March 24, 2017

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by Kwan Jin Yao

THE rate of volunteerism in Singapore almost doubled from 2014 to 2016, rising from 18 to 35 per cent. And this trend – according to the Individual Giving Survey 2016, conducted by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) – “could be related to the resurgence in informal volunteerism” (emphasis mine), through which Singaporeans volunteer directly without going through an organisation. In its press release, NVPC then detailed examples of social and ground-up movements in Singapore, to illustrate a second point that the number of volunteers who serve informally has increased from 25 to 51 per cent, over the same time period.

Straits Times christened this “a resurgence of the kampung spirit” (Mar 16). TODAY quoted NVPC director for knowledge and advocacy, Jeffrey Tan on this “giving revolution”, “where people are volunteering and donating informally, directly with beneficiaries, without going through the formal routes” (Mar 16). Notwithstanding the questionable hyperbole, everyone seems to take for granted this causal relationship between the rise in the volunteerism rate and the increase in informal volunteerism. Correlation is not causation. In fact, we still appear to know little about what exactly drives volunteerism in Singapore, and how it can be sustained in the long-term. NVPC said it could be informal volunteerism, but we do not know for sure.

And in its current incarnation, the NVPC’s Individual Giving Survey provides few useful answers.

Volunteer rate and sample size

In the 2012 survey, when it was found that 32 per cent of Singaporeans volunteered – the previous high – the cited reason was also informal volunteering. In the 2010 survey, when the rate increased to 23 per cent from the previous high of 17 per cent in 2008, no explicit reasons were offered. And likewise nothing insightful was offered in 2014, when the volunteerism rate fell by almost half from 32 per cent in 2012 to 18 per cent. The accompanying media release in 2014 briefly mentioned the lack of time as a top reason for non-volunteers, as if it was a new finding, yet this concern was already established from the very first edition of the survey in 2000, when 74 per cent of the respondents said that “no time” was their main reason for not volunteering.

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Just knowing how the national volunteerism rate has changed from survey to survey is not enough. If the intent is to encourage more Singaporeans to volunteer – and to make sure they keep volunteering – then the NVPC needs to better understand the needs and the motivations of volunteers and non-volunteers alike, and to shape endeavours accordingly. Suppose the NVPC is absolutely convinced that informal volunteerism does cause higher volunteerism rates. It should therefore channel its resources to more financial grants for these community groups, for instance, to facilitate capacity-building and to reach out to more in Singapore.

Such causal findings will be productive for government agencies too. The Ministry of Education can ascertain whether learning experiences through Values in Action – in different permutations, such as within-school or community activities – increase the likelihood of volunteerism in the future. The National Council of Social Service, with similar information, can better advise the volunteer-management units of charities, in terms of how they can appeal to and retain long-term volunteers.

Comparisons of the findings across the past eight editions reveal something more troubling about the sampling size. Only 389 respondents were interviewed for the 2016 survey compared to the 1,828 interviewed in 2014. The mean or average across the eight biennial surveys from 2000 to 2014 was 1,698 (the median was 1,752), and so the sample size for 2016 is barely one-quarter of that. The disparity raises obvious questions about the sampling method, the representativeness of the findings and if it can be generalised for the whole population, and whether comparisons can be fairly made across demographic or socio-economic indicators.

Further doubts emerge when the 2016 is compared with the World Giving Index 2016 – released by Britain-based Charities Aid Foundation – which found that only 20 per cent of Singaporeans volunteered their time and efforts for a cause in the past year. In this particular area Singapore ranked 54th out of 140 countries, compared to its ranking of 19th for donating money to charity. The World Giving Index collected questionnaires, face-to-face, from exactly 1,000 Singaporean respondents. But like the Individual Giving Survey, it provided no additional details on the potential factors which will prompt more to volunteer.

So in addition to the woeful sample size, what changes can be made to the Individual Giving Survey? Or what more can it do?

Three related proposals. First, having determined the reasons for non-volunteerism – from the lack of time to the difficulty of balancing work and family commitments, for example – focus group discussions with existing volunteers will allow for the aggregation of practical perspectives or good practices, on how to overcome these challenges. Second, with these perspectives and practices, the NVPC can better design interventions for Singaporeans of different age-groups, in different industries, and for different beneficiaries, and use the survey as an instrument to measure the effectiveness of these implementations. In other words, did a new volunteer programme or an awareness campaign drive more Singaporeans to actually volunteer? And for how long?

And finally, a longitudinal component to the Individual Giving Survey could yield valuable information too. In an experimental set-up like this, having identified a representative sample, NVPC will track the same group of respondents over two, four, or even six years, measuring their rates of volunteerism and how they respond to volunteer programmes or awareness campaigns. If implemented effectively, the NVPC could even track the impact of nation-wide policies – such as the inception of the Youth Corps and the changes the MOE made to the community involvement programme in schools – over the same time-frame.

The Individual Giving Survey and its top-line figures may have sufficed in the past 16 years. Much more is desired – and needed – if we want to turn Singapore into a more compassionate nation of regular and committed volunteers.

 

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by Lee Chin Wee

The North Korean saga in Malaysia is still playing out 33 days after the murder of a Kim family member. This is part two of our murder mystery novel.

 

MALAYSIA’S top cop wrung his hands. How many times did he have to say that the body lying in the morgue is Kim Jong Nam?

