June 24, 2017

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Authors Posts by Yen Feng

Yen Feng

Yen Feng
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Yen is the news editor of The Middle Ground and managing director of Inkspire Group, an agency for editorial and content consultancy services.

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by Yen Feng

“YOU need a very small space to have sex.”

F*** me, is the G giving us advice about sex now? I suppose after decades of asking everyone to make more babies, we should have seen the sex talk, ahem, coming.

Unsurprising, that it came from Mrs Josephine Teo – even if it did come up unexpectedly in Parliament yesterday (Oct 11). The Senior Minister of State for Transport and Foreign Affairs, who heads the National Population and Talent Division, is nothing if not committed to the job.

The matchmaker-in-chief is known for her naked style of talking about boy-girl relationships. Think back to earlier this year, when she urged Singaporeans to be more, well, hands-on.

This was after a trip she made to Seoul, where singles were more open to dating, she said on Facebook.

“Proactively reaching out to meet new friends, openness to getting help… Seem to be the essential ingredients to enjoyable and successful dating. Can this style of dating help more Singaporean singles, perhaps?”

That was in March. For those of you who took her advice 10 months ago, I guess there’s no sexy time like the present to take it to a “very small space” the next level to consummate the relationship – if you haven’t already.

And by that, I mean have really uncomfortable, do-it-for-your-country sex.

I’m queasy just thinking about it. Having Mrs Teo, a Senior Minister of State and Member of Parliament, remind me that sex in Economy Class accommodations is as good for child-bearing purposes feels too much like my own mother haranguing me to give her a grandchild.

She has good intentions but aww, come on, Mom! Butt out!

And where exactly was Mrs Teo thinking this “very small space” could be?

The most obvious option would be in a car. But since we’re trying to be a car-lite society… Maybe in one of those new driverless taxis?

Not the void deck or HDB lift, of course. CCTV everywhere!

To be fair, she wasn’t trying to be “too kaypoh”, which was what she said the G should not be doing – sticking their noses where they don’t belong.

She was responding in Parliament to how couples preferred to have a flat before having a child. This meant they would not be eligible for the Parenthood Priority Scheme, which gives first-time married couples dibs on choosing a flat if they have a child or if one’s on the way.

You don’t need to have a flat to make a baby, she said, quipping: “You need a very small space to have sex.”

Mrs Teo is not only stumping for humping in small spaces. In a separate interview with The Straits Times last week, she seemed to be egging on couples to have premarital sex.

“In France, in the UK, in the Nordic countries, man meets woman, tonight they can make a baby already. They love each other… They don’t have to worry about marriage – that comes later,” she said. 

There’s a practical benefit to this, she added: Trying to have a baby earlier means you’ll also know earlier if you need help getting pregnant.

“You never really know that you’re not fertile until you try. Unfortunately, it is one of those things,” she said.

Have a baby before you get married, try it first in case you can’t conceive… It makes you wonder how much of this is the politician, the mother, or the woman speaking.

Singapore needs more babies – more so now than ever as the nation is one of the fastest ageing societies in the world. That’s the politician. But is that what she will tell her own three teenage children when they become sexually curious adults?

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate how pragmatic and Singaporean she is about all this. But surely, as a woman, she also wants the romance, the excitement, the fun?

I know I do. Because having sex in a tight spot is really not that fun. It’s all arms and legs and you stop feeling aroused once the novelty wears off. I’d want a big, comfy bed – even if that’s not where I end up.

In any case, it’s not for me to judge. Which seemed to also be Mrs Teo’s preferred position when it came to people who choose to go childless and be on their own.

On the topic of whether single people were “doing their part for society”, she said: “There are many reasons why people remain single. Sometimes, for very good reasons. Why should we pass judgment on them?”

So go ahead, have sex wherever you like, married or not. Have a child, don’t have a child, it’s up to you – as it should be. There’s enough room to live and let live.

As for Mrs Teo’s advice to have sex in “a very small space”, I think I’ll pass. For me, size still matters.

 

Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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OECD Literacy, what does
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Yen Feng

AMONG the participants surveyed this year by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Singapore’s middle-aged respondents were exceptionally middling, ranking 31st out of 34 countries for literacy and numeracy. (Read our summary here.)

Know-it-all youngsters actually did seem to know it all. At least, a fifth of them did. Of those aged 16 to 24, up to almost 20 per cent achieved top scores in both tests. Disappointingly, of those aged 55 to 65, only about 3 per cent did as admirably.

The findings from the survey released on Tuesday (June 28) have prompted knee-jerk reactions to why Singapore’s older folk tested so poorly – indeed, the gap in literacy and numeracy levels between the young and old in Singapore was also the widest among the countries surveyed, the report said.

The Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA) tried to offer an explanation – but ended up giving itself a compliment. It told The Straits Times that the difference reflected the “marked improvement in Singapore’s education and training systems over the last 50 years – including the ramp-up in schools and programmes”.

Thanks for clearing that up.

