November 08, 2006
Department of Oh, Really?

Today's challenge: read this headline without laughing.

Update (9/11) And a new challenge for you, try this one from our newly liberated Singaporean friends.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 10:39
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November 01, 2006
What vote

"Li stake sale in hands of Singapore voters" screams The Standard's front page. Nice to know Singapore's voters get a say in corporate governance at least.

Completely unrelated, Justin Mitchell writes about the creeping growth of Halloween in Hong Kong.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 12:18
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September 29, 2006
Singapore bans FEER

Now the IMF/World Bank roadshow has moved on, Singapore's continued attempts to clamp down on foreign media not to its liking reach a new low. While the domestic media appropriately cowed and under control, the paranoid Singaporean government has required all foreign publications distributed there to appoint a legal representative and pay a bond of about US$125,000. The FEER is, to date, the only publication to refuse to go along with this, putting principle above profit. The editor, Hugo Restall, says on the FEER blog:

The Singaporean government today announced that it has banned the Far Eastern Economic Review from the country. It has explicitly warned that not only is the Review Publishing Company forbidden from importing or distributing the Hong Kong-based monthly, but Singaporeans will also commit a criminal offense if they import or reproduce the magazine for distribution...We regret that this action infringes on the fundamental rights of our Singaporean subscribers and further restricts the already narrow scope of free expression in Singapore.
Mr Restall is also being sued by Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong and Lee Kuan Yew. This makes a marked contrast to some other august publications that quickly caved when threatened by the Singapore government. The Chinese are learning a thing or two on media control from them Singapore.

Clearly for many media types, all the blather about principles and integrity stops at the bottom line. Good on the FEER.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 09:41
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July 14, 2006
At least we're not Singapore part 237,402

While it's easy to get carried away with the lamentable state of media in Hong Kong, we must always remember one thing: at least we're not in Singapore. Mr Brown is a popular Singaporean blogger and newspaper columnist. He's been writing for over 10 years. A week ago he wrote a seemingly linnocuous column titled Singaporeans are fed, up with progress! A humourless government press secretary then writes to the paper where the article appears accusing Mr Brown of sarcasm and distorting the truth (which is the point of sarcasm, but never mind) and of "exploiting his access to the mass media to undermine the Government's standing". So what does the newspaper do? It fires Mr Brown. Today is owned by Singapore Press Holdings, which is partly owned by Temasek, the Government holding company. From Wikipedia on SPH:

Shares in SPH are regulated by the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act of 1974, which requires all newspapers to be publicly listed into both ordinary and management shares, with management shares having 200 times the voting rights of ordinary shares and approval from the Ministry of Information, Communications and The Arts needed for any management share transfers. Past chairpersons of Singapore Press Holdings have all been civil servants, with notably strong links to Singapore's secret police, the Internal Security Department. SPH's current executive president Tjong Yik Min served as the head of the ISD from 1986 to 1993.
Needless to say, the humourless public servant mentioned above is the Minister of Information, Communication and The Arts' press secretary.

Cue Hemlock's Why Singapore is a pathetic place. As if to prove the notion, here's an excerpt from Mr Brown's post linking to Hemlock's piece:

After speaking to a lawyer, I decided to pull this [post], no point getting sued for someone else's rants. Singapore's defamation laws are very powderful and I am just a little guy.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 14:47
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November 30, 2005

Friday sees the hanging of Australian Nguyen Tuong Van and while I oppose the death penalty I also recognise that Singaporean law is clear on the matter and much gnashing of teeth isn't going to matter one jot, just as unfurling a "Democracy Now" banner in the heart of Beijing isn't going to win you any fans. Amongst the media hue and cry is the self-sustaining spotlight on Singapore's hangman, Darshan Singh. Originally thought to be fired, it turns out he's still on for the job and considers himself the best man for the job (sub req'd):

Mr Singh, 74, has boasted: "With me, they don't struggle. I know the real way. If it's a raw guy [hangman], they will struggle like chickens, like fish out of the water."...Mr Singh has issued a series of contradictory statements in recent days, reportedly claiming he was sacked, then warning no one else in Singapore was trained to do the job - and the results would be ugly if a novice was employed.
But I'm here to help. Coming soon, Singapore's newest reality TV show....


