Monday, July 31, 2006

Where's The Defamation Part?

On 30 July 2006, Dr Chee Soon Juan and Ms Chee Siok Chin filed their affidavits for the summary judgement hearing scheduled for 3 August 2006. The affidavit presented their case against the Lees. During the May 2006 General Election, Father Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Son Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had sued Dr Chee and Ms Chee for defamatory remarks published in the Singapore Democratic Party newsletter.

The first part of the affidavit has this introduction:

A. Test of what is defamatory

1. In the Halsbury Laws of Singapore, the test of whether a statement is defamatory or not, the Courts must consider:

a. What meaning the words would convey to the ordinary person.

b. Whether the reasonable person would be likely to understand them in a defamatory sense.

c. The views of the community as a whole, and not just that of a limited class.

Read the article printed in the New Democrat and try to spot the defamation if you can:

The Government's Role in the NKF

In all the hand-wringing and breast-beating by the Government over the NKF issue, Singaporeans must not lose sight of one thing: Such a scandal is inevitable given the kind of secretive and non-accountable system bred by the PAP.

The Government now tries to exone-rate itself by playing the innocent and gullible party duped by greedy NKF officials.

It forgets that in April 2004, Minister Khaw Boon Wan had, in reaction to public unease about the NKF, sought to appease Singaporeans by telling them that the Ministry of Finance "would have reacted many years ago" if there was any breach of rules by the NKF.

Mr Khaw categorically endorsed the NKF's dealings and called on the charity to "continue" to remain "transparent" in its operations.

At the same time the Second Minister for Finance, Mr Lim Hng Kiang, said that the NKF had "quite a sound record" because it spends "more than 80 percent of its funds on its beneficiaries" whom we now know are not kidney patients.

Clearly, alarm bells were raised. People could see that something was wrong and they had expressed their unhappiness over the years.

And yet, the Government which had the power to do something, chose not to. Not only did it choose not to rein in NKF but it also continued to praise the charity and encouraged people to donate to it. With assurances from not one but two Ministers, the charity went on its merry way.

The question that is on everyone's lips is: If Mr TT Durai had not taken the legal suit, would the Government have bothered to look into the NKF records? NKF would in all likelihood have continued to operate with the Government's blessings.

The NKF fiasco is not about bad practices. It is not even about negligence on the Government's part.

It is about greed and power.

It is about the idea that the political elite must be paid top dollar, no matter how obscene those amounts are and regardless of who suffers as a result of it.

It is about a system engineered over the decades by the PAP that ensures that it and only it has access to public information and by fiat decides what is allowed and what is not.

It is about what a "democratic society, based on justice and equality" should not be.

Singaporeans must note that the NKF is not an aberration of the PAP system. It is, instead, a product of it.

To ensure that there is transparency and that Singaporeans are kept informed of matters directly affecting them and their future, the Government must:

One, disclose the breakdown of the cost of building HDB flats and the profits HDB makes.

Two, reveal where and how GIC uses our savings.

Three, disclose the salaries of the top executives of Temasek Holdings and other GLCs.

Four, declare the assets and incomes of its Ministers.

Five, reform the election system to ensure that it is free and fair.

It goes without saying that someone must be held accountable over the whole sordid NKF affair. However, real accountability starts much higher up.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Man Punches MP

In what must be the local version of a "Man Bites Dog" story, the press reported that PAP Member of Parliament Seng Han Thong, who was attacked by his Yio Chu Kang constituent, wants to close the episode and move on.

It was Mr Seng's first public comments on the assault which took place last Thursday, 13th July 2006.

The punching incident took place at about 9.30pm on 20 July at a Meet-the-People session at the PAP's Yio Chu Kang branch office.

74-year-old Koo Tong Huat had asked to see his MP in private. The former Comfort taxi driver wanted Mr Seng to help him reinstate his taxi licence which was revoked four years ago. Comfort Delgro terminated his services for writing a threatening letter to a female passenger after she complained about him.

Koo was believed to have been upset that his MP failed to help 'clear his
name' when in fact Mr Seng did file an appeal with ComfortDelgro. ComfortDelgro had replied to Mr Seng and Koo to say that it stood by its earlier recommendations.

We are told that before Mr Seng could explain, Koo punched him in the face.

Two days after the incident, Koo reportedly wrote a letter of apology to Mr Seng, only to retract it the very next day.

Police are investigating the matter but Mr Seng said the assault would not affect the way he conducts his Meet-the-People sessions.

Mr Seng said: "I'll like to move on because I have many other pressing issues to deal with. I'll take this case as closed and I'll leave it to the Police to decide the next course of action."

