Category Archives: Singapore

Mavericks in the civil service?

On Saturday’s venerable ST, a curious article appeared about Eddie Teo’s apparent irritation with potentials scholars who give yes-men answers.  Such answers end up ” giving the impression that they have no integrity,” he said.

He goes onto say that he wants potential elites to be themselves and not hemmed in by expectations of what they should or should not say.

In fact, Mr Teo says: ‘Even a few mavericks – people with unconventional viewpoints who are willing to challenge assumptions – will be useful because they will add vitality and diversity to the service.’

The first normal reaction to such statements is “Don’t talk cock la”. It’s the usual spin of a top civil servant taking on the establishment or rules that govern the system. Much like Philip Yeo or Ngiam Tong Dow.

But Eddie Teo is no fool. He has been around hob-nobbing with the leaders of the day. He knows what he is saying and it would be a real surprise if he did not say it without first having told his chief, Teo Chee Hean or PM himself.

So is he geniune about what he means? Another way of putting it is, what exactly does he mean when he says no yes-men more mavericks.

The usual definition of mavericks is one that is out of the box. Someone who does things that don’t conform. A hero in a novel is not the guy who sticks to the rules but one who rebels against it. Think Leonardo Da Vinci, or Tom Cruise in Top Guy.

In Singapore, there are a few mavericks in the political and civil service. Probably the first mavericks were LKY and his gang of overseas educated locals who dared to challenge the British. But LKY has since become the system.

Other notables include current US ambassador Chan Heng Chee, who was quite a critic of the LKY regime in its early days. Tommy Koh, the all-in-one rolled together ambassador. Ho Kwon Pin of Banyan Tree and do-not-discriminate against the gays husband of Claire Chiang fellow. To a certain extent, lesser mortals include NTU journalism school head Cherian George, who was once harshly rebuked by Wong Kan Seng on writing a piece that slammed the Parliamentary process.

These are of course the mavericks who made it in the system, despite their antagonistic stance towards the people who run the system and, in fact, the system itself. Those that didn’t are far more numerous. Francis Seow, the former Solicitor General, local dissident Chee Soon Juan, former WP chief JBJ, among others.

So what does this say about mavericks? Clearly, only some mavericks are welcome. And only those who “with unconventional viewpoints who are willing to challenge assumptions”.

One thing that is common among those people who have had success are also those who know how and when to raise their objections. They quite clearly state that it is not that they want to overthrow the system but simply that they disagree with whatever it is that they disagree with. They usually also present their arguments very cleverly so that they cannot be accused of saying something they mean.

Some, like Vivian Balakrishnan, who was a vocal opponent of the Government in his earlier days, get fully co-opted. Others tend to stay at an arms length, for they may not want to fully compromise their values.

Indeed, they are no more than verbal sparring partners for the ruling elite.

So what does Eddie Teo want really?

I hope he wants people with balls and gumption to say things and say it with conviction. The civil service has enough of people who carry the balls of others. It needs real men and women who will no longer sit idly at the meeting table with the minister, twiddling their fancy Blackberries or iPhones and simply agreeing with what the minister says. We need civil servants with backbone, who can form their own opinion and say it.

An infusion of those who not only think critically but also hit out at their superiors will rejuvenate the civil service, which is efficient but dour and seen to be serving the whims of their political masters.

No more than simply mavericks, we need revolutionaries. People who can challenge not only assumptions but decisions. If the PM decides to leave a memo to the elections committee to redraw boundaries of the electoral map that may be detrimental to the chances of the opposition party, the chief of the elections department needs to be able to stand up to him and disagree. Fat chance of that happening now.

Or if the Minister of State of some ministry decides that it may not in the best interest of the nation to publish certain statistics on say the population or job market, the civil servant should have the guts to question the wisdom of such a move.

Right now, from what I know of the service, most are simply willing to get by. The minister is the boss so defer to his judgement. Ultimately he has been charged with the responsibility of  running the ministry since the people voted him in so why bother.

So where art thou, dear maverick?

2009 – the year of change

Boo to economics, cheers to politics.

I don’t particularly look forward to seeing the damage that has been inflicted on the economy. Everyone knows there will be tragedies this year. People will stuggle, people will fall and people will die because of the economic woes from the excesses of 2008 and before.

No, this year is/will be a bad one. But human history has shown that it is always in bad times that salvation is wrought.

Particularly so for Singapore politics. Already, we see outsiders making inroads into local politics. These outsiders are traditionally those who have steered clear of opposition politics simply because the opposition has been too incompetent and too messy.

Tan Kin Lian has been causing ripples with his activism in rallying people in the aftermath of the Minibonds fallout. He has “declared” his intention to run for Presidency and has started an online petition to get support for his bid to run for office.

