Asian Correspondent » Kirsten Han Asian Correspondent Wed, 20 May 2015 11:20:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Blogger crowdfunds over $60,000 to meet Singapore PM in court Tue, 03 Jun 2014 14:29:30 +0000

Roy Ngerng. Pic via YouTube.

Last week, 33-year-old Singaporean blogger Roy Ngerng posted a call for donations to help him pay his legal fees for a defamation case. Four days later, he had over S$70,000 (US$55,718). At the time of writing, he had managed to crowdfund S$81,000.80 (US$64,475).

Receiving such a large amount of donations in such a short period of time is in itself fairly impressive for an amateur blogger, but what makes Ngerng’s case particularly interesting is the person he will be facing in court: the Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong.

The success of Ngerng’s fundraising campaign is beginning to present an awkward picture. Awkward, that is, for the prime minister. Will Goliath not only have to square off with David, but his own citizens as well?

Prime Minister Lee first sent a letter to Ngerng through his lawyer, threatening to sue him for defamation. Ngerng had written that he saw a similarity between the way a megachurch allegedly misappropriated funds (the trial is still ongoing), and how the money from Singapore’s state pension fund had been channelled towards the sovereign wealth fund GIC, of which Lee is chairman.

Lee said that Ngerng had accused him of misappropriating Singaporeans’ pension funds, which “constitutes a very serious defamation”. Lee demanded that he remove and apologise for the post, as well as pay damages.

The letter was the first salvo in a flurry of exchanges between Lee and Ngerng’s lawyers. The to-and-fro saw Ngerng having to take down another four posts and a YouTube video, while Lee was further aggravated by emails he had sent to local and international press.

It came to a head when Lee rejected Ngerng’s offer of S$5,000 (approx. USD 3,980) in damages as “derisory”. The two parties will now meet in court. Since Ngerng has already apologized and admitted that the allegation was “false and completely without foundation”, the case is likely to revolve more around the amount of damages and costs that he should pay.

Such court cases can be financially ruinous. Singaporeans have seen it before. Opposition politicians Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (more often known in Singapore as JBJ) and Chee Soon Juan had both been bankrupted by defamation suits filed by members of the People’s Action Party (PAP), including Lee, his father (and Singapore’s first Prime Minister) Lee Kuan Yew and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Lawsuits – the most common being defamation, contempt of court and scandalizing the judiciary – appear to be a favourite tool of the government.

“I am now raising funds to fund the legal defense. This case might last for the next few months or even a year. We would need the resources to continue to campaign on this,” Ngerng said in a video statement. He estimated that he would need S$70,000 just to cover his own legal costs. He got it.

The response to his call has been astonishing. In the interest of transparency Ngerng has been publishing statements showing the amount of money raised each day. The accounts show that most donations aren’t very big sums, suggesting a large support base rather than a few rich benefactors.

Ngerng is not getting the support of all Singaporeans. Many have been put off by his problematic arguments and posturing, which has been described as “inflated and melodramatic rhetoric”. Ngerng has definitely not shied away from dramatics, positioning himself as speaking for Singaporeans against “tyranny and treachery”.

His analyses, although often raising valid questions, have also been called out for their flaws. Secretary-General of the Reform Party Kenneth Jeyaretnam, who has had plenty of experience in the financial sector, previously pointed out Ngerng’s errors in discussing the way citizens are able to use their pension funds to pay for public housing.

But Jeyaretnam is not one of Roy’s critics when it comes to this lawsuit. As the son of the late JBJ, Jeyaretnam knows firsthand how individuals and their families can be crippled by heavy damages paid to PAP ministers.

He also has other reasons for objecting to the defamation suit.

“The PM has an easy solution to questions over his government’s management of our money and that is to provide us with the figures and to answer the questions that have been put to him. Let him silence Roy with facts and figures if he can, rather than with a lawyer’s letter,” he wrote in a blog post which raised further questions about the state pension fund and Singapore’s sovereign wealth funds.

Civil society activist Vincent Wijeysingha also drew attention to another important point: citizens’ lack of access to crucial information. “By censuring Ngerng and demanding that he verify his claims in court, we are pretending that in terms of access to information, Ngerng is on a level playing field when clearly he is not. Over almost six decades of unbroken government, the PAP has thrown a veil around the nuts and bolts of our governance, particularly – especially – the Temasek-GIC-CPF [Singapore’s two sovereign wealth funds and the state pension fund] nexus,” he wrote in a Facebook note.

Opinions over this case are not quite black-and-white. Not everyone is a fan of Ngerng or his writing. But not everyone is standing with Ngerng because they believe him to be their representative or hero.

Some are donating money to Ngerng’s cause because they reject the habit PAP ministers have of resorting to costly defamation suits, actions that are more aimed at destroying opponents and critics rather than engaging in open dialogue.

The asymmetry in power and privilege is also stark. As a healthcare worker, S$5,000 was probably a very substantial amount of money for Ngerng to offer to settle this dispute. Lee, on the other hand, is one of the most highly-paid political leaders in the world. (In 2010 The Economist reported that his salary was 40 times Singapore’s GDP per person.) He can afford to dismiss S$5,000 and drag the case into expensive courtroom battles. Needless to say, this is something Ngerng – or most other Singaporeans – can ill afford. To some, Lee’s rejection of Ngerng’s offer and decision to take him to court just looks like bullying.

This episode has once again thrown up important questions for Singaporeans. How should political leaders – public servants elected by the people – engage with their citizens, even (or especially) the ones with harsh words and tough questions? How should a public official react to allegations, even the baseless ones? Should the powerful elite continue to ruin their opponents with costly lawsuits, or is it high time to break the habit?

Conversations taking place online and offline show that Singaporeans have yet to reach a consensus. But perhaps one principle could help resolve the issue: the principle of openness, transparency and accountability, not just for bloggers making allegations, but also government officials guarding opaque administrations.

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Singapore ‘close down STOMP’ campaign about more than freedom of speech Sun, 20 Apr 2014 06:20:01 +0000

A screengrab from the petition page on

People have had enough. After years of “citizen journalism” platform STOMP indulging in public shaming, a petition has popped up on asking Singapore Press Holdings – the owner and publisher of the website – to shut it down. Started by Robin Li, the petition now has over 22,000 signatures.

The response from both SPH and the Media Development Authority (MDA) has been lukewarm. The MDA took the opportunity to ask people to propose stronger regulatory measures of licensed websites. An editor of the digital media group at SPH’s Digital Division portrayed the issue as one of “freedom of the Internet”, accusing the anti-STOMP camp of hypocrisy. SPH questioned the support the petition is receiving, alleging that the petition could have been astroturfed and that its support base could actually be much smaller. “Under the circumstances, the number of petitioners being cited is likely to be grossly inflated,” said their spokesperson Ginny Lim.

@kixes absolutely atrocious. I take it hugely as an insult. The same can be said for those “Stomp” likes on FB which is unreliable

— Robin Li (@thoughtsovrobin) April 18, 2014

It is of course possible that not all of the over 22,000 signatures are valid. There is always the potential of surveys and petitions being astroturfed, online or offline.

But for SPH to suggest that a huge number of the signatories are false is a weak defense of STOMP. We may quibble about the exact number of signatures on the petition, but SPH is delusional if they do not realize that the opposition to STOMP is significant. Their persistent refusal to admit that there is anything wrong with STOMP casts doubt on their integrity as a media organization; something that ultimately hurts not just its brand, but also the professional reputation of the journalists and other employees who work within the company.