The last time a member of the public reacted so exuberantly was when the NKF building was spray painted.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Great Affective Divide

Before Mr Brown, there was a Catherine Lim who spoke up, albeit without the benefit of the new online technology. Yet there are some who say that her article reproduced below gave cause for then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to change out his velvet gloves for brass knuckle busters, the weapon of choice of his predecessor.

The PAP and the people - A Great Affective Divide
By Catherine Lim

IT IS no secret that while the PAP Government has inspired in the people much respect for its efficiency and much gratitude for the good life as a result of this efficiency, there is very little in the way of affectionate regard. It is also no secret that the Government is not much bothered by this attitude. The familiar PAP stance is: better to be unpopular and do a good job than to be popular and lead the country into chaos and ruin. At a time of peak economic prosperity and social stability, an estrangement between the government and the people must appear odd. Whence arises this Great Affective Divide?

The answer lies partly in Singapore's history. In its early years, the PAP leadership faced enormous hardships including the traumatic expulsion from Malaysia, the earlier-than-expected withdrawal of the British forces resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs, the threat of Communist influence in the unions and schools and the increasing hostility of the Chinese-educated for the newly emerging, socially ascendant English-educated. On top of all these problems was the ultimately daunting one of nature's remissness: a total lack of natural resources.

With characteristic energy and enthusiasm, the PAP leaders set about the task of taking the beleaguered country out of the woods. From the start, they decided that there was only one way to do it: establish the primacy of economic development and link it with political security to form a tight, incontrovertible equation of national survival, so that whatever fitted into the equation would be rigorously promoted and whatever threatened to disrupt it would be slapped down ruthlessly. Thus a linguistic and cultural issue --that of the English language - was resolved in its favour on the economic grounds that its adoption and use as the main language would enable the country to plug into world trade and technology. The dissenting voices of the Chinese educated were seen accordingly as subversive of the well-being of the country, and duly dealt with.

Over the years, this simple but highly effective approach has taken the country from one astonishing level of achievement to another, until today, it takes its place among the most successful nations in the world, ranking 18th among 230 countries in terms of per capita income.

Clearly, such a purposeful, uncompromising commitment to the economic imperative calls for special qualities of mind and temperament. The PAP leaders are distinguished for their intelligence, single-mindedness, sternness of purpose and cool detachment. Their methods are logic, precision,meticulous analysis and hard-nosed calculation and quantification. Their style is impersonal, brisk, business-like, no-nonsense, pre-emptive. Their pet aversion is noisy, protracted debate that leads nowhere, emotional indulgence, frothy promises, theatrics and polemics in place of pragmatics. This PAP approach, by reason of its amazing effectiveness, has been raised to o political credo that uniquely defines the Government.

But while the PAP ideology remains the same, the people have not. Higher education, a more affluent lifestyle and exposure to the values of the western societies, have created a new generation that is not satisfied with the quantitative paradigm but looks beyond it to a larger qualitative one that most certainly includes matters of the heart, soul and spirit. While idealism, charisma and image have a special appeal for the young, feeling in general is an essential element in everybody's life, occurring at the deepest and most basic level of human need.

The absence of this affective dimension in the PAP framework is what has alienated the people from their leaders. It is easily seen that the main criticisms levelled against the PAP point to a style deficient in human sensitivity and feeling -- "dictatorial", "arrogant", "impatient", "unforgiving", "vindictive".

The Government, puzzled and exasperated by the charges, has often invited these disaffected to come forward to explain their stand clearly and support their criticism with hard data, for instance, the oft-heard complaint that the authoritarian style of the Government has denied them freedom of expression.

But the disaffection remains largely coffee-house and cocktail party rhetoric only. Singaporeans continue to prefer the cover of anonymity. One reason may be the fear that the outspoken person will be marked out and victimised; another may be the sheer presence of so much proof of concrete well-being, such as a good job, a good bank account, a comfortable lifestyle.

Whatever the reason, the negative feelings go underground. Now subterranean hostility is all the more insidious for being that, and has away of surfacing in the most trenchant way, for example, applauding any rambunctious opposition party member in pre-election rallies. A once-in-five-years occurrence, it shows all the intensity of unbottled resentment. The most serious consequences, as the Government is very well aware, is the giving of the vote to the opposition, simply to deny the Government majority that would presumably make it more arrogant than ever.

The Great Affective Divide has created a model of government-people relationship that must be unique in the world: solid, unbreakable unity of purpose and commitment on the economic plane, but a serious bifurcation at the emotive level, resulting in all kinds of anomalies and incongruities. A kind of modus vivendi appears to have developed, by which each agrees to live with the other's preference as long as both work together for the good of the country. Hence the Government continues to say: "We know you dislike us, but...", and the people continue to think: "We are totally grateful to you for the good life you've given us and will vote you again, but ..."

