April 29, 2017

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by Bertha Henson

I GAVE my students an assignment on Hong Lim Park’s Speakers’ Corner recently, and almost all of the 60 undergraduates referred to the restriction on foreign participation laid down last year.

This, they said, was bound to handicap the yearly Pink Dot movement given that most of its sponsors had been foreign Multinational corporations. These companies would now have to apply for a permit to take part or sponsor the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) movement. They can forget it given what Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam has said: “In general, if it relates to controversial social or political issues, which really are a matter for Singaporeans, then it is unlikely the foreigners will get a permit.”

Many referred to the G’s allergy to foreign involvement in domestic issues and agreed that it was right that non-Singaporeans should keep out of potentially contentious matters that should be for citizens to resolve. But several also saw this as a move to placate the anti-LGBT movement, prevent a different lifestyle from taking root here and keeping the traditional family unit as the basic building block of society.

None thought that local businesses would step up to the plate, even though they noted that unlike foreign companies, these Singapore-owned businesses do not need to apply for a permit.

Why? The usual ideas were thrown up. Chief among them: Local businesses would be too “frightened” to be associated with something the G doesn’t seem in favour of, even if they identified with the LGBT cause. A second one was that local businesses were conservative and did not want to be seen as endorsing an alternative lifestyle.

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But a report in ST over the weekend has overturned the conventional wisdom. Some 50 companies have pledged support and there’s still four months to go before the event takes place. The organisers said that 70 per cent of the target had been met, and they haven’t even started raising funds officially.

One student wondered why local businesses were stepping in only now. Last year, of the 18 sponsors, only five were local. Perhaps, it was because the foreign companies had been in the forefront all along and there was no lack of funds? Some suggested that these sponsors were small, millennial-owned technology and media companies which would be more open-minded about lifestyle choices.

If the G had wished to squeeze the oxygen out of the Pink Dot balloon by the restriction, it has failed. Pink Dot doesn’t look like a foreign adventure anymore and the LGBT community would probably be heartened by local support. One student even thought that it could be a G attempt to gauge the level of local support for the LGBT cause.

It’s not clear if the companies have to make their sponsorship “public” or whether they can go un-named. Just think: 50 banners emblazoned with company name and logo, which is rather more than what a typical charity can muster in terms of support.

A student said that it’s a sign of people becoming more tolerant and accepting of different mores although it’s doubtful that the Wear White contingent would agree. They would point to the 2014 survey in which 78.2 per cent (see chart below) of respondents think that homosexuality is wrong. Now that’s a huge survey with more than 4,000 respondents, although it’s rather odd that while so many are against homosexuality, not as many think that same-sex marriage or a gay couple adopting a child is wrong too.

The Prime Minister himself put forth the G’s position in February in an interview with Stephen Sackur of BBC’s HARDTalk who asked about the possibility of repealing Section 377A which criminalised homosexual acts. Mr Lee Hsien Loong said he didn’t think a conservative Singapore would agree. It is also not the G’s role to lead society in changing social attitudes. He acknowledged that it was a vexed issue which still drew protests even in Western democracies.

What’s the chance that the pro-traditional family movement would react to Pink Dot this year? Given that there is no foreign bogeyman to flog, will we be looking at a culture war? Will it be a row with religious overtones?

Maybe, we shouldn’t be too worried about a potential clash of cultures, so long as it’s done peacefully with neither side presuming to impose its convictions on the other. The trouble with Singapore is that it has never had to grapple with competing, for want of a better word, ideologies – whether politically, socially or culturally. The emphasis is on conformity and moving together harmoniously in lock-step. We see a ripple as a potential tsunami and immediately build dams to prevent flooding.

We don’t see it as civil society in action.

I somehow think that the G should have heeded its own advice and not intervene in the organisation of Pink Dot. (Yes, yes, I know it’s about foreign influence, not Pink Dot per se). It should have let things evolve naturally rather than prompting people (or local companies) to make a stand.

Now, others will too.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong. 

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by Bertha Henson

OKAY, here are the four companies that have been singled out for public opprobrium because of their all-male boards.

1. Genting Singapore: five men
2. Global Logistic Properties (GLP): 10 men
3. Wilmar International: 11 men
4. Golden Agri-Resources: eight men

Half of the boards of 751 listed companies are all-male, so why Minister Grace Fu decided to single these four is a bit of a mystery.

So it seems a quota system is going to be applied in corporate leadership ranks.

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The People’s Action Party Women’s Wing, along with BoardAgender, an initiative of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, want at least 20 per cent of female directors on boards of listed companies and statutory boards by 2020.

