Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Letters to Press & Climate of Fear


What motivates your letter writing/public dialogue exploits?

I started writing letters to the press (and everyone else) in 1999.

At the end of my national service, I realised that my command of English had taken a beating. My grammar was twisted and my vocabulary was constipated.

It was thus, in the first instance, a bold (arguably, foolish) attempt to improve the language.

In the second instance, there was this fire in the belly, which my friends will tell you has grown over the years and one that I have been wanting to put out.

And finally, my Singaporean teachers used to tell me that I talk too much. I guess this was one way of taking the talk for a walk.

What does it take to be one - someone so involved in public dialogue - in Singapore?

Nothing. But, as you go down this less travelled road, the experience of those few that journey this far will show you why this is such a road less travelled.

Don't ever expect anything in return. Sometimes, it can cost you, not just your career but your future in Singapore too.

While such an unfortunate consequence, fortunately, is limited to a minority, it is enough to keep a majority of Singaporeans entranced in a climate of fear, to self-censor and sit on the fence.

And so dead are the famous E W Barkers, who in being pro-Singapore offered a contrarian perspective - no offence intended to this late founding father, of course.

How real is the fear "myth" in Singapore that prevents Singaporeans from speaking up, taking part?

The fear is real and near. Questions like "does he have a political agenda", "who is funding her work", "does he intend to join the opposition" or "is she with the Think Centre" are common parlance. Such veiled language is piercing enough to prevent Singaporeans from even thinking about constructive debate and participation.

However, once in a while, we can go far. For example, there is a conspiracy theory making its rounds right now.

The story goes like this: "All this talk about our new Prime Minister opening up Singapore is really a national attempt to identify those critical of present practices. Plus, former trusted civil servants are being encouraged to openly criticise policies so as to speed up the process of identification well before the General Elections are called. This information gathered will then be used to decide how best to re-draw the electoral boundaries to ensure a postive mandate for the ruling party."

Wow, what a theory indeed! I give credit to the creativity of the person that crafted this theory because some people are actually buying it.

Sigh... if only we could transplant some of this imagination into our economy, we'd be a crucible of innovation!

What are some of your pet peeve or points of pride about Singapore?

My areas of interest revolve around three themes - law, which is my first love; the media, which is my "in case the law dumps me"; and youth, which is the source of my energy!

Points of pride about Singapore:
1) After returning from London, the journey from Changi Airport to home in Jurong - very scenic;
2) Singlish;
3) Little India - "the land of darkness", as one MP infamously labelled; and
4) the Durian or Esplanade!

Give me a bit of your background - how long have you been writing letters, then why did you move on to writing commentaries and organising forums.

I moved on to writing commentaries, when I felt there was a dire need in Singapore to offer a Singaporean perspective that one doesn't normally read in the established national broadsheet. (Otherwise, the foreigners will keep throwing stones at your country, saying that there is no space to express a different perspective in Singapore!)

These were concerns that the then Sintercom editors shared, and these empowering revolutionaries paved the way by showing me that such space does exist.

I first started contributing to SG_Daily, a section of the old Sintercom that still survives.

Some of the commentaries that I posted here went on to be mirrored on other websites like Singapore Window and Littlespeck.Com. Then, I started writing for Today.

I still regularly contribute some articles to two alternative spaces: New Sintercom (Provided kindly by the anonymous New Sintercom Editor)and Big Trumpet Magazine (Provided kindly by NTUC Income).

As for organising forums, it is something that has come out naturally from my involvement in voluntary bodies like the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association and Insurance Law Assocation (Singapore). These forums have a professional bias.

With the relaxation of the public entertainment licensing legislation, I am now tinkering with the idea of organising a forum by youths for youths like me.

One of my friends even suggested that we organise a "talk-cock-sing-song" festival in Speakers' Corner!

Let's see where this tinkering takes me; it's in procrastination mode for now.

How would you describe the way critical feedback, especially, is taken by the civil service or government - warmly welcomed? barely tolerated? reluctantly considered? ignored? Or does it run the gamut, depending on the area of feedback?

When you speak to a fool, you are likely to come out thinking you were the greater fool. It is better, in such cases, to forget the fool. With some practice, as is true with any other skill, you will know who the fools are.

A person who is serious about hearing from you will listen to what you say. He will not ask about your background, unless you share that with him. He will respect you as a fellow human being. He will make detailed notes, rather than depend on another person to do it for him. He will engage or even challenge you. You will learn something from him and he will learn something from you. Soon after, you will know he paid attention to what you said because what you provided [to] him will become measurable outcomes.

