June 26, 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

Looks like the people and the politicos are at odds when it comes to the “fundamental nature’’ of town councils, going by a poll in ST published today. Most of the 50 people polled wanted town councils to be “apolitical’’, harkening back to the old days when the Housing Board and National Development Ministry ruled the roost with MPs conducting meet-the-people sessions in their wards. The politicos, however, didn’t think such a turnaround was needed and suggested that maybe more oversight of town councils’ activities can do the trick.

If the poll is correct, it seems that the people had never quite imbibed the notion of town councils as political entities in the first place. It was intended for MPs to show their mettle, so to speak, by demonstrating their ability to run housing estates. MPs must show that they are not just talk (in Parliament), but action (on the ground) as well. Of course, those with long memories will recall that it had looked like a way to warn residents that electing opposition politicians might lead to dirty corridors and rubbish piled up in the chutes…

That didn’t happen.

Remember in those days how there was so much discussion about how town councils will be akin to “local governments’’ with representatives elected from residents who live there? There was all this expectation that residents themselves will have control over their neighbourhoods. Doubt that this is happening anywhere. Do you know your town councillors? In fact, do residents even scrutinise town council annual reports and act as the real overseers of their estate?

Instead, town councils have succeeded in becoming so partisan that political party members are employed in town councils or as their managing agents, whether in the People’s Action Party or opposition side. In fact, it is so partisan that the PAP actually started a company to serve their IT needs!

You know what? Residents don’t care who looks after them, so long as the rubbish is collected and void deck is clean. It might be the HDB, the town council or a private company from outer space doing the cleaning and residents wouldn’t bat an eyelid so long as things run smoothly. It is when things don’t or some aberration is brought to their attention, that people sit up and look at what’s happening.

That’s when they will find out (or not) the number of relatives, friends, party members or partisan companies employed by town councils for no other reason than political affiliation. Then again, so what if the void deck is clean and the rubbish is cleared and the S&C charges aren’t unreasonable?

It’s a little disappointing that people don’t look beyond their immediate comfort zone.

The town council “experiment’’ has actually not been too bad from the residents’ point of view. MPs are kept on their toes because residents know where to go to when they want to complain about bad estate upkeep. The MP is also, ah, a cleaning and maintenance contractor… Plus, residents can always threaten with the vote: Raise my service and conservancy fee and I’ll kick you out! Maybe it’s a good thing that residents aren’t so political. Imagine a whole housing estate lobbying for lowered fees… town councils will be ham-strung no end…

Back to the apolitical/political nature of town councils. For the best analysis, read the piece by Eugene Tan in today’s edition of TODAY.In the wake of the ministry’s review of the AIM saga in which a PAP owned company was providing services to PAP-run town councils, the key question really revolves on the oversight role the State should play in ensuring that residents get essential services despite changes in political “ownership’’.

The ministry has recommended another “strategic’’ review which all and sundry hopes will be non-partisan and inclusive. MND Minister Khaw Boon Wan will be making a statement in Parliament on Monday and the Workers’ Party, the one which raised the issue, has applied for an adjournment motion so that more time can be spent discussing the town council issue.

Perhaps, someone will do something about the role of HDB residents themselves in ensuring town councils are politically accountable to them. So many suggestions and tweaks have been suggested – centralise this, decentralise that, allow this and disallow that… But nothing has been said about the rights and responsibilities of residents whom the town councils serve.

by Bertha Henson

When you’ve been away for three days and you’ve deliberately switched off on the news from Singapore, what do your eyes automatically turn to when you are confronted with a load of old newspapers?

This morning, I scanned through the weekend’s news and came up with the following responses:

a. Alamak, another cyclist died! Third one! Changi!

b. A third backside burnt by acid? Who the hell is this fella who’s been dumping stuff on MRT seats? And how come the G still doesn’t know what that liquid is?

c. Waaah…these two valets! Stupid to go take the Ferrari for a drive…Such an expensive car, sure got safety features.

d. Who is this designer who crashed his car into Geylang shophouse? And how come the media never identified the type of car? Can’t see from the photo, just that it’s dark blue.

Odd that it wasn’t the Malaysian elections which took my attention, but what was happening to people here. On any other day, I would have been devouring news of the Malaysian GE – so nail-biting, so exciting, with washable indelible ink, allegations of foreigners awarded citizenships to vote, suspicious packages etc.

