Politics: Lawrence, Leon and Leong

Some of the most vocal politicians in today’s Parliament are the three Ls: Lawrence Wong of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), its presumed next leader; Leon Perera of the Workers’ Party; and Leong Mun Wai, new secretary-general of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP). This week, as Parliament resumed after a recess, Lawrence called on the opposition to offer a “serious alternative agenda”, not simply “populist ideas to chip away, bit by bit, at trust in government.” Leon repudiated this suggestion, countering that alternative ideas and their trade-offs, including on the goods and services tax (GST) and public housing, have been made clear. It’s the PAP, he said, that seeks to “chip away at trust in the opposition” by ensuring that “alternative ideas become demonised or labelled uncharitably.” Leong, meanwhile, warned the PAP against misconstruing PSP’s concerns, for instance on immigration, as “being motivated by nativism, xenophobia and racism.” In their three speeches one can trace the outlines of the next general election’s rhetorical contests. And, having already offered much space to Lawrence and Leon on our pages, this week Jom has invited Leong to respond to an e-mail Q&A. Read it to find out more about the person whom Vivian Balakrishnan, PAP minister, once called an “illiterate”.

Society: Singapore to hang man accused of abetting an attempt to smuggle weed

Tangaraju s/o Suppiah, will be hanged next Wednesday, the first state execution of 2023. The High Court found him guilty of conspiring to traffic slightly over 1,000 grams of cannabis and sentenced him to the mandatory death penalty at the end of 2018. The incident occurred in September 2013. Tangaraju is alleged to have ordered the weed from Malaysia, and gotten somebody else to pick it up (he was never himself in possession of it). By the time he was linked to the trafficking, in March 2014, Tangaraju was already in remand. According to Tangaraju, he asked for a Tamil interpreter when his statement was being taken by the police but was denied access to one (the judge called this allegation “disingenuous” in his Grounds of Decision). He was also questioned without a lawyer present, a common practice in Singapore. Tangaraju maintains his innocence and lodged an unsuccessful appeal last year. He represented himself as he was unable to secure legal representation. He was previously represented by M Ravi, a rare lawyer willing to take death row cases, who last month was suspended from practising for five years. Setting aside the peculiarities of the case, it is abhorrent that Singapore still maintains the death penalty. We are about to kill an alleged trafficker in a substance, cannabis, that has no known lethal dose, is widely regarded as less harmful than alcohol, is increasingly decriminalised or legalised around the world, and for which a majority of Singaporeans are in favour of medical usage. Local activist group Transformative Justice Collective launched a campaign titled #StopTheKilling last year to demand an immediate moratorium on executions, followed by an independent and transparent review of the use of the death penalty in Singapore. The execution notice came just three days after The Atlantic published a piece questioning Singapore’s use of the death penalty. The state’s decision to move on this execution now sends a strong signal that they are wedded to the death penalty, despite the mounting local and international outcry.

Society: No one’s above the Rule of Law

In the latest twist in the Parti Liyani legal saga, the district court sentenced former employer and accuser Karl Liew Kai Lung to two weeks’ jail for lying to a judge in an earlier trial. The prosecution and defence had both argued for Liew to be fined the maximum S$5,000 under section 182 of the Penal Code. Eugene Teo, district judge, noted that while the defendant’s false statement and testimony didn’t result in Parti being wrongfully convicted, they are “innately serious” and must be condemned and dealt with appropriately. Lenient penalties would send the “wrong signals”, he said, which means taking “punitive action whenever…someone has sought to mislead and abuse the justice process to pervert its outcomes.” Significantly, the judge also noted that the DPP’s submissions read like a mitigation, which the defence repeated wholesale. It’s rare that both the prosecution and defence would propose the same sentence since they represent different interests—public versus client. Their arguments? That no actual and potential harm was caused, there was no evidence of malice and Liew’s recent Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis. The court’s harsher sentence might reassure the public of the legitimacy and independence of our justice system, but the apparent incestuousness between prosecution and defence will only heighten worries about “double standards” and “conflict of interests” that have been around since the case first emerged. In 2020, Donald Low, an academic, said it has “made salient the challenges faced by poor and marginalised groups…when they contend with our criminal justice system.” What’s at stake here, Low explained, is Singapore’s system of governance, “which, at its best, taps on an honest and able technocratic elite, while avoiding the trap of elitism.” Nothing can assuage the fact that Parti is a victim of unfair circumstances which have impacted her economically, materially and socially in irreversible ways. What’s needed now are the changes necessary to ensure that no one else in a similar position in the future will suffer the same injustices. (Aside: Low has this week written his first piece for Jom, “Why Singapore’s government and economy are outperforming Hong Kong’s”.)