That is the high standard my Member of Parliament, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, has achieved. All Singaporeans - and not only those in the civil service or government - should aim to achieve this standard.

What - if anything - has been the most promising development in recent times, in terms of opening up the public space or citizen-official relationship? eg new PM, TODAY's presence, efforts to revamp civil service mindsets?

Without any doubt, the most promising development occurred when the founding father of independent Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, stood before the political party that he has held together for 50 years and recognised the need for some chaos within the dominant party to enable it to stay relevant to Singapore.

I am positive that this one view will soon permeate the arteries of our nestling nation and fundamentally change the way this country operates. This may well be the mindset leap that takes us from "good to great".

Dharmendra Yadav

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Parliament For All Youths Please


Last week, a group of youths gathered to debate a "Youth Engagement Bill" in Parliament. These youths were predominantly members of the ruling party or friends of such members.

The event was extensively covered by the media as a matter of national interest.

I commend your team for making such events possible. Such events are useful for the development of an active citizenry.

Nevertheless, some readers and viewers may have come away with the impression that only members of the ruling party are given such opportunities [myself included].

This comes as no surprise since this appears to be an extension of what Parliament provides on its website: "Be the Speaker, Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition for a day! Our programme will take students through a debate on a Bill in a specially created Moot Parliament Chamber. It is designed to allow students to have fun debating and learning about some parliamentary procedures. This programme is open to Junior College and Polytechnic students only."

I encourage Parliament, as a non-partisan organ of state, to likewise extend such opportunities to all youths, irrespective of their political connections or affiliations.

I will be making this letter and your reply (if any) available to members of the public, who I think would be interested to hear from your team on this matter.

Dharmendra Yadav


The Education Department of the Singapore Parliament organises programmes for the public, especially students, to make them aware of what Parliament is all about. Among the activities carried out are conducted tours of Parliament House, attendance at sittings of Parliament and participation in moot Parliaments.

In addition, Members of Parliament may host groups for educational purposes without involving the Education Department, as in the recent event you referred to. However, this is subject to the availability of the premises, the payment of rentals, and the approval of the Speaker of Parliament.

Abdullah Tarmugi
Speaker Of Parliament

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Unconvincing & Confusing Straits Times Price Hike

Early this year, The Straits Times increased its price. Among the four key justifications it gave was that it was not able to absorb rising costs.

Many readers accepted this argument. Some readers, like me, chose not to buy Straits Times on certain days. A few readers even boycotted the newspaper.

The thinking reader then was not convinced.

Shortly after the price hike, Singapore Press Holdings gave out $1.8 billion in special dividends to its shareholders.

10 months on and what happened?

One finds a facelift for The Straits Times. Oh yes, with glossy supplements too!

Was the price increase an attempt to tackle rising costs or merely an opportunity to raise more funds for The Straits Times to spend?

The Straits Times has also made it more difficult for users to access its website.

The reader - even though he or she may well be a subscriber - now needs to sign in to get the information he or she wants.

Such moves by The Straits Times – a national newspaper – do not fit with a Singapore that is committed to providing its citizens better access to information.

The thinking reader is now confused.

Dharmendra Yadav

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

First, We're Singaporeans


At this year's Olympic Games, China proved itself as a sporting nation.

It finished second in the medal tally with 32 gold medals, second only to the United States. This performance represented an improvement on its showing at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, where it took home 28 gold medals and was ranked third.

Soon after the Games ended, I met a few Singaporeans who said: "As a Chinese, I am proud of China's performance!"

This remark took me back to 1994, when Indian beauties Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen won the titles of Miss World and Miss Universe, respectively.

At that time, I met a few Singaporeans who said: "As an Indian, I am proud of India's performance!"

More recently, at a dialogue session to gather feedback from the Indian community on the National Day Rally, some of my fellow Singaporeans said they felt left out because Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong neglected to address "our Indian community".

On these occasions, I held my tongue. Instead of asking them, I asked myself:

"Wait a minute, aren't WE Singaporeans?"

Wouldn't it be more apt to say — after almost 40 years as a sovereign nation — that as human beings, we are proud of China and India?

It is a leap for humankind as a whole when an underdog nation achieves something once thought impossible.

During my time in England, I met many Chinese intellectuals. As I speak some Mandarin, most of these people were rather candid in expressing their views to me.

They see the Chinese migrants who settled in Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong as "outsiders" or "second-class citizens".

It appears that there is "one China", but some — namely, those born in China — are more equal than others.

At best, the Singaporean, Taiwanese and Hong Kong Chinese are regarded as catalysts for economic growth.