Is this a tall order? The current ratio of women directors to male directors is 9.7 per cent – a slow climb from the 8.3 per cent in 2013.

But it’s a good bet that it will happen given that the champion is no less than the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth. The women’s lobby wants the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to make gender diversity mandatory, by imposing a “comply or explain’’ disclosure policy as part of its Code of Corporate Governance for listed companies.

Yeah! A victory for the fairer sex who have long been held down by a glass ceiling because the old boys’ club wants to keep them out! Yeah!

Except that it leaves a sour taste in the mouth to have to “force’’ the issue on corporations. It can be seen this way: that men are deliberately keeping women out of the boardroom despite their qualifications; that qualified women have turned down directorships or that women aren’t good enough to be invited in.

Wilmar told The Straits Times that while its board is supportive of gender diversity, its view is that it “should not be the main selection criterion”.

“Board appointments based on the right blend of skills, ability to contribute effectively and experience relevant to Wilmar’s business should remain a priority.”

(Doesn’t it sound like the discussions on the elected presidency? The candidate must have the requisite qualifications first, then race becomes a factor.)

So companies will have to start scouring for women candidates for their boards if it doesn’t want to have to go to the trouble of explaining to MAS why the executive toilet is used by men only.

For a very long time, we’ve resisted attempts to set quotas based on gender, except for female enrolment in the medical faculty some time ago. The emphasis of women’s groups was more on granting equal benefits to men and women and getting men to do right by their women, such as paying for maintenance in divorce cases, and rejecting the objectification of women.

The political sphere was much derided in the past for the lack of female representation in Parliament and in the Cabinet. But over the years, the numbers have increased without any kind of rule or requirement imposed. Now, there are 24 female MPs and one female minister. In fact, the PAP women’s wing wouldn’t have a leg to stand on in its quest for more female directors if it didn’t have a female minister to push for it.

Some people will wonder: What will women directors bring to the boardroom table that men can’t?

ST tried to find out.

Singtel group chief executive Chua Sock Koong said the ability to draw upon a diverse collection of skills and experiences has led to better execution of the firm’s business strategies.

It’s a pity she didn’t elaborate.

DBS Bank, which has two female directors, said the board’s diversity provides a wider range of views and expertise, which helps board members better identify possible risks, pose challenging questions and contribute to problem-solving. Which is so broad that it doesn’t say anything.

SingPost, which has three female directors, said: “A wide range of perspectives is critical for an effective board.” But doesn’t say how.

The companies cited missed a chance to tell of the difference a woman’s input makes. Some examples might open the boardroom doors wider in future.

The push for female representation shouldn’t simply be a diversity issue – or we might as well push for multi-racial representation as well. The men must understand why it is good for them.

What can be said though is that women directors would be good for women who work in the companies. They will understand why women need Pap smears and mammograms among medical benefits, and why they shouldn’t be unfairly penalised in career prospects because they took maternity leave. Likewise they know the importance of having more female toilets than male toilets.

And no, this is not an attempt at being facetious. Hopefully, the women’s lobby will come up with more examples of the corporate kind, in case the men don’t get it.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong. 

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by Daniel Yap

WAS Amos Yee the victim of political persecution? That was the core question that the US Immigration Court, presided over by Judge Samuel Cole, tried to answer in the youth’s application for political asylum, and it was a point that the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) failed to address with its response on Saturday (Mar 25).

It was not a question of whether what he did was legal in Singapore (it was not), or whether he was a seditious, hate-speech-spewing pain-in-the-arse and a drag on society. MHA’s statement tried to argue that the US and Singapore have different standards of what speech is legal, which doesn’t really do anything to rebut the core arguments at the US court.

Granted, MHA is not arguing a case before a judge – the US court case was between Amos Yee (who wants asylum) and the US Department of Homeland Security (that doesn’t want to give asylum). What about MHA? It appears to be simply broadcasting a message to try and throw shade at the US Immigration Court’s decision.

To borrow a phrase:

It is the prerogative of MHA to try and throw shade at another country’s judiciary. There are many more such people, around the world, who deliberately try and throw shade at another country’s judiciary, and who may be prosecuted. Some of them, will no doubt take note of MHA’s approach, and consider trying to throw shade at another country’s judiciary.

So what did MHA fail to address? We see how they measure up against the judgement (references to “Yew” are actually to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew).

“First, the video ‘Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead’… was scathing in its criticism of not just Yew but of the Singapore regime in general… The video contained harsh criticism of Yew and the Singapore government.”

