Monday, December 06, 2010

Singapore Cyberattacked and Cyberspied On

The Straits Times reported it during the weekend, and Yahoo has a more detailed story of how Singapore was cyberattacked during the APEC summit last year. The choice of the word "cyberterrorist" was misleadingly odd as the article was more "cyberespionage" and the theft of confidential information rather than the shutdown of critical national infrastructure through computer hacking.

No finger-pointing of those pulling the strings was made but one likely culprit could be the Chinese, the guys who brought down Google on a whim if the latest Wikileaks based on US assessments are accurate. From the comments in the Yahoo article, the Chinese had their Ghostnet going for some time before it was exposed last year and Singapore was probably one of Ghostnet's victims, especially since it was the host to APEC then. It was a good time to steal information from the organiser on what was happening with APEC and the meetings.

So espionage still exists in Singapore but I doubt it is the sensational level like that among the great powers. Who can forget that romanticised media hype on the Russian spy ring exposed this year in the USA and the Cold War era type of US-Russia spy exchange as a result of those FBI arrests.

The APEC cyberespionage case aside, Singapore is not new in the spying and spycatching game. Earlier this decade, the Australians accused Singapore of stealing Australian military secrets when Singtel hungrily eyed Down Under's Optus. Allegations of spying on Australia was the natural drum to beat in the context of encouraging nationalistic paranoia on a Singapore company buying into an Australian telco. The hilarious implication I found behind that allegation was that Singapore was spying on the Australian's military so that the PAP government can take back Christmas Island. Why else would Singapore care about the Australian's defence capabilities? Singapore also arrested spies working here before but we would never know the extent of other cases that went unreported or spies uncaught.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Cablegate and Singapore

Since MM Lee Kuan Yew's frank opinions were revealed in Cablegate, what more will be revealed and just as interesting, what won't be revealed related to Singapore? Some Singaporeans saw MM Lee Kuan Yew's comments on the North Korean despot as ironic. Others had more perspective and saw that MM Lee still has some global political influence left. What next related to Singapore will the Wikileaks cabal of selected Western newspapers reveal next? Would the cabal reveal or not reveal opinions on Singapore leaders, the opposition and other issues on Singapore? Furthermore, while the context is not identical, this leak of confidential government papers for foreign policy ends reminded me of Singapore's release of official correspondence with Malaysia during the Mahathir era. This calculated leak by Singapore was over Malaysia's backtracking on bilateral matters and to show that Malaysia then didn't keep its word.

The US State Department was aware of the leaks much earlier and the four main European broadsheets plus the New York Times negotiated with the US on what should be released even, as implied by The Guardian's editorial on Sunday. The Washington Post has a story to tell on its East Coast rival New York Times i.e. the NYT got the leak from a leak from The Guardian as Wikileaks excluded the NYT in the latest round of leaks for its harsh stance on Assange in recent months. Despite this horseplay surrounding the leaks, what is interesting was whether the US had informed our Singapore MFA that the leaks were coming since the US claimed that they alerted their allies beforehand. If they did not, or if they did, it hints of how big Singapore is in the pond of global diplomacy in the US's eyes.

The recent themes on Cablegate were that diplomacy is exposed for its hypocrisy, historians are having a time of their life, asymmetric online journalism is alive and well, and leaks have gone on to a new levels of anarchy and transparency. Cablegate would last for a new more days or even a week or two before the novelty would wear off. For now, it is a good business ploy that is repeatable as Cablegate and the War Diaries have shown, until Assange is arrested since he is now an Interpol wanted man. For Assange, it is a game he started and raised the stakes with the release of the War Diaries, and the US is going to finish it for him.

Were Assange's leaks irresponsible? The jury is still out on this but common sense is that there is a limit to what information should be confidential and what should not. Lawyer-client and doctor-patient information, insider trading as illegal, and a country's military and security information are all different common sense examples that information is not a free-for-all show and tell, and that consequences to such disclosures are expected.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The SLA "Heist"

How deep does the rabbit burrow go? Singapore Land Authority technology and infrastructure department staff Koh Seah Wee and Lim Chai Meng faced 302 and 309 charges respectively for their fraud worth about $12 million. Their fraud was simple - pretended to buy non-existent services from a few companies, faking invoices and pocketing the cash.