Judging by the results, it is not too bad an arrangement, and many governments who were wildly popular one year and fell the next must be envious of the PAP for being returned to power at each election by a people who allegedly don't like them. The conclusion is that in the large equation of Economic Prosperity and Party Continuity, the factor of feeling cannot be a significant one.

Or can it? Is the equation as stable as it looks?

Concerned Singaporeans must be aware of the emergence of a secondary equation that could bust the major one and create a whole range of unexpected problems. It is the equation of the PAP with Singapore. While in other countries, political parties come and go, but the country remains the rallying point for the people's feelings, in Singapore, the Government has become synonymous with the country. Indeed, Singapore is often seen as the creation of the PAP, made to its image and likeness. Hence, dislike of the PAP, even though it does not translate into dislike of Singapore, effectively blocks out any spontaneous outpouring of patriotic emotion. The best evidence is in the attitude towards the national flag. Singaporeans continue to be reluctant to put it up in their homes on National Day for fear of being thought PAP supporters and sycophants.

If loyalty towards the country is blocked, it has to be directed elsewhere. In Singapore, it is directed at the good life which the country has come to represent. Hence, the object of the people's fervour is not the Government, nor the country, but the good life made possible by the first in its successful leadership of the second. There is by now an almost adulatory quality about the attachment of Singaporeans to the affluence which their parents never knew and which came their way so quickly. It has been wryly described as the new religion of "moneytheism".

This kind of loyalty is, of course meretricious. It changes with its object. Hence, when the good life diminishes, so will it. When the good life disappears, so may it. But the most insidious aspect is its mobility. It will uproot and move with the good life. Hence, if economic prosperity is no longer in Singapore but moves to Canada, Australia, the United States, China, it will re-locate itself accordingly. This is already happening, say some cynical observers: the current buying up of properties and businesses in other countries by the more affluent Singaporeans may be more a quiet preparation for this eventuality than a straightforward investment.

Such a volatile, mobile loyalty is of course a travesty of the patriotism it has displaced and a mockery of all the earnest effort that the Government and the people have put into the building of the country over three decades.

Even if such a sinister scenario does not arise, a growing emotive estrangement between the Government and the people is not a healthy thing. It could create a schizoid society where head is divorced from heart, where there is a double agenda and double book-keeping with people agreeing with the Government in public but saying something else in private.

Neither side of course wants this to happen. Both want this discomfiture to go away. The slogan of "a gentler, wiser society" borrowed by the Prime Minister to signal a new dispensation of greater sensitivity, concern and communication, reinforces an earlier one of "gracious society". The new concern with the aged, the handicapped and the destitute is clearly an attempt to put a human face on public policy that is often accused of being elitist. The new encouragement of the arts is an acknowledgement that man does not live by bread alone but also by creative expression, energy and passion. In the process of narrowing this Affective Divide, the Government will learn that lecturing and hectoring are sometimes less effective than a pat on the back, that mistakes may be just as instructive as success and are therefore forgivable, that efficiency and generosity of spirit are not mutually exclusive, that compassion is not necessarily a sign of effeteness.

The people, on their part, will learn to praise and commend as readily as they are to criticise and complain, to appreciate the hard work of the leaders and possibly the personal sacrifice and frustrations that must lie behind some of the achievements that have contributed to the good life and above all, to realise that whatever the Government now says about its accepting the fact that it does not have the people's regard as long as it has their respect, it needs and wants both.

The Great Affective Divide is an incongruity, to say the least, at a time of phenomenal achievement and intense awareness of the need for a national identity. If openness and tolerance are to be the new temper of the times, they must, first and foremost, address this problem, a definite thorn in the side of the body politic.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A Singapore Martyr

Chee Soon Juan drew largely negative responses for his election tactics in May, and it is understandable that his personal and political motivations were difficult for the general public to fathom. The following article provides a rare insight that may prove many Singaporeans wrong, and that the country may view him with different eyes in the future.

Far Eastern Economic Review
July/August 2006
By Hugo Restall

STRIDING into the Chinese restaurant of Singapore’s historic Fullerton Hotel, Chee Soon Juan hardly looks like a dangerous revolutionary. Casually dressed in a blue shirt with a gold pen clipped to the pocket, he could pass as just another mild-mannered, apolitical Singaporean. Smiling, he courteously apologizes for being late—even though it is only two minutes after the appointed time.
Nevertheless, according to prosecutors, this same man is not only a criminal, but a repeat offender. The opposition party leader has just come from a pre-trial conference at the courthouse, where he faces eight counts of speaking in public without a permit. He has already served numerous prison terms for this and other political offenses, including eight days in March for denying the independence of the judiciary. He expects to go to jail again later this year.

