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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

ALL he did was lift the blue nightdress. Nothing more.

That’s what the accused, a 33-year-old man, said. He denied raping or molesting his 56-year-old mother in their one-bedroom flat on October 4, 2013. You can read about yesterday’s (July 21) trial here.

Taking the stand for the first time at the High Court today (July 22), the son said he let go of the dress when his mother woke up and asked him in Malay: “What is this, boy?”. He then returned to his mattress on the floor and fell asleep, he added. This was around 2.30am.

A few hours later, at 6am, the son said his mother woke him up to accompany her to a nearby coffeeshop for coffee. They spent about five to 10 minutes there. Both of them pretended the earlier incident never happened, said the accused. Instead, in those few minutes, they managed to fit in a quarrel, which started after he asked her about about her thoughts on divorcing his stepfather – her second husband. It was a topic she brought up a few days back, the son said.

The accused was asked by the defence to recount what happened the day before the alleged rape.

The second of three sons, the accused said he was on medical leave from his work as a safety co-ordinator. He started the day with a call to his two brothers, asking them to return him the money each of them owed him, a total of $800. His mother was with him when he made the calls. His stepfather owed him $100 as well, but could not be reached on the phone. In any case, his stepfather settled his debt on the day itself.

Later in the afternoon, the son said he finished a bottle of dry gin, which he had mixed with tonic, before heading to a clinic to get his left ear checked. He had an operation on it before and it was hurting again. After which, he headed to a night club where he downed another half bottle of Chivas Regal, a brand of whiskey.

When he got home at about 2am, his mother was alone. His stepfather, who worked at an eatery from 2am to 2pm, was away. On entering their shared one-bedroom flat, the son said he arranged his mattress on the floor, where he usually sleeps on. That was when he saw his mother lying on her bed, he said. He then went over to lift her dress.

The prosecutor asked why he did so. He replied: “To see her private parts.” But the accused maintained he did nothing beyond lifting the dress.

The cross examination then focused on the conversation at the coffeeshop. The prosecutor asked if the son felt awful for lifting the dress. He said yes, and on further questioning, said he did not apologise because he was too embarrassed to bring up the subject. He reckons his mother was embarrassed as well. Both of them pretended nothing happened. He then asked her about plans to divorce her husband. This led to a quarrel and ended with the mother leaving for the elder son’s house.

The court heard more details about the family background today. His paternal grandmother raised him and his brothers, but eventually had to send them to the orphanage when he was five, because she couldn’t afford it. His parents – mother and biological father – had split and were absent from his childhood. He said she never visited them at the orphanage. His father did so, but died of a heart attack in 2002.

When the defence asked about his mother, the accused said he loved her “like a mother” but sometimes hated her as she was absent from his childhood. He said this was one of the major reasons for their arguments – quarrels which would upset him enough to call her a “prostitute” or “cheap whore” in Malay. Other reasons for their fights would be over his drinking habits, playing of loud music and rude behaviour.

The accused said he disliked his stepfather, whom he quarrelled with. He claimed that his stepfather never told his mother that he already had a family in India when they got married.

In spite of this, they would both go drinking together. When the prosecutor asked if that meant they got along, the son replied no: They would drink together but not talk much. He claimed his fraught relationship with his parents was the reason his mother trumped up accusations against him – to get him out of the house for good.

So did he, or did he not rape her? The trial resumes on September 7.

 

To know more about the trial, read our reports here:

  1. A phone call between a mother and her alleged rapist – her son
  2. Rapist-son trial: Expert witness concedes possible that ‘rape never took place’

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by Suhaile Md

CHINA boycotted the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) tribunal at The Hague, but was nonetheless rebuked on Tuesday (July 12) for its actions near the disputed Spratlys. The Philippines had filed a complaint to the PCA in 2013 following tensions over disputes in the South China Sea. You can read about it here. China, a growing global power, chastised by an international court? The landmark ruling made waves across the world.

Most news agencies like The New York Times (NYT), BBC, Japan Times (JT) and The Straits Times (ST) broke the news matter-of-factly. NYT’s headline was “Tribunal Rejects Beijing’s Claims in South China Sea”. BBC’S was “South China Sea: Tribunal backs case against China brought by Philippines”.  JT’s was “Tribunal Rejects Beijing’s Claims to South China Sea; Japan braces for reaction”. And ST’s was  “Tribunal rejects China’s sea claims”.

The reports focused on summarising the key points (read our summary here) and reactions from Chinese and Philippines leaders, with some statements from the officials in the home country of the news agencies.

Basically, the Chinese remained firm in their claims over the sea: “China’s territorial sovereignty and marine rights in the South China Sea will not be affected by the so-called Philippines South China Sea ruling in any way,” said Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Philippines were more cautious. Time for “restraint and sobriety” said Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay.

“There will be a number of details that need to be properly threshed out before any statement is made publicly,” Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said. This did not stop the Filipino media from showing a slight bias in their reports though. These headlines made their feelings clear: “UN court rules China violated Philippine rights” by the Philippine Star and “UN court dashes China’s nine-dash line claim” by The Daily Tribune for example.

Chinese media were more strident, angry even. Xinhua News, China’s official press agency, had headlines like these: “International law dishonoured by illegal award on South China Sea arbitration: Chinese diplomat” and “Chinese foreign minister says South China Sea arbitration a political farce”. Expressions of outrage aside, the contents argued that the Hague has no jurisdiction over matters of sovereignty. That China is for “peaceful settlement of disputes” through “direct negotiation” with Philippines, not a third party said Chinese officials.

The response by Chinese media prompted the BBC to write a piece titled, “Beijing engineers coverage of South China Sea ruling”. It’s an overview of how China has controlled the messaging on the ruling across the country. US magazine, Foreign Policy (FP), also looked at how China shaped its public discourse. In a piece titled “After South China Sea Ruling, China Censors Online Calls for War”, FP reports that Chinese censors made concerted efforts to ensure nationalistic sentiments online did not boil over to fuel demands for a war.

