When emperors start to burn books?

When emperors start to burn books?

By Leong Sze Hian

Curbing free speech in history?

What has the new MDA licensing regime got to do with the history of the world?

Well, if you study the rise and fall of empires in history – arguably when emperors and kings start to silence their critics and free speech (such as by burning books and having laws that curb free speech) – it may mark the beginning of the end.

A goodbye example in Chinese history is Ji Kang (also known as Xi Kang 嵇康) of Zhu Lin Qi Xian (竹林七贤) during Jin Dynasty.


Read the “right things”?

Whenever I land in another country, the 1st thing that I usually do is to buy and read the local newspapers. It kind of gives one a sense of how good or bad things are (or how much “right things” are in the news).

The news in a day?

Well, allow me to illustrate this with an example –  the news in Singapore on 26 June.

Record household debt?

“The rapid rise in household debt here, coming amid the uncertainty of global financial markets, has been red-flagged.” (Business Times)

“Kelvin Tay, the regional chief investment officer for the Southern Asia-Pacific for UBS Wealth Management, said the high household debt levels, coupled with high property prices, could make Singapore vulnerable to a rise in unemployment, a reduction in incomes and asset deflation if a slowdown in global economic markets happens.

Singapore’s household debt – total consumer loans of Domestic Banking Units – stood at 279 per cent of the total gross domestic product in the first quarter of this year, up from 177 per cent in the corresponding quarter in 2007.

The 279 per cent figure is even higher than the 198 per cent recorded in the first quarter of 2009, after the 2008 financial crisis.”

Comment: Despite the 2 casinos and our very liberal foreign labour and immigration policies, growth last year was only 1.3 %. And now, with such high household debt!

Yet another high profile failure?

“Key MRT project contractor goes bust – Downtown Line 2 work faces delay after Austrian builder files for insolvency” (Straits Times)

“The Downtown MRT Line 2, which will link Singapore’s north-western corridor to the new Marina downtown by 2015, is likely to be delayed because a main contractor has gone bust.

Austrian builder Alpine Bau, which was working on the line’s King Albert Park, Sixth Avenue and Tan Kah Kee stations, filed for insolvency last week after a failed restructuring plan.

Industry players said the most optimistic outcome would be a six-month slowdown.”

Comment: LTA has expressed it’s surprise on this contractor going bust. But this is not the first, but one of the many construction failures over the years. So why so many of such instances? Is there something wrong with our tender process and evaluation criteria?

Can you blame the Indonesians for calling us a whining child who only know how to blame others?

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) yesterday conveyed a diplomatic note to Indonesia’s ambassador here on the haze issue, raising questions and concerns about the alleged involvement of Singapore-linked companies in the Sumatra fires.

The note to Mr Andri Hadi sought clarification on statements by Indonesian ministers and officials on Singapore-linked companies said to have a part in illegal land-clearing practices, and asked Indonesia to share evidence of involvement by any Singapore firms. Itwas signed by MFA Permanent Secretary Chee Wee Kiong, and follows similar comments made by Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam at the weekend.

In a press statement, MFA noted that Mr Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the head of Indonesia’s presidential working unit for development supervision and control, had reportedly said many hot spots were on land owned by Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) and Asia Pacific Resources International Limited.

Both companies have offices in Singapore. However, Indonesia’s Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan was quoted as saying that there was “no strong evidence” against these companies.

Mr Kuntoro’s remarks, MFA added, also contradicted comments by Indonesia’s Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya to his Singapore counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan at a meeting last Friday. He had informed Dr Balakrishnan that “no Singapore companies were involved in illegal land clearing practices”.

MFA also said that if there was credible evidence that Singapore-owned companies or companies operating here were involved, the Government intended to take further steps against them. However, Mr Chee told the ambassador that the primary responsibility for legal and enforcement action lay with Indonesia, where the firms were allegedly conducting these illegal activities.

He also said it was important to focus on dealing with the haze rather than engaging in “megaphone diplomacy” that was “neither helpful nor constructive”.