Heck, even if he isn’t to be trusted, just read the news. When every single media outlet from the New York Times to the Yonhap News Agency is saying the same damn thing… Yet those North Koreans have the gall to say otherwise. How would they know? They’re in Pyongyang. Did they think he didn’t know how to verify the identity of a corpse??

Back in the office from yet another media conference, the Inspector-General settled down to yet another cup of kopi. What was he to do about the two pesky North Koreans from the embassy? The jokers had tried to force their way into the KL morgue, much to the consternation of the security guards. How in the world was he going to interview them about the murder if they refuse to leave the compound? Or the 1,000 North Koreans still working in Malaysia – what if they’re sleeper agents who will now come out of the woodwork? Hopefully not, because the foreign ministry just issued a directive barring 315 of them from leaving Malaysia…

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The situation was deteriorating, and fast. For heavens’ sake, Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein even spoke to the media the week before about the possibility of war with North Korea. War! With a rogue nation armed to the teeth with nuclear and conventional weapons? Not the wisest of ideas.

The Inspector-General shook his head. He knew that the visa arrangement should never have been agreed to. North Korean elites are always trouble, let alone the first-born son of Kim Jong-il. He groaned. And what of the 11 Malaysians held hostage in Pyongyang? The foreign ministry had better act soon, or else a complete diplomatic crisis would be on the cards. These North Koreans are barbarians!

He burped as he briefly entertained the idea of sending in a SWAT team. The foreign affairs minister would throw a fit, but how dare the suspects hide in their embassy? The sheer gall of planning a murder on Malaysian soil, using chemical weapons in an airport waiting area, and then fleeing back to the embassy where police couldn’t reach them. His blood boiled. To hell with diplomatic immunity.

What a bloody mess. It was barely a month since the murder happened, but it sure didn’t feel that way.

The Inspector-General recalled how he’d been interrupted from his lunch break on Feb 13, with the call that someone had collapsed in the KL International Airport. He was incredulous at first, irritated that someone would bother him over a routine case of heart attack. But as the investigations proceeded apace, it soon became clear that this was much more than an open-and-shut case.

It seemed as if answers only begot more questions. How did the North Koreans manage to smuggle VX toxin into Malaysia? Why in the world was Kim murdered? Was the North Korean government involved? If they were, what was their degree of involvement? Were his murderers really tricked into killing him, as they claimed?

He sank back into his chair. Even the days managing security for the Bersih protests and the 2014 General Elections didn’t compare to this. Strange, wasn’t it. It was easier to make sure 100,000 protesters didn’t come to blows with the opposition, compared to investigating the murder of a single man.

His secretary rapped on his door, derailing his train of thought. “Uh Sir? Media here again. For the three o’clock update, they’ll need you in the press briefing room soon.”

I’m really not paid enough for this. Sighing, he made his way to the briefing room. The media is just going to ask the usual questions, I’ll give the usual answers, they’ll demand more answers as usual, and I’ll tell them that the case is still ongoing – as usual. Why do we even bother with this charade?

The press update, as expected, was more of the same. Yes, the body is Kim Jong Nam’s. Yes, he died of acute respiratory and heart failure. No, cause of death cannot yet be confirmed. Yes, we suspect it’s some sort of nerve agent. Yes, a group of individuals tried to break into the KL morgue last week; no, we can’t tell you who they are, but we know who is responsible.

“Inspector-General, Sir, how do you respond to the North Korean ambassador’s remarks that the ‘Malaysian police investigation cannot be trusted’?”

“The ambassador is entitled to his opinion. But my men are professional and competent, and it is disappointing to see their work being criticised when the North Koreans have given us nothing but trouble so far.” He rolled his eyes. He’d be glad to see the back of the ambassador – the man was mouthing off about the investigations almost every day.

Worst of all, he still had no idea what to do with the body. It’s got to end up somewhere, maybe buried six feet under or put in a deep freezer where the North Koreans can’t steal it. Why doesn’t his son just come and take the damn thing with him back to Macau? Or… maybe he shouldn’t.

One dead body is more than enough, thank you very much.

 

This article is part of a series on the murder of Mr Kim Jong Nam. Read the other piece here:

  1. Fact Fiction: A North Korean murder mystery

 

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police car, law and order

by Daniel Yap

THE Singapore Police Force has come under fire of late for how its officers followed Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and arrested a 74-year-old woman for her summons over a Town Council fine. The Singapore Prison Service (often and easily confused with the Police) then bound her hand-and-foot to transfer her from custody to a cell.

SOP again, and surely excessive for a geriatric with no criminal past, wanted for putting potted plants in the wrong place. But rules are rules.

But are SOPs rules? Not really. In the army, it is military law that governs us, and then every unit has its standing orders – formally given down the chain of command. An SOP, on the other hand, is simply a set of default reactions and decisions we use when faced with common situations.

Here’s where Robocop steps in to be the hero we deserve, but not the one we really need right now (or is that someone else?). The parable of the police-man-made-machine, and I’m talking about the glorious artistry of the 1987 film, is pit against not just all manner of criminality and pseudo-criminality, but held in contrast against ED-209, the completely robotic but massively powerful law enforcement droid.

ED-209 only reacts to rules and set-in-stone procedures, but Robocop, with the frailty and power of a human mind and emotion, is the hero that saves the day. Our everyday heroes at the Police need to be able to apply Robocop’s humanity, lest they be seen as the cold, marginally vile, by-the-book-only ED-209.

