April 28, 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

ST carried a splendid interview with DPM Tharman Shamugaratnam today.

Here are some key points: He said that no, we should not use reserves, but the G is willing to see if more of the income generated by the reserves can be used to fund social policies. Right now, that’s capped at half of income.

Also, he said that there has been no U-turn on foreign worker policy, but it’s not going to be tightened further too. It will be capped at one-third of workforce.

What’s more interesting than the newspoints is how he strove to build new concepts around all themes. Like meritocracy.

He said: “We’ve got to be a broader meritocracy recognising different strengths and different individuals, but also a continuous meritocracy where it doesn’t matter so much what happened when you’re in Sec 4 or JC 2 or when you finish your polytechnic or ITE (course), but what happens after that.”

“We are a meritocracy that’s still a bit too much defined by what happened in your school years or your post-secondary years.”

Mr Tharman, a former education minister, observed that the education system has created two groups of students.

One group know their strengths, but are not “sufficiently aware of their weaknesses, and not sufficiently aware of the strengths of others”.

The other group have not done as well in school and are “very aware of what they didn’t achieve, but not enough of them have discovered their strengths”.

That is true.

An academic caste system appears to have developed over the years. This is based on whether you come from the right schools and therefore, mix with the right people. It is a system that is being and will be perpetuated by the way alumni have priority in enrolling their children in those right schools.

In the National Conversation on education, this “academic caste” is something to think about even as we strive to eliminate the stress from the examination system and work towards a more holistic view of what sort of students we want to build. According to ST, some participants had asked that even brand name schools offer all academic courses, to break down social barriers and encourage mixing. It’s something to consider.

It is also clear that the smart ones know they are smart and this leads to a sense of entitlement: that better grades and coming from the best schools is something that others should respect and reward – for as long as possible. Perhaps, this is why a Robert Half survey reported today talked about the Gen Y worker who wants everything “now”.

Another concept Mr Tharman raised was about the role of the People’s Action Party Government – that it should be dominant but not dominating. Sounds good.  But it takes two hands to clap. Even if the G decides to reduce its presence in some sectors, you can bet that some people will still insist that it eliminates all ills and be responsible for all aspects of life here.

What’s even more interesting is what he said about the political system.

He said that part of a healthy political system is to have a “decent opposition in Parliament and outside”. Pretty odd for a member of the ruling party to say something like this. He will be in a pickle if he was asked to define “decent presence”. A decent presence that will force the PAP to be just dominant, but not dominating?

He also said that the trend towards having smaller GRCs can be “moved a little further” in the same direction. So three-member GRCs or more single-seat wards? Seems this can be viewed two ways: the PAP G no longer thinks that big GRCs will benefit its electoral chances (witness Aljunied GRC) and might well be a bane. Or is it a way to build a decent opposition presence in Parliament? Can’t be.

Looks like the PAP has decided to bite the bullet and acknowledge that it can’t have all the seats in Parliament and wants to seek some kind of accommodation with its critics.

In fact, DPM Tharman’s comments on social media are astoundingly accommodating: “It is a plus that you have social media because a lot more people are involved in commenting and thinking about issues but it’s got to evolve further, so that it matures and you’ve got a more even-handed disposition. We also have to evolve to a situation where absurd or speculative claims do not propagate so easily and get bought into and circulated so breezily, even by the intelligentsia. The social media can be critical of Government and probably always will be. It’s a useful check. But people have to be a lot more sceptical about what’s put out there as well.”

by Bertha Henson

Now we know exactly who is eyeing that 4-hectare piece of land in Pasir Ris that residents are hankering to preserve. It is for the Overseas Family School, which will have to move from its Paterson Road premises by 2015. For nine months, the G has been locking horns with residents who want to preserve the forested area. Over that time, the management of the school must be anxiously looking at the fracas because it will mean so little time for construction. As for an alternative site, it appears that there are very few places that can house a school with more than 3,000 students.

This is an interesting case because as one property expert was reported saying in Today,  it was “a little unusual for the Government to put off the development of a land parcel if there is a real need for a new development”. If the residents got their way, then will a precedent be set? One can imagine developers and other investors shaking their heads over the G’s change of heart – all because of some tree huggers and bird watchers! He said: “If word gets out that the authorities will delay (the development of a plot of land) just because of some special interest groups, where does this leave us?”

Hmm. It will leave us with a reminder that there is a democratic process in Singapore and that the people who live here want a say in what happens to their surroundings. TODAY had an interesting commentary which tries to explain this angst we have about our neighbourhood, especially areas we think are worth preserving as part of our heritage. This has surfaced most recently over the fate of Pulau Ubin and its residents.

