April 28, 2017

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Photo By Shawn Danker
Burger being bitten into.

by Bertha Henson

On Friday, I was approached to put my name on the media statement calling on the online community to join a series of online/offline protests against the Media Development Authority’s licensing scheme for news websites. I asked for time to think. I also asked to see the “link’’ that people would be directed to that was on the statement. But that “link’’, which turned out to be FAQs exhorting individuals to sign up, wasn’t ready. So I didn’t sign.

I do not like the MDA scheme at all. To think I left the traditional media which was bound by the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act to be subject to yet another similar instrument! But I am not subject to it, not as a blogger in any case, as MDA has clarified. So Bertha Harian is safe. But what about Breakfast Network? That’s still a question mark because the MDA can’t seem to get its act together to give clear answers. Am I to assume that Breakfast Network has the all-clear too because The Online Citizen has pressed its case for licensing and it has been “rejected’’? BTW, Good game TOC!

So it seems whether a website is worth being licensed despite fulfilling content and reach criteria is something for the MDA to decide. What does this mean? That a site has to keep within acceptable boundaries when reporting local developments and write the “right stuff’’ if it wants grow the number of eyeballs beyond 50,000 visitors and not put up the $50,000 bond? Guess what? This could mean the G considers TOC “acceptable’’ – kiss of death or what?

Or maybe the G’s real target is Yahoo, the only non MSM on the list of 10 websites. Dear Yahoo, what did you do wrong? Or were you making too much money off Singapore news?

There was an interesting piece in Singapolitics (yes, MSM) on the difficulties of controlling the Internet. The column did not slam the licensing scheme (it is, after all, MSM) but went into how the G was stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to regulating the Internet. By its very nature, the Internet can’t be regulated. It is too free-wheeling and there will always be ways to get out from under anybody’s control or oversight. Other countries have tried to do so and the attempts have been seen as “censorship’’ of free speech – a very bad word.

The G could try clarifying the term “news website’’ further but it would lead to the following scenarios:

a. Say Facebook and forums which fulfill the content and reach criteria also comes under the ambit of the scheme. There’s better clarity now BUT the outcry would be tremendous! Poor sammyboy and PropertyGuru etc. Plus there will be arguments on who really is the Facebook owner? Maybe Facebook should put up the performance bond.

b. If there’s further clarity, then people would simply jump to platforms that won’t come under the scheme. So we jump to, say, Twitter. If Twitter is covered at a later stage, then we can cry foul and say this is not fair, you didn’t cover Twitter in the first place.

c. If the G starts covering all sorts of aggregators and whatever else with a local IP address in the scheme, then it would really amount to a draconian approach to control the Internet universe. It won’t have a leg to stand on when it talks about being more transparent and open to views.

d. So you jump to a foreign server to escape but then again, the G have already said it would move in on these people who report on local developments from abroad. How would it do so and how would it enforce this is unclear – and will be interesting to watch. Wow, is the BBC and CNN going to have to put up a bond too?

That’s probably why the G phrased its definition of “news site’’ so broadly and then tries to appease the rest of the world by saying it won’t be using the stick too much. In fact, what it is saying is: “Trust us not to be unreasonable. After all, we haven’t been unreasonable have we? Only one “take down’’ notice over the years…’’

That’s really the problem isn’t it? It’s about giving the executive arm so much/too much discretion. Now what happens if one day, the executive decides to “get unreasonable’’ and start issuing take-down notices – because it can? Do we then mount a challenge in the courts? Pretty tough since the issue wasn’t debated in Parliament and the courts can’t depend on the “will’’ or “intent’’ of Parliament to reach a full verdict. It might have to dig back to the days when the NPPA and the Broadcasting Act was first legislated – the dinosaur era.

The G’s next argument would be: Then the people had better make sure that good, reasonable people are elected so that executive powers won’t be abused.

It’s a line that it doesn’t really believe.

Look at how the Elected Presidency was introduced as a safeguard on the nation’s reserves so that if terrible people are in power and start raiding the reserves, we won’t be a bankrupt nation.

One other point: It has noted that the opposition parties have never called for a repeal of newspaper or broadcasting laws, because it would serve their interests to have them controlled should they be in power one day.

Hmm. That’s true.

Why do opposition parties keep railing at the pro-G MSM but not buckle down to actually doing something about it? Like getting the media laws repealed?

Perhaps, everyone has given up on that territory and now want to ring fence the new territory from G intervention. Hence the protests and such like.

Would I have signed the statement if I had time to think? Maybe.

