Tag Archives: Propaganda

Calvin Cheng versus common sense, the law, businesses, the internet and the world

Calvin Cheng just can’t let go of a bad argument, no matter how clearly the counter points are laid out. His incessant desire to push his belief that the Media Development Authority clamped down on Breakfast Network as a corporation rather than a media entity flies in the face of common sense, not to mention MDA’s own press releases and relevant legislation. There seems to be no limit to the levels of intellectual dishonesty Calvin will resort to in defending his position, offering arguments that an Oxford educated scholar could not possibly be foolish enough to believe, arguments that undermine Singapore’s hard-earned reputation as a business friendly destination for foreign capital and which display a fundamental misunderstanding of why the internet is one of the most important creations of modern times. His defence of last resort – launching personal and offensive attacks on critics is completely unbecoming of a member of Singapore’s Media Literacy Council.

Calvin Cheng versus common sense

Calvin’s assertion that the MDA was trying to regulate a corporation rather than a website appears strange. To be accepted as true, he needs to prove it, but in fact he presents no evidence to support the claim. In his latest counterpoint, he describes as a “fundamental mistake” the suggestion that the MDA was seeking to regulate “the website” as opposed to “the company”. Most observers however can see that the Media Development Authority’s remit is concerned with media entities – the clue is in the name – rather than corporations generally, which are regulated for example by the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority. His baseless assertion is thus hard to accept, but when challenged on the point, Calvin will point you to an MDA press release which contradicts his position.

MDA vs Calvin Cheng

The above image is collated from Calvin’s Facebook page. His argument that the corporation rather than the website is the target of regulation is completely undermined by the first sentence of the MDA press release which he purports to rely on. The statement “MDA had required http://www.breakfastnetwork.sg, operated by Breakfast Network Pte Ltd, to register under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification” has a clear and obvious meaning. The URL, which refers to the website, is the target of regulation. The phrase between commas “operated by Breakfast Network Pte Ltd” is background information about the website. The grammatical meaning of this is simple enough, but let’s analyse some similar sentences just to drill the point home.

“Lee Kuan Yew, father of current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is an MP in Tanjong Pagar GRC”.
Who is the MP in Tanjong Pagar, Lee Kuan Yew or Lee Hsien Loong?

“A US military drone, operated remotely by airforce personnel at Forte Meade Texas, was shot down over Pakistan”.
Who or what was shot down? It’s obvious, right?

“MDA had required http://www.breakfastnetwork.sg, operated by Breakfast Network Pte Ltd, to register under the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification”.
The website, not the Pte Ltd entity, was required to register

The website, not the Pte Ltd entity, was required to register. It’s obvious, and Calvin, if he can read, must know it. His most brazen assault on common sense comes from relying on an MDA press release to support his position when that same press release obviously contradicts it. An Oxford educated scholar, sitting on the Media Literacy Council, makes a very strange argument, fails to provide evidence, but relies for support on a document which anyone who reads it knows contradicts the point? Is this credible?

The fact that the website, not the corporate entity, was the stated target of regulation further calls into question MDA’s subsequent attempts to chase BN off Facebook and Twitter, but that is another story.

Calvin Cheng versus the law

Reading a press release is one thing, but press releases are not the law, so to really understand the regulatory manoeuvering here we need to read the relevant legislation, which the MDA press release helpfully tells us is the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification. That document at paragraph 3 describes the types of entities subject to regulation. “Internet Content Providers”, which includes websites, are subject to the regulations. Corporations are not. So another point against Calvin’s argument, and another authoritative source he either hasn’t read, or assumes no one else has read for it directly contradicts his position.

Licensable broadcasting services subject to class licence
3. The provision of the following licensable broadcasting services are subject to a class licence:
(a) audiotext services;
(b) videotext services;
(c) teletext services;
(d) broadcast data services;
(e) VAN computer on-line services; and
(f) computer on-line services that are provided by Internet Content Providers and Internet Service Providers.
Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification. Revised Edition 2004

Calvin’s preoccupation with the supposed regulation of the corporate entity is further called into question by the definition of an “Internet Content Provider” which BN falls under. Let’s have a look.