The website has already been called out for both false and bullying posts. These are both things that fall within the remit of the MDA, whose Internet Code of Practice prohibits content that “glorifies, incites or endorses ethnic, racial or religious hatred, strife or intolerance.” The MDA also already has the power to regulate against fake content on websites. If it already has such power, why then is it acting as if it has no knowledge of STOMP’s problems, or that it does not have the ability to do anything beyond issuing statements about not condoning bad behaviour?

Which is why the whole “freedom of the Internet” argument invoked by the SPH editor is simply a red herring. It is not about free speech if the information is false. It is not about free speech if a website is just going to be a repository of bullying, sexism and xenophobia. The petition is directed at SPH rather than the state, which suggests that people are not asking the state to forcibly shut the website down. SPH can continue to publish online, or on any of its numerous print publications. They can even continue publishing on STOMP, but they should know that a significant number of their customers/potential customers want to see some changes.

The petition against STOMP has launched interesting conversations on the media landscape in Singapore and the type of media content that Singaporeans would like to see. Discussions – including those taking place on international news outlets – have taken place on the role of public shaming in the media, and whether it benefits society.

It is unfortunate that SPH and MDA’s responses have indicated an unwillingness to join in on the conversation.

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Singapore Attorney-General’s Chambers mulls action against filmmaker Sat, 20 Apr 2013 18:22:03 +0000 Channel NewsAsia has reported that the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) are considering whether to take action against documentary filmmaker Lynn Lee after the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) found that allegations made by ex-SMRT bus drivers in interviews she carried out were baseless.

He Jun Ling and Liu Xiang Ying had granted interviews to Lee after they had been charged for inciting bus strikes in late 2012 that saw over 100 SMRT bus drivers from China refusing to go to work.

In the interviews, they alleged that they had been beaten and threatened by their interrogators. Lee then posted their allegations on her blog, saying that they were “serious allegations” that had to be “addressed urgently”.

The videos sparked an investigation led by the Internal Affairs Office (IAO) of the Singapore Police Force. Lee herself spent hours at police headquarters, had her hard drive seized, her laptop taken apart and her phone records sifted through.

The MHA released a statement on Saturday saying that He and Liu’s allegations were “baseless”, saying that, prior to the video, they had not raised any complaints about police abuse “despite having had ample opportunities to do so”. The statement also said that He and Liu had later retracted their allegations, although He maintained that they were true.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean said, “We take allegations of Police abuse very seriously, especially when they are formally lodged, and investigate them thoroughly. Where there is wrong doing, the officers will be dealt with. … The investigations have vindicated the officers in this case and protected their reputations.”

In its article, regional news network Channel NewsAsia wrote:

Separately, the Attorney-General’s Chambers said it is considering whether to take action against the producer of the online video, Lee Seng Lynn, which contains the allegations made by the two ex-SMRT bus drivers.

Lee has since published a short blog post responding to the results of the investigation. With regard to the AGC’s considerations, she wrote,

…some friends have alerted me to a CNA report stating that the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) is considering taking action against me for releasing the videos in which the allegations were made. If they do so, I have no doubt all the issues raised above [in her blog post] will be fully and openly addressed and that He and Liu will be brought back to Singapore to be witnesses. In the meantime, I have written to the AGC to seek clarification on the report.

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Singapore’s state prosecution demands apology for Facebook comments Thu, 18 Apr 2013 11:17:16 +0000 Singapore’s Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) have sent out letters demanding apologies from several websites after criticism was made of the court’s decision to sentence Yuan Zhenghua to 25 months in jail.

In 2012, Yuan hijacked a taxi at Changi Airport and crashed it, killing an airport worker. He was given his sentence on Monday.

Pic: AP.

Comments then appeared on websites and Facebook pages questioning the sentence. Many felt that it was too lenient. Others claimed that the courts had been soft on Yuan because he was a Chinese national, and that a Singaporean would have received a harsher sentence.

“These and similar comments pose a real risk that public confidence in the administration of justice would be undermined,” a spokesman of the AGC told AFP.

It’s unclear how many websites received the AGC’s letter, but Facebook page ‘EDMW Loves Singapore’ posted an apology and has taken down all offending posts and comments. The Real Singapore later wrote a post on their website, refusing to apologise for Facebook comments made. Their post also included the letter from the AGC, which demanded that all posts and comments be removed, that reproduction and republishing be stopped, and an apology containing the names of administrators be published on a prominent page. If the administrators do not comply within two days, action will be taken against them.

It’s a strange move from the AGC that has many implications on free speech in Singapore. Are people not allowed to comment on or criticise court decisions? How much discussion is allowed? Or will any sort of disagreement be considered contempt of court?

The AGC sent the letters over concerns of losing public trust and confidence, yet it is unlikely that such an action will gain the judiciary or the state prosecution more trust. Such a move will likely only give the impression of the state trying to create a chilling effect online, deterring Singaporeans from speaking up and questioning decisions.

After all, one can’t threaten others into trusting them.

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Singapore’s government lost US$600 million… what now? Thu, 04 Apr 2013 18:15:29 +0000 What does a failed real estate deal in New York City have to do with an island nation 9579 miles away?

In 2006, Tishman Speyer Properties and BlackRock Realty bought housing projects in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village (both in Lower Manhattan) for US$5.4 billion. Built in the 1940s, it was meant to provide affordable housing in a city where costs were constantly going up. Laws were enacted to stabilise and regulate the rent.

Pic: AP.

The two real estate companies thought that money could be made from buying the housing projects, getting the rent-regulated tenants out and moving new tenants in at market rates. But when they were blocked after the tenants association went to court, the whole deal fell apart.

(READ MORE: Asia’s super rich swept up in tax haven data leak)

In its report, the NPR interviews Charles Bagli, a journalist who covered the purchase and went on to write the book Other People’s Money:

“They pretty much went through it unscathed,” Bagli says, “but CalPERS [the California Public Employees’ Retirement System], the largest pension fund in the country, lost $500 million. Poof — gone. … Another pension fund down in Florida lost $250 million. The government of Singapore, well, they lost the most — over $600 million. It all just went poof.”

Over $600 million. This was Singapore’s loss from a deal that collapsed in 2010. In fact, an article published in January 2010 in The New York Times said:

The Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, which made a $575 million secondary loan, and invested as much as $200 million in equity, stands to lose all of that.

This is not the only time Singapore’s sovereign wealth funds have lost money; plenty more have been written off through failed investments like in Wall Street banks.  In 2008, Temasek Holdings – the country’s other sovereign wealth fund – admitted to losing over US$46 billion in just eight months, from March to November. GIC is expected to have lost at least the same amount.

(READ MORE: Singapore and her millionaires – does it matter?)

Every time such a loss occurs, a small fuss – usually online – may or may not occur. Coverage in the local press will probably come in the form of a straight report without much more – after all, Singapore’s press doesn’t usually subscribe to the ‘Fourth Estate’ role. Then the whole thing will fade away and things will continue with little or no significant change.

It’s a situation that may work out very well for those who have escaped taking the rap for botched investments, but doesn’t help Singapore or Singaporeans in the long run. The lack of accountability makes it a dangerous game – large amounts of money have already been lost without anyone really being the wiser, making one wonder if we will ever hit that moment when too much money is lost. If that ever happens, it will be far too late for us to demand accountability.

All we’ll be able to do then will be to ask ourselves, “Why didn’t we pay attention sooner?”

