Thursday, June 28, 2007

YourFilm.SG: Time To Test, Provoke & Question

Some of my friends are behind this initiative, YourFilm.SG.

I encourage you to participate; if not to win, then to at least put YourFilm.SG's promise of accessible expression to the test.

According to the website, "the theme for this year is YOUTHniquely Singapore, giving youths of any background" - but only those "youths" between 13 and 35 years old - "the opportunity to convey what, in their opinion, makes Singapore unique", and to keep the "competition as accessible to the masses as possible, the organisers will be accepting films captured using any type of video recording device, including mobile phone cameras and digicams".

The website then goes on to say, "all entries will be showcased on to the world once they are approved and uploaded to this website" and there are "great [cash] prizes to be won".

Note, however, that little is said about the approval criteria or even how the winners will be picked. In such a situation, one can only hazard a guess.

It is interesting to also note that the "audience choice" winner will take home the smallest share of the bounty.

If this is a contest to honour expression, it may have been ideal to let the people express their choice and pick all the winners.

To me, to be a youth has always been an opportunity to question and to do the things that one will probably be less comfortable doing as an adult.

It is also a fantastic opportunity to be idealistic or contrarian; to basically test what in common parlance is known as the "out-of-bound" markers.

I hope youths will jump on this opportunity by submitting entries that will question and provoke thought; that will be idealistic or contrarian; and that will test the organisers censorship - oops, "approval" - criteria.

In the spirit of idealism that defines youth, one can only hope that the judges will not differentiate between those "approved" films that pay homage to the laurels of Singapore's political masters and those that are less than politically correct.

Of course, it will be fantastic if a young person whose family really needs the money is rewarded for his pure creative talent rather than the bias of his film.

When I was a college-going youth, my interview with David Marshall could never be published unedited, given the circumstances then.

But after a decade, it happened; it has now not only been published by the Law Society, it's also been featured in a magazine for male professionals, Lexean, and many other online sites too!

And the satisfaction I got from this far surpasses a dollar value that one can ever place on it. Happiness indeed.

With today's technology, doing what I did will take less than decade. So if YourFilm.SG does not "approve" your film, don't worry; there's always YouTube!

Oh yes, if you're one of those "unapproved" film-makers, make sure you leave a link to your film on this blog page!

Dharmendra Yadav

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

MHA Response: Abdul Basheer Case

The Permanent Secretary's office in the Ministry of Home Affairs has responded to an article I wrote.

I welcome the clarification from Ministry of Home Affairs and thank the Permanent Secretary's office for this opportunity to learn.

By doing so, the Ministry of Home Affairs has answered some questions I raised about Abdul Basheer's detention some days ago, "Was this the pivotal factor or could there have been other more compelling reasons? What really prompted a promising spark of Singapore's ethnic minority community to focus on such causes?"

I had questioned, as opposed to speculated, "if Abdul Basheer could have become attracted to radical ideology because of discrimination at the workplace, frustration with the lack of opportunities to make one's mark on society or dissatisfaction with a poor quality of life".

The Ministry of Home Affairs has replied, "Our investigations do not show that any of these possible factors influenced Abdul Basheer to become radicalised...Different factors attract different people to radical ideology."

But I found these words in the final paragraph of their reply intriguing: "In Singapore, there is no justification for anyone to become radicalised because of workplace discrimination, lack of opportunity or quality of life. Nor should these alleged shortcomings of Singapore society be used to rationalise and explain away the actions of those who have been led astray."

I haven't made up my mind yet on these words and I can only ask more questions about the direction these words are taking.

Is the Ministry of Home Affairs directing how the press should be reporting the matter?

Or is the Ministy of Home Affairs saying such "alleged shortcomings of Singapore society" should not be discussed in the context of alleged terrorist activities?

