Sunday, May 15, 2005

Hazards of Film Making

Martyn See, the producer of "Singapore Rebel", a 26 minute documentary featuring Opposition member Mr Chee Soon Juan, had to withdraw the movie from Singapore's annual film festival, after the police warned him its political content could land him in jail. This is because the censorship board apparently viewed the film as a "party political film". After 16 months of investigation, 3 interrogation sessions, 120 questions, and not discounting a covert round of interviews with some friends and associates whose phone numbers were listed in his mobile, the police finally decided to close their case against him. Assistant Superintendent Chan Peng Kuang wrote in 7 Aug 2006 that, upon conclusion of their investigation, the police has decided to issue a warning in lieu of a prosecution.

Following is the official position on "party political film" as commented by a lawyer who has taken it down from his blog. To protect his identity, the comments have been suitably modified, but the meaning should be obvious to the casual reader:

Singapore RebelIn 1998, the Films Act was amended to introduce the concept of "party political films". (Prior to that, the only other category of films that the Films Act specifically referred to by subject-matter was "obscene films"). Essentially, no one is allowed to import, make, reproduce or exhibit any party political film. This means any film:

1. which is an advertisement made by or for any political party in Singapore, or any organisation whose focus is mainly on Singapore's politics; or

2. which is made by any person and which is directed towards any political end in Singapore.

In turn, the phrase "directed towards any political end in Singapore" is further defined as follows:

For the purposes of this Act, a film is directed towards a political end in Singapore if the film —

(a) contains wholly or partly any matter which is intended or likely to affect voting in any election or national referendum in Singapore; or

(b) contains wholly or partly either partisan or biased references to or comments on any political matter, including but not limited to any of the following:

(i) an election or a national referendum in Singapore;

(ii) a candidate or group of candidates in an election;

(iii) an issue submitted or otherwise before electors in an election or a national referendum in Singapore;

(iv) the Government or a previous Government or the opposition to the Government or previous Government;

(v) a Member of Parliament;

(vi) a current policy of the Government or an issue of public controversy in Singapore; or

(vii) a political party in Singapore or any body whose objects relate wholly or mainly to politics in Singapore, or any branch of such party or body.

Note the magic words "including but not limited to". This means that you don't necessarily have to fall into the examples listed from (i) to (vii) to run foul of the law. As long as you make a film that comments on any political matter (even if not mentioned in the (i)-to(vii) list), you have made a party political film and you have committed a crime.

Note also the legal definition of film under the Films Act. "Film" isn't limited to the kind of show you typically associate with a film festival or a trip to a Golden Village cinema. Under the Films Act, "film" means:

(a) any cinematograph film;

(b) any video recording, including a video recording that is designed for use wholly or principally as a game;

(c) any other material record or thing on which is recorded or stored for immediate or future retrieval any information that, by the use of any computer or electronic device, is capable of being reproduced or displayed as wholly or partly visual moving pictures,

and includes any part of a film, and any copy or part of a copy of the whole or any part of a film

Conceivably, any tiny segment video recording, for example, even 7 seconds of comedic footage showing a Minister hanging out in a gay bar, could be a party political film. And it would be a criminal offence to make such a video.

So just how can the official television station TCS even feature PAP politicians on the 9 o'clock news without technically committing an offence?

The clever folks in Parliament already thought of that. So they snuck in this clever little provision:

For the avoidance of doubt, any film which is made solely for the purpose of reporting of current events is not a party political film.

Well then, you may think that apart from the news, the PAP won't be allowed to use film media to spread any of its own messages.

Don't worry, those little problems are all taken care of. (It's really quite easy to make laws exactly the way you want them to be, if you hold 79 out of 81 seats in Parliament). Section 40 of the Films Act says:

"This Act shall not apply to any film sponsored by the Government."

That is, any film sponsored by the Singapore government is perfectly fine, even if it contains obscene material or explicit political content. And as if that wasn't enough, they also put this in the Act:

"The Minister may, subject to such conditions as he thinks fit, exempt any person or class of persons or any film or class of films from all or any of the provisions of this Act."

So any film can be exempted if the Minister likes the film. In other words, even if a film is bursting with political messages, the Minister can still allow the film to be imported, sold, distributed and exhibited - no problems whatsoever - as long as the Minister likes those political messages.

On the other hand, what do you think are the chances of any PAP Minister liking Martyn See's film?


On 25th Aug 2005 Singapore police asked Martyn See to surrender the video camera and tapes he used to make the documentary on opposition figure Chee Soon Juan as part of its investigation for possible breach of film laws. Martyn told Reuters the demand was made after he had been questioned for three hours at a police station on Thursday. It was the second time Singapore authorities interviewed him about the 26-minute documentary he withdrew from the city-state's annual film festival in March under pressure from government censors.

"The questions were more political than last time and I think they were intended to find out about my political affiliation," he said.