Experts recycled vague solutions we’ve heard before. We need to have a “skills ladder“, said Member of Parliament Desmond Choo, who sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Manpower. Older workers must be “encouraged to build on their capabilities, and be rewarded”, he told TODAY.

An economist with OCBC Bank, Ms Selena Ling said to the same reporter that “industry-specific skills frameworks” might help, with bigger players leading the way by implementing these guidelines.

These are little more than soundbites about a new angle on an old problem. Curious to find out what the tests were like and what sort of questions were asked for myself, I went online to see if I could take the test.

The OECD website offers a demo test of five questions and after taking it, it was clear that the testers had defined “literacy” a bit differently from its more general meaning. I found its definition in a section about the survey’s sample questions here.

Note that this is the first time the survey has changed its assessment of literacy.

Besides testing for comprehension of written texts, the survey also defined literacy as how well respondents read “digital texts”, which included the ability to identify “hyper-text and navigation features, such as scrolling or clicking on links”.

Okay, this made more sense.

I’m fully literate but when it comes to computers and the Internet… let’s just say I’m more often than not a few cards short of a deck. I’m generalising here but I’m not at all surprised older Singaporeans had problems on the test.

Going through the questions, I wouldn’t describe them as easy – even for native English speakers. The questions had as much to do with understanding written English as knowing how to use a mouse and navigate a webpage. And sometimes they could be a bit tricky. See this example:

Screen Shot 2016-06-29 at 13.41.00
Screenshot from OECD website.

 

To answer the question, you will need to understand how online tabs work. By the way, the article displayed is NOT what you’re being asked to read. Instead, the relevant information to read is tucked behind, on the two partially concealed tabs.

After clicking on the tabs to read the texts, you’ll then need to click on one sentence in each section that describes a common criticism of the subject matter. Now look at this question:

Screen Shot 2016-06-29 at 13.39.16
Screenshot from OECD website.

 

Instead of clicking, now you have to highlight the relevant sentence to answer the question. Click-and-drag isn’t rocket science but you start to see why perhaps the survey’s younger respondents did so much better. Now this one:

Screen Shot 2016-06-29 at 13.45.46
Screenshot from OECD website.

 

To be honest, I’m not even sure I got this one right. You have to figure out which link will take you to a page that lets you exchange a wrong lamp that was delivered to you for the right one.

There is no such page. None that I could find, anyway. Point your cursor at the Customer Service link at the bottom of the page and you can click your way to a page that gives you an authorisation code. This code is what you need to return the lamp.

But it doesn’t say anything about replacing it with the actual lamp you ordered.

I suspect to get this question right, you’ll need to also send an email message through the website’s Feedback page, quoting the authorisation code and explaining what happened, and for them to send you the right-coloured lamp.

Okay. This is a very specific definition of “literacy”.

What’s clear from the survey results is that solving many of these Internet-based tasks comes naturally to young, savvy Internet users, who may find it hard to believe that once upon a time, a cloud was just a cloud and tablets were made of stone and heavy “AF”, as the kids say these days.

There is some truth to the relevance and importance of being able to keep up with them, to learn how to perform these tasks with relative ease in today’s tech-obsessed world.

Being proficient in digital tools is no longer a matter of personal choice, like trying to decide if you prefer brick-and-mortar or online shopping. It’s a necessary workplace skill. Like knowing how to use a telephone. Or photocopy machine. (People still use that, right?)

What’s less clear are the other types of “literacies” that will be important as well. Older Singaporeans will need to be “literate” in all aspects of employability – including management and leadership skills, and other industry-specific and technical abilities.

Finding a foothold in these rocky economic times is going to be tough. Even for those who can scroll, click, pinch, tap, and swipe with ease.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Photo By Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
The Faith Community Baptist Church in Marine Parade.

by Yen Feng

A CASE of Darwinists versus Goliath? A small group of atheists are taking on the pastor of one of Singapore’s largest churches over an upcoming series of sermons about Christianity, including one titled The Deception of Darwinism, which starts tomorrow.

In a sarcastic letter published on its website and Facebook page yesterday (April 1), the Humanist Society (Singapore) took issue with the sermons’ content, which appears to equate secularity with immorality, and challenge the theory of evolution. Humanists do not believe in God, but in scientific inquiry and the intrinsic value of each human being.

The five sermons are part of a new series called Developing a Christian Worldview, to be delivered this month over five weeks by Mr Lawrence Khong, a part-time magician and full-time senior pastor of Faith Community Baptist Church. He is also the founder of the church, which is one of Singapore’s largest with about 10,000 members.

The letter, titled Open Letter to Lawrence Khong and written by the society’s executive committee, follows a recent video released by the church on its Facebook page which shows Mr Khong introducing the sermon series. Since the video was posted on Tuesday, it has attracted about 15,000 views and 300 shares.

