June 26, 2017


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Photo By shawn Danker
8:30 Clock face

by Bertha Henson

It’s Friday, June 19, and the biggest news of the day isn’t about what’s happening in Singapore, but in Thailand. It’s got its first Mers case, when a businessman from Oman tested positive for the virus. Remember how Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that it was just a matter of time before the virus landed here?

Also, now that the SEA Games is over, the drum beat for National Day has started. There will be a record 50 aircraft taking to the skies on August 9, the biggest fleet in 40 years. Five Black Knight aircraft will also do an aerial salute to former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew that day. Remember how the planes were supposed to fly over Mr Lee’s funeral cortege on March 23 and couldn’t because of the weather? (BTW, the Games organisers have said that the tickets to the closing ceremony were NOT oversold contrary to news reports.)

If you’re driving and come across weird yellow diamonds or squares on the road, that’s a sign that you should slow down and watch out for pedestrians and cyclists. Although you’re probably wondering why they aren’t looking out for you instead since you still have the right of way…

If you’re one of those who were silly enough to fall for the “love for credits” scam, we’re sorry for you. In the first five months of the year, more than 500 police reports on such scams have been lodged, with victims losing more than $1.25 million. Modus operandi: The men meet women online and agree to buy them online shopping credits or cards. They snap pictures of the receipts and their PIN numbers as proof and some even leave their ATM cards at public places to be picked up. These are the conditions set for sex, although news reports didn’t say if their booty calls came through. Well, one guy in the syndicate has been charged. Hopefully, he will lead the cops to the mastermind. But you really don’t need much of a brain do you, to know that your ATM card and PIN number are sacred.

If you have time to read on, here’s some food for thought from an ST Forum Page letter writer about news that toddlers were getting IQ tested and joining Mensa.

I find it unacceptable that toddlers are subjected to psychological tests, the findings of which some parents claim can help them tap their children’s potential.

“Equally deplorable is the fact that some parents send their children for the tests to join high-IQ society Mensa so that their young can be in “like-minded company”.

“In other words, children at such an impressionable age are encouraged to form a class of their own.”


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A Casio digital watch showing 8:30 by Shawn Danker
A Casio digital watch showing 8:30

It’s Thursday, June 18, and a very good morning for 82,000 civil servants who will be getting a one-off $500 bonus from the G along with their mid-year bonus on July 1. Oh. Sorry, you’re not a civil servant? And you don’t work at DBS Bank? Or SMRT? Or any of NTUC‘s social enterprises? They are giving cash bonuses or shopping vouchers because it’s…SG50!

So…go bug the boss and good luck!

Today also marks the start of Ramadan, a month of fasting and prayers for Muslims. No doubt, non-Muslims will commit the usual gaffes of stuffing their faces in front of their Muslim colleagues who will be trying to quiet down those tummy rumbles.

If you’re thinking of buying a car, COE prices have slipped (small cars are down from $66,000 to $61,000) but it’s not clear yet whether this will continue for the next round. Even if it does, don’t forget that a revised Carbon Emissions-Based Vehicle Scheme starts next month and fewer cars will get rebates while more can expect surcharges.

And if you’re thinking of heading to South Korea, which has just had its 20th death from Mers, you might want to consider that plenty of others have cancelled their travel plans – even though the Foreign ministry here hasn’t issued a travel advisory saying “don’t go”. If you’re going, think about dropping a note at the Singapore embassy there.

PS. Yesterday, we ran a piece on the crowd that couldn’t get into the National Stadium for the closing ceremony of the SEA Games. TNP reported sources as saying that one reason could be over-selling of up to 15,000 tickets. The Games organisers, however, are keeping mum.


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A Tissot wristwatch with clock hands pointing at 8:30
8:30 Clock face

It’s Wednesday, June 17, and the SEA Games is over.  Sigh. No more edge-of-the-seat tension and watching the fit and trim perform athletic feats – and wondering why you’re nowhere near as agile, strong or fast as the sportsmen. Host Singapore got a record treasure chest of 84 Gold, 73 Silver, and 102 Bronze medals, which the Prime Minister described as a fitting tribute to SG50. No, we’re not No. 1; that spot belongs to Thailand with 95 Golds. But still!

