Friday, June 28, 2013

A Question Of Libel

Whatever keeps Law Minister K. Shanmugam up at night, it wasn't The Global Mail (TGM) piece by Eric Ellis. At least not long enough to make midnight calls, or so he claims. But Shanmugam did write that he discussed the article with a friend, and "I agreed and told him that the article was libellious - both of us as lawyers agreed on that point". So what does a libellious article read like?
When you are Singapore’s Lee family, and your clan has exercised absolute and uninterrupted control over its swanky specklet of Asia for 54 years, fellows like Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam are handy to have within your power court.

K. Shanmugam, as he’s less tongue-twistingly known, may have escaped the attention of those unfamiliar with the cosy connections that hold Singapore’s power elite together — a warm, clubby embrace that has kept them very wealthy. But 54-year-old Shanmugam is a bigwig on the tiny island, which is currently being suffocated by pollution from the periodic burning of millions of hectares of palm oil plantations that have trashed the equatorial habitat of neighbouring Indonesia. That pollution from the illegal fire-clearing of these plantations has swept on eastward winds from Sumatra in massive clouds of smoke and ash to shroud and choke Singapore, southern Malaysia and large tracts of western Indonesia.

Call it blowback. Many of these plantations are owned by people with intimate connections to that same power court in Singapore, who helpfully provide them all manner of metropolitan usefulness, banking their billions and domiciling their empires while discreetly looking past, er, indiscretions that may have been perpetrated elsewhere. Many of these plantations are owned by people with intimate connections to that same power court in Singapore, who helpfully provide them all manner of metropolitan usefulness, banking their billions and domiciling their empires.

Singapore has 101,000 millionaires officially resident on the island, their assets tucked safely away in the nation’s banks, property and share markets. Plenty of these plutocrats are normal Singaporeans who’ve done well in business. But many are not, like corrupt Indonesians on the run, or Burmese generals seeking safe haven. Singapore’s plutocratic ranks have been swelled in recent years by Europeans and Russians seeking relief from tax and the prying regulators of home, these exiles spending just enough time and money in Singapore to qualify for residency. This, to many, is the useful point of Singapore, where Shanmugam – born in 1959, the very year Lee family patriarch Lee Kuan Yew began his three decades as ruler – has been an MP since 1988 for the Lees’ ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

Shanmugam’s story, and there are many like it in Singapore’s political circles, neatly illustrates how power flows in Singapore, via an apparatus ironically made more visible by the haze crisis.
There have been five parliamentary elections since then in Singapore’s almost-democracy, three of them relatively leisurely affairs for Shanmugam; he and his PAP friends were untroubled by any other candidates in their constituency, Sembawang, an area perhaps best known for its US naval facility. But Shanmugam’s selfless devotion to public service – Singapore MPs receive a basic annual allowance of around US$200,000 – hasn’t hindered an even more lucrative career, in law and business. He’s one of Singapore’s most formidable litigators, a leader of the army of Lee-loyalist lawyers who’ve helped win their legal system a contentious reputation as a jurisdiction, most notably in defamation.

Singapore is one of the world’s libel capitals, and its litigants – many have been colleagues of Shanmugam, leaders of the ruling PAP – have won record-setting damages for defamation by their political rivals and the international media. What would pass as the normal buffeting of election debate in most genuinely pluralist democracies has been, in Singapore, a device of oppression. Here, sensitive politicians and officials, famously led by the Lees themselves, have shown an enthusiastic inclination to sue opponents into penurious legal submission. Singaporean officials, it’s often said, can imagine libel and slander in a harsh glare.

All of which helps explain why MPs like Shanmugam don’t always encounter combatants when they run for election. Indeed, this absence of opposition has meant that there’s only been three parliamentary elections in Singapore in the five since 1988 in which the PAP wasn’t returned to office on nomination day – the actual poll being largely irrelevant as to decide who runs the country.

Shanmugam doesn’t mind highlighting such powerful connections in his sparkling official CV, now for the Nee Soon electorate in Singapore. This biography describes a storied student who became a ‘star litigator’ for Singapore’s biggest law firm, a lawyer who has represented prime ministers past and present. And, busy man, Shanmugam has also served on some illustrious boards while being MP and lawyer-at-large, his biography reveals. For example, he’s held a long and lucrative directorship at one of Singapore’s state-controlled blue chips, Sembcorp (a post he shared with strongman Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter-in-law Lee Suet Fern, whose husband ran Singapore Telecommunications for 12 years), and another on Singapore’s state media regulator, among other establishment posts. Now Shanmugam has been Singapore’s Foreign Minister since 2011, and Minister for Law since 2008, his official salary now somewhere north of $US1 million. He’s the senior official entrusted by his Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew’s son Lee Hsien Loong, to go after the polluters they believe are responsible for the life-threatening haze, now too thick to ignore, which has engulfed their region.