In its letter, the Humanist Society asked if Mr Khong would invite its own speakers to two of his sermons: The Deception of Darwinism, and No God, No Good or Bad. For the first sermon, it offered up four of its members – “a biologist, an anthropologist, a medical doctor, and a general scientist” – to be speakers, saying they would have “much to contribute to a discussion about Darwinism and evolution”.

The society said it was contemplating to attend another sermon, The Stars reveal the Truth, but decided not to, preferring to be “earthbound, as all good humanists know there is only one life on this Earth and we should make the very best of it”.

This is not the first time the Humanist Society has responded publicly to Mr Khong, a former national polo player who has a penchant for using both traditional and online media to evangelise conservative views on religion, homosexuality, and adultery, among other controversial subjects.

In a letter published in The Straits Times’ (ST) Forum page in September 2013, the society’s former president Paul Tobin corrected Mr Khong’s assertion in an ST interview about atheism, that “an atheist is very religious. He has a belief system. He believes there is no God”.

Mr Tobin wrote: “The prefix ‘a’ in front of ‘theism’ does not mean ‘the opposite of’ or ‘against’. It simply refers to the absence of theism. As Ricky Gervais, an atheist comedian, wittily puts it: ‘Saying atheism is a belief system is like saying not going skiing is a hobby. I have never been skiing. It’s my biggest hobby. I literally do it all the time.’”

That same year in 2013, the church attracted public controversy when it fired a pregnant staff member because of her alleged adulterous affair with another married co-worker. The Ministry of Manpower intervened, ordering the church to compensate the worker $7,000, which it did. It then took its case to the High Court, but withdrew its application last year.

Founded in 2010, the Humanist Society has a few hundred members, who identify themselves as “humanists, atheists, agnostics, (and) skeptics”. Since its founding, the society has sought to represent Singapore’s non-religious population and has been involved in discussions organised by the Inter-Religious Organisation of Singapore and the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles.

A greater proportion of people in Singapore now identify themselves as having no religion. A report released last month by the Department of Statistics showed about 18.5 per cent of the resident population last year said they had no religious affiliation – up from 17 per cent in 2010.

 

Featured image from TMG file. 

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by Yen Feng

AT 23 years old, he is one of the youngest Singaporeans to be dealt with under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in recent memory.

He would have recently finished his National Service, which may be why he thought to bring his army boots to fight in Syria. It seems he had tried to go into business, but failed. Desperate for a cause (or maybe he was bored), he went online and found a sense of kinship with the Kurds and their fight against ISIS, the terrorist group.

Perhaps it was then that he thought: I may not be a businessman, but I’m still a soldier.

Wang Yuandongyi is one of four men being investigated by the G under the Internal Security Act (ISA), said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) this afternoon (March 16). The other three are Mohammad Razif bin Yahya, 27; Amiruddin bin Sawir, 53; and Mohamed Mohideen bin Mohamed Jais, 25. Wang is youngest among the four.

All four men came under scrutiny for “undertaking or intending to undertake violence in overseas armed conflicts” – but the similarities end there for Wang.

He had not engaged in any religious studies in Yemen, the other three did.

He had not performed any armed sentry duties, the other three did.

He had not been ordered to shoot and kill, the other three were.

But he was no less guilty than the three other men, said MHA.

Since December last year, he had been planning to travel to Syria to join a Kurdish militia group to fight against ISIS. A month later, in January this year, he put his plans into action. He bought plane tickets, boarded his flight, and left Singapore to go to another country, hoping to then make his way to Turkey before travelling overland to Syria.

It’s unclear why the ministry did not identify this country in its statement – perhaps said country preferred not to be linked to suspected terrorists.

In any case, someone who knew of his plans tipped off the G and MHA asked the country’s authorities to help. They did. Wang was turned away at the gates and put on a plane back to Singapore, where he was arrested and placed under a Restriction Order (RO) that came into effect this month.

He would have to use those SAF boots another time.

Beyond these details in the statement from MHA, there is very little we know about Wang. But even with so little, his case stands out from other cases made public by the G in recent years involving the ISA and potential terrorist activity. For these reasons, we should know more about who he is and how he found sympathy for a cause that by the looks of it has very little to do with him.

Let’s start with the name.

What kind of a name is Wang Yuandongyi? Chinese? It sure sounds Chinese – and nothing like the names of most people who have been detained or investigated for terrorist activity under the ISA in the past.

He’s probably not Muslim. That’s if you assume when the MHA said Wang’s motivations were not “ideologically driven”, that it meant based on religious teachings.

So, what’s a possibly Chinese, probably non-Muslim young Singaporean man doing caught up in a religious sectarian war against ISIS?

It wasn’t so long ago that a video clip about whether people would die for Singapore went viral, creating conversations everywhere about what it means to be Singaporean.

Wang Yuandongyi is a reminder that we also need to be able to talk about why some of us – no matter what race or religion – would die for another cause and country.

 

Featured image by Natassya Diana.

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PAP's Mr K Shanmugam.
PAP's Mr K Shanmugam.

by Yen Feng

WHAT does the Law Minister have to say about a new book that dumps on some of Singapore’s Chief Justices?

