April 29, 2017

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by Suhaile Md 

SO WHAT if she was axed from the national team training programme six months back? Feng Tianwei’s still got it. Singapore’s top table tennis star won the 2017 International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) title on Sunday (Apr 23).

It’s her first major title since she was booted out of the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) last October. Apparently, the 30-year-old didn’t fit into its rejuvenation plans, so STTA would not support her training. It would however support her participation in the ITTF world circuit. Though it’s not clear what exactly this support entails. As for major meets like the Olympics and the Asian Games, she will face the same qualifying criteria as any other STTA athlete. The three-time Olympic medallist had failed to make it past the Olympic quarter-finals in Rio 2016.

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There was much drama surrounding Feng’s ouster (links below). But she was quick to pick herself up and form a team to support her training. She has been busy competing since.

Barely over a month after the split, Feng faced world No. 1 and reigning Olympic champion, Ding Ning in a China Table Tennis Super League match on Dec 6. The bout was a nail-biter, but Feng prevailed, beating the world champion by just one set. The score: 3:2.

While the win gave her a much needed confidence boost, constant travel across China for league matches took a toll. A few days later at the ITTF Doha Open, Feng lost 3:4 to Miu Hirano of Japan in the round of 16. That’s one step short of the quarter finals. It was the last event of the year.

The loss of STTA’s resources clearly had an impact. “This is the first competition I’m going to where I’m handling every aspect of competing by myself,” said Feng after her loss to Japan, reported The Straits Times (Dec 10).

Lucky for her, she still qualified for the Sports Excellence Scholarship which provides her with a monthly stipend of up to $8,000 amongst other benefits like medical support. The scholarship is awarded by the High Performance Sports (HPS) Steering Committee, not STTA. HPS is chaired by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Grace Fu. Feng successfully renewed the scholarship in March this year.

Feng’s 2017 season started on a sour note. She was absent from the STTA awards ceremony in mid-February although she was the top table tennis performer in Singapore last year. She had come in third for both the World Cup and Asian Cup in 2016. The best player award was not given out that night.

According to ST, when asked about Feng’s absence, STTA president Ellen Lee said: “She is no longer at the STTA… all this while, we have been recognising Feng Tianwei for what she has done and we are grateful… I think it’s about time that we also let the recognition be given and spread on to other players as well.”

February was a dismal month for her. For the ITTF Qatar Open, she was defeated by German Solja Petrissa, who ranked 13th in the world, by two sets. Feng was ranked sixth at that time.

There was one bright spot. On Feb 23, Feng met the qualifying criteria for the Asian Table Tennis Championship in April, so STTA took her in as part of its Singapore contingent. It was the first time she played with the STTA since their October split. On April 14 though, she lost to China’s Chen Meng at the quarter-final stage in three straight sets.

Despite the loss, Feng was ranked third in the world by ITTF in March and April, up from sixth when she parted ways with STTA. The next best Singaporean, ranked 25th in the world, is Zeng Jian. Since Feng is no longer in the STTA, this makes 20-year-old Zeng STTA’s best player.

Feng solidified her hold on the global rankings with her ITTF Korea Open win on Sunday (Apr 23). After her win, she said: “At the moment I don’t practise with the national team in Singapore although I live there. I am practising in different clubs and with different private sparring partners. Sometimes I even go to China for training.”

The three highest ITTF ranked players will represent Singapore in the SEA games team events this August, said STTA technical director Loy Soo Han in response to queries from The New Paper in January.

So it really doesn’t matter whether Feng is part of STTA or not as far as the glory of Singapore is concerned. Feng could still play for the national team if she maintains her ranking. If she wins medals, Singapore’s best paddler would have done so with little to no resources spent on her by STTA. Very much like Joseph Schooling.
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Read more on last October’s controversy here:

  1. Feng breaks silence on STTA controversy. Here’s her letter – in English

  2. What STTA’s Deputy President said about Feng Tianwei’s sacking

  3. Feng was a “bad egg”, a “disgrace to nation”, says STTA Deputy President

  4. Feng Tianwei’s shock exit and the economy

 

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ONE of the reasons why Singapore is perhaps the safest place to live in is due to the low frequency of natural disasters resulting from our geographical location. Fortunately, we are being geographically encased by Borneo on one side and Malaysia on the other. Thus, any typhoon or tsunami activity will go through those locations first. By the time they reach Singapore, it’s merely a tame tropical depression with great surf conditions.

Yet, our counterparts in the international community are not as lucky as us. Natural disasters often disrupt the life of the natives – damaging infrastructure, costing massive amounts of money to recover from the damage, causing a temporary halt to economic activities and worst of all, resulting in high death tolls and injuries. Here are some natural disasters around the world in the month of April:

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1. Lima, Peru – Flood and mudslides: Death toll continues to rise 

Floods and mudslides have been afflicting Peru since the start of the year. The death toll is currently at 113 as of 19 April. The heavy rains have been affecting the South American country all year round, causing rivers to reach high levels, forcing people to leave the place. An estimated million homes have been damaged and more than 2,500 kilometres of road have been destroyed.

In a latest update, the National Center for Emergency Operations said that the recent natural calamity is because of a climate phenomenon called “coastal El Nino”.

CNN reported on March 20 that half a million people in and around the country’s capital, Lima, have been affected by storms and flooding. President of Peru, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski has said the country will need some US$9 billion (S$12.5 billion) to rebuild and modernise the affected areas. He said: “We know it is a difficult situation, but we are controlling it, and we are hopeful that it will soon pass”.
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2. Naypyidaw, Myanmar – Cyclone Maarutha 

Image of Cyclone Maarutha churning above the Bay of Bengal captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite.
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Cyclone Maarutha caused a storm to move over land on the Rakhine coast of Myanmar on the night of April 17. The landfall was first classified as a tropical depression on April 15 in the Bay of Bengal, according to Aljazeera.

