Sunday, November 23, 2008

Win some, lose some

I disagree with Sai Kor’s diatribe on how Town Councils invest their funds.

First, we should understand why Town Councils have large amount of funds. While many expenses are regular and routine (e.g. pay cleaners and gardeners, lift maintenance fees), there are bigger ticket items that come only once in a longer period (e.g. painting, re-paving) as well as ad hoc (some upgrades, repair costs).

To accommodate the latter, part of the conservancy fees are proportioned into sinking funds. Good planning requires that you set aside a regular saving towards each major predictable expense.

For example, to plan for a 100k expense in 10 years (say for repainting a building), the Council would have to set aside 10k a year.

The thing is, with inflation, the cost of the repainting, which is budgeted at 100k today would cost more, possibly 150k. But at the same time, the 10k being set aside each year would amount to more than 100k if it is put in the bank, possibly more than 150k if it is invested.

Just a year ago, everyone’s concern was that inflation far exceeded the fixed deposit rate. The 10 year scenario would be that the accumulated funds (say 120k) would fail to meet the 150k cost, and the funds would need to be topped up. At some point, the difference would need to come from the residents.

In this scenario, I can imagine residents referring Council members to the Parable of the Talents in the bible, and imply that they are irresponsible stewards if they do not invest to ensure that the funds are not eroded by inflation. In these turbulent times days, however, “invest” and “gamble” have an overlapping connotation.

But what is the alternative?

Win some, lose some, I say.

Friday, November 21, 2008

DBS retrenchments – Broken social contract or misplaced loyalty?

The media is awash with reports and commentary on the recent retrenchment of 500 DBS staff in Singapore, and the blogosphere/grapevine is that other local banks are similarly wielding the axe, albeit more discreetly.

DBS’ management has attracted criticism from many quarters, including a Minister, no less, for their approach. (Some have pointed that that as advisor to the DBS staff union, the Minister Lim had a vested interest/obligation to do so, but that’s a separate story).

Few cried foul when Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and Citibank announced their cuts – people understand that foreign banks have to meet their bottom lines and consequently, it is almost expected that jobs in those establishments will come and go. On the other hand, local banks – and DBS in particular – appear to be bound by an unwritten social contract.

This “social contract” implies there should be some degree of loyalty between employee and employer. Companies are expected to look after their employees’ interests, and in this environment, job security probably tops the list.

In any contract, there is quid pro quo, and employees are likewise expected to return that loyalty and consider the company’s interests i.e. not simply jump ship any time a better offer comes along.

In reality, however, employer/employee loyalties are guided not by social contract but driven by dollars and cents, and people in the finance industry should be particularly enabled to make such distinction. Many had jumped ship/ changed employers (to and from local banks as well) in the preceding bull run. I think it safe to assume that most enjoyed higher salaries with each move. Little mention was made of this social contract then.

Logically, therefore, employers – including the local banks – are likewise not obliged to adhere to this “contract”.

IMO, by offering one month salary for every year of service, DBS has actually reinforced the concept of the social contract. Long-serving (and therefore by definition, loyal) DBS staff who got retrenched get a golden handshake (some of whom I understand were quite happy with their retirement package). However, those who had joined DBS mid-career (hence breaking their social contracts with their previous employers?) would be short-changed.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Gambling in the Town Councils?

I am shocked to realise that Holland-Bukit Panjang and Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Councils invested and probably lost a combined S$12 million in the failed Lehman Brothers products. And who knows, that is only the tip of the iceberg. Would Town Councils share the fate of the Titanic, sinking because of lack of diversification and uneducated assessment in a product that was mis-sold?

Conspiracy Theories Abound

With conspiracy theory in mind, the reason becomes crystal clear on why the government perhaps showed its hand and pushed DBS to have a compensation plan for those burnt by minibonds. That is because they knew since September that the Town Councils which gambled in the minibonds were in trouble and DBS had to be squeezed to return the money in some form, or else the peasants would get angry.

But only in the past few days was the severity of the damage revealed by our nation-building press. If there were no pleas to whistle-blow, would the Town Councils, behaving like GLCs, have come forward and be honest? Or would they have tried to salvage their Titanic wreck quietly behind the scene, all the while simultaneously piously openly berating DBS for mis-selling. They were not acting for the retired uncles and aunties as a priority, the government and the town councils might have acted to protect their loses.

Looking the Other Way

The astute observer would point out the likely double standards in this mini-Temasek saga over the Lemon products. If Potong Pasir or Hougang Town Council had invested in minibonds and lost the money, you bet the media would have went to town about gambling and squandering of the residents' sinking fund. As it is now, the reporting is a boring matter of fact without the character assassination of high profile council members.