One big piece of news is that we’re looking underground to store storm water. We’ve already got Jurong Caverns and SAF Ammo Dump down under and now the G is calling a tender to do a feasibility study for underground reservoirs. Guess if we can’t grow sideways, we go downwards. If the studies show it can be done, there will be digging somewhere, hopefully, in some far and ulu place. But it’s this sort of big idea that has made this place exceptional and self-reliant. Remember Newater?

If you wondered about yesterday’s weather, which was a miserable drizzly grey most of the day, we’re not going to get more of such, according to the weatherman. Get prepared for a hot, sticky and drier second half of June, even a bit of haze.

Frankly, nothing much happened in Singapore yesterday; all eyes were on the SEA Games.

Guess the celebrations leading up to August 9 will be in full swing from now…


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A Casio digital watch showing 8:30 by Shawn Danker
A Casio digital watch showing 8:30

Today is June 16, 2015. That’s right, 2015. And can you believe there are still 250,000 people (mostly foreign workers on pre-paid cards) in Singapore on a 2G network? Well, they won’t be on it much longer – the network will be pulled in 2017 to make room for more 3G and 4G networks.

Speaking of more room – people in Sengkang, how happy are you that Kupang, the last “mothballed” – as TNP puts it – LRT station is going to open next Saturday? Someone said this to TODAY about her morning commute: “It’s so packed that my nose is touching the glass doors.”

Slightly gross. Time to whip out the insect repellent – especially if you want to avoid dengue in the coming months. We’re entering into the “warm season” of June to October, and although dengue infections are down, the number of Aedes mosquitoes are up and NEA is worried more people are going to get infected. Have you done your Mozzie Wipeout?

Now, getting serious. In the first quarter of 2015, employment shrank – for the first time in five years! Reasons? Slow growth, tight labour market. Industries most hit – manufacturing, retail, and accommodation and food services. So if you’re looking to switch jobs, maybe hold on to the one you have for now…

… unless you’re already unemployed. In that case, you may want to head to the kopitiam at Block 155, Bukit Batok Street 11 to mull over your options over a kopi or teh-o. Or for some good luck. Incredibly, the coffee shop there has been apparently sold for a record-breaking $31 million.

Who knows, maybe they’re hiring.


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Today is Monday, June 15. It might be a bit rainy this morning but that’s unlikely to dampen the spirits of our SEA athletes. In case you haven’t heard, we’ve won 82 gold medals, putting the week-long question, “Will we or won’t we hit the big 8-0?” to rest. Mind you, there are still two more days to go. Gary Lim of TNP thinks the water polo and squash teams will deliver three more, rounding our total haul to 85. Whatever the final tally, it’s already way better than our last gold medal record of 50, set in 1993.

If you’ve already hit the big 8-0, chances are you’ll be receiving a letter this week saying how much you’ll be getting in Medisave top-ups. These annual $400-$800 payments are for Pioneer Generation members, so if you or your parents are born in 1949 or earlier, and became citizens before 1987, keep an eye out for them.

Lots of news about money today. A new Gain City megastore has opened in a Sungei Kadut warehouse offering prices that are 20 per cent lower than its other retail outlets. From next year, you’ll be able to pay your court fines, fees or bail money at automatic kiosks instead of queueing up at the courts’ cashier counters.

Speaking of paying up, two Jurong East flats were torched over the weekend by loan sharks – but amazingly, they weren’t the ones who O$P$. Apparently, the debtor lived one floor below the two units, but he had CCTV rigged so the runners set fire to his neighbours’ homes instead. Like that also can?!

One last thing about money. If you’re thinking of using your CPF savings for investment, you’re better off leaving it. Only 15 per cent made profits larger than 2.5 per cent (the guaranteed annual interest rate) and 40 per cent lost money. This is according to the CPF Investment Scheme’s annual profit and loss report released today. EDIT: If you’re interested in the details, here is the published data from CPF board on the performance of CPFIS accounts.


