Politics: Divine intervention

Some called it a shakeup, others a bloodbath. On Wednesday SPH Media Group, publisher of The Straits Times (ST), Singapore’s main English-language newspaper, announced a slew of senior editorial changes. Significantly, Warren Fernandez, editor-in-chief (EIC) of the Group and editor of ST, appears to have been fired, with the sweetest of face-saving goodbyes by Khaw Boon Wan, the chairman of SPH Media Trust rumoured to dislike him. Replacing Fernandez as EIC is Wong Wei Kong, current editor of The Business Times. New ST editor is Jaime Ho, a former editor of CNA Digital. The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (1974) gives the government the power to install senior editors, so these should effectively be considered political appointments. Many previous editors, including Han Fook Kwang and Patrick Daniel, were not journalists but bureaucrats drafted in to shepherd the flock. Not all were watchful enough—Han was booted out after the 2011 election, following opposition gains. Fernandez is a trained journalist. The appointment of Ho, who started and spent most of his career as a bureaucrat, suggests a reversion to form. We at Jom hope that Ho can resist political interference. That the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP, born 1954) continues to dictate matters at ST (1845) is a major reason why the paper is struggling. Don’t worry for Fernandez, though. Singapore Inc has an ample supply of golden parachutes that enable obedient elites to float into new and surprising roles, in Temasek and elsewhere. The promise of a cushy retirement is one way incumbents are kept in line.

Society: I do, or more like, I do not?

Some 80 percent of singles aged 21-35 want to get married, according to the results of the Marriage and Parenthood survey released by the National Population and Talent Division. Some may find that encouraging, but it’s a steady decline from 83 percent in 2016 and 86 percent in 2012. Based on previous studies, some possible factors include more people choosing their careers over courtship, eschewing traditional marriage for cohabiting, preferring to remain single, or, controversially, the lack of marriageable men. Meanwhile, 70 percent of unmarried respondents aged 21-45 want to have children, while 92 percent of those married said they want two or more wee ones. The cost of raising a kid was the main deterrent for married and unmarried Singaporeans. Attitudes towards caregiving have also shifted. Almost all married respondents (99 percent) agreed that both parents were equally important in taking care of their children. Intentions, however, do not equate to outcomes. On average, women spent six hours a weekday on childcare, compared to 3.6 hours for men. What all this proves perhaps is that for women, at least, saying “I do” should come with a caveat of “but I don’t…”

Society: Legitimate protest

Louis Ng, a PAP member of parliament, will not face criminal charges for standing in front of a hawker stall while holding an A4 paper with the words “Support them [smiley face]”. Singapore Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) concluded that Ng did not require a police permit in order to show his pandemic support for hawkers. The aforementioned lines would be considered satire in most countries. But not this one. Singapore’s Public Order Act defines an assembly as “a gathering or meeting with the purpose of demonstrating support for, or opposing the views or actions of, any person, group or government.” To assemble this “assembly” all that is needed is a quorum of one. To expose this farce—and assault on our language—in 2020 Jolovan Wham, an activist, held up a piece of cardboard with a smiley face in public, for which he was later charged. In February 2022 he was given a discharge amounting to acquital. He recently served 15 days in jail (in lieu of a fine) for a separate one-person assembly outside the former State Courts building. This is a "prohibited area", says the AGC, in contending that the facts surrounding Ng's and Wham's cases are different. Still, perhaps the greatest sign of Wham’s success is this nonsensical investigation by the AGC into a politician. Sadly, bureaucrats are likely to be patting themselves on the back for their supposed fair-handed treatment—rather than reassessing the limits of expression in our vibrant city.