What other skeletons are still in the closet? Let the truth prevail.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Et Tu Brute?: Ravi and Betrayal

Betrayal in politics is not unexpected as self-preservation in the play for power is the priority. Decisions on alliances based on mutual interests are secondary. The PAP and the communists warily allied with each other in the 1950s in the anti-Colonialist struggle in a cautious dance of who would betray each other first. Chiam See Tong was betrayed by his protege and SDP in the 1990s and was forced to leave the party he created in 1994. The PAP felt that they were betrayed by the late President Ong Teng Cheong when he questioned the PAP about the state's reserves. In the latest drama of betrayal among political allies, SDP deserted their loyal lawyer-supporter, M Ravi, after his recent arrest.

M Ravi appeared in SDP's circle in the past few years. In 2006 when M Ravi was suspended for one year, SDP stood by him, just as he had stood by SDP and gave speeches at SDP rallies during the Election that year. In their own words, M Ravi was "a dear friend of the SDP". Ostensibly with the support of SDP, the human rights lawyer was also an intern with the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats in 2007.

Ravi's Madness, not Method

Ravi was recently arrested for disrupting mosque prayers and the PAP-controlled media almost predictably insinuated that he is mad. However, SDP confirmed that his mental health is in question when they conceded that

"There is no escaping the fact that Mr Ravi needs medical attention and rest to recuperate."

With that politically unwise candour when silence was astute, SDP strapped up M Ravi in the straitjacket and left him out alone by confirming his questionable frame of mind. In retrospect, M Ravi's mental condition is more unfortunate fact than PAP fabrication and signs of him cracking under the pressure was seen in 2006 when the Falun Gong members he was defending doubted his sanity and he was even admitted into the Institute of Mental Health.

Betrayal and a Replacement Lawyer

Ling How Doong a SDP member and lawyer has not represented the Chee siblings in recent memory, and no lawyer besides esteemed JB Jeyaretnam has the conviction to defend SDP until M Ravi came along. With M Ravi only just seen more as a political liability than an asset considering his bouts of mental instability, SDP needs a new lawyer in their plans. An unstable M Ravi would not do for their already fragile image as a credible activist group and his continued association with SDP was more harm than help. Seeing his frequent presence at SDP events, Chia Ti Lik might be the one to replace M Ravi as SDP's de facto lawyer.

But for M Ravi, SDP's explicit statement that he needs medical help dooms his fate as a reliable lawyer and activist. What would the hapless M Ravi think?

Et tu Chee?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

$1 Million Bounty For Capture Of Mas Selamat – Why The U-Turn?

I am left pondering the rationale behind the seeming government endorsement of the $1 million cash reward (supposedly from two anonymous businessmen) for anyone with information that leads to the capture of terror fugitive Mas Selamat Kastari.

If you may recall, a private company had earlier made news sometime this year for putting out a reward of $50K for the capture of the escaped terrorist. Several other individuals and local companies had also offered rewards in an attempt to help the authorities track down the fugitive.

Yet, a spokesman for the government had stressed at that time that the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) did NOT think Singaporeans needed the incentive of a reward to help the country for a matter as serious as this.

So why the about-turn now?

Surely, cash offer or not, many Singaporeans have indeed been offering suggestions to the authorities and reporting suspicious Mas Selamat look-alikes.

My view is that the offer of cash reward is more sophisticated than ensuring continued public awareness and vigilance to offer assistance to the authorities.

It not only tempts Mas Selamat’s harbourers, but more importantly, it poses questions into the suspicious mind of Mas Selamat that he can no longer be sure that whoever is harbouring him at the moment (assuming that someone is indeed providing assistance to evade arrest) will not turn him in.

It forces Mas Selamat to be on the move and ultimately leaves footprints for authorities to hunt him down.

Therefore, key to the hunt of the fugitive is the continued tight security at all checkpoints and the continued vigilance of all Singaporeans to spot Mas Selamat.

However, with the announcement of the bounty, the authorities must seriously address some utterly embarrassing situations:

1) What if the informer, who is now coming forward to offer information, had all this while been sympathetic to the fugitive’s situation?

2) What if the informer had provided assistance to the fugitive in one way or another to evade arrest?

3) What if the informer is a family member of Mas Selamat and ultimately the cash reward goes back to Mas Selamat?

4) What if the informer is linked to the JI or other regional terrorist groups and part of the broker to turn Mas Selamat in is that the cash reward goes to the terrorist grouping?

The above scenarios are just some of the possible knotty ones that the government must seriously think through. If you may recall, sometime in April 2008, MHA had put across the strong message - Do NOT even think of harbouring Mas Selamat; anyone caught aiding him will face imprisonment for life, or a jail term.

Should the harbourer-turn-informer be rewarded for his assistance to the Police? Or should he not be arrested and prosecuted for harbouring the fugitive?

Friday, July 11, 2008


It seems that these days, any government policy or decision draws a barrage of criticism.

-- ERP gantries (and rates) go up. We have to pay more but it doesn’t solve the problem of congestion.