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by Bertha Henson

It’s a really good time to be in the media or to know something about media. You have Dr Shane Todd’s parents giving what is known as the “doorstop’’ interview, and you even have the State Counsellor standing on the steps of the courthouse to give a few words, like calling on the Financial Times journalist who first broke the story of the mystery (or non-mystery) of Shane Todd’s death to come forward as a witness. Now…it’s not often that you see something like that. The Attorney-General’s Chamber’s set of lawyers prefer to escape the limelight, not go under the spotlight.

You also have the super-fast responses by both the People’s Action Party and the Workers’ Party over town council management, aided by social media. The battle appears to be conducted online, surfacing only much later in MSM.

Then you have budding television producers from City Harvest uploading videos of the trial of their church leaders on YouTube, presumably to counter what bias they think the mainstream media would have.

And finally, you have a vigilante of sorts, who posted a video online of what looked to be bullying in the office – a man slapping someone said to be an intern not once, but several times. The man was caught full face-on. The video’s been removed but not before it’s been shared on other platforms. Who is the boor? We await the results.

It is always good if people are open to the media. It means that they are willing to be transparent and subject themselves to some questioning. Of course, there is the flip side, people who use the media to advance their own interest. In such cases, we have to trust the professionalism of the media to sort through the agendas and come up with that kernel of truth or at least a compilation of facts. Even if they do not or cannot, at least the viewing or reading public will be able to see different viewpoints and make their own judgments.

Then there is of course the media peopled by amateurs fired by emotion. Those who imagine themselves to be “citizen journalists’’ are really no more than “eye-witnesses”. A facility with camera-work or some lines of text do not make anyone a professional journalist. It would be interesting to compare the work of the City Harvest people and the MSM.

That there are more people venturing forth to give “eye-witness” accounts coupled with videos and photographs is laudable. The problem though is that eye-witness accounts are actually incomplete. The video of a Mercedez Benz driver who was in a crazy zig-zag crash a couple of weeks earlier had people castigating him online. Then it turned out that he was having a heart attack at the wheel. That’s why you need professional journalists and for the proper authorities to step in to give the full account.

What of the office bully? Violence in the workplace cannot be condoned but it would be good to hear his side of the story as well on why he raised his hand. News of the video has made it into MSM, but with no other new detail than what can already be seen and read online. No names, no facts. Professional journalists owe it to their readers to find out more.

Welcome to the wonderful world of the media, old and new. It’s as confusing as it is exciting.

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by Bertha Henson

Over the weekend, there were several pieces in ST that would be of interest to civil society. The first was a piece about when civil society activists would be perceived as moving into the political space. The other, more useful, piece is by a law don who talks about Singapore’s approach to contempt of court laws.

The first piece is pretty much old hat, drawing a great deal from a speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong to the Harvard Club (circa 1991) and an article by ex-Cabinet minister George Yeo (circa 1999). Law Minister K Shanmugam was interviewed for the piece and Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong gave a statement.

Nothing very new at all from them except that a new term has crept in: partisan politics. Said Mr Wong in the ST article: “NGOs should not be used as a cloak for partisan political objectives. Similarly while individuals in NGOs are free to express their views, they should not use their organisations to pursue a party political agenda.”

It’s like what Muslim Affairs Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said a week earlier regarding the Nizam saga. The accusation was that Mr Nizam Ismail formerly of the Association of Muslim Professionals pushed for “race-based” politics (although it would be clear to anyone that the AMP is a “race-based’’ organisation). Going by what Mr Nizam said, he wanted Malay issues discussed across race lines instead of just community lines. Doesn’t sound that bad, does it? Then again, the G said his call echoed a failed proposal made a long time ago for a collective leadership in the community, which might well rival that of elected Malay MPs. And that, the G said, is bad.

G funding, Dr Yaacob said, should not be used for “the purpose of creating a platform for people to be involved in partisan politics.”

Ministers must have some kind of template…

What is partisan? According to the Oxford dictionary, it’s about strong support for a party, person or cause, especially in politics. So it isn’t about whether you are an outright fan or card-carrying member of this or that party, but also whether you support some political cause (which might not even be championed by any party).

