Haze Gets In Your Eyes

The noxious fumes of this vile haze have inspired this post. It will not be too long. I just want to jot down my observations of how Singaporeans have reacted to the haze over the past week or so.

Observation #1: I want my Hello Kitty

Despite the haze, many brave Singaporeans did not abandon their beloved feline. No, the haze did not deter them at all. Legions of Hello Kitty fans braved the haze to receive what was rightfully theirs: a Hello Kitty plush toy.

Observation #2: Numbers, Numbers Everywhere

With Asian stock markets plunging more than 2% this week, the only statistic that soared upwards was the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI). It was the most-watched number of the day, the obsession with which soon became feverish. Why take only the 3-hour average? Why not the hourly spot reading?

Frantic office workers would anxiously refresh the NEA website every hour, desperate to be the first to announce to their colleagues the magic number in a fashion very much like how 4D and TOTO winning combinations are read.

Observation #3: Where’s my Stop Work Order?

Soon after the haze breached the 300-mark, many were asking for a Stop Work Order – and rightfully so. It was the first time this little island was engulfed in such toxic clouds. Everyone was understandably worried about their health. More masks appeared.

It was worrying (to me at least) that some foreign workers were still forced to work in such hazardous conditions. What McDonalds and KFC did was the right thing: no more deliveries for the health of their deliverymen. Well done to our beloved fast-food providers!

Observation #4: Unleash the Ministers!

Earlier this week, Ministers Shanmugam and Vivian Balakrishnan registered their deep concerns with Indonesia on behalf of the nation. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called for a press conference to inform the public that the Government has convened an Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC), a taskforce established specifically for the purposes of combating the smoky menace. The IMC is chaired by the Defence Minister, Dr. Ng Eng Hen.

Sounds like it’s sibeh tua zhong (Hokkien for serious). With good reason of course.

Observation #5: Why No Free N95 Masks leh?

Yes, we wanted free N95 masks because $10-medical care for those below age 18 and above age 65 at general practitioners and family clinics is not enough for the population. We want to see those 9 million masks being distributed! If you can, grab more, then sell in blackmarket lah, hoh tan (very profitable) you know!

So, by now you must be wondering what the heck I am trying to say with these five observations, interesting as they may be in their own right. My take on this is simple.

This haze crisis (if I may be so bold to call it one) is more than just an irritant to our health, and more than just a test of how much haze we can tahan (tolerate) to get our Hello Kitties. No. It is a formidable test of our national resilience. Why do I say that?

I would say that our National Character is revealed in our responses to the haze, how we respond to one another, and how we respond to our Government too (no, this is not a piece in defence of the Government, sheesh).

To the haze, we have said many times, screw you for making our little island miserable. Yes. We know that no amount of bitching can actually rectify the haze, but we still want to bitch nonetheless. That’s us, right? And I would like all of us to actually remember the severity of the haze. Why? Because that’s when we will know how to cherish the days when the skies are clear and clouds are fluffily abundant.

How have we responded to one another? Has it been a response of warmth and concern? Or has it been a response tinged with negativity? Expressing care and concern for our fellow countrymen and foreigners who work in our midst will in part define who we are. I was deeply touched by a story of how a friend actually wrote in to her superiors to let in the elderly cleaning auntie who had to sit outside the office quarters in the haze. Imagine: how much of PSI400 smog can that poor auntie take? Thankfully, her superiors concurred and the cleaning lady was let in for some much-needed respite. For your bravery, I commend and salute you.

Some have not been as lucky. As mentioned earlier, many construction workers and manual labourers had to continue toiling in the unrelenting heat and haze. It is not known if their employers had issued masks to them as a measure of basic welfare. I only hope that employers do find it in their hearts to do so, because somewhere beyond our shores, several people are depending on the health of that foreign worker to remit some money back so that they can survive.

On this front, clearly, the score for Singapore’s generosity is mixed.

And then, how have we responded to our Government? Some netizens, brazen as they are these days, have actually earned the ire of a minister and received accordingly their ministerial rebukes from Mr. Shanmugam himself. That must certainly be a privilege: to be singled out for blatant stupidity.

This haze is not an issue to be politicised. Not everything has to be, nor should they. We should have enough common sense to acknowledge that this haze is not of our doing and that there is a limit to what our Government can do precisely because it is a domestic issue of a foreign country that has affected its regional neighbours. To blame the Government for the haze is nothing short of full-blown stupidity.

