Monday, October 31, 2011

The courage of his conviction: ISA detainee Dr Lim Hock Siew

Written by Angela Oon (source)

Malaysia’s proposed abolition of its Internal Security Act (ISA) has, unsurprisingly, cast the spotlight on Singapore’s own security laws. In recent times, former ISA detainees on the island have made calls for the law to be abolished. These include those who were jailed under the Act in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. For more than 50 years, the ISA has been the Sword of Damocles which still hangs over Singaporeans like dark clouds over the island.

Until very recently, no one really knew how many were detained over the decades, and could only indulge in speculation. In October this year, however, the government finally disclosed the numbers – well, not entirely. “More than 800 people were arrested under the ISA in the 1970s of whom 235 were issued with Orders of Detention,” Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs, Teo Chee Hean, told Parliament. (See here.) He did not reveal the exact number of people who have been detained under the Act since Singapore’s independence.

One of those who were served with detention orders is Dr Lim Hock Siew. Arrested in 1963’s infamous Operation Coldstore, Dr Lim was only 32 years old when he was jailed – without having been charged or given a trial in open court. More than 100 activists were arrested, Dr Lim among them. He was released in 1981 after 20 years in jail, making him the second-longest serving ISA detainee in Singapore’s history, after Mr Chia Thye Poh who served a total of 32 years.

Dr Lim has, especially in the last few years, been more prominent and vocal in speaking about his time in detention and the events leading up to his arrest in February 1963. On Tuesday, 25 October, he addressed an audience of about 40 people at a closed-door session. The forum was organised by Function 8, a name which, the group says on its website, “represents our hope that, just like the F8 key in computers resets a computer to ‘safe’ and basic mode for troubleshooting, we can also reflect over the basics of what makes societies strong, just and meaningful and the role of democratic processes in achieving those goals.”

As Dr Lim took the seat at the front of the room, he looked more frail than on previous occasions. Originally scheduled to take place a week earlier, the forum was postponed because Dr Lim had taken ill. His memory, however, does not escape him. As he related the story of his arrest in his soft-spoken manner, it is evident that the long years of incarceration have not dented his spirit. “I am a socialist,” he said, rejecting the government’s labelling of him otherwise.

Although Dr Lim has steadfastly held on to his ideological principles all these years – refusing to compromise his beliefs even through 19 years of incredible psychological pressure during his incarceration – he was emphatic about the fact that at the time, the Barisan Socialis was not a subversive communist front organisation and had no intention of joining with the communists to instigate violence and disorder, contrary to what were stated as reasons for the arrests. (Recently declassified British and Australian intelligence files support Dr Lim’s statement.) According to its ex-leaders, the Barisan was a legal political party and was struggling for independence through peaceful constitutional means. That meant going through the electoral process, and as the strongest political force in Singapore at the time (one of its rallies managed to attract 100,000 people), it was expected to win in any free and fair election (The Fajar Generation, pg. 171).

In fact, according to Dr Lim, by the latter half of 1962 the Barisan Socialis was busy preparing for the impending Legislative Assembly elections in 1963 and had no intention of becoming distracted or diverting its energies elsewhere – which is why it had encouraged trade unions not to hold strikes during that period. Hence, the claim that those arrested “were involved in a giant communist conspiracy to launch supporting action in the event of armed intervention by Indonesia in British Borneo” (The Straits Times, 3 February 1963) did not make sense.

I kissed my wife goodbye and...

A Q&A session followed Dr Lim’s recounting of the historical circumstances surrounding the Operation Coldstore arrests. The audience was clearly curious about the personal stories behind the published accounts. “What happened on the night of the arrests?” asked one audience member. “Did you know you were going to be put away for so long?”

Dr Lim replied that the leaders of the Barisan had already known about the impending arrests and were waiting at home for the knock on the door. When the police came to take him away, he turned to kiss his wife goodbye and said to her, “See you in 8 years’ time.” The longest a political prisoner had been held up to that point was 8 years.

“How did you manage to keep sane through all those years?” someone else asked. “Well, after the first 10 years, I sat down and made another 10-year plan,” Dr Lim deadpanned. The laughter that followed was tinged with some degree of fascinated awe. Indeed, one of the most psychologically agonising aspects of detention without trial is not having any idea when you are going to be released, or indeed if you would be released at all. A huge degree of mental strength and fortitude is needed to stave off despair and depression, and for Dr Lim, he found that strength through holding fast to his principles and beliefs. “It is about conviction,” he said simply.

“I am not interested in saving Lee Kuan Yew’s face.”

It was this conviction that led him to publish on 18 March 1972 - nine years into his incarceration - a political statement from prison. The statement was issued in response to an offer by two “high-ranking employees” from the special branch to release him if he would issue a public statement of repentance. A part of his statement was read out at the forum:

Special Branch: You must concede something so that Lee Kuan Yew would be in a position to explain to the public why you had been detained so long. Mr Lee Kuan Yew must also preserve his face. If you were to be released unconditionally, he will lose face.

Dr Lim Hock Siew: I am not interested in saving Lee Kuan Yew’s face. This is not a question of pride but of principle. My detention is completely unjustifiable and I will not lift a single finger to help Lee Kuan Yew to justify the unjustifiable. In the light of what you say, is it not very clear that I have lost my freedom all these long and bitter years just to save Lee Kuan Yew’s face? Therefore the PAP regime’s allegation that I am a security risk is a sham cover and a facade to detain me unjustifiably for over nine years.

Finally, when asked for his opinion of why Singapore has resolved to retain the ISA, Dr Lim said that if he had to make a guess, the ISA is something that the PAP has decided to “keep in its back pocket” – to be used if the threat of its losing power becomes imminent. The instigation of a riot or disturbance might be all the excuse needed to invoke the use of the ISA.

Rakyat Clinic

At 80-years old, Dr Lim still practises his profession at the Rakyat Clinic in Balestier Road, which he had set up with Dr Poh Soo Kai, another former detainee, in 1961. As a general practitioner, he continues to see needy patients and charges reduced rates to the poor, dispensing with fees altogether for his poorest patients.

In this and other aspects of his life, Dr Lim lives and breathes his socialist ideology. After all, it is about conviction – the conviction that has sustained his spirit through some of the most tumultuous times in Singapore’s history.

Co-authored with Andrew Loh.
Rakyat Clinic Pte. Ltd.
573 Balestier Road (S)329888
Tel: 62513415
Poh Soo Kai, Tan Jing Quee and Koh Kay Yew. The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club And The Politics Of Postwar Malaya And Singapore. Malaysia: SIRD, 2010.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Teo Soh Lung: For Minister Teo Chee Hean (2)

by Teo Soh Lung on Wednesday, 26 October 2011 at 11:23 (source)

After more than 4 decades, we are informed by the Minister for Home Affairs, Mr Teo Chee Hean that more than 800 people were arrested in the 1970s. This number is not small and I dread to speculate the number arrested in the preceding decade. We are aware that more than 120 people were arrested on 2 February 1963 in Operation Cold Store. Almost the entire central committee of the Barisan Sosialis including Dr Lim Hock Siew and Dr Poh Soo Kai were detained. Inche Said Zahari and trade unionists, the Late Mr Ho Piao and Mr Jamit Singh were also not spared.

In October that year Operation Pecah followed and elected opposition members of parliament, Ms Loh Meow Gong and Messrs Lee Tee Tong and S T Bani were detained. In 1963 alone, the number imprisoned must have exceeded 200. It would not be wrong to say that the arrests of the leaders of the opposition and trade unions in 1963 ensured monopoly of power for the PAP till today. Almost every year after 1963, there were arrests. Arrests continues to this day. No evidence of weapons or bombs was ever been produced by the government. All we are told is that we have to trust the judgement of the government.

In arguing for the retention of the ISA, the minister reiterated the “nipped in the bud” theory expounded by his predecessors. He said: “…The ISA thus allows the government to act quickly to prevent a threat from developing into something very serious such as a bombing; or to stem an organised pattern of subversion which promotes civil disturbances and disorder…”

Every citizen who is arrested is deprived of his constitutional right to life or personal liberty, freedom of speech and expression, peaceful assembly and association which are guaranteed by Articles 9 and 14 of our Constitution. Families are often deprived of sole breadwinners. But perhaps the PAP have reasons for doing what they did. They know that periodic arrests instil fear amongst citizens. Fear ensures the survival of the PAP.

It is time we question the retention of the ISA, a law that permits the ministers or prime minister to imprison citizens for as long as they wish. We are told that ministers rely on the Internal Security Department which have made thorough investigation before ordering the detention of citizens or renewing their detention orders. Is this true? Dr Lim Hock Siew’s public statement issued through his legal adviser, the Late Mr T T Rajah and released by his wife, Dr Beatrice Chen on 18 March 1972 exposed this lie. I reproduce part of the statement [1] below:

“… A week after my transfer to the special branch headquarters, the same two high-ranking employees spelt out the conditions of my release. They demanded from me two things. They are as follows:

(1) That I make an oral statement of my past political activities, that is to say, `A security statement’. This was meant for the special branch records only and not meant for publication.