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Singapore’s ‘Sticker Lady’ charged with mischief, not vandalism Tue, 26 Mar 2013 14:36:24 +0000 Samantha Lo, a Singaporean artist going by the name of SKL0, has been charged with mischief. She faces seven charges that will be determined later in the week. Her accomplice, graffiti artist Anthony Chong, faces three charges, also to be determined.

Lo had been investigated in May 2012 for spray-painting on public roads and pasting stickers on traffic light controller boxes. She could potentially have been charged with vandalism, which carries a heavier sentence. If found guilty of her current charges, both Lo and Chong could be fined and/or serve a jail term of up to two years.

Samantha Lo. Pic: Facebook.

The investigation against Lo had sparked an outcry last year; many felt that the authorities had acted too harshly against what they saw as harmless pranks and artistic expression. The stickers – which said things like “Press Once Can Already” – referred to Singaporean habits and expressions, something that many were able to relate to and found humorous. The action taken against Lo was seen as that of an authoritarian state clamping down on free expression and creativity.

Law Minister K Shanmugam, who is also the MP of Nee Soon where one of them is living, had met the pair and made an appeal on their behalf.

Although they are no longer as harsh as vandalism, Lo’s charges have still been met with criticism from Singaporeans, who feel that she should not have been charged at all. Comparisons have also been made between Lo and Amy Cheong, who had caused a huge controversy last year for making racist comments against Malays on social networks. It was recently reported that Cheong had received a stern warning from the police, leading to say that she had got off even more lightly than an artist who had merely spray-painted a few phrases on roads.

Regardless of what the details of the charges of mischief may turn out to be, Lo is not without her supporters. BooksActually, a local book store, posted a photo of the words “My Grandfather’s Bookstore” stuck on their window; a reference to the words Lo had spray-painted on the road (“My Grandfather Road”), and a show of solidarity.

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Singapore’s children: Some wanted more than others? Fri, 22 Mar 2013 18:25:03 +0000 A recent letter written by Dr. John Hui Keem Peng reminded us all of the existence of the Home Ownership Plus Education (HOPE) Scheme. This ironically named scheme provides support to low-income families… but only if they do not have more than two children. Cash incentives are given out to couples to fund ligation or vasectomy procedures.

The Straits Times has also highlighted Singapore’s policies on abortion in a feature published on March 17 (‘Experts feel the law could be changed to make those seeking abortion think harder and longer’). The article states:

There is mandatory pre-abortion counselling if the women are Singapore citizens or permanent residents; have passed the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE); have at least some secondary education, and have fewer than three children.

There is no counselling for foreigners, rape victims or Singaporeans with three or more children, and those who have not passed the PSLE. If they seek an abortion, they get it right away.

Although one may understand why there is no mandatory counselling* for rape victims, what is the rationale behind not counselling those who have not passed the PSLE?

In the absence of justification from the relevant body who came up with this policy, one can only conclude that while Singapore is very eager to persuade more highly-educated mothers not to have abortions, they don’t really care about the less educated. There is a strong suggestion that the policymakers have ascribed different values to the offspring of different Singaporeans even before birth.

This level of social engineering is hypocritical at best – especially at a time when the government is desperately finding different ways to cajole Singaporeans into having babies – and despicable eugenics at worst.

Why are policymakers discouraging low-income, lowly-educated Singaporeans from having children? Is Singapore’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) not dismal? Are we not plowing money into more and more “pro-family initiatives“?

Is this just the ugly laziness of a nation that does not want to be responsible for children that may need more help and support from the state? Do we really believe that every child is precious, or are some children more precious than others?

* A reading of The Straits Times‘ article suggests that “mandatory counselling” should be interpreted as “trying to persuade you not to have an abortion”.

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Analysis: Struggling with xenophobia in Singapore Tue, 19 Mar 2013 23:34:04 +0000 It’s a debate that has been gaining momentum for a long time, but the aftermath of the February protest against the Population White Paper has brought the discussion of xenophobia to the forefront of Singapore’s national conversation.

Everyone seems to have an opinion, but one can broadly break it down into two camps:

Camp #1 – Singaporeans are getting more and more xenophobic and racist, and this needs to be countered ASAP!

Camp #2 – We should not be so quick to label people as ‘xenophobic’ or ‘racist’. We should understand why people are this upset, before jumping to labels.

At times it appears as if both camps are getting angrier and angrier, flinging accusations at one another. It feels a little silly, really, because – when you really think about it – no one is really disagreeing with anyone here.

(READ MORE: Analysis: Singapore and its rare ‘political’ protest)

Both camps agree that xenophobia is a problem. No one is arguing that xenophobia is a good thing. We’re just arguing about what to do about it.

Camp #2 appears to be worried that the labelling will hurt rather than help, and that we should cut those who have participated in xenophobia some slack.

But if someone has said or done something specifically to target, exclude and belittle another group of people, do we really still have to worry about hurting their feelings? What about the feelings of the object of their xenophobia?

Singapore Population Protest

Singaporeans gather at Speakers' Corner in a protest against the Population White Paper last September. Pic: AP.

There are plenty of people out there who participate in xenophobia (and no, you don’t have to be an out-and-out xenophobe to participate in xenophobia). I count many of them among my friends and family. They are decent people, fun to hang out with and speak to. But that doesn’t make them less xenophobic when they spout anti-foreigner sentiment. And it’s important to point it out to them when they do, so they have the opportunity to reflect.

It is important to know the root causes behind the rise of xenophobia; those are crucial issues that need to be addressed. But we cannot cut people so much slack that they are absolved of responsibility over the things they say or do. That would be giving too much credit and power to the government or the system when the reality is that everyone has his or her own agency.

We aren’t sheep. External factors may affect us, but at the end of the day it’s up to us to be aware of the prejudices and assumptions behind our own beliefs, and reflect upon our own actions.

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Childcare leave in Singapore extended to single parents… at last Thu, 14 Mar 2013 16:17:33 +0000 It’s been a long time coming: Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing has announced that single unwed parents will also be entitled to childcare and infant care leave from May 1.

Parents are entitled to six days of childcare leave for children below seven years old, and two days for children between seven and 12-years-old. Parents of children who are below two-years-old will also be entitled for another six days of unpaid infant care leave.

Pic: AP.

Single parents may have been previously excluded due to the government’s desire to encourage marriage and nuclear families, but it’s better late than never. It is also the first time in a long while that I’ve seen the government respect personal choice when it comes to family and child-rearing, taking a step away from the discrimination of unwed parents.

Such a measure will probably be much more appreciated and useful than pouring tons of money into “pro-family initiatives” that focus on getting (heterosexual) couples hooked up and hitched before having children. Beyond the problematic definitions of “pro-family” (especially seen in the light of the government’s willingness to collaborate with conservative evangelical group Focus on the Family), it is unclear how effective such brow-beating will be.

While it’s good to put resources into helping businesses become more family-friendly for their employees, money and “Family Day”-type activities are not enough. True change will require the close examination of Singapore’s work culture and the demands of the high-paced lifestyle. It will become necessary to explore different ways of working and doing business, such as job-sharing and working from home. Singaporeans have to be convinced somehow that it is okay to leave their offices and desks on time every day, rather than feeling the pressure to stay on for as long as possible as a show of dedication and hard work. Employers need to also evaluate if they are making too many demands on the lives of their workers.

