April 29, 2017


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by Bertha Henson

Cupcakes and taco chips were being given out – gratis. Men and boys from a ukulele group were strumming away. Children were swimming in pools of balls. All in, it was a very Disney morning at Hong Lim Park today, complete with a magic castle. It was a “young people” event, mostly the English-speaking and the educated. A fair number were in red or white tee-shirts bearing the words Stand Up for Singapore, the group behind the event, which concluded at about 1pm.

Ukelele player at the picnic. (Photo by Shawn Danker)

It was billed as a picnic to show the positive side of being part of a community, an appreciation ceremony so to speak.

The organizers said so unabashedly in the flyers that came with a game card and a red picnic mat: “Today we would like to focus on the possibilities that we can achieve together and hopefully inspire each other by demonstrating that there are many Singaporeans who care deeply for our nation and will go out of their way to bring happiness and abundance to everyone that we can connect with. And hopefully just to encourage you to love each other just that little bit more.”

The group of 14 had sunk money into this project, its third. It wasn’t a sit down and enjoy the nice weather event. The key idea was for total strangers to interact. Hence, games were built around starting conversations with each other and ending with each participant writing down three qualities that they feel would make Singapore a country to be proud of.

Now, does that sound too cuddly to you? Or is that the cynic in me talking?

Standing round the edges of Hong Lim Park, I wondered at the energy and enthusiasm of the young people who were busy making balloon animals and pushing cupcakes on people. So sweet, I thought. Just wait till they are out of school and in the working world, that idealism would surely wear off…

Yet, the organizers themselves are a bunch of 30-somethings in various professions. I recalled what one of them had said to me: “We are not cynical people.” The turn-out, at most 400, was not as large as expected, given that it achieved a higher profile after a minor fracas had erupted over the group’s decision to stage the event at Hong Lim Park, on the same a May Day protest event was being held. Mr Tong Yee pronounced that he was happy enough.

As the morning wore on, white tents were being set up at the other side of the park. Sound systems were being tested.

The picnickers stuck to their corner.

More on that flyer: “And with this day, we hope to start a legacy for future Singaporeans. That we be known as a community of loving and gracious people, who continue to look out for each other and rest with the knowledge that we can trust our community to see us through… It is possible for us to play, to love, to genuinely connect with each other, and still be the great little nation that we are.”


A young man came to my side as I was watching a group break out in song. He introduced himself as Edward. Aged 20, he saw the group’s work on its Facebook page and decided to volunteer to help at the event. Nice-looking with a buff bod, he said: “Isn’t this nice?” He hadn’t come across an event like this, he said, a citizen-initiated event with no other agenda than to do good. I looked at this young man and his honest, open face. May he remain like that, I thought. Always looking out for something positive. And keep that buff bod!

A somewhat older woman passed by and handed me a tissue. “You look like you need one,’’ she said before walking away. A young woman called Eunice pressed a box of cupcakes to me. I declined. I am not a “sweets’’ person. Then she wanted to take a picture with me, this total stranger.

Balloons with messages of hope. (Photo by Shawn Danker)

A photojournalist who was with me said he felt uncomfortable. All that smiling, happy faces and red balloons. Everyone was like a child, even the old uncle on the ukulele. Some balloons had words scribbled on them: the qualities that those who took part in the games want for Singapore. The usual virtues were listed: kindness, patience, understanding et cetera. One balloon had this: “Less cynical”.

I caught myself smiling.


Following this event, Breakfast Network also stayed for the May Day protest. Find out what happened then.

by Daniel Yap

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak warned via TODAY that if Johor fell into opposition hands, the government’s “big dreams for Johor would simply disappear”, including, apparently, the fast-growing Iskandar project.

With RM100 billion already projected to be invested by 2015, and outcomes for locals looking generally positive so far, Iskandar Malaysia has been a big bargaining chip for both sides of the political divide.

First reactions (especially looking at TODAY’s headline – “Big plans will disappear if BN loses Johor: Najib”) may be that PM Najib is threatening to hamstring Iskandar if the government loses the state. While threats of withholding development from opposition seats are not new on either side of the causeway, this isn’t exactly such a case.

PM Najib described what he called the “Johor way” – the ruling Barisan Nasional’s “moderate and accommodating” style – as the reason for Johor’s success (ST, Najib touts ‘Johor way’ for Malaysia, Apr 30). He jumped on recent divides in the opposition Pakatan Rakyat camp to push the point that PR would be unable to maintain good race relations in Johor, which in turn would lead to failure in the state.

