Monday, June 19, 2006

Roots in Physical Space

Recently, while driving back from work, I was listening to a song by Neil Young, called Helpless. It can be found in numerous albums, including originally in one called Déjà Vu. This was produced back in the days of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, in the 1970s.

You can hear it performed here. The first verse caught my attention:

There is a town in north Ontario,
With dream comfort memory to spare,
And in my mind I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there.

I don’t know the background to the song but the verse made me think about how the physical structures and landscapes of the places where we grew up can give us a sense of rootedness and belonging to these places. As the song suggests, they can also offer a form of comfort.

I wondered whether Queenstown would be like that for me. That’s where I grew up. Block 44, Tanglin Halt Rd; Block 63, Commonwealth Drive. Tanglin Primary School, Commonwealth Secondary School, Tanglin Technical School. The Church of the Blessed Sacrament. “All my changes were there.”

I visited these places last weekend. The blocks were still there, but had been upgraded and looked very different. The open field behind Block 63 had been replaced with a communal structure. The church was still there but it, too, had sprouted additional structures around it.

All three school complexes were gone. One of them had made way for a road between Queensway and the Ayer Rajah Expressway. A residential construction project stood where my other two schools used to stand.

I remembered other old Queenstown landmarks: The roundabout fountain where, now, there’s a busy road intersection with an MRT line running over it; the empty piece of land, where circuses used to perform and where a community centre and mosque now stand.

I felt that Queenstown had changed too much for me to now feel very much for the place. The roots in physical structures and landscapes had been cut. During the short visit, I felt very little sense of belonging. I felt more that a part of me had been lost, forever.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Rules of Entrapment

A young doctor was jailed a few days ago (The Straits Times, June 8) for possession of drugs. The short story of how it happened is that undercover officers from the Central Narcotics Bureau had chatted him up on the Internet, and knowing his homosexual preferences, asked him if he had wanted some three-way “fun” and also if he had drugs.

According to a follow-up report (ST, June 9), the doctor said no a few times but the officers persisted and, after a while, the doctor gave in. He met them in a hotel, was found with the drugs, and was arrested.

While lawyers interviewed by the ST agreed there was a place for entrapment in law enforcement, they also opined that in this case, the CNB officers had “crossed the line”.

On June 10 an ST Forum writer, Mr Lionel De Souza, attempted to clarify matters and to defend the CNB. His argument? That there was a difference between the use of an agent provocateur and the use of entrapment or a sting operation, and that the latter was all right.

An agent provocateur, he said, was “one who suggests the commission of a crime to another in the hope that the individual would go along with the suggestion” while “entrapment usually takes place after due investigation of information, such as that an individual is engaged in nefarious activities like trafficking or abusing controlled drugs.”

In his letter, he continued: “After being satisfied with the authenticity of the information, and if the enforcement officers conclude that a sting operation is needed so as to catch the culprit red handed with incriminating evidence, it would then be perfectly legal and ethical to resort to entrapment.”

I have two issues with this argument.

Firstly, the suggestion that the CNB’s officers were not agent provocateurs can be challenged. Did they not repeatedly suggest “having some gay fun” when in fact gay sex is illegal in Singapore? Did the doctor offer to bring drugs, or did they ask – or even pester – him to?

Secondly, even if that challenge fails, Mr De Souza misses the point which causes concern, which is that in Singapore law, the method of entrapment does not matter.

According to the June 9 report: “Unlike countries such as the United States and Canada, where evidence gathered through "excessive'' entrapment can be thrown out of court, evidence obtained through any method of entrapment is lawful in Singapore.”

So the distinction Mr De Souza makes may be an an unwritten understanding in legal circles or one which the police use as an internal guideline; but it is not recognized or enshrined in law.

There are no official rules for entrapment and people are not protected legally from excesses. And that is the problem that’s cause for concern.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Inconsistent Surveys, Polls and Values?

A straw poll done by The New Paper finds that cost of living and jobs are the most important election issues. These items are cited by more than 60 per cent of 150 people as those about which they have strong feelings.

When the PAP’s Eric Low does a survey of 12,000 people in Hougang, interim and lift upgrading are among the top desirables, together with better transportation.

A Straits Times survey of just over 400 people, meanwhile, finds that cost of living, jobs and housing are the most important issues. A quote from one of the ST reports:

“Close to nine in 10 say the cost of basics, including health care, public transport, food and utilities, can influence their vote. More than seven in 10 cited jobs and unemployment issues, while slightly below seven in 10 pinpointed housing.”

Enter the Institute of Policy Studies, and its survey of about 1,000 people and finds apparently otherwise. Here is what ST’s front page report says:

“A recent survey of Singapore voters has found that, contrary to popular belief, bread-and-butter issues such as the cost of living and jobs were not what mattered most to them. Instead, the top concerns were the need for an efficient government and fairness of government policy.

“These surprising findings were contained in a survey conducted just after the May 6 polls by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).

“ 'In the end, people don't really look to the Government for their pocket book issues to be settled at the ballot box. What they do want is a Government that is fair, that will treat all citizens equitably,' IPS senior research fellow Gillian Koh said.

“Eligible voters also said that they were influenced more by the need for alternative views and checks and balances in Parliament than by material concerns, whether it was cost of living or estate upgrading.”

And now, the PAP needs to change tack in the next election, says SM Goh Chok Tong, according to the front page report in The Sunday Times (June 4).

But wait, the stark difference between the IPS survey and the others should not be passed over without scrutiny as the PAP – or any other political party – kicks into action to revise and to re-strategise.

Why is it that one group of surveys and polls finds “bread-and-butter” issues of utmost importance while the another survey does not? Why are people saying one thing and then another?