Or by saying "in Singapore, there is no justification for anyone to become radicalised because of workplace discrimination, lack of opportunity or quality of life", is the Ministry of Home Affairs expressing its hope or aspiration about "radicalisation" vis-a-vis what one faces in society?

On a related note, I understand from some sources that directions were issued to the press about not publishing Abdul Basheer's photograph or naming the schools Abdul Basheer had been to; this is particularly because there were concerns that persons resembling Abdul Basheer or from his past schools would be stereotyped or discriminated in some manner.

While this is a sensible request, it hasn't stopped at least one newspaper in this country from disclosing the schools. Perhaps, this reflects a press that is clearly capable of applying its own independent mind to a sensitive situation.

Finally, I wish to note that, even with this reply, Abdul Basheer's side of the story has not yet been heard. And I remain hopeful about one day finding the answers to the other questions raised about Abdul Basheer's case.

Thank you, again, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Two Messages About Terrorism In Singapore

I initially wanted to write about an annual lecture organised by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), which I was invited to attend by a colleague.

But two messages I read in the past two days made me put this initial plan on hold.

An unknown person in Singapore sent me the following message yesterday:
"Thank you, again, for an article that tries to be politically correct, but at the same time, managed to provoke others to think about Basheer in a less reductive way. I also appreciate your recent blog [posting] on the issue. I know Basheer would also appreciate the fact that someone who is not even a close friend, has managed to see beyond the grey clouds. I must admit that I do not really have much regard for the law profession at times, but in these trying times, the irony is that it is a lawyer who is now defending an ex-lawyer using the very rules that he (Basheer) has once discredited. I know you are not defending him, you are defending his rights as an individual. For that, I have utmost respect for you. Thank you once again and I hope you don't get in trouble for your guts."

The day before I got this message, a known person in Singapore, His Excellency, President Sellapan Ramanathan, delivered another message. He said, "Terrorism is a kind of crime. For you to prove it is not easy. When we used to have secret societies, somebody would bash someone else up. There would be no witnesses. How do you bring these people out? How do you prove it to them? We, in Singapore and Malaysia, must understand the nature of terrorism and how it impacts society."

Reading these two messages side by side, it appears that there is a divide between at least one top thinker of this country and one sentiment from the ground. One, however, cannot be absolutely sure how indicative this is of the present situation in Singapore.

The unknown person has also left me with more questions than answers! Do I actually have guts? Have I really seen beyond the grey clouds? Will I get into trouble?

After all, I am merely doing what His Excellency has encouraged, "We, in Singapore and Malaysia, must understand the nature of terrorism and how it impacts society."

I believe such understanding can only begin when one asks questions, and begins the search for answers to those questions. This is a fundamental part of any learning process. And, of course, not all the answers we find will be correct.

On another note, with all due respect to His Excellency, the Executive did not use the Internal Security Act - which is the legislation being used to combat alleged terrorism - to deal with secret societies. The measures to deal with secret societies required special permission from Parliament and the use of another statute: the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act.

Unlike the Internal Security Act, the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act is subject to regular review by Parliament. This, in my view, is an important safeguard in the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act.

Also, I am neither defending Abdul Basheer for his alleged involvement in terrorism nor defending his fundamental rights. As a corporate counsel (as opposed to being a member of the Singapore Bar), I have neither the standing nor the competency to do so. This is the responsibility of an independent lawyer, duly appointed by Abdul Basheer or his immediate family to represent Abdul Basheer.

His Excellency raises a very critical question: How do we catch terrorists and prove that they have done it?

At this point in time, looking at my growing list of questions and those of others, I am not sure if the Internal Security Act is really the most practical solution, if at all.

On a more personal note, I cannot agree with those in Singapore who "do not really have much regard for the law profession". Please do read this 1994 interview with David Marshall!

Dharmendra Yadav

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Make ISA Orders More Accountable & Transparent


I refer to the letter sent by the Permanent Secretary's office to The Straits Times in relation to a commentary concerning the controversial Internal Security Act (ISA).

