April 28, 2017

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by Daniel Yap

WHEN the G’s feedback unit Reach conducted a random, demographically-weighted phone survey of 1,111 Singaporeans over 20 to ask about public support for budget measures, it found that the 30 per cent water price hike was, unsurprisingly, unpopular.

The 52 per cent overall support level for the budget is the lowest by far since Reach started polling in 2010. The next most unpopular budget was in 2011 at 60 per cent, while the post-GE budget of 2012 garnered 93 per cent support.

But what is most intriguing is the serious gap between the support level for the overall budget and the 58 to 80 per cent support for individual measures (sans water price hike) polled. What gives? Did the water issue contribute so significantly towards the overall lack of support for the budget? Or is there something else out of whack?

Other highlights from the Reach press release were unusual as well. Questions asked seemed to try and measure agreement with statements of cause-and-effect rather than polling for support levels.

For example, the question “The enhancements to the Adapt & Grow initiative and other training support under the SkillsFuture initiative will help create better employment opportunities for Singaporeans” does not actually asks respondents whether they agree with the policy – only whether they agree with the stated effect.

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Seven out of the nine questions in the survey were of this nature, with the exceptions being “Overall, I support the initiatives announced in the Budget” (52 per cent agree) and “It is reasonable to increase water prices to fund the higher costs of water production and to encourage water conservation” (32 per cent agree).

That probably accounts for the vast difference between the overall support and the apparently positive results for individual policies. In other words, people agree that the policy will have the stated effect, but probably disagree that the policy should exist.

Reach surveys face problems as indicators of real ground sentiments. Academic Derek da Cunha said in a Facebook post that “public opinion polls conducted in Singapore by a government or government-affiliated agency are not worth much, if anything.” He said that a high percentage of “neutral” answers was an indication that respondents were fearful of articulating their real thoughts about G policies to someone who had identified as a representative of the G.

“Neutral” answers to questions asked ranged from 15 per cent to 35 per cent.

Policymakers, the G and the public will probably want to read the Reach poll results with a sceptical eye, and Reach will need to look for better ways to conduct its polls if it really wants to know what Singaporeans are really thinking.

 

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by Bertha Henson

WHO would have thought civil servants would feature so much in the Budget debate? You have MPs who think the system (not civil servants) lack heart and more can be done to improve empathy levels. This, coming after several luminaries, including the Prime Minister, talking about the need for naysayers in the public service rather than people who respond with “three bags full”.

This time, they feature prominently in the debate on the Town Council Amendment Bill, with opposition MPs suggesting that G officials in the Ministry of National Development will be less than neutral over the operations of town councils.

I suppose the mental image that the Workers’ Party has is this: A bunch of civil servants barging into Aljunied-Hougang town council office, rifling through cabinets and accessing computer records because of some suspected wrong-doing on the town council’s part. Or entangling the town council in reams of red tape by asking endless questions because they have oversight powers. And leaving the wards of Ministers alone because, as civil servants, they wouldn’t want to get into the bad books of their political masters.

WP’s Pritam Singh said : “The MND risks becoming a tool of the ruling party of the day to fix the opposition.”

With MND oversight, allegations of partisanship would naturally arise given that a PAP minister is overall in charge. The perception of bias will always be there despite the PAP’s efforts to deny it.

His fellow WP MP Sylvia Lim said: “It is not possible to argue that the ministry is a politically neutral body as recent history unfortunately belies that claim.”

She gave the example of the General Election campaign in 2015, when the Ministry was “an active campaigner against the Workers’ Party, issuing statements practically daily on the alleged misconduct of AHPETC”.

She also said, without elaborating: “To take another example: we have also seen past records of how the Ministry advised a PAP TC how to make good a breach of the Town Councils Financial Rules, quietly behind closed doors, without any media release on the same.”

That is so intriguing.

Of course, the People’s Action Party side came out hammer and tongs accusing the WP of impugning the integrity of the civil service. Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee had a wonderful quote about how Ms Lim seemed to think that civil servants are “timorous souls” who would “kowtow” to their boss’ bidding.

AHPETC signboard
Aljunied Hougang Punggol East Town Council

No one would dispute that the Act needed updating. The still on-going saga over the finances of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East town council showed up the loopholes on conflict of interest and corporate governance. The G suddenly realised that it couldn’t move on certain things, like order a TC to yield up records and submit information. There was also no “stick” it could wield.

Mr Lee made an interesting point about how AHPETC broke the “unspoken compact” which began when town councils were formed in 1989: That town councillors and elected MPs would proactively fix problems that arise or report suspected misdeeds to the police or Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

In other words, that TCs would “ownself check ownself” just like Ang Mo Kio town council did when it reported its general manager to the police. So if the WP’s finances had been in fine shape, there would be no need for more oversight measures? Hmm.

At the heart of the debate is whether town councils are political bodies. Taken to the bitter political end, MND shouldn’t intervene in a TC’s affairs at all and let residents live with the consequences of their choice. But the G realises that people think it is an administrative issue and expect the G to deal with problems everywhere, including opposition areas.

It’s a tricky balancing act. With MND oversight, allegations of partisanship would naturally arise given that a PAP minister is overall in charge. The perception of bias will always be there despite the PAP’s efforts to deny it.

In fact, it might add fuel to the view that the management of housing estates should go back to the way it was.

According to the feedback given to REACH which had a public consultation process on the Bill, some people had suggested that HDB or MND take over the functions. Or if there must be a regulator, the role could be given to the HDB “so that regulatory decision are one-step removed from political office holders”.

There was also an interesting suggestion that TCs be merged with HDB branch office with chairmen appointed by MND. The elected MPs could form separate committees to guide the work of the new set up to implement infrastructure projects. “This would ensure that the towns are managed fairly, regardless of the party in power.”

Such suggestions, however, would mean unpicking the whole town council structure. It’s like making the elected presidency an appointed office.

I wish that there was a direct response to Ms Lim’s proposal that Auditor-General’s Office could be tasked with auditing town councils on a rotational basis as a substitute for MND’s oversight. There is also her suggestion that an independent Housing Tribunal, chaired by a judge and experts in housing matters, be authorised to mediate and adjudicate disputes relating to the management of public housing.

These are political approaches, of course, to safeguard the independence and autonomy of town councils. They might well be cumbersome and there’s no guarantee that “bias” charge will be overcome.

Do voters really care though?

It’s clear that the WP was tardy and less than transparent about its finances. This might have led to its loss of Punggol East and its shaved margins for Aljunied and Hougang in the 2015 general election. But it can be also argued that if its offences were so egregious as the G makes them out to be, then voters would be moved to eject it altogether. They didn’t.

The amendment Bill actually gives voters less reason to care about who runs their town council. That’s because the law gives the G more powers to supervise, provide oversight and pick up the pieces. Even lift upgrading and replacement are penciled in

HDB residents can really have their cake – and eat it.

 

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Singapore Parliament.

by The Middle Ground

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong took to Facebook on Saturday evening (March 4) to praise the quality of Mr Kok Heng Leun’s speech in Parliament, as well as those of Nominated MP Randolph Tan, Nominated MP Ganesh Rajaram, and even WP chief Low Thia Khiang

Of the NMPs, Mr Lee said: They are not in politics, and would not otherwise have had a voice in Parliament. But they have brought their expertise and experience to bear, and enriched the public discourse,” and that their speeches “exemplify the purpose of the Nominated MP scheme”.