“If any Singapore companies are involved,” thundered PM Lee last week, “or companies which are present in Singapore are involved, we will take it up with them." Indeed, Jakarta has helpfully identified as many as 14 companies it believes responsible for the muck, while reminding Singapore that many more Indonesians are suffering its effects than inhabitants of the look-at-me island nation. Two of the companies fingered by Indonesia are its Widjaja family’s Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology (SMART), which has long been a target of environmentalists, and Asia Pacific Resources International (APRIL), controlled by the Indonesian-born Singaporean tycoon Sukanto Tanoto. Both are based in Singapore, where SMART’s parent company is the locally listed Golden Agri-Resources. And this is where Lee’s Foreign and Law Minister K. Shanmugam comes in again. Two of the directorships that don’t appear in Shanmugam’s glittering CV are his former stints as a director of Golden Agri-Resources and Asia Food and Property Ltd. Both are Singaporean companies controlled by Indonesia’s controversial Widjaja family. In the early 2000s, while Shanmugam was on these boards, the Widjajas had the dubious honour of owning the notorious Asia Pulp and Paper, which would come to be responsible for the biggest bond default in corporate Asian history. What transpired at APP was a US$13 billion fiasco, a scandal largely unearthed by the pesky foreign media, and which exposed Singapore as something other than the squeaky-clean financial centre its government likes to internationally promote itself as. Transferring public company funds through a murky family-controlled bank in the tax haven of the Cook Islands was a sleight of hand much favoured by the Widjajas.

No-one involved with the APP scandal was ever prosecuted or brought to legal book anywhere. Those foolish enough to have invested with the Widjajas absorbed huge hits. Most of APP’s debts were effectively written off and, like so many dodgy Indonesians and Singaporeans of that era, the Widjajas regrouped to do business another day – to pollute again.

As for Shanmugam, after firing off a few threatening legal salvos at the time to anyone who too publicly mentioned his connection to the Widjajas, he later resigned his directorships and resumed his legal and political career. The Global Mail isn’t suggesting that Shanmugam was in any way party to the financial scandal that then engulfed the Widjaja empire. Indeed, all reports at the time suggested he was embarrassed by his links to the Widjajas. Nor are we saying that he is involved in the haze outrage that now engulfs them. And, despite being identified by Jakarta as a polluter, Golden Agri insists “there are no hotspots or fires” at its Sumatran plantations.

Should this assertion of innocence be proved wrong, Shanmugam, now as a minister, would at least know who to call when asked to bring miscreants to book; that is, if he doesn’t first recuse himself from official involvement given his one-time close links to the controversial Widjajas. But that doesn’t seem likely. Last weekend, Shanmugam reportedly joined his PM and other government colleagues in handing out some of the million-odd facemasks Singapore has bought to distribute to low-income Singaporeans affected by the haze.

TGM emailed Mr Shanmugam a series of questions about his former links to the Widjaja’s Golden Agri but did not receive a response.

Singapore’s respiratory crisis has also shone a spotlight on some other local companies with interests in the controversial palm oil sector. One of them is particularly close to PM Lee, at the core Singapore’s politics-meets-business power apparatus: Temasek Holdings, Singapore’s influential state-owned investment company, which controls companies such as Singapore Telecom, Singapore Airlines and Australia’s Optus, also holds big stakes in myriad international businesses. One of those investments is in CTP Holdings, Temasek’s Singapore-based joint venture with the US agricultural group Cargill. CTP operates oil-palm plantations in Indonesia. Last week, CTP was quick to say its holdings are well away from the current hotspots that have so polluted the Singapore environs. In any event, CTP’s backers claim their plantations operate a strict no-burn policy, and Temasek and Cargill have been keen to distance CTP and themselves from any environmental outrage. Which is not how the US environmental lobby Rain Forest Network sees CTP’s operations in Indonesia’s Kalimantan region, to Singapore’s east; the group accuses CTP of clearing rainforest without permits, destroying watersheds and burning forests.

That Temasek was moved to publish a press release on the palm oil crisis at this time is itself instructive. It speaks to the rising opposition to Singapore’s Lee-led establishment, which revealed itself most eloquently in the last parliamentary and presidential elections, in 2011, in which the opposition not only fielded a record complement of candidates but made genuine gains against the PAP-dominated system. Amidst the tumult from Tahrir Square and the tragedy of Syria, this ‘Singapore Spring’ hasn’t registered internationally with quite the impact of the Arab prototype that inspired it. But to the 5.3 million Singaporeans now coughing through yet another haze outrage blown in from Indonesia, their spring has arrived in the increasing accountability they demand of Singapore’s once impervious courtiers in running national affairs. In a town where ‘normal’ political activity is deemed off limits, Temasek’s management has been a proxy political tool the opposition can fulminate about – Temasek as the symbolic vehicle of PAP patronage and performance.

Temasek and its likewise state-owned sister fund, the Singapore Government Investment Corporation, officially invest Singaporeans’ money. Like the more transparent sovereign wealth funds of democratic Norway and East Timor, and those more opaque in the Gulf monarchies, these two companies are national nest eggs owned by all Singaporeans, and in which every Singaporean notionally has a say. Temasek, which by some measures has an interest in as much as 60 per cent of the Singaporean economy, has been run by PM Lee’s wife, Ho Ching, since 2003. And her patchy investment record would likely have seen her removed, had she performed similarly in any Western company. That record has increasingly been the subject of rational analysis, by academics and aspiring Singaporean politicians such as Kenneth Jeyaretnam, who would like to see these funds broken up and privatised. Such transparency has been refreshing for Singaporeans, but other things don’t change. It remains out of bounds in Singapore to debate if Madame Ho got – and kept – her job because she’s a member of the Lee family. The last voice to publicly do this was a well-followed local blog, the Temasek Review Emeritus, which was swiftly threatened by one of the Lees’ notorious legal onslaughts en route to being forced into a grovelling apology. Today, it’s a rare Western media outlet – those with corporate interests or circulation in Singapore are particularly reticent – that will examine the Temasek record as they might similarly influential corporations elsewhere, such as Apple, Shell or BHP Billiton.

