OB Markers: My Straits Times Story by Cheong Yip Seng


February 17, 2017

Book Review:

OB Markers: My Straits Times Story by Cheong Yip Seng

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From the very first chapter of this book to the last, it is full of detailed and astonishing revelations about the mainstream media in Singapore. It is an incredible resource for those trying to understand the control of the media and Singapore’s brand of self-censorship. Indirectly, Cheong Yip Seng’s My Straits Times Story is invaluable in helping to explain the dominance of one political party through its “symbiotic” relationship to all the mainstream print media in our country.

The book begins with an account of how Cheong was appointed to his job as editor-in-chief of the Straits Times in 1986. This was not a private dinner with a publisher or a board meeting or even the result of a secret ballot at a conference of editors.

Instead, Cheong describes how he was summoned by Chandra Das, a prominent Singapore politician, on a plane to Burma with the words “The boss wants to see you”. Cheong was given a seat in the first-class cabin next to the then-Deputy Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong. Goh wanted him to take over the editorial leadership of the Straits Times from the previous editor, Peter Lim, who had been found wanting.

Image result for Israeli President Chaim Herzog’s 1986 visit to Singapore
Israeli President Chaim Herzog’s 1986 visit to Singapore

Apparently Lim’s “sin” was that he (and the ST) had during the regional uproar over the Israeli President Chaim Herzog’s 1986 visit to Singapore “failed to recognize the educational role of the Straits Times” which infuriated then PM Lee Kuan Yew who believed that the ST coverage “did not help Singaporeans fully understand the facts of regional life and what it took to be an independent sovereign nation.”

Apparently Lim had relied too much on the Malaysian English-language media in its coverage of the Malaysian outrage without adequately carrying some of the more rabid reactions from the vernacular media from across the causeway. This was the final straw which led to Lim’s firing as the Istana had apparently “reached the point of no return with the Straits Times.”

Related imageBelieve him or not, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew stood up for a responsible and accountable media

In the months before that, Cheong reveals, the government was planning on a “GTO (government team of officials) moving into Times House” similar to what was done with the bus company. The response by the ST leadership is instructive. Instead of protesting against this attempt at interference in professional journalism, apparently Peter Lim and CEO Nigel Holloway met the PM at the Istana repeatedly to negotiate against the presence of government officials in the newsroom. The solution they negotiated was instead a “monitor at Times House, someone who could watch to see if indeed the newsroom was beyond control”. This person was identified by Cheong as (former Singapore president) S R Nathan.

The threat of a GTO together with the presence of a “monitor” made sure that the SPH newspapers toed the party line. This is something that many in civil society in Singapore have suspected for a long time but it is nice to see it confirmed here from the best source possible.

There is more evidence of intimidation documented in this book, mainly from Lee Kuan Yew, who actually endorsed the book prominently. For example, after an early event at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Cheong was threatened by Lee with the words, “If you print this, I will break your neck”. Cheong’s response to what appears on the surface to be a brutal threat is interesting was: “I was taken aback by his thunderbolt…It was my first taste of Lee Kuan Yew’s ways with the media…Thankfully not every encounter would be as bruising as (that)…but there were many occasions when the knuckleduster approach was unmistakable.”

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All said and done and for all  the criticisms, Lee Kuan Yew made Singapore a great and globally admired Island Nation in the Sun–Din Merican

Such blatant intimidation is presumably rare in Singapore. The title of the book, however, describes the life of a Singaporean journalist constantly trying to negotiate the “OB” or “Out of Bounds” markers. Cheong explains the origin of the term “OB markers”, ascribing it to former minister George Yeo, who described them as “areas of public life that should remain out of bounds to social activism and the media. Otherwise, society paid an unacceptably high price.”

Outside of race and religion, the most important OB marker was then PM Lee Kuan Yew’s argument that the press could not be a “fourth estate” or center of power because it was not elected.

This is not a valid argument to me as it could be argued that the press are far more accountable than politicians as they have to seek the approval of the newspaper purchasing public every day rather than every four to five years in elections.

Instead, Lee’s view of the press was that it was a tool for dissemination and promotion of government policies. One illuminating illustration was a “furious” call from Lee’s office that was received by the (now defunct) New Nation Editor David Kraal. The editors were “flummoxed” to discover that the then PM was provoked by a photograph of a large family to illustrate a story of a happy Singapore family. Apparently, this was perceived by the PM as “subtle but effective criticism” of the “Stop at Two campaign” in which Lee sought to limit families to two children.

There are other OB markers which Cheong found “bewildering”. These included stories on Stanley Gibbons, a stamp dealer; carpet auctions; monosodium glutamate or MSG; feng shui; unflattering pictures of politicians, and scoops.

I think many Singaporeans too would find it difficult to understand why these “should remain out of bounds to social activism and the media. Otherwise, society paid an unacceptably high price.” These are, however, hallmarks of an authoritarian regime which can install boundaries at whim without having them questioned.

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The Emeritus Foreign Minister of Singapore, George Yeo

Another OB marker was appearing overly critical of local TV programs. George Yeo apparently pointed out that “If the Straits Times created the impression that our TV programs were not worth watching, Singapore would lose an important channel of communications.” As a result, even the TV critics were reined in.

The issue of scoops is a recurrent theme. Cheong reports that “Lee Kuan Yew was determined to purge the newsroom of the culture of scoops”. He did not want a situation like the Watergate affair in which a dishonest president was exposed by investigative journalists who became cult heroes. Cheong writes that “The PM took the position that Singapore was not America: he had no skeletons in the closet and challenged the press to find one because he wanted to be the first to know…”

But of course, the press could not use investigative journalism to find out – they had to depend on the official version of events. This kind of Alice in Wonderland argument doesn’t seem to trouble Cheong or perhaps by re-stating the argument in this context, he is exposing its hollowness.