He said NMP Kok Heng Leun “spoke on how arts and culture can help bond and build resilience in our society, at a time of upheaval and uncertainty”.

He said that “some opposition MPs made good speeches” and ended his Facebook post by saying that “this is how Parliamentary democracy is supposed to work. Sometimes we fall short of this ideal, but in the case of these four speeches, we have not done badly”.

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Here is Mr Kok’s speech in full:

UPHEAVALS, DISPLACEMENT and THE ART OF RESILIENCE

Thank you Minister Heng for preparing this budget for 2017.

I recall my experience last year, the first time I stood before the House to speak about the budget. I had noted that culture was not mentioned in the speech. This year, I am thankful and happy that the arts and culture are mentioned, although in only one paragraph… on the good news of the boost of the Cultural Matching Fund.

So, for the next few minutes, I would like make art and culture my subject: Upheavals, Displacement and The Art of Resilience.

UPHEAVALS

We are all acutely aware that we live in a complex world today. We have been forewarned that the times ahead will be difficult. There will be displacements to our seemingly orderly lives.

Last month, I attended a seminar organised by the Salzburg Global Seminar. This organization was set up 70 years ago after World War Two, gathering thinkers, practitioners and policy-­‐makers to consider world issues, articulate problems and propose broad strategies to deal with these problems. For the 2017 iteration, 40 fellows from various part of the world (including myself) participated in the seminar, which was held in a beautiful palace, the Schloss Leopoldskron. The palace is famous because it is the location site of one of the beloved musical film, The Sound of Music.

During the seminar, while overlooking the idyllic lake, we shared and listened to stories and experiences that were at times harrowing, heartbreaking and deeply disturbing.

One fellow from Uganda shared that her brother was abducted by rebels, and how her family had to keep silent, despite knowing that he would become a child soldier. Another participant shared about the unbearable lightness of existence—the result of her experience of war and blood shed.

Our American friends said they feared waking up to another executive order that would bring the U.S. closer to isolation. Yet, within the same country, we heard about another crisis, this time from a Native American, through songs and rituals, demonstrated the solidarity of her relatives in their bid to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

There were also stories about other urgent global issues, from climate change to social and income inequality. So many issues, so many crises and so many stories of upheavals, which resulted in a huge sense of loss and displacement.

DISPLACEMENT

As I listened to these sharings, I realised that back in sunny Singapore, although we are cushioned from the immediacy of these crises, we cannot deny that they will undoubtedly impact us. For many Singaporeans, myself included , the Rohingya crisis seems far away, when in actual fact, it is really close, refugees in Johor, needing help and support.

A community that is hurt and injured is a world that is not at peace.

Let us also not be complacent and imagine that such upheavals is too far away, or will never happen to us.

For now, while we may not experience such gut-­‐wrenching upheavals, we have our own issues of displacement: Migrant workers who have come to Singapore to make a living despite their personal sense of dislocation; single parents and their children who do not enjoy the same benefits of other traditional family units, and who struggle to make ends meet; workers who feel that their jobs are at risk because technological advancements and artificial intelligence might make their roles obsolete, losing their sense of place at home, in the society, and with themselves.

Displacement comes with change. In physics, displacement maps out the relative change of the position of an object, moving from one point to another. But it does not reflect the distance and time one need to take to move from this point to the other. Just like in real life.

For some it is a straight line, quick and fast. Or others, it is a path with a lot of derailments, bringing them through ups and downs, and in some instances, they never arrive.

Naturally, we want the change that we experience to be good, that it bring us forward and upwards, in a straight line—in other words, positive displacement. But most of the time, negative displacement within our society is real and undeniable. With the widening income gap, the lower to middle income groups constantly feel the squeeze as they try to keep up with change.

At the same time, their lack of resources has resulted in derailment. When they are reminded to catch up or be left behind, it sounds as if the problem is that of a personal failing in their lack of trying, rather than a systemic one.

Change favours the privileged. Privilege comes in different forms. All of us here are privileged because we have the power to affect change. Or so I’d like to believe. You can be privileged in terms of wealth or education… or even as a race. It is thus the responsibility of those who are privileged to speak up for those who are not – those who do not earn as much, those who are not as educated, those who are sidelined by our laws.

In a society that celebrates achievement and progress, no one wants to be seen as a failure. Failure results in alienation. People who feel alienated, who feel helpless, become angry. We see the outcomes of such unhappiness on social media, often resulting in an echo chamber effect, reinforcing collective discontentment.

The frustration that stems from material, emotional and psychological insecurity creates a further polarisation of society. We begin to fear the other. This pervasive sense of threat is dangerous. It not only prevents us from being empathetic and compassionate, but encourages selfishness, and can even make violence and brutality justifiable in extreme situations.

STATE STRATEGIES

The government is aware of these concerns and addresses them through pro-­‐business policies and enhancing the safety net. In an immediate term, pro-­‐business policies may retain create and jobs, but it might not ensure a trickle-­‐down effect on the economy to individuals. Standards of living may still stagnate.

While the government’s extended social safety net will help, with no substantial increase in income, the reliance on social support may be protracted. But self-­‐esteem is directly related to self-­‐reliance. Rather than hoping the safety net is wide enough to catch them, people would generally prefer to lead a self-­‐sustainable, dignified life, earning a respectable wage that ensures their independence. The late British sociologist, Peter Townsend, once said,

“It may be worth reflecting, if indeed a little sadly, that possibly the ultimate test of the quality of a free, democratic and prosperous society is to be found in the standards of freedom, democracy and prosperity enjoyed by its weakest members.”

I and many others believe this to be true, and in difficult times, we must be ever more attentive to those amongst us who fall through the cracks.

As such, I wish to hear more from the Minister on how the livable wages of the middle income and lower income can be raised.

This brings me to the next point: while the Committee for Future Economy focused on economic strategies, it is essential that a study on the cultural impact of these economic strategies be made. Every economic structural change affects individuals, family, society, politics, infrastructure, environment, the tangible and intangible heritage, and the arts—in other words, the culture of our society and the city state as a whole.

We must take a proactive approach to anticipate the impact of these structural changes, rather than react to them when they arise. To give an example: technological advancement has progressed so rapidly beyond our imaginations that we as humans are trying to grasp hold of the changes and manage them well without falling behind. Another example is that the impact of the expansionary immigration policy of the 90s to early 2000 could be mitigated if we had done a cultural impact study earlier. Cultural impact of economic strategies will therefore put us in good stead to manage changes and their effects on society.

I would now like to unpack a term I have heard numerous times in the House since our debate began: “deep skills”.

What is deep skill without deep thinking?

What is crucial here is a culture of creative and critical thinking. Such a culture cannot manifest overnight through new state funding schemes. There is no better time than now to scrutinise our current education system, and incorporate opportunities for creative and critical thinking within it, to develop our next generation and generations to come. The government can create scaffolds and support structures for innovation, but the root source of innovation lies in the people.