For the purposes of this Notification —
“Internet Content Provider” means —
(a) any individual in Singapore who provides any programme, for business, political or religious purposes, on the World Wide Web through the Internet; or
(b) any corporation or group of individuals (including any association, business, club, company, society, organisation or partnership, whether registrable or incorporated under the laws of Singapore or not) who provides any programme on the World Wide Web through the Internet,
and includes any web publisher and any web server administrator;
Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification. Revised Edition 2004

Clearly the MDA can regulate a corporation, but only in the sense that a regulated “Internet Content Provider” is defined as possibly being a corporation. But an internet content provider could also be a club, a society, an organisation, a partnership or any “group of individuals”. In the regulations, there is clearly nothing significant or distinctive about regulating a website run by a company over a website run via any other structure. The definition is made as wide as possible presumably to allow the MDA to regulate websites run in any manner, by volunteers or not. Furthermore, there is literally nothing in that Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification document about foreign funding or the importance of preventing it. So Calvin’s statement that the corporate entity is the subject of regulation is explicitly contradicted by the law. And the possibly xenophobic stated justification – the desire to prevent foreign funding – is further not grounded in the relevant legislation, and looks more like an excuse than a meaningful reason.

Calvin Cheng versus businesses

Singapore’s economy has been built in no small part by an ability to attract foreign investment and on a reputation as a convenient place to do business. Just last year the World Bank ranked Singapore the easiest place in the world to do business. Singapore came top not just this year, but the year before as well; and in fact has won this award for six consecutive years. However with Hong Kong ranked second and Malaysia ranked sixth on the same index, Singapore’s goal of being a regional hub for various industries could easily come under threat.

A large part of the debate around BN’s closure hinges on whether the MDA’s regulatory requirements are actually troublesome or onerous. Troublesome and onerous regulations will scare businesses away, threaten investment and see Singapore’s reputation tarnished as Hong Kong and even Malaysia prepare eat our lunches. For this reason, Calvin’s dismissive attitude towards the regulatory difficulties reported by Breakfast Network is dangerous. It is important to not under-estimate the significance of this question, since Singapore has billions of dollars riding on plans to become a “global media hub” and the MDA has a central role in achieving that. So while many observers are concerned about the hurdles MDA placed before a fledgling media company – hurdles which tripped that company up – Calvin takes a very dismissive stance, essentially saying that since one company alone has successfully negotiated the course, we should assume that the process is just smooth enough. Nevermind that there is in fact a 50% failure rate from a sample of two companies, a failure rate that would surely win no global awards for regulatory simplicity, a single success is apparently enough for Calvin.

We should also mention that the supposed success of The Independent SG which Calvin relies on did not come without some difficulties, the operators of that site also commented on the arbitrary manner in which the MDA altered the forms they were asked to submit while the registration process was still ongoing. Changing the rules while the wheels are in motion is a special form of regulatory incompetence that will have investors particularly nervous, and it is not hard to argue therefore that the MDA has a 0% success rate if we count the number companies that completed the process smoothly and easily. Calvin’s apparent inability to grasp the significance of this, or rationally assess the impact of MDA’s regulatory mis-steps on the local business environment speaks volumes.

One other thing Calvin appears to struggle with is the very reason companies exist.

A company is set up in order to establish a commercial, profit-making enterprise. A company has directors and senior employees also have to take responsibility for the actions of the legal entity.
Calvin Cheng. Beyond The Emotive. 30 December 2013

Strictly speaking, companies are not set up for commercial or profit-making reasons. Sole proprietors and partnerships are also set up for commercial and money-making reasons. People often attempt to monetise and turn a profit on their hobbies. Companies actually do exist to create a legal entity separate from the owners and directors, which takes on certain legal responsibilities separate from the owners who are not necessarily responsible for the “actions of the legal entity”. The knowledge that decisions can be made under the authority of a company, with liability separate from the owners is a powerful spur to innovation. This is the opposite of what Calvin apparently argues. A company can go bankrupt without the directors having to pay off the debts personally. A company can be sued and pay fines without the directors necessarily being personally liable. In fact in many jurisdictions a company is legally a person and has many of the same rights and liabilities as a person, except that those liabilities belong to the company not the owners themselves. For this reason, the MDA’s apparent attempt to make the owner(s) of the company behind Breakfast Network liable for its actions is arguably strange, yet Calvin appears to miss this very significant point, despite having an MA in Management from Oxford University, as he argues in support of the MDA from a position which is in fact contradictory to the fundamental reason for why business owners actually choose to operate as companies.