(2) That I must issue a public statement consisting of two points: (a) That I am prepared to give up politics and devote to medical practice thereafter. (b) That I must express support for the parliamentary democratic system.
I shall now recall and recapitulate the conversation that took place between me and the same two high-ranking special branch agents during my detention at the special branch headquarters.

Special Branch: You need not have to condemn the Barisan Sosialis or any person. We admit that it is unjust to detain you so long. Nine years is a long time in a person’s life; we are anxious to settle your case.

Dr Lim Hock Siew: My case will be settled immediately if I am released unconditionally. I was not asked at the time of my arrest whether I ought to be arrested. Release me unconditionally and my case is settled.

Special Branch: The key is in your hands. It is for you to open the door.

Dr Lim Hock Siew: To say that the key is in my hands is the inverted logic of gangsters in which white is black and black is white. The victim is painted as the culprit and the culprit is made to look innocent. Four Gurkha soldiers were brought to my house to arrest me. I did not ask or seek arrest or the prolonged detention for over nine years in prison without trial.

Special Branch: You must concede something so that Lee Kuan Yew would be in a position to explain to the public why you had been detained so long. Mr Lee Kuan Yew must also preserve his face. If you were to be released unconditionally, he will lose face.

Dr Lim Hock Siew: I am not interested in saving Lee Kuan Yew’s face. This is not a question of pride but one of principle. My detention is completely unjustifiable and I will not lift a single finger to help Lee Kuan Yew to justify the unjustifiable. In the light of what you say, is it not very clear that I have lost my freedom all these long and bitter years just to save Lee Kuan Yew’s face? Therefore the PAP regime’s allegation that I am a security risk is a sham cover and a façade to detain me unjustifiably for over nine years. “

Dr Lim was 31 years old when he was arrested on 2 February 1963. His son was then 5 months’ old. He and Dr Poh Soo Kai had two years earlier, set up a medical clinic, Rakyat Clinic along Balestier Road which provided and still provides medical care for the poor. Both were also founder members of Barisan Sosialis.

The PAP kept Dr Lim in jail for 20 years. They freed him unconditionally at the age of 51. He had missed the prime of his life and the growing up years of his son. The PAP had ensured for themselves that Dr Lim no longer posed a political threat to them. Only a person of courage and determination can survive such a long period of imprisonment. And only people who have lost their conscience can imprison Dr Lim for 2 decades without trial.

Mr Chng Min Oh @ Chuang Men-Hu

While many of the people detained in the 1960s were imprisoned for decades, I did not expect the PAP government to continue that practice in the 1970s. I was therefore shocked to meet Mr Chng Min Oh @ Chuang Men-Hu recently.

Mr Chng was a humble construction worker and painter when he was arrested on 3 August 1970. Leaving his wife who was then three months’ pregnant and two young children aged 4 and 6 that dawn must have been painful for him. He was offered freedom by banishment i.e. if he agreed to being banished to China. He refused the offer.

Mr Chng remained in prison while his wife took on several jobs to raise the young family. She became a construction worker and a hawker whenever she had time. While she worked, her parents helped in looking after the children. Life was terribly hard for the family. They did not even have money for medical treatment. But the ministers did not care and renewed his detention order 7 times. He was finally released after 13 years, on 7 August 1983. He had served a life sentence though he was never judged guilty of any crime in a court of law.

The hardship of separation in indefinite detention is captured vividly in the poem Tears by Said Zahari. Zahari was imprisoned for 17 years.


I saw tears down your cheeks
sparkling like diamonds,
beautiful like shining stars
in a clear night sky.
I saw sorrow
dancing in tune with your sobs.
My heart beats faster, my lips tremble.

Then I saw courage,
confidence and determination,
peering from behind the sorrow.
How cruel, how inhumane!
So high, so huge
This partition between us.
For so long!

But in spirit we are one,
as always,
bound by unbreakable bonds
of love and longing for justice.
Neither this prison wall
nor a hundred years of incarceration
shall diminish my love.

Hari Raya card to Sal
20th November 1969

How can we believe Minister Teo Chee Hean when he said “The Government has used the ISA as a last resort when there is a significant threat, and other laws are not adequate to deal with the situation...” when so many citizens were imprisoned for decades without trial. How can the PAP ministers take away the fundamental liberties of its citizens in the name of national security so freely and so frequently when Singapore was and is not at war? Have they all lost their conscience?

[1] Poh Soo Kai, Tan Jing Quee and Koh Kay Yew Eds. The Fajar Generation The University Socialist Club and the Politics of Postwar Malaya and Singapore Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, Malaysia pp 150 – 151.

[2] Tan Jing Quee Teo Soh Lung Koh Kay Yew Eds Our Thoughts Are Free Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile Ethos Books 2009 Singapore p 47

Teo Soh Lung: For Minister Teo Chee Hean (1)

by Teo Soh Lung on Thursday, 20 October 2011 at 19:43 (source)

The Minister for Home Affairs, Mr Teo Chee Hean said in parliament yesterday:

“… So while ordinary Singaporeans remember the 1970s as a peaceful time and largely went about their lives, intense security operations were continually being undertaken to preserve that peace. More than 800 people were arrested under the ISA in the 1970s of whom 235 were issued with Orders of Detention. Most were detained because they were more than just sympathisers and had provided financial, logistical and manpower support to the CPM insurgents…”

Indeed, the 1970s was a peaceful period like any other periods of Singapore’s history. I was a young working adult then and can confirm that that period was peaceful save for the reports of periodic arrests under the ISA. The arrests did not alarm me until 1977 when several of my friends in the legal profession were detained. I was devastated. The Law Society was silent. It did not protest on behalf of the detainees even though one of those arrested was a member of its council. One would have thought that since lawyers are professionals, there would at least be some discussion or questions asked of the government. But that was not the case. Lawyers went about their business as if nothing had happened. To add insult to injury, I remember the then Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew called lawyers nincompoops when he was a dinner guest of the Society. The Society did not rebut. Whoever in the council at that time must have felt they deserved that name.

Three decades have passed and I ponder over those years of silence. Mr Teo Chee Hean tells us that more than 800 people were arrested in the 1970s. I never expected the arrests to run into hundreds. We should all be disturbed by the number. Imagine more than 800 lives were disrupted. Imagine how those detained were mistreated by the ISD. Imagine the lives of more than 800 families turned upside down. Imagine husbands and wives being separated and young children being deprived of their parents. How did they live without breadwinners? Imagine parents being deprived of their children who may be supporting them? Who took care of all of them while they were in prison?

Those arrested in the 1970s included Cultural Medallion recipients, Yeng Pway Ngon, Kuo Pao Kun and his wife Goh Lay Kuan, lawyers T T Rajah, G Raman, R Joethy, Tan Jing Quee and Ong Bock Chuan, Hussein Jahidin (Editor of Berita Harian), Shamsuddin Tung (Editor in Chief of Nanyang Siang Pau), Lee Eu Seng (Managing Director of Nanyang Siang Pau), Ngoh Teck Nam (Translator of Sin Chew Jit Poh), Chua Chap Jee (Lecturer), Pan Nan Hung (Naval Engineer), Ho Kwon Ping, Wong Chee San (Polytechnic Student), Drs Ang See Chai and Poh Soo Kai. I know many of them and I can confirm that they are all law abiding citizens.

Having been a victim of the ISA myself, I cannot and will not believe that any one of the names I mentioned above is a subversive intent on destroying Singapore by violent and unconstitutional means. Mr Teo Chee Hean can continue to kill his conscience by repeating the lies of his predecessors. But he should bear in mind that there is a possibility that those whose lives his government have destroyed may one day write their stories. They may be afraid to tell the truth now.

I end with a poem by Said Zahari (Editor of Utusan Melayu) who was imprisoned for 17 years without trial. Imagine his wife giving birth to their daughter not knowing when he would be released. May Mr Teo and the PAP reflect on all the children deprived of their fathers or mothers from 1959 till today.

Born Unfree*

not that i was not hungry
I refused the food;
nor that I was not sleepy
I kept awake.

my ears keep hearing
the cry of an infant.

for months in solitary,
it was a source of anxiety;
for hours to this moment,
it is endless excitement.

then came the news of
the arrival of my little one.

I am the father
robbed of my freedom
whose world has shrunk
into a dark little dungeon.

my child, just born
into a world yet unfree.

22 May 1963

* Tan Jing Quee, Teo Soh Lung and Koh Kay Yew (eds) Our Thoughts Are Free - Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile Ethos Books Singapore p. 39

Monday, October 24, 2011

Repatriation Companies (TOC Expose)

TOC expose, Jan 14, 2009 (source)

 Ravi who runs UTR Repatriation Services and Liang who runs 1ACE Repatriation Services. Both men perform a service that is illegal

Story by Jolovan Wham

Is your foreign worker giving you problems? Are you afraid that he might be a bad influence on other workers? What if he runs away and you lose your $5000 security deposit*?

For approximately $300 per worker, you can engage the services of a ‘repatriation’ company who will help you deal with the cumbersome task of sending back these trouble makers and allay your fears.

Never mind that you don’t intend to pay this worker his outstanding salary, or that he had suffered an industrial accident at your work place and has not received his work injury compensation. Never mind that he has only worked for a few months for your company and is still trying to pay off the debt he incurred for the chance to work in Singapore.

