March 30, 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

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by Suhaile Md

MY INTERNSHIP with TMG has come to an end.

So much has happened in the three months that I’ve been here. The General Election, the City Harvest Church trial and the protracted haze situation just to name a few. This is my first experience as a rookie journalist. I’ve learnt a lot in my short three months at TMG, like research, cold calling, street interviews, critical thinking, events coverage, content presentation and multiple writing styles. Here are 10 of the more important things I’ve learnt.

1. Worship at the altar of accuracy

Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.

I realised that at the end of the day, the work of a journalist is built purely on trust between the reader and the reporter. What use is a scoop or an exclusive if your readers don’t trust you enough to take it seriously? What use is analysis without the facts to back it up? And if the facts are wrong, the analyses will be off!

If I had to condense everything I have learnt at TMG into just one point, it would be this.

2. It’s about your readers, not about you

A reporter’s job is to clarify, not confuse. So I had to ditch – and I am a little embarrassed to say this – my tendency to try and sound smarter than I am. Here’s an example of what I mean:

“Thoughts and ideas are temperamental consorts sought by many but held by none. The only way to securely grip a wispy strand of flighty intangibles is to construct a virtual proxy that links the dimensions of our mortal conscious to the immortal. That construct is what we call language.”

What a load of rubbish! How does this help the reader? Not only does it waste time, the reader is no clearer at the end of the day. It would have been better to write: Language helps us think and communicate clearly.

So yes, I wrote like that once. Thankfully, no more.

3. If it’s too easy, chances are you’re not thinking

At the peak of the haze in October, online grocer Redmart claimed it enabled customers to search for sustainable paper and tissue products on its website. So of course, I had to check it out. Lo and behold, it looked like the function was not ready. I was tempted to write about false advertising but I remembered my editor’s exhortation: Think deeper, always ask why.

It’s almost trite, but no less true. Further thought made me realise that perhaps the grocer did not have a working system because the market, that is Singaporeans, did not demand it. So I ended up writing an article that probed a little deeper, and hence added more value to the reader, instead of being just another person pointing out how the business is not delivering what it promised.

4. Professionalism, always

We have our biases. But as much as humanly possible, it must never get in the way of reporting the facts. We are not here to judge – that’s what the courts are for. The public will decide for themselves based on the facts we provide. And if we allow our bias to skew the facts, we do our readers and the people we report on a disservice, a wrong even.

5. Be deliberate with words

She said, she shared, she pointed out… they may seem synonymous but each has its own shade of meaning. Said is perhaps the most neutral, very factual. Shared is more intimate, personal. Pointed out is well, pointed out.

So even seemingly simple words, I’ve found, are not “just words”. They make a difference. I’ve learnt to be more judicious about their use.

6. Anticipation and preparation

Imagine you come across breaking news but you can’t publicise it because your phone is dead and you have no extra battery. Or you get dehydrated from all the running around and you’re too sick to report as elections results are announced. Or your shoes give you a blister and you lag behind all other reporters.

These are nightmare scenarios for a reporter – and all completely avoidable if you think ahead. While I did not face those situations, I know I would have if my seniors in the newsroom did not give me a heads up.

And that’s just the logistical aspect. Doing background research, looking for a sweet spot to approach an interview subject out in the field, all these are the back-end work that makes a world of difference to the quality of your work.

7. Just ask

Don’t worry, just ask.

The story, 50 faces of Punggol East SMC, was one of my first assignments. My colleagues and I had to ask 50 people about their political views. Now, you know how reticent Singaporeans are about airing their political views publicly. It was a challenge for me because I’ve never really been comfortable asking strangers for anything, not even directions, much less their political views.

But repeatedly approaching others has taught me that not asking gets you no where. And you learn not to take things personally. I came to realise my discomfort had more to do with me feeling stupid than anything else. Which come to think of, is rather silly in and of itself, no? At worst you get a rude no!

8. Numbers are subjective

I used to have this impression that numbers are unbiased. How wrong I was. Do the numbers not have meaning? Do they not represent something? Of course they do. Especially in surveys: Numbers are just opinions quantified.