We often talk about software or HEART-­‐ware, as opposed to HARD-­‐ ware. Software is not just about skills, it’s about human interaction. How lacking are we these days, in the art of conversation? We have reduced our exchanges to monosyllables: ‘Can’. ‘Want’. ‘K’. I’m not talking about language. I’m talking about connecting.

How do employers and employees connect? How do strangers converse? How do we settle a public disagreement in a multiracial and multi-­‐religious society? How do we manage the increasing moral panic? How do we not see ourselve as helpless individuals, alienated, or a powerless observer to surrounding injustice? How do we see ourselves as active change agents for our society and the world?

THE ART OF RESILIENCE

This leads me to my next point on resilience. To manage change and displacement, we as a society must become stronger; we must actively develop the art of resilience. In trying times, resilience in individuals is key in helping us repulse fear, resist and reject the injustice and oppressive status quo. Resilience embraces difficult yet transformative changes. It takes courage and conviction; it encourages objective and critical thinking. At the same time, it enables empathy, compassion and a greater sense of hope.

I have attended a number of forum last year’s and there was always this call to artist to response to this trying times.

In Salzburg Global Seminar, policy makers, thinkers, NGOs and rep from C40 etc made the call for arts to be the active change agent and building resilience.

In Weimar, a conference on Sharing and Exchange, political scientists, economists, philosophers also stress the importance of collaboration and inter-­‐cultural exchanges.

In Malta, NGOs, CEOs of arts council around the world made the call for resilience and more arts to heal, to repair, to imagine.

As an arts practitioner, I can attest to the fact that the arts can develop resilience, because it opens us up to critical thinking processes, be it as a spectator or audience, participant or creator.

To give an example: Mr Ong, an audience member of my community forum theatre play, shared:

“I used to be a very impatient person. But after watching forum theatre play, when I get into a disagreement with my spouse, I will remember you, Heng Leun. I remember when you will conduct a forum theatre play, and when a crisis happens, you will say, ‘Stop! Take this moment to think, to reflect.’ So I do it. I stop. I think. I reflect. It makes me less impatient, and of course with that, there is less arguments and more discussion.”

For creators, the arts is a means for articulating difficulties otherwise left unvoiced and seething beneath the surface. Take for instance my friend from Uganda, Beatrice Lamwaka, who wrote stories that helped her heal from her pain and trauma of living through arduous times. I urge you to read her award-­‐winning work Butterfly Dream, which can be found on the internet.

At home, we have witnessed the lyrical poetry of our migrant workers in Singapore, who have given us an unflinching glimpse into their lives here. Take Bikas Nath from Bangladesh, a poet and shipyard worker who won first prize at the 2016 Migrant Workers Poetry Competition. He shared that when he is lonely, “the pen and paper are my friends. So when I have the time, I try to write down my feelings.” I quote from his award-­‐winning poem, “Why Migrant?”:
.

I long to run back

into the warm embrace of my homeland

Among loved ones

Laugh over a steaming cup of home-­‐made tea

to the sound of the impatient strumming of a guitar somewhere

Wearing my blue school uniform

I want to lose myself

Back into my childhood

Like a stubborn child on a rainy monsoon day

Hiding under the safety of Taro leaves in the swamp
.

What the arts offer is a world of imagination, and in that, the seed of hope. In art-­‐making, an individual encounters the power of art to heal, repair, and bring hope in difficult times.

Aside from individual resilience, we need to build on community resilience. By that, I mean a community that comes together to listen to differences, mediate and recognise that each differing point of view deserves respect and understanding. The resilient community will never neglect the individual voice within the sea of voices.

Again, the arts compel us to be engaged through active listening and collaboration, which are essential building blocks that inform creation. Active listening allows us to develop empathy and to experience views beyond our comfort zone and echo chambers. I therefore urge the House, that WE, continue to listen and give, with respect. More communication, more openness. Less groupthink, less judgement.

Beyond our own communities, we must also build on inter-­‐ community resilience, so that we do not become insular and self-­‐ serving. We live in an inter-­‐connected world, and we therefore need to look out for others, because their circumstances will have an effect on us. To develop inter-­‐comunity resilience, we must create platforms for active engagement between communities that allow for good, honest and deep dialogues. The arts is one such platform that not only entertains but also educates. It presents scenarios within safe spaces for the public, making us aware of narratives that are often concealed in our midst, and inspiring us to be the change we want to see in society

Similarly, in building inter-­‐community resilience, we need to build such safe spaces where rules of engagement are adhered to, to ensure that our dialogues remain respectful yet robust, critical yet compassionate, passionate yet measured and non-­‐violent.

therefore urge the House, that WE, continue to listen and give, with respect. More communication, more openness. Less groupthink, less judgement

Beyond our own communities, we must also build on inter-­‐ community resilience, so that we do not become insular and self-­‐ serving. We live in an inter-­‐connected world, and we therefore need to look out for others, because their circumstances will have an effect on us. To develop inter-­‐community resilience, we must create platforms for active engagement between communities that allow for good, honest and deep dialogues. The arts is one such platform that not only entertains but also educates. It presents scenarios within safe spaces for the public, making us aware of narratives that are often concealed in our midst, and inspiring us to be the change we want to see in society

Similarly, in building inter-­‐community resilience, we need to build such safe spaces where rules of engagement are adhered to, to ensure that our dialogues remain respectful yet robust, critical yet compassionate, passionate yet measured and non-­‐violent.

LEADERSHIP

It cannot be stressed enough that leadership plays an important role in motivating and inspiring citizens to take greater responsibility for our shared growth, instead of just focusing on individual success stories. This means being politically motivated to gain a better

distribution of wealth and success. It cannot be achieved merely through business-­‐oriented measures or short-­‐term handouts. Rather, in developing long-­‐term strategies to reduce the income gap, our leaders can reignite self-­‐belief, meaningfulness and dignity in the people.

Likewise, an enlightened leadership must respect the differences that exist within our society—not tolerating, not co-­‐existing with, but embracing and celebrating diversity and plurality of views, lifestyles and people. In an era where there is increased polarisation sparked off by religion, politics and class, our leaders have ever more important roles as beacons of reason and mediation. To be resilient is to never allow communities to splinter into us vs. them ideologies, but rather, to make people see that there is a “u” in “us”. We are in this together

As we move our nation forward with the proposals by the Committee of Future Economy, let us remember to become positive forces of change, to find new ways of seeing and listening, and to always be resilient and compassionate to those who fall through the cracks of the system. If we are to become a community of hope in these difficult times, we cannot merely focus on straightforward success stories, but must engage with those who feel most sidelined and marginalised, so that we can become more robust and resilient, together, and never alone.

In Pig Earth, part of a trilogy written by later John Berger, about peasant’s trying to survive under capitalism, there is a scene of a old peasant playing a mouth organ in the mountain, while he was trying to save an old cow. And John Berger wrote, “All music is about survival, addressed to survivors.” Hence, by extension, all art is about survival, addressed to survivors.

And only with that, I support the bill. Thank you.