Relief web reported: Three people were killed in Irrawaddy Division as Cyclone Maarutha made landfall on Arakan State’s coast and swept through southern coastal Burma on Sunday (Apr 16).

The town Thandwe was swept by the cyclone with winds at 60km/h and steady, heavy rain. The cyclone continued but weakened as it passed the rugged terrain of the region. This cyclone is the first tropical cyclone in the northern hemisphere. This cyclone season usually leads up to the southwest monsoon.
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3. Wellington, New Zealand – Double trouble Cyclone Debbie and Cyclone Cook

Image of Cyclone Cook sweeping through the South Pacific before approaching New Zealand taken by NASA.
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April isn’t a particularly good month for New Zealand as it was first hit by Cyclone Debbie and then Cyclone Cook.

In the first week of April, the tail-end of Cyclone Debbie devastated the Bay of Plenty town of Edgecumbe, forcing its 2,000 residents to flee with only a few minutes’ warning. Although flooding eventually became less severe than anticipated, hundreds of trees have fallen, and police said many roads had been closed in the North Island. State of emergency was activated in Bay of Plenty and Thames-Coromandel, with the defence force assisting in moving residents to higher ground and keeping people away from the coast. Fortunately, there are no reported deaths due to Cyclone Debbie.

About a week later, New Zealand was hit by Cyclone Cook on April 13. It struck New Zealand with power outages, fallen trees and landslides reported around much of the central and eastern North Island, which bore the brunt of the storm. Forecasters feared that Cyclone Cook could be the worst storm to strike New Zealand since 1968. There is also no known deaths due to Cyclone Cook.
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4. Manila, Philippines – Earthquake Swarm

Image of a Filipino villager walking past a tilted shanty at a coastal village in the earthquake-hit town of Taal, Batangas province, Philippines taken by Francis R. Malasig.
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The Philippines was hit by an earthquake swarm, which is when a local area experiences sequences of many earthquakes striking in a relatively short period of time, on April 8.

Three quakes ranging in magnitude from 5.0 to 5.9 struck Batangas province, about 90 km (55 miles) south of Manila, around 3 p.m. (0700 GMT) over a period of about 20 minutes, said the U.S. Geological Survey. Hundreds of residents of coastal areas in a province south of the Philippine capital fled to higher ground fearing a tsunami on after a series of earthquakes on the main island of Luzon. However, the earthquake swarm was not powerful enough to cause a tsunami according to Head of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology Dr Renato Solidum.

While there were no reports of casualties, power was cut off in some in some areas and cracks were reported in homes and some commercial buildings. Landslides were also reported in some towns and a portion of a Catholic church tower that had collapsed.

The Philippines sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” where earthquakes and volcanoes are common. An earthquake of magnitude 7.7 killed nearly 2,000 people on the northern island of Luzon in 1990.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Ryan Ong

A LOT of Singaporeans think Financial Advisers (FA) only sell insurance, but that isn’t all they do in this day and age. While insurance is part of the financial planning they do, most FAs take a holistic long-term view. Many prefer to work at building lifelong relationships, helping their clients all the way to retirement; and that means they need to do more than sell policies. Here are some other things you can get them to do for you:
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What exactly is a Financial Adviser (FA)?

In Singapore, FAs are licensed by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) under the Financial Advisers Act.  Depending on the qualifications they’ve received (FAs do plenty of tests and exams to qualify), different FAs are authorised to offer different types of financial products, and dispense different types of financial advice. Insurance policies are just one aspect of their work.

Most FAs can also do the following:


1. Compare insurance products to give you the best s
olution for your needs

It might surprise you to learn that some FAs don’t just sell products from one insurer. Because insurance is just one facet of what they do for you, some FAs are willing to compare different policies for you depending on your lifestyle needs and affordability to suit your needs and get a better deal.

Some Manulife FAs, for example, will compare different insurance policies to make sure you get the right products within your budget. They can end up recommending or selling policies from other insurers, if they feel it’s a better fit for your portfolio*.

This isn’t to say FAs who work with specific insurers are bad; they are just more focused on helping certain demographics. But if you’d feel better with an adviser who will compare across the industry for you, know that there are many who will.

(*That’s why a lot of new FAs, who often seek to help families and friends as their first clients, tend to end up with the Manulife Financial Advisers; it lets them pick from a wider range of options, to deal with the individual cases that they’re intimately familiar with).

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2. Help with your retirement planning

For most Singaporeans, retirement planning is quite straightforward (just decide who gets the house, the car, and nominate someone to get your remaining CPF monies).

However, FAs would be around to help if your legacy planning is more complicated. For example, if you pass away unexpectedly and your 15-year-old child is to inherit the house. Or if you own a business, which is to be inherited by two or more children; and you want to establish rules on whether and when that business can be broken up and sold.

Most FAs know the proper safeguards when handling retirement planning, and can at least refer you to the most appropriate and cost-effective experts to help.

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3. Check up on other investments you’re considering

Different FAs will, depending on their network and qualifications, offer different depths of service. However, all of them understand how to build your portfolio for retirement or other purposes. They will know the right level of risk, and whether a given asset fits your portfolio.

This makes FAs a useful source of advice, if you are considering different investment opportunities. For example, if you want to invest money to help your children open their own café, your FA can determine how this will impact your portfolio, and make changes accordingly (or frankly advise you against it, if that’s what must be done).

FAs can also research alternative investments you’re considering, such as gold exchange-traded funds or property investments, and determine if they are viable additions to your portfolio.

Due to their extensive involvement in the finance industry, FAs are also more aware of potential scams, or entities on the MAS watch list (these entities often rebrand themselves to confuse the public).

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4. Continuously rebalance your portfolio to fit life’s changing circumstances

Proper retirement planning is not done in a single session. You’ll need to rebalance your portfolio (the various assets that make up your wealth) on a regular basis.

One example of this is age: As you get older, your portfolio should shift from growing your wealth to protecting it. This means exchanging riskier, high return assets, such as equities, to safer assets like Singapore Savings Bonds, or even simple fixed deposits.

