Tag Archives: Politics

Tan Chuan-Jin, this is not a threat

Does Tan Chuan-Jin betray a sense of entitlement in framing the fact that someone may choose not to vote for him as a threat?

In Merriam-Webster, a threat is defined as “an expression of intention to inflict evil, injury or damage”. Other definitions exist, but they are usually quite negative and tend to imply harm. I’ve never heard of someone threatening to do me a favour.

So why does the (acting) Minister for Manpower make it all so dramatic? Does he see the default position as being that everyone should vote for him, and any suggestion that one may not, is an implication of impending “injury or damage”? I’m afraid Mr Tan’s years in the Army may have conditioned him to expect everyone around (or beneath?) him to do as he wishes. This may be a valid approach when encouraging young conscripts to run up a hill, but it is the antithesis of representative democracy. As an MP Mr Tan should have realised by now that the tables have turned. His job – more or less – is to represent the wishes of his residents in parliament, and he should further realise that a vote has to be earned, it is not an entitlement.

As readers may know, I have e-mailed the minister myself once or twice recently. Of course, I received no reply, but I did not take this personally, I just assumed he is either lazy or rude. While the polite thing to do might be to at least send out a stock response or a simple acknowledgement – probably delegated to a secretary or assistant – this apparently is a level of engagement still beyond the ruling party.

There are many valid reasons why one would choose not vote for the PAP. I for one will not be doing so, in no small part due to the mess that is our labour market under the negligent oversight of Mr Tan’s MOM. But this is my right, and in saying so, I am exercising my own free will, not issuing a threat. Rather than fretting over the fact that someone may choose not vote for him, Mr Tan should knuckle-down, do the best job he can, and hope that it is enough to win the trust of his residents in 2016.

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[Updated 1] Triple confirm. “Tightening on foreign labour” was a lie.

Updated: The editors at TRE pointed out quite rightly that the increase in the number of foreign workers coming to Singapore is on target this year to be less than in previous years. Whether this “reduction in the increase” represents a tightening rather than a “slower loosening” is debatable. The chart below appears to show that the overall trend is mostly unchanged. However, the most important questions still remain. In light of increasing unemployment and decreasing wages, can the government be said to have delivered policy results that benefit Singaporeans? Despite lots of noise around a “tight labour market”, it would appear not.

Government claims to have been tightening on foreign labour could never be reconciled with a population white paper that laid out a path to GDP growth through massive immigration. As I wrote at that time, propaganda rather than policy changes appeared to be driving the debate. The truth – that the government is not tightening the inflow of foreign workers – has recently been revealed by three pieces of information released by the government itself. These revelations leave many in government with some explaining to do – why so much focus on the problems associated with a labour shortage when one does not appear to exist. On the contrary, the problems caused by an over abundance of cheap foreign labour – stagnant wages and increasing unemployment – are very much still present and, if anything, worsening.

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Plagiarism in Parliament? Copy from Australia, paste to Singapore

Singapore’s handsomely remunerated law-makers have on occasion claimed to be so busy running the country that they couldn’t pause even to hold elections. If this is true, one wonders where their hours are spent. Revelations today hint that writing legislation is not the answer. A look at the wording of the Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act indicates that significant tracts of that document appear to have been taken, almost word for word, from Australian legislation of the same name. Legislation first passed into law in New South Wales five years before it hit Singapore’s statute books. Is this a case of “plagiarism in parliament” or is there a more innocent explanation?

Spot the difference.  Text from the Singaporean and Australian Acts

Spot the difference. Formatted extracts from the Singaporean and Australian acts

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OurSGConversation finds majority favour preservation of Bukit Brown

A majority of Singaporeans prefer preservation of green spaces over infrastructure development

A majority of Singaporeans prefer preservation of green spaces over infrastructure development

Bukit Brown has won the hearts of many visitors, particularly amongst those who either discovered or re-discovered its peaceful charms after it was gazetted for significant redevelopment in 2011. While a small but vocal group of dedicated fans and concerned citizens rallied at that time to save Bukit Brown, the perception was that they did not enjoy the support of a significant number of Singaporeans. However, polling conducted as part of the Our Singapore Conversation project appears to show otherwise. Whether viewed as a part of our heritage, or merely as a green space, a significant majority of Singaporeans prefer preservation of such sites over infrastructure development. While the government claims to have been listening during the national conversation, not everyone is convinced. A decision to preserve Bukit Brown before exhumations and development begin would be a significant step towards showing Singaporeans that their concerns and desires were given an honest hearing.

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DRUMS? Or noisy government propaganda?