For instance the global ranking of universities. The same university can be ranked differently according to different benchmarks. Why those benchmarks are set in the first place, is a question that requires probing. Are those benchmarks the ones we should set for ourselves? Notice how deciding the benchmark is itself a subjective exercise?

9. Exposed my stereotypes

One of the great perks of journalism is the sheer diversity of people you meet in the course of your work. You are exposed to the many faces of humanity and in the process shatter your own stereotypes.

One memorable instance was seeing an elderly lady going fan girl crazy upon seeing Dr Ng Eng Hen during election night. She pounced on him with a cry and a huge hug. Which surprised me as I wasn’t expecting fan girl moments from an elderly lady. But my own surprise led to a moment of self-awareness. That was the first time I realised I had stereotypes about the elderly – that they were not comfortable with showing great enthusiasm.

10. We are all human

Yes, that’s a cliche. But it’s one I have learned anew in my few months here.

My work at TMG was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to observe our leaders (I covered the PAP mostly) up close, especially during elections. Seeing PM Lee with a weary smile at the end of elections night, or DPM Tharman giving Dr Yacob Ibrahim a friendly pat on his back are some of the more memorable moments.

These small actions made such huge personalities… more human to me. Of course most of us have an intellectual understanding that we are all the same. But that was the first time I felt it.

 

Featured image diary writing by Flickr user Fredrik RubenssonCC BY-SA 2.0.

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by Suhaile Md

AWARD-WINNING but not good enough? The national men’s table tennis head coach Yang Chuanning has been fired while the national women’s head coach Jing Junhong is redeployed as Chief Coach (Youth Development). The announcement made yesterday by the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) was a curious development given that earlier this year, Yang Chuanning won the Keppel-STTA Sports Excellence Award 2014  and Jing Junhong won Coach of the Year 2014. What gives?

Apparently, it’s a consequence of soured relationships between coach and player. With Jing, national players Feng Tianwei and Yu Mengyu requested for change in order to improve their games. As for Yang, the players had complained about his performance during a review. It’s not clear if there were issues simmering beneath the surface from the start of the coaches’ tenures or if it’s a recent development.

Yang Chuanning took over as head coach in Aug 2010. Brought in after his successful stint as a coach in China, where he trained Olympic medallists like Li Ju, Yang groomed the men’s team to several historic wins. In Feb 2012, paddlers Gao Ning and Yang Zi won the men’s doubles at the Asian Table Tennis Championships in Macau – nearly 60 years after Singapore last won that title. A month later, the men’s team, reached the quarter finals of the World Team Table Tennis Championships for the first time in Singapore’s history – they surpassed this record to rank fifth in the 2014 championships. This is on top of the other medals won in events like the SEA games and Commonwealth games.

So it’s rather puzzling when reports indicate that the reason for Yang’s dismissal is performance based:

The Straits Times understands that the players had given negative feedback regarding Yang, with complaints questioning both his professionalism and capability. Among the gripes were perceived views that Yang does not treat the players equally – and looks down in particular on local-born paddlers – and has also failed to adapt training regimes to the new balls and ahead of big tournaments.’

Jing Junhong was the deputy to head coach Zhou Shusen of the women’s team for three years before taking over in Oct 2012. She was the only candidate considered for the job when Zhou announced his retirement.

In fact, Zhou gave a ringing endorsement: “Everyone saw how Jing guided (Feng) Tianwei to a singles bronze and the team to another bronze at this year’s (2012) Olympics… She has the technical nous, the coaching skills and the ability to gel the players together. I don’t see any problems in her succeeding me because there have been a number of areas where she is better than me”.

In the past three years, the women’s team won, among other prizes, the bronze medal at the World Team Cup twice, in 2013 and 2015, Gold at the Commonwealth games in 2014, and bronze at the Asian games in 2014.

However, a prominent crack appeared just last month at the Polish Open. Paddler Yu Mengyu revealed that a conflict with Jing Junhong had affected her performance and caused her to lose a doubles match. This was after Jing insisted on coaching her for her singles match against World No. 2, Liu Shiwen. However, Yu preferred her usual coach, Hao Anlin. The STTA later said that Feng Tianwei and Yu Mengyu had expressed wishes to change the women’s team coach – that is, Jing Junhong – a week before the Polish Open.