I wish to seek some clarification, and also to share some ideas.


In that letter, the Permanent Secretary's office makes this argument: "Since the 9/11 attacks, several foreign governments and security agencies have expressed that they wished they had legislation similar to Singapore's ISA, to fight terrorism effectively. Singaporeans expect no less of their Government, to keep them and their families safe against catastrophic terrorist acts."

Would the Permanent Secretary's office be willing and able to provide the list of foreign governments and security agencies that have expressed such an interest? And if they have so wished, why has each foreign government or security agency failed to implement an equivalent of the ISA?

I wish to add that, in the absence of such clarification, I am most concerned about the position the Permanent Secretary's office has taken.

The position is akin to saying, for example: Several Singaporeans have expressed that they wished they had an opposition in Parliament, to provide check and balance to the dominant party in Parliament.

However, when one looks into the issue more deeply, one can potentially argue that having an opposition in Parliament comes at a cost. And that is a price most Singaporeans - that is those who have returned the ruling party to power again and again - are unwilling to pay.

Likewise, it is also possible that the "several foreign governments and security agencies" have considered the Internal Security Act to some extent and realised it too has a cost attached. And that is a price they are uniquely unwilling or unable to foot.

Unfortunately, one can only appreciate this if the Permanent Secretary's office is willing and able to provide the list of foreign governments and security agencies that have expressed they wished they had legislation similar to the ISA.


The Permanent Secretary's office also states that there is an ISA Advisory Board with wide powers, which can hear representations about an Order of Detention and make "recommendations to the President".

I would like to suggest that the Ministry of Home Affairs, in the interest of transparency and accountability to Singaporeans, look into making public all such recommendations by the ISA Advisory Board to the President.

Of course, one appreciates that, due to relevant national security concerns, not all the recommendations can be made public.

And clearly, such disclosures should be made with the consent of the Judge of the Supreme Court, who chairs the ISA Advisory Board and is ultimately responsible for making the recommendations.

I am of the view that releasing at least part, if not all, of the recommendations to the public would encourage some confidence among concerned members of the public that the due process of the law has indeed been observed.

The President too should make public all reasons for accepting or not accepting the recommendations of the ISA Advisory Broad, without compromising relevant national security matters.


I hope the Permanent Secretary's office will provide the necessary clarification. I also hope the Permanent Secretary's office will consider my suggestions, with the office of the President.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Reflect Why Educated Turn To Radical Ideology


Abdul Basheer Abdul Kader is not the first person alleged to have "militant jihad plans". What differentiates his case is his stirling resume.

He had the best of the Singapore brand of education. He secured a prized place at university to study law. He produced a research paper on international human rights law. Then, he worked for a while in a top law firm before taking on the role of inspiring impressionable and idealistic youthful minds by teaching in a tertiary institution.

Yet the 28-year-old apparently abandoned a bright future to pursue fanatical aspects of his religion.

Political and community leaders have pointed the finger at the new media, warning people not to get information about Islam from non-credible sources. Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said: "We have to continue to be wary of dangerous political agendas coming under the guise of religion through attractive media."

If such is the threat, then it raises a question about the education system — because it would seem that, at the end of the day, all the best education given to the most deserving may still be sacrificed at the altar of propaganda.

Perhaps there is some truth in the argument a foreign friend, a public administration specialist attached to the United Nations, shared with me in Bangkok recently. She said: "You have taught your people to gather knowledge. You have taught your people to excel in school. You have given them secure, lucrative careers. But at the end of the day, your people cannot question. They develop an affinity for propaganda and miss out on the real opportunities the world has to offer."

Looking beyond the influence of the Internet, one might wonder if there are other factors within Singapore society that have led to this new trend of so-called "self-radicalised" extremists, people like Abdul Basheer.

Some time ago, British society underwent a similar shock when it was disclosed that the terror threat was rooted much closer to home than expected. Well-educated British citizens had planned to commit atrocities in the name of religion. To date, much reflection continues in British society about what caused this trend of homegrown extremism.

