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Saturday, 27 December 2008

Obama's Audacity of Hope: the Constitution's role

Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope
Almost any country, even those which political system has been usurped through underhanded means, has a Constitution. It is regarded as the supreme law of the land, the foundation upon which all other laws are developed, the guideline by which the country and society are governed.

One would then most likely regard the Constitution as a static document that cannot be altered once it has been composed. And yet, it is common to hear of countries rewriting or suspending their Constitutions, usually after new leaders come to power. In recent times around Southeast Asia, both Indonesia and Thailand have seen new governments rewrite their respective Constitutions in the name of equality and justice.

The United States, in my understanding of that country's history, also had a dynamic Constitution, particularly after its founding. Following the original document, the founding fathers introduced the Constitutional Amendments, which included the Bill of Rights. Amendments have continued to be introduced, up to as recently as 1992, more than 200 years after the original Constitution was drafted!

With such dynamism even from the champion of democracy, can a Constitution still be regarded as the supreme law of the land? Barack Obama thinks so, but for an entirely different reason. Firstly, he argues that the United States' style of democracy is "not as a house to be built, but as a conversation to be had" (emphasis is mine). With this metaphor, he then regards the Constitution as "a road map by which we marry passion to reason, the ideal of individual freedom to the demands of the community."

In that case, a Constitution would be expected to change as the situation dictates. Using the metaphor of the map, once the road network has changed, the map will need to be updated to reflect those changes, otherwise drivers will be lost. Therefore, as we discard old ideas and embrace new ones, a country's Constitution needs to be revised to match the prevailing sentiment.

Of course, this would understandably raise the ire of government opponents. Amendments could be regarded as being done according to the whims and fancies of the incumbent. Indeed, such accusations were hurled -- and continue to be thrown around every five years or so -- after the Constitution was amended to introduce the Group Representative Constituency and the Elected Presidency. Opponents argued that the rules were being rewritten to favour the ruling People's Action Party at elections.

I take a more cautious approach to such accusations. The Constitution has built-in safeguards to prevent random or rampant amendments, for instance, requiring two-thirds of sitting Members of Parliament to approve the changes at the Second and Third Readings. On the other hand, with the PAP's dominance in Parliament, Constitutional Amendments can pass these safeguards quite smoothly.

What then can the citizen do? Obama, following his meeting with a senior Senator, advises that we should read our Constitution. (The Constitution of the Republic of Singapore is available online, so that's one less reason not to read it.) Know it back and forth, upside and down, and in between the lines. Also, appreciate the context and precedents by which it and its amendments were written, to better understand why they were done so in that manner.

By understanding the Constitution, you'll be better able to navigate the political and societal landscape of the nation.

This is the third of what I plan to be an ongoing review of Obama's book, "The Audacity of Hope". I will try to see if and how his opinions can be applied to Singapore.

Related entries:--

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Obama's Audacity of Hope: the importance and difficulty of values

Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope
Some time back, there was a resumption of the debate over ministerial pay. Singaporean ministers are some of the best paid government leaders in the world. Much has been said about how our prime minister earns much, much more than the president of the United States. A lot of people simply cannot understand how our leaders can justify that salary scale for themselves.

It's a question of "fair pay for fair work". Everyone understands that concept. If you perform well at a job, you should be compensated with an equitable salary. So it's coincidental (to me, anyway) that this discussion arose just as I was reading a chapter on "values" from the man who would soon be receiving a lower salary than my prime minister.

At the start of the chapter, Obama gave an elaborate introduction that served to point out that he shared many of the same values as President George W. Bush. He explained that no one should be surprised by this. In his work as a Senator, he had discovered that, by and large, the American people shared the same values across the country: freedom of speech, being a productive worker, importance of family, etc.

However, any discussion of values ultimately became a squabble between opposite sides. Conservatives and liberals can't see eye to eye. Politicians debate over details. And the media play along by amplifying the differences.

In Singapore, we have at least been spared the ugly side of the values debate. Instead, the ruling People's Action Party, through its unbroken control of the government since the country's independence, has dictated the values that all Singaporeans should care about. Some of these values have been crystallised as the so-called "shared values".

But really, what do Singaporeans value? If there were any "universal Singaporean values", I think they would contain the following:
  • educating our youths,
  • accessible health care,
  • being a productive member of the labour force,
  • support for the underprivileged,
  • freedom to worship,
  • freedom to play and enjoy life.
(A few might even add "delicious food" and "24-hour shopping"!)

Unfortunately, there will always be differences in how these values are put into practice. Like "fair pay for fair work". Maybe the PAP is right: astronomical salaries that are benchmarked to the private sector ensure that the right people enter government. Or maybe the U.S. system is right; being president of a First World country doesn't mean you have access to unparalleled wealth. The debate could go on and on even though we agree on the same value: "fair pay for fair work".

But Obama observed one thing keenly:
"Values are faithfully applied to the facts before us, while ideology overrides whatever facts call theory into question."
Thus, Obama observed that, in the U.S., though the people, politicians and pundits shared the same values, there was a lack of finding common ground to enable the debate -- and country -- to move forward healthily.

The hard reality is that it can take an excruciatingly long time to find that common ground. There is no easy solution to this predicament, where a solution may be unattainable in the short term. The debate over how much a Singapore minister should be paid has gone on for years and is unlikely to end within my lifetime.

But we must tread carefully to ensure that we don't mistake "ideology" for "value". Values are universal, but ideologies apply only to certain groups. If high pay does indeed lure the altruists and talented into government, who are then able to further improve Singapore, then naysayers cannot keep saying that the salary scale allows the leaders to become wealthier to the country's detriment.