This haze comes as a great challenge to our resilience as a people. We have made it thus far over 48 years. We soon approach our fiftieth year of independence and we should rightfully be proud. Before we get there, we should take some time, look at ourselves and ask the questions: Who are we? What defines us?

To end off, I’ll simply say this: if we have enough resilience to weather the haze for Hello Kitty, surely we can find much more resilience in us to weather this haze together as one people, one nation, one Singapore.

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What Are You Saying? 你讲什么? Ler Kong Si Mi?

When Minster for Education Heng Swee Keat said that school children will be burdened by dialects, I was incensed, enraged even, because what he said cannot be further from the truth. It is absolute bullshit. Firstly, Mr. Heng has misunderstood how children learn languages. Secondly, and indirectly, the stubborn insistence on keeping the ban on dialect media productions hints at a lingering lack of confidence in the almost four-decades-old bilingual policy. Third, saying that dialects clash with the bilingual policy reeks of complete contempt and disrespect for dialects.

Before I begin, I will say it openly that the issue of dialects is something that is very dear to my heart. That is why I am writing this piece to say what I feel and think about this emotive issue. Make no doubt about it – the issue of dialects is an emotional one. Also, I am very cognisant that I am writing a piece that concerns the Chinese community in Singapore. I ask your forgiveness for not focusing on a more wholesome picture.

Teochew Opera

Teochew Opera

I believe I can speak for many of us when I say that dialects are the emotional bonds linking many younger Singaporeans with their grandparents, and this is why these bonds are so precious and worth cherishing. It is precisely the same reason why we bemoan its slow and painful death as a part of Singapore’s colourful “folk culture” (if I may be so bold to use the phrase without getting lynched by sociologists). Why else would older Singaporeans occasionally mention that the use of dialects will pass on into history when younger Singaporeans don’t speak it, much less grow up in a family environment that speaks it from time to time?

Misunderstanding How Children Learn Languages

Children have a great propensity to learn languages before they turn 10 years old because their brains are like sponges – highly absorbent and malleable. They learn very quickly and they seldom forget. Furthermore, academics have pointed out that humans have great potential for learning languages, and that a linguistic environment will support language learning over time.

In my 23 years of life, never have I once felt that dialects were a burden. No. Never.  I grew up with my doting maternal grandparents who spoke Teochew. Naturally, my first language was Teochew, not English. I then mastered English and Chinese as I grew up, with a strong preference for the former which later became my dominant language. I struggled with Chinese, but with some effort, it is decent now. Along the way, I picked up Hokkien, which was easy because of its homophonic intonations. I spoke more Hokkien while in NS (bloody useful in establishing rapport with people). Over the book-out weekends, I picked up Cantonese while watching TVB dramas from Hong Kong.

In my first three semesters in university, I learnt German. Now, I’m dabbling with Bahasa Melayu. The point is simple, and I borrow from The Linguist:

“In fact it is motivation and attitude, not age, that determines our ability to learn languages. Most, if not all, polyglots, learn most of their languages as adults. Adults are often more inhibited or self-conscious, and have less opportunity, or are less willing, to socialize with people of another language group, whereas children just blend in to their new environment.The only thing that matters is that we can learn at any age. If we are 50 there is no point in wondering if we were able to learn better when we were 5. If you can motivate a child to learn a language when young, great. Otherwise it is never too late to start.”

So, the case is clear as to whether children can learn dialects or not. From the above, it does not matter when children learn dialects. Heck, you can learn it even beyond the optimum age and still grasp it so long as you have the verve for it. What cannot be tolerated is MOE’s dogmatic insistence that it is the final pedagogical authority on language learning. As a avid lover of languages, I cannot agree. Many young families with school-going children are mostly mono-lingual or bilingual (if they’re lucky). As such, the family environment already supports the mastery of two languages. Our celebrated public school systems provide yet another conducive environment for entrenching the use of two languages. As it is, there is already very little room for dialect. This brings me to my next point: why the fear about dialects?