Mr Chee does not seem too perturbed about this, but it drives Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong up the wall. Asked about his government’s persecution of the opposition during a trip to New Zealand last month, Mr Lee launched into a tirade of abuse against Mr Chee. “He’s a liar, he’s a cheat, he’s deceitful, he’s confrontational, it’s a destructive form of politics designed not to win elections in Singapore but to impress foreign supporters and make himself out to be a martyr,” Mr Lee ranted. “He’s deliberately going against the rules because he says, ‘I’m like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. I want to be a martyr.’”

Coming at the end of a trip in which the prime minister essentially got a free ride on human rights from his hosts—New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark didn’t even raise the issue—this outburst showed a lack of self-control and acumen. Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the man who many believe still runs Singapore and who is the current prime minister’s father, has said much the same things about Mr Chee—“a political gangster, a liar and a cheat”—but that was at home, and in the heat of an election campaign.

Mr Chee smiles when it’s suggested that he must be doing something right. “Every time he says something stupid like that, I think to myself, the worst thing to happen would be to be ignored. That would mean we’re not making any headway,” he agrees.

But one charge made by the government does stick: Mr Chee is not terribly concerned about election results. Which is just as well, because his Singapore Democratic Party did not do very well in the May 6 polls. It would be foolish, he suggests, for an opposition party in Singapore to pin its hopes on gaining one, or perhaps two, seats in parliament. He is aiming for a much bigger goal: bringing down the city-state’s one-party system of government. His weapon is a campaign of civil disobedience against laws designed to curtail democratic freedoms.

“You don’t vote out a dictatorship,” he says. “And basically that’s what Singapore is, albeit a very sophisticated one. It’s not possible for us to effect change just through the ballot box. They’ve got control of everything else around us.” Instead what’s needed is a coalition of civil society and political society coming together and demanding change—a color revolution for Singapore.

So far Mr Chee doesn’t seem to be getting much, if any traction. While many Singaporeans don’t particularly like the PAP’s arrogant style of government, the ruling party has succeeded in depoliticizing the population to the extent that anybody who presses them to take action to make a change is regarded with resentment. And in a climate of fear—Mr Chee lost his job as a psychology lecturer at the national university soon after entering opposition politics—a reluctance to get involved is hardly surprising.

Why is all this oppression necessary in a peaceful and prosperous country like Singapore where citizens otherwise enjoy so many freedoms? Mr Chee has his own theory that the answer lies with strongman Lee Kuan Yew himself: “Why is he still so afraid? I honestly think that through the years he has accumulated enough skeletons in his closet that he knows that when he is gone, his son and the generations after him will have a price to pay. If we had parliamentary debates where the opposition could pry and ask questions, I think he is actually afraid of something like that.”

That raises the question of whether Singapore deserves its reputation for squeaky-clean government. A scandal involving the country’s biggest charity, the National Kidney Foundation, erupted in 2004 when it turned out that its Chief Executive T.T. Durai was not only drawing a $357,000 annual salary, but the charity was paying for his first-class flights, maintenance on his Mercedes, and gold-plated fixtures in his private office bathroom.

The scandal was a gift for the opposition, which naturally raised questions about why the government didn’t do a better job of supervising the highly secretive NKF, whose patron was the wife of former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong (she called Mr Durai’s salary “peanuts”). But it had wider implications too. The government controls huge pools of public money in the Central Provident Fund and the Government of Singapore Investment Corp, both of which are highly nontransparent. It also controls spending on the public housing most Singaporeans live in, and openly uses the funds for refurbishing apartment blocks as a bribe for districts that vote for the ruling party. Singaporeans have no way of knowing whether officials are abusing their trust as Mr Durai did.

It gets worse. Mr Durai’s abuses only came to light because he sued the Straits Times newspaper for libel over an article detailing some of his perks. Why was Mr Durai so confident he could win a libel suit when the allegations against him were true? Because he had done it before. The NKF won a libel case in 1998 against defendants who alleged it had paid for first-class flights for Mr Durai. This time, however, he was up against a major bulwark of the regime, Singapore Press Holdings; its lawyers uncovered the truth.

Singaporean officials have a remarkable record of success in winning libel suits against their critics. The question then is, how many other libel suits have Singapore’s great and good wrongly won, resulting in the cover-up of real misdeeds? And are libel suits deliberately used as a tool to suppress questioning voices?

The bottling up of dissent conceals pressures and prevents conflicts from being resolved. For instance, extreme sensitivity over the issue of race relations means that the persistence of discrimination is a taboo topic. Yet according to Mr Chee it is a problem that should be debated so that it can be better resolved. “The harder they press now, the stronger will be the reaction when he’s no longer around,” he says of Lee Kuan Yew.