Could that one incident really be the cause of Jing’s redeployment as is speculated? And what grave performance issues, in spite of his clear results, did Yang have which resulted in his ouster?

Whatever the case, let’s hope the STTA gets its house in order fast enough – the 2016 Olympics is just nine months away.

 

Featured image Women’s World Cup Table Tennis Feng Tianwei Singapore playing her quarterfinal match against World Champion of China, Gao Yue by Flickr user cm yongCC BY 2.0.

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Race car emitting fumes. Image sourced from Flickr user: Ben

by Suhaile Md

THE final nail has been hammered into the dead dream that was the Changi Motorsports Hub. Reports say the site once reserved for the Hub will now be converted into an industrial site supporting the future Changi Airport Terminal 5.

For those who don’t remember, plans for the Changi Motorsports Hub were first mooted nearly eight years back by the G – months after the announcement of the first F1 night race in early 2007. Anticipation and excitement were revved up. Along with the F1 night race, this was to place Singapore on the map for all motorsports fans. Alas, the endeavour kept stalling.

The vision was bold- a 24/7 hub that would position Singapore to be a regional motorsports destination. It included among other things, an international standard race track able to host global events like the MotoGP and A1 Grand Prix, entertainment complex, showrooms, racing academies, convention halls and even research and development facilities. It was expected to cost more than S$350 million.

However kinks started to publicly appear less than a year after SG Changi group, a Japanese-Singapore consortium, won the tender in Mar 2010. In Jan 2011, the Corrupt Practices Investigations Bureau (CPIB) was revealed to be probing the tender for irregularities – investigations had apparently begun months before and it included the Singapore Sports Council (SSC) and SG Changi. Despite questions now coming up about the future of the project, SG Changi had maintained that plans were still on track and no delays were expected.

However, barely a month after, news appeared that investors had frozen funds.

SG Changi’s director, Thia Yoke Kian, said the investors wanted it to be “cleared by the CPIB first before they’ll release the funds”. SG Changi thus failed to pay a S$50 million installment for piling work on the Changi Motorsports Hub site. Without funds to fuel the construction, work halted. The SSC warned that a re-tender would be on the table if SG Changi could not deliver.

SG Changi eventually crashed out. In early Aug 2011, the construction company terminated its contract with SG Changi. Soon after, SSC sent a final warning letter to SG Changi late Aug 2011. Then on Dec 12, 2011, the SSC announced that it had ended its project agreement with SG Changi. The land slated for the Hub was returned to SSC about six months later with the piling intact – with the hope that it could be of some use in the future.

Forlorn attempts to revive the Motorsports Hub continued over 2012 but prospects looked increasingly bleak. Apparently, billionaire and car enthusiast Mr Peter Lim, was approached to consider the Changi project – but his sights were clearly up north. He partnered the Johor royal family and Malaysian state investment firm Khazanah Nasional to build a RM$3.5 billion (S$1.4b) motorsports city in Johor’s Iskandar. Such a big project just across the border may have also contributed to the death knell for the Changi project.

With no finish line in sight, the SSC finally decided to put the Motorsports Hub dream to rest in Jun 2013. However, the piling that was done earlier on in the endeavour, still remained on the site for at least a year on. But now that the site has been converted for industrial use, it should be clear, to even the eternal optimist, that for the Motorsports Hub, it’s the end of the road.

 

Featured image Uh oh …Porsche 997 GT3 Cup by Flickr user BenCC BY-ND 2.0.

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Encik Tikam with Flags

by Suhaile Md

TRY asking community leader Encik Tikam Wang about his own voting preferences in the General Elections (GE), and like many Singaporeans, you will see how evasive he gets. The venerable octogenarian might even dismiss you with a huff! But don’t worry, a look into the newly released Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) survey, which polled over 2,000 voting-age Singaporeans allows us to peer into the unique concerns Encik Tikam and the Malay community may have.

Like his friends from other races, an efficient G was a top concern for Encik Tikam. However, this does not necessarily mean he prefers a one-party parliament. The need for checks and balances in parliament is also important to him, although not as much as it is to his Indian friends. So… diversity in parliament is important but not to the extent where it impedes efficient government?