Anyway, how do we count the ways?

The rights of foreign maids and foreign workers – political parties won’t touch this with a 10-foot pole because they won’t look patriotic. Abolition of Section 337A – another hot potato best fought between the evangelical right and the gay community. Independence of the judiciary – too dangerous because it is protected by the law. What about a group lobbying for minimum wage legislation – a favorite of opposition parties. If an NGO has a similar cause, would that be considered even more partisan because it is similar to a party’s platform?

The other phrase is “for political ends/purposes”. That’s the accusation the Home Affairs and Manpower ministry have levelled at NGOs who have been pressing the issue of alleged police brutality against the Chinese SMRT bus drivers. The NGOs, the ministries said, were exploiting vulnerable foreign workers to make their case about suppression of labour rights in Singapore. It’s a very big statement, which led to a retort from the groups which insisted that what they wanted was clarification of police processes.

Said Maruah, a human rights group: “We are troubled that the government sees the involvement of civil society in pushing for greater transparency as casting aspersions on the integrity of the police and “working for their own political ends.”

What’s the political “end’’ here? Getting the G to fess up that there are few labour rights here so that it will be kicked out at the next GE? Laying the groundwork so that NGO members can get elected on an independent platform at the next GE? Would such groups have to form a political party and make it a truly partisan party political cause – and fight in the political arena? Now, was anyone waiting for something like this to be said by the G? (It used to be uttered like a reflex action…) Well, it hasn’t done so…

Anyway, if the G did say something like this, it means that every NGO which has a cause that will have it butting heads with the G would have to form a political party. Like nature/heritage societies? Save Bukit Brown, green spaces, the birds etc… Butting heads with Singapore Land Authority and Urban Redevelopment Authority and the like. Haven’t heard that members should form some kind of Green Party…

But, as the ST report points out, perhaps a lot depends on who is the one doing the speaking and lobbying. So it is okay for a Tommy Koh or a Ngiam Tong Dow to utter a completely contrarian view but not some nobody (never mind the quality of the view). Even Catherine Lim wasn’t let off in the past, although in recent time, her writings have not raised the same kind of ruckus. She seems to have been deemed “acceptable’’. Or has she earned her spurs in some way. Or the G has realised that there are too many Catherine Lims out there to discipline.

How should the twain meet? Actually it all boils down to the evidence, the facts. Statements made must be backed by proof, and not bare assertions – which both sides are sometimes guilty of.

After denying political pressure initially, the G came clean (almost) on exerting pressure on AMP to get Mr Nizam to resign, even implying that funds were hanging in the balance. Likewise, the NGOs should reply to charges of “hindering’’ police processes, in the SMRT case. Sometimes, there is no proof, you know, when something smells fishy? Then the civil way is to ask questions than make accusations – but answers must also be forthcoming.

As for G funding, all NGOs, including arts groups, which get any should take note. There’s now a new OB marker that has been thrown into the works. If you take G money, you can’t do things that the G doesn’t want you to do. There’s some justification for that. You take money because you’ve convinced someone about your cause – so you shouldn’t deviate from that or it will be like biting the hand that feeds you. Of course, you can be far more circumspect about taking the money and specify that it is only for this or that programme and not tantamount to a total gag order or a pair of handcuffs. And get it down in black and white.

Frankly, what would happened if the AMP declined to pressure Mr Nizam to quit? Would the G really have pulled funding from AMP and leave hapless Malay/Muslim families depending on AMP’s work in the lurch? It didn’t come to that but it would have been interesting to see the result of such a confrontation. The bet is, the G would lose. Evidently, it never envisaged the AMP not doing as asked.

Then there is this business of whether you can really speak for yourself or would be seen as speaking for an organisation. Mr Shanmugam said it depended on popular perception. So never mind if Mr Nizam swore with hand on heart that he is speaking in his personal capacity, it will be perceived as a view of the AMP. It’s not unlike the position of The Straits Times. It can swear all it wants about being independent, but everyone still thinks it’s a G mouthpiece anyway. The thing is, going by what Mr Shanmugam said, plenty of backbenchers should get out of NGOs and such. Does anyone doubt that they are involved or invited into NGOs because they are representatives of the ruling party? When they speak, it is with the party behind them – never mind if they too swear with hand on heart that they are speaking for themselves. There will be exceptions, of course, for MPs who were already active in NGOs and VWOs before they entered politics. They’ve earned the spurs to speak as independent minds.

