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In what is not an unexpected outcome on Monday, Halimah Yacob was the only candidate for the Reserved Election to be given the green light by the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC).
By default, and since the other two candidates’ application to contest the election were rejected, Halimah Yacob will become Singapore’s 8th President.
She qualifies because of her tenure as Speaker of Parliament from 2013 to August 2017.
The other 2 candidates, Farid Khan and Salleh Marican, did not qualify because they were deemed to have not fulfilled the criterion of having managed a company of shareholder equity of at least $500m.
The Elected President is supposed to be the “second key” to Singapore’s financial reserves, and he or she must thus possess substantial financial knowledge in order to carry out the constitutional duties of oversight.
It is thus ironic that while the two men, who have more financial experience and expertise than Halimah Yacob, are disqualified from running, while Halimah Yacob is a shoo-in although she does not have the financial experience required to carry out the job of the Elected President.
How do we know this? Consider her time spent as Speaker, and the budget of Parliament itself.
Apart from her stints as Member of Parliament and Minister of State, positions which do not qualify her to run for the presidency, her time as Speaker of Parliament would also not qualify her, if we take into consideration the experience needed in financial matters.
There are two aspects to this:
One, her time as Speaker was very short – a mere 41/2 years. In fact, the length of the tenure of those in the public sector who would run for the presidential election was a concern for the Constitutional Commission which was tasked to review the Presidential Election Act.
Under the old rules, before the review by the Constitutional Commission last year, holders of qualifying public office were required to have held the office for at least 3 years.
In its final report submitted to the Government, however, the Constitutional Commission recommended that this be raised to six years instead.
The Commission explained its suggestion:
“This attempts to capture at least some elements of the applicant’s performance. The length of time spent in an office can be an indirect indication of that person’s success in discharging the responsibilities of that office, tending to filter out those who were either removed or not re-appointed because they had been found wanting.”
The Government rejected the recommendation, without much elaboration.
The Commission’s concern is a valid one, especially if you also consider that “the Speaker is overall in charge of the administration of Parliament and its Secretariat.”
So, what sort of budget is the Speaker in charge of or oversees vis a vis the administration of Parliament and its Secretariat?
It says that the total expenditure of Parliament for the year is estimated to be $40,086,900.
Parliament also has a permanent staff of 62.
That was how far Halimah Yacob’s financial management involvement would be, one presumes.
This is a far cry from the $500m shareholders’ equity required under the law for qualification to run for the presidency. [This is not exactly a direct comparison but it does give us an idea of the financial management skills required.]
So, on both her time as Speaker and her financial experience as Speaker, Halimah yacob would seem to be entirely unqualified to be the Elected President, or indeed to even qualify to run for the office.
Her lack of financial qualification – a central and fundamental requirement for which the entire Elected Presidency was created in the first place – is even more stark if you compare her to the two disqualified candidates.
Farid Khan is the chairman of Singapore-based marine service provider Bourbon Offshore Asia Pacific. He has been working at the company for more than a decade.
“The firm has about 800 workers in the region, and is part of French company Bourbon, which has more than 9,000 employees worldwide,” the TODAY newspaper reported.
TODAY also said that “the shareholder equity for Bourbon Offshore Asia is over S$350 million.”
So, on both counts – of length of time in the job and the size of the finances – Farid Khan is way ahead of Halimah Yacob.
What about Salleh Marican, the other candidate, who hails from clothing retailer Second Chance?
The founding chairman and chief executive of the company, which he built from scratch more than 40 years ago, has an even more distinguished record than the other 2 candidates.
Listed company Second Chance’s shareholder equity “averaged S$258 million for the last three years”, the news reported.
So, like Farid Khan, Salleh Marican is more qualified than Halimah Yacob when it comes to financial matters.
Unfortunately for the two men, the law was changed last year to increase the qualifying criterion of shareholders’ equity from $100m – which both men would easily qualify for – to $500m.
Halimah Yacob, however, qualifies by virtue of simply having been the Speaker, even if her experience in financial matters is limited and pales in comparison to the other 2 candidates.
So, we have to ask ourselves: what is the purpose of the Elected President? Is it not to be that second key to safeguard Singaporeans’ financial reserves which run into the hundreds of billions?
Why then is someone so inexperienced in financial matters deemed perfectly qualified to be that watchdog over the reserves by the mere fact of having been the Speaker, and even then only for such a short period of time?
It is the height of irony that the PEC, in dismissing Salleh Marican’s application to contest the election, said it “could not satisfy itself” that Mr Marican had the experience and ability comparable to the chief executive of a typical company with a shareholder equity of $500 million.
The very same could be said of Halimah Yacob.
Singaporeans have been transfixed by the ongoing war of words between the children of the late former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (LKY).
While there have been much said by both sides, one thing the two parties agree on is this: the dispute, or feud, is no longer a “petty” family affair.
“The main message is not Hsien Yang & I fearing what PM will do to us,” Dr Lee Wei Ling, daughter of LKY said in a Facebook post on 15 June, a day after the explosive statement she and her brother, Lee Hsien Yang, released which set off the chain of attacks on PM Lee.
“The most important point I want to put across is if PM can misuse his official power to abuse his siblings who can fight back, what else can he do to ordinary citizens,” Dr Lee said.
PM Lee himself agreed that the matter was no longer about private family disagreements.
“These allegations go beyond private and personal matters, and extend to the conduct of my office and the integrity of the Government,” PM Lee said in a statement posted on the PMO website on 19 June.
Indeed, Lee Hsien Yang’s allegations have been regular and frequent since 14 June. More importantly, they are so serious some have said they are affecting or have affected Singapore’s international reputation, besides causing concern among Singaporeans.
PM Lee, according to what he said, had tried to resolve the dispute over 38 Oxley Road privately, but to no avail.