Still ban dialects? Come on, 40 years with the Bilingual Policy already

Before I continue, I want to be clear: I am not calling for dialects to be instituted as curriculum. I don’t think there’s a need to. What I am saying is this, and I borrow a phrase from my lecturer, there is no need to get your panties tied into a knot whenever dialects are mentioned. By all means, continue with the bilingual policy. Singaporeans are sensible enough to see its merits, what with China and all the rest of it. But since the inception of the bilingual policy in 1972, we have come a long way.

I can understand if it was given as a rationale that we had to unify language learning back then for education’s sake. Lee Kuan Yew went as far as to ban dialect media. All that took place 40 years ago.

Those who know me would know that I have the deepest respect and admiration for our founding prime minister and all that he has done. However, when it comes to dialects, I would like to humbly disagree.

We are now in 2013 and are facing a loss of our heritage. Dialects are receding into memory, and so are the dialect operas. It’s a big problem because those are our real roots, not merely being Han Chinese. We are the descendants of dialect speaking immigrants. Our forebears spoke dialects and not Mandarin. So, my suggestion to the government is this: if it is genuinely concerned about rekindling in our hearts the connection with our ancestry, then let it be bold and lift the ban on dialect media before it becomes too late. Did the government not challenge its own paradigms last week with the announcement for free transport which this blog praised? It can be done.

After all, what has the government got to lose? As mentioned in the introduction, a decision to not lift the ban would hint at its insecurity towards the bilingual policy – that the ban must still be in place to support the learning of two languages because dialects are still an intrusion and that families do not have the requisite environment for learning, speaking, and mastering two languages. If MOE is still feeling insecure after 40 years, that’s just quite sad. Nothing else, just sad that MOE is not confident enough of its own policy.

No Clash Between Dialects and Bilingual Policy

The learning of dialects is not antagonistic to the bilingual policy. The two can coexist and it is not a zero-sum game – it has never been and it should not be. In fact, other than sharing the Chinese script, the two are worlds apart.

Dialects, in their spoken and written form, differ greatly from the Chinese script. The syntax and words are totally different for the same expression. Take “woman” for example. In Chinese, we know it to be 女人. It’s the same for Cantonese (loei yan). But for Teochew and Hokkien, it’s different – 查某 (zha bou/zha bor respectively). The differences are clear. Not only will learners see that the words are different, the sounds are different. Well, I think there’s more to learn. Dialects make the language colourful. And Chinese dialects come from the main language, Mandarin. This makes them related, not separate from one another.

Final Thoughts?

I reiterate my displeasure at Minister Heng’s unfortunate misunderstanding of language learning and deplore the poor attitude taken to dialects. It’s hurtful, to say the least. I am not calling for dialects to be instituted as curricula but for the ban on dialect media to be lifted so that inter-cultural learning can be facilitated. There is nothing to be ashamed about dialects. It is about high time the ban got lifted because 40 years is more than enough for MOE to entrench the bilingual policy and have confidence in its own policy.

No free transport, comprain. Got free transport, also comprain. Buay sian ah?

I read the ST Forum letters from time to time and I’ve found them to be insightful, mature, thought-provoking, and honest. Then there are the bad ones too. And this one was simply too repulsive for me to stomach it. It’s a classic case of “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” for the Government. What I simply cannot take is the incessant whining about what is largely a positive move.

The announcement of free train rides trial programme came as welcome news early this week. It is a bold move, and pretty unconventional too. Let’s first deal with the criticism that free train rides will only ensure more overcrowding.

It is absolutely wrong to say that commuters who work in the heartlands and industrial areas “would be inconvenienced by the larger crowds during the early part of the morning”.

How so? The industrial areas in Tuas are so far away from City Hall and Raffles Place. How on earth would human traffic headed in both directions get caught and be inconvenienced? Granted, the dense concentration of human traffic might be at interchange stations. But once the train arrives, commuters headed for Tuas or City Hall would go in entirely opposite directions! Hence, I fail to see where the ‘inconvenience’ would stem from.

Even students are mentioned in the Forum Letter. Excuse me, but what has it got to do with students? Yes, the free trial won’t affect them since they are already benefiting from student concessions. The discussion of students in the entire free rides scheme is utterly and hopelessly irrelevant.