Calvin versus the internet

Few people would disagree that the internet is one of the most significant creations of modern times. The way that barriers are broken down and information can be freely shared instantaneously across the globe has made the internet central to modern business and life itself. Particularly in repressive countries like Singapore, this free flow of information can have a huge democratizing effect, and for that many are thankful. In Singapore we should be particularly thankful, not least because the alternative is our 149 ranked, “read the right things”, state controlled media. So Calvin does us all a grave disservice with his untenable argument that the internet is “just another media”.

The internet is just another media, and should be subject to the same laws that cover all media, be it print or broadcast. It is not special.
Calvin Cheng. Beyond The Emotive. 28 December 2013

This argument is problematic for a few reasons, not least because it consists of an assertion with no proof or explanation. The internet is nothing like television or radio where the limited availability of frequencies makes allocation to hobbyist broadcasters extremely wasteful. Conversely, the internet has virtually unlimited capacity to support the rantings of any amateur, and while the government in 2013 sought to impose twenty-four hour take down notices against certain websites, no such regulation is at all meaningful for broadcast media. So it seems that Calvin’s “laws that cover all media” do not in fact exist, or if they do he doesn’t explain what they are. Certainly he doesn’t seem to be referring to rules against foreign funding, as the Broadcasting (Class Licence) Notification which BN was asked to register under contains no such terms. Perhaps he means laws on defamation, sedition and the like, but these already apply equally online and offline, and there is no obvious need for the MDA to ask BN to fill in any forms to cover that. So again, Calvin’s argument does not appear to be well founded in reality.

Calvin Cheng versus the world

In closing, Calvin describes as “ridiculous” the suggestion that the government has failed to explain itself with respect to the MDA’s recent regulatory manoeuvering. Nevermind that a significant debate with global reach was sparked in 2013 by regulatory changes which were never satisfactorily explained and basically made no sense to anyone who was paying attention. Calvin suggests that critics of the MDA “should seek expert advice” if they cannot understand the rules. The Economist apparently understood the rules well enough to describe them as “draconian“. Reporters Without Borders, probably the world’s leading media NGO – certainly it would be hard to find a more authoritative expert – described the government’s justification for last year’s changes as “utterly absurd“. Yet to Calvin, apparently all is well. Perhaps RSF are just another authoritative source, which despite being relevant and contradictory to his stance, Calvin just hasn’t bothered to read or conveniently chooses to ignore.

* * * * *

Sometimes one person’s arguments are almost too unbelievable to entertain. Calvin appears to have discovered a special form of propaganda which is so poorly thought out, that just by its very existence it actually undermines the position it purports to support.

In terms of his central claim that the MDA sought to regulate Breakfast Network the company rather than the website, he displays a possibly unparalleled level of intellectual dishonesty. Yes, a child-like ability to read and understand the very first English sentence within the MDA press release Calvin points to proves him wrong. Yes, the Media Development Authority regulates media entities not companies – we know this from common sense, not to mention actually looking at the legally defined list of entities that the MDA is allowed to regulate under the relevant legislation, which the MDA even points to in that same press release. Yes, Calvin, the Oxford educated scholar, who never cites or quotes the relevant press releases or legislative documents, will call you “dumb” for pointing out these flaws in his argument. This is the behaviour of a member of Singapore’s Media Literacy Council, an organisation tasked, amongst other things, with promoting responsible creation of media content. It hardly seems believable. Is Calvin Cheng fit to be a member of this entity? You can be the judge.


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2013 review part two – a year of u-turns

This is part two of my year in review, you can read part one on justice here. 2013 has seen significant changes in Singapore, some real and some illusionary. Ironically the changes which were hardest to believe were often the ones most hyped up by the government and their supporters, whereas the most significant and regressive changes were downplayed as if they were of no significance whatsoever. Perhaps most interesting however were the number of cases where the government said one thing, and then did almost exactly the opposite. Let’s take a look at a few.

The biggest u-turn this year, in fact the most significant explicit policy change overall was probably the government’s decision to renege on “light touch” regulation of the internet with the introduction in May of burdensome licensing requirements for loosely defined “news websites”. Despite a large public relations effort to downplay the impact of the new regulations, government claims that changes were required to synchronise rules for online media with those for mainstream media did little to dispel fears that this was a thinly veiled attempt to chill freedom of speech. The Economist described the change as “draconian“, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called government justifications “utterly absurd“. Many expect Singapore to fall further down RSF’s annual press rankings next year, the city-state already languishes at 149, one place below Russia.