It has now spilled into the public domain and the charges (or insinuation) of corruption and/or abuse of power include those in government as well.
While initially Singaporeans may understand that PM Lee is caught in a bind to take more drastic action, given that it is his own siblings who are the ones making the allegations, it has however come to a point where the reputation, credibility and integrity of the government and public institutions are being questioned.
In short, the Lee siblings have accused the entire government machinery of being abused by PM Lee for his own political and personal agenda.
“Since the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, on 23 March 2015, we have felt threatened by Hsien Loong’s misuse of his position and influence over the Singapore government and its agencies to drive his personal agenda,” the statement by Dr Lee and Lee Hsien Yang said. “We are concerned that the system has few checks and balances to prevent the abuse of government.”
There are few other allegations which are as serious as this.
Anyone else who makes such an attack on the Prime Minister and his government would see a swift rebuttal and legal letters served on him. The least one would receive would be a cease and desist letter from the Attorney General’s Chambers, along with threats of defamation suits from the Prime Minister’s personal lawyers.
Yet, despite the continuing and frequent new allegations which seem to emerge every other day from the Lee siblings, nothing much has been done by way of conclusively addressing them, to uphold the integrity of our public institutions.
Instead, what we are promised is a parliamentary sitting on 3 July, where the PM said he will deliver a ministerial statement on the matter.
Dr Lee and Mr Lee Hsien Yang will not be there to offer their side of the story. Neither will the Attorney General, Lucien Wong, whose appointment to the position has been questioned. Nor would Ms Lee Suet Fern, Lee Hsien Yang’s wife, whose role in the making of Lee Kuan Yew’s Last Will is described as “troubling” by Lee Hsien Loong.
In short, 3 July will be nothing more than a backslapping fest of PAP MPs pledging support for PM Lee.
It will not resolve the very serious allegations made, allegations which can only be dismissed through an independent inquiry, such as a Select Committee or a Commission of Inquiry.
In fact, is it not for precisely such a situation that the Elected President (EP) scheme was created – to preserve the integrity of government?
The EP is endowed with certain executive powers, one of which is the power to instruct the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) to carry out an investigation, if the PM refuses to order one.
Under the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore Amendment Act 1991, it is clearly stated:
In brief, the President can call for an inquiry if the PM refuses to do so. And the CPIB can also investigate allegations made against the Prime Minister.
In all fairness to PM Lee, it is unbecoming for Mr Lee Hsien Yang to post allegations on his social media channels with little evidence to back them up. Mr Lee Hsien Yang should make a formal complaint to the CPIB, or write to the President to complain, and submit any evidence he has, notwithstanding his own personal feelings that the PM could use the organs of state for his own purpose or that he wields power over them.
Mr Lee Hsien Yang could make such requests or complaints public, and the CPIB or the President would have to respond to the complaints.
The ongoing dispute is doing more damage than just to the reputation of the protagonists. It is time for PM Lee (and his Cabinet colleagues) to realise that it is the nation that is at stake, and not just one person’s reputation.
As such, it is no longer tenable for PM Lee not to take legal action against his siblings.
This is especially so if you consider that others who were sued (by PM Lee and his former Cabinet colleagues) had done less by way of provocation. Many of them had to pay millions of dollars in compensation, after having their names dragged through the mud as well.
Defamation suits were lodged by PAP leaders because, they said, it was the integrity of the government itself which was being questioned, and by effect, Singapore’s very survival was at stake.
Is this not what PM Lee is now saying, vis a vis the ongoing saga?
Does Singapore have a corrupt government? Is PM Lee guilty of abusing his power for a personal political agenda? Is his wife in cahoots with him? Are government ministers being used in a personal dispute? Are public officers being appointed through patronage? Are our public institutions being subservient to private individuals who aren’t even in government?
These are very serious allegations.
Thus, again, it is no longer tenable for PM Lee to take the “lighter” action of rebutting these in Parliament.
He has to set aside personal considerations and relationships, and take firmer action – to protect our public institutions.
Singapore cannot be held hostage by allowing such serious allegations to linger just because the PM’s siblings are involved.
Singapore is much more than one man, or one family.
The only way to get to the bottom of this whole mess is for an independent inquiry or the courts to investigate the allegations.
If the PM refuses to resort to the courts, or to order such an investigation, then the President should do so. This is what the EP is for.
Singaporeans, for the sake of our nation, should demand nothing less.
“But if they’ve defamed us, we have to sue them — because if we don’t, our own integrity will be suspect. We have an understanding that if a minister is defamed and he does not sue, he must leave cabinet. By defamation, I mean if somebody says the minister is on the take or is less than honest. If he does not rebut it, if he does not dare go before the court to be interrogated by the counsel for the other side, there must be some truth in it. If there is no evidence, well, why are you not suing?” – PM Goh Chok Tong, 1999, Asiaweek interview.
Mohd Jeefrey bin Ismail was hanged in the early hours of Friday morning, 21 April, at least according to the scheduled execution date given to his family by the Singapore Prison Service.
He was executed after the Public Prosecutor decided that Jeefrey had not “substantively assisted” the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) in “disrupting drug trafficking activities within or outside Singapore.”
In Singapore, the authorities do not make public announcements of hangings, the preferred state-sanctioned killing method for those condemned to death. Lawyers for the inmates and anti-death penalty activists often have to guess if the executions have in fact been carried out.
Executions are typically held just before dawn on Fridays.
Jeefrey, 52, was a drug addict and trafficker, or courier, who was arrested in 2012 and subsequently sentenced to death for trafficking in excess of the statutory limit for the drug diamorphine.
The only person who stood between him and the noose was the Public Prosecutor who, through powers vested in him by law, could have spared his life if he had issued a Certificate of Cooperation (COC) to Jeefrey.