The statement calls for action. A repeal of the scheme. Perhaps, it should have called for a conference with MDA first and have it out with the officials? Or would that be too lame? But just because the MDA doesn’t “consult’’ doesn’t mean the online community has to resort to the same tactics. Will the MDA talk? My guess is that it didn’t reckon with the kind of outcry the move has drawn. This is a far more discerning electorate than the one which accepted the old media laws. This is a community with a vested interest in keeping some territory to itself.

Note that objectionable content is already under the classification regime and other laws can be used to deal with the malicious and the mischievous. If the concern is the standard of professional reporting online, then other methods can be agreed upon, such as insisting on the right of reply and a policy of correcting errors for news sites with the content and reach envisaged. Perhaps, news sites can commit to a policy to have public comments only by readers who are ready to be identified, as it is for the letters pages in mainstream newspapers. That would be parity with MSM that some in the online community could live with.

I mean, I could live with that.

Perhaps I should have signed the statement if only to bring MDA to the table. But in the end, I am glad that I didn’t sign, because what I saw of the initial FAQs that were made public left me wondering if the online community was shooting itself in its own foot.

There was, for example, a quip that STOMP would be the first to be taken down. Was that necessary? Or is this only because STOMP belonged to the mainstream media which the online community likes so much to criticise. Is this fact or speculation? In any case, this phrase was deleted later.

Okay then.

Then there were the “personal’’ FAQs on why individuals should sign. To people who blog, it said: “Sorry to break it to you, but if you have more than 50,000 unique views a day, you better have $50k to pay.”

MDA has already said bloggers are excluded. But the group did not mention this caveat, and appears to be proceeding on the assumption that MDA isn’t saying so in good faith.

This phrase was subsequently amended to add this point:

“Even though MDA said that blogs do not fall under the licensing scheme, this is not reflected in the wording of the legislation. It leaves the door open for blogs or any other site to be forced to license in the future without any change in the law.’’

So much better.

Then there was the call to mainstream journalists. They should join the protest if they “have an iota of professional pride’’.

“If you belong to one of the publications who have been asked to license under the Licensing Regime, consider this: you are soon going to belong to an organization that has to pay money to guarantee its continued good behaviour. Is that what you went to J school for?’’

The group forgot that the MSM journalists already work under the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act and Broadcasting Act. Or they wouldn’t have mentioned anything about “professional pride’’. (So they already lack that even now?) Not quite the way to make friends… In fact, MSM might well retort that the group should have asked for “parity’’, to have the current MSM laws should be repealed as well.

In any case, the answer has been amended to this :

“Journalists in the mainstream media have long worked under the control of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA). If you have ever experienced how editorial control stemming from the NPPA chafes at your journalistic sensibilities, why would you desire that potentially any expression online to be subject to NPPA-like controls?’’

Hmm…good sleight of hand.

Herein lies the difference between online reporting and MSM. Because it is definitely the case that online sites can make corrections quickly, even surreptitiously, compared to MSM which has to live with their mistakes in print for all to see. This is one factor that makes MSM careful about their reporting and ensure that facts are checked before publication.

But in the initial as well as current FAQs is this assumption that was made about “pro-PAP’’ websites and how they would be “happy that anti-PAP websites now have to live under a cloud of fear’’.

The group’s answer on why they should join the protest: “Your joy could be short lived. Elections come around every 5 years, and there’s no guarantee that the PAP is going to be in power forever.

“One day, you might live under an opposition government, who could very well use these press laws against you. Remember, the PAP was once part of the opposition too…’’

Now, that’s a bit unfair on pro-PAP websites. Just because they support the PAP, does this mean they would agree automatically with the diktats of the G? And what does that make the group behind the protests? Anti-PAP? Are we to assume that only anti-PAP people would decry this legislation? Why do we need to fracture the online community like this?

In any case, I will be at Hong Lim Park to do a hopefully professional job of reporting. Now I can only hope that no one takes a “if you are not with us, you must be against us’’ approach to those who declined to add their name to the petition. Because one of the great things about the online media is this: It allows for a plurality of views.

Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
Cook a pot of Curry before audience seating.
primaryschool
Illustration by Marcus Tan

On Thursday, My Paper ran a front page story on parents who are upset at some social studies questions in a test script for Primary 5 students. They think it’s too early to expose children at the young age of 11 to issues such as, the reasons for the 1961 split within the PAP in Singapore, or the cause for UMNO’s worry about the “Chinese majority in Singapore. Here is what our Junior Chefs think of it:

 

by Pavan Mano

History’s many versions

“History is written by the victor,” goes the common refrain. And how it is taught in schools by history’s different parties matters too. That’s probably what lies at the heart of this outcry – parents are worried that the narration of events presented to their young impressionable children is (unfairly) skewed in ways that might not tally with their version of history. In public relations parlance, this is known as “spin’’ – creating an interpretation of events to sway public opinion according to what the spin doctors want. In layman’s terms, it’s just propaganda.