Likewise, the Indians that I have met share the same sentiment with regard to non-resident Indians.

But the Indian migrants are perhaps in a better position.

Under Article 8 of India's Constitution, any person whose parents or grandparents were born in India enjoys the right to be registered as an Indian citizen.

Unfortunately, such constitutional protection does not go far. Consider, for example, the resistance that Mrs Sonia Gandhi — an Indian citizen who was not born in India — faced when there was an opportunity for her to become India's prime minister.

Singaporeans who see themselves as Chinese or as Indian should take stock of such realities.

Last year, I met a Chinese businessman with substantial business interests in China. At the time, I found it a little bewildering that his partner was Indian.

I quizzed him about this. He replied, "We are Singaporeans. Our roots are here."

Three years ago, one of my neighbours challenged a friend who saw himself as Indian: "Why don't you spend three months in India? Then, come back and tell me you are Indian. There is a better chance that I'll believe you then."

Several months later, my friend left for India. After a mere four weeks, he returned and said: "Now I know why I am not Indian."

In attempting to instill national pride in the hearts of our countrymen, first we may wish to stop seeing ourselves as Chinese or Indians

Unless, of course, we wish to run back to where our predecessors ran away from!

We are Singaporeans, our roots are here.

Dharmendra Yadav

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Book Review: Thinking Allowed?


In reading Warren Fernandez's latest book, Thinking Allowed?, a reader has to keep in mind the wisdom of Salman Rushdie: "A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return."

At the end of 252 pages, the reader must appreciate that, like most books, what the author offers is a perspective; a perspective born out of spending a good part of his life in the Singapore he calls home; particularly his time as a journalist of The Straits Times (ST).

As the author rightly admits in his introduction, his essays are not academic theses. Thinking Allowed? is essentially an attempt to complement nine informally-written and brief essays, covering various aspects of the Singapore psyche, with 27 articles previously published in ST.

The reader should, thus, avoid falling into the trap of comparing this book to seminal commentaries such as Tim Huxley's Defending the Lion City: The Armed Forces of Singapore or Cherian George's The Air-Conditioned Nation.

Instead, the reader is encouraged to think about the themes or issues that are raised in the essays and articles.

A key advantage of Thinking Allowed? lies in the fact that the reader need not necessarily start from Page 1 of the book and end at Page 252.

One can read Thinking Allowed? in four ways:
1. Just read the nine essays;
2. Simply read the 27 articles;
3. Spend some time and read all nine essays and 27 articles; or
4. Be more choosy and randomly read the essays or articles that appeal.

Therefore, some thinking is allowed in how readers approach this book.

As a first read about the prevailing socio-political climate in Singapore, a reader may well find Thinking Allowed? refreshing, if not alternative. But it is also possible that the reader may come away with the impression that the author's perspective, albeit independent, is heavily influenced by the editorial slant of ST.

The many accolades on the book cover by present representatives of ST perhaps enhance the impression. As such, a reader of ST may well find the ground covered in Thinking Allowed? familiar territory.

One can therefore expect the thoughts on "politics, fear and change in Singapore" contained in Thinking Allowed? to play a constructive role in nation-building.

The author leaves no doubt about this when he writes: "This book is my humble attempt to help further the process of engaging Singaporeans in thinking about our collective future."

Nevertheless, a seasoned reader of the socio-political climate in Singapore will find Thinking Allowed? interesting in that it offers an "insider" perspective. This is to be expected since the author has been heavily involved in many public service committees and projects.

Thinking Allowed? is Warren Fernandez's version of Singapore. If, as a reader, you do not like it, ignore it. Alternatively, you can choose to be engaged and offer your own version in return.

After all, thinking is allowed, right?

Dharmendra Yadav

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Book Review: The Art Of Making A Difference


Every day that we live, we are MAD (Making A Difference). One of United Kingdom's leading personal development experts, Andy Gilbert, will tell you this in his book: "The Art of Making A Difference" (2001).

But let me first tell you a little bit about myself.

For two decades, I didn't think too highly of myself. I was a little person with a little mind "thinking little thoughts about the trivia that is the stock and trade of Mr and Mrs Mediocrity" - at least, according to Zig Ziglar in "See You At The Top" (1984).

As a result, I didn't expect a lot from my life.

In school, I was neither good in sports nor studies.

With an aggregate of 209, I only just made it into the Express stream in secondary school. With 17 points, I also just made it into St. Andrew's Junior College. I spent three years in college instead of the usual two. My dismal 'A'-Level results could not get me into any credible university, both locally and overseas. The diploma that I acquired later barely qualified me for law school at the University of Leicester, UK.