The COC would then allow Jeefrey to apply to the courts to have his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment and caning. The courts’ hands would then have been freed to mete out the alternative sentence.
In effect, the Public Prosecutor now has power over the courts as well: if the Public Prosecutor does not issue a convict with the COC, the courts cannot commute his sentence.
Yet, in the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA), the Prosecutor’s decision making, in whether a COC is issued or not, is shrouded in secrecy and not even the highest court in the land, the Court of Appeal, can question it, or conduct a judicial review of it unless “it is proved to the court that the determination was done in bad faith or with malice.”
But this is extremely hard for anyone to prove, given that the Prosecutor is also not bound to release or make known the reasons for his decision.
In short, the Prosecutor has iron-clad, virtually unfettered powers to decide whether a person gets to live or die.
Such dubious decision making can result in inexplicable outcomes, as in the 2013 case of Abdul Haleem Abdul Karim, 30, and his friend, Muhammad Ridzuan Md Ali, 28.
Both men were arrested in 2010, also for trafficking 72.5g of heroin.
In court, Abdul Haleem had asked to be given the same sentence as Muhammad Ridzuan, if the latter was sent to the gallows.
The Straits Times reported the exchange between Abdul Haleem and judge Tay Yong Kwang:
Choking with emotion, he [Abdul Haleem] told Justice Tay Yong Kwang: “If you are sparing my life and not sparing his life, I’d rather go down with him.”
But the judge replied: “The court does not have complete discretion to do whatever you want me do.”
Abdul Haleem then pointed out that he and his friend faced the same charges.
The judge told him: “You have certification from the Attorney-General’s Chambers, he does not.”
Abdul Haleem was sentenced to life imprisonment and caning because in the eyes of the Public Prosecutor, he had fulfilled the criteria of having “substantively assisted” the CNB in “disrupting drug trafficking activities within or outside Singapore.”
Muhammad Ridzuan, on the other hand, was deemed not to have cooperated with the CNB to the same extent.
He was thus sentenced to death which left his family wondering what more he could have done to assist the CNB.
“Ridzuan told the [Central Narcotics Bureau] who gave him the drugs,” said his sister Noraisah. “He gave them a description, with full name and identification. I feel that this information is quite strong, and I don’t know why they said that they are still not happy with it.”
No one knows why the Prosecutor decided to issue Abdul Haleem the COC, while denying the same to Muhammad Ridzuan because the Prosecutor is not required by law to release or explain his reasons, either to the convict’s lawyers or even to his family.
Everything is decided behind a veil of silence and secrecy.
It is disturbing that a person can be condemned to his death just because he is deemed to not have “substantively assisted” the police in “disrupting drug trafficking activities within or outside Singapore.”
Whether drug trafficking activities are “disrupted” or not depends on so many different factors, most of which would be beyond the control of the inmate.
For example, it would depend on whether the authorities actually act on information provided by the inmate.
It would also depend on whether the authorities take the appropriate action, or are competent in doing so.
And how would an inmate incarcerated on death row in Changi Prison in Singapore be able to “disrupt” drug activities “outside Singapore”? Would this not depend entirely on how the authorities act on the information provided by the inmate?
With the law prohibiting any judicial review or questioning of the Prosecutor’s decision, except when such decision is proved to have been made on bad faith or malice, there really is no way of knowing if the Prosecutor has done the right or necessary thing in acting on the information provided by the inmate.
Clearly, this practice of vesting the Prosecutor with so much power is highly flawed.
His decision and decision-making process are effectively unquestionable, giving him seemingly unfettered authority.
Such absurdity has resulted in decisions which allow one person to be spared death while another, charged for the same crime, is sent to the gallows.
The rule of law insists that decisions, especially those involving capital punishment which is irreversible, must be made according to the law, and must be opened to review or question.
In 2011, lawyer M Ravi filed a constitutional challenge on the case of Yong Vui Kong, which centred on whether the Cabinet’s decision in granting clemency is opened to judicial review.
The Court of Appeal, in its ruling, said “the making of a clemency decision pursuant to Art 22P is now ‘not a private act of grace from an individual happening to possess power … [but] a part of the [c]onstitutional scheme’.”
Article 22P refers to the president’s powers to grant clemencies.
The Court of Appeal said that if “conclusive evidence is produced to the court to show that the Cabinet never met to consider the offender’s case at all, or that the Cabinet did not consider the Art 22P(2) materials placed before it and merely tossed a coin to determine what advice to give to the President, the Cabinet would have acted in breach of Art 22P(2).”
The Court added:
“If the courts cannot intervene to correct a breach of Art 22P of this nature, the rule of law would be rendered nugatory.”
Would it also not follow that if the courts are unable to intervene and question the Prosecutor’s decision on granting the COC, there is a risk that the Prosecutor could make an erroneous decision based on wrong facts or even on superficial whims which, under existing laws, could result in the death of an inmate?
Yet the law says such decisions “shall be at the sole discretion of the Public Prosecutor and no action or proceeding shall lie against the Public Prosecutor in relation to any such determination unless it is proved to the court that the determination was done in bad faith or with malice.”
The granting, or not, of a COC by the Prosecutor, to borrow the words of the Court of Appeal, is ‘not a private act of grace from an individual happening to possess power.’
It is in fact from constitutional powers vested in him which should make him accountable, and not protected behind a wall of opacity.
And if he is to be accountable, then surely his decisions must be opened to judicial review.
Why was Haleem Abdul spared death, while Muhammad Ridzuan was not?
Why was Mohd Jeefrey not similarly issued the COC, as Haleem Abdul was?
How is it that a person can be condemned to death just simply because he is deemed to not have “substantively assisted” the police?