As more light shined into the burrow, five more people from three different companies were implicated in the SLA fraud. The authorities are digging and it would be unsurprising if more dirt is uncovered. Already, the finger-pointing is that Koh Seah Wee dishonesty' started years ago when he was in the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore in 2004. True to a proper witch hunting fashion, various officers in the chain of approval of the bogus purchases are now probably being grilled if their are accomplices to the biggest "heist" of the civil service in history as far as we know.

Financial Irregularities in all Shapes and Sizes

The civil service is a huge bureaucracy and potentially has tons of paperwork to hide fraud or unintentional use of public funds, in the name of documentation. In 2007, The Online Citizen had a shrewd observation of management lapses in public funds amounting to $6.2 million. No allegation of fraud was made then but with the paranoia surrounding public monies and the SLA case, this leak of money although explained does not inspire confidence in retrospect. Particularly when leaks in public funds is still a persistent problem in reality as there are so many ways to hide financial irregularities.

How to Detect Fraud Hidden in Paperwork? More Paperwork?

The government has focused so much on preventing corruption in the civil service and this campaign is largely perceived to be successful according to international rankings. However, embezzlement and fraud are also equally worrying ways that public officers can abuse the system and make a mockery of the honesty of the government.

Hearing how the civil service functions, how the problem of financial irregularities are to be prevented would likely be the implementation of more verification and approvals i.e. more paperwork up and down the chain when like buying new printer cartridges. Hence, with tons of even more paperwork, there would be more blind signing of documents that give a veneer of proper accountability and checks in the use of public funds. The problem does not go away, it grows away instead. In the annual European Union audit, accounts of mismanagement of funds becomes a yearly expectation, as it is tacitly understood that it is almost impossible to account for every Euro spent given the size of that bureaucratic monster.

Checks are useless if the checks are merely for show. Perhaps a more controversial solution is actually to tolerate a whistle-blowing culture. While personal vendettas and office politics would cloud the picture, it is not paperwork that would expose fraud, it is people's professionalism and reporting on their peers if the management looks the other way for whatever reason. At the end of the burrow, it is all about the good of the public.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Lau Peng Forgotten and Lau Peng Won't Forget

"You should leave no man behind"

The National Day Rally did cause a stir with its pledge to give out all serving NSF and NSmen up to $9,000 to their CPF or even more for commanders. One installment would be for those when they finish their NS, another midway through their NSmen liability and the third and final installment would be when they complete their ICT cycles.

MINDEF and the PAP probably thought they had a perfect plan to over-run the opposition and win the hearts and minds of the people. However, to their shock, many are unhappy. Naturally those who just enter NS can look forward to virtual money or money in their CPF. But the lau peng, those who know the word ROD (not ORD), reservist (not NSmen), steel helmets (not the kevlar ones), 3-tonners (not the 5-tonners), those who had the black PT shoes (not the New Balance ones), they were conveniently forgotten and therefore insulted.

These were the lau peng who were around when there was fear in the 1970s that Vietnam would march all the way down to Sentosa and our national dish would become phoa instead of mee pok or mee goreng. These were the lau peng who were around in the 1980s when there were occasional threats to cut Singapore's water supply from the north. These were the lau peng who were around in the 1990s after the infamous 1991 Ex Malindo Darsasa and the Little Red Dot antagonism from the south. These were the lau peng who used the old no4, M16s and non-Gortex boots, old 20-round mag SBO pouches even when they did their ICT in the 2000s.

Looks like the PAP government wasted the perfect opportunity for pork-barrel politics. There was a chance to acknowledge gracefully and hook politically the lau peng's contribution and their support. Instead of support the PAP hoped, there is scorn towards the PAP instead. This is however a grouse that is understandable and substantiated. The lau peng were the raw human deterrence since 1965, imperfect but effective nonetheless, and yet no substantial reward was given to them.