Singapore government dials propaganda machine up to eleven in effort to drown out voices of concerned citizens

Singapore government dials propaganda machine up to eleven in effort to drown out voices of concerned citizens

The importance of a compliant, government controlled media to support the misdeeds of authoritarian governments is not lost on the PAP. Lee Kuan Yew, the political godfather of Singapore, spoke eloquently in opposition on the evils that could be achieved in such an environment. As long as no voices exist to either contradict the lies or highlight the failings of a ruling party, there is almost no limit to the level of deceit that can be inflicted on unsuspecting citizens. The threat posed to such a government monopoly by independent voices online is increasingly forcing the Singapore government propaganda machine to be dialed up to eleven.

[A]n intimidated press and the government-controlled radio together can regularly sing your praises, and slowly and steadily the people are made to forget the evil things that have already been done, or if these things are referred to again they’re conveniently distorted and distorted with impunity, because there will be no opposition to contradict.
Lee Kuan Yew as an opposition PAP member speaking to David Marshall, Singapore Legislative Assembly, Debates, 4 October, 1956

An intimidated press is the model under which Singapore’s ruling PAP have governed for decades, however in recent years increasingly vocal online critics have challenged the government’s monopoly on news and analysis. Missteps, greater numbers of corruption cases and unexplained policy u-turns have increasingly been cited by online critics as indications of a government that does not plan or execute with a level of excellence most would expect in the context of their self awarded gargantuan paychecks. In response to the threat independent critics pose to the government’s monopoly of mainstream news and analysis, the ruling party has recently resorted to ever-more desperate efforts to silence, intimidate or discredit online commentators – the most recent example came a few weeks ago when Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen went so far as to suggest that online sources of misinformation could hamper Singapore’s Total Defence efforts. It appears that the existence of online voices critical of the ruling party has forced the government to turn their own propaganda machine up to eleven in response.

This is a sign of how much times have changed since Lee spoke in 1956. Having gained power for his People’s Action Party he would ultimately perform the most hypocritical of u-turns. Over the follow decades practically every democratic principle he spoke in support of in the years before he became Prime Minister of Singapore was abandoned, and there are few examples of this which are more glaring than his cultivation of the sort of intimidated, government controlled media that he opposed in 1956. The seeds of this were sown in the 1970s (and well documented by Francis Seow in his book “Media Enthralled”) when Lee cracked down on independent newspapers, but to this day Singapore’s mainstream media remains moribund, languishing below even that of Vladimir Putin’s Russia in international rankings for freedom.

In recent years however the media landscape has changed significantly. In Singapore, as in practically every country around the world, the emergence of the internet represents a revolution in the way people communicate and share information. And for the government here, as well as authoritarian governments around the world, this revolution represents an existential threat to the power of the ruling party. By giving ordinary citizens a means to not just by-pass but also directly challenge and contradict government lies and propaganda, what Lee described as “the evil things that have already been done” are harder to forget. The carefully stage-managed reputation for excellence that has been cultivated over the years is ever more difficult to maintain. The rudderless policy u-turns can no longer be executed in complete silence, since it is hard to pretend one has not changed course when a dozen bloggers are on hand to remind their readers.

All the above brings us to the crossroads Singapore current sits at. In one direction lies greater freedom of expression and a government that is constrained from mischief by the voices of ordinary Singaporeans speaking up when they feel something is wrong. In the other direction lies a return to the past, where ever fewer Singaporeans have a voice or a platform to speak out if they are concerned about the way the country is being run, and where the government has greater freedom to distort the truth and cover up its mistakes. While most Singaporeans would prefer more freedom to express themselves – and most importantly be listened to – it is clear the government wants to take Singapore down the much darker, regressive path. We see this in the MDA’s recent licensing changes. We see this in numerous attempts to malign and discredit bloggers (not to mention making inexplicable late night phone calls). And now we see the government going so far as to suggest that careless online comments can threaten the very defense of Singapore itself – the desperation betrayed by such extreme levels of propaganda should be obvious.

The desperation of the government may be obvious, but we should be careful to consider the question of why? Why is the government so desperate to lead Singapore down a regressive path, restricting freedom of speech? Restricting freedom to criticise and critically analyse government decisions and mistakes? Does the government covet the power spoken of by LKY, to distort the truth? Does the government wish that we, as LKY warned, forget some evils that have been done in the past? Is government policy so directionless that complete u-turns on policy will need to be performed without explanation? Who really benefits from the government’s stance on this? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the government seeks to lead us down the dark and regressive path because it is the best way for the current leaders to maintain power, rather than because it is best aligned with the wishes of ordinary Singaporeans or the best way to make Singapore better. Is there anyone outside the PAP who believes Singapore would be better of with an increased rather than reduced government monopoly over news and information?