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An SOP is a great thing. Like Robocop’s “prime directives”, it saves us the trouble of having to hum and haw excessively over each case. Like Robocop’s targeting computer, it helps speed up our reaction time and decision-making. Like Robocop’s armour plating, it is something to fall back to when things get too complicated or too risky. But SOPs can’t possibly cover every contingency. Things can still go wrong.

Following SOPs does mitigate our actions when things go wrong, but it does not mean that what we did wasn’t wrong. It acts as a reasonable explanation for our chosen actions, but doesn’t absolve us from responsibility.

In other words, the thinking person is not slave to his or her SOPs, and commanders should not teach their charges to become slaves to an SOP. Everyone at all levels of an organisation should be told to think for themselves and then take responsibility for their own decisions.

An SOP is supposed to be a tool that enhances the thinking officer’s effectiveness, not a crutch for mindlessness or a machine to set in motion and forget about. That would make us no better than robots, and in today’s technological world, we really need to differentiate between man and machine, lest our jobs be on the line.

So henceforth let, “we followed procedures” never again be an excuse for not engaging the brain, or doing things with a heart. We’ve got to ask ourselves: what would Robocop do?

 

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by Lee Chin Wee

CAN you imagine a Singapore where students aren’t defined wholly by their grades?

ST ran a thought-provoking piece on Mar 16, calling on the G to be bold and take in all students through aptitude-based university admissions. The proposal runs completely against the grain of our grades-centred university admissions model, but that’s the entire point. If we are to be serious about transforming education and skills acquisition in Singapore, it’s time for some sacred cows to be slaughtered.

Many of the world’s top universities have already implemented a holistic, aptitude-based admissions model. Among employers, there is also a growing recognition that academic performance is an insufficient and inaccurate barometer for professional success – Google, for instance, has moved away from hiring based solely on GPAs and IQ tests.  As Senior Education Correspondent Sandra Davie points out in the ST article, “(Imagine) choosing our doctors based on grades alone. Considering how expensive medical training is in terms of taxpayers’ money, wouldn’t society want future doctors to be compassionate and caring?”

As the G seeks to prepare young Singaporeans to face the varied challenges of our future economy, it makes sense to distribute talent to where it can be best developed rather than sort students to universities based on test scores. Why, then, am I not optimistic about change?

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“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”

Our political and civil service leadership are the least likely to take issue with the current model. Why would they, if they have been (and will continue to be) the largest beneficiaries of a highly-intense, elite-tracked, grades-centred education system?

There exists a cognitive effect known as Survivorship Bias. It simply means that, when we are evaluating the success of a policy, there is a tendency to concentrate on the people or things that “survived” the process and inadvertently discount those who did not due to their lack of visibility. Mr Michael Shermer explains this effect in an article written for the Scientific American, where he discussed the public interest in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 best-selling biography of Steve Jobs:
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Want to be the next Steve Jobs and create the next Apple Computer? Drop out of college and start a business with your buddies in the garage of your parents’ home. How many people have followed the Jobs model and failed? Who knows? No one writes books about them and their unsuccessful companies.

.Similarly, no one listens to someone who failed to enter university under a grades-only system. The people who are heard are the survivors: the 21-year-old Public Service Commission scholars who scored perfect grades in their youth and went on to be Deputy Secretaries, Permanent Secretaries, and Ministers.

The simple fact is that there is a lack of educational and academic diversity within the ranks of our top leadership. How many of them studied in polytechnics, or barely made the cut for university? The homogeneity of their experiences may blind them to the harms of a grades-only admissions policy.

 

Parents, social attitudes and the politics of education

Miss Davie admits that she “can already hear the howls of protest from parents paying thousands of dollars to top tutors to ensure that their kids ace the A levels.” And she’s right – Singapore is not called the “Tuition Nation” for nothing. It is estimated that over S$1 billion is spent on tuition each year, with the figure steadily increasing.

Many parents have bought into the Confucian ethos that hard work and good grades will lead to a well-paying job. It is a mantra that the G has reinforced over the years, from aggressive academic streaming that began as early as in primary school (remember the now-discontinued EM1/2/3?) to public sector scholarships awarded to top exam performers at ages 18 and 19.

Particularly for the older generation of Singaporean parents, grades are a non-negotiable aspect of school life. Co-curricular training can be missed, enrichment activities can be skipped, but exams must be passed, if not aced.

It’s more than just the idea of shifting values. Many parents and families have been financially and personally investing into a future-by-the-grades for their children. If they realise that a grades-based future is no longer as good as it used to be, you can expect some outcry.

For the G to overturn this deeply-ingrained orthodoxy is to invite backlash and scepticism – parents want less stress for their children, but they also want a fair and meritocratic university admissions process. It is easy to see how an aptitude-based system, with its numerous interviews, focus on interviews and portfolios, and discretionary admissions policies could be seen as subjective and opaque, even though it need not be.

 

The irritating, but simple, cost argument

A final consideration is that of cost. A 100 per cent aptitude-based admissions system is not going to come cheap – it means expanding the university admissions office, more time spent interviewing prospective candidates, longer hours reviewing each application.

MOE statistics indicate that in 2015 alone, the six autonomous universities in Singapore received a combined 70,000 applications from A-level and polytechnic diploma holders. Assuming that an aptitude-based admissions system increases the time taken to assess each student by 15 minutes (a conservative estimate), that is 17,500 hours of additional work in total.