I was chatting with two Malaysian friends recently who could not understand why merger and separation was such a huge deal in Singaporean education. According to them, Malaysian history textbooks deal with the two countries’ separation in a few lines, simply saying that Singapore “left’’. Clearly the same event can be expressed differently, with different outcomes.

When I was 11, in Primary 5, I assumed that whatever I was taught was gospel truth – whatever Sir said must be correct. Of course, it seems silly now, but at that age I was simply absorbing information presented to me; critically analysing and thinking about the issue was something unfamiliar. Asking questions was a daunting task as questioning Sir was unimaginable.

I’m not sure exactly what’s being taught to those in primary schools now but based on the talk making its rounds on the web, some people think there is a “spin’’ or state-sponsored propaganda.

The Education ministry is caught between a rock and a hard place on this one – there is no one “correct” version of history to teach. Interpretations abound. Whatever the critics say, the version that they insist should be taught instead, is simply that – a version. So what then?

Well, there were two other people whose words I treated as gospel at age 11 – my parents. What’s taught in school is only one interpretation. Students will take it at face value. Unquestioningly, even. But educating children is not the sole responsibility of MOE . Parents have a stake in it too.

So why not engage the children? Explain the other side(s) of the story. Bring them to the library. Share webpages with them. Expose them to other interpretations so that they know this is a complex issue. The critical analysis will come as they mature.

It is better that young Singaporeans are taught something about local history rather than nothing at all. Parents are free to disagree and educate their young ones as they see fit, and as they should. At the very least, introducing pre-teens to local politics and history provides a starting point for a meaningful dialogue to be had. And that’s much better than having them remain on the fence, indifferent, disinterested, and apathetic. From childhood right through their adult life.

 

by Donovan Cheah

Start them young – when they are less stressed.

Is it ever too early to let students know more about their country? According to some parents, the answer seems to be “Yes!”.

I disagree.

Is maturity to be defined arbitrarily as a numerical age? Curious students will eventually ask about the country’s past, the formation of government. If no answers are given in school, they can search the Web for information, relying on socio-political blogs, for example, or plough through historical archives on Singapore.

Even as a university student, I feel that I may not have fully grasped many of the intricate issues that our country faces. Many of these issues are multi-dimensional, which also implies that there is no one easy solution to them. No doubt, politics, public policy and the likes of them are difficult to understand, but they affect our lives directly, and hence it is imperative that people should start knowing at least a little about the country from young.

The way to start, naturally, is talk about significant past happenings. Introducing them to how our country was born out of forced circumstances, for example, will give them some grounding in understanding Singapore’s fragility.

What about the argument about when students should be taught such matters? I tend to hew towards: the earlier the better. Let them ask questions when they are still young when they do not have so much to grapple with; don’t cram everything in secondary school or beyond. Because, by then, if they do not perceive social studies as important, they would no longer have the heart to understand or even read about Singapore.

Give our young people a gentler learning curve in understanding more and more complicated issues by giving them glimpses of our nation in the past. When knowledge builds up, analytical skills can be applied. How to critique history will then be up to them.

 

by Uthara Nair

What’s the big deal about teaching politics?

I honestly don’t understand all this hoopla about primary 5 students being too young to be exposed to politics. What nonsense. These students are not being asked to vote, they are simply being exposed to the intricacies of government and history. If parents are so scared about their children being unduly influenced in a certain way, what, may I ask, do they do during election time when ministers and candidates walk about, give speeches, hold rallies? Lock their children in a metal box?

First, those questions that some parents found objectionable are only in the Gifted syllabus, which are supposedly for the more mature and studious. Or is the worry the “brainwashing’’ of clever children?

Second, isn’t it more advantageous to gradually introduce the students to political history of Singapore, rather than dumping it on them suddenly when they are deemed to be ‘mature’ enough?

There’s so much political news and views both local and foreign that it might be better to start them off with a foundational understanding- if the social studies questions can even be called that- of politics. This learning doesn’t end. Even in university, there is the compulsory Singapore studies modules that must be completed for graduation.

Third, why can’t parents get more involved in educating their children on politics? Supplement the teacher or even correct the teacher if you think the child is getting a false or lousy grounding. But before jumping the gun, take a look at the scope and extent of “political’’ lessons in a primary student’s syllabus. Have your say in what should be taught – but don’t get it banned.

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Photo by Shawn Danker
Beef Pastrami Sandwich being eaten.

by Bertha Henson

The only new-ish development on the Media Development Authority’s licensing scheme is the last paragraph of an article in TODAY: Asked to respond to the statement, an MDA spokesperson said: “The regulation only concerns online news sites that meet the criteria of reach and content.’’

