June 24, 2017

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Photo By Shawn Danker
A worker walks by the Bedok Reservoir office of the Aljunied Hougang Punggol East Town Council.

by Danielle Goh

WHAT did you make of the PwC report on the finances of the Workers’ Party (WP) town council while it had charge of Punggol East? Did it look like same-old, same-old? Poor PwC. Its limelight had been stolen by KPMG, which released its report on the whole town council administration and finances in October last year.

PwC was put in charge of auditing the Punggol East single-seat ward which was incorporated into the Aljunied-Hougang town council after the by-election in May 2013.

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The WP had a short two years running the ward before it reverted to People’s Action Party control in the last general election. According to the auditors, there was plenty of foot-dragging and procrastination on the part of WP, hence, the lateness of the 94 page report, which was peppered with phrases like “no documentation’’ and “unsatisfactory overall”.

But the report is interesting for some insights into how a handover of town councils is done. The WP took over Hougang in 1991 and Aljunied in 2011. The Punggol East handover meant that both sides would have some experience to fall back on. Clearly, the WP operates a “new broom sweeps clean’’ strategy when it came into power, turfing out vendors even though their contracts had yet to expire. That, of course, is the town council’s prerogative. The question is whether the change led to better services or lower costs.

The chief beneficiary appears to be FMSS, the incumbent managing agent for Aljunied and Hougang, which went on to manage Punggol East. It charged a rate that is 17 per cent higher than the old vendor CPG, which had yet to finish its contract.

According to the PwC, the WP said that the managing agent contract went to FMSS because CPG wanted to terminate the arrangement. PwC said CPG could have been made to stay.

The PwC report had an interesting list of companies which seemed to have done well bidding for work in the WP’s Punggol East ward. According to the auditors, they won contracts even though they charged higher rates than competitors, or because there were no other bidders, or were simply handed the job.

Here’s what the auditors said about the way they were hired.

1. Rentokil Initial Singapore, which does inspection and extermination of termites, bee’s nests, rodents and other pests

Rentokil was awarded the contract from Sept 1, 2013 to Aug 31 last year. It was not the lowest bidder, and received 71.8 per cent on the Price Quality Method (PQM) score, falling behind Pest-Pro Management, which achieved 90 per cent on the PQM score. The PQM score measures the price and quality of a tender, and is the method of choice to help the G with its selection of contractors for the town council.

The Tender Evaluation Report submitted by the Aljunied-Hougang Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) did not explain why it awarded the tender to Rentokil.

“In our view, neither the circumstances and reasons for not accepting the lowest tender in this case were fully justified, nor the reasons for not doing so properly recorded,” PwC said.

Rentokil was paid $10,385.42 in total. If the contract was awarded to Pest-Pro, the lowest bidder, it would have saved $2,700.21.

2. Red-Power Electrical Engineering, which maintains booster pumps, automatic refuse chute flushing system and roller shutters

Red-Power was hired for work in the Hougang and Aljunied estates in 2012, before the town council absorbed Punggol East in 2013. It was the sole bidder then. Instead of calling for a new tender for Punggol East or extending existing contracts with incumbent vendors, WP handed the work to Red-Power. The WP town council said the work went to Red-Power so that it would have greater leverage when the main contract for the whole AHPETC ran out. PwC, however, noted that when compared to other vendors who do the same kind of work, Red-Power was expensive. One comparison showed that its rate was higher by 775 per cent.

If the town council had chosen to extend the contracts of existing contractors by 12 months, it would have saved $25,920.

“Exercising [such] options would have allowed the Town Council to enjoy the significantly lower rates for a further year, while, at the same time, providing the Town Council with the additional time required to call for a second tender,’’ said the PwC.

3. Neela Electrical System, which maintains the electrically operated roller shutter doors at bin compounds and centralised refuse chute chambers

Neela was the sole bidder for a tender for the work in Punggol East.  It was given the job although its rates were 10 per cent higher than what other vendors charged and Neela itself had acknowledged to the town council during an interview that it had no experience in such repair and maintenance work.

The Finance Department of AHPETC was unable to provide the necessary payment documents and information to verify the work done by Neela, which was paid $27,545.65 in total.

4. Titan Facilities Management, which does conservancy and cleaning works

Titan was hired by the old PAP town council. When WP took over Punggol East, AHPETC could have extended Titan’s contract term by an additional 12 months. It did not do so but chose to call a new tender. While Titan had the lowest tender price of three bidders, it was charging 67 per cent more than before. If its contract had simply been extended for 12 months, the town council could have saved $423,147.

5. J. Keart Alliances, which maintains the fire protection systems including standby generator sets

Like Titan’s contract, the AHPETC could have extended J. Keart’s contract for another 12 months for the same rates.