It’s worth noting that it was the previous Philippines administration, which made the complaint against China. Current President Rodrigo Duterte, sworn in on June 30 this year, had struck a more conciliatory note with regards to China in the lead up to the ruling.

Asean countries were not as evocative as Chinese media. Indonesia’s Jakarta post (JP) Malaysia’s New Straits Times (NST), Thailand’s Bangkok Post (BP) and Cambodia Daily relied on international news wires like the Associated Press (AP), Agence France Presse (AFP) and Reuters. This made their content similar: Key points of PCA ruling and reactions from China and Philippines.

JP’s was an AP report with the headline “Panel says no legal basis for China’s South China Sea claims”. NST’s was an AFP report titled “China has ‘no historic rights’ in South China Sea: tribunal”. BP’s was also an AFP report, “South China Sea ruling: Beijing furious as Manila urges restraint”. Cambodia Daily’s was from Reuters, “Court rejects Beijings claim to S China sea”.

However, given Cambodia’s support for China in the dispute, it is possible that pro-government dailies in Khmer, like Kah Santepheap and Reaksmei Kampuchea, take a more partial stand.

In Singapore, Today, Business Times (BT) and Straits Times (ST) reported the news matter-of-factly as well.

BT’s headline was “Tribunal rejects Beijing’s South China Sea claims”, and Today led with “Hague rejects Beijing’s claims in the S China Sea”. Both relied on wire agencies AFP and Reuters, supplementing them with their own reporting.

BT reported on China’s reaction with the title “China rejects and condemns decision”. While Today had a piece on what the ruling meant for other claimants like Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan. The headline: “How The Hague Ruling Affects Other Claimants”.

With a four page spread on top of a front page headline, ST by far had the most in depth coverage on Wednesday (July 13). It went into the details of the ruling itself, with separate articles on the reactions from China, Philippines, US,  and Taiwan – along with, analysts’ take on the issue as well as a news analysis by Associate Opinion Editor Lydia Lim.

All three local papers included the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) statement on the ruling. Long story short, Singapore is not a claimant state and it does “not take sides on the competing territorial claims” said the MFA spokesperson. The spokesperson added: “However, we support the peaceful resolution of disputes among claimants in accordance with universally-recognised principles of international law, including Unclos, without resorting to the threat or use of force.”

 

Featured image Relief Map of South China Sea by Wikimedia Commons user Nzeemin (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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by Suhaile Md

IF CHINA held any hopes that its “nine-dash line” argument claiming most of the South China Sea would hold up, they were dashed earlier today. The Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) delivered a stinging rebuke to China, which had refused to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the PCA and had stayed out of the arbitration process initiated by the Philippines. This is despite both countries being signatories of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), which sets out the boundaries of the territorial seas of nations, as well as the management of marine resources. 

The Philippines had made 15 submissions to the Hague, accusing China of violating the convention by, among others, “[failing] to prevent its nationals and vessels from exploiting the living resources”, “unlawfully [preventing] Philippine fishermen from pursuing their livelihoods”, “causing serious risk of collision to Philippine vessels”, and other actions in the South China Sea.

The Philippines and China are in a tussle over jurisdiction of seven reefs, and more importantly, the waters surrounding them. Although China declined to participate, the tribunal went ahead to assess the Philippines claims, taking into account China’s own position on those claims as articulated in the past.

Today, after three years and vigorous attempts by China to argue that the matter should be settled in bilateral negotiations and not in multinational fora, the PCA did not mince its words in castigating China.

REBUKE 1: That nine-dash line has no legal basis.

China had argued that it has claim over the South China Sea within a “nine-dash line” which would have included the Spratlys, a chain of reefs, seven of which are controlled by the Chinese currently. These are Subi Reef, Gaven Reef, Hughes Reef, Johnson South Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Cuarteron Reef, and Mischief Reef. It is a “historic” claim, that is, it has always been the case. But the tribunal noted that UNCLOS made this redundant. Even before UNCLOS in 1982, the waters were considered the “high seas”, which refers to all parts of the sea that are not included in the territorial sea or in the internal waters of a State.

 “...to the extent China had historic rights to resources in the waters of the South China Sea, such rights were extinguished to the extent they were incompatible with the exclusive economic zones provided for in the Convention.” – PCA

REBUKE 2:  The reefs are more rocks than islands.

A rock extends territorial sea by 12 nautical miles while an island confers a 200 nautical mile Exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The deciding factor? Islands must be capable of naturally sustaining human habitation – no importing of food and fresh water.

China has been reclaiming land to expand the Spratly reefs. Not only that, it has built structures like runways, ports and military buildings. But the PCA noted that since Unclos classifies such marine features based on their natural setting, reclamation does not change its status. Also, combining all the reefs together to present them as a single island is a no go. Basically: Once a rock, always a rock.

“The Tribunal found historical evidence to be more relevant and noted that the Spratly Islands were historically used by small groups of fishermen and that several Japanese fishing and guano mining enterprises were attempted. The Tribunal concluded that such transient use does not constitute inhabitation by a stable community… ” – PCA

REBUKE 3: China has violated fishing rights.

Now, for years, Chinese fishermen have been ranging into disputed territory to feed their voracious demand for seafood. So hypothetically, if the PCA had recognised the Spratly’s as islands, the entitlement of EEZ would have likely encouraged China to be even more assertive in defending its fishermen’s incursion into disputed territory

But that’s not what happened: The PCA said that China has behaved unlawfully by allowing its fishing boats into Philippines’ EEZ and interfering with their “fishing and petroleum exploration”. Two years back, for example, a Chinese coastguard ship used water cannons to chase Filipino fishermen away from disputed waters in the South China Sea. China does not have the authority to block the Philippines from fishing in the disputed seas, the PCA ruled.

“Having found that certain areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, the Tribunal found that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone”… The Tribunal also held that fishermen from the Philippines (like those from China) had traditional fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal and that China had interfered with these rights in restricting access.” – PCA

REBUKE 4: Failed to protect marine life.

