April 28, 2017


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by Bertha Henson

Sometimes, a word or two whispered in the right ear will do the trick. Sometimes, the whisper can be as simple as “What’s he doing in a place like that?’’ Depending on the status/standing of the whisperer, the person being whispered to would have to guess at what the whisperer truly meant. An innocuous question? Or one that has deeper meaning?

Seems that Mr Nizam Ismail, a now former director of the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), has been the subject of some whispering.  He told The Straits Times that AMP had informed him over the weekend that two ministers had “expressed concern” about some critical views he had put forth online and his participation in the two events. He declined to name the ministers.

He said he was presented with two options. One, if he did not “tone down” his activities, the Government would withdraw funding from AMP. Two, dissociate himself from AMP if he wanted to continue with civil society activities.

Of course, no one in the AMP or the G is going to admit to “political intervention’’ as Mr Nizam has described it. He quit, they said. The retort would be: Did he really have a choice?

Muslim Affairs Minister Yacob Ibrahim gave a roundabout response, or at least, that was how the ST report appeared:

Asked by reporters last night on the sidelines of a dialogue organised by government feedback unit Reach, Dr Yaacob said: “AMP is an important partner. In our discussions with AMP, we have never touched on their internal organisation, how they are being managed.”

(Okay, so he’s saying it doesn’t matter who is doing what in AMP, so long as the work gets done properly. Mr Nizam was head of AMP’s research arm and its former ex-chairman)

He also noted that the association has “written in its Constitution that whoever is involved in AMP must be non-partisan and we assume therefore not involved in politics”.

Some questions:

  1. What’s non-partisan? A card-carrying member of a political party? By extension, this should disqualify AMP members who are members of the ruling parties too. Are there any? Mr Nizam has said he is not a member of any party, nor intending to be one.
  2. What’s getting involved in politics? Seems Mr Nizam’s participation at the Population White Paper protest and a Workers’ Party forum counts. Would it help if he made it clear at those forums that he was speaking in his personal capacity and his views do not represent those of his organisation? Apparently, he did… But this wasn’t enough? Well, Mr Nizam is going for a hattrick; he’s down as a speaker for the May 1 rally at Hong Lim Park. Would he still be speaking? Nothing to prevent him now really….Or he could ask if he could speak at the NTUC-organised May Day rally!
  3. If getting involved in politics – broadly defined – means running afoul of the constitution of an organisation, then too many people will be disqualified and proscribed from speaking up. Or should they only do so at government-sanctioned events, like the Singapore Conversation series.

He said the Government was more concerned with the work they do as they receive public funds.

Dr Yaacob added: “Money which is given by the Government to Malay-Muslim organisations must be for the purpose of voluntary work that will help the community move forward. It is not for the purpose of creating a platform for people to be involved in partisan politics.”

(Okay, the AMP gets funding in the form of a $1m matching grant yearly for five years. Other organisations which get any form of G funding might want to take note, like arts groups. It cannot be that if the G gives money, you can’t be critical of the G? Or does it? A case of biting the hand that feeds you – even if the hand has been slapping you at the same time?)

So did Mr Nizam quit voluntarily or was he pushed?

This is what he himself said in a posting today:

“I received a surprise phone call from Mr Azmoon Ahmad, Chairman AMP on 20 Apr 2013.  He informed me that he received separate phone calls from two Ministers to the effect that they were concerned about (1) my participation as a speaker at the Hong Lim Park protest; (2) my participation as a panelist at a Workers’ Party Youth Wing Youthquake Seminar and (3) my critical leanings on social media. Mr Azmoon had relayed a message that he said he received for me to “take it easy” and refrain from such activities. Otherwise, the Government will withdraw all funding from AMP.  This puts AMP in a difficult situation. Mr Azmoon also painted the alternative that if I were to continue with my civil society activities, he suggested that I “disassociate” myself from AMP.

Mr Nizam also cited instances when he alleged that threats to pull funding was made:

“For instance, State funding of AMP’s programs were cut in the wake of a proposal for a collective community leadership during AMP’s 2nd Convention in 2000. Threats of funding cuts were also made in reaction to a proposal for an independent Community Forum made by AMP during its 3rd Convention in 2012, as that was seen as a threat to the State-sponsored Community Leadership Forum (CLF) – which ironically, was perceived to be set up as a reaction to the Collective Leadership proposal made earlier by AMP.”

At least, Mr Nizam doesn’t need a lawyer – which is what Demon-cratic cartoonist Leslie Chew now needs. Online media said he was held in custody and questioned over the weekend, and was released at 8.45pm on Sunday after posting bail of S$10,000. The police confiscated his handphone, computer and hard disk. He was also asked to surrender his passport to the police at the Cantonment Police complex.