Said the commentary: “The fate of the island is held in suspension, contingent on the country’s housing needs, and this uncertainty has a long-term profound impact on Singaporeans’ sense of belonging and psyche.

“The lesson here is not that spaces must be sacrificed for the country’s housing needs but that spaces, regardless of natural or heritage worth, are transient in Singapore and it is better not to get too attached to them.’’

The island has been held in bureaucratic limbo over the years and while exhortations that it will be kept “rustic’’ have been made, they just do not go far enough as a stamp of permanence.

“One cannot expect citizens to sink roots into the land or be called to defend it without expecting them to be angry, even confrontational, when spaces like Pulau Ubin and Bukit Brown are vulnerable,’’ the commentary said.

“It is thus important for civil servants and civil society activists alike to understand that the bridges of communication must always be kept open in order for dialogue to take place. Without this dialogue, both parties will become more entrenched in their positions and less willing to compromise.’’

Nobody has a monopoly over the definition of the national interest. The old norm that economic development must over-ride all other considerations is increasingly being questioned now that the country has passed the survival stage. Questions of identity and belonging loom large.

The Bukit Brown, Pulau Ubin and Pasir Ris examples makes official decision-making “messier’’ for sure, and will make bureaucrats pause the next time they see a “development’’ opportunity in a piece of green space. The stakeholders, that is, the people who live here, want to have a say. Both sides will have to talk it out and decide together what would be in their best interest.

In the case of the Pasir Ris greenbelt, one side might have to give way or some compromise be sought.

The greenbelt lobby is digging in its heels. Said a spokesman: “We have also made it categorically clear that there are no justifiable grounds for the authorities to clear the Pasir Ris greenbelt at all for whatever reason, whether it is to build an international school or for that matter any other urban development like private condominiums, which are sheer commercial profit-driven enterprises.”

How to talk like that?

by Bertha Henson

MP Janil Puthucheary should be pleased with himself – his proposal for free train rides have come true. And it’s going to cost us $10million. Sigh.

Now the question is: how do we measure the outcome? Transport Minister Lui projected that free rides could move another 10 to 20 per cent of commuters away from the peak period. This translates to between 10,000 and 20,000 train users. One assumes then that if this is achieved in a year’s time, then the free rides programme will be terminated? And commuters will have to start paying again? Or will it be continued because it is successful?

SIM University transport expert Park Byung Joon was reported in TODAY saying: “Since it is spending taxpayers’ money, the Government must have an option to stop (it) if the scheme is not achieving intended objectives.”

We have been quite liberal with taxpayers’ money, whether to subsidise wage raises or to achieve other social, economic outcomes. Even if there is an end point or time-frame, it’s usually tough to stop what’s being handed out free. People get used to it. That GST rebate, for example, looks like one of those things. Remember the worry that employers will get too used to the Wage Credit Scheme which is meant to be temporary measure?

Here’s what TODAY reported:

On whether the trial is a judicious use of taxpayers’ money, Mr Lui noted that, in general, public transport is largely funded by the same source because of the massive investments on infrastructure.

He pointed out that schemes that are funded by the operators — such as concessionary travel for certain groups — are cross-subsidised by other commuters. Adding that the free travel trial “may well be extended”, Mr Lui reiterated that the Government “will fund this scheme entirely so that commuters can be assured that whatever it is that they do or not do, it is not going to affect their fares”.

The thing is,  TODAY reported that SMRT has set aside $10 million (same amount as the G) since October 2011 to incentivise commuters to change their travel patterns. As of February, about 40 per cent of the money has been used and an SMRT officer said the rest will now go into “supporting” the free ride scheme.  So Government money will work where company money cannot? The SMRT must think it makes commercial sense to spread out the load, and here is the G giving it a helping hand!

Well, if the free rides work to get commuters out of bed early and ease the train load, well and good. But we had better think hard about having to subsidise this forever. The benefits had better outweigh the cost, in more ways than just spreading out commuter traffic.

Anyway, those polled by ST seem to prefer their sleep more than getting what’s free. ST reported that transport analyst Graham Currie, who studied the effectiveness of a similar free travel scheme in Melbourne was not surprised.

He was reported saying that the incentives reduced peak- hour traffic in the Australian state by only 2 per cent. The report didn’t say how much the state gave out in incentives, but Mr Currie said the effort was “worthwhile” as the state could hold off on investing A$100 million (S$128 million) to improve the train system.

To get commuters out of bed earlier, however, might require other changes and even if successful, might lead to other effects that haven’t been factored in.

Starting work early, for example, shouldn’t mean ending at the same time as usual (or should we be looking at easing evening peak hours?) It is good that the G will lead the way in changing working culture here to foster an “early start, early end’’ .