‘Repatriation companies’ are businesses that are set up specifically to help employers manage ‘troublesome’ foreign workers by roughing them up and sending them back to their home countries forcefully. Many employers are more than happy to pay someone to do this since they find it difficult to handle work place disputes and get rid of foreign workers who do not toe the line.

Paid kidnappers or “service to society”?

‘We are providing a service to society’, claimed Mr Ravi when I met him for the first time.

Mr Ravi is the boss of UTR Services Pte Ltd, one of the more well known repatriation companies. ‘If we don’t provide this service, all these foreign workers will run away and there will be havoc.’

Indians, Bangladeshis, Burmese, Chinese, and Thai,—companies like UTR services have confined and repatriated them all. These guys work round the clock, nabbing workers from dormitories, work sites and even in public places such as coffee shops and outside shopping centers. Typical targets are workers with ‘bad attitudes’, who don’t meet up to employers’ expectations, or whose work permits are going to expire.

The South Asian workers call them ‘Tamil gangsters’: in reality, the people from repatriation companies are burly, rough looking men of all races who are paid to intimidate, assault and coerce workers into returning home.

Employers of course, will not tell workers that they will be sent home in this way. The shock of being repatriated suddenly is a fear many foreign workers have to live with. Once these workers are caught, they are sent to the premises of the repatriation company, locked up in a room and not allowed to leave the premises until the day of their departure. While in the premises, those who protest or refuse to return are routinely assaulted and verbally abused until they agree to go back.

Mind you, the repatriation companies take care to conceal their methods—their assaults do not leave any signs of a visible injury, making any allegation against them for physical abuse hard to prove. On the day of the departure, these workers are escorted to the airport and seen through Immigration. Threats of being blacklisted by the MOM so that they will never be allowed to work in Singapore again are other bullying tactics that are used to intimidate the workers into agreeing to leave.

Mr Xia is a construction worker whose employer called UTR Services because Mr Xia refused to leave until the settlement of these claims. His employer wanted to send him back to China quickly following a dispute He also injured himself while he was at work and he was waiting for his Work Injury Compensation Claim to be processed by the Ministry of Manpower.

What followed was the start of an ordeal that lasted a total of 36 days.

‘They beat me and they took my money’, Mr Xia told me in Mandarin. ‘They said they would only return my money if I agree to return to China. I am very angry—how could my employer do this to me? I am not a criminal. What right do those people have to lock me up, take my money and force me to go home? Why are they so afraid that I would run away? I’m just waiting for my work injury claim to be processed.’

While he was confined in the premises of the repatriation company, Mr Xia told me that he was also slapped and punched. However, he was resolute and refused to be intimidated into going home before he received his money and his work injury compensation.

Running way—a term often used by employers for workers who go missing – is one of the main reasons repatriation companies are in business. Employers stand to lose their deposit of $5000 to the Immigration Authorities if they fail to repatriate their workers. Rather than lose the money, they willingly shell out a couple of hundred dollars to companies like UTR just to make sure that these workers really go home.

Can the police help?

‘You can call the Police for all I care,’ said Francis, the Director of UTR Services, when I was trying to negotiate the release of another foreign worker who was confined. According to Mr Xia, he called the Police 3 times for help during the entire period but his pleas to them went unheeded.

On all three occasions when the Police responded, Mr Xia said that he was told since he was going to be sent home anyway, there was nothing the Police could do to help him. Finally, Mr Xia was given the number of HOME by another worker who was also going to be repatriated.

My colleague, Charanpal, went down to negotiate the release of Mr Xia. UTR only agreed to release the worker after we signed a letter of indemnity stating that we would reimburse the employer of the $5000 security bond should it be forfeited and Mr Xia goes missing. 

After his release, Mr Xia made a Police report. The Officer in charge did not seem interested in investigating his complaint. Mr Xia then proceeded to lodge his complaint at the Magistrate’s Court and the Police was ordered to re-investigate.

This time, I accompanied Mr Xia down to the Police station for his statement to be taken. Once again, the police officer seemed uninterested, and even went on to justify the important role that these repatriation companies play in managing foreign workers. He said to me, ‘You have to understand sir, that the employer might lose his $5000 security deposit if this worker goes missing.’ The officer then went on to explain that UTR Services was not doing anything wrong.


An interpretation of the Penal Code might yield a different answer. It states very clearly that, “Whoever wrongfully restrains any person in such a manner as to prevent that person from proceeding beyond certain circumscribing limits, is said “wrongfully to confine” that person.” UTR’s activities are clearly a violation of our laws.

I called the employer and brought up the issue of Mr Xia being confined and assaulted by the repatriation company. The employer retorted defensively that UTR is a licensed company and there was nothing wrong with him engaging their services. A search through ACRA reveals that UTR Services Pte Ltd is a company that provides ‘manpower repatriation and related services.’

What this entails is not described at all. UTR is obviously not just an escort service that ferries workers to the airport. Its methods, which include the wrongful restraint of people are clearly illegal.

There are many things wrong with how foreign workers are treated in this country: the presence and operations of repatriation companies is one of them.

By offering such services, these companies are taking advantage of employers’ fears of losing their $5000 security deposit. By utilising their services, employers are taking shortcuts in handling work place conflicts and industrial disputes. By turning a blind eye to them, the authorities seem to be openly endorsing activities which flout the law. All are complicit in the systemic abuse of the rights of migrant workers. As the recession deepens and more hapless foreign workers get laid off, repatriation companies may soon be doing a roaring business.

* The $5000 security bond is a law under the Immigration Act which states that employers who fail to repatriate a foreign worker under work permit will have to pay $5000 as a penalty

The author is a social worker with Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME).

Read also:

The Story of Delowar by Deborah Choo.
Sent home with $600 by Deborah Choo.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Singapore Government condones illegal detention of foreign workers

Government silent over the breaking of its own laws

by Vincent Wijeysingha (source)


Unbeknownst to almost every Singaporean today, an illegal commerce is carried on with the full approval and, indeed, connivance of their government. This is the time-honoured trade of kidnap.


The Repatriation Companies perform a needed service, say the authorities. And what is this service that is so urgently needed that government departments, as one, are unwilling to acknowledge that what they do is illegal?

Let’s say you are an employer. And you have a migrant worker who has injured himself and cannot work for a time. Or you have not paid him for months on end. Or have made illegal deductions from his salary. Or have worked him for far more than the legal 72 hours overtime per month. Or have only paid him when there is work, contrary to the Employment Act that mandates that a worker must be paid if he is available for work.

Let’s say your worker indicates that he intends to take a complaint to the Ministry of Manpower (whose website, by the way, states its values as being “People Centredness, Professionalism, Teamwork and Passion for Progress”). Let’s say you cannot afford to be, well, ‘people centred’, because people cost money, you decide that your migrant worker is best dealt with by way of getting him out of your hair, which in fact means expelling him from Singapore, so he can no longer take the protection of the nation’s employment law.

But human beings are not like dried plums or computer peripherals. One cannot just put them in a box and DHL them back home. And for the sake of your reputation and the good name of your business, you would baulk at manhandling him yourself onto a plane from the award-winning Changi Airport.

But help is at hand. Legally constituted entities called Repatriation Companies exist. For a fee, they will do the manhandling for you. One of these entities, prosaically describes this on its website as, “Transportation of workers and personal airport check-in and transfer to the ICA Special Pass counter.”

In fact, what they do, contrary to that banal statement, is to seize the worker, force him into a vehicle that will take him to the entity’s premises, and keep him under lock and key until they spirit him away to the airport and on a plane and safely out of Singapore’s jurisdiction. The website of that particular entity names this “temporary custodial lodging.”

The last time I checked, one of the definitions of the word custody, according to the Oxford dictionary, is imprisonment. I don’t imagine the definition has been altered since my copy of the Oxford was published in 2005.

That such an entity exists and that it can proclaim to all and sundry on its website that it offers an imprisonment service, even though it is illegal, is not the key issue here. Businesses have made money out of far more reprehensible services, like selling kidneys harvested from drugged persons or renting children’s bodies to those whose sexual proclivities operate in that particular depravity.

What is at issue here, and equally depraved, is that departments of the Singapore government, the Ministry of Manpower and the Ministry of Home Affairs, are fully aware that such practices go on and decline to act when reports of these practices are made known to them. In the last 4 weeks alone, an NGO alerted the police to two such cases; the police declined to act.

Because, in the words of that MP, who is Chairman of the Migrant Workers’ Centre and Co-Chairman of the National Trades Union Congress/Singapore National Employers’ Federation Migrant Workers’ Forum, “…whatever factors would be able to help us to sustain the growth of the economy for the benefit of our countrymen, for the benefit of our country; we will definitely go for it.”

Despite five news articles on the practice of repatriation in both the mainstream and online press over the last few years, the government has declined to acknowledge the wickedness of holding a man or woman against their will in a locked space precisely so that they are unable to avail themselves of the protection of the law.

Let it be put plainly for the avoidance of doubt: the Singapore government is closing its eyes to the presence, in our midst, in this day and age, one hundred and seventy-eight years after slavery was abolished, of companies that, outside of the law, get away with kidnap and abduction and imprisonment. For one reason and one reason alone: that the worker in question – who, usually, mind you, has paid anywhere from three thousand to eleven thousand Singapore dollars to secure a job here – is forcibly prevented from seeking the protection of the law.