Mr Chew has been warned twice over his cartoon strips, first for scandalizing the judiciary with a cartoon strip that refers to the removal of a judge and second, for running foul of the Sedition Act with a second strip that talks about the Malay community’s fertility rates. He has refused to take them down, nor apologise for them. Crossing the Sedition Act can lead to $5,000 fine or up to three years, or both.

In his defence, Mr Chew pointed to the disclaimer in each of his cartoons which says that the portrayals in them “are purely fictional”. “I also explicitly stated that Demon-cratic Singapore is an entirely imaginary country and is not the Republic of Singapore,” Mr Chew said. He added that most fans know that Demon-cratic Singapore is fictional and “just for laughs”, said Chew.

“Even when there are new readers who thought otherwise, they are usually quickly reminded by other readers that everything on my Facebook page is fictional.”

Hmm. Wonder what sort of defence this is. It’s a silly person who can’t connect his cartoons to Singapore developments. He might be better off suggesting that his cartoons are satirical takes and produce evidence to show that his audience treated them this way.

As if both incidents are not enough to make one wonder about the G’s approach to differing views, then comes an intriguing message from the organisers of that May 1 rally at Hong Lim Park: Foreigners, please do not attend.

The NParks has told organisers to get a police permit because a “Police Permit must be obtained if permanent residents of Singapore are speaking or organising a demonstration, performance or exhibition, and/or if foreigners are speaking or participating in or organising activities at Speakers’ Corner.’’

No foreigner is behind the rally or will any be speaking, the organisers claimed. They didn’t apply for a permit for the first rally in February either. Like the Nizam case of getting “involved in politics’ , just what amounts to “participating in’’ activities at Speakers’ Corner? A curious tourist looking on? Would having a police permit mean that security measures must be taken to ensure that foreigners are screened out? The organisers do not want to apply for one. They should. To see if they get it and whether it comes with strings attached. They should cover their bases.

What to make of all this after all the warning letters shot into the blogosphere in recent times?

A coming confrontation between civil society and the G? The G attempting to impose some order on what it deems as freewheeling, chaotic discourse? Or part of the process of a maturing society, in which both sides are negotiating the rules of engagement?

Hopefully, the last option.

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by Bertha Henson

Does anyone think that the G is getting too trigger-happy shooting off warning letters into the blogosphere? I’ve lost track…

There’s the set that was sent to administrators of Facebook pages which contained comments on the 25-month jail sentence on the Chinese national who went berserk in Changi airport, carjacked a cab and killed a cleaner (contempt of court). Then there’s the Council for Private Education upset over some emails a blogger sent to the media (defamatory). Then a stiff clarification from the Singapore Land Authority to another blogger whom it said got his facts on the Pulau Ubin saga wrong (misleading readers).

Oh! The most recent: the Manpower ministry takes issue with a Yahoo news report on the SMRT bus drivers’ alleged grievances (failed to verify facts). And a filmmaker says she’s likely to hear something from the G on her video of those Chinese SMRT bus drivers (false allegations of police brutality).

The G and its agencies are really on a roll!

What is the message here?

Illustration by Jonathan Tan

Well, at least the G is responding to the blogosphere. (Hear me out, okay?) It’s better to be noticed than to be ignored although this is probably the kind of attention the online bloggers wouldn’t want…But, hey, it shows that there is some kind of official recognition that online commentators have some clout to sway opinions.

It also puts the online community on its toes; restrain your fingers before you shoot off your mouth. Engage mind before mouse. In the Pulau Ubin case, the point the blogger about not compensating the islanders for 20 years is way off the mark. They are tenants, not owners, and have actually been living rent-free. It’s a significant fact. And the SLA probably has a right to feel aggrieved. Of course, the retort could be that the G started the whole thing anyway with that silly clearance notice by the HDB which got everyone suspicious about its intentions.

The more important thing is to come to grips with why people are so angry over some things that they see red and see, yes, just half the picture. That 25-month jail sentence was astounding, for example, even though the judge made clear he took into account the Chinese national’s mental state. Didn’t anyone expect that there would be outrage? And if someone did, wouldn’t it better to make sure that judgment was clear and very, very full? Judges can’t be living in ivory towers. (Oops! Am I not even supposed to say that?)

Contempt of court is a concept that the layman finds difficult to grapple with. Does this mean it’s best not to criticise a sentence at all? When is criticism warranted and will not be construed as contempt? Maybe you can criticise the sentence, but not the judge?