How did we arrive at a law which says that not cooperating with the police is, effectively, a capital offence?
President Ong Teng Cheong passed away on 8 February 2002, at the age of 66.
He had served as Singapore’s 5th president from 1993 to 1998.
He was also the first president to contest in an open election after the Elected President scheme came into effect in 1991, during the tenure of his predecessor, President Wee Kim Wee.
When President Ong passed away in 2002, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, representing the Government, wrote a condolence letter to President Ong’s eldest son, Ong Tze Guan.
In his letter (see below), PM Goh expressed sadness at the passing of the former president.
“He served as a Member of Parliament until 1993 when he resigned to stand in Singapore’s first presidential elections,” PM Goh wrote.
“As the first elected President, Teng Cheong had to work the two-key system of safeguarding our reserves and key appointments in the public sector,” Mr Goh said and added, “We had no precedents to fall back on.”
PM Goh acknowledged the difficulties the government at the time had with President Ong.
“But Teng Cheong applied himself diligently and worked with the Government to come up with the rules and procedures,” PM Goh said. “His efforts helped to put the two-key system through its paces and made the job of future presidents that much easier.”
It is worth noting that at the time this condolence letter was issued, Lee Hsien Loong was one of the deputy prime ministers under PM Goh.
DPM Lee himself would become Prime Minister two years later in 2004.
So, it is safe and reasonable to say that both PM Goh and DPM Lee had, through the condolence letter, recognised President Ong as Singapore’s first Elected President, as PM Goh had explicitly said so in the letter.
Additionally, President Ong was not only the nation’s first Elected President in name, he had also – in the words of PM Goh – “helped to put the two-key system through its paces and made the job of future presidents that much easier.”
This is significant, given that President Ong’s predecessor, President Wee, had been given the powers of the Elected President halfway through his second term.
President Wee apparently did not help put the Elected President scheme “through the paces” to iron out the kinks in the system, unlike President Ong who came after him.
In the changes to the Elected President scheme passed by Parliament earlier this year, the Government has now apparently made a turnaround on President Ong being Singapore’s first Elected President, contrary to what PM Goh had said in his condolence letter in 2002.
There are a few questions which the Government’s latest actions have raised.
- In 2002, was PM Goh advised by anyone, the Attorney-General perhaps, that President Ong was indeed Singapore’s first Elected President? If not, why did PM Goh ascribe the honour to President Ong in his letter?
- DPM Lee, who must have been aware of the condolence letter and its content, apparently agreed with PM Goh’s statement that President Ong was Singapore’s first Elected President. Mr Lee does not seem to have raised any questions about this until this year.
While the above two (and other) questions are pertinent, what is perhaps more important is the question of integrity in what is said in the condolence letter.
The letter was issued to President Ong’s grieving sons who had mourned the death of their mother just 21/2 years earlier.
It was a letter of consolation in which PM Goh praised President Ong’s contribution to the nation, to ease the pain of the family at such a time.
President Ong’s greatest contribution was to take up the responsibility of the highest office in the land, the elected presidency.
Now, 15 years after his passing, the Government of Lee Hsien Loong – on the advice of the Attorney-General , advice which is kept secret and confidential from the public – has effectively removed the very honour which PM Goh had given President Ong in the condolence letter, namely that President Ong is Singapore’s first Elected President.
Can the Government do such a thing?
What about the integrity of the words of the Prime Minister (Goh)?
When you said President Ong was our first Elected President, did this not mean something? Was it not the truth?
And how would you explain this about-turn to the family of President Ong, especially his children to whom you addressed the condolence letter?
When the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Government, and indeed on behalf of the people of Singapore, makes such a statement, surely his words must mean something.
Otherwise, what value is there in such a condolence letter if the words in it do not mean what they say?
Perhaps Mr Goh could explain to President Ong’s family, and to Singaporeans, if he agrees with the Government’s recent decision to remove the honour he, PM Goh, had given President Ong.
And perhaps also PM Lee could publish the Attorney-General’s advice to the Government on why President Ong should not be counted as the nation’s first Elected President.
At the very least, the Government owes it to the family of President Ong to make things clear.
President Ong, after all, had given more than 25 years of his life to public service and deserves nothing less.
“This project will fail,” said Goh Keng Swee.
The China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) project in the 1990s between the two countries was fraught with problems from the get-go. But few have spoken openly about them until now.
In the book, “Neither Civil Nor Servant”, former chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB), Philip Yeo, shares why the project ran into so many issues that the majority ownership of the project was subsequently transferred from Singapore to China.
Mr Yeo, known for his shoot-from-the-hip bluntness which is matched only by that of the late former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, opens up in the book by Peh Shing Huei, former China bureau chief at the Straits Times.
“I didn’t want to get involved,” Mr Yeo said in the book when asked about the SIP. “I never asked for this project and never wanted it. I did it for Lee Kuan Yew.”
“I’m not proud of this project,” said the man who has spent the better part of 40 years dedicated to his role as Singapore’s “salesman”, as he is sometimes referred to.
The SIP project was the first-ever state-to-state collaboration which China had been involved in at the time, and it came about after a chance exchange in a car in 1992 between Singapore’s then Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong, and the Mayor of Suzhou, Zhang Xinsheng, while the former (and then Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew) was on a visit to China.
DPM Ong had suggested that “both parties explore cooperation on the basis of transferring Singapore’s software expertise to Suzhou.”
In 1994, Singapore and China signed an agreement to build the SIP, an industrial township, with Singapore taking a 65% stake in the project, while China owned the other 35%.
The SIP would be a miniature Singapore, with a size of 100 square kilometres, located in the eastern coast of China.
The project, however, ran into trouble early on. In 1995, the Chinese were upset that the project had somewhat stalled. Lee Kuan Yew, on the recommendation of then EDB Managing Director, Lim Swee Say, approached Mr Yeo to take charge and move things along. His job was to bring in the investments to Suzhou.