As Lee senior knew very well all those years ago, government controlled media is bad for citizens, but good for governments with dirty secrets to hide. So then why does his son’s government increasingly try to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens with noisy propaganda, intimidation and utterly absurd legislation? One can only guess.

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Auditor General: Breaches of Law in Prime Minister’s Office

Barely a week after Lee Hsien Loong spoke of integrity and the importance of admitting ones mistakes, the Auditor General released his annual report and gave the PM the perfect opportunity to practice what he preached. The report for 2012/13 cites more than two dozen incidents relating to contracts worth almost S$300M where the PMO’s National Research Foundation appear to be in violation of The Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act. While the PM himself is not directly implicated, the failure of a department under his oversight to abide by its legal and contractual obligations clearly raises significant questions. Will the PM or his office stand up for their integrity and admit to these mistakes – as the PM has urged his political opponents to do over much smaller matters – or will a hypocritical silence be maintained?

To quote the Auditor General’s report directly, under the heading “Prime Minister’s Office”:

62. The Building and Construction Industry Security of Payment Act (Cap. 30B, 2006 Revised Edition) stipulated the time frame for making payment and requirements for payment response to a payment claim. The Act was passed to address cash flow problems faced by the construction industry by upholding the rights of parties to seek progress payments for work done and goods supplied.

63. For the contract for building works construction and another contract for foundation works (total contract value of $295.72 million), AGO found 32 instances of late payment to contractors (totalling $254.04 million). In six instances (totalling $26.09 million), the delays ranged from 33 to 174 days.

64. For the three consultancy services contracts (total contract value of $27.25 million), AGO observed that NRF did not provide payment responses to the consultants’ payment claims (totalling $24.56 million).
Report of the Auditor-General for the Financial Year 2012/13

Some observers may find it shocking that the Auditor General claims to have observed unlawful behaviour on the part of the government, but in fact this year’s revelation follows even more serious breaches detected by the AG last year. As was first reported by Kenneth Jeyaretnam, the Ministry of Finance last year broke the law – in fact the constitution – in issuing a “promissory note” to the World Bank without presidential approval. In the same year, the Ministry for National Development was also found to have breached the constitution by engaging in unlawful accounting methods on a land reclamation project.

In any normal democratic country, unlawful or unconstitutional behaviour on the part of the government would be a significant scandal, in Singapore however these mistakes go completely unreported by a mainstream media that apparently deems the cleanliness of a hawker centre to be much more significant. A mainstream media also that uncritically toes the government line on what constitutes “integrity“, but will surely not call the PM out if he maintains a hypocritical silence in failing to admit to the many unlawful mistakes that have been committed by entities responsible to him.

The key question arising from the AG’s findings is whether the current government are fit for purpose in terms of upholding the public interest. Can a government that despite being extremely well paid, repeatedly breaches the law, the constitution and their own contractual obligations be entrusted with the wealth and wellbeing of the nation? The PM should take his own advice. Speak the truth. Things have clearly gone wrong, and even though it is inconvenient the PM should admit to the unlawful mistakes made by the current government. A failure to do so will only leave the PM open to accusations of hypocrisy since these are exactly the steps the PM urged his political opponents to take over actually much more trivial mistakes made in the cleaning of a hawker centre.

The PM should respond. His integrity is at stake.

* * * * * *

The author of this article contacted the Prime Minister’s Office who were offered the chance to comment on the concerns raised by the Auditor General’s report. No response was received.

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Integrity or Fear. PM Lee, Cabinet prioritise fixing opposition over national agenda

Any doubts as to the level of fear that consumes PM Lee and his ruling People’s Action Party were blown away recently in a week where the full force of the government was directed at attempting to discredit the opposition Workers Party over a series of controversies which are seen by many citizens to be non-issues either manufactured or exaggerated for political gain.

The fear that many assume torments the mind of Lee junior is the ever-increasing probability that his government will suffer a historic reversal in what is expected to be a 2016 general election. The fallout from a significant swing away from the ruling party would likely force many of Lee’s cabinet out of government and also make his own position as PM untenable. Such a shake-up of power in Singapore would be unprecedented in modern times and may well lead to a period of sincere soul-searching on the part of the PAP – soul-searching that may require an admission of and move away from the mistaken politics of the past. The impact of such a process on the reputation and legacy of Lee and the men in white is likely to be damning and it is therefore a fear of losing not just power over Singapore, but the power to protect their own reputations, that consumes many in government today.