Instead, the AHPETC called for a new tender for this too. J Keart won but with a new rate that amounted to a 400 per cent rise of rates for the weekly maintenance of generator sets, and a 2,567 per cent increase for the annual maintenance of fire extinguishers. If J Keart had stayed on, PwC estimated that the town council could have saved $27, 249.20 from April 1, 2015 to March last year.

Now that the town council is back in PAP’s hands, we wonder if it also adopted a new broom sweeps clean approach. We asked and we are waiting for an answer.

PS. The PAP town council has declined to comment.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by Bertha Henson

WHAT is the weight of public opinion? It is heaviest during election time, when everybody gets to vote. How they vote is science and for political parties and academics to interpret. Only the individual knows why he voted the way he did – and sometimes not even that.

Public opinion, that vague phenomenon, can be viewed in a positive way as reflecting the community sentiments which may or may not be based on rational grounds. Politicians know that they have to get public opinion on their side to be voted in or to simply garner support for an agenda.

Or, public opinion can simply be viewed as the baying of the mob. Whether you think it’s positive or negative depends on which side of the fence you are on. So if public opinion is aligned with your own views, it must be correct and something must be done about it. If it doesn’t, then those who hold such views are misguided, ill-informed or just plain idiots.

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When Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam talked to TODAY about the weight of public opinion in the review of laws, I did a double-take. It seemed odd to me that such a tough minister would consider public reaction a factor until I read this further along in the story: ‘’But it doesn’t mean automatically you agree with it. You must assess it, whether it is also fair. So, there are two parts to it — one, whether it is fair; two, what does the public believe is right.’’

He’s speaking generally, he said in his rebuke of academic Donald Low.

As an example, he spoke of American Joshua Robinson, a mixed martial arts instructor who had sex with two 15-year-olds and showed an obscene film to a six-year-old. Many saw the four year jail term as too lenient. Mr Shanmugam had directed his ministries to re-look this.

In the TODAY story, however, is this:

A deputy public prosecutor, who declined to be named, had reservations about reviews being announced soon after a case concludes in court.

“When the Government says these things, it ties our hands,” he said.

This is a pertinent point. Sometimes it’s not so much public opinion that matters – since they can always be dismissed – but the opinion of a powerful person.

The former G lawyer didn’t give an example but you wonder what prosecutors will do now since the minister announced last month that there will be a review of maid abuser penalties. This comes after a Singaporean couple was convicted for starving their maid. The man was sentenced to three weeks’ jail and a S$10,000 fine while his wife was sentenced to three months’ jail.

Commentators are also waiting to see what sort of measures will be taken against so-called fake news, and announcement that came immediately on the heels of the G’s failure to get the courts to agree that it can use the Protection from Harassment Act.

Unlike past Home Affairs and Law ministers, Mr Shanmugam – who holds both portfolios – is well-known for speaking up about court cases.

And unlike members of the public who can face contempt of court charges, he said in Parliament last year (Mar 1), “public officials like myself can make statements if they believe it to be necessary in the public interest – even if there is a hearing pending. Amongst other things, public confidence in the police must be maintained.”  This is in response to public speculation that 14-year old Benjamin Lim had committed suicide as a result of police investigations.

There is also the forum of Parliament which conveys immunity to its members.

He has never been one to keep quiet.

Some examples:

a. Mr Shanmugam’s comments at a public forum in May 2010 on Malaysian drug trafficker Yong Vui Kong sparked a judicial review of Yong’s clemency process. Mr Shanmugam said: “If Yong escapes the death penalty, drug barons will think the signal is that young and vulnerable traffickers will be spared and can be used as drug mules.”

Yong’s lawyer, Mr M Ravi, felt that Mr Shanmugam’s comments could prejudice the decision of the President to grant clemency. The review was dismissed in August 2010 because it was argued that – constitutionally – Cabinet, in which Mr Shanmugam is a member, could in fact advise the President on matters of clemency.

b. In April 22, 2015 he said the actions of the boy who attacked foreign worker to practice martial arts was “sickening conduct, the kind of conduct that you would not approve if somebody did it to animals.” Earlier that week, the boy was sentenced to 10 days jail. The Attorney-General Chamber’s appeal a few days later for stiffer sentencing was dismissed. You can say that the judge wasn’t influenced by what he said. But it does cast a pall over the verdict if it went the G’s way.

c. In April 2015, he came out strongly to castigate the man who slapped teen terror Amos Yee, saying in a Facebook post: “Rule of Law means respecting the legal process. If everyone starts taking the law into his or her own hands, then we will no longer be a civilised society. I hope that the attacker will be caught quickly, and is dealt with appropriately.”