-- Laws against organ trading. If there is a willing buyer and a willing seller, so should we prohibit something that can save one person’s life and improve another’s.

-- Proscribing criticism against the government i.e. the Chees getting sued into (further) bankruptcy, and Gopalan Nair getting arrested (more than once). Why is the PAP government taking such a harsh approach towards its critics?

There are good reasons for criticizing each of the above issue, and over the blogosphere (and perhaps *because* of the blogosphere), we have heard many voices giving reasoned, compelling arguments why this and that government policy or decision should not have been implemented.

From anecdotal observations (with no statistical credence whatsoever to back this), it appears that the voices on the Net supporting government policies seem to be far fewer. Perhaps it seems that those who do voice support for government positions often get branded as “PAP lackeys”. (I too have been given the label on occasion even though I honesty try to be objective).

I am not defending or critiquing any of the above policies/decisions today. My point is simply that each policy has its beneficiaries, along with those who would suffer because of it. And that unpopular as they may seem, there could be a silent majority who actually support them.

Increased ERP rates benefit several groups of people e.g. those who cross few, if any, gantries (since they enjoy lower road taxes), those who have transport allowances provided by their employers and those too rich to give a damn (since some roads would be less congested for these lucky buggers, if only for awhile).

Organ trading laws give legal clout to a moral issue which is also high on the religious agenda – the sanctity of human life. There is probably a great majority who do not know anyone who requires an organ transplant, and would support such laws on moral/religious grounds. That does not necessarily make it right or good, but these views should also taken into account.

Criticism of the government is sensitive ground. I think that everyone should be allowed to criticize government policies. Even government leaders should and must be criticized where warranted. Like MP Wee Siew Kim who initially defended the remarks on his daughter’s blog as the “rantings of an 18-year-old amongst friends” and also saying that “her privacy has been violated”.

But slandering a government official a la Gopalan Nair’s blog about Belinda Ang is simply not the done thing in our local context. It may be “fair comment” in the US or other Western countries, but here in Singapore, it is rude … and stupid. If you show a printout of Gopalan’s blog to a group of heartlanders and ask what the chap should get, I believe many would suggest the rotan.

The views of the vocal few are important, but let’s not forget about those of the silent majority.

Friday, June 27, 2008

All the Minister's Men

The Ministry of Home Affairs has made the news for the wrong reasons again. Following a slip-up by an ICA officer at Changi Airport, a 61-year-old Singaporean traveled to Vietnam on his son’s passport.

In bowling parlance, this incident can perhaps be considered the “turkey” strike; the 1st two strikes being Mas Salamat’s escape in Feb and then the Subcourts escape earlier this month.

Wong Kan Seng said that he is “totally appalled and flabbergasted”, noting that his reminder of the need for vigilance is obviously not sinking in deep enough. He added that Home Team heads of departments would directly take charge and step up checks to ensure vigilance on the ground at all levels and “leave no room for complacency.”

3 incidents in less than 6 months suggests that we have a serious problem. Complacency may be the issue; notwithstanding MSK’s escape (which should have heightened alert levels at all checkpoints), this incident has occurred.

Aside from complacency, the issue of accountability is (once again) awash across the blogosphere, with calls on Wong to do the symbolic hara-kiri and resign. Others – fewer, admittedly, but apparently including the PM – seem to be of the view that the Minister is quite indispensable, and that his resignation would be a loss to the country/government.

My view is that no one is indispensable. Or at least no one should be indispensable. Perhaps DPM Wong has become quite adept as his role, having been the Home Affairs minister since 1994. But on the other hand, one could argue that new blood is needed. Personally, I would not be averse to his resignation.

But it would simply be a political solution to a problem which is really not political.

A full investigation must be held to identify the cause of the slip-up. Was the ICA officer briefed properly? Had he/she been working long hours beyond the usual/extended shifts? Or was he/she simply bo-chap i.e. complacent? Are there any back-up checks? I notice that passports/boarding passes are scrutinized at least 4 times (while checking in, entering the immigration zone, and the immigration checkpoint, and at the boarding gate); does that mean that at least 3 other people also slipped-up? Are there any other systemic issues?

An objective investigation is needed to answer these questions. If it is human error, those involved must be held accountable (including the Minister, if it comes to that). If there are procedural or systemic problems, they must be fixed. Otherwise, these security lapses will continue.

On a wider basis, all Home Team agencies (or even all government departments?) should likewise carry out a review of their existing processes, using independent audits/inspections where applicable. Just as companies use consultants, and retail stores use “mystery shoppers”, government departments should also proactively seek to improve, instead of waiting for problems to surface before they react.

So by all means, the Minister can (be asked to) resign. But that will not solve the problem.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A (Predictable) Game of Political Chess

The current judicial brouhaha surrounding the Lees, the Chees, and new entrant Gopalan Nair reminds me of once of those chess games where players use set moves at the opening game.. and is therefore entirely predictable to a point.