Here are a sample of some of the questions which totalled about 60:

When asked what inspired you to make this film, you claimed that political opposition in Singapore is marginalised. What do you mean by "marginalised?"

What in your opinion should the media do?

So you mean that the Singapore media is being unfair to political opposition?

You claimed that you took two and a half years to make the film. So is it normal for filmmakers to take such such a period to make a 26 minute film?

What sort of activities of Chee Soon Juan were you waiting that you think was worth shooting?

You mentioned that a friend of yours named Peter did the voiceover for the film? Is he contactable?

You mentioned that you edited the film on a friend's Macintosh laptop. Is he contactable?

How was the item (laptop) passed to you and how was it returned to him?

Did you save any of the footages in his computer?

Do you own a computer now?

There were some newspaper articles on your blog? How did you secure those articles?

In your film, there were footages of Chee Soon Juan making speeches at a election rally. Where did you secure the footage?

Did you duplicate the video before returning?

Why was the election rally audio muted?

When did you know that Singapore Rebel was classified a party political film?

I am informing you that Lesley Ho's (of Singapore International Film Festival) email dated March 2005 had mentioned that Philip (co-director of SIFF) was told that Singapore Rebel was objectionable pertaining to party political films. You were told that if you did not withdraw the film, the "full extent of the law" will apply. What do you have to say to that?

So you agree that at this stage when you read Lesley's email, you knew that Singapore Rebel was classified as a party political film?

Since you knew that the film "may have been" a party political film at that stage, why would you want to circulate the film to overseas film festivals?

Can you recall participating in any activities organised by any political party in Singapore?

(Somewhere at this point of the interview, I told ASP Chan that I would walk out if questions continue along this line).

Did Chee Soon Juan direct you to do the filming on May Day (arrests of 2002)?

On 19th July, 2005, Chee Soon Juan and some members was speaking at Speakers Corner? Were you there to film the event? Who directed you to film the event?

On August 11, 2005, were you present in front of CPF Building when Chee Soon Juan and other SDP members gathered for a protest?

Did you contact Chee Soon Juan after the video interview on Singapore Rebel?

Are you still in contact with Chee Soon Juan now?

I do not want to go to your house. Are you able to produce to the police the following items?

1) Two remaining copies of Singapore Rebel
2) Receipts from courier services of you mailing the film to New Zealand and USA (as mentioned in your earlier statement)
3) The Samsung mini-DV camera you used to make Singapore Rebel, and
4) Any raw footages of Singapore Rebel before the editing.

Update: Aug 30, 2005

Mr Yap Keng Ho, an activist in Singapore, made a police report today against CNA. Uncle Yap is asking the police to look into two programmes produced and aired by the state-controlled local broadcaster ChannelNewsAsia or CNA, Success Stories and Up Close. These programmes can also be considered "party political films" under the Films Act.

Mr Yap made the report at the Tampines Neighbourhood Police Centre today, citing that two films, "Success Story" which portrayed Mr Lee Kuan Yew and "Up Close" which featured five PAP ministers including Mr Lee Hsien Loong, were screened on Channel News Asia in 2002 and 2005 respectively.

The complaint comes at a time when the police are investigating Mr Martyn See for making a film about Dr Chee Soon Juan, which the Media Development Authority has said is political in nature and therefore a violation of the Films Act.

Mr Yap said in his report that the screening of the political documentaries of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP ministers likewise contravened the Films Act and has asked the police to investigate the matter.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

A Lesson In Singapore Law

In 1997, the Workers' Party had complained to the police that Mr Goh Chok Tong, Dr Tony Tan and Brigadier-General (NS) Lee Hsien Loong had been inside a Cheng San GRC polling station on Polling Day. The Public Prosecutor subsequently advised the police that the PAP leaders had not broken the law. The logic applied here, as detailed in the missive quoted hereunder from the honourable Attorney General, effectively says that "while it is illegal to be within 200 metres of a polling station unless you are voting, IT IS NOT ILLEGAL IF YOU ARE INSIDE." No explanation is given how anyone can be inside the polling station without being within 200 metres of the polling station in the first place.

Law Minister S JayakumarFollowing is the text of the letter from Singapore's Attorney General to Law Minister S. Jayakumar on the presence of unauthorised persons inside polling stations. The opinions in this letter were put forward in Parliament in reply to Opposition MP J.B. Jeyaratnam's queries on July 30:

21 July 1997

Prof S Jayakumar
Minister for Law


On 14 July l997, THE Workers' Party issued a press release expressing "amazement" that the public prosecutor had advised police that no offence was disclosed in the reports made by it leaders against the prime minister, the two deputy prime ministers and Dr S Vasoo that they had been present inside polling stations when they were not candidates for the relevant constituencies. The Workers' Party queried why such conduct was not an offence under paragraph (d) or (e) of section 82(1) of the Parliamentary Elections Act.

2. On 15 July 1997, the Singapore Democratic Party also called on the attorney general to explain his "truly befuddling" decision and to state clearly if it was an offence for unauthorised persons to enter polling stations.