He is right to warn against vigilante action, but it would have been better coming from the police. Because people would expect that the culprit, since he’s been the subject of ministerial comment, would be dealt with heavily by the courts. The man was sentenced to three weeks jail.

d. He nearly made a police report when Ms Sangeetha Thanapal misrepresented his comments online in August 2015. Her Facebook post was “inaccurate and seditious”, he said. But he later decided not to do so after meeting her as she had no ill-will. Ms Thanapal on her part apologised on Facebook, saying what she had posted earlier was “unjustified”.

e. More recently (Oct 22, 2016), he announced that he would be filing a police report over “completely false” allegations made by sociopolitical site States Times Review. The site claimed that Mr Shanmugam had said that “Eurasians are considered Indians” for Presidential candidacy and downplayed the chances of a Eurasian becoming the President.

In his Facebook post, Mr Shanmugam expressed shock that “such outright falsehoods” could be spread online.  A check by TODAY the day after his post found that no report had been filed yet. It is unclear if a report was eventually made.

Now, a minister making a police report carries a lot more weight than reports filed by ordinary people. Face it, not everybody’s opinion is equal.

It is correct that public opinion should play a part in our laws. Some archaic holdovers like the criminalisation of oral sex has been thrown out of the window and the death penalty is only mandatory for egregious cases. Marital rape might well make it into the books. These are a reflection of changing societal norms and expectations.

But what if some people think that the laws of defamation here are too strict? And that more young people are getting soft on drugs as was reported in MSM today?

Then a judgement call must be made about what is fair and what is right for Singapore. This is what we elected people for, as representatives of Parliament and not as delegates. We vote them to exercise their judgement on our behalf.

It’s not always public opinion that matters or has an impact, minister. It’s yours. If you’re carrying a big stick, maybe you should tread softly.

 

Featured image from Minister K Shanmugam Sc’s Facebook page.

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The Tiong Bahru FC clubhouse in People's Park Complex

THE police raided the clubhouses of Tiong Bahru Football Club, Hougang United Football Club and Woodlands Wellington Football Club at about 4pm today (Apr 20).

Soon after, investigators were seen entering the premises of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS). FAS general secretary Winston Lee was seen accompanying the investigators into a room. Boxes of documents were seen being moved into a room at the FAS office.

Media crowd the doors at FAS during police investigations.

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It is not yet clear if the raids are linked to SportSG’s statement yesterday (Apr 19) that it had filed a police report against Tiong Bahru about misused funds and an allegation that a Tiong Bahru official had lied to another club to try and delay or obstruct the completion of audits until after the landmark FAS elections due on Apr 29.

FAS presidential candidate Bill Ng, is the chairman of Tiong Bahru and Hougang United. Mr Ng revealed this week that he had made a controversial $500,000 donation to the Asean Football Federation from Tiong Bahru’s coffers by way of the FAS.

The Straits Times reported today (Apr 20) that Tiong Bahru had earned $37 million in revenue from its jackpot operations.

Police carry boxes of documents and CPUs to a back room at Tiong Bahru FC.

Woodlands Wellington has also been linked to Mr Ng. He had made an unsuccessful bid to take control of the ailing club in 2011 which faced opposition from fans. Mr Ng is running against Mr Lim Kia Tong to lead the FAS. It is unclear if the raids and ongoing police investigation will affect Mr Ng’s candidacy.

Plainclothes officers were seen moving several boxes of documents and several CPUs into a back room at the Tiong Bahru Clubhouse in Chinatown, and similar scenes are also unfolding at the other two clubs.

There have been no reports yet of any arrests.

 

Featured image by Erin Chua

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by Bertha Henson

SO THE G is thinking about what to do about “fake” news. I am flustered. How heavy a hand will it take? What happened to the “light touch” approach? I can hear people screaming about why I am supporting fake news. I’m not. I don’t think the word “fake” and “news” even go together.

Do we have a big fake news problem here? How big is the problem? Some anti-establishment people will say news in the Mainstream Media (MSM) is all fake, because it’s calculated to make the G look good in the headlines and in the telling of the story. The thing is, even if the stories are complimentary, they aren’t based on false information and you would have to trust that the MSM has all the information it needs to make a judgement call.

I think governments around the world like to look good. They get angry at being caught out on a lie, failed promises and botched programmes. Every government would like its media to be its propaganda machine. The test is whether the people will regard the media as such and ditch it altogether as untrustworthy. Woe is the government which puts such a tight rein on the media that even its most important messages cannot reach its intended audience.

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Fake news sites, or sites that have some fake news, used to be dominated by those who have political agendas. Increasingly, the industry has turned in good money too. Witness The Real Singapore’s (TRS) rise and demise.