But it may be just a political ruse. Reports in the media maintain that PR draws a diverse crowd in Johor, and a recent seminar organised by UMNO-run Johor stoked anti-Christian sentiments.

Moreover, TODAY reported previously that Iskandar would stay on track even with the opposition in Johor.

He also discounts the “Singapore way”. Isn’t Johor’s success at least partly driven by Singapore’s? Because the overflow of industry and demand from her neighbour, Johor simply needs to keep the doors open to let the money flow in. Success in the state may really be beyond the control of both BN and PR.

Where’s our thanks, then? Not that we expect it, really, since having Johor and Iskandar as a release valve for our red hot economy has great benefits for Singapore as well, but hey, a little credit where it’s due, please.

But here’s Najib’s only nod to Singapore on the night – he compared the island’s lack of “Chinese schools” with Johor as  proof of his party’s commitment to the Chinese. Thanks.

by Bertha Henson

Going by the headline in today’s ST, ‘Buyers in a tizzy over possible EC tweaks’, you can imagine people banging their heads against walls and tearing their hair out. Perhaps, before buyers get into a tizzy, they should look more carefully at what National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said on Friday about “something is wrong somewhere’’ about the EC scheme.

At the heart of what is not right is a “sense of inequity’’ as he put it.

But it is not clear what is the inequity here. Here’s what he was quoted in Today saying: “The lower income group is getting less subsidies than somebody who is earning $12,000.’’ So is this in absolute dollar terms or as a proportion of income? The grant for EC buyers range from $10,000 to $30,000, while BTO buyers can get up to $60,000 if they earn less than $1,500 per month.

In ST, the “inequity’’ also referred to the profit that EC buyers can make on their units. Sure, in absolute terms, EC flat owners make more, given that ECs are pricier than Build-To-Order flats in the first place. But ST’s own checks showed that four-room flats in Chua Chu Kang, for example, appreciated by 200 per cent over seven years compared to an EC nearby which went up by 90 per cent.

Better to be clear on what is the “inequity’’.

Rather strangely too, people seem to be calculating in terms of what they can make from the flat, even before they buy them.

Is inequity to be measured in terms of profit to be gained after accounting for subsidy? If so, it may be well-nigh impossible to guarantee that every income group gets the same amount of profit – whether in absolute dollar terms, as a proportion of original price of flat or in a fixed ratio to subsidies given.

Is that the reason for the “home ownership’’ policy in the first place – to get a home to sell off at a profit or to have a home to sink your roots in? Also, is it the G’s role to ensure “equity’’ in profits?

Or is inequity to be measured by the size of the handout compared to the income of the buyer? The truth is that people are upset that ECs can be priced at $2million a unit – and yet seem affordable to the supposed “sandwiched’’ class. Clearly, some EC buyers have other kinds of financial resources, from parents for example. A bit of envy here. But that is true for any home buyer. You can get a bigger BTO flat if your parents help out too.

Or is it the price of ECs and its accompanying private property frills that needs to be tamped down? Then those with more resources will not find it worth their while to buy an EC, but move into private property instead. Or is this too much of a dog-in-the-manger approach?

In the conversation about housing, there hasn’t been a peep yet about the notion of housing vouchers. Give every Singaporean who reaches a certain age a lump sum and a crack at public housing. So married couples, parents and child, siblings and singles can combine their vouchers and buy a home. No one need complain then about some group getting more than others.

That is, if we really, really want to be equitable.

by Bertha Henson

If your heart didn’t break at news of the rain tree which felled (literally) a driving instructor over the weekend, you are made of stone. And if you are the mother of the man, your youngest son who was about to get married, your heart will now be in little pieces.

TNP today focused on the grief of the mother – and the rage she felt towards the driver of the car her son was in – his student. Somehow, she blames the hapless woman for her son’s death, ignoring the fact that the student-driver’s escape was a miracle. (The mother thinks the student-driver should have been more alert to her surroundings.) Her anger might well be directed at the heavens, which opened up and cut down the tree. Or even at NParks, which said it checked the tree and found that it was perfectly healthy and well-maintained.

The student-driver was good enough to turn up at the wake, only to be met by hostility. Perhaps, in time the grieving mother will come to terms with her son’s death instead of taking it out on someone who managed to stay alive. Breakfast Network offers its condolences to the mother and the family. As for the woman-driver: stay strong.

by Salima Nadira

People like to gossip. And boy, are they gossiping about Mr Nizam Ismail, who recently resigned from the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) over the G’s unhappiness at his politically-charged activities, which it maintains amounts to using the AMP as a platform for race-based politics. Berita Harian (BH) is awash with articles on Nizam’s private life and personal problems. It all began with this article which dug up enough dirt on Mr Nizam’s life to fuel one season of a drama serial on Suria.