(Random thought: So the opposition is making inroads into neighbouring Johor – now what would happen to Iskandar then with its billions of Singapore investments? We’ll have to start making friends with the Democratic Action Party fellows – and risk being black-balled by the Barisan National types? Tricky.)

Also, I would be wondering what I should say about the AIM saga. Imagine so many months and the MND comes up with – everything’s clean and above-board BUT another review needed!

(Random thought: I guess its directive to review the “fundamental nature’’ of town councils didn’t include what it now calls a “strategic review’’. Probably good, as such a review – about a possibly “non-political’’ town council – should be more inclusive than an MND one with only officials involved reporting to a minister who belongs to the ruling party.)

There are other big pieces that I should spend some time thinking over, like ST’s pieces on the line between civil and political space and a law don’s view on contempt of court in Singapore. But too taxing! Later!

Back to the people stories!

Of course, you must read The New Paper for such people stories and I go…

a. Sheeesh, I almost forgot about dengue. It’s on TNP’s Saturday front page on people who refuse to open their doors for mozzie inspections. Already, 6,000 cases or epidemic-like proportions and people won’t open their doors! Break in and enter dey! Who are these Yishun residents!

b. Now, why didn’t I think of joining the gold rush? What, like $51 a gram? Goldsmiths running out of stock liao!

When you come home from abroad, it’s the little things that matter to you, I suppose. Your safety, your neighbourhood, people you know…I suppose when I get old(er) I will start scanning the obituary pages to find out which of my contemporaries had died while I was away.

They tell me I’m home. And I’ve only been away three days.

Now I wish the media had said something about the weather. Is it still as upside down as ever?

by Bertha Henson

Sometimes banging the same drum makes people deaf to the noise. Or worse, it makes them cynical. Sure some statements bear repeating, but the question is whether people are listening. So I wondered at what had been said at NTUC’s May Day rally by the leaders of the G, business and unions. Were they even talking the same language as the people who were at Hong Lim Park yesterday afternoon?

Perhaps, the language needs to be a little different. I read ST’s coverage of the May Day rally and wondered if the speakers at NTUC rally could ever convince the die-hards who believe that tripartism is more an isosceles triangle than an equilateral one. The short end: the workers.

Hong Lim Park speakers told personal stories, everyday stories that people have heard about or experienced first-hand. There were few “big picture’’ concepts that were elaborated upon except one: the need to change the G to effect change. What sort of change and tweaks in policies were not discussed (save the need to restrict employment passes) because they were subsumed under this one umbrella: The G does not understand the people.

Never mind that ministerial pay has been reduced, it is still a flashpoint. That plus the articles that workers work too many hours, are over-stressed, unemotional and under-paid with inflation eating into their wages, add to the sense that the little people were being passed by in the big scheme of things.

For example, here was what was said at NTUC rally: The economy needs to keep growing if wages were to go up. Singapore needs to attract high-quality investments, raise productivity.

This is like a mantra which Singapore has maintained for ages. There has been some change in the position, for example, there’s no need to grow at breakneck speed. There’s also an acknowledgement that years of productivity campaigns haven’t worked.

To those who flocked to Hong Lim rally, wrongs and admission of wrongs signalled an incompetent G. As for having to grow the economy, this past strategy seems to have benefited businesses, and related foreign investors, more than it did the workers. Hence, the distinction Singapore has of being the second most unequal country in the world. In fact, even with greater growth, the perception is that the richer will just get richer and the poor, poorer.

The much-vaunted triangle of G, business and worker must realise that some people aren’t listening to what they are saying.

For example, the unions are going for a progressive wage model where low wage workers get higher wages if they train. There is some impact in the cleaning and security sectors. Much has been said about Workfare and other income boosters which will raise salaries, especially those earning less than $4,000 a month.

But there was no mention made of any G scheme to raise incomes of workers at Hong Lim Park. Instead, the call was for the establishment of a minimum wage policy. Here’s the tragedy: Selective amnesia? Whatever the G does is either not acknowledged or viewed to be of little consequence or has some nefarious agenda. It’s a pity.