British-Pakistani artiste, Irfan Ajeeb, who will star in an upcoming Bollywood film Suicide Bomber, told the Yorkshire Post: "I firmly believe that when you look at these guys, we are more or less all the same. We live in households that are similar ... That's why it's so confusing for me, to ask why a guy could do this.

"He wasn't born like that. It's due to events in his life. I also watch the television images of America bombing Afghanistan and Iraq. The solution isn't to strap on a bomb and bomb innocent people in London."

Discussing the lessons from the London bombings, academic Asim Siddiqui said at an anti-terrorism conference last year: "Muslims must accept the damage Islamist terrorism has done and work constructively with other actors in preventing recruitment. The government needed to spend more time and effort improving the living standards of the Muslim community in Britain. Civil society and media also have a role to play in providing fora for communities to talk to each other — not talk about each other from afar."

Similarly, it is important for Singapore society to reflect more on the latest disclosures of bright young talent suborned by extremist ideals, and what this signifies.

Terrorism, as Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng pointed out, is an issue all Singaporeans must address together. Even as Muslim leaders intensify their outreach to "vulnerable segments of the community" in countering radical ideology, "we should also be alert to what our children are learning from the Internet or from unregistered and dubious religious teachers. We should guide them to the right sources of religious knowledge", said Mr Wong.

In addition, more effort can be put into addressing the issues that make radical ideology attractive even to a person who is well-heeled. Is discrimination at the workplace the source of disillusionment?

Is there frustration with the lack of opportunities to make one's mark on society? Is he or she dissatisfied with a poor quality of life?

We do not know if these factors played a role in Abdul Basheer's life. We have heard only the Government's perspective. As former Justices' law clerk Andy Soh commented in a local newspaper: "It is all too easy for us to vilify and portray them as Osama bin Ladens in the making without the benefit of the full picture."

But based on the British experience, these are factors to look out for. The latest revelations are an opportunity for Singapore to reflect and to question. We cannot afford to let slip this opportunity to build a stronger, more civil society.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Detention Without Trial: More Questions Than Answers

Last week, the Ministry of Home Affairs revealed that it has detained without trial a law professional, Abdul Basheer s/o Abdul Kader, on suspicion of terrorist activities since February 2007.

I met Abdul Basheer once about three years ago, when I was introduced to him by a mutual friend. He struck me as a passionate person with an interest for softer issues in society. He also had strong views on some matters, and was someone who knew what he wanted out of his career in law.

In fact, during law school, Abdul Basheer wrote a paper, "The Status of Refugee Children in Human Rights Law – New Bearings for a Common Destination", which was supervised by the current Nominated Member of Parliament Thio Li-Ann.

But, according to my friend, Abdul Basheer "changed radically two years ago", and what has happened to him now comes as no surprise to my friend. My friend did not elaborate.

As such, I am taking a more than casual interest in this case. At this juncture for me, this case raises more questions than provides answers, since very little has been said about such issues:

1. Why did it take the Ministry of Home Affairs some 4 months since the detention of Abdul Basheer to publicly disclose such information about him?

2. The Ministry of Home Affairs has made various statements concerning the activities of Abdul Basheer. In summary, he had accessed various questionable material on the internet, wanted to learn Arabic and had even bought a ticket to Pakistan. Are these adequate and reasonable grounds to detain a person without trial or did the Ministry of Home Affairs act on pure suspicion?

3. Perhaps, what is different in this situation is that according to the Ministryof Home Affairs is that he had "militant jihad plans" and wanted "to make contact with a militant group - the Lashkar e-Tayyiba (LeT) - that could help him train for 'militant jihad' and to cross over into Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban". But then what is the evidence that the internal security team gathered against Abdul Basheer, which conclusively show that he had the motive "to wage 'militant jihad' in a land where Muslims were under attack"? Or is the Ministry of Home Affairs going behind the protective veil of the Internal Security Act so that it has no compelling need to reveal the body of evidence, which prompted authorities to act against Abdul Basheer?