Society: Made to work like a slave

Forget the weekend break, some don’t even get the month end. Seven percent of foreign domestic workers (FDWs) surveyed earlier this year did not have a monthly day off in 2021. That works out to over 17,000 individuals working without a regular day off in one of the world’s richest cities. Their employers must be dreading January 1st 2023, from when it’ll become mandatory to give FDWs at least one rest day every month that cannot be compensated with cash. The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said that this arrangement would allow domestic workers to recharge from work and form support networks outside the household. It’s bad enough that FDWs aren’t covered by the Employment Act, because as MOM explains (with little irony) it’s “not practical to regulate specific aspects of domestic work”. But it’s truly mind-boggling that a developed country’s manpower ministry has to explain the need for a monthly day off. Employers have hitherto been expected to give FDWs a day off every week, but have the option to negotiate with them to work for a day’s pay or reschedule the time off. As with this rule, it’s unclear how the new change will be enforced. A recent letter to a Chinese newspaper, listing reasons against a day off, encapsulates the mindsets of exploitative bosses. One was that FDWs would spend their day off having fun, so they’ll not feel like working afterwards. Another was that FDWs would get up to no good, like having a boyfriend or moonlighting. Little wonder critics have referred to it as a “modern slave trade”.

Business: Not a great way to fly

Unlike foreign domestic workers, the fabled Singapore Girl is now allowed to get pregnant. A recent SIA circular showed that the airline had stopped its longstanding rule of, as ST put it, “effectively ending cabin crew’s contracts when they are with child.” From July 15th, female flight attendants have been able to apply for temporary ground positions when pregnant, and (gasp) return to flying after giving birth. Before then, an SIA stewardess who declared that they were pregnant would subsequently be fired, SIA told Jom, “from the date that she was declared medically unfit to fly by the Company doctors.” It is a mystery how this discriminatory and misogynistic practice has persisted till 2022. Why the change of heart? The official stance: “To further support our cabin crew during and after their pregnancy.” Cynical observers, however, have suggested that it’s likely due to a global manpower shortage in the sector, and attempts to cut back on resources needed to train new staff. Critics have long complained about SIA’s projection of a sexualised, subservient, sarong-kebaya-clad woman on board, an image that perpetuates Orientalist fantasies. We hope its frequent flyers don’t mind being served by new mums.

Internet culture: Jack of all trades

Ben Leong, an associate professor of computer science at the National University of Singapore, and a regular on his employer’s Facebook confessions page NUSWhispers, caused a stir on social media this week. Leong published a 5,000-word Medium post titled “On Tone-Deafness and the Danger of the House Burning Down :-(“, followed by a shorter update “Defining “Affordability” for Public Housing”, explaining his views on Singapore’s current public housing system. Fretting about the rising cost of housing and the inability of wages to keep pace, Leong recommended policy changes such as completely excluding private property owners from purchasing HDB flats and mandating that foreigners must occupy the property they buy in Singapore. Leong is known for his remarkable ability to offer policy insights on just about anything. His suggestions here have drawn interest from netizens, sparking a thread on his Facebook page that is currently close to 500 comments long.

Arts: The Mahabharata

A reimagining of the Indian epic the Mahabharata is coming to the Esplanade next month.Kingdoms Apart is written and directed by Chong Tze Chien, a critically acclaimed playwright and director who was named Best Director at The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards in 2022. Performed in English, Japanese, Tamil, and Malay, the production features a multinational ensemble cast from Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan. During the show’s three-hour run time, audiences can expect puppetry, multimedia, and an original live score. Tickets start at S$45 and are available via the Esplanade’s website.

Arts: Pinocchio

Wild Rice’s annual pantomime is back for the end-of-year school holidays. This year, the veteran theatre company is staging “Pinocchio”, the classic story of the puppet who wants to be a real boy. “Pinocchio” is an original musical written by Thomas Lim with music by Julian Wong and lyrics by Joel Tan. The three previously collaborated on 2019’s “Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens”. Wild Rice has made accommodations for audience members with diverse needs and is offering three types of access performances — an audio described performance with a touch tour, a relaxed performance for neurodiverse audiences, and captioned performances. Ticket prices begin at $25.