The concept of tripartism needs to be explained clearly in terms of how the relationship benefits the workers. That it has been the reason for years of industrial harmony may not be good enough. The SMRT bus drivers’ strike may be an aberration but the fact is that it exposed some cracks in the relationship – such as the need to unionise foreign workers and for management to meet workers halfway. According to ST’s report: there were three cases of unions taking errant employers to court. Now if only more workers knew what they were about…

Also, the other big question is whether tripartism has worked in terms of making working conditions better and salaries for workers higher. The current state of low wage workers is largely the result of businesses relying on cheap – and foreign – manpower rather than productivity gains to boost revenue. The slow pace of increase in wages is not an overnight phenomenon yet it seems to have escaped the eyes of unionists.

When someone mentions NTUC, what comes to mind immediately? Not the union movement in the forefront of the workers, but supermarkets and insurance. NTUC has a branding problem and should, like so many ministries, go back to convincing people that its core function is the representation of workers, even in spite of government and business.

So how now?

Can the establishment afford to ignore the Hong Lim Park group? Or is this an ever-growing segment of the population? Statements made at the park were seductive even if selective. In the current climate of what I can only describe as “angst’’, they are becoming more and more seductive.

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by Bertha Henson

The red balloons were replaced by placards emblazoned with angry slogans. Young smiling faces were replaced by older ones, sterner-looking. No cupcakes were given out but tee-shirts were sold as well as hard-to-find books by political dissidents and such like.

It was a sea change in mood, from a carefree picnic in the morning to a carefully orchestrated protest in the evening. Organisers of the alternative May Day rally put the crowd figure at 5,000 to 6,000, more than their first protest in February which they said numbered about 4,000.

A big turnout at the May Day protest
A big turnout at the May Day protest (Photo by Lim Weixiang)

But it seemed less than that, with the crowd thinning as the evening wore on.

From 4pm, speaker after speaker took to the microphone, including an assortment of “lay’’ people as they were described – a single mother of an eight-year old, a stay-at-home mom, a 66 year old retiree, a 35 year old graduate who is a cab driver.

They were there to say no to the 6.9 million population figure, a repeat of February’s theme. Each “lay’’ person had a personal story to tell, stories full of anger and angst. About bringing up children single-handedly, about not being able to find a job despite a degree (the young cab driver by the way served in the army for 10 years before he got out into the private sector and couldn’t find employment), about discrimination against older women who want to rejoin the workforce.

Here is anger: “I challenge the minister to a debate on television about the CPF!’’ said a 66 year old self-employed man upset at CPF rules which do not allow full withdrawal at age 55. His “hati panas already’’, he declared.

Here is angst: “Why are the smiles on the faces of foreigners here bigger than mine? When can I put the smile back on my face?’’ was how a single mother concluded her speech which were peppered with anecdotes about single mothers not being eligible for baby bonuses or a HDB rental flat.

Several times, speakers reiterated that they were not being xenophobic. It was like a mantra. They were just against the G’s policy on the use of foreign workers which were squeezing locals out of a job.

The crowd paid rapt attention, breaking out into shouts and applause. Every time the G was “whacked’’, they cheered. A heartland crowd it was, who lapped up the speeches made in dialects. One grandmother who spoke actually sang a few lines in Teochew, much to the merriment of the crowd. What was missing was a full Malay speech. Mr Nizam Ismail, formerly of the Association of Muslim Professionals, had pulled out at the last minute. As for Tamil, lawyer M Ravi obliged with a speech which few understood but most appreciated going by the sustained applause he received.

Meanwhile, people with placards walked round.

“Singapore needs public transport, not world class transport’’

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(Photo by Lim Weixiang)

“It’s dangerous to be right when the Government is wrong.’’

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(Photo by Lim Weixiang)

“What do you call the natives of this wealthy island? Singapooreans.’’

(Photo by Shawn Danker)
(Photo by Shawn Danker)

There were less polite ones as well.

At another corner, a 20m long white cloth had been laid out for people to pen their feelings about the 6.9 million.

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(Photo by Lim Weixiang)
Close up shot of the petition broadsheet (Photo by Shawn Danker)
Close up shot of the petition broadsheet (Photo by Shawn Danker)

The better-known speakers had more to say about policy.

Financial consultant Leong Sze Hian pointed out what he saw as contradictions in G statistics, especially on employment figures. Why weren’t they broken down further to make clear the number of both employed citizens and PRs? And what about a proper breakdown of the cost of building HDB flats?

Organiser Gilbert Goh, who counsels the unemployed, wants a quota set for employment pass holders, like for S passes and work permits. He maintained that he knew of companies with 100 per cent foreign workers.