This is the second of what I plan to be an ongoing review of Obama's book, "The Audacity of Hope". I will try to see if and how his opinions can be applied to Singapore.

Related entries:--

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Obama's Audacity of Hope: Republicans, Democrats, PAP, ...?

Barack Obama: The Audacity of Hope
I honestly didn't know what to expect from Barack Obama's book, "The Audacity of Hope". I know that it was inspired from his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, but that was pretty much it. So I'm slowly reading through its nine chapters and reflecting on his viewpoints.

Obama starts off with a discussion on the two main political parties in the United States of America, the Republican and Democratic Party. Instead of a history lesson, he describes how both parties have changed since World War Two into bastions of extreme political thought. Where members of both parties used to debate healthily about issues and policies, today, he thinks that they are more interested in toeing the party line than representing their constituents' needs.

Obama notes optimistically that party politics does not have to end this way. He recognises the necessity of having senior party members who have memories and experience of how political debates were carried out. Through them, he believes that the younger party members can improve themselves and the level of discussion. His main message here is to implore members from both parties not to lose sight of what is most important in a democracy: the needs of the people.

In contrast, Singapore has always experienced one-party rule since independence. It is safe to say that the electorate has no inkling of what multiparty democracy is like. Elections have always been dominated by clean sweeps by the ruling party, the People's Action Party (PAP). Yes, we experience pork-barrel politics here too, but we have no alternative pork to compare against.

On one hand, it is nice to wish wistfully for multiparty democracy in Singapore. On the other hand, I wonder if such a system could function effectively here in the first place, as it has -- somewhat -- in the U.S. It is necessary to think beyond the confines of political niceties and look at the physical and societal realities.

Significantly, there is the issue of land size. Singapore is, admittedly, a small nation. You could travel from east to west in half a day. On the other hand, you would need to fly across the United States to match that duration. Therefore, unlike how there is a political divide between north-and-south and coastal-and-central regions in the U.S., Singapore has a largely homogenous political ground. One would be hard-pressed to find stark ideological differences between a resident in Boon Lay versus one in Pasir Ris or Woodlands.

As a result of this homogeneity, it is generally difficult for multiple political parties to arise to reflect any differences in opinions. In contrast, the Republicans are generally viewed as conservatives who champion "every man for himself", while Democrats take the more socialist, "government should look after the people" path. There is little chance for such differences to arise in Singapore.

Then, there is the issue of history. Singapore, a former British colony, adopted the parliamentary system of its colonial leaders upon independence. There is, however, one thing that differentiates this Westminster style of democracy from the U.S.' system:

The executive branch of government resides entirely within the legislative branch.

This is an extremely important point of differentiation. In the U.S., the executive branch led by the President is responsible for conducting the day-to-day business of running the country. The legislative branch, within the House of Representatives and the Senate, crafts the laws that set the framework for running the country. And never the twain shall meet, or rather, mix!

This separation of power creates another forum for nurturing multiparty democracy. I would argue that a parliamentary system, on the other hand, promotes single-party rule. And why not? By keeping the legislative and executive branches within the same forum, a parliament concentrates power within itself. It is therefore in the interest of the ruling party to stay in power so that it not only controls the legislative, but also the executive. In other words, it not only makes the laws, it also implements them.

Fortunately, history has shown that multiple political parties can still thrive in a parliamentary democracy. The United Kingdom has seen parliamentary control switch between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. A grossly simplified reason for the switches is because one party has lost the confidence of the electorate, whereupon the other party seizes upon the situation to its political advantage.

I suppose that the same situation could occur in Singapore. What is to prevent the PAP from succumbing to its success and hubris from years and years of unimpeded rule? As it is, at every election, there is always the rumble that some constituency will "fall" to the opposition. Indeed, there have been times when this nearly came true, like Cheng San in 1997 and Aljunied in 2006.

But as long as the PAP continues to do a good job at running the country and the electorate continues to believe that the PAP is doing that good a job, then there is no reason for dissent to arise. Then, one-party rule will continue to exist in Singapore, reinforced through homogeneity and parliamentary democracy.

The fear of one-party rule could be similar to what Obama fears in the U.S. -- that political debates will degrade into party members keeping in step with the party and neglecting the people's needs and wants. The PAP must not fall into the trap of achieving success so that it can trumpet its own glory. It must remember that its first responsibility to effective governance is to ensure that it listens to, understands and meets the needs of the people who have put their trust -- and lives -- in its hands.

This is the first of what I plan to be an ongoing review of Obama's book, "The Audacity of Hope". I will try to see if and how his opinions can be applied to Singapore.

Related entries:--

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Durian seller explains why only one seller needed

It had been a while since I'd last eaten some durian, so I headed down to my usual durian seller to get some. As I approached his stall, I found myself walking past stalls that sold a variety of products, like fresh food, stationery, electrical appliances and household items.

My durian seller saw me and called out to me. I was glad that he still remembered me, even though I had not patronised his stall for some time. He wrapped his broad arm around my shoulders and ushered me to a basket full of durians. As he picked at the durians, I enquired about his business. He roared with laughter, saying that business was always getting better.

"I suppose it helps that there are no other durian sellers around here," I noted.

"Why need so many durian sellers?" he asked. "My durians are best! No one else can sell durians as good as mine."

I nodded in agreement. It was true, his durians were always fleshy and sweet. "But still, I think it would be nice to sample other kinds of durians."

Immediately, he froze. Then he rose up, towering over me. For the first time, I realised just how much taller and bigger he was than me. His stern eyes froze me in my spot.

"What do you mean you want to try other durians?!" he demanded.