Cheong actually admits how much of a struggle this was for him as a journalist. He quotes Number 5 Chinese Leader Li Changchun as urging mainland Chinese journalists to go for scoops and explains his predecessor Peter Lim’s Faustian bargain for Singapore journalists thus: “it was better to produce the best story than the first story…Finding scoops in Singapore with many OB markers carried a real risk”.

Indeed, one gets a sense of how difficult life is for journalists who might inadvertently break a story that covered the sensitive subject of MSG or bad local TV programs or some other OB marker and end up being hauled up by the government.

Cheong makes it clear that while he had hoped that the “knuckleduster era” belonged to the 1970s, it could reappear any time. For example, he describes how while “recovering” from the 2006 general election, he received a phone call in a hotel in Phuket, from Lee Kuan Yew who was “livid” about a “powerfully argued column by Chua Mui Hoong” in which the deputy political editor had questioned the policy of placing opposition wards at the back of the queue for upgrading works. According to Cheong, Lee was “his old 1970s self. If the Straits Times wanted a fight, he was prepared to do it the old way, with knuckledusters on”. This is depressing but not surprising to any reader of the ST today.

The extent of micro-management of the local press Cheong reports is amazing. Apparently, Goh Chok Tong had made a suggestion during the launch of The New Paper: “Why not consider a Page 3 girl”. Cheong quickly clarifies that Goh was not suggesting topless women that had been made famous by Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid The Sun but rather girls that (as Cheong quotes Goh) “can be scantily dressed”. The character and direction – and not just the OB markers – of the local press are thus apparently suggested by Singapore’s political leadership.

Cheong also provides details about the ST personnel’s relationship with the ruling People’s Action Party, the PAP. He writes that “senior PAP leaders had been impressed with (columnist Warren Fernandez’s) work for us. His columns in particular have been generally supportive of PAP policies.” He was about to be selected as a PAP candidate for the 2006 elections.

Cheong then emailed the Prime Minister asking to keep Warren at the ST “unless he was earmarked for higher office. But the PM’s response was that he needed Eurasian representation in parliament”. Apparently Cheong’s email had been circulated to the PAP selection panel before the final interview and Kuan Yew agreed to keep Fernandez out of the PAP slate. Of course, now Fernandez is the Editor of the ST.

Reporting on the “opposition” politicians was even more of a “minefield”. Cheong recalls the 1984 elections when “Peter Lim, then editor in chief, was under pressure from James Fu, the PM’s press secretary, conveying the PM’s request to publish Chiam (See Tong)’s O-Level results….Peter Lim refused: he was convinced it would backfire against the PAP…The result proved him right”.

What intrigues me about the incident was not just that the Prime Minister would intervene to try to persuade the national newspaper to publish such data, but rather that the editor-in-chief refused not because of journalistic integrity but rather because he thought it would “backfire against the PAP”.

This is typical of what Cheong describes as the “symbiotic relationship” between the ST and the PAP which is in fact enshrined in the editorial policy that Cheong crafted in response to then PM Goh’s unhappiness with the local mainstream media. The three pillars of that policy are (1) “Accuracy and objectivity” of coverage (2) The nation-building task of advancing and informing the public as Singapore develops and (3) The symbiotic relationship with the government. Some journalists were unhappy about this relationship but it stayed in the ST editorial policy at Cheong’s insistence. This documentation again, is what makes this book valuable to all who read the local press.

There are many revelations in Cheong’s book. We learn that the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts kept a dossier on local press articles which they found offensive. These include not giving enough prominence to ministers’ speeches. We also learn that when editors were “called up for meetings” with then PM Lee, they had to send detailed CVs including their O-Level results and their wives’ educational qualifications.

Other specific examples of censorship included restrictions on reporting conditions in national service camps in the early days and telling stories of the people who actually lost out through the Housing and Development Board (HDB) construction and resettlement process. The latter is poignant as Cheong describes the contrast between the 30,000 square feet (including a pond and a farm) that a friend living in Kampong Henderson had to give up in exchange for less than $3,000 compensation and a much smaller HDB flat. The ST was not allowed to report on such negative aspects of our “urban renewal” process or the HDB “success story”. The threat of the disapproval of the Times House “monitor” which could cost them their jobs through a GTO ensured compliance.

Interestingly, the “foreign investors” whom we religiously try to attract to Singapore are not as keen on press controls as we have been given to believe. According to Cheong, the American Business Council, supported by the US State Department, argued that investors would be deterred without the free flow of information. Cheong reports how the Singapore government stood their ground but paid the price, in his words: “liberal democracies and some members of the Singapore intelligensia saw it as too intolerant for its own good.”

Cheong is dismissive of the online alternative media but he devotes a paragraph to responding to Seelan Palay’s film “One Nation Under Lee” specifically by explaining that the ISD agents hired by the ST were not sent by the government, they were in fact, according to Cheong, willingly brought in by himself.

Later on, Cheong describes Lee Kuan Yew’s response to the online question “Who paid for the flying hospital for his wife” as marking the legitimization of online media. Cheong acknowledges that the days of traditional media are numbered worldwide, even in Singapore. He quotes the current PM Lee Hsien Loong as admitting that he cannot persuade his own daughter to read the news pages of the ST.

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The book is not all about the travails of a court announcer trying to keep the king happy. For me, the most promising section was the one describing the ST’s finest hour – exposing a scandal involving the National Kidney Foundation. Here is where you get a sense of what might have been should the ST have decided to serve the people of Singapore by performing the task of investigative journalists rather than as disseminators of official information.