I am not sorry for TRS but have always wondered if the Sedition Act was the only tool available to bring the site down. The Class Licence Act was only invoked after the heavier legal weapon was wielded. In its review, I’m hoping that the Ministry of Law won’t take the easy way out and suggest legislation to crack down on “fake news”. I say this because there are other tools which can be applied first – and are sometimes applied. For the individual, it is the Protection from Harassment Act and defamation laws. In Singapore, however, it seems that the review is to protect the interest of the State after its failure to utilise the Protection from Harassment Act.

Of course, the interest will be defined as the preservation of law and order and social harmony concerns. The phrase is “right of reply”.

I suggest that the G looks at all the weapons in its arsenal before resorting to drafting a Bill for a speedy route through Parliament.

My question is: Is the G already doing enough to put its point of view across in the first place? Does it give enough information so that people wouldn’t fill the gaps with speculative comment? Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that the PUB price hike could have been explained better. So too the disastrous and out-of-touch move to call a permanent exhibition, Syonan Gallery.

Which brings me to one of the weapons which the G has said would counter misinformation and gossip: The Factually website. Launched in 2012, way before other governments around the world introduced their own channels, it is now a shambles.

The “trending articles” are old articles which people are still reading, like what is Zika, probably because of its re-emergence, which the website doesn’t explain. Quite a few old issues re-surface because they become current, like why GST is imposed on waterborne tax. This is probably because of the impending price rise – which the website doesn’t explain.

There is a piece on “Why are electricity tariffs rising?”, dated July 2016, when every household knows it has gone up again on April 1. The U-save rebates are therefore dated, which is a pity given that the G had announced a rise in the last Budget. Sometimes, the G doesn’t know how to help itself.

Factually’s “news” section is a hotch-potch of articles that are lifted from MSM, which only propagates the perception that they are G mouthpieces. Increasingly, there are re-writes of press releases, supposedly by Ministry of Communications and Information staffers and FAQs on policies which the ministries put up as annexes to the media in the hope that they will be published.

There are some attempts to debunk “fake news” and name the perpetrators but in the main, it’s more a regurgitation of G policy than a head-on clash. The biggest take-down was during the haze or when sites and bloggers were named.

The most recent posts of such kind had to do with remarks attributed to Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in October 2016.

States Times Review (STR) article “Law Minister K Shanmugam: Eurasian Singaporeans are Indians” is a disgraceful fabrication. The Minister never said any of the things STR attributes to him. Indeed, he never said anything about Eurasians nor were there any questions posed to him about Eurasians at the IPS conference. It is malicious of STR to spread such vicious falsehoods, calculated to sow discord among our different ethnic groups. The Government will review STR’s post and decide whether to take further action against STR.

STR gave its response on its own website.

Editor’s note:
States Times Review report news without fear or favour, and will not entertain the Lawless Minister. States Times Review operates under laws of the Australia government, K Shanmugam is welcome to sue us under the Australian judiciary. As a Law Minister, resorting to police reports and lawsuit threats as the first response to criticisms speaks volume about the sad state of political affairs in Singapore.

Sometimes, it’s oblique, like this one before the September 2015 General Elections.

There have been claims on some online websites that the Government will raise the GST after the forthcoming General Elections to fund increased spending planned in the next term of government. There is no basis to these claims, and they are inconsistent with what the Government has recently stated.

In the 2015 Budget Statement in February, DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam stated that the revenue measures the government had already undertaken will provide sufficiently for the increased spending planned for the rest of this decade.

Given that this is on the Factually website, it’s going to be tough for the G to change its mind…

Why doesn’t the G confront fake news perpetrators directly, like Snopes or PolitiFact, especially when policies have been distorted?

My view is that the G has to show that it has done more to resist the fake news plague before it embarks on something heavy-handed.

MPs have been a disappointment. No question was asked of the minister in the last sitting earlier this month when he spoke of the review. Last month, there was one question from Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera, who wanted to know how the webpage selects falsehoods to respond to.

Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said the site aims to clarify “widespread or common misperceptions of government policy, or incorrect assertions on matters of public concern that can harm Singapore’s social fabric”. It was concerned with facts, not opinions, he added.

Going by Factually, we’re doing pretty well on the fake news front. The G has very little fake news to debunk. Which makes you wonder why a review is even needed.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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GERMAN police are on the hunt for a brazen attacker. Officers comb a quiet street turned crime scene late on Tuesday (April 11) after a bus carrying the Borussia Dortmund football team was hit by three explosions.

The devices were planted in bushes on the side of the road, near the players’ hotel in what police say was a deliberate assault on players and staff.

Dortmund police chief Gregor Lange said, “We assumed from the start that the blast was a targeted attack on the Borussia Dortmund team. That is why we immediately activated the emergency plan to put all available police forces on duty.”