Lawyer M Ravi referred to recent warnings to bloggers as an example of civil society being “under threat’’. There is no freedom of speech nor of assembly. There is no parliamentary ombudsman nor a human rights commission. He told the crowd to give the G a “red card’’ at the next election.

Former presidential candidate Tan Jee Say, the last speaker, was more explicit. The Population White Paper, he alleged, was a PAP plot to tighten its grip on Singapore by adding new citizens to swell the pro-PAP voting ranks.

He called for the People’s Action Party to be booted out at the next general election, maintaining that the opposition was ready to form the next Government or at least, more ready than the PAP itself was in 1959 when it took power. He rattled off some figures: nine opposition figures who held senior positions in G agencies, seven PhD holders. There were about 25 to 30 people in the opposition ranks, he said, ready to take over – as a coalition Government.

“You can only change policy, in the political way,’’ he said during a press conference later. As for the formation of a coalition government, he wouldn’t be too pessimistic about the willingness of political parties to collaborate he said, responding to a question.

When organiser Mr Goh pledged that the May Day protest would be an annual event, members of the public pressed for more such protests. What about National Day, someone asked? It was the grandmother, a member of Function 8, who replied. She thought it was a good idea.

Looks like Hong Lim Park is coming alive.

The G is probably regretting designating Speakers’ Corner a free speech space.

 

Who were the people who attended the protest? Find out here. For more pictures on the protest, check it out at our Slice section here.

Bertha Henson also reported on the first picnic event, which happened earlier in the day

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by Bertha Henson

Cupcakes and taco chips were being given out – gratis. Men and boys from a ukulele group were strumming away. Children were swimming in pools of balls. All in, it was a very Disney morning at Hong Lim Park today, complete with a magic castle. It was a “young people” event, mostly the English-speaking and the educated. A fair number were in red or white tee-shirts bearing the words Stand Up for Singapore, the group behind the event, which concluded at about 1pm.

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Ukelele player at the picnic. (Photo by Shawn Danker)

It was billed as a picnic to show the positive side of being part of a community, an appreciation ceremony so to speak.

The organizers said so unabashedly in the flyers that came with a game card and a red picnic mat: “Today we would like to focus on the possibilities that we can achieve together and hopefully inspire each other by demonstrating that there are many Singaporeans who care deeply for our nation and will go out of their way to bring happiness and abundance to everyone that we can connect with. And hopefully just to encourage you to love each other just that little bit more.”

The group of 14 had sunk money into this project, its third. It wasn’t a sit down and enjoy the nice weather event. The key idea was for total strangers to interact. Hence, games were built around starting conversations with each other and ending with each participant writing down three qualities that they feel would make Singapore a country to be proud of.

Now, does that sound too cuddly to you? Or is that the cynic in me talking?

Standing round the edges of Hong Lim Park, I wondered at the energy and enthusiasm of the young people who were busy making balloon animals and pushing cupcakes on people. So sweet, I thought. Just wait till they are out of school and in the working world, that idealism would surely wear off…

Yet, the organizers themselves are a bunch of 30-somethings in various professions. I recalled what one of them had said to me: “We are not cynical people.” The turn-out, at most 400, was not as large as expected, given that it achieved a higher profile after a minor fracas had erupted over the group’s decision to stage the event at Hong Lim Park, on the same a May Day protest event was being held. Mr Tong Yee pronounced that he was happy enough.

As the morning wore on, white tents were being set up at the other side of the park. Sound systems were being tested.

The picnickers stuck to their corner.

More on that flyer: “And with this day, we hope to start a legacy for future Singaporeans. That we be known as a community of loving and gracious people, who continue to look out for each other and rest with the knowledge that we can trust our community to see us through… It is possible for us to play, to love, to genuinely connect with each other, and still be the great little nation that we are.”

Eeew.

A young man came to my side as I was watching a group break out in song. He introduced himself as Edward. Aged 20, he saw the group’s work on its Facebook page and decided to volunteer to help at the event. Nice-looking with a buff bod, he said: “Isn’t this nice?” He hadn’t come across an event like this, he said, a citizen-initiated event with no other agenda than to do good. I looked at this young man and his honest, open face. May he remain like that, I thought. Always looking out for something positive. And keep that buff bod!

A somewhat older woman passed by and handed me a tissue. “You look like you need one,’’ she said before walking away. A young woman called Eunice pressed a box of cupcakes to me. I declined. I am not a “sweets’’ person. Then she wanted to take a picture with me, this total stranger.