It is important at this point to reiterate that the free rides scheme is intended to spread out the human traffic. I think this graphic will help:

LTA Infographic

LTA Infographic (extracted from LTA’s Facebook Page)

Just look at the low human traffic exiting the 16 city centre stations on weekdays. This means that our trains can carry more people during this from 7 am to 7.45 am. In LTA’s own words:

LTA Quote

LTA Quote

By offering free travel, the Transport Ministry is trying to incentivise early rides. There is no guarantee that this will work, but there’s only a hope that it might. There are two issues that could possibly impede the success of this pilot programme: sleep and companies’ operating hours.

Sleep – yes, it is darn precious. Would you give up sleep for free transport? Personally, I might. What about you?

Operating hours: this is a tricky one. It is much harder to get employers on board, but in order for the free travel scheme to work more effectively, employers should take part as well by adjusting their operating hours to accommodate travel patterns. In fact, a ministry has taken the lead. Take a look:

LW Quote

From Acting MCCY Minister Lawrence Wong’s Facebook Page

And here’s my favourite: the taxpayer argument. The ST Forum Letter opines that “Even though the Government will pick up the tab for the trial, which is expected to cost $10 million, it should not be forgotten that this is actually taxpayers’ money. Therefore, I urge the ministry to reconsider this trial and come up with better solutions that would benefit all commuters.”

Yes, you may be a taxpayer but that doesn’t mean that you will get what you ask for all the time. Be reasonable. The commuters who work in the city areas are taxpayers too! Is it wrong for them to benefit from this? In fact, this scheme is a judicious use of tax monies precisely because it does not extend to all commuters for the entire pre-peak period. Only an irresponsible Government would have done that. By keeping the trial project to a small area, the Government is indicating that this trial could be expanded to other parts of our little island. Thus, this brave initiative of $10 million is likely to augur well for transport improvements in time to come if this trial is replicated in other areas.

Contrary to the implied notion that the $10 million trial is not one that benefits all commuters, I would argue that it does by virtue of alleviating congestion on trains. By doing so, the experience on public transport would be improved. So, to the author of the ST Forum Letter: just because you don’t benefit from it doesn’t mean that you are entitled to knock the proposal down. That’s plain selfishness.

Don’t get into university, blame government? Siao bo?

A Facebook post by “The Singaporean Times” (whatever that means) about a man having to sell his house to allow his daughter to study medicine overseas made its rounds last night. Drastic?

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The veracity of the story not withstanding (yes, such things can be easily fabricated), the daughter applied to the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at NUS with her ‘A’ level results of AAB (frankly, it’s a good set of results) but was unfortunately unsuccessful.

Now, does it come as a surprise that rejection took place?

Not at all.

Why? NUS Medicine is one of the most competitive faculties locally; it is elite, and many know that even a full bag of ‘A’s might not even secure you a place simply because there are limited vacancies. Thus, based on results alone, she does not make the cut. Furthermore, there’s no need to ask daddy to sell the house and go to Australia. Have you heard of the new medical school at NTU?

The point of this post is not to give alternative education recommendations (even though necessary). What lies at the heart of this (doubtful) post is a mentality of self-entitlement that is bubbling in Singapore with increasing effervescence. I think this is dangerous and entirely toxic because we place ourselves on a pedestal.

In the post, the man claimed that he did NS and now the Government is not taking care of him, or in this case, his daughter (“our own people”, he says). While NS gives you a good reason to claim something against the state, it is not a blank cheque with which you could do so. After all, to claim a 5 to 6 year medical education for your daughter after a 2.5 year stint in the SAF is simply striking an asymmetric bargain. So, no, NS does not give you the right to claim anything and everything from the state.

Another point of course deals with foreigners, the new F-word in town. The angry man assumed that her daughter’s “rightful” place at medical school was robbed by a foreigner. While it is true that NUS accept foreign students, there is a strict limit of 15% in place for all local varsities now, down from 18% (http://www.nie.edu.sg/newsroom/media-coverage/2012/lower-foreign-university-student-ratio-can-better-promote-exchanges-and-expand-contacts). Furthermore, the foreign student would have to meet the high standards set by the School. As such, to jump the gun and conclude that a foreigner has definitely robbed the vacancy is a conclusion that reeks of bullshit. Really, is the man so blinded by his anger to realise that a more competent and sterling Singaporean student could have gotten the coveted spot at Yong Loo Lin? Don’t just blame everything on foreigners; it shows how much responsibility you actually take for your own actions when you blame it on others (oh, how convenient).