Society: NIMBY hits the mosques

Because of class prejudice and segregation Singapore has pushed migrant workers to the geographic ends of the city; excluded them from Covid-19 infection counts; forced them to endure what’s been called the world’s longest lockdown; and allowed them that rare privilege of commuting on Singapore’s roads without the need to wear seat belts. Now even in the House of God, it seems, they’re unequal and unwelcome. Last week the Singapore Bangladesh Society issued a circular on behalf of MUIS, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, advising their “Muslim Brothers” to perform Eid prayers, this Saturday, not in mosques but in dormitories. It’s possibly the first time MUIS has singled out and excluded a particular group from Eid prayers. Critics worry that MUIS, a statutory board under the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, is leveraging Covid-19 fears to discriminate against migrant workers—all the more galling given that they’re some of the mosques’ most enthusiastic volunteers. MUIS, facing a fierce online backlash, later apologised for the “phrasing of the notice”, and explained how it’s done much for the migrant worker community, including organising Bengali classes. MUIS has already irritated segments of the broader Muslim community by persisting with a botched, pandemic-era prayer booking system; and by suddenly banning qaryah void-deck Ramadan prayers and then quickly re-approving them. On the eve of sweet Eid, MUIS has left a sour taste in the mouths of many.

Society: (Toxic) waste not, dump not

Given the volume of rain that’s fallen on the island in the past few months, it’s easy to forget that Singapore is one of the world’s most water-stressed countries. As Lee Hsien Loong, prime minister, emphasised on Earth Day in 2019, water is the nation’s “most precious natural resource”. So, it’s shocking that three companies have been fined for illegally discharging toxic, hazardous waste into our public sewers. Because, (gasp) this crime still happens here, in the Garden City’s backyard? And, (gulp) we drink this stuff: used water is reclaimed, treated and recycled to produce NEWater, one of our four “National Taps”. Still, it’s reassuring that the companies—two toxic industrial waste collectors, and one membrane manufacturing firm—were caught and convicted, underscoring the importance of a reliable surveillance and enforcement system (as “Erin Brokovich” and “Dark Waters” also illustrated). PUB, the national water agency, monitors 5,000 companies yearly for trade effluent discharge through real-time online sensors, routine inspections and regular sampling analysis. But even stringent penalties for law-breakers don’t always work. NSL Oilchem Logistics, one of the three culprits, is a repeat offender, fined twice before. Considering that the illegal waste trafficking trade, where developing countries become the dumping ground for toxic garbage from wealthier nations, is a global, multi-billion-dollar industry, perhaps disincentives have to hurt more. In Singapore, those who discharge hazardous substances can be fined up to S$15,000 and/or jailed for up to three months, under the Sewerage and Drainage (Trade Effluent) Regulations. Whereas, under the Sewerage and Drainage Act, the penalty for the illegal disposal of hazardous substances is a fine of up to S$50,000 or imprisonment for up to 12 months upon first conviction, and up to S$100,000 and/or imprisonment up to 12 months for repeat offenders. As the judge who sentenced Karl Liew to jail recognised, fines are easily paid by the wealthy.