3. You have asked me for my formal opinion on the question raised in these two statements. My opinion is set out below.

4. The question is whether it is an offence under the Parliamentary Elections Act for an unauthorised person to enter and be present in a polling station.

5. For this purpose, the authorised persons are the candidates, the polling agent or agents of each candidate, the Returning Officer, and persons authorised in writing by the returning officer, the police officers on duty and other persons officially employed at the polling station; see section 39 (4) of the Act (quoted below)

Activities Outside Polling Stations

6. The relevant sections of the Parliamentary Elections Act to be considered are sections 82 (1)(d) and 82 (1)(e). These provisions were enacted m 1959 pursuant to the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Corrupt, Illegal or Undesirable Practices at Elections, Cmd 7 of 1968 (hereinafter called "the Elias Report)"

7. Section 82 (1)(d) provides that - "No person shall wait outside any polling station on polling day, except for the purpose of gaining entry to the polling station to cast his vote".

8. Plainly, persons found waiting inside the polling stations do not come within the ambit of this section. Similarly, those who enter or have entered the polling station cannot be said to be waiting outside it. Only those who wait outside the polling station commit an offence under this section unless they are waiting to enter the polling station to cast their votes.

9. Section 82 (1)(e) provides that -

"No person shall loiter in any street or public place within a radius of 200 metres of any polling station on polling day."

10. The relevant question is whether any person who is inside a polling station can be said to be "within a radius of 200 metres of any polling station". The answer to this question will also answer any question on loitering inside a polling station.

11. Plainly, a person inside a polling station cannot be said to be within a radius of 200 metres of a polling station. A polling station must have adequate space for the voting to be carried out. Any space has a perimeter. The words "within a radius of 200 metres" ' therefore mean "200 metres from the perimeter of" any polling station.

12. The above interpretation is fortified by the context of the provision. The polling station, as a place, is distinguished from a street or public place. It is not a street or a public place. Hence, being inside a polling station cannot amount to being in a street or in a public place. By parity of reasoning, loitering in a street or public place cannot possibly include loitering in the polling station itself and vice versa.

13. There is no ambiguity in section 82 (1)(e). If the legislature had intended to make it an offence for unauthorised persons to wait or loiter inside a polling station, it could have easily provided for it. It did not. The mischief that section 82 (1)(e) is intended to address is found in paragraph 99 of the Elias Report. It reads:

"In order to prevent voters being made subject to my form of undue influence or harassment at the approaches to polling stations, we recommend that it should be made an offence for any person to establish any desk or table near the entrance to any polling station, or to wait outside any polling station on polling day except for the purpose of gaining entry into the polling station to cast his vote; and that it should be an offence for any person to loiter in any street or public place within a radius of 200 yards of any polling station on polling day ."

14 . Paragraph 99 of the Elias Report appears under the heading "Activity OUTSIDE POLLING STATIONS". The Commission of Inquiry was addressing the possibility of voters being subject to undue influence and harassment as they approach the polling stations. There is therefore no doubt whatever that this provision was never intended to cover any activity inside the polling station as there would be officials and election agents in attendance.

15. The legislative history makes the provision so clear that it is not even necessary to consider the application of an established principle of interpretation that any ambiguity in a penal provision should, whenever possible, be resolved favour of the accused.

Activities Inside Polling Stations

16. Activities inside polling stations were made subject to a different regime under the Act. Section 39(4) provides that -

"the presiding officer shall keep order in his station and shall regulate the number of voters to be admitted a time, and shall exclude all other persons except the polling agent or agents of each candidate, the Returning Officer and persons authorised in writing by the Returning Officer, the police officers on duty and other persons officially employed at the polling station."

17. Under section 39(7), any person who misconducts himself in the polling station, or fails to obey the lawful orders of the presiding officer may be removed from the polling station by a police officer acting under the orders of the presiding officer. If an unauthorised person refuses to leave the polling station when told to do so by the public officer, he commits an offence under section 186 of the Penal Code for obstructing a public servant in the discharge of his duty.

18. There is a consistency in the rationales of the regulatory schemes governing activities inside and those outside polling stations on election day. Waiting outside a polling station is made an offence because it gives rise to opportunities to influence or intimidate voters: see paragraph 99 of the Elias Report. Hence, the Act has provided a safety zone which stretches outwards for 200 metres from the polling station. In contrast, the possibility of a person inside a polling station influencing or intimidating voters in the presence of the presiding officer and his officials, the polling agents etc was considered so remote that it was discounted by the Act.