I did not take an active part in sports. I was what the Acting Minister for Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam recently labelled a "soft" student.

I completed my National Service as a mere footman performing a clerical function.

All this while, my loved ones encouraged me to read, read and read. They believed that the acquisition of knowledge opens windows to opportunities. So I visited the library frequently, shopped at bookstores regularly and read newspapers daily.

I guess my loved ones were inspired by the words of the great innovator, Walt Disney, who said, "There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate's loot on Treasure Island."

Similarly, John Milton, one of the greatest poets of the English language, has shared, "A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life."

To me, these words were pure rhetoric until the summer holidays of my first year in university when I read "The Art of Making A Difference".

Months before the holidays, by sheer accident, I had picked up the book in my university's students' union building. It reminded me of the Singapore 21 vision: "Together, We Make A Difference".

"The Art of Making A Difference" is the outcome of a 14-month research involving more than 3,000 people. Andy and his team at Go MAD Group wanted to know the answer to one basic question: "What is the natural process that a person uses to be successful?"

Each person involved in this research was invited to reflect about a difference he or she had made.

As a result, the research team discovered the 'DNA for Making A Difference'. The research team found that there were seven key things a person did consistently to be successful, whatever the measure of success. First, the person had strong reasons for making a difference. Then, the person defined the goal, planned priorities and effectively involved others. Crucially, the person also had positive self-belief and a high sense of personal responsibility. Above all, the person took action and measured results.

In "The Art of Making A Difference", the research team encourages readers to apply the findings of its research in their own lives. After reading the book, I applied it to a few projects I did.

One of the projects eventually led to my nomination as UK's Asian University Student of the Year. I did not get the award but the publicity that followed this nomination enabled to me to share my experience with others.

Later, I worked with the Go MAD Group for about two years. During this stint, I got first-hand knowledge about how some of the world's leading thinkers and companies applied the research. For example, a business unit at 3M used it to secure over 50% of the investment funding available to the whole of Europe.

I have also acquired the will and ability to help others make a difference. One vivid experience was when I helped a friend, who was just starting his business, to close key deals with a few national companies.

All in all, "The Art of Making A Difference" has made me a more confident and positive person. It has enabled me to make measurable differences in both my professional and personal life. For example, the book helped me to secure the job of corporate counsel at a top organisation in Singapore. A few years ago, I would have considered this a distant possibility.

I believe that "The Art of Making A Difference" can help you in the same manner as it has helped (and still helps) me. A dean at a local university, who read "The Art of Making A Difference", once shared with me, "If people apply even less than half of what is written in this book, it will still make a big difference!"

Nevertheless, I appreciate that the books we read uniquely affect us. There is clearly some wisdom in the words of one of my favourite authors, Salman Rushdie: "A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return."

You never know where a book can take you. The great scholar and historian Andrew Lang once said, "You can cover a great deal of country in books."

My parting advice is this: read, read and read! Indeed, it is a good way to pick up "The Art of Making A Difference".

Dharmendra Yadav

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Empower PTC to look into MRT fatalities

Something is either rotten in the state of our Mass Rapid Transit System or in the state of our people!

Imagine two accidents at MRT stations on a single day! One person died; another was seriously injured on 31 August 2004. In a little over a month, two people have been killed and two others injured.

What has been done to check such mishaps?

In the 2000 Singapore Census of Population, the Department of Statistics stated: "The MRT has become a popular mode of transport... The proportion commuting to work by MRT only or MRT with transfer from/to public bus increased from 12% in 1990 to 23% in 2000."

This was well before the North-East line was opened. With this new line, it can be said that MRT has perhaps become even more popular as a mode of transport.

In this context, such fatalities are unfortunate. It is even more unfortunate that a key institution, the Public Transport Council, seems to be toothless when it comes to regulating MRT service standards. The PTC's authorised scope of work merely includes:
- approving bus services that charge fares;
- regulating bus service standards; and
- approving bus and train fares.

Why not empower PTC to ensure minimum safety standards from our MRT service providers to prevent such accidents? The sooner this is done, the better.

Dharmendra Yadav

Please consider the environment - do you really need to print this?

Thursday, August 12, 2004

How to be true to our roots


In the early hours of National Day, as I arrived at Singapore Inc's answer to our former colonial master's Ministry of Sound - the institution of nightlife known to many of us as Zouk - I set out to wish "Happy National Day" to as many people as possible. Rest assured that there was no event for Young PAP, or Young Democrats, happening there.

