May 27, 2017

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Authors Posts by Suhaile Md

Suhaile Md

Suhaile Md
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You can reach me at suhaile@themiddleground.sg

by Suhaile Md

YOU’D think that with all the anti-Islam prejudice us Muslims chafe against, we would be better at recognising and weeding out the bigotry in our own backyard. Apparently not.

Last Monday’s (May 1) Yahoo article on the minority Ahmadiyyah community in Singapore drew a flurry of Facebook comments. This particular one bothered me:

Yes, Ahmadis consider themselves Muslim even though mainstream Muslims don’t, given the fundamental differences in some beliefs. Even so, neither threats nor anger are justified responses. I was hoping this blatant bigotry was a one-off incident but sadly that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The Muslim community is not a homogenous one. Just like how Christianity has a multitude of denominations, Muslims are diverse, with many sects and groups approaching the faith in different ways. Broadly speaking, there are two main sects: Shi’sm and Sunnism.

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Earlier this year, Minister for Muslim Affairs Dr Yaacob Ibrahim spoke about the need for Muslims to embrace diversity in an interview with Malay-language newspaper Berita Minggu (BM). He specified the need for the majority Sunnis to respect the minority Shias, reported ST which had referred to the BM interview.

Said Dr Yaacob: “They pay MBMF (Mosque Building and Mendaki Fund). They come to our mosques. They pray together with us. They celebrate the same Hari Raya. So why are we not treating them as fellow Muslims but different?”

So why are we not treating them as fellow Muslims but different?

There are no firm numbers in Singapore, but a 2009 Pew report estimated less than 1 per cent of Muslims here are Shia. Over 457,000 Muslims reside here according to the G’s 2010 population census. Globally, up to 13 per cent are Shia.

There was no Shia-Sunni divide during Prophet Muhammad’s time. The split happened a few decades after his death over competing views on who should lead the Muslims. The political struggle evolved into a religious split as different interpretations emerged from different sources of authority, resulting in some differences in practices and theological views on certain issues.

There are many sub-sects within Sunnism and Sh’ism. A minority of Shias in Singapore are from the Dawoodi Bohra sub-sect. They tend to be Indian Muslims and they pray at Masjid Al-Burhani in City Hall, the only Shia mosque in Singapore. The majority Malay Muslim Shias tend to be from the Twelver branch.

Like Dr Yaacob said in the interview, Islam is “very diverse”. Nonetheless both Shias and Sunnis share the same fundamental tenets of the faith. In 1988, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) issued a fatwa (ruling) that Shias are Muslim. A MUIS spokesman said that the fatwa remains valid to this day.

Still, “there are some within the [Malay Muslim] community… they hate Shia,” said Mr Yusuf Roslan. The 32-year old radiographer, who became Shia about 10 years ago, once overheard a Madrasah teacher praise the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for killing Shia Muslims. Another time Mr Yusuf’s friend was chased out of a mosque near little India when his turbah was spotted. Unlike Sunnis, Shias rest their forehead on a clay tablet, or turbah, when prostrating during prayers.

there are some within the [Malay Muslim] community… they hate Shia

Mr Habib Albaity has been involved in various Shia organising committees through the years. The 61-year old taxi driver said that there were times when the application to use mosque facilities for Shia events were unsuccessful. He is sure it had to do with them being Shia Muslims. While they have their own space on the second floor of a shophouse at Guillemard Road, it’s inadequate for larger events. They opened their new, larger, Shia centre yesterday (May 11).

When TMG emailed MUIS to ask if Shia Muslims can hold events at mosques, whether said events can be publicised on mosque property, and the possible reasons why they might be denied the use of mosque facilities, a spokesman only had this to say: “A mosque is an open, shared space for all Muslims regardless of orientation, to use for worship, learning and service. All Muslims are free to attend congregational worship together.”

It’s a curious response. Surely, a simple yes you can hold Shia events at mosques but like everyone else successful applications depend on availability, would have sufficed? There was no response to the question on publicity.

But the challenges are not from the Islamic authorities, said Mr Habib. It’s from the ground. People don’t understand Shi’ism and “give bad remarks as if we are not Muslims but very bad people”.

Since her school days, for example, 28-year old Ms Sakinah Abdul Aziz said she has heard offensive comments like “Shia are Kafirs (disbelievers)… oh they are orang sesat (deviant)”.

These are not benign stereotypes.

These are not benign stereotypes. In October 2015, a video of Shia Muslims singing and slapping their chest – a well-known practise – was uploaded on Youtube. There was public backlash significant enough that the owners of the private space near Bedok North, which they had rented, advised them not to apply the following year, said Mr Muhammad Al-Baqir. The 32-year old who was part of the organising committee added that the owners “have nothing against us… it was just the situation at that time”.

So it’s not too much of a stretch to think that mosque managers would prefer to avoid rocking the boat by disallowing Shia Muslim events to be held.

This discomfort with Shi’ism has taken a nasty turn up north. Shia Muslims face legal persecution by the authorities in Malaysia, said Associate Professor Syed Farid Alatas. But it wasn’t always the case, added the National University of Singapore (NUS) academic who specialises in sociology of religion.

A 1984 fatwa by the Malaysian Islamic authority, JAKIM, made it clear that Shi’ism was acceptable. This was reversed in 1996. Anti-Shia fatwas were issued in various states in subsequent years. This is contrary to the views of leading Islamic scholars, like the Shaykh Al-Azhar and Shaykh Qaradawi, from around the world. Now, Shia Muslims are detained and harassed by Malaysian authorities, their places of worship raided. Hate speech is also allowed to circulate.

“The thing is, Singapore is being influenced by this,” said Dr Farid. And it’s to a “very great” extent, he claimed.

The thing is, Singapore is being influenced by this

I went online to see for myself. A quick search led me to posts and comments on social media and Youtube which demonised Shia Muslims as monkeys, satanic, kafir, sesat, and so on. There’s also a public Facebook group called Melayu Singapura Tolak Syiah (Singapore Malays reject Shi’ism) with over 1,800 members.

It’s not just online. A trip to some Muslim bookstores along North Bridge Road and Geylang Serai revealed some questionable material on Shi’ism – mostly from Malaysia – like this book for example:

Self-flagellation as shown on the cover was outlawed decades back by the highest Shia Muslim religious authorities, said Mr Habib. The blurb describes the book’s contents as a “clear” outline of the “ideological background, and threats posed by Shi’ism against the true Islam… a warning against falling prey to the calls of the Shi’ites.”

There are legitimate doctrinal differences to discuss but “usually these anti-Shia books present a caricature and attack that caricature… it’s substandard scholarship,” said Dr Farid. Traditionally in the Malay- Muslim world, he said, the majority “Sunnis are not anti-Shia” to the extent it is now. There are many reasons for this shift.

One reason is “the rise of more extremist Ulama (religious scholars) influenced by Salafism” which in turn is “partly related to the greater influence of Saudi Arabia in Malaysian affairs”, he said. Salafist anti-Shia propaganda from Saudi Arabia spread in response to the Iranian revolution in 1979 which saw a secular government replaced by a Shi’ite-oriented leadership.

While there is extremism in many branches of Islam, including Shi’ism, Dr Farid believes “Salafism is the most dominant form of extremism in the Muslim world today”. He stressed however that “the vast majority of Salafis do not condone physical violence and are in fact against terrorism”. He meant extremist “in the sense that” it is too “exclusivist” and “legalistic” to the extent that even Sunni branches of Islam like Sufism are also considered deviant and dangerous. That said, Salafists are Muslims and he is “not a fan of banning” them.