19. I therefore confirm my opinion that the Parliamentary Elections Act does not provide for any offence of unauthorised entry into or presence within a polling station. Accordingly, those unauthorised persons who only wait or loiter inside a polling station on polling day do not commit any offence under the Act.Attorney General Chan Sek Keong

20. You are at liberty to publish this opinion.

Chan Sek Keong
Attorney General

It Only Shows Revenge

Singaporeans in general are not sympathetic to those associated with recreational drugs, both consumers and sellers. The public disquiet for the Murugesu case may be attributable to the recent high profile drug related busts of several "socialite elites", including one Dinesh Singh Bhartia, son of Nominated Member of Parliament Dr Kanwaljit Soin and former judicial commissioner Amarjeet Singh. Latter was instrumental in the arrest and caning of one American Michael Fay, who spray painted his wife's car. His snide comment on that case: "You know, once you loosen up or the laws become lax, everything comes in. The floodgates are opened. It doesn't pay to mess around with the system". His own son, upon conviction, appealed against the same system, and had his sentence reduced.

A drug trafficker at the centre of a high-profile campaign to end the death penalty in Singapore was executed despite the appeals of his teenage twin sons and his lawyer's pleas that it was a denial of "natural justice". Shanmugam Murugesu, 38, who was convicted of trying to import 1,029.8 grams (36 ounces) of cannabis through a road check point from Malaysia, was hanged at 6:00 am (2200 GMT Thursday), his lawyer, M. Ravi told AFP.

"Friday the 13th is a black day for Singapore... it only shows revenge, it's a cold blooded murder," Ravi said.

Ravi, civic rights group the Think Centre, a small group of opposition politicians and Murugesu's family waged a sustained campaign to save him, arguing "defects" in the law and many other mitigating factors should have prevented him from being executed. They cited six other cases of people arrested with similar amounts of marijuana avoiding the gallows, Murugesu's offers to help track the "Mr Big" behind the operation and his financial desperation that led him to the crime.

Murugesu's 14-year-old sons, Gopalan and Krishnan, went public with their appeal to save their father, distributing pamphlets in Singapore's busy Orchard Road shopping district to help raise awareness about his plight. "He's in the wrong, but killing him is not the correct decision. Only God can give life and take life," Gopalan told AFP last week. "Please give him a chance... give him 20 years, 30 years (in jail)."

The campaign, which also involved an on-line petition, two appeals to President S.R. Nathan and prayer vigils outside Murugesu's home, was a rare show of public dissent against any government policy in this tightly controlled city-state.

The People's Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since independence in 1965 and holds all but two elected seats in parliament, instructs the press to report in the "national interests" and rarely allows public rallies. Its unforgiving drug laws -- possessing more than 500 grams of marijuana or 15 grams of heroin carries a mandatory death penalty -- are regarded as among the toughest in the world and regularly attract criticism from foreign human rights groups.

Amnesty International said in a report last year that Singapore had the highest execution rate in the world per capita, ahead of Saudi Arabia, Belarus and Sierra Leone, with most hanged for drug crimes. Amnesty said more than 400 peoplehad been executed in Singapore between 1991 and 2003, which it described as a "shocking number" for a nation of just over four million people.

However the government remained firm on the death penalty during the Murugesu controversy, with the Home Affairs Ministry giving a detailed defence of its policy in a response to questions from AFP.

"The Singapore government has in place a transparent law and order system for the safety and security of its citizens, residents and those who visit," the ministry said in the e-mailed statement. "The death penalty is imposed for the most serious of crimes which sends a strong signal to would-be offenders... it is part of a range of punishments which has helped to keep crime rates and drug abuse rates in Singapore low."

Despite Murugesu's death, Ravi said the campaign to save him had not been a waste of time because it had raised public awareness about capital punishment among Singaporeans. Ravi said the campaign to abolish the death penalty would continue, with the focus turning to other people sentenced to hang in a bid to further heighten community awareness.

"We will continue to highlight the defects in the legal system," he said.

Ravi said Murugesu had told him he knew of eight other people on death row.


Offending poster of Mr Shanmugam MurugesuMonths later, organisers of the concert Hung at Dawn, targeting the death penalty in Singapore, were told by the police they will not be given a permit unless they remove a photo of the late Mr Shanmugam on its posters. Mr Shamugam's photograph adorned the posters that the arts community have used to promote the anti-death penalty concert which was to be held at the Substation on 5 August 2005.

So what is the reason for banning Shanmugam's photo? The conversation below between the office-in-charge and one of the organisers tells the story.

Wen Ann to Organiser: You have to apply to PELU [Police Entertainment Licensing Unit] for this gig.

Organiser: Ah? So no need MDA [Media Development Authority]?

Wen Ann: No, the police will handle this event.

Organiser: Ok. But the event is Friday. I apply tomorrow, got time?

Wen Ann: No problem, you just give me the reference number I will get it done.

Organiser: You sure I get a license?

Wen Ann: Promise. (pause) But there is a condition. You cannot use Shanmugam photograph on your materials.

Organiser: Why? it's not a picture on the police files and we have approval from the family.

Wen Ann: Eh, just cannot lah.

Organiser: You know it's quite hard for me to accept that reason.

Wen Ann: You just do it lah.

Organiser: you have to give me a reason to let me know why I cannot use his picture.