Thing is, should everyone online know everything about what is “on” and what is “not on”? I suppose if people want to take on the role of journalists, they should strive for the same standards as the professionals. Quite tough, when even journalists can get it wrong. Top pointers would be: Get your facts right, verify allegations and get the other side of the story. Oh! And get a good tutorial on libel laws and contempt of court. You might want to add the Official Secrets Act as well.

Although the G is responding to the blogosphere, it seems to be responding only when things don’t go its way. It’s a negative reaction, hardly the engagement that most people would desire. Would the agencies, for example, respond to requests from the blogosphere for more information or clarification? Or would this be too much trouble? Would they enlarge their engagement to more than just members of MSM so more people have a clear view of what’s happening… especially since some people don’t read MSM and rely on Facebook feeds for their news diet!

So what’s next?

The blogger who faces the wrath of the Council for Private Education (CPE) is arguing that the CPE is really a public agency (it’s a statutory board), and so has no locus standi to sue for defamation. It’s seems more a case of who can sue than whether the statements were defamatory. Interesting.

The Real Singapore is gearing up for a showdown. It has refused to apologise for the comments on its FB page regarding the court case and has instead raised questions about who should really be responsible for comments on open Facebook pages.

Good question.

Do administrators have to watch and monitor every single comment? If so, better NOT to have Facebook pages and invite NO comments because one oversight and it’s over for you…I suppose the G’s online watchdogs will say that they will exercise discretion – maybe 100 horrid comments and you’re done for. Or if they are satisfied that there have been “some’’ attempt at moderation, they will turn a blind eye.

Big problem when you don’t know where the line is. Then again, we might not want a line drawn to constrict the independence of the blogosphere…

We live in interesting times indeed.

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by Bertha Henson

This is one of those few Mondays when there is plenty of news in MSM. Go buy every paper, including Zaobao if you can read Chinese. Plenty of exclusives you will miss if you don’t.

Like ST’s interview with the new Singapore Tourism Board chief Lionel Yeo, who wants use the Singapore way of living as a tourist magnet, and his views on the presence of high-flyer types whom the Wall Street Journal talked about.

Like ST’s exclusive on how animal welfare will be incorporated into the character development curriculum in schools.

Like BT’s interview with Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin on how starting salaries have been stagnant for five years, and how a minimum wage policy is within his “tool box’’ and is actually very easy to implement – except the G’s approach is better.

Like TNP’s interview with the mother of the toddler who was burnt because she laid on heating packs at a baby-sitter’s home. More specifically, buy it for TNP’s pictures of the poor girl’s burnt back.

Like Zaobao’s coverage of the national conversation conducted among the Chinese speaking, who want the use of more dialects in the media, and how the repeated refrain that Singapore is small and vulnerable is one of the many nation-building myths which should be slaughtered.

All good newspapers must come with job opportunities, so here’s a public service announcement in case you missed the $44million revamp of Residents’ Committee story: There’s a new job designation in town – RC manager. TODAY reported that the RC and Neighbourhood Committee manager scheme was started by the People’s Association to help grassroots leaders in their efforts to work towards a target of reaching out to one in two residents by 2015. Currently, there are over 400 RC managers — aged between 20 and 50 years old — islandwide. Given that there are 572 RCs, there’s scope for more managers. They will be running grassroots activities in the RCs full-time, so you can expect your RC centre to be open most of the time, instead of for the enjoyment of a few stalwarts.

Sounds fun to be an RC manager. The centres will be bigger, spruced up and can have programmes that run along themes like caring for senior citizens, promoting art etc. The RCs will have more “autonomy’’, although it is not quite clear what sort of restrictions had been imposed on them in the past. Maybe it is a question of being unable to do things because of a lack of funds….

Now, it seems the PA wants the RCs to act like “mini’’ Community Centres/Clubs.

Doubtless, just as is the case for community centres, critics will start asking if this is the PA’s move to strengthen the grassroots base of the G. Those questions about who will be the “advisor’’ to these RCs will come up again. One historical bit about RCs – they were viewed as feedback channels to the G, more of a political tool than a bonding tool. In the early days of its formation, residents chafed at the idea of joining because it looked like a version of the People’s Action Party branch, despite the G’s protestations to the contrary.

But residents of all political stripes appeared to have come on board going by the increased membership. Perhaps this is a sign that a neighbourhood identity is blossoming.

ST quoted Dr Reuben Wong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore as saying that RCs’ new autonomy was limited to more “peripheral” issues as their grassroots adviser is still the People’s Action Party candidate for the ward. “If the PA wants to make itself more relevant, it should look into the issue of the adviser.”

Now what would the opposition parties say?