"Well..." I stammered, "it's just that I might like to, you know, broaden my tastes."

He plucked a durian out of the bunch in his basket and thrust it in my face. "I always give you good durians! I never compromise on my quality. You tell me, you ever taste a more delicious durian?"

The truth was, I'd never tasted any other durian. But I thought it wise not to provoke him further. Cautiously, I took the durian from him.

He grunted with approval. "You listen to me. If you can get the best durians from me, why do you want someone else's durians? If my durians always make you feel happy, why you want to risk feeling depressed with lower quality durians?"

I interjected. "Other durian sellers don't necessarily sell lower quality..."

But he cut me off. "All other durians are bad. You know why? Because only I have the best durians. You don't even need to ask, just take my word for it. I know people in other neighbourhoods got more than one durian seller. In the end, what happen? They become confused. Don't know whether this durian better or that one. They run around in circles. They argue with one another. Who wins? Nobody. Instead, everyone gets more frustrated."

He took another durian and tossed it at me. I caught it just before its thorny hide hit my face.

"You don't need any other durian sellers. You only need me. Understand?"

I nodded, clutching my two precious durians. I paid him for them, then slowly made my way out of his stall. As I walked, the aroma from the durians filled my nostrils. It was truly a sweet, sweet smell that left me intoxicated.

--
More durian tales:

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Saturday, 16 August 2008

Belated National Day present -- an Olympic medal!

Olympic rings
By now, everyone is gushing about Singapore finally within reach of an Olympic medal, thanks to our female table tennis team. Sure, they are, as some people call them, "China-poreans". But hey, a medal won under the Singapore flag is still a medal nonetheless. Rejoice!

I watched the game with some others and there were, admittedly, some heart-stopping moments. It was certainly disappointing to hear that Singapore would have to fight all the way to the last game, when we were leading the matches 2-0. I think a lot of us thought that the team would be able to win three matches within the first four.

But in the end, all of us were excited that Singapore won! Finally, an Olympic medal is ours again! Some joked that we had won a silver medal. I'd like to remain optimistic. There were some signs of fighting spirits in the players, and I hope that they can soldier on in the big game.

It's been more than 40 years since we last won an Olympic medal, a silver for weightlifting in 1960. On the upside, when anyone talks about the Olympics again, Tan Howe Liang won't be singled out for his achievement.

Go, Team Singapore!

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Wednesday, 9 July 2008

"Destroy a landmark to build an MRT station? Why Not?"

Destroy a landmark to build an MRT station? Why Not?

I just couldn't resist taking a dig at the Land Transport Authority's hare-brained decision to destroy the New 7th Storey Hotel. Its rationale is that it needs the space to build the entrances to the new station. And the ground is made of marine clay, so the demolition is necessary to ensure construction safety. Oh, and the hotel is haunted with the ghosts who threaten to spill state secrets. Okay, that last one is a blatant joke.

(In case you have no idea what this ruckus is all about, LTA plans to demolish the 50-plus-year-old New 7th Storey Hotel, so that it can build a station for the upcoming Downtown MRT Line.)

Thank goodness that the Action Community for Entrepreneurship is running its "Why Not?" campaign right now. It encourages Singaporeans to become more entrepreneurial by thinking out of the box.

So LTA, how about it? Why not think outside of your box? With 20 years of underground transport construction experience behind us (MRT, CTE tunnels, KPE tunnels), do we have the technology and expertise to construct an underground station without compromising above-the-surface buildings?

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Saturday, 24 May 2008

A bittersweet Pedra Branca victory for Singapore

Pedra Branca
After reading the ICJ's ruling on the Pedra Branca case, I realised just how close Singapore came to losing and how busy the government propaganda machine had been working through our local media.

Because Pedra Branca should belong to Malaysia.

No, it's not that I'm unpatriotic. When I had first learned about the ruling through a Twitter tweet, no less. I was so elated patriotically that I had to tweet all about Singapore's sovereignty over Pedra Branca too.

I've since read the International Court of Justice's 81-page ruling on the Pedra Branca case (313KB PDF) (though I admittedly jumped to the respective Conclusion sections about 20 pages into it), and it's one heckuva roller-coaster ride. The first part basically confirmed that Pedra Branca and its surrounding islets had always been part of the Johor Sultanate and was never terra nullius. (And for history buffs, the Court ruled that, though the Sultanate was split in two, there was an agreement whereby their territories were reunited.)

Here's the damning Section 5.3.5:
117. In the light of the foregoing, the Court concludes that Malaysia has established to the satisfaction of the Court that as of the time when the British started their preparations for the construction of the lighthouse on Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh in 1844, this island was under the sovereignty of the Sultan of Johor. (emphasis is mine)
That's why Malaysia won Middle Rocks. The Court had ruled that it was part of the group of islands that included Pedra Branca, and this group had always belonged to Johor (and later, Malaysia).

Singapore won Pedra Branca primarily because of Malaysia's actions (or inaction, as it were), i.e.
  1. In 1953, Johor's Acting State Secretary confirmed point blank that Pedra Branca did not belong to the state.
  2. Malaysia never contested Singapore's management of the lighthouse and other ongoing construction activities.
The Court's ruling, in more layman's terms, is this:
Let's say your neighbour's potted plant sits in your garden. However, he doesn't take care of it and it would have shriveled and died eventually. But you chose to water it, add some fertiliser, spray insect repellent, etc. And when a passer-by asked your neighbour if the plant was his, he said "No!" As a result, you would now be the owner of that potted plant.

And that's how Singapore got Pedra Branca. And that's why I say that Singapore won by a hair. If Malaysia had made more noise over the intervening years, it appears that the Court would have sided with it.