Solving such a problem cannot just fall to the Ministry for Social and Family Development. It has to do with everything from the economy to education to housing to healthcare to gender relations. All the obstacles that prevent couples who want to have children (note the emphasis on the couple’s own desire) from doing so must be scrutinised, taken apart and put back together in a fairer, better way.

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Singapore urges singles to ‘circulate’, not ‘vegetate’ Mon, 11 Mar 2013 15:55:00 +0000 “Am I in circulation or in vegetation?”

One might wish it were a cruel, cruel joke, but it isn’t. A write-up recently appeared in The Sunday Times, entitled ‘Active While Single: It’s OK to be single but it’s not OK to be passive’. In it, single Singaporeans are encouraged to put themselves out there; in other words, “circulate”.

It reads like a bizarre nightmare involving an over-zealous auntie at Chinese New Year, but it’s actually a sponsored piece by the Social Development Network, the government-linked matchmaking/dating organisation.

Written by Dazzling Chong – whose personal website promises that she will “make you laugh with her wit” and “help you with her insight” – the piece is out of this world. “I am all for action and ready for procreation,” she declares, referring to all the “unborn babies” and the “time bomb” in her ovaries.

'Good'. Pic: AP.

It would be absolutely hilarious if it weren’t so outrageous at the same time. The piece has zero respect for personal choice; it does not even stop for a moment to consider the possibility that there are some people who are single because they like it that way. It automatically assumes that if you are single, if you are alone reading books on a holiday, you are sad and deprived, and doing yourself a disservice. It assumes that all women want to be a “SG New Independent Princess”, whatever that is.

'Bad'. Pic: AP.

It is a maddening piece of badly-written fiction, only it’s endorsed by the government.

The message in the piece was nothing new. The government wants babies, and is flinging money at the problem, paying people to write, to campaign, to cajole Singaporeans to punch some kids out. Throughout all these efforts they have forgotten that Singaporeans have the right to choose whether they want to remain single or not, and it’s really no one else’s business.

What makes it really worrying is that the piece was written with Focus on the Family Singapore. Focus on the Family is a conservative, evangelical organisation that originated in the USA. It is famously anti-LGBT, anti-abortion, anti-divorce and anti-pre-marital sex, advocating for abstinence-only sexual education and the enforcing of strong gender roles. It’s troubling to find such a group – which has been criticised and described as a “hate group” – in Singapore, but even more troubling to find that the government is actually willing to collaborate and let them play a role in social engineering.

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Singapore’s academics: How are they judged? Tue, 05 Mar 2013 16:06:35 +0000 The recent decision from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to reject Dr Cherian George’s tenure application has drawn plenty of criticism and alarm among his students and fellow academics in Singapore.

A former journalist, Dr Cherian George is currently an associate professor in the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI). His first tenure application had been rejected in 2009. Dr Benjamin Hill Detenber, chair of WKWSCI, revealed to concerned students that the school had endorsed both of Dr George’s applications, but that they had been rejected at higher levels. Going by NTU’s system, Dr George will now have to leave the institution within a year.

Dr George has gained prominence in Singapore for his research and critiques on politics and the media. On top of publishing two books on Singapore’s media landscape – ‘Contentious Journalism and the Internet’ in 2006 and ‘Freedom from the Press’ in 2012 – Dr George has also spoken at forums and blogged on

Many, including external reviewer and Cardiff University professor Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, suspect that political considerations had come into play in denying Dr George a tenure contract.

The news led to four of Dr George’s final-year students starting a petition urging the university to explain its decision.

“In light of Professor Wahl-Jorgensen’s comments, we urge the university to shed more light on the reasons behind its decision to deny Dr George a tenure contract,” the petition reads. “Her allegations are serious as they suggest an overt curtailment of academic freedom and a policy of political discrimination in NTU. They not only dramatically affect the global reputation of NTU and WKWSCI, but the value of our degrees as well.”

The petition has now gathered 948 signatures from former and current students, academics and members of the public. But the story doesn’t end there – almost 100 Singaporean academics, public intellectuals and civil society members have also released a letter questioning the criteria employed by universities in accessing tenure applications and the role of academics in Singaporean society.

The letter states: “Singapore universities have made impressive strides of late and have drawn faculty and students from all over the world. They have adopted international benchmarks in faculty assessment that emphasize teaching and research excellence. However, commentators worldwide have noted that such benchmarks, which measure academic publication in specialist journals and expensive scholarly books, discourage the engagement of academics with their immediate social context.”

Dr George has so far declined to make any public comment about his case, but this has now grown far beyond just one man’s tenure application; the discussion has now extended to the way we interact, and the role academics can play in an organic national conversation.

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Is Singapore done with race-based policies? Mon, 04 Mar 2013 15:30:40 +0000 Singapore has often boasted about its multiracial society, trumpeting nation-wide efforts to integrate and live side-by-side. Citizens are warned time and again of the importance of maintaing harmony, although whether racism has truly been eradicated in Singapore remains to be seen. A recent youth forum organised by the Workers’ Party has taken it one step further, calling for an end to the government’s race-based policies.

The YouthQuake forum, which had litigation lawyer Terence Tan and civil activist Nizam Ismail on its panel, brought up policies such as the ethnic quota in public housing, the listing of race on identity cards and the Group Representative Constituency (GRC) system in elections.

School children visit the Jalan Sultan Mosque, also one of Singapore's tourism icons, as part of Singapore's school curriculum to educate youth about other cultures and living in a multi-racial society. Pic: AP.

Nizam pointed out that the government’s traditional ‘CMIO’ model – representing Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others – was fast breaking down and becoming meaningless in the face of increasing globalisation, migration and intermarriage.

“If we see 6.9 million people by 2030 or more, it will be a very different Singapore,” Yahoo!SG reported him as saying. “There will be a very cosmopolitan society, there’ll be people from all over the world, and your CMIO model, which is already so problematic at this stage, will become utterly meaningless in 2030, because there’s no way you can put people in CMIO. So what happens to the rest of your race-based government policies that you have? It makes it even more meaningless.”

With the breakdown of the CMIO model, Singapore’s ethnic quota for public housing is on its way towards irrelevance. As the number of interracial families increases, things become more and more arbitrary and pointless. As Nizam highlighted: ““If you call yourself Chinese-Indian, you are treated as Chinese for the purposes of the EIP, but if you call yourself Indian-Chinese, then you are treated as an Indian.”

Beyond these policies, both panellists also found ethnic community self-help groups problematic, worrying that they re-enforced a “cultural deficiency fallacy”, which suggests that particular ethnic groups are inherently weaker and in need of more help than others.

“Could we have a slightly more homogenous construct where potentially any Singaporean is deserving of financial or educational assistance?” Tan asked.

These suggestions are a long time coming. Like numerous countries around the world, Singapore’s population is quickly moving beyond old-fashioned racial classifications. With more mobility and interaction, such labels are losing their relevance. The government would do well to respond to these changes.

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Singapore’s Pulau Ubin: A luxury waterfront residence? Thu, 28 Feb 2013 11:35:43 +0000 Could Pulau Ubin – Singapore’s second-largest offshore island and one of the country’s last rural areas – be developed and turned into a luxury waterfront residence?

A road network connecting Pulau Tekong and Pulau Ubin with mainland Singapore was included in a recently released Land Use Plan. Cyberita published an article (English translation to be found here) speculating over possible development of the island. The article sparked alarm and outrage among Singaporeans, especially after reading the following comment from a realtor:

Meanwhile, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of PropNex, Mr Ismail Gafoor, said while he agree that the plan is still far in the future, Pulau Ubin has the potential to be a “dream waterfront residential address, like Sentosa”.