Also, your changing financial situation can require quick, drastic changes. If you’re suddenly retrenched, for example, you may need to change your insurance policy to something with lower premiums.

You can get your FA to do formulaic and calendar based rebalancing, to deal with these.

Formulaic rebalancing means your FA can recommend changes to the assets in your portfolio, when they no longer meet a planned asset allocation (this happens as a result of changing values among various assets, from stocks to cash).

Calendar based rebalancing is often done annually or semi-annually. Your FA will rebalance your portfolio, will deal with your changing age, along with new needs such as sending your children to university, or buying a new house.


5. O
ne-stop value-added information source

What are the implications to your housing loan when the American Federal Reserve imposes an interest rate hike? What does it mean for Singapore Savings Bonds when the Singapore Government Securities Yield falls?

If you don’t have the time to find out, your FA is a quick source. Besides being able to explain how current events are going to impact your portfolio (or your wallet), FAs are the most common intermediary between the finance industry and the lay person. They’re a good way to get smart about fluctuations in the market, and to better understand the financial world.

In personal finance, bad decisions often come from a lack of understanding; FAs explain situations, which reduces drastic mistakes like selling off your assets in a panic.

If something in the news alarms you, be sure to call them before you react.

 

This is an editorial series done in partnership with Manulife Financial Advisers.

 

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Mr Bill Ng with recipients of the Hougang United club scholarship fund (image by Hougang United)

by Gary Koh 

THE raids on Mr Bill Ng Eng Tiong’s football clubs and his bid for control of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) has thrown the spotlight on finances – those of the FAS as well as the clubs he controls. The merger and acquisitions specialist’s skill as a money-maker applies on and off the pitch, but what of how he spends it?

Mr Ng’s first foray into Singapore football came in 2004 when he was brought into semi-professional side Tiong Bahru FC for his expertise in turning around the fortunes of in-crisis companies in other industries.

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It was an all too familiar story in Singapore football – without a viable revenue stream to fund their football operations, Tiong Bahru FC was a club mired in debt and primed for shut down. Mr Ng turned to legalised gaming in the clubhouse as the best bet for clubs to be financially self sustaining.
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The Tiong Bahru FC clubhouse in People’s Park Complex.

“Self-sustaining”, though, is an understatement. Its takings for the last financial year came to $36.8 million, more than 20 times the income of a typical S-League club and even more than the FAS, which gives local S-league clubs an annual $800,000 handout. Many National Football League (NFL) clubs operate on less than $10,000 a year.

But spending has been a big question where Mr Ng is concerned, and could make or break his campaign. Sport Singapore made a police report about suspected misuse of funds after checks this week raised “serious questions about the use of club funds”. A police raid on Mr Ng’s clubs followed on Apr 20.
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Police cart away boxes of documents and computers from the Tiong Bahru FC clubhouse.

The Straits Times reported that the Tiong Bahru FC spent nearly as much as it made in most years, which is also surprising for a club of its stature. Mr Ng said that 80 to 85 per cent of the revenue is returned to the player or paid out as winnings. It was from Tiong Bahru’s FC funds that the controversial $500,000 donation for the Asean Football Federation’s football management system was made.

A report in Today revealed that Mr Ng’s Tiong Bahru FC paid close to a million dollars in rent for its People’s Park Complex clubhouse last year, which works out to $31 price per square foot for the 2,583-square-foot basement unit. It has 15 staff and paid out salaries of over $2 million, spent $528,000 on staff training and benefits but committed a comparatively paltry $168,000 for its football activities, although that number is many times higher than the budgets of other clubs of the same calibre.

Mr Ng’s business acumen would be put to a sterner test in 2009 when he was once again asked by FAS General Secretary Winston Lee to turn around a different crisis club, this one in the S-League. Then known as Sengkang Punggol, they were more than $1 million dollars in the red. Again, Mr Ng’s ‘jackpot solution’ helped the club, later rebranded Hougang United,  it generated a $2 million dollar surplus over the next five years. It is the only local club that eschews the $800,000 handout from the Tote Board.

The questions about spending are amplified by poor results on the pitch. Players of Tiong Bahru FC found themselves relegated to Division Three for a spell, but the strengthening of their financial base allowed for them to return to Division One in the next few seasons. The club has never topped the NFL despite its good financial fortunes. Hougang United FC is also seen as underperforming, given its financial position.
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Hougang United players decked out in suits before departing for an overseas game (Image by Hougang United FC).

Mr Ng’s methods were not without criticism, from murmurings on the regular turnover of coaches to accusations of seeking ‘profit-at-all-costs’. In order to win the vote, he has to convince his critics that he isn’t using football to chase finances, but that he is using finances to improve the football situation.

A lot of bad blood came in 2014 following his management team’s controversial takeover attempt of financially insolvent S-League side Woodlands Wellington, amid fears that he would damage the club’s footballing culture in favour of a cushy bottom line.

A group of Woodlands Wellington fans, led by former long-serving club official Vengadasalam Rengayyan, formed an activist group to take control of the club and block Mr Ng’s takeover. The merger was eventually ruled to be unconstitutional, and neither Mr Ng nor the activists took control of the club. New management was put in place, and these days Woodlands Wellington only play in the Women’s premier league. It still runs a clubhouse with jackpot operations.

Mr Ng has countered that he was merely doing the job entrusted to him by the FAS – to turn struggling clubs around financially. He has also taken great pains to stress that the profits from Hougang United FC’s gaming operations are ploughed back into football and the community.

His most famous donation right now is the $500,000 from Tiong Bahru FC which went by way of the FAS to the Asean Football Federation, which raised eyebrows for both its quantum as well as for, why a small club was paying for the infrastructure of a regional football body.

Outside of that, Mr Ng’s notable football give-backs include a million-dollar club scholarship fund which pays the school fees of promising young footballers, and the providence of a regular allowance, in addition to regular fund-raising dinners for the late disabled footballer S. Anthonysamy, from 2012 until his passing four years later.