As for the second piece on contempt of court, what was interesting is how the onus is actually placed on the state to prove that supposedly offensive remarks were not “fair criticism’’ and would actually lead to the judiciary to be regarded with contempt. Go read it.

The Law ministry is apparently looking at codifying the law on contempt and the writer, law don David Tan, noted that a court of appeal had actually suggested that Parliament consider legislative changes to allow for defences to scandalising contempt. Perhaps, that is what the Law ministry is up to. It had better get a move on.

by Bertha Henson

When you’ve been away for three days and you’ve deliberately switched off on the news from Singapore, what do your eyes automatically turn to when you are confronted with a load of old newspapers?

This morning, I scanned through the weekend’s news and came up with the following responses:

a. Alamak, another cyclist died! Third one! Changi!

b. A third backside burnt by acid? Who the hell is this fella who’s been dumping stuff on MRT seats? And how come the G still doesn’t know what that liquid is?

c. Waaah…these two valets! Stupid to go take the Ferrari for a drive…Such an expensive car, sure got safety features.

d. Who is this designer who crashed his car into Geylang shophouse? And how come the media never identified the type of car? Can’t see from the photo, just that it’s dark blue.

Odd that it wasn’t the Malaysian elections which took my attention, but what was happening to people here. On any other day, I would have been devouring news of the Malaysian GE – so nail-biting, so exciting, with washable indelible ink, allegations of foreigners awarded citizenships to vote, suspicious packages etc.

(Random thought: So the opposition is making inroads into neighbouring Johor – now what would happen to Iskandar then with its billions of Singapore investments? We’ll have to start making friends with the Democratic Action Party fellows – and risk being black-balled by the Barisan National types? Tricky.)

Also, I would be wondering what I should say about the AIM saga. Imagine so many months and the MND comes up with – everything’s clean and above-board BUT another review needed!

(Random thought: I guess its directive to review the “fundamental nature’’ of town councils didn’t include what it now calls a “strategic review’’. Probably good, as such a review – about a possibly “non-political’’ town council – should be more inclusive than an MND one with only officials involved reporting to a minister who belongs to the ruling party.)

There are other big pieces that I should spend some time thinking over, like ST’s pieces on the line between civil and political space and a law don’s view on contempt of court in Singapore. But too taxing! Later!

Back to the people stories!

Of course, you must read The New Paper for such people stories and I go…

a. Sheeesh, I almost forgot about dengue. It’s on TNP’s Saturday front page on people who refuse to open their doors for mozzie inspections. Already, 6,000 cases or epidemic-like proportions and people won’t open their doors! Break in and enter dey! Who are these Yishun residents!

b. Now, why didn’t I think of joining the gold rush? What, like $51 a gram? Goldsmiths running out of stock liao!

When you come home from abroad, it’s the little things that matter to you, I suppose. Your safety, your neighbourhood, people you know…I suppose when I get old(er) I will start scanning the obituary pages to find out which of my contemporaries had died while I was away.

They tell me I’m home. And I’ve only been away three days.

Now I wish the media had said something about the weather. Is it still as upside down as ever?

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by Bertha Henson

Chestnut No. 1:
Whoever said politics in Singapore isn’t exciting hasn’t been following news events recently. A confrontation appears to be looming between the establishment and civil society groups over the same hoary old chestnuts – freedom of expression and the ability to criticise the judiciary and institutions without running afoul of the law or being branded as renegades out to erode confidence in the system.

These tussles have never quite died down but it seems the civil society types are upping the ante and gaining more traction. Their amplifier is the internet and social media, aided by an environment which is admittedly less respectful of authority and more inclined to criticism than conciliation.