He took exception to comments from Indonesia’s Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Jero Wacik who said that Singapore was not a good neighbour, and that Singapore had benefited from gas supply and tourist arrivals from Indonesia.

Mr Hadi said he would convey Mr Chee’s points to his government. He added that it was important for both sides to keep the lines of communication open, and that dialogue and cooperation was the way forward.

Golden Agri and APP are the palm oil and paper and pulp arms of Sinar Mas, and all three are allegedly involved in slash-and- burn farming in Riau, though they have denied the charges.”

SG’s Wilmar & Golden Agri admit doing business with companies burning land” (TR Emeritus, Jun 26)

Comment: I would like to suggest that instead of saying give us the evidence that Singapore companies are involved, perhaps we could say something along the lines that – how can we help to work with you – maybe investigate these companies that are based or listed in Singapore?

Profiteering in a national emergency crisis?

Stop profiteering from masks
The New Paper
June 24, 2013

“There were reports of masks being sold out all over the island as people tend to start hoarding but care less about others who really need it. Nobody expected the haze to reach that high for the Psi level, because it has never been that way before. I went to many pharmacies trying to get some as my children and myself suffer from sinus & I also have an elderly mother in law. But the Government should stop suppliers raising the prices as this is an emergency as we have reached the hazardous level & it’s a necessity. How can they take advantage of the situation to push up the price like crazy. Hawking should not be allowed if they’re going to sell it for 4 times the usual price. This should not be about money making.I hope the message will be spread to stop hawking & raising the prices of the masks.”

– Rosalind David

Comment: When there is a national crisis and emergency whereby lives may be at stake, the numerous reports of profiteering may not be a good indication of the general societal values of a nation

“Such individuals only fuel panic buying as well as the speculation that there is a shortage of masks. While it would be unreasonable to expect privately-owned stores to simply give the N95 masks away freely, it is only reasonable to see them pegged at the same price it was before the haze, and if I may be so bold, sold at a slight discount, so that people can afford them, be they rich or poor.

The argument of “buyer-willing, seller-willing” in this case is flawed and unethical. There are people who really need the masks, such as the elderly and people at-risk such as asthmatics. Should they be unable to afford the masks, does that mean they should continue to expose themselves to the haze without proper protection and sacrifice their health?

Profiteering will only continue if the relevant authorities do nothing to address it. Times of crisis oftentimes test the mettle of a country as well as the unity of the people. Profiteers who think only of themselves and personal gain will ultimately break whatever unity we have.”

Profiteers break our unity” (Today)

Comment: I understand that after the PSI hit 321 at 10 pm on 19 June and 401 at 12 pm on 20 June, everybody were frantically trying to buy masks, but they were generally unavailable until the late morning of 21 June at most pharmacies.  Why did it take so long  – about 60 hours (10 pm 19 June to around 10 am 21 June) to get the over 3 million masks from the stockpile to the pharmacies?

“The cost of N95 masks, including transport and storage, is recovered from retailers, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said yesterday in response to media queries.

Some members of the public have questioned the MOH’s role in supplying masks to retailers, including whether taxpayers’ money was used, to the benefit of retailers.

As of yesterday, a total of 4.15 million N95 masks have been distributed from the MOH’s stockpile.

Of these, 3.15 million were issued to retailers and one million to the People’s Association for distribution to low-income families.

MOH to recover cost of N95 masks from retailers” (Today)

“Some have dropped prices to make it more affordable for consumers, said retailers like NTUC Unity.

Retailers also carry different models of N95 masks, which are priced differently. The most commonly seen is the white 8210.

FairPrice and NTUC Unity both sell these for $2.25 each. NTUC Unity had reduced the price from $2.50 last Saturday. Guardian sells these for $2.50 each, down from $2.80 since Sunday, while Watsons now sells them at $2.80, down from $3.” (“MOH to refresh stockpile of N95 masks“, Straits Times, Jun 27)

P.S A private company’s advertisement in the Straits Times of 28 June was selling N95 masks at $0.90 per piece (minimum order: 20 pieces) with free delivery for all orders above $200

Comment: I cannot understand the logic that in a national crisis where lives are at stake – we added on the costs of transport and storage – can you blame some retailers for charging a higher price than normal (Shouldn’t they be charging less in a national emergency crisis?) – knowing that they will be charged for storage and transport as well?