As for South Ledge, it should be clarified that the Court did not explicitly state who owns it. Instead, given its judgment over Pedra Branca and Middle Rocks, it left it to Singapore and Malaysia to work out the territorial boundaries and see which side South Ledge falls on.

Singapore no doubt would want South Ledge. Why? Simple: territory. More specifically, according to the Law of the Sea, a country owns the waters up to 200 nautical miles from its baseline as an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). If Singapore snags South Ledge, then that means our baseline is extended all the way to South Ledge, and then our EEZ is 200 miles out. Who knows what lurks in the waters there? Medicine? Food? Oil??? (The EEZ also explains why Singapore wanted Middle Rocks too.)

One fight is over, won with a bloodied nose. Another fight is looming over South Ledge. That should be another battle to behold.

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Saturday, 10 May 2008

Chan Mun Chiong should be charged under Section 377A

People Like Us released a statement, "Chan Mun Chiong should not have been charged under Section 377A", arguing that the government was being hypocritical by prosecuting Chan under this controversial law. I humbly beg to differ.

As stated by PLU,

The Prime Minister, last October 23rd, said in Parliament that the authorities would not "proactively enforce Section 377A."
However, I disagree with this assumption:
In effect, he was assuring gay citizens that they could consider Section 377A as no threat and not fear discriminatory treatment under the law.
My reading of PM Lee's statement is that the police won't go around knocking down doors and catching homosexuals in acts of sexual intimacy. In other words, I believe that the government will generally respect the sexual privacy of individuals, both homosexual and heterosexual. The exceptions are:
  1. if someone files a complaint, which applies to heterosexuals too, e.g. if a Peeping Tom reports a lewd act (yeah, try wrapping your head around that), and
  2. if someone catches a homosexual in the act.
In other words, PM Lee's statement should be interpreted as "keep it in the bedroom, but you're damned if caught".

Besides, if PLU is correct in its assumption, then that begs the question: Why is the law still in the legal books???

Therefore, I think Chan can be prosecuted under Penal Code 377A lawfully and rightfully. This would be in addition to his other pending charges for engaging in oral sex with his 16-year-old male victim, when he knew that he was HIV-positive.

Aside: I also believe that the above logic applies to the Sedition Act, i.e. the police won't actively monitor your speech or actions for seditious messages, but if someone complains with valid reason, then it's "hello, prison time!"

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Wednesday, 16 April 2008

PL.sg - web server error

Hmm, oops.
PL.sg right column error

Sometimes, things just screw up for no reason. Like programming code. Though the programmer writes a few lines, he depends on thousands (millions?) of lines of code in supporting libraries. Inevitably, things will break. And then end users face unexpected errors.

But don't worry, National Library. I've seen Yahoo! break down before. And Facebook had its source code revealed once upon a time. So don't feel so bad. Like the saying goes, "S**t happens."

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Saturday, 5 April 2008

In lieu of an official report, we'll blame a couple of complacent guards

It's interesting how the blame for Mas Selamat's escape has been laid squarely on a few detention centre personnel, even though no findings have been revealed officially. They've been labeled as "complacent" and "negligent" and are at the short end of a very big stick for an unfairly long time.

It's also interesting how the government keeps saying repeatedly that it'll reveal everything (that's not classified) in a comprehensive report into the escape. Then, in the other breath, it points fingers at the guards. Who were -- I repeat in case you didn't hear it the first time -- "complacent" and, therefore, clearly at fault.

In fact, it's more interesting that the longer the government delays releasing its report, the more often it is that unofficial but official-sounding statements keep being mentioned. Very soon, there won't be a need for the report, except for bureaucratic, red-tape reasons, because everyone would already have accepted those statements as "facts".

Finally, it's interesting that judgement has been delivered before findings and due process have been completed. Especially from a legal perspective.

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Ministry of Education relaunches its website

Ministry of Education logo
Recently, the Ministry of Education's website was revamped and I was informed about it by Lucian, the webmaster (whom I know through WebSG). He had actually told me about the beta site, but I held back on my review till after the actual site was relaunched.

Being a guy dedicated to Web standards, it's not surprising to find that the revamped MOE website is clean and polished, both on the front-end and behind the scenes. Due to standards conformance, it loads quickly and smoothly in modern browsers (I tested with Firefox on a Mac). It also includes some Web 2.0 flashiness, like a scroll-slideshow smack centre on the homepage.

What I'm most impressed, from a programming point-of-view, is the "Organisational Structure". All of the contacts make use of VCard, a microformat. Some browsers would be able to detect this and automatically create a contact card for you. This contact card could then be used with, for example, Mac OS X's Address Book. No need for paper name cards!

Another feature, though not readily known unless you read the page's source, is that the hierarchical chart is not a graphic, but relies on stylesheets and VCards! Minimal graphics involved, and still usable if you look at it with a text-based web browser (e.g. those used by blind people). Apparently, Lucian designed this himself. In the words of Keanu Reeves, "Whoa!"

But, of course, there are bound to be things that don't please everyone. In my case, I found three things, which were present already in the beta version, that I found wanting.

Some may say that the visual design is too spartan, and I tend to agree. Wise choices of colour and good use of graphics would definitely help in drawing the eye to key areas, especially on the content-rich homepage. The way information is presented now makes me feel like I'm reading a novel.

I also thought that the main menu was not very user-friendly. The way it works now is: you click on an item in the menu bar, and a submenu with an accompanying image would slide out. Click another item and another submenu-plus-image would slide out. Unfortunately, due to the use of the image, the submenu is always positioned to the left, not directly below the clicked menu item, as one would assume.