“Waterfront towns with unblocked coastal water view, not crowded and windy are often able to command premium prices of 20 per cent higher.

“Housing on the island is able to attract the same premium,” he said.

Although a spokesperson from the Ministry of National Development was also reported as saying that the road network is part of a “long-term plan” to provide continuity in the event of the two islands being developed in the future – therefore suggesting that there are no current plans to develop Pulau Ubin – many Singaporeans are already rejecting the notion of developing yet another natural space.

It’s a common enough; as Singapore grows increasingly crowded, the government grows hungry for land and further development. Bukit Brown has already fallen victim to development, with graves being exhumed to make way for an eight-lane highway. For many Singaporeans, it’s disheartening to see more and more natural green spaces with historic value disappear.

What really angers Singaporeans, though, is the suggestion that Pulau Ubin could be developed into a luxury waterfront town like the notoriously expensive Sentosa Cove, where housing can command “premium prices” that most Singaporeans will never be able to afford. Such a suggestion once again implies to Singaporeans that their country is not necessarily being developed for everyone’s benefit, and that one day the island might just be a playground for the rich.

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Ex-bus drivers jailed in Singapore for organising strike Mon, 25 Feb 2013 17:08:01 +0000 Four ex-SMRT bus drivers have been jailed in Singapore for their part in last November’s strike. Wang Xianjie, Gao Yue Qiang and Liu Xiangying were sentenced to six weeks in prison, while He Junling was sentenced to seven weeks. On top of organising and participating in the strike, he had also posted on social media network Baidu encouraging others to join in.

All four had pleaded guilty in court. Choo Zheng Xi, lawyer for He Junling, presented a mitigation plea, saying, “It was never Jun Ling’s intention to startle or alarm the public, nor was it a calculated plan of his to unsettle labour relations in Singapore for personal gain. His actions came from a place of deep desperation and despair at his living conditions, discriminatory pay, and a lack of an outlet to express his grievances.”

The second of two protesting Chinese national workers is escorted by Singapore Civil Defense Force officers after descending from the top of a 10-storey high crane on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, in Singapore. The incident followed the Nov. 26 strike by a total of 171 Chinese bus drivers. Pic: AP.

It was reported that Judge See Kee Oon had described the strike has having the potential to “severely affect the daily lives of all commuters”, therefore requiring the sentences to be “of sufficient duration to signal its deterrent intent”.

The strike and subsequent events has been cause of much controversy in Singapore, where a significant strike has not been seen in over two decades, encouraging people to talk about labour relations, freedom of assembly, rights to protest, and even police brutality and the intimidation of journalists. Singaporeans have argued over whether strike action has any place in Singapore, and whether the bus drivers should have resorted to such action. Human rights groups have criticised the government’s reaction to the strike, demanding that the charges against the bus drivers be dropped.

In an interview with independent journalist Lynn Lee, He and Liu alleged that they had been threatened and beaten during interrogation. The allegations triggered an investigation by the Internal Affairs Office of the Singapore Police Force, during which Lee had her hard drive seized and computer and phone records examined.

With the men now sentenced to jail – which means that they will most likely be repatriated to China upon release – the issue may now seem to have been concluded. After the reports and commentaries are published, the story of the bus drivers and their ‘illegal strike’ will soon fade to back the of public consciousness. Perhaps we’ll hear something about the investigation into police abuse, or perhaps nothing will be said and we’ll simply forget about it like many of the other previous probes and investigations.

Hopefully, with Singaporeans themselves having resorted to collective action themselves recently to protest government policy, people will now look back on the strike and think more kindly of the bus drivers.

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Opinion: Should Singapore’s Section 377A be ‘trimmed’? Sun, 24 Feb 2013 15:14:57 +0000 With two cases challenging Singapore’s anti-gay law pending in the High Court, the country’s Law Minister has met with both LGBT groups and church members to discuss the country’s stance on gay rights. While LGBT advocates want to see Section 377A – which criminalises sex between men – repealed, conservative church leaders insist that it be retained.

While refraining from commenting on the constitutionality of the legislation, The Straits Times‘ journalist Andy Ho suggests another way in which the dilemma could be resolved. In his article he suggests that the law be ‘trimmed'; that is, reworded so that the law is able to satisfy both parties. Ho suggests that Section 377A be reworded so as to outlaw gay and lesbian sex, but only in public. In fairness, he also suggests that mirror provisions be made to cover straight men and women as well.

The gay community in tightly controlled Singapore held its first-ever 'Pink Dot' rally in 2009. It is still fighting for equality. Pic: AP.

What Ho doesn’t mention is that there are already laws that can cover these offences: Section 20 of the Miscellaneous Offences Act outlaws “any riotous, disorderly or indecent behaviour” in public while Section 294A criminalises “any obscene act in any public place”. Although Tan Eng Hong – one of the men bringing up a constitutional challenge in court – was first charged with 377A, he was later charged under 294A. This shows that there is already provision to punish indecent public acts without 377A, trimmed or not.

Ho’s suggestion also raises another question: how far should the State go to be ‘balanced’ and accommodate all points of view? Do all issues really have to address both sides? And even if all issues have multiple perspectives, does it automatically follow that all perspectives are valid?

(READ MORE: Singapore’s Prime Minister says to ‘just leave’ anti-gay law)

The answer is no. There is no reason why we should constantly bend backwards to accommodate everyone; there are situations where one argument is clearly more valid than the other. In the context of 377A, I would argue that the LGBT advocates have the upper hand: all they are asking is for a discriminatory law to be removed, so that all Singaporeans can be treated equally under the law. They are not asking for the right to have sex in public; there are already laws that cover that, proving that the only reason for 377A’s existence is to isolate and discriminate against homosexuals.

Church leaders like Lawrence Khong, on the other hand, are demanding that a law that discriminates against a significant portion of Singapore’s population be retained simply because they don’t approve of homosexuality. They provide very little justification for why it is so important to have a law that specifically targets homosexuals. The reasons that they do supply are very quickly reduced to “my religion says so” – an argument that should not influence policy and legal decisions in a secular society.

Everyone has a right to their opinions. But this doesn’t mean that the State is required to twist and contort to accommodate all these opinions. It doesn’t mean that the State has to continue with a law that singles out a particular segment of society just to please another segment of society. If there is discrimination in our laws, the government should act regardless of how loud the other side shouts.

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Match-fixing suspect finally with the Singaporean police Thu, 21 Feb 2013 23:27:43 +0000 A suspected match-fixer has been arrested in Milan after Singapore’s police tipped off Interpol. This man is allegedly an associate of Dan Tan, who has been accused of being at the center of a global match-fixing scandal involving hundreds of football matches around the world and billions of dollars in profit, bets and bribes.

Attention has recently been turned on to Singapore as Europol and Interpol announced that over 600 matches had been identified as suspicious, with links to Singapore-based networks. The probe was described by Rob Wainwright, chief of Europol, as “the biggest investigation ever into match-fixing.”

According to BBC News, Dan Tan is now in police custody, and is “currently assisting Singaporean authorities with their investigation.” This will go a long way in mitigating the damage that has been done to Singapore’s carefully cultivated ‘clean’ image, as Tan has been identified and wanted by authorities in several countries ever since convicted match-fixer Wilson Raj Perumal described him as being the financier of a match-fixing ring.