The Singapore Police Force, whose website proclaims the following Mission Statement, “…uphold the law, maintain order and keep the peace in the Republic of Singapore,” has, on the several occasions when local migrant labour welfare charities have sought their help in freeing a worker so abducted and so held, declined to accord to that worker the amenity their website proclaims to the world.

This is the tragedy of the Singaporean success story. This is its underside. That nothing, not even basic legal protections of the human person should be allowed to interfere with the “growth of the economy”. And the Member of Parliament who uttered those unfortunate words, and his friends in the Ministry of Manpower and the Ministry of Home Affairs, are the defenders of this intolerable silence.

In recent weeks, the government’s callous disregard of the safety and protection of the human person, his right to remain free except by leave of the law of the land, has come into stark focus with its cynical defence of the Internal Security Act following Prime Minister Najib’s announcement that Malaysia will soon abolish its own ISA.

After promising in 1991 to “seriously consider” abolishing it should Malaysia do so, the Prime Minister, albeit he himself being silent, has tried (and failed) to justify why Singapore needs to retain the ISA on its statute book.

The right to a fair trial by a judge sufficiently independent of the Executive based on convincing evidence and not merely administrative diktat is the fundamental right since it is embodied in the human person. It is the lodestar of a civilised community. It is the first right, the right to the sole custody of one’s body unless one has transgressed a readily-apparent law written down for all to know. It is the right upon which all other rights are based because, make no mistake about it, if power cannot compel you by other means, it will compel your body, as the Singapore government has been wont to do since forty-nine years ago come next February, when it threw into jail upon the basis of no evidence whatsoever, one hundred and eleven men and women who had broken no law. And one of them was kept in jail for thirty-two years. Without having broken any law or even been told for the first nineteen years, of the charge that had been laid against him and which justified his detention.

And in the 1970s and 1980s imprisoned almost forty more people without benefit of due process and without, until this day, having produced any evidence against them, being content with unfounded and unprovable assertions, dutifully reported in the Straits Times.

With the passing of the knuckle-duster style of politics in recent years, Singaporeans may believe that they will never feel the cold summons to detention without trial upon their shoulder in the dead of night. Not so, (for) our migrant workers who erect our buildings and lay our streets and sink our train tunnels and clean our food courts and make the products that we sell to the world. Not so.

For at any time of the day or night, when he least expects it, he may be abducted and locked away and forced onto a place so that his employer does not have the inconvenience of his appealing to the law to protect him from exploitation, from abuse, from harm.

Entirely with the connivance of the Singapore government. Let it be said: with the blessings of the Singapore government. For they cannot claim not to know that this goes on. The migrant labour welfare organisations and the newspapers have alerted them to it. Repeatedly. Let me repeat it for the avoidance of doubt: the Singapore government refuses to enforce its own laws that protect people from abduction, kidnap and imprisonment.

There are many Singaporeans at this moment in time who are opposed to our immigration policy. It has brought inconvenience, unrest, anger, resentment, and overcrowding to the community and, most importantly, lowered wages and increased housing prices. And they are right. For the immigration policy has not been operated with the Singaporean in mind. It has been made and operated with GDP in mind; a GDP that has not benefited the vast majority of Singaporeans: how many workers can boast a fourteen point six percent pay increase when the economy grew by that amount last year?

So, Singaporeans have experienced all the ill effects of the immigration policy with few of its benefits.

But to turn away from the travesty of justice that is the Repatriation Companies is to face the wrong side of the battle. The common antagonist, for both Singaporean and foreigner alike, is the Singapore government. Because if it is pleased to condone the abduction, kidnap and illegal imprisonment of the workers of another country, even countries as powerful as India and China, then the worker who claims the protection of Singapore citizenship is nowhere near better protected.

So, if you do one civic-minded thing in these next five years, do this thing: write to your MP or attend the Meet the People Session and tell him or her that you want the Repatriation Companies made illegal. And copy your letter to the Ambassadors and High Commissioners to Singapore and ask them to ask their governments to intercede with their Singaporean counterpart to stop this abominable practice. Because there is nothing - nothing whatsoever - at this moment in time, that will protect you if you happen yourself to fall into the hands of one of these wicked entities because you decided to exercise your rights under the labour laws.

I have seen men detained in the premises of Repatriation Companies. It is a most inhumane sight. It is not worth the economic growth it promises because it approaches banditry. Wealth is one, and a central one at that, but it is not the final arbiter of a nation’s wellbeing. We forfeit our right to look ourselves honestly and squarely in the mirror if we keep silent while this goes on.

The government of Singapore, not the judiciary, reserves to itself, in two provisions of the law, the right to imprison its people without needing to produce any evidence. And it ignores manifestly illegal practices that achieve the same purpose for the citizens of other countries.

It should have the benefit of neither provision. And nor should it ignore the Repatriation Companies that do the same to our foreign brothers and sisters who came to our island merely to do what our grandparents did not so many years ago.

                                -- Vincent Wijeysingha

Friday, October 21, 2011

Interview with Vincent Wijeysingha

Thought provoking and extensive interview with Vincent Wijeysingha,  pubished in Social Space, Oct 2011: here

Low Thia Khiang’s speech: Towards a First World Parliament


Mr. Speaker Sir,

In his Address, the President stated that our shared goal is to create a better life for all. Sir, we share this goal.

We also agree that economic growth is basic to improving our lives. I do not think anyone of us here expects money to drop from the sky. Singaporeans are pragmatic and mature enough to understand this.

The Presidential Address also provided a broad outline on achieving a better life for all, from the young to the old, from the lower income to those doing exceptionally well.

All these are aimed at achieving a happy and fulfilling life for all Singaporeans. It is therefore puzzling that some PAP MPs made a fuss when Sylvia Lim said that the government should bear in mind that happiness should be the ultimate aim of its policy goals. Besides normal economic indicators, we should consider other indicators reflecting the happiness and well-being of a society, as articulated in the United Nations resolution initiated by Bhutan and supported by Singapore. In Bhutan’s case, they use Gross National Happiness (GNH).

The President described the situation after the general elections as a ‘new normal’. Should the government not view indicators such as GNH as a ‘new normal’ in addition to GDP & GNP? I hope that this is not a sign that the government’s memory of the people’s reactions to its policies during the General Election is fading.

In the Presidential Address, a promise was made to our senior citizens that “you can spend your silver years with peace of mind” – a promise which I take to heart. Yes, this is what our senior citizens deserve. It is only fair that those who have contributed to the progress of the nation, who have moved Singapore from the Third World to the First World, should be recognized and treated accordingly. This is what a responsive and responsible government should do.

To ensure that our senior citizens will live with peace of mind and dignity, the government must provide affordable health care and adequate housing as well as appropriate retirement financing. This will require more government expenditure.

When MPs from the Workers’ Party raised questions related to these issues in this House, they were met with criticisms from the PAP. We were often warned about the dangers of a ‘welfare state’. We were reminded that there is always a trade-off in any policy. This makes me wonder whether the promise to our senior citizens in the Presidential Address will remain as a promise worth less than the paper on which it is given – until the next general election.

While I agree that we should be mindful of the pitfalls of a welfare state, I think it is high time that the PAP MPs refrain from using this as a ‘red herring’ to kill debate on alternative solutions and mechanisms to those proposed by the Government.

In this regard, I was glad to hear the Prime Minister yesterday make the commitment to strengthen our social safety nets in healthcare, housing and CPF. I hope our senior citizens will see the Prime Minister fulfill his pledges to make a real difference to their lives.

Sir, indeed, we should be fully aware of potential trade-offs in policy. We should also be on guard against viewing trade-offs only from the Government’s perspective. We should always assess trade-offs from the people’s perspective, especially those who are severely affected by the policy.

However, the Government has often used ‘trade-offs’ as and when it suited them.

When the Government allowed two casinos to be built here, it highlighted the benefits to our economy over related gaming and social ills – never mind the trade-offs. When the Government decided to go ahead with hospitalization means testing without a transparent safety net for the sandwiched “not too poor, not too rich” group, it spoke about subsidizing those who needed it most.
To shorten the long queue for subsidized rental flats, the Government’s expedient solution was to disqualify more people from applying. They were told to live with their children regardless of how that could affect family relationships and as a result, some elderly people suffer emotionally. The Prime Minister acknowledged yesterday that the issue of higher demand for subsidized rental housing was not straight-forward, but it needed attention.

However, Sir, the general feeling among Singaporeans during the General Elections and even now is that the Government is more concerned with paying its Ministers well than about the welfare of the people. I think that the government must ask itself why Singaporeans feel and think this way.

I believe, Sir, the answer lies in the policy “trade-offs” expounded by a member on the government bench. It seems to me that more often than not, the policy trade-off was biased against the people, especially those who are adversely affected.

The policy “trade-off” is nothing more than a political assessment by the govt. The assessment is whether people can withstand – or as we say in Malay, ‘boleh tahan’ – the impact of the policy. But when the people ‘tak boleh tahan’, the govt will ‘kena’ and get hit during the election. This is what happened during the recent election in May.