For media reporting on Temasek’s activities, official Singapore has insisted that it be accurate in its facts, and that it refer to Temasek as an “Asian investment company”. For good measure, Temasek would also prefer that any reference to Madame Ho as the PM’s wife be expunged. Singapore’s pliant media does what its told but foreign press is less observant of local sensitivities. But the media, indeed anyone with cause to analyses Temasek, such as credit rating agencies and banks, can’t fulfill the latter requirements without noting the former. Accuracy and investment decisions demand that Temasek be properly identified as being owned by the Singapore government. And there’s no avoiding the fact that Madame Ho, who often very publicly travels with her husband on state tours abroad, is Mrs Lee, a very powerful and wealthy Mrs Lee, if not always a particularly astute investor of her compatriots’ nest egg.

For all the putridness that the clouds now defiling Singapore and beyond are depositing, they may yet come with a silver lining, of more transparency for one Asia’s most rigid societies.

So will TGM be dragged to court, or will it simply apply for a license to write about Singapore news and post a $50,000 performance bond? The suspense is killing us.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

How To Apologize

Apologizing for a mistake might seem like an impossible task, but if executed correctly, the expression of contriteness can win the respect of all parties concerned. Did President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono undertake the correct steps?

Determine what went wrong -
Forest fires in his country, set by farmers to clear fields, created air pollution problems for neighboring countries Malaysia and Singapore. He wasn't beating around the bush about this one.

Take full responsibility -
The fact is the haze originates from Indonesia, there're no ifs and buts, "so we take responsibility" was the clear commitment conveyed to the press. Hence the "massive handling, deploying more officers" initiated by him personally in the past two to three days.

Choosing the right time to apologise -
The "megaphone diplomacy" - kicked off by one Singapore minister's posturing Facebook post - was getting out of hand. Of his "one statement (about dining out options) which will haunt me for my entire political life", Vivian Balakrishnan had admitted, "unfortunately for me, I'm one of those ministers who likes to speak without notes and sometimes I make mistakes" (still does). Fortunately for us, President Yudhoyono averted World War III.

Speak softly and carry a big stick -
Make no mistake, the leader of the fourth largest country on earth (behind just China, India, and the US) is no push over. He made it clear that there will be no impact on Indonesia's bargaining position, namely on the territorial disputes with Malaysia or the return of ill-gotten assets of corrupt Indonesians living it up in Singapore. On subject of a mutually respectful Asean spirit, he put on record his personal feeling that Singapore media reporting on the haze issue has been "excessive" and "put Indonesia's image in a bad light globally."

Now compare it to the other guy's apology, "we’re sorry we didn’t get it exactly right, but I hope you’ll understand and bear with us, because we’re trying our best to fix the problems." And they are still trying to get it right - housing affordability, hospital shortages, train disruptions, over congestion, cost of living, etc - and the only light in the tunnel is still hazed over.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Confusing The People

The National Environment Agency (NEA) website was supposed to clear the air about concerns regarding the assessment of the haze danger. It turns out to be another exercise in semantics to cover up their attempts at obfuscation.

To debunk charges that the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) do not take PM2.5  readings into account, NEA claims "PM10 would also capture what is captured in the PM2.5 readings."

Particulate matter, or PM, is the term for particles found in the air, including dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets. Some particles are large enough to be seen, such as soot or smoke, others are so small they can only be detected with an electron microscope. Particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) pose a health concern because they can be inhaled into and accumulate in the respiratory system. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) pose the greater health risk, as their small size (approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair) enable the fine particles to lodge deeply into the lungs.

There has to be good reason for the separate PM2.5 standard, if a PM10 measurement suffices. When NEA says the PM10 count also includes PM2.5 particulates, it is like saying a 6.9 million population is sustainable for Singapore, and miss out on the crucial number of foreigners included in their master plan. Apples are not oranges.

And did Tan Tock Seng Hospital overcharge by pricing the N95 masks at $60 for a box of 20? If not, why did they decide to bring the price down to $50? We bought our "branded" 3M 8210 mask from Watsons at $2.50 per piece, without benefit of quantity discount. Why did a subsidised government institution charge the public an equal or higher price than a private commercial entity? We know they peg ministerial salaries to the private sector, we know they linked public housing prices to the private sector, but N95 masks?

As for the PSI reading of 393 in a screen capture, NEA insists there had been no editing or deleting of the PSI reading on the website. Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam acknowledged at a community event that with so many air-quality figures, it can be confusing. "Unfortunately, there has been some deliberate misinformation put out in other media sources, I think, in an attempt to confuse people." He said it was not done by the Government, but your opinion may differ.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Let There Be Light

The last time we had a reminder from the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) on the subject of sub judice it ran something like this:
"Meanwhile, we would remind all parties that statements made by members of the public would be sub judice contempt, if the statements are calculated to affect the minds of the courts hearing the case, the minds of parties who are concerned in the case itself, or if they amount to public pre-judgment of the case, and there is a real risk of prejudice."

The public declarations of City Harvest Church (CHC) stalwart Chew Eng Han, who decided to leave the church after 17 years of service - in his words, "be it in the property search, the crossover, or the reputation of the leadership" - puts a new perspective on the legality. Let the lawyers throw some light on this.

Chew is not just a disgrunted member of the church. He happens to to one of 6 CHC leaders charged with conspiring to cheat by way of sham investments. Court hearings in the second day of the trial in May had already identified Chew as the one who, as investment manager, instructed CHC's finance manager to adjust the interest rate for a "special opportunity fund" to make the numbers match. As the director of AMAC Capital Partners, Chew could be fingered as the architect of the $11.4 million bond investment.