The police had been previously criticised for not having taken action earlier, but had cited a lack of hard evidence as the reason for not being able to arrest Tan. It would appear that this has now changed, allowing Singaporean authorities to further the investigations done by Europol and Interpol.

“We would like to reiterate that Singapore is committed to eradicating match-fixing as a transnational crime and protect the integrity of the sport, and will pursue such cases vigorously with a view to bringing perpetrators to justice,” Singaporean police spokesperson Tan Giap Ti told the BBC.

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Analysis: Singapore and its rare ‘political’ protest Mon, 18 Feb 2013 10:25:10 +0000 Angry and frustrated with the government and its population policy, over 3,000 Singaporeans gathered in Hong Lim Park on Saturday to protest the Population White Paper that had been passed in Parliament on the back of the ruling PAP’s majority.

The significant turn-out made it one of the largest crowds gathered in Speakers’ Corner – the only space where Singaporeans are allowed to protest without a permit. It brought together Singaporeans upset about a range of issues, from overcrowding to the lack of a voice in national policy decisions.

Protesters gather at Speaker's Corner in Singapore Saturday. Pic by Kelvin Lim, via 'Say "No" to an overpopulated Singapore's Facebook page.

It made the front page of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and popped up on several other foreign media publications, but The Straits Times’ front page was surprisingly devoid of the protest. Although there was a report inside the paper, the comprehensive coverage that one would expect from the local broadsheet on an event of such significance was nowhere to be seen. This was strongly criticised by ex-journalist Bertha Henson in her blog: “The kindest thing I can say about MSM here is that they don’t track events as thoroughly as the foreign media. But I know that’s a lie.”

‘Debates’ and ‘conversations’ – A lesson in missing the point

What was worse, though, was the ruling party’s response to the protest. When asked, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said that he was “pleased that Singaporeans are debating this population issue because it is about our future”, although he felt that the speeches had been “too political”. Minister of State for Health and Manpower Amy Khor was also quite pleased, saying that the government would “continue to engage our Singaporeans” so that it would be able to get “more buy-in and support”.

Faced with what is possibly the largest overtly anti-government protest in recent Singaporean history, the government’s ability to completely miss the point is staggering.

ESM Goh’s criticism of the speeches at the protest being “too one-sided” were simply ludicrous; a protest by its very nature takes a side with no intention of being ‘balanced’. The thousands who gathered were not there to ‘debate’ the issue. There was a plurality of backgrounds, opinions and personalities, sure, but everyone was very much in agreement on one thing: the White Paper sucks.

His comments also serve to further highlight the validity of some of the criticism: he is pleased that citizens are debating the issue, but the Population White Paper has already been passed in Parliament. It constructs an uncomfortable scenario: you can talk and talk, but we’ll just do what we want. This is precisely what has angered many Singaporeans who feel excluded from the democratic decision-making process.

The ‘political’ and ‘emotional’

Of course, the standard criticism of being “too political” features in ESM Goh’s response. Again, this is silly. The White Paper was a policy paper specifically endorsed by a government made up of a particular ruling party. It is in itself political, thus making the protest against it political too.

The invoking of the word ‘political’ serves to remind us of how politics has been removed from everyday society, portrayed as the domain of elites. Anything that diverges from the official party line is political, and ordinary Singaporeans, it seems, have no business being political. But ESM Goh has failed to see that times have changed; where ‘politics’ may have once been regarded as a dirty word, a general election, two by-elections and the growth of the blogosphere have shown that Singaporeans are casting off their fear of being political.

Last but not least, ESM Goh said that the speeches only appealed to emotions, suggesting a lack of logic or reasoning. But emotional arguments are not automatically lacking in logic or sense, and there have been many criticisms of the White Paper – both at the protest and elsewhere – that have been backed up with evidence and references, perhaps even more so that the White Paper itself. It makes one wonder: has ESM Goh really listened to the speeches, or read the critiques of his government’s policy?

Again, ESM Goh has completely failed to understand what ‘protest’ means. On top of taking sides, protests are often also incredibly emotive events. They are born from frustration and anger, desperation and hope. It’s no surprise that the protest over the weekend was emotional; these are issues that affect people’s everyday lives, their families and their hopes for the future. These are things that hit very close to home, so why are we writing off emotional responses?

The PAP’s struggle

With every response, every move they make, the PAP only manages to highlight just how out-of-touch they are. In all fairness, efforts are being made by the party to bridge the gap and appeal to Singaporeans. But the rift between the government and the people cannot be closed if those in power continue with their selective hearing.

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Singapore splashes out on bus system upgrade Wed, 13 Feb 2013 17:35:51 +0000 The Singapore government is set to spend more than the S$1.1 billion (US$890 million) it pledged last year on buses in an effort to improve Singapore’s public transport infrastructure in the face of overcrowding and further population increase.

Pic: AP.

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew told Parliament last week that the government hopes to further scale up the Bus Service Enhancement Programme (BSEP) which had been announced last year. The programme initially involved the government buying 550 new buses to bolster services provided by privatised public transport companies SBS Transit and SMRT.

On top of that, the government now hopes to contract out more bus routes, such as morning-peak express services and feeder services into MRT stations. The Land Transport Authority has put up a tender for a morning-express service from Jurong West to the Central Business District. There will be no revenue risk for the winning bus company, as they will simply be paid a fixed fee according to their bid. Any profit made will go to the government.

This move shows that the government is making an effort to ramp up public transport services to cope with the strain of an increasing population. A recently passed Population White Paper indicated that while the rate of immigration into the country can be expected to decrease, the population will continue to grow to a potential 6.9 million by 2030.

The island’s transport infrastructure has also been in the public eye in recent times as numerous train breakdowns have held up thousands of commuters. On Wednesday morning a fire broke out in the tunnel near Newton MRT station due to a short-circuited electric cable, disrupting services on a portion of the North-South line. Such incidences have served to remind all observers that Singapore’s top-notch public transport network is not what it once was, and the government now has to act quickly to fend off further criticism.

The BSEP is a first step towards improving the standard of service, but how much it will benefit all commuters remains to be seen. Fare increases have soured the mood, with Singaporeans blaming the privatisation of public transport companies for leading to an overemphasis on profits over public service. If fares continue to increase – as the government has indicated they might – it may prove more and more difficult to placate Singaporeans who believe that the whole system has been set up to squeeze the wallets of commuters without a corresponding improvement in service.

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Once upon a time, back when Singaporeans had kids… Tue, 12 Feb 2013 00:26:34 +0000 As part of the stubborn never-ending effort to convince/persuade/beg Singaporeans to get married and have children, the National Family Council has launched ‘Project Superglue’. Project Superglue – aiming to build “super strong families” – is a grant scheme aimed at Singaporeans aged 13 to 31, inviting them to come up with innovative ideas to promote a “Family First mindset”.

A couple pose for wedding photographs at the beach in Singapore. Although the government is urging citizens to start families, young couples like this face countless barriers. Pic: AP.

First up: The Singaporean Fairytale, a six-month campaign by four final-year students from Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The students are adding a pro-family spin to well-known fairy tales such as Three Little Pigs and Rapunzel, adding helpful tips on fertility and family living.

While undoubtedly well-intentioned, both Project Superglue and The Singaporean Fairytale have completely missed the mark. It’s yet another example of how the government has failed to get the point (and now students have fallen for it as well).

This main point is this: You can’t make couples want to have children. All you can do is remove the obstacles in the way of those who do, and respect the decision of those who don’t. No one is going to have a baby as a favour to their country.