This subsequently gets priced into university application costs. American colleges, which recruit students on a holistic and broad-based set of criteria, are an example. As someone who applied to a number of American colleges in 2014, I know first-hand how expensive these costs can be – even as a domestic US student, applying for one college costs around US$60 (S$85). Imagine if you applied to six colleges! That’s S$510 down the drain before you even go for any interviews.

Application fees in Singapore are, on the comparative, very cheap. A local student applying to NUS, for example, only need to pay $10. It is entirely possible to apply for all six autonomous universities in Singapore for the price of applying to one or two US colleges.

 

Change is still worthwhile

Such considerations, however, should not prevent us from seeking real change to the university admissions process. While it may mean that change progresses at a slower rate – the quota for discretionary admissions could be gradually increased over a period of 10 years – it should not detract from the key points made by Miss Davie. The world will not wait for Singapore to change. If we continue to drag our heels instead of trying to find new ways to maximise our human capital, then prepare to be left behind.

 

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by Bertha Henson

WE’LL all be hearing more from Mr Peter Ho, the former head of Civil Service, because he’s been picked to give the Institute of Policy Studies series of lectures. TODAY ran an interview with him on aspects of the civil service. Perhaps, he could expand on some points he made in his interview when he gives his lectures.
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1. Mr Ho said that increasing complexity of policies and higher order needs of the populace means coming up with new ways, such as more risk management, to solve problems.

”It’s not that traditional tools are no longer important; tools like cost-benefit analysis are still relevant. But cost-benefit analysis in a complex environment, in and of itself, may not provide you with the complete answer. Cost-benefit analysis is quite linear, and traditional tools don’t help you get your arms completely around complex problems.”

(What traditional tools are less important then? Can he cite instances when the solution did not address the problem because traditional tools were used? Was there a moment of epiphany for him?)

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2. We don’t know when the interview was conducted, whether before or after the Prime Minister said that he didn’t want to be surrounded by naysayers. But clearly, he agrees that the rules-bound culture has to change, going by his message to the younger generation of civil servants.

”Your job is to find ways to improve Singapore’s position and the lot of Singaporeans in a period of accelerating change and uncertainty. Of course, you’re not going to be criticised for following the rules, but if you want to lift the quality of your policies and plans, and raise the level of good governance practised in Singapore, then it cannot be just about saying: “I followed the rules.” Instead, it should be that “I tried to make things better.” The basic misconception some younger civil servants may have is that what worked well in the past will be what propels you into the future successfully. Our civil servants must be able to keep up with the pace of change. You have to ask yourself if the rules, plans and policies still serve the purpose for which they were designed, or if we need to change them in order to do things better. ”

(There’s no point speaking in generalities. Can he enlighten with examples when sticking to the rules is to the detriment of policy outcomes? Or when rules work against the desire of the public service to be emphatic or to “have a heart’’. Can he also tell what rules have been changed because they are no longer relevant. Would policies on single mothers be one of them?)
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3. Mr Ho talked about the need to be bold which is more difficult now because the basics have been achieved and Singapore is now “competing at the top’’.

”Today, of course, you still want that spark — that ability to think boldly about the future. But the big challenge now is, how much risk are you prepared to take? These are serious risks because we’ve achieved so much, that a bad miscalculation can mean losing it all. The stakes are much higher.”

(Can he give examples of what areas require bold but risky changes? Would the report of the Committee of the Future Economy or the reserved Presidential Election be among them? If so, what are the risks involved? Also, the general perception is the G prefers to make “tweaks’’ rather than take bold steps – or is this the wrong perception?)
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4. Mr Ho talks about how many ingredients go into making a judgment call.

“…every major decision and every major policy are not an exercise to find the right answers. They are always an exercise in making the right judgment — not a hard right or hard wrong — but a balanced one that serves the best interests of the majority and the country. You cannot make everybody happy. Also, judgments always have to be revisited now and then — to go back to my point that things are changing. What seems to be sensible now may in a few years’ time no longer be sensible. You have to be prepared to constantly change.”

(Again, examples are needed. But there’s another point to consider: The public service shouldn’t think that a change is an acknowledgment of a mistake and therefore paper over the “change’’ as something that is a natural follow through of the old policy. When policies make a sharp turn, the people must be brought on board in understanding the changed circumstances or even objectives. Would he consider that enough explanation was given for the sudden announcement of the increase in the water price? Could Hong Kong’s seizure of the Singapore’s Terrexes be better explained to the people as an example of the changed geo-political realities that Singapore faces?)
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5. This wasn’t touched upon but hopefully, Mr Ho will pick up the subject in one of his lectures. The civil service has always been accused of “group think’’ with its top echelons being a closed circle of like-minded individuals. That so many top civil servants cross into the political sphere doesn’t add to people’s confidence that radical or bold ideas can surface from the G. One example is how the Committee for the Future Economy is stuffed with Old Economy members. Singapore’s Establishment seems to be a closed rank of people who went to the same schools and move in the same circles with very few gaps allowing for “mavericks’’. Please do not use the sole example of Mr Philip Yeo. He’s just one man.