Besides the harm to marine ecosystems thanks to the huge reclamation projects by China in the Spratlys, the PCA notes that Chinese fishermen have not been responsible either: Overfishing and harvesting of marine life has seriously harmed the coral reef environment, said the PCA. Just last month, for example, it was reported that South China Sea reefs were “decimated” thanks to the bulk harvesting of giant clams. The clams are sought after for ornaments and the demand for it drove prices up in the past few years – which itself triggered more harvesting, a vicious cycle. Actions like this were not missed by the PCA.

“The Tribunal also found that Chinese authorities were aware that Chinese fishermen have harvested endangered sea turtles, coral, and giant clams on a substantial scale in the South China Sea (using methods that inflict severe damage on the coral reef environment) and had not fulfilled their obligations to stop such activities.” – PCA

REBUKE 5: Sending law enforcement vessels to block others is illegal.

Chinese ships had some near misses with Filipino ships due to its aggressive attempts to block the latter. In 2012, for instance, a Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessel tried to reach a Filipino Coast Guard ship near the Scarborough Shoal to resupply it. A Chinese law enforcement vessel attempted to block it off, but the manoeuvres were dangerous. In some cases, the vessels were less than 90 metres away from each other. Stunts like this have been deemed illegal now.

“The Tribunal further held that Chinese law enforcement vessels had unlawfully created a serious risk of collision when they physically obstructed Philippine vessels.”  – PCA

REBUKE 6: Went ahead to reclaim and build even though a verdict is pending.

It’s a simple point: The ownership is in dispute, so don’t pretend it’s exclusively your sand on which you can do anything you like – building ports and runways, for example. The PCA calls it an Aggravation of Dispute. While PCA does not have the authority to decide who the area belongs to, it does have the ambit to say if a state is being responsible in its action within a disputed area. In other words, I cannot say you are the owner, but I can say that you are not being responsible with whatever it is you are claiming to own – especially since it might belong to someone else. And the PCA has ruled that China has been irresponsible.

“The Tribunal found, however, that China’s recent large-scale land reclamation and construction of artificial islands was incompatible with the obligations on a State during dispute resolution proceedings, insofar as China has inflicted irreparable harm to the marine environment, built a large artificial island in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, and destroyed evidence of the natural condition of features in the South China Sea that formed part of the Parties’ dispute.” – PCA 

Philippines had actually asked for a declaration from the PCA that China shall in the future respect the rights and freedoms of the Philippines. PCA however had this to say: “The Tribunal recalled that it is a fundamental principle of international law that bad faith is not presumed and noted that Article 11 of Annex VII provides that the “award… shall be complied with by the parties to the dispute.” The Tribunal therefore considered that no further declaration was necessary.

As noted by the PCA, its ruling is binding especially since both the Philippines and China have ratified Unclos in 1984 and 1996 respectively. That means, they are both obliged to follow through with the decision made at The Hague. However, given China’s declaration in the lead up to the ruling today that it will not “accept, recognise or execute” the decision, it remains to be seen how it will react.

 

Unclear about how it all started? Here’s a primer.

 

Featured image Sunset on the South China Sea by Flickr user Soham BanerjeeCC BY 2.0.

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by Suhaile Md

EVEN before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague rules over some reefs in the South China Sea tomorrow (July 12), commentators are already speculating about tensions that will arise from its verdict. That’s because they expect the verdict to go in favour of the Philippines, the complainant. The other party, the People’s Republic of China, has refused to take part in the arbitration, and has already said that it won’t respect the PCA’s verdict – presumably because it expects an unfavourable outcome.

But what really is the Philippines claiming? That it has exclusive rights over the seas around disputed reefs? It’s a lot more complicated than getting the PCA to say yes or no. In fact, the Philippines has avoided raising questions of sovereignty in its complaint. All it really wants is for the PCA to decide whether those reefs that stick out above sea level are islands, rocks, or low tide elevations (LTE) – an area of land that only appears in low tide.

That’s because an LTE confers no maritime zone, but a rock means the territorial sea extends out by 12 nautical miles, while an island confers a 200 nautical mile (370km) exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from its shore. The EEZ gives a state exclusive rights to look for and use any resources within the zone. There’s the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) to back this up, which, by the way, both the Philippines and China have ratified in 1984 and 1996 respectively.

An island must be capable of naturally sustaining human habitation. Among other things, argues the Philippines, there should be a natural source of fresh water – importing does not count. The Philippines claims that some of the disputed areas, like Itu Aba, do not have naturally occurring fresh water and are therefore rocks, not islands. Itu Aba is also the largest natural area in dispute. Should it be declared a rock, chances are all other areas in question will never make it to island status.

However, Taiwan, which controls Itu Aba, declares it is an island, not a rock. This puts the Philippines in a hard place: Itu Aba is just 416km off the coast of Philippine province Palawan. So recognition of Itu Aba as an island stretches Taiwan’s EEZ to Palawan’s coast.

Besides Itu Aba, the Philippines wants a ruling on the rock or island status of seven reefs under Chinese control: Subi, Gaven, Hughes, Johnson South, Fiery Cross, Cuarteron, and Mischief. Should it be successful, China’s area of control will be restricted to just 12 nautical miles, not 200.

The Philippines is looking for two other things in the ruling tomorrow.

Firstly, the recognition that Philippines is entitled to operate within its own EEZ without Chinese interference. For example, in April 2012, the Philippine Navy intercepted Chinese fishing boats at Scarborough Shoal, 220km off the Philippines coast. The Philippines considers the area within its EEZ. However Chinese maritime ships prevented them from arresting the fishermen. This led to a two-month standoff which ended in the Chinese taking control of the Scarborough Shoal.

Secondly, the Philippines wants the PCA to declare that South China Sea claims must be made in line with the rules set by Unclos, which are primarily based on land and not the historic rights approach taken by China.