The government would like to increase the birth rate. Fair enough. But they’re not going to be able to achieve it if they refuse to look at the whole situation.

Young Singaporean couples and families are constantly caught in a state of anxiety. Costs are rising as the island gets more and more crowded (and, looking at the recently passed Population White Paper, is set to get more crowded still). There are now 50-year mortgages to help you pay for your astronomically priced flat, and you can pretty much forget about owning a car when the bidding for a Certificate of Entitlement hits a new high. Although inflation continues to increase, salaries and wages have not. The search for work is incredibly competitive, and there’s a lack of security even after you find employment. There are issues related to unfair dismissals of pregnant women, which obviously makes one think twice about having a baby.

These are important factors that need to be addressed. But even then there is no guarantee that every young Singaporean will settle down and start a family. This is because there are just some people who don’t want to have children. And these people are unlikely to change their minds simply because of a cunningly-inserted fertility tip in a fairytale.
That said, I do want to see how information on fertility has been inserted into the Three Little Pigs.
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Singapore bus strike: Who are the police investigating here? Thu, 07 Feb 2013 12:43:52 +0000 Who knew a peaceful strike by a group of bus drivers could lead to such a fuss?

The bus strike by over 100 SMRT bus drivers from China led to 29 employees being repatriated, and five arrested and charged for their part in the strike. One, Bao Fengshan, pleaded guilty, served six weeks in jail and was repatriated. He did not have legal representation. The other four have engaged lawyers and are awaiting trial.

Two of the bus drivers, He Jun Ling and Liu Xiang Ying, granted interviews to filmmaker Lynn Lee. In their interviews, they alleged that they had been beaten and threatened by the police during their interrogations. Liu claimed that the police had told him, “Do you know I can dig a hole and bury you? No one will be able to find you.”

Excerpts from the interview alarmed members of civil society, who swiftly put together a statement calling for an independent inquiry into the claims. The Ministry of Home Affairs then launched an investigation, saying that the Internal Affairs Office within the Singapore Police Force would be “approaching bus drivers, the producers of the video and other related parties to seek their assistance in its investigation.”

The investigation apparently began with plainclothes policemen confiscating Lee’s hard drive containing footage of the interviews. In a Facebook status update, Lee wrote, “The IO (who seemed nice enough) couldn’t tell me which section of the CPC allowed him to seize the drive and had to make a few calls to check.”

On 6 February, Lee spent two-and-a-half hours at the police headquarters talking to the police about the case. This morning, more police showed up at her house, wanting to seize her phone, laptop and iMac. Lee wrote on Facebook: “I asked how the three devices were relevant to their investigation as they already had the hard drive containing all the footage of my interviews with the ex-SMRT drivers. Superintendent Goh said it was ‘necessary’ and ‘related’ and that while it was ‘unpleasant’ for me, he just had to take my property. Again, I asked how my phone was even relevant to the investigation. He couldn’t give me a specific answer. Neither did he seem to know the relevant provisions under which he was acting, asking us to allow him to seize the items first, then make any complaint we had to the ‘relevant authorities’ later.”

After calling her lawyer, it was agreed that the police would not seize her property, but that Lee would go to their headquarters in the afternoon and have her things examined in her presence. At the time of writing, she is still in police headquarters, and has been there for over five hours. In that time, her laptop has been taken apart and her phone temporarily seized. Her bathroom breaks have also been supervised.

“[T]hey are looking for video files that don’t exist!” she writes in a WhatsApp message. “My laptop is too small to handle big video clips or FCP. And there is no more video of interviews with the men. Talk about a fishing expedition.”

“My computer feels raped. They can see everything including online activity and deleted documents,” she later added. The police also went through her phone records, and even asked for the password to her email account (but were refused).

Although Lee also said that the police were “not unpleasant” and were “nice to me”, this whole episode raises alarming questions. How is combing through a filmmaker’s private laptop and mobile phone relevant to the investigation? Why must they look through her online history and deleted documents, or her phone records?

Is as much rigour being put into interrogating the officers who have allegedly abused the ex-bus drivers? Or is this really just a ‘fishing expedition’ on those perceived to be on the ex-bus drivers’ ‘side’?

What – or who – are the police actually investigating here?

An ongoing Storify with latest updates can be found here.

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Singapore’s Prime Minister says to ‘just leave’ anti-gay law Tue, 29 Jan 2013 16:12:59 +0000 Lee Hsien Loong

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Pic: AP.

Section 377A in Singapore’s Penal Code criminalises sex between two men, even if it is consensual. Although the government has promised that it will not be “proactively enforced”, it still means that technically all gay men in Singapore are in danger of becoming criminals, and being prosecuted as such. It means that children in Singapore are taught that homosexuality – especially if you’re both men – is a potential crime, which becomes a source of pain and confusion for gay youth. It means that gay men could be hesitant about getting tested for Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) or for AIDS, which means that efforts to contain and treat such infections will be made more difficult, and any scientific or medical research into this area will be restricted.

But hey, why the fuss? Let’s just “agree to disagree”, says Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

PM Lee defended the legislation at the Singapore Perspectives conference hosted by the Institute of Policy Studies, saying, “Why is that law on the books? Because it’s always been there and I think we just leave it.”

Because it’s always been there. Not only has the Prime Minister failed to support the rights of a large number of his citizens, it seems like he can’t even be bothered to give a proper excuse.

Imagine if laws that discriminated against people based on race were never repealed, because they’ve always been there. Imagine if laws that prevented women from voting were never amended, because they’ve always been there.

If “because it’s always been there” becomes the excuse for everything, then what would ever change?

Furthermore, that statement isn’t even true. Saying “it’s always been there” makes Section 377A sound like some fact of life that has existed since the dawn of time. But Section 377A is a man-made law, its origins stemming from archaic beliefs. In fact, Section 377A itself was only added in 1938 in the Straits Settlements, and kept unchanged under the Singapore Penal Code in 1955. So no, it has not “always” been there.

The prime minister also emphasised that the struggle for gay rights does not end even in countries where homosexual sex is not criminalised. That logic is clearly flawed; even if the repeal of Section 377A does not end the struggles of gay people, is that sufficient justification to continue discriminating against the LGBT community in Singapore?

All this does not hide yet another issue: by indicating that Section 377A will stay, is PM Lee in danger of being in contempt of court? After all, the High Court is still due to hear two cases challenging Section 377A, and therefore has not yet made a decision as to the constitutionality of the section. When the issue was heating up last week due to comments made by some conservative Christian pastors, the Attorney-General’s Chambers had issued a warning that “calculated to affect the minds of the courts hearing the case” will constitute sub judice and be in contempt of court.

If comments made by pastors – and the consequent rebuttal from gay rights advocates – were enough to warrant a warning from the AGC, what more a prime minister declaring that we should leave Section 377A alone?

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Singapore’s Punggol East SMC ‘disowns its son’ in by-election Sat, 26 Jan 2013 20:30:32 +0000 Lee Li Lian, the candidate from the Workers’ Party, clinched a decisive victory in the by-election polls over the People Action’s Party Koh Poh Koon, the candidate whose campaign had labelled him a “son of Punggol”.

The race had been predicted as a close one, but Lee, a sales trainer, won with a comfortable 54.52% of the vote, a 13.52% increase from her vote share in the 2011 General Election, while colorectal surgeon Koh garnered 43.71% of the vote. Kenneth Jeyaretnam of the Reform Party and Desmond Lim of the Singapore Democratic Alliance received 1.2% and 0.57% respectively, thus losing out on their S$14,500 (approx. USD11,730) deposits.