 

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by Bertha Henson

WHO would have thought civil servants would feature so much in the Budget debate? You have MPs who think the system (not civil servants) lack heart and more can be done to improve empathy levels. This, coming after several luminaries, including the Prime Minister, talking about the need for naysayers in the public service rather than people who respond with “three bags full”.

This time, they feature prominently in the debate on the Town Council Amendment Bill, with opposition MPs suggesting that G officials in the Ministry of National Development will be less than neutral over the operations of town councils.

I suppose the mental image that the Workers’ Party has is this: A bunch of civil servants barging into Aljunied-Hougang town council office, rifling through cabinets and accessing computer records because of some suspected wrong-doing on the town council’s part. Or entangling the town council in reams of red tape by asking endless questions because they have oversight powers. And leaving the wards of Ministers alone because, as civil servants, they wouldn’t want to get into the bad books of their political masters.

WP’s Pritam Singh said : “The MND risks becoming a tool of the ruling party of the day to fix the opposition.”

With MND oversight, allegations of partisanship would naturally arise given that a PAP minister is overall in charge. The perception of bias will always be there despite the PAP’s efforts to deny it.

His fellow WP MP Sylvia Lim said: “It is not possible to argue that the ministry is a politically neutral body as recent history unfortunately belies that claim.”

She gave the example of the General Election campaign in 2015, when the Ministry was “an active campaigner against the Workers’ Party, issuing statements practically daily on the alleged misconduct of AHPETC”.

She also said, without elaborating: “To take another example: we have also seen past records of how the Ministry advised a PAP TC how to make good a breach of the Town Councils Financial Rules, quietly behind closed doors, without any media release on the same.”

That is so intriguing.

Of course, the People’s Action Party side came out hammer and tongs accusing the WP of impugning the integrity of the civil service. Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee had a wonderful quote about how Ms Lim seemed to think that civil servants are “timorous souls” who would “kowtow” to their boss’ bidding.

AHPETC signboard
Aljunied Hougang Punggol East Town Council

No one would dispute that the Act needed updating. The still on-going saga over the finances of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East town council showed up the loopholes on conflict of interest and corporate governance. The G suddenly realised that it couldn’t move on certain things, like order a TC to yield up records and submit information. There was also no “stick” it could wield.

Mr Lee made an interesting point about how AHPETC broke the “unspoken compact” which began when town councils were formed in 1989: That town councillors and elected MPs would proactively fix problems that arise or report suspected misdeeds to the police or Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.

In other words, that TCs would “ownself check ownself” just like Ang Mo Kio town council did when it reported its general manager to the police. So if the WP’s finances had been in fine shape, there would be no need for more oversight measures? Hmm.

At the heart of the debate is whether town councils are political bodies. Taken to the bitter political end, MND shouldn’t intervene in a TC’s affairs at all and let residents live with the consequences of their choice. But the G realises that people think it is an administrative issue and expect the G to deal with problems everywhere, including opposition areas.

It’s a tricky balancing act. With MND oversight, allegations of partisanship would naturally arise given that a PAP minister is overall in charge. The perception of bias will always be there despite the PAP’s efforts to deny it.

In fact, it might add fuel to the view that the management of housing estates should go back to the way it was.

According to the feedback given to REACH which had a public consultation process on the Bill, some people had suggested that HDB or MND take over the functions. Or if there must be a regulator, the role could be given to the HDB “so that regulatory decision are one-step removed from political office holders”.

There was also an interesting suggestion that TCs be merged with HDB branch office with chairmen appointed by MND. The elected MPs could form separate committees to guide the work of the new set up to implement infrastructure projects. “This would ensure that the towns are managed fairly, regardless of the party in power.”

Such suggestions, however, would mean unpicking the whole town council structure. It’s like making the elected presidency an appointed office.

I wish that there was a direct response to Ms Lim’s proposal that Auditor-General’s Office could be tasked with auditing town councils on a rotational basis as a substitute for MND’s oversight. There is also her suggestion that an independent Housing Tribunal, chaired by a judge and experts in housing matters, be authorised to mediate and adjudicate disputes relating to the management of public housing.

These are political approaches, of course, to safeguard the independence and autonomy of town councils. They might well be cumbersome and there’s no guarantee that “bias” charge will be overcome.

Do voters really care though?

It’s clear that the WP was tardy and less than transparent about its finances. This might have led to its loss of Punggol East and its shaved margins for Aljunied and Hougang in the 2015 general election. But it can be also argued that if its offences were so egregious as the G makes them out to be, then voters would be moved to eject it altogether. They didn’t.

The amendment Bill actually gives voters less reason to care about who runs their town council. That’s because the law gives the G more powers to supervise, provide oversight and pick up the pieces. Even lift upgrading and replacement are penciled in

HDB residents can really have their cake – and eat it.

 

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by Bertha Henson

SO THE Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) have decided not to appeal against the four-year jail sentence for Joshua Robinson. It has put out a statement to say why: Robinson pleaded guilty which spared the girls the ordeal of going through a trial, the two girls were above 14 which means he did not commit statutory rape, and they had consented to sex.

Not rape. Not outrage of modesty. So the charge against Robinson was sexual penetration of a minor under 16 years of age, which is punishable under section 376A(2) of the Penal Code. The AGC said that this was the most serious charge that the prosecution could have brought on the case. And no, there’s no caning under this clause but a maximum of 10 years jail.

