Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Curious Case of Cherian George – Calibrated Coercion or Retardation?

The indelible mark that Dr Cherian George has contributed to socio-political vernacular is his ‘calibrated coercion’ treatise:

“Calibrated coercion provides journalists with periodic reminders of just who is boss, but also enough leeway to persuade enough of them that there is still a place in Singapore for the professional practice of journalism, and that the space is expanding.”

With a sour dose of irony, or perhaps poetic justice, Cherian would feel he is now a victim of this calibrated form of hegemony bearing directly towards his head. While presumably being denied his tenure as a sign of reminding him “who is boss” he continues to serve as the Director of the Temasek Foundation - NTU Asia Journalism Fellowship, and Adjunct Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Policy Studies at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. From what I understand, he was also recently promoted to the post of Associate Professor recently.

So is there really a case for student uproar and just how victimized is he really?

With a deluge of exciting university program collaborations, open universities, web-based publications tools and social media connectivity, how would the denial of tenure, prevent someone as purportedly brilliant and well-regarded as Dr Cherian George, from finding alternative career options, outside of the very sphere of political power and influence that he so loathes with a passion?

Cherian will probably be the first to disagree with me.

Firstly, he would take issue with my clumsy and ill formed sentence above.  Secondly, he would likely argue that it is precisely the fact that he is brilliant and well-regarded, that not to receive his tenure is a travesty in itself; never mind the innuendo that he was ‘fixed’ for his political views and he cannot get an iron rice bowl job. And thirdly, what world would we live in, if the Rosa Parks and Nelson Mendelas of history chose to take the paths always followed?

On the flipside, one could argue that tenure-ship is an archaic and elitist practice that rewards academic exploitation and research paper production over academic teaching and the furtherance of all-rounded academic excellence. Any tertiary student that has ‘co-authored’ research work will understand fully what I mean. And with national sensibility moving away from privileged entitlements such as Ministerial pensions and exorbitant private sector bonus, can we really continue to argue the case for guaranteeing someone a job for life?

At times, I start to feel that we as citizens of the Internet are being victims of ‘calibrated retardation’. Having violently broken out from years of brain-washing by the Mainstream Media and a paternal state, we have become vicious cyber judges and juries. Calibrated with just a touch of retardation, and feed with sufficient promptings, we are easily mobilised into supporting any cause that allows us to show our government, just “who really is the boss”; whilst allowing just enough leeway to persuade the powers up there that their good work will not go unnoticed.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Transitioning 6.9 into a Political Mass Orgy

So, after organising many unavailing gatherings in the name of the unemployed, Gilbert Goh has finally managed to pull off a successful event at Hong Lim Park despite shooting himself in the foot with a patronising summary of foreigner stereotypes. That was ironic, considering the event was supposed to be gathering of Singaporeans against the government's liberal immigration policies, not actually against foreigners themselves. I guess Gilbert missed the homing pigeon's message to "hate the PAP-yer, not the game" since the crowd appeared to relish in the delight of slamming the PAP. Perhaps he got too caught up with all the media attention, perhaps he is a closet xenophobe, but I digress.

With so much angst over the white paper, the huge crowd turn-out ,in hindsight, does not seem all that surprising. But it seems that the opposition parties (in particular SDP and NSP) caught that on early, and being the opportunistic vultures that they are, rode on the wave of Singaporeans' discontent for political mileage.

First, notice the number of speakers who are or were, associated with opposition politics. Mind you, these are not novices but heavyweight personalities such as Vincent Wijeysingha and Jeanette Chong-Aruldoss (I am loathe to include Tan Jee Say in the mix, although he did seem popular with the crowd). Take notice too of SDP-affiliated personalities amongst the crowd - former ISA detainees, left-leaning civil rights activists and NGO representatives. Second, I found it too much of a coincidence that the SDP had launched their own population and immigration policy paper just a couple of days before the event at Hong Lim. On top of that, Wijeysingha had opened his speech at the event promoting SDP's policy paper. He even took pains to mention NSP's own "robust" alternative policy report to reporters at the post-event press conference, though it was strange that he left out WP's proposals.

Considering the huge media coverage, especially from the foreign press, accorded to the event, it was smart of the SDP to leverage on the event to raise its political profile both locally and internationally. NSP resources went into the event presumably as Gilbert was or is NSP while SDP went along for a free ride. SDP recently preached about opposition unity like its generous offer of a SDP MP in parliament if it took part with WP in the Punggol election and won, and WP can administer the SMC chores, also has a protest culture and wants to portray itself as the leader of the opposition to the foreign press. Thus, the event fitted nicely with SDP's image.