Chew's disclosures are quite specific, making reference to subjects like clandestine 4 1/2 hour meetings the church board may not be apprised of. If these are not fresh inputs to the court officials, it would be difficult to argue they will not "affect the minds of the courts hearing the case" or "the minds of parties who are concerned in the case itself". Even if deemed not amountable to public pre-judgement, it still presents a serious issue of prejudice in the case. One thing's clear, it is one hell of a teaser for part two of the trial due to resume in August.

Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee on the Damascus Road, was struck down by a blinding light, brighter than the noonday sun, when he heard a voice saying: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" As the sunday school story goes, Saul then becomes Paul, the hated tax collector becomes a revered faithful disciple. The sun did come out on Saturday, and PSI reading was 36 this morning. Maybe miracles still exist. Even the politicians have stopped quibbling about the haze.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Thinking Out Of The Box

The fact that the Indonesians are attempting to seed the clouds to quench the forest fires of Sumatra does not mean there are no alternatives to addressing the remote sites of conflagration. Our vaunted multi-talented ministers seem to be blinded by their blinkered visions, unable to explore other fire-fighting options.

The Hercules C-130 fitted with a removable water or fire retardant tank in the cargo hold can be a powerful "fire bomber" or "water bomber". A simple nozzle arrangement feeds straight out the open back ramp.

Helicopters can drop water more precisely than fixed wing-aircraft, limited only by how much they can carry. This Huey uses a  hose to suck water from a river, lake or other source and delivers a spectacular splash.

For a bigger splash, the S-64 Skycrane, the civilian version of the Vietnam H-54, is the real heavy lifter. The Sikorsky-Erickson Skycrane can lift 10,000 liters using the impeller at the end of the hose to suck water from any source deeper than 18 inches. It can also be fitted with an attachment to allow it to scoop water as it moves across the surface of a pond or lake.

Surely our inventory of military hardware can be put to better use than showing off on national day.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Secret Origins Of The Little Red Dot

The term "little red dot" gained currency after former Indonesian President B.J. Habibie put down Singapore in an article published in the Asian Wall Street Journal of 4 August 1998. It quoted Habibie's remark that he did not have the feeling Singapore was a friend, and had him pointing to a wall map, saying: "It's O.K. with me, but there are 211 million people (in Indonesia). All the green (area) is Indonesia. And that red dot is Singapore."

Ex-Foreign Minister George Yeo put on this spin during the launch of a book bearing the same sobriquet, "When President Habibie dismissed us as a little red dot, he was expressing his frustration at our refusal to do his bidding."

Face mask for politicians
who just won't shut up
The hard truth is that Habibie was piqued because Lee Kuan Yew had voiced aloud that the Indonesia rupiah would fall if Habibie became President. BJ Habibie was appointed the third President of Indonesia under section 8 of the 1945 Constitution after Suharto was forced to retire in May 1988 from the post which he had held for 32 years, under a hazy cloud of corruption, cronyism and nepotism.

When Indonesian Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Agung Laksono bristled with contempt, "Singapore shouldn't be like children, (behaving) in such a tizzy" ("Singapura jangan seperti anak-anak, dalam kegelisahan seperti ini."), PM Lee's said it would not be "fruitful" to respond, choosing instead to "work towards solving the problem rather than exchanging harsh words." It sounded like an emasculated echo of Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa's own tough words on the issue, “The approach must be one of collaboration and partnership, not one of apportioning blame here and there. Let’s focus on putting the fires out.”

After the fires have died down and the haze dissipated, historians will try to trace the origins of the exchange of "harsh words". One plausible source of the combustibles has to be traceable to this Facebook post:
"This is now the worst haze that Singapore has ever faced. And no country or corporation has the right to pollute the air at the expense of Singaporeans' health and wellbeing."

Thursday, June 20, 2013

When Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) soared to 172 at 3 pm on Wednesday, Singapore's worst haze reading since September 1997 when the number peaked at 226. Then at 10 pm last night the PSI hit a new record high of 321.

Indonesian forestry ministry official Raffles Panjaitan said his government will be sending helicopters  into the skies above Sumatra to seed the clouds.  Injecting chemicals would prompt the formation of heavy ice crystals and speed up the production of rain to put out the fires that are mainly centred on peatlands in Riau province.

In Singapore Minister of Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan said whether a stop-work order will be issued will depend on the severity of the haze conditions. Apparently 321 is not scary enough, it's still short of the 387 number he racked up in millions to show off the city sights. Too bad they are all hazed over every year, this time of the year.

Balakrishnan insists cloud seeding will not work for Singapore as his meteorological boys are saying there's not enough cloud cover at the moment. Instead of sending helicopters over to help the Indonesians with the preparation work, he is sending the spanking new ex-army NEA CEO Andrew Tan over to attend a haze meeting. What the Indonesians need is more hardware, not more hot air.

Meanwhile Foreign Minister K Shanmugam got hot under the collar, when one sinful comment on his Facebook pages railed against the "million dollar minister" and called, quite accurately, the Government inefficient. As expected, the minister shafted the Indonesians for not ratifying a treaty on Transboundary Haze Pollution signed in 2002. It proves the point, doesn't it? The Singapore Foreign Minister had been sleeping since 2002, just going with the flow like the brigadier-general, until the wind changes direction. With FMs like that, who needs enemies?

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew had to contend with another hallmark inefficiency of his own. About 250 commuters were  stuck in an immobile train for 1 whole hour. It would be interesting to hear the explanation from the SMRT CEO - another expensive bum parachuted in from the armed forces - why his staff could not move a stalled train with another working one. At evening rush hour when the 2 hour disruption occurred, the haze was edging towards 190, so be prepared to be smoked by (lack of) visibility excuses. More likely, someone forgot to release the brakes.