China’s position is a simple one – it owns most of the South China Sea because of “history”. Based on ancient maps and records, China has extended its maritime borders to a nine-dash line, an area of 2 million sq km. Furthermore, China has not clearly defined what the exact coordinates of its nine-dash line are. Neither has it made clear the legal classification of the various reefs – is it part of the Chinese EEZ, territorial sea, or something else?

China's nine dash line: Red is china
The red line indicates China’s nine dash line; purple, Philippines’ territorial claim. Image South China Sea claims map by Voice of America. Image by Wikicommons user Voice of America

China, however, discounts Unclos in this matter. It says that since Unclos does not have the ambit to determine the sovereignty of land, Unclos cannot be used to determine territorial sea area based on land in which claimants say sovereignty is disputed. Or in other words: To decide whose sea this is, we need to decide who owns this land. But Unclos, and thus the PCA, does not have the authority to decide who owns this land. So listen for what?

Regardless, China’s stand does not change the fact that a ruling will be delivered tomorrow.

The Philippines already said it won’t crow over a win. But the question is what China will do. To answer that, look at what it is doing now in the disputed Paracel Islands. “Combat exercises” involving “live missiles” were conducted there last Friday, said the PLA daily, the Chinese military’s official newspaper. Also, since 2014, China has been reclaiming land to build ports, runways, radar facilities and other military buildings on the disputed reefs. China seems to be fortifying its position ahead of the ruling. Furthermore, the Chinese government already said it will not “accept, recognise or execute” the decision.

The United States (US) will not stand by quietly. Already, in the lead up to the PCA ruling, two US aircraft carrier strike groups, the USS Ronald Reagan and USS John C. Stennis, carried out a three day joint training operation in mid June.

After tomorrow, it is likely that the US will step up freedom-of-navigation patrols just outside the borders of China’s territorial waters. It will probably apply diplomatic pressures – through its allies as well – to keep China in check.

Besides China and the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam have a direct stake in the dispute. With the exception of Taiwan and China, the rest are Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) member states. To strengthen their position, they persuaded the remaining Asean states to collectively issue a statement last month at the Special Asean-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, expressing “serious concerns” regarding China’s actions in the South China Sea. But within three hours, Asean had to retract its statement after some of its member states gave in to Chinese pressure – throwing its consensual approach to decision making into doubt.

Singapore is the current coordinator for Asean-China dialogue relations. Trying to re-establish consensus within Asean while up against China’s divide-and-conquer approach will be a tall order. It may not be a claimant state, but it is in Singapore’s interest if China follows a rules-based approach to its international affairs, as opposed to the relatively strong armed tactics employed – Singapore will always be outmuscled in that arena. And given the size of China, so will any individual Asean state. Collectively, Asean is still relatively small, but at least member states will have a stronger footing.

So what will happen at the next Asean meeting in September? Or rather, what will happen after tomorrow? Will the South China Sea issue boil over, or will cooler heads put a lid on it?

 

Image South China Sea claims map by Voice of America. 

Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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Ask Jamie
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Suhaile Md

WHEN in doubt, fear not – Ask Jamie is here. Wait, ask who?

Ask Jamie is a virtual assistant used by some of the G’s agencies, to help visitors to its websites answer pressing questions.

Last month (June 23), in a commentary titled “How to keep the Government relevant in this digital age”, Mr Chan Cheow Hoe, Government Chief Information Officer-designate, said that the aim is to make online searches on G websites “more intuitive” and reduce the need for manual calls to customer service.

A collaborative effort by the Ministry of Finance (MOF) and the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), it was first put on trial in May 2014.

In the two years since, seven G agencies have adopted Ask Jamie for their public websites, said an IDA spokesperson. They are: Singapore Land Authority (SLA), the Unique Entity Number (UEN) website by Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA), Ministry of Education (MOE)Municipal Services Office (MSO)Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC)Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) and Infocomm Development Authority (IDA).

Two others – Ngee Ann Polytechnic and the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) adopted Ask Jamie for their internal use, added the spokesperson. 

So what’s Ask Jamie like?

Visit any of the websites linked above, and you’ll find Jamie at the bottom right of the site. Her face framed in a bob cut, smiling professionally with head and shoulders angled ever so slightly. The search box surrounding her changes colour according to the website. In the SLA site shown below, for instance, the box is green. But in the MSF site, the box is orange. Jamie looks exactly the same everywhere though – no wardrobe change or colour coordination there.

 

Screenshot of SLA website. Ask Jamie at bottom right.
Screenshot of SLA website. Ask Jamie at bottom right.

On the MSO website, however, she disappears when you resize the window to a smaller screen – maybe she’s shy? But no worries, it’s easily remedied by dragging the search box to the centre before resizing – or you can just refresh the page after resizing.

Thankfully Ask Jamie is mobile optimised. You won’t see her smiling at you though, thanks to the smaller screen space. Instead Ask Jamie appears as a tab on the right as seen below. Click on it and a new window opens, redirecting you to a search bar.

 

Ask Jamie on IDA site as seen on mobile. Clicking on the tab opens to a new window as shown on the right.
Ask Jamie on IDA site as seen on mobile. Clicking on the tab opens to a new window as shown on the right.

“Ask Jamie is trained to answer conversational questions,” said the IDA spokesperson. We have found, however, that typing certain keywords alone will trigger a response.

So instead of typing “What is IDA?”, just search “IDA” and the answer will appear. For most cases though, the more specific the question, the better the response. If not, Ask Jamie generates a list of FAQs related to your query and you have to find the question closest to your query.

On the PDPC site for instance, when we asked Jamie: “Can I take pictures of strangers?”, we were prompted to rephrase the question. So we asked: “Can strangers take pictures of me?”

That’s when Jamie responded with more refined suggestions as shown below. Clicking on the questions generates answers within the box itself, so users can avoid the hassle of a new window or tab opening.

 

The question had to be rephrased to elicit a response
The question had to be rephrased to elicit a response

Clearly, Ask Jamie is no Google – not every question yields an answer. On the MOE site for instance, questions are restricted to school admissions and registrations as shown below. On sites like the SLA, Jamie only entertains questions related to Registration of Property Transactions, while on the PDPC site, questions are restricted to the Personal Data Protection Act.