I had an interesting discussion with my friend on this issue over Facebook last night. He suggested that the Government discriminates in favour of its own local students and lower the bar for admissions. Sounds sexy, right?

That’s the kind of self-entitlement I am talking about. It’s disgusting. Yes, being a citizen does come with its privileges but there is a line that ought to be drawn when it comes to admissions into university, especially if we are compromising standards. Lowering the bar for locals and setting a higher bar for foreigners is like smoking opium: you are deluding yourself and you will one day wake up to find yourself in deep shit.

Let me explain. Firstly, it is not even feasible. A limited number of vacancies will still allow natural selection to take place and the University will still have to pick from the crème de la crème. Secondly, even if it was possible (through sheer dumb luck), accepting more qualified foreign students to compete with our local students will inevitably place our local students at the bottom rung of rankings since you set the bar higher-than-usual for foreigners and lower-than-usual for locals. Our students will not benefit from this. What you are doing is deluding them into thinking that they “can make it” when they are really not up to the task. Should they languish in medical school as a result of this self-entitled mindset embedded in the policy, it will be ultimately cruel and Singapore as a whole will not be better for it because we might end up with lesser doctors than the cohort admitted. Hence, it is far better to compete on an even keel, not just for medicine, but for all faculties and courses of studies. Policies with a smack of self-entitlement are not only populist, they are foolish, inefficient and erode the meritocratic foundation in our society.

That said, I am not going to let the Government off that easily as well. The numbers and percentages of foreign students in our midst should be released and the policymakers should account for these statistics ie why they are the way they are. This is to aid public understanding and end this acrimonious and increasingly mind-numbing riposte against foreigners. Secondly, the Government should review its scholarship policy towards foreign students. While the need for them is understood, to give them free scholarships without bonds and without requiring them to pass a basic standard of English is unacceptable. The rationale is simple: you want to come to Singapore, you better know how to speak English because that’s our working language and that’s the medium of instruction. It’s as simple as that. And really, why bond-free? It’s inexcusable to give such scholarships to students who do not intend to contribute back to Singapore. After all, there’s no such thing as a free meal.

Before I conclude, I would like to borrow one of the many sensible comments that have ensued from this shit-stirring post: “The government is in no way obliged to give this girl a place in NUS. If you think that just because her father served NS, or because she is Singaporean she will get a spot, then we would be seeing >90% of applicants getting in. Secondly, you cannot expect the government to solve all your problems. Just because your daughter does not get into a university course she wants, you curse the government? Think about all the other applicants who didn’t get accepted as well, there are probably hundreds of other hopeful students who did not get an interview, and nobody is complaining about it.” (John Tan)

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My parting words? You want to stir shit but Singaporeans ain’t that dumb as to swallow your bullshit lock, stock, and barrel. Your actions, by masquerading to be pro-Singapore and pro-Singaporean, simply demean the essence and spirit of being Singaporean and make slogans like “Singapore for Singaporeans” ring even more hollow. Grow up. No one owes you a living.

For whom the Budget bells toll?

Yes, it’s been a while since I last wrote a post. Work has overwhelmed me, but thankfully, there is a small breather in which I can write. And what better to write about than the Budget?

What are you getting?

What are you getting?

Since the announcement of the Budget Statement by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, Mr. Tharman Shanmugaratnam, on Monday, reactions have been mixed. Because there are many more policies yet to be announced, it is not quite possible to give a fair overall evaluation of the Budget. However, I would still like to give a preliminary assessment of the Budget. Hence, I posit that this Budget, while well-intentioned, fails to sufficiently address the cost of living issues that we currently face. In this post, I will not be talking about how smart Mr. Tharman is in being able to hand out so many transfers and yet run a surplus. No. I will be talking about issues that have gone unaddressed.

Sandwiched as it is, the middle-class has faced a lot of financial pain as their wallets are squeezed and yet this Budget fails to deliver substantial assistance to them. This is not to say that I am not aware of the initiatives that Mr. Tharman has introduced. Here’s a list:

1. Extra GST Vouchers

2. S&CC Rebates (1 to 3 months)

3. $200 CPF Medisave Top Ups

4. Personal Income Tax Rebate (30% rebate capped at $1,500 for resident taxpayers below 60, 50% capped at $1,500 for those 60 and above)

5. Lower Concessionary Foreign Domestic Worker Levy (reduction of $50 from $170 to $120 for families with young children, elderly dependents and disabled)

As mentioned, these are well-meaning handouts but they are simply insufficient. An average middle-income family will receive $1,500 in benefits but that will quickly evaporate before June. These come in dribs and drabs and are used up in a day, very quickly. The best way to deal with middle-class money worries is to put more cash into their hand by alleviating cost pressures through addressing two issues: inflation and taxes. But before I elaborate, a quick point. The $50 reduction in maid levies amounts to nothing because they still have to pay $1,440 a year. Be more aggressive, reduce it further to $800.