The paternalism of the PAP also rankles, especially since foreigners get more consideration than locals. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund will hold their annual meeting in Singapore this fall, and have been trying to convince the authorities to allow the usual demonstrations to take place. The likely result is that international NGO groups will be given a designated area to scream and shout. “So we have a situation here where locals don’t have the right to protest in their own country, while foreigners are able to do that,” Mr Chee marvels. Likewise, Singaporeans can’t organize freely into unions to negotiate wages; instead a National Wages Council sets salaries with input from the corporate sector, including foreign chambers of commerce.

All these tensions will erupt when strongman Lee Kuan Yew dies. Mr Chee notes that the ruling party is so insecure that Singapore’s founder has been unable to step back from front-line politics. The PAP still needs the fear he inspires in order to keep the population in line. Power may have officially passed to his son, Lee Hsien Loong, but even supporters privately admit that the new prime minister doesn’t inspire confidence.

During the election, Prime Minister Lee made what should have been a routine attack on multiparty democracy: “Suppose you had 10, 15, 20 opposition members in parliament. Instead of spending my time thinking what is the right policy for Singapore, I’m going to spend all my time thinking what’s the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters’ votes, how can I solve this week’s problem and forget about next year’s challenges?” But of course the ominous phrases “buy votes” and “fix them” stuck out. That is the kind of mistake, Mr Chee suggests, Lee Sr would not make.

“He’s got a kind of intelligence that would serve you very well when you put a problem in front of him,” he says of the prime minister. “But when it comes to administration or political leadership, when you really need to be media savvy and motivate people, I think he is very lacking in that area. And his father senses it as well.”

However, the elder Mr Lee’s death—he is now 82—is a necessary but not sufficient condition for change. Another big factor is how civil society is able to use new technologies to bypass PAP control over information and free speech. The government has tried to stifle political filmmaking, blogging and podcasting. Singapore Rebel, a 2004 film about Mr Chee by independent artist Martyn See, was banned but is widely available on the Internet.

Meanwhile, pressure for Singapore to remain competitive in the region has sparked debate about the government’s dominant role in the economy. Can a top-down approach promote creativity and independent thinking? The need for transparency and accountability also means that Singapore will have to change. That is the source of Mr Chee’s optimism in the face of all his setbacks: “I realize that Singapore is not at that level yet. But we’ve got to start somewhere. And I’m prepared to see this out, in the sense that in the next five, 10, 15 years, time is on our side. We need to continue to organize and educate and encourage. And it will come.”

He doesn’t dwell on his personal tribulations, but mentions in passing selling his self-published books on the street. That is his primary source of income to feed his family, along with the occasional grant. As to the charge of wanting to be a martyr, once he started dissenting, he found it impossible to stop in good conscience. “The more you got involved, the more you found out what they’re capable of, it steels you, so you say, ‘No, I will not back down.’ It makes you more determined.”

Perhaps it’s in his genes. One of Mr Chee’s daughters is old enough that she had to be told that her father was going to prison. She stood up before her class and announced, “My papa is in jail, but he didn’t do anything wrong. People have just been unfair to him.”

Friday, July 14, 2006

So This Is Sedition?

Would this be seditious?The Straits Times reported in March 2006 that a 21-year-old accounting student, known only by his internet handle “Char”, faced possible sedition charges for posting offensive pictures of Jesus on his blog.

Sometime earlier in February, during the height of the Mohamed cartoons furore, "Char" had an online argument with a fundamentalist Christian. The Christian found Char’s blog, which contained the drawing by Jared von Hindeman.

It is open to interpretation if the cartoon is a metaphor for the "corrosive effect of religion upon reasoning", or just a picture of Jesus munching on some kid’s brain, but the Christian decided to find it sufficiently offensive to demand that Char remove it from his blog. Char responded by posting three more Jesus-themed pieces sourced from the Net, and that’s when the police got involved.

Char had his desktop computer and laptop taken away as evidence after he was called in for questioning in March. Three days later, he was asked to report to the Police Cantonment Complex where he was formally arrested and released on police bail, which was extended to four weeks to let him travel to the US. He faced a possible fine of up to $5,000 or a prison term of up to 3 years under the Singapore sedition act.

When he reported to the police on his return in April, he was told his bail had lapsed and that he might be called for further investigation.

On 8 July 2006, Char reported that he got off with a police warning.

Char's story:

Here goes: Three months back (today's the third month anniversary of my case. whee.), I kind of made an enemy online, thanks to a little flaming session. Back then, it was the height of the Jyllands-Posten/Muhammed pictures issue, and following some moronic arguements of his (We'll call this guy FundieP) on Christianity against someone else, I couldn't help but step in, and pretty much publicly humiliated him.