 

List of questions Jamie can answer on the MOE site
List of questions Jamie can answer on the MOE site

Maybe this is why questions like “How did you type so fast” do not elicit a response beyond “Please rephrase your question”. That by the way, was one of the cheekier questions asked by users, said the IDA spokesperson. Interestingly, there is a response if you ask her for a date…

 

Indeed, it is a personal question and completely unprofessional. Sorry.
Indeed, it is a personal question and completely unprofessional. Sorry.

Ask Jamie is not the only one of her kind though. If you happen to go to the Housing Development Board (HDB) website you will find… Judy.

 

Judy’s not so friendly. Unlike Jamie, you have to accept terms of use before you can ask her anything.

“When IDA first started exploring the use of Virtual Assistants (VA), we embarked on a few trials with different VA tools,” said the IDA spokesperson. Ask Judy was the VA implemented for trial on HDB, while Ask Jamie was on trial at the SLA website. This was back in May 2014. Seems like Jamie is more popular than Judy. 

Ask Jamie is useful, to some degree. Increasing the types of questions she can answer would go a long way.

Also, the search functions in the more than 60 “.gov.sg” websites could do with the help Ask Jamie provides. While the IDA spokesperson said there are “several more [agencies] in the pipeline” to adopt Ask Jamie, it’s not clear which sites or how many will be adopting it.

Maybe the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) website? Now, a virtual assistant to answer all our queries with regards to income tax filing? That would just make us fall in love with Jamie.

Featured image by Sean Chong

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DHL Scam, International logistic giant

by Suhaile Md

POOR DHL. Imagine a multinational, with €59.2 billion ($88.6 billion) revenue last year, making a name for itself as a label for a scam.

Although the scammers have impersonated other organisations like the Ministry of Manpower, Singapore Post (SingPost) and even the Singapore Police Force (SPF), DHL seems to be the most prominent. It’s become so common for scammers to impersonate DHL, that it’s now the butt of jokes, with some, like the young man below who goes by online moniker CreepaCrusher, awaiting the phone scam, just to catch calls on tape and troll the scammer at the other end.

 

 

Now it’s got even more publicity, thanks to comedian Hossan Leong. Last Saturday (July 2), in a bid to raise public awareness, the SPF posted a three-minute Facebook video of Mr Leong, where he gets scammed by someone pretending to be from DHL. And the video went viral, garnering nearly 180,000 views and over 6,300 shares in five days.

Hopefully, the viral video has helped to boost awareness of the scam: The SPF said on June 8 that at least 50 police reports have been filed and over $4 million have been lost to such scammers since this March.

The number of police reports, however, seems to belie the size of the net cast by such con artists. A spokesperson from DHL Express Singapore said its call centre receives 150 calls daily from customers in Singapore reporting the phone scam. At its peak in late-May, 200 calls were received every day. “We were alerted to the first few cases in early April,” said a DHL spokesman.

 

Here’s how the scam usually plays out:

It starts off with an automated voice, usually in Chinese. The call is then redirected to con artists who introduce themselves as representatives of banks in China, or of international courier companies like DHL, and even local companies like SingPost.

They then trick the victim into believing his or her identity was used to parcel illegal items like fake passports or credit cards, eventually leading the victim to believe that legal issues are imminent, given that his or her name is on the illegal package. In the process, the scammer is able to elicit personal details like the victim’s name, identification number, address, passport number and bank account numbers.

The final nail is hammered when the victim feels sufficiently pressured enough to remove impending “legal issues” by sending money to China.

The best defence according to the SPF is to ignore such calls.

Desist from giving out personal details and never transfer any money at the behest of the caller – even if they claim to be from the G, like some have in the past. After all, “no government agency will inform you to make a payment through a telephone call, especially to a third party’s bank account,” said the SPF. In addition, disengage from the call and speak to someone you trust before making any decision.

The spokesperson from DHL also clarified: “We do not make automated calls and will not be calling unsolicited to ask for personal information such as identification number, airway bill number, and banking or credit card details.”

 

Read more about other scams from the links below:

  1. Hello, I’m a phone scam. Is your bank account at home?
  2. How to run a sex-for-credit scam and end up in jail
  3. The greatest online scam of all time (No, it’s not sex)

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

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by Suhaile Md

WE ARE what we read. Or so Mr Aaron Ho, the man behind the Instagram page, MRT Reads, believes. A lover of books, his passion has spurred him to document Singaporeans reading on the trains, an attempt to capture “not only a community of readers, but also a community that reflects the Singapore identity,” said Mr Ho. In the process of documenting, he hopes to “motivate more people to read on trains and everywhere else, not unlike watching Extreme Weight Loss which inspires viewers to exercise”, he added.

Mr Ho is a PhD candidate in Literature at the City University of New York, working on Darwin and Victorian writers. He is now back home to finish his dissertation. While living in New York, he was intrigued by the many people reading on the subways. He also came across the Underground New York Public Library (UNYPL), a website featuring photos of New Yorkers reading while riding on the train.  That’s when the idea struck, maybe he could do something similar back home in Singapore?

 

Mr Aaron Ho
Mr Aaron Ho of MRT Reads

He has snapped over 130 photos in the four months since he started in February this year, and there’s more to come. After all it’s become a habit for him: “Whenever I am on the MRT, I’ll see if anyone is reading”, he said. Interestingly, in spite of the proximity to his candid subjects in crowded trains, no one has actually stopped him to ask why he was taking pictures. Not yet at least. Nonetheless, he said, “if a reader doesn’t want to be featured, I’ll be glad to take the photo down.” Mr Ho wishes he was less shy though: “One day, when I pluck my courage, I’ll ask them about the books they are reading.”

However, even without talking to the readers he comes across, certain observations have piqued his interest.