In my opinion, it was SDP that benefited the most from the event, unfortunately at the expense of Gilbert and those who attended it. A pity for Gilbert as he was the one who had tirelessly initiated and organised the event. A pity for the crowd who naively thought they were part of a landmark occasion where 4,000 brave Singaporeans stood up for themselves, when they were in fact pawns in SDP's game of political chess.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Engineering of Criticisms and an "Open" Debate in the White Paper

The beating of the drum by the former establishment cadres started again. This time, it is a criticism of the White Paper on population, a convincing criticism no doubt if one wants to be uncritical of what is being laid out in front of us, and not guessing about what is not laid out instead.

Donald Low, Senior Fellow and Assistant Dean (Research Centres) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, formerly from the Public Service Division and from the Ministry of Finance, said that he would fail the White Paper if it was a student work handed to him for marking as it lacked scholarship and academic rigour. A fellow government scholar and former government colleague, Yeoh Lam Keong, dismissed the paper as sociologically and politically naive. Lam Keong who was, this is priceless, GIC Director of Economics and Strategy and Chief Economist from October 2000 to June 2011. Anyone vaguely following GIC and Temasek's lacklustre record in the 2000s would know that these sovereign funds lost money for Singapore in the public's eyes despte what the ministry of finance and its GIC and Temasek bedfellows said. They lost our taxpayers and CPF money even some might speculate.

There are Criticisms and there are Criticisms

So Donald and Lam Keong have this image of former establishment scholars and inner circle management who have even turned around on their former employers. Lam Keong even has an image of a HDB man, humble and frugal. But if he stood as a PAP MP, we would scoff his contrived humble background instead. Donald and Lam Keong are now in think-thanks backed by the government - IPS and the LKY school. How independent is their criticism in the grand scheme of things? Then we look at the criticisms, they are actually obvious and echo what we already think that the White Paper is a superficial coffee table book, nothing new, nothing really critical, and nothing really damaging of the White Paper. Excuse my cynicism, if they were academics out to damage the White Paper seriously, why no facts and figures on how businesses would benefit or not benefit from the increase or decrease of foreigners, as that is the main slant in the importance of GDP growth in the White Paper. They are thought leaders from the ministry of finance and GIC after all.

Healthy Cynicism

Hence, are they just planted criticisms to steer the debate and institutionalised dissent that Donald himself talked about recently? Just like we know that the media pretends to be objective but are really pro-establishment, we have forgotten that the local think-tanks are pro-establishment in the end although they appear to be independent. Some argue that those formerly from the establishment and left have the greatest insights into the machinery and are thus more credible. Maybe. However, have they ever left the establishment? We will never know.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Seeing red over White Paper on Population

A 76-page coffee table book. That's how I would describe the latest White Paper. After 11 months of research, planning, and feedback from 2,500 Singaporeans, the National Population and Talent Division has nothing to show for - at least nothing that we don't already know. Just 2 weeks prior, DBS Vickers had pre-empted the paper by predicting that the population target will be raised to 7 million. By now, we are all too familiar with the usual government rhetoric on the necessity of foreigners to make up for our falling fertility rate, and most of us accept that. What we really want to know is how the government is going to walk the tight rope between the increase in alien population and the scarce resources that our small island can afford. 

Maintaining a Strong Singaporean core

At the heart of a strong Singaporean core, is a strong Singaporean identity. Yet, it is hard to see how Singaporeans will form the core when they are projected to make up only half of the 6.9 million people squeezed in a little red dot in 2030. The trend of a declining TFR will also likely continue due to other intangible socio-economic aspirations despite monetary incentives dangled at married couples. Will this mean a possible dilution of the Singapore identity? Salt is further added to this gaping wound when the paper offers nothing more than a standard textbook solution to address the assimilation of naturalized citizens into Singapore. With all the brains from top scholars in the admin service, surely they can come up with more than just videos, booklets, and courses to integrate foreigners into the cultural norms and practices of the country?

Maintaining Good Opportunities for Singaporeans

Economic growth appears to be the main impetus behind the increase in population. However, the government has to balance the task of economic development with its social development. Just as how it would be difficult to plan and have children without a stable income, it seems equally difficult to plan and have children if people are treated as economic digits.

Maintaining a High Quality Living Environment

While it is heartening to know that plans have been made to upgrade Singapore's hardware, it unfortunately left out her software. Indeed, it is puzzling that the paper did not include a section on how the projected change in population numbers will affect the socio-political landscape in Singapore. Issues such as national security, law and order, nationality-race tensions and environment impact how we go about our daily lives. Already we are experiencing more cases of nationality prejudice (e.g. Chinese nationals vs Chinese Singaporeans), crime and strikes involving foreigners (e.g. SMRT strike by Chinese bus drivers), what more is to come in the future?

White Paper or Blank Paper?

After all that has been said and done by the government, it seems that the White Paper on Population raised more questions than it answers. Or perhaps it was poorly put together coupled with poor timing (riding on the burdened back of Lee Hsien Loong and his lack of 20/20 foresight). Either way, the paper did not go down well with Singaporeans and expectedly so. The government has to buck up on its policies and PR campaign if it wants to regain the trust and respect of its electorate.