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Balloons with messages of hope. (Photo by Shawn Danker)

A photojournalist who was with me said he felt uncomfortable. All that smiling, happy faces and red balloons. Everyone was like a child, even the old uncle on the ukulele. Some balloons had words scribbled on them: the qualities that those who took part in the games want for Singapore. The usual virtues were listed: kindness, patience, understanding et cetera. One balloon had this: “Less cynical”.

I caught myself smiling.

 

Following this event, Breakfast Network also stayed for the May Day protest. Find out what happened then.

by Bertha Henson

Going by the headline in today’s ST, ‘Buyers in a tizzy over possible EC tweaks’, you can imagine people banging their heads against walls and tearing their hair out. Perhaps, before buyers get into a tizzy, they should look more carefully at what National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said on Friday about “something is wrong somewhere’’ about the EC scheme.

At the heart of what is not right is a “sense of inequity’’ as he put it.

But it is not clear what is the inequity here. Here’s what he was quoted in Today saying: “The lower income group is getting less subsidies than somebody who is earning $12,000.’’ So is this in absolute dollar terms or as a proportion of income? The grant for EC buyers range from $10,000 to $30,000, while BTO buyers can get up to $60,000 if they earn less than $1,500 per month.

In ST, the “inequity’’ also referred to the profit that EC buyers can make on their units. Sure, in absolute terms, EC flat owners make more, given that ECs are pricier than Build-To-Order flats in the first place. But ST’s own checks showed that four-room flats in Chua Chu Kang, for example, appreciated by 200 per cent over seven years compared to an EC nearby which went up by 90 per cent.

Better to be clear on what is the “inequity’’.

Rather strangely too, people seem to be calculating in terms of what they can make from the flat, even before they buy them.

Is inequity to be measured in terms of profit to be gained after accounting for subsidy? If so, it may be well-nigh impossible to guarantee that every income group gets the same amount of profit – whether in absolute dollar terms, as a proportion of original price of flat or in a fixed ratio to subsidies given.

Is that the reason for the “home ownership’’ policy in the first place – to get a home to sell off at a profit or to have a home to sink your roots in? Also, is it the G’s role to ensure “equity’’ in profits?

Or is inequity to be measured by the size of the handout compared to the income of the buyer? The truth is that people are upset that ECs can be priced at $2million a unit – and yet seem affordable to the supposed “sandwiched’’ class. Clearly, some EC buyers have other kinds of financial resources, from parents for example. A bit of envy here. But that is true for any home buyer. You can get a bigger BTO flat if your parents help out too.

Or is it the price of ECs and its accompanying private property frills that needs to be tamped down? Then those with more resources will not find it worth their while to buy an EC, but move into private property instead. Or is this too much of a dog-in-the-manger approach?

In the conversation about housing, there hasn’t been a peep yet about the notion of housing vouchers. Give every Singaporean who reaches a certain age a lump sum and a crack at public housing. So married couples, parents and child, siblings and singles can combine their vouchers and buy a home. No one need complain then about some group getting more than others.

That is, if we really, really want to be equitable.

by Bertha Henson

What a nice headline in ST! A Diva to manage mum’s blood pressure. Except the rest of the story is confusion.

Here’s what the report said:

An automatic system to manage blood pressure in mothers going through caesarean births has been developed by doctors at a Singapore hospital, in what they say is a world first.

The Double Intravenous Vasopressor Automated System – or Diva – is still in development stage, but doctors at the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) hope it will lead to safer caesarean sections.

Eh? So has this world’s first already been developed or not?

Then follows a long spiel about how this already developed/ still developing Diva works. Then later comes this 2011 study of 55 women which showed that Diva was more efficient than conventional methods of maintaining blood pressure during the operation.

So it has been developed then?

Then comes this: The hospital can’t give a time-frame as to when the Diva will be in action.

Looks like it’s a premature birth.

by Bertha Henson

If your heart didn’t break at news of the rain tree which felled (literally) a driving instructor over the weekend, you are made of stone. And if you are the mother of the man, your youngest son who was about to get married, your heart will now be in little pieces.