Society: Safer reporting for survivors of sexual assault

Survivors of sexual assaults globally are often deterred from reporting the crime because they don’t have (or don’t realise they have) a survivor-centric, supportive environment free of judgement and victim-blaming. In an effort to foster this, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) has introduced three new initiatives: giving survivors priority and more privacy when reporting at police stations; revamping the OneSafe centre by combining investigation rooms, medical examination rooms and rest suites in one location; and reviewing the criteria for the “multi-disciplinary interview” model, which would reduce the need for survivors to recount their experience multiple times to different parties. (These multi-disciplinary interviews involving doctors and investigators in a single setting are currently only available to those under 18 or in cases where family members are involved.) Tan Li Jen, director and senior principal clinical psychologist at the Ministry of Social and Family Development, emphasised the importance of a safe, comfortable environment: “When you’re scared, you can’t really remember things very well.” These new measures, on top of previous ones like the option to request for female officers, come after 2,549 sexual assault cases were reported in 2022, the highest in five years. But they’ll only be effective if the public knows about them: “…we know that many survivors are unaware [of] what they can request while reporting,” said Corrina Lim, executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). “We will never get this completely right,” said K Shanmugam, minister for home affairs and law. “We will just have to continuously learn, internalise and improve.”

Society: Power to the People at Hong Lim Park on May Day

Harking back to the energetic 1950s, Singapore will this year see a grassroots, civil-society-led, Labour Day rally that focuses specifically on labour and wage exploitation in this country. (Some smaller iterations in recent years were seemingly more concerned with immigration.) It’s organised by Workers Make Possible, the workers’ rights group that last year brought to light complaints by workers at Watsons, a pharmaceutical chain, about their inability to sit down and rest, which sparked similar complaints by retail staff elsewhere about “no sitting” policies. The great power imbalance in Singapore between employers and employees is well established. “The People’s 15 Demands for Labour Day” sheds light on these injustices, for instance, “Take strict action against companies which require workers find a replacement before allowing them to take sick leave.” There will be “Work Like a Dog? Labour Day Cheese Dogs” for the first 100 famished workers that day. “Expect an exciting and uplifting event accompanied by pop, rock, rap and punk performers alongside folk songs that our working class elders used to sing in the past,” Workers Make Possible said in its flyer for the event. Long gone are the days when angst was the main currency traded on Hong Lim’s green lawns. Presumably these artists being made to work on a Public Holiday will be allowed to sit between sets. May 1st, 3-7pm, Hong Lim Park, RSVP here.

Arts: Passion Made Impossible?

In a nation of highly credentialed professionals, no exception is made for buskers. Jonathan Goh, a seasoned circus artist, last week pointed out this absurdity. Goh spent almost S$2,000 on a flight ticket so he could return from his base in London to renew his busking permit, which buskers require to perform at the 70 designated locations. Auditions take place three times a year and performers must pass one annually—to “ensure consistency in the quality of busking acts.” According to Goh, the audition is merely five minutes long and takes place in the National Library Building—differing greatly from the reality of the profession, one where performers jostle for attention on busy streets and perform for sometimes hours at a time. Goh asked why the audition process was so onerous and pointed out that the auditions, which are often a formality for experienced performers, could be conducted online instead. The National Arts Council, which has jurisdiction over buskers and street performers, has claimed that in-person auditions are “fairer” because seniors may not have the required equipment for a digital audition. All buskers in Singapore, including the technologically-challenged, are required to use NAC’s e-portal in order to book their performance slots. Singaporeans might remember Lawrence Wong’s repeated stories about busking with his guitar while he was in university in Madison, Wisconsin, which allowed him to pick up “extra pocket money”. Too bad the youth of Singapore have more hoops to jump through for the same experience.

Arts: Operatic adaptation of “The Butterfly Lovers”

Wild Rice and Victorian Opera are collaborating to bring to Singapore their interpretation of “The Butterfly Lovers”, the first English-language operatic adaptation of the beloved Chinese folktale about doomed love. The production premiered last October in Melbourne in what one Australian reviewer described as “one of Victorian Opera’s most significant achievements.” Ivan Heng, the founding artistic director of Wild Rice and a 2013 Cultural Medallion recipient, conceived and directed it; Richard Mills, the much-lauded artistic director of the Victorian Opera, composed the score; and Joel Tan, a local playwright who is currently Artist-in-Residence at Wild Rice, wrote the libretto. An international cast led by soprano Cathy-Di Zhang, countertenor Austin Haynes and baritone Haotian Qi rounds out this intercontinental collaboration. “The Butterfly Lovers” is on at Victoria Theatre and runs from May 3rd-7th 2023. Tickets are available via Wild Rice’s website.