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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 15:09
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November 28, 2005
Helping helpers

Philip Borwing rants about the state of domestic helpers and low-paid workers in today's SCMP (full article below the jump). It's a hit and miss affair. He starts out on the right foot, complaining about the unequal application and enforcement of labour laws when it comes to helpers and low paid workers. He also notes the economic and social benefits of domestic helpers. Then he goes off the rails:

At the current level of their minimum wage, it could be argued that domestic helpers are no worse off than the lowest-paid unskilled workers. But the fact that foreigners are prepared to work for half the minimum, or less, does not make it right. It suggests that society tolerates an underclass segregated by race, rights and income.
No, what it suggests is the minimum wage is too high. Minimum wages create an artificial floor in the "price" of labour. As a consequence the price of labour is too high, and fewer people get employment as helpers than would otherwise be able to. At the margin the minimum wage may be too high for those who would otherwise employ a helper, and too high for those who would work for less. That's not to say sub-standard working conditions should be tolerated. Far from it. The government is morally culpable if it does not equally enforce laws for all residents. But that's a seperate and very different issue.

Bowring then points out how much worse off helpers are in Singapore before coming out with this zinger:

Sadly, it is perhaps not surprising - given the tendency of members of Singapore's elite to believe in the superiority of Chinese genes - to find that only women from the "brown" countries of South and Southeast Asia qualify to be employed in this particular form of servitude...they [the helpers] contribute to the economy but get almost nothing back.
His thoughts on Singaporean superiority complexes asisde, there is a major piece of the puzzle missing. Helpers are not compelled to take these jobs. They are also not forced to stay in them. Yet most of them do. Why? Because despite the appalling pay, crappy conditions and terrible work, they are prepared to do it. It beats what they could be doing back home, and they are still earning far better than they would otherwise.

Yes, there's a line to be drawn. There is a need for certain minimum working conditions to protect fundamental human rights. A minimum wage is not one of them. Patronising helpers by telling what's in their interests does not help. These are consenting adults agreeing to labour contracts. Let the market do its job and it generally does it well. So long as governments actually enforce their laws as they should, the system works to everyone's benefit. If you feel guilty about it, pay your amah extra and give her better working conditions. I do.

The shame of an underclass

Does Hong Kong really need an underclass of low-paid contract workers? Do we not demean ourselves by demeaning others? Two recent news items are worth pondering: first, the case of a domestic helper being paid just $100 a month; and second, the fact that the government is to allow the import of 5,000 low-paid workers for the textile industry. The first case may be exceptional, but what is not exceptional is the widespread underpayment of domestic helpers, especially Indonesians, and the lack of effort by the government (and the Indonesian consulate) to enforce the law.

The textile workers may be exceptional, too, but the exception shows the lack of principle of certain business interests close to the Tsang government - who are demanding special favours - and the government's susceptibility to them.

A social and economic case can be made for allowing foreign domestic contract workers. They enable more spouses to work, thus benefiting the economy as whole as well as the employer household. However, there also seems to be a connection between the easy availability of domestic help for the middle class and the very low birth rate. Instead of making child-rearing easier, it encourages local women to work, and earn, full time.

At the current level of their minimum wage, it could be argued that domestic helpers are no worse off than the lowest-paid unskilled workers. But the fact that foreigners are prepared to work for half the minimum, or less, does not make it right. It suggests that society tolerates an underclass segregated by race, rights and income.

The law at least lays down reasonable working conditions. Thanks to freedom of speech and the activities of the media and non-governmental organisations, abuses do get exposed. Hong Kong has yet to go as far down the road as the likes of the Persian Gulf states and Singapore in relying on a transient underclass. In the oil-rich Gulf, years of dependency both on low-paid, unskilled workers from India and skilled workers from many countries have left a legacy of a native population unwilling to do menial jobs, often too lazy to learn skilled ones, yet expecting high incomes for doing little work as government servants.