Cheong was aware of “strong pro-NKF sentiments in powerful quarters” including two ministers (Lim Hng Kiang and Khaw Boon Wan) as the NKF had taken a tremendous load off the public healthcare sector by keeping alive and healthy 1,800 Singaporeans through its excellent dialysis centers.

He was initially prepared to pay S$20,000 as compensation, publish a statement of clarification about the article by Susan Long, which had the infamous gold taps as part of a “generally laudatory article” and settle the matter out of court. Cheong does not reveal who or what made him change his mind and go against Mrs Goh Chok Tong’s efforts to mediate.

T T Durai, then NKF CEO, who was at the center of the controversy, was incensed and accused the media of trying to be the fourth estate, which Cheong had already established was a role that the Singapore mainstream media had given up – except in this case!

Here the ST team excelled themselves – they tracked down the contractor who prepared the gold taps and other witnesses who were prepared to sign affidavits. In other words, good old-fashioned investigative journalism. Like the good journalists that many in the ST are (before they censor themselves), they want their readers to have all the facts, including those below the surface so the readers could make intelligent decisions for themselves.

While the stories in the book are exciting to any media watcher (and there are many more), there are many errors such as the misspelling of my uncle David Tambyah’s name and SARS was described incorrectly as occurring in 2002 in one instance (although the proof readers picked out the correct dates for the three subsequent mentions of the outbreak).

Cheong himself acknowledges the problem with the quality of English in the newspaper and says that the ST paid the price for the “neglect” of the teaching of grammar in schools. It got so bad that he had to “scour” the world for good copy editors whom he eventually found in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and India.

For those of us who lament that our education system seems to have switched from teaching life and career skills to teaching what is required to top international standardized tests, that is a statement worth paying attention to.

The question on many Singaporean’s minds is: Why did he write this book? Cheong does explicitly reveal this. Near the end, however, he gives a telling account of how journalists found official spokespersons unhelpful as their priority was “reflecting better on the ministers” rather than allowing journalists to do investigative or background work. He describes frustrated journalists recounting their bad experiences in explicit detail – perhaps that is what he is trying to do himself as some kind of catharsis.

Perhaps wistfully, he talks about a time when the ST was indeed the “fourth estate” when it did occasionally demonstrate its independence – although he has to reach as far back as 1956 when the ST condemned the takeover of the Suez Canal by British, French and Israelis. British expats in Singapore were incensed and the managing director of the ST, a member of the British establishment was “spat on in the (then British only) Tanglin Club.”

When I asked a prominent civil society figure about the reasons for this book, he pointed out that when authoritarian regimes in Latin America or Eastern Europe were crumbling, “everyone claimed to be a reformer.”

I am an optimist. I think that Cheong has seen the signs from the recent general, presidential and by-elections and he knows that the people of Singapore are waking up. Establishment voices are raising questions about some fundamental assumptions.

The first step, as anyone with a serious problem knows, is acknowledging that you have a serious problem. Perhaps this is Cheong’s first step. Hopefully for the mainstream media, acknowledging the problem of control and domination will be the first step to the recovery of an independent media which can evolve into a free press, a necessity for democracy for the people of Singapore. The book is a worthy read.

(Another version of this review first appeared on yoursdp.org. Assoc Prof Paul Tambyah is a member of the Singapore Democratic Party’s Healthcare Policy Panel. He contributed this in his personal capacity.)

Populism ‘not inevitable’:


January , 2017

Populism ‘not inevitable’:  Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam at LKY School of Public Policy

by Charissa Yong

http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/drift-towards-populism-not-inevitable

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Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam delivers his keynote address at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA) held on January 7, 2017.

Govts must offer hope and real solutions by helping people regenerate careers, and those left behind: Tharman

While Singapore has experienced some of these disquieting trends, he believes policies here and in some other societies made a difference in addressing their impact.

He cited four global trends: stagnant wages, declining social mobility, the sense of togetherness in society eroding, and politics and the media becoming more polarised.

“The only surprise is how long it has taken for those underlying domestic changes in society to be reflected in politics,” he told 350 people at a global affairs conference, Has The Game Changed?, hosted by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. While last year’s populist upsets, driven by anti-globalisation, have created a despondency about global cooperation, Mr Tharman said: “The real challenge is not about globalisation. The real challenge is in domestic policy responses.”

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He added: “There are countries where you don’t get the same trends played out, although globalisation happens in the same way.”

 He cited how in Sweden and Singapore, middle-income workers’ pay went up by more than that in other advanced economies. But lower- and middle-class workers’ wages in America, parts of Europe, Britain and Japan have stagnated.

In America, in 1970, 90 per cent of 30-year-olds had real incomes above what their parents had at 30. Today, the figure is only half, and it affects people’s sense of hope.

The second trend he highlighted was a general decline in social mobility across advanced economies.It is now a stubborn fact and “people know that their chances of moving up in life are less than they used to be if they start off at the bottom”.

Third, people no longer think of themselves and society in terms of “we” but in terms of “us versus them”. This is complicated by how sectarian strife in one area can go global, widening domestic fissures.

Fourth, politics is increasingly polarised, reinforced by how social media algorithms filter “news” in ways that reinforce people’s bias.

Mr Tharman suggested four ways countries can tackle these issues. One, pay attention to cities that have been left behind, in particular through schools and education.

Two, help people regenerate their careers throughout their lives, through skills training.

“You need redistribution in society, and you may need more in some areas, but it’s not at the heart of the matter. It doesn’t give hope. Regeneration is what brings hope because you allow individuals, communities and cities to rise through their own abilities,” he said.

Three, neighbourhood and urban planning must discourage segregation and encourage people to mix. This will enable communities to do well together, said Mr Tharman.