Exclusivism, or the idea that there is only one narrow interpretation of Islam, is at the heart of the discomfort with Shias. This poster from 2015 for example advertised a seminar on the creed of the Sunnis and the “dangers of Shi’ism”:

Seminar on the creed of the Sunnis and the dangers of Shi’ism to be held on the Deepavali holiday.

It’s not clear if the seminar went ahead or whether anyone had complained to the authorities.

It’s more difficult to hold such seminars now. Since Jan 1 this year, all religious teachers must register under the Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS) to ensure what is taught takes Singapore’s context into account.

According to the Code of Ethics which must be followed, an Islamic teacher “must recognise that there are diverse opinions and schools of thought in Islam and may choose to adopt and teach any of these” so long as it does not cause public disorder. Also teachers cannot claim any practice of Islam is “deviant or unacceptable” unless the “Fatwa Committee has pronounced it to be so in a ruling”.

This is good methinks but more can be done. Given what is found in some bookstores, on social media, and the personal accounts by Shia Muslim Singaporeans, it’s clear that anti-Shia sentiments in Singapore are not insignificant. While such sentiments cannot be banned out of existence, stereotypes that fuel bigotry need to be engaged directly by religious and community leaders of all stripes together along with the community.

MUIS’ azatizah code of ethics recognises that there are “diverse opinions and schools of thought” in Islam. Maybe MUIS can consider having exhibitions and seminars presenting the diversity of Islamic thought at the various mosques – a grassroots education programme. Intra-faith dialogues at mosques would also be a good start.

Recognise that there are diverse opinions and schools of thought in Islam

There is a view that addressing differences in plain view – even if not sensationalised like the Imam video case – will blow the issue out of proportion riling people up unnecessarily. I think this misses the heart of the problem.

The point of the ARS is to ensure Islamic teaching is contextualised to our own society. But foreign celebrity preachers have the largest social media presence. Who vets them? Some like Zakir Naik are controversial and are banned from speaking here.

Yet through videos and social media posts, the ideas flow unchallenged, freely, online, publicly. Closed door engagement will never come close to the reach of viral videos. We risk having only one narrow interpretation of Islam dominating, that too a foreign one. Islam’s diversity in Singapore should be actively defended.

So public engagement should supplement closed door sessions. No doubt some will see engagement as a direct challenge and get upset. But it’s cowardly and wrong to stand by quietly while bigotry festers. Let’s take a stand, please.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Suhaile Md

This is the final article on More Than Just, a closed-door series of three dinner conversations on race and racism in Singapore. Over 20 participants attended all three sessions and were chosen to reflect the diversity of Singapore. Names are withheld for confidentiality, to provide a safe, open space, for honest conversations. Read the first article here, and second one here.

AFTER the many stories shared in the past two sessions, it’s clear not everything’s hunky dory in Singapore when it comes to race. So what can we do about it? That’s what the final dinner on April 21 was all about.

The evening started with participants suggesting an issue they wished to tackle, after reflecting on the problems raised in previous sessions. Responses were then organised thematically and participants grouped themselves according to the themes that resonated with them the most.

The search for solutions ensued. Most ideas were not fully formed: You can’t solve decades long issues over dinner, can you? Still, the various groups presented their thoughts to everyone after. But by the end of the night, it was clear there were two ideas participants were excited about.

1. Get em young! 

Issue: Often the majority fails to realise racism exists because they are not at the receiving end of it. As a result they don’t see the disadvantages minorities face.

Solution: Organise an inter-school camp for secondary two student leaders. The core activity would be the privilege walk, followed by moderated discussions on race.

The walk starts off with participants standing abreast. They take a step forward or backward in response to questions on whether their race affected them positively or negatively. The aim is to visually represent the gap between the racial experiences of participants. Of how people of different backgrounds get different advantages regardless of merit.

The privilege walk was also done in the Channel News Asia documentary on race last year. Minister of State Janil Puthucheary was the host. Here’s the video.

The participants chose to work with Secondary two students because the 14 year olds would have had a year to settle into their schools. And should the student leaders want to, they will have a few years before their O-levels to work on creating impact within their schools.

Interestingly, four out of the five dinner participants who discussed this issue and thought of the solution were Chinese. It was also a Chinese participant who raised the issue of the dominant race not realising racism exists in Singapore. This solution was also the overwhelming favourite amongst dinner participants.

2. Attack racism with the funnies 

Issue: People tiptoe around the racial issues far too much. While sensitivity can be good, it should not get in the way of honest conversations. How do you tackle the issue if you’re too scared to talk about it?

Solution: Eh you racist ah? card game. The idea is that if you could lighten the mood around taboo topics, people would be more willing to talk about it.

It’s similar to the popular Cards Against Humanity (CAH) game. CAH has two decks of cards: One question deck, one answer deck. Every round, someone plays a question card and everyone else provides the funniest answer card from their hand. Except that the humour works because it violates social norms – most answer cards are highly inappropriate, taboo even. It’s funny because it’s transgressive.

Cards Against Humanity. Image by Flickr user Tom Bullock. CC BY 2.0.

Eh you racist ah? decks will be filled with statements that range from the blatantly racist like “X race is _____” to the subtly racist like “you are pretty for a X race”. The “winner” of each round will wear the cone of shame. This will be followed by a discussion on why the answer is racist. Essentially, said a participant, “the game is an icebreaker to talk about these taboo issues”.

The trick is that all the cards have racist answers. As players engage in the game, they will let their guard down and in choosing answer cards, they will have to tap into their existing racial biases. But because players can only use cards they are dealt with and not invent their own answers, no one can point an accusatory finger. It accords people a safe space to realise the racist stereotypes they have.

This of course assumes that reflective people will play the game and that they are generally ignorant, not consciously racist. It’s hard to say what, for lack of a better term, hard core racists would take away from this game.

3. The best of the rest

Most of the remaining ideas centred around raising awareness at the individual or society-wide level.

At the personal level, one group suggested creating safe spaces for victims to have a frank discussion with the person who made the racist remark. The group also pooled various suggestions on how to react during a racist encounter. For example, if the perpetrator is aggressive, just leave or it may escalate the matter. If someone holds on to racist or ignorant views, engage the person another time instead of vilifying. The aim is to change mindsets, not demonise.

At a broader level, one group thought of media campaigns. Another group decided to zoom in on educating the public on how to critically assess the online content they come across. For example, being able to distinguish fact from opinion, or being able to see issues beyond a racial lens, or being equipped to recognise and deal with their own biases.

Interestingly, throughout the night, there was only a brief mention of removing the Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others (CMIO) classification. Neither was there any chatter on affirmative action for greater representation at leadership levels nor was there talk on the Presidential Elections later this year, which is reserved for a qualified Malay candidate (read more here).

Instead it seemed there was an almost unconscious decision to work on solutions the individual could act on. Maybe it had to do with the question posed at the start of the dinner: “How would you tackle the issue?”

Not the G, not schools, not community leaders, but YOU. Maybe that’s a question we should all think about.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

Missed the dinner conversations on race and racism? Join the public sharing session on 20 May, 1pm. You will get to hear the stories from participants who attended the dinner series and explore race issues. Sign up here.