The financial help provided to S. Anthonysamy and his family is significant because Woodlands Wellington had paid scant attention to their former employee after the on-field accident in August 1996 that left him paralysed from the neck down.
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The late former Hougang coach and Woodlands Wellington player Amin Nasir (Image by Hougang United FC).

When Amin Nasir, once a caretaker coach for Hougang United FC and player at Woodlands Wellington suffered a relapse of cancer in 2014, the former national defender’s medical bills were paid by Mr Ng in his personal capacity. A regular monthly allowance is also given to his family, which will continue until the end of the year even though he passed away in January 2017.

Hougang United FC’s confidence in running operations without subsidies has enabled it to invest in footballing infrastructure at Hougang Stadium.
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Hougang United FC’s refurbished dressing room (Image by Hougang United).

Apart from being the first club in Singapore to acquire the Globus EuroGoal ball shooting machine that aids its goalkeeper training sessions, it has also renovated its home dressing room with individual lockers and a recovery bath-tub, and installed leathered seats on both benches.

But all this does little to put off critics, for whom money is merely a resource to keep building football. The closest the club came to on-pitch success was a League Cup runners-up finish in 2011, while meagre bottom-half league finishes of seventh, 10th and sixth were the best it could achieve in the three most recent league campaigns.

The task at hand for Mr Ng, and his Game Changers, should he win a mandate on 29 April, is enormous. He has to rejuvenate not just a single club, but an entire football ecosystem. Beyond financial recovery, he will have to win hearts and minds, convince Singaporeans that Singapore football deserves their support and convince the youth that the pursuit of football excellence is still worthwhile. Most of all, he has to do the one thing he has failed to do at his clubs – raise the quality of Singapore football.

 

With more than a decade spent covering football, Gary Koh’s works have previously appeared in local and international print and online publications, among them notably with FourFourTwo and Asian Football Confederation.

 

Featured image courtesy of Hougang United Football Club.

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by Suhaile Md

The White Helmets have had largely positive press coverage in international media. But there are some controversial allegations about the volunteer group, mostly from supporters of the Syrian regime.  On April 5, we spoke to founder Mr James Le Mesurier about it. This is part two of two. Read part one here.
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IT’S difficult to doubt the agenda of a group of volunteers who risk their lives to pull babies out of broken buildings.

However last year (Sep 21) when the Associated Press (AP) asked Syria’s President Assad, if he would support the White Helmets’ Nobel Peace Prize nomination, he said: “It is not about the White Helmets, whether they are credible or not, because some organisations are politicised, but they use different humanitarian masks and umbrellas just to implement certain agenda… What did they achieve in Syria? And how un-politicised is the Nobel Prize? That’s the other question.”

Not an unreasonable question given that foreign powers have taken sides in the Syrian conflict. Russia and Iran back President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), Saudi Arabia, and Turkey back the rebel groups. And the White Helmets are funded by the latter group.

Last year (Sep 28), the British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said that the UK had donated £32m (S$56m) since 2012. Earlier in April 27, a US State Department press briefing revealed that the US government donated US$23m (S$32m)  to the organisation. By the end of last year, list of donor governments include Germany (7m euros), Canada (C$4.5m), and the Netherlands (8.5m euros) as well.

White helmets training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page

Donations by itself do not prove a nefarious agenda. Yet skeptics say that foreign governments don’t just give millions away altruistically either.

Mr James Le Mesurier, founder of the White Helmets and a former British diplomat, disagreed: “There’s a huge difference between funding which is conditional, and funding which is unconditional… Yes we get money (from the above countries)… but it has never been a secret.”

“For accountability and transparency reasons we have to publish it on the website, we have auditors to confirm where the money has gone.”

He added: “If it was a covert programme, we are doing a really really shit job at it.”

If it was a covert programme, we are doing a really really shit job at it.

The White Helmets have an annual budget of “US$30m to $32m,” with about “75 per cent from governments, and 25 per cent coming from private donations”. Private donations range from a few dollars worth to seven-figure sums.

This year, US$15m was raised “from organisations that are not western governments”. Regardless of the source, “we do not accept them if there’s any political conditionality” like wearing a certain logo, or making certain comments on media, said Mr Mesurier.

Still, the early White Helmet teams were trained in Turkey by ARK, a for-profit international contracting firm funded by Friends of Syria, “a coalition of about 35 different countries who provide support to those that are in opposition to the Assad Government,” said Mr Mesurier. He worked as a consultant there.

Surely, that reasonably raises questions of foreign agenda? Possibly regime change, or the overthrowing of President Assad, as it’s widely viewed?

The White Helmets do not have a regime change agenda, how exactly does rescuing somebody from a building result in the toppling of Assad in Damascus?

He replied: “What you need to connect, if you’re going to make this point, is means to ends… what ARK was doing, was funding media activists, giving them cameras, it’s good governance development, it was civil society development… the White Helmets were one of eight programmes.

“The White Helmets do not have a regime change agenda, how exactly does rescuing somebody from a building result in the toppling of Assad in Damascus?”

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Not agents of the CIA, or Mossad, or MI6…

Mr Mesurier said he’s been called an operative of foreign spy agencies like America’s CIA, Israel’s Mossad, and UK’s MI6, among others.

None of which are true. The idea of a rescue force came about when he was working in the private for-profit ARK. His job there “involved meeting mayors, local politicians, media activists, and designing and delivering training courses in peace and stabilisation activities”.

After the bombings started, it was in one of those meetings that local leaders said they needed to find ways to protect themselves. That’s when the idea to train rescue teams hit.

In 2013, a local leader in a village in Northern Aleppo sent Mr Mesurier’s 25 volunteers to train in Turkey. That’s where they were first issued with the protective helmets. It was white, because it’s “$5 cheaper than the other colours”.

