Sunday, December 23, 2007

Climate of Fear Hurts Singapore?

Climate of fear hurts Singapore: author
Suppression of criticism could lead to to its eventual declin, says author Catherine Lim.
Reuters, Dec 15, 2007

A climate of fear that stops citizens from speaking out against the government could eventually lead to the decline of Singapore, novelist Catherine Lim says.

Lim, Singapore's best-known writer, praised the government for its economic achievements but said its Achilles' heel could be its suppression of criticism, such as defamation suits against opposition politicians and bans on protests.

"A compliant, fearful population that has never learnt to be politically savvy could spell the doom of Singapore," Lim told Reuters in an interview.

Lim, 65, is one of few dissident voices in Singapore and has criticised the government in opinion pieces in the local press.

But her latest article, an open letter to the prime minister in which she pleaded for a political opening up, was rejected. She has posted it on her website

She said the worst-case scenario would be for a future leader to get away with corruption "because of the ingrained, unquestioning trust of a fearful, overly dependent people".

Another factor is that the current generation of young people are exposed to views from around the world and discussion on political freedoms on the internet, she said. Her latest article has generated a string of comments in Singapore's active political blogging community.

"You could have a case of younger Singaporeans creating unrest because they do not have an outlet," she said.

Lim also argues that the tight political control could hurt Singapore's aim of attracting the talent needed to retool its economy from manufacturing to a hub for research and services.

"What Singapore wants is managed creativity. So not only would those really creative people not want to come, but those who are here want to get out," she said.


I don't think the suppression of criticism could be the Achilles' heel of the govt but its disconnection with the average Singaporean could be.

In the past few years the govt implemented several inconsiderate and ill-timed policies which caused severe financial hardship to the average Singaporean. Despite public outcries the govt appeared not too concerned and went ahead to implement those policies.

If the govt will to continue with its unilateral actions, Singaporeans could be pushed beyond their limits and forced to follow the footsteps of the Indians in Malaysia. The impoverished Malaysian Indians were so desperate that they took to the street to protest despite their govt's warnings and threats of arrest.

I certainly don't hope to see that day here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

WSJ: Malaysia's 'Tectonic Shift'

December 6, 2007

It's rally season in Kuala Lumpur. Last month, around 40,000 opposition parties, trade unions and non-governmental organizations braved thunderstorms and roadblocks to demand clean and fair elections. Two weeks ago, the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) demonstrated, demanding fair treatment for Malaysian Indians. A fracas broke out and some 200 people were arrested. [Art]

These rallies are clearly not for the faint-hearted, as each one has been preceded by stern statements from the government, which included warnings about invoking the Internal Security Act. But they have a deeper import, beyond the threat of jail: These protests indicate a tectonic shift in the way we exercise our democratic rights. Whether this will permanently alter our country's political culture remains to be seen. For the moment, the uppermost question for many observers is: Why now?

First, the eve of a general election is perceived as a good time to air public grievances. There is also the burgeoning public perception that the current government's grasp of policy issues is weakening. Over the last couple of years, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's administration has been weighed down by corruption in the police force; judicial probes into court decisions; tension over religious conversion cases; recent spikes in the cost of living; and a bunch of boisterous bloggers who refuse to remain silent.

The occasional public appearance of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim -- who is planning a triumphant return to politics early next year, when his political ban expires -- is undeniably another source of annoyance for the current administration.

But more deeply, Malaysia's 50-year-old social contract, shined up in August by the Independence celebrations, may also be losing its gloss. The promises made in the 1957 constitution guaranteed that if we followed the rules laid down by leaders of the main ethnic communities and behaved ourselves we could be confident of an increasing quality of life and racial harmony. For the most part, the contract has worked, as Malaysia's steady economic growth demonstrates.

Yet it is racial discord that still drives cold fear into the hearts of most Malaysians. We are terrified of it. Yet, oddly enough, we read racial agendas into everything from policy formulation to court decisions, police arrests, hiring and firing as well as who gets their trash removed first.

Race relations and its many perplexing permutations have pulled us together and also widened the gulf between the different ethnic groups. This was demonstrated in last week's Hindraf demonstration, where protestors proposed to sue the British government for neglecting the rights of the Indian community at Independence, the majority of whom were brought in by colonialists as indentured laborers.