 

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by The Middle Ground 

WHAT’S good about Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Randolph Tan’s speech? Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took to Facebook on Saturday evening (March 4), and said that his speech, as well as those of NMP Koh Heng Luen, NMP Ganesh Rajaram, and even WP chief Low Thia Khiang, showed the quality of Singapore’s Parliamentary debate, even though the House is not as dramatic as it is in some other countries.

Of the NMPs, Mr Lee said: “They are not in politics, and would not otherwise have had a voice in Parliament. But they have brought their expertise and experience to bear, and enriched the public discourse,” and that their speeches “exemplify the purpose of the Nominated MP scheme”.

He commented that NMP Randolph Tan is “tracking our restructuring efforts closely”. He ended his Facebook post by expressing that “this is how Parliamentary democracy is supposed to work. Sometimes we fall short of this ideal, but in the case of these four speeches, we have not done badly”.

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Here is Mr Randolph Tan’s speech in full:

Budget 2017 Debate

Speech by Randolph Tan, Nominated Member

Mdm Speaker, thank you, for allowing me to join in this debate.

Madam, I strongly support the current Budget proposals. They address ongoing challenges in the economic restructuring process and, despite the changes the last year has brought, reiterate the vision of a secure future that Minister Heng has set out from last year’s Budget.

The circumstances we face are undoubtedly unique, but there are important lessons from the experience of other countries that we only ignore at our peril. We could just as easily become trapped in our own lost decade, exhausting our limited resources on a dispersed agenda without heed to strengthening our economic foundations. Our priority, therefore, should be to provide a footing for future generations that is even more secure than the one we now have.

Madam, to me, this Budget is about seeing beyond the uncertainty, taking leadership responsibility in issues that matter, and possessing the courage of our conviction to complete the restructuring task at hand.

This Budget takes a strong lead in shaping the environmental agenda. We have enjoyed our entitlements of clean air and clean water for as long as we remember. But the unwelcome reality brought about by changes in our world is that not only are both in short supply, the two are growing sources of contention in an increasingly fractious world. Singapore has developed a lead in clean water technology and we can do the same with green technologies in general. A fundamental element in managing the competing access to clean water and air is to correctly price their availability. The long-term consequences of mispricing water and pollution are severe and incompatible with the direction we intend to take for our future economy, as well as for our society. We should not leave future generations unprepared to confront a problem that is developing now.

The issue is not how much clean water we still have or where the current threats to our environmental air quality lie. The issue is much broader and has to do with our collective responsibility for the environment and societal development. Hence, I would like to urge the Minister to consider price corrections in other areas in urgent need of attention as well. Areas such as electronic waste generation, should be incorporated into a comprehensive strategy for responsible environmental advocacy. By ensuring that pricing is imposed on both water and pollution, Singapore is not just taking a responsible leadership role in pushing forward the agenda for dealing with climate change, we will also be putting in place incentives for nurturing the development of technologies whose global economic potential is rapidly expanding. These lie on the path of our future economy.

Madam, there are some areas, however, where I feel that further clarification on how the long-term vision could be achieved would be useful. The first of these is our manpower policy. We should strengthen the connection between our manpower policy and our skills framework.

Foreign workforce growth has been slowing since 2011. Although the recent weakening in demand has been partly due to economic conditions, there is little doubt that the primary mechanism bringing about this shift is the system of levies and dependency ratio ceilings (DRCs).

Our policy on foreign manpower should not just be about restrictions. It should be about promoting long-term economic competitiveness for the benefit of our overall workforce. In order to realise this objective, we must be open to the type of skills we lack and incorporate foreign manpower contributions into a comprehensive strategy for filling our skills gaps.

The indications are that we have made promising improvements in this direction. In the third quarter of 2016, the number of work permit holders in manufacturing and construction declined, contributing to a rare quarterly contraction in total employment in Singapore. As a result, preliminary statistics from MOM show foreign employment (excluding foreign domestic workers) shrinking over the course of 2016 as a whole, the first time this has occurred since the global financial crisis for the whole year. At the same time, labour productivity measures depict improving performance. Full year 2016 figures show real value-added per worker hitting 1%, after having remained stubbornly negative in the preceding two years. And the quarterly statistics show the improvement was sustained throughout, with fourth quarter real value-added per worker hitting 2.4%. What is reassuring is that these changes occurred gradually, despite the fluid environment and turbulent global backdrop.

The work is far from done, and the productivity challenge is an ongoing one. The delicate balance of maintaining robust domestic employment, ensuring global standards of openness to deep and diverse skills, and injecting momentum into the productivity drive is a challenge that all countries face.

Given the limitations of our domestic labour market, the magnitude of the challenge we face in Singapore is far greater. That is why robust yet flexible policy instruments are so important. There is no doubt that our foreign manpower management policy has encountered enormous challenges. This should not detract from the tremendous success it represents as well. Compared to many other countries, we have taken a lead in this area and we should recognise its effectiveness.

Going forward, we should re-orientate our policy to move away from restricting inflows and focus on growing skills sets that our domestic workforce alone will be too slow to achieve on its own. This idea is not new. The “triple weak” system promulgated by the Minister for Manpower for monitoring companies’ with poor hiring practices already contains essentially the same key ingredients, which is that companies should be assessed on a multi-dimensional metric, rather than a single- dimensional measure.

The predecessor to the CFE, the Economic Strategies Committee, originally proposed the system of levies and DRCs. The CFE has developed the principle further. In its report, it recognises the need for foreign talent with specialised skills sets and calls to develop a more differentiated foreign workforce policy. To achieve this differentiation, instead of using the number of workers as the basic unit of measure, we should measure skills instead, and determine levies based on the extent of the skills gap that an employer encounters within the existing domestic workforce, as well as the changes in the gap over time.

The measurement of skills sets and skills levels should be carried out in coordination with the skills framework constructs being developed by SkillsFuture Singapore. The resulting system should be validated by the needs of the Industrial Transformation Maps (ITMs), merged with the current levels of foreign workforce passes, and used to assess the extent to which gaps at the company as well as sectoral level can or cannot be filled by the existing local workforce supply. Such a system can also be used to track whether the gaps are effectively closed over time through training, and how fast this is occurring.

The system of foreign manpower levies and DRCs forms a clear set of rules for managing foreign manpower participation. In recent years, including the current Budget proposal, the system has been used to moderate the impact of manpower cost pressures when economic conditions are poor. As a counter-cyclical tool, the system of levies and DRCs can be adjusted by sector. On this basis, levy rises in the marine and process sectors have been frozen, while those in construction have been allowed to proceed as earlier announced. And compared to alternatives, such as the CPF cuts that were used in the past, this approach is much more amenable to fine-tuning.

My second concern is about the challenges of scale that we, in Singapore, almost uniquely in world, face. Whether we are prepared for the reality of competing against countries much larger than us, this is something that we will have to deal with as a result of the proposals set out in this Budget. This Budget makes a significant push for internationalisation. This will increase the companies and local talent being given greater exposure to global competition and will serve us well in the long run. While programmes, such as the Global Innovation Alliance (GIA), can help Singaporeans gain a foothold in overseas markets, as well as a better appreciation of our global competition, there are adjustments that individuals have to make. Hence, the transformative impact of the GIA will take some years to become visible.