Not a lot. But just enough, maybe, to try and set the record straight.

A couple of months ago, in September, Mr Subhas Anandan’s second autobiographical book, It’s Easy to Cry, was published post-humously.

Some of the candid descriptions the famous criminal lawyer gave about his colleagues and judges led to an odd article in The Straits Times. If you remember, the headline read “Ministry takes issue with book by Subhas” – when in fact, that was exactly what it did NOT want to do.

You can read our report about the incident here, which includes the ministry’s reply, as well as excerpts of some of the more colourful anecdotes Mr Anandan shares in the book.

Earlier this month, this matter was briefly re-visited by Law Minister K. Shanmugam in a speech he gave at the official launch of the book. You might have expected the moment to be a bit tense given what had transpired between his ministry and the media earlier.

Not that you would have known about it – if you had read only the MSM. The Straits Times’ report angled the story on the $38,000 in donations that were raised for the Yellow Ribbon Fund Subhas Anandan Star Bursary Award through the book’s sales. The fund was launched in October last year to provide former convicts with financial help for their studies.

You can read the speech here. Mr Shanmugam in fact also had delivered the criminal lawyer’s eulogy, back when he died in January this year, at age 67.

It’s a well-written speech – generous in praise but finely calibrated to suggest Mr Anandan’s candid descriptions were perhaps, maybe, just a teensy bit unfair?

He said: “I was left with deciding whether or not to say anything. So we issued a short statement. In the memory of Subhas, there are these differences of viewpoints. We don’t want to go in and deal with each one…

So if he were alive, I could have had a word with him and being a fair man, he would have looked at the facts and maybe made some changes. But it may be equally likely that he may not have changed his viewpoints. But he probably would have invited me for a drink and toasted to the differences. That’s the kind of man Subhas was. We would have laughed over it.”

At the end, Mr Anandan got to say his piece. But it was Mr Shanmugam who appears to have had the last word. Or should we say laugh.

 

Featured image by The Middle Ground.

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by Yen Feng

CHINA’S highest-ranking vice premier is in town this week but the fuss in Singapore isn’t quite about the fact that he’s here, but who’s here with him.

Executive Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli has brought with him an army of officials from Chongqing, a city in western China where the hills and valleys go on forever. That wide expanse of undeveloped land, however, will likely soon see millions more of investment dollars poured in from Singapore, as the two nations settle on where its third G-to-G project will be, after the Suzhou Industrial Park and Tianjin Eco-City.

Questions over where this next project will be has been swirling since last year but speculation was amped up in July when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a forum that he hoped to finalise the project’s location and scope by the end of this year.

Whether in China or Singapore, Chongqing has been a hot favourite. Business leaders here say it’s a city with great commercial infrastructure and lots of potential. It helps also that it’s a city that many businessmen in Singapore and around the world are familiar with. It is one of China’s five national central urban cities and a member of its West Triangle Economic Zone together with Chengdu and Xi’an. It was also named one of China’s 13 emerging “megacities” by the Economic Intelligence Unit in 2012.

Mr Zhang’s agenda in Singapore is to lead the two countries’ Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation, which is holding its 12th annual meeting this week. He co-chairs the council with Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean. Political and business watchers say that Mr Zhang is here with officials from Chongqing suggest all signs point to the city as the location of the third Sino-Singapore project.

No officials from Chengdu or Xi’an, the other two top city contenders, accompanied Mr Zhang on this trip, reported Lianhe Zaobao yesterday.

What of the project itself? No details have been revealed though it is likely to take the shape of an integrated business park with residential properties.

Yesterday, during the Vice Premier’s visit, a raft of agreements were signed aimed to boost further bilateral ties between the two countries. Among them included a Memorandum of Understanding between the Suzhou Industrial Park Administrative Committee and International Enterprise (IE) Singapore to establish an Overseas Investment Services Platform that would help Chinese companies expand beyond its shores.

A spokesman from IE Singapore told TODAY: “Singaporeans can look forward to professional training opportunities in the China market as well as opportunities to develop in-market knowledge and skills to be equipped for the China market. They can also gain experience from operating in China, which will prepare them for an international role in China.”

Singapore is China’s largest trading partner. Between 1990 and last year, the volume of bilateral trade increased more than 20 times, with Singapore’s cumulative foreign direct investment into China totalling US$72.3 billion (S$101.4 billion) at the end of last year. Since 2013, Singapore has been China’s largest foreign investor.

Official stats show Chongqing has a population of 30 million with a thriving economy. Last year, its GDP grew by about 11 per cent year-on-year to 1.43 trillion RMB (S$316 billion).

 

Featured image Chongqing, near the river by Flickr user Col Ford and Natasha de Vere, CC BY 2.0. 

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Landscape shot of HDBs at Punggol
HDBs seen along Punggol East

by Yen Feng

YESTERDAY, the Council for Estate Agencies released their annual report. What’s the news? Well, that depends on which newspaper you picked up this morning.

