between their money and hate sites. Google and Facebook can no longer hide between the facade of being mere tech companies with no ethical obligation over the way they distribute fake content. We might applaud their efforts but with it, must come an understanding that we are letting two mighty giants who already funnel most of our information, decide what is real and what is fake.

The agency with the most clout to eradicate or at least minimise fake news dissemination is the State. But with it comes the question of whether it would be doing so in its own interest, by blacking out “uncomfortable truths’’ that don’t support their policies or do their image any favours. See the Russian fact-checker above.

In fact, the Canadians kicked up a fuss when a junior minister asked what sort of role the Government should play in the control of fake news. The popular answer: None.

In Singapore, it would be natural for citizens to ask that the G take the lead. You can say that this is characteristic of the trust placed in the G or that citizens can’t be bothered or aren’t bothered enough to do the job themselves.

The nanny state is about to oblige, going by recent pronouncements from the G. The Law ministry has made no bones about it: “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.”

“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.”

The Broadcasting Act is also being reviewed and it is likely to contain a prohibition on fake news. There will be the usual questions about how this is defined and how it will be policed. There will also be the question of whether this is necessary given the proliferation of tools in the G’s armoury.

The Sedition Act, for example, covers hate speech and ensured the shutdown of TheRealSingapore. The Media Development Authority has registration or licensing of sites with pre-dominantly local content as well as the Class Licence scheme which covers all websites automatically with injunctions on pornography, violence and such like. The courts can issue take-down orders if people feel that they have been unfairly harassed online. There is the Administration of Justice Act which stops people from intervening while the wheels of justice are still turning. There is the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, the Telecommunications Act and the Penal Code should fake news lead to actions that disrupt law and order or have the potential to.

The argument for a new weapon will be that there is none which can counter fake news per se. So it isn’t hate speech but deliberate untruths that could be malicious or done for fun or for profit but which doesn’t necessarily lead to law and order problems. Another argument: A concerted fake news campaign with a political agenda will also lead to the slow erosion of trust in the system and its institutions. This should be stopped in its tracks. Trouble is, says who and why?

Singapore will say that it is too small and fragile a country to allow fake news which could lead to greater polarisation tearing the country apart. As the Law ministry put it: “The Government needs to take steps to protect the public and Singapore’s institutions from the very real dangers posed by the spread of false information. The Government will not shy away from this, whatever may be said wrongly about its intentions and objectives.”

The Russians will say that Westerners do not understand its unique political system and its people should be insulated from its adverse effects. (Note that fake news could simply be facts that are twisted to suit a certain agenda, in this case, a Western agenda.)

The Chinese will sniff at the question. They already have a whole eco-system of information distribution and censorship that keeps its people behind a wall.

The Americans are in a funk because its political leadership thinks that fake news includes unfavourable news. But its citizens and journalists are taking matters into their own hands by setting up fact-checking sites and calling out lies.

The Americans are taking a bottom-up response, probably because they believe their own leadership can’t do it.

Likewise, the French have a First Draft News project called CrossCheck, a collaborative verification programme involving technology firms including Facebook and Google.

Journalists from across France work together to find and verify online content, including photos, videos, memes, comment threads and news sites. The public are encouraged to participate by submitting questions and links to content for CrossCheck to investigate.

Britain, however, is taking its time. Its Culture, Media and Sport Committee are asking for public submissions and has come up with some very interesting questions both for the layman and the expert.

  • What is ‘fake news’? Where does biased but legitimate commentary shade into propaganda and lies?
    .
  • What impact has fake news on public understanding of the world, and also on the public response to traditional journalism? If all views are equally valid, does objectivity and balance lose all value?
    .
  • Is there any difference in the way people of different ages, social backgrounds, genders etc use and respond to fake news?
    .
  • Have changes in the selling and placing of advertising encouraged the growth of fake news, for example by making it profitable to use fake news to attract more hits to websites, and thus more income from advertisers?
    .
  • What responsibilities do search engines and social media platforms have, particularly those which are accessible to young people? Is it viable to use computer-generated algorithms to root out ‘fake news’ from genuine reporting?
    .
  • How can we educate people in how to assess and use different sources of news?
    .
  • Are there differences between the UK and other countries in the degree to which people accept ‘fake news’, given our tradition of public service broadcasting and newspaper readership?
    .
  • How have other governments responded to fake news?
    .

Such a public inquiry is a long process. Perhaps, it is because Britain has already Brexited or has Brexit as a case study, that it is taking its time to come to grips with phenomena.

In Singapore, it looks like the usual efficient mechanism will kick in. A Bill will be introduced, followed a month or so later by a parliamentary debate, and the legislation goes through because of the preponderance of G backbenchers.

Maybe we should be lucky that it is legislation being proposed that must be subjected to parliament scrutiny, rather than a regulation that can be imposed by fiat. Perhaps, the answers to the list of questions above can be debated in Parliament.

But what can the G do to assuage those who wonder who watches the watchmen?

That’s something to think about.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong. 

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by Bertha Henson

STOP condemning the couple who starved their maid and thinking their jail terms are too short. Did you notice this point about how they paid Filipina Thelma Oyasan Gawidan $20,000 as part of a settlement agreement?

ST said her lawyers had requested the sum on her behalf and added rather intriguingly that the lawyers “were not named’’. Now, she’s the victim; she doesn’t need a lawyer because the State will act on her behalf. And it doesn’t seem the State was too happy about the settlement either.

Said Deputy Public Prosecutor Tan Soo Tet: “The payment of $20,000… does not emanate from genuine remorse, but is motivated by the hope of obtaining a lower sentence and of settling once and for all the civil claims that the victim has against the accused persons.”

The State intends to appeal against the sentences meted out. It wanted a year’s jail but in the end, the judge sentenced housewife Chong Sui Foon to three months in jail. Her husband Lim Choon Hong received a three-week jail term and a fine of $10,000. They are out on $3,000 bail each pending the appeal.

Gawidan, 41, worked for the couple from January 2013 to April 2014. She was given just two meals a day, usually plain bread and instant noodles and had to ask for permission to drink water. Her weight plummeted from 49kg to 29kg, she lost 40 per cent of her body mass and stopped menstruating.

So was the $20,000 a sign of remorse or some kind of bribe? It might be small change to some people. The couple live in a condominium near Orchard Boulevard.

District Judge Low Wee Ping asked the defence to convince the court that their clients were remorseful: “The court must be sure that compensation is not used to buy their way out.”

Mr Raymond Lye, the defence lawyer, said both of them agreed to the settlement and terms without making a single amendment. The terms were not mentioned in court.

He said: “Agreeing to Madam Gawidan’s request in full without negotiation, including the terms of the agreement as drafted by her lawyers, shows remorse and regret.”

According to TODAY, the judge was convinced that Lim was remorseful but didn’t elaborate. He also said that Chong’s actions in depriving the maid of food were “extremely aggravating but accepted that like her husband, she did not seek to starve the maid. He didn’t say more on this.

Maybe we’ll hear more about this later.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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