The irresistible force paradox is formulated along Newton's laws of physics, as when "What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object." This paradox is a form of the omnipotence paradox, such as when the Minister refuses to budge, even as the COE hits another high of $81,751, another candidate for the Guinness Book of Records. Mr Sin was too kind to use the word "inefficient". Hokkien expletives are more in order.
I love the smell of haze in the morning.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Art Of Throwing Smoke

He was silent when the freedom of the internet was threatened by the likes of Yaacob Ibrahim.  He was just as quiet when the number of dengue cases crept past the 10,000 mark. He did not chime in when Vivian Balakrishnan waded into the hawker center scaffolding dissertation. So what keeps our prime minister awake at nights? Nobody would have guessed it was the beautiful view of the skyline from the Istana's manicured lawn, a sight none of us will ever get to see at the crack of dawn. Lee posted a Facebook photo of the haze taken at the Istana, commenting: "The city in the distance is barely visible. We are all affected by the haze."

At stake, of course, are the tourist arrivals, who had not planned to travel all the way to see the Merlion engulfed in smoke. Said national icon is permitted to spit 24/7 to its heart's content, but smoking is strictly prohibited. Some laws are simply not allowed to be applied with a light touch. Too bad the peasants have to put up with watery eyes, and coughing fits.

Instead of dialling up President of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono direct - and remind him how little he is paid for running a country of 247,496,843 people - Lee deputised Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan and Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam to call their Indonesian counterparts to register Singapore's "serious concerns" about the situation and to offer help to fight the fires there. Someone expressed hope that the experts can get together soon to compare notes on "what's happening and where, and what's being done." Every schoolboy in Singapore knows what's happening (farmers burning crops), where (Sumatra and akan datang, Kalimantan) and what's being done (zilch).

Balakrishnan, fresh from calling the Aljunied town council to name cleaning contractors, said in his own Facebook account that he asked Indonesian Minister Balthasar Kambuaya to name the companies responsible for the fires there causing the haze. For a guy who flopped at floods, danced around with dengue, the only thing he knows about clearing the haze is, as expected, pointing fingers at someone else.

The Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was signed in 2002, but Indonesia has yet to ratify it. Also not ratified is the extradition treaty with Indonesia, signed in 2007, because their House of Representatives refused to approve both the treaty and the defense agreement as a package. Indonesia's House Speaker Marzuki Alie had complained loudly about Singapore's request to be allowed to conduct military training within Indonesian territory in exchange for the extradition treaty. While the politicians quibble, the fires of Sumatra rage on.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Innocence Lost

The film maker's home was raided, her computers seized and her person dragged into a police station like a common criminal. But now the Attorney General's Chambers (AGC) have, after a long review at great expense to the taxpayers, determined that her perceived transgression does not merit a court prosecution. Instead, the public prosecutors has decided that a letter of warning "would suffice in her case".

Her case was a matter of producing documentary videos highlighting the allegations of police brutality aired by two Chinese national bus drivers involved in Singapore's first industrial strike in 26 years. The 28 January blog post title featuring the charges, "I Have Ways To Make You Confess", may be a tad provocative, but truth is always an attention getter when it cuts through the fog of official agenda. The AGC was not acting out of admission of judicial overkill, but hinted darkly at vindictive convictions. Among the factors considered in their deliberations, said the AGC, was the guilty plea of the bus drivers. In other words, if the strikers had refused to bow down to the system, the film maker might not have been let off "so easily". Shylock would demanded have his pound of flesh.

So did the Chinese nationals plead guilty so that an innocent party need not be keel hauled for being sympathetic to their cause?

"Killing the Chickens, to Scare the Monkeys" is a 2011 short film directed by Jens Assur. Set in the People's Republic of China, it consists of nine scenes where national politics and strategy unleashed unforeseen consequences on a young teacher. And there's the Chinese proverb that holds that it’s smarter to punish or do away with a lesser animal (a chicken) as a lesson to a higher or more important one (a monkey) that you can’t afford to get rid of. Hopefully, the monkey will take the hint and fall into line.

The law makers are using the episode to warn the public, "In appropriate instances, AGC will not hesitate to take firm  action... to protect the integrity of the judiciary's role in determining the facts". Expanding, the AGC spokesman added that the public can criticise judicial decisions "only after these have been given." Talk about locking the barn doors after the horse has bolted. That may work for those who subscribe to the wayang of the ongoing charade, but others are mindful of the quote attributed to Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

Monday, June 17, 2013

Credibility At Stake

Blackbox Research is one of many online survey companies out there, except that this one has decided to set up shop in Singapore, doing work for outfits like NTUC Income and Mendaki. Top management identified on their website are from Australia, Shanghai, Philippines (2), and two token Singaporeans. Recently it was quoted by the mainstream media to present the challenge why the public should trust bloggers.

Blackbox Research was selected to conduct the "Punggol East: What Factors Influenced Voters?" post-election survey and highlighted the cost of living was the top reason that determined the people's choice. They reported that the second most important reason for the vote swing was attributed to “the government not listening to ordinary Singaporeans”. That survey also measured the impact of the by-election’s catalyst as a vote changer, with results that showed Michael Palmer’s sex-for-mangoes transaction accounted for only 1 per cent of the vote swing.

Workers’ Party candidate Lee Li Lian had won the by-election by a landslide 54.5 per cent of the vote, beating the "son of Punggol" colorectal surgeon Koh Poh Koon from the ruling People’s Action Party by a convincing 10.8 per cent margin.