According to user interface gurus, the distance needed for a person to move his pointing device (e.g. mouse) to perform an action should always be minimised. (The joke is that the shortest distance between the mouse and clickable area is when the mouse is directly over that area.) Forcing the visitor to move the mouse to the left to click on a submenu item, unfortunately, breaks the menu's ease of use.

(There's also a minor "error" with the menu, which I can repeat sporadically. When clicking on a menu item (to expand the submenu) on a freshly loaded page, there'll be a flicker where the full submenu is shown, before its sliding effect takes over.)

Finally, I think that the information architecture may need to be tweaked. Case in point: on the homepage, I can go straight to a page called "Desired Outcomes of Education". According to that page's bread crumb trail, it falls under the "Education" section. However, looking at the main menu, there's no "Education" menu. In addition, I can't find the page in any of the submenus!

This probably sounds like a trivial issue. But in the long-term, it need not be. What happens when the homepage's content is refreshed and the "Desired Outcomes" link is removed? If a person returns to the site looking for it, how will he find it? Well, he could definitely use the search box. But I think it would be faster for a person who is used to the navigation system of the site to find the page by clicking through the menus. (And hopefully it doesn't take more than three clicks for him to get to the page!)

Viewed another way, the way that content is organised in the back end (i.e. which section a particular content belongs in) and how it's presented on the front end (i.e. which menu that same content falls under) seems to be disjointed. The front end was obviously designed with visitors' consideration in mind, whereas taxonomy or cataloguing was of bigger importance in the back end.

As a result, the website comes across looking like it suffers from a split personality. I'm sure there are reasons (technical, design or otherwise) for the differences. But to a lay person, this has the potential to confuse him on how to find some particular content. It doesn't help that the sitemap follows the content structure, not navigation system.

In the end, I think most visitors will just rely on the search box, bypassing the fanciful menu system. Whether that should be considered good or bad, I'll leave it to Lucian and his team.

--

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Mas Selamat bin Kastari - rumours, beliefs and conspiracy theories

The escape of Jemaah Islamiah leader, Mas Selamat bin Kastari, from a detention centre has been in the headlines for the past week. Not a day goes by without some new developments about the search or additional security measures or terrorism in general.

But no one has mentioned the elephant in the room: whose heads will roll? Let's see, there are the detention centre's guards who didn't learn the lesson from the Took Leng How case (the murderer of Huang Na who escaped police custody by using the toilet). Then there are the centre's general security personnel who patrol the walls and gates and keep an eagle eye on the CCTV monitors.

Hmm, maybe the head of the detention centre too, for his lax command. And his superior officer for appointing the former. I could continue all the way up the ladder of leadership, but I'll just say that if this had happened in almost any other democratic country, we all know who'd be the first to "accept responsibility".

On the other hand, that little nugget has been adding fire to the conspiracy theory. Mas Selamat was not only allowed to escape, but he's no longer in Singapore too. In spite of what the "experts" say, conspiracy theorists believe that the terrorist is already resting his lame leg in a JI hideout in a jungle somewhere. And the Internal Security Department has a trace on him, so that they know where the JI cells and leaders are.

That means that the increase in national security is nothing more than an illusion. It doesn't matter that our law enforcers currently look like fools. The long-term goal is twofold: capture more JI leaders while keeping the nation in check. True or not? Depends on whether you believe in conspiracy theories or subscribe to the Sherlock Holmes belief, i.e. the most logical explanation is often the simplest one.

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Thursday, 21 February 2008

Onward to Singapore 2010!

The big news tonight is that Singapore will be hosting the first Youth Olympics in 2010! All rejoice! The government and grassroots efforts have succeeded! And let's not forget the support of the taxi drivers who pasted the decals on their windows!

Okay, okay, seriously speaking, this is good news for Singapore for a number of reasons. Firstly, it reinforces Singapore's growing reputation as a place to hold international meetings, following the IMF/World Bank meeting (* see note 1 below). Secondly, it emphasises the government's drive to develop a thriving sports culture here, especially with the recent high-profile tender for the Sports Hub. (* see note 2 below) Thirdly, it more-or-less assures of a stable -- if not booming -- economy up to 2010, after the casinos start operations next year.

Which leaves me with just one question:
Where is there space around NUS to build an Olympic Village???

Notes:

  1. All of these international meetings came after the government announced its decision to build a casino here. Conspiracy theorists say that the government had been "held ransom" by the MICE power brokers: build a casino or forget about holding international events. I doubt that's true.
  2. Urban legend says that when former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew watched a soccer match, he asked, "What's so great about watching 22 men chase a ball?" Again, I doubt that anecdote is true.
--

Friday, 15 February 2008

Remembering Total Defence Day

Yeah, I was one of the many who had forgotten about this day. It wasn't until I saw the scrolling TV ticker about the public siren alerts that I remembered. Shame on me... and probably 80% of the population.

Okay, 70%. The school kids were forced to remember. And some of them spent their morning at the War Memorial at Stamford Road. They had to bask unsheltered under the hot sun, away from some white tents that had been set up nearby. I guess those were meant for the VIPs. Pity the kids.

The rest of the day passed normally till 12:05pm. Right on the dot, the sirens blared. Within the air-conditioned confines of the office, we could hear the familiar wails. Some of my colleagues wondered why they were on. Was it another test of the public warning system? (BTW when was the last test??? I don't recall hearing one in the last couple of months.)

I guess I was the only one with a ready answer. It was Chinese New Year during World War 2 and after a long and treacherous battle, the invading Japanese army had succeeded in all but conquering Singapore. Which left only one course of action:

"It's the day the British sold us out."