Wen Ann: Erh, you know Shanmugam is an ex-convict and was executed...erh, we are concerned that this figure is glorified.

Organiser: Ok but we are not glorifying him.

Wen Ann: Hmm I understand but I think it will be difficult for them to relent. You just do your against death penalty thing lah but don't use his picture can?

Organiser: But can use his name?

Wen Ann: Can.

Organiser: And 'against death penalty' is ok with you guys?

Wen Ann: Yah no problem.

Organiser: Hmm (pause) alright I accept the condition. But a lot of my publicity has gone out I cannot blanko the picture out. I hope you understand so you might still see traces of his photographs around.

Wen Ann: Yah it's okay i understand. Just stop using the photograph from today.

Organiser: Ok. then on the 18th I have a similar gig. I should go to PELU straight and not bother about MDA?

Wen Ann: Yah you just apply for both through PELU.

Organiser: Ok, I call you tomorrow when I get the application done.

Wen Ann: Okay, bye bye.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Uniquely Singapore

For many living outside the geographical boundaries of Singapore (somewhere south of China), the recent ramblings must sound unusual in democratic societies, to say the least. Perhaps the following article should put some flesh to the names, places, organisations, events and circumstances that will, hopefully, enlighten the accidental onlooker and provide invaluable insight for the defenders of truth, justice and equality for the human race, wherever you are.

By: Mellanie Hewlitt
22 Jan 2003
Singapore Review

Many would recall Philip Yeo's comments in the 2nd Nov 2002 issue of the Straits Times:"Got a basic degree? Wash test tubes then".

The comments raised quite afew eye brows in the community and provoked a backlash of replies from critics. In his reply to his critics Philip Yeo posed two questions;
(a) If you were terminally ill, would you trust a surgeon who was a college drop-out?; and
(b) Would you take a drug that was designed by a college drop-out?

The questions reveal an innate bias and myopia that permeates the senior ranks of the government bureaucracy and explains in part the dismal performance of the GLCs and State Owned Entities, which are affectionately known by locals as "Scholar Havens".

Replying to Mr Yeo's first question, if I was terminally ill I would want to the most experienced surgeon oversee the operation. The emphasis here is on the actual experience as opposed to mere paper qualifications. The last thing I want at my bedside is an arrogant "professional student" whose only experience is scoring straight As in an exam hall, and who has no actual experience.

Afterall, a degree is merely a means to an end. An efficient education system ensures that graduates are equipped with specific skill sets that will address actual needs of the practical work place. Looking again at Mr Yeo's analogy, it would be a wasteful allocation of resource to have even an A' level student wash test-tubes, let alone a graduate or post-graduate student.

The first sensible rational question is, do we need an undergraduate to wash test-tubes? The answer is obvious. Why then are we faced with this inane question? The startling fact is that with a worsening economy and soaring unemployment rates, there is an over supply of
middle management professionals who are now forced to compete for lower tiered jobs with fresh graduates and non-graduates.

And the problem does not just stop there as there is a domino effect and the repercussions are felt throughout the labour market. A Human Resource Manager with a fixed budget for a junior position suddenly found that he could engage an older more experienced and more qualified professional to do more, for less. But where does that leave the fresh graduate who would have otherwise filled this opening? He is unemployed, or forced to look for more menial work.

Arguably, this situation benefits the employer and it is an employer's market. But viewed on a macro level, it is a far from ideal situation. There is a tremendous amount of wastage of scarce
human resources as graduates are unable to put their professional skills to good use.

With the current economic situation going from bad to worse, there are already many examples of overqualified professionals who are forced into menial enterprise. Many become cab-drivers or hawkers to tide over the bad times. Did these professionals spend years in university just to drive a cab or fry Char Kway Teow? Do you actually need a PHD to be a hawker or a cab-driver?

What is even more amusing is the attempt by the local papers and mass media, to glorify such cases (e.g. 12 Jan 2003 issue of the New Paper "From banking man (earning five-digit monthly pay) to Golden Mile nasi lemak man Why") We can only hope that Mr Yeo's latest investment in PHD graduates (see previous column) will not add to the growing ranks of the unemployed professionals.

Does the current system work, or is it making an already bad unemployment situation, even worse? Only in Singapore do we have a government that is so engrossed with the accumulation of paper qualifications, that they have long since forgotten the original objective behind the education system, and have instead identified the means as an end to itself. In their blind pursuit of their version of a utopian society, educational elitetism takes center stage above all else, eclipsing the actual needs of the labour market itself. The distortions in the demand and supply chain is most acute in industries that are dominated by State Owned Entities and Government Linked Companies. Health care is an excellent example.

For decades it was common knowledge that there was a severe shortage in supply of doctors in Singapore. This had contributed to escalating health care costs to the extent that the paternalistic government found it necessary to increase medi-save contributions in CPF accounts. One would have expected the Medical Faculty to increase student intake and also increase employment of foreign doctors to alleviate the dismal situation. But they had steadfastly refused to do either, allowing the situation to go from bad to worse.