The number of Chinese readers for example. Given the predominance of English as the language of instruction, as well as the language of business in Singapore, Mr Ho was surprised that only 70 per cent read in English and 15 per cent read in Chinese – a “substantial” minority in his opinion. Chinese readers are primarily working adults reading on mobile devices. Curiously, most of them seem to be reading from a particular app that supplies free serialised Internet stories written by netizens. The stories can be very popular. Lan Yu, for instance, published online in 1998 by an anonymous writer, even made it to print and screen in China around 2001. The app name and origins of the netizens are a mystery Mr Ho hopes to uncover soon.

 

 

There are gender differences in reading habits it seems. Men are still “hemmed in by their masculine identity”, said Mr Ho. They stick to espionage, crime, science fiction and fantasy, genres that are traditionally associated with masculinity. Think along the lines of fantasy writer Raymond E Feist’s Riftwater Saga, spy thriller Dying Day by Robert Ryan or the works of Dan Brown. Women however “have transcended the gender boundary”, equally comfortable with romance works like Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You as well as the masculine genres.

 

 

Another surprise was the 48 per cent who read fiction. Given the stereotype of Singaporeans being materialistic and practical people, he expected more get-rich-quick type of books. Mr Ho said that perhaps this “suggests that reading for art and enjoyment is more important than reading for materialistic gains” for Singaporeans. After all, “non-fiction may teach us skills but fiction makes us feel alive”, he added.

Speaking of fiction, Mr Ho has seen primary school children reading John Grisham’s novels – fictional legal thrillers usually targetted at adults. Looks like “Singaporean children are precocious readers”, he said. However Mr Ho thinks that some parents don’t really vet the books their children read. “I’ve photographed primary school children reading John Grisham’s novels; fantasy books with minor gay characters; romance novels; stories with rape; and nightmare-inducing horror stories,” he said.

But he acknowledges that it could simply be a case of Singaporean parents consciously allowing their children free rein in choosing what they read. Mr Ho said, “perhaps parents here subscribe to Oscar Wilde’s dictum: There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

 

 

Still, fiction readers are only half the story. While some pore over textbooks and scholarly essays, the rest are buried in self-help books like Rich Dad’s Cashflow Quadrant by Robert Kiyosaki, religious books like Faustina Kowalska’s Diary: A Divine Mercy in my Soul and the popular series Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. Could it be that Singaporeans are just lost? Mr Ho wonders if they are seeking “pillars to lean on” – even flotsam to cling on? “Perhaps, they are looking for casuistic narratives that explain their existence and teach them how to live”, he said.

Whatever the case, given the low rate of reading in Singapore as revealed by the national survey on reading, it’s an achievement for Mr Ho to have managed to document so many readers on our trains.

 

This is part of a month-long series of articles in support of the National Reading Movement, which kicked off on Friday, June 3. It will culminate in the first ever National Reading Day on July 30.

Click on the following links to find out more:

  1. So you’ve seen the movie, have you read the book?
  2. So you’ve seen the movie, have you read the book? An overview of books referenced.
  3. Why Reading Matters, by Felix Cheong
  4. 5 books that’ll drive you crazy – & leave you wanting more
  5. Bringing Up a Reader
  6. Hungry for Singapore literature? Press B4
  7. My Favourite Character from a Singapore writer: Ellie Belly
  8. My Favourite Character from a Singapore writer: Amos Lee
  9. My Favourite Character from a Singapore writer: Watson the Robot
  10. My Favourite Character from a Singapore writer: Tessie
  11. Addiction by Joshua Ip
  12. Addiction by Joshua Ip – An overview of books referenced

 

Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

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East Village

by Suhaile Md

MR RON Kou, 34, owner of 360 Concept, was a year into his phone business at Clementi when he decided to uproot and venture into the far east, to a cosy corner near Simpang Bedok: East Village mall. Mr Kou thought there was an untapped market there for phones, given the lack of competition – unlike Clementi. But when he moved into the six month old development in January 2015, he sensed a change in the wind. The demand for phones might be less than he thought. Rapidly adjusting, he split his shop space, one half selling phones and the other decked with loose long sleeved blouses catered to Muslim women. Market testing was on. The fashion tide won.

East Village mall, cocooned beneath East Village condominium, has 90 stores, 35 of which are food and beverage outlets. The two year old mall was never specifically targeted towards Muslim consumers said Mr T. S. Nio, Commercial Manager of East Village. Now however, about 80 to 90 per cent of the retailers cater to Muslim customers while 50 per cent of the eateries are halal, including two halal bakeries. He added: “It was a surprise. It just happened to turn out that way.”

The mall has organically grown to serve a niche market: the Muslim smart set with money to spare. Mr Nio said the shoppers at East Village tend to have greater spending power, who drive and who prefer avoiding the crowded bazaars of Geylang Serai.

Mr Yusoff, co-owner of Meco, a boutique specialising in printed blouses, agreed: “Malays are willing to spend more.” His customers tend to be professionals from their 30s up to their 60s. Although most of Meco’s products are priced from $25 to $45, there are regulars who buy up to 20 to 30 pieces every few months. 

Mr Yusoff launched Meco together with his business partners Ms Corine Goh and Ms Merlynn Lim two years back. By then they had already accrued 18 years of experience selling ladies accessories to the wider market. But the opportunity in the Muslim ladies fashion scene was too good to resist. In the two years since, they have rapidly built the enterprise which now has four outlets islandwide: Two shops in East Village, a larger, open air kiosk at Eastpoint Mall in Simei and a pushcart at Lot 1 mall in Choa Chu Kang. 

Unlike Meco though, fashion boutique Sarah Marguerita started out online four years ago. Owners Mr Zulkifli Baharudin, 31, and Ms Siti Qaisarah Margarita Reyes, 28, moved into their East Village store in January this year. During Sarah Marguerita’s online-only phase, it made about $3,000 to $4,000 a month, but now combined with the store, it makes “about $20,000 a month” said Ms Siti. Their best selling item? The “instant shawl” by popular brands Lakenis and Naelofar. Unlike conventional shawls which take some time to fold into a presentable hijab or head covering, the “instant shawls” are designed to be slipped on. It’s a hit with working professionals in their 30s and 40s, who are willing to pay the $26 to $49 price tag, said Mr Zulkifli.