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Four, bring honesty and the need to look to the long term back into politics. He noted a long drift towards “short-termism” reflected in the brazen neglect of issues such as unsustainable pensions and healthcare funding. And neither the left nor the right has offered solutions which give confidence for tomorrow’s generation, he added.

There is a need for honest politics that “tells it like it is” but offers hope and real solutions, he said.

“There is nothing inevitable about the drift towards populism. We have to regenerate the politics of the centre. It can be done.”

Dr. Munir looks back at 2016


January 7, 2017

Dr. Munir looks back at 2016

COMMENT by Dr. Munir Majid@www.thestar.com.my

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Not a single Western political leader has had the guts to tell their people they had to accept a lower standard of living, that it was time for a great reset. Build up productivity and capacity again. Meanwhile, if you go to the pub, go only once a month. If you shampoo your hair once a week, do it fortnightly. Taking holidays abroad in countries whose people you come to hate when you get home will have to take a rest. If you work only 35 hours a week, as in France, what do you expect?–Dr. Munir Majid

The descent from globalism to nativism is the defining story of 2016, but the analysis of its cause and projection of the world into 2017 by intellectual custodians of the liberal order are flawed and offer no guide on how to break the fall.

The Brexit vote in Britain in June, the election of Donald Trump in November and the threatening reactionary outcome of elections in France and Germany next year all point to the end of a certain system by which the world has operated, even if what exactly would replace it is less than clear. If the great Western nations of the world change direction, then the rest must.

A broader perspective, however, would recognise the troubles and decisions of 2016 and what might come in 2017 had a gestation period that began at least from the Western financial crisis of 2008, too often called and accepted as the global financial crisis.

What the West continues to grapple with is how to live beyond its means. There was the criminal excess of the banks leading to the 2008 crisis, of course, but underlying it was the ethic of expectation of a certain standard of living, whether or not one worked for it or was productive enough to deserve it.

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Marie Le Pen, Donald J. Trump and Vladimir Putin–The End of Liberal Global Order

If you do not have the means to get what you want you have to borrow to get it, unless of course you stole and pillaged. So Western states and individuals kept on borrowing, or the central banks printed money to keep the economy going, which it always did not as the money kept going out where it could be more productively used.

Not a single Western political leader has had the guts to tell their people they had to accept a lower standard of living, that it was time for a great reset. Build up productivity and capacity again. Meanwhile, if you go to the pub, go only once a month. If you shampoo your hair once a week, do it fortnightly. Taking holidays abroad in countries whose people you come to hate when you get home will have to take a rest. If you work only 35 hours a week, as in France, what do you expect?

Did any of this happen? People may lose jobs as they could not compete, but they get state support and they blame others like the migrant European workers who could work, who took jobs they did not want to do.

Immigration becomes the issue. And when refugees pour in who also bring with them the threat, and execution, of terror, an inflection point is reached. Sociologists now analyse this as a threat to identity, which certainly is used in rousing emotions during political campaigns, but there was at least equally a revolt against the economic and social condition those not doing so well in life were in.

They are now so widely called the under-served. In the case of Brexit, there was no doubt the uprising of the Little Englander, but there was also the let-us-just-bloody-well-get-out-and-see-what-happens attitude.

While some in the shires thought like this, I also know of a few non-white working class Brits who voted to get out just on this basis. When I asked one such person in London, who is a chauffeur to an unbearable boss, why he did such an irresponsible act, he tried to justify it by associating himself with the workers in Sunderland of whom he knows absolutely nothing.

The thing is, who speaks to such people? The academics and intellectuals only talk among themselves in an idiom only they can understand. Even after Trump, when they pronounced there has been a great failure to address the under-served – which the President-elect on the other hand did so well – they are still talking to and being clever with one another.

My friend Francois Heisbourg, Chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, beautifully describes Marine Le Pen’s appeal to the French: “Donald Trump makes Marine Le Pen sound reasonable…..Everyone knows she’s not Trump – she knows how to use a noun and a verb and is intellectually coherent about what she wants and doesn’t want.”

What, for God’s sake, are the arguments that can be used effectively with the ordinary Frenchman that they can understand and appreciate in favour of the liberal order? Paul Krugman likens what is happening to America to how the Roman Republic was destroyed by individuals disloyal to it serving only their own selfish cause. Pray, how many among the Americans who voted for Trump know, or care, anything about the history of Rome?

The Economist, that great citadel of the liberal order, makes a clarion call for its defence and for liberals not to lose heart. How and what to do? Certainly not by talking to one another. Or by communicating in a language and idiom a lower order would not understand.

With perfect Euro-centrism an English commentator fears the Syrian conflict may turn out to be like the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Has he not heard of the Palestinian struggle which has spawned much of the bloodshed in the Middle East and beyond?

There are three gaping holes in the defence of the “global” liberal order. First there is a blind spot about having to have a lower standard of living unless you earn a higher one. Second, an inability among liberal intellectuals to communicate except among themselves. Third, a reflection on the threat through western eyes only.

The second weakness is endemic. It is a truly global malady. Intellectuals, whether in the West or Malaysia or anywhere else, should not disdain populism, which is the bad word now in all the commentary on the threat to the global liberal order. They will not stoop so low – as Trump did – to gain support. Well, stoop less low or in a different way. Dirty your hands. Reach out.

We don’t communicate simply, when there are simple terms that convey meaning. We think we are so high and mighty.

Actually if you think about it – and this is especially for the blinkered Western intellectuals – the exemplar of populism, and darned effective with it, is UMNO. You may wince at the kris-wielding antics and other forms of political theatre, and you may not agree with some or most of the policies propounded, but you have to admit they rabble rouse their way to considerable support.