The article checked all the boxes: Nizam divorced his first wife because he was messing around with his current second wife. Together, they are known as Awesome Twosome, and have performed (her on vocals and him on keys) at the Esplanade – there are videos on YouTube. But that’s not all. Nizam is also (gasp!) a womanizer, and has been around the block, shacking up with numerous Chinese ladies. One of these dalliances resulted in a child.

Having dropped this bomb, the article moves swiftly on to focus on his credit card debt of over $33,000 and the lawsuit which OCBC has on him. According to his close family and friends, this debt (and others) was an “open secret” amongst his family and close friends. However, many others were surprised at this debt, considering his cushy jobs in big banks like MAS; as Senior Vice President, Chief Compliance for Southeast Asia in Lehman Brothers; and later, Executive Director, Head of Compliance for Southeast Asia of Morgan Stanley.

In response, Nizam said he was disappointed and shocked that BH chose to ask such questions, as they have nothing to do with AMP or RIMA, the group’s research arm. He suggested that BH focus on issues like the retraction of funding from Malay/Muslim organizations, so that a variety of views, including critical ones, may be gathered.

Furthermore, debates rage over whether Mr Nizam can be considered to have been acting in his personal capacity, or whether his position as director of AMP and chairman of RIMA makes him morally obligated to walk within certain boundaries.

Apparently, prior to speaking at Hong Lim Park on Feb 16 and the Workers’ Party event, he had specifically asked the AMP chairman, Azmoon Ahmad, whether there were any issues with him speaking, even sending the chairman a copy of his presentation. He was given the go-ahead. On his blog, he says that “I am disappointed that my activities in these events have now been made an issue by AMP”.

AMP, on its part, has stated that its first principle is independence and non-partisanship, expressing disappointment in Mr Nizam’s actions which, although done in his personal capacity, was acting against these principles.

However, Mr Nizam argues on his blog that the Community Forum (ComFor) he proposed through AMP, which triggered the funding cut threat, “was meant to be an independent platform to discuss community and national issues” and to encourage a diversity of voices, rather than state-sponsored Community Leadership Forum (CLF) which he noted to be “top-down”.

Poor Mr Nizam. He wanted a diversity of voices; it looks like he’s got it. Unfortunately, voices tend to chatter much more when they’re gossiping. People are writing to defend BH for publishing reports on Mr Nizam’s OCBC lawsuit, and about AMP chairman’s emotional breakdown over how this quarrel demonstrates the disunity in the community.

More crucially, some people do not want this diversity of views that he’s trying to encourage. They are saying that as director of AMP he should not be participating in opposition party events and protest rallies, because this means that he’s partisan. And having a diversity of views means the community is not united.

Maybe Mr Nizam was going about things all wrong. Instead of trying to change mindsets and arguing big issues on his blog, he should instead just ride this wave of publicity, write and act in a drama of at least one season, earn big bucks, and retire with his wife on another, more idyllic island. This could very well be the big break for Awesome Twosome all along.

On a more serious note, however, one wonders why the Malay language newspaper chose to wash all that dirty linen in public at this time. Because Mr Nizam is perceived to be “down and out’’? The articles on his personal life and how some people think this reflects on his ability to be a community leader, could well have been written during his term in the AMP.

Such an exposé at this time only serves to fuel cynicism that the media is embarking on a character assassination exercise because a green light of sorts has been given. It smacks somewhat of Palmergate and the Yaw Shin Leong affair. Except that Mr Nizam is not an MP. At least not yet.

by Bertha Henson

Don’t know how many people know this but there are actually two events taking place at Hong Lim Park on May Day. The more well-known one is by the same organisers who held the Population White Paper protest in February. This has been billed variously as a sequel, a move to call for a better Singapore – a labour day “protest’’ – a ground up movement – unlike the prim and proper NTUC May Day rally held indoors for invited guests only.

It will start at 4pm.

There is also a morning event starting at 9am, held by a group of people who call themselves Stand Up For Singapore. These are the people who distributed tokens to bus and taxi drivers who worked during Christmas. They propose a picnic-style event on that same patch of green more known for political events than for parties.

Being named after a national song, it is no wonder that this group has been facing some flak from those who think they are government plants out to take the shine away from the 4pm event. Never mind that this is Stand Up for Singapore organising the event – not some political group.

The scale of the reaction took them quite by surprise, key members of the group told Breakfast Network over the weekend.