Desperation

In their coordinated and wide-ranging attempt to discredit the opposition WP, Lee and his cabinet colleagues left many observers puzzled by their decision to refer to a series of issues that are perceived variously to be old, irrelevant or resolved. That this political attack appears to have been prioritised at the cabinet level over a busy domestic agenda dominated by a stagnant economy, the fallout from the government’s hazardous haze response and an ongoing dengue epidemic was to many observers surprising, but in fact betrayed the desperate depths that the ruling party is willing to dredge in their oft-stated desire to fix political opponents.

The curtain rose on the drama in parliament’s Monday sitting, with Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan re-opening the debate over the cleaning of various hawker centres around Bedok, in spite of government-owned Channel NewsAsia and others having reported the dispute as “resolved” – citing NEA and Hawker Association sources in the process – over a month previously.

Hawker centre cleaning dispute reported "resolved" in June

Hawker centre cleaning dispute reported “resolved” in June

In case anyone thought the Minister had gone off message in dredging up a closed and petty dispute for political sparring, PM Lee himself removed any doubt – and in the process doubled down on the PAP’s dubious obsession with defamation suits – by stating that the Minister enjoyed the full support of the cabinet and was willing to be sued by his political opponents if they saw themselves as having been defamed by any of his utterings in the house. But how PM Lee could justify his Environment Minister – who should be busy responding to both the ongoing dengue and haze crises – devoting so much time to the politicisation of a resolved issue was a question left unanswered.

Beyond expressing the cabinet level support that Vivian Balakrishnan enjoyed for his partisan attack on the opposition, PM Lee further underscored how desperate his party is to score political points on irrelevant topics by revisiting both Pritam Singh’s alleged plagiarism of a blog posting in parliament and questions around the appointment of FMSS in WP controlled town council operations. The latter is particularly ironic since questions around FMSS were last given a public airing in an attempt to distract from awkward questions being asked in the aftermath of the AIM scandal – the role of FMSS as a political punching bag for the PAP is becoming increasingly obvious yet so far public opinion does not appear to have shifted in response to the PM’s pummeling. Furthermore, that the allegation of plagiarism against Mr Singh is now more than sixteen months old reinforces the perception that the government is clutching at straws in an effort to find issues to beat the opposition with. PM Lee is surely aware of but chooses to ignore the fact that Mr Singh pointed out long ago – and has again re-confirmed – that permission to cite the article in question was indeed sought and given.

PM Lee has spoken recently on the importance of having the “right politics” in Singapore, but in this week’s exchanges his party has revealed the usually unspoken but well recognised truth about politics in Singapore – that the PAP obsesses over the destruction of political opponents, obsesses over defamation suits in lieu of the court of public opinion and that the fear of a reversal in 2016 is forcing the ruling party into taking increasingly desperate measures to protect their power. We have seen this in recent attempts to crack down on critical voices online, and we see it in the ongoing political mudslinging over barely relevent issues that are clearly a desperate attempt to discredit the political opposition.

If PM Lee is as confident in his own rhetoric about good politics as he claims to be, perhaps he should step out of the comfort of his GRC and come to Hougang or some other SMC in 2016 and give the nation a lesson in good governance. If on the other hand he is more concerned with remaining in power for his own benefit rather than the good of the nation, one can expect much mud to be slung, many critics to be silenced and many cabinet ministers to contest GRCs in 2016. Time and the court of public opinion will indeed tell.

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K Shanmugam chooses his words carefully

The internet smoulders today with the fallout from Foreign and Law Minister K Shanmugam’s alleged late night phone call to Remy Choo, wherein they apparently discussed the allegedly libellous nature of an article originally published in The Global Mail and shared widely amongst Singaporeans. The Minister appears to be in damage limitation mode – attempting to downplay the significance of the phone call which was first revealed by Kirsten Han, and secondly by seeking to clarify his historical business relationship with companies ultimately controlled by Indonesia’s Widjaja family that was raised in the article.

Like all good lawyers, Mr Shanmugam appears to have chosen his words carefully – very carefully. For this reason, a close look at what he said – and didn’t say – could be instructive.

Starting with the phone call to Remy Choo, the Minister admits that it took place. The minister does not deny that it was a late night phone call, or even a “midnight phone call” as stated by Kirsten Han. While the Minister seeks to downplay the significance of this phone call by emphasising the strength of his relationship with Remy, he never goes so far as to say that Remy Choo is his friend. Is it normal for the Minister to make unsolicited late night phone calls to people who are not his friends or family members? It seems unlikely. Furthermore, the Minister very clearly does not deny the key point – that the purpose of the call was to convey the message that “he would not hesitate to sue those republishing [the article]”.