“Efficient government” is still a top concern like in 2011. “Need for checks and balances” ranked second in 2011 and now fifth by mean score, but increased from 84% in 2011 to 89% in 2015… agreeing that it was important, especially for the 30-39 age group and for Malays and Indians.

What about the candidates themselves? Unlike his Chinese counterparts, who valued honesty the most, it mattered more to Encik Tikam that the candidate was understanding. It seems hard work and commitment are particularly important as well. More so than the candidate’s party itself or how well the person spoke or credentials. So, to win Encik Tikam over, your party affiliations, or academic pedigree are not as valued as your commitment and empathy. You can almost imagine Encik Tikam exhorting: “I don’t care how much you know… until I know how much you care.”

Being “hardworking/committed” was important especially to Malays and Indians.

Speaking of parties, the credibility of Workers’ Party (WP) increased the most from GE 2011 to GE 2015 among the Malays. Unlike the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) which saw larger increases from the Chinese community. The other prominent party is the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). It saw the greatest increase in credibility amongst Malays and Indians.

Changes to party credibility
PAP: rose across the board. Larger increases were seen among: PSLE and below, Secondary, Diploma, University, education, Intermediate (non-PMET white collar) and Service (PMET) classes, 21-29, 30-39, 55-64 age groups, and the Chinese.

WP: increased the most among 21-29 years old and Malays.
SDP: greatest increase among these groups: 21-29, 30-39 age groups, Malays, Indians, post-secondary, university education, service (PMET) class. Larger dips seen among 40-54, 65 years and above age-groups.

The minorities

The Chinese were clearly in the PAP camp. The Opposition parties found favour with the Malays and Indians. It’s also interesting that the minorities had slightly different priorities. They placed a greater premium on the ability of candidates who can “understand us” and who are “hardworking/committed”.

Where does Encik Tikam get his news though? Well, it seems local TV coverage and the Internet are the most influential communication channels in the Malay community. This is unlike the Chinese who seem to prefer newspapers over the Internet (local TV is still tops though). Also, it’s reasonable to think that Encik Tikam and peers of his age prefer the TV over the Internet while the younger generations of Malays prefer the Internet given that the lower the age, the more influential the internet is. Having said that, it is clear that overall, the Internet had greater influence on a higher proportion of Malay Singaporeans than the proportion of Chinese or Indian Singaporeans. Could the difference be due to differences in age demographics within each community?

Internet more important to the same group as 2011: For post-independence voters and service (PMET) class; the lower the age, the more influential, the higher the occupational class, the more influential.

However, the tantalising question remains: Is Encik Tikam and the Malay community, pro G, pro Opposition or swing voters?

To that end IPS analysed five different variables that dealt with questions of checks and balance in parliament, fairness of electoral process and whether the election system should be changed. IPS then classified survey respondents into three categories: conservative, pluralist and swing.

All categories are of course relative. Conservatives are those who tend to prefer the status quo. Pluralists are those who prefer change and swing respondents are those who have a mix of views – and thus may go either way.

Interestingly, the Malay community has had the most consistent proportion of swing voters in the last three elections (2006, 2011 and 2015). It has ranged respectively from 52.4 per cent to 53.1 per cent to 52.7 per cent. This is unlike the Chinese whose swing vote share steadily dropped from 42.2 per cent in 2006 to 33.2 per cent in 2015. Or the Indians who consistently increased from 42.9 per cent in 2006 to 48.8 per cent in 2015. As such, the greatest fluctuation within the Malay community are those in the conservative and pluralist categories. From 2011 to 2015 the proportion of conservative Malay voters increased from 19.4 per cent to 31.0 per cent while the number of pluralists dropped from 27.5 per cent to 16.3 per cent.

This would perhaps explain why Malay voters were “late decision makers” – it’s harder to make a decision when you hold eclectic views. Unlike the other races, more than half of Malays were late decision voters. As defined by IPS, late decision makers are those who only make a voting decision only after Nomination Day itself.

Encik Tikam
Encik Tikam deep in thought.