What compounded the situation was the archaic admissions criteria in the medical faculty which placed a strict quota on female graduates who would otherwise be admissible. The rationale behind this policy can best be described as medieval, resting perhaps on the argument that female doctors will ultimately marry and abandon their medical professions in pursuit of domestic life. This archaic medieval policy was only lifted last year, after being in effect for decades.

Fortunately, the mismatch between demand and supply is much less acute for professions which are less subject to government regulation, and more exposed to the international market. Some examples are banking, accounting, IT etc. Successful professionals in these industries see employment in MNCs which are in sync with market conditions. And market forces are able to address any weaknesses or kinks in the demand-supply chain and weed out inefficient unproductive elements. The same cannot be said of State Runned Enterprises and GLCs which have a free hand into public funds and tax dollars. These are a safe haven in difficult times for fat bacon meat which would otherwise have seen the short end of a shot-gun in the competitive private sector.

But the disturbing fact remains that these lumbering unproductive loss making enterprises, occupied by government bureaucrats and scholars, will continue to be a burden on the economy and private sector.

The underlying issue here is that due to the inability of the domestic economy to generate higher echelon jobs, and a very weak employment market, graduates (and PHD holders) are often unable to find jobs in positions that they were academically trained for. This is not a failing on the part of the individual, but rather a failing on the part of the system, and yes, ultimately the government. And looking at Mr Yeo's latest project, it appears that no progress will be made in this area for at least another few years.

Moving away from the grey area of public policies, we must look towards substance over form. Substance in this context refers to the actual experience and ability to perform the job. Form is a decorative facade which is a vague indication (which may be inaccurate) that the person has such ability. Which would you trust if you were terminally ill, a PHD who has never touched a scalpel or a self-thought albeit non-graduate physician who worked her way up as a nurse, and who has successfully treated 1,000 cases similiar to yours? You decide, but the answer is clear to me.

But there is also a more crucial question that lies beyond policy matters waiting to be addressed;


If we do not have leaders who can understand and relate to the plight of the common man on the street, how can we have faith on these same leaders to lead us out of stormy waters?

Can a leader who continues to receive handsome remuneration in tax dollars ever relate to the plight of the average wage earner who earns less then 10% of his take home pay? How can he even start to appreciate the ramifications of his far-reaching policies (on ERP, petrol, electricity, motor insurance, bus and MRT fares, and now hospital fees) which were all too likely drawn up in a clinical environment?

As unemployment rates soar to new highs, there are also repeated calls by the government for Singaporeans to be less "less choosy" about work . In the JAN 13, 2003 issue of the Straits Times, Lim Boon Heng has called on Singaporeans to "Expect smaller wage rises in future". But this is also akin to a bad tailor who is encouraging a paying customer to be satisfied with very poor workmanship! AFTER SO MANY YEARS OF SLOGGING AND SWEATING in our supposedly elite world class universities, why are we being told to settle for less in terms of careers and expectations?

Perhaps Mr Lim should start applying this sentiment to Singapore's million dollar ministers who continue to take home millions of tax dollars per year even in these difficult times. In the past, the merits of such handsome remunerations have always been that these would be needed to attract the best talents and to ensure elite performance. But in the current circumstances, I am still struggling to identify what qualifies as resounding performance from our elite leaders, especially when they have repeated (and admitted) several times over that the economy recovery will be led by external forces. Perhaps our leaders may have more pressing issues on their hands then tuddongs and head-dresses at schools.

Oh yes, as for Mr Yeo's second question, I would have no problems taking a drug that is designed by a college drop-out, if the drug is safe and it works. That is substance. But am I to understand that Mr Yeo would he be willing to take a defective drug if it was developed
by a PHD holder?

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Looking Down the Barrel

Thanks to the one-sided iron-handed way this affair was played out, the world will never get to know the legality of the bulldozer tactics. But justice has its way of surfacing from the darkest of nights, truth is a blinding light that bleaches all iniquity. Meanwhile we contend with Mr Chen's view of the events, in his correspondence response dated 5th May 2005 to a Valarie Ng of the Channel News Asia:

"I am a first-year graduate student in the chemical physics PhD program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. Until last week, I had a personal blog on my university account, which as far as I understand is not a violation of school policy.On April 22 (Friday), I received the first email from Mr. Philip Yeo, chairman of A*STAR, dated 5:44 am GMT-5 which notified me that he had earmarked a post on my blog (#442) for legal action. Over the next three days he sent me a total of eleven emails which were of a threatening and insulting nature, demanding that I remove "all" the posts on my blog or face legal action for defaming A*STAR and himself.Despite writing to him three times seeking clarification by email, he had refused to elaborate on which specific remarks he had found offensive and reiterated his demand to remove "everything" on my blog. Since my end of semester examinations begin this Friday (May 6), I am sure you can appreciate how I was certainly not in the mood to sift through the 400-odd posts that I had written on my blog and edit or remove anything that was potentially defamatory. Therefore the only choice I had to stem the barrage of emails was to take the whole thing off-line. It was only when I wrote to him, informing him of my taking the blog down that he sent me a final (and twelfth) email last Tuesday, saying that his lawyer would follow up with amendments to my apology posted online. To date I have yet to hear from them so I assume the matter is closed.I cannot reveal the exact details of the communication as Mr. Yeo had also threatened further litigation regarding the disclosure of some of the contents of the exchange.As for legal aspects, I have been told that this is a thorny issue as it is not clear whether US law or Singapore law applies. The university is supportive of my right have a blog on my university account, but I can afford neither the time nor the money to fight it out in the courts in order to find out how the legal intricacies come together for my case. After all, I am not here in the US neither to experience its wonderful judicial system nor to take extended leave from it in order to fight a legal battle back home.I would like to emphasize that I still do not know exactly what I had written that he had found offensive, and that Mr. Yeo had demanded that I remove all posts which mentioned either him or A*STAR, whether directly or indirectly, and cease "running [him] down" on my blog. It\ was impossible to satisfy such vague demands except by taking the entire blog down altogether.Out of over 400 posts on my blog, perhaps ten or so mentioned Mr. Yeo or A*STAR by name. All of these posts were opinionated commentary (based on fact!) on policies made by A*STAR. One of my comments was on A*STAR's scholarship system. A*STAR gives out scholarships to prospective undergraduates to study technical majors both in Singapore and in reputable institutions abroad. Last year A*STAR instituted a new policy requiring their scholars to maintain a 3.8 grade point average (between A- and A average). Having been a scholar at one point in time, I felt that this was unnecessarily draconian and even counterproductive, as this would unduly influence students to pick easy classes over more challenging (and hence more enriching) classes, and said so on my blog.In his previous position as chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB), Mr. Yeo had also adopted the same strict stance toward such bond-breakers, labeling them as immoral. I can only speculate as to how his ire could be possibly connected to my decision to break my bond (albeit on a scholarship from a different government agency) and a story in The New Paper in early April about my decision to do so. (,4136,86038,00.html) It may also interest you that this was the first time that Mr. Yeo had ever contacted me, and that I had never denied him the right of reply to the conclusions that I had drawn based on publicly available facts. Also, in its 274 days of existence, my blog had seen a grand total of 44,291 visitors, i.e. 162 visitors/day.I spoke out because as a taxpayer and citizen, I cared enough about the policies at hand to make reasoned opinions about them, and in particular to point out what I considered to be possibly counterproductive side effects. I considered remarks made by persons such as Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan and MM Lee Kuan Yew earlier this year, urging young Singaporeans to speak out, as encouragement to do so. As a young Singaporean who tried to speak out and received such an intimidating response, I am disappointed and discouraged that Mr. Yeo had not attempted to correct any possible misconceptions that I may have had over the interpretation of publicly available information, deciding instead to threaten to sue me for defamation. I cannot say that such actions have promoted the cause of getting young Singaporeans to speak out.I have delayed considerations of further blogging until the end of my examinations in mid-May."

A*Star Philip YeoAnd who is this A*STAR Philip Yeo? Samples of his mindset:

May 2, 2005: "I don't want whining Singapore boys. They are not mature even though they have NS and are over 22 years old when they take up undergraduate studies."

May 7, 2005: "Maybe I should give more scholarships to non-Singaporeans who are bright, eager and hungry, and then help them get Singapore passports. The rest, I give to the A-level girls at 19 years old."

May 15, 2005: "A*Star scholars are selected entirely on their merits. I was pinpointing only the immature, whiny boys."

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


Monday 9th May 2005 will be remembered as the Tiananmen of Singapore in cyberspace. Just as heavily armoured tanks crushed the bodies of young students, the fragile candlelight of independent thought was challenged by dubious legal threat. The battle may seem to have been won, but the war will be lost.

First Apology Unaccepted
Singaporean shuts blog, apologises after libel threat
Mon May 9, 2005 06:51 AM ET
By Geert De Clercq

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - A Singapore student said on Monday he has shut down his blog and apologised unreservedly after a government agency threatened to sue for defamation. Chen Jiahao, a 23-year-old graduate student in the United States, told Reuters he closed down his personal Web site after A*STAR, a Singapore government agency focusing on science and research, threatened legal action for what the agency said were untrue and serious accusations.

International freedom of speech and media advocates have criticised the agency's methods.

The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists said last week it was alarmed that the threat of defamation lawsuits was being used to inhibit criticism of the government in cyberspace, much as it has in Singapore's traditional media.

Chen said he had removed all material from his site and posted an apology on April 26 after receiving e-mails from the agency's chief. He added that the agency told him last week his apology was insincere and that they wanted a new apology.