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The players were on their way to a home match against Monaco when their bus was struck, smashing several windows.

Spanish defender Marc Bartra has been hospitalised and is undergoing surgery on his hand.

The attack sending shock waves through the European football community.

Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone said in Spanish, “I’ve nothing really to say. I’m speechless. I’m just concerned.”

Many fans were already at the club’s ground when word of the blast reached them.

The stadium announcing that the game had been called off and will now be played on Wednesday (April 12) night.

-Reuters

 

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by Suhaile Md

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

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

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

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

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

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406, 409, what’s the difference?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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“WHEN they call the roll in the Senate, the Senators do not know whether to answer ‘Present’ or ‘Not Guilty.” A humorous but depressing statement by Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th American president, describing the high and disappointing levels of corruption present in the American Senate.

Politicians are holders of public office. In a democracy, politicians are elected into the Government to represent the people and make legislative or executive decisions for the welfare of the country. Taking this into consideration, it is only normal to expect politicians to be individuals worthy of respect for their capabilities, moral compass and sincerity in serving the country.

However, despite the expectations placed on these politicians, corruption remains a persistent problem around the world. Unfortunately, according to Transparency International, no country achieved a score close to perfect in the Corruption Perceptions Index 2016.

In fact, over two-thirds of the 176 countries and territories in this year’s index fall below the midpoint of Transparency International’s scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). The global average score is a paltry 43, indicating endemic corruption in a country’s public sector.

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Despite the dismal global situation, Singapore was ranked the top 7th country in the world in terms of the Corruption Perceptions Index. The relatively higher ranking Singapore enjoys compared to the rest of the world could be attributed to the G’s zealous commitment to remain a corruption-free society through the institutionalisation of anti-corruption tools such as the Prevention of Corruption Act and Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

Albeit increased efforts to curb corruption amongst the higher echelons of public sector leadership such as President Xi Jin Ping’s anti-corruption campaign in the People’s Republic of China, we still observe a handful of high profile corruption cases. As politicians are often put in the spotlight and placed on the pedestal, their mistakes become glaringly obvious and intolerable to the public. Often times, their mistakes can potentially threaten their entire political career.

Here are some of the politicians around the world who have gotten into serious trouble due to corruption, bribery, and abuse of power.
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1. Seoul, South Korea – President Park Geun-hye arrested on Friday (Mar 31)

Image from Wikimedia Commons. 

Park Geun-hye, former President of South Korea who was in office since 2013 was impeached on 10 March. South Korea’s top court has ruled to end Ms Park’s presidency over a corruption scandal. This is the first time a South Korean President has been expelled before the end of his or her term.

The 65-year-old former President was accused to have conspired with a friend and former presidential aide Choi Soon-sil to have asked for a 77.4 billion won (SGD$96.3 million) donation from 16 major businesses, including Samsung, to support her policy initiatives via two foundations. The companies, when investigated, claimed that they could not refuse as they feared business disadvantages in the form of government tax investigations. Her friend Choi Soon-sil was also accused of accepting bribes from the heir of Samsung group Lee Jae-Young.

She was arrested on Friday (Mar 31) on charges relating to abuse of power and bribery.

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2. Buenos Aires, Argentina – Fourth case against former Argentine President 

Image from Wikimedia Commons. 

Former Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was indicted on Dec 27 last year in a corruption case. Federal judge Julian Ercolini approved the charges of illicit association and fraudulent administration. Ms Cristina denied them and defended that she was a victim of persecution. In May, she was indicted for manipulating currency exchanges, that allegedly caused economic damage to the government.

In recent news, she again defended herself from corruption allegations, claiming that she was a victim of “judicial persecution” and a media “witch hunt”. This is the fourth case to reach Cristina since she left office in December two years ago. Euronews reported: The charges relate to allegations of illegal enrichment using a family real estate company called Los Sauces, located in the southern Santa Cruz province. The judge has been given 10 days to either put Ms Cristina on trial or dismiss the case.

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3. Washington D.C, U.S.A – Michael Flynn resigns within one month as National Security Adviser

Image by Flickr user Jim Mattis.

Retired United States (US) Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn resigned on February 13 this year as National Security Adviser when it came to light that he provided wrong information to Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about his conversations with Russian Ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak.

A week before President Trump’s inauguration, he said that he had given “incomplete information” about a phone call with the ambassador pertaining American sanctions against Russia. Initially, he denied that he had any meaningful conversation with him and Vice President Mike Pence mentioned this in a TV interview. The White House then received a warning from the Justice Department that Mr Michael was not honest about his phone calls with the ambassador.