So how does the Malay community vote? What would nudge the swing voters towards the conservative side or to the pluralist side? Interesting questions that are yet to be answered… it’s no wonder venerable octogenarian Encik Tikam Wang always looks so thoughtful!

 

Featured image by Nuh Akiru. 

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IPS-Nathan big

by Suhaile Md

WHAT does it mean to be Singaporean? The nation is 50 years old but what of the next 50 years? These are two of many questions explored by a new Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) book, The Ocean In A Drop.

The book, jointly published by IPS and World Scientific Publishing, was launched last week and aims to expand public knowledge and provoke discussions on issues important to Singapore, according to IPS. It’s an ambitious goal for such a slim book. Just over 130 pages, the book is a compilation of five lectures delivered over six months (from Oct 2014 to Apr 2015) by Mr Ho Kwon Ping, the first S R Nathan fellow to speak at the IPS-Nathan Lecture Series. Like the lectures, the book is organised into five themes: Politics and governance, economy and business, security and sustainability, demography and family, and society and identity.

Mr Ho Kwon Ping
LECTURE: Mr Ho Kwon Ping delivering one of five IPS-Nathan lectures. (Photo by IPS)

Mr Ho Kwon Ping is presently Executive Chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, an international hospitality brand. Prior to entering business, he was a journalist for the Far East Economic Review. However he was detained for two months in 1977 under the Internal Security Act for writing articles with a pro-communist angle. He graduated from the University of Singapore with an Economics and History degree in 1978 and joined his family business in 1981 before launching Banyan Tree in the 1990s.

Concurrent with his role as Chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, Mr Ho also sits on the boards of other organisations. He also led the effort to establish Singapore’s third university, the Singapore Management University (SMU). He is currently chairman of the SMU Board of Trustees.

Underlying them are three fundamental points dubbed “elephants in the room”. That is, “looming presences which most people pretend don’t exist simply because they’re ignored,” says Mr Ho.

The first point: National sovereignty cannot be taken for granted. And it’s not just external threats. Nations can fall due to internal problems with cohesion. The second: After economic success, what next? To this question, Mr Ho says that Singapore’s sustained stability liberates young Singaporeans to comprehensively define society beyond just economic success. And finally, the third: What does the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) dominance of politics and even culture mean for Singapore’s future? Will they have continued dominance? A few different scenarios are explored in that regard.

The book although from IPS, a research institute, is not so much a scholarly treatise as it is a general interest book, Mr Ho said in an interview with us last week. This is so the content can be accessible to Singaporeans. In fact, although a keen observer of Singapore, his background is in business, not academia, said Mr Ho. He is currently the Executive Chairman of Banyan Tree holdings.

Given that it’s about the next 50 years, he hopes to provoke the thoughts of Singaporean youth in particular. Which is why he insisted the cover art and chapter illustrations be done by young designers. In his own words: “This book is neither a manifesto nor a coherent set of policies. This book does not attempt to give the answers. Its whole intention is to hopefully, stimulate younger people… to say, that’s an interesting question so I will ask other interesting questions also.”

One such interesting question is posed in the final chapter on society and identity: “How do we maintain the Singapore Dream as a meaningful, purposeful aspiration for all Singaporeans in the next 50 years?”

The chapter tackles important issues like social mobility and social fault lines that may arise due to race, religion or differing values. Most interesting though is Mr Ho’s take on national identity. Unlike the responses one may usually hear, he does not expound on anything specific that is uniquely Singaporean, like our food or Singlish. Instead he says in the book: “We should not feel lost if we are not able to define a common identity. We are all identities in creation, and the end result will not be uniform. Instead, by sharing stories of who we are, we find resonance with each other. These collective stories can kindle a sense of ‘being Singaporean’, even if we cannot articulate or pin down specifics…

“You and I are not cogs in a machine… or drops in the ocean. Each of us represents the collective identities and histories which make up our ocean on which we shall continue our journey together.”

Anyone interested in thinking about the future of Singapore can get The Ocean In A Drop at all major bookstores. The lecture series was recorded and the videos can be found online here.

Editor’s note: This report has been updated to include the publishers of the book.

Featured image by Suhaile Md. 