The government should thank the opposition parties for making tremendous efforts despite the lack of resources to allow Singaporeans to exercise their right to vote and express their views. The opposition parties have also enabled the government to awaken to the problems on the ground that it had thought were manageable.

I am happy to note that the PAP has done some reflection on the ground reactions and the Government has responded to some of the concerns of the people.

We have seen a spectrum of policy changes since the election in May even before the opening of Parliament. We also saw various Ministers at work – including the Minister for Transport taking public transport – and the swift response from the Minister for MND on the usage of railway land. I am also happy to note the shift in the focus of our education philosophy. In this regard, the announcement in this House that the MCDYS is now not only looking after the “In Risk Group”, but will also be focusing on “At Risk Group” is a positive step. I am of the view that this proactive approach in social services is the right direction.

Sir, all these developments after the GE augur well for the future of Singapore. They reflect the dynamism of Singapore as a nation.

I am also pleased to note that although the political system is not a level playing field for opposition parties, the political will and maturity of the voters mitigated this unfair system.

Here we are, in this House, the 12th Parliament, which we hope is the beginning of a “First World Parliament” befitting a First World nation, Singapore.

While the lack of resources and information may hamper the Workers’ Party from developing alternative policies, it will not deter us from doing our best to contribute to the debate in parliament on behalf of our electorate and the people of Singapore. We will scrutinize policies for any loopholes and gaps that are likely to affect our people adversely. We will be the voice of the people in the House so that the government will also consider their concerns and needs in any policy trade off.

I urge the PAP to step out of the shadow of the doom and gloom of certain pitfalls of western liberal democracy and work towards a First World Parliament in our own way. The Singapore way, to build a better life for all Singaporeans and a prosperous Singapore, based on justice, equality and happiness for our people.

(Low Thia Khiang's Chinese speech on bilingual education: here)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Pritam Singh: New media is here to stay


“The government has, over the last few years in particular, referred to the new media in largely pejorative terms – the Prime Minister has previously referred to it as the “wild west” and more recently, as a “cowboy town”. But the reality is this – the new media is here to stay, and it will continue to eat into the mindshare of the mainstream media, no matter what the government chooses to call it. Temasek Review may have gone offline, but it is not going to be too difficult or technically challenging to bring 10 new incarnations of Temasek Review online overnight.”

                      -MP for Aljinied GRC, Pritam Singh

The following is the maiden speech by MP Pritam Singh (Debate on Presidential Address) in the 12th sitting of Parliament:

Mr Speaker Sir,

Please allow me to congratulate you on your election as Speaker of this House.

In his speech to this House, the President noted, “we must find ways to use the new media constructively, to connect with the digital generation and sustain fruitful conversations on issues concerning us all.” MICA’s addendum noted that the Ministry seeks to find innovative ways to connect with citizens and it plays an important role in driving and coordinating whole-of-government efforts in fostering an informed and engaged citizenry.

Mr Speaker Sir, my speech today relates to suggesting ways in which the government can foster an informed and engaged citizenry. It is divided into two parts. First I assess Singapore’s mainstream media landscape, which directly affects the online world. Secondly, I seek to provide suggestions to the government on how it can sow the seeds for a media and information environment where Singaporeans are as far as possible, inoculated from lies and misinformation online, and biased reporting from other media outlets in general.

Sir, the new media does not exist in a vacuum. Some Singaporeans routinely wonder why alternative political commentary websites are so popular among Singaporeans – these include Singapore Recalcitrant, Singapore Daily, Singapore Notes and sites from across the centre-left of the political spectrum like Yawning Bread, The Online Citizen and even some articles from the discontinued Temasek Review. Could it be because for every ounce of misinformation, perceived or otherwise, these websites and blogs also ask serious questions pertaining to governance in Singapore – questions that are sidestepped, diluted or even ignored by the government and mainstream media?

The government has, over the last few years in particular, referred to the new media in largely pejorative terms – the Prime Minister has previously referred to it as the “wild west” and more recently, as a “cowboy town”. But the reality is this – the new media is here to stay, and it will continue to eat into the mindshare of the mainstream media, no matter what the government chooses to call it. Temasek Review may have gone offline, but it is not going to be too difficult or technically challenging to bring 10 new incarnations of Temasek Review online overnight.

Rather than fear or castigate the new media, members need to consider how far the explosive popularity of the new media is partly a function of the PAP government’s politics of indirect control, and the boundaries successive PAP governments have placed upon the mainstream media.

In 2010, former MICA Minister, Mr Liu Tuck Yew stated “we want to make sure that the Press is, and is seen as, independent of the influence of Government.” This house would know, through conversations members must have had with their friends, that many self-respecting Singaporeans have well-founded doubts, perceptions though they may be, that the mainstream media operates with the long shadow of Government firmly cast upon it.

The perceptions of ordinary Singaporeans were somewhat confirmed when the Chief Editor of the Straits Times was quoted last year as saying, “We’re aware people say we are a government mouthpiece or that we are biased.” For me personally, this perception was somewhat crystallized when I recently read a chapter in former President SR Nathan’s memoirs titled “Entering the newspaper world”.

In page 459, he is quoted as saying (this is shortly after the corporate restructuring of SPH and the just prior to the launch of the New Paper), “privately, I was conscious that another outbreak of serious displeasure with the Straits Times could well result in demands for heads to roll and a return to the old idea of putting in a government team.”

Some members may feel that President Nathan’s views are nothing more than reflections from a bygone era. But in 2003 another episode occurred, euphemistically referred to as the Val Chua affair, this time with Today, the Mediacorp publication. The precise details of what happened, and why it happened are hazy, but what did happen is that the newspaper’s editor left his job shortly this episode.

Little wonder why some Singaporeans, particularly those in the post-65 generation have more faith and confidence in the new media, and why some may even tolerate misinformation or get taken in by disinformation to varying degrees online.

Mr Speaker Sir, this government is not in a position to change perceptions of the mainstream media unless there is a fundamental rethink about elements of the NPPA, and opening the mainstream media market to genuine competition – these are issues far beyond the scope of my speech.

But that should not stop the government from thinking about how it can prepare Singaporeans for a future – if it is not here already – where information will increasingly be at everyone’s fingertips, whether you are 9 or 90 years of age.

How do we make sure the overwhelming majority of our citizenry are readily able to seek reliable sources of information be it online or in the mainstream media? How do we convince our citizens that there can be various perspectives to an issue and to respect these various perspectives and narratives, even if we may disagree with them or if they differ from our own? Once more, the answers to these questions do not lie in the online world, but in the real world.

To improve communication with Singaporeans, this PAP government has to work hard to change the perception of its philosophy of indirect control of the mainstream media, and deliberately move towards a politics of empowerment when dealing with Singaporeans. The government should commit to share more information and in doing so, exorcise itself from its insecurity and paranoia, which makes less sense in view of the borderless nature of the internet and the speed at which information is exchanged and perceptions formed.

Mr Speaker Sir, I agree with Mr Lam Pin Min’s views that active citizenry in the real and virtual worlds are good for Singapore, and that good digital literacy and judgment is needed in future. I also support Mr Edwin Tong when he said government engagement with Singaporeans can build a new social compact and that what is required is trust and not blind faith. Ms Sim Ann alluded to the new normal and said that voters must be active participants so that rationality has the upper hand. Mr Baey Yam Keng spoke of an emphasis in research and the interpretation of information. Mr Cedric Foo arguably went the furthest when he highlighted the existence of information asymmetries in Singapore, suggesting that voters had no benefit of decisions made in the highest echelons of government. He also said that the government’s default mode should be to share more to secure greater buy-in from the public, so there is less room for the truth to be distorted. And Mdm Fatimah Latiff noted that government communication had to be enhanced and it was one of the weakest aspects of this government.

Mr Speaker Sir, with these words from PAP backbenchers which I support, I will now move into the second section of my speech that envisages specific legislation – that can protect Singaporeans from lies, misinformation and open up new avenues for the new media and mainstream media to promote a more informed citizenry.

I make 4 proposals, all of which call for more than, the digital education suggested by Mr Lam. Critically, my proposals seek to signpost the government to move beyond slogans such as the “new normal”, to substantive change with a view to promote active citizenry.

Firstly – a Freedom of Information legislation – an idea that has been repeated in the WP’s 2006 and 2011 manifestos. Mr Speaker Sir, a prospective freedom of information act will allow any Singaporean citizen to make enquiries with any public body for statistics and information, at a reasonable price. While I commend the government for the recently launched website and the regular public release of information by the Department of Statistics, these examples amplify the fact that it is the government that decides what it wants to put out.

What a Freedom of Information Act would do is to allow ordinary citizens to pull information from public bodies that have not put the information sought in the public realm. A Freedom of Information legislation is not meant to oblige the government to release sensitive data such as defence deployments and procurement. Exceptions are routinely scheduled in Freedom of Information legislation elsewhere, which prohibit government release of sensitive information. It is useful to note that Freedom of Information legislation is very much the norm in countries, which host a diverse and plural polity.