The Singapore example is closer to Hong Kong's case. The extent of the exploitation of foreign workers there is seldom discussed. But it came as a shock to learn that foreign domestic workers do not enjoy any legal entitlement to days off. There were howls of protest from some employers when the government recently suggested that all contracts should provide one day off a month.

At present, domestic helpers are exempt from the working-hours and days-off provision of the Employment Act, so leave and wages are determined by individual contracts. Pay averages only 15 per cent of the city state's median. One survey found that 50 per cent of helpers get no days off and only 10 per cent get one day a week - the legal minimum in Hong Kong. Many maids are not allowed out of the house.

Sadly, it is perhaps not surprising - given the tendency of members of Singapore's elite to believe in the superiority of Chinese genes - to find that only women from the "brown" countries of South and Southeast Asia qualify to be employed in this particular form of servitude.

Apart from 150,000 such maids, Singapore also has some 600,000 other "non-residents". Many are well-paid bankers, businessmen academics and engineers. But rather more do the dirty and dangerous jobs, stock the thriving brothel business or otherwise work for wages far below the norms for residents. They contribute to the economy but get almost nothing back.

Beware, Hong Kong, of this shocking example.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 12:45
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November 02, 2005
Five morals

Singapore's former Prime Minister has taken another leaf out of the China book and said that there can be such a thing as too free a press. The SCMP:

Former prime minister Goh Chok Tong has defended Singapore's pro-government media industry from international criticism, saying a liberal press is not necessarily good for every country...Lee Hsien Loong, said Singapore's government and economic performance proved the city-state's system worked.

"Western liberals often argue that press freedom is a necessary ingredient of democracy and that it is the fourth estate to check elected governments, especially against corruption," he said in a speech on Monday night. "But a free press by western standards does not always lead to a clean and efficient government or contribute to economic freedom and prosperity."

The article doesn't mention if he provided examples to support this last statement, but I doubt it. Singapore was ranked 140th out of 167 countries for press freedom, while China was 159th (and Hong Kong 39th). As if to back up the ex-Prime Minister, the SCMP notes China's enlightened policy to coverage of bird flu:
ontrols over reporting on bird flu outbreaks have been tightened, despite Beijing's pledges to employ "complete openness" in the fight against the potentially catastrophic virus.

In a recently issued directive, the Publicity Department ordered newspapers to seek approval from the authorities before publishing any reports on new outbreaks of bird flu and any animal or human deaths which result...

Apart from the reporting of outbreaks and any deaths they cause, news about an exercise to prepare for the closure of ports in the event of human-to-human transmission of H5N1 has also been kept under wraps. Authorities were wary that news of the drill could spark speculation that human cases had been reported, according to government sources.

This stands in stark contrast to what the Secretary General of ASEAN was saying just yesterday: that Asian countries need to be open about bird flu news. It also contradicts comments by disease control director Qi Xiaoqiu on openness over bird flu. But remember, a free press is not necessarily does not always lead to a clean and efficient government or contribute to economic freedom and prosperity.

As a vote of thanks to Singapore, it appears PBoC's Huijin Investments has rejected Singapore's state-owned Temasek Holdings from taking a 10% stake in Bank of China (although Bloomberg contradicts the Caijing Magazine report). Why the rejection? The SCMP again:

"Huijin is BOC's major shareholder and at present it does not agree with Temasek becoming a strategic investor," a senior China Banking Regulatory Commission official told the South China Morning Post...The eight-member board of directors at Huijin, which controls 78.15 per cent of BOC, voted to reject the deal because Temasek's investments were seen as excessive, according to a report in Caijing magazine...

"What the government wants to do by allowing foreign strategic investors is to bring in the products, the management skills and the banking technology, and Temasek is not actually a bank," said Frank Gong, the chief economist at JP Morgan. "Temasek clearly doesn't bring as much to the table as Bank of America and Royal Bank of Scotland," added ABN Amro banking analyst Simon Ho, referring to the two banks' investments in China Construction Bank and BOC, respectively. "It brings a lot of money but not banking technology per se."