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Yesterday's news

by Suhaile Md

EVERY once in awhile a piece of news from the little red dot goes worldwide. And in the case of the City Harvest Church verdict, why not? It’s a tale of religion, ambition, and intrigue, complete with millions in squirrelled away cash and a Hollywood popstar wannabe. Yesterday’s verdict was reported in at least 10 news outlets from around the world, including Indonesia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Australia and even as far as the US and UK. Big names like The New York Times (NYT) and The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) also ran a piece online.

Both the NYT and WSJ kept their story tight by reporting the facts of the verdict and went light on background, including only why the six were being tried and the sentences they face. Bloomberg Business news wrote a skimpy piece, with only four paragraphs outlining the bare bones of the story.

Across the Atlantic, British newspaper The Guardian, like the NYT and WSJ, also reported the verdict matter-of-factly. The Telegraph though, was more colourful. It included a screenshot of Ms Sun Ho’s China Wine music video, describing it “sexually-charged lyrics in skimpily-clad outfits in series of glitzy music videos”.

The most substantial foreign media coverage came from the BBC. Besides a summary on the judgment, it aided readers by contextualising the events that led to the case, from the controversy over Ms Ho’s video to the mind-bloggling way church leaders used sham bond investments to pay for her Hollywood lifestyle. It also did some reporting by speaking to sociologist Terence Chong, who commented on City Harvest’s appeal to the modern Singaporean church-goer.

Within the region, a few news agencies relied on international wire services like Agence France-Presse (AFP), Associated Press (AP) and Reuters. Indonesia’s Jakarta Post picked up the story from AP while Malaysia’s Rakyat Post and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation both ran the same report from AFP. Reuters ran its story on its FaithWorld blog. This was in turn picked up by The Sydney Morning Herald.

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post (SCMP) built on an AFP report by adding a local angle, given the church had networks in the nation. It noted that “although City Harvest Church does not have any branches in Hong Kong, it has far-flung influence on the Chinese Christian community especially in Hong Kong.”

Apart from the BBC, it was also the only other paper that did its own reporting, by going to Mr Peter Ho Chi-dik, a senior pastor at Tung Fook Church. Tung Fook is a megachurch not unlike City Harvest. The report also noted that Mr Ho is friends with Kong Hee. Said Mr Ho: “A church, whether it is a tiny or a mega one, should have a check-and-balance system in place.”

 

Featured image Yesterdays news by Flickr user (Mick Baker)rooster, CC BY-ND 2.0.

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Orchard Road (PSI 224, 4pm, 30 Sep)

by Md Suhaile

GIVEN the enduring haze problem, is the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act enough to tackle the issue? Two experts, Professors S. Jayakumar and Tommy Koh from the Centre for International Law (CIL), National University of Singapore (NUS), certainly don’t think so. In an op-ed piece published in ST today, the two men proposed three other areas to look at: Asean Agreement of Transboundary Haze Pollution, conservation of wetlands, and holding firms accountable.

Two principles underlie these. First, every state has the sovereign right to use their resources as they deem fit. Second, the state must ensure that the consequences of its activities do not reach beyond its borders and damage the environment of its neighbours. In that regard, “Indonesia is morally and legally responsible for the haze”, the experts said. The two principles establish Singapore’s right to pursue, both morally and legally, the three means to mitigate the issue.

The Asean haze agreement is one such approach. Unlike the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, which is restricted to Singapore, the Asean agreement is binding on countries which are party to the agreement. Part of the agreement requires members to “cooperate and coordinate in order to prevent and to monitor transboundary haze pollution”.

There’s a good reason to look at this document because it was via this agreement that in 2007, Singapore partnered the Jambi government to help reduce the number of hotspots in the province. It successfully reduced hotspots by 70 per cent. The agreement expired in 2011 but could not be renewed due to the refusal of the national government in Jakarta – as is its sovereign right. Indonesia however has ratified the agreement this year, clearing the way for Singapore and Jambi to work together once more.

As for the conservation of wetlands, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, also known as the Ramsar Convention, is one more way to tackle the haze issue.