There was no mention of a plan to deal with soaring inflation. For all his financial genius, Mr. Tharman was silent on this. I hope that he addresses this in the coming debates. Firstly, with inflation at 4%, any income growth is eroded by inflation. Some argue that, oh, there is still 1% real wage growth. For a person earning $5,000, a 1% real wage growth is $50. Secondly, many middle-class workers are employed by SMEs. Needless to say, the SMEs are facing a hell lot of pain from the hikes in the foreign worker levies. These very same hikes contribute to structural inflation – it’s like self-mutilation; this inflationary pain is self-induced. Rental costs are also killing businesses. Anecdotally, I have heard of owners finding it more profitable to rent than to continue production. That’s a disturbing fact. Also, there are bigger firms that wish to come here but are finally deterred by the cost of rental (and the tightened foreign worker quotas). Despite all these facts on the ground, there have been no measures to rectify them. SME owners are also largely middle-class. If businesses don’t get help in terms of reducing structural inflation, you can be sure that their costs of doing business and costs of living are not being addressed.

On taxation – the $1,500 cap is an amount that is neither here nor there. Why not increase it to $3,000? That’s a great deal more. And if we are talking about progressive taxation, why not revamp the high income brackets as well, or add a few more? Mr. Tharman made some amendments to the property tax structure but overall these result in loss of revenues for the Government instead of net gains. Therefore, this change is purely symbolic: it means that the rich will have to pay more so that there can be redistribution downwards. But if there are net losses overall, I fail to see how that achieves redistribution.

Everybody seems to be talking about the new amendments to car taxes as well. The new regulations effectively kill off middle-class dreams of having a car. While some may call it a dream, others have a real need for it, especially if they need to take care of their elderly parents and young children. What should have been done? For starters, COE applications should be similar to HDB flat applications – fill in the names of the family members, thereby indirectly justifying the purchase of a car. COEs for small cars (1,600 cc or less) can then be allocated to those who meet these criteria. Of course, there’s a need to pay the COE, but the prices within this category can be reduced considerably. Singapore should not become a playground of the rich.

As the title of the post asks: for whom the Budget bells toll? My preliminary answer: the lower-income and the rich. They ring not for the middle-class (yet).

Photos and Videos First, Life can Wait …

This post won’t be a long one. It is in fact a short commentary on the small fire that broke out at Newton MRT Station yesterday. Two issues deserve mention here: the responses of those impacted by the fire, and of course, SMRT’s reaction.

Pictures of You, Me, and the Smoke

What captured everyone’s attention for the day was not so much the train disruption that arose from the fire, but the fact that several people (in particular, one lone ranger) were taking videos and pictures in the midst of the smoke. Our self-styled ‘Ministry of Laughter’ made this meme with a very apt caption.

Credit: SGAG

Credit: SGAG

Additional footage of the incident came from Mr. Victor Tan, citizen-journalist of the day. In the midst of the smoke, he managed to take a video of commuters leaving the scene and most interestingly, he managed to capture someone else taking his camera phone out for a picture. Credit must go to Mr. Tan, for without it netizens would not have been able to see what it was like.

This is precisely where I fail to comprehend. Why on earth and for the sake of their lives would people simply prioritise taking footage of the scene over evacuating the station? 

I find such an attitude troubling, because it reeks of complacency and a complete lack of situational awareness. This may have been a small fire, but it was an emergency nonetheless. The foremost task in any emergency is to save your own life, not take a picture or video and frantically upload it onto Facebook and Twitter. If comments on The Straits Times Facebook post are anything to go by, some people share the same sentiments as I do.

It is completely worrying to see such a nonchalant and blatant display of smugness and complacency because it is symptomatic of something that lies much deeper in the psyche of other people. I am still unable to accurately place my finger on what it is, but it is something that does not bode well.