White move 1: During campaigning 2006 elections, SDP makes allegations against the Lees for political mileage.
Black move 1: MM Lee/PM Lee threatens a lawsuit/asks for a retraction/apology.

White move 2: Other SDP-mates back off but Chee siblings refuse.
Black move 2: MM Lee/PM Lee make good on threats to sue.

White move 3: Two years later, Chees use court action to promote their own agenda/grievances (but do not give evidence to substantiate earlier claims). Also ridicules Court officers/system.
Black move 3: Court sends Chees to jail for contempt. The Chees will lose really big on the libel suit.

White move 4: A Chee supporter/blogger writes a blog which sullies the reputation of the judge & the Court. (It is possible that the blogger, being a former Singaporean and now a US ctizien, felt he was unlikely to be brought to task).
Black move 4: The blogger -- who was in Singapore -- is arrested.

To quote a line from the Desiderata, we should "Know that the world is evolving exactly as it should."

The Lees/PAP have a fierce reputation of protecting their reputation through libel suits. Our Courts cannot afford to let anyone, even (or perhaps especially) opposition parties and civil activists to challenge their reputation for "fairness".

There was no other way this scenario could have played out and everyone who is involved knows it.

What we should ask ourselves is why.

The PAP's agenda is clear enough. They can 2 birds with one stone -- protect their own reputation while bringing down the Chees, a political inconvenience, down another rung. But what do the Chees and Nair want out of this? How will the Queen's Gambit (Accepted) play out?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Political Obstinacy adds to Human Tragedy

I think it is tragic that the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok can close on a public holiday when aid workers are rushing to provide humanitarian aid.

Given that tens of thousands hae lost their lives and many thousands more are at risk, one would think that the least the Myanmar bureaucrats could do is to work overtime. One suspects that they are closely guided by their political masters in Yangon, or rather mystical Naypyidaw.

Indeed, one wonders why the Myanmar leadership does not simply announce a temporary visa waiver for aid workers during this period.

After all, if my house was on fire, I doubt I'd be asking the firemen at the door for their identity cards and verifying them with the fire service before letting them in.

Cyclone Nargis may have blown the roofs of buildings, but has apparently not moved the junta's political baggage one inch.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The COI Report - Simultaneously Fair and Frustrating to Singaporeans

These were the questions I laid out on the table previously. I will do a quick run-down on whether Minister Wong Kan Seng in his parliament speech had satisfied to a large extent our need for openness and transparency. The question of accountability is still unresolved though as the government appears defensive. So, the COI report is transparent as promised but the government's behaviour is less than satisfactory still.

1) The detailed sequence of events that led to the toilet escape.

Actually there was so much information that I have almost totally lost confidence at the competence of those on the ground. Those on duty who did not feel something was amiss when Mas Selamat took his time in the toilet - haven't we watched enough movies to know that the prisoner is always up to no good when his toilet break is taking longer than it should.

2) Who was responsible for the escape?

From the COI report which seemed transparent and detailed, those responsible for the escape were those on duty in escorting Mas Selamt during his family visit. I think this is fair to a large extent. If they were vigilant, all this circus would not have happened. Hence they shoulder the burden of the escape. For example, in a drink driving accident, blame is on the drunk driver, not the one who built the car, designed the road, the pub owner etc. The one behind the wheel is always the one most responsible.

3) Was it negligence, complacency, conspiracy?

Minister Wong Kan Seng said it was not an inside job and CID investigations confirmed it. He blamed the whole escape on complacency, an argument that MM Lee Kuan Yew set a few weeks ago. The whole thing about complacency subtly actually took centrestage since then. Note that the central argument in the escape was not about competence or complicity, other equally worthwhile controversial angles to understand the incident, but complacency.

4) Was the escape planned and did Mas Selamat have help from the outside?

Mas Selamat did not have help from the outside but he did rehearse his escape. Rehearsed his escape and the COI report was frank enough to state this. This is terrifying as it meant that it was not a fluke prison break, but one that was hatched with time. Back to the argument of complacency and the guards not carrying out their responsibilities well. The implication in this revelation on the planned rehearsed escape is that the government did not have to share this as it made them look all the more worse, but they curiously did. If we put aside our cynicism, the government actually took the promise of transparency seriously here. Let's see if the results of transparency would turn around and bite them back.

5) Could the escape have been prevented?

Without a doubt the escape could have been prevented and prevented easily at that. Murphys' Law ruled that the most inept were on duty that day. The window was not grilled. The guards allowed Mas Selamat privacy. The fence could be scaled. The CCTV was not recording as it was being upgraded.

6) What recommendations are made?