RIP, war veterans.

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Friday, 8 February 2008

Provide feedback on Budget 2008

I got this in the email recently. The Feedback Unit will be holding an e-Townhall meeting on 19 February to discuss this year's Budget Statement. (Yes, I'm not only a member of the online Feedback group (though I've hardly participated), but also receive their newsletter.) A few things came to mind when reading it:

  • What's up with the name "e-Townhall"? Feedback Unit, the 1990s called. They want their "e-" prefix back.
  • Only government correspondences use numbered paragraphs. I've never come across this oddity in other correspondences, official or otherwise.
  • A chance to actually dialogue with ministers (assuming that they're the ones physically banging on their keyboards and not some lackeys)? But why doesn't Minister Tharman himself participate? For a discussion this important, I'd rather hear from the horse's mouth (no disrespect to the minister or those involved).
Still, it might be a good opportunity to hear what others are saying (complaining?). I admit that I tend to be secluded in my Ivory Tower for too long, so I think it's good to widen my exposure somewhat.
eTownhall Meeting on 19 February 2008

1 The Minister for Finance, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam will deliver the Budget 2008 Statement in Parliament on 15 February 2008. Are you already thinking of airing your views on the Budget 2008 initiatives? Do you agree with Government’s spending priorities? Do you think it addresses the primary concerns of Singaporeans?

2 REACH is providing you an opportunity to engage public leaders on Budget 2008. Join Mrs Lim Hwee Hua, Minister of State for Finance and Transport, Dr Amy Khor, Chairman of REACH and Dr Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman, Vice-Chairman of REACH in our e-Townhall meeting from 7.00 to 9.00pm on Tuesday 19 February 2008 to discuss Budget 2008 and its initiatives.

3 The e-Townhall meeting is a real time web-chat. To participate, simply register your interest with REACH at reach@reach.gov.sg. The closing date for registration is 18 February 2008, Monday. However, we strongly encourage members of the public to register early.

4 For enquiries, please contact REACH at reach@reach.gov.sg or 1800-353 5555.

Please click on the following URL link for more information.
http://app.reach.gov.sg/reach/Events/eTownhallMeetingonBudget2008/tabid/141/Default.aspx
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Thursday, 7 February 2008

Filipinas lured to Singapore with fake round-trip tickets - where's the outrage?

From Asian News Gazette, "Fake roundtrip tickets used to lure Filipinas to Singapore" (Nov 14, 2007) by Veronica Uy:

Trafficking syndicates use fake roundtrip tickets and offer them as "free" to lure Filipinas they deploy for sex jobs in Singapore, the Philippine embassy in Singapore said last week.

In a recent statement, Consul General Maria Lumen Isleta said: "Most of the human trafficking victims who run to the embassy for help hold dummy return tickets and ask for our assistance to be repatriated back to the Philippines."
This is old news, but it's the first time I've come across it. It's also been picked up by Bangkok's The Nation, "Trafficking of Filipinas in Singapore at all-time high: report":
Human trafficking of Filipinas in Singapore has increased alarmingly to an all-time high to 212 cases in 2007, an annual report from the Philippine Embassy in Singapore said on Monday.

The report, submitted to Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alberto G Romulo, cited a 70 per cent surge in cases from 125 in 2006.

Philippine Ambassador to Singapore Belen Fule-Anoto noted there were 59 recorded cases in 2005.

Last year's figure "is only a small fraction of all the Filipino human trafficking victims in Singapore," the report said.
(I think The Nation article was just published, because Singabloodypore posted it verbatim today.)

There was talk about making Singapore's prostitution laws stricter, especially with the rise in child sex tourism. But I don't remember this issue being raised at any time then or after. And it's bloody disturbing in terms of international relations.

Singapore is supposed to be The Philippines closest friend in Southeast Asia. If that's the case, I wonder how important it is to the Singapore Government. I wouldn't want my friend to allow me to be abused. No one would (right?).

Unfortunately, this illicit practice has also prompted the U.S. State Department to downgrade Singapore. This reminds me of a story, which I cannot verify if it's true or not. It was told by someone who apparently had connections within the local Foreign Affairs Ministry. Back when some State Department officials came to visit Singapore, they were told point-blank that there is no underage sex nor sex trade in Singapore.

"Oh, and don't forget, Singapore is your strongest and most trusted ally in Southeast Asia (so don't mess with us!)."

If the above anecdote is true, then that means the issue has been brushed under the carpet, perhaps to maintain Singapore's squeaky clean image. But now that the Philippines government has brought it out to light, we can't afford to hide our heads in the sand anymore.

It's time for Singapore to help and support its friend and win back its confidence.

Aside: incidentally, I didn't know that Filipinos are required to have round-trip tickets before being allowed to leave the country. Do domestic workers get an exemption?

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Sunday, 3 February 2008

Crowded MRT trains... no more?

Crowded MRT train carriage

Finally, SMRT will be adding extra trains during peak hours! This is Singapore, not Tokyo! We don't want nor need to be pushed into trains, as if we were sardines in a can or sheep in a slaughterhouse. We don't want to jostle in crowded trains, especially after a tiring day at work!

It's been a ridiculous situation for years. I've lost count of how many times I had to pass on boarding some trains because they were jam-packed. It became second nature for me to wait for the next train. So it's about time SMRT became "customer-centric" and acceded to the demands of its commuters.

Yeah, I used inverted commas for "customer-centric". Even Minister Raymond Lim admitted that our so-called public transport operators have been "profit-centric" for far too long. It's not called "public" for nothing, you know.

Hopefully, crowded trains will be a thing of the past. One can hope, right?