Mr Shanmugam is a very experienced and successful lawyer. Lawyers are trained to choose their words careful, and in this case he appears to have done so. He could have chosen to deny these facts, but he did not. For this reason, we should presume that the central premise as reported by Kirsten Han is, more likely than not, true.

Despite asserting that what Kirsten wrote is “quite untrue” and that the conversation had been “twisted”, the Minister chooses a very different tenor when addressing the points raised by foreign journalist Eric Ellis in the original article. Most importantly, at no point does the Minister appear to state that anything written by Mr Ellis is false or untrue. At no point does he accuse Mr Ellis of twisting anything. Since accusing someone of publishing lies is presumably libellous itself, neglecting to make this allegation may be the pragmatic approach to take. The relevant article was originally published by a media outlet from Australia, a country with a very different legal relationship between freedom of speech and defamation from Singapore. Perhaps the Minister has chosen not to make any statements alleging falsehoods in Mr Ellis’ article in case such statements would be considered “actionable” in Australia. Regardless of the reasons, the fact is that at no point does the Minister state that anything written by Mr Ellis is false. Furthermore, the Minister provides no details whatsoever regarding what about the article causes him to find it actionable.

To re-iterate, Mr Shanmugam is an experienced lawyer, and we must assume he has chosen his words carefully. He does not assert that anything written by Mr Ellis is false. In fact he can point to nothing specific in the article which he finds libellous. If the Minister finds the article so troubling as to require him to make late night phone calls to convey the message that “he would not hesitate to sue those republishing [it]” then he should come out and explain why. If such an explanation cannot be provided, many are likely to draw the inference that Mr Shanmugam’s assertion that the article is libelous is unsubstantiated.

What Mr Shanmugam says about his historical business relationship with Sinar Mas Group (SMG) is also noteworthy. Most importantly he admits his previous paid directorships of two companies ultimately owned by SMG. This admission is to be expected because it is a matter of fact on the public record. The question is whether there is a conflict of interest between the Minister’s historical business dealings with SMG and his current role as Foreign and Law Minister in Singapore. Singapore is currently embroiled in an dispute with Indonesia, that may or may not ultimately revolve around other (different) companies owned by SMG and may or may not lead to legal proceedings in Singapore against those companies. It could be argued that Mr Shanmugam’s historical relationship with SMG presents a conflict of interest. It is important to note that the existence or apparent existence of a conflict of interest is not indicative of corrupt, illegal or immoral behaviour. However, a conflict of interest must be carefully and transparently managed to ensure a fair outcome. Whether or not there even is a conflict of interest in this case is debatable, since Mr Shanmugam’s relationship with SMG ended many years ago. Regardless though, it is quite proper for Mr Ellis to raise the question and Mr Shanmugam should prioritise answering it over suing Singaporeans who share the article online.

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Government disappoints with hazardous haze response

Since the worst of the haze appears to have passed – for now – it may be instructive to analyse the response of the Singapore government to the worst public health crisis to affect the island in recent years. As the crisis unfolded over the previous week it struck me that the government response was slow and reactive and did not come across as having been well planned or co-ordinated at all. Was it my imagination, or was the government dropping the ball almost on a daily basis, in a manner unbecoming of the world’s most handsomely remunerated administration? Let’s take a look back at what actually happened.

To contextualise the government response to the haze crisis, the most important thing to remember is that this is now a very predictable annual event, the only difference this year was the severity. Previously the worst haze experienced in Singapore occurred in 1997. In 2005 a “Haze Task Force” was set up, consisting of 23 government and agency bodies, one of the goals of which was to draw up a “National Haze Action Plan”. Clearly the government has had a lot of time to, and ostensibly expended a lot of expensive civil service effort on, preparing for this year’s haze incident. So the lack lustre, ill-prepared and reactive response which followed was both surprising and disappointing.