The most sensible recommendation is that ISD's detention and rehabilitative facilities would be shifted to Changi Prison. Nevertheless, this sort of recommendations is typical of those with the benefit of hindsight. If the Mas Selamat escape did not happen, ISD would have said that in all its history its current system had served it well and why change something that is working perfectly? Nevertheless the escape did happen, unfortunately for Singapore, and this recommendation to tap on prison's resources and experience is a sound one.

7) How will the government make those responsible accountable for the escape?

The Home Affairs Minister only said that disciplinary action would be taken. On whom and what we don't know yet. We can wait and watch and hold our judgement on the fairness of it all and let's hope that there are no scapegoats.

8) How much responsibility the government is going to shoulder for the escape rather than push the blame to us?

Obviously the government should be held responsible. Some agencies more than others, some personnel more than others. But as a whole, the government is to be responsible for the escape. To make a tangent that Singaporeans are to be blamed for the escape is too much.

9) What is the status on the manhunt now?

Not much new information here and Minister Wong Kan Seng repeated that the search is still on. One thing for sure, Mas Selamat is not inside his cell and that is the only confirmed information on the JI leaders' whereabouts. He could be overseas and back in Indonesia, and politically Singapore has to offer sweeteners to make the Indonesians cooperate and send him back again. If he is in Indonesia in the first place and not holed up in some HDB flat's bomb shelter.

The government also gave an account of what it did immediately after the escape to address the concerns of those who were focusing on the four-hour delay between the escape and a public alert. From what the government shared assuming that it is accurate, the processes were well in place despite what the cynics suggest.

10) What is the cost of the escape to Singapore's reputation, economy and security?

This was not dealt with explicitly but the government cannot run away from the fact that Singapore's reputation as a state which treats security threats seriously has been dented immensely. The government at least had a hope of redemption if they captured Mas Selamat but they couldn't, so now they have to live with this scar.

I rate the capture and escape of Mas Selamat as one of the most significant national security incidents in Singapore's modern history. It sits in the annals, but with a different moral to the story, alongside the Macdonalds house bombing and the hanging of the Indonesian commandos behind it, and the Laju hijack and government officials who volunteered themselves for the hostage exchange.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

COI Findings: Will the Government be Honest?

Come Monday, the Home Affairs Minister will face Parliament and disclose the findings of the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the escape of Jemaah Islamiyah member Mas Selamat. The Minister mentioned soon after the escape of the JI leader that the COI would leave no stone unturned (read no cover-ups and excuses) and an "independent inquiry" would get to the bottom of the matter. I previously laid out that we wait for the COI report before we set loose the lynch mobs. We won't have to wait long now and by Tuesday we would know whether we have need of the tar and feathers.

Unanswered Questions

The government promised that they would belatedly release details of the escape - a burning question we had from day one, but not other parts of the report which infringes on national security. We shall see if the ministry in-charged of the ISD and police would keep its end of the bargain and give details. Here is a checklist of what I want to be revealed when Minister Wong Kan Seng submits his COI findings to Parliament.

1) The detailed sequence of events that led to the toilet escape.
2) Who was responsible for the escape?
3) Was it negligence, complacency, conspiracy?
4) Was the escape planned and did Mas Selamar have help from the outside?
5) Could the escape have been prevented?
6) What recommendations are made?
7) How will the government make those responsible accountable for the escape?
8) How much responsibility the government is going to shoulder for the escape rather than push the blame to us?
9) What is the status on the manhunt now?
10) What is the cost of the escape to Singapore's reputation, economy and security?

* questions 9 and 10 are probably not related to the COI per se but as elected leader, the Minister should earn his pay and give us an overview of the "security lapse" including its implications.

The subtext of these questions pertain to the government's transparency, accountability, responsibility, and competence. How honest the government is in admitting its mistakes is an indicator of whether it is fit to lead Singapore in the coming years. The trick question is this. If the government is honest in admitting its incompetence, how fit is it to lead Singapore in the coming years anyway? The government has got themselves between a rock and a hard place.

Monday, March 31, 2008


Dutch politician Geert Wilders released on the Internet a film called 'Fitna' which is critical of Islam and warnings that it could spark protests and riots are spreading.

This is reminiscent of the Danish cartoon controversy where a Danish newspaper published several cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad.  The newspaper announced that it was an attempt to contribute to the debate regarding criticism of Islam and self-censorship, but when examples of the cartoons were reprinted in other countries, it led to protests and violence around the world which led to more than 100 deaths.

In 2004, Dutch film director Theo van Gogh received death threats and was subsequently murdered for "Submission", a 10-minute film about violence against women in Islamic societies.  Further back in 1988, Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses earned him a fatwa from the Iranian Ayatollah calling for him to be killed.  (He's still alive and even got knighted in 2007 for his "services to literature.")

Now, it seems that another Dutch politician is working on a film project along the same lines.

What's with these Dutch people anyway?