Another (silly) concern of this worrywart writer is this: if it had been a terrorist attack instead of a small, localised fire, would people have taken a picture with the terrorist(s) and upload it on Facebook as their profile picture?

SMRT…(Sigh)

No other company has been as heavily assailed as SMRT in recent months. The embattled transport operator has been struggling to restore public confidence after a series of train mishaps (and a bus workers’ strike as well).

According to a TODAY report, confusion reigned as commuters were initially clueless as to what had happened and an evacuation plan failed to materialise coherently due to fuzzy train announcements. While staff were mobilised on the ground, it seemed that communications could have been much better.

This incident shows yet once more the technical faults of SMRT and how much they really need to improve in terms of maintenance. We can only be thankful that this was a small fire that was resolved within two to three hours.

Also, let us not forget SMRT’s ground staffu. Kudos have to be given to them because they are the ones who bear the brunt of public anger towards SMRT’s failings. From what I know anecdotally, morale in SMRT, especially among ground staff, is low. Think about it: would you work as a member of the MRT station staff? I don’t think many would. I salute the men and women who do their jobs day-in-day-out at MRT stations across Singapore, for their job is not an easy one.

Last Thought

The fire at Newton MRT Station showed that our emergency readiness is far from desirable, if public indifference towards the situation can be deemed as a symptom of a larger and more worrying symptom of a deeper problem. At the same time, while we are upset with SMRT, let us also make the effort to be kind towards their station staff, for they – just like many other workers – are doing their job, earning their keep, only so that they can feed themselves and their families.

 

Remembering Ong Teng Cheong: An Exemplar of Presidential Leadership

On 8 February 2013, some Singaporeans quietly marked the eleventh anniversary of the passing of the late Ong Teng Cheong, the first elected President of Singapore. I decided to write about the role of the elected president and relate it to the context of today’s Singapore, in the aftermath of the White Paper (yes, I’m not quite done with it yet). I thank Alfian Sa’at for his Facebook post which is the source of inspiration for this post. I may not agree with him on many issues, but on this one, we sing the same song.

In this post, I will first posit that the elected president can and should exercise his moral authority judiciously whenever the existing socio-political climate in Singapore warrants a stabilising intervention. Second, I will argue that the characteristics of closeness and sympathy made the late President Ong an exemplar of presidential leadership and this is what the current President, and indeed successive presidents, ought to exude.  Before the main exposition, a tribute to Mr. Ong is necessary.

Honoring the late President Ong

The late President Ong occupies a special place in their hearts of many Singaporeans for several reasons. He was a gentleman, kind, caring, and always looking out for those who were less-fortunate. He proved this in action as well: the annual President’s Star Charity is a legacy of Ong Teng Cheong, who first initiated it in the early years of his tenure.

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He was also known for being an active minister who dared to challenge the existing order by testing its boundaries and exercising his prerogatives both as a minister and a president. While in Cabinet, he sanctioned a strike in 1986 without informing his colleagues and erstwhile mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, earning him the ire of the then-Minister for Trade and Industry Dr. Tony Tan. As President, he granted a pardon for a death-row inmate, ordered for a report on Singapore’s reserves, and staunchly advocated the construction of the MRT.

Above all, Mr. Ong was remembered for being close to the people and a fatherly figure, always smiling. It is precisely because he had Singapore and Singaporeans at heart that he earned the respect and won the hearts of all who came to know him. In his own words:

“Some people still ask whether my long previous association with the PAP will stop me from acting independently. The answer is no. My loyalty is first and foremost, to the people of Singapore. It has always been so, and will always remain so.”

Not many can utter these words and put them into concrete action. Mr. Ong was one of the rare few who succeeded in matching words with actions.

The President, Moral Authority, and the White Paper

It is abundantly clear that the President of Singapore is an office that is non-partisan and above politics. I argue that precisely because the office of President is an elected one, it is one that is consequently vested with moral authority, and therefore, the angry and frustrating aftermath of the White Paper was a golden opportunity for President Tony Tan to exercise his moral authority and calm the public mood.

Some would first question if President Tony Tan can claim to have moral authority, given that he was voted into office with 35.20% of the ballot. Frankly, it is quite a stretch to say that he had it in the first few months of his tenure. Has President Tony Tan since cultivated his moral authority? That’s an open question.