The issue of scale has always been something of a challenge for Singapore’s economy. We have pushed near to saturation point in many of our efforts, but the competition can harness vastly larger numbers without batting an eyelid. This fact is visible in every aspect in which we compete internationally, from trade figures to our workforce composition, to even our robot density.

In 1984, China’s share of manufacturing exports in the world’s total, 1.1%, equalled ours. In 2015, as the world’s leading exporter, China’s share had grown 16 times, to almost twice that of its nearest rival, Germany. Our share, of course, has also grown, more than doubling to 2.3%. Between 1984 and 2015, the share of the US in world manufacturing exports fell by a third. These developments have redefined the global economic balance. They have also brought about the tremendous groundswell of reaction that ranges from the Brexit vote outcome to the repudiation of the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP).

In 2015, world manufacturing exports shrank more than 8% in nominal terms.

Singapore’s trade performance suffered as a result.

The options we have in reacting to these changes are determined not just by our preference, but also by the choices made by the countries we compete against.

China is also the world leader in high-technology manufacturing exports.

However, Singapore’s share of global high-technology exports is about a quarter of China’s, which makes this sector more important to us than general manufacturing.

Across all regions of the world and in many countries, the proportion of manufacturing classified as high technological activity is on the rise. A comparison across countries reveals a visible correlation between this rise and the increasing use of robotics.

As the Minister for Finance Mr Heng had already pointed out last year, China is the world’s largest buyer of robots. And other countries are keeping pace, including Singapore. According to a recent update from the International Federation of Robotics, between 2010 and 2015, the operational stock of industrial robots in Asia rose 70%. The same report placed Singapore within the top ranks of countries in the world, in terms of robotics density, just behind South Korea, and nearly five times ahead of the average global density.

Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are just two of the things that are often mentioned in the same breath as Uber and Grab when discussing technological changes and disruption. These two groups are obviously very different. However, what concerns those who cite them as examples in the same breadth is not necessarily their economic or technological novelty but the loss of control workers feel in facing the rise of these innovations. This fear of loss of control is the most important reason why ordinary workers today identify with the notion of being caught up in an industrial revolution beyond their control, no different from the original one.

Research supported by the International Federation of Robotics argues that while there have been job losses, their magnitudes are small, compared to the increase in employment over the same period.

Regardless of whether one believes in net gain or loss of jobs due to the introduction of new technologies, such as robotics, there is little doubt that existing jobs will have to give way to new ones and the workforce must, therefore, be prepared to adjust to this reality.

Although we cannot be certain about the precise rate and impact of the change on all jobs, the pattern of change and the nature of jobs of the future are becoming increasingly evident. Job creation is increasingly concentrated in domains requiring high intensity of knowledge and skills. In R&D, for instance, across countries and with very few exceptions, the number of personnel has seen strong upward trends. This is true both in absolute terms and as a ratio of the population.

Singapore, of course, as usual, faces the limitation of size that our competitors do not. Between 1996 and 2012, the number of persons employed in R&D in Singapore rose 265%, way ahead of the 50% gain in the US, 160% gain in China, and even 216% gain in South Korea.

But as a result of our population limitations, our R&D personnel numbers are already among the highest in the world on a ratio basis. China’s ratio is only one sixth of ours, despite boasting the largest number of R&D personnel globally today. This means that in Singapore, we have a far smaller pool of workers from which to draw, and if we continue to grow the numbers in order to keep up with global competition, domestic sectors in need of skilled manpower will be squeezed further. The only solution is for our workforce to push beyond the existing frontiers of skills acquisition that other countries take for granted. To remain competitive despite our limitations, our workforce must be prepared for a continuing process of advancement and workplace transformation.

Madam, Budget 2017’s push to develop Singaporean workers into regional and global leaders will take us out of our comfort zones. Singaporean workers, many of whom juggle their regular jobs with important roles, such as family caregivers, will have to add regular overseas postings to the list. This is what we have to do as an innovation in order to overcome the limits of scale.

Given our size, we are already at the boundaries of what we can reasonably achieve if we go by norms. Both in R&D personnel and in robot density, we are already at the limits. Countries whose sizes are multiples of ours have a lot more scope for expansion in absolute terms, and will reap further economies of scale. Internationalisation will, therefore, expand the potential space within which our companies and workers operate, but not completely overcome the fundamental disadvantage of scale that Singapore has always faced.

It is not just workers who will be challenged. SMEs will also feel the discomfort in operating outside of their comfort zones. The question I am trying to ask is: are the internationalisation initiatives a realistic option for local companies who do not have the basic capacity to scale up beyond their set-up in Singapore?

Madam, my last concern is about the timeline for restructuring. The timeline this time around will, I believe, turn out to be the greatest challenge. Many of the past restructuring efforts had tangible end-points such as the challenge of a recession that it could take reference from.This particular restructuring is a long drawn out process, and it is going to be challenging to focus minds on the intangible aspects of the strategy. Although the restructuring is aimed at addressing the challenges caused by disruption, as the timeline for restructuring lengthens, it will heighten uncertainty among companies and workers. For some, the distinction between restructuring and disruption could begin to blur.

The completion of this restructuring will not be readily marked by new buildings or highways. Instead, it is a process of transformation. Success will probably mean not just an end-point but an on-going process of change.

Hence, in closing, I would like to thank Finance Minister Heng for staying the course in this restructuring journey as well as for providing a personal model of resilience through adversity.

 

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Featured image by Flickr user Vaping360. (CC BY 2.0)

by Daniel Yap

SENIOR Minister of State for Health Amy Khor’s answer to WP Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leon Perera’s question about heated tobacco products exposed a weakness in the Ministry of Health’s policy on alternative tobacco products, and its approach to science. Smoking is a big risk for our healthcare system, and if alternative products can lower that risk, then perhaps we need to consider them more carefully.

Heat-not-burn tobacco may be strange to Singaporeans because it is banned here, but it accounts for more than five per cent of the tobacco market in Japan after being on the market for just two years, and is catching on in many major markets worldwide. Its popularity is due to rising fears of the effects of second-hand smoke and also smokers’ desire to quit or reduce harm to themselves and their families.

But since Singapore plays host to research and development facilities of tobacco companies, it’s odd to think that we know so little.

How Philip Morris International's iQOS system works
At least we know how Philip Morris International’s heat-not-burn iQOS system works

Plus, since we are at war with diabetes (of which smoking is a major risk factor), it behooves us to be interested in even preliminary studies of products that claim to reduce risks, including e-cigarettes and heat-not-burn products.

I have family and friends who smoke and I would like to know whether this product (or any other, like vaping) could reduce the harm they are doing to their bodies (and to mine). I would think every smoker’s family does.

It takes time, of course, but Dr Khor did not say that studies were underway. Are they? I know the budget is tight, but this is a budget for the future, isn’t it? Why not spend a few million now to potentially reduce future healthcare costs by billions of dollars?

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1. Don’t know means don’t know, not “no”

Dr Khor’s reply sounds like a defence of the G’s policy of banning heat-not-burn products, along with e-cigarettes and non-smoking tobacco. If a lack of information exists for an issue as important as smoking, then it is the duty of the G’s scientists to go and find out more.