A ploy, some say. But there is no doubting that his grand entrance into politics is causing great unease among the ruling elites. Here is a man who has run one of the premier insurance companies since he was in his late 20s. Late 20s! If that doesn’t speak loads about his competence, nothing will.

And in my humble opinion, there is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with him garnering support through his current activities. Who says politics is altruistic? It’s the same with the PAP sending its raw recruits to help out at grassroots – to build goodwill so that voters will vote for them during GE.

All’s fair in love and war and politics – and in politics more fair than others.

Kenneth Jeyaretnam – He is another behemoth who will change the political landscape if he does enter into opposition politics. And signs are present that the double-first class from Cambridge (I think) is keen on taking up his father’s legacy.

Over at TOC, a mysterious poster named KJ has been writing flowing and sharply critical pieces against the mainstream media. Is this person Kenneth Jeyarentnam (KJ?) A click on his blogsite refers him to this blog where there is a tribute to JBJ and an email to Kenneth Jeyaretnam.

If it is indeed him, the ruling party would have much to worry about. If KJeyarentnam can avoid getting into the muck of law suits and avoid character assasination, as will definitely happen, his entry into opposition politics will surely galvanise educated voters who yearn for proper checks against the PAP.

But unlike his father, who knew how to connect with grassroots, much leaves to be seen if KJ can not only sit behind the keyboard but rally voters to vote for him. He has the intellectual mettle, and by golly can he write, but can he get the ah-soh who has only been voting PAP all her life, to vote for him?

I might be putting the horse before the cart but I can’t help it. After a whole decade since SDP lost it’s two seats in Parliament and a decade of failed opposition politics, these developments portend a revival of opposition politics, even if it is all just conjecture.

IPS-Law Fac forum on AIMS paper

Just got this mailer from IPS. Thought I’d post it up in case anyone is interested.

IPS-NUS Law Faculty Public Forum “Consultation Paper by the Advisory
Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS)”

Date:               19th September 2008

Venue:            Seminar Room 4-4,NUS Law School,Block B, 469G Bukit Timah Road

Time:               4.00 pm – 6.30 pm (Registration begins at 3.30 pm)

Attire:              Office Attire

The Institute of Policy Studies and the Law Faculty of the National
University of Singapore will be organising the above forum to gather
feedback from members of the public on the recently published
consultation paper by the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media
on Society (AIMS). The advisory council was appointed last year by the
Government to study the far-reaching social, ethical, legal and
regulatory implications of a rapidly growing new media sector. Last
month, it unveiled its consultation paper, entitled “ENGAGING NEW
MEDIA – Challenging Old Assumptions”. The paper contains
recommendations on how and whether Government should engage with
citizens, regulate the Internet and protect minors from harmful online
content. The paper is available for download at the website of AIMS
(see http://www.aims.org.sg/library/docs/Executive%20Summary.pdf for
the executive summary and
http://www.aims.org.sg/library/docs/AIMS%20consultation%20paper%20-%20Engaging%20New%20Media.pdf
for the full paper). AIMS will refine its paper in the light of public
feedback before submitting it to the Government.

To register for the forum, please complete the attached Registration
Form and email it to Ms Raihidaya Wapa at daya@aims.org.sg or call
6837-9842.

If you have further queries regarding registration and administrative
details, please feel free to contact Mr Aaron Low (Email:
aaronlow@aims.org.sg) or Ms Yvonne Pang, (Email:
yvonnepang@aims.org.sg).

If you unable to attend the forum but will like to give feedback on
the consultation paper, you can do so at the AIMS website at
http://www.aims.org.sg/ or at the forum located at
http://forum.aims.org.sg/ You can also give your views by sending a
SMS to 94354608 between now and the end of 30 September, 2008.

Thank you.

How fast can you SMS?

So like to break from the usual politics-social commentary blah blah, I went to look up some of the more interesting tech waves hitting our mobile devices and laptops. And found this:

 I thought this was a freaking marvel. I mean I have a HP PDA and using stylus to type SMS just plain sucks. It stops me, literally, in my tracks as I have to bend over and write the message. Properly. And if I get one letter wrong, I scream and start to sweat. So, it’s a pretty annoying situation. I went back to my old Nokia after 6 months of putting it up with it.

Now, with this it is highly unlikely it will be able to detect things like la, lor, wah lau. Maybe we can input the Singlish dictionary in…

Myopia and its related illnesses

Myopia, as it is defined, afflicts many people.  Those with myopia see nearby objects clearly but distant objects appear blurred. (Wikipedia) Singaporeans are known to have one of the highest rates of myopia in the world. Many blame it on computer games, TV and reading in a poorly-lit room.

It seems myopia has not only overtaken our sensory functions but also our way of thinking.

Our treasured and dearly-loved elites over at Serangoon Gardens most clearly and stunningly exhibited this form of myopia. Not only myopia, might I humbly add, but also xenophobia and sheer racism.