Instead the carrot is offered only to the younger Singaporeans of tomorrow. Certainly the younger generation would benefit from the $9,000 handout and good for them just like they benefit from dragging the black duffel bag with roller wheels instead of carrying the thick rough green Ali Baba bag during BMT. We are all Singaporeans who have done NS or will do NS and lau peng should not be bitter towards the our sons and nephews. We should just be bitter towards the PAP. They left many behind.

Mr Brown got it right in the middle of the Figure 11. Please watch it if you have not done so.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Happy National Day Singapore

In the Singapore story, we have come a long way because of the hard work by our forefathers and glorious "nation before self" first generation PAP leaders, who fended off the British masters, the communists and even Konfrontasi Indonesian commandos. These PAP leaders fought off poverty, subjugation by bigger neighbouring states and led Singapore to greater heights from 1959 to 1963 to 1965 onwards, significant years in our nation-building according to the stories.

Good stories to be told to children on the night before national day after a nice family dinner. The adults at the table can either smirk cynically or smile contentedly depending on one's political affiliation and general awareness of how history is the story of the victor, in this case, the PAP. Specifically, Lee's PAP not Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye or R Rajaratnam's.

Well, the SDP tells a different story to children at dinner time. The SDP video "The Young Ones" rightly challenged that the PAP government is crowding out school lessons with PAP history and that we might become uncritically supportive of everything the PAP says. A whole new generation of believers drawn from SDP family members perhaps.

Like that girl An Lyn in the video, who really looks like that girl from the Tak Boleh Tahan protests where SDP members and supporters dragged their kids along into the show, so as to gain public sympathy if the police roughed them up. Cunning move using kids as human shields and propaganda. Cunning move encouraging their kids from young to be aware of politics. Just like MM Lee Kuan Yew indoctrinated his son, and maybe even his grandchildren for all we know about FamiLee politics as they say in Sammyboy.

So the national day story to be told tonight, or tomorrow night while watching the parade on the telly, Singapore has indeed come a long way and the PAP played a part decades ago, but what about now? The coming election is something to be eagerly looked forward to but we have to beware of all the propaganda and promises the PAP, the SDP and the others throw at us to win our votes. Be cynical, be critical and be calculative of everything.

Are the kids in SDP's "Young Ones" video also among those in the Tak Boleh Tahan protest? The Chee vs Lee Family Feud

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Alan Shadrake Self-Pwnage

Alan Shadrake is now a popular name. He is being pictured as an opponent of the death penalty being persecuted by the regime. This is a clever presentation of facts as it wins more sympathy. People are more inclined to believe that the regime is intolerant of criticisms of its policies. Who can blame them? They are right in most cases. However, the regime's version is that Alan Shadrake is being charged with criminal defamation of the courts. So Alan is placed on the docks not because of his criticism of the capital punishment system, but the court system. In the regime's defence, they are right. Nobody ever was arrested for their views on the death penalty per se e.g. the good people from The Online Citizen.

What is old ground is this - the regime uses the letter of the law to its legal extreme in selective castigation of selected critics. So far, from FEER to Dr Chee Soon Juan, it always has been civil suits for defamation made against the regime's leaders. And this is where old ground gives way to new ground movements, shaking Western modern-day "missionaries" who want to come over and instigate the natives if the government's message is read correctly. Now the stakes of the game are higher with Alan Shadrake as a foreigner who is on Singapore soil, as the regime has decided to unsheath criminal defamation charges. Fines and jail terms, not monetary compensation is at stake here.

Although no criminal defamation charges were used then, the precedence was Gopalan Nair. Gopalan, a former Singaporean and a naturalised US citizen, who was dragged to court and sentenced to 3 months jail in 2008 for insulting a judge for the way the judge handled a defamation case involving Chee Soon Juan. When Gopalan visited Singapore, in reference to his earlier taunts to the regime and the court, he wrote in his blog "I am now within your jurisdiction… What are you going to do about it?"

