June 26, 2017


by Tan Chu Chze

POOR Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) – it seems someone has painted their town red. Town council members must be seeing red. Or maybe feeling red in the cheeks.

The recent Town Council Report by the Ministry of National Development (MND) has placed them in the “red” band (no, not Red Hot Chili Peppers) for service and conservancy charges (S&CC) arrears management and corporate governance.

But how do we interpret the red banding? While most MSM accounts of the Town Council Report stick to the slightly more objective label of ‘banding’, some reports make suggestions of more negative meanings of ‘red’.

For example, TODAY notes the “red band” to be like a red flag – or in other words, an issue that requires urgent attention. On the other hand, AsiaOne went with “red marks”, as if the report were a test which AHPETC had done poorly in.

Any emphasis on these notions might make AHPETC seem incompetent and failing.

It probably doesn’t help that AHPETC carries with itself a fair bit of red baggage. Earlier this year, it was found to be in the red. AHPETC’s defence was that it had difficulty hiring a managing agent, so it had to pay higher fees. To make matters redder, Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat suggested their reasoning was a red herring.

So far, AHPETC has not been caught red-handed, but it is clear from the Town Council Report that their struggle is real.

Perhaps it helps to see ‘red’ from the perspective of the Town Council Report itself: The colours of the other bands are amber and green – resembling traffic control. In light of this, AHPETC’s red band signals a “stop” – perhaps as a subtle nudge in a different direction.

This frames the town council’s responsibilities as a journey – and not an exam. AHPETC’s “red band” performance is then more akin to a bump in the road rather than the end of it. That is, if AHPETC bucks up.

Or maybe all this red is simply a Red Sea of red tape to be parted? Regardless, it is clear that AHPETC has a number of things to work on.

Wishing its council members lots of Red Bull for many red eye nights to come.


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by Tan Chu Chze

‘MASTER’ is not a term lightly used. In Old English, it conferred the meaning of “one having control or authority” – typically over servants, slaves, a household, or pets.

These days we tend not to use ‘master’ in that sense anymore, except in fixed phrases like “discipline master”. Instead, we use ‘master’ more figuratively, to refer to our control of a skill or expertise: a master tradesman, musician, artist, or academic (Master’s degree).

Given this understanding of ‘master’, what does ‘mastermind’ encode?

In the literal sense, and as most dictionaries would tell you, a mastermind is a really, really smart person: He or she is a “master of their own mind”, so to speak. Thus, intelligence is a crucial attribute of a mastermind.

However, you and I know that a mastermind is more than just a genius. For one, it’s not a compliment (“Ah boy, you are such a mastermind!”).

In fact, there is something slightly diabolical about being labelled a mastermind.

Being a mastermind involves scheming/ plotting/ conspiring/ conniving/ crafting elaborate plans to take over the world. Or possibly other things less sinister, but nonetheless suspicious.

Another connotation that ‘mastermind’ carries is the presence of accomplices. It is a bit of a stretch to break down ‘mastermind’ to “master of other people’s minds”, but it does reflect the sense that it’s hard to be a mastermind in isolation. A good mastermind would be shrouded in secrecy, and have other people execute his or her plan. A mastermind’s strength lies in the mind, after all.

Here are mainstream media’s (MSM) top three masterminds of the past week:

Kong Hee

Accomplices: Tan Ye Peng, Sharon Tan, Serina Wee, John Lam, Chew Eng Han

The crime: Misuse of church funds to support Ms Sun Ho’s music career

The damage: $50 Million; breach of trust; poor publicity for City Harvest Church (CHC)

The penalty: Eight years in prison

Mastermind rating: 5/10

Kong Hee definitely earns point for developing an elaborate plan to shift so much of CHC’s money around under the guise of investments. He definitely has the smarts to do that. He also has five other people working with him on his scheme – dubbed the Crossover Project – which shows his authority in the execution of the plan.

What Kong Hee lacks to be a true mastermind is any obvious villainous intent. Quite the contrary, the funds were directed with an evangelical (and not a selfish or evil) motive. As such the verdict is not unanimous. MSM tends to avoid labelling Kong Hee as ‘mastermind’, and the majority of the times he is called such is attributed to Judge See Kee Oon who presided the case.

Jover Chew

Accomplices: Kam Kok Keong, Kelvin Lim, Lim Hong Chieng, Koh Guan Seng

The crime: Cheating Mobile Air customers of their money

The damage: About $16,000, tears of a Vietnamese tourist and a stain on Singapore’s reputation

The penalty: To be sentenced on 30 November

Mastermind rating: 6/10

While lacking the grandeur of scale as seen in the Crossover Project, Mobile Air’s business scheme earns Jover Chew the title of mastermind. Where Chew comes out tops is in the bad guy factor, since the money siphoned from unwitting customers went into his pocket and not spreading the gospel.

The best part of this arrangement was that Chew sat in the back room of his mobile phone shop while his accomplices did all the dirty sales. And like a true antagonist, MSM has no hesitation in plastering ‘mastermind’ in their headlines for Chew. From the apparent lack of supporters, Chew is clearly the worse bad guy.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud

Accomplices: Cousin, Hasna Aitboulahcen; Other members of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)

The crime: Organised suicide bombings and shootings in Paris

The damage: 130 deaths, 368 injured, and fear and panic everywhere

The penalty: Life imprisonment

Mastermind rating: 9/10

Do you even remember his name? I thought not. Most likely we all remember him as the “Paris bombing mastermind” or something along that drift. This guy is so much that mastermind that we remember the label better than his name. MSM makes sure you remember that too by using the term generously.