Dumb thing however, was that FundieP knew of my blog, thanks to a sigining off signature generated automatically. And being the fundamentalist Christian he was, he sent me a mail, requesting that an earlier cartoon I had on the blog be removed. [Police annex A, taken from - cartoon of a zombie version of Jesus biting on a little boy's head. Boy is asking "why is my messiah trying to eat my brain?" and line below says "on the third day, Jesus rose from his tomb"]

Well, to those who know me, I'm strongly anti-fundamentalist, so I dumbly didn't reply to that mail, and instead went to search for a couple more pictures to agitate FundieP. Bad idea. [Police annex B, C, D respectively: - picture of licenceplate saying "jesus loves you, everyone else thinks you're an asshole"; - fake CNN image of Jesus on paper; and - edited photo of Last Temptation of Christ, with Jesus looking at a KFC bucket.]

Well, FundieP made a police report. About 2 weeks later, I had the police knocking, got my computer siezed, was arrested and dumped into hotel Cantoment for 3.5 hours, and let out on bail for breaching 4(1)(c)-290 - our beloved sedition act.

[4. —(1) Any person who — (c) prints, publishes, sells, offers for sale, distributes or reproduces any seditious publication; shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction for a first offence to a fine not exceeding $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years or to both, and, for a subsequent offence, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years; and any seditious publication found in the possession of that person or used in evidence at his trial shall be forfeited and may be destroyed or otherwise disposed of as the court directs.]

6 days before I was due for a three and a half week US trip.

I was pretty much a nervous wreck those few days, I eventually went, although it took 2 of my best friends (and an insanely high US phone bill) to convince me that I would need the trip - my passport wasn't impounded, and the police extended the bail to 4 weeks to let me fly, although I almost wanted to call the flight off.

Switch back to present, and well, I've told the story to only a select few so far, but to be honest (and to sound stupid), I never actually decided to read the entire Sedition Act till today, after 3 months. Sure, I read the earlier portions (about section 1-5, but not the later portion. Yes, berate me on my stupidity, but I was seriously freaked out for that long to not notice article 6.

[Evidence. 6. Cap. 97. (2) No person shall be convicted of any offence referred to in section 4(1)(c) if such person proves that...he did not know and had no reason to believe that the publication had a seditious tendency.]

and, linking back,

[Seditious tendency. 3. —(1) A seditious tendency is a tendency — (e) to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore.]

While Malays and Islam are interwined, it would take a long shot to link Christianity as a dividing issue between races or classes of the population of Singapore.
This is seditious?
For an additional note, the Da Vinci Code would be probably be more seditious, if one goes by the severity of the "evidence" - mildly put, it virtually criminalises Christianity as a conspiracy, and that Christianity itself is illicit (Of course, all monotheist religions claim that all other religions are illicit anyway), plus, its publicity is about a few hundred times more (now showing?) than my now-defunct blog.

(anyway, I called the police today to ask on the case, as well as my computer, and the investigating officer sounded pretty miffed, just telling me that the case was still "under investigation")

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Best People To Run Singapore

Are scholars the best people to run Singapore, asked Seah Chiang Nee in his article published in Malaysia's Sunday Star.

Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew enunciated the reliance on scholars some 40 years ago, based on the his assumption that academic achievement is the best criterion for good political leadership, as was practised in the system of Mandarin scholars during the days of imperial China.

The route to success in Lee's meritocracy starts with a scholarship from the Public Service Commission. The returning graduates from top universities worldwide are posted to key appointment in the civil service first, and then onto the commercially run statutory boards and government linked companies. Wherever they end up, they are compensated handsomely, and they are moved quickly up the organisational hierarchy until they reach the creme de la creme of postings, the Ministership.

Lee believed that, paid premium rates, these people will deliver, and to an extent there were some instances of how this has worked well in the past.

But not all business opportunities can be addressed by just relying on problem-solving technocrats or technically competent managers. Singapore's billionaire tycoon Quek Leng Beng claimed that scholar-managers might have cost some of his companies millions in lost opportunities.

"Some of my managers involve themselves in too much detail and are afraid to make mistakes," he told The Business Times. "One guy, a scholar with an impressive list of paper qualifications, used to hand me reports of at least 10 pages on anything I wanted. In turn, he demanded reports of at least 20 pages from his subordinates. So he had piles of reports on his table and when I asked him if he has time to read all these reports, he replied that he did not."

For each one of the failures exemplified by Quek's hire, there must be tens more sitting in high offices of the civil service and statutory boards, where they remain immune to critical assessment and protected by the vested interests of political patronage. Goh Chok Tong confessed to what the general public already knew, that the ruling party's political new blood were swept into parliament by manipulating the GRC system, which original intent was to ensure the minorities in Singapore's multi-racial melieu had a representation in government. Lee Kuan Yew himself had lay blame on the "viscereal" motivations of the electorate that they will only support candidates of their own racial genre. Goh was more candid: if the new political aspirants were not guaranteed a high (paying) office, they apparently had let it be known they will not stand on the PAP ticket. One of them, a CEO of the Port of Singapore Authorities (PSA), was actually approached ten times, according to PM Lee Hsien Loong himself, before she agreed to "stand for elections". Since the majority of these "candidates" did not have to fight for their place in parliament or receive any electoral votes from the ballot box, it is a rhetorical question the "mandate" they secured will be reflected in the relation with the constitutents on the ground.

