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.