“When I took over in 1996, I was up there in Suzhou every two, three months,” Mr Yeo says in the book. “I was on the road to bring in investments, to build the factories.”
Mr Yeo had “brought the full force of the EDB to bear” on making the project a success. Soon, many multi-national companies (MNCs) set up shop in the SIP.
However, the problems with the Chinese continued.
As then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew related in his autobiographical book, the Chinese were more interested in their own similar project, the Suzhou New District (SND), than giving their full support to the SIP.
The Chinese “[undercut] SIP in land and infrastructure costs”, SM Lee said. “This made SIP less attractive than SND.”
“I was very pissed off,” Mr Yeo said, and he made his feelings known to the Chinese.
“I bring you investments, I bring in know-how, I bring you jobs, I bring you exports, and here you are screwing me?” he said in the book.
When asked why the project turned out the way it did, Mr Yeo identified two “critical mistakes” which the SIP initiative had from the beginning.
First, the Chinese had actually recommended the site of the SND as the location for the SIP, but Singapore rejected the suggestion. Instead, Singapore selected another location in Suzhou for the SIP.
“Big mistake,” Mr Yeo explained. “I told Lee Kuan Yew that we should never have taken that place.”
Mr Yeo, before he was roped in to manage the SIP project, had been involved in another industrial park project in Wuxi. There, the location of the park was chosen by the Chinese, he said.
The second mistake with the SIP was the ownership split between Singapore (65%) and China (35%).
“We got 65, they got 35, why should they cooperate with us?” Mr Yeo asked. “At SIP, they get 35 cents for every $1. At SND, they get the whole dollar.”
The Singapore government had asked the Chinese side “to suspend marketing of their industrial park [the SND] for five years, making the Singapore-built park the only focus of development for the city for that period. But the officials refused.” (New York Times)
The problems seemed intractable. SM Lee asked Mr Yeo what he would do about the project.
“I said to withdraw,” Mr Yeo explained. “Give them the majority.”
SM Lee asked when Mr Yeo would do this.
“Now,” he replied.
By 1999, the Singapore consortium involved in the SIP had reportedly lost US$90 million.
In 2001, the two sides agreed to swap majority stake. China now would take 65%, and Singapore 35%. It was an embarrassing period for Singapore, having to give up its majority stake just 5 years after the project started. And at the handover, only 8 square kilometres of the project were completed.
The next year, for the first time, the Chinese made a profit of US$7.6 million from the SIP.
“In the Suzhou case, we started on the wrong footing and with the wrong concept,” Mr Yeo said in the book. “It was all wrong. My job was to repair. But it was too much for me.”
The failure of the project was predicted by one of Singapore’s founding ministers – Goh Keng Swee.
“When Lee Kuan Yew announced they were going into Suzhou, Dr Goh Keng Swee called me up,” Mr Yeo recalled. “He said: ‘This project will fail and they will call for you’.”
Mr Yeo added that Dr Goh, who had earlier been an economic adviser to the Chinese government, “was against the concept from the beginning.”
The SIP was at the time part of Singapore’s push to build an economic “second wing” outside the island, and the SIP was one part of hitching onto the rise of China to sprout this wing.
Despite the failure of the SIP collaboration, Singapore and China have gone on to successfully cooperate on other projects, such as the Tianjin Eco City and the Chongqing development, for example.
As for Mr Yeo, he has since stepped down from the Civil Service and presently runs his own consultancy, the Economic Development Innovations Singapore (EDIS), exporting his decades of expertise in development to other countries.
“Neither Civil Nor Servant” gives rare insights into the many initiatives Mr Yeo had been involved in, including his time in the Ministry of Defence where he first came under the mentorship of Dr Goh (one of three bosses he had), at the EDB which he is most recognised for, with A*Star and the controversies which surrounded it, and his venture in the sciences with the Biopolis. In-between these, he helped develop the Indonesian islands of Batam and Bintan as well.
Mr Yeo, in his inimitable style, also speaks bluntly about some of the more public spats he had, such as the ones with a PAP MP who had slammed him in Parliament, the quarrel with the daughter of Lee Kuan Yew, and the skirmish with a blogger over the scholarship issue.
The book gives one a broader understanding of the tireless work the 71-year old has rendered to the country, and by the end of the book, one is filled with not only admiration at his dedication to nation building, but also his deep sense of responsibility to workers which, at the end of the day, was what it was all about – people.
Everything he did, he said, is about “jobs, jobs, jobs” for Singaporeans, above all.
“Neither Civil Nor Servant” is published by Straits Times Press and is available in major bookstores.
By Cheryl Marie Tay
And so, as many of us had probably already expected, the MDA’s plan to “regulate” online news sites has come to pass. Today is the day, and it appears there’s not much we can do about it.
For all the talk of a “light touch”, as well as all the fuss over the much-hyped National Conversation, the nasty surprise sure hit many journalists like a ton of bricks. But why is there so much apprehension and disapproval from not just journalists and editors but also the rest of the general public?
Between the Lines
Let’s look at what the new licensing rule entails. Minister for Communications and Information, Yaacob Ibrahim, said: “Given the evolving landscape, it’s important to give some form of parity between online news sites and traditional mainstream media newspapers and TV broadcasters.”
This all sounds well and good — until one assesses exactly what “traditional mainstream media newspapers and TV broadcasters” are in Singapore. We have only one such paper (not counting The New Paper, of course), The Straits Times. We have only one such broadcaster, Channel NewsAsia. There are no other publications or TV stations in the country to compete or compare with, or to level the playing field. Add to that the simple fact that websites are different from — and therefore run differently from — traditional media and one can easily see the fallacy in this line of logic.