If we don’t know, we should be open to trying. I’m not saying we should completely legalise alternative products to all and sundry. Even Mr Perera’s suggestion to start with giving these products to smokers trying to quit will be a start.
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2. Citing nicotine levels as a reason why heat-not-burn is bad

Mr Perera was asking about the overall risk of heat-not-burn products. Dr Khor answered with how nicotine levels were comparable to regular cigarettes. This answer is strangely off-track.

Smokers are addicted to nicotine but killed by tar and other chemicals. Shouldn’t the answer be about tar and carbon monoxide instead? Or at least one of the many other chemicals in cigarettes that could harm your body?

And if lower levels of other chemicals are detected in heat-not-burn products, then the same level of nicotine would be a good thing because it would be easier for addicts to switch products because they get the same high while causing less harm to themselves and others.

We practise “reduced harm” policies for other vices. If heat-not-burn products and e-cigarettes reduce harm, we should allow them, and the health authorities should commit to this and then go research it.
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3. Criticise the research, not (just) the researcher.

Dr Khor is a little too dismissive of the research done by tobacco companies when she says “while there have been claims that such tobacco products are less harmful…these claims are made by the tobacco industry”. It is one thing to know that a person or organisation is an interested party in a study or has lied in the past, but that isn’t what makes a study true or untrue.

Research done by tobacco companies on heat-not-burn stretches back to 2008. And it is extensive, with publicly available methodology. Philip Morris, for example, has submitted a two million-page dossier to the US Food and Drug Administration on the effects of heat-not-burn. If heat-not-burn is as harmful as cigarettes, as Dr Khor presumes, then we need to dive into the research, not ignore it.

Since there is currently no research to disprove the tobacco companies, why not peer review their studies? Why not attempt to replicate them? Why not conduct independent studies? That is how one refutes (or proves) another’s research, not by a mere claim that the other party is an interested party. That’s what we do with big pharma, so apply it across the board.

Good science was responsible for linking cancer, diabetes, heart disease and a host of other ailments with smoking. We need to drop the lazy rhetoric and do the hard work of science.
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4. “There is no safe level of tobacco use”

This was the answer Dr Khor gave to Mr Perera’s query about trialing reduced-risk products to help smokers who have registered for smoking cessation programmes quit.

Not only does it fail to answer Mr Perera’s question, the answer hides behind a truism. Of course there is no safe level of tobacco use. There is also no “safe level” of particulate pollution. There is no safe level of red meat consumption. But we know that a PSI below 50 is considered “healthy”. We know that one can eat a moderate amount of red meat and not be considered “at risk” by doctors or insurers.

We want to know whether heat-not-burn is safer than cigarettes, not whether tobacco is bad for you. Big tobacco is claiming that heat-not-burn is safer. There are no claims that it is safe.
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5. The “gateway effect” and other “evidence from other countries”

Dr Khor says that “evidence from other countries” shows that heat-not-burn products have emissions that are not too different from cigarettes. However, a November 2016 Ontario Tobacco Research Unit report on heat-not-burn products comes to this conclusion:

“To date, we have not found new independent science that has assessed the harm reduction potential or the acceptability of the current generation of heat-not-burn products… If independent science finds that the new heat-not-burn products do indeed considerably reduce harm and are widely acceptable to smokers, an opportunity would arise for eliminating the sale of the higher risk combustibles.”

So other “evidence from other countries” so far is a well-documented seven-year-long and counting study by UK health authorities disproving Dr Khor’s “gateway effect” fears, and showing the exact opposite.  Dr Khor mentioned the study but didn’t have the time to explain why she didn’t accept its findings.

Instead, her evidence backing up the “gateway effect” is only half a story – that adolescent e-cigarette use in the US is growing quickly (ten-fold since 2011). The other side of the story, which she left out, is that there was a sharp decline in conventional cigarette use over the same period. I’ll not be one to confuse cause and correlation, but telling only one side of the story robs us of the facts.

Add to that the fact that the UK government has concluded that e-cigarettes are definitely less harmful than regular cigarettes and you’ve got to ask: Could the Ministry of Health, in their over-zeal to protect Singaporeans from “potential harm”, also be holding us back from potential benefits? All I know is that we can’t justify our policy positions with bad, bad science.

 

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Photo By Shawn Danker
Singapore Parliament.

by Wan Ting Koh

THE public service has been getting a lot of attention from the public lately, all thanks to some Members of Parliament (MPs) who said that the public service seems to have lost its heart.

Today (Mar 3) however, the public service was defended by Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam, the latest in a line of other MPs who have said that the public service has in fact, been doing a good job, even though there is room for improvement.

To Mr Shanmugam, who was speaking in reply to the cuts filed by MPs for the Ministry of Home Affairs, public servants in most cases were oustanding, dedicated, and go well beyond the call of duty and serve with heart.

Mr Shanmugam cited results from the Public Perception Survey, in which he said “gives a perspective to discussions about the public service” at a broader level.

According to the survey which polled 4,800 participants and their thoughts towards the Singapore Police Force (SPF), 87 per cent of the respondents think that the SPF is a “world class crime-fighting organisation”, said Mr Shanmugam. The same survey showed that 90 per cent of respondents believe the police are ready to deal with major law and order incidents.

A total of 88 per cent of participants feel that the police provide high quality service while 92 per cent rated general safety and security in Singapore as “good” or “very good”. Nearly half of those surveyed said that the installation of police cameras at HDB estates made them feel safer, added Mr Shanmugam.

Mr Shanmugam said that the survey results reflected the extraordinary level of faith and trust Singaporeans have in the police force.

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As for issues that arise with the public service, he said that those were the “exception, not the rule”, and that they arise due to “structural reasons”, such as inter-agency issues.

The lengthy conversation about the public service sparked off when several MPs raised concerns about the way they work. On Wednesday, MP Louis Ng said that public servants had turned some people away because they were doing things strictly by the book. He said that the public service had “lost its heart” in the pursuit of efficiency.

Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin said that more could be done for the poor, while MP Lee Bee Wah said public servants tend to be more concerned with the “rules of their own agency” than what might benefit Singaporeans. She asked: “Can’t our civil servants be more result-oriented and objective-driven, instead of just guarding your own turf?”

Since then, numerous other MPs like Mr Shanmugam, have put in a good word for the public service. In Parliament yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Teo Chee Hean said that public officers work tirelessly to serve citizens.

DPM Teo added that public officers needed a little encouragement.

“I hope that members (like Ms Kuik) will rise, from time to time…to also offer encouragement for the good work of the many public officers who have worked hard and gone the extra mile to serve their constituents and Singaporeans,” he said.

Though, he added that no system was perfect, and that “we are constantly striving to do better”.

Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development Desmond Lee sought a clarification from Ms Kuik, saying that some people might get the wrong impression that the public service had lost its heart based on her speech.

To this, Ms Kuik said: “I actually do not believe that the public service has lost heart, as some reports have said.” She added that she personally knew of “many deeply compassionate civil servants” who had gone the extra mile to help others.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing expressed pride in the civil service on the sidelines of a post-budget dialogue with some 140 professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) yesterday.