SMRT and SBS Transit raise peak period train frequencies
February 1, 2008, 4:48pm

SINGAPORE: Starting 4 February, the journey to and from work for commuters is expected to be quicker.

Both SMRT and SBS Transit announced on Friday that they will be increasing the number of train trips per week.

SMRT, which operates the North-South and East-West lines, will run 83 additional trips during the morning and evening peak periods. It said this will cut average waiting times by as much as 1.5 minutes.

The change is expected to benefit passengers travelling southwards from Yishun, and westwards from Boon Lay during the morning rush hours.

Meanwhile, northbound and eastbound commuters in the evening peak period may similarly expect a quicker, less crowded journey.

SBS Transit, which operates the North East Line (NEL), will add another 10 trips each week.

It said the move will cut average waiting times from four to three minutes during the morning peak period, and from five to four minutes in the evening rush hour.

-- Channel NewsAsia
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A bicycle built for... three??

Bicycle built for three

Mainland Chinese never fail to amaze me. They talk (shout?) loudly when within earshot of the other party. They insist on speaking in Mandarin with an Indian person.

And they cycle... a lot. Here was this mother with her two young children on a single bicycle. The youngest looks no more than a toddler and was seated just behind the handlebar. The older girl sat behind her mother on the rear wheel's cover. And the mother struggled to keep the bicycle standing.

No Singaporean in his or her right mind would cycle in the middle of the day in the city, when traffic is at its craziest. Yet this family seemingly did the impossible. I don't know whether I should congratulate them or call the Traffic Police.

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Sunday, 27 January 2008

M1's spotty 3G coverage

M1
Most times, when people compare mobile phone telcos in Singapore, I can only think of one company: M1. Its price plans are reasonable, its islandwide reception is excellent, and I've never had problems using its roaming service when overseas.

Having said that, there is one sore area that has bugged me for two years: its 3G coverage, or rather, its non-existent 3G coverage in certain parts of the island. My biggest peeve is that I can't get a 3G reception at the Shenton Way / Raffles Place area. As soon as I enter this "dead zone", my 3G Internet connection dies. It just disappears. It doesn't matter if I was surfing just fine along Nicoll Highway. As soon as I cross Fullerton Bridge, 3G reception vanishes. Which doesn't make sense since I'm in town and reception should be optimal there.

This has baffled me for the longest time. Surely the spotty coverage would've been solved in two years, right? Also, M1 provides islandwide wireless surfing through its 3G network, so that means that it should be a reliable provider anywhere. My other theory is that if I can get normal mobile phone coverage, then I should also have 3G reception. (Of course, engineers will tell me that having one service does not necessarily mean having the other due to different technologies involved. But try telling that to a layman.)

Then why is it that I can't get a decent 3G connection? Why do I have to hope and pray that my download goes through every time? This is an especially sore point because M1 has enticed me with free video streaming for one month. But if I can't connect to the network, then this freebie is basically worthless. (Perhaps that's why it's free!)

3G has been around in Singapore for a few years already, and telcos are already promoting the next version, 3.5G. Meanwhile, 3G seems to be languishing. Which is sad because the government and telcos had been hyping it up for the longest time.

I still trust M1 and would continue subscribing to it. I just wish that they'd fix their 3G network as soon as possible. At least before they roll out their 4G network.

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Monday, 21 January 2008

Construction worker tried to look up office lady's skirt

I had just gotten off the bus and was walking to the pedestrian bridge. In front of me was a woman in normal female office wear: blouse and knee-length black skirt. Next to the bridge was a construction site, with some workers hanging around (break time?).

As the woman approached the stairs up the bridge, I saw some movement among the workers. One of them, with long hair, quickly rushed to another worker, who was sitting on the roadside kerb. I don't know what he said, but from his gestures and tilted head, I could tell that he was looking at the woman.

Maybe he was admiring her beauty. But as she ascended the stairs and I followed behind, I saw him dart under the stairs! The way pedestrian bridge stairs are built is that there are small gaps between each step. The gap isn't tremendously big, but a person standing below would have a vantage upskirt view.

Which is what Long Hair had. He looked up, with a small smile on his face. I glared down at him, seeing just how far he'd take it. He went all the way; he kept looking up as the woman continued climbing the stairs.

At some point, he saw me staring at him. He knew he'd been caught and quickly glanced away. But a second later, he looked up again. And saw me still looking down at him. This time, he wised up and left his position. Anyway, the woman had already reached the bridge, none the wiser about what had just transpired.

I wish I'd taken a photo of Long Hair. I'd submit it to LTA, Stomp and anyone who'd teach him a lesson. Leave our women alone!

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Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Rejected ST Forum letter: "Unfair of HDB to demand $18k back for its mistake"

Since the Straits Times chose not to print my letter, I'll publish it here.

I refer to the article, "HDB wants $18k payout back from ex-hawker" (ST, Jan 12).

It states that the Housing Board wants Madam Lee Ah Muey to return $18,000 that it had given to her after she closed her stall. However, she was not entitled to this compensation since she had signed a contract agreeing to it. Four years later, Mdm Lee now has three weeks to cough up the huge amount.

This incident reeks of heavy-handedness and coercion. It is unfair of HDB to demand the money back for three reasons:
  1. It was HDB's mistake in the first place. So why is it forcing its former tenant to pay for its mistake?
  2. The incident happened in 2003. That is longer than necessary for HDB to realise and investigate its mistake, especially for such a large amount of money.
  3. Mdm Lee is a senior citizen living off her savings. It is unlikely that she can return the money in time and will probably be forced into debt by borrowing from others. The article even states that she may be forced to crawl back to HDB to rent a stall. Yet it is not her fault to be in this predicament in the first place.
I realise that the issue is about HDB's accountability of the usage of public funds. However, accountability can go both ways. HDB should admit to its screw-up and write off the payout. It is the only logical and compassionate avenue available to it.