Starting somewhere near the beginning of the crisis, at 9pm on Wednesday 19 June the highest PSI reading ever recorded in the history of Singapore was published – 290, a value which broke the previous record of 226 set in 1997 by some margin. Many Singaporeans were on the edge of their seats looking for the next update to see if the significant value of 300 would be breached – a breach that would put Singapore’s air quality officially into “hazardous” territory for the first time. It was therefore extremely surprising and disappointing that the publication of the 10pm reading was significantly delayed – until at least 10:45. Make no mistake, there was a significant public health event unfolding in realtime and the inability of NEA to publish this value on time was a significant failure. Where is the value in publishing public health statistics on a regular schedule if the most important reading in the history of Singapore is inexplicably delayed? NEA in fact did come out to explain this delay as being due to technical issues while noting that significant numbers of visitors were hitting the web site to check for the value. While conspiracy theorists may have a field day with this explanation, pointing to the fact that NEA’s reporting page was responsive and error free at the relevant time, I choose to accept the explanation given. But it still does not address the question of planning and preparedness. Did NEA or the Haze Task Force not think that a record-breaking haze situation, where Singapore’s PSI readings were pushing into hazardous territory for the first time ever, would inspire many thousands of people to visit their web page? Was the site not stress-tested for a situation such as this? Furthermore, noting the significant nature of the incident and considering the importance of sharing public health information with those affected, could NEA not have found other means to make the hazardous reading publicly known? CNA had an on-screen live ticker showing the PSI value updating hourly – could NEA not have put a quick call into CNA to get them to update the latest value? Could NEA not have updated citizens through their Facebook page that the latest value was “hazardous” and shared instructions on how to manage the situation accordingly? Could the PM’s Facebook page not have been deployed in support of this public awareness effort? There are a multitude of ways in which the public could have been kept informed of this crucial information, but NEA clearly dropped the ball in not deploying any of them. That this happened literally at the worst possible time paints NEA’s preparedness and crisis management skills in a very poor light.

Following on from the record-breaking PSI value of 321 which was eventually released almost an hour late, the next morning the Straits Times ran with the front page headline “Record PSI at 10pm 321. Plans in place if haze worsens”. It was notable that the government didn’t see fit to activate these plans even though air quality had already reached hazardous levels for the first time ever. It was also curious that neither the details of what those plans would be, nor the level at which they would be activated were spelled out. If NEA or the Haze Task Force had an objective, science driven set of planned actions to carry out at specific levels of public health threat, they were clearly not being shared with residents, an observation which underscores the impression that the government did not actually have an objective plan in place for this extremely predictable incident. Furthermore, as soon as 1pm on the same day that ST ran that headline, the haze did indeed worsen significantly to 371. If the plans that were supposed to be in place were activated at that time, then the details of this were also not communicated effectively. This all adds up to create the impression of a government with no concrete plan defining what steps should be taken under what objective, measurable conditions. Instead, the government appeared to be responding reactively to a fast-moving situation, and being unable to define or execute supposedly existing plans because they were not in fact in place. The impression that the 23 government bodies tasked to create a “Haze Action Plan” had failed to deliver was inescapable.

Up to this point, all public debate and reporting around PSI figures had focussed on the 3 hour average. Singapore’s previous record value of 226 set in 1997 was a 3 hour value – as was the occasionally reported value of 106 from 2010 – the last time the value had exceeded 100. CNA’s on-screen PSI value at that time showed the 3 hour value. Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Environment and National Resources lamented the fact that the 3 hour PSI value had reached 152 in a Facebook posting on Monday 17 June. PM Lee himself in a Facebook post on Wednesday expressed dismay that the 3 hour PSI value had spiked above 300.

PM Lee referring to the 3 hour PSI average.  Singaporeans were later informed that the 24 hour average was more useful

PM Lee referring to the 3 hour PSI average. Singaporeans were later informed that the 24 hour average was more useful

But in spite of the fact that everyone in Singapore, including government ministers and the PM himself were consistently framing the debate around the 3 hour average, the government subsequently claimed that the 24 hour value was a more meaningful and appropriate measure – changing the terms of the debate while the crisis was ongoing. This is staggering. Putting aside the question of which metric is actually more useful, how could we possibly be in a situation where the primary metric driving both public debate and government policy is changed mid crisis? Again, the question of preparedness is front and centre. Had the Haze Task Force, set up in 2005 and consisting of 23 government agencies, not actually managed to define the correct metric by which air quality should be assessed? Having to change the quantitive measurement used to drive what one can only hope is an objective, science driven response mid-crisis just looks amateurish and reeks of a lack of proper preparation. If the 3 hour average is inadequate or flawed, why was it not phased out years ago? Why did the Haze Task Force not address this when it was set up in 2005? These questions all appear to remain unanswered and again the conclusion that the Haze Task Force has not properly prepared Singapore for the current – predictable – crisis is inescapable.