History weekly by Faris Joraimi

Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim” was originally serialised in (the now defunct) Blackwood’s Magazine from October 1899 to November 1900. The story is about a promising young English sailor who is disgraced after abandoning his sinking pilgrim vessel, the Patna. All the passengers survived, but Jim’s prospects are ruined. He undergoes exile in a fictional Malay state named Patusan, somewhere in Borneo. As colonial literature goes, Jim becomes the White saviour who rescues helpless natives from their corrupt and wicked rulers. Conrad based this work on his own experience in the region, and real-life figures like Alfred Wallace, naturalist, and James Brooke, who ruled Sarawak from 1841-1868 (and first of the so-called “White Rajahs”). But the Patna episode was inspired by a Singaporean steamship, the S.S. Jeddah, named after the port city that serves as an entrypoint to Mecca. Owned by Syed Muhammad Alsagoff, a prominent Arab merchant, the Jeddah’s engine-room was flooded with water after being wrecked by storms off East Africa, as it sailed north towards Arabia, on August 3rd 1880. The captain and crew launched the lifeboats a few days later, panicking the pilgrims. In the ensuing violence on board, the captain and some officers abandoned the ship, while some 20 remaining crew members helped the passengers bail water from the ship’s engine-room. Through their efforts, the Jeddah did not sink and was towed safely to Aden by the S.S. Antenor, a passing vessel. A court of inquiry later declared the captain and chief engineer responsible. News of the scandal reached London, igniting a sensational debate on the condition of pilgrim ships. “Lord Jim” remains one of Conrad’s signature works. Though after having made it three-quarters of the way through, I understand why he’s better known for  “Heart of Darkness”. “Lord Jim” is deadly dull.

Tech: Amid the gloom, the birth of another unicorn

Widespread tech layoffs and a looming global recession? Nothing to bother Singapore-based FinAccel, the latest to join the list of unicorns here after raising almost US$140m (S$201m) in a funding round led by existing investor Mirae Asset. According to data from VentureCap Insights, the deal values FinAccel at US$1.66bn, more than three times its previous valuation after its last funding round in 2019.The fintech startup had previously been eyeing a SPAC merger and IPO due to the unfavourable private funding climate—which seems to have shifted. One of its investors noted in a Linkedin post that when they invested in FinAccel in 2018, the founders’ vision was to use buy-now-pay-later as a wedge into a range of financial products. This was made possible when it acquired a controlling stake of 40 percent in a small Indonesian bank last year, making it the largest Neobank in South-east Asia on a revenue basis. Compared to traditional banks, neobanks provide an entirely digital experience: lower overheads translate into lower customer fees.  The last few years have seen neobanks emerge in the fields of remittances (TransferWise), multi-currency payments (Youtrip and Revolut) and SME banking (Aspire). While some have become unicorns, they are unlikely to replace your friendly neighbourhood bank anytime soon.

Tech: Exit strategies

Top of mind for every start-up founder and investor is the question of whether to raise a fresh round or sell. This is acquisition week. First, Persol, a Japanese HR conglomerate firm, acquired Workmate, a Singapore-based on-demand, frontline staffing platform, in an eight-figure US dollar deal. Persol has invested into some of the region’s leading start-ups, including Intellect, a mental health platform, and Glints, a career platform. Workmate hopes to leverage Persol’s reach, infrastructure, and deep domain expertise in the Asian region in order to expedite its own regional expansion. Another Singapore-based start-up, Luwjistik, which offers tech development solutions for the logistics industry, was acquired for US$11.3m (S$16.2m) by Shippit, an Australian logistics company. Through the acquisition, Shippit will further expand its presence in South-east Asia. While not the traditional IPO route, these acquisitions bode well for the local ecosystem as money and talent is circulated: early investors receive back their capital (and investment returns), which they can reinvest, while experienced employees can seek work at other, talent-hungry start-ups.

Correction: an earlier version said that Wham served a 15-day sentence in jail (in lieu of a fine) for holding up a smiley face. That sentence was actually for the separate offence that is now described above. Sorry.

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