Also, join the facebook group to be a part of the online conversation. Click here.

TMG is the official media for More Than Just, a series of dinner talks to explore what Race and Racism mean in Singapore, and what we (as individuals, communities and society) can do to bring us to our common ideal state.

by Suhaile Md

PRIVATE Educational Institutes are, well, privately funded. No G subsidies in other words. Which means it can ill-afford to continue with programmes that are irrelevant to students. Otherwise it would die off.

“We really look at what the market is looking for, what students are actually also looking for in terms of academic programmes, said Dr Michael Cope, Director of Studies at the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF). So it’s a balance really between the kind of knowledge expected by the job market as well as what students expect to learn. So far, it has aligned well.

LSBF offers 55 different courses in fields like law, hospitality, banking and finance, logistics, and business among others. Qualifications range from preparatory courses to highly ranked post-graduate and masters courses like the MSc Finance degree from the Grenoble Graduate School of Business. But most are diploma and advanced diploma courses.

Which is why there’s another factor that’s taken into consideration when developing the curriculum. Added Dr Cope: “To a certain extent you’re looking at progression as well… if students want to continue and eventually want to end up towards a degree you’ve also got to look at the content.” In other words, the diploma courses LSBF designs also fulfil university entrance requirements of LSBF’s university partners.

There’s a limit to how responsive curriculums should be to current trends however. Not because schools don’t want to, but because “you’re talking about underpinning knowledge”, said Dr Cope.

For example, “there’s new areas in marketing but, I still got a third edition of Kotler at home which I used donkey years back… except for the newer sections (on digital marketing), it’s more or less the same.” Dr Cope was referring to the widely-used Principles of Marketing textbook by Dr Philip Kotler. The 16th edition of the book was published in 2015.

The issue of “what should be in a programme and what shouldn’t be”, is really a balance of keeping fundamental knowledge and adding updated relevant information.

Which is why marketing students across the board take similar core modules. At the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Singapore Management University (SMU) for example, undergraduates learn market research, consumer behaviour, and so on. Digital marketing is an elective at both Universities – not compulsory.

That’s what Dr Cope means by balancing fundamentals with new trends.

There are basically three categories of students at LSBF: part-time, full-time, and executives. Public universities tend to cater to full-timers, while a large proportion of part-time students are enrolled in private institutions. A drive by the G to get polytechnic and ITE students to sign up for the Earn and Learn programme is starting a small shift towards what is effectively an apprenticeship model.

Courses for executives tend to be short, modular courses, and it changes quite frequently according to market demands. These are usually a few days long. It deals with specific skills like performance management and appraisals or effective communication for accounting professionals.

Most of the part-time and full-time students are engaged in diploma courses. Whether part-time or full-time however, these students have the same learning outcomes, sit for the same exams, and are awarded the same certificates. What differs is the learning approach, to cater to their different needs.

The part-time student

Said Dr Cope: “Generally 90 odd per cent of our part-time students I would say… are studying because they want to maybe change their career or want to improve their job prospects.”

Like ACCA student Ms Anastasia Pauline for example. The 28-year old is an audit assistant at an accounting and audit firm. Her company encouraged – with some sponsorship even – her to study accounting soon after they offered her a permanent job there. Prior to that she was working for them part-time and only had basic knowledge of accounting.

She chose LSBF because the “class notes are very useful, and the lecturers are structured”, she said. Furthermore, lecturers “go beyond the call of duty” by staying past 10.15pm when part-time classes end just to answer students’ queries.

They understand the demands of the working student and work around it. For example, lessons for shorter topics are uploaded online, in video format, to free up space for classroom teaching on harder, longer topics. Even these lessons are recorded in audio and uploaded just in case students miss class due to work commitments.

But that’s also possible, said Dr Cope, because “part-time students, they are generally quite motivated, they’ve got a specific goal, they’re quite clear in terms of why they’re doing it (studies).” In fact, although top scorers tend to come from full-time classes, the passing rate amongst part-time students is higher than full-time students, he added.

The full-time student 

“Our full-time students are a bit of a different target market,” said Dr Cope. “They are typically students coming out of high school so they really don’t know what they want… they generally don’t have the learning skills.”

Additionally, “employers will tell you that constantly they get students who come out of the Universities and pretty much they’re useless when they walk into the office…they don’t know how to interact in the office, they can’t produce reports, they can’t do basic research, their writing skills are horrible… they are actually like fish out of water.

“So we end up having to pump in quite a lot of effort to develop independent learning skills to our full-time students which we generally don’t have to do with our part-time students.”

But do the students actually pick up such skills in the end? Ms Cho Yebeen at least, agrees. The 22-year old is a full-time student enrolled in the English language course.

Her classwork is intense. She has tests every week. Ms Cho’s tested on the 60 new words she’s supposed learn weekly, then there’s the grammar test and reading test as well. But that’s what you would expect in most English language courses.

At LSBF though, she has to do research, write argumentative essays, and make presentations on various topics throughout her two month term. Topics like globalisation, childhood education, and environmental issues, among others, are discussed.

It was challenging but the results are undeniable. “In two months,” said Ms Cho, she went “from not speaking a single sentence of English to being fluent now”. But “still a little unconfident”, she added sheepishly. The Korean student wishes to go for undergraduate studies in business overseas but she felt she needed to improve her English language skills before embarking on it.

LSBF it seems is not alone in observing the need to develop basic skills like writing and research. NUS revised its Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) curriculum last year. All freshmen must now take two writing courses – academic writing and public writing – to develop critical thinking, and clear communication skills.

Students from other NUS faculties learn writing and critical thinking through general education modules. Engineering student Mr Naowed Abeer for example took the module“Public Persona and Self-Presentation”. The 22-year old freshman said he had to submit three essays which are graded. Research and analysis was required every time he wrote an essay.  Before the final submission, his lecturer would critic his drafts and guide him on how to organise his words for clarity of argument and expression.

When asked if he thought such modules better prepared him for the working world, Mr Abeer said it helps to a certain point. But there’s no substitute for actual work experience.

During his National Service (NS) stint in the Civil Defence Force for example, he was put in charge of projects with minimal guidance, and no prior experience. The hardest part was identifying blind spots he was not even aware he had. It was like trying to imagine a colour he had never seen. Learning to deal with such situations is something that “cannot be taught in the classroom”, said Mr Abeer.

 

This article is the second of a three-part series in collaboration with LSBF. Read the first article here.

 

Featured image by LSBF

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by Suhaile Md 

SO WHAT if she was axed from the national team training programme six months back? Feng Tianwei’s still got it. Singapore’s top table tennis star won the 2017 International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) title on Sunday (Apr 23).

It’s her first major title since she was booted out of the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) last October. Apparently, the 30-year-old didn’t fit into its rejuvenation plans, so STTA would not support her training. It would however support her participation in the ITTF world circuit. Though it’s not clear what exactly this support entails. As for major meets like the Olympics and the Asian Games, she will face the same qualifying criteria as any other STTA athlete. The three-time Olympic medallist had failed to make it past the Olympic quarter-finals in Rio 2016.

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There was much drama surrounding Feng’s ouster (links below). But she was quick to pick herself up and form a team to support her training. She has been busy competing since.