In his resignation letter, the former National Security Adviser said: “Unfortunately, because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed the vice president-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador, I have sincerely apologized to the president and the vice president, and they have accepted my apology.”

In the latest news, the retired lieutenant general requested for immunity to testify on the alleged Russian election meddling, according to his lawyer Robert Kelner. The lawyer said that his client “has a story to tell”, but needs to guard against “unfair prosecution”. President trump has shown his support for Michael Flynn’s request.
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4. Paris, France – French Presidential Candidate’s wife, Penelope Fillon, charged for embezzlement of public funds

Image by Agence France-Presse photographer Eric Feferberg.

On 28 March, French presidential candidate Francois Fillon’s wife, Penelope Fillon, was charged with being paid the best part of €1 million for doing nothing as parliamentary assistant to her husband and his successor as MP between 1986 and 2013.  Penelope also faces separate charges of concealed misuse of funds for being paid €100,000 by a literary magazine owned by her husband’s wealthy friend.

Penelope Fillon, a British-born, was extremely public averse until she was embroiled in the political scandal involving the misappropriation of public funds, which is also dubbed as ‘PenelopeGate’.  The entire ‘PenlopeGate’ scandal has effectively poisoned her husband’s political career, causing Francois Fillon, previously a front-runner of the presidential elections, to sink in polls. He is now trailing in third place behind Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.

Despite being involved in the messy political scandal, Francois Fillon has not broken under pressure and insists on running to become France’s next president. Additionally, there are concerns that tensions might arise if Francois Fillon becomes the president as he will enjoy total immunity from prosecutions while the country’s potential First Lady might undergo further questioning and stand trial during his tenure.
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Featured image from TMG file.
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by Bertha Henson 

WE KNOW the terms by now: fake news, post-truth, alternative facts, truthful hyperbole. Maybe not the last term, which was coined by US President Donald Trump to mean, presumably, an exaggerated, embellished fact which he believes doesn’t make it a lie.

Countries around the world are grappling with the fake news phenomenon in many ways, through laws, code of conduct, fact-checking sites and community action. Even Russia, said to be behind countless hacking attempts, has its own tracker of fake news. It has a webpage which lumps together articles which says “Fake’’, with data “not corresponding to the truth”. They include articles from the New York Times and Bloomberg.

Political leaders round the world are raising a ruckus over how the phenomenon appears to be undermining liberal democracy and, presumably, their chances of getting elected or re-elected. Populism, fuelled by conspiracy theories and fed by feelings rather than facts, are threatening to destabilise a political and governing framework based on reason.

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The Germans want to fine the tech companies; the tech companies are taking steps to flag fake news and advertisers want some distance between their money and hate sites. Google and Facebook can no longer hide between the facade of being mere tech companies with no ethical obligation over the way they distribute fake content. We might applaud their efforts but with it, must come an understanding that we are letting two mighty giants who already funnel most of our information, decide what is real and what is fake.

The agency with the most clout to eradicate or at least minimise fake news dissemination is the State. But with it comes the question of whether it would be doing so in its own interest, by blacking out “uncomfortable truths’’ that don’t support their policies or do their image any favours. See the Russian fact-checker above.

In fact, the Canadians kicked up a fuss when a junior minister asked what sort of role the Government should play in the control of fake news. The popular answer: None.

In Singapore, it would be natural for citizens to ask that the G take the lead. You can say that this is characteristic of the trust placed in the G or that citizens can’t be bothered or aren’t bothered enough to do the job themselves.

The nanny state is about to oblige, going by recent pronouncements from the G. The Law ministry has made no bones about it: “The Government strongly believes that the scourge of false information must not be allowed to take hold in Singapore, lest it weakens our democratic society and institutions.”

“At a time when false information can affect election results, contaminate public discussions and weaken democratic societies, it is important for the Government, as well as corporations and individuals, to be able to respond robustly to false statements that could poison public debate and mislead decision-making. Everyone, including the Government, should be entitled to point out falsehoods which are published, and have the true facts brought to public attention.”

The Broadcasting Act is also being reviewed and it is likely to contain a prohibition on fake news. There will be the usual questions about how this is defined and how it will be policed. There will also be the question of whether this is necessary given the proliferation of tools in the G’s armoury.

The Sedition Act, for example, covers hate speech and ensured the shutdown of TheRealSingapore. The Media Development Authority has registration or licensing of sites with pre-dominantly local content as well as the Class Licence scheme which covers all websites automatically with injunctions on pornography, violence and such like. The courts can issue take-down orders if people feel that they have been unfairly harassed online. There is the Administration of Justice Act which stops people from intervening while the wheels of justice are still turning. There is the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, the Telecommunications Act and the Penal Code should fake news lead to actions that disrupt law and order or have the potential to.