TNP today focused on the grief of the mother – and the rage she felt towards the driver of the car her son was in – his student. Somehow, she blames the hapless woman for her son’s death, ignoring the fact that the student-driver’s escape was a miracle. (The mother thinks the student-driver should have been more alert to her surroundings.) Her anger might well be directed at the heavens, which opened up and cut down the tree. Or even at NParks, which said it checked the tree and found that it was perfectly healthy and well-maintained.

The student-driver was good enough to turn up at the wake, only to be met by hostility. Perhaps, in time the grieving mother will come to terms with her son’s death instead of taking it out on someone who managed to stay alive. Breakfast Network offers its condolences to the mother and the family. As for the woman-driver: stay strong.

by Bertha Henson

Don’t know how many people know this but there are actually two events taking place at Hong Lim Park on May Day. The more well-known one is by the same organisers who held the Population White Paper protest in February. This has been billed variously as a sequel, a move to call for a better Singapore – a labour day “protest’’ – a ground up movement – unlike the prim and proper NTUC May Day rally held indoors for invited guests only.

It will start at 4pm.

There is also a morning event starting at 9am, held by a group of people who call themselves Stand Up For Singapore. These are the people who distributed tokens to bus and taxi drivers who worked during Christmas. They propose a picnic-style event on that same patch of green more known for political events than for parties.

Being named after a national song, it is no wonder that this group has been facing some flak from those who think they are government plants out to take the shine away from the 4pm event. Never mind that this is Stand Up for Singapore organising the event – not some political group.

The scale of the reaction took them quite by surprise, key members of the group told Breakfast Network over the weekend.

The picnic would be their third event. They have always used public holidays to spread their message of getting Singaporeans to be more appreciative of each other. Their first, which caught the eye of the Prime Minister, was on National Day. They fanned out to get people to give up their seats for the elderly and the infirm on public transport. In fact, that was how their moniker Stand Up for Singapore came about. Buoyed by the good response, they proceeded with the Christmas Day event to show appreciation to those who manned the public transport system on holidays. That too garnered great responses.

Then planning began for a third. Mr Tong Yee, a member who is also behind the Thought Collective group of social enterprises, acknowledged that the group was probably naïve not to have anticipated that their event would be misconstrued as having a political agenda. They had no idea that another event was to be staged when they applied for a permit and when they did, they moved the event to the morning.

But what exactly is their message?

Mr Tong Yee said that they wanted to explore the idea of “rest’’ on May Day and incorporate the notion that rest can only be achieved if there is trust that everyone will do his or her part to ensure all is well. They chose to set this in Hong Lim Park, where Speakers’ Corner might convey the idea of “lepak in one corner’’. There was also the long-held notion that the park was only a place for the outpouring of anger and dissatisfaction. The group wanted to change that. Why can’t Hong Lim Park be a place where happy things happen too?

A bit airy-fairy?

The group admits that the idea had somewhat morphed so much that they decided to stick to a picnic theme for clarity. For $5, participants will get a goodie bag and a picnic mat. But the programme, they maintained, will reiterate the theme of expressing appreciation for others and the value of being members of a community. The group is putting up about $14,000 of their own money and have no expectations of recouping it.

Unlike the line-up of speakers for the afternoon event, there will be no “political’’ guests. “We’d rather they stayed away!’’ Mr Tong Yee said good-humouredly.

Another member, Mr Wally Tham, has been hard at work responding to those who slam the group on sites such as Temasek Review Emeritus. Going by the responses he made to detractors, the bespectacled video producer has been the soul of patience, reiterating that the picnic is not only a non-political event, but an attempt at humour even. In any case, “people will interpret anything the way they want’’.

It is tempting to describe the group which has about 12 core members as a bunch of do-gooders.  But that would be derogatory.

Said another member, architect Goh Chin Yen: “We are not cynical people. But we are not foolishly idealistic too.’’

They have an added reason for doing what they do. What the group found out from past events: young people want to be able to express positive feelings, rather than join in the cynicism that seems so prevalent among working adults. Their young volunteers were pleasantly surprised to find adults with faith in the good qualities of Singaporeans – and who were willing to demonstrate it too.

So it seems that the May Day picnic is just that: Getting people to be happy together. The group’s worry now is being able to cater for what they think would be a bigger crowd than the couple of hundred that had anticipated. Seems the group got more attention than they bargained for.

Breakfast Network wishes them well. Have a good picnic!