Barely over a month after the split, Feng faced world No. 1 and reigning Olympic champion, Ding Ning in a China Table Tennis Super League match on Dec 6. The bout was a nail-biter, but Feng prevailed, beating the world champion by just one set. The score: 3:2.

While the win gave her a much needed confidence boost, constant travel across China for league matches took a toll. A few days later at the ITTF Doha Open, Feng lost 3:4 to Miu Hirano of Japan in the round of 16. That’s one step short of the quarter finals. It was the last event of the year.

The loss of STTA’s resources clearly had an impact. “This is the first competition I’m going to where I’m handling every aspect of competing by myself,” said Feng after her loss to Japan, reported The Straits Times (Dec 10).

Lucky for her, she still qualified for the Sports Excellence Scholarship which provides her with a monthly stipend of up to $8,000 amongst other benefits like medical support. The scholarship is awarded by the High Performance Sports (HPS) Steering Committee, not STTA. HPS is chaired by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Grace Fu. Feng successfully renewed the scholarship in March this year.

Feng’s 2017 season started on a sour note. She was absent from the STTA awards ceremony in mid-February although she was the top table tennis performer in Singapore last year. She had come in third for both the World Cup and Asian Cup in 2016. The best player award was not given out that night.

According to ST, when asked about Feng’s absence, STTA president Ellen Lee said: “She is no longer at the STTA… all this while, we have been recognising Feng Tianwei for what she has done and we are grateful… I think it’s about time that we also let the recognition be given and spread on to other players as well.”

February was a dismal month for her. For the ITTF Qatar Open, she was defeated by German Solja Petrissa, who ranked 13th in the world, by two sets. Feng was ranked sixth at that time.

There was one bright spot. On Feb 23, Feng met the qualifying criteria for the Asian Table Tennis Championship in April, so STTA took her in as part of its Singapore contingent. It was the first time she played with the STTA since their October split. On April 14 though, she lost to China’s Chen Meng at the quarter-final stage in three straight sets.

Despite the loss, Feng was ranked third in the world by ITTF in March and April, up from sixth when she parted ways with STTA. The next best Singaporean, ranked 25th in the world, is Zeng Jian. Since Feng is no longer in the STTA, this makes 20-year-old Zeng STTA’s best player.

Feng solidified her hold on the global rankings with her ITTF Korea Open win on Sunday (Apr 23). After her win, she said: “At the moment I don’t practise with the national team in Singapore although I live there. I am practising in different clubs and with different private sparring partners. Sometimes I even go to China for training.”

The three highest ITTF ranked players will represent Singapore in the SEA games team events this August, said STTA technical director Loy Soo Han in response to queries from The New Paper in January.

So it really doesn’t matter whether Feng is part of STTA or not as far as the glory of Singapore is concerned. Feng could still play for the national team if she maintains her ranking. If she wins medals, Singapore’s best paddler would have done so with little to no resources spent on her by STTA. Very much like Joseph Schooling.
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Read more on last October’s controversy here:

  1. Feng breaks silence on STTA controversy. Here’s her letter – in English

  2. What STTA’s Deputy President said about Feng Tianwei’s sacking

  3. Feng was a “bad egg”, a “disgrace to nation”, says STTA Deputy President

  4. Feng Tianwei’s shock exit and the economy

 

Featured image by cm yong. (CC BY 2.0)

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by Suhaile Md

CALL it a foot in the door of her career. Ms Allina Loke is chalking up work experience and building industry relationships while pursuing her education. While in the past it was taxing, and sometimes impossible to juggle a full-time job and study, balancing the demands of the workplace and the pursuit of formal qualifications has become a lot easier after SkillsFuture Singapore introduced the SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Programme (ELP).

So it’s a good thing that SkillsFuture expanded its ELP offerings from 40 to 60 last month (Mar 29). It’s a work-learn programme for Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and polytechnic graduates that leads to both full-time employment and higher qualifications. Participants draw a salary – not a stipend – and undergo a “structured training programme” between 12 and 18 months. Basically, you acquire experience while studying.

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The aim is to give fresh graduates more post-graduation opportunities as well as to “support their transition to the workforce”, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say soon after its launch in early 2015. Which is why the programmes are designed in consultation with industry and education partners like the local polytechnics.

The ELPs support the Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) announced by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in March last year. As the name suggests, the ITMs are all about making selected industries more competitive. The 23 industries chosen, make up 80 per cent of Singapore’s economy. Industries include precision engineering, retail, and hospitality, among many others.

In short, ELP participants will be getting a head start in industries earmarked for growth – better jobs and higher pay anyone?

But what is it like to earn and learn? “It’s intense,” said Ms Allina Loke.

She works four days a week at Grand Hyatt Singapore as a Management Trainee. Wednesdays are a fixed day-off for her to attend classes scheduled from 9am to 7pm at Republic Polytechnic. Fortunately for her, classes end at 5.30pm most of the time, and the remaining lessons are delivered through e-learning, which she completes in her own time.

“What we learn is exactly the same as the other poly students”, said the 20-year-old. What other students cover in a week’s worth of classes, she covers in a day. It “can be stressful” balancing work and study. So, interest is important. Otherwise, it’s hard to stay motivated. That was something a handful of her peers realised. They dropped out of the programme a few months in because it is “something they were not interested in”.

Ms Loke, though, is determined “to finish” the 18-month-long ELP in Hospitality Management because she recognises certain advantages. Her schoolmates, most of whom are not enrolled in ELP, will graduate with little to no work experience. “What they are only doing, is study.”

On the other hand, she is being groomed to be on “captain duty” in five months. This means she will be in-charge of smaller events at the hotel with staff to manage. She started in October last year. Basically, she’s picking up industry-relevant skills and work experience while studying – unlike her peers.

That said, at the end of 18 months, she will be awarded with modular certificates, not the full diploma. For that, she needs to study for another year, in her own time. In total, two and a half years. Which is shorter than the three year diploma, including a six month industrial attachment, her peers need to complete.

More importantly, she’s gaining valuable experience while her peers are not. For the hospitality industry, “a lot of it is hands-on experience and job skills,” said Ms Peh Ai Pheng, Learning Manager at Grand Hyatt Singapore.

Diploma graduates with no experience would make $1,500 a month. Someone with 18 months experience in the industry will command “competitive salaries” ranging from $1,800 to $2,500 depending on the role and depth of work experience.

When asked to choose between an ELP graduate from another hotel – but no diploma – and a fresh diploma graduate for the same entry level job, Ms Peh said she would go with the candidate who completed the ELP. That’s “assuming same attitude, same personality… ultimately, you need experience dealing with guests, and hotel systems”.

Which is why participants “go through a structured on-the-job-training programme” designed to develop “relevant work skills and provide an edge over those not on the ELP.”

This point was raised last year when the first batch of hospitality ELP participants signed up, reported ST. “They are very focused, enthusiastic and forthcoming in their suggestions and pick things up faster as they’ve done it before,” said Ms Isis Ong, director of learning at the Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel.

Financially, Ms Loke is better off too. Her course fees are covered, bond free, by the G and Grand Hyatt during the ELP. All participants also get a $5,000 sign-on bonus when they join the ELP.

Plus, she’s earning $1,800 a month now. This does not include overtime pay, incentives, and other staff perks like health and insurance benefits. “The company takes care of us,” she said. Both Human Resources and her manager also check up on her to ensure she’s learning and progressing well.