At 21, Miss Mareenah Abdul Ghani, is perhaps the youngest business owner at the East Village. She started her fashion label, Maqayla, while waiting for her A-level results in 2012 after she got frustrated with the lack of comfortable, trendy clothes that suited her Islamic ideals of modesty. “As a Muslim girl, it wasn’t easy to find modest wear clothing. I used to shop at places like F21, Uniqlo and New Look but had to play around with the clothing by layering them to be able to cover myself well” she said.

She set up at East Village in April last year as she needed a space for her online customers to visit and shop. With popular halal eateries like Spize and Tang Tea House just across the road, it was an area where her customers could “conveniently shop and dine.” Most of them are in their 20s to 40s but the big spenders, she said, are working adults in their 30s. The casual line wear that retails from $34.90 to $69.90 is the most popular. A few doors down in the adjacent aisle is Kitty Swimsuit, a shop selling modest swimwear, that covers the whole body, for Muslim women. A complete set includes a headgear and a jumpsuit. Customers can also choose to buy a top and bottom in place of the jumpsuit. Prices range from $30 to $50 for a set depending on the size.

Inside East Village.
Customers walk along the interior of the mall. Photo by Najeer Yusof.

The mall isn’t a bustling place. There are 13 vacant units in the mall which take up one floor. The Cold Storage supermarket there usually has just one cash register open for payment. And several food places have changed hands, usually from non-halal to halal. The food at East Village is not the usual halal fare either. For example, you can find premium sandwiches in Watsub or dine at the famous Ambeng Cafe by Ummi Abdullah.

Watsub cooks inhouse, makes its own sauce – from mustard, to chipotle and barbeque among others – and custom orders its bread to cater to the increasing desire for halal food beyond the usual Nasi (rice) and Mee (noodles) items. Compared to the $3 to $5 one would spend on Nasi Padang or Mee rebus for instance, a Watsub sandwhiches can set you back between $7 and $9 ala carte. But owner Mr Norizam, 38, said the “younger generation are more adventurous nowadays.” That they want something halal and are willing to pay a premium for the variety. He reckons Watsub is one of a handful of halal premium sandwich cafes in Singapore. Sales have steadily increased over the past year and he serves up to 150 customers a day.

The desire for variety however, does not mean traditional dishes are dying out. Ambeng Cafe specialises in Nasi Ambeng, a traditional Malay platter consisting of a mound of fragrant rice, circled by a mix of dishes. Owner Ms Ummi Abdullah, who’s in her mid 30s, said a lot of her customers are working executives in their late 20s and above. They are willing to part with up to $48 dollars for a platter of three. Business has been brisk. The cafe at East Village started out by serving 700 customers a day last year. It now serves about 1,200 to 1,400 customers per day. Interestingly, Ramadan has not dented sales. Most customers now order takeaway to eat at home with family or they make reservations to break fast at the cafe itself.

Nonetheless, East Village is no match for the sheer range of products on offer at the usual Malay shopping hotspots like Joo Chiat Complex and Tanjong Katong Complex in Geylang Serai. From kitchen appliances and items like cake stands, rice cookers and kitchen scales, to fabrics – sold by the metre – for clothing, curtains or cushion covers, as well as a wide variety of bed sheets, rugs and carpets. Add on to that, the kilometre long bazaar that stretches from Haig Road to Lorong 101 Changi Road this Ramadan period.

The businesses in East Village appear to be focused on serving and dressing the affluent, just as you wouldn’t go to Orchard Road to buy a rice cooker. Polytechnic student Miss Nurul Fatyn, 18, referred to boutiques like Maqayla and Sarah Marguerita, which carry “some stuff online that cannot be found anywhere else.” Which is why she is willing to spend more at East Village.

Diploma student Ms Nur Amirah, 18, shared similar sentiments saying: “I’m willing to pay more for the quality”. Her friend Miss Hazwanie Afiqah, 18, added: “The place here is also less crowded and it’s air conditioned” unlike Geylang Serai.

Whether it will rise to be the affluent Muslim’s alternative to shopping at Geylang is a big question mark. The mall is young and there are few new retail customers. Mr Ron Kou said he has “very regular” customers and sales have evened out to about $15,000 a month. Without new customers, growth prospects are low. Mr Zulkiflee, 49, Chairman of the Merchant’s Association at East Village, said it was tough to gather all the tenants and owners to mount, say, collective marketing campaigns to increase traffic.

At least this is one mall which does not ape so many others in its range of offerings. Businesses appear to have stumbled onto a niche market. Perhaps the affluent Muslim market is a result of the increase in income and education levels in Malay households. Or maybe it was there all along, waiting to be tapped.

 

More about shopping malls:

Featured image & images by Najeer Yusof.

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by Suhaile Md

AT 18, you’re mature enough to drive, drink alcohol, have consensual sex, do your National Service stint, and if need be, kill and even die for your country. But you’re not mature enough to smoke. Or at least that will be the case if the Health Promotion Board’s (HPB) proposal last December, to increase the legal smoking age from 18 to 21, comes to pass. Which raises the question: If you’re old enough to die for your country, surely you’re old enough to make an informed choice on smoking?

This was one of the questions raised at a closed door panel discussion by the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore (ACLS) yesterday. Speaking to the media later, panel moderator Mr Suresh Damodara, Vice-President of ACLS, said the ACLS is not pro-tobacco. Its intent was to “throw open the discussion” on HPB’s proposal by “highlighting the legal implications which may potentially arise from any proposal to any amendment to the law”.

The issues we discussed post event, however, was focused not so much on the legality of the proposal as much as the possible outcomes due to its implementation.