Before I continue, I have a disclaimer. I do not appreciate the massive human jams on the public transport system nor in the shopping district especially on Sundays. While it is easy to blame foreigners, I don’t. I resent that it is crowded environment but I also greatly appreciate that we need these foreigners in our midst. Its the same everywhere else in this world. Fact of life: No one wants to work as a cleaner for $800 a month. Yet in my estate, I see young men and women from China clearing our the rubbish, dilligently, might I add.  (The economic solution to this is to pay higher wages for cleaners, similar to what we give our young educated men and women. In fact, economic theory suggests that we have to pay even more salaries to attract people to work in lousy jobs because they are lousy jobs. The result? We have to pay at least $2,000 to get a local young worker to work as a cleaner. The implications are quite clear, of course.)

The kind folks over at Serangoon Gardens seem to forget that their trash would pile up if not for foreign workers; their roads not smoothened out, their $2m houses not built; gold taps not fixed; their BMW/Mercedes cars not shined. They are actually okay with foreigners, just not stinky, smelly, dirty (might I daresay, black or dark) foreign workers.

No, let me correct that: they are not okay with having to share their living space in suburban heaven with such creatures. As long as they are out of sight, smell and mind, its okay.  Foreign workers are free to mix with the rest of Singapore, since, you know, people with no money don’t really count as thinking, living organisms either.

The government’s solution? Instead of correcting or reprimanding such racism, it went on to suggested that it would set up a segregated ghetto, as it will certainly become. (WTF are going to be cleaners for a compound of cleaners??!)

“Regardless of race, language or religion to build a democratic society…” Obviously, foregn workers not counted.

I weep for Raja’s vision.

Aiming too far ahead?

So the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS) has finally released its report. More than a year after it was set up it proposed key changes in policies and laws in 4 areas, engagement, online political content, protection of minors and limited immunity for intermediaries.

Great.

Uh, were you expecting anything more? Lots of people are saying, boo AIMS. Lame AIMS. Blah AIMS. Aim higher la.

What? Do cows fly over the moon?

Fact 1: AIMS is government appointed. That it got so far in going beyond what PM said is already an achievement. Don’t expect more than what it can go.

Fact 2: It is run by people who are not practitioners of New Media. No bloggers, no forumers etc.

Fact 3: These are but mere RECOMMENDATIONS. The final decision-maker is the government, and I’m betting they aren’t even going to go as far as AIMS.

So what are we left with? Everything. Look, the world moves on. Even if the government says, hey no one is to post pictures of chicks (I mean the yellow fluffy things that grow up to be McChicken burgers) or cats online, does that mean that the Net will suddenly be filled with a dearth of chick flicks (Haha)?

Fact is the Net ignores everyone and no one. We too have to move on and create something out of nothing. I find it amusing to see people write “The Net is unregulable!”. If so, why are they petitioning or writing about why the government should relax rules on the Net? If it is, it is.

If the idea of community moderation is to take flight, it is now that it should. We don’t need a stamp of approval.

Just do it

PM’s National Day Rally

Political films, political material during election and outdoor demonstrations

These are the three main thrusts of his speech aimed at liberalising the political sphere here.
The second and third items are not anything new. He has hinted at these before and yesterday’s annoucements were but elaborations.

a) Political films to be allowed – but safeguards will remain. His exact words were

“Some things are obviously alright – factual footage, documentaries, recordings of live events…. If you make a political commercial so that it’s purely made-up material, partisan stuff, footage distorted to create a slanted impression, I think those should still be off limits… Just as we deal with it for non-political films, we have censorship, we have classification standards. It depends on subjective judgment but we’ve worked out a workable system, a panel applies their minds, they make a judgment”. (Bolded for emphasis)

Clearly, that is where his OB markers are. “Factual footage, documentaries, recordings of live events.” In other words, if you whip our your camera and tape something happening right in front of you and upload it to YouTube or produce a DVD, you’re safe. This is assuming you do not edit it or put “footage distorted to create a slanted impression.” This is obviously fraught with problems – what is distorted footage, or slanted impression. He is clearly referring to videos like the one which had Obama morphing into Osama and Mccain endorsing his right-wing pastor.

Obviously, someone has to make the call to judge what is permissible and what is not. So far, it has been civil servants. As Alex Au pointed out, most laws are left to lawyers to interpret. The Films Act gives civil servants the power to interpret; not the most objective legal system around.

This is where I think the PM is hinting at a slightly different system, or so I hope. He alluded to the Films Classification system. Correct me if I am wrong but civil servants currently sit on the censorship board. If a filmmaker or distributor is unhappy with the ratings, they can go to an appeals board, made up of private citizens. This panel abitrates on the film.

