Monday, October 15, 2007

Is Singapore FOR or AGAINST?

I am puzzled.

Is the Singapore Government for or against the movement to change the junta regime in Myanmar?

Some signs that suggest that they are FOR:
1. Issued statement as ASEAN Chair expressing revulsion at the protests in Myanmar
2. MM says "dumb" Myanmar generals will not last indefinitely; Singapore ambassador says Myanmar should be suspended from ASEAN
3. Allowed "peace for Burma" activities organized by students at the universities; allowed a gathering of Myanmar nationals at a hotel

Signs that suggest they are AGAINST:
1. Police presence to discourage petition/vigil organized by SDP outside Myanmar Embassy; arrest of 5 SDP members for protesting outside the Istana
2. PM says that sanctions against Myanmar won't help; Singapore allegedly provides Myanmar with arms etc.
3. PM defends providing junta leaders with medical treatment; otherwise Singapore would be doing "petty indignities"

Some observers suggest that with the tide of international opinion rising against the junta, Singapore authorities are finding the cost of siding with them too high and are thus moving away.  

But I would posit that these "mixed" signals existed from almost Day one of the Myanmar crisis.  If anything, several of the AGAINST signs actually came later.  

MM's comments to Tom Plate were made on 27th September.  I think the "revulsion" statement came out the same day.  On the other hand, the enforcement activities against SDP and PM's remarks on the sanctions only came later in early October.

I guess the diplomats call this sort of positioning "nuanced."  I call it "confusing."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Protestors or Pedestrians?

Somewhere in the midst of all the reports on protest activity (yes! Even in Singapore!) was this picture of expatriate women in Singapore wearing red. Supposedly, they were wearing red as part of global action Friday to support the Myanmar protests.

Some bloggers are questioning if the Singapore authorities were practicing double standards, especially since 5 SDP were arrested yesterday recently for protesting outside the Istana.

Taking sides on this issue will either make one looks like an apologist for the boys in blue, or a die-hard government critic. So I will do neither.

What I did, however, was take a closer look at the picture, and I found several clues to suggest that the ang moh ladies may not have been protestors at all.

At least four of the ladies appear to be wearing name tags. One of them is carrying a bottle of water while another – the Asian woman in the center – has a small camera in a pouch. More important perhaps is what they are *not* carrying. I don’t see any placards or flyers.

The “leader” appears to be reading from a text while the rest listen passively. Nobody appears to be chanting or saying anything.

I am not sure of the location but it is likely to be somewhere in Singapore since that looks like a HDB block in the background, and the building in the foreground in reminiscent of restored heritage buildings that have become quite common. If one were to protest against the Myanmar or Singapore governments, surely there would be better places e.g. along Orchard Road, in front of City Hall, outside the Embassy or Istana?

My guess is that the ladies were members of a tour group. If so, why were they decked in red/pink/orange? It is plausible that some of them decided to wear red(dish) as a sign of solidarity with the Burmese (assuming the picture is recent), but there could be other explanations as well.

Just goes to show that we can’t take what we see at face value … even if it comes the jpeg format.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Dear Transport Minister

I take cognizance of your urging Singaporeans not to link politicize issue of bus fare hikes.

However, it goes without saying that any cost of living issue *is* a political issue. The populace votes for a party or candidate in the hope that their choice will help improve (or at least not reduce) their standard of living, which includes issues like security and safety, how much they earn, and have to spend.

I will grant that your point about transport fares and operators' costs going "full circle" makes sense. We get what we (tax payers or users) pay for.

But the suggestion by the unnamed Thomson Division resident is a valid one.

Allowing such transport fare increases once every 4 years is not unthinkable. I seriously doubt if our transport operators are operating on a hand-to-mouth basis (a scenario which applies to some of their users). Moreover, when costs are reduced (e.g. when fuel prices fall, more efficient buses are used, better route planning etc), we also don't see fares coming down. Obviously, there must be some surplus which operators enjoy.

Now, the unnamed Thomson Division resident has actually gone a step further to ask that the price increases (if any, presumably) be made *before* the general election.