In December last year, the HPB proposed four measures to reduce smoking. Besides raising the legal age to 21, it is considering greater restrictions on flavoured cigarettes, introducing plain packaging to reduce its appeal and to increase the graphic health warning found on packets. A public consultation exercise, that ended in March this year, ensued. The results have yet to be made public.

Panelists Mr Josephus Tan, Director of Fortis Law corporation, and Mr Tham Lijing, Associate at Tan Rajah and Cheah, felt that the public consultation process by HPB did not adequately address how the consequences may play out in practice.

First, they raised questions about the inconsistent age of consent across various issues. For example, says Mr Tan, should the proposal go through, an 18 year old would be able to drink but not be able to smoke. What signal does this send to young people? That drinking is ok, but smoking is not? Also, it is legal to be a sex worker at 18, yet smoking would be disallowed. Does that mean smoking is a less desirable vice as compared to prostitution?

Also, it is legal to be a sex worker at 18 yet smoking would be disallowed. Does that mean smoking is a less desirable vice compared to prostitution?

Second, was the issue of enforcement. Mr Tan asked about what would happen to youth who are currently legally smoking but would suddenly be on the wrong side of the law due to the changes, especially since smoking is a difficult habit to quit.

Mr Tan added that a staggered implementation may do the trick, but he also wondered if it would push previously legal smokers underground and fuel a black market of “legal” cigarettes. That is, a situation where older smokers profit by reselling duty paid cigarettes to younger smokers.

Frankly, it’s hard to tell how this will actually play out given that current laws already prevent anyone from profiteering by selling to minors. Section 10 of the Tobacco Act imposes a fine of up to $5000 for the first offence of selling to minors and up to $10,000 for subsequent offences. 

Currents efforts to reduce smoking amongst youth seems to have paid off though. Notably, HPB reported that the prevalence of smoking amongst youth aged 13 to 16 years has declined from 9 per cent in 2006 to 6 per cent in 2012. Fewer minors were caught for smoking offences, from 5,968 in 2011 to 5,311 in 2013.  Nonetheless, given that a World Health Organisation report in 2008 notes that those “who do not start smoking before age 21 are unlikely to ever begin”, the increased efforts to reduce youth smoking further is not unwarranted.

The other issue of enforcement though, according to Mr Tan, centres on the extent to which entertainment providers like nightclubs and bars are responsible for underage smokers in smoking rooms within their premises. Given that the minimum age of entry to clubs follow the drinking age, 18, would club owners have to incur extra costs to ensure the overage-drinkers-but-underage-smokers do not sneak into the smoking rooms for a puff?

Singapore is not alone in its bid to increase the legal age to 21. Up north, Malaysian authorities last year suggested increasing the legal age from 18 to 21 as well. Further afield, the American state of California successfully pushed through a Bill just last month, increasing the smoking age to 21.

Asked to comment on California’s move, panellist Mr Tham said it was  too early to tell how the change will play out on the ground there.

Mr Adrian Chung, a spokesman for Japan Tobacco International (JTI), said the worry should be how the age restriction would lead to more smuggling of contraband cigarettes.  At around $5 per pack, they cost half as much as those sold locally. Essentially, they are “genuine products, at half price, with a greater kick.” Losing access to legal cigarettes may just nudge existing youth smokers to the black market.

He didn’t say it, but he might as well add the millions in customs duties too.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Ramadan

by Suhaile Md

NO FOOD, no water. Dawn to dusk. A knot of apprehension starts to form but the azan (call for prayer) cuts through my thoughts. It’s time to pray. I rush to join the growing prayer congregation, reminding myself to give my best and leave the rest, as they say, in God’s hands.

My head bowed in deference, hands folded over my chest, silence for a heartbeat or two.

Then the Imam begins: Bismillah hir rahman irrahim, in the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful.

Tonight, I pray the Tarawih, a special nightly prayer for the month of Ramadan. Tomorrow, I begin my fast at dawn.

Bismillah hir rahman irrahim, in the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful.

COLD splashes jolt me awake as I perform my ablutions. The time: 5.30am. The fast has started and now I kneel for the dawn prayer, one of five daily prayers Muslims fulfil year round.

The pre-dawn meal, sehri, or suhur as is commonly known by Muslims around the world, had passed in a drowsy blur. I don’t want to feel sleepy during prayer. Action without intention rings hollow, like laughter without joy. And prayer is joy. It is peace. Prayer is what helps us get closer to the divine.

Bismillah hir rahman irrahim… I surrender myself to the familiar motions as the gentle cadence of Quranic verses put me at ease.

The Quran to us, is essentially the word of God. We believe the first verses were revealed to our prophet Muhammad in the month of Ramadan during Laylat al-Qadr, that is, The Night of Power. It is the month when God sent us guidance.

Consequently, deeply reflecting – and acting – on the word of God is the most important aspect of this month.

Truth to tell, this is much harder than abstaining from food. Fasting requires that I slow down, be less reactive. Where every little annoyance used to elicit a muttered curse, I now have to remind myself to be be patient, to watch what I utter.

Every spark of anger or the stab of jealously that leads to a wagging tongue has to be tamped down lest I weaken my fast with the vulgarity of my thoughts.

It may be difficult but that is the main challenge of fasting. Of what use is my physical abstinence if my heart remains sour?

Therein lies the beauty of the month of Ramadan: The procession of daily life with an injection of God consciousness. As the day wears on, the dull ache of hunger and parched tongue demands that I remember the purpose of this month, which is to strengthen my connection with God and become a better person, a better Muslim.

With the heightened self-awareness on top of the usual workload, it’s not long before the day comes to an end and I look forward to breaking my fast with my family. Like most Muslims, we make an effort to be home in time to break fast together.

Dates, thick slices of watermelon, a cool glass of sherbet and a bowlful of fresh salad along with dhal puri (flatbread). Soon after the sun sets, the sweet sound of the azan (call for prayer) beckons and we break fast.

Food. Water. Yum.

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Read our articles below to find out more about Ramadan.

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Featured image by Sean Chong.

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