Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Khan-not Enter

Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) was recently held up at a US airport for 2 hours, apparently because of his surname.

Perhaps SRK was mistaken for Abdul Qadeer Khan (AQK), the alleged nuclear weapons proliferator. However, there are subtle differences – aside from the rest of their names – which may have enabled US officials to tell them apart. SRK is Indian while AQK is Pakistani; SRK is a 43-year old Bollywood hunk whereas AQK is a 73-year-old nuclear scientist.

Nuclear Bomb Khan (top) and his identical evil twin, Bollywood Bomb Khan (bottom)

Consequently, some Indians have raised a ruckus, calling it a “national insult.”

But my point is not to poke at the US officials. Their watchlist of known or suspected terrorists probably runs into tens of thousands, and there must be several Khans in that list. The entry of any of these individuals could have significant repercussions for the US homeland, which may include a second 9/11. In this context, we should not begrudge them the few hours it may take to clearly satisfy themselves that SRK is not a terrorist.

Chaka Khan - I Feel for You...You're Next!

Some of the criticism leveled against the US officials is that they should have known that SRK was a “world figure.”

This would indeed be the case if customs and checkpoint officers spent their tea breaks going through the entertainment and gossip magazines. Personally, I’d feel better if they spent their time becoming more acquainted with the modus operandi of smugglers and terrorists.

Another Bollywood director Kabir Khan (another Khan!) was quoted as saying that what happened to SRK was “a clear case of fear psychosis” and was only noticed because it involved a superstar.

In other words, he was suggesting that more Indians (and south Asians?) were being detained at US airports.

I think there is likely to be some truth in the latter. One would imagine that the US watchlist will have a significant number of Arab/Asian names, while travelers from south Asia and the Middle East will include a disproportionate number of Husseins and Osamas. Statistically, we should expect that some groups of travelers are more likely to be stopped for further checks.

But to label this as “fear psychosis” is to miss this point altogether.

When rooted in sound logic and processes (like interviewing or making further checks), profiling/discrimination is not such a dirty word. Everyone benefits from the additional security which the checks provide (at some inconvenience to a minority). As a whole, queues would also be shorter and planes are not delayed.

The bottom line is that immigration and security regulations must apply to all travelers. Inevitably, some people – whether by their profile or name – would be subject to greater scrutiny. IMO, the fact that a Bollywood star gets stopped at a US airport is a sign that the system is working as it should.

Would Brad Pitt be subject to a strip search at an Indian airport? If it were that one of the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks in November 2008 was known only as “B. Pitt”, the very least that an Indian immigration officer should do is to give him a second glance.

Luckily for Kublai, no such profiling back then

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Pearls before Swine (flu)

Recent reports suggest that the threat of the swine flu pandemic is on the decline. There is also reason to suggest that swine flu is not as deadly as initially feared. Outside of Mexico, only 2 people have died from the virus. Most victims reportedly only suffered mild symptoms.

The measures by various governments to contain the outbreak, which were seen as prudent, now appear to be overreactions. The quarantine of the Metropark Hotel in Hong Kong, the cancellation of flights from Mexico in various countries, and even Singapore’s sudden imposition of visas on Mexican nationals.

I do not purport to question these difficult decisions, which were taken out without the luxury of complete information or much time.

Nonetheless, it may be time to carry out an analysis of costs and benefits of these actions, such that better decisions can be taken during future pandemic threats or other crises.

Let’s take a look at it from the Singapore perspective.

On the “cost” side, some items we should include would be:
- Cost of medical supplies (stockpile of Tamiflu, thermometers, masks etc)
- Screening measures (including thermal scanners at buildings & checkpoints)
- Quarantine-related costs (including cost of blocking the Aloha chalets)
- Costs of medical and security personnel
- Research into vaccines and screening kits
- Business continuity operations
- Other opportunity costs (time lost for above measures, loss of revenues from Mexican tourists etc)

On the “benefits” side, we would have:
- Saved X number of lives
- Prevented Y number of people from becoming ill (saving $Z in man hours)
- (Possibly) avoided Singapore becoming a “H1N1 affected” country and it implications on tourism/travel etc.