That's what not having an open press gets you.

Meanwhile in soon-to-be-police-state-for-a-week Hong Kong, an example of press freedom gone wrong. Again the SCMP:

Journalists adopting unethical tactics to pursue stories are ruining press freedom and destroying the credibility of the media, industry representatives warned yesterday. The accusations came after two reporters from a Hong Kong-based publication allegedly broke into Canto-pop star Gigi Leung Wing-kei's room in China World Hotel in Beijing last month while she was there to attend a Ferragamo fashion show...

Tam Chi-keung, vice-chairman of the Journalists' Association and convenor of its ethics committee, condemned media members who worked "under the umbrella of press freedom but were actually destroying it".

And you thought Western paparazzi were bad. At least you know in Hong Kong your personal data and privacy are well protected by the mis-named Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data. Right? Ummm...the SCMP one more time:
A privacy watchdog has found no reasonable grounds to launch an investigation into the disclosure of e-mail subscribers' information by Yahoo! that led to the imprisonment of a mainland journalist.

Commissioner Roderick Woo Bun told a special Legco panel meeting on information technology and broadcasting yesterday that Yahoo! Holdings (Hong Kong) had only disclosed information related to an office of a Chinese newspaper. He said that according to a verdict of the Changsha Intermediate People's Court in Hunan , "the information disclosed by Yahoo! ... to mainland authorities was only about the Contemporary Business News office in Hunan, which is not personal data".

Calling Rebecca MacKinnon.

To sum up: free press is bad for you, agreeing with China won't get you a piece of their banks, being a celebrity sucks, China learnt nothing from SARS and your email isn't private. Welcome to the Asian Century.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 10:20
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October 26, 2005
Singapore freedom

Another compare and contrast exercise with two articles from today's Sydney Morning Herald (free registration req'd, but full articles reproduced below the jump).

Item 1: The University of NSW plays down fears about Singapore offshoot. After the University of Warwick pulls out of setting up a campus in Singapore over concerns about academic freedom and financial risks, UNSW displays no such fears, partly because the Australian university had closer ties with the region and a more firmly established brand name. It also turns out UNSW will receive about A$80 million in funding from the Singaporean Government.

Item 2: When the credits roll out a person of interest. A profile of banned movie director Martyn See.

Welcome to Singapore, potential UNSW academics.

University plays down fears about Singapore offshoot

The University of NSW has moved to allay fears about academic freedom and human rights at its planned $200 million-plus Singapore campus.

But university management has conceded it cannot guarantee protection of its academic staff in Singapore, given the city-state's harsh laws governing public comment and defamation.

UNSW is one of only two foreign universities granted special status by the Singaporean Government to set up fully fledged independent teaching and research institutions offering undergraduate degrees.

It expects to open the doors of its Changi campus, to be called UNSW Asia, to up to 15,000 students from early 2007.

Yesterday it said its dean of commerce and economics, Professor Greg Whittred would be the Singapore campus's first president (vice-chancellor).

However, the other overseas institution approved by Singapore, the University of Warwick in England, said last week it would not proceed with a full-scale $354 million university campus because of concerns about academic freedom and financial risk.

AdvertisementAccording to the student newspaper, the Warwick Boar, the university also had concerns about Singapore's ban on homosexuality and certain religious practices and about possible legal reprisals against academic-related comments "that might be seen as being outside the boundaries of political debate".

Under Singapore law, foreign institutions are not allowed to criticise local politics.

UNSW has already secured a State Government-endorsed bank loan of $113 million for the Singapore campus. But it will also receive about $80 million in capital works funding from the Singapore Government, a figure the university's deputy vice-chancellor (international and development), John Ingleson, has refused to confirm or deny, on the grounds that it is commercial-in-confidence.