4. Several persons have been quick to blame the new media for Abdul Basheer's plight. Was this the pivotal factor or could there have been other more compelling reasons? What really prompted a promising spark of Singapore's ethnic minority community to focus on such causes?

5. How are his loved ones reacting to this arrest? Do they welcome the arrest as a necessary move or are protesting the perceived unilateral move made by the Ministry of Home Affairs?

6. How is Abdul Basheer being dealt with in detention?

These are questions that I hope others are asking too.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Protect Innocent Family Members of Terrorists


On 6 June 2007, your ministry made the following orders:
- Terrorism (Suppression of Financing) (Exemption from Prohibition against Dealing) (No. 7) Order 2007
- Terrorism (Suppression of Financing) (Exemption from Prohibition against Dealing) (No. 9) Order 2007
- Terrorism (Suppression of Financing) (Exemption from Prohibition against Dealing) (No. 10) Order 2007

In these orders, your ministry exempted transactions involving certain property of "terrorists". It is of some concern to me that in the orders your ministry has listed the current addresses of such "terrorists", especially since these orders are publicly available at the eGazette website.

I am not sure if these "terrorists" continue to be in your ministry's detention or if they have been permitted post-detention to return back to their homes and restart their lives.

If they have, I am not sure how the public disclosure of their addresses will help them return and play a positive role in society, especially if they still live in these premises.

More importantly, your public disclosure also does not help their innocent family members living in the premises presently. I believe these family members have suffered and been shamed enough as a result of your ministry's disclosure and detention of their "terrorist" family member.

If the number of keen public witnesses attending court in high-profile cases are a precedent, I think one can perhaps safely argue that there are enough eager "prying" eyes to want to check out their premises. Indeed, I think it will now place the family members of such "terrorists" in less than necessary spotlight.

Surely, your ministry can find a better way to make such orders; a manner, which facilitates the re-integration of such "terrorists" back into society and protects the sacrosanct privacy of their innocent family members.

Your ministry's prerogative should not only be to protect Singapore's interests from harm but also to protect their innocent loved ones from additional discrimination in society. I hope your team will play its part in giving wrongdoers a second chance, and keeping their innocent loved ones out of harm's way.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Personal Relationships & Work-Related Contracts

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work for a range of organisations, from the 3-person outfit to the hegemonic multinational corporation.

In small businesses, where one often invests one's own funds, personal relationships are pivotal. It can make a difference between spending a bomb on an item or paying for the same item at slightly over cost.

Prudence is a virtue indeed.

I realise that same prudence is a virtue in much larger organisations. It can be a factor in deciding how much bonuses you bring home at the end of the year!

But in larger organisations, where one deals with funds often belonging to others, personal relationships should be on the watch list.

Giving contracts to a friend or a relative or even one's personal supplier of goods or services (for example, the plumber of your house) should be an issue of concern.

Like it or not, there's always some form of kickback; and this does not necessarily mean mere cash or gifts-in-kind. It could be something as unobvious as goodwill.

This in turn marks the beginning of an organisation's journey down the slippery slope of reckless spending. One could end up paying more than is necessary for a good or service.

In some cases, this has eventually led to the creation of the rogue employee. And the manifestations of these have been seen in the corporate world at different points in history.

It is for this reason many large organisations find it useful to have procurement committees.

It is also for this reason one often solicits various quotes for a particular good or service before awarding a contract to a supplier; this is quite often an effective and objective way of ensuring an organisation is getting good value.

If you work in a large organisation, be wary of the colleague that awards contracts to those he or she knows personally.

Don't be afraid to whistleblow and bring this to the attention of the independent members of your Board of Directors!

Dharmendra Yadav

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