For two hours of mixed happiness and madness, I shook hands with ah bengs, ah lians, ang mohs, bartenders, bouncers, cashiers, young professionals and other fellow Singaporeans.

Everyone greeted me with a warm response, except one - a person that a friend lovingly named "Dixy Chix".

Dixy Chix, a tall and affluent-looking middle-aged Chinese woman who spoke fluent English with a faltering ang moh accent, shouted: "What's there to be happy about Singapore? I hate Singapore!"

Her response brought me back to the final address to the nation made by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong hours earlier.

Mr Goh had said: "Building a nation is not like building a block of flats. It is not a matter of laying bricks and pouring concrete. Material wealth alone is not enough to root Singaporeans to Singapore.

"More important are the emotions and intangibles that bond us to our country - our shared values and memories, our families and friends, our progress as one people and our common commitment to a society where each of us can achieve his or her full potential. I believe Singaporeans will love their country more when they feel valued and have the opportunity to shape its future."

How true - but isn't it also true that in order to root Singaporeans to Singapore, the relevant Singaporeans must also be willing to stay rooted to Singapore.

People of Indian or Middle Eastern origin have a saying: "You can bring camels and donkeys to the water but you cannot make them drink it, unless the animals want to."

The same can be said of Singaporeans too. (No offence intended to Singaporeans, or the camels and donkeys.)

Opportunities to shape the future of Singapore will come to nothing in the face of Singaporeans who do not wish to have a hand in such opportunities.

Is there any way to instill willingness in such Singaporeans to be a part of these opportunities and stay rooted to Singapore?

Let me share with you two personal experiences.

Until recently, one of my sisters was very much like Dixy Chix. She left for England two years ago and has been back once. Last year, she wanted to volunteer at a radio station in England. Her offer was refused.

The station instead sought help from an ang moh less qualified than her. She was flabbergasted. When we spoke, she said: "This would not happen to me in Singapore. I miss Singapore."

My sister learned the most powerful lesson that no history book could have impressed upon her - a lesson many before her had learnt.

Early last year, I realised that I had a preference for working for non-Singaporeans. I set myself a goal of working for a Singaporean company and joined one soon after.

My friends did not expect me to last more than six months, since I had taken a considerable pay cut to work for the company.

This month, three days after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is sworn in, I will celebrate my first anniversary in the company.

My only regret has been the fact that I could have contributed more to the company had I joined it earlier! The company has made me more proud to be Singaporean.

PM Goh was right when he said that in the era of Mr Lee, "many more Singaporeans will live and work overseas".

I wonder if he is imposing too great an expectation when he says that the future PM Lee "MUST make sure that their hearts continue to be Singaporean" (emphasis added).

We must accept the reality that as many more Singaporeans live and work overseas, some of these Singaporeans will no longer be Singaporeans.

Yet, we also want Mr Lee to live up to PM Goh's expectations. Instilling pride in the hearts of our countrymen to want to remain Singaporean may be the way to go.

Dharmendra Yadav

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Seeing the light in a blackout


This week, we have experienced a number of "power transfers" of various sorts.

First, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said he would hand over the responsibility of making Cabinet changes to his successor, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Then, the United States transferred control of Iraq to an Iraqi governing council, albeit one appointed by the Americans-led coalition.

However, perhaps the highlight of the week - at least so far - was the "transfer" of the power supply from our homes to "don't know where"!

For almost an hour on Tuesday night, several parts of Singapore were, as one radio listener described the situation, "thrown into the depths of darkness".

The power failure brought back memories of kampong days when blackouts occurred quite frequently.

In those days, most families would be prepared for such emergencies with a ready supply of candles, torches and batteries.

Plus, neighbours would come out to support one another during those trying times.

More affluent neighbours would switch on their battery-controlled radios and follow developments closely .

We had full confidence in the ability of the relevant authorities to manage the situation.

Unfortunately, last night's power failure revealed how insecure and ill-prepared some of us are today.

These days, we are so dependent on electricity that we seem like the bewildered souls seen in the disaster movies churned out by Hollywood every year.

In today's Singapore, there are people who rush to the neighbourhood shop to buy candles, batteries and torches each time there is a blackout.

And, instead of limiting their purchases so that supplies are available for everyone, some residents in my area have the tendency to buy all of the local store's stock for themselves.

Have we become selfish?

When the blackout occurred, a friend feared it was the result of a terrorist attack. Phone lines were jammed and most emergency services could not be reached.

After all, it was only two days ago that Defence Minister Rear-Admiral Teo Chee Hean encouraged Singaporeans to be alert and vigilant with his "durian-bomb" analogy.

