The separation of public power and private benefit is essential for transparent, effective and honest governance. The Chairman of NEA cannot ask his staff to go and clean his kitchen, or the premises of his sister’s hawker stall, when it gets dirty. The Commissioner of Police cannot ask his officers to set up a road block at the end of his street because he finds the traffic too noisy. The Minister of Community, Culture and Youth cannot just instruct a local museum to display his daughter’s art work. So can the Prime Minister ask a civil servant to write letters on his behalf, and in his support, on the very personal topic of his defamation case against Roy Ngerng? This question matters, and it is the reason Kenneth Jeyaretnam of the Reform Party is quite right to seek a full accounting of public funds spent on a case the PM has clearly stated he is bringing in his personal capacity.
Tag Archives: Transparency
Temasek doesn’t really make 16%
Your CPF money isn’t really safe.
And Lee Hsien Loong is a coward.
Sometimes we get so caught up in the day-to-day arguments that crop up on Facebook, social media, and even in real life, that we lose track of the big picture. Despite the very obvious question marks surrounding the way CPF funds are managed, though the government, through Temasek, through GIC and ultimately by the Lee family, I realise that I’ve written almost nothing on the topic. Given Lee Hsien Loong’s sustained and ethically dubious attack on fellow blogger Roy Ngerng, now seems like a good time to visit these topics.
Temasek’s offer to buy out Olam in a S$2.53 billion deal comes as the commodity trader continues to pile on debt. While Olam’s politically well-connected management and shareholders may appreciate the sovereign wealth fund’s backing, this is a deal which ticks all the wrong boxes for Singapore.
Olam’s management have been fending off critics of their financials and accounting for years. While Carson Block’s very public decision to short the stock in 2012 was widely reported, less well-known is the fact that top Asian equity house CLSA incurred the commodity trader’s wrath the year before over a research note that raised some of the same concerns. And while the public response from Olam has always been defiant, privately management have admitted defeat – tearing up a flagship six-year plan to generate US$1 billion in profits by 2016 and slashing the debt fuelled growth that Block saw as unsustainable.
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.
The Court of Appeal has just handed down judgement in Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s IMF loan case. The case is crucially important and it raises two key points. Can the government lend away the wealth of the nation without Presidential approval? And can an individual citizen challenge the behaviour of the government in court, if it is alleged that there has been a breach of the constitution? The ruling of the court is against Kenneth on both counts. The government apparently can lend away the reserves without Presidential approval – effectively making the role of the President as the holder of a “second key” worthless. And furthermore, an individual citizen does not have the right to challenge the government in court, even if the case is of such gravity as this one where a breach of the constitution has been alleged. In stating as they do, that “the nature of the issue is entirely political” – the judges have completely misconstrued the reality of the case and the nature of the constitution. The decision is a difficult one to agree with. Upholding the law is not political.
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.
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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.
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.