 

“Second, religion was only tangential to the video. The video is almost entirely about Yew and Singapore, and its discussions of religion were only used to make a point about Yee’s dismal opinion of Yew.” 

The US court was satisfied that the primary purpose of the video was to criticise Mr Lee, the Singapore Government and Singapore. This would then classify Yee’s action as a political one. The MHA statement doesn’t even mention anything about Yee’s political content and activity, which is odd since Yee is applying for political asylum.

“The public response to the video was entirely about its criticism of Yew, not about its offense to religion.”

The witnesses called on by Yee’s lawyers in the US case testified that the primary outcry against the video was because it criticised Mr Lee and was disrespectful towards him, not chiefly because it wounded religious feelings or because it was obscene. This testimony went unanswered by the Department of Homeland Security, and was not addressed by the MHA statement either. If there was a case for the public seeing it as more of an anti-Christian message than an anti-Lee Kuan Yew message, MHA should have brought it up.

“The evidence presented showed that Yee’s prison sentence was unusually long and harsh, especially for a young offender… the terms of Yee’s pre-trial release prohibited him from posting to social media. These restrictions were also highly unusual and restrictive and served the main purpose to silence Yee’s criticism of the government.”

The court hearing focused on Yee’s first prosecution, for which, in July 2015, he served a four-week sentence (although by that point Yee had already spent 55 days in custody). He was 16 at the time of his conviction and it is typical for offenders of that age to get sentences that do not include jail, especially for first-time offences and non-violent crimes. The US court judgement says that Yee was the youngest inmate in the prison during his incarceration.

His bail included the unusual condition that he not post or comment online while the case was ongoing, and in May 2015, his lawyers appealed against the ban, calling it “too broad and disproportionate”. MHA did not dispute any of these findings, choosing instead to say that “he was represented by counsel in both the 2015 and 2016 proceedings” although it is not clear if that is meant to rebut any of the points being made by the US judge.

“Other people who made disparaging comments about religions but who were not similarly critical of the Singapore regime avoided prosecution. These include Calvin Cheng and Jason Neo… Both made comments critical of Islam, equating Muslims with terrorists.  Neither was charged.” 

 

“Regarding the obscenity charge related to the line drawing, many more-explicit pictures are available to the Singapore public and do not result in prosecutions.”

MHA’s statement said that “anyone who engages in hate speech… will be arrested and charged.” Yee’s US counsel was able to convince the judge that hate speech laws in Singapore are not uniformly applied, and in Yee’s case were a pretext for political persecution.

Likewise for the charge of obscenity. The key difference between Yee’s obscenity and the plethora of other obscene material, the court noted, was that this line drawing had Mr Lee’s face superimposed on it.

The country condition reports and expert and lay witness testimony all describe that this is the modus operandi for the Singapore regime – critics of the government are silenced by civil suit for defamation or criminal prosecutions.”

The court continued: “Though Yee’s prosecutions may have been legal under Singapore law, they clearly served a ‘nefarious purpose,’ namely, to stifle political dissent… The political persecution was a criminal persecution by the Singapore Government and was therefore inflicted by the government”.

To this, MHA simply says that “the US Department of Homeland Security had opposed Yee’s asylum application, on the basis that Yee had been legitimately prosecuted.”

Oddly, enough, MHA’s statement harping on the “legitimacy” of Yee’s prosecution may end up reinforcing the judgement given by the US court.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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Bertha in coffee shop

by Bertha Henson

IT BEING the season of Lent, I am going to confess to a sinful act of omission: I stood by while bullying took place. My excuse is that I was restrained by my mother, who shot me a “don’t you dare interfere!” look. So, both of us pretended that we didn’t see or hear what was taking place five metres away from us. Now, this isn’t about a big boy bullying a smaller one or a gang of girls beating up one of their own. This was a maid employer-versus-maid scene taking place in a maid agency.

It’s all too common to see maids “returned” to their agencies because their employers are dissatisfied with their work. The maids are the ones who are teary-eyed with a big suitcase standing in one corner while Mom harangues her or the maid agent.

I have never got used to such sights but this one I witnessed last week took the cake. The screaming Mom emptied out the maid’s suitcase onto the floor. Clothes, slippers, toiletries and underwear spilled out. Her purse was unzipped and coins poured out. The Mom was presumably checking if the maid was taking away anything that was not hers. I thought to myself that she could have done that at home while the maid was packing up.