Nearly all the papers went with a positive spin. ST: “Fewer real estate firms, agents run afoul of rules”. Nicely done, real estate industry! TODAY: “Fewer complaints against real estate” Thumbs up! Lianhe Zaobao too: “Complaints against real estate transactions down 2/3 in five years” Very good!

But wait a minute, what’s this on the front page of BT?

“Weak property market bleeds agencies, sales agents”.

What?

It’s the only story worth reading if you want an incisive look at the report, which the business daily covers in relative greater depth. While the other MSM zeroed in on the fewer number of complaints received from consumers, BT took a wider lens to the report in view of the current property market. Here’s what it said in its first paragraph:

Some 140 real estate agencies have closed shop over the 12 months to March 31, 2015 and over 3,000 property agents have quit the industry in that period as the sluggish property market continued to take its toll on industry players. The honchos of top agencies here told BT that they are expecting more “casualties”… with more agents throwing in the towel.

It was also the only paper that noted more than 3,000 property agents leaving the sector taking into account the number of new salespeople who entered the industry over the same period. In other words, it did the math where the other papers didn’t. The other papers reported only the nett overall number of agents, which dropped by a few hundred over the one-year period.

What none of the papers mentioned, however, was that the report’s disappointing numbers come after recent calls from the Real Estate Developers’ Association of Singapore (Redas), and the Singapore Real Estate Exchange (SRX) to lift the current measures put in place by the G to cool the property market.

Ever since taking the helm of Redas early this year, the association’s president Augustine Tan has been calling at every opportunity for a review of the measures, including demolishing the Additional Buyer’s Stamp Duty (ABSD), which adds a second 5 to 15 per cent tax to buyers looking to purchase a second property.  The G however has reiterated its position to continue monitoring the industry, saying home prices still have a ways to fall before it takes any action.

What’s interesting in the BT report also is that despite there being fewer agencies today compared to a year ago, the number of new agencies actually went up – from 81 to 109. Most of these agents who decided to strike it out on their own probably left from smaller and mid-sized agencies, which reported a drop in agent strength. Larger agencies say they have more agents than before.

So is this good news or bad news for the rest of us? There doesn’t seem to be any real impact on our home prices for now.

 

Featured image by Delon Ho. 

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Mr Teo Chee Hean, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Dr Ng Eng Hen at PAP's press conference after voting results.
Mr Teo Chee Hean, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Dr Ng Eng Hen at PAP's press conference after the voting results.

by Yen Feng

I DON’T know or care too much about what happens in the Cabinet. The last time I used the word was to describe a beautiful piece of wood furniture I’ve been eyeing, that one of our stringers here at TMG, who’s also a cabinet maker, made recently. I was very impressed.

Our new Cabinet is also impressive – at least, that’s what I’ve gathered from what people on the ground are saying. But I suspect I’m like most Singaporeans when I say I don’t care too much about the reshuffle because it doesn’t seem like it will affect us very much – even if the Cabinet calls the shots on virtually everything about our lives from how much to pay in taxes to whether Singapore will go to war. We don’t have any say in the matter anyway, and maybe that’s just fine. The announcement is made and there’s a bit of a hoo-ha over who’s been promoted and who’s retired. After a day or two, life goes on. Journalists like us try to remember who’s doing what, and try not to mess up the names of the newly minted ministers or the new ministries created.

Despite the big headlines, the reshuffle is a pretty low-key affair.

Part of it is because the reasons for these movements have always been relatively opaque to the public and usually quite small and carefully managed. There are no big “upsets” and even those with long memories might find it difficult to remember a time when a shuffle felt more like a sweep. This time round, much is being made about leadership renewal and wanting to put the country’s fourth generation of leaders in big roles to test and train them. This has always been the case, however.

So the chatter on the ground this week has mostly been about the new Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, and the fact that for the first time, a woman has been appointed as a full minister to helm a ministry. I don’t think I have anything particularly insightful to add to the discussion. You can read Bertha’s piece about Ms Grace Fu’s appointment for a woman’s perspective. Me? I hope they do well and thank them for their service.

The other thing that’s created some buzz is the appointment of Mr Khaw Boon Wan, Mr Teo Chee Hean, and Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam as “Coordinating Ministers”. The Prime Minister said the new roles will allow these seasoned ministers to stay on top of a more complex policy-making environment, and to coordinate responses to challenges that cut across multiple ministries.

Frankly, I can’t think of better men for the job.

If there’s one thing that I’m wondering about, it’s what a friend of mine said over dinner last night, which was whether this additional layer of hierarchy within the Government will measurably improve its own push towards a more “Whole of Government” approach to policy-making for the benefit of citizens.

It got me curious enough to do some reading online, and I found this 2010 study done by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) and Nanyang Business School that raised the question of whether top-down, directed collaborations within a “WOG” approach really do improve the lives of Singaporeans.