Taking the analysis down to its core elements, we spent a lot of money (say $50 million, a number pulled out of the hat) to save a small number of lives (say 5, now that it appears that the current strain of flu was not exactly lethal). Using these assumptions, one can say that we spent $10 million to save each live which swine flu would have taken.

Was it worth it?

From a moral/philosophical perspective, some would say that human lives are priceless.

But the reality is that resources are finite and like it or not, lives would be lost elsewhere for want of the $10 million spent on fighting swine flu. For example, spending $10 million on seat belts on buses used to ferry school children would likely save more than 1 live. What about an additional $10 million on kidney dialysis, or on cancer research?

A responsible government always needs to remain calm and methodically consider the costs and benefits of each move, even in the face of a crisis like the swine flu outbreak.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

In the Name of Christianity

The media and blogosphere was awash with reports of the coup by Josie Lau and some of her fellow members at the Church Of Our Saviour (COOS) to take over AWARE. Notably, AWARE’s EGM on 2 May was at one stage to be held at the Singapore Expo, where COOS and several other churches so-called coincidentally staged a conference. Moreover, reported that COOS pastor Derek Hong has urged the women in his audience to support the new Exco, saying that “there’s a line that God has drawn for us, and we don’t want our nation crossing that line.”

The adverse reaction to the new AWARE Exco and COOS is not just from pro-gay community but from a much larger segment who believes that the COOS members have crossed the line in making AWARE a battleground for their own fundamentalist agenda.

By some accounts, the AWARE EGM was a proxy showdown between COOS' Pastor Derek Hong and Thio Su Mien, and those who feel differently – comprising old AWARE members, other Christians, gay and pro-gay community, and all others who are sufficiently annoyed by Josie and the pussycats. The plot to use Christianity as a rallying cry fortunately failed this time. Reason and respect prevailed instead. However, the fundamentalists would see it as their righteous duty to try again and lead all to salvation. Hence, vigilance is still needed.

This episode has tarred Christians in general and (other) members of COOS in particular. What must be said is that a number Christians (possibly including some COOS members) have spoken up to express disgust with the approach that the new Exco has taken. Even as they may share values concerning homosexuality etc, they also recognize that in a pluralistic society such as Singapore, the secularity of the public space is (ironically) sacred.

I believe that the overwhelming majority of Christians in Singapore (of whichever denomination or church) would subscribe to this. But as with Islamic fundamentalism/extremism, it only takes so few, whether they are in parliament or in AWARE, to spoil the reputation of the whole.

Fellow members of COOS should also take their brethren to task. This is the time that the moderate Christian majority should continue to stand up and be counted.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Year of Online News Competition?

2008 was the year of the blogger-activist. The Online Citizen was in everyone's minds when one mentions blogger-activist. But what would 2009 be for the blogger? We have not even reached mid-2009 and already blogging dynamics have shifted powerfully. There is a new player, Wayang Party, which has added an unstable balance of seriousness and sensationalism to alternative news in the Internet.

Wayang Party and The Online Citizen are moving away from commentaries on news carried in the mainstream media, to making their own news to rival SPH and CNA's produce, and even carrying news that the incumbents would follow through with. Coming full circle, it was the bloggers who dogged the mainsteam news media but now there are occasions when it is the other way around. By themselves, The Online Citizen and Wayang Party are turning some of the more experienced hands "old school" and even obsolete. The new school political watchtowers would nicely fit the mainstream tastes of the Internet crowd. However, it is still far to go to appeal to the fans of the esoteric in terms of consistent intellectual depth; the vacuum created by Singapore Angle's lack of updates is yet to be filled.

Mirroring Mainstream Media

Since 2008 and especially from 2009, the two key news blogs are mirroring the mainstream media more and more. There is now more coverage on human interest stories, rather than merely political events. The Online Citizen's news on migrant workers and their plight, a non-populist news focus since local unemployment is a bigger concern, and its attempts to move into "Wisdom from the Streets" with the Uncle Kwok story, underscores the Home pages of this citizen journalist blog. Nonetheless, human interest hooks are not restricted to the lives of the marginalised, but also cover crime, violence, and conspiracy, no sex yet though.