Looks like a blah reply but it can be interpreted this way:

The “statement’’ being referred to is a protest note by 20 individuals who blog or run socio-political websites who want the licensing scheme withdrawn. So the MDA answer can be said to mean: “What’s your problem? It’s “only’’ news sites that should be concerned’’.

In other words, why all this huffing and puffing over stuff that doesn’t concern anybody else except, maybe, the 10 sites that have been notified?

This scheme is probably the worst thought out policy the G has ever rolled out. In the past, however crazy a scheme, the G always had a robust answer for every question. People might not be satisfied with the answer, but it would have been an attempt at reasoning, whether citing political, economic or even efficiency considerations. Now, the G is terribly short of answers, repeating that fig leaf about “parity’’ between MSM and online news reports. Does it think that because it says it’s not a clamp-down, that people will believe it’s not a clamp-down? Repeat this often enough and people will get used to it? Or what?

The MSM has done a pretty poor job of getting answers from the MDA. In fact, it would be interesting to see what sort of editorials would be written on this latest brainwave of the G. There has only been one voice raised in support and it was published in ST’s Forum page today. The writer thinks that the scheme could be a “progressive’’ move to ensure standards of reporting: “This reflects the assumption that news reporting is a serious business that requires standards of accuracy and accountability in order to ensure that readership is protected from misinformation and slander.

“It bears noting that the licensing regime does not imply that such sites should report a uniform view. To think so is to over-read the intent of the MDA action.

“Instead, the move should be seen as a reasonable measure to introduce common broad standards on local news reporting. While admittedly paternalistic, there is merit in the case that news reporting is the function of a profession, however permeable its boundaries, and a privilege.

“If this latter perspective informs the move by the MDA, then it and the Government as a whole should proceed to treat the “netizen journalists” of affected news websites as legitimate journalists with the accreditation and access afforded to their counterparts in the mainstream media.

“In return, they and their “editors” should accept the accountability that applies to the profession of journalism.’’

This is all very interesting. Except that the MDA never said as much.

a. If it really wants to protect readers from misinformation and slander, then it should be licensing a lot more sites than the nine MSM ones plus one. So what is it waiting for? Why?

b. The point about “over-reading’’ the intent of the MDA might well be applied to the writer himself. No one will give a “uniform’’ view but it is more than likely that the views will be within certain parameters in order not to risk flouting the licensing rules and provoke a 24-hour take-down.

c. It is not for the G to introduce “common broad standards’’ on reporting. It is not just paternalistic but disrespectful to those practise journalism and see their relationship with readers/viewers as a sacred trust. Viewers/readers will stop reading if they are fed what they think is rubbish, or read with a large pinch of salt – or laugh it away. Unless, of course, the assumption is that viewers/readers are stupid.

d. The G did not mention any reciprocity – get licenced and be accredited. The question has been asked several times online but there’s not been an answer.

Now here’s the second half of the letter, which is just as interesting:

“If the affected community of “netizen journalists” accepts the challenge, then they may yet have the last laugh in time to come.

“First, readership will continue to shift from print to online.

“Second, the reading public today prefers plurality rather than an authority of sources. It is not inconceivable that the MDA action may compel some sites to consolidate towards mass resources and funding.

“Private financing could also be attracted by the potential for advertising revenue from such agglomerated sites. Thus, Singapore could soon see its version of the Huffington Post phenomenon.

“Viewed from this perspective, it may well be the incumbent mainstream media that needs to worry most.’’

Hmm..

a. True that readership will shift from print to online, although it is worth remembering that print MSM also has an online presence.

b. Why would the MDA action compel sites to get together? So that they can be licensed and get “access’’? On balance, is “access’’ worth the threat of 24-hour take downs at any time? Somewhere in the whole argument, people seem to have forgotten that even print media does not want that yearly, renewable licence that has been imposed on them.

c. Bigger news sites could attract more advertising, that is true. But bloggers and such like usually do not put commercial considerations first although it is good to put the site on a firmer financial footing and allow for the payment of professionals instead of hobbyists to run the show. Then again, private financing will also mean a different set of constraints: online journalists might have to spend more time pandering to their demands for publicity and for “advertorials’’, already a staple in MSM. How does this serve the reading public?

d. The incumbent mainstream media needs to worry most? They are more likely to be sniggering at the prospect of “freer’’ sites no longer being so “free’’. In fact, the distinctiveness and personality of online sites will disappear – it might well become like the incumbent mainstream media.

Nevertheless, the writer made a good attempt to see the positive side of licensing. Except that no one is going to be consoled by this perspective.