SIM’s Dr Park also noted the move  could possibly lead to more crowded feeder buses — with workers and students trying to get on the buses during the same time belt. It will be tragic if people sacrificed their sleep only to find that they can’t get to the train station on time!

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by Bertha Henson

She’s back! In the news, not in Singapore. Remember the foul-mouthed Amy Cheong who complained about Malay void deck weddings being noisy and cheap and made some cheap shots about the community’s divorce rates? We got all kan cheong over her.

To reprise, she was sacked from her job at the National Trades Union Congress, flamed, had a police report made against her – and left the country for her home in Perth. She’s actually Australian, a Singapore PR.

She never really took back her words, and frankly thought it was much ado about nothing – she was stressed from work and was bothered with the noise. Nothing to do with race whatsoever. She vented on Facebook – and it went viral.

Now, the police has closed its investigations and “administered a stern warning” under Section 298A (b) of the Penal Code, Chapter 224, reported ST in what appears to be a scoop. But rather unhelpfully, ST didn’t say what this particular section of the Penal Code refers to.

So, here it is:
“Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion or race and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony. Whoever –
(a) by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, knowingly promotes or attempts to promote, on grounds of religion or race, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious or racial groups; or
(b) commits any act which he knows is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious or racial groups and which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquility, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 3 years, or with fine, or with both.”

Looks like Amy Cheong got off lightly. Seems the G seems to think it was a case of foot-in-mouth disease than any attempt to disturb the peace.
Reading her interview with ST is pretty déjà vu. She had spoken to TNP in the past in which she clearly showed she didn’t think her words were racist.

So many months later, she now says “she wants to put the episode behind her’’. What’s strange is her complaint about living and working in Singapore. She found herself clocking long hours and striving hard to prove and support herself here, she said: “This episode has helped me put things in perspective. I learnt to appreciate life a bit more than just working. I think everything happens for a reason.”

Rather odd. Is she saying something coded about her ex-employer the National Trades Union Congress where she worked in its membership section? The same employer who sacked her? After all, she did say she was tired after work and hence, her racist rant on FB.

And it surely is odd to say that the “episode” has made her think about life being more than just about work. One would have expected her to say, after going through the vitriol that she did, something like this: “This episode has helped me put things in perspective. I learnt to appreciate life in a multi-racial country and how I shouldn’t shoot off my mouth and hurt others every time I’m unhappy.”

Oh Amy…how hard can it be for you to say that?

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It’s been a busy political weekend. Hands have been shaken. Fliers distributed. Speeches made. Now, what can anyone make of this? Has there been a “joining of issues’’? Are there new promises/pledges? Is this a national or a local election?

It’s local.

That’s because every candidate is talking about making Punggol East a better place to live in. So, more childcare places, more bus services, one more coffeeshop, quicker completion of Rivervale Plaza. PAP’s Koh Poh Koon has also thrown in facilities for the elderly and a covered linkway. You would think those 30,000 voters are living in slums the way physical upgrading is being promised…

If the constituents really want those things, I guess they should vote for the person whose party is in power. Really. Let’s be frank. It’s the PAP which can get stuff done faster, simply because it holds the reins on everything and has the pushing power. Not to mention a grassroots network which remains intact whichever party represents the ward. This is the problem – or advantage – of BIG government.

The opposition has offered some carrots too, along the same lines as the PAP. But you know what? Quite a lot would depend on whether the G machinery would crank along with their wish list.

On the local front, what REALLY can the opposition promise? I suppose it will have to do with town council operations then. The Workers’ Party can at least say that it has the experience. So far, the Reform Party and SDA seems to be offering a portion of their MP allowance! But what can an opposition-run town council do that a PAP-run town council can’t or won’t? How different is the WP town council from the PAP town council – besides being behind in the collection of arrears? By the way, this “defect’’ can be viewed as being compassionate/kind or tardy/inefficient. I am not even touching AIM – in fact, no one is!

I suppose it’s tough now to assess how the PAP runs the Punggol East ward per se, since the town council covers a far bigger area than just Punggol East. But it would be good to know that the opposition has looked over its books and can offer some concrete suggestions knowing what sort of money or manpower the town council has.

Hmm…lower service and conservancy fees? More frequent cleaning of open spaces? More hiring of those within the constituency? Price checks on products/food being sold in the area? A subsidy for the elderly who cannot afford basic products? Tie-ups with NGOs and charities? Because the opposition is by definition not the Government, it should have on its side a whole bunch of supporting characters/organisations who are willing to lend a hand on the local front. I haven’t heard of any.

As an aside, this whole “who will harder for you’’ is getting quite funny. So the PAP wants the vote so the WP will work harder; and vice versa. Then there is the “we will work hard for you anyway, regardless of…’’ sort of campaign theme. I have got to say that on this “work harder’’ front, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat should know that you always need competition to spur you to do better. Ask any student.