At the same time, if online news sites were to be regulated the same way traditional media is regulated, where would that leave alternative news? Bearing in mind that Singapore ranks 149th out of 179 countries worldwide on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, which, as reported by the BBC, is “below even the likes of Zimbabwe and Afghanistan”, would this not defeat the very purpose of alternative news?
Rich vs. Poor
Another contentious aspect of the new licensing rule is the S$50,000 performance bond online news sites are required to pay. The MDA has stated: “The performance bond of S$50,000 is pegged to that put up by niche broadcasters today, and need not necessarily entail cash upfront. Licensees can consider options such as banker’s guarantee or insurance. MDA will be happy to engage in further discussions with any licensee who may have concerns about meeting the licence obligations.”
The MDA has, unfortunately, missed the point. The mode of payment is not the main concern. Unlike The Straits Times, most online news sites do not charge their readers registration or subscription fees. Even if such a site features paid advertisements, its revenue would be nowhere near that of SPH’s, as print advertisements are infinitely more costly and therefore more lucrative than online advertisements. Unless it belongs to a highly successful parent company that has other forms of revenue, an online news site is unlikely to be able to afford this performance bond, be it in cash, banker’s guarantee, or insurance.
And what of the 24-hour deadline for such sites to remove content the MDA deems inappropriate, lest they lose their performance bond? Consider the possibilities that could lead one to unintentionally flout the rules: what if a website’s server has crashed or is under maintenance for 24 hours or more? What if the owner and sole contributor of a news blog is out of the country for the week or recuperating in the hospital after major surgery? Will provisions be made then, or will they lose their hard-earned S$50,000 due to a technicality?
Remember the headline-making National Conversation? Apparently, the people’s cries had been heard. We wanted to be included in decisions that would affect the future of our country and our government was ready to hear us out. The stage was set, the ministers prepped and the audience in place. Questions were asked and answered on national TV. We were to believe that, despite evidence to the contrary, the government was now willing to consult the citizens and the opposition MPs in decisions regarding Singapore & her people.
Fast forward to June 2013 and, almost out of nowhere, our Internet is suddenly being regulated without our consent or prior knowledge. The only warning we had came in the form of a few vague, non-committal statements here and there about the possibility of rules being imposed, as well as a brief paragraph on the MDA’s official website about how it “adopts a balanced and light-touch approach” to Internet regulation.
In most developed countries, a bill has to be introduced in Parliament before any new law is passed. This is the case in Australia, the UK and the US, to name but a few examples. In fact, on the Singapore Parliament website itself, it is stated: “Before any law is passed, it is first introduced in Parliament as a draft called a ‘Bill’. All Bills must go through three readings in Parliament and receive the President’s assent to become an Act of Parliament.”
Correct me if I’m wrong but does anyone remember any such action being taken before this new licensing rule was imposed? Were any surveys conducted to find out if the people of Singapore felt such a rule was necessary or beneficial? Were the moderators or owners of online news sites consulted about the performance bond before a five-figure sum was unceremoniously slapped on them?
One really wonders just how credible the government is, when, clearly lacking a well-rounded, balanced approach, it simply enacts new laws overnight.
Blinkers, Crop & Spurs
What is most troubling, however, is where the justification for the new licensing rule stems from. Mr. Ibrahim has made several statements to the press regarding the matter, all of which are at least mildly insulting to Singaporeans’ intelligence.
When interviewed by the BBC, he said, “As long as they (the public) go onto online news sites to read the news, I think it is important for us to make sure that they read ‘the right things’.”
First of all, a little elaboration on what Mr. Ibrahim perceives as “the right things” would be helpful. He has said there is no reason online news sites should not be subject to the same “regulatory framework” that affects the mainstream media. So can “the right things” be found in The Straits Times?
Secondly, this implies that readers of online news are incapable of discerning right from wrong and need to be told exactly what to read. It seems the role of website moderators to ensure that inflammatory contents and comments are removed, as well as the freedom to choose what one reads, is lost on the minister. It also diminishes us to mere puppets who need to be controlled, even when it comes to what we read.
Despite attempts to assure us that the new rule is not a “clamping down”, such a restriction can hardly be seen as anything else. After all, even readers are not spared. The MDA has stated that “…the content guidelines apply to all content on the news sites, including readers’ comments.”
With this new licensing rule, content which is offensive to any race or religion, or which is seen as “seditious”, will be removed, and rightly so. But what about objectively written and reported content which happens to paint the government in a less than positive light? The appeal of alternative news is the fresh perspectives it often offers, apart from what is found in the mainstream media. But if such perspectives call into question the government, will the site moderator be made to remove the content within 24 hours, or will the government be mature enough to accept that differing views will always exist and that healthy debate is not a threat to society?
The swift enforcement of the rule casts much doubt over the latter scenario. As it is, NCMP Lina Chiam has filed a motion to debate the MDA licensing regime in Parliament, and major websites in Singapore will protest the new regime.
And yet, because this new rule affects not only moderators and contributors of online news sites but also their readers, all Singaporeans should fight to protect their rights and voice their opposition of the rule. It is most certainly not in the interest of the people to have what they read censored or controlled, especially when the primary purpose of online news sites is to provide alternatives to the mainstream media. Despite claims that the “framework is not an attempt to influence the editorial slant of news sites”, the only purpose such a rule would serve is exactly that.
We have no moral obligation to “read the right things”. We do, however, have a moral obligation to do the right thing for ourselves and our country.
Thursday, 30 May 2013
Major Online Websites in Singapore to Protest Against Licensing Requirement
The Media Development Authority had, on Tuesday, introduced a “licensing framework” that would require “online news sites” to put up a “performance bond” of $50,000 and “comply within 24 hours to MDA’s directions to remove content that is found to be in breach of content standards”.