The results have disproved theories that a multi-cornered fight would give the upper hand to the PAP, and has gained the WP yet another seat in Parliament. The WP now has 7 seats, while the PAP has 80.

It’s a sign that Singaporeans are now looking to have more opposition voices in Parliament, and the WP is in the best position to pick up support from voters looking for an alternative. The other parties have yet to garner the same amount of support – and votes – as the WP.

As a politician, Lee has often highlighted the challenges faced by young families in Singapore, especially the difficulties for single parents. Her election has not only increased the representation of women in Parliament, but will hopefully provide a voice for an issue in need of further discussion and debate.

In his statement, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that he would “respect the choice of Punggol East voters”. Congratulating Lee, he also praised Koh for showing “character and courage”.

The end of the by-election and the election of yet another opposition candidate might now draw the focus back to the AIM saga, where the contract for the financial software system was terminated in Aljunied-Hougang Town Council after the WP took over. PM Lee has called for a review of the issue – a move not without its own controversy – but more questions are likely to surface if the contract is now terminated in Punggol East as well.

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Pastors ignite debate over gay rights in Singapore Tue, 22 Jan 2013 18:56:34 +0000 It first began with a statement from Senior Pastor Lawrence Khong, the senior pastor of the Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC), made during a visit by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. During his address, Khong appealed to ESM Goh for the Singapore government to retain Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sexual acts between men.

The statement, which was also posted on Khong’s Facebook page, attracted a flurry of comments, many of which were pro-gay rights. The reaction led to a series of posts on his Facebook page addressing “the homosexual agenda”, and that the repeal of Section 377A would “open the door for the advancement of the homosexual agenda in Singapore.” With the patriotic call of “Majulah Singapura”, Khong encouraged Singaporeans to oppose the repeal.

Khong’s message was picked up by Pastor Yang Tuck Yoong from the Cornerstone Community Church, whose blog post initially saying that “the church must get herself into battle footing, and be battle-ready” against the LGBT community. The post has since been edited.

The two pastors are also leading members of LoveSingapore, a network that represents about 40,000 Christians in the country. The network has stated that it will organise to oppose the repeal of Section 377A.

“If they [the LGBT community] had not pushed for the repeal, we would not come out into the public square,” Yang told The Straits Times. “You touch a law that affects us, we have the right to speak up.”

Many Singaporeans have responded to the anti-gay sentiments. Actor Lim Yu Beng posted an open letter to Khong, asking, “Nobody is making it compulsory for him to be gay. Why should he make it compulsory for others to be straight?”

Reverend Miak Siew from the Free Community Church also penned a response: “The repeal of 377A poses no threat to families bound together by love. Instead, the idea of a “traditional family” is a threat to all families – because it has placed obstacles in how parents understand their children who are different and it has made people who do not fit in – whether they are single parents, divorcees, or children who are orphaned, whose parents are not around by circumstance – ashamed of who they are.”

The debate has gained so much momentum that the Attorney-General Chambers’ has released a statement reminding all parties that the High Court is still due to hear two cases on Section 377A, and that any comments “calculated to affect the minds of the courts hearing the case” will constitute sub judice and be in contempt of court.

Following the AGC’s statement, Yang has now said that he has told his parishioners to refrain from making comment.

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Singapore’s political parties shooting themselves in the foot Fri, 11 Jan 2013 21:19:09 +0000 As Nomination Day for the Punggol East SMC by-election nears, Singapore’s political parties are beginning to lose their marbles.

A number of political parties have indicated their intention to contest in the by-election, prompting criticism from some Singaporeans who believe that a multi-cornered fight would all but guarantee a win for the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP). Then the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) revealed that it had made overtures to the Workers’ Party (WP) – the only alternative party currently in Parliament – about the possibility of fielding a “unity candidate”.

What is a “unity candidate”, you ask? Well, according to the SDP, it means that the two parties would join forces and field one candidate together. (The SDP suggests that the candidate be from the SDP). And in the event of a win, the SDP candidate would become the newest member of parliament… while the WP runs the town council for Punggol East SMC.

So far, the WP has not responded to the SDP’s proposal. The SDP expressed their disappointment, saying that such a cooperation would “achieve a historic breakthrough to a deeper and more effective politics in the service of our people.”

Except it wouldn’t.

Although I can see the logic behind alternative parties agreeing on not getting into multi-cornered fights as a strategy for breaking the political hegemony of the PAP, the idea of a “unity candidate” is laughable. Such a ‘union’ between the SDP and the WP would render any political direction in their campaigning meaningless. Apart from their both being alternative parties, the SDP and the WP completely differ in terms of focus, priorities and principles. Any attempt to merge their political messages into a single SDP-WP campaign would only end up in a pointless and unhelpful muddling of the choices available to the Singaporean electorate precisely when we should be thinking beyond ‘PAP versus not-PAP’ towards a coherent alternative political direction for our country. How would this bring about “more effective politics” in the interests of Singaporean voters?

Unfortunately for the SDP, this harebrained proposal might prove to be a huge setback: not only has it not achieved the ‘opposition unity’ they were looking for, it has made them look desperate and more than a little lazy. Telling everyone that you want to go to parliament while another party does the work of running your voters’ estates for you? It’s not great.

The scheme was poorly received online and the SDP is now having to take the flak. You’d imagine that this would make another political party think twice about doing something silly, but no. The Reform Party (RP) – also eyeing Punggol East SMC – announced that they too had proposed a similar idea to the WP.

Note to the RP: when a political party is already getting a roasting for suggesting a really stupid idea, you don’t want to pipe up with, “Hey, I also suggested this really stupid idea!”

At this rate, the PAP will barely need to lift a finger for a the by-election. All they’ll have to do is sit back and watch the alternative parties shoot themselves in the foot until they fall over of their own accord.

Come on, Singapore, surely we can do better than that?

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Another by-election comes to Singapore Wed, 09 Jan 2013 13:13:53 +0000

Time for another by-election in the Lion City. Pic: AP.

About a month after the resignation of Michael Palmer – the former Speaker of Parliament and Member of Parliament for Punggol East SMC – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called for a by-election. It will be the second by-election in Singapore in less than a year.

President Tony Tan signed the writ of election this afternoon, setting Nomination Day for 16 January. Polling Day will be 10 days later, on 26 January.

The contest promises to be an interesting one. During the 2011 General Election, Punggol East SMC was the only constituency to see a three-cornered fight. This time, more parties are jumping into the fray. Apart from the People’s Action Party (PAP), the Workers’ Party and the Singapore Democratic Alliance, who had contested the constituency in 2011, the Reform Party and Singapore Democratic Party have also indicated that they would be contesting the seat. Benjamin Pwee, formerly from the Singapore’s People Party, has also expressed his intention to stand as a candidate.

Some observers have pointed out that the timing of the by-election gives the incumbent PAP the upper hand, as opposition parties might not have sufficient time to properly select their candidates and prepare their campaigns. A multi-corner fight may also benefit the ruling party by splitting opposition votes between different candidates.

The parties have not yet named their candidates, but it is believed that colorectal doctor Koh Poh Koon will most likely be the PAP’s candidate.

Meanwhile, Minister of State Halimah Yacob will be elected the new Speaker of Parliament after she steps down as the Minister of State for Social and Family Development.

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