At the time, he said: "How do you know every truck carrying durians is actually carrying durians? It's a big problem. The security agencies can prevent a major attack with high probability, (but) they may not be able to stop everything...

"It's important for Singaporeans to be alert and vigilant. So, if you see in the middle of the night in some workshop, people knocking away and building something behind closed doors and you think it's suspicious, call the police and let them check."

During the blackout, the feeling of helplessness was heightened when someone in my neighbourhood shouted "Majulah Singapura" in what sounded like a mocking tone.

Matters didn't improve when a police car appeared in the neighbourhood.

If the incident had occurred in the not-too-distant past, the officers would have taken the time to update bewildered residents about the situation.

In the Singapore of today, the officers drove past without an explanation.

Of course, it is only fair to point out that they may have been in a rush to deal with other problems that may or may not have been related to the blackout.

A few weeks ago my mother was puzzled when she noticed the growing stock of batteries in my home.

She was worried that they would spoil in storage. The blackout provided me with the perfect answer for her.

In the same way, Singaporeans should use the blackout as an opportunity to revisit the things they have taken for granted.

We should draw some lessons from this experience.

Everyone should begin by asking himself these questions:
o Am I prepared for an emergency?
o How confident am I in the ability of the authorities to handle the situation?

Likewise, the relevant authorities should learn from this incident by asking themselves:
o Could we have kept residents better informed about developments?
o How can we be more sensitive to those who rely on us for support during such emergencies?

Our answers to these questions will decide if we can stand up and shout proudly: Majulah Singapura!

Dharmendra Yadav

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Don't leave our soldiers out to dry

Recently, four military officers were charged for the death of another military serviceman. It is alleged that they had abused their powers in carrying out their duties.

We wasted no time in splashing the photographs of these four officers in Singapore's news media.

When I saw the photographs of these four officers, I felt a sense of shame. Have we become such a merciless and hateful society?

At one time, these officers would have been the elite of our military services. How can we forget the years of good service these men have given to our country?

In our haste to seek retribution, let us not forget the positive contributions of these men.

In holding these officers accountable for their actions, let us not forget that all of us - including the Chief of Army, Chief of Defence Forces, Minister for Defence, Prime Minister and President - have a share of the blame. We left unchecked an unwritten training practice that ended up becoming a part of the culture of our military elite.

I am not defending these officers for what they have done. I am merely suggesting that we should consider their actions in the context of their total military service.

We cannot leave our soldiers out to dry like that. Otherwise, we fail as a nation; we will be no different from the terror groups who send their terrorists out to die.

Dharmendra Yadav

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Regulate Private Schools In Singapore


If a Singaporean Shakespeare were to write Hamlet today, Marcellus would say: "Something is rotten in the state of private schools in Singapore!"

A few private schools here have been in the news for the wrong reasons.

For example, Nanyang Institute of Management (NIM) was stripped of its trust mark last month, the Singapore Quality Class for Private Education Organisations (SQC-PEO) status given to it by Spring Singapore.

According to Mr Raymond Lim, Minister of State for Trade and Industry: "NIM is alleged to have forged students' signatures on student pass applications, made students sign on blank forms and entered false information to enable students to come here for courses not approved by the relevant authorities. NIM was also alleged to have charged students for items like school uniforms, which are not needed, and guardianship fee when no guardian was made available to the student."

NIM is now under investigation by the Commercial Affairs Department.

Incidents such as these can affect the public perception of private schools.

One wonders what the past and present students in private schools are feeling. How will such incidents affect their employment prospects?

Indeed, a social stigma already exists. Recently, I learnt of two companies which have become wary of recruiting those from private schools. This is a real worry for someone with a private school background like me.

Furthermore, complaints against private schools show an increasing trend.

The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) received 486 complaints against private schools last year, up from 460 in 2002.

Two years ago, my family wasted about $10,000 on an external University of London degree programme that my sister signed up for at a private school here. One year into the three-year programme, my sister was told that it would be stopped. She was told that if she wanted to continue the course, she would be expected to self-study.

There was no one my family could turn to for redress. Eventually, my family had to dip into our savings to send her to England to re-start her undergraduate course at the University of Leicester. The university was sympathetic to her plight and gave her a place, even though she applied well after the admissions deadline.

Such developments will not help Singapore's aspirations to be a "Global Schoolhouse", which the Economic Development Board (EDB) describes as "a world-class education hub internationally renowned for its intellectual capital and creative energy".

Most developed countries have regulators to ensure that the quality of higher education is of an acceptable standard. For example, the Higher Education Funding Council for England ensures "that all higher education students benefit from a high-quality learning experience" to meet their needs and the needs of society.