The convention is an intergovernmental treaty that provides a framework to conserve wetlands and given that much of the fires originate from peat wetlands in Indonesia, this is a channel for Singapore to join other countries in assisting Indonesia with preserving its wetlands – which includes stopping the fires. Indonesia is already a member of the Ramsar Convention. Dr Jayakumar, who is a former Minister for Foreign Affairs (MFA), and Dr Koh, the current Ambassador-at-large at MFA, suggest that Singapore should consider joining them. Doing so will allow us to work with other countries in helping Indonesia protect its peat wetlands, they said.

Then, there’s the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN REDD). Under this initiative, Norway partnered Indonesia in 2010 to reduce deforestation. Norway agreed to invest up to USD 1 billion (SGD 1.43 billion) over an eight-year period in Indonesia to that cause. Part of the agreement requires Indonesia to implement robust governance structures. Progress has been slow however. Singapore should come in to support this initiative, the two professors said.

Finally, holding firms accountable. Palm oil and paper companies are primarily responsible for the forest fires. There are existing international non-governmental bodies that push these companies away from environmental degradation. Specifically, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which looks into the entire chain of stakeholders involved, from governments to consumers to financial institutions.

Encouraging international financial institutions based in Singapore to join RSPO would be another layer of influence on errant companies, said the two experts who also expressed their support local initiatives like the Singapore Environment Council’s scheme to ensure Singapore procures paper and palm oil products are sustainably sourced. Additionally, they urged the Attorney General to consider criminal proceedings against companies that the National Environment Agency have proved to be responsible for the haze.

 

Featured image by Kong Chong Yew. 

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Redmart

by Md Suhaile

THE unabated haze prompted some Singaporeans to apply consumer pressure on companies that have a hand in the forest fires responsible for the haze. However it’s not so easy for the average person to suddenly boycott a firm’s products, not even when it’s named by the G, to be one of the possible offenders, as is the case with Asia Pulp and Paper (APP). APP is a major supplier of paper and tissue products.

Thing is, customers do not buy directly from them but instead do so via intermediaries like supermarket chains. Calls by some shoppers have prompted NTUC Fairprice and Sheng Siong to seek clarification from its suppliers: Do any of their products come from such errant companies? Seemingly ahead of them is online grocery service provider, Redmart. It has apparently enabled customers to search for sustainable paper and tissue products on its website. Which is interesting. While individual abstinence from lining the pockets of haze-makers may not make much of a difference, can Redmart at least help people choose over the kind of products, and companies, they endorse?

So we decided to take a look.

Three steps is all it takes to sign up: Submit email address, add password, confirm password. The search bar is conveniently placed at the top and it’s easy to use.

Cut to the chase, a search for “eco-friendly tissue” shows nothing. Neither does “environmentally friendly tissue” nor “Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)”, which was the term used by Redmart. The FSC is a non-governmental, non-profit organisation promoting responsible forest management. A certification from them is an endorsement that products are sustainably produced.

No results shown for Forest Stewardship Council approved products.
No results shown for Forest Stewardship Council approved products.

 

The short form “fsc tissue” was a no show as well. A look through the “filter” drop down menu did not include an “FSC” option, as it should have, according to Redmart.

Image of "Filter" dropdown menu. It did not have an "FRC" option.
“Filter” dropdown menu did not have an “FSC” option.

A call to the customer service hotline was an exercise in futility. The operator while eager, sympathetic and frankly very polite, did not have any answers. Mention of FSC drew a blank from the other end. Suggestions to search “eco-friendly” and “environmentally friendly” were made by customer service but as we know, that did not work. Finally it was realised the best way to find sustainably sourced tissue was to look through the descriptors of each product – quite the hassle!  Maybe the service option is new and there are teething issues? If so, why state that the service is available?

It was tempting to lodge a complaint but a thought stayed the hand. Fact of the matter is, the market responds to what consumers want. If a service provider does not meet customer wants, it loses out. This is a little simplistic but there’s a point here: Maybe part of the reason why sellers like Redmart do not have existing seamless, customer friendly means to choose environmentally products is because not enough customers, that is, too few Singaporeans, have demanded it. And why is that?

 

Featured image taken from Redmart’s official Facebook page. 