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by Bertha Henson

Chestnut No. 1:
Whoever said politics in Singapore isn’t exciting hasn’t been following news events recently. A confrontation appears to be looming between the establishment and civil society groups over the same hoary old chestnuts – freedom of expression and the ability to criticise the judiciary and institutions without running afoul of the law or being branded as renegades out to erode confidence in the system.

These tussles have never quite died down but it seems the civil society types are upping the ante and gaining more traction. Their amplifier is the internet and social media, aided by an environment which is admittedly less respectful of authority and more inclined to criticism than conciliation.

The wonder is that civil society groups are leading the charge rather than the opposition political parties in questioning the agenda and actions of the G and, yes, sometimes making statements bordering on the scurrilous. The parties are keeping quiet and seems content with organising policy forums and presenting policy papers. Perhaps, the political parties prefer to be seen as professional politicos in public and leave the guerrilla warfare to groups and individuals, whether or not they are aligned to the opposition cause.

The G is getting a drubbing by bloggers, cartoonists, online sites, advocacy groups and the like. The level of vitriol is increasing and will not go down despite the G’s recent actions and statements. Either a consensus or compromise must be reached on the rules of engagement or there would be no end to the scepticism over the citizens’ to ability to engage the G outside G-sanctioned parameters.

The statement by the Manpower and Home Affairs ministries to a joint statement by some civil society groups and individuals over allegations of police brutality towards a couple of SMRT bus strikers was a super quick response. Clearly, there is official irritation at how that the SMRT saga hasn’t died down.

The thing is, in the digital age, nothing dies. The MSM may decide to “end’’ public discussion but online, news will surface and old news rehashed and sometimes passed off as new. Given that people do not make news reading a daily habit, any satisfactory solution or compromise reached can be easily missed. Nuances will be lost, the tone revised. Anger resurfaces.

Yet the noise in Singapore is no different from the noise wherever there is an educated populace. The only difference is that Singapore is a smaller place than most. Noise can reach all parts of the island in double quick time, moving from the virtual to the real world. The G’s protective stance towards public institutions is correct. It will not do for public trust in agencies that enforce the rules to be eroded. But the question is: How should it react to those who want fuller answers from agencies in the spotlight?

By accusing advocacy groups of exploiting foreign workers “for their own political ends’’, as they did in the SMRT bus drivers’ case, they are reverting to their old tactic of labelling aggressive critics as having “an agenda’’.

Here’s what happened for those who haven’t caught up:

Police internal watchdogs have investigated the allegations of brutality against the two Chinese nationals who spoke in a video that made the rounds of the Internet. They found them to be “baseless’’. A statement was issued last weekend in which MHA noted that “neither He nor Liu had made any allegations of physical abuse during Police investigations even though they had had many opportunities to do so”. They could have spoken up while they were in the lock-up, in court, while out on bail, when a doctor saw one of them for grastic pains, when they were on trial. Neither they nor their lawyers no the Chinese embassy did so.

(The possible cynical retort to the above could be: They were too scared lah.)

The ministry pointed out that even after the videos were released, both men and their lawyers did not report the allegations to the authorities, although the lawyers would have known that would be the proper course of action.

(Again, the possible cynical retort could be: They were too scared lah. Also once the allegations were out in the open, then the expectation would be that the G wheels will start grinding)

But when the two men and their lawyers spoke to police internal affairs, their statements were found to be “inconsistent’’. They subsequently retracted their accusations.

(Possible cynical retort: They got scared again lah)

One of the bus drivers, now back in China, has again repeated the allegations, denied retracting them and insisted that when he said he would not pursue his accusations of police abuse, this did not mean that “those things never happened’’. Implicit (or explicit) in his remarks was he feared what would happen to him if he pursued the case, giving grist to the mill to those who believe that Singapore is a lawless country which punishes real and imagined critics mercilessly.

The advocacy groups have weighed in, asking for clarifications and more details about the investigation into the statements on police brutality: How were they baseless or inconsistent?

Seems they trust the word of the Chinese drivers more than the police. Can the police give more details than what they already have in the interest of placating the groups? Would that not, however, would be setting a precedent of sorts? Surely detailed police investigations cannot be released on demand, unless demanded by a court?

Thing is, the groups have found the wrong examples if they want to make a political point about suppression of labour rights and other wrongs. It is unlikely that the police would have done anything untoward towards foreign nationals in a high profile case, especially with diplomats from a big country watching.