And in case some members feel such open-government legislation only originates in Western countries and that we Asians do it differently, the multi-racial Malaysian states of Penang and Selangor have opened a dialogue on the induction of such legislation. India passed the Right to Information Act in 2005, a high-water mark of the previous UPA government.

Lets try to envisage a Freedom of Information Act in practice. In the event, some misinformation is being peddled about on the internet or mainstream media, ordinary citizens and journalists can walk into any ministry, go to the designated information officer and seek official statistics on the matter. With this information in hand, the peddler of misinformation either online or in the mainstream media, would be found out, and the webpage or newspaper which hosted the misinformation would lose credibility.

No Singaporean will be able to accuse the government of selectively putting out information it wants to, since ordinary Singaporeans will be empowered to seek the information they require.

A Freedom of Information Act hosts other benefits too. Only a few weeks ago MCYS launched “Be the Change”, an initiative, which invites “young Singaporeans to step forward, share their ideas, and take the lead in turning their ideas into reality.” Such projects are likely to be far more successful, popular and broad-based if youth can make enquiries of government on data and statistics to ensure their ideas are workable and practical.

A second arrow in the politics of empowerment is an obligation by the government of the day to order the automatic release and disclosure of official information at fixed intervals of 30 years or so. In the United Kingdom, the Public Records Office manages this process. The disclosure of official documents, apart from introducing substantive accountability and transparency in government-decision making processes, will likely provide Singaporeans with valuable insights on why decisions were made the way they were by political leaders in the past. Such a repository of information is extremely helpful to ensure succeeding generations understand the circumstances behind the success of their predecessors while avoiding the very same mistakes and missteps.

Automating the periodic disclosure of official documents may necessitate a review of certain sections of the National Heritage Board Act. The government should not see such changes as an attempt to criticize and expose previous governments. But no politician should be beyond reproach and a commitment to open government files for historical scrutiny are important features of a politically mature society.

Thirdly, President Tony Tan, during his Presidential campaign revived interest in the office of the Ombudsman, a proposal first made to the PAP government by the 1966 Wee Chong Jin commission almost 50 years ago. The PAP government of the day rejected the Wee Commission’s proposal. The current Law Minister reiterated the call for an Ombudsman when he was backbencher less than 20 years ago in 1994. The office of the Ombudsman protects the interests of citizens aggrieved by official decisions. Currently, while the courts are available for this purpose, it is important to remember that judicial review, as far as Singapore law is concerned, only allows the court to adjudicate upon the process by which a government decision was made, not the decision itself.

The office of the Ombudsman reflected an important philosophy of government the 1966 Wee Commission recognised – that all political power has limits, and people have rights against government too, and the very individuals they voted into office.

More than just an institution, the office of the Ombudsman symbolizes a certain confidence and trust a government has in its people and vice versa. Establishing such a office today is likely to go some way to opening new channels of communication between citizen and state, regardless which government is in charge of Singapore. And it is a proposal this government would do well to reconsider.

Finally Mr Speaker Sir, in 2005, a Business Times article reported that speaker after speaker at a local conference called for Singapore companies to encourage whistle-blowing, to help ensure good governance. These speakers included Hsieh Fu Hua, special adviser to Temasek Holdings, former SMS Ho Peng Kee and former PAP MP Davinder Singh. Unfortunately on 18 May 2011, a week or so after the 2011 General Elections, a government spokesman with the Ministry of Finance announced that the Ministry had considered and decided to not pursue a whistle blowing law to protect corporate whistleblowers. This was in spite of strong calls by Singaporeans for whistle-blower legislation, partly because of the banking disasters that came to light in 2008, but more because of Singapore’s acutely important role as a financial and economic hub.

Singapore remains a prime target for economic crimes as so much commerce passes through our shores. Whistleblower and whistleblower protection legislation makes ordinary Singaporeans part of good governance process, not just the government and law enforcement agencies. It also protects ordinary businesses from rogue directors and employees.

Australia for examples has included whistleblower provisions in their Corporations Act. In view of the comprehensive review of our Companies Act currently underway, which coincidentally is modelled on Australian legislation, it may be apposite for this government to re-consider including whistleblower provisions in our statute books.

In case members think such legislation would stymie the business and cause the wheels of commerce to cease, whistle-blower legislation makes allowance for the prosecution of whistleblowers should their complaints be found to be vexatious and without basis.

Mr Speaker Sir, there is a lot of scope for this government to take good governance to the next level and divert the focus from misinformation or disinformation online towards building institutions that promote communication, transparency and accountability between the state and all Singaporeans. Any sincere effort by the government is likely to have significant knock-on consequences online. Each of these proposals, a freedom of information act, public release of official information, the office of the Ombudsman and whistleblower protection are key nodes in a system of trust that would give Singaporeans the tools necessary to rely less on the government for solutions and play their part in active citizenship.

In the early 1990s, before the advent of the new normal, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong sought to usher participatory democracy in Singapore. This slogan did not last very long, and many Singaporeans do not remember the Goh Chok Tong era as opening to door to participatory democracy. In the course of this debate, close to 10 PAP members have called for the government to improve communication with ordinary Singaporeans. Without doubt, the time has come for the government to decisively move in this direction, not in words but in deeds.

Mr Speaker, I support the motion.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Yee Jenn Jong on Singapore's education and economy

Yee Jenn Jong’s speech (Debate on President’s Address) (source)

Mr Speaker, Sir, before I touch on the President’s speech, I like to add to the references on Bhutan, as well as correct misconceptions that had surfaced in this House. I happen to visit Bhutan just before this year’s General Elections and am now involved in a non-profit education project for the country.
Mr Cedric Foo joked that Bhutanese are happy because they have only 2 elected opposition members. Bhutan’s concept of happiness was implemented by the 4th King in the 1970s, long before they had parliamentary democracy in 2008. On my flight into Bhutan, I picked up this In-Flight magazine of Druk Air, their national airline. This page listed the 4 most important persons in Bhutan: His Majesty the King, the Chief Abbot, the Prime Minister and … the Leader of the Opposition. Speaking with Bhutanese, I was amazed at the respect they accorded to the Opposition, as well as to the democracy process.

Just as Minister Khaw said that developing Bhutan wants to learn from Singapore, there are useful lessons from Bhutan. The concept of Gross National Happiness is not some fuzzy feel-good about individual happiness as some members alluded to, but about collective happiness and long term sustainability. It does measure economic indicators, like all other countries. It also measures three other important areas: Preservation of Culture, Preservation of the Environment and Good Governance. Bhutan chose to do so because it wanted to leave something for future generations, rather than mine natural resources for short term gains or destroy the culture that made them unique. We have seen measures to prop up the economy, like liberal immigration and the casinos, which may bring immediate benefits but can lead to long term problems. Are Singaporeans happy with headline-grabbing economic growth when it is their jobs that have been impacted; when they struggle with high cost of living; or if family members face chronic gambling problems?

Sir, I will now move on to my main speech. I thank the President for reminding us to do our very best for our country and to make it the best home for all Singaporeans. I grew up in an independent Singapore. I have seen the changes we went through. Doing my best for Singapore is an aspiration that I share. Singapore is my home and my family.

The President touched on many issues. I will focus on education and the economy.

First, I like to declare that I have vested interest in the education space as an owner of several private companies offering education services, mostly to schools.

Sir, the President said that we should have “a truly special Singapore, where our children can grow to be the best that they can be.”

The main form of our current mainstream education started with the bold 1979 Goh report by the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, then Minister for Education. It was to address the challenges of the day. Streaming was introduced. Singapore went for mass production to raise the overall level of students’ performance.

Schools were differentiated progressively from 1988. From 1992, they were ranked yearly by MOE and the ranking were published. Next, MOE published schools’ actual versus expected performances. Ranking was later replaced with banding schools of similar range of students’ academic performances together. Today, while schools are appraised in non-academic areas, they are still banded by academic results.

The changes have raised overall education levels, but they also created excessive anxieties for parents and students, and widened public’s perception of quality between top and lower ranked schools.

An educator friend blogged that she had asked parents in workshops to draw their impression of our education system. One drew prison bars! There were similar drawings by other parents expressing helplessness at being trapped in the system. They felt helpless over the many high stake examinations; and pressure to get children into good schools, failing which they deem the future of their children would be compromised.

In a recent 938Live radio talkshow, a caller whose daughter was taking PSLE this year described how her family relationship became strained while preparing for the exams. A friend shared that his daughter in a top school cries frequently just before exams. I feel terrible hearing of children having their confidence crushed and growing up in fear of education. A former civil servant I met online wrote that he had migrated to Finland because he did not want to subject his son to the unhealthy system here. He wanted his son to simply love learning.

Today there is over reliance on academic performance as a benchmark of success and meritocracy, a phenomenon I call hyper-meritocracy. Hyper-meritocracy has seen parents who could afford it, pack children’s schedule with tuition. A good paper qualification is seen as a guarantee to a successful career. The safe thing to do in Singapore is to score in exams, get a scholarship and land a secure good-paying job. This has led to a dearth of risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit in Singapore.

I share Mr Teo Ser Luck’s observation that risk aversion will be a key challenge for him to promote entrepreneurship. The problem of lack of entrepreneurs begins in schools, where students are conditioned not to take risks and do not learn to handle ambiguity. In this aspect, I am happy to work with Mr Teo as I have been working with young entrepreneurs and students for quite some time now.