Grand Hyatt Singapore, said Ms Peh, decided to participate in ELP because it “helps in attracting Singaporeans to the industry”.  It’s also “to support the national movement in” developing and providing opportunities for Singaporeans.

Currently, the company has five ELP participants, with five more expected to join in May. All are management trainees.

Ms Loke was part of the first batch to join the ELP. She graduated with a Higher Nitec in events management last April. Her 3.0 grade point average (GPA) had easily surpassed the 2.0 GPA requirement to be part of the ELP.

Along with her, 47 other participants joined the hospitality ELP. Over 50 hotels participated last year, including Intercontinental Singapore, Marina Bay Sands and Shangri-La Hotel Singapore amongst others.

There are ELPs in other sectors too, like the infocomm technology and logistics industries. Last year, over 500 graduates joined the ELP, said Parliamentary Secretary for Education Faishal Ibrahim in Parliament earlier this year (Feb 28).

 

This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

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by Suhaile Md

Suhaile attended the last two More Than Just Series of Dinner conversations on race. One of the underlying questions participants grappled with was this: Is there always a clear line between what’s racist and what’s not? The discussions in the dinner itself did not cover race-based jokes. So here’s a short reflection on situations in which race-based jokes, in his opinion, are acceptable.

I ONCE had a stranger do the “indian head shake” barely five minutes into our conversation. He changed his accent too for added effect. A lame attempt at humour that hardened the ice rather than break it.

To be fair, I had cracked a few self-deprecating jokes on stage during a presentation earlier. But the jokes were not racial. Perhaps my self-deprecation led him to believe that I’m not “the sensitive sort”, as some like to say when their racial jokes fall flat.

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Truth to tell, my friends and I – of various races – frequently engage in race-based jokes that would well, embarrass others outside the group. But they are very close friends. I could never fathom why some people thought it ok to walk up to a stranger and make such “jokes”.

When I ask them, they usually reply, “but my Indian friend is ok with it leh, so not racist what, why you so sensitive?” Or they say: “But X can make such jokes why I cannot?”

Ah, well, context my friends. Context is everything.

Look at race-based jokes like you would butt-slaps. That’s right, the childish, nonsensical game some kids engage in: “HAHA I HIT YOUR BACKSIDE!”

With that analogy in mind, here’s a quick guide (and please don’t kill me if you disagree).
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a. Do it to a stranger and it’s criminal.

b. Not all friends are cool with it no matter how close you are. Respect that.

c. It’s never appropriate in formal settings, even if you’re the best of friends.

d. Never use it as a weapon no matter how justifiably upset and angry you are. It’s humiliating.

e. Also, please don’t try it out with people you’ve barely met.

f. Don’t dish it out if you’re not comfortable being at the receiving end.

g. Too much of it gets tiring very fast.

h. Not everyone understands this sort of… friendly banter. And not understanding it doesn’t mean they are “too sensitive”. So don’t be a jerk about it.

i. Being cool with it between friends does not make one a sadomasochist (or in the case of race, self-hating “insert race”)

j. You need to be really close friends to even consider it… and these friends are often the first to rush to your aid when sh*t hits the fan.

k. When in doubt, just don’t.

 

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by Suhaile Md

This is the second of three articles on More Than Just, a closed-door series of three dinner conversations on race and racism in Singapore. Participants attend all three sessions and were chosen to reflect the diversity of Singapore. Names are withheld for confidentiality, to provide a safe, open space, for honest conversations. Read the first article here.
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DAY two (Mar 31) of the dinner series and the stories streamed out. Of racism, in racially harmonious Singapore. Some spoke of the casual cruelty that springs from ignorance. Others lamented the broader sense of discrimination that permeates society at large.

But underlying it all, was the question: When is it racist, really?

A 28-year-old Indian male participant mentioned during the large group discussion that stereotypes do have some basis in reality, or “nuggets of truth so to speak”. He said, for example, that he found the various races can smell different. He thinks it’s due to cultural factors like diet for example. Not bad, just different.

So, when a child asks: ”Why you smell like that?”, it might just be innocent curiosity on the child’s part and the child just does not have the language or maturity to phrase it politely. Likewise for other observations, such as “why you so black?” or “why you so hairy?”.

In response, an Indian lady recalled the time in primary one when a Chinese boy refused to hold her hand. It’s something young students do when they line up during school assembly. “He said I was black… and I don’t think he meant it maliciously but it definitely affected me you know.”

He said I was black… and I don’t think he meant it maliciously but it definitely affected me you know.

Just like it affected her when “someone said my hair was so oily you could fry a fish”. And it definitely “affected me in secondary school when my classmates all spoke Mandarin, and for no reason of my own I was excluded from people with whom I could engage with”.

She said she doesn’t “attribute any malice to any of these episodes” but she wishes she was able to make her former classmates “understand that it hurts”. It’s cruel how casually ignorant questions cut.

The lady was hurt as a child because of her race. But by her own account, she did not think it was malicious. Would it be fair to call her former school mates racist? Well, the intentions may not have been racist, but the outcome certainly was.

On hearing the Indian lady’s story, a Chinese lady added: “Race really played a really big part in choosing a primary school for my daughter.”

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Why race matters in school choice

The Chinese lady is married to an Indian man. Their daughter has darker skin. Even though her daughter can “speak really good Mandarin”, the Chinese kids at the playground “just don’t talk to her at all and exclude her”.

When it was time to choose a school, the mother had three choices, a top Chinese school which was her alma-mater, a neighbourhood school nearby, and a convent school.

Following the advice of most people, she was thinking of either the top school or the school next door, “until a Eurasian mother came and talked to me and said… you want to put her in a Chinese school, you know she’s going to be so excluded from everything?”

You want to put her in a Chinese school, you know she’s going to be so excluded from everything?

Likewise for the neighbourhood school because she lived “in a new estate… with many new citizens from China and Malay(sian) Chinese.” Given her daughter’s experience at the playground, she realised it might play out the same way at school.

So she followed the advice of the Eurasian mother who had said: “Send her to convent, she’ll mix, she’ll blend in there with everybody.”

The Chinese mother’s sharing led to a discussion on how individual experiences might build up to society-wide stereotypes and consequently racial discrimination.

When a Mandarin speaking yet-not-Chinese-looking child is at risk of being ostracised on account of skin tone, what more the other races?

Furthermore, as another participant mentioned, his secondary school, a top Independent school, only had a handful of Malay students in the whole cohort of about 400. Let alone Special Assistant Plan (SAP) schools which only offers Mandarin as a second language. Are such schools racist? Do they end up allowing stereotypes to foment due to a lack of exposure to citizens of other races?

As a Eurasian man in his 40s put it, racial differences are visible. “You can see what the guy looks like but you don’t know his” background or who he is. This can lead to viewing everything through a racial lens.
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When race becomes the only lens

The Eurasian participant brought up the example of the radio DJs who got into trouble a few months back. They were discussing a survey on the sleep patterns of Singaporeans. In the process, they made remarks that stereotyped certain races. They were subsequently fined by the G.

Said the participant: “They split (survey results) it according to racial lines. What is that teaching you? How is race even relevant? Let’s talk about what kind of jobs they are doing, which neighbourhoods are they living in, how are they getting to work, those are things that will teach you things that are useful that you can turn into policy or constructive discussion.

“At a certain point, even mentioning race itself becomes racist because if race has nothing to do with something, why are you even bringing it into conversation?”