History Weekly by Faris Joraimi

It’s Hari Raya, which means “the Great Day” in Malay. But Eid al-Fitr, as it’s known in Arabic, is a global Islamic holiday marking the end of Ramadan. The recent hoo-ha, over migrant workers’ exclusion from mosques for special Eid prayers, shows how Muslim identity transcends boundaries of citizenship, race and class. Singapore’s Islamic religious administration may conflate being Muslim with being Malay, but our port-city’s Muslims have always reflected the diversity of the broader Islamic world. Part of that cosmopolitan, urbane identity was expressed through membership in Muslim social clubs, such as the Arabic Social and Literary Club as well as the Persenangan Stia Club. In 1929, the former arranged a large gathering for Singapore’s Muslims “of all nationalities to meet each other and to wish ‘slamat hari raya’.” The guest-list of 200 included Malays, Javanese, Indians and Arabs. The Club’s president, Syed Mohamed bin Omar Alsagoff called for the attendees to look beyond their differences and see each other as one Muslim brotherhood. Persenangan Stia—itself a mixed crowd of Muslims—had a members’ only gathering at their Kampung Gelam headquarters, with ronggeng-dancing at night. This diversity, however, flowed from a much older tradition of Muslims of ‘foreign’ ancestry interacting, intermarrying and trading with each other in the Malay world for centuries. Many of them spoke Malay alongside their own vernaculars, and identified across ethnic lines. This ‘global’ Islam was shaped by the particular context of our immediate region too. “Selamat Hari Raya”—Greetings for the Great Day—was understood by them all, which suggests that ‘religious’ practices are never really a category separate from ‘culture’. These days, because of independent Singapore’s language and racial policies, a larger proportion of the Muslim community is conversant in English rather than Malay, and there are calls for MUIS to be more inclusive in its communications. “Eid Mubarak”, which means ‘have a blessed feast’, is the more universal greeting, but from me to all who celebrate, “Selamat Hari Raya”. “Ma’af zahir dan batin”, we say, on this day of spiritual renewal: forgive me for things both seen and unseen.

Tech: Intelligent, but artificial doctors

Seedly, a financial literacy platform, has helped generate increased awareness of topics from BTOs (Build-to-Order) flats to credit cards. Its co-founders, Kenneth Lou and Chew Tee-Ming, are now trying to solve healthcare literacy with their new company Mito Health. They’ve announced a US$1.3m (S$1.74m) fundraise led by Forge Ventures with participation from the founders and executives of Carousell, Glints, PatSnap, Rainforest and Singlife. Given the recent advancements in AI (artificial intelligence) large language models, it’s unsurprising that the team is looking to augment medical expertise with AI to create personalised health plans for customers. Start-ups aren’t the only ones thinking about preventative healthcare. The Ministry of Health announced in October last year that the government will spend more than S$1bn in set-up costs and S$400m a year on recurrent costs as part of its preventative healthcare strategy, where family doctors will help residents take charge of their own health and wellness. It’s one strategy to curb rising healthcare costs as Singapore’s population ages. While Mito Health is leveraging AI to customise preventative healthcare, it’s also clear that your average GP, offering a human touch, will not be replaced by Siri anytime soon.

Tech: Fintech card competition heats up

In case you don’t already have enough credit or debit cards, you can add a Volopay one to your physical or e-wallet soon. The Singapore-headquartered fintech start-up has received in-principle approval for a major payment institution licence from the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Over the last few months, several others have received similar licences. For instance, Atome, Flywire and PrayerMax each received a major payment institution licence that allows them to offer domestic and cross border money transfers and merchant acquisition services. Volopay’s licence allows the firm to offer end-to-end services, such as customer onboarding and direct card issuance. It currently has a partnership with Visa’s Fintech Fast Track programme to issue its own Visa cards to client businesses in Asia. In 2022, the firm reported that it had more than 700 customers, including Funding Societies, Zipmex, Moneysmart and Smartkarma. They also have some star investor power following a US$29m (S$38.46m) Series A led by the founder of dating platform Tinder.

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