Speaking from Singapore yesterday, Professor Ingleson said he had been assured by the Government there that students and academics would enjoy complete academic freedom on campus. He dismissed concerns raised by the Warwick pull-out, arguing that UNSW had "a more nuanced view of how Singapore and [its] society worked".

He conceded, however, that the university would be powerless to protect its academics should they fall foul of the Government over issues of public comment.

"There is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech in any country … in that sense, our staff and our students will be subject … off-campus to the laws of Singapore like anyone else," he said.

Professor Ingleson believed Warwick's decision was based on financial risk rather than concern about academic freedom.

He said UNSW was not exposed to the same risk as Warwick because the Australian university had closer ties with the region and a more firmly established brand name.

When the credits roll out a person of interest

Martyn See did not make a pornographic film, but the first-time Singapore director says he may as well have. He shot a profile on the country's leading opposition figure, Chee Soon Juan.

Making a party-political film is as serious as making pornography in the island state. The fallout from Singapore Rebel, a 26-minute film that documents Chee's political journey without naming his Social Democratic Party, has highlighted the Government's sensitivity to political debate.

Seven months after See, 36, withdrew his "objectionable" film from the Singapore International Film Festival, he is still under police investigation. Two human rights organisations have raised See's case and what they believe is the misuse of Singapore's laws to punish government opponents and deter people from expressing dissent.

"I decided to explore why political opposition in Singapore was marginalised by the media, the Government and the public. I wanted to zoom in on one person," See says. "I was aware I could run into censorship problems, but not a full-blown investigation. It came as a shock."

AdvertisementFriends of See who are unconnected with the film have been questioned by police in recent weeks. One, the activist blogger Jacob George, reported this on the internet. While the film has been banned, no charges have been laid. It can still be seen in Singapore via Amnesty's Asia-Pacific web portal.

See's problems started with the festival requesting that he withdraw the film because it was "objectionable under the Films Act". Organisers told him that if he withdrew the film, the matter would be dropped. Failing that, the full extent of the law would apply. He withdrew it but submitted it, on request, to festivals in New Zealand, Malaysia and the US.

"I am telling the truth as objectively as I can. I praised the [People's Action Party] Government at the beginning. [The film] is hardly subversive, not seditious, and not defamatory in any way. Singaporeans are mature enough to be able to judge," he says.

In May, he was called in for a "cordial" police interview. Police have confirmed there was an investigation but have given no details. In August, See was called for a second, "more politically skewed", interview. "The police asked me, 'Why did I send the film out knowing it was objectionable?' They asked if I was a member of a political party … did I have continuing contact with Chee Soon Juan? I told them I was not a member, but I did have ongoing contact with Chee."

See surrendered his camera and tapes of Singapore Rebel after the second interview. Then, in mid-September, the same police officer asked two of See's friends to come in for interviews. "Right after that Amnesty and SEAPA [the South East Asian Press Association] spoke out," says See, who is wary about making himself, rather than censorship restrictions under the Films Act, the issue.

Under the act, it is illegal to make or show party-political films. However, a 2002 Hong Kong-made documentary on the state's founding father and long-time prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, has been shown in Singapore.

"It's the equivalent of pornography; the penalties are as harsh," See says. If charged and convicted, he could face up to two years' jail or a fine of up to $US100,000 ($78,700). He calls the act outmoded but concedes few Singaporeans are "clamouring for any change".

In Singapore Rebel, Chee is asked why he pursued politics, knowing the sensitivities. Within months of joining the opposition in 1992, he was accused of misappropriating funds and sacked from the National University of Singapore. He had to sell his house and car to pay for a defamation suit, and has been called a liar by the Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew.

"All it means is the PAP wins and if the PAP wins, Singapore loses," Chee says. "When my children grow up they will know what their father stands for. It doesn't matter what Lee Kuan Yew says."

See's next project will be a short film about Said Zahari, who was detained without trial from 1963 to 1979 under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance (now the Internal Security Act). "I am glad I hung out with Chee Soon Juan for a couple of years, with people who are less fearful," he says. "It rubs off on you."

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 14:54
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