On Sunday he posted the new apology on his "Caustic Soda" blog, saying "I unreservedly apologise to A*STAR, its Chairman Mr. Philip Yeo, and its executive officers for the distress and embarrassment caused to them."

"They sent me an e-mail with these words," Chen told Reuters on Monday by telephone from the United States, where he studies chemical physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

A*STAR's Yeo said in a statement on Monday he accepted Chen's apology and considered the matter closed. "We wish him well. My invitation to Mr. Chen to meet for tea in the fall still remains," Yeo said.

Paris-based Reporters without Borders said the case highlighted the lack of free expression in Singapore, which is among the 20 lowest-scoring countries in the organisation's worldwide press freedom index.

"Chen criticised some of A*Star's policies but there was nothing defamatory in what he wrote," Julien Pain, head of Reporters without Borders' Internet freedom desk, told Reuters.

A*STAR said in a statement that it recognised the value of a diversity of views and welcomed that in all media. "But the particular public blog had statements which went way beyond fair comment." It did not elaborate.

Bloggers are generally not journalists, but some of the thousands of private online blogs -- short for Web logs -- on the Internet have gained political relevance. The campaign for the May 5 election in Britain saw an explosion of blogs, much like in last year's U.S. presidential election.

"We are troubled that the (Singapore) government has raised the spectre of costly legal action to chill commentary on the Internet," Ann Cooper, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, was quoted on a CPJ Web site as saying.

Singapore-based politicians as well as international media organisations have paid large amounts of damages in libel cases brought by senior government figures.

Singapore leaders have defended their use of defamation lawsuits, saying that such actions are necessary to safeguard their reputation.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A Scholar's Nightmare

It was only a newspaper article about how the dreams of a scholar crashed. But the truth was not palatable to one civil servant, and the issue of human rights abuse in Singapore raised its ugly head.

He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in just two years. On top of that, for his graduate studies, Mr Chen Jiahao, 23, managed to get a place in MIT, where he was offered a teaching assistantship worth over US$23,000 ($38,130) a year.

He had a PSC scholarship which required him to come back to Singapore to teach after four years of study. With two years of his scholarship left, he planned to get a Master's degree. In May 2001, after his first year of studies, he e-mailed his intentions to his scholarship officers and followed up by speaking to them.

'I was told to go ahead and take the GREs (standardised tests for graduate schools), apply to schools, and to keep them informed about what happens at each stage of my applications and admissions process - which I did,' said Mr Chen. So when Mr Chen returned to Singapore after his graduation ceremony in mid-2002, he thought he would start his Master's programme in August at MIT. But his world came crashing down on 9 Jul 2002 when his father, the sole breadwinner of his family, died of a sudden heart attack.

Barely a month later, while he was still coming to terms with his loss, he was told that his request for a two-year course, submitted over a year earlier, was denied. The e-mail came three weeks before he was to attend orientation at MIT.

It stated: 'The reason your Master's request was turned down was because you asked for a two-year Master's course. PSC guidelines clearly outline that one of the criteria/conditions for Master's approval is that the programme is for the duration of one year.' Mr Chen said it was not stated in his scholarship deed that only one-year Master's courses would be allowed. He was originally told that it was standard policy to approve only one-year Master's programmes as most people get their first degree in three years.

He said: 'Applying the one-year policy to my case would have been a case of fitting a square peg into a round hole. I was told that one complicating factor in my case was that I was the first person to ask for a two-year programme. They were concerned that I would set a precedent.

'Apparently the fact that I had graduated in two years did not weigh in my favour, and for some strange reason PSC did not wish to break down 4 into 2+2, although already allowing 3+1.' Mr Chen and his mother kept trying to meet PSC officials to appeal against the decision, and after three weeks they got an interview. He waited another two weeks after the interview before getting a letter that his appeal was unsuccessful and that he would have to do national service immediately. If he had asked for a one-year Master's program like others, he would most likely have been able to defer NS. Mr Chen said his then-scholarship officer made things worse during that difficult time by giving him lots of paperwork. 'No allowance was made for my bereavement. Breaking the sudden news of having my plans rejected and piling loads of overdue paperwork on me was hard to take,' he said. And he claimed that other scholars started to ask him about his case.

'How many people know how it feels to lose their father and have a place in a dream school swept away, all in less than a month?'

By the time he completed his NS, he had lost his place at MIT. After long discussions with his mother and brother, he decided to break his bond last July and pay the amount of $130,254 in one lump sum. 'It was almost my entire allotment of inheritance money but they were both very supportive. It was a very difficult decision because it drastically reduced the amount of buffer money that could be used to support my brother's studies and my mother's living expenses,' said Mr Chen.

Today, he has a stipend from UIUC to pursue his PhD in chemistry there. Although going overseas had originally strengthened his identity as a Singaporean and his resolve to work in the civil service, he is now not sure about ever coming back. He said: 'A scholarship agency has the right to reject a proposed programme of study. I accept that. 'But scholars should be managed as more than merely a human resource.'