White helmet volunteers training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

Volunteers were lay people, teachers, bakers, blacksmiths, tailors and so on. Word spread and other communities in rebel held areas started approaching ARK. The growth and spread of the White Helmets was not the clandestine efforts of a spy. It was the simple need for a first-response rescue group.

In August 2014, the various teams came together, adopted their charter, pledge of neutrality, and voted in a leader, Mr Raed Saleh. The organisation was formalised then. Mr Saleh runs the show now, not Mr Mesurier.

Mr Mesurier left ARK around that time to set up Mayday Rescue, a non-profit organisation registered in the Netherlands, “because he didn’t feel right doing it (training White Helmet teams) on a for profit basis”.

Mayday Rescue supports the White Helmets with training and mentorship. While it has no management function, funding does go through Mayday Rescue. According to its website, the annual report and financial statements for 2016 will be published online this coming June.

Amongst other expenses, the money goes to the equipment purchases, training costs, and the “very very meagre” monthly stipend of US$150 each volunteer gets. Those who were maimed in service, as well as families of those who lost their lives, are also supported with a stipend. The White Helmets set up the Herofund in 2014 to help with public fundraising.
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Neutrality not respected

The White Helmets, he repeated throughout the interview, are neutral. They save everyone regardless of background.

The Syrian government is not convinced. It does not allow the White Helmets into regime controlled areas. Even when the White Helmets had six fire fighting teams near the vicinity of the forest fires in Latakia earlier this year, the Syrian government declined their offer to help, said Mr Mesurier.

Maybe it has something to do with online clips of some volunteers who have been very outspoken in their comments about the regime? Those are very few and far between and do not represent the view of the organisation, he said.

White helmets training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

Also, it’s a war zone. The volunteers are lay persons who used to be housewives, teachers, bakers, and so on before the war. Their volunteerism exposes them to “tremendous stress”, they take “tremendous risks” to their lives. Mr Mesurier did not say so, but it’s understood: When you spend your days picking up bodies due to regime bombs, it’s only natural to be angry at the regime.

To the date of the interview (Apr 5), 171 volunteers have died and 488 were permanently maimed. There are currently 3,100 volunteers.

171 volunteers have died and 488 were permanently maimed. There are currently 3,100 volunteers.

When asked if he thinks the volunteers are targetted, Mr Mesurier said with finality, “absolutely”. Their centres have been bombed before. And the regime airstrikes infamously engage in “double-tap” attacks where a bombed site is struck again shortly after its first round – to get at the people who run in to help victims.

Interestingly, the volunteers are able to move freely in opposition held areas of Syria in spite of it being an “archipelago of local warlords” and “local arms organisations”. Although yes, in some parts, like ISIS controlled areas, the White Helmets are not allowed to use their GoPro head cameras when they go about their work.

Nonetheless, they can clear checkpoints “from top to bottom”, which is “fairly unusual”, said Mr Mesurier. He doubts any other organisation is able to do that. In fact, this also shows that the White Helmets are not western spies or agents. They would not have such freedom of movement otherwise.

It’s probably because of the “trust that people have of the White Helmets,” he added. Furthermore, the services the White Helmets provide to local communities have not been successfully replicated by local armed groups.

“Some local warlords have tried to set up their own rescue teams… but the values that makes people want to join an extremist organisation are almost the opposite of the values that make somebody want to be a White Helmet”.
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So are the White Helmets western stooges or not?

Skeptics would charge that the graphic videos and images are used in the propaganda war to make the President Assad’s regime look bad. This garners support for regime change, exactly what the western governments funding the White Helmets want.

To that, Mr Mesurier replied that the White Helmets just want the bombings to stop, not remove Assad or change regimes. Showing images “is not regime change”, it’s about “making truth accessible”, to show that people are suffering.

Mr Salah Skaff, 25, reacts carrying the body of his daughter Amira Skaff, 1.5 year old, after an airstrike on the rebel held besieged city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria April 7, 2017. – REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

It’s hard to argue with that. Given the volunteers’ lives lost and thousands of online videos that capture the harrowing circumstances the volunteers face, it’s hard to believe the white helmets work hard just to make the regime look bad.

It would be far safer and easier to spread fake news instead. (Read more here.)

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Mr James Le Mesurier was awarded the Order of the British Empire last year for his work with the White Helmets. In the past, he served as a British Army Officer from 1989 to 2000. Later he had a diplomatic stint for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. After which, he moved on to various roles in the private sector risk management companies. This information is publicly available on his LinkedIn profile.

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Featured image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page

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White Helmets on the job. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

by Suhaile Md

The White Helmets have had largely positive press coverage in international media. But there are some controversial allegations about the volunteer group, mostly from supporters of the Syrian regime. We spoke to founder Mr James Le Mesurier about it it. This is part one of two.

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YOU may have seen the videos from civil war-torn Syria: Volunteers braving bombs, their white helmet-clad heads bobbing about, looking for survivors, pulling bodies out of building rubble. The Syria Civil Defense, or White Helmets as they are popularly known, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year. But last month (Mar 20), Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said: “White Helmets are Al-Qaeda members and that’s proven on the net.”

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Unsurprisingly, the White Helmets disagreed. And it’s not the only accusation hurled at them, said Mr James Le Mesurier, founder of the organisation, in an interview with TMG on April 5. The organisation has also been accused of faking rescue missions for propaganda purposes, and acting in the interests of western powers like the United States (US), and the United Kingdom (UK), by pushing for regime change in Syria. Read our other story on that here.

 

Mr James Le Mesurier, one of the founders of the White Helmets.

“We believe there is a deliberate, propaganda campaign to undermine the credibility of the White Helmets”, said Mr Mesurier at the sidelines of the Milipol Asia-Pacific Exhibition. The 45-year old former British diplomat and army officer gave a presentation on community resilience at the security exhibition.
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Accusations and rebuttals

Some of the harshest accusations have been debunked by watchdogs.