My theory is that, in fact, the two groups of polls and surveys do not show inconsistent values in voters but different priorities assigned to these values at different times.

Each person can be said to have a prioritised list of values. The basic ones would include the bread-and-butter values, such as those in the newspapers’ poll and survey, but there would be others, too such as fair play, honesty, and so on.

The priority given to these values can change according to the situation the person finds himself in. For instance, he may strongly disagree with a political party’s position and be critical of it but when a foreign party enters the fray, his nationalistic values may come to fore as he ticks the foreign party off and, in the process, he may even defend the party he is critical of.

The newspapers’ and Eric Low’s polls and surveys were done prior to the GE. Bread-and-butter issues were, indeed, important to the people in these polls and surveys. Fair play, efficiency of government and so on, were also values but there was nothing, at the time, to cause a re-prioritisation, to put them higher on the list.

But then, the campaign started and I believe two issues made people re-prioritise their values. The first was estate upgrading, and the second, the treatment of James Gomez. In both these cases, there was as strong feeling that the PAP was not playing fair.

Hence when the IPS came along and asked them what was important to them, so close after GE 2006, they gave a higher priority to items like fairness of government. It did not mean that bread-and-butter issues were not important to them. They were just reporting what was important to them at the time.

An observation that can be made is that if the voters in Aljunied saw the treatment of James Gomez as a case of lack of fair play and hence gave his party a sizeable portion of their votes, the same cannot be said in Sembawang. There, the relatively poor showing by the SDP suggests that voters did not sense as much (if any) lack in fair play in the lawsuits taken out by the PAP against the SDP.

Will the re-prioritised values keep their places permanently? This is a tough one. There appears to be heightened consciousness of values beyond bread-and-butter ones. However, it would be a mistake to think that the basic values are not important any more and that they cannot move up in priority again given the right circumstances.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

And Now We Wait And See

At his swearing-in ceremony on May 30, PM Lee Hsien Loong gave an outline of what he saw as the challenges for Singapore and what his government would do to meet them. His speech, available on the Internet here, can be seen as a summary of promises to be delivered, post GE 2006.

It was overall a non-partisan speech of which deserves the support of the people in what it aims to do. But some of what he said caught my attention and started me thinking.

He noted that Singaporeans had endorsed the PAP’s vision for Singapore, which included: “To be an inclusive society, where Singa­poreans of all races and religions, young and old, at home and overseas play a part in shaping our nation’s future.’’

Later in the speech, he said: “We will help elderly citizens and lower income households, and address concerns over healthcare costs and the cost of living.”

Further in the speech, he said: “My Government will use our mandate to serve all Singapo­reans. In doing so, we are fulfilling our duty to Singapore, not exercising a right or a privilege. We govern Singa­pore in trust, on behalf of all Singa­poreans, as well as of future generations.

“We must maintain unity and trust between the leadership and the people, between those who support the Government and its policies and those who prefer something different.

“Many of those who voted for the opposition in fact want a PAP government, but I respect their choice. Moving ahead, my team and I will strive to deliver on our promises, and work to win the confidence and support of all Singaporeans.”

With GE 2006 still so fresh in my mind, I could not help wondering what all this meant and how to interpret it, and how it would be realised over the next five years.

The vision of inclusive society, for instance, specifically mentions Singaporeans abroad, but not the probably bigger group who did not vote PAP. This group gets mentioned later but, here, we see only the very basics of an inclusive society – people regardless of race, gender, religion and age – as it is now. It progresses little. Missing are those whose views differ from the PAP’s, for instance. How will they figure in this inclusive society?

We will have to wait and see.

Reading the lines that promise service to all Singaporeans and the elderly made me think of lifts on every floor for the elderly in Opposition constituencies. Here is a syllogistic deduction:

The PAP will serve all Singaporeans.
Singaporeans include the elderly.
The elderly include those who live in Opposition constituencies.
Therefore the PAP will serve the elderly who live in Opposition constituencies.

The PAP has already admitted that upgrading does not work any more as an election tool. One exit strategy would be to score some points by giving it to Hougang and Potong Pasir closer to GE 2011. The positive spin: “We do look after all Singaporeans, opposition Constituencies included.”

Meanwhile, the Worker’s Party chief and Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang, will no doubt be reminding the PAP in Parliament about its own stance that the elderly in his Constituency need help. The prospects look good. But will they get the facilities they need?

We will have to wait and see.

A politician who wins in an election usually has something to say to those who did not vote for him. He never retaliates. Rather, he will say things such as that he will try to understand these voters better, find out why they are unhappy, that he will “engage” such voters.

What I’ve never heard a winning politician say is that he will listen to this group of people, and ensure that at least some of what they want will be delivered, even if they are in the minority, while delivering to the majority who voted for him.

PM Lee rises above partisan politics when he says the PAP will “maintain unity and trust between the leadership and the people, between those who support the Government and its policies and those who prefer something different”.

How is this unity and trust going to be forged? Will the opposition parties be invited to send contingents to march at the National Day Parade, as PAP contingents have marched before?

We will have to wait and see.

What does it mean, when one says “many of those who voted for the opposition in fact want a PAP government”? Does it mean that those who voted against one actually voted for one, and that one can ignore the vote against one? What to make of the probability that many of the people who voted PAP didn’t agree with its treatment of James Gomez, and didn’t agree with using upgrading as an election tool? This part of PM Lee’s response in not clear.

The second part of what he said, that the PAP government will “work to win the confidence and support of all Singaporeans” falls in line with the standard responses made by politicians. It does not mean that the PAP will listen and change its views. Rather it usually means trying to get those who disagree to change their views.

I may be wrong. I hope I am wrong and that, now, it will be different.

We will have to wait and see.