In the Netherlands and many other Western countries, freedom of speech is an "inalienable right."  The idea is that in open debate, the people would recognized untruths and bad ideas as such, and would drop them and discredit their sources.  There is also a general view that freedom of speech is a right which will be used in a responsible manner.

In other societies (Singapore included), freedom of speech is not an inalienable right.  In Singapore, such liberties are considered subservient to a greater need to maintain social harmony and preventing any possibility of a rehash of the 1969 riots.  Other countries may have their own reasons.

But with the Internet, it is not just a cliché that boundaries are being torn down.

These days, with a combination of blogs, photoshop and digital video, anyone can aspire to join the ranks of Theo van Gogh and Rushdie (minus the knighthood; that's might still be quite difficult).

The very fact is that anyone -- American, Danish, Dutch or not -- can say anything they want, damn the consequences.

But the fact is we live in a world where there are extremists who believe that God has sanctioned them to kill others, and certain actions on the part of non-believers will only agitate them further, and may draw more others who are more moderate into the extremist fold.

IMO, whatever is said and whoever says it, there is simply no excuse for violence.  As we used to say when we were children, "sticks & stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me."  Any fatwa which demands that somebody be physically hurt or killed is simply wrong.

That said, if the proponents of free speech are indeed after the complete package of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", they would do well to think twice before posting potentially inflammatory content on the Internet which may put lives at risk.  If you get killed or get death threats, "liberty and the pursuit of happiness" becomes quite moot or at least rather more difficult to attain.

Even if you are willing to pay the price personally, you should be considerate enough to avoid the possibility that others who share your nationality, race or religion and living space, might somehow suffer, in return for your right to shoot your mouth off.  For example, Dutch nationals in Muslim countries may be attacked, and Dutch businesses can probably expect boycotts.

So, when exercising your inalienable right to freedom of speech, please take a minute to consider that the rest of us have a right to peace and the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Logic of Rewards

Two weeks on and Mas Salamat has yet to be found. Much has been said in the media about offering a reward for information leading to his capture. Home affairs minister Wong Kan Seng said that it’s not the police’s policy to give out rewards. An MHA spokesman was quoted in today’s ST as saying that “we do not think Singaporeans need the incentive of a reward to help the country for a matter as serious as this.”

Still, the spokesman reportedly added that it would “consider seriously” suggestions by the public to offer a reward. Possibly a sign of growing desperation?

Private sector companies made the first move. 2 weeks ago, security company Metropolis Security has offered its 250 security guards $1,000 if they can provide information leading to the JI leader’s arrest. Crime Library is offering $5,000 (which presumably applies to all members of the public). It was reported today that a labour-supply company Aasperon Manpower has offered a county of $50,000 … perhaps the first meaningful offer.

Publicity gimmick? Maybe. Even assuming it is done with the best intentions, the issue of offering money in the case is contentious.

Some argue that the reward sends out the wrong message, that responsible Singapore citizens (and the non-citizens as well) should report any sighting of the fugitive, reward or no. Others see no harm in offering an added incentive. With each day that Mas Selamat continues to elude search efforts, however, I think public opinion tips further in favour of offering a hefty reward.

We should put moral issues aside and consider the matter in more practical terms.

I am not thinking of the issue of money. The direct costs of an ongoing search compounded with the indirect costs of delays caused by stepped-up checks at the checkpoints and airports etc would already be quite considerable. In this context, even a $1,000,000 reward would be small price to pay, if it can effectively reduce the time it takes to capture Mas Selamat by even one day.

Rather, we should consider whether logically, a reward might actually hinder, rather than help, the efforts to locate him.

The first question: would a reward lead to more calls to the Police?

I think so. People would be more motivated to report sightings. Suddenly, the guy across the street just seems to be limping doesn’t he? And he does seem to be 1.6m tall … give or take 20 cm. He may, or may not be, Mas Selamat. But why not just call it in? After all, with the possible reward, it’s like getting a free Toto ticket.

There leads us to the second question: Would it lead to more “high confidence” reports? I think not. I believe that most people who confidently believe that they have seen the fugitive will make a report.

(Note: By “high confidence”, I mean those type of sightings where the witness is quite sure that it *could* be the fugitive, as opposed to “low confidence” cases where the witness is just whacking in the dark.)

To date, the police have apparently received more than 1,000 calls and emails reporting sightings of this chap. If even 5% (i.e. 50) of these reports were actual sightings of the JI leader, and enough of them were made in a sufficiently timely manner, I would assume that our boys in blue (or green or whatever) would have caught him by now.

Clearly, every report needs to be investigated and followed-up. That takes time and manpower. And every man chasing a lead is one man less searching for him somewhere else.

I am not against bona fide or high confidence reports, even if many of them turn out to be false leads later. If someone feels strongly enough about a sighting, he/she definitely should report it. If there are enough high confidence reports, one (or more) will eventually strike the nail on the head.