The groups might be better-off if they had Singapore workers instead of the bus drivers as their “poster boys’’. If suppression of labour rights and the role of MOM and unions is an endemic problem here, there would be rather more Singapore workers who could be held up as examples.

Of course, this is not to say that everything is hunky dory here. If anything, the actions of the SMRT bus drivers have led to changes and brought to light several worker-management issues. Manpower officials will probably be more alert to disgruntlement in the worker rank and file. Unionists will also have to think about going back to basics, whether in ensuring better salaries for locals or watching the impact of foreign workers on the livelihoods of members – which appear to have passed them by over the years!

Now what?

The majority of Singaporeans probably have enough faith in the integrity of the institutions but there will always be some who don’t. Since it’s clear who some of these people are, is there some way the G could unbend enough to sit down with them to talk? Advocacy groups are good for the development of civil society but not if they are so apart from decision makers that the adversarial relationship leads to just more words and no action. They are volunteers with special causes, giving off their time and energy. They shouldn’t be dismissed like just so much trouble makers.

Note also that they are unlike political parties which have as their ultimate goal the formation of an alternative government.

The sit down and talk proposal is probably idealistic and even naïve but it is made in good faith. We don’t need too many fractures in society.

Chestnut No.2
Now what about the actions taken against online cartoonist Leslie Chew who is “helping police’’ with investigations with regards to the Sedition Act? The Attorney-General’s Chambers gave the longest response so far on how it wants to deal with comments and criticisms. Here’s a look:

a. Every day, there are hundreds of commentaries, if not more, on socio-political matters both in the mainstream media and online. Many of these do not contravene the law, and no legal action will be taken by the Attorney-General’s Chambers on behalf of the State, even though some may contain factual inaccuracies. Some of these statements may defame or otherwise cause damage to an individual; whether any action is to be taken is generally a matter for that individual.

In other words, you can say what you want so long as you don’t break the law. No one will come after you even if your sometimes inaccurate. Beware though the consequences of defamation. The G can’t sue, but individuals sure can.

b. However, racial and religious harmony is vital to our society and has enabled Singaporeans to live together in peace over the years. Words or deeds touching on race or religion have the potential to create fault lines within our society. Such bonds, once frayed, let alone sundered, cannot easily be repaired and we must therefore remain vigilant against any threats to racial and religious harmony.

Very clear. No one would object to this.

c. Where statements are made, or actions are taken, which insult a particular religion or race, or seek to engender hatred amongst races or religious groups, or which suggest that the Government is using race or religion for its own purposes, then a response will follow. Where the statements or actions are heinous, a firm line will be taken. For example, the burning of the Koran or the Bible will not be allowed in Singapore under the cover of freedom of speech or expression.

Here’s the problem: what’s an insult or a statement that could engender hatred to some, could be satirical to others or even humorous. Or justified as “awareness raising’’. Think Porn Masala. Second thing: That the G is using race or religion for its own purposes. What does this mean? That the G is using race or religion as a policy tool to benefit itself or protect its members? If people are questioning the G’s use of race and religion, then there is something wrong in the first place – there is no agreement on both sides on the rationale, much less the use.

d. On the other hand where comments are made in the heat of the moment, or by relatively immature persons who did not know better, a more nuanced response may follow. Much will depend on what is uncovered by investigations

There is a bit more clarity here. You are forgiven if you “let yourself go’’ in the heat of the moment. That is, you misspoke and didn’t go on and on. Then age matters. The young and immature will be forgiven, maybe counselled? But they won’t get the book thrown at them in the face – or not full on anyway. That leaves the older folk whose racist remarks ecetera form a pattern or a trend.

e. Similarly, the rule of law is another fundamental tenet of our society and action will be taken in respect of any statement or action that seeks to impugn or undermine the independence of the Judiciary. Unwarranted allegations of bias or partiality strike at the heart of the judicial process, threatening the very institution that protects the rights of all Singaporeans.

Okay, this is the famous contempt of court thing that keeps cropping up which critics say is a muzzle on freedom of expression. In this, they have on their side that a member of the British House of Lords who has described the Singapore version as “outmoded and archaic’’. Plus, in Britain, there is a move to remove the offence of “scandalising the judiciary’’. The AGC is sticking to its guns on this so it’s not likely to be abolished. But one thing is happening: The Law Ministry is looking into “codifying’’ the law of contempt which it has described as a priority. Now just what is “codifying’’? Making the lines clearer? The ministry had better work a lot faster then.