The G’s “WOG” approach has been at least five years in the making, and the talk these days among civil servants is how to bridge that “last mile” to bring high-level policies to the ground. To most citizens, this is what matters: Not the backroom dealings of who gets to do what, and why.

But how to get to that “last mile” is another question.

Will the new Coordinating Ministers enable more efficient multi-ministry projects, as the Prime Minister hopes, or will this extra layer make it harder for ministries to operate and act freely on their own?

There’s some optimism to be found in the relatively new Municipal Services Office, which was created in March this year. The office helps to make sure concerns on the ground are fed quickly from town council to government agency, and vice versa. In July, the pilot office which started with only the Jurong and Holland-Bukit Panjang Town Councils, will partner with six more town councils.

But what of the new “super ministries”? Do we need “super ministers” because we have a “super-sized” Cabinet?

Which brings me to one other question my friend asked last night: The new line-up will have 37 office-holders, up from the current 33, including 20 Cabinet members. Do we need so many people at the top?

By Cabinet, I mean the 20 full ministers, not including junior ministers and other office-holders. The new Cabinet will have one extra member from the current 19. In fact, this is not a big shift; in 2010 there were also 20 Cabinet ministers. But the upward trend is clear: Singapore’s first Cabinet in 1959 had only nine members. In 1975, there were 12; then 13 in 1985, 15 in 1990, 17 in 2001 and so on. The numbers should be viewed in context against a growing population.

How does Singapore compare to other countries?

Here’s what I found after a quick search on the Internet: In Japan, there are 20 cabinet ministers for a population of 126 million people. In South Korea, it’s 19 for 51 million. The United Kingdom has 22 for 64 million people. Closer to home, Malaysia has 37 for a population of 30 million – but the nation has a coalition government and you might expect more seats to be carved out to sit members from the various parties. These numbers also refer to only full ministers and not the full suite of political appointees.

One issue with a super-sized Cabinet is cost. Singapore pays its ministers well and people with a head for numbers (not me!) will ask: Why do we need so many ministers to govern a small country of six million?

Another is whether it will result in mixed instructions from too many cooks. This was a point also raised in the LKYSPP study, where it found that what ultimately matters more will depend not so much of the structural hierarchy in place, but on ground-level processes that facilitate and improve communication, and a freer flow of resources, among the various ministries.

“To support these structures, there must be clear processes to facilitate the way officers work with one another,” the report said. “In the WOG study, interviewees often highlighted that it was not the lack of structures, but the lack of processes that impeded collaborative efforts.”

ST’s Chris Tan briefly alluded to this as well in his column today in describing “silos that impede a higher level of coordination” – though, his point was that more ministry mergers may pave the way for a more holistic approach to city planning. Interestingly, this is the opposite of what happened with the Ministry of Education, which will now be split into two portfolios, Schools, and Higher Education and Skills, headed by ministerial newbies Ng Chee Meng and Ong Ye Kung.

On the issue of cost, a writer for the London School of Economics in 2010 argued to reduce Britain’s “bloated” cabinet in order to cut public spending. At the time, its cabinet had 29 members, compared to more modestly sized cabinets in Germany (16), Poland (19), Sweden (21) and France (21). There are substantial costs involved in “creating, adjusting and maintaining portfolios”, the writer said, and even though the UK has since brought this number down to 22, a more reasonable number might be 15, according to at least one study quoted in the report.

Like most countries, Singapore’s Constitution is silent on the size of its Cabinet and how many ministries there can be. Asking if there are too many ministers or ministries might seem besides the point if the popular view is that the ministers are doing their jobs and serving the people well.

Perhaps, you could say about the Singapore Cabinet what people say about most things: size doesn’t matter. Good ministers don’t grow on trees and we’ve all been told how difficult it is to find talented people to serve the country. But the G might consider doing more to help citizens understand the need for such a super-sized Cabinet beyond the usual leadership renewal reasons. It may not have needed to do so in the past, but citizens today are more interested to know what happens behind the closed doors of the Prime Minister’s office as he decides on the Cabinet reshuffle.

A move towards such openness would also be in line with its policy to “engage stakeholders”, and to nurture a “Whole of Country” mentality in steering the nation forward in a post-LKY, post-SG50 era.

But then again, maybe Singaporeans really only care that there’s a female full minister heading a ministry in the Cabinet, instead of wondering why there’s only one, and why it’s taken this long. And who’s going to make the MRT run on time with no breakdowns, not how many ministers we have and whether we can afford them. It is that “last mile” that will make the most difference, and decide the mark on the G’s report card.

In the end, Singaporeans are a pragmatic bunch. If the Cabinet ministers do their jobs well, most people will think they’re worth the penny. Just like that beautiful, handmade cabinet I’ve been eyeing.

 

Feature Photo by Joseph Nair for The Middle Ground.