While on the subject of surveys, Singapore has been ranked the 16 most peaceful place ("Republic moves up 7 places as the rest of the world grows more violent" ST 14 June 2013) ). Same place where a female polytechnic student was slashed repeatedly for refusing to be robbed of her handphone (Thurs June 13). Same place where a 20 year old full-time national serviceman was set upon with knives in the heart of Orchard Road, and left bleeding from a head wound outside a popular shopping mall (Sat June 15).

We are all free to believe what we read, with no need to be licensed for our personal choice. Right now, the besieged Julian Assange and Edward Snowden's credibility still ranks pretty high.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Money For Cars

With scant information about the Changi Motorsports Hub project, we'll never know why the $36 million successful bid by a Japanese-led consortium was finally scrapped by the Singapore Sports Council. Project delays and financial difficulties are typical of construction undertakings, but allegations of corruption were never really sufficiently aired.

As a commercial concept, similar plans for a motorsport facility championed by Singaporean billionaire investor Peter Lim at Iskandar in Johore should prove it must have had merits of viability. The strange bit is when proposals were solicited to salvage the doomed racetrack cum retail complex, all seven interested parties asked for government subsidies. Why would tycoons with expensive hobbies like Lamborghinis or Ferraris have need of a help out from taxpayers, some of whom are evicted from their simple abodes because they can't make the mortgage for their HDB flats?

Maybe those fast car aficionados had in mind the F1 Night Race, roaring round the corner again, in September. That particular extravaganza is heavily subsidised, to the tune of 60% of the total bill, or $90 million based on the estimate of $150 million for each mega event. 5 years after the first race was flagged off in 2007, not a single year's report card on the actual finances has been made available to the public. The true cost of the government subsidy is yet to be disclosed.

One of the chief complains about the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) system is that the deep pocketed is unfairly favoured. The argument is that the present bidding system allows the rich to marginalise the not-so-rich by bidding a high price to ensure success, comfortable in the assurance that only the lowest successful bidding price would have to be paid. It's only a simple tweak to implement a pay as you bid system to address this ongoing nod to those with fat bank accounts.

One suspects the relevant minister responsible for the Sports Council, F1 Night Race and land transportation, each has his own perception of inequity. Perhaps the Changi Motorsports Hub would have a different fate if a more spendthrift cabinet minister was in charge. Asked if he had any regret about splurging $387 million dollars of taxpayers’ monies to host the most expensive “sports day” for children in the world, Vivian Balakrishnan made dubious claims about YOG “laying a strong foundation for Singapore’s sporting culture, especially in spectatorship, community involvement and volunteer engagement.” Racing fans holding multiple COEs for their private fleet would love that line about "Singapore’s sporting culture, especially in spectatorship, community involvement and volunteer engagement.” Just imagine, $387 million could pay for ten Motorsports Hubs, fully subsidised.
Across the causeway, Malaysia boleh

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Politicians Exposed

Edward Snowden is proving to be one of America's consequential whistle blowers, after Daniel Ellsberg, the man who gave us the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam war. The 29-year-old source behind the biggest intelligence leak about the United States National Security Agency's super secret surveillance programmes said, "I'm not here (in Hong Kong) to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality." What Snowden saw at work in Geneva disillusioned him about how his government functions and what its impact is in the world, "I realised that I was part of something that was doing far more harm than good." Naturally the first to bray for his blood are politicians, calling him a lone wolf terrorist who is bigger danger to society than Big Brother.

John F Kennedy was a serial womaniser - alleged to have had a threesome on his inauguration evening while his wife was dancing downstairs - and a highly amphetamine dependent drug addict to ward off the pain from an old football injury. And he never wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning biography, "Profiles in Courage", ghost writer Ted Sorensen did. Richard M Nixon took mind-altering drugs that caused his advisers so much concern that they instructed military chiefs not to take orders from him without seeking confirmation from the Defense Secretary or the Secretary of State. Lyndon B Johnson was a crude man, a congressman described him as "damn crude - always scratching his crotch and picking his nose in mixed company." Mao Tse-tung operated on the Taoist belief that sexual activity prolonged life, and was fixated with pornography and sexual excess. Mahatma Gandhi "allowed" teenage girls to sleep naked with him as a form of "testing" his vow of chastity. Winston Churchill, who called Gandhi a "half -naked fakir", was observed by a wartime close friend  Robert Boothby, "Winston was a shit, but we needed a shit to defeat Hitler."

All that, and more, were compiled before the advent of WikiLeaks, by Phil Mason in his book "What Needled Cleopatra... and other little secrets airbrushed from history." If the foibles of Churchill the war-time genius and Gandhi the poor ascetic can be airbrushed, imagine what Photoshop can achieve today.

Ellsberg, in defence of Snowden, said that contrary to claims that NSA's monitoring programs are only collecting meta data -- such as the time and duration of phone calls and the subjects and IP addresses of emails -- he was confident the NSA is saving far information more than it lets on. "We're not a police state yet, but the foundation has been set," he said. "It could happen overnight." That's the slippery slope the licensing of news websites is leading us right to.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Clearing The Air

At least the truculent troika of Khaw Boon Wan, Teo Ho Pin and Chandra Das had the smarts to shut up when invited to call in the CPIB if they were not satisfied with the public accounting of the A.I.M. saga. When Vivian Balakrishnan was invited to an opportunity to clear the air about the misunderstandings over the cleaning of hawker centres (not food court or restaurant) in Aljunied GRC, the blustering minister for Environment and Water Resources was true to form. He haughtily demanded action to “clean up the place” and “apologise to the hawkers”, before acceding to meeting Mr Low Thia Khiang over a cup of coffee “after the place is cleaned and to do so with the hawkers present.”