At a certain point, even mentioning race itself becomes racist because if race has nothing to do with something, why are you even bringing it into conversation?

Expanding on his point, other participants said that the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) categorisations in Singapore forces a racial lens on everything even if there’s no need to.

However, a Malay social service practitioner in his mid-30s felt there may be a “need to compartmentalise according to racial groups because members of a “particular community would know what works best… what will be culturally sensitive, what will not.”

That said, he added, after a certain point it blinds us. “Race is just a lens that we put on.” What about viewing the issues through another lens, like class?

Race is just a lens that we put on.

In his work, he found that a Chinese boy from a single parent household living in a rented flat has much more in common with the Malay boy with a similar background, than he did with other Chinese kids with more stable families.

At this juncture, a Chinese participant asked the Malay social service practitioner if he thought too much focus on race “hides all the other factors which are more important”.

“Definitely”, he replied.
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Ghosts of policies past

For example, on the issue of drug abuse, when the social service practitioner visited prisons, he said, “for every one Chinese inmate I see, I see four or five Malays”. That’s a fact, “a reality my community is compounded with, but again we need to stop saying” it’s a Malay problem. It’s wrong to just attribute it to race.

Back in the 70s, a whole generation of Malay men were left in limbo because they were not enlisted for National Service (NS). Many of them could not find a job because they were not officially discharged from their NS obligation. Employers did not want to take the risk of hiring them. It was safer to hire someone who completed their NS.

“He can’t get a job, he just waits, NS never comes, nobody calls him, puts him in a difficult situation…” and that’s a contributing factor for the drug abuse cases. It’s a challenge the Malay Muslim community is dealing with.

This has an effect over generations, and we’re still feeling it now. Yet when the drug problem is discussed, it perpetuates stereotypes by focussing on race.

He added: “I’m not just saying this, this is actually based on academic literature I studied back in my tertiary days (as a sociology major). There are so many other structures that either work for you or against you.”

Another structural issue that came up during the discussions was on how Singapore’s elites might have blind spots when it comes to race.

Most participants, both Chinese and non-Chinese, acknowledged that a lot of top schools seem to have under-representation of minority races.

The trouble is, a participant mused, many top students and scholars come from the above mentioned top schools. They then proceed into the Military for example where it’s a predominantly Chinese background. Many parts of the Armed Forces – Army, Navy and Air Force – have little to no Malay Muslim representation especially. So it’s likely that many of these top leaders have little to no exposure interacting with minorities since their school days.

Yet, these same military leaders from lieutenant-colonels and above are channeled into various parts of the civil service or state affiliated companies where they influence policy making decisions.

Have they had the opportunity to examine pre-conceived and unchallenged stereotypes that might have calcified from their school days? Based on the stories shared, many minorities had schoolmates who had no racist intent, yet the outcomes of their actions were racist nonetheless. Maybe this is something that needs to be addressed.

 

TMG is the official media for More Than Just, a series of dinner talks to explore what Race and Racism mean in Singapore, and what we (as individuals, communities and society) can do to bring us to our common ideal state.

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by Suhaile Md

The White Helmets have had largely positive press coverage in international media. But there are some controversial allegations about the volunteer group, mostly from supporters of the Syrian regime.  On April 5, we spoke to founder Mr James Le Mesurier about it. This is part two of two. Read part one here.
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IT’S difficult to doubt the agenda of a group of volunteers who risk their lives to pull babies out of broken buildings.

However last year (Sep 21) when the Associated Press (AP) asked Syria’s President Assad, if he would support the White Helmets’ Nobel Peace Prize nomination, he said: “It is not about the White Helmets, whether they are credible or not, because some organisations are politicised, but they use different humanitarian masks and umbrellas just to implement certain agenda… What did they achieve in Syria? And how un-politicised is the Nobel Prize? That’s the other question.”

Not an unreasonable question given that foreign powers have taken sides in the Syrian conflict. Russia and Iran back President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), Saudi Arabia, and Turkey back the rebel groups. And the White Helmets are funded by the latter group.

Last year (Sep 28), the British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said that the UK had donated £32m (S$56m) since 2012. Earlier in April 27, a US State Department press briefing revealed that the US government donated US$23m (S$32m)  to the organisation. By the end of last year, list of donor governments include Germany (7m euros), Canada (C$4.5m), and the Netherlands (8.5m euros) as well.

White helmets training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page

Donations by itself do not prove a nefarious agenda. Yet skeptics say that foreign governments don’t just give millions away altruistically either.

Mr James Le Mesurier, founder of the White Helmets and a former British diplomat, disagreed: “There’s a huge difference between funding which is conditional, and funding which is unconditional… Yes we get money (from the above countries)… but it has never been a secret.”

“For accountability and transparency reasons we have to publish it on the website, we have auditors to confirm where the money has gone.”

He added: “If it was a covert programme, we are doing a really really shit job at it.”

If it was a covert programme, we are doing a really really shit job at it.

The White Helmets have an annual budget of “US$30m to $32m,” with about “75 per cent from governments, and 25 per cent coming from private donations”. Private donations range from a few dollars worth to seven-figure sums.

This year, US$15m was raised “from organisations that are not western governments”. Regardless of the source, “we do not accept them if there’s any political conditionality” like wearing a certain logo, or making certain comments on media, said Mr Mesurier.

Still, the early White Helmet teams were trained in Turkey by ARK, a for-profit international contracting firm funded by Friends of Syria, “a coalition of about 35 different countries who provide support to those that are in opposition to the Assad Government,” said Mr Mesurier. He worked as a consultant there.

Surely, that reasonably raises questions of foreign agenda? Possibly regime change, or the overthrowing of President Assad, as it’s widely viewed?

The White Helmets do not have a regime change agenda, how exactly does rescuing somebody from a building result in the toppling of Assad in Damascus?

He replied: “What you need to connect, if you’re going to make this point, is means to ends… what ARK was doing, was funding media activists, giving them cameras, it’s good governance development, it was civil society development… the White Helmets were one of eight programmes.

“The White Helmets do not have a regime change agenda, how exactly does rescuing somebody from a building result in the toppling of Assad in Damascus?”

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Not agents of the CIA, or Mossad, or MI6…

Mr Mesurier said he’s been called an operative of foreign spy agencies like America’s CIA, Israel’s Mossad, and UK’s MI6, among others.

None of which are true. The idea of a rescue force came about when he was working in the private for-profit ARK. His job there “involved meeting mayors, local politicians, media activists, and designing and delivering training courses in peace and stabilisation activities”.

After the bombings started, it was in one of those meetings that local leaders said they needed to find ways to protect themselves. That’s when the idea to train rescue teams hit.

In 2013, a local leader in a village in Northern Aleppo sent Mr Mesurier’s 25 volunteers to train in Turkey. That’s where they were first issued with the protective helmets. It was white, because it’s “$5 cheaper than the other colours”.

White helmet volunteers training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

Volunteers were lay people, teachers, bakers, blacksmiths, tailors and so on. Word spread and other communities in rebel held areas started approaching ARK. The growth and spread of the White Helmets was not the clandestine efforts of a spy. It was the simple need for a first-response rescue group.

In August 2014, the various teams came together, adopted their charter, pledge of neutrality, and voted in a leader, Mr Raed Saleh. The organisation was formalised then. Mr Saleh runs the show now, not Mr Mesurier.