We are told, by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew no less, that the ruling party co-opted all the best brains in Singapore. Yet the many strategy mishaps in the May elections, and continued mishandling of public sentiments in respect of grouses on rising costs of living and unemployment woes, will strain the credibility of this brainpower, or lack of it. K Bhavani, four times elected President of the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore (IPRS), singled handedly created the island's worst PR fiasco. Since she is the official Press Secretary of Minister for Information, Community and the Arts Lee Boon Yang, one must really wonder where the thinking stopped.

One of the state's better-known (retired) permanent secretaries, Ngiam Tong Dow, doesn't think too much about the PAP policy of putting all the scholars into the civil service. According to him, "This belief that a monopoly of talent is the way "to retain political power forever" was a short-term view. It is the law of nature that all things must atrophy."

Ngiam's proposition is worrying because it implies that Singapore today is in the controlling hands of atrophied Mandarins, and given that Lee Kuan Yew pronounced in the May 2006 elections that "you cannot chanage out a government through an election", what political options are there left for the Singapore citizenry?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Singaporean - A Second Class Citizen

Black Friday for BrowniesOn the very same day mrbrown's column was predictably exorcized from the Friday 7th July 2006's edition of TODAY, not a single word in print made reference of the event. The silence was deafening.

Instead, the front page showcased two strongly worded critical commentaries on government policy, one from an ex-civil servant and one from a visiting foreigner.

Former Permanent Secretary Ngiam Tong Dow attacked on two fronts:
- NWC had contributed to the high wages in Singapore;
- PTC should "take a sabbatical" and leave public transportation fares to market forces. The Public Transport Council oversees the bus and MRT fare revisions; significantly, the recent proposal for raising taxi fares lead by government linked company ComfortDelgro, was not mentioned in the article.

The report told how Ngiam recounted in his new book that "the then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew urged his Cabinet to set MRT fares at levels much higher than bus fares", as he was worried that "if initial fares are not set at fair economic value...we would be stuck with uneconomic fares forever". Ngiam allegedly claimed that, "By not biting the bullet at the beginning, public transportation fares are held political hostage".

On NWC, he wrote that the National Wage Council was instrumental in increasing wages across the board, regardless of productivity and competitiveness. As a result, Singapore is in the "bind of a high cost economy".

Visitor Mr Peter Schwartz, co-founder and chairman of the Global Business Network who was in town as a member of the Research, inovation and Enterprise Council to discuss research and development proposals in strategic areas identified by Singapore, said that "Singapore is not too good at dealing with scruffy people, you don't like people like that too much around here". According to Swartz, if the government wants digital media to take off, Singapore's tolerance levels will have to change as he claims that digital media workers have "hair down to here and smell of pot". Swartz went further to "encourage Singapore to overcome its obsession with success."

Swartz's words remind one of "mendicant professor" Enright, who once lectured as Professor of English at the Singapore University.

In November 1960, Dennis Joseph Enright gained notoriety in Singapore after his inaugural lecture at the University of Singapore, titled "Robert Graves and the Decline of Modernism". His introductory remarks on the state of culture in Singapore became the subject of a Straits Times article "'Hands Off' Challenge to 'Culture Vultures'" published the next day.

Among other things, he had said that it was important for Singapore to remain "culturally open", that culture was something to be left for the people to build up, and that for the government to institute "a sarong culture, complete with pantun competitions and so forth" was futile. Some quotes include:

"Art does not begin in a test-tube, it does not take its origin in good sentiments and clean-shaven, upstanding young thoughts."

"Leave the people free to make their own mistakes, to suffer and to discover. Authority must leave us to fight even that deadly battle over whether or not to enter a place of entertainment wherein lurks a juke-box, and whether or not to slip a coin into the machine."

Immediately after the ST article was published, Enright was summoned by the Ministry for Labour and Law regarding his foreigner work permit, and was handed a letter there by the Minister for Culture S. Rajaratnam, which had also been released to the press. This letter admonished Enright for "involv[ing] [himself] in political affairs which are the concern of local people", not "visitors, including mendicant professors", and said that the government "ha[s] no time for asinine sneers by passing aliens about the futility of 'sarong culture complete with pantun competitions' particularly when it comes from beatnik professors."

With some mediation from the Academic Staff Association of the university, it was agreed that to put the matter to rest, Enright had to write a letter of apology and clarification.