This is the typical coward who hides behind the safety of a GRC, instead of facing the electorate on his own two feet in a SMC. It's not his style to settle scores with his adversary mano-a-mano, that's good reason why he carries a feminine sounding name. And the hawker he is dragging into the fracas?

The cyber patrol of conscientious netizens has uncovered the identity of the hawker representative who requested an independent contractor to quote for the "Provision of manpower, equipments, material, chemicals, insurance and supervision for the cleaning of entire premises, consisting of 40 market stalls." That hawker representative is a Mr Ng Kok Khim, representative of Market Association of Block 538, and a long standing PAP grassroots leader at PAP’s Kaki Bukit division. So long that he has been actually cited for a Long Service Award. The red herring quote was supplied by the unabashedly partisan NEA. For the record, Mr Ng has not been asking anyone for an apology for anything. The really nasty partisan types send out lawyer's letters of demand.

If only the febrile Balakrishnan would pause to review the documentation, he would be able to avoid digging himself a sinkhole big enough to swallow up his fulminating ego and his party's soiled public standing. And spend more time on the dengue crisis, now fast approaching 1,000 case a week. 9,544 people have fallen ill, two have died, and the minister for Environment and Water Resources is pandering to politics instead of cleaning up the environment of water borne diseases.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Let Common Sense Prevail

Phew! The Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) has stated that, in terms of legal principles, they agree with District Judge Siva Shanmugam's key submissions and will not be appealing against the acquittal of former Central Narcotics Bureau chief Ng Boon Gay. See, it's not that difficult to come to your senses.

The birds do it, bees do it. The procreation instinct comes naturally. Of course, if a baby is on the way, then it's time to make the hard decision: pro-choice or pro-life, to save the old marriage or start a new one. Whatever happens, it's not criminal, definitely not something corrupt.

The Civil Service will have to examine it's own moral code of conduct, and decide if it has the disciplinary framework to mete out punishment. On question of moral authority, they have to make sure people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. We have too many recent instances of media whores who are quick to point one finger at others without realising more digits are pointing backwards at their own hypocritical self. Worse, they forget they should be politically neutral, and taint the public institutions they serve in with personal agendas.

Once upon a time, Hewlett Packard Singapore had a personnel manager who had chalked up more than 15 years of dedicated service. Then his name was mentioned in a divorce court case. The erring woman was sued by her husband, but the poor guy was sacked by the American company for tarnishing the firm's high moral standards. That had to be a gold standard of sorts.  Unfortunately the price of gold has fallen much, and so has the quality of our high flying civil servants. Even the hospital staff, instead of taking a blood test, send you home with a Panadol despite the obvious signs of dengue infection, namely fever, headache, and joint pain, vomiting and body rash. Their excuse: most dengue patients recover.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Politically Motivated Public Bodies

Nothing but the truth?
The war of words is starting to degenerate into a kopi-tiam brawl. In the old days, we are told, cups will be turned upside down, the signal for the gangsters to begin battle. Gutter politician Vivian Balakrishnan challenged, "Either Pritam Singh or the hawkers are telling the truth. It is obvious that the hawkers are speaking the truth." Notice the round about way of accusing Mr Singh, a public figure, of lying, a clear case of libel.

Flashback to May 2011, the last general election. We were testing the low light capability of a friend's new digital SLR, and wanted to check how efficient the built-in denoising algorithm was. PAP rallies are seldom well attended, despite the bussed-in supporters and free packet meals thrown in for good measure, Sure enough, the Clementi crowd was thin enough for us to get close to the stage for some shots. At any opposition party rally, one would have to turn up a couple of hours early to get a similar vantage point.

While fiddling with the ISO and white balance settings, we heard the speaker say that when the YOG was facing a cost over-run, he had asked the prime minister for more money. Vivian Balakrishnan said he asked for a revised budget of $387 million, and was told not to spend a cent more. Something clicked, and it was not the camera. Wait a minute, wasn't the final cost reported in parliament as $387 million, down to the same 3 digit accuracy? It was an atrocious lie, and not a very good one at that. There were at least 20 "professional journalists" parked right in front of the stage, beyond the barricades that kept out the rest of us mere mortals. It was weird not a single word of the strange coincidence was mentioned in print in the mainstream media.

Following the foot steps of the MDA, now NEA is clearly mired in politicisation. Needless to say, the 10 websites targeted for the new licensing scheme, save Yahoo! News, are all members of the same political club, all swinging for the same agenda. Maybe that's why they feel safe to let the compulsive liar forage into the food centre cleaning row. Let the scoundrel wallow in the mud, but please keep our hard working hawkers out of the fray.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Ghostly Hands At Work

After the Todds left the official hearing about their son Shane's death in a huff, they told Reuters: "What has made us say that we can no longer stay here is the testimony from the beginning saying they are always only looking at suicide, never murder. The outcome was pre-determined."

Father of the deceased, Rick Todd promised, "Our next step from today is using the court of public opinion," and he is delivering the goods. The material sent to Associated Press includes some pictures not made available in the extensive coverage given by the 149th ranked local rag. Quite plausibly, they fear falling short of the regulatory framework misinformation minister Yaacob Ibrahim had in mind when he told the BBC that the Media Development Authority (MDA) regulations are crafted in "the interest of ordinary Singaporeans" to enable them to "read the right thing".

Rightly or wrongly, it looks suspiciously like the ultimate cover up. Use your own eyes, before you have to be licensed to be permitted to make your own observations.