As part of the community of websites in Singapore that provide sociopolitical news and analysis to Singaporeans, we are concerned about the impact of the newly-introduced requirement on fellow Singaporeans’ ability to receive diverse news information.
While the S$50,000 performance bond is a drop in the ocean for a mainstream news outlet with an online presence, it would potentially be beyond the means of volunteer run and personal blogging platforms like ours. Hence, MDA’s claim that the licensing regime is intended to equalize the playing field between online and offline news is incorrect: the regulations will disproportionately affect us.
Further, we believe that the introduction of the licensing regime has not gone through the proper and necessary consultation and had been introduced without clear guidance. In a typical public consultation exercise, a government agency will publish a draft regulation with detailed explanation and issue a press release to invite members of the public to send in feedback for consideration. We observe this is not the case for the licensing regime.
We call on the Ministry of Communications and Information to withdraw the licensing regime. We call upon our elected representatives to oppose the licensing regime.
It is in the interest of Singaporeans and the long-term future for Singapore that the licensing regime be withdrawn.
The new licensing regime has the very real potential to reduce the channels available to Singaporeans to receive news and analysis of the sociopolitical situation in Singapore and it is in the interest of all Singaporeans to guard against the erosion of news channels that Singaporeans should rightfully have access to.
These new regulations significantly impact Singaporeans’ constitutionally protected right to free speech, and they should not be introduced without the most rigorous public debate and discussion.
The new regulations, and the manner in which they have been imposed by regulatory fiat, are unacceptable in any developed democracy.
By Andrew Loh
On 4 January, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sent a legal letter of demand to writer and activist Alex Au to remove an article which was allegedly defamatory of Mr Lee. Mr Au was also required to publish an apology, which he complied with.
About 3 weeks later, PM Lee reportedly made the following remarks about the Internet, at the Singapore Perspectives 2013 conference held by the Institute of Policy Studies, on 28 January:
“You have views going to extremes and when people respond to their views, they may respond in an extreme way, and when people decide to disapprove of something which was inappropriate, the disapproval can also happen in an extreme way.
“It’s in the nature of the medium, the way the interactions work and that’s the reason why we think it cannot be completely left by itself.”
These set the tone for what transpired subsequently – with various ministers and the Attorney General taking legal action against certain netizens and bloggers the past few months.
The series of clampdown actions has now culminated in the set of new regulations announced by the Media Development Authority (MDA) on Tuesday. Namely, the new rules stipulate that “online news sites that report regularly on issues relating to Singapore and have significant reach among readers here will require an individual licence” from the MDA.
“Under the licensing framework, online news sites will be individually licensed if they (i) report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs 1 over a period of two months, and (ii) are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month over a period of two months. Currently, these sites are automatically class-licensed under the Broadcasting Act. When MDA has assessed that a site has met the criteria to be individually licensed, MDA will issue a formal notification and work with the site to move it to the new licensing framework.”
The new rules also require websites “to take down content that breaches certain standards within 24 hours of being notified.” (Straits Times)
Under the Broadcasting Act, failure to comply with regulations can result in a fine of S$200,000 and/or a 3 year jail term.
The minister overseeing these new regulations is Mr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information (MCI). Mr Yaacob explains that the new rules are to “give some form of parity between online news sites and traditional mainstream media newspapers and TV broadcasters.”
The new rules mirror somewhat the ones for “self-classification” which Mr Yaacob’s ministry introduced for the Arts in March. There, Arts groups are divided into two tiers and they are given licenses to “self-classify” their works.
“The new licence scheme comes in two tiers. All arts groups and companies can join the scheme and qualify for the first tier. Those with a good track record showing three or more years of compliance with regulations will be offered a second-tier licence.”
To ensure they exercise responsible self-classification, those in the ‘first tier’ group will have to provide a $1,000 “performance bond” signed by a guarantor.
The licences, which are valid for a one-year period, are “renewable subject to an annual review, in which the MDA will evaluate whether licensees comply with regulations and accurately classify performances.”
While the new regulations for the Internet do not adopt the same exact self-regulatory framework as that for the Arts, they apparently are aimed at getting practitioners to similarly self-regulate, to meet certain “standards” (determined by the MDA), failing which websites would be required to be licensed and to post a $50,000 “performance bond” with the authorities.
In short, the Government seems to want to force self-regulation, rather than leave it to online practitioners to decide if self-regulation is warranted, a position which it previously urged but which was dismissed by bloggers and netizens.
It is obvious that the new rules are to set and control the tone of discourse online, a concern which the Government has had for a while now. The rise of social media, as an increasing number of Singaporeans get their news online, has now prompted the Government to let go of its promised ‘light touch’ on the Internet, even though Mr Yaacob denies that the Government is reneging on this promise.
In fact, the new regulations are more insidious in that websites now sit on what is essentially a time-bomb – post a “news” article once a week for two months and reach 50,000 unique visitors a month, and the MDA sword will come down on you.
The problem here is that a website has no control over who or how many visitors will visit it. To avoid licensing, websites will have to keep constant eye on the numbers – to make sure they do not breach the numbers, if they do not want to fall under the new rules.
It is mad.
In an obvious attempt to perhaps assuage the public which might raise a howl over the new rules, the MDA statement on Tuesday lists only 10 sites which it says fall under the new framework. 9 of these sites are Government-controlled news sites. The only exception is Yahoo Singapore, which has given rise to speculation that the real targets of the regulations are the non-government linked news sites.
It is well-known among some that the Singapore government has been “concerned” about Yahoo Singapore news for a while. The site is seen as a bastion of free expression and an independent news source.
Strangely, however, the MDA told the media that popular socio-political website, The Online Citizen (TOC), “does not fall within the online licensing framework.” But it quickly added, “Should MDA determine later that it ought to be individually licensed, it will be notified.”