It was reported that here, the Government prefers the industry to self-regulate. If self-regulation is indeed the way to go, why is the country not moving to do away with its present control over public schools?

The Government's obvious unwillingness to do the same with public schools suggests that self-regulation may not be the best approach. After all, education happens to be a key pillar of our small, open economy.

Moreover, the industry's attempts to self-regulate via the Association of Private Schools and Singapore Education International have so far proved inadequate. The two bodies are due to meet Case, EDB, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises next week — after a scheduled meeting on Monday was postponed — to discuss such regulatory issues.

The Ministry of Education, together with relevant government agencies, should look into introducing a statutory body to encourage a high quality of private education in Singapore. Such a body will be the equivalent of what the Monetary Authority of Singapore is to the financial services industry.

As in the financial services sector, confidence and stability are fundamental to a sound and progressive education system. Singapore, as a young country, has successfully achieved this through both its public and private schools.

In 1999, I secured a place in one of the top 10 British law schools. The university I applied to placed a premium value on a diploma I acquired at a private school, IBMEC, and the rest of my Singapore education.

We should act decisively before others emulate the practices of private schools such as NIM. Let's restore the necessary confidence and stability in our private schools. The Government should introduce a private education regulator with teeth.

We must not allow this rot to evolve into a plague that afflicts our economy.

Dharmendra Yadav

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Finding out if future PM Lee is up to his job


Thank you, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and PAP. Finally, coffee-shop talk in Singapore can move away from who should succeed PM Goh!

Last week, PAP MPs gave PM Goh's choice of successor a unanimous thumbs-up; Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong can now become the third Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore. The mandate is hardly surprising. It has been overdue since last year's National Day Rally, when PM Goh had announced that DPM Lee would succeed him.

During the rally, PM Goh had provided a detailed explanation for his choice of successor, having "taken quiet soundings from Ministers and MPs on whom they would choose".

Following the announcement, the Government's public relations machinery went into full-steam mode. Tomes of news reports featured DPM Lee in a variety of local, regional and international media.

Almost every day after the announcement, the man in the street got to know something positive about DPM Lee, his family, his background, his achievements or accomplishments and his trials and tribulations; including his choice in clothes. Since he is Singaporean, red and white, naturally, were his choice colours!

The climax to this exercise came when PM Goh announced that PAP MPs would be asked to consider who the next PM (and his own successor) should be. He explained on various occasions the rationale for consulting PAP MPs: The choice had to be made transparently and openly.

In February, his office informed a newspaper: "The PM must command the confidence of his fellow MPs (from the same party)." In an interview with CNN in January, PM Goh had emphasised: "Lee Hsien Loong, who will be my successor — his promotion or his appointment, his selection, will be done on a transparent basis. He will be selected, not by his father, not even by me. He has to be selected by his colleagues, the Members of Parliament."

Nevertheless, some political commentators saw this as a key attempt to assimilate those reasonable individuals who disagree with PM Goh's choice into the camp that supports the choice.

These commentators described the move as no more than a legitimisation process, akin to the President's Assent after Parliament passes a piece of legislation. Others thought it was part of a greater scheme to boost DPM Lee's moral authority to be PM.

Constitutional law experts argued there was nothing wrong, legally,with the move since Article 25 of the Constitution provides: "The President shall appoint as Prime Minister, a Member of Parliament who, in his judgment, is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the Members of Parliament and shall, acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister, appoint other Ministers from among the Members of Parliament."

PM Goh essentially wanted to move beyond taking "quiet soundings". So, here arose a golden opportunity for a PAP MP to make known his or her reservations, if any, about DPM Lee. But really, could any PAP MP have argued credibly against the PM's choice? Perhaps.

However, many political observers felt otherwise. Any MP would have found it difficult to argue credibly against all that positive information available about DPM Lee; even if such an MP had a valid point to make; since the current leadership does welcome constructive criticism.

This is amplified further by there being no better alternative to DPM Lee.The Singaporean chief executive of a British company best put it when he told me: "DPM Lee is, to me, a leader who can and will charge up the (most) arduous of mountains with an unwavering resolve. I don't see any other leader in Singapore, apart from SM Lee (Kuan Yew) and PM Goh, with the ability and will to do the same."

Additionally, the way the PAP has run itself in the last three decades means there has always been one clear leader. Unlike the Malaysian ruling party, key executive positions in Singapore's ruling party are rarely a point of contention. Resultantly, SM Lee, among our Old Guard, was the natural choice.