One of the main issues concerning Singaporeans throughout the crisis was the difficulty of obtaining N95 masks. Many postings on social media lamented the fact that stores were either sold out or experiencing long queues. Speaking on CNA’s Talking Point on Thursday 20 June, the Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan reassured viewers that the government had adequate stockpiles and that a re-stocking had been performed that evening at all retail outlets. But despite this supposed re-stocking on Thursday, many retail outlets were still found to be sold out on Friday and Saturday. In response to this failure by the government to ensure adequate supplies were available for purchase, it was actually netizens who spontaneously organised to alleviate the problem, setting up the facebook group Places to get Face Masks in Singapore which crowd-sourced real-time information on where masks could actually be purchased and at what prices. Another area where netizens out performed the government response was in crowd sourcing information on air-conditioned spaces which could be used to offer respite from the haze to vulnerable citizens. This step was something which appeared to inspire the PAP to open up their air-conditioned RCs for public use over the weekend. But again, this government response does not appear to have been part of any planned or organised haze response. If it were, one wonders why it was activated so slowly – so slowly in fact that ordinary citizens had already organised to provide the same to vulnerable citizens. The observation that the government was responding reactively rather than activating an existing planned response is again hard to avoid.

The final point I want to make is on the offers that the Singapore government made to Indonesia to assist with combating the haze. Since the root cause of the haze is fires burning in Sumatra, a core part of any haze response should surely be assistance with fire fighting. But the government’s position on this was vague and unhelpful. While there were a few occasions where assistance was apparently offered, the majority of the government’s effort was expended on telling the Indonesian government what they should do. What was also notable was how relatively little reporting effort was expended on informing Singaporeans what assistance had been offered, but the fact that it had not been accepted was on the other hand often repeated. Some details are available regarding the assistance package however and it appears to consist of three things – assistance with cloud seeding, high-resolution satellite imagery and hotspot co-ordinate information. I could probably write five thousand words just on why this offer of assistance is completely laughable and frankly insulting to Indonesia, it is no surprise to me that Indonesia did not accept it. The government of Singapore can and probably should offer much more, especially when the health of Singapore’s own citizens is at stake. Regarding cloud seeding, this is something Indonesia has been doing for years and has plenty of experience with. In fact cloud seeding is regularly performed around Jakarta in an attempt to induce rainfall and to prevent flooding. Regardless, cloud seeding is actually quite simple, it typically involves nothing more complicated than dropping salt from an aeroplane. On the topic of satellite imagery and hotspot data, the fact is that Singapore doesn’t operate the satellites which gather this data. The information Singapore seeks to share in this regard is actually produced by the US government and is presumably equally available to Indonesia as it is to Singapore.

US NOAA satellite imagery of hotspots in Sumatra

US NOAA satellite imagery of hotspots in Sumatra

One can in fact see the name of the US government department – typically the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA – emblazoned across the top of the imagery. There is even a web page describing all the foreign operated satellites from which Singapore obtains this data. So for Singapore to seek to “offer” this to Indonesia is slightly bizarre – not least because if there were any value in Indonesia receiving this from Singapore, the government should just send it to them! Why bother to treat this as an “offer” that was not accepted, when the data can simply be sent. Remember, this is data which ostensibly can be used to mitigate a public health crisis affecting Singapore, and sending someone an unsolicited email is hardly an intrusion into their national sovereignty.

If Singapore were serious about offering assistance, they may like to offer meaningful assistance with firefighting, but as far as I can see, no such offer was made – certainly not a public one. How to fight the fires is probably a topic for another time, but for now let us just note that both water and access to the sites of the fires appear to be readily available – all that is required is manpower, equipment and organisation – all of which Singapore can choose to help with if desired.

For all of the reasons above, the suggestion that the Singapore government has responded to the haze crisis in line with a pre-established action plan is not credible. In light of the fact that a 23 agency task force was set up eight years ago to draw up such an action plan, this failure appears to be unforgivable. The government has consistently failed to describe or execute objective steps in response to a consistent quantitive understanding of the unfolding situation. In fact, the metrics used to assess this ongoing public health emergency have been changed while the crisis was ongoing and essential public health information has not been shared with citizens in a timely manner. Conversely, it has been netizens and ordinary citizens who have implemented the most meaningful positive responses where government failure to act had left a void.

To prevent similar problems in the future, the government of Singapore must set up a credible haze action plan, no later than nine months from today. This action plan must be made public and it must describe in full the metrics that will be used to assess the severity of the unfolding situation. The plan must also spell out – objectively and based on a scientific understanding of pollution exposure and risks – what actions will be taken at what levels of severity. The current situation where the government chooses not to take steps while consistently stating that unspecified actions will be taken at unspecified levels of greater severity does not instill public confidence and in fact creates needless uncertainty. Uncertainty is the last thing anyone wants to see when a public health crisis is unfolding.