However, such a title is only appropriate for any devise that results in physical harm – much more so for a plan of seven coordinated attacks causing 130 deaths and triple the casualties. Most frighteningly, we still don’t know for certain if Abaaoud was the true or only mastermind behind the attacks.


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Crowd holding up signs saying

by Tan Chu Chze

YOU might find it terribly unsurprising that the origin of the word ‘boycott’ is literally a ‘boy’s cot’.

So how do we derive the “abstinence, withdrawal from, or avoidance of a product or service” from a baby bed? Even our collective shunning of haze-inducing practices and their products seems to have little to do with a child’s resting place (unless it contains unsustainable palm oil?!).

In fact you wouldn’t want a boycott to be anything like a cot. No palm oil producer would stop burning forests if they felt safe and comfortable doing so. So what is the connection between ‘boycott’ and its parts?

Well, nothing actually. Boycott was a name – a family name.

We owe our current use of ‘boycott’ to a once-infamous English man named Charles Cunningham Boycott. After his hey-days in the military, Boycott retired in Ireland as an estate agent. Basically, his job was to collect rent on behalf of the landlord and farm the land. The problem was, as his middle name suggests, Mr. Boycott was a cunning… ham. Or so he was made out to be.

Taking charge over a plot of land in the county Mayo (I’m seriously not making this up), Boycott’s tenure as land agent did not bode well. Firstly, the tenants under Boycott’s charge found him difficult to work with. Worse still, they were growing tenacious – and more cunning than Charles Cunningham himself. Boycott soon found himself in a bit of a pickle.

In a wrap, Boycott’s tenants – as part of a larger movement among many farmers in the period – wanted lower rent; Boycott couldn’t lower rent; tenants stopped paying rent; Boycott served them eviction notices; tenants refused and (literally) threw shit at the eviction-notice messengers.

Then everyone went on strike. First it was his servants and labourers. Later on blacksmiths, laundry women and even postmen ceased their services. Boycott hence found himself uncomfortably sandwiched in a situation without his bread and butter.

Things worsened to the point that Boycott was socially ostracised: everyone decided to ‘boycott’ Boycott. The boycott was so bad that Boycott couldn’t even find a driver to take him to his train out of the county.

It is kind of sad that Boycott fell victim to his own name, but that is how we got the word ‘boycott’.

And as for the farmers? It did take a while, but they eventually got their way. The year after the Boycott ‘boycott’, the Land Law Act was passed in Ireland to defend the interests of farmers. The boycott wasn’t well liked by the law, but it worked.

That should give us some hope.


Featured image Coins by Flickr user rafa_luqueCC BY 2.0.

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Stack of coins and a green arrow.

by Tan Chu Chze

REARRANGE the word ‘investments’ (and drop a ‘t’) and you’ll get the phrase ‘men in vests’. While this may seem like an arbitrary anagram, the meanings of the two items are actually not unrelated.

In fact, the roots of the word ‘invest’ means, almost quite literally, in vest or to clothe, cover, dress. ‘Invest’ was originally used in the sense of clothing a person in the official robes as symbolic of entering a role or office. We still use a variant of this meaning today in the word ‘investiture’, particularly in naming the ceremonies where we endow school children with the authority of prefect ties and badges.

It was only in the 17th century that ‘investment’ was adopted into the financial context where we are familiar using the term today. But what was the connection between money and clothing?

When money is ‘invested’, it is given new form: bonds, shares, stocks, property, gold… similar to how a person is dressed in a fresh outfit. Thus, even though we mean ‘investment’ as the use of money to create profit, its early meaning was about changing the form of capital.

Ironically, these two senses of ‘investment’ neatly capture the grounds on which the City Harvest Church case was judged.

In the words of Justice See Kee Oon, who judged the case, the six guilty members had used “creative labels” in their financial accounts “to strain and stretch the mean, the plain meaning of the word ‘investment'”. In other words, they had taken advantage of the ambiguity in ‘investment’.

According to the money books, CHC had capital in a Building Fund which could be used for building related expenses or investments‘ – in the contemporary sense of use of money for profit. And, money in the building fund was used for such, or so it seemed. About S$24 million was spent in bonds from two companies: Xtron and Firna.

The main problem was that these monies were not really invested with the objective of making financial gains, as our current use of investment would imply. Instead, the bonds were merely a change in form of the money, to channel it to funding Sun Ho’s music career in Hollywood. This means that CHC’s fund had changed forms twice in the process: from Building Fund, to bonds, then from bonds to China Wine.

Of course, one could argue that the ultimate goal of all these form-changing investments was for a much higher-order profit – the redemption of souls from sin. CHC had articulated on numerous occasions that Sun Ho’s purpose in crossing over to Hollywood was really to evangelise through music.

Perhaps that could work if one took a liberal interpretation of the notion of ‘profit’ (or even a figurative spin on “Building Fund” as in “building a Christian community”). Even so, that would not necessitate CHC changing the form of their funds into bonds, nor does it make the use of the term ‘investment’ any less misleading.

In any case, if CHC wanted to be clear about their evangelical motive, shouldn’t it have funded Sun Ho’s music career directly through ‘tithes’ and not ‘investments’?


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