The wonder is that civil society groups are leading the charge rather than the opposition political parties in questioning the agenda and actions of the G and, yes, sometimes making statements bordering on the scurrilous. The parties are keeping quiet and seems content with organising policy forums and presenting policy papers. Perhaps, the political parties prefer to be seen as professional politicos in public and leave the guerrilla warfare to groups and individuals, whether or not they are aligned to the opposition cause.

The G is getting a drubbing by bloggers, cartoonists, online sites, advocacy groups and the like. The level of vitriol is increasing and will not go down despite the G’s recent actions and statements. Either a consensus or compromise must be reached on the rules of engagement or there would be no end to the scepticism over the citizens’ to ability to engage the G outside G-sanctioned parameters.

The statement by the Manpower and Home Affairs ministries to a joint statement by some civil society groups and individuals over allegations of police brutality towards a couple of SMRT bus strikers was a super quick response. Clearly, there is official irritation at how that the SMRT saga hasn’t died down.

The thing is, in the digital age, nothing dies. The MSM may decide to “end’’ public discussion but online, news will surface and old news rehashed and sometimes passed off as new. Given that people do not make news reading a daily habit, any satisfactory solution or compromise reached can be easily missed. Nuances will be lost, the tone revised. Anger resurfaces.

Yet the noise in Singapore is no different from the noise wherever there is an educated populace. The only difference is that Singapore is a smaller place than most. Noise can reach all parts of the island in double quick time, moving from the virtual to the real world. The G’s protective stance towards public institutions is correct. It will not do for public trust in agencies that enforce the rules to be eroded. But the question is: How should it react to those who want fuller answers from agencies in the spotlight?

By accusing advocacy groups of exploiting foreign workers “for their own political ends’’, as they did in the SMRT bus drivers’ case, they are reverting to their old tactic of labelling aggressive critics as having “an agenda’’.

Here’s what happened for those who haven’t caught up:

Police internal watchdogs have investigated the allegations of brutality against the two Chinese nationals who spoke in a video that made the rounds of the Internet. They found them to be “baseless’’. A statement was issued last weekend in which MHA noted that “neither He nor Liu had made any allegations of physical abuse during Police investigations even though they had had many opportunities to do so”. They could have spoken up while they were in the lock-up, in court, while out on bail, when a doctor saw one of them for grastic pains, when they were on trial. Neither they nor their lawyers no the Chinese embassy did so.

(The possible cynical retort to the above could be: They were too scared lah.)

The ministry pointed out that even after the videos were released, both men and their lawyers did not report the allegations to the authorities, although the lawyers would have known that would be the proper course of action.

(Again, the possible cynical retort could be: They were too scared lah. Also once the allegations were out in the open, then the expectation would be that the G wheels will start grinding)

But when the two men and their lawyers spoke to police internal affairs, their statements were found to be “inconsistent’’. They subsequently retracted their accusations.

(Possible cynical retort: They got scared again lah)

One of the bus drivers, now back in China, has again repeated the allegations, denied retracting them and insisted that when he said he would not pursue his accusations of police abuse, this did not mean that “those things never happened’’. Implicit (or explicit) in his remarks was he feared what would happen to him if he pursued the case, giving grist to the mill to those who believe that Singapore is a lawless country which punishes real and imagined critics mercilessly.

The advocacy groups have weighed in, asking for clarifications and more details about the investigation into the statements on police brutality: How were they baseless or inconsistent?

Seems they trust the word of the Chinese drivers more than the police. Can the police give more details than what they already have in the interest of placating the groups? Would that not, however, would be setting a precedent of sorts? Surely detailed police investigations cannot be released on demand, unless demanded by a court?

Thing is, the groups have found the wrong examples if they want to make a political point about suppression of labour rights and other wrongs. It is unlikely that the police would have done anything untoward towards foreign nationals in a high profile case, especially with diplomats from a big country watching.

The groups might be better-off if they had Singapore workers instead of the bus drivers as their “poster boys’’. If suppression of labour rights and the role of MOM and unions is an endemic problem here, there would be rather more Singapore workers who could be held up as examples.