The picnic would be their third event. They have always used public holidays to spread their message of getting Singaporeans to be more appreciative of each other. Their first, which caught the eye of the Prime Minister, was on National Day. They fanned out to get people to give up their seats for the elderly and the infirm on public transport. In fact, that was how their moniker Stand Up for Singapore came about. Buoyed by the good response, they proceeded with the Christmas Day event to show appreciation to those who manned the public transport system on holidays. That too garnered great responses.

Then planning began for a third. Mr Tong Yee, a member who is also behind the Thought Collective group of social enterprises, acknowledged that the group was probably naïve not to have anticipated that their event would be misconstrued as having a political agenda. They had no idea that another event was to be staged when they applied for a permit and when they did, they moved the event to the morning.

But what exactly is their message?

Mr Tong Yee said that they wanted to explore the idea of “rest’’ on May Day and incorporate the notion that rest can only be achieved if there is trust that everyone will do his or her part to ensure all is well. They chose to set this in Hong Lim Park, where Speakers’ Corner might convey the idea of “lepak in one corner’’. There was also the long-held notion that the park was only a place for the outpouring of anger and dissatisfaction. The group wanted to change that. Why can’t Hong Lim Park be a place where happy things happen too?

A bit airy-fairy?

The group admits that the idea had somewhat morphed so much that they decided to stick to a picnic theme for clarity. For $5, participants will get a goodie bag and a picnic mat. But the programme, they maintained, will reiterate the theme of expressing appreciation for others and the value of being members of a community. The group is putting up about $14,000 of their own money and have no expectations of recouping it.

Unlike the line-up of speakers for the afternoon event, there will be no “political’’ guests. “We’d rather they stayed away!’’ Mr Tong Yee said good-humouredly.

Another member, Mr Wally Tham, has been hard at work responding to those who slam the group on sites such as Temasek Review Emeritus. Going by the responses he made to detractors, the bespectacled video producer has been the soul of patience, reiterating that the picnic is not only a non-political event, but an attempt at humour even. In any case, “people will interpret anything the way they want’’.

It is tempting to describe the group which has about 12 core members as a bunch of do-gooders.  But that would be derogatory.

Said another member, architect Goh Chin Yen: “We are not cynical people. But we are not foolishly idealistic too.’’

They have an added reason for doing what they do. What the group found out from past events: young people want to be able to express positive feelings, rather than join in the cynicism that seems so prevalent among working adults. Their young volunteers were pleasantly surprised to find adults with faith in the good qualities of Singaporeans – and who were willing to demonstrate it too.

So it seems that the May Day picnic is just that: Getting people to be happy together. The group’s worry now is being able to cater for what they think would be a bigger crowd than the couple of hundred that had anticipated. Seems the group got more attention than they bargained for.

Breakfast Network wishes them well. Have a good picnic!

The need for unions to evolve to include professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) was the key message from Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean as he addressed 1,600 unionists at last night’s May Day dinner.

Today, about half the resident workforce are PMETs, with the proportion expected to increase to two thirds by 2030. In comparison, three quarters of union members today are non-PMETs, which shows a significant difference in union representation between the two groups.

NTUC seems intent on filling in this gap, and is pushing for an amendment to the Employment Act to allow rank-and-file unions to represent PMETs, something that current laws do not allow.

The current legislation the bars rank-and-file unions from representing PMETs exists because of past concerns about conflicts of interest. However, with a large and growing services and finance sector, many professionals and executives have no or little say in wage or employment decisions anyway. Some (like sales staff and designers) have in effect become rank-and-file workers, but are stripped of union cover.

Existing legislation only allow those unions to represent PMETs in cases of retrenchment, breach of contract, victimisation and unfair dismissal. Few PMET-specific unions have been formed.

As the mainstay of Singapore’s future workforce, PMETs’ representation needs have already begin to mirror that of rank-and-file workers.  Unfair treatment, wages, benefits and opportunities at work may go unaddressed without union representation, making working in Singapore less attractive.

This call for change falls against a backdrop of higher white-collar layoffs in 2012 (ST, Layoffs up 10% with restructuring, more white-collar workers hit, Apr 26). The Business Times (Restructuring leads to higher incidence of layoffs in 2012: MOM, Apr 26), pinpointed the financial services sector as the leader for layoffs in terms of raw numbers as banks tightened up their hiring.

The professional services and wholesale and retail trade sectors also led redundancies for services, compared to fewer layoffs for manufacturing and construction.