Enright gave his account of the incident in his "Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor" (Chatto & Windus, 1969, pp. 124-151).

Monday, July 03, 2006

Drawing The Line In The Sand

Creator of the by now classic "Bak Chor Mee" podcast which has been downloaded more than 200,000 times, MrBrown is finally drawing flak from a supposedly "enlightened" establishment. The predictable result was documented by Reporters San Borders. Following is the missive which fired the first salvo:

Letter from K BHAVANI
Press Secretary to the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts


Your mr brown column, "S'poreans are fed, up with progress!" (June 30) poured sarcasm on many issues, including the recent General Household Survey, price increases in electricity tariffs and taxi fares, our IT plans, the Progress Package and means testing for special school fees.

The results of the General Household Survey were only available after the General Election. But similar data from the Household Expenditure Survey had been published last year before the election.

There was no reason to suppress the information. It confirmed what we had told Singaporeans all along, that globalisation would stretch out incomes.

mr brown must also know that price increases in electricity tariffs and taxi fares are the inevitable result of higher oil prices.

These were precisely the reasons for the Progress Package — to help lower income Singaporeans cope with higher costs of living.

Our IT plans are critical to Singapore's competitive position and will improve the job chances of individual Singaporeans. It is wrong of mr brown to make light of them.

As for means testing for special school fees, we understand mr brown's disappointment as the father of an autistic child. However, with means testing, we can devote more resources to families who need more help.

mr brown's views on all these issues distort the truth. They are polemics dressed up as analysis, blaming the Government for all that he is unhappy with. He offers no alternatives or solutions. His piece is calculated to encourage cynicism and despondency, which can only make things worse, not better, for those he professes to sympathise with.

mr brown is entitled to his views. But opinions which are widely circulated in a regular column in a serious newspaper should meet higher standards. Instead of a diatribe mr brown should offer constructive criticism and alternatives. And he should come out from behind his pseudonym to defend his views openly.

It is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the Government. If a columnist presents himself as a non-political observer, while exploiting his access to the mass media to undermine the Government's standing with the electorate, then he is no longer a constructive critic, but a partisan player in politics.


The responses from the men and women in the blogosphere came in fast and furious, and more than 500 posted strong comments on Mr Brown's blog with 2 days, many highlighting Bhavani's obvious error in challenging him to about "come out from behind his pseudonym". Mr Brown is well known by his real name on and off-line, and has been interviewed on national television and in the local print media. Even more vitriolic were comments about Bhavani's uncalled for reference to "the father of an autistic child". The pictures and trials of litte daughter Faith are all documented online and well known to many parents. Incredulous comes to mind when it was revealed that that Bhavani is supposedly President of the Institute of Public Relations of Singapore (IPRS). Who else is more qualified to initiate a PR disaster of such epidemic proportions?

For the many Singaporeans who cared enough about the issue to write to the Today broadsheet, they received the following standard reply:

Dear [ ]

Thank you for your feedback. We will not be publishing any correspondence on this issue. Should you feel strongly, you may want to wish to redirect your views to the source of the letter.

With regards.
shavone yeo
editorial assistant
did: 6236 4878
fax: 6534 4217
news desk: 6236 4888
MediaCorp Press Ltd -

~~~~~ source of the letter ~~~~~

Someone actually received a reply from Bhavani, although this has not been verified. The irony in the official email tagline could not have been more appropriate:

PR expert BhavaniDear Ms ______

Thank you for your feedback.

Mr Brown gave his take on several issues in his column last week. I responded, on behalf of the Government, to his column as it was necessary to address these issues.

Yours sincerely

K BHAVANI | Press Sec To Minister and Director, Corporate Communications Department | Organisation Management Division
Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts
6837 9865, 6837 9837

Creative People, Gracious Community, Connected Singapore

When asked by reporters to comment on the suspension of mr brown's column, Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Lee Boon Yang had this to say:

"I think he made very unfair, unjustified comments on key government policies, and various allegations which are unfounded, of course, all under the guise of humour," said the minister on why the Government had to set the record straight.

"I think we are duty-bound to give a response to mr brown, to address his comments, and we did. We sent our response. We were just exercising our right of reply."

Dr Lee said the mainstream media must be be objective, accurate and responsible for its views.

He added that as the Internet was often a free-for-all arena, certain critical and humourous elements were acceptable. It was not the Government's intention to chase after every posting on the Internet, said the minister.

Asked if the Government's actions contradicted his earlier statement about taking a lighter touch with bloggers, Dr Lee told reporters: "I said that we will look at how we can have a lighter touch in regulating the internet during the election. Mr brown's comments was not posted on his blog. If he had posted the same comment on his blog, we will treat it as part of the internet chatter, and we would have just let it be. But he didn't post it - he wrote it and published it in the mainstream newspaper. That's the difference."