Mr Mesurier left ARK around that time to set up Mayday Rescue, a non-profit organisation registered in the Netherlands, “because he didn’t feel right doing it (training White Helmet teams) on a for profit basis”.

Mayday Rescue supports the White Helmets with training and mentorship. While it has no management function, funding does go through Mayday Rescue. According to its website, the annual report and financial statements for 2016 will be published online this coming June.

Amongst other expenses, the money goes to the equipment purchases, training costs, and the “very very meagre” monthly stipend of US$150 each volunteer gets. Those who were maimed in service, as well as families of those who lost their lives, are also supported with a stipend. The White Helmets set up the Herofund in 2014 to help with public fundraising.
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Neutrality not respected

The White Helmets, he repeated throughout the interview, are neutral. They save everyone regardless of background.

The Syrian government is not convinced. It does not allow the White Helmets into regime controlled areas. Even when the White Helmets had six fire fighting teams near the vicinity of the forest fires in Latakia earlier this year, the Syrian government declined their offer to help, said Mr Mesurier.

Maybe it has something to do with online clips of some volunteers who have been very outspoken in their comments about the regime? Those are very few and far between and do not represent the view of the organisation, he said.

White helmets training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

Also, it’s a war zone. The volunteers are lay persons who used to be housewives, teachers, bakers, and so on before the war. Their volunteerism exposes them to “tremendous stress”, they take “tremendous risks” to their lives. Mr Mesurier did not say so, but it’s understood: When you spend your days picking up bodies due to regime bombs, it’s only natural to be angry at the regime.

To the date of the interview (Apr 5), 171 volunteers have died and 488 were permanently maimed. There are currently 3,100 volunteers.

171 volunteers have died and 488 were permanently maimed. There are currently 3,100 volunteers.

When asked if he thinks the volunteers are targetted, Mr Mesurier said with finality, “absolutely”. Their centres have been bombed before. And the regime airstrikes infamously engage in “double-tap” attacks where a bombed site is struck again shortly after its first round – to get at the people who run in to help victims.

Interestingly, the volunteers are able to move freely in opposition held areas of Syria in spite of it being an “archipelago of local warlords” and “local arms organisations”. Although yes, in some parts, like ISIS controlled areas, the White Helmets are not allowed to use their GoPro head cameras when they go about their work.

Nonetheless, they can clear checkpoints “from top to bottom”, which is “fairly unusual”, said Mr Mesurier. He doubts any other organisation is able to do that. In fact, this also shows that the White Helmets are not western spies or agents. They would not have such freedom of movement otherwise.

It’s probably because of the “trust that people have of the White Helmets,” he added. Furthermore, the services the White Helmets provide to local communities have not been successfully replicated by local armed groups.

“Some local warlords have tried to set up their own rescue teams… but the values that makes people want to join an extremist organisation are almost the opposite of the values that make somebody want to be a White Helmet”.
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So are the White Helmets western stooges or not?

Skeptics would charge that the graphic videos and images are used in the propaganda war to make the President Assad’s regime look bad. This garners support for regime change, exactly what the western governments funding the White Helmets want.

To that, Mr Mesurier replied that the White Helmets just want the bombings to stop, not remove Assad or change regimes. Showing images “is not regime change”, it’s about “making truth accessible”, to show that people are suffering.

Mr Salah Skaff, 25, reacts carrying the body of his daughter Amira Skaff, 1.5 year old, after an airstrike on the rebel held besieged city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria April 7, 2017. – REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

It’s hard to argue with that. Given the volunteers’ lives lost and thousands of online videos that capture the harrowing circumstances the volunteers face, it’s hard to believe the white helmets work hard just to make the regime look bad.

It would be far safer and easier to spread fake news instead. (Read more here.)

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Mr James Le Mesurier was awarded the Order of the British Empire last year for his work with the White Helmets. In the past, he served as a British Army Officer from 1989 to 2000. Later he had a diplomatic stint for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. After which, he moved on to various roles in the private sector risk management companies. This information is publicly available on his LinkedIn profile.

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Featured image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page

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White Helmets on the job. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

by Suhaile Md

The White Helmets have had largely positive press coverage in international media. But there are some controversial allegations about the volunteer group, mostly from supporters of the Syrian regime. We spoke to founder Mr James Le Mesurier about it it. This is part one of two.

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YOU may have seen the videos from civil war-torn Syria: Volunteers braving bombs, their white helmet-clad heads bobbing about, looking for survivors, pulling bodies out of building rubble. The Syria Civil Defense, or White Helmets as they are popularly known, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year. But last month (Mar 20), Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said: “White Helmets are Al-Qaeda members and that’s proven on the net.”

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Unsurprisingly, the White Helmets disagreed. And it’s not the only accusation hurled at them, said Mr James Le Mesurier, founder of the organisation, in an interview with TMG on April 5. The organisation has also been accused of faking rescue missions for propaganda purposes, and acting in the interests of western powers like the United States (US), and the United Kingdom (UK), by pushing for regime change in Syria. Read our other story on that here.

 

Mr James Le Mesurier, one of the founders of the White Helmets.

“We believe there is a deliberate, propaganda campaign to undermine the credibility of the White Helmets”, said Mr Mesurier at the sidelines of the Milipol Asia-Pacific Exhibition. The 45-year old former British diplomat and army officer gave a presentation on community resilience at the security exhibition.
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Accusations and rebuttals

Some of the harshest accusations have been debunked by watchdogs.

One particular viral video of a speech claimed that the White Helmets use actors to make fake rescue videos. The speech was by Ms Eva Bartlett at an event organised by the Syrian Mission to the United Nations (UN). Ms Bartlett, a Canadian, describes herself as “an independent writer and rights activist”.

Said Mr Mesurier: “She (Eva) is a founding member… of the Syrian Solidarity Movement, which is a pro-Assad government forum… how can she be an independent investigative journalist? The two are dichotomous.”

Her claims were, however, rubbished by UK’s Channel 4 news and Snopes. The video was posted on Dec 13 last year on Facebook page In The Now. The page is run by Russia Today (RT), a state-backed news site but Channel 4 notes that In The Now is “not branded as such”. Russia is a staunch ally of President Assad. The video garnered 4.3m views, over 53,000 reactions (comments and likes), and nearly 114,000 shares.

More recently, Pulitzer prize-winning website, PolitiFact, debunked the claim that the White Helmets orchestrated the hoax chemical attack on April 4 this year, in Idlib, Syria, to draw the US into bombing the Syrian regime.

We believe there is a deliberate, propaganda campaign to undermine the credibility of the White Helmets

It’s not possible to keep up with every claim made online. Detractors usually just pull together low resolution pictures of White Helmet volunteers and place it along those of gun-toting fighters, without dates or context, to imply they are the same people. That’s held up as “proof” that it’s a terrorist organisation.

But how often, asked Mr Mesurier, can someone differentiate one bearded man from another in a low grain picture? “You’re kind of like how do you respond to that?” It’s far easier to slap a few pictures together and sow doubt online than it is to track down facts and ascertain truth.

Yes, a few members of the White Helmets used to be former fighters, but they gave up their guns and now save lives. People change, he added. Just because they did not clear their social media history of pictures and slogans from the time when they took up arms does not mean they are still fighting.