But IMO, offering a reward simply increases the number of “low confidence” reports; those made with the hope of striking lottery. These would take up valuable resources, which are probably be better deployed elsewhere.

Monday, March 10, 2008


8th March 2008 was an auspicious date for newbies seeking enter Malaysian politics. Nurul Izzah unseated 3-term incumbent Minister Shahrizat Jalil to win Lembah Pantai while blogger Jeff Ooi unseated Gerakan in a 3-way fight in Jelutong. Meanwhile, established figures like Works Minister Samy Vellu and Penang MB Dr Koh Tsu Koon lost their jobs.

The Star called it a political tsunami while Anwar heralded the results as a new dawn … well, for him, at least.

(His wife and daughter are both in Parliament, which probably means that he’ll be getting up earlier to prepare their breakfast. There is talk, of course, that Nurul Izzah is just warming the seat, and will step down to allow the former DPM re-enter Parliament by-election after his ban in politics is up next month.)

Yes, it was a clear sign of dissatisfaction with BN and the status quo – corruption, mismanagement of racial & religious issues, and an economic blueprint that has yet to see results. DAP’s Manoharan Malayalam grabbed almost 70% of the votes against his BN opponent in Kota Alam, even though he spent the entire campaign period under ISA detention. Goes to show that shaking hands and kissing babies is not a key requirement in politics?

But while the Opposition celebrates, they should also recognize that they were largely the beneficiaries of weak leadership and infighting in the BN camp, just as BN had benefited from a un-united Opposition in 2004 … perhaps what goes around, comes around?

My point is, the votes were not Opposition votes per se. They were votes aimed at bringing in fresh ideas, new blood and the political energy to overcome the inertia. The problem is, the Opposition is still a minority, and a divided one at that. It is unlikely that a shared coherent approach to the challenges facing Malaysia today will emerge from this side of the fence.

Hence, the call for change will have to be answered by UMNO – which is really all that’s left of BN now that other component parties are pretty much wiped out. As PM Abdullah grapples with calls to step down, he must also realize (by now, at least) that the current generation of voters are those who have not fully bought into Dr M’s version of reasons for Anwar’s sacking & imprisonment, and are more likely to read Malaysiakini than the NST.

The good news for BN? At least the accusations of election rigging should be silenced for awhile.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Will Reason ever Prevail?

The Commission of Inquiry was set up for at least two reasons. One is to get to the bottom of the escape and two, to show that the government is fairly sincere about getting to the bottom of the escape. The government could have achieved the first action without the show and tell, but the show and tell was necessary because of the severity of the situation. A circus it might be for the ever lurking cynics and critics, but as the show has not started yet, the reasonable among us would think it impatiently ungracious to call for blood yet.

The Commission of Inquiry (COI) is not unprecedented. In April 2004, a Committee of Inquiry was set up with regards to the Nicoll Highway collapse which tragically claimed 4 lives. In September that year, the Committee issued its first interim report. The Committee was made up of 3 people - SDJ Richard R Magnus, A/Prof Teh Cee Ing (Head, Div of Geotechncial & Transportation Engineering. Sch of Civil & Env Engineering NTU) and Mr Lau Joo Ming (Director, Building Technology Dept, HDB). Looking at the current Commission which is made up of retired High Court judge Goh Joon Seng, now a member of the Council of Presidential Advisors, former Commissioner of Police Tee Tua Ba, who is now Singapore's Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, and Dr Choong May Ling, Deputy Secretary (Security and Corporate Services) of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the government has stuck to its 3 Wise Men framework of a member of the judiciary, an expert and a government representative so that there is balance and direction in the form of questioning presumably.

Rage clouds Reason

Mr Wang made a valid observation that in the current COI, the MHA representative only serves to cast doubt on the independence of the independent commission and that a non-MHA face would basically sell koyok better. He might be right, but to be honest, any government official regardless of ministry sitting on that commission would be argued as a government plant. In fact, the other two can also be deemed as government plants if we extend the cover-up theory that far and damn the commission even before they start.

Which brings me to the important argument stressed by bloggers over the recent hysteria on whether The Online Citizen, or at least one of its members, is a PAP plant. In defence of the TOC, the convincing argument laid out was that emphasis on credibility and objectivity should be placed on the content of the message and not who wrote it. Hence, the eventual report of the COI would be the measure of its credibility. With this in mind, that effectively gives the COI breathing space and subtle pressure that the public expectations of balance in their findings without fear or favour must be met.

Cynics lambasted that the COI need not take one month to release an explanation for the escape as it is an open and shut case. They are right if they want a witch hunt. However, as the weight of the findings is like a White Paper, the COI probably needs to scrutinise the escape - who is to blamed how much, recommended improvements in the system etc and it is a thesis in its intended detailed approach. One month for a thesis is reasonable depending on its scope, assuming that it turns out to be a thesis which we expect and not a last minute term essay handed in for the sake of handing in.