Gopalan found out what the court would do about it. Just like Alan is getting a lesson on it now. Criticising the court is a no-go area for foreigners (I don't recall the local usual suspects being treated this firmly), especially if they are standing on Singapore terra firma. Just that some self-centred foreigners think they have this magic amulet that protects them from being arrested just because they are foreigners.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

The Parental Leave Question from Sweden to Singapore

Vivian got it right this time!

A few days ago, MCYS Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan mused that representing maternity leave as parental leave would be a step in the right direction. I don't think it would affect baby growth that much, but it would affect attitude towards employees who are new mothers. Ask around quietly and the cautious reply from supervisors at the office is that mothers with new babies invite potential productivity problems but it is politically incorrect to voice such views openly. However, if mothers or fathers of new born are allowed to take parental leave, then this sexist stereotype of new mums as productivity problems would be greatly diminished.

The current provisions for new mothers since October 2008 are 16 weeks instead of the previous 12 weeks maternity leave. The first eight weeks would be paid by the employer and the next eight weeks would be paid for by the government, capped at $20,000 or $40,000 including CPF depending on certain criteria. The second set of eight weeks also need not be taken right away, it can be spread out throughout the year after the birth of the baby, factoring in employers' concerns that a 16-week block absence might be a serious opportunity cost for the company. While it cannot stop employers from getting rid of new mums as they are a perceived temporary productivity risk, the company can be taken to task if the pregnant staff is dismissed in the last six months or retrenched within the last three months of her pregnancy.

So we are led to ask these questions. If parental leave is implemented where dads and mums can take leave, will dads also be protected from dismissal if they take leave after the new baby comes along? How would the parental leave be split between the parents?

The good idea about parental leave is that both married men and women are from then on perceived productivity risk where the employer is concerned. The burden of the stereotype on down-tools is no longer restricted to new mums. New dads are equally at risk on down-time. The employer has less excuse to be sexist with the evolution of the maternal leave to parental leave in Singapore. Furthermore, new dads can also have the opportunity to be with their new kids on paper, thus debunking the idea that only mums want to take care of their babies. Although some dads might use the leave to play 18-holes everyday instead in practice.

Sweden's approach towards parental leave is a shockingly liberal one with a huge burden on taxpayers but it is a good map for charting parental leave policies nonetheless. For instance, parents can have up to 480 days of parental leave which is paid by the state. The remuneration is not full but up to 80% of the salary depending on the length of the parental leave taken and the income bands of the parent. One parent, either mum or dad, however cannot take more than 420 days and the expectation is that parental leave is to be shared equally in their society where equality of the sexes is ingrained in law and culture.

Although Sweden's model might not fit into the Singapore context at this moment, it does give valuable insights on how parental leave should or should not be done. Parental leave is after all a good populist vote-winning policy when the election comes.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Muigai, Mugai, Why You Like That?

UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary forms of Racism, Racial discrimination, xenophobia and Related Intolerance Githu Muigai might possibly has the longest UN title ever and his name card with a full title must be a curious sight to behold. It might even be A4-sized and not credit card-sized to fit the entire title in and certainly difficult to hold.

In his eight-day study trip to Singapore at the invitation of the Singapore government, Muigai met up with community leaders, politicians and even members of the group Singaporeans for Democracy, which actually looks like another United Singapore Democrats or friends of SDP incarnation from the composition of its members like Seelan Palay, Martyn See and Rachel Zeng. Nevertheless, it was a good demonstration of some openness by the government as even that bunch of activists can meet a UN representative.

The trip went well for Singapore but not as well as the government hoped - MFA's reaction and the need for a quick rebuttal was proof that the UN Rapporteur did not know exactly what he was talking about as far as the government was concerned. For example, the recommendation of affirmative action which goes against the grain on the value of meritocracy in Singapore.