I imagine that this would be a tough pill for the ruling PAP to swallow. It takes some chutzpah for a politician to increase prices, taxes etc (i.e. essentially screw them), and then ask voters for their support. (And I have earlier admitted that cost of living is a political issue).

A fairer solution would be to allow public transport fare increases on a fixed date only once every three years, say on 1 Oct. If there incredible circumstances (e.g. doubling or tripling of fuel prices) which really require intervention to save transport companies from going under, the government should step in with some help from our carefully guarded coffers. Fares for public transport should not be allowed to rise willy nilly.

This way, price hikes might sometimes happen before an election, and sometimes after. In any case, we would have somewhat divorced the issue from politics from bus fare hikes.

October 8, 2007 Monday
By Yeo Ghim Lay

Transport Minister Raymond Lim yesterday commented for the first time on the bus fare hike this month, urging Singaporeans not to politicise the issue.

Doing so would over time, cause the service standard to suffer, he said at a dialogue.

A resident of Thomson Division suggested that fares be reviewed every four years before the general election.

He was highlighting the latest bus fare hike of 1 to 2 cents on Oct 1, just a year after the last increase when fares of buses and trains were raised by 1 to 3 cents.

Replying, Mr Lim said if fares were frozen for four years, people tend to ask for it to be extended again.

Other countries' experiences have shown that when governments succumb to such pressure, service standards would deteriorate.

The reason: bus companies, unable to afford new buses, will have a shrinking fleet, resulting in overcrowding.

As the situation worsens, people will complain to the government, which will feel compelled to raise fares.

'But the people say: 'How can you raise the fare if the buses are so crowded, so lousy the service?'

'It goes one full circle,' said the minister.

So while, politically, the freezing of fares would be a popular move, that would not be a responsible thing to do, he added.

The resident had also asked why public transport companies like SBS and SMRT are publicly listed, resulting in them looking out for the interests of their shareholders, not commuters.

Mr Lim said experience elsewhere shows that if government were to take over, costs will still rise eventually. Fares then have to rise. But if commuters resist, fares have to
subsidised and this subsidy has to be borne by taxpayers. So, either the user or tax- payer pays, he noted.

The minister also defended the Public Transport Council (PTC), noting that its decision to disallow train fares to rise was ignored by people.

Arguing that fare charges was best left to the independent PTC, he said it was unfair to brand it pro-public transport operators.

'They are doing a very difficult job, (it is) very easy to say these things but they're already trying to take into account the public interest to ensure that at the end of the day, you have a public transport service that is good,' he said.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Political Opportunity amidst the Human Tragedy

What is happening in Burma/Myanmar is a tragedy. Unofficial reports suggest that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protestors – including many Buddhist monks – have paid the ultimate price in their fight for freedom from Myanmar’s military regime.

The news, pictures and videos of the atrocities in Myanmar which appeared on the Internet quite liberally in the first few days appears to have slowed to a trickle. Other reports are more disturbing (but perhaps not too surprising) i.e. that soldiers are arresting those recording these images with cameras and handphones.

In the absence of corroborative information, we can only pray that our fellow netizens who have bravely shared these images and stories with us are safe from harm.

Indeed, many groups here in Singapore have turned to the divine for intervention. Buddhist worshippers have reportedly gathered by the thousands at a temple near Balestier, and I understand that some Catholics also held a service to pray for peace.

The less religiously inclined have resorted to petitions and some even – heaven forbid here in Singapore – protests!

It was reported that the Singapore Democratic Party staged a protest in front of the Myanmar embassy. A youtube video features some rather hapless plain-clothes policemen advising the protestors – who had stuck notes on the embassy’s gate – to leave, and subsequently being jeered.

Personally, I find it appalling that Dr Chee and company are leveraging on the situation in Myanmar to bring attention to their own vendetta against the Singapore government.

Sure, all is fair in love and war (and some say politics) but getting Myanmar nationals – who are genuinely worried for their own relatives and friends back home – involved as proxy participants in issues what fall between SDP and PAP, is unfair to them, and also belittles the cause for which the Burmese people are fighting for.

Pray, petition and protest but please, leave out the politicking.