One particular viral video of a speech claimed that the White Helmets use actors to make fake rescue videos. The speech was by Ms Eva Bartlett at an event organised by the Syrian Mission to the United Nations (UN). Ms Bartlett, a Canadian, describes herself as “an independent writer and rights activist”.

Said Mr Mesurier: “She (Eva) is a founding member… of the Syrian Solidarity Movement, which is a pro-Assad government forum… how can she be an independent investigative journalist? The two are dichotomous.”

Her claims were, however, rubbished by UK’s Channel 4 news and Snopes. The video was posted on Dec 13 last year on Facebook page In The Now. The page is run by Russia Today (RT), a state-backed news site but Channel 4 notes that In The Now is “not branded as such”. Russia is a staunch ally of President Assad. The video garnered 4.3m views, over 53,000 reactions (comments and likes), and nearly 114,000 shares.

More recently, Pulitzer prize-winning website, PolitiFact, debunked the claim that the White Helmets orchestrated the hoax chemical attack on April 4 this year, in Idlib, Syria, to draw the US into bombing the Syrian regime.

We believe there is a deliberate, propaganda campaign to undermine the credibility of the White Helmets

It’s not possible to keep up with every claim made online. Detractors usually just pull together low resolution pictures of White Helmet volunteers and place it along those of gun-toting fighters, without dates or context, to imply they are the same people. That’s held up as “proof” that it’s a terrorist organisation.

But how often, asked Mr Mesurier, can someone differentiate one bearded man from another in a low grain picture? “You’re kind of like how do you respond to that?” It’s far easier to slap a few pictures together and sow doubt online than it is to track down facts and ascertain truth.

Yes, a few members of the White Helmets used to be former fighters, but they gave up their guns and now save lives. People change, he added. Just because they did not clear their social media history of pictures and slogans from the time when they took up arms does not mean they are still fighting.

And not just anybody can join the White Helmets. If the locals don’t trust the volunteers, they wouldn’t be able to get anything done. Which is why members are vetted by the local communities. So a “bad guy… wouldn’t be accepted as a member of the team”, said Mr Mesurier. There are currently 3,100 volunteers in 107 teams across Syria.
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White Helmets training. Image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page.

But what about the damning video, from May 6, 2015? White Helmet volunteers were caught on tape running in to clear a body seconds after a gunman executed a man. It turns out that the deceased was tried and sentenced to death in a local Sharia court, said Mr Mesurier. When his father found out about the time of execution, he called the White Helmets to help him conduct a proper burial. Besides, the gunman was clad in a balaclava, not a white helmet. Accusing the White Helmets of this act would be akin to accusing Joseph of Arimathea of crucifying Jesus.

The White Helmets are an unarmed, neutral group, interested in saving lives, insisted Mr Mesurier. By its own records, since March 2013 when the first team was formed, it has saved over 87,500 people. Anyone “dug out of building rubble, and put on a stretcher” plus a few other criteria is considered a life saved, he said.
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If it’s so good, why are there detractors in the first place?

Short answer: war and politics.

In 2011, the “Arab Spring” political protests against the ruling governments across parts of the Middle East spread to Syria as well. By 2012, the protests against President Assad in Syria soon devolved into a full-blown civil war. Over time, global and regional powers took sides. Iran and Russia support the Syrian regime led by President Assad. The US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey support the rebels.

The White Helmets was started by Mr Mesurier when he was working for ARK, a for-profit international contracting firm based in Turkey. ARK was funded by Friends of Syria, “a coalition of about 35 different countries who provide support to those that are in opposition to the Assad Government,” said Mr Mesurier. The White Helmets are no longer under ARK but its donors include the US and UK, among others. But he insists there is no nefarious agenda. (Read more here: So what if we’re funded by western governments?)

The misinformation, said Mr Mesurier, comes mostly from Sputnik News and RT news. These are Russian state-backed news media. He believes the Russian government encourages it. To that end, he showed a tweet by the Russian Embassy in UK shortly after a documentary on the White Helmets won the Oscar for best documentary short feature.

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Said Mr Mesurier: “Every time there’s a video of White Helmets rescuing women, children, old people, from buildings bombed by (Syrian) government aircraft… that undermines what Assad says of it being a simple choice between him, as the good guy, and ISIS as the bad guys.”

But the work of the White Helmets has shown that there are many Syrians who don’t want either President Assad or the extremists.  “And that is a threat to him… how to deal with it? Accuse a volunteer rescue organisation of being affiliated with Al-Qaeda.”
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The mechanics of fake news

Mr Mesurier found a broad pattern to how fake news is spread. There are three phases.

First, it usually starts with blog posts by a “supposedly independent journalist of some variety… who typically claims to be new media, anti-mainstream media”. Such posts make their way into social media echo chambers.

Anybody who tries to be critical about the assertions in the post will face resistance from the writer’s supporters whose line of argument is usually: “You are taken in by mainstream media, you are blind, you don’t see what’s really going on in the world.”

So with the blog and some social media reaction, the next phase kicks in. “State-sponsored media” like RT or Sputnik news will invite said blogger on its channel where he or she is then “introduced as an independent investigative journalist”.

This is followed by “a series of leading questions that has them (Russia and Syria) define their story”. This narrative then enters a far larger audience. “What supports all of that is the industrial amounts of social media, who are not real people but bots that create fake profiles.”

What supports all of that is the industrial amounts of social media, who are not real people but bots that create fake profiles

The final phase is when national leaders make reference to sources like Sputnik news and RT. When members of the public look into the claims, there seems to be proof because so many people are talking about it online. No matter that the origins of the claims are based on shoddy reporting in a blog. Little can be done about such sites, “they’re not accountable (to a board or editors)… they cannot be sued”, said Mr Mesurier.

Furthermore, the effort it takes to disprove these allegations “is disproportionately greater than the amount of effort that it takes” to make it.