Yucks… but that was the yucks that caused Donald Trump to win. You have to get popular support. You do not do so talking to one another from university pulpits, in the parlours of Georgetown in Washington DC, in Hampstead or indeed at the Royal Selangor Golf Club in Kuala Lumpur.

Now, why do Western intellectuals particularly not talk about having to accept a lower standard of living? Well, they too will have to do so. The levels of income of the journalists and professors and consultants actually are very high, and they do a lot of talking outside their paid job for which they are paid more. Can they look the lowly worker in the eye and say you have to be paid less?

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Farewell and Thank You Mr. President for keeping the world  safe, despite setbacks . We in Asia will miss you for your engagement with us.

There has been a historic transfer of savings from countries with a lower standard of living to those higher so they stay there. As these poorer countries need and want rich country currency – particularly the dollar – for their economic life in their global liberal order, the rich not only get the savings from the poor to sustain their economic life in that global liberal order. They also are able to print money for the extras they might want.

They would be risking their own interest if they began to start talking to under served workers in their domestic economy about income levels that can be sustained by actual production – which is what developing countries have to live by, global liberal order or not.

Now the most important main benefit poorer countries obtain from that order is being threatened – their ability and success in producing goods and services which can reach any consumer in open global competition.

Donald Trump is breaking the rules for America because the US cannot otherwise compete. So he wants to protect the American market against better able, more efficient and cheaper producers – the developing countries.

While enjoyment – and denial – of these goods and services is one thing, and while undoubtedly there will in the immediate-term be a rebound of the US economy, who in the medium and long-term is going to hold Western debt so that the high standard of living in rich countries can continue? They do not save to finance the economy. They do not efficiently produce many of the goods and services they enjoy. They need also to take advantage, through trade and investment, of the real growth in developing regions such as in East and South-East Asia.

Therefore on this score alone – the need for an open and competitive global trading system – there is true convergence of interest in the world. The poorer countries will have to take it, warts and all. And the rich Western nations, with their proponents of the global liberal order, will certainly want to keep it all.

The skewered balance in the global liberal order is sustained by an intellectual convention which is Euro-centric but commanding across the globe. Leaders in politics and thought in non-Western countries only have themselves to blame for this.

They accept almost carte blanche what Western liberals submit. Don’t get me wrong. There are so many good things about western liberals and the liberal order.

I don’t think there has ever been in history such a constituency of liberals as there are in the West who would fight for the rights of the victimized and the downtrodden, like refugees, non-whites and Muslims, as there is in the western world today. Even as extreme and violent Muslims blow them up. The adherence to the value of love against hate, and of tolerance against incitement, is of the highest human order.

The other thing developing countries could imbibe from the Western liberal order is the rule of law. This is the strongest defence and guarantee of individual rights there has ever been in human history.

Image result for Lee Kuan YewSuccessful leader: Lee Kuan Yew made Singapore economically successful as a result of the purely utilitarian benefit of the rule of the law

When the laws are applied and enforced without fear or favour, there is faith in the social contract that underlies the polity. This is the main failing of most developing countries, which they would do well to learn from the West, beyond the purely utilitarian benefit of the rule of law that drove Lee Kuan Yew to make Singapore economically successful.

But, despite all this truly profound contribution of liberals and the liberal order of the West, it does not mean we must accept everything from them hook, line and sinker, especially every bit of the analysis of what has gone or is going wrong with the world.

Or the selling of expertise on how to get things right. Their record on that score is poor. We have too many such offerings, in Malaysia for instance, of how to develop our financial system and to train our financial practitioners. We must not be stupid to give money for old rope.

As we go into the new year, we should not be overwhelmed by analyses of what happened in 2016 and why. We must have a clarity and sense of perspective of the causes leading to it. And we must look forward to 2017 without the colonial mentality which makes us slaves to Western thought.

 

Najib Razak drags Singapore’s reputation as a Regional Centre into the Selut (MUD)


December 29, 2016

From the moment Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak took over 1Malaysia Development Bhd. in 2009 the fund has remained controversial. Plagued by heavy debt and questions about its management, 1MDB grew into a scandal that moved closer and closer to the heart of the Malaysian government and has resulted in numerous foreign probes.

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Najib Razak drags Singapore’s reputation as a Regional Centre into the Selut (MUD)

http://1426.blogspot.com/2016/12/najib-drags-singapore-into-1mdb-muck.html

From the 1Malaysia Development Bhd.-linked scandal to a 333-count front-running case and the largest market-manipulation prosecution in Singapore’s history, this year’s allegations of moneymen behaving badly have put the city-state’s image as a squeaky-clean financial hub to the test.

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Regulators have responded with their busiest year of enforcement actions, shutting the local units of two Swiss banks, fining some of the world’s biggest lenders and seizing S$240 million ($166 million) of assets. Ravi Menon, the head of Singapore’s central bank, summed up the city’s mood as the 1MDB-related cases escalated in July: “We can do better.”

2016 was the year of significant crackdown in Singapore,” said Hamidul Haq, a lawyer at Rajah & Tann LLP and author of ‘Financial Crimes in Singapore.’ “Companies, financial traders and bankers are being kept on their toes.”

The stakes could hardly be higher for a city that relies on finance for 13 percent of its economy and has 200,000 jobs tied to the industry. With exports sliding and the local oil services industries in a slump, Singapore needs to protect the reputation of its financial sector as it grapples with the weakest economic growth since 2009.

 Ravi Menon

Strengthening enforcement functions under a new department is a strong signal of its commitment to uphold Singapore’s reputation, the Monetary Authority of Singapore said in an e-mailed response to questions. The regulator said it will continue to boost its enforcement and surveillance capabilities to deter criminal behavior and poor controls.

“This will ensure that any wrongdoing is swiftly detected, thoroughly investigated and firmly dealt with,” the MAS said.