In the light of so many discrepancies, why couldn't the jaundiced judicials have prepared to come away with an open verdict? That way, no one wins, but no one loses either. In death there's no need for a victor.
The Singapore view

The American view

Strategic hands in play?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

How Mistrust is Generated

Watching Acting Minister of Manpower Tan Chuan Jin on the Talking Point programme special reminds one of a book which has the full title, "Denialism, How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms The Planet, And Threatens Our Lives." The despicable licensing of news sites is no rocket science, but Tan was definitely in full denial mode.

He repeated ad nausem there was nothing new to regulations already in place. Well, before 1 June 2013, there was no $50,000 dangling like the sword of damocles over sites that have a reach of 50,000 and offer at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs. And then there's the potential fine of up to $200,000 and/or 3 years in jail if the Media Development Authority (MDA) feels you are tardy in taking down the offending post within 24 hours. The lawyers' letters of demand, which has seen quite a bit of action, at least provides a longer time-frame to respond.

One caller phoning in asked point blank whether Tan is prepared to state on air that no blog site will ever need to be licensed. The cowardly general took evasive action behind the "until such point that we notify other sites" caveat emptor, choosing instead to keep all options open. His empty promises smack of the hypocrisy of 377A, which also promised a light touch. Like the duplicitous legislation of 377A, Tan is as good as criminalizing bloggers with a free spirit.

“First they came…” is the famous statement and provocative poem attributed to pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), an indictment of the sloth of German intellectuals after the Nazis' rise to power and the subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group:
When the Nazis came for the communists,
 I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

And you actually thought you were safe. Think again.

In "Denialism", New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter reveals that Americans have come to mistrust institutions. One guest on the Talking Point panel touched on a similar mistrust generated by MDA's obscene haste in railroading the licensing regime. The final tally at the end of the program: more than 70 percent felt the new licensing rule will limit online news content.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Tale Of Two Corrections

Associated Press (AP) was taken to task for its article ("Singapore police protocols flouted in US death") by ambassador Ashok, who called it "inaccurate, misleading and mischievous". Read AP's statement in response (italics mine):
"The Associated Press erroneously reported that police admitted violating or flouting official protocol in their investigation by not seeking fingerprints or DNA samples, and by examining the contents of a laptop in the dead man's apartment.
"Rather than admitting to any incorrect behavior in testimony, a police investigator simply recounted his actions, which he described as permissible under the guidelines."

Of course the Singapore Police Force will never admit their mistake, doing so will confirm its procedures fall short of FBI standards. Thanks to the "correction", the whole wide world now knows how the cops bungled the handling of evidence at site. In first world countries, tainted evidence will have a case thrown out of court easily on technical grounds.

The National Environment Agency's (NEA) political foray into a town council's custodial duties was more easily debunked. NEA said the town council sought to charge hawkers for scaffolding needed for cleaning purposes. The smoking gun email from NEA has this bit:
"... the hawkers association will make the necessary arrangements with their contractors on the scaffolding erection/dismantling during the spring cleaning period."

The hawkers did approach a contractor for the scaffolding quote. Doing so, it was de facto confirmation of the competence of the partisan elements at NEA. "Inaccurate, misleading and mischievous" would an apt descriptive.

But all is not lost. NEA can hire the writer at AP to craft a response statement with real bite. Let the war of words begin.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Case Closed

The horny law professor from the National University of Singapore (NUS), Tey Tsun Hang, has been sentenced to a jail term of 5 months and ordered to pay a penalty of S$514.80, a figure presumably rounded to the nearest 10 cents, since nobody in Singapore accepts the 5 cent coin anymore.

The precision of the fiscal punishment to two decimal points makes you wonder what kind of judges are sitting on the bench. The amount reportedly includes the balance of a dinner bill and the cost of two tailored shirts. First off, has the GST been accounted for? Assuming the tailored shirts were really made to measure, their quality (material and workmanship) will have to depend on whether the dinner was held at a hawker center, food court or fancy restaurant. Some press reports mention a Garibaldi dinner, but kopitiams are so up market nowadays it's hard to tell. And whatever happened to the iPod and Mont Blanc pen?  The duty free shop at Kuala Lumpur International Airport departure terminal (at Gate C) had a special offer for the latter at $400, but the Raffles City outlet carries more expensive models. Maybe the portable media player and writing instrument turned out to be made in China variants, and could explain why the prof gave her a B grade instead of an A. And why it would be embarrassing to record in the court documents cheap knock-offs are still being sold in Singapore shops.

Earlier the good judge said Tey's corrupt intent hinged on, amongst other things, a balance of power, highlighting that he was 38 when he took advantage of a student at nearly half his age, "just shy of her 21st birthday". To emphasis the point, the judge said she was about 6 years older than Tey's 14-year-old daughter. Okay, the math works here. Power corrupts, we have seen enough daily reminders of that, and we are told he had great influence over her, the future was in his hands. By same extrapolation, didn't Michael Palmer overwhelm the PAssionate grassroots leader with his "past achievements" too? We can only speculate whether Mike sought out to impress Laura, resulting in the homage of mangoes. Only a corruption case in open court can enlighten us further here.

It is doubtful whether anyone in the legal fraternity, or anywhere else on planet earth, will shed a tear for the philanderer. He was dumb to be his own lawyer, but it was downright cruel to cause her to undergo an abortion at such a tender age. Maybe the earth didn't move for either party at the interlude on his office couch, but he should at least have given her an A for the effort. Only then, can we truly file this away as a sex-for-grade case.