For the sake of its brand and reputation, I advise HDB to take the high road in this issue and not pursue the matter any more. It should also ensure that processes are put in place to ensure that no such mistakes occur again, so as to ensure proper accountability of public funds.

If this incident had happened in a private company, the CEO would most likely have apologised for the mistake, then fired the employee responsible for it. The savings from the employee's salary would more than make up for the wrongful payout!
Background on the issue (from Today, because Straits Times doesn't have the article freely available on its website).

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Sunday, 13 January 2008

Singapore Slingers vs Wollongong Hawks - entertaining but uninspiring

Inside the Indoor Stadium
I went to my first Singapore Slingers game this evening. Singapore's only major league basketball team played against the Wollongong Hawks at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. Though I am no avid basketball spectator, I thought that the game was played in a scrappy manner and the players on both sides weren't up to standard. But there were some good moments, which showed overall promise for Singapore's basketball dreams.

Firstly, I should add that I was there only because Daphne scored a free ticket for me. And it turns out that bloggers get media-like privileges. I guess we're obligated to blog about the game, so as to increase the Slingers' share of voice in the blogosphere. Though we didn't get to sit in the box seats as we were supposed to (because AIA had booked them for its family day), we still got free entry and free drinks. And we could apparently go down to the court-side to take pictures!

Free throw shot
Slingers vs. Hawks
Ok ok, enough gushing about the privileges. Back to the game. As had been pointed out to me at the start of the game, there are only three Singaporeans on the team. The others are foreigners. During the game, only one Singaporean got to play for the last few seconds of the second quarter. I'm not sure of the rational for such player selection, but it did seem like we were rooting for a foreign team.

I thought that, with these foreigners, the Slingers couldn't be that bad, right? Well, how about dribbling across the court, only to let the ball slip from your fingers -- and there's no opponent around you! Or missing (relatively) easy shots. On the other hand, the Slingers seemed to defend well, forcing the Hawks to shoot from outside the three-point line several times.

During the second half
During the second half
The only Slinger whom I remember was No. 7, McDonald, who played pretty well during the third quarter. He stole the ball a few times and sunk it twice. The crowd went wild when he scored. Then again, the Slingers had its best show in the third quarter, when things were just whizzing all around the court and the points were racking up.

But if the Slingers played badly, then the Hawks was the punching bag. Even those whom I talked with agreed that it was a lousy team overall. Lost possessions, multiple fouls, and - most importantly - failing to score, even for the free throws! Sure, it had a few bright moments, but as mentioned before, the Slingers' defence pretty much shut it down for most of the game.

Cheerleaders - unintentional butt shot
Another consolation for the spectators: the cheerleaders. No one can fault a contingent of pretty ladies wearing short shorts that show off their legs. Daphne mentioned that they were probably professional dancers hired to be cheerleaders. Whoever they were, they made for a good break from the game.


Link to video


Link to video

Slingers mascot
Scoreboard
In the end, the Slingers won, as it deserved to. It led most of the time, usually trailing by a few points. I think it has two strengths: good defence with tight marking, and a few stand-out individuals. Looking at the scoreboard, I couldn't help but notice that there were only two or three players who were scoring. But then, wasn't it the same with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls?

By the way, the organisers need a better announcer/host. The only thing I remember him saying was "Everyone, big D!" (as in "defence").

Incidentally, this was also my first time to the Indoor Stadium. I'm so suah-ku!

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Saturday, 12 January 2008

Whither Singapore's Internet grassroots organisations?

After attending the Singapore PHP User Group meeting, I started thinking, "What has happened to all of the other Internet grassroots groups?" It seemed like such groups, or at least the ones that I knew of, had either died or gone into extended hibernation. Which is a shame because it doesn't bode well for the future of such organisations.

Today, I did a mental checklist of the groups that I'm familiar with.

  1. Bloggers.sg (ok, not strictly a group, though it was organised by the folks at Tomorrow.sg)
    Objective: To promote the local blogosphere and educate Singaporeans about it
    Conceived as an annual conference, nothing happened after the first one in 2005. There was talk of another in middle or late 2007, but that was just it -- talk.
  2. Web Standards Group (WebSG)
    Objective: To encourage web designers/developers to use Web standards in their work for cross platform compatibility
    This was apparently the third incarnation of the group when I joined. Unfortunately, the "phoenix" burned up after the third meeting. I attempted to restart things, but was met with a deafening silence.
  3. The Digital Movement
    Objective: To build a community of Web 2.0 and social media leaders
    This one-year-old group had organised three events in 2007 with apparent success. And then... nothing (unless it organised PopOut! in October). Besides, I'm out of the picture too. I was involved in one meeting, but felt shafted after that for offering dissenting views.
  4. Mac Meetup
    Objective: To bring Mac users together to discuss Apple news and provide support
    The original group died after Meetup ended its free services. A second group was started and I attended some of its meetings, but it died again because of cost. The original group is supposed to live on through a blog, but I haven't heard of any more offline events.
And there you have it: four grassroots groups that have seemingly died. I don't count Ping.sg because the people who are actively involved are more like friends who organise get-togethers informally. The only one formal event it had was to celebrate the website's first anniversary.

Of course, I realise that some naysayers would say that I jinxed all of these groups, since I participated in them. Hmm, if that's true, then that's bad news for the Singapore PHP User Group...

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