Monday, April 21, 2008

COI Report: A Litany of Blunders, A Culture in Need of Change

The ISD has over the years accumulated a reputation for no-nonsense conduct with regards to ensuring the security and sovereignty of Singapore. In our imaginations, their work is steeped with intrigue, skullduggery and secrecy. As such, the ISD unavoidably becomes associated with conspiracy theories ranging from privacy infringements to political manipulations.

Regardless of the outlook one may hold, we have to remember that ultimately, the ISD is a government agency; one that is in need of a culture change.

Reading through the litany of blunders presented by Minister Wong this afternoon, I was hit in the proverbial nose above all by the strong scent of bureaucracy. Two case facts will ellaborate on this.

One, the toilet used by detainees during family visitation had an un-grilled window; a flaw that was blamed on a miscommunication with contractors. The remedy prescribed by the centre's superintendent - to saw off the handle of the window instead of erecting grilles - was indeed a bad judgment call. While miscommunications and bad decision making are part and parcel of human existence, it is far more disturbing that no one (I am assuming) had the courage to speak up and warn the superintendent that it was simply a bad idea.

And two, a sense that something was amiss (Mas Selamat taking too long in the cubicle) was only followed up upon after that peice of information had travelled through four individuals (two gurkha guards, a female junior officer and an assistant case officer). Surely a knock on the cubicle door by the guard standing directly behind it would have sufficed.

In my view, these security control lapses were the result of basic inaction brought about by disempowerment and crippling job scope compartmentalization. Factors I am sure you would agree are synonymous with civil service culture.

We encounter similar situations in mundane everyday dealings with Government bodies. Approval is needed by one department before another can give the green light. Status of applications cannot be checked as assigned officers are on vacation leave. Actions can not be taken without supervisor approval. Everything is strictly by the book and when the book is not available, the world stops rotating.

Was the escape the result of a confluence of personal errors in judgments and infrastructural inadequacies? The simple answer is yes, but life is never simple. A perfect storm of errors may have culminated in Mas Selamat's escape, but the clouds of bureaucracy continue to overcast our skies.

Disciplinary actions on individuals held accountable for these lapses are an expected byproduct. However, there are limits and Minister Wong should be mindful not to merely treat symptoms and not the disease. A willingness to sack people when things go wrong is in itself a culture that will breed further self-preservatory behaviour; popular euphemisms that come to mind are "better cover backside" and "just do your job".

The litany of blunders are laid bare for all to see. While many quiet successes of ISD, past and future, will likely go unnoticed, in the cynical world we inhabit, failures are more readily remembered.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Fitna: A Neocon Dutchman's Self-Indulgence

These days, it seems any amount of verbal putrescence can be passed off as individual expression. The recent distasteful production "Fitna" by Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders is an excellent case in point.While the right to freedom of speech, as a concept, is easily digestible to all, people oftentimes forget that it is not an absolute right. The right to speak freely without censorship naturally comes with caveats; most relevant here would be restrictions on speech or expressions that are tantamount to hate speech which is defamatory or causes incitement to violence.

“You may hold whatever private opinions you like but you do not enjoy an absolute right to express them in public.”

Syed Shahabuddin, Muslim scholar and former opposition MP in India’s Parliament,
in defence of the censoring of Salmon Rashdie’s Satanic Verses

The Self-Indulgent Dutchman

The intended reading of “Fitna” the movie, as it was framed to achieve, would be that Islam and Terrorism are inextricably intertwined as such that you cant have one without the other. While one would find it hard to argue against the fact that much of what we term as acts of terrorism these days are inspired by a political ideology that has been ‘legitimized’ by Islam, it would be very easy to find fault with Wilders’ ideas and intentions.

I found a video of an Interview conducted with Wilders by Fox News Network (not surprising considering the networks political inclinations to the right). In it, Wilders proclaims that cultures are not equal and that “our culture [European? Dutch?] is far better than the retarded Islamic culture”. Furthermore, although Wilders does not believe that a ‘moderate’ Islam exists, he strangely invites Muslims to assimilate into Dutch society by first renouncing the “intolerant and fascist parts of the Koran….. and take Dutch values as their values”. His olive branch offering is in essence poison oak laced with Islamaphobia, making his stance at best contradictory and at worst ‘fascist’ (to borrow a phrase he often uses to describe Islam).


‘Fascism’ simply put is an authoritarian political ideology, movement, or regime that considers the individual subordinate to the interests of the state, party or society as a whole. In his relentless denunciation and vilification of Islam, Wilders displays symptoms of extreme Christian right-wing nationalism. This is interesting when you consider that a complementary element of fascism, most evident in Nazi fascism, would be ‘extreme nationalism’.

While researching further into the term "Islamic Fascism", I found an interesting article (The Big Lie About 'Islamic Fascism') that referenced a modern definition of fascism from former Columbia University Professor Robert Paxton’s 2004 book, The Anatomy of Fascism.

Paxton defined fascism’s essence as, inter alia, “right of the chosen people to dominate others without legal or moral restraint and a fear of foreign contamination". He further added that:

[…] The Muslim World is replete with brutal dictatorships, feudal monarchies, and corrupt military-run states, but none of these regimes, however deplorable, fits the standard definition of fascism. Most, in fact, are America’s allies.

[…] The real modern fascists are not in the Muslim World, but Washington. The neocons screaming fascist the loudest, are the true fascists themselves.

These descriptions speak volumes don't you think?

Final Thoughts

Dissenters, nonconformists, artists, racists, bigots, proselytizers, politicians, bloggers … etc… all find common sanctuary under the aegis of a perceived universal right to freedom of speech and expression. It is in fact guaranteed under International Law (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) as a human right.

Proponents of this right however, often ignore the next article in the Law which recognizes that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This demonstrates an Orwellian paradox where all rights to expression are equal, but some rights are more equal than others; while Islam, and its 1.5 billion devotees, are often found grasping the short end of this stick.