Photo By Shawn Danker
The Egg Cheese sandwich being eaten.

by Bertha Henson

Has anyone said that the new licensing scheme for news sites is a good move? Oh, yes, the Media Development Authority. Oh, no, it didn’t say it was a “good’’ move, just the “right’’ move to “place online news sites on a more consistent regulatory framework with traditional news platforms which are already individually licensed”.

According to TODAY, the MDA spokesman said the move is “not intended to clamp down on Internet freedom’’, as some crazy netizens have put it.

“It is not MDA’s policy intent to place onerous obligations on the licensees. The performance bond of S$50,000 is pegged to that required of niche broadcasters,” the MDA spokesman said. “Should any licensee experience difficulties in meeting their licensing requirements, we welcome them to discuss their concerns with us.”

It’s just a banker’s guarantee by the way, not cash upfront.
Hey, thanks!

Anyway, TODAY reported netizens screaming blue murder and in ST, MP Baey Yam Keng wants more examples from MDA on what would be offending articles that would invoke the “24 hours take-down or else’’ rule.

The answer, given in TODAY:
Elaborating on what would constitute prohibited content, the MDA spokesman cited the example of an article that posts the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video – content that would undermine racial and religious harmony here. “In that instance, just as we had issued a notice to Google previously to block the video, we would issue a take-down notice to any site which posts these video links,” he said.

Hmm…Wait a minute. Did the likes of MSM and Yahoo run such a piece? If this was posted in other sites which are not licensed, then how? Won’t the G have to take the usual route – letter of demand and charge under Sedition Act or Maintenance of Religious Harmony laws? Surely, it can’t issue a “take-down’’ notice to a Facebook poster?

Anyway, here is a new bit of information from ST: If licensing rules are breached, the offending website’s owner could be fined up to $200,000 and/or imprisoned up to three years. So it’s not just a forfeit of the $50,000?

What’s more interesting is the challenge The Online Citizen has thrown to MDA. Curiously, it’s saying: “Hey, what about us? We should be licensed too because we meet both criteria on content and reach!’’ The poor MDA spokesman could only say TOC did not meet the criteria.

Seems that the licensing scheme has not been clearly thought through…What a mess!

Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
Aerial display of white roses at the Garden Festival.

by Bertha Henson

When the Financial Times first broke the story of Dr Shane Todd’s death, what were the aspects that caught the reader’s eye? That there was a conspiracy to kill an American expatriate caught in the web of espionage? That Singapore institutions and Chinese players were covering up a murder?

Or that nuts, bolts and pulleys were involved?

The “nuts, bolts and pulley’’ allegation is probably is the most damning. The Todd family claimed that Singapore police told them that they were used as part of the “killing apparatus’’ – although why Dr Todd or even his supposed assassins would devise such a complicated system is beyond belief. Nuts and bolts had to be screwed into the bathroom wall so it can be assumed that Dr Todd or his “assassins’’ had a toolkit handy. Anyway, that was what the Todds say the police had told them when they arrived in Singapore. But when they went to their son’s Chinatown flat, they saw no evidence of nuts, bolts or pulleys being used.

The first thing that comes to a reader’s mind would be: How could the police have screwed up on something like this? It smacks of unprofessionalism at the very least, if not outright dishonesty. But on the last day of the coroner’s trial, the policeman involved said he did not mention nuts, bolts and pulleys – nor were they in the police report. Seems Mrs Todd conjured the scenario out of thin air. It’s a pity that the Todds walked out of the inquiry. They claimed that they will not get justice, after a key witness of theirs recanted his statement that Dr Todd had been garrotted. If they had stuck around, we might have got down to the heart of the pulley business.

Now, here’s the strange thing: there was someone who could have sorted this out. An American embassy staffer was present during the supposed nuts, bolts and pulley discussion between the Todds and the police. But Ms Traci Goins “declined to assist’’ with the proceedings, said the state prosecutor.

What gives?

Over 40 witnesses, some from the US and elsewhere, corroborating reports by the FBI – and an American diplomat based in Singapore “declined to assist’’ in the investigations? So much fuss kicked up by Senators in the US and in the Western media – and an American diplomat based here isn’t going to tell us the truth about the conversation between the Todds and Singapore police?

That’s a real shame! The integrity of the Singapore police has been brought into question and the US embassy owes justice an answer. The next question is whether Ms Goins can be compelled to give evidence. Probably not, since the inquiry is over. Another question, were statements taken from her earlier that could be tendered in court?

What are Singaporeans to make of this? An accusation has been made alleging cover-ups and the key accusers have boycotted the proceedings. One can empathise with the Todds who might be distraught that things weren’t going their way. But what to make of the embassy’s refusal to participate? Could this be because Ms Goins’ testimony might make the Todds – or the Singapore police – look bad? The embassy doesn’t want to be seen as forsaking one of their own – or do not want to antagonise the police here? Which is it?