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Photo By Shawn Danker
The CPF Building at Robinson Road.

by Yen Feng

CONGRATULATIONS to the Health Ministry for finding such a sexy figure: 25,000. That’s the number of people who will have to pay extra in premiums after MediShield Life kicks in nationwide on November 1. See these headlines:

“MediShield Life: Only 25,000 need pay extra” – ST

“About 25,000 Singaporeans, PRs will have to pay additional MediShield Life premiums” – TODAY

“Only 25,000 seriously ill patients have to pay extra premiums” – Zaobao

“25,000 with serious pre-existing conditions to pay additional MediShield Life premiums” – BT

and in TNP: “MediShield Life premiums: Less than 1% to pay more”

It’s a good figure because it seems small compared to the 4 million people who will come under the new compulsory national insurance policy. As TNP noted, it’s less than 1 per cent.

The issue of higher premiums has been a main criticism of MediShield Life ever since it was announced in late 2013. Two years later, questions surrounding how much more people will have to pay are still unanswered. Even after the ministry has conducted its household surveys to determine what level of income-based subsidies each person will get, it still has remained mum over the exact amount everyone will have to pay. Part of this is because of the sheer complexity of the policy: There are people with no existing insurance, people with pre-existing conditions, people who already have Integrated Plans, which build on the current MediShield plan (which is NOT compulsory). For these IP-holders, the increases will presumably be announced by their private insurers rather than by MOH.

Then there are different subsidies too: Besides the income-based ones, there are transitional subsidies (for the next four years), Pioneer Generation subsidies, etc. The bottomline the ministry is eager to remind everyone is: Don’t worry too much about the increases. If you can’t pay, the G will help. No one will lose coverage because they can’t afford it.

The reports go a bit further: Of the 25,000, about 23,000 people are those with serious pre-existing conditions who are currently uninsured. Then there are 2,000 people who are insured, but with exclusions – meaning, they are not covered for certain conditions which in this case likely refers to pre-existing ailments. The logic here is that it makes sense for these people to pay more – after all, MediShield Life is now going to cover these people fully, giving them better protection against their illnesses.

So it sure sounds like a good number – “only” 25,000 will have to pay extra. But why “only”? This is what it sounds like to the layperson: You see, you all ah, complain that premiums are going to go up. See? ONLY 25,000 going to be affected. ONLY fewer than 1 per cent. So, probably not you. Stop complaining ok?

Except, it’s hard to know if that’s really the case? Three questions:

1. Could you be paying higher premiums, but you don’t see it because it’s coming out of your Medisave? You will be notified about this, just that it may not bother you too much since it’s not an out-of-pocket cost.

2. Or could it be that the increase in premiums are being offset by the subsidies? If so, will people start seeing a big jump in their premiums once the transitional subsidies run out four years later?

3. Do the increases take into account hikes that might come from private insurers (this is not yet known at this point in time), or does it refer only to increases that come from the conversion of MediShield to MediShield Life?

More likely, the “only” 25,000 refers only to the group of people with serious pre-existing conditions. In which case, comparing it to the 4 million people who will come under the policy seems somewhat misleading. The fact is, everyone will have to pay more. That’s the whole point of the scheme. So that the burden is spread out for more people.

If not, chances are the 25,000 people with pre-existing illnesses will have to pay even more – not just the 30 per cent number that’s been thrown about in the media.

But how much more? ST has this line buried in its report: “As a result, everyone pays up to 3 per cent higher premiums, with the G underwriting the remaining extra cost.”

Sorry, one more question: Is this “remaining extra cost” the $4 billion in subsidies over the next four years? What happens after that? Surely, no one expects their premiums not to rise significantly after that.

So maybe an alternative story could be: MediShield Life premiums: Everybody will pay more, but only 3 per cent. And that’s so that 25,000 people won’t have to pay so much.

But of course, that’s hardly a sexy headline.

 

Featured image by Shawn Danker.

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by Yen Feng

THE first time I met Kong Hee was in 2009. I was brought to him backstage after a Christmas concert put up by the church and introduced to him as a reporter. We exchanged the usual pleasantries. After he heard I had studied in New York on a scholarship, he offered me a job. I declined. He was shuffled away by a bodyguard in a suit into his dressing room.

Our encounter was over in less than a minute. That was my first impression of him. Not the God-fearing pastor, nor the doting husband and father, but a man who took chances, and quickly moved on when told no.

Today is the last day of closing arguments for the trial. As Kong Hee’s lawyers gave their final oral submissions, the case against him that has lasted almost three years since his arrest in 2012 will renew speculation of his fate. Will he walk free, or go to jail? If convicted, he could face a lifetime behind bars. As a free man, he will face the rest of his life in infamy. Either way, life for him will never quite be the same.

Judging by the final submissions from both the defence and prosecution, the case seems to hang on Kong Hee the man, and whether his most trusted advisors have been able to say no to him.

Five other church leaders besides him have been accused of misusing some $50 million in church funds to finance his wife Sun Ho’s music career in the United States. But Kong Hee stands at the epicentre of the case not just because he is the church’s founder.

It is because as the founder, he is also its congregation’s spiritual father.