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Singaporeans are fed, up with censorship

Many have speculated about what is the true intent of the Singapore government’s recently announced new licensing regime for news websites. We of course got some insight from Minister Yaacob Ibrahim’s statement about the need for Singaporeans to read the “right” thing online. More important, but less widely reported, was his definition of what the “right” things might be. A more complete quote of what he said to the BBC is:

“We want to protect the interest of the ordinary Singaporean. As long as they go online to read the news I think it’s important to make sure that they read the ‘right thing’, insofar as if there’s an event yesterday it is reported accurately.”

MDA appear to have re-iterated the point on accuracy and good intent in their emailed response to Mr Ngerng who blogs at The Hearth Truths. They wrote inter alia

“Nowhere do the guidelines state that news sites cannot question or highlight the shortcomings of government policies, as long as the assessments are well-intentioned, and not based on factual inaccuracies with the intention to mislead the public”

The obvious issue emerging from both these quotes is the question of legislating or regulating for accuracy, as well as whether an article is “well-intentioned”. There does not appear to be any objective means by which the MDA intends to assess any given “Singapore news programme” for accuracy or good intention before exercising their power to issue a take down notice. To see why legislating in these terms is a very short step from outright censorship, we only need to look briefly at the history of state censorship of print media in Singapore. Since MDA has oft-repeated their intent to seek parity between print and online media, the government’s stance on accuracy and intent in the context of silencing critics in the print media is particularly enlightening.

I’m sure most readers are familiar with “mr brown” – real name Lee Kin Mun – who is a prominent blogger, tweeter and general internet pioneer in Singapore. But mr brown in the past has not just enjoyed online fame – I’m sure many are also aware he used to write a column for Today newspaper – until he penned a satirical and stinging critique of the ruling party in June 2006 titled “Singaporeans are fed, up with progress“. The government of the day – under the leadership of Lee Hsien Loong – were extremely displeased with the article, making assertions that it contained inaccuracies but also proceeding to denounce it in extremely strong terms. mr brown was suspended from writing his column within a week and I believe has never returned to the pages of Today newspaper. Let us be clear that the outcome of this episode was that mr brown’s voice – critical of the government – was silenced from the pages of the mainstream media. In light of MCA’s stated intent to regulate websites along the lines of accuracy and good intent, as well as on a par with print media, it is interesting to note the extreme terms in which the government framed mr brown’s criticism in the lead up to and aftermath of his suspension.

Printed on the first working day following publication of mr brown’s article, MICA wrote to Today, denouncing mr brown for “distorting the truth” and asserting that he “poured sarcasm on many issues”.

“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.”

No less than PM LHL himself apparently followed up on this, stating “mr brown had hit out wildly at the Government and in a very mocking tone” and as such the government had to respond, otherwise “untruths would be repeated and eventually treated as facts”.

In the context of regulation versus censorship, this is where the contention will surely arise. It is not hard to imagine MDA writing to a blogger or news website using similar language as when they wrote to Today in response to mr brown. If the bar is set as low as “pouring sarcasm”, MDA will have their hands full. If MDA are waiting for an online commentator to “hit out wildly at the government and in a very mocking tone” before issuing take down notices, then still – they are likely to be busy. If “diatribe” in lieu of “constructive criticism” is deemed to not meet MDA standards of good intent, I fear our regulators will be overwhelmed with complaints. Via all these avenues – and no doubt more exist – just as the critical voice of mr brown was removed from the pages of Today, so the critical voices of many contributors are liable to be removed from the pages of Yahoo! and presumably also TOC and TRE in the future. For all of these reasons, it seems clear that the new regulations will have a silencing effect on Singapore’s online contributors.

It is important to re-iterate that what mr brown wrote in 2006 was in fact not particularly unreasonable. The freedom to engage in stinging or harsh criticisms of government failings are essential to democracy and good governance. Inaccuracies can ordinarily be corrected or apologised for – if in fact they can objectively be shown to exist. Whilst most bloggers do not have the wit of mr brown, equally scathing criticism of the government is as common online in 2013 as mr brown’s article was groundbreaking in 2006. If the government – as they state – seeks to hold online contributors to the standard that they held print media in the form of Today newspaper in 2006 then a lot of take down notices will be issued, and a lot of performance bonds forfeited between now and the next general election. It is this – and the fact that it embodies nothing less than government censorship of criticism – that underpins many of the concerns around MDA’s new licensing regime.

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