Least Corrupt

Singapore, which prides itself on having a clean and trusted system, is rated by Transparency International as the least corrupt nation in Asia and consistently ranksamong the top 10 globally. That reputation was forged 51 years ago when Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, and politicians from his People’s Action Party dressed in white to show they couldn’t be corrupted. That image helped to lure foreign investment to the city, where more than 200 banks have since set up shop.

The island  republic emerged unscathed from the Bank of Credit and Commerce International global money laundering scandal in 1991 after MAS refused to grant it a license, though it isn’t immune to financial wrongdoing. In 1995, Nick Leeson’s $1.5 billion loss from unauthorized trades brought down Barings Plc, the U.K.’s oldest merchant bank. In 2004, China Aviation Oil (Singapore) Corp. revealed a $550 million derivatives fraud.

While Singapore has undergone significant change in tackling money laundering since 2008, “moderate gaps” remain in the city, Paris-based Financial Action Task Force said in September.

 MAS Chief Menon vowed to take stern action after the city’s reputation took a hit following revelations that money linked to 1MDB went through Singapore. The fund, at the center of global money-laundering and corruption probes, has consistently denied wrongdoing.

The city is the only jurisdiction to charge and convict bankers in connection with 1MDB. Yak Yew Chee, an ex-banker at Swiss firm BSI SA, pleaded guilty in November to charges including forging documents and failing to disclose suspicious transactions, while Yvonne Seah Yew Foong, who reported to Yak, was sentenced to two weeks in jail for aiding in forging documents. A former wealth planner at BSI, Yeo Jiawei, was found guilty of perverting the course of justice and faces further charges of money laundering and forgery, among others. Yak and Seah didn’t appeal their convictions and sentences. Yeo is considering an appeal, according to his lawyer.

 “There’s no doubt about the tone that we take,” Singapore Law Minister K Shanmugam said at a media lunch earlier this month, adding that the rule of law is the city’s life blood. “It’s got to be understood that the MAS will be very tough if you don’t follow the rules.”

Bigger Stick

The MAS was given a bigger stick to wield in 2015 after a penny-stock crash in 2013 mysteriously wiped out S$8 billion over three trading days, an event seen contributing to lower subsequent trading volumes. Lawmakers granted the regulator enhanced powers including being able to search premises, seize items and order financial firms to monitor customer accounts.

The alleged “masterminds” in the penny-stock case were charged in November after MAS investigators and white-collar crime police sifted through two million e-mails, thousands of phone records and financial statements and 180 trading accounts to solve the largest securities fraud in the city’s history. Previously, the regulator had to refer criminal probes to the Commercial Affairs Department and could only fine culprits.

“Hopefully, the MAS will continue to focus on catching the bigger fish like they have done in 2016,” said Lan Luh Luh, a professor at the National University of Singapore Business School. “It’s always a dilemma between tightening the reins too much, going after the very little guys and staying open for business.”

Crowdfunding and financial technology may come under scrutiny in 2017, according to Lan. The two areas aren’t heavily regulated and may be open to abuse, she said.

More Scrutiny

Singapore’s enforcement actions this year have made it one of the most active financial regulators in Asia. In rival Hong Kong, the Securities and Futures Commission has been settling probes and creating specialized teams under new enforcement chief Thomas Atkinson.

Other countries have also seen heightened supervisory focus. Indonesia started a tax amnesty plan aimed at repatriating cash stashed overseas while giving evaders a way to come clean. China has placed regulatory curbs to rein in shadow banking and contain debt risk.

“That’s the global trend — it’s going to become harder to hide illicit money,” said Andre Jumabhoy, a Singapore-based lawyer who advises on government enforcement at K&L Gates LLP. “There’s a real emphasis in making sure that if you want to be a serious global financial center like Singapore wants to be, you’ve got to abide by the rules.”

Here’s what the Monetary Authority of Singapore was busy with in 2016:

Banks and bankers

* Fined Standard Chartered Plc, Coutts & Co., UBS Group AG and DBS Group Holdings Ltd. over breaches related to 1MDB. The banks have said they cooperated with authorities.

* Said it plans to bar former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. star banker Tim Leissner from the securities industry for 10 years. Leissner’s lawyer had said he intends to respond to allegations raised by MAS.

Falcon Private Bank Ltd. was fined and ordered to shut over weak controls; local branch manager arrested by police. The bank had said it welcomed the completion of investigations.

BSI SA was fined and directed to close after “serious” money laundering breaches; six senior executives referred to prosecutors. BSI said it cooperated fully with investigations.

Alleged errant traders

* Three people were charged for orchestrating largest market manipulation case in Singapore’s history.

* Three former traders were charged with 333 counts in Singapore’s first front-running case.

* Man charged in the city’s first spoofing case, which was also the first case that the regulator and Commercial Affairs Department jointly brought to court.

Fined a former chief financial officer of Sinomem Technology Ltd. and asset manager Triumpus Assets Management Pte for insider trading. Both had admitted to the contravention.

Barred a former trader for two years and fined him S$110,000 for insider trading.

Other enforcement efforts

* Joint announcement with Attorney-General’s Chambers and police that S$240 million in assets have been seized, including from Malaysian financier Low Taek Jho. Two calls to Low’s Jynwel Capital Ltd. in Hong Kong weren’t answered

* Set up units to centralize and further boost enforcement as well as target money-laundering activities

A new start for old neighbours (Malaysia-Singapore)


December 21, 2016

Sharing the cost of building HSR

http://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/letters/2016/12/21/sharing-the-cost-of-building-hsr/

Image result for Kadir Mohamed-- Fifty Years Malaysia-Singapore Relations

I READ with great interest “HSR helps move things on right track” by Mohd Nur Ismal Mohamed Kamal, Chief Executive Officer of MyHSR Corporation (The Star, Dec 19), his response to the commentary “A new start for old neighbours” by Mergawati Zulfakar (The Star, Dec 16).