Of course, this is not to say that everything is hunky dory here. If anything, the actions of the SMRT bus drivers have led to changes and brought to light several worker-management issues. Manpower officials will probably be more alert to disgruntlement in the worker rank and file. Unionists will also have to think about going back to basics, whether in ensuring better salaries for locals or watching the impact of foreign workers on the livelihoods of members – which appear to have passed them by over the years!

Now what?

The majority of Singaporeans probably have enough faith in the integrity of the institutions but there will always be some who don’t. Since it’s clear who some of these people are, is there some way the G could unbend enough to sit down with them to talk? Advocacy groups are good for the development of civil society but not if they are so apart from decision makers that the adversarial relationship leads to just more words and no action. They are volunteers with special causes, giving off their time and energy. They shouldn’t be dismissed like just so much trouble makers.

Note also that they are unlike political parties which have as their ultimate goal the formation of an alternative government.

The sit down and talk proposal is probably idealistic and even naïve but it is made in good faith. We don’t need too many fractures in society.

Chestnut No.2
Now what about the actions taken against online cartoonist Leslie Chew who is “helping police’’ with investigations with regards to the Sedition Act? The Attorney-General’s Chambers gave the longest response so far on how it wants to deal with comments and criticisms. Here’s a look:

a. Every day, there are hundreds of commentaries, if not more, on socio-political matters both in the mainstream media and online. Many of these do not contravene the law, and no legal action will be taken by the Attorney-General’s Chambers on behalf of the State, even though some may contain factual inaccuracies. Some of these statements may defame or otherwise cause damage to an individual; whether any action is to be taken is generally a matter for that individual.

In other words, you can say what you want so long as you don’t break the law. No one will come after you even if your sometimes inaccurate. Beware though the consequences of defamation. The G can’t sue, but individuals sure can.

b. However, racial and religious harmony is vital to our society and has enabled Singaporeans to live together in peace over the years. Words or deeds touching on race or religion have the potential to create fault lines within our society. Such bonds, once frayed, let alone sundered, cannot easily be repaired and we must therefore remain vigilant against any threats to racial and religious harmony.

Very clear. No one would object to this.

c. Where statements are made, or actions are taken, which insult a particular religion or race, or seek to engender hatred amongst races or religious groups, or which suggest that the Government is using race or religion for its own purposes, then a response will follow. Where the statements or actions are heinous, a firm line will be taken. For example, the burning of the Koran or the Bible will not be allowed in Singapore under the cover of freedom of speech or expression.

Here’s the problem: what’s an insult or a statement that could engender hatred to some, could be satirical to others or even humorous. Or justified as “awareness raising’’. Think Porn Masala. Second thing: That the G is using race or religion for its own purposes. What does this mean? That the G is using race or religion as a policy tool to benefit itself or protect its members? If people are questioning the G’s use of race and religion, then there is something wrong in the first place – there is no agreement on both sides on the rationale, much less the use.

d. On the other hand where comments are made in the heat of the moment, or by relatively immature persons who did not know better, a more nuanced response may follow. Much will depend on what is uncovered by investigations

There is a bit more clarity here. You are forgiven if you “let yourself go’’ in the heat of the moment. That is, you misspoke and didn’t go on and on. Then age matters. The young and immature will be forgiven, maybe counselled? But they won’t get the book thrown at them in the face – or not full on anyway. That leaves the older folk whose racist remarks ecetera form a pattern or a trend.

e. Similarly, the rule of law is another fundamental tenet of our society and action will be taken in respect of any statement or action that seeks to impugn or undermine the independence of the Judiciary. Unwarranted allegations of bias or partiality strike at the heart of the judicial process, threatening the very institution that protects the rights of all Singaporeans.

Okay, this is the famous contempt of court thing that keeps cropping up which critics say is a muzzle on freedom of expression. In this, they have on their side that a member of the British House of Lords who has described the Singapore version as “outmoded and archaic’’. Plus, in Britain, there is a move to remove the offence of “scandalising the judiciary’’. The AGC is sticking to its guns on this so it’s not likely to be abolished. But one thing is happening: The Law Ministry is looking into “codifying’’ the law of contempt which it has described as a priority. Now just what is “codifying’’? Making the lines clearer? The ministry had better work a lot faster then.

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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.