It looks like we weren’t right to say that the girls were sexually assaulted since what he did was not rape nor molest, even though one of them had a mental breakdown after her intimate encounter with Robinson. I suppose the girls were seduced by the American mixed martial arts instructor into consensual sex. Or at least some sexual grooming took place.

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The AGC’s decision isn’t going to please the 26,000 or so people who signed a petition to put Robinson away for longer. It would be quite a wonder, however, if the AGC did appeal. As I said in an earlier column, the AGC would have to concede that it was somehow wrong to ask for a jail-term of four to five years especially since it said it had looked at precedents. Changing its mind and asking for a higher sentence for Robinson means that past offenders had an easier time of it. Recall, for example, the 51 men who charged with having sex with an under-aged prostitute. They were jailed for between four and 20 weeks each.

More importantly, I doubt if the AGC wants to be shown as bowing to popular opinion or “public disquiet”, as Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam put it.

After all, this would make a mockery of the Administration of Justice Act because outside forces have caused a change of heart. (What’s pretty amazing is that no one in authority has said that it’s wrong to comment on the case given that the appeal limit is not up.)

What would the AGC do the next time there is a public outcry over a punishment that the layman finds inadequate for the crime?

Don’t get me wrong. As far as I’m concerned, Robinson should be castrated whether the girls consented to sex or not. He’s 39, they’re 15. The age gap should have nailed him, as well as filming of the sexual acts. It seems that there are gaps in the law. The AGC said it would be reviewing the law with the Law ministry.

Commenting on this latest announcement, Mr Shanmugam said: “If we don’t think the sentences, based on precedents, are adequate, then we consider what can be done. I do think that the sentences for such offences committed by Robinson need to be relooked at. That is why I have asked my Ministries to study this.”

Well, at least that’s something. It’s good that the AGC did some explaining of the law although I wished it would have said why it agreed to the sentences being run concurrently instead of consecutively.

Maybe, that’s for the judge to decide and written grounds have yet to be made public. It would make for interesting reading.

 

Featured image Earth by Flickr user law-8. CC BY-SA 2.0

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Someone using the Uber app while a taxi passes by

by Oo Gin Lee

TAXI companies need to understand why users like me who spend about $500-$600 a month on cabs and rides are choosing Uber over taxis. Unless I am in a hurry, I will actually call for an Uber even if I am standing at a cab stand filled with empty cabs.

The biggest problem with cabs are the cab drivers. Many, though not all, are jaded and have bad attitudes. The crux of the problem is that these drivers do not see themselves as service providers which is why they come up with shenanigans like the “changing shift” excuse. Often, “changing shift” is a cover for them to choose the passengers that fits their plans – financially or otherwise. I don’t use Grab either because Grab drivers have the ability to choose passengers – passenger destinations are shown to Grab drivers before they make the pickup.

Uber drivers, on the other hand, do not get to choose their passengers. They only know where their passengers are going after they have picked up the passenger and started the journey.

The Uber system also means that passengers are always able to get a Uber confirmation within seconds, because the booking system does not need to wait for the drivers to make a decision about the rider’s destination. From my experience, when I get a booking with Comfort cab app, the cab arrives in under five minutes. Uber casts the radius wider, so sometimes I have to wait 10 to 15 minutes before the ride arrives. Many Uber drivers are also inexperienced, adding to the late minutes.

Despite this, I still choose Uber because you always get a booking confirmation the fastest (even if it means you still have to wait another 10-15 mins for the car to arrive). The beauty of booking apps is that you can see where the car is and how long more it will take before it reaches you, so you can maximise your time by doing other stuff while waiting for the ride to arrive.

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The second biggest problem with the taxi business is that the taxi companies act like landlords. Their revenue comes from car rental, which leads to the creation of the two-shift system, where the fairest time to change shift is between 3-5pm. This leads to a shortage of taxis during peak hours, the weakness of the system that private ride companies like Uber and Grab have exploited to the fullest. Ride companies on the other hand, earn by making 10-30 per cent cut of the cost of ride. The difference in the business model explains why you can always get Uber during peak hours. Uber incentivises its drivers to get onto the road during peak hours while taxi drivers are busy putting up their change shift signs and making mental calculations whether the next destination is en route to their handover location.

The third problem is that cabs cost more. Though this isn’t the main reason for me to choose Uber over cabs, I am confident that it is one of the main reasons that even aunties and uncles are choosing to book a ride through Uber and Grab.

So the recent news that the cab companies now want to introduce surge pricing befuddles me. This will drive up revenue for the cab drivers but it won’t solve the three problems why cabs are losing out to Uber. In fact, it will only make it worse. The potential for a more expensive ride does nothing to weed out bad service, and simply makes bad experiences even more unpalatable to customers.

The other problems still remain – customers trying to avoid bad drivers, and cab companies are acting like landlords and not as service providers. And like before, they think they can solve the problem by increasing the “potential revenue” for their drivers, just like when they increased flag-down rates, and introduced new surcharges.

Perhaps in the old days when we didn’t have a choice but to take cabs, this tactic may have worked well enough. But in an age where everybody can be a Uber or Grab driver, or call a car on demand, and at a time when we are hearing stories of cab drivers returning their taxis in droves, this latest initiative to add surge pricing, without first addressing other problems, is surely a recipe for disaster.

 

Oo Gin Lee was a tech journalist for over 15 years before he left The Straits Times in mid-2015 to start his own PR agency that focuses on consumer tech.