Wayang Party and The Online Citizen are exploring the occasional sensational tabloid reporting in getting the ratings, the former particularly. The NTU don and Widjaja alleged stabbing drama marks how citizen journalism is at the precipice. In the rush to counter Straits Times' bias and dubious reporting, Wayang Party and The Online Citizen adopted the Widjajas' point of view to an extent with their own exclusives. Both asked conspiracy theory questions about the inconsistencies and one-sidedness in ST's coverage of the death.

Both The Online Citizen and Wayang Party rush for the news presentation and market dominace in a way which mirrors the niche rivalries between, for example, Today, the ST, My Paper and the New Paper all together. Singapore news is basically local news and there is only so much what and how one can report. Not only do the Wayang Party and The Online Citizen mimic the news taxonomy in ST etc. both sides also reflect each other's tactics to bring more comprehensive reporting. The Online Citizen has a TOC International while Wayang Party has its Chinese section. With regards to thought-provoking opinion features, one has the mysterious Brotherhood while the other has the enigmatic Farquhar. Both news sites have videos of street interviews and try to outdo each other with exclusives and writer grabs. However, Wayang Party's entertaining scoops are more spectacular to the point that any discerning reader would be sceptical of the "news" e.g. missing whisle blower Johnlaw, the Po the Panda incident . In the rush to find and make news, quality could have been sacrificed. In a way, the online news media might fall into the same pit of low journalistic standards as ST as claimed by critics of the nation-building press.

Competitive Rivalry (is there any other kind?)

Assuming that trends remain unchanged, 2009 would be the year of the online alternative news rivalry rather than the blogger-activist. Now, not only is there rivalry between the offline and online media, there is also intra-online media competition developing. With Wayang Party rushing into the scene with its gamut of content from the trivial to the knowlegable, and rightly so wary of monopoly by The Online Citizen, it pushed The Online Citizen to stay on top of the game. Competition is always good for the market and consumers benefit from the fight to gain market dominance. There are more Internet news and opinion options for us to choose now. The guess is what will these alternative news giants think of next to outwit, outlast and outplay each other. Will there be forums next for The Online Citizen and Wayang Party like how ST and CNA have their own forums?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Not Keeping Mum at MOM

Just a few days ago, the premises of the Ministry of Manpower was yet another venue for grouses. This time it was not Chinamen about their wages, but 2 peaceful citizens standing up for their Burmese friends who are bearing the brunt of the government's relatively justified wrath. The police arrested the duo but not the China workers.

Legal Protest Alternative Scorned

In 2007, members of the Burmese community here staged several protests against the SPDC. The government in its typical intolerance of any political demonstration by locals or foreigners, bid its time to lessen any political fallout and decided to indirectly expel the supposed Burmese trouble-makers styled as the Overseas Burmese Patriots only recently. No forced expulsion, but just letting the Burmese activists' visas expire without them being renewed.

It is hard not to sympathise with the Burmese in their condemnation of their junta. But the Burmese probably knew that their public show of defiance in Singapore would cost them, especially when the government offered them indoor protests as legal alternatives to more visible and vocal outdoor but illegal protests.

Similarly, Seelan Palay and Chong Kai Xiong had legal alternatives to stage their protest but they deliberately planned to brush off the government in the spirit of civil disobedience. Instead of bringing their case to Speakers' Corner, they challenged the law that protests can only be held in that little patch of Singapore. This resulted in the MOM protest and a subsequent high profile arrest. Like the Burmese activists they want to represent, birds of a feather indeed flock together. All had legal alternatives to advance their cause but they chose an illegal and therefore publicity-getting option.

Activism Through Law-Breaking

By the way, is law-breaking the means to an end, or is it the end in itself? It does seem so with some activists. There is a subtext to the MOM protest and arrest. The whole idea of lawful and unlawful protests is being contested at one point, but at another point from the activists' perspective, the decision to choose either a lawful or an unlawful protest depends on publicity possibly generated. Activism is to promote a cause. Publicity helps in that promotion. Connection to the SDP, a brush with the law and the taste of forbidden fruit are tried and tested means of publicity. Singaporeans can expect more calibrated law-breaking activism from the likes of Seelan Palay and Chong Kai Xiong.