One of the hotter policy topics this year has been the structure of Singapore’s public transport operators. With two state linked companies enjoying a cozy duopoly, the government’s plans to inject some competition into the market by tendering certain routes to private operators were warmly received. Hopes for market principles to take hold in centrally planned Singapore were however dashed when the government did a u-turn and awarded the first such tender to the state linked parent company of an existing operator. Neglecting to award the tender to a true new entrant was a missed opportunity to introduce new ideas into a transport sector which while high profitable, has a growing reputation for poor service standards.

From maintaining an existing monopoly to creating a new one, this time in telecoms. The IDA did a u-turn in allowing state controlled Singtel to buy out previously independent fiber broadband network builder OpenNet through its wholly owned business trust NetLink, giving Singtel a monopoly over the next generation broadband network in the process. At the same time Singtel won a four-year extension on its mandatory divestment of NetLink, a move that is predicted to entrench their incumbent monopoly power, and which drew stinging criticism from industry players.

The most recent and probably most superficially annoying u-turn of the year came just last week on the “do not call” registry. After years of planning the government pulled the plug on key features of the scheme just days before it was due to go live in an all too predictable sop to business interests. Consumers can unfortunately expect to continue receiving unsolicited messages after the registry goes live in January.

Any government u-turns missing? Speak up in the comments if you can think of any others.

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Immigration – “Plan C” for Calvin Cheng

I originally wrote the below article as an exclusive for The Online Citizen under the title “False dichotomy of Singapore’s options”. I am reproducing it here with their permission.

Calvin Cheng’s recent article for Yahoo on the fate of immigration policy in the wake of the Little India riots is thought-provoking if not a little condescending. In it he juxtaposes the current plan for a population of 6.9 million, driven by the population white paper, with his own “Plan B” – a vision of Singapore with almost no immigration. In framing the debate thus, Calvin presents a false dichotomy between ultra-liberal and ultra-conservative immigration and it should be obvious that there is a third way, a more sustainable “Plan C” which balances the demographic challenges facing Singapore in coming years, with a more productive economic model less reliant on foreign workers who are often exploited.

The problem with the white paper

Calvin claims to have “seen the statistics, the facts” and states that current immigration policy is “anchored on irrefutable facts and figures”. In the context of his article, it is clear that he is referring to the population white paper and the path it lays out towards a population of 6.9 million. Yet both Calvin and the white paper make the same very peculiar mistake, and their conclusions are anything but irrefutable. The supposed link between demographics and the need for immigration relied on by both is actually extremely weak, and the “facts and figures” in the white paper make this point very clear. While it may be true that without immigration Singapore faces a shrinking citizen workforce, the demographic trends charted in the white paper state that this will not happen until 2020. So the “bleak” future described by Calvin is actually quite a long way off, and cannot be seen as a valid justification for the policy of today which he nonetheless supports. Furthermore, there is still no obvious reason why Singapore’s population should need to increase as dramatically as planned. To offset a shrinkage, one obviously only needs to add enough resources to maintain things at their current level, and for this reason the case for 6.9 million was never supported by the demographics arguments made out in the white paper. To put it simply, there is almost no correlation between the demographic challenges upcoming and the immigration policies concocted in response. This weak link between policy and its justification leaves many sceptical as to the real motives behind this most controversial of government schemes.

The problem with plan B

The plan B Calvin describes as an alternative to the population white paper appears to be not much more than a practically zero immigration straw man argument which almost no one has previously spoken for. It describes a relatively unpleasant vision for the future with Singaporeans working in construction, as well as doing “all the other manual work” now done by foreign labourers, and is a plan we are informed comes with “painful” social costs. We are warned that bus fares would have to increase if Singaporeans are to work as drivers, yet does anyone remember fares going down as Chinese drivers have been hired in increasing numbers? Conversely, no mention is made of the jobs Singaporeans do not shun, such as working as cabin crew for Singapore Airlines, but which are done increasingly by immigrants as locals are discriminated against by government-owned companies in the local labour market.