Arguably, the White Paper (as I have mentioned in my earlier post) is an issue that transcends political stripes because of its massive importance and implications on the future. So, the question here is this: if the President had intervened to assuage public rage, would that have been deemed as wading onto the political scene? That is yet another open question.

Given how politicised (and divisive) the White Paper was, I would summarily conclude that the President would have entered a grey area if he had said something on the White Paper, because he would inevitably be forced to take a side by virtue of the words he chose.

In my view, the uproar over the passage of the White Paper by 77 ayes, 13 nays, and 1 abstention was justification enough for intervention. The purpose of intervention is not stake a political claim or to make a political statement. I see intervention as necessary to prevent the already-heated political climate from combusting into flames. Any statement made by the President would have to address all three actors in the political landscape: the Government, the Opposition, and the people. I believe the weight of the President’s words would have had a calming effect on public sentiment.

The President is supposed to be a unifying figure for all Singaporeans, regardless of political stripes. The visceral results of the White Paper have left Singapore sharply divided but the silver lining lay (and still lies) in the opportunity to unify and heal the rifts that have emerged in Singapore. Indeed, there has never been a more opportune time for unity in this country in recent years.

A President for the People

While heads of states are not deities or higher beings, the way citizens look to their heads of state as a beacon of hope, wisdom, and good counsel in times of trouble parallels how the devout would turn to their faith for strength and sustenance. No one can deny the significance and influence that heads of states, such as Queen Elizabeth II of England and King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, possess in their person and office. The same goes for President of Singapore. I reiterate: it is an office above political divisions and that is why it is an office of unity. Presidential leadership is therefore comprises the elements of unity and moral authority in the person of the president.

In this section, I bring in Dr. Tan Cheng Bock as a comparison to Mr. Ong Teng Cheong. Those familiar with the Presidential Elections of 2011 would know that the runner up, Dr. Tan Cheng Bock, lost by 0.34% (some 7,000 votes) to Dr. Tony Tan in a nail-biting vote count.

What, then, explains the election results? Why was the race so close?

Without going into a thesis-length explanation, I would attribute Dr. Tan Cheng Bock’s appeal to his to personal magnetism, his charisma, and his willingness to stand up for the people according to his conscience. This independent streak was made known when he voted against party lines in the 1980s. Additionally, Dr. Tan Cheng Bock had developed a very strong following in the south-western parts of Singapore because that is where his old fort of Ayer Rajah is located. His old constituents remember him fondly and trusted him, having constantly returned him as the MP for the constituency with vote shares between 70% and 88%.

Here, we find that Dr. Tan Cheng Bock’s track record and personal traits do not differ much from the late Ong Teng Cheong. They both stood up to the party that they were in. They spoke their minds with the interests of the people at heart. Thus, the similarity between Dr. Tan Cheng Bock and Mr. Ong Teng Cheong lies in their courage and willingness to act on their own consciences in the interests of the people, and it is precisely these traits that endear them in the hearts of the people. The electorate wants a President who will safeguard and guarantee the interests of Singapore and Singaporeans, and a President whom they trust wholeheartedly and can rely upon for moral and, indeed, presidential leadership.

Parting Thoughts

I should state in closing that I supported Dr. Tony Tan in the presidential elections only because he proved to be able to represent Singapore at the international level, given his experience as a minister who has travelled abroad. I should also state that I have nothing against Dr. Tan Cheng Bock and I am confident he can discharge the guardian role of the office with distinction, but it is Dr. Tony Tan’s proven international credentials that made him the candidate of choice for me. As for the others, let’s not even mention them.

My personal views aside, what matters here is this: the socio-political climate in Singapore can only become more tense as her people, aided by social media, become more vocal and assertive by challenging the existing social order and desiring more alternative voices in Parliament (if the results of Punggol East are anything to go by). As a result, there is likely to be more friction in society which in turn gives rise to opportunities for the President to exercise his moral authority. After all, a silent president will surely leave behind a muted legacy. It can be said that the late Mr. Ong set very high standards for presidential leadership for his successors. While it is unfair to expect President Tan and other future presidents to be like the late Mr. Ong, I sincerely hope that President Tan and his successors will, in their own ways, leave behind a fruitful and meaningful legacy for Singapore.