Come on! Speak up!

Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
The PAP logo emblazoned on a badge worn by a party member.

by Bertha Henson

TODAY had an interesting piece about the People’s Action Party’s practice of “parachuting’’ its MPs and defeated candidates into the labour movement. The article was sparked by the impending departure of Mr Desmond Choo, its failed candidate for Hougang, which followed that of Mr Ong Ye Kung, who was fielded in Aljunied GRC. Both were in the National Trades Union Congress.

The article had two people who were critical of the practice – political scientist Bilveer Singh and NMP Eugene Tan, a law lecturer. They think the labour MPs should come from the ground up, not top down. The positive comments came from sitting labour MPs, who were actually with the movement long before they became politicians.

Now, according to TODAY, there were 14 PAP candidates from the labour movement in the 2011 GE.

Funny how the paper phrased this:

At the last General Election in 2011, 14 PAP candidates — including Mr Ong and Mr Choo — represented the labour movement. This excluded those who previously had worked in NTUC, such as Senior Parliamentary Secretary (Manpower and Education) Hawazi Daipi and Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng. Among the labour MPs currently in the House, at least a third did not have a long association with the labour movement before they entered politics.

So all the 14 did NOT have previous NTUC experience? Who are they? Or are the readers supposed to find out for himself?

The paper didn’t go further back to previous general elections although the practice of “parachuting’’ has been in place for some time. Even MPs Hawazi Daipi and Irene Ng, both former journalists, could be considered “parachutists’’ when they were elected MPs.

And it’s a pity TODAY did not define “long association’’ and get in touch with the PAP MPs who did not have this “long association’’.

Their views are more worth hearing than that of union stalwarts Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC MP who was in NTUC for 14 years before he stood for election) and Mr Ang Hin Kee (Ang Mo Kio GRC MP who was head of the Employment and Employability Institute, an NTUC baby, for five years before he was fielded).

Predictably, the two men spoke glowingly of the need to recruit good people into the union ranks, which was a good place to hone political skills as well.

TODAY reported Mr Seah saying that talent would “always be sought after”. “Some stay in the labour movement longer, some move on. But even those who have moved on, they would have spent a valuable part of their time with the labour movement. And for many of them, if you talk about Ong Ye Kung or Desmond, I know their heart is still with the labour movement and they’re still helping out in different capacities.”

In fact, the labour movement appears to be where the PAP puts in those who didn’t make office-holders, but had quit the civil service. So it’s a job placement scheme as well? Note that both Mr Ong and Mr Choo had to quit the civil service before they ran for elections.

But TODAY did use an old quote from former NTUC President John De Payva (long-time unionist) and NTUC secretary-general Lim Swee Say (himself a former parachutist?) as making no bones that both NTUC and PAP hunt in each other’s territory.

In March 2011, they said: “As NTUC nurtures promising candidates for selection by PAP, we also recruit potential PAP candidates who can contribute to the labour movement. Such a two-way approach has served our workers and union members well.”

Except that in the case of Mr Ong and Mr Choo, the PAP would be hard put to re-field them in the next general election because, ironically, people won’t forget their brief stint in the NTUC.

by Bertha Henson

The People’s Action Party is responding at lightning speed and the Workers’ Party is hammering right back. All in the space of hours yesterday.

Who says politics in Singapore is dull?

Looks like the AIM saga is not about to die, despite a clean report card given by the National Development Ministry to the PAP over hiring the PAP-owned company to manage the IT stuff of its town councils. The newest twist is that the WP might be the pot calling the kettle black. Except which is blacker? Go read “Name the pot; name the kettle” for a quick summary of what has been taking place between the two parties.

The man leading the PAP strike is MP Teo Ho Pin, a pretty good move since really, MND Minister Khaw Boon Wan and his ministry should stay out of the fray. You have got to wonder which hat Mr Khaw is wearing if he starts thundering over what is really party political business when he is also the PAP chairman.

That hasn’t been lost on WP’s Sylvia Lim, who is going hammer and tongs as well. She is, in fact maintaining that AIM and the WP’s supposed “proxy’’ managing agent FM Solutions and Services aren’t pot and kettle but more chalk and cheese.

AIM is PAP-owned, a $2 company, which held a contract to an “critical town council asset’’. FMSS is not owned by the party, has $500,000 paid up capital and does not own any town council asset. The PAP is simply trying to distract attention from AIM.

Ms Lim’s latest response is to dare the PAP to file a report with the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau if it thinks that something shady is going on. She has a point. The questions being asked repeatedly by the PAP especially with regard to supposedly missing $1m, do tend to imply that something is amiss.