 

Featured image by Najeer Yusof.

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by Bertha Henson

FOR the past two days, I have been wondering if I should write something about the imam who was said to have uttered insensitive phrases about Jews and Christians. I asked around and have been flooded with advice, ranging from no, because it’s a sensitive topic and no, because you’re a non-Muslim to yes, because this is an open society tolerant of different views and yes, because it would be good to have a non-Muslim speak who is not, ahem, Mr K Shanmugam.

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As an outsider looking in, I find the issue fascinating although I’m sure Muslims wouldn’t favour my choice of word. I will, therefore, be writing this very tentatively from a non-Muslim point of view and more importantly, from the perspective of a fellow citizen in a multiracial, multi-religious society in a secular state.

The Law and Home Affairs Minister’s comments in Parliament about suspending the unnamed imam from preaching have ignited a firestorm among Muslims on the Internet. The imam had, at Jamae Mosque last month, reportedly recited a prayer in Arabic that said “God grant us victory over Jews and Christians”, among other things. A whistle-blower uploaded a video of what he said. It went viral.

From what I read online, Muslims are upset, and many wonder if the imam’s words which are spoken to the faithful attending Friday prayers were taken out of context. Many erudite Muslims have been offering their opinions on the matter and citing religious sources.

It’s interesting to see how many different takes there are on one phrase and the deep discussions that ensue.

In the meantime, non-Muslims are looking on.

In these times of increasing religiosity, communities need to be careful about being misinterpreted. “Victory’’, in this instance, might well be a spiritual or religious conversion rather than defeat in the martial sense, as some Muslims have said.

The trouble is, the non-Muslim can only judge the words literally and depend on the whistle-blower, himself a Muslim, to say why he thought it was offensive. (It reminds me of how Christians are usually careful about using the word “crusade’’, so as not to offend the sensibilities of Muslims, even though you could be crusading against poverty.)

Whatever the imam said, I would like to think it was between him and his flock. If any member of his flock finds what he said objectionable, then the matter should be taken up with his religious superiors. I was surprised that the imam was “exposed’’ in this way; I didn’t think video-recording was allowed in a mosque. It took planning. It might well be that earlier complaints fell on deaf ears, and the whistle-blower believes this is the best way to gain attention. But I think it’s the worst way, however well-intentioned.

Muslim Affairs Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said: “While it is correct to whistle blow when one sees wrongdoing, one must also ask whether the manner in which this is done is appropriate, or if it sows more discord and causes tension in our society.’’

Mr Shanmugam weighed in on this point as well: “The right thing to do though, is that when a matter like this is encountered, it should be reported to the Police, and not put out on social media. That will allow police to focus their investigations on the subject of the complaint.

“If instead, the matter is publicly posted, it could lead to a groundswell of feelings, in this case, both from Muslims as well as non-Muslims. It could cause confusion about religion, and increase tensions and so on.’’

I wouldn’t even go so far as to report the matter to the police.

Why get the State involved in an issue that should be resolved by the faithful? Yes, there is the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act which I had always hoped was more preventive than punitive in nature. But even with the law behind it, the State is a blunt tool, and cannot take into account the different levels of knowledge and religiosity among people of faith. Let the religious authorities police their own leaders. (Unless some people believe that the religious hierarchy has lost its legitimacy and authority, which means opening another can of worms.)

I read with some consternation this exchange between Mr Shanmugam and Opposition MP Faisal Manap.

 

Mr Shanmugam: Can I ask the member whether he thinks that it is all right to quote from a text and encourage violence against others? Can I have a direct answer, please?

Mr Faisal: Madam (Speaker), from my own knowledge, the verses in the Quran are always in the context of giving out mercy to the people and the universe.

Mr Shanmugam: That is not the question I asked, and I didn’t refer to the Quran. Do you think it is all right for someone to refer to any holy text to encourage violence either by quoting directly or speaking, encouraging such violence? Yes or no?

Mr Faisal: It is wrong, Madam.

Mr Shanmugam: Thank you. That is a question the police will be considering. Thank you.

 

Oh dear! I am unfamiliar with the Quran, but I know that parts of the Bible make for blood-thirsty reading, especially the Old Testament. It cannot be that mere mention equates encouraging violence? Or does it? And is this a matter for the police?

In fact, I wonder why, if the statements were so objectionable as to be a security threat, that the Internal Security Department did not step in earlier. Surely, it would have its eyes and ears on the ground and the imam seemed to have said the same words before. A “lim kopi’’ session might have been enough to put things right.

But then, the video was made public. Non-Muslims are watching. The response must be public too or there will mutterings of cover-ups or some nefarious shenanigans taking place in secret. The G has made it clear that everyone involved, including whistle-blower and imam, will be investigated. I presume the police will be looking at the motivations behind their words and actions. I will shut up on this because I have to.

I wish that people will not think of social media as the place for all things objectionable or what they consider objectionable. Also, sometimes what you see or hear isn’t the full story. The truth is usually more complicated. Sometimes, a quiet word in the right ear can do more for peace and harmony than a loud-speaker, especially if directed at the wrong crowd.

 

Featured image by Pixabay user aditya_wicak. (CC0 1.0)

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By Louis Ng

MR LOUIS Ng, an MP for Nee Soon GRC, received some flak for suggesting that the public service had lost its heart when he spoke up in Parliament on Wednesday (Mar 1). TMG asked him to respond to various comments.