The organizers brought a claim of 14 trillion ringgit ($4 billion) in a petition to be delivered to the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur -- meant, eventually, to be handed over to Queen Elizabeth II. Some protestors were reportedly angry that a 100-year-old Hindu temple had been demolished. Others demanded either the abolition of affirmative action -- which has largely benefited the Malays -- or inclusion in it.

Naturally, the non-Indians have not been too pleased. Rumors were rife last week that Malays in Kampung Baru (an inner-city enclave largely inhabited by Malays) were buying long knives to defend themselves against the Indians. Last Saturday, a full week after the event, the
usually mild-mannered Prime Minister Abdullah furiously condemned the group for appealing to the British government to send Malaysia to the World Court and the International Criminal Court for crimes against ethnic minority Indians. Hindraf had also alleged that government-backed Islamic extremists were committing ethnic cleansing -- an idea so shocking to the Prime Minister that he has offered to resign, should there be any evidence of such atrocities.

In the tangle of these issues, emotions and sometimes outlandish accusations, is there basis for the Malaysian Indian to be aggrieved? Compared to the other races which have advanced in proportion to the nation's economic progress, the Indian community -- roughly 10% of the population -- is far behind.

All "Indian problems" are relegated to the Malaysian Indian Congress, a component of the ruling alliance. Loud on rhetoric and soft on action, the party has been emasculated by internal succession issues, rather than addressing the very basic needs of its constituents. For the very poor, many quality-of-life improvements -- from school shoes to a place in university, a job in IT, or even a burial place for a loved one -- are painfully difficult to come by. To gain visibility,
the fight had to be re-oriented. The Queen of England, therefore, became the most fitting recipient of the petition, capturing media attention all over the world. Meanwhile, the MIC and other Indian groups are falling over themselves to address the Indian problem. A hotline has been set up to respond swiftly to all manner of grievances raised by Indians.

In the end, the petition never reached the High Commission but the Indian story will be remembered for two reasons -- as an extraordinary public relations exercise and, like the other rallies, a watershed event for political expression in Malaysia.

Ms. Ismail, a former editor with the "New Straits Times" and senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, now heads a media consultancy in Malaysia.

I believe the Singapore government could be taking note of the recent developments in Malaysia. Despite two decades of tight control by the former autocratic PM and repetitive threats of arrest by the current leaders and police chief, Malaysians went ahead and took their first tentative step of citizenry activism.

Though there is no racial problem in Singapore there is enough social discontent that could push Singaporeans to follow the footsteps of their neighbour in the north if the government continues to ignore them.

Firstly there is the widening income disparity problem. While Singapore economy has performed better than expected, it has only benefitted the top 10% of the working population. Incomes of the majority workers have either increased marginally or stagnated. Wages of the lower income earners are even lower than 10 years ago!

With no real increase in income, the recent spike in inflation has inflicted considerable hardship on many Singaporeans.

Then, there is this simmering hostility towards foreign workers. Many Singaporeans feel that foreign workers take away their jobs and depress their wages. Male Singaporeans are also unhappy that their national service obligation has put them in unequal footing with the foreign workers in their search for employment.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Taxi Problem

Mr. Han Songguang, a researcher with the Geography Dept of National University of Singapore, should be commended for his thorough and objective analysis of “The Taxi Situation” which appeared in The Straits Times on 21 Nov 2007.

Famous blogger, Mr. Alex Au has attributed 3 ills of Singapore to the taxi problem namely, elitism, over-regulation and protection of government-linked companies.

I think there is another factor; it is the government’s intentional control of the wages of Singapore workers and in this case, the takings of the taxi drivers.

After so many years of fare regulating the government should have a very good idea of how much the cabbies can make at any given fare rates. It probably thinks that as non-elite worker, taxi drivers have to put in at least 12 hours everyday if they want to earn more than $1,500 per month.

This control of wages is obviously for political reasons which sadly can even override morality and social responsibility.

Several years ago, there was a disturbing increase in road accidents involving taxi drivers and PTC (Public Transport Council) was tasked to look into it. PTC actually found that the main reason for the accidents was due to driver fatigue. Cabbies have to drive long hours to make ends meet and that impaired their driving performance. Despite PTC findings, the government stubbornly refused to help increase the cabbies’ takings and chose to impose fine on taxi companies to check accident rates. The findings of PTC were of course not made public until several years later.

As cabbies still need to put in long hours to earn a decent income, can we blame them for trying to work smart to maximize their earnings? Unfortunately this has only resulted in bad press for them!