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NUS UTown

by Md Suhaile

NATIONAL University of Singapore is now the 26th ranked university globally and the best in Asia, at least according to the Times Higher Education World University Ranking (Times). The title was previously held by Tokyo University, which surprisingly plunged from a global rank of 23 to 43 in just one year. Nanyang Technological University (NTU) did well, rising six places to claim the 55th spot globally.

Tokyo down, Singapore up. Is there anything more to it?

We think so. In fact Times has changed how it’s evaluating these universities. First, it surveyed a lot more people about the universities after it expanded the number of languages in which the surveys are conducted from 9 to 15. It also doubled its rankings list, from 400 to 800. But perhaps most notably, it changed its research database provider from Thomson Reuters to Elsevier’s Scopus. (Could this be why Reuters decided to come up with their own university rankings?) Consequently, the Times was able to assess 11 million research papers this year as opposed to 6 million from last year – again, nearly double.

This particular point is significant for two reasons.

First, Times scores performance in five broad areas with different weightage given to each: teaching (30 per cent), research (30 per cent), citations (30 per cent), international outlook (7.5 per cent) and industry income (2.5 per cent). Note the weightage attached to research and citations. Second, the vast increase in number of papers assessed means that previously unaccounted for citations are now included.

Since the weightage for the categories have not changed, this means while the ranking has not put more emphasis on research, its assessment of the universities’ quality of research work now is arguably more refined.

Tokyo University maintained performance standards in all categories except in citations – where its score plunged from 74.7 to 60.9. On the other hand, both NUS and NTU improved their research and citation scores significantly. For Citations: NUS leaped from 66.0 to 79.4 points while NTU improved from 75.9 to 85.6 points. This is probably one reason why NTU was able to leapfrog the competition – this was also mentioned in the papers today when NTU president Bertil Andersson said: “We are focused on our fundamentals – to create a world-class environment for learning, teaching and research.”

NUS has the same idea. The school’s tagline says it seeks to change the way “people think and do things through education, research and service”.

The marked improvements by the two universities in the latest edition of Times bodes well, of course. But as many people have pointed out, us included, no ranking list will ever be exhaustive or sufficiently nuanced to fully capture the value of any universities – whether it be based on research quality, innovation, or other scholarly metrics. Including Singapore’s. That, we’ll have to decide for ourselves.

 

Featured image UTown, National University of Singapore, by Flikr user smuconlaw, CC BY 2.0 

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Image of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak waves to camera
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak

by Md Suhaile

MALAYSIA’S Prime Minister Najib Razak has had a few rough months in his own country, but it looks like pressure from other parts of the world is now building up. The latest: A United States Justice Department investigation that has led to suspicions over US$150 million (S$213.4 million) worth of properties owned by shell companies linked to his step-son, Mr Riza Aziz, and family friend, Mr Jho Low.

The Justice Department’s enquiry tops a list of investigations that started at home, around 1MDB the government-owned strategic development company, in March 25 this year. 1MDB is the brainchild of Mr Najib, and he was its funds advisory board chairman.

Since early this year, the company has been plagued with allegations of fund mismanagement to outright accusations of corruption after it was revealed that it failed to pay S$13.8 billion in debts. Problems compounded for Mr Najib when the Wall Street Journal claimed to trace almost US$700 million from 1MDB to Mr Najib’s personal bank accounts.

In the past few months, authorities from Switzerland, Hong Kong and Singapore have also become interested in the case and are currently investigating the aspects of the allegations that fall within their own jurisdiction.

Switzerland’s Office of the Attorney-General launched criminal proceedings last month and its financial regulator, the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority (Finma), got in touch with various Swiss banks to address the issue. Hong Kong police confirmed earlier this month that they were investigating complaints linked to Mr Najib. In July, Singapore police froze two bank accounts related to the 1MDB probe.

Investigations within Malaysia have failed to produce incontrovertible proof for or against Mr Najib. The former Attorney-General of Malaysia, Mr Abdul Gani Patail, who was involved in investigations related to 1MDB, was sacked.

So the local authorities haven’t made much progress into the investigation. Will foreign watchdogs do better? We wonder what they will turn up…

 

Featured image Perdana Menteri Malaysia Hadiri APEC 2013 by APEC 2013,  CC BY 2.0.

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