 

I’m not sure how, but my speech in Parliament about having a system without a heart became about having a civil servant without a heart. My exact words were: “In our pursuit to automate most things, we now have a system without a heart.”

But I’m glad it’s started a debate about this. That is the first step towards change.

This speech has generated response about how public servants actually do serve with a heart. And I completely agree. In fact, in my speech, I stated that “I have worked with many outstanding public servants in the last 16 years of my life as a civil society activist and the last year and a half as an MP. These are a rare breed who devote their lives towards serving Singapore…”

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Beyond the headlines, here is the gist of the points I made in my speech. You can view my full speech here.

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1. A system without a heart.
In the example I shared, the HDB officer had a heart and agreed to help the resident but his actions were overridden by a computer, which generated a letter demanding payment. That is the problem we need to urgently tackle.

 

2. Ensuring we can think out of the box
In another example I shared, the AVA officer knew the solution used to address the human-monkey conflict didn’t work. However, the officer’s hands were tied as the instruction to use this method came from the director.

 

3. We need to listen rather than explain
This is not a new point and one raised by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam back in 2015. The question is, have we done what DPM suggested?

DPM said, “We also have to stay open to ideas from others, and co-develop solutions with the community, the private sector and civil society and people from all walks of life… We must be close to the ground, listening to feedback, sensing the deeper concerns that often underlie that feedback, and spotting the gaps in policy delivery that should not be there… Developing and coordinating solutions together… must be second nature to public servants.”

 

4. I made suggestions on how we can improve
I made eight suggestions, starting with this one about helping our frontline public servants: “For a start, we need to cut some slack for our ground officers, our frontline staff members who will be the first to detect people who have fallen through the cracks, who can alert us.

Many I’ve spoken to feel that when they bring such cases to their superiors, they are scolded for not following the books. We need to develop a culture where they are not penalised for being different and where they are giving some flexibility when processing cases.”

 

I have received many comments about my speech. Here’s a sampling.

“Well said Mr Ng, thank you for speaking the mind of many in SG.”

“It is sad that people have not truly understood the message behind your speech, and that you’ve gotten flak when you had nothing but good intentions. Nevertheless, thanks for speaking out, and for this very timely reminder!”

“Public servants serve their best under trying conditions. We serve the ppl under the directions of the Government of the day. It pains me to be “lacquered in honey and staked out to an ant farm” by the very ppl we work for.”

There have also been different views published by The Middle Ground and by Lucian Teo, which I’ve shared on my Facebook page. Some have asked me why I shared those posts and my reply is simple. Everyone has a different view and we should embrace this diversity of views. And so people who are following my page should not only read my views but the opposing views too.

Again, I’m glad our speeches have sparked this much-needed debate. I’m glad it has sparked a wave of appreciation for our public servants, which is also needed and lacking.

But what worries me about this whole debate thus far is that we have not debated nor discussed the solutions offered. Not in the public arena nor in Parliament.

This speech isn’t about pointing fingers. It is about how we can make things better. Isn’t this what PM wished for? In his National Day Rally 2016, he said: “But what I would like to have is that we be blessed with a ‘divine discontent’ – always not quite satisfied with what we have, always driven to do better.”

There is always room to improve and the examples I have highlighted point to a systemic issue and not isolated cases. We need to address this and I hope the next chapter of this debate is about that. About discussing how we can improve the system, the bureaucracy, how we can develop and coordinate solutions together, how we can improve our system so that public servants can work in an environment where they can speak up and can question.

And we need to address this comment from a public servant which was shared with me:

“You think I don’t want to go the extra mile for my countrymen? I got heart, but I got time boh? MOF every year cut budget, we always kena headcount freeze or worse headcount cut. Work is ever-increasing, manpower is decreasing. Sustainable? My foot lah. Keep telling me to exercise compassion and empathy, you think I don’t know? Legislate more support for public officers first then we talk”

I read this out in Parliament (I took out three words “My foot lah”) and I urged DPM Teo Chee Hean to consider this feedback and hope that as we cut budgets, we can also consider the impact this has on individual public servants.

There is one last group of comments I’ve received which is about how I’m going to get into trouble for speaking up. I’d better “take care”. This worries me the most.

At a recent dialogue session, panellist and behavioural scientist David Chan jokingly addressed civil servants in the audience, saying: “You talk so much to me but when the minister is present, in front of him, you’re absolutely silent.” This habit stems partly from a fear of looking bad in front of others and of failing.

We need to make sure we don’t develop this culture of fear. Did I take some flak for speaking up? I don’t think so. I got to hear the views from fellow Singaporeans who might not have otherwise shared their views. And to answer many people, nope, PM didn’t call me after the speech and tell me to keep quiet.

I started my journey as an MP saying that I’m here to speak up, to speak my mind and to help shape policies. I have done so and will continue to do so. But most of all I’m here to listen. As I’ve said in my maiden speech in Parliament “we are not just there just to explain policies to people, to throw them facts and figures but we are there to truly listen and understand.”

Everyone needs to speak up if we care about Singapore. Remember this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Thank you, everyone, for sharing your thoughts, your frustrations, and your suggestions with me over the past few days. Thank you to our public servants for serving Singapore and Singaporeans. Much appreciated too!

 

Featured image by Pixabay user Alexas_Fotos. (CC0 1.0)

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