Sir, I am happy to note that MOE is looking into Character and Value-based education. Character and values are important guiding principles for life and must be imparted to students. However, schools are supposed to already have civics and moral education for years. MOE’s 21st Century Skills framework, already included character and values development. Schools, preoccupied with measurable indicators of success such as school ranking and academic grades, are known to have replaced civics periods with mainstream subjects. This sends wrong signals to children that values are not important.

Schools pile homework on students and drill them for major exams. I know of a top school which had three full-scale prelim exams in addition to mock exams using prelim papers of other schools, in order to prepare students for this year’s ‘O’ levels. Principals feel pressured into delivering academic results over other forms of holistic development.

We have had education policies with good intents before, but their effects were often muted because we did not address our examination culture.

At the heart of the issue is what good education should be about. Do we sieve out academic performers through a series of examinations so that we can concentrate them together? Is this so because we believe we need to identify the top 5% of each cohort who will run our country and our top companies in the future?

Today, we face a totally different world where what we know can quickly become obsolete. Nimbleness to change is essential for survival. We do not just churn out workers for the multinationals. We are competing against the world for investments, businesses and jobs. We need our people to be innovative and adaptable.

Mr Speaker, I hope two areas can be addressed:

1. Critically examine our intense examination culture. Can we cut down on streaming and do we need to start streaming so early?

Finland, a country with about the same population size as Singapore, went the opposite direction with their education reforms, equalizing resources in schools and spreading talents across the system. They stream students only at 15 years old. Finnish students do well in international assessment benchmark. Notably, it has the shortest school hours in OECD countries and the narrowest gap between the high and low scorers, indicating education equity. Students hardly go for tuition. I feel it is useful to study their approach.

2. Broaden learning and seriously infuse character and values development.

Already schools are reluctant to offer subjects that are important to broaden students’ thinking, such as literature and history, as these subjects are difficult to score well in. Yet they are important for students to appreciate diversity, handle ambiguity and to develop critical thinking.

We should further broaden learning to include political education so that students can grow up with a wider spectrum of thoughts. Perhaps, they can then develop the Digital Quotient that Dr Lam Pin Min spoke about and can become responsible participants in our evolving parliamentary democracy.

Today, we appear more educated. However, I am not sure if we are more learned and more innovative, or we are simply more exam-smart.

I like to share a story with this House. Recently, I met a Singaporean couple who run an international school in Bangkok. They shared the experience of their daughter. Jazlina retained a place in a Singapore school under overseas leave of absence. She returned in primary 6, took her PSLE and was admitted into an autonomous school. She spent her secondary two in Singapore.

Jazlina is a bright and self-motivated girl who had thrived in school while in Thailand. But under our system, she felt constrained trying to conform to a rigid regime expecting standard answers. With a class size of over 40 students, her mother had to put her through tuition to keep pace with the class. Jazlina started to lose self-confidence and told her mother that ‘maybe I am not so smart after all’. At secondary three, she was streamed into a subject combination that was not her passion. After fighting the system for a few more months, the family put her back into their own school in Thailand.

Jazlina blossomed again. She now represents Thailand in international debating competitions, where she has won prizes. At this year’s iGCSE exams, Jazlina aced all her subjects and scored 100% in two subjects, including for the subject of her passion which she was not selected to take in Singapore.

Her mother shared that had they not brought her back into a more nurturing environment, her confidence would have plunged further. She felt that Singapore’s system was not bringing out the best in Jazlina, but was instead drowning her.

Mr Speaker, Sir, the President’s call for our children to ‘grow to be the best that they can be’ is a great ideal. Like Mr Lawrence Wong, I believe that education should light up fires in children. We have to deal with many like Jazlina, who are talented and passionate, but constrained by the system. Instead of being obsessed with picking out winners, education should make winners out of the ordinary.

We may have done well in the past. Based on that, we entrench our processes further without critically considering the changing environment or the negative effects. It has been 32 years since the Goh Report. I believe it is time to make bolder evaluation of our mainstream education.

Sir, next, I like to talk about the economy. I feel the government has become small in areas it should be big in, and big in areas it should be small in.

In the last decade, Singapore has adopted a free market approach for many government services. Some areas like the provision of public housing, public transportation and health care, which are essential social responsibilities of the government, have gone this route too.

My colleague, Gerald Giam had touched extensively on the under-capacity of hospital beds, public transport and housing as a result of this policy. We outsource critical areas to the private sector and hence we had issues such as DBSS which had caused unhappiness due to public housing being pushed to unaffordable levels.

The government chose to play a smaller role in the provision of essential services. It passed these responsibilities to the free market. With a free market mindset, the government was not prepared to take risks. As a result, Singaporeans bore the cost of the under-provision.

On the other hand, in areas that the government should play a smaller role, it has instead grown bigger.

As our economy developed through the years, instead of letting private enterprises take more initiative in the economy, our government’s share of the economy has grown through its participation in Government Linked Companies or GLCs. This is in contrast to countries like South Korea and Taiwan whose governments also had helped pioneered some key businesses but progressively withdrew to let the private sector drive growth thereafter.

The NTUC group is a large cooperative with a stated US$3.5 billion annual turnover from its website. GLCs and cooperatives like NTUC inevitably compete with local enterprises, making the domestic market even smaller for them.

A Straits Times Forum writer wrote last week to share his experience as an entry-level entrepreneur in Chinatown Complex. In May this year, NEA engaged professional valuers to appraise the value of the complex. Rent went up by 71 to 100% as a result.

Keeping rental cost manageable is important to the survival of small enterprises. In the past few years, JTC divested many of its properties to Real Estate Investment Trusts. I noted that rental cost of former JTC spaces have gone up as a result, an observation shared by SME leaders in an article in the Straits Times today. Hence, SMEs today struggle with high rental cost on top of challenging manpower cost.

SMEs sometimes also suffer in tenders due to risk aversion by government officers who may shun smaller companies even if the solutions offered have met specifications at lower costs. To promote the growth of SMEs, the government could look at ways to allow GLCs to participate only in tenders above certain minimum values. Or GLCs and cooperatives should withdraw totally from non-essential market segments if SMEs are capable of fulfilling local demands.

I believe there’s merit in encouraging SMEs to develop themselves further with a mindset of professionalism, precision and perfection. In some developed economies like Germany and Switzerland, there are vibrant cottage industries comprising long established family-run businesses. They have generations of know-how that have allowed their products to be sought after despite competition from lower cost countries.

SMEs create jobs. Those that have succeeded locally could end up as global winners. In Singapore, we also have our cottage industries. I am happy to note that we have long established food brands like Tee Yih Jia, Sin Hwa Dee, Polar Puffs and others that have been able to scale globally. It is imperative that Singapore provides the conditions to develop more of such local enterprises.

As we move forward to strengthen our economy, I hope the government can consider right-sizing itself in the appropriate areas. I like to see it being big in providing essential social services. I like to see it become small in running domestic businesses and leave the space to grow our SMEs.

With that, Mr Speaker, I support the motion of thanks.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Gerald Giam: Government hides behind mantras of self-reliance and filial piety


The following is the maiden speech by NCMP Gerald Giam (Debate on Presidential Address) in the 12th sitting of Parliament:

Mr Speaker, thank you for giving me the opportunity to make this, my maiden speech to this House.

In his address to Parliament, the President gave a broad outline of this Government’s goals for the next five years. The Government says it wants “every Singaporean worker to hold a skilled, well-paid job; every family to live in an affordable, comfortable home; every young person to develop himself fully and pursue his dreams; every senior citizen to stay active and to live with dignity”.

These are bold goals which my colleagues and I in the Workers’ Party will hold the Government accountable for over the next five years.

Sir, today I would like to focus on three areas that many senior citizens, families and workers have pressing concerns about. They are healthcare, public housing and public transport.

Healthcare financing

Mr Speaker, the axiom, “it’s better to die than fall ill in Singapore” has been heard time and again—twice during this debate alone.

Many Singaporeans, especially the elderly poor, worry greatly about falling ill. They are concerned not just about the painful treatment they will have to go through, but more often about the high costs involved, and the financial burden they may place on their struggling children.

In Singapore, government subsidies make up only a quarter of total health expenditure[1]. Out-of-pocket expenses, employer benefits and private insurance make up most the remainder.

The much vaunted “3Ms” of Medisave, MediShield and Medifund pay for less than 10% of total healthcare expenses[2], the lion’s share of which comes from Medisave, which is really patients’ own savings. MediShield is a self-funding insurance scheme, which members pay premiums to join. These premiums rise as they grow older. They also have to fork out large deductibles and co-insurance before receiving pay-outs, and coverage ends at age 85.

The Government will say that we have Medifund. But Medifund is subject to extremely stringent means testing and the disbursements are not exactly generous. In 2009, an average of $1,029 was given to less than 24,000 in-patient Medifund applicants[3]. This represented just 5% of the total hospital admissions that year.