He said: “I think overall, if you ask me, I think we have a good Civil Service. I think we have people who go out of their way to do what is right, what is necessary for Singaporeans.”

“There will always be areas where we can improve and I would be the first one to say that, even coming from the Civil Service previously, that is what we always strive to do each and every day.”

 

Here’s a defence of the public service by a former civil servant.

 

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by Bertha Henson

SO, MINISTER for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli said this in Parliament yesterday: “If we needed any additional water, where would it come from? How much would that additional litre cost? That is what we call the Long Run Marginal Cost (LRMC). That is the cost which consumers must see.’’

Except that we can’t see it because LRMC is a state secret. Revealing this would compromise future bids to build desalination plants. I don’t know how this works but it’s probably like a businessman who doesn’t want to tip his hand to a potentional contractor by telling him what kind of money he has to pay him.

So you can’t see LRMC but you have to “feel’’ it. Which is why the price of water is going up by 30 per cent after staying put for 17 years.

He did give an idea of what went into the computation: a blend of NEWater and desalination costs. Singapore would have to depend more on desalination in the future as there’s only so much water in an urban city that can be recycled as NEWater. And desalination is much more expensive than making NEWater.

Going by what he said, if there was no NEWater invented in 2002, the price of water would have shot up. That’s because after threats by Malaysian elements to cut off water supply from Johor in 1997, we scaled up desalination. To match the cost would have meant a jump in water tariffs. Price did go up from 1997 to 2000 before holding steady. Was there much of a fuss then? A check with the archives showed that Singaporeans were accepting of the increase. Doubtless, it was because we were faced with a clear and present danger of going without water.

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This little history lesson Mr Masagos gave is more illuminating than merely general statements about water security.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing put it more starkly: “How many more desalination plants and NEWater plants must we build in order for water to never be a weapon pointing at our head?”

He also warned that water needs of people in the southern Malaysian state are increasing, and Malaysia is also extracting water upstream of Linggiu Reservoir — which Singapore depends on to draw water reliably from the Johor River.

This is a point that is seldom stressed, that Malaysia’s “upstream” venture,  Johor’s Semangar and Loji Air water treatment plants, along the Johor river means less water “downstream” for Singapore to extract. Can we rely on Johor for freshwater? We already have 17 reservoirs in Singapore.

He sounded a little testy when he suggested that MPs should get the basics right: That water is an existential issue. The former army chief added that a whole generation that has worn uniforms know what this means.

Which is as good as saying, do you really want to see the day when fresh water supply from the north gets cut off or Singapore is subjected to some kind of blackmail over a resource that countries go to war over?

I suppose politicians are constrained from saying things this bluntly but it’s a logical conclusion given the threat that the Linggiu Reservoir might run dry this year if hot weather persists, as Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan noted last month in a parliamentary reply. The water issue was raised at the leaders’ retreat in December with both Singapore and Malaysia pledging to look for new ways to increase fresh water supply.

According to the 1962 Water Agreement between the two countries, PUB can draw up to 250 million gallons (mgd) of water from the Johor River each day. In return, Johor is entitled to buy treated water of the same volume as up to 2 per cent of the water extracted by Singapore on any given day, or about 5 mgd if Singapore draws its full entitlement of water from the Johor River.

Dr Balakrishnan described the agreement as “sacrosanct to Singapore”.

“Should Linggiu Reservoir fail, there will be many more occasions when it will not be possible for PUB to abstract its entitlement of 250 mgd, and the current abstractions by Johor’s Semangar and Loji Air Water Treatment Plants will also be affected. This will cause severe problems for both Malaysia and Singapore.”

I can also speculate that the water increase was timed now because of the dire straits of the Linggiu reservoir which was at 27 per cent capacity on Jan 1.

But there’s still this niggling question of why the G didn’t look ahead and had to impose such a high increase. Was it so happy with NEWater being a substitute? Did it get complacent over the water problem or think there’s always enough in the public coffers to build yet another plant? Because it’s likely.

If the water price hike was put starkly and clearly in strategic terms, it’s likely that people will be more willing to pay the price.

I would.

 

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by Bertha Henson

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong sipped from his teacup at least nine times in the half-hour interview with BBC’s Stephen Sackur. It made me wonder if someone off-camera had re-filled his cup during the interview. It must surely be drained by sip No. 4.

It was a pretty disappointing interview. Or rather, Mr Sackur had pretty disappointing questions. They included the Western media’s evergreen favorites about freedom of the press, Internal Security Act, one-party rule and criminalisation of homosexual sex. Does it outrage anyone that he presumed so much about the rightness of his views? That he’s stuck in the old colonial mould of suggesting what other countries should do?

PM Lee’s riposte was masterly: “I would not presume to tell you how your press council should operate. Why should you presume to tell me how my country should run?” But before he said that, he turned around what Mr Sackur had said about how UK politicians suggested that Britain not be restrained on human rights issues when seeking a trade deal with Singapore. He said that Mr Sackur himself didn’t seem restrained in his questioning. It took a while for the BBC man to realize that the jibe was intended for him.

(In fact, I found it amusing how Mr Sackur tried to talk up Britain after Brexit. Still a “major power”. You would think that countries are lining up to trade with Britain, rather than with the European Union.)

Even as he went on about how Singapore does not have a two-party system which he thought should be in place for a functioning democracy, Mr Sackur suggested that the PM himself should take the lead in influencing people to take Section 377A, on the criminalisation of homosexual sex, off the books.

How ironic! On the one hand, he dripped sarcasm with his inferences about an autocratic G. But on the other, he was telling the PM that having the section is wrong and the PM should delete it to show that Singapore has changed.

I wish the PM replied: “Change to look good to who? You?” But he was rather more polite, saying instead that it is not for the government to lead on moral values. Even those which did on these issues, such as Britain, France and the United States, have had to deal with conservative protestors.

He made a similar point when he said that the world must embrace diversity and differences in values, outlook and priorities so that countries can prosper together. There is no “monopoly on virtue and wisdom”.

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There was a time when I thought that these evergreen issues made for challenging questions. But I know the answers so well now that I wonder why the Western media don’t learn from their own news archives and their past interviews.

Singapore has one dominant political party in Parliament because the people made it so. That is, unless Mr Sackur can prove that nefarious measures have been taken to rig the vote or that Singaporeans are somehow too frightened to vote for an opposition politician. If he did enough research, he would know that the Opposition didn’t do too badly in the popular vote in recent elections, especially in 2011, and that they have so few seats because we used the British first-past-the-post system.

I guess to many people elsewhere, it is inconceivable that one party could get so many votes. (Here’s where the different values, outlook and priorities come in.)

I wish he asked instead about whether the G is using its power and authority to keep talent out of opposition parties. Or whether complacency, corruption and inefficiency would set in if one political party holds power for too long. On freedom of the press, I wish he asked how restrictions such as licensing are compatible with the Internet age when, as PM Lee said, there is already so much access.

Of course, the old hoary chestnut, the Internal Security Act, was brought up. Mr Sackur didn’t say so but anyone could tell that he was thinking of political prisoners. PM Lee noted that those detained under the Act, in the recent decade, have been people with terrorist links. Now that’s quite difficult to rebut at a time when security is such a big concern, even in Britain. Mr Sackur didn’t press the point.