What’s that $1m about again?

Round 1: The PAP calculates that the total value of a three-year contract awarded to a husband-and-wife team who are WP partisans would be $15.8 million. But Ms Lim declared that it was $16.8 million to the HDB last year. So, $1m shortfall.

Round 2: Ms Lim denied any contradiction. The total contract provided for “staggered pricing, with increases in costs factored in each year”.

Round 3: Be that as it may, it means that WP’s town councils will be raising its managing fees for residents and shopowners, making it 70 per cent more expensive than a similar sized PAP town council in 2014, said Mr Teo.

Who says politics isn’t exciting?

So what’s next? The public probably has to weather a few more lightning bolts and hammer strikes because it seems neither side is willing to give way. Let’s hope that with the parties making so much noise, they remember that residents want their corridors and void decks cleaned and their rubbish cleared.

by Bertha Henson

After the Workers’ Party took aim at AIM, seems it has got the gun trained back on itself with an exchange that shows no sign of ending. It’s about how the WP town councils manage their money, whether they are overcharging residents and favouring or over-favouring close associates, party members or partisans.

You know the phrases, People in glass houses shouldn’t throw. The pot calling the kettle. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the…

Here’s a summary for those too tired to get through the numbers that both sides are throwing at each other. The numbers are of course in dollars and cents:

Now, the managing agents of WP-run Aljunied-Hougang TC – two of them – just happen to be people who are noted WP supporters, who formed a company called FM Solutions and Services (FMSS) just after WP won Aljunied. According to the PAP, the managing agents are also employees of the town council serving as general manager and secretary.

So what does this mean? The two people are getting money both ways? Through FMSS and as town council workers? Is that kosher? Couldn’t the couple just do the job without having the for-profit company?

Okay, maybe, just maybe, (since no politician is arguing about the “political nature’’ of town councils) it might well be fine to hire your friends and supporters. After all, they should be rewarded for their work and you can probably trust them to advance the interest of the party while they go about serving residents. The Town Council Act doesn’t ban this and the PAP itself contracted AIM, a PAP-owned party to do some work. It can’t very well take issue with how the WP does its hiring.

But what the PAP is taking issue with is whether the venture is above board. Note it has just got a clean report card from MND over its dealings with AIM. Now also that MND Minister Khaw Boon Wan made much of whether processes are followed and whether the interests of residents are served even in a “political’’ town council in Parliament on Monday.

The PAP’s current argument is: The Aljunied-Hougang residents and shopowners are getting a rotten deal – they are paying much more in managing agent fees than their counterparts in similar sized town councils. Like 50 per cent more. (The reason the ding dong has been a trifle confusing is whether each side has the right figures. But it seems the WP has had to acknowledge that the PAP has the right figures. From MND)

The question is why so much? WP’s Sylvia Lim has been trying to put up a defence but she got her figures wrong – “obfuscation’’ is the charge. Then there is this question of whether a tender was called or not. You can see the way the accusation is moving – the WP is dispensing patronage at the expense of the residents.

More intriguing is a $1m figure that has surfaced. Seems the total value of FMSS contract with WP for three years would be $15.8 million. But Ms Lim declared that it was $16.8 million to the HDB last year. We now have the mystery of the missing million.

PAP’s town council chief Teo Ho Pin, who found himself in a tight spot over AIM earlier this year, is now taking the high ground. He said in his Facebook post: “These questions raise serious issues of financial probity and transparency. The WP MPs in AHTC owe it to the residents of Aljunied and Hougang, as well as Singaporeans in general, to give full answers to them.’’

Now…the boot is on the other…

by Bertha Henson

So the AIM saga was the centre of a rousing debate, more heated than anything seen in recent times. Now that the boxing match is over, who won? Who’s the umpire anyway? That, surely, should be us, the people watching from the sidelines, and the people living in the HDB heartlands. Did any side deliver the knock-out punch? Did any side stay down for the count or throw in the towel?

Now that the match is over, and we’re calculating the points scored, let’s see what’s been settled during the match.

The most important thing: that town councils are inherently “political” in nature. Now, all the political parties aren’t arguing against this. In fact, a “political” town council is good for politicians. They can show that they are not merely talking heads even in an august a platform as Parliament but also administrators responsible for the living conditions of those who voted for them.

Sure, it could be a double-edged sword because you can botch the whole thing.

Nevertheless, it offers the politician in power a base to operate from, with premises that supporters can gather in. And a way to dispense patronage to those supportive of their cause? Now, that’s where the problem/confusion lies. Nothing in the town council rules say that political parties can’t hire their own kind, and it seems that both the People’s Action Party and the Workers’ Party have done so. The question then is whether the people accept that this is part of the political game that is being played out for them.