It takes only a few minutes to plaster together a couple of low resolution images from the web to make it seem as if a volunteer is actually a fighter in disguise. But to debunk it, both the volunteer and the fighter whose images were used need to be tracked down. In one such actual case, it was found that the fighter and volunteer were from two different cities altogether.

The White Helmets do not have a dedicated team addressing allegations. At the end of the day, said Mr Mesurier, the focus is on rescuing people, not debunking myths.

“We believe the record of the White Helmets speaks for itself.”

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Featured image from Mayday Rescue Facebook page

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by Bertha Henson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STR gave its response on its own website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Daniel Yap

AFTER his shock-inducing announcement that HDB owners should not expect to get their flats redeveloped at the end of their 99-year lease, which means the value of a 99-year-old flat is practically zero, Minister for National Development, Lawrence Wong is now saying that HDB flats are “a good store of asset value”.

It seems to do little to solve the problems that owners (leaseholders, really) of end-stage leases are facing – possible homelessness or having to shell out tons of money for stuff they wrongly assumed they’d get for free. And those who panicked at the initial reminder that a 99-year lease only really lasts for 99 years will be wondering – what does Mr Wong mean to say now?

Is he trying to calm down stunned flat buyers who thought that the value of their home was a sure thing?


HDB flats are “a good store of asset value so long as you plan ahead and make prudent housing decisions”.

Ah, but the good minister did include a caveat, although he didn’t explain it. His whole phrase is that HDB flats are “a good store of asset value so long as you plan ahead and make prudent housing decisions”. What decisions exactly? What’s the key to unlocking all of this asset goodness, if indeed there is any to be unlocked?

There are two ways of viewing something as an “asset”. The first is that an asset is something you can use to pay off liabilities, for example loans. That’s why you can’t (and shouldn’t be able to) take a housing loan for more than your house is worth. That’s also why banks are not happy at all when you miss a mortgage payment. It means that the value of the money you owe in the loan gets dangerously closer to the money they can get if they repossess and sell off your house, should it come to that.

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The thing about assets is that for every upside, there is a downside. Inflation eats away at the value of cash, property, everything. Markets go up and down, and you cannot guarantee that you will exit in the black. And some assets depreciate, like HDB flats, which run down to zero after 99 years. The ownership of any asset bears some degree of risk.

You just have to make sure that the risks are smaller than the returns.

There’s a second way to look at something as an asset. It is a more “business” approach, where something that is an “asset” is supposed to generate income. Like a factory building or a machine. It can also be something that generates income over a longer period of time (or which can be liquidated for capital gains), like Singapore Government bonds, or stocks.

So, what Mr Wong may be saying is either a) buy and sell and finance your HDB flat in a way that makes your returns greater than your risks or b) rent it out for income (as in rent it out not to cover mortgage payments, but at a price that is higher than depreciation and the costs of rental – agents, repairs, fees).

Taking advantage of renting out for income is straightforward – you get permission to rent out and then you pay money (either your own costs or you hire an agent) to put your property on the market and maintain it.

Taking advantage of buying, selling and financing is also simple (but not necessarily easy). All you need to do is recognise that the market is irrational. If you told any accountant that asset X would last for 100 years and cost $100,000, they would depreciate it (say on a straight-line basis) at $10,000 a year. Or maybe accelerate the depreciation in the first few years.

The money you spent on renovations too should be depreciated (including original fittings), say over 15 years, which is when you may need to renovate again. This is how we do cars – we know that a COE lasts for 10 years and there’s a PARF rebate and a “scrap” value, so every year the value of a car goes down by a certain amount.

Not so for HDB flats. Market values actually rise over time even as the life-span of the asset falls. It may be some kind of hyperbolic discounting (read about how it makes you stupid in our linked story) or people are just plain crazy. But take advantage of this! Buy a BTO flat that is much larger than you actually need, rent out a room and then when the five-year minimum occupation period is up, sell the whole thing and downgrade to a newer, prudent sized unit. Or just sell the older unit and buy a same-sized newer unit every 10 years or so, before people start to get jittery about the HDB flat you’re selling having only 60 or 70 years left on its lease. It should still fetch about the same price. Because people are crazy.

Eventually, when it’s just you and maybe someone else living in your home, you can downgrade further to use your asset (the market value of your HDB flat) to pay for your liabilities (daily expenses, travel, etc), if you’ve preserved it well. If you’re retired, a chunk of that money is likely to go into your CPF, because the housing loan goes back in, with interest (and then gets paid out via CPF Life).

But no matter what age you do it at, the bottom line is this – let it go. If you never sell your depreciating asset, you’ll never get any cash out of it at all. And the “prudent housing decision” you need to make is to take advantage of people who will shell out as much for a 30-year-old flat as a 10-year-old one (especially when the renovation looks fancy).

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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FOR many people of the Christian faith, Easter is one of the most important holidays of the year. It is a celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. It is usually celebrated on the first Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox (the moment when the sun crosses directly over the earth’s equator) on March 21. Depending on the occurrence of the vernal equinox, Easter is celebrated anywhere between March 22 and April 25. This year, Easter will be observed on 16 April. Although it is not clear how the word “Easter” came about, some sources claim that it was derived from Eostre, a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility.

The following are the different ways Easter is celebrated around the world:

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So what exactly is the significance of Easter eggs and bunnies and why is Easter always associated with them? Well, truly, no one knows.

Christians adopted the egg as an Easter custom during the 13th century. The yolk represented Jesus Christ’s emergence from the tomb while eggs were painted red to represent the blood Christ shed during his crucifixion. However, there is no basis in history or evidence that explains how the association came about. Just like how the goddess Eostre is based on conjecture, the same is true to the origin of eggs and bunnies.
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1. Helsinki, Finland – Witches and bonfires

Image by Annelis from Wikimedia Commons. 

In Finland, it is believed that in the olden days, witches and evil spirits roamed around the country on the Saturday before Easter, up to mischief. The Finnish people start large bonfires to keep the evil spirits away and this tradition still continues, even though not many are as superstitious in this day and age. The bonfire is also used as another way to bring the community and families together.