The argument for a new weapon will be that there is none which can counter fake news per se. So it isn’t hate speech but deliberate untruths that could be malicious or done for fun or for profit but which doesn’t necessarily lead to law and order problems. Another argument: A concerted fake news campaign with a political agenda will also lead to the slow erosion of trust in the system and its institutions. This should be stopped in its tracks. Trouble is, says who and why?

Singapore will say that it is too small and fragile a country to allow fake news which could lead to greater polarisation tearing the country apart. As the Law ministry put it: “The Government needs to take steps to protect the public and Singapore’s institutions from the very real dangers posed by the spread of false information. The Government will not shy away from this, whatever may be said wrongly about its intentions and objectives.”

The Russians will say that Westerners do not understand its unique political system and its people should be insulated from its adverse effects. (Note that fake news could simply be facts that are twisted to suit a certain agenda, in this case, a Western agenda.)

The Chinese will sniff at the question. They already have a whole eco-system of information distribution and censorship that keeps its people behind a wall.

The Americans are in a funk because its political leadership thinks that fake news includes unfavourable news. But its citizens and journalists are taking matters into their own hands by setting up fact-checking sites and calling out lies.

The Americans are taking a bottom-up response, probably because they believe their own leadership can’t do it.

Likewise, the French have a First Draft News project called CrossCheck, a collaborative verification programme involving technology firms including Facebook and Google.

Journalists from across France work together to find and verify online content, including photos, videos, memes, comment threads and news sites. The public are encouraged to participate by submitting questions and links to content for CrossCheck to investigate.

Britain, however, is taking its time. Its Culture, Media and Sport Committee are asking for public submissions and has come up with some very interesting questions both for the layman and the expert.

  • What is ‘fake news’? Where does biased but legitimate commentary shade into propaganda and lies?
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  • What impact has fake news on public understanding of the world, and also on the public response to traditional journalism? If all views are equally valid, does objectivity and balance lose all value?
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  • Is there any difference in the way people of different ages, social backgrounds, genders etc use and respond to fake news?
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  • Have changes in the selling and placing of advertising encouraged the growth of fake news, for example by making it profitable to use fake news to attract more hits to websites, and thus more income from advertisers?
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  • What responsibilities do search engines and social media platforms have, particularly those which are accessible to young people? Is it viable to use computer-generated algorithms to root out ‘fake news’ from genuine reporting?
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  • How can we educate people in how to assess and use different sources of news?
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  • Are there differences between the UK and other countries in the degree to which people accept ‘fake news’, given our tradition of public service broadcasting and newspaper readership?
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  • How have other governments responded to fake news?
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Such a public inquiry is a long process. Perhaps, it is because Britain has already Brexited or has Brexit as a case study, that it is taking its time to come to grips with phenomena.

In Singapore, it looks like the usual efficient mechanism will kick in. A Bill will be introduced, followed a month or so later by a parliamentary debate, and the legislation goes through because of the preponderance of G backbenchers.

Maybe we should be lucky that it is legislation being proposed that must be subjected to parliament scrutiny, rather than a regulation that can be imposed by fiat. Perhaps, the answers to the list of questions above can be debated in Parliament.

But what can the G do to assuage those who wonder who watches the watchmen?

That’s something to think about.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong. 

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by Bertha Henson

STOP condemning the couple who starved their maid and thinking their jail terms are too short. Did you notice this point about how they paid Filipina Thelma Oyasan Gawidan $20,000 as part of a settlement agreement?

ST said her lawyers had requested the sum on her behalf and added rather intriguingly that the lawyers “were not named’’. Now, she’s the victim; she doesn’t need a lawyer because the State will act on her behalf. And it doesn’t seem the State was too happy about the settlement either.

Said Deputy Public Prosecutor Tan Soo Tet: “The payment of $20,000… does not emanate from genuine remorse, but is motivated by the hope of obtaining a lower sentence and of settling once and for all the civil claims that the victim has against the accused persons.”

The State intends to appeal against the sentences meted out. It wanted a year’s jail but in the end, the judge sentenced housewife Chong Sui Foon to three months in jail. Her husband Lim Choon Hong received a three-week jail term and a fine of $10,000. They are out on $3,000 bail each pending the appeal.

Gawidan, 41, worked for the couple from January 2013 to April 2014. She was given just two meals a day, usually plain bread and instant noodles and had to ask for permission to drink water. Her weight plummeted from 49kg to 29kg, she lost 40 per cent of her body mass and stopped menstruating.

So was the $20,000 a sign of remorse or some kind of bribe? It might be small change to some people. The couple live in a condominium near Orchard Boulevard.

