Sunday, February 25, 2007

Meeting Ateneo de Manila University - Part 2

Recently, I was interviewed by a graduate journalism student from Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines. The graduate student works for a broadcasting company in Singapore. Here are some highlights of the interview. For part 1, read here.


How do I lean politically - am I left or am I centre or am I right?

I think the best way to describe me is that I am a "swinger".

We have a penchant for putting people in boxes. Being in a box can be useful in certain situations but it can limit you as a person. I prefer not to be put in a box.

My friends say I am liberal in my views. I think this has partly got to do with my liberal law school background, where I was taught not only what the law is but provoked to go further in deciding what the law should be. But being a liberal in an Asian society can have negative connotations.

As such, I prefer to describe myself as open and willing to learn. And it is this mindset which makes me a "swinger"!


I am for political plurality because no one person or organisation can possibly have all the solutions for the problems or issues affecting a country.

Having said that, it is also important to highlight that because of the organisation I work for, it would be unconscionable for me to support anyone apart from the dominant party. My only other choice is to spoil my vote.

But I am for legal reform which helps the long-term interests of our country. It is for this reason I believe that Singapore is now ready for a proportionate representation electoral system.

In fact, if at all possible, I would like to see a second house of the legislature in Singapore, which I would personally call a "House of Elders".

We have so many retiring politicians and corporate leaders. They have useful ideas in their ageing minds, and we are often talking about tapping our older generation.

Why not create a House of Elders and let your bills that are passed after the first reading be debated in this House before it goes back to Parliament for a second reading?

I think the legislation coming out as a result of this process will be more sound.


I think there is now more space for public discussions and gatherings than existed in Singapore in the recent past. The current Prime Minister promised that individuals will no longer need to apply for licences for gatherings in enclosed spaces which do not affect racial or religious sensitivities, and he delivered on that promise soon after.

But there is now less flexibility for you to come out on the streets and display what you think about an issue. Our police force have in recent years focused their efforts on such gatherings and a tightening of the law on this aspect has also been proposed in the latest review of the Penal Code.

Many commentators often focus on this as a negative aspect of Singapore and I agree that the police, as law enforcers, can exercise greater flexibility on this issue.

But is there any real need to come out on the streets on an issue? Taking into account the other channels already available to one, I don't think there is any real need.

Some argue that our government does not listen. I think our government does listen but it just takes longer to do so. Some even see coming out on the streets as a quick way to change things and in dealing with a government that does not listen. I don't blame them however.

The government has by its own actions - going from third world to first in about three decades - highlighted that it can respond quickly to issues. And so your customers, that is your citizens, have become accustomed to quick fixes.

The reality however is that, in making law, there is no such thing as quick fix.

Consider, for example, when the government first started introducing quotas for the number of lawyers in Singapore. Over the last decade, there was dissatisfaction in that a graduate from a local law school needed only to have a lower second class honours degree to practise law here, whereas an overseas law graduate needed an upper second class honours degree. It took a severe shortage of lawyers for the government to see the harshness of this position. And, some ten years later, that law has now been changed.

In any case, you can have the most powerful laws in the country to deal with public disorder. But if you have an overly dissatisfied citizenry, there is nothing you can do to prevent the masses from coming out on the streets to protest an issue. History has shown this time and time again.


I neither object nor support politicians blogging. But this has generally been well-received. There are precedents elsewhere which show that blogging has helped politicians during elections time.

In Singapore, we see politicians from both ruling and non-ruling parties doing so. Even politicians who have been nominated to Parliament rather than elected have got into the act too. And I am still surprised that, with their busy schedules, they have the time to blog!

Our media already covers some of our politicians - especially our ministers - quite extensively so I am also not sure to what extent their blogs will help them to gain influence. Blogging can come after you have met the needs of the people you serve and delivered on your promises.


Some commentators believe blogs are waning. Others believe it's gaining popularity.

If, however like me, you prefer to see blogging as writing, I would argue that writing has a great potential and future.

Blogs and even Youtube are only a means to express oneself and, over time, such means will evolve.

And the same can be said about political discourse. I recognised earlier that we now have more space, albeit enclosed, for expression in Singapore. I am hopeful this will grow.

The Internet has been a catalyst in these efforts.

I remember, when I was in junior college some twelve years ago, I was one of the first few in class to have access to the Internet and e-mail. It made me more curious as a person, and, at least for me, it has been a powerful medium for education.


I recently had to prepare a blog policy for my own organisation. It offered various lessons. There are three key tips from there which I wish to share:
1. Write about what you know.
2. Accept feedback.
3. Be positive, that is add value, be constructive, correct your mistakes and apologise, where necessary.


Ethics is often a debatable area. That is why I had hoped that in my proposed code of conduct for bloggers, some minimum ethical standards would be established.

To me, ethics is about having good taste. Personally, I am uncomfortable about blog postings of pictures or videos of persons who do negative things. Some years ago, there was this unfortunate video of a polytechnic student in a sexual act circulating on the Internet. I liked how blogs wrote about this but did not carry the video. I think this is a practical example of ethics at work.


In our quest to be a wired nation, we cannot ignore a person's basic needs.

I was shocked by the comments of a new Member of Parliament before he was elected. He said something to the effect that he did not know that poor people existed in Singapore before he started working in the community.

I have heard of families in Singapore who cannot afford to buy spectacles or books for their children. There are also old people who live alone, wallowing in self-pity and living a life of just waiting for death to come and relieve them of this burden of living.

And some self-help groups, instead of focusing on meeting these needs, choose to give them access to the Internet and provide them computers. Who is to pay the bills for such facilities? Who is to monitor the children who are not supervised while using such facilities?

Some days ago, I was returning from Johor Bahru in Malaysia. I saw, just before the entrance to the Malaysian checkpoint, a person who had set up a desk to help people complete immigration forms, and he charged them a small fee for it.

Likewise, as more government services go online, I suspect more such little economies to evolve. Some entreprenuerial students are already helping people complete their tax returns online. It's only time before others start charging for help to do other online services.

Dharmendra Yadav

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