For seniors with no income and little savings, the burden of healthcare is shifted to their children. In 2005, 60% of the elderly had their medical bills paid from their adult children’s Medisave accounts[4]. This is a very high percentage, and is in fact a departure from the principle of “self-reliance”. If these patients’ children are also low-income earners—as is often the case—the Government is merely shifting the burden of poverty within the pool of the poor[5]. Basically we are asking one disadvantaged group to pay for another.

The Government seems very reluctant it to take on a larger financial responsibility for caring for our senior citizens. Instead, it hides behind the mantras of self-reliance and filial piety to justify its relatively low expenditure on healthcare for the elderly.

Self-reliance is good in principle, but when a patient has exhausted his own savings and has to rely on his own struggling family members, then we as a society are not being fair to both the patient and his family.

The Ministry of Health claims to provide universal health coverage to citizens[6], but I believe we are still some way from that. The World Health Organization defines universal health coverage as having a healthcare financing system that provides all people with access to adequate healthcare services without suffering financial hardship paying for them.[7]

If we are to achieve this goal, we need to expand the coverage of MediShield and reduce the over-reliance on direct payments by patients at the time they need the care[8]. To fund this, we need to strengthen the current forms of prepayment and risk-pooling, and provide assistance to those who cannot afford the premiums, like housewives and the elderly. All this points to a need to perform some major surgery on MediShield.

Hospital capacity

Mr Speaker, for some time now, our public hospitals have been running at near full capacity, with bed occupancy rates often exceeding 90% for Tan Tock Seng Hospital and over 85% for National University Hospital. Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, which opened just last year, was supposed to ease the crunch. But it too has been running at almost 85% capacity for the past month. The Royal College of Surgeons in the U.K. has advised that bed occupancy rates above 82% put patients at an increased risk of infection[9].

It was reported in the Straits Times on 30th August this year that hospitals in Singapore are facing such a severe crunch in beds that some are “borrowing” space from other nearby organisations to house their patients.[10]

How did we get into such a situation?

Between the year 2000 and 2010, our population has seen an increase of 26%, mostly through immigration. The number of hospital admissions has seen an increase of 15% in this same period. However, not only have the number of hospital beds not kept pace with population growth, but they have actually decreased during this period. In the past decade, there has been a 7% drop in the number public sector hospital beds, according to the Department of Statistics[11]

Two years ago, the then-Health Minister admitted, that on hindsight, his ministry made a mistake by not building a new hospital two years earlier. Recently, the Health Minister floated the idea of bringing forward the opening of Sengkang Hospital, currently scheduled for 2020. I support this move, but this is still a long time to wait, and by that time, our population would have increased even more.

What is left unanswered is why this self-proclaimed “far-sighted” Government failed in the past 10 years to build our healthcare infrastructure to keep pace with population growth and an ageing population. Was the Government instead overly fixated on the near-sighted goals of boosting economic growth by increasing our population?

Housing shortage and prices

Mr Speaker, I would now like to address many Singaporeans’ concerns about the public housing situation in Singapore.

In the past 10 years, the HDB has grossly undersupplied new housing units to the market. According to figures from the HDB, between 2001 and 2009, an average of just 7,700 new flats were built each year[12]. This was far short of the average annual resident household growth figure of 24,280 since 2005.[13]

Even when the population surged from 2007 onwards because of the liberalisation of our immigration policies, the Government failed to react by building more flats for our people. Instead, they permitted more cash rich foreigners to purchase almost any types of private property, which increased their prices, and pulled up HDB flat prices, since the two are linked.

This combination of low supply and high demand resulted in a severe housing shortage, causing a sharp and sustained rise in property prices. HDB resale flat prices are now 92% higher than they were 10 years ago[14].

This has not only caused much distress for many Singaporean families, but has also created a potential asset bubble which could severely damage Singapore’s economy in a downturn.

The Government finally awoke from its slumber this year and ramped up the supply of Built-to-Order (BTO) flats to an expected 25,000 this year and another 25,000 next year. This is a move in the right direction. However, BTO flats do not solve the immediate housing problem, because it takes up to three years before the new flat owners get their keys. In the meantime, many are still without a home of their own.

Despite the bumper launches of BTO and Sale of Balance Flats (SBF) this year, we still saw the third-quarter HDB Resale Price Index shoot up 3.8% over the previous quarter. The cooling measures that the Ministry of National Development put in place earlier this year do not seem to be having their intended effects on the resale flat market.

The Government has gone some way in reducing the housing problems for first-timer couples, but not for singles, divorcees and those who need to downgrade to smaller flats because of financial difficulty. We need to find a way to help these people who are caught in between the policies. In particular, more measures need to be put in place to cool down the resale HDB flat market.

The HDB market, whether direct or resale, cannot simply be left to market forces. As a provider of this public good, the Government must step in to ensure that the welfare of its citizens comes first.

Public transport

Mr Speaker, please allow me to share some longstanding concerns about public transport in Singapore.

In March this year, just before the General Election was announced, SMRT and SBS Transit said they would add 590 additional MRT train trips. This was expected to ease the squeeze on trains. However, many regular commuters will testify that trains now seem even more crowded than ever. The recently opened Circle Line may improve the situation nearer the city, but for those commuting from the suburbs like Sembawang or Simei, finding room to board the trains will still be a challenge.

One key factor that affects the train loads is the waiting time. I understand that the current signalling systems on the ageing North-South and East-West lines allow for maximum train arrival intervals of about two minutes without compromising commuter safety.

If trains really arrived once every two minutes, the overcrowding problem would not be so severe. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case. Outside of the narrow window of about half an hour on weekday mornings and evenings, the frequency drops to three to five minutes, or more. This results in trains arriving packed with passengers, making it impossible for many of those on the platform to board. As a daily commuter myself, I often have to wait for two—sometimes three—trains to pass by before I can board, during morning and evening rush hours.

Sir, if the Government is serious about encouraging our people to drive less and use more public transport, it must give priority to tackling the overcrowding problem on trains. The solution lies not only in building more lines, but making better use of the existing lines by increasing train frequency and maintaining that high frequency for longer periods, especially during peak hours.

Why can’t the MRT operators maintain a train interval of two minutes from 7am to 9am, and from 5pm to 8pm? Is it because of technical constraints, or because it will increase their costs and reduce their profits?

Under the current profit-maximising model, operators are incentivised to cut costs and service levels, just to maintain their high margins. Their duopoly position in the local market reinforces this behaviour.

It is time for the Government to demand that these operators provide a higher level of service to commuters, even if it reduces their profit margins.


Mr Speaker, whether in healthcare, public housing or public transport, the Government has gone too far down the road of pursuing free market efficiency, often to the detriment of the elderly and low wage workers.

At a time when our citizens are exposed to heightened risks in the form of global competition, increased economic volatility, rising inequality and wage stagnation, the Government is exposing them to even more competition from foreigners. Our workers are told to be “cheaper, better, faster”, more self-reliant and less selective about their jobs.

This regressive transfer of risks from government to citizens must count as one of the PAP Government’s biggest policy failures in the last decade.

The demographic, social and economic changes of the 21st century demand a rethink of how much a government should provide for its people, and how much we can reasonably ask our citizens to provide for themselves.

Mr Speaker, we are at the dawn of a new era in the history of our nation. The phrase “new normal” has often been used to describe this new political reality. Now with more Workers’ Party members in the House, some pundits wonder if we will be a constructive, or destructive party in Parliament; will we help build our country, or be obsessed with tearing down our political opponents? This is related to some of Mr Lee Yi Shyan’s concerns earlier. I believe our party’s track record in Parliament answers these questions.

Having more Workers’ Party MPs does not change our rational and responsible approach to politics. We want to be a force for good in our country—to help to uncover solutions, not add to the problems.

However, it takes two hands to clap. The responsibility for ensuring fair and constructive debates, in and out this House, rests not only on the Opposition, but also on the Government. I hope that debates in this House will not just be about winning the argument or scoring political points, but leveraging on the arguments, and counter-arguments, to elicit better policy outcomes.

This will ultimately benefit Singaporeans, who put us here to serve them.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

[1] Weizhen Dong, The Singaporean medical savings accounts model and its Shanghai replica, Journal of Public Health, 4 July 2006, p211 (3). See also Piya Hanvoravongchai, Medical Savings Accounts: Lessons learned from International Experience, World Health Organization, 15 October 2002, p11 (17);
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ministry of Health, Medical Endowment Scheme Annual Report 2009/2010, p7.
[4] Parliamentary reply, 17 Oct 2005
[5] Michael Barr, Comparative Health Policy in the Asia-Pacific, 2005
[6] Ministry of Health,
[7] WHO World Health Report 2010, p9.
[8] Ibid, p14. WHO recommends direct payments of not more than 15 to 20%.
[10] Salma Khalik, Public hospitals ‘borrowing’ ward space, Straits Times, 30 August 2011.
[11] Department of Statistics, Yearbook of Statistics Singapore 2011, p265.
[12] HDB Annual Report 2009/2010, Key Statistics, Building Statistics, p2.
[13] Department of Statistics, Population Trends 2011, p22. See also “Glut unlikely, but Policy Risks Remain”, Citigroup Global Markets report, 26 June 2011.
[14] HDB Resale Price Index (RPI), comparing 3Q 2001 RPI with 3Q 2011 (flash estimates),