District Judge Low Wee Ping asked the defence to convince the court that their clients were remorseful: “The court must be sure that compensation is not used to buy their way out.”

Mr Raymond Lye, the defence lawyer, said both of them agreed to the settlement and terms without making a single amendment. The terms were not mentioned in court.

He said: “Agreeing to Madam Gawidan’s request in full without negotiation, including the terms of the agreement as drafted by her lawyers, shows remorse and regret.”

According to TODAY, the judge was convinced that Lim was remorseful but didn’t elaborate. He also said that Chong’s actions in depriving the maid of food were “extremely aggravating but accepted that like her husband, she did not seek to starve the maid. He didn’t say more on this.

Maybe we’ll hear more about this later.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by Suhaile Md

ON THE face of it, salary disputes seem simple enough: Go to court and get your employer cough up what is due. But what about the hidden costs and knock on impact of such a decision? For one, there’s the expense of filing a case. Also, try working for someone you hauled to court – not much love there, one can imagine. Justice should not be costly.

So it’s good that the Manpower Minister Mr Lim Swee Say recognises this. He said earlier this month (Mar 6) in his Committee of Supply speech: “We need to have for a better future… fair and progressive workplaces for all workers.”

“We need to have for a better future… fair and progressive workplaces for all workers.”

To that end, Minister Lim said that the Employment Claims Tribunal (ECT) and Tripartite Alliance for Dispute Management (TADM), which opens its doors from April 1 this year, will work together to settle all salary related disputes between employees and employers.

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Big names, so what?

Simply put: From next month onwards, more employees can seek recourse, regardless of salary level, for a wider array of issues, when disputes arise.

The ECT is set up under the state courts. Claims will be heard by legally qualified Tribunal Magistrates, in line with courts processes. It replaces the labour court.

Currently, the labour court deals with issues like unpaid salaries, overtime pay, maternity benefits and the like. Basically rights that are backed by statutory laws that fall under the Employment Act, Retirement & Re-employment Act and the Child Development Co-Savings Act.

Those who earn more than $4,500 do not qualify for recourse through the labour court. They need to head to the civil courts where claimants would have to hire a lawyer to be represented.

Not anymore. The ECT will be open to all employees even if they earn more than $4,500. This a boon to both employers and employees. It’s a lower-cost dispute resolutions channel for both parties – there’s no need to hire lawyers for example.

Also, the cost of pursuing claims through the civil courts can be a barrier for claimants who can’t afford it. This presented errant employers with the opportunity to deal unfairly with their workers, knowing that the workers would have no recourse. Now that the barrier to a hearing is gone, employers cannot get away with mistreating their staff.

Furthermore, it will also deal with claims like the payment of allowances, bonuses, and commissions for example. Basically issues that are not specified in the Acts above, but are covered in employee contracts.

The ECT will be open to all employees of all salary levels – not just those who earn less than $4,500.

That’s it, I’m going to the ECT!

Slow down, don’t forget the TADM.

Over 90 per cent of labour court claims were settled via mediation, said Minister Lim in Parliament last year (Aug 16). There was no need for formal hearings in such cases – saving much time, energy, and costs.

Which is why all claimants head to the TADM first. There, TADM officers will advise workers on the options available to them.

If the claims are too complex and fall outside statutory claims, the claimants can then choose to go for voluntary mediation by TADM or proceed straight to the civil courts. TADM will also help workers get in touch with the Singapore Law Society’s legal clinic. Otherwise, for statutory and contractual salary-related claims, TADM will mediate. Only if mediation is unsuccessful will claimants proceed to the ECT.

Simply put: Salary dispute? Head to TADM. It will advise you and mediate between you and your employer. If that doesn’t work, you will be referred to the ECT. Not under ECT? You will be referred to the civil courts.
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There’s more…

Sometimes, even after dispute is settled, the relationship between the employer and employee may no longer be the same. And the process itself can be stressful.

With that in mind, new services have been added. TADM has partnered with Workforce Singapore (WSG) and the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) to help with employment issues. TADM has also roped in the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s social services offices to provide emotional and social support to help workers and their families through the tough time.

TADM will provide short term financial relief to low-wage workers in the bottom 20th percentile of the workforce. But only if the claimants are unable to draw a salary whether due to employer’s business failure or inability to pay wages.

The opening of the TADM and ECT is welcome news. Shady employers who preyed on their workers inability to seek recourse will now think twice – protections for employees just increased a good deal.

Where’s the TADM?

For local employees: Devan Nair Institute for Employment and Employability (DNI),
80 Jurong East Street 21

 For work pass holders: Ministry Of Manpower Services Centre,
1500 Bendemeer Road.

 

This article is part of a series on employment in partnership with the Ministry of Manpower.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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