Finnish children dress themselves up in witch costumes and dirty themselves in soot and go around the neighbourhood, knocking on people’s door for candy or money. In exchange, the kids give the residents a decorated twig.
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2. Athens, Greece – Silence and darkness

Image by Flickr user George M. Groutas

In Greece, Easter celebrations start on Good Friday. The body of Christ is wrapped in linen and put in a casket to symbolise the tomb of Christ. The casket is decorated with flowers and then taken to the street for a procession. Some Greeks also honour the dead by lighting a candle at the cemetery.
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On midnight of Holy Saturday, the lights in churches will be turned off to symbolise the darkness and the silence of the tomb. The whole country celebrates Easter at midnight with church bells, ships’ horns, floodlights and fireworks.

3. Haux, France – A gigantic omelette

Image by Getty Images user Remy Gabalda.

In the southwestern city of Haux in France, the people celebrate Easter by having an omelette together. There’s no typing error in the previous sentence – the entire town does share a single omelette! On Easter Day, a group of chefs fry up an omelette big enough for an entire town to consume at the town’s main square. The massive dish feeds up to about 1,000 people.

In the past, the gargantuan dish was about 10 feet in diameter and comprised 5,211 eggs, 21 quarts of oil, and 110 pounds each of bacon, onion, and garlic. A similar tradition is observed in the town of Bessieres in southwestern France. Every year on Easter Monday, around 10,000 people gather to make a giant omelette, made with 15,000 fresh eggs, a four-meter pan, 40 cooks, and extra-long baguettes.

Many believe this unique tradition harks back to an instance during Napolean’s reign when Napoleon Bonaparte and his army once spent the night in the countryside. After eating an omelette made by a local innkeeper, Napoleon demanded a gigantic omelette to be prepared for his army to eat the next day.
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4. Jerusalem, Israel – Holy Week of Easter

Image from igoogledisrael.

The Holy Week of Easter is an important celebration in Israel, and for many Christian pilgrims that visit Israel to trace the footsteps of Jesus and his last moments.

On April 9 this year, the Christian Holy Week celebrations began with the Palm Sunday procession. The Palm Sunday procession involves thousands of Christian pilgrims climbing Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, to re-enact Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The Palm Sunday procession typically heads down to the Church of All Nations, continues to Saint Anne Church, St. Stevens Gate (the Lions Gate), the Old City and down the Via Dolorosa.

Another interesting manner Easter is celebrated in Israel is The Way of the Cross procession. On Good Friday (April 14), in memory of Jesus’ journey up to Golgotha to be crucified, the streets and alleys of the Old City in Jerusalem will be packed with pilgrims following Jesus’s same path down the Via Dolorosa. To symbolically share in their saviour’s pain on that fateful day, many of those participating carry a cross with them in spiritual support of their Lord.

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Featured image by Pixabay user Couleur(CC0 1.0).

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by Bertha Henson

FOUR top-ranking civil servants were huddled in the subterranean sound-proof room, tasked with the mission of drawing up a list of issues that cannot be publicly discussed, not even in Parliament. Their new assignment comes after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that sensitive issues such as whether Muslim women in front-line jobs should be allowed to wear the hijab should be discussed behind closed-doors. After closing the steel-reinforced doors with a double-locking mechanism, the bureaucrats, known fondly as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, got down to work.

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Mr War (cracking knuckes): Well, the boss has already given us the hijab for the no-go zone. What else should be eliminated?

Ms Famine (cracking melon seeds): I don’t know why though? There’s always the Parliamentary Committee of privileges which can hammer down bulimic MPs who throw up everything and anything…

Mr Pestilence (popping a health supplement): That’s because Parliament is not a contained facility and we risk the virus getting out and infecting people. Remember we just had a resurgence of Zika?

Mr Death: The bell tolls. I hear. Death knell.

Mr War (ignoring Mr Death): I recommend a scorched earth policy, where everything to do with religion is out. Like mosque-building, church fund-raising, temple celebrations, Thaipusam, Christmas and how much hongbao to give relatives on Chinese New Year…

Ms Famine: That’s piling too much on the plate. We would be starving people of information and they’ll just go for a diet of fake news. Maybe just foreign imams using village bibles and church leaders who think they can sing should be added to the menu.

Mr Pestilence: I already said I could bug everyone and stop things from going viral… Why do we even need a list?

Mr Death: Leave it. To me. I will. Meet. Everyone.

Ms Famine (sweeping shells onto the floor): Surely, people won’t refrain from partaking of the City Harvest? Such appetising food for thought! Too harsh, too lenient or just right… ?

Mr War (impatient): Well, the AGC is applying for a criminal reference, so we shouldn’t talk about it. I also say we shouldn’t allow discussion on terrorist attacks unless they are accompanied by nation-building and societal-bonding terms.

Mr Death: Death. To terrorists. In London. Stockholm. Egypt. Everywhere. I will. Be. Busy.

Mr Pestilence: But we haven’t dealt with who should be invited to such closed-door discussions. People whom we’ve already inoculated?

Ms Famine: Then, they won’t have very much to chew on since we’re sure they would swallow everything anyway.

Mr Death: Walking. Dead. People.

Mr War: At least the rules of engagement will have been set and we won’t have loose cannons destroying our fortified policies. Think of closed-door discussions as a barricade against attacks.

Mr Death: SGSecure.

Outside the bunker, fire and brimstone rained on the surface. The Four Horsemen traded bureaucratic jargon as they worked on their policy paper, oblivious to tremendous on-goings outside because of their double-locked, steel-reinforced, sound-proof bunker. Mission accomplished, they were going out for air when they found that the doors had malfunctioned. Mr War couldn’t punch through steel. Mr Pestilence couldn’t infect the locks while Ms Famine’s shrill screams went unheard.

Mr Death: Death. Comes. To us all.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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