There were other maids in the shop, waiting for placements, looking on. They kept an absolute silence. As did the maid agents who looked to be in despair over Mom’s antics. And you know what? The Mom had brought her son who looks to be no more than six years old. While she was screaming away, he busied himself eating his packed lunch of chicken rice. But he got up to pick up the coins that had been thrown all over the floor, stacking up the 10 cents and 20 cents for the maid to return to her purse.

I am not sure what the problem was but it had to do with the maid complaining about not getting her eight hours of rest and the Mom responding that she can’t help it if the maid can’t sleep when she’s supposed to. It also had to do with the maid talking back, referring to a Ministry of Manpower booklet on maid rights. Of course, the maid said nothing in the shop. Her face was set in stone in a formidable attempt at self-control but which she quite quickly lost…

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The maid agent who was talking to the two of us made a concerted attempt to engage our attention during the kerfuffle. It wasn’t very successful. Our ears were otherwise engaged even though we kept our eyes on him.

The maid re-packed her belongings and the Mom proceeded to discuss arrangements with the maid agent, who looked like she’d rather be elsewhere. Then she was off, with son in tow.

It was only then that I burst out in consternation at the humiliation I had witnessed.
Was the Mom trying to show who’s boss? Was she showing her son how a maid should be treated? Didn’t she feel any embarrassment at being such a public spectacle? What a disgraceful human being!

The maid agents agreed that the Mom was “too much” but said there was little they could do with the “customer”.

Whatever wrong the maid had done, no one deserved such a public shaming. I think of her pitiful belongings spread out on the floor and the little boy who was doing his best not to draw attention to himself. I think of how frightened the row of maids must be. What if their next employee was a carbon copy of this particular Mom?

The law isn’t equipped to deal with maid employers who don’t know how to behave like decent human beings. It’s only equipped to deal with those who pinch, punch, slap, scald and starve their maids. I am not asking for the law to intervene in the confines of a home; that would be an invasion of privacy. I am musing aloud at the sort of arrogance some people have and the power they think they wield when they are given the charge of another person’s life.

What would that particular Mom think if her own employer at work dismissed her and swept her belongings from her desk to the floor in full view of her co-workers? I don’t think anyone would stand for such treatment. Even if the victim kept silent, there’s a chance that the co-workers would speak up for her or lodge a quiet complaint to “upstairs”. But we’re talking about foreign maids here who are trying to make a living away from their families and friends.

I am compelled to write this because of the maid who was sentenced to four months jail for “ill-treating” her four year old charge. She had tried to retrieve a medical device from his throat, using her hand and tweezers, and didn’t inform her employers when she couldn’t.

I can just imagine the consternation of the parents when they found out that their boy, who has muscular atrophy and needs support ventilation and oxygen, had been gagging on the plug for hours and turning blue. I can also imagine the terror the maid was feeling about being found out, which would be sooner or later, and being sent packing.

The prosecution asked for 18 months jail term after she pleaded guilty earlier this month, a sentence which District Judge Low Wee Ping had described as “manifestly excessive”. He said that “the system” is at fault for allowing domestic helpers to perform “such medical work”.

“We employ maids too generally. We employ them as car washers, plumbers, house painters, medical caregivers… when we shouldn’t be. And when they do something wrong, we point our (fingers) at them.”

Noting that she had no legal representation, he asked if there was a lawyer in the courtroom who could do the job. Lawyer Mahmood Gaznavi stood up to the plate.

In a later hearing for sentencing on Thursday, Mr Gaznavi described the case as “akin to a specialist carpenter asked to perform complicated mechanical works. She is a person of no skills, let alone skills required to nurse a child who is bedridden.” The maid had two days of instruction on the medical device to suck phlegm from the boy’s throat.

“The accused did not commit the offence out of malice, but out of overzealous attempts to correct an initial act gone wrong,” he said. He distinguished her case from others in which children are deliberately and repeatedly abused by their caregivers.

The prosecution is appealing against the sentence, so not much more can be said about the case. But it’s worth noting that maids cannot be the Jill-of-all-trades in the household. More importantly, they must be treated as human beings who have similar fears and anxieties and who should be accorded the same dignity we expect for ourselves.

People would say that the maid should have told the parents immediately about what happened instead of quaking in silence, just like how I should have intervened in the bullying case.

It’s not comparable, I know.

Except for Mr Gaznavi, nobody behaved very well in this article. My apologies to all maids for the terrible behavior of that particular Mom. Rest assured that not all employers are like her. And dare I say that in the court case, justice was tempered by mercy.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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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.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong. 

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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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