The points he did press were personal. Like whether the PM Lee would think differently about 377A if one of his children is gay and whether he would accept a non-Chinese – Mr Sackur had in mind DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam –as Prime Minister. PM Lee deflected both questions, focusing instead on what society could countenance and how the next generation of leaders would be the ones to pick the next PM. I half expected Mr Sackur to ask about the elected presidency being reserved for non-Chinese, but he didn’t. I guess his research didn’t include current domestic events.

Mr Sackur’s parting shot was about whether PM Lee, after more than 12 years in power, would go “on and on”. The PM replied he had already said he wouldn’t. (He’s stepping down after the next election.) Frankly, if the interview was with his late father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Mr Sackur would have gotten hauled over the coals for not doing his homework.

 

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by Ryan Ong

BUSINESS survival is usually measured on a sliding scale of how many bad cheques your boss writes you. Once you get three in a row, you know the corporate vision of a DIY vasectomy kit in every home is doomed. You see, no matter how smart a business idea seems, or how much it could pay off in the long run, it’s the near-term support that matters for everyday survival:

earth by Kevin Gill

THINK that murder mysteries and assassinations are confined to the pages of an Agatha Christie novel? Think again, as fact is stranger than fiction. From alleged Kremlin death plot and attempt on the Libyan Prime Minister’s life to North Korean agents attempting to recover Kim Jong Nam’s body by sneaking into the Kuala Lumpur morgue, this week’s news is thick with blood and political intrigue.

 

1. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Attempted break-in at morgue holding Kim Jong Nam’s body

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Image from Facebook user Johan Manus.

On Tuesday (Feb 21), merely days after Kim Jong Nam was assassinated by two mysterious women, Malaysian police detected an attempt to break into the morgue where Mr Kim’s body was being kept. Police presence at the morgue has been stepped up. Police chief Khalid Abu Bakar claimed that authorities knew the identity of the break-in suspects, but refused to go into detail as to whether they were North Korean.  He said, “We know who they are. No need to tell you (the press).”

The break-ins, however, have intensified speculation that North Korea is behind the assassination. North Korea has repeatedly tried to foil Malaysian attempts to investigate the murder, calling for the immediate release of the two “innocent women” who were arrested in connection with Kim’s death. The isolated nation has refused to even acknowledge that the dead man was Kim Jong Nam, and has accused Malaysia of conducting a politically-motivated investigation to gain favour with the United States and South Korea.

North Korea-Malaysia relations have soured in light of this diplomatic spat. On February 20, the North Korean ambassador was summoned by the Malaysian government, while the Malaysian ambassador to North Korea was also recalled. This story is still developing.

 

2. Moscow, Russia – Kremlin has denied allegations of Montenegro assassination plot

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

Montenegrin Special Prosecutor Milivoje Katnic accused Russia on Sunday (Feb 19) of involvement in an alleged conspiracy to assassinate the Montenegrin prime minister, Milo Dukanovic, in October last year. Russia has strenuously denied any such claims.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in response: “These (are) absurd accusations … We do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, including Montenegro.”

These allegations come as Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, criticised NATO for being a “Cold War institution”. Russia has pointed to the expansion of NATO membership as a key reason why relations have soured with the West and even annexed the former Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014 in response to the toppling of Russia’s ally and then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.

The planned Montenegro coup, scheduled for Oct 16 last year and foiled only hours before its execution, was a blatant attempt by Serbian and Russian nationalists to deny the pro-NATO and pro-EU Montenegrin Prime Minister from retaining power.

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3. Tripoli, Libya – Libyan PM survived attack on convoy

Image from Facebook user ALGERIA PRESS SERVICE.
Image from Facebook user ALGERIA PRESS SERVICE.

On Monday (Feb 20), a convoy carrying the Prime Minister of Libya, Fayez al-Sarraj, fell under gunfire as it was passing through the Abu Salim district of Tripoli, the capital. Also among the convoy were Supreme State Council head, Abdel Rahman al Swehli, as well as the commander of Presidential Guard, Najmi al Nakou. They were travelling in armour-plated cars and were unharmed.

However, statements regarding casualties do not tally. The Times of Islamabad reported on February 20 that Mohamed Salem, a spokesman for the Supreme State Council, said two guards were wounded. At the same time, Ashraf al Thulthi, a spokesperson for Mr Fayez’s administration, was reported as saying that “there were no injuries”.

The assassination attempt was a sign of how fragile Mr Fayez’s reign is. Libya has been existing in political turmoil since 2011, with the armed uprising against and death of its dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Subsequently, the Libyan government developed into two rival divisions, one with its seat of power in Tobruk and the other, in Tripoli. In late 2015, the United Nation backed an agreement to form a Government of National Accord, with Mr Fayez at its helm.

Investigations into the identity and backer of the assailants are ongoing.

 

4. Mugla, Turkey – 47 people accused of plotting to kill President Erdogan have gone on trial

Image from Facebook user Movie Box Office Colection & Celebrity News
Image from Facebook user Movie Box Office Colection & Celebrity News.

In Mugla, a province of Turkey, the trial of 47 assassin-suspects has begun on Monday (Feb 20) in the Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s conference hall. These 47 have been accused of targeting the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016.

That night, a section of the Turkish military took to the streets of several major cities with tanks and air bombardments in a coordinated attack. The president was staying in a hotel at the port town of Marmaris then. Fifteen minutes after he left the premises, the hotel was bombed. Meanwhile, loyalist soldiers, police forces and thousands of ordinary citizens resisted the coup after news spread via social media. After a few hours, the government was able to declare victory.  However, at least 248 people died and around 2,200 were wounded.

According to the Turkish government, the mastermind of the coup attempt was Mr Fethullah Gulen, a businessman and influential Turkish preacher on self-imposed exile in the United States (US) since 1999. Mr Gulen has denied any involvement and remained in the US.

Al Jazeera reported that the chief prosecutor of the trial, Mr Necip Topuz, has described the case as “historically important” since it is the only coup-related case where the president is the plaintiff. The trial is expected to last through the year.

 

5. Manila, Philippines – Duterte accused of ordering journalist Jun Pala’s death

Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

A former police officer from Davao City in the Philippines has accused President Rodrigo Duterte as the mastermind behind the killing of a journalist, Jun Pala. Mr Duterte, who was then the chief executive of Davao City, allegedly founded the “Davao Death Squad” in 1988 and ordered the killing of criminals and troublesome political enemies.

On September 6, 2003, Mr Pala was gunned down by two men on a motorcycle while walking home from work. Mr Duterte denied involvement in the killing, but he also claimed to know who was behind Mr Pala’s death. Mr Pala had clashed with Duterte on many occasions – one of which involved Mr Duterte’s positive relationship with the New People’s Army (a communist insurgency), while Mr Pala was reportedly part of the Alsa Masa, an anti-communist group accused of human rights abuses in the 1980s.

As president, Mr Duterte has endorsed the killing of corrupt journalists and stands accused of waging a bloody war against drug gangs and peddlers in the Philippines.

 

Featured image Earth by Flickr user Kevin Gill. (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

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