Is PM hinting that political films will likewise go through the same process? That what is judged political be left to a panel? Possibly. If so, it too is fraught with problems and does not escape the key argument raised by liberals – such laws are practically unenforceable. The latest viral video on Hitler and ERP is such a film. Clearly political and very funny and satirical. Who uploaded it? Nobody knows. Can we catch them? Probably not. But it sure made an impact and it was *gasp* an emotional one too. It made me laugh and expressed exactly how I feel sometimes at the ERP system.

b) Political rules during election to be eased

Podcasts/vodcasts – I suppose this will be added to the positive list. Nothing new. In fact, it is still the same. Instead of saying what cannot be allowed, it is still “we give you a short list of what can be allowed. The rest can’t.” This is actually a better way of controlling than vice-versa but in the wild wild west of the Web, it makes no sense. Podcasts – okay but what about social networking sites? Can they be used in elections? They too offer podcasts and videocasts. In this, does this mean that the medium of audio and film is allowed but not the platform? As PM himself pointed out, a cyber-year is 7 years in real life. Things move so fast that his rules now will seem outdated by next GE.

To be fair, government has always moved slower than society. And rightly so. But in this, it just doesn’t make sense.

c) Demonstrations at Hong Lim

I was most intrigued by this actually. On paper, it looks interesting. No police registration but NParks. But like his pronoucement a couple of years ago about allowing discussions indoor on anything but race and religion, this too need to be treated with some caution.

There will certainly be restrictions on who and how many can participate in the demonstrations. I think they know that from the past few years with SDP moving to “civil disobedience” they had to react. They cannot continue arresting people. Much like talking cock, this will certainly become a zoo. A few select individuals are allowed to exhibit resistance but in a controlled environment. “Being subject to public order conditions,” gives the government a great amount of room to play their cards. They probably wouldn’t object to harmless people like Ng E-Jay making a stand and complaining…but the moment the Chee gang steps in, the police will move in.

So what has changed?

In substance, nothing much. But, I refuse to be a cynic, much like others in cyberspace. I actually think PM does want to move forward. But he is being held back by a conservative Cabinet. These rules are in place to check SDP really. I would think that if say a normal dude goes onto demonstrate, they will certainly have no problems doing so. Is this progress. Yes. Undeniably. But is it enough. No. Unfortunately.
I await to see the details of his proposals

Mas Selamat Part Deux

Okay I guess I blogged without really thinking about the issue. I’ve read the dozens of pages of reports and the followups in ST and I’ve followed some, not all, of the discussions on the blogosphere.

I think PM played a politically shrewd move. I had myself asked the question, should Mr Wong Can’t Sing resign? Of course, it was a question that was asked in passing, knowing full well that it would not happen. Did I want it to? Maybe not entirely and that is, I think, why Low Thia Khiang also hesitated when asked point blank by PM.

No, it was a shrewd move to focus entirely on the extreme measure of the sack and argue that its ridiculous, thereby deflecting the necessary need for censure.

The Online Citizen wrote that it wanted at least the offer of resignation. That it was not just the incompetence that let him out in the first place, but how it handled the entire situation. From the slow leaking of information, to the reluctance to acknowledge that it was at fault, to the opaqueness of the COI report and to its arrogance to the final end. And of course, that the PM himself has refused to censure his trusted DPM.

Therein lies the problem. A ahem confluence of factors has really created this cauldron of boiling sentiment. It’s not just Mas Selamat, who I think we have to thank for for the raising of such hackles, but everything else that is wrong with this government. It’s sitting in the clouds, insisting that it has the monopoly of information and wisdom by surrounding with people scoring 4 As. It refuses to open itself up to criticism, taking any jibe at its leaders as a personal affront to the PM. It is the hegemon, writhing and squirming against a rising tide of opposition, pushing back and ceding none except for a few steps.

By focusing on the sack and the ludicrousness of the suggestion, PM has done it again. What we, I at least, really want is to see someone being taken to task. Surely, a low level failure is connected to something higher. As a sergeant in the army, I am always always questioned if my men does something wrong, in camp or outfield. Even if its a minor thing, much less a major thing. If the squadmate, say, lets loose a spare round without being told to do so, it’s a major incident and everyone down the line from the CO will be questioned, interrogated and, if needed, censured. Where was this process of discipline? For a government which prides itself on integrity, this is sorely lacking.

So instead of calling for the sack, which everyone knows is not going to happen, let’s settle for something less. A demotion to Parliamentary Secretary. At that level, he is able to clean up the ISD’s act without having to worry about SDP’s antics on the road and maybe learn some humility in the process.

Singapore Idol: Mas Selamat

All’s been said has been said. Ridicule, sacarsm, shock, even calls for resignation.

All I want to say is incompetence deserves censure. What censure has there been?