And not just anybody can join the White Helmets. If the locals don’t trust the volunteers, they wouldn’t be able to get anything done. Which is why members are vetted by the local communities. So a “bad guy… wouldn’t be accepted as a member of the team”, said Mr Mesurier. There are currently 3,100 volunteers in 107 teams across Syria.
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White Helmets training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

But what about the damning video, from May 6, 2015? White Helmet volunteers were caught on tape running in to clear a body seconds after a gunman executed a man. It turns out that the deceased was tried and sentenced to death in a local Sharia court, said Mr Mesurier. When his father found out about the time of execution, he called the White Helmets to help him conduct a proper burial. Besides, the gunman was clad in a balaclava, not a white helmet. Accusing the White Helmets of this act would be akin to accusing Joseph of Arimathea of crucifying Jesus.

The White Helmets are an unarmed, neutral group, interested in saving lives, insisted Mr Mesurier. By its own records, since March 2013 when the first team was formed, it has saved over 87,500 people. Anyone “dug out of building rubble, and put on a stretcher” plus a few other criteria is considered a life saved, he said.
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If it’s so good, why are there detractors in the first place?

Short answer: war and politics.

In 2011, the “Arab Spring” political protests against the ruling governments across parts of the Middle East spread to Syria as well. By 2012, the protests against President Assad in Syria soon devolved into a full-blown civil war. Over time, global and regional powers took sides. Iran and Russia support the Syrian regime led by President Assad. The US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey support the rebels.

The White Helmets was started by Mr Mesurier when he was working for ARK, a for-profit international contracting firm based in Turkey. ARK was funded by Friends of Syria, “a coalition of about 35 different countries who provide support to those that are in opposition to the Assad Government,” said Mr Mesurier. The White Helmets are no longer under ARK but its donors include the US and UK, among others. But he insists there is no nefarious agenda. (Read more here: So what if we’re funded by western governments?)

The misinformation, said Mr Mesurier, comes mostly from Sputnik News and RT news. These are Russian state-backed news media. He believes the Russian government encourages it. To that end, he showed a tweet by the Russian Embassy in UK shortly after a documentary on the White Helmets won the Oscar for best documentary short feature.

…….

Said Mr Mesurier: “Every time there’s a video of White Helmets rescuing women, children, old people, from buildings bombed by (Syrian) government aircraft… that undermines what Assad says of it being a simple choice between him, as the good guy, and ISIS as the bad guys.”

But the work of the White Helmets has shown that there are many Syrians who don’t want either President Assad or the extremists.  “And that is a threat to him… how to deal with it? Accuse a volunteer rescue organisation of being affiliated with Al-Qaeda.”
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The mechanics of fake news

Mr Mesurier found a broad pattern to how fake news is spread. There are three phases.

First, it usually starts with blog posts by a “supposedly independent journalist of some variety… who typically claims to be new media, anti-mainstream media”. Such posts make their way into social media echo chambers.

Anybody who tries to be critical about the assertions in the post will face resistance from the writer’s supporters whose line of argument is usually: “You are taken in by mainstream media, you are blind, you don’t see what’s really going on in the world.”

So with the blog and some social media reaction, the next phase kicks in. “State-sponsored media” like RT or Sputnik news will invite said blogger on its channel where he or she is then “introduced as an independent investigative journalist”.

This is followed by “a series of leading questions that has them (Russia and Syria) define their story”. This narrative then enters a far larger audience. “What supports all of that is the industrial amounts of social media, who are not real people but bots that create fake profiles.”

What supports all of that is the industrial amounts of social media, who are not real people but bots that create fake profiles

The final phase is when national leaders make reference to sources like Sputnik news and RT. When members of the public look into the claims, there seems to be proof because so many people are talking about it online. No matter that the origins of the claims are based on shoddy reporting in a blog. Little can be done about such sites, “they’re not accountable (to a board or editors)… they cannot be sued”, said Mr Mesurier.

Furthermore, the effort it takes to disprove these allegations “is disproportionately greater than the amount of effort that it takes” to make it.

It takes only a few minutes to plaster together a couple of low resolution images from the web to make it seem as if a volunteer is actually a fighter in disguise. But to debunk it, both the volunteer and the fighter whose images were used need to be tracked down. In one such actual case, it was found that the fighter and volunteer were from two different cities altogether.

The White Helmets do not have a dedicated team addressing allegations. At the end of the day, said Mr Mesurier, the focus is on rescuing people, not debunking myths.

“We believe the record of the White Helmets speaks for itself.”

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Featured image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page

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by Suhaile Md

THE Attorney-General Chambers (AGC) has filed a Criminal Reference today with the Court of Appeal with regards to the City Harvest Church (CHC) case, said the AGC in a statement earlier today (Apr 10). A Criminal Reference is made when any party of the criminal proceedings wishes to refer “any question of law of public interest”, according to the Supreme Court.

In other words, if there is reason to believe that a decision of the High Court has significant implications beyond the current case down the road, then a Criminal Reference is made. This is the next step that can be taken once the appeal process has run its usual course.

Said the AGC today: “Having carefully considered the written grounds, the Prosecution is of the view that there are questions of law of public interest that have arisen out of the High Court’s decision.”

This is the latest development since last Friday (Apr 7), when the six leaders of CHC, including founder Kong Hee, had successfully appealed to have their sentences reduced from between 21 months and eight years to between seven months and three and a half years. Three judges presided over the appeal and it was a split 2-1 decision.

The six are guilty of misappropriating $24 million in church funds, and spending a further $26 million to cover their tracks. They were initially charged with Criminal Breach of Trust (CBT) under section 409 of the Penal Code in a lower court. But the High Court said in its judgement that the charges of CBT should fall under the lesser charge in section 406 of the Penal Code instead. The questions of law arise here.

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406, 409, what’s the difference?

Criminal Breach of Trust basically happens when someone who is “entrusted with property… dishonestly misappropriates” said property. This is established in section 405. But the severity of the punishment borne by the guilty depends on WHO the person is.

According to section 409, if the person is entrusted with property “in his capacity… as an agent”, then the person may be jailed up to 20 years. The AGC of course claims that the six are considered agents. And in fact the AGC had appealed that the jail terms be increased from between 21 months and eight years to between five and 12 years.

Kong Hee and gang appealed that they were not agents, and hence their punishment should fall under section 406 where the maximum sentence is seven years jail.

But last Friday, the high court had agreed the charges should fall under section 406. And so the six leaders had their charges reduced.

Many had expressed surprise at the reduced sentence. Even prompting the Minister for Law Mr K Shanmugam to say on Saturday (Apr 8) that “the matter is not over yet, the AGC is considering whether it’s possible to take further steps”.

From the G’s point of view, said the Minister, “this legal reasoning has serious implications in other cases, including corruption cases. And we will have to consider as a matter of policy what other steps to take because we cannot relax on that.”

The Criminal Reference is held in open court and the public can attend it. If successful, the six will not get off with the lighter sentences they received on Friday. The decision in a Criminal Reference is final.

 

Want to know more about the case? Read more here.

  1. City Harvest Trial: Facing Judgement Day
  2. Church and state: What’s next for City Harvest?
  3. CHC Appeal: Sounding a similar refrain, church leaders downplay own roles in final attempt to escape jail
  4. City Harvest Appeal: Trying to overturn conviction, lawyer argues ‘no personal gain’ for Kong Hee
  5. Not a good Harvest for the state
  6. Transcript of the CHC guilty verdict

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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