It is very uplifting indeed to hear about all the potential spin-off benefits of the High Speed Rail (HSR) project to be undertaken by Malaysia and Singapore.

In the first place, however, the people of Malaysia are equally keen to know the cost of implementation of the project. More precisely, people want to know which side pays for what.

The reply by the CEO of MyHSR sounds very much like laying out the arguments that since Malaysia will make all the gains that he has described, Malaysia must be ready to pay for the bulk of the cost of implementation.

I certainly hope this is not what he implied. I feel that in this matter the question of which side shall make how much profit out of the HSR project must also be taken into account in determining the formula for sharing the cost of implementation.

KADIR MOHAMAD

Author, Malaysia-Singapore: Fifty Years of Contentions, 1965-2015

A new start for old neighbours

by Mergawati Zulfakar@www.thestar.com.my

Durian diplomacy: Najib checking out the Musang King durian on display during the Malaysia Agrobazaar in Singapore in 2014 as Lee and his wife Ho Ching look on. —Bernama

Durian diplomacy: Najib checking out the Musang King durian on display during the Malaysia Agrobazaar in Singapore in 2014 as Lee and his wife Ho Ching look on. —Bernama

IT would be hard to ignore the fact that bi­­lateral ties between Malaysia and Singapore were thorny for decades.

For many years, there was mistrust among officials, ministers and leaders, especially when they tried to resolve outstanding issues including the KTM Bhd land in Singapore, sale of water from Johor and a new bridge to replace the Causeway.

The animosity was evident, so much so that during the signing of a special agreement to refer a disputed island (Batu Puteh/Pedra Branca) to an international court 13 years ago, the foreign ministers of Malaysia and Singapore got into a verbal sparring match as they tried to explain each country’s stand on exercising their rights over the rocky island.

Sure, they cracked jokes with each other during the lunch that followed, but for many who witnessed the sparring during an event that was broadcast live on RTM, it was evident relations were not well. It was undiplomatic and ugly.

  It was a roller-coaster ride for bilateral relations and an unpleasant one between countries deeply divided on issues.

Fast forward to 2016. It is ironic that today, the love for a thorny fruit has, in a way, brought ties onto a stronger and firmer footing. Durian diplomacy seems to work the magic to put ties back on track.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s “obsession” for durian is well known and during one working trip to Malaysia, one of the first things he asked about on arrival was the Musang King durian.

When he became Prime Minister in 2009, Dato’ Seri Najib Tun Razak made it clear he wanted a bilateral relationship that is bold, imaginative and courageous.

“If we take the attitude that as members of a new generation, that both Prime Minister Lee and I are young, we’re not part of that generation, we should not be encumbered with the baggage of history,” Najib had said.

The two leaders struck a personal close relationship over the years and this has made things a lot easier to manage. On Tuesday, as the two leaders attended the seventh leaders’ retreat, history was made again by the signing of the bilateral agreement to construct the high-speed rail line between Jurong East and Bandar Malaysia.

Much has been said about the project, which was only brought to the table in 2013.

Image result for malaysia singapore high speed rail

The “marquee project” will bring the two countries closer together, improve connecti­vity, deepen people-to-people ties and catalyse further economic cooperation.

The vibes are definitely good between the leaders and it has a spiral effect on the ministers and officials, too.

Yes, gone are the days of confrontations, the language used is different and the talk now is more on cooperation. Putrajaya’s less confrontational approach in dealing with Singapore is bearing fruit.

Yet, we need to be reminded that while several issues have been resolved, including the Points of Agreement on KTM land in Singapore, resulting in joint venture projects between Khazanah Nasional and Temasek Holdings in Singapore and Iskandar, there are still many issues on the table.

In any negotiations, despite the good vibes that are flowing across the Causeway, Malay­sia should never take Singapore for granted.

A Malaysian official was rather blunt when he said that Singapore still plays hardball when it matters.“Their DNA hasn’t changed. What they stand for hasn’t changed. What you see is never what you get,” the official added.

Over the years, Malaysian officials who have had dealings with Singapore agree on this – their counterparts will ask, “What will Singapore get?”.

“Charity is not in their vocabulary, forget about the spirit of neighbourliness,” said an official.

Back to the HSR project that is targeted to start service in 10 years: we know it will cut travel time to 90 minutes, we know it is supposed to spin economic activities along the stations and we know the project, the first of its kind in the region, is being followed closely by other countries wanting a piece of the multi-billion project.

The two leaders keep saying the HSR is a game changer but what we want to know is, exactly how are citizens going to benefit?

Firstly, the fare, already speculated to be hundreds of ringgit between Bandar Malaysia and Singapore, is an amount that only business people may be willing to pay. It may be too steep for ordinary citizens.

The service will benefit a certain population and group of people, but what about the larger population? Are there any real conversations on efforts to create jobs in the smaller towns that the train passes by?

Will the agency tasked to create economic activities have a conversation with Singapore on what sort of businesses can be set up so that the Government can spur economic growth along the corridor?

Is Singapore willing to relocate factories so that people do not have to travel all the way there for work? After all, it will help relieve congestion at the border crossings, something Singapore has always wanted.

While the Land Public Transport Commis­sion and MyHSR are dealing with their Singa­pore counterparts on the HSR, there must be parallel negotiations on the economic impact to the people living along the rail line.

“If you are not going to ask from them, Singapore will not volunteer and negotiate what Malaysia wants,” said an official. “Singapore is a small country and they know they can only go so far,” he said.