Likewise, PM Lee Hsien Loong speaking about the by-election effect, talks about how constituents shouldn’t have this idea that they would have BOTH the PAP and an opposition politician working the ward if they went for the opposition. I suppose that was one of the original attractions of the by-election effect.

But I doubt that voters are thinking in those terms – of having two nannies. It’s more of having their cake and eating it – PAP in power, opposition in Parliament. Now, whether those 30,000 voters feel this way would depend on whether they think their ward would suffer “physically’’ if they went for the opposition. I haven’t heard any threats yet from the PAP about withdrawing services (Let me reiterate, I am not talking about AIM here)

Therefore, it’s also national.

And it’s getting pretty strange. You can see how far the Workers’ Party have come from the JBJ days. The Reform Party, helmed by JBJ’s son, is actually the old Workers’ Party. You have Low Thia Khiang practically speaking on the PAP Government’s behalf – exhorting the people to give the G time for policies to change and bear fruit, even as the WP keeps a close watch on it. I gather die-hard opposition supporters aren’t too happy with it. What WP thinks is a moderate, conciliatory stand is being taken as, well, “PAP lite’’.

Again, as I said in an earlier post, I wish the opposition would give its parliamentary record to the people. I am not even asking for a restatement of policy positions, but what it did in its “watcher’’ role. We need to know if they are effective watchdogs or just there to sit pretty. We’re not forgetting those former Singapore Democratic Party MPs of the past, who said nary a word and if they did, didn’t make much sense.

Anyway, the G has been rolling out stuff pretty quickly. Like an expanded rail network for which it hasn’t done any engineering studies – and therefore cannot tell you what it will cost. Then so many flats are coming up to woo people who want to own one plus cooling measures that no one is sure will work or not.

In the meantime, things are breaking down – the NEL stoppage on Nomination Day, the M1 cellphone system conking out… Not the G’s fault, but contributing to a certain sourness on the ground. Plus, the price of fish maw and abalone is ridiculous! How to celebrate Chinese New Year like that?

Anyway, Polling Day is Jan 26.

A lot can happen between now and then.

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by Bertha Henson

ONCE upon a time, there were four students who were vying for the post of class monitor. All four were as different from each other as they can be. And boy, did they make sure that their classmates knew about that!

One boy, very clever boy, told about his past, including eating ikan kuning mashed with rice. He was a poor boy, son of a bus driver (you know…those people who are now among the lowest paid in the country?) Some of his classmates nodded, others who usually ate at McDonald’s wondered what he was talking about. He had plenty of supporters – most of them other class monitors, some teachers and even the school principal, who said the boy had the potential to be more than a class monitor. Maybe school prefect even.

The boy did not want to be embarrassed and told them not to come too near him. He was his own man/boy! He was KPK! But the school principal and teachers really wanted him to win, so they went around shaking his classmates’ hands, making little lightning strikes, careful not to be seen with him.

One nice thing about the boy was that he didn’t seem to mind the crap that people were throwing at him, making fun of his fondness for kueh chap.

Another was a girl, very much an Ah Lian. She too had plenty of supporters. There were a few class monitors and her extended family who pitched in as well, accompanying her to the school and classroom, distributing blue umbrellas.

Her aunty said, hey, vote for a girl. Too many class monitors are boys. Her uncles and godfather said, why do you want that KPK to win? He’s the principal’s pet, the teachers’ favourite. What if the principal and teachers decide that they should extend school hours, have more detention classes, raise canteen prices? You think the boy is going to say no?  Our Ah Lian will hammer them back!

The third person was a boy, son of a very famous class monitor who wanted to be school prefect and even teacher or principal. This boy, KJ s/o JBJ, was also very clever, especially with counting money. He had already clashed with the school principal once, about lending money to other people without proper permission.

When he talked, he sounded just like his late father. Like thunder. He really can’t stand the school principal and teachers. He doesn’t even like Ah Lian and her extended family.  He’s even more upset now because some people in school (and maybe outside school) are threatening his family. The police told him they will investigate and be around when he has to address the school assembly.

You can tell who the fourth person in because he is always in neon green. Some of his classmates remember him vaguely. He and Ah Lian had both tried to curry favour with them a few years ago. But most of them decided to vote for that nice Eurasian boy. But then he got kicked out of school. The neon green guy goes round with students even younger than him, probably from kindergarten. He told the class he won’t address them at school assembly but to please go on Facebook and Twitter to talk to him.

Their classmates are both flattered and tired by the attention of so many people. They have decided not to go to the school canteen, which is never-endingly being upgraded, because there are so many people there, including news people who keep asking them about this and that.

They just want to study – and get As.