Then, PM Goh stepped in. And next change will be DPM Lee. One can perhaps qualify that SM Lee had other "leaders-in-waiting" to PM Goh: DPM Tony Tan and the late President Ong Teng Cheong were two possible alternatives.

Similarly, PM Goh could have considered grooming other possible successors. But he had less time than SM Lee had, since the latter was PM for a longer period. In any case, these arguments are all purely academic now. History will now be the best judge of PM Goh's choice of successor. Meanwhile, the "quiet soundings" have evolved into "loud cheers", whose echoes will soon reverberate through the corridors of our legislature.

DPM Lee's mandate to run Singapore as its next PM is now entrenched. The people of Singapore should respect the choice of our legislators. We will, no doubt, miss the political hero of my generation: PM Goh.

Most importantly, it is now time to ask what our expectations, hopes and aspirations are from a Government led by the future PM Lee. After all, at a community event recently, DPM Lee said transition was not simply about one person taking over the political leadership of a country. It represents "a generational succession".

He has also emphasised: "I am myself. I am not my father. I'm not the Senior Minister. I'm not Mr Goh Chok Tong. I am myself and people will have to take me for what I am and for what I am able to do for them … It's the Singaporeans' opinions that count and if they think I'm up to the job, then it's my duty to show that I will be able to do it."

Singaporeans should thus ask what we would like from our next generation of leaders; this will decide if the future PM Lee is really up to the job.

Dharmendra Yadav

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Youth's deafening silence


In March, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong reflected about the "bo-chap" (can't be bothered) attitude of young Singaporeans. He told a newspaper: "They think Singapore is the centre of the world ... They are not aware that there are big challenges happening outside, great developments in the region and that these would have an impact on their lives ... It is back to the so-called 5Cs."

Then, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the future premier, lamented how disengaged young Singaporeans were when it came to community work. He observed last month: "Right now, many youths prefer hanging out in Orchard Road while their parents are at community centres. This has to change."

Most recently, Acting Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, during a speech at Presbyterian High School, added more food for thought.

He said: "Our teachers observe that students are increasingly individualistic — lacking a spirit of wanting to help others. Nor are they encouraged to do so by their parents ... Success and improved living standards have reduced their appetite to take to difficult situations and learn to overcome them."

These comments paint a less-than-rosy future for Singapore. Are our young people ill-positioned to face tomorrow.

Have they started to take these value judgments as the cardinal truth?

Some time ago, I argued in this newspaper that our young people are SAD — sceptical, apathetic and detached. But, since returning to Singapore last August, I have observed a certain dynamism in the youth, which has made me revisit my view. I did not see this dynamism when I left Singapore over five years ago.

At most public events, conferences or dialogue sessions — I have attended at least 10 since my return — young people are often the ones asking questions. At the recent Annual Conference of Feedback Groups, a substantial proportion of those who asked questions were students. The questions have covered a variety of topics, not just "bread-and-butter" issues.

More young people are writing in to the press or making their views known on television or radio. Why is this happening? A newspaper reader wrote: "I think young Singaporeans are more assured that their ideas are valued and feel a stronger sense of ownership towards this nation."

This trend is best seen among young Singaporeans who are increasingly setting up social enterprises.

Last December, I attended the inaugural Young Entrepreneurs Congress held at the Ngee Ann Convention Centre that was realised by the young for the benefit of the young. Media guru Robert Chua, the founder of China Entertainment Television Broadcast Ltd, welcomed this trend and saw much promise in the youth present.

One polytechnic student shared with me the resistance he faced from school administrators when he mooted the idea of an entrepreneurs' group. He was doing very well in school, but was told: "Better concentrate on your studies."

A group of young scholars got together last year to form the Kopitiam Discussion Group, which has been encouraging others consistently to take an active interest in local and international current affairs.

Another young person has formed the Young Leaders Foundation Ltd, that has a noble aim of connecting students to role models. It is reaching out to schools.

Tan Tock Seng Hospital revealed last month that over 50 per cent of the 8,000 good wishes it received during the Sars outbreak were from young people.

Space limits me from providing further examples. Arguably, these indicate there is hope.

Our deafeningly silent young persons have perhaps borrowed a page from PM Goh's leadership style: They would rather let their actions speak.

So far, their actions show that they are less individualistic. They do not shy away from community work, which includes helping others. They are as hungry as their forefathers, perhaps for different things.

The young of Singapore are not a diffident lot, as some circles would have us believe. Rather, many of them are playing an active role, which would stand them in good stead for the future.

Let's have more confidence in our young people.

Dharmendra Yadav