“So what do you do? They actually need us, their neighbours and we are the most immediate.They have a glossy veneer and if you don’t cut through, you don’t see the ‘naughtiness’. They look polite and professional but yet they are waiting to ‘kill you’ off.”

But is Malaysia ruthless enough and willing to take advantage of the situation? Maybe Malaysians do not have that kind of DNA but we must bear in mind that when others sense you are weak, they will go for the kill.

At the end of the day, Malaysia-Singapore ties must be really a win-win situation and not just to make one country flourish. Isn’t it better to survive together, especially in this challenging and changing global environment?

To UMNO Leadership–Don’t Use Singapore Malays for your Politics


December 8, 2016

To UMNO Leadership–Don’t Use Singapore Malays for your Politics

by Mohsin Abdullah (received via email)

Related image

The first ever Singapore’s Malay Brigadier General, Ishak Ismail, who is also the Commander of Sixth Army Division(left in the picture)

In wanting to garner support of the Malays and thus to cling on to power, UMNO has this habit, albeit bad, of using (or should it be misusing) the Malays of Singapore. We all know that, right? But I’ll say it again here all the same.

The party tends to portray Singapore Malays as being “discriminated”, “ill treated” and “marginalized” by the Chinese-dominated PAP government in Singapore.

Having done that, UMNO will say (or rather warn) the Malays in this country that they will suffer the same fate if UMNO loses political power in Malaysia.

In short, they’ll say, “Support UMNO or you Malays will suffer like your saudara di Singapura.” The latest UMNO leader to use this overused tactic is Puad Zarkashi, a member of the party’s supreme council.

Puad was obviously riled up when Tun Mahathir Mohamad who helmed UMNO for more than 20 years had praised DAP for upholding the Federal Constitution, the constitutional monarchy, special position of the Malays, national language, and Islam as the religion of the Federation.

And Mahathir lauded DAP for being a Malaysian party.These remarks were made when Mahathir attended for the first time ever the DAP national convention held recently.

Image result for The Singapore Speaker

Singapore’s Speaker of Parliament

In admitting his previous wrong impression of DAP, Mahathir said although the party had often been painted by its enemies as a Chinese party, the DAP anthem and the speeches at the convention by secretary-general Lim Guan Eng and acting chairman Tan Kok Wai were in Bahasa Malaysia.

Puad retorted by saying that using the Malay language for party anthem and speeches “does not ensure DAP will protect the Malays”.

 

According to him, DAP “is just following the strategy of Singapore’s PAP”, going on to say that “Singapore’s national anthem is in Malay but what happened to the Malays because of the policy (similar to DAP’s Malaysian Malaysia ) practiced by Singapore?”

He did not elaborate but in all probability he was talking about the Malays in Singapore being treated “unfairly” by the Chinese PAP.

So, are Singapore Malays marginalized by the PAP?

I can’t say for sure. But there are grouses. For instance, I’ve read of Singapore Malays wanting full equality in national service and all sectors of the armed forces, suggesting some sort of “mistrust” for the community from the authorities.

Caption: The inaugural recipients of the MERCU-SMU Excellence Scholarship are (L-R) Nur Amalina Binte Saparin, Muhammad Hafiz Bin Kasman, and Khairul Ashraf Bin Khairul Anwar.]

I’ve read also of their call for full employment opportunities for all Malay women, including the tudung-clad ones, demanding for “equal treatment, equal opportunities”.

Anyway, not too long ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in Parliament that the next presidential election of Singapore due next year is reserved for candidates from the Malay race.

Meaning only Malay candidates will contest. An all-Malay contest. But, they must first be qualified, of course. This means Singapore will have a Malay as President again after more than 46 years since Yusof Ishak, the first president of an independent Singapore.

“Reserved” election is meant to ensure minority presidents or rather Singaporeans from minority communities are elected from time to time.

Hence next year the presidency of one of the world’s richest countries will be served on a silver platter to the Malay community. A gift. But, this is how the Malays in Singapore reacted to the gift. Majority of them anyway.

Image result for Malay Intellectual

A Malay Rebel

Retired Straits Times journalist Ismail Kassim had this to say among other things, via his Facebook posting: “Thank you PM for your unsolicited gift but we don’t want and don’t need it. Do you realize that your gift will only reinforce the negative images of us and undermine our past progress?”

To Ismail, “the day a Malay assumes the Elected President through a reserved race will be a day of shame for us and for all the people. It will be a step backward for multiracialism, meritocracy and democracy”.

A piece written by one Nizam Idris for the Straits Times also caught my attention. Nizam I later learned is an economist and market strategy head of an international bank in Singapore. He also viewed the reserved election as a “big step backward for the Malay community”.

Said Nizam he was brought up in an era where “we Malays were told we had to fend for ourselves in schools and in our careers as Singaporeans of other races did.”

After initial trepidation, due in part to seeing how Malays in other countries in the region depended on race-based policies to help them advance, Malay Singaporeans grew out of their historical reliance on such crutches. And that has over time become a source of pride and motivation for the community.

Nizam is proud to say the Singapore Malay community has made significant progress and proved “we could stand on our own feet”.

That, said Nizam, was thanks in no small part to the brave decision by “our earlier leaders to take away our proverbial crutches and make us compete on a level playing field”.

And like everything else, said Nizam, healthy competition drives the community to a higher level. He nevertheless admitted that not many Malays would reject a gift like the chance to have a member of the community as president.

“That’s human nature,” he said, ” but what would be even more satisfying is a hard fought campaign leading to the election of a Malay president who deserves the position based on the famously Singaporean values of grit and merit “

In a nutshell, for Nizam and most Singapore Malays, they want to earn things — be it the presidency or anything else — based on merit and ability. No short cut, no easy way out, no tongkat.

Tabik Melayu Singapura!