Clearly this Plan B is extremely flawed. Dependent as it is on apparently negligible levels of immigration, it is one which has apparently been plucked from the opposite end of the policy spectrum from the white paper and has been garnished with various unpalatables in the hope that Singaporeans will reject it in favour of current policy. Yet the false dichotomy presented between these two options of extremely high and extremely low immigration should be obvious. Clearly, there is a third path, one with some immigration required for example in construction as well as to offset demographic changes, but not so much that Singapore’s population balloons unsustainably towards seven (or even eight) million.

Plan C for Calvin Cheng

A more moderate and balanced immigration plan C can be characterised with a simple phrase – “steady state normality”. Steady state means we don’t need to keep growing the population indefinitely into the future, a more sustainable idea might be to plan for overall population numbers to remain steady in the long-term, and the current population can become the “new normal”.

The first immediate outcome of not endlessly inflating the population is that we do not need to continually import more construction workers to build more houses for more people. While today there may be a shortage of housing which needs to be addressed, in the long-term this need should tail off. A similar argument can be made for malls and MRT lines if not perhaps for hospitals in an ageing nation. In planning for steady state normality therefore we effectively pull the plug on some of the biggest drivers of immigration, hopefully alleviating some of the major social costs at the same time.

The flip side to not continuing to pump up the population is that the economic balloon called Singapore Inc will also not be inflated. Yet apart from government ministers with GDP linked bonuses, it is not clear who really loses out in that case. Singapore is already an extremely rich country, in GDP terms one of the richest in the world, but it is also one with an extremely unequal distribution of wealth. The challenge for Singapore today should be much less about making the pie bigger, and much more about sharing it more equally. There are obvious ways to achieve this, many of which are unrelated to immigration, but one idea would be to bring back estate duty which may have the added benefit of encouraging a few Ferrari driving wealth managers off the overcrowded roads.

In fact, if we accept a long-term steady state population plan, many of the concerns raised in Calvin’s article are diminished or removed. There won’t for example be lower tax revenues, certainly not while the local workforce continues to grow until 2020, and not after 2020 either, because we should allow some immigration to make up the difference. Even if there were a smaller tax base, the difference is likely to be tiny compared to the billions in surpluses typically collected every year, and would be further offset by a proposed estate tax. Obviously then there would also be no need to dip into the reserves.

Surely there are gaps and flaws in this plan C, but it is just a starting point. The most important thing to bear in mind is that current policy together with Calvin’s plan B represent an obvious false dichotomy which should be rejected. There are other more sustainable options available to us, which chart a path somewhere between those extremes of very low and very high immigration. I don’t claim any unique insight into exactly where that path should lead, but it is a direction that should definitely be explored.

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Xenophobic MDA triggers Breakfast Network shutdown

If xenophobia is defined as an unreasonable fear of foreigners, then the Media Development Authority may have some explaining to do. An obvious fear of foreign influences permeates the piles of paperwork which the MDA requires news websites to submit as an apparent condition of operating. Those burdensome sheets seem to have overwhelmed former Straits Times associate editor Bertha Henson and her fledgling Breakfast Network site has now been shuttered. Losing a professional journalist from the online media space is a significant loss, although she has committed to continue her personal blogging. But one question remains – should foreign influences really be excluded from Singapore’s media landscape? Is the fear of foreign meddling in local politics well founded, or is the MDA acting irrationally?

Xenophobia or hypocrisy?

The fear of foreign influence on local politics may appear well founded on the surface – Singaporean media for Singaporeans, right? But the most cursory of analysis reveals that the government position on this topic is hypocritical and untenable. One of the conditions that publishers are required to submit to is that they receive no foreign funding for their site. “Foreign” includes Singaporean permanent residents and companies with more than one foreigner (again, including PRs) on the board. The first whiff of hypocrisy comes from Mediacorp. I’ve not checked all their passports, but it does appear that at least one member of the Mediacorp board is not a Singapore citizen. Temasek Holdings, which owns 100% of Mediacorp, appears to have two board members who might fall foul of those same regulations. So is the MDA acting hypocritically in holding non-government linked news websites to a more stringent set of rules than those which Mediacorp appears to operate under?