Mr Patrick Tay, Director for NTUC’s Legal Services Department and PME Unit, expects the amended Employment Act to pass its first and second parliamentary readings “by the last quarter of this year”.

by Bertha Henson

The G is really super-fast! On Saturday, a letter from Ms Braema Mathi of Maruah was published in ST’s Forum page asking for a clear stand on the participation of politicians in groups that receive state funding. Today, the G has responded. But what sort of response was it?

To recap, the Saturday letter was written in the wake of Mr Nizam Ismail’s departure from the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), although, if you read the letter carefully, there was neither a mention of Mr Nizam nor the circumstances surrounding his resignation.

What Ms Mathi did was pick up a point that Minister Yaacob Ibrahim made: that state money given to NGOs and volunteer groups shouldn’t be used for the purpose of “creating a platform for people to be involved in partisan politics’’.

What has been circulating is that Mr Nizam was pressured to leave because of his involvement in opposition forums and his controversial views which seem to put him at odds with the Establishment.

But now, new “material’’ has emerged. The accusation by the G is that Mr Nizam is using the AMP as a cover to promote his race-based politics.

How so? He tried to revive an old proposal that had been nixed. This proposal in 2000 was for a “collective leadership’’ picked by members of the Malay community. More recently, the AMP proposed a “community forum’’, which the G said was a guise for the old proposal. What such proposals would lead to is the start of race-based politics, the G claimed.

That there has always been some kind of official discomfort over AMP, is not surprising given the circumstances of its birth which – those with long memories will recall – was to make up for what some of its members felt were the shortcomings of Malay/Muslim MPs and Mendaki.

The collective leadership idea was shot down then by the then-PM Goh Chok Tong but fences were subsequently mended so much so that the G, through Mendaki, now actually gives grants to AMP. Then last year, the idea of a community forum, to re-position Malay-Muslim organisations into groups that “engage a national, inter-ethnic, issue-oriented agenda’’ was mooted. It seemed like a rival to the Mendaki-organised Community Leadership Forum.

No less than PM Lee Hsien Loong had misgivings about the proposal.

He said at its convention last year: “I was not quite sure what exactly AMP had in mind. So, I asked and I understand from the explanation that one motivation is that AMP feels that issues which affect the Malay/Muslim community, whether it is dysfunctional families, whether it is education, whether it is drugs, cut across all communities in Singapore and are really national issues.

“AMP believes they should be addressed by the government as national issues and not just as community issues. On these issues AMP would like to contribute to the national discussion and not just be doing their own thing by themselves. They also explained that AMP had no intention of developing a platform for racial politics.’’

He urged that the AMP and other Malay/Muslim groups “have a care about venturing into civil society issues’’ which are not primarily to do with the community, lest it veer away from its mission of improving the soci0-economic well-being of the community.

Unsurprising, the AMP “reworked’’ its concept.

The above is just a short summary about the controversy that AMP was in, needed because the G’s letter was pretty short on background.

Now being accused of race-based politics is something new, throwing out the old notion that it was Mr Nizam’s seeming connections with anti-Establisment groups that caused him to be nudged him out. The G’s letter also made reference to the “strident’’ postings on his blog and personal Facebook page, in which he “identifies himself as a key AMP figure’’. (So he wasn’t clear enough about speaking in his personal capacity?)

The waters have been muddied further.

Now, the discussion will move to what is race-based politics and whether state-fund VWOs should be given the freedom to espouse views that are different from the officially-sanctioned narrative. The G’s letter said Mr Nizam is entitled to pursue his political activities – just not in AMP. It seems to be a coded message that he should just join a political party if he wants to get political, a long-standing position of the G.

And what of Ms Mathi’s main point in her letter on whether the same rules apply to People’s Action Party MPs sitting on state-funded VWOs and NGOs? The G’s answer was, of course they apply too. Period.

Her letter has led to a different answer to what others might have anticipated… Given Mr Nizam’s example, PAP MPs should be booted out of such groups too, especially if they speak at PAP-organised forums or join in partisan political activities.

Instead, the G has finally come clean (or is there still more to come?) on why it wanted Mr Nizam out, practically acknowledging that it had put pressure on the AMP to get him to resign.

Now what?

Many ways to look at it:

– Better to have a clear idea of the G’s reasons first, than to speculate on why Mr Nizam was removed, although there would be plenty of discomfort over the visible hand it played in this saga.

– Get annoyed that the G imputes political agendas to ideas that might really have stemmed from wanting to do good for a segment of society.

– Wonder if the G is practising double standards when it too has race-based policies in its arsenal.

– Wonder why the rest of AMP allowed the proposals to be floated in the first place, if they shared the G’s view that it would be dangerous to racial harmony.

– When you set up a VWO or NGO, do NOT apply for G funding.