However, I argue that the trip actually went well since Muigai had to give old tired arguments about freedom of speech constraints and the use of the Penal Code and Sedition Act in terms of regulating race relations. Going on a tangent on the limits of freedom of speech in Singapore is nothing new about the nanny government we have. Thus, for Muigai to pull that out of his sleeve is actually quite passe. Besides, Muigai had to say something critical and find policies that needs to be improved or else he would lose his UN job. He has to look good and be seen to be doing something.

OK remember what we agreed over beer earlier, you shoot off something, and then it is our turn to defend our policies, and then we both have a round of golf.

Compare Muigai's criticism with the recommendations on the USA in the last country visit that UN office had in 2008,

101. As a matter of urgency, the Government should clarify to law enforcement officials the obligation of equal treatment and, in particular, the prohibition of racial profiling. This process would benefit from the adoption by Congress of the End Racial Profiling Act. State Governments should also adopt comprehensive legislation prohibiting racial profiling.

102. To monitor trends regarding racial profiling and treatment of minorities by law enforcement, federal, state and local governments should collect and publicize data about police stops and searches as well as instances of police abuse. Independent oversight bodies should be established within police agencies, with real authority to investigate complaints of human rights violations in general and racism in particular. Adequate resources should also be provided to train police and other law enforcement officials.

Anybody can see that those criticisms reminiscent of the Rodney King Los Angeles race riots are more damning especially for a country that is steeped in the marketing and selling of human rights and democracy globally.

As a whole, the entire exercise of inviting Muigai over, allowing him to meet activists, letting him voice his criticisms and with the government giving a suspiciously quick response such that it suggests to the shrewd some stage management between the UN Rapporteur and MFA, it all bode well for Singapore's international image. The criticisms are nothing new and Singapore can say that it dared invite a UN envoy to scrutinise Singapore.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Pastor Rony Tan

Lighthouse Evangelism pastor Rony Tan's incident has again put the spotlight on religious harmony in Singapore. After getting a call from ISD, he quickly issued an apology. Hot on the heels of the three youths who were arrested by the police for posting racist remarks on Facebook, some are asking why the "difference in treatment".

I've been following the discussions online and this is what I think that there is a difference: (By the way this post is NOT intended to defend the pastor for what he has done, but rather the possible thinking behind the actions taken against him).

The first one is farely obvious. In the case of the 3 youths, the police were involed. If you have any experience with our gahmen, you'll know that once official action begins, the government machinery invariably starts grinding base on its protocols. In the army this is known as the SOP (Standard Operating Procedure). So once the police gets involved, they will follow a prescribed course of action - investigate, identify, make an arrest if a law was broken (in this case the Sedition Act was used), pass on to the courts to decide the next course of action. In this case, bail was granted pending further investigations. Whether the 3 youths will be fined or let off with a stern warning we'll know in the weeks to come. (I personally think the 3 boys will get off with a warning and probably some counseling and community work).

In Pastor Rony Tan's case, it seems like ISD got wind of the incident (probably from all the chatter online) and decided to take direct action to prevent things from getting out of hand. The Pastor was probably given a stern warning from ISD and given an ultimatum to recant his words and apologise, or else. Obviously he chose to apologise. The police and official government machinery was never involved called upon.

Second is that the 3 youths were anonymous. Rony Tan was not. Although it doesn't make the pastor's actions less serious, it meant that he could be quickly contacted and given the ultimatum. In the case of the 3 youths, we were told that the police made "extensive enquiries to establish the identity of the suspects" (note the formal use of the investigation terminology). Again, once a police investigation has begun, the Justice system and the courts gets involved.

Lastly the 3 youths' case was racially motivated. Rony Tan's incident involves religion. Although both R's have the potential to ignite like tinderboxes, recent events probably made Religion a more sensitive issue that needs to be handled with extreme care so as not to further ruffle already ruffled feathers.

Nonetheless I think this is a good time for religious leaders and followers of all faiths to reflect on their behaviour in public and behind closed doors. In the course of our worship and proselytizing, are we spreading the religion's teachings and/or gaining enlightenment, or are we inadvertently doing the Devil's work?