The idea is that the politicians and their partisans (even if not members) would do their utmost to remain in power and get through the next election. How will they do this? Now if politics is as dirty as is always said, a politician can:
a) Trip up the other side (the PAP said it would be stupid to use AIM to handicap the Workers’ Party town council)
b) Pander to populist demands by lowering S&C charges or caving in even to the most unreasonable demands of residents (WP’s Aljunied TC actually raised S&C charges which can be seen as incompetence or as taking a hard route to serve a bigger cause)
c) Threaten or bully residents into giving their continued support (by taking note of which voting precincts were “anti” or “pro”)
d) Blame everybody else if shortcomings are pointed out (which was what the PAP said the WP was doing in pointing out the AIM connection only after an unfavourable report card was turned in)
e) Use a bogeyman to rally the people against (now the MND or HDB would be useful scapegoats)

Now, all this assumes that the residents are stupid and can’t tell what is going on. Then again, maybe they really don’t care about games being played and just want to live in peace with appreciating flat prices.

What is clear is that when “politics” is mentioned, they get uncomfortable. That’s because residents have never seen themselves as political players. No one thinks very much about who or how the garbage gets cleared or the corridors are cleaned, whether it is done through open tender or political cronyism. There is a sort of blind faith that everything will carry on as usual.

The Singaporean, however, firmly believes in a level playing field. If one party/group is seen to have an unfair “edge’’ over the other, they will move to the side of the smaller player. In this case, the PAP is handicapped merely because it is a big player with resources on its side (even if AIM is only a $2 company!)

So what happens now?

The Singaporean heartlander should be the guardians of their own fate, and be educated on what it means to be living in a place governed in a “political’’ way. It is true that their best interests might not be served if political parties are only interested in their own future. They would have to wake up to this and act if so.

Of course, they can also ask for neutral parties to act as watchdogs on their behalf.

Senior Minister of State for National Development Lee Yi Shyan is leading a strategic review of town councils, to ensure smooth handover in case of leadership changes, adequacy of town council funds and the town councils’ duties in relation to HDB.

So, we’ve moved away from the “fundamental’’ nature of town councils to some nuts and bolts stuff to protect residents’ interests. Time for experts to weigh in.

What has been the impact of AIM saga and the ensuing debate? It has been an interesting exercise in political education, something which Singaporeans lack. Oh, and one question was also definitively answered: AIM is the ONLY company the PAP owns.

by Shawn Danker and Lim Weixiang

Hong Lim Park became alive once more over the weekend, as both Singaporeans and Malaysians gathered in a “solidarity” rally held in the early evening on Mother’s day, with most of them decked out in black top dress code. Breakfast Network presents a photo composition describing how the event unfolded.

The demonstration begins in earnest with Mr Wham addressing and thanking the gathered crowd for their attendence (Photo by Shawn Danker)
The demonstration begins in earnest with Mr Wham addressing and thanking the gathered crowd for their attendence (Photo by Shawn Danker)

 

Sometime controversial Alfian Sa'at is 2nd at the bullhorn as he recites a monologue in both Malay and English from a play due to open in Kuala Lumpur on May 16 (Photo by Shawn Danker)
Sometime controversial Alfian Sa’at is 2nd at the bullhorn as he recites a monologue in both Malay and English from a play due to open in Kuala Lumpur on May 16 (Photo by Shawn Danker)

 

Jolovan and Alfian speak under the watchful gaze of the police (Photo by Shawn Danker)
Jolovan and Alfian speak under the watchful gaze of the police (Photo by Shawn Danker)

 

A man penning a message of support to Malaysians on mahjong paper (Photo by Lim Weixiang)
A man penning a message of support to Malaysians on mahjong paper (Photo by Lim Weixiang)

 

Social Worker and Human Rights defender Jolovan Wham lights the first candle for the night's candle light vigil (Photo by Shawn Danker))
Social Worker and Human Rights defender Jolovan Wham lights the first candle for the night’s candle light vigil (Photo by Shawn Danker))

 

With the speeches over, the crowd moves on to show their solidarity with their northern compatriots by adding to the candle light vigil (Photo by Shawn Danker)
With the speeches over, the crowd moves on to show their solidarity with their northern compatriots by adding to the candle light vigil (Photo by Shawn Danker)

 

People holding candles over the song sheet as they sang the song "We shall overcome", which was then followed by the Malaysian anthem (Photo by Lim Weixiang)
People holding candles over the song sheet as they sang the song “We shall overcome”, which was then followed by the Malaysian anthem (Photo by Lim Weixiang)

 

Check out the day’s Bread & Butter to also learn more about what happened!