That is how much power MDA is given to lord over what are independent platforms.
In 2011, TOC was gazetted by the Prime Minister’s Office as a “political association” and came under the Political Donations Act. It would be a double-jeopardy, so to speak, if TOC was also required to be licensed under this new licensing framework.
TOC will, again, have the distinction of being one of the rare websites in the world to be given such a “recognition” by a government.
MDA’s unexplained determination that TOC and presumably other popular websites such as Temasek Review Emeritus and The Real Singapore do not come under the new rules is perplexing, given that these sites apparently meet the requirements in the new legislations.
Is the MDA being arbitrary in its enforcement? Or is it leaving any actions it is contemplating to take to a later, more appropriate, time, perhaps closer to the next general election?
And this is another valid concern – that the new rules are politically-motivated, or at least can be abused politically to the ruling party’s advantage.
As blogger and the former Chief Editor of TOC, Ravi Philemon, explained on his blog:
“In this ‘new normal’, it may not take very much for members from the public to lodge a complaint about TOC or TRE nearer the next General Election, and if MDA assesses that such websites have to move to this new licensing framework at that time by placing a $50,000 performance bond, it may place a very heavy burden on these socio-political websites, and they may choose to cease operating at such a crucial time of national self-determination. The online world is the most open ‘public square’ Singaporeans have for public discourse, and this new licensing framework for online news sites is a great impediment to this.
“This new regulation of MDA’s is a tool which can be misused for political reasons, and there are no safeguards against MDA acting arbitrarily to move socio-political websites to this new framework.”
Imagine MDA – by its own determination – issues orders for various websites to apply for licensing and to post the $50,000 “performance bond”, a few weeks before a general election. In the 2006 General Election, the Government banned all podcasts, and in the 2011 elections, it introduced the Cooling-Off Day where all websites, except for “registered news sites”, were banned from reporting or publishing commentaries of the elections.
There is a high possibility that the Government will enforce these new regulations more widely among the blogs and websites as the next elections draw nearer.
After the elections of May 2011, the prime minister admitted that his Government had not “interpreted [ground feedback] correctly”. That is, the Government had lost touch with the ground – and this was confirmed by the decline in votes for Mr Lee’s party, the People’s Action Party (PAP).
These new regulations are another sign that the Government continues to be oblivious to the changing aspirations of Singaporeans – for a free environment, which includes a free mainstream media, for expression.
At the same time, it is not surprising that the Government is seeking to tighten its control over Singaporeans’ behaviour. In 2 more years – when there is a very high likelihood of the next elections being called – Singapore will be celebrating its 50th year of independence from colonial rule.
The PAP Government would want to be able to celebrate this historical and important milestone by winning the elections convincingly. And you can only win elections by winning public opinion, and public opinion is increasingly being shaped by social and the online media.
Hence, the need to control it.
But, as my friend and fellow editor at Publichouse.sg, Biddy Low, posted on her Facebook wall, the Government seems to be more interested in reining in what irks it than to seriously look at the important things which face our society and country. And in its ignorant and desperate bid to control public opinion through ill-thought out legislations, it once again shows that it continues to be out of touch with the common man and woman.
And there is perhaps no greater danger to a country than a government which is woefully and hopelessly out of touch, and being so installs curbs which not only stalls our society’s progress but in fact reverses it.
Mr Yaacob claims that the new rules are to bring “consistency” between the online media and the mainstream media. Unfortunately, it seems that the Government wants to drag down the independent online media to the atrociously low standards of Singapore’s mainstream media instead – a fact proved by the miserable rankings our press freedom has consistently achieved in ratings by international agencies, and the low regard Singaporeans have for the likes of the government-controlled broadsheet, the Straits Times.
Biddy says it best, but sadly her eloquent and accurate message will be lost on those who continue to hide themselves in their bureaucratic Ivory Tower:
“You know what pisses me off most about the new MDA ruling? Not the ruling itself, which I think is going to be as effective as Donald Trump’s hairpiece. But how the online platform has repeatedly been described by our ministers as malignant and lacking in reason and credibility.
“Go ahead and focus on the worst side of this democratic platform online. It does not reflect badly on the resilient, smart and eloquent men and women who have contributed. What it does reflect, is how you would listen to the guy spouting xenophobic rants, but not the activist calling for the abolishment of the death sentence. How you would react to the person who makes malicious personal attacks, but not the ones asking for better workers’ rights, local and foreign alike. How you would ignore the issue of the relevance of some laws, brought up to you in your face, but spend so much time in the media’s watchful eye complaining about the unruly crowd.
“All it convinces me of is that ‘engagement’ to the incumbent is just a dog and pony show when right from the start, no compromise was to be given and we remain where we started.
“Which is actually good, ‘cause nothing is better to behold than the truth.”
These are the MDA people – the “senior management” – who want to decide what you can write, read, see or hear:
It is scary, isn’t it?
Publichouse.sg statement on the MDA ruling:
“The new Internet ruling announced by the Media Development Authority (MDA) is symptomatic of a government which continues to be out of touch with the ground.
“The new rulings mark the government reneging on its promise of adopting ‘a balanced and light-touch approach’ to the Internet, as the MDA website claims.
“In this year’s Freedom of The Press report published by Freedom House, Singapore’s press freedom was rated ‘Not Free’ and was ranked 153rd in the world, tied with Afghanistan, Iraq and Qatar.
“We feel ashamed on behalf of all Singaporeans that MDA would introduce politically-motivated regulations that will surely put us even lower than these countries in subsequent rankings.
“We urge the Government to rethink these new regulations so that Singapore does not continue being a first-world country with third-world freedom for free expression.”
Publichouse.sg editorial team