So that brings us to the contentious issue of responsibility and blame in the escape. We each have our own solid prejudices and preconceptions on the sharing of blame and penalties. Nevertheless, let the bureaucrats put forth their arguments and attempt at transparency and accountability before any mob lynching is meted out.

Friday, February 29, 2008


When was the last time we saw a Minister (let alone one as senior as DPM Wong Kan Seng) apologise in Singapore Parliament? Practically unheard of.

I think the message is clear: the authorities in charge of Mas Selamat Kastari’s detention had fouled up big time. The prison break of the JI leader in Singapore is a most serious (and embarrassing) security lapse, especially for Singapore, which has prided itself for its excellent security track record.

Although DPM Wong explained in Parliament that the JI detainee had escaped from a toilet from the family visitation room, I am left wondering how a situation as surreal as this could actually happened.

Accountability calls aside, many fellow bloggers are clamouring for more details - where were the guards minding him? Was it an inside job? etc…

Surely, it cannot be one man’s failure, but a failure of many factors.

However, the point now is NOT about pointing fingers and asking for resignations. My own sense is that the focus must be on rectifying the situation, on damage control, i.e. nabbing the escaped fugitive.

The longer he is not apprehended, the greater the danger he poses to society. Lest anyone forgets, this terrorist chap had plotted retaliatory attacks against Singapore while he was on the run after the detention of JI members in 2001. There is nothing to suggest that he won’t revisit such plots. Does he not want blood?

While the authorities have shown that no efforts will be spared in nabbing Mas Selamat Kastari, I am not sure cordoning Whitley Road and its adjacent vicinity and stepping up border security would suffice. Instead, more stakeholders, no in fact, the whole populace must be brought in to assist with the apprehension of the fugitive. This calls for a national endeavour.

Everyone, including taxi drivers, road commuters, shop owners, park-goers, young and old etc, can be the ‘eyes and ears’ for the law-enforcement agencies. And key to this would be the provision of more details to the public to better assist with more accurate tip-offs while we leave the actual arrest to the authorities.

Some details that could perhaps help include: Mas Selamat Kastari’s latest photos; his height and size (How tall is he? How thin or fat is him? A full-length photo could be helpful); his attire (What was he last known to be wearing?); while he is said to be walking with a limp, is it a left leg limp or right one?; is he alone or known to be in the company of others?

I think for us bloggers, we could step-up our online pamphleteering campaign, perhaps a coordinated Manhunt site. We could include the fugitive’s pictures and along with typical objective commentaries, suggestions, and information about possible sightings and hiding places.

For the safety of our children, loved ones and fellow countrymen, all of us have to join hands with the authorities to create a national cordon and nab this terrorist before he strikes.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Why taxis are not “Public Transport”

I met with a taxi driver relative of mine over the New Year. He shared that his income had dipped significantly (abt 25%) in the weeks following the fare increase; he added that while each fare now paid more, he spent much more time cruising around for passengers. He agreed (only grudgingly) that this was probably a knee-jerk reaction and that when taxi commuters got used to the overall increase, his income would likely increase.

It would appear therefore that the objectives of the fare hike, i.e. to increase the income of taxi drivers, and the supply of taxis in the city area and during peak hours, would probably be met.

My taxi driver relative continued to argue nonetheless that the new fares were too high, and that the poor – who would therefore not have cars – would find taxis unaffordable. Taxis, he felt, were public transport and should therefore be affordable to all.

I had another point of view. While public transport should be affordable for all, I think we need to examine whether – in the Singapore context – taxis should really be considered as “public transport.”

A taxi takes a person(s) from point A to B comfortably in an air-conditioned vehicle. Waiting time can usually be limited to 10-15 minutes if one makes a booking. On the road, the taxi occupies as much space as any other car. The only difference is that it would not require a parking lot at its destination, but would instead go off to serve another passenger.

With telephone bookings and mobile phones (so ubiquitous these days), the convenience of having a car Рvis-à-vis using taxis Рhas been eroded. There are also the in-between options e.g. car-sharing.

Therefore, the taxi commuter enjoys the same utility as a car owner – he even gets the services of a driver in addition to using the car. The exception might be that a car owner might enjoy some pride in car ownership.

My point is that taxis – in the Singapore context at least – are not public transport. Taxis users take up the same resources (vehicle, petrol, road space) as car users and then some (manpower). The taxi user should be compared to the car user, not the bus or MRT commuter. Based on average/similar commuting habits, therefore, the cost of using taxis should rightfully exceed that of owning a car.

One could argue that certain segments of the population really need taxi services e.g. the disabled. In such cases, a subsidy aimed at these users would be more appropriate, instead of simply suppressing all taxi fares on the basis that it is “public transport.”