At the height of the church’s popularity in 2010, it had an average weekly attendance of more than 33,000 members who gave generously in time and money. When the church wanted to erect a bigger building, some members contemplated selling their homes to donate to the church’s Building Fund. This may be an extreme example but it was not unusual. Such was the devotion the man commanded.

I had spoken to Kong Hee for less than a minute, but I would go on to spend countless hours reading about him and hearing stories from church members and others in the Christian community who knew him personally. I often wondered if they were talking about the same person.

The judge must be wondering the same thing.

At the heart of Kong’s legal defence is that he did not know that his actions could be criminal. He had acted “in good faith”, with God in one ear and the advice of lawyers and auditors in the other. He was just following instructions.

The prosecution doesn’t buy it. Chief Prosecutor Mavis Chionh in her final submissions on Monday described Kong as a “well-practised liar” who knew exactly what he was doing. Even though it was Xtron Productions that managed Ms Ho’s career, its directors had acted only in accordance to Kong’s wishes, so the prosecution’s case goes.

Who’s right? The people I spoke with over the two years I reported on this story would probably say the charismatic leader was neither persona exclusively.

Former church leaders and members who have been disenchanted by his management style have used words like “puppeteer” and “God” to describe him. Although his was one of the largest congregations in Singapore, he preferred to keep close to him a handful of loyalists, known as his “inner circle”, which include some of the five people who sit at his table in court. If you are disloyal, you are “expunged” or “ex-communicated”. You lose access. Your funds are cut off. You’re no longer “family” – no matter what message is put through the official channels to the rest of the church.

Whether this is true or just talk from disgruntled members who have fallen out of his favour is anyone’s guess. Others I’ve spoken with say he is an able and involved leader. A visionary. Someone who cares about the big picture but also pays attention to details. A person who remembers the names of your children. Someone who takes time to pray with you and for you, even if he’s met you only once.

No matter which side of the fence you’re on, there are facts not in question. Kong Hee, 51, was a student at Raffles Institution and Raffles Junior College. He has a degree from NUS in Computer and Information Sciences. He also has several theological degrees, including a Master of Divinity and Doctorate in Theology from an American seminary. But to non-church goers, his fame has more often been linked to his pop-star wife and the spectacle of his rock-concert style services, rather than for the substance of his sermons.

He is also known for his devotion to his wife of 23 years, who suffered two miscarriages before their first and only son Dayan was born in 2005. Dayan was named after Moshe Dayan, an Israeli military general and politician, whom Kong admired greatly.

It was not an easy birth. Ms Ho was bedridden for months, threw up everything she ate, and bled often. Friends close to the couple said Kong became especially protective of Ms Ho after the miscarriages plunged her into a deep depression, something she has spoken to the press about. He wanted to do everything he could to make her happy, and he was not alone in this. Ms Ho was a much-loved personality herself who sang in church often. Church members and employees idolised her. Many frequented her concerts and bought her albums several times over as a show of love and solidarity.

In 2003, this support came under intense media scrutiny when a church member Roland Poon charged that the church was essentially paying for Ms Ho’s music career, which was also part of an evangelical initiative called the Crossover Project to convert non-believers.

Mr Poon’s accusation was viewed widely by the church as an act of disloyalty, and even though he later retracted his statement, it did lead to some fundamental changes concerning the relationship between the church and Ms Ho’s career. Xtron was set up. A new, private “Multi-Purpose Account” was set up.

Members trusted by the inner circle were now invited to redirect their cash tithes discreetly to this account rather than through regular donor envelopes typically handed out during services. Others gave their donations as “love gifts” to church leaders, who then deposited the money into the private account. A source close to the couple told me Kong would fly to Los Angeles, where Ms Ho was based, with cash withdrawn from this private account to pay for their sprawling estate in Hollywood Hills, which had a monthly rental of $28,000, and staff including a nutritionist, fitness instructor, singing coach, and live-in nanny. This was later reported in several local newspapers.

Word spread of the couple’s lavish lifestyle and it seemed the pact between the church’s members and its support for the Crossover Project was starting to come loose.

Shortly after I met Kong Hee in 2009, I was sitting with one of my contacts when the name Roland Poon came up. In another meeting with a different contact a few months later, I was given an envelope that contained an email receipt of a donation to the Multi-Purpose Account. I was persuaded to look into this. Apparently, I was not the only person being tipped off because in May 2010, officers from the Commercial Affairs Department showed up unannounced at the church’s Suntec office at dawn and seized all of its computers and company records.

The six people including Kong were arrested two years later, in 2012, and here we are.

I haven’t met Kong Hee again since our fleeting introduction, and I doubt I ever will. But if I did, I would wish him well. And I pray he might live up to my initial impression of him. Not the God-fearing pastor, nor the doting husband and father, but a man who took chances, and quickly moved on with his life – whether the court now will say yes, or no, to his innocence.

 

Featured image from The Power of Prayer, a screengrab of the Youtube video by Kong Hee Ministries.

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