More significant than the presence of a few overseas board members however is the explicit platform that foreigners are often given by the mainstream media to engage on local political matters. This being despite the MDA continuing to re-iterate that “politics must remain a matter for Singapore and Singaporeans alone” as they chase Breakfast Network off Facebook and other social media. The most obvious and recent example of this double standard is Parag Khanna. Parag Khanna is a foreigner (a PR) in the terms set by the MDA, yet he is given an open invitation by the mainstream media to speak at length in an effort to influence Singaporeans’ views on contentious local political issues – such as the population white paper. This is a clear violation of the MDA’s principle that politics should strictly be for Singaporeans, yet they apparently decline to censure the Straits Times for canvassing his views so openly.

This peculiar double standard however is easy to resolve once we understand the relationship between the government and mainstream media. Of course, Parag Khanna is given a government sponsored platform – and coming in the form of the government controlled Straits Times, the platform definitely is government sponsored – precisely for the purpose of speaking in support of the government and their unpopular policies. This is in contrast to the stated fear of foreign influences online, where perhaps it is not so much a fear of foreign voices exactly, as it is a fear of critical voices, which coming from overseas are much harder for the government to manage and contain.

As with many things in Singapore then, this is a power play by a ruling party which fears any dissenting voices that cannot be coerced or bullied into line. Foreign influences beyond the control of the government are kept on a tight leash, yet at the same time, foreigners who wish to influence the political landscape in support of the ruling party, enjoy the most sizable of platforms to put forth their views. In taking this approach, the government is attempting to ensure that the flow of information is always in their own favour.

The closed circle

This is therefore another example of the closed circle, wherein legislative and institutional structures which should be independent are actually designed and aligned to support the power of the ruling party. While this double standard on foreign voices influencing local political issues makes little sense superficially, the deeper principle is an immutable truth about Singapore. The government controls the media to support their goals and motives, through the availability of a monopoly platform for supportive voices, while simultaneously maintaining a significant legislative arsenal – which includes the MDA and the their licensing framework, but also defamation and contempt of court laws – aimed at silencing independent and critical voices.

The way forwards

If we sought to resolve the hypocrisy problem, there are two obvious approaches – a uniform ban or a uniform acceptance of foreign influences on local political matters – the latter of which is obviously preferable and clearly less xenophobic. But once we accept that the double standard is in fact by design, the claims of hypocrisy and irrationality directed at the MDA begin to melt away, for while to some their actions may seem heavy-handed and blundering, the fact remains that the MDA appear to have served their political masters successfully. And political is exactly what this situation is. Stripped of the hypocrisy and irrationality, the heart of the problem is obviously a political and partisan effort on the part of the ruling party to control the flow of information their own favour.

So if the problem is political, then the solution should be political too. A dismantling of the closed circle of power that the PAP have built over many years seems essential. A total reform of the laws making up our media landscape should also be front and centre, including mainstream as well as digital and social media. These changes will not come easily however, the PAP are certainly not going to give up control of the media voluntarily. The only real solution is political, through the ballot box, and it can only come by replacing the PAP with parties committed to making the necessary reforms.


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Le Quoc Quan, Alex Au and a warning from Facebook

VNSG Social Media

Baey Yam Keng, MP for Tampines GRC and self-styled Minister of Selfies posted this image to Facebook earlier in the week in reference to a session on social media he held for “senior Vietnamese government officials”. Why the Vietnamese government need to learn about social media by coming to Singapore was never explained, in fact a more compelling case could be made for the PAP seeking to learn from the hardline stance taken against internet freedoms in Hanoi. Recent developments in the High Court against Alex Au unfortunately throw this question into stark relief.

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Structural problems doom Progressive Wage Model to failure

I originally wrote the below article as an exclusive for The Online Citizen. I am reproducing it here with their permission.

Zoom2Launched and promoted to great fanfare by the ruling party, the progressive wage model looks good as a press release, but is hamstrung by the twin flaws of obviousness and impossibility. Obviousness, in the sense that it describes a relatively straightforward career progression ladder that employees should be encouraged to climb toward greater salaries – an idea that many would suggest does not require a million dollar minister to think up. But also the impossibility of the system is glaring, because there appears to be no way to actually require employers to give their staff the chance to climb this skills ladder. In fact, one look at an example “wage ladder” reveals another truth which should have been obvious – a company staffed with employees who have all reached the highest rung would be very “top-heavy” and probably unsustainable as a business.

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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.


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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PM Lee enjoys fairytale start to football career

PM Lee rolled back the years to come off the bench on Monday and enjoy a fairytale start to his professional football career, lifting the MSL trophy on his first appearance for the LionsXII.