What is the price charged to retailers with a breakdown of the cost, transport and storage, and what was the price paid by the Government?

I understand that there have been reports about issues in the distribution of the 1 million free masks to 200,000 needy families.

For example, I understand that Zao Bao reported that only families with per capita income of $900 were entitled to the free masks. Someone posted that when he went to the Community Centre to collect the free masks, and was asked to produce his CHAS (Community Health Assist Scheme) card and told that he was not eligible because he has a CHAS orange card (income from $901 to $1,500). Only those with CHAS blue cards (income $900 or below) were eligible.

(Note: Orange CHAS card holders are not eligible for the $18.50 common conditions subsidy (that blue CHAS card holders get) when they seek out-patient treatment at the participating private clinics, and also lower subsidies for chronic conditions and dental services than blue card holders)

Others have also commented that grassroots leaders went door-to-door to inform 1 and 2-room HDB rental flat tenants to go to collect their masks, and suggested it may make more sense for the grassroots leaders to distribute the masks instead of asking these obviously needy families to go and collect the masks themselves.

Criticism and public servants?

Tey Gu:

June 25, 2013

“In the seventies, they chased illegal hawkers everywhere. Then they took years to clean the public toilets in eighties. For some reasons, they then think it was a good idea to stop building hawkers’ in nineties in new housing estates and instead promoted the idea of foodcourts – resulting in rapidly escalating food prices (and high cost of living). They couldn’t manage many things like flooding, dengue, and now haze, etc. now they want to attack people who “comment against them”. Alas, Singapore. Whither Singapore. Don’t they know they are public servants. If they can’t take criticisms well, they shouldn’t be in public service. People are entitled to their views to improve their living environment. Comments help to improve public service standards all along.”

Comment: Public servants should focus on serving the people and the nation – and try not to waste too much time and effort on criticising criticism. Alternate views can help to improve public service standards and should be encouraged. Also, citizens should be entitled to voice out to improve their lives and society at large.

Slave wages?

“Mr Neo Choon Keong added: “If the Filipino workers are indeed skilled and experience, they should command a much higher pay compared to the Indian and Bangladeshi workers. Just to give some sense, the Indian and Bangladeshi new workers usually command about S$18 to S$20 basic pay a day. So, I think for the Philippine (workers) they should be able to command between S$20 to S$30 because the China workers are commanding higher than S$30 per day as they are even more skilled.”

BCA believes market forces will ensure fair wages for workers from the Philippines and Sri Lanka. It is also confident that these workers will be in good demand.

There are more than 270,000 construction workers in Singapore, most of them from China and India.

Besides the eight Overseas Training Centres in Sri Lanka and Philippines, BCA will be building two more, one each in India and China by next year.”

First group of Sri Lanka, Philippine construction workers for Singapore” (Channel NewsAsia)

Comment: When a country, especially one that has been ranked as the richest country in the world, has the news reporting such that as if we are so proud of bringing in some more foreign workers, when as I understand it, so many of the existing foreign construction workers are still being paid such extremely low “slave wages” of as little as $18 a day (about $2 an hour).

Instead of reporting with an apparent smugness of pride and achievement, we ought to reflect on how a developed first world nation can continue as if things are normal and smooth sailing – when we repeatedly obstruct calls for a minimum wage for Singaporeans, when the wage statistics continue to deteriorate – full-time workers earning less than $1,000 rose from 110,000 to 114,000 last year?

After writing the above and for those of you who have read the above – don’t you get an edgy feeling that Kishore Mahbubani’s recent remarks “SINGAPORE does not belong to any of these three categories (of nations). Virtually everyone knows that Singapore is an accidental nation. Yet few seem to be conscious of how difficult it is to create a sense of national identity out of an accidental nation” – may be right after all?