PM Lee lifting the MSL trophy on his first appearance for LionsXII

PM Lee lifting the MSL trophy on his first appearance for LionsXII

Fears allayed

The joyous scenes that surrounded Lee junior after the final whistle blew at Jalan Besar stadium were not something that all fans had initially dared to hope for. “To be honest, the PM is not getting any younger, and we’ve all heard the rumours that he can’t shoot straight” said former journalist Peter Lim, “but our fears were allayed when we saw the PM athletically leap from the bench and make an unstoppable run for the silverware as soon as the final whistle blew”.

Superior genetics

Another fan, Calvin Cheng, was more gushing in his praise. “This will be front page news tomorrow. Just look at his contribution. The former Brigadier General’s supreme upper body strength is there for all to see as he lifts the trophy” said the one-time Nominated Member of Parliament. “Today’s performance from our PM was possibly the greatest individual sporting performance since his father knocked out Mike Tyson at Madison Square Garden. The superior genetics of the whole family were very clearly on show tonight”.

Despite having not yet witnessed Lee kick a ball professionally, Mr Cheng was leading the calls for the PM to take his football career to the next level. “Barcelona, Real Madrid or Manchester United? It is really a question of when, not if”.

Doubts over new career

Others were more circumspect in their assessment of the PM’s professional prospects. “Although the option is surely there, it is unlikely to be something that materializes. The PM has often been too busy running the country to hold elections, so it is not clear how he would find the time to attend training sessions” said one member of the Lions squad speaking after the match. Others further noted that the PM, with leadership roles at GIC, the PAP and the PA, and who is also known to be a smooth operator in the property market, is likely to be too busy to devote much time to a prospective football career.

Officials at Manchester United also appeared to pour cold water on a possible transfer, stating that although the Red Devils were considering a deal to bring Cristiano Ronaldo back to Old Trafford, a deal for PM Lee was out of the question – “Too expensive.” said one lawyer speaking for the club – “obviously the best man for the job, but we just can’t match his salary demands”.


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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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MDA’s absurd pretence of parity

Singapore’s Media Development Authority have gone to some lengths in an attempt to downplay the chilling effect on freedom of expression likely to result from the recently announced licensing regime for news websites. One of the more peculiar claims was that the changes are intended to bring about “parity” between online and mainstream media sources. Reporters Without Borders quite rightly described this suggestion as “utterly absurd”. When it comes to broadcasting television programs over the airwaves, regulation and licensing is required because there is a definite lack of broadcasting spectrum, the allocation of which needs to be carefully managed. Given the relative scarcity of available frequencies, there is an argument to be made for creating an artificial barrier to entry to discourage wastage. It should be obvious that no such argument exists online – in fact the power of the internet is that the opposite applies – anyone with a single meaningful thought can and will share it with the world at the click of a button. For this reason, MDA’s purported intent – to create parity – is detached from reality.

Furthermore, the mainstream media in Singapore which MDA seek to bring websites into parity with are far from a beacon of excellence. Singapore’s television and print media are so cowed by the spectre of government interference that they score lower than that of Vladimir Putin’s Russia in RSF’s press freedom rankings. It seems clear that the parity MDA seeks establish is one wherein both online and offline media are equally lacking in the freedom to express views critical of the government. To deploy the over used butterfly and toad-in-a-well analogy, it seems that MDA wishes to kill the butterfly of online freedom and throw its corpse down the well, to rot in parity with the shackled toad.

In spite of all this, Singapore’s ruling party present us with one further paradox of parity. Alex Au of Yawning Bread fame argues – in a magnificent post which makes the point through images rather than words – that the government does not have any intrinsic desire for parity. When it suits them – for example on the question of 377A – they are quite happy to avoid a form of parity apparently on the grounds that some segments of society find it offensive. The contrast with MDA’s latest antics is stark. Again, some segments of society find these regulatory changes extremely troubling, but here the government are apparently happy to enforce an unwanted form of parity without so much as a single minute of debate.

So it seems obvious that an intrinsic desire for parity is not the true driver of this change. Silencing critics by squashing the butterfly of internet freedom however does appear to be much more consistent with the way Singapore has been ruled since independence. The obvious inference to draw is that this – not parity – is the driving force behind the new licensing regime.


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