Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Serangoon Road Conundrum

A stormy riot, on an equally rain-soaked Sunday night along a routinely bustling strip of Singapore’s Little India, has captured the world’s attention.  The trigger, a purportedly drunken foreign worker of Indian descent was mowed over by a bus ferrying other workers back to their dormitory.  What sparked the violent scenes of vehicle pelting and assaults requires answers that possibly no inquiry can ever fully surface.

Was this an alcohol-induced incident, fueled by a rowdy mob packed within a two km stretch of road enveloped by ethnic shops, restaurants and temples? Anyone who has taken a stroll down Serangoon road on any given Sunday evening would witness a scene of collective drinking along pathways and on any available patch of grass. As pointed out by Alex Au of Yawning Bread, “at their low wages, they can’t afford to spend their leisure time in commercial establishments like cafes and restaurant”. Alex also offers an interesting treatise on how a confluence of spatial features and bad weather provided the ideal backdrop for the eruption of violence.

Explaining how usually rational individual behave during an irrational situation is too broad and complex to discuss definitively. I would like to however touch on a divisive subject that was alluded to in discussions on social media, and featured prominently in Alex’s aforementioned blog post; the role of disruptive policing (termed ‘active’ policing by Alex) and the perception of authorities manifested in first responders.

Anyone who was once a self-respecting pubescent teenager would recount at some point in their life running into the scope of a patrolling police officer. Be it loitering at a void deck late at night, or sneaking that illegal cigarette in a public playground. To some this is a rare occurrence, but to others that perhaps fit a deeply engraved profile of a typical troublemaker (you know who you are), this tends to happen more often than not.

Alex shares that such active or disruptive policing happens regularly “in the void decks and alleyways of Little India, freely issuing summonses and intrusively asking for identification. Workers see this as harassment. It is the exact opposite of what it takes to build trust between the police and communities”.

Now is this generally a bad thing?  Disruptive policing is a key component of the law-enforcement strategy modeled under Intelligence-Led Policing. In a sentence, this technique seeks to utilize the crime deterrent effect generated by a highly visible, regular and tangible police presence, to reduce crime in an identified crime hot area.

To illustrate its application, a scenario could be an increase of crime in a neighbourhood littered with street walkers and drug dealers. Active and visible police cars patrolling the streets could possibly deter the would-be clients from loitering in the vicinity, resulting in a decrease in the attractiveness of the area for crime.  Drawing back to the situation along Little India, perhaps the right type of disruptive policing would involve the visible presence of a credible deterrent, in the form of regular police officers and not auxiliary officers and the token NS-men or two.

The conduct of these additional patrols is as important as their numbers. Unlike the example of street walkers and soliciting clients, the purpose is not to displace our South Asian temporary residents. Our boys in blue have to be seen as being equally interested in maintaining a conducive and safe space for Singaporeans and Foreigners alike. This is the real challenge.

There are two events that suggest this animosity between our South Asian workers and enforcement authorities are, for lack of a better word, strained. Symbolically, the flipping and torching of police vehicles and ambulances offers a clear target of frustrations. Did they believe the first responders were arrived to assist their pinned compatriot, or were they there to merely engage in crowd control and to sweep the incident into non-existence? Perhaps there are other anecdotal incidents that fuels this perception.

The other (non) event is the conspicuous lack of acts of looting. Looting often goes hand-in-hand with spontaneous riots.  Flash back to the August 2011 London riots, much of the incidents coincided with opportunistic looting of mobile phone shops, restaurants and other retailers along the British High Streets. Similarly to what I read now, commentary back then pinned the blame on a disenfranchised minority group that were concentrated in areas of relatively high deprivation.

Now taking these two points together, it becomes harder to accept the online speculation that the ‘real’ reasons for the riots were the manifestation of the traditional class-divide tension rooted in poverty, employment frustrations, and general over-crowding.  As commenters now claim that attempts at painting the event as alcohol-driven is merely engaging in scapegoating, it would over-generalising to suggested a micro event was fuelled primarily by marco socio-spatial factors; without any empirical proof of course.  

To conclude, from a purely speculative assessment, understanding the interaction/relationship between our foreign workers and the people that share their spaces is a more important priority than let’s say a re-look at our immigration policy. Otherwise it seems counterintuitive to claim to be concerned for the welfare of this sub-group, and at the same time be knee-jerked into proposing solutions that only seek to limit their opportunities to make a decent living for themselves.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Yahoo News is the balance?

The major alternative news source in Singapore, Yahoo News, will comply with new MDA regulations and apply for accreditation while a group of bloggers continue to make their dissatisfaction known.

Peeling away the layers, it is obvious that the new regulations were enacted to have some sort of control over Yahoo. But it seems Yahoo is not resisting, at least not publicly. It has more than 1 million visitors a day, its news coverage is saucy and different from what is covered by the mainstream media. Readers like their approach (good mix of hard and soft news) and know that they can find alternative viewpoints at Yahoo.

If you want to hear more opposition views during GE or By-E, go to Yahoo. If you want to know what WP say about the town council saga, go to Yahoo. Latest about the Cherian George's tenure rejection, don't bother asking Mr George, go to Yahoo. It's free, it's easily accessible and it's an different read.And it irks the PAP.

Though, Yahoo wouldn't be too pleased to sign away their rights, they're glad that bloggers are making noise on the sidelines and they are happy to feature them. On Yahoo's part, they would just have to abide, appear cooperative to the government and continue to generate advertising revenue.

Sometimes, punters would say TRS, Temasek Times or even the forums are the balance to state-controlled media. But they are not. They are only fringe actors. They represent the constant 15% that would vote for any guy not wearing white on white. Most Singaporeans read them with a high sodium diet. And the government wouldn't shut these down, else they might not know where to look for them.

Still lesser Singaporeans read TOC and Public House. They are a good read with worthy ideas to contemplate, but not many will find them fitting in the materialistic cosmos of Singapore. 

The shifting middle of the road Singaporeans, many of them eventually voting WP, read and analyse mainstream media together with alternative sources like Yahoo and international media. And as long as Yahoo can generate readership, stay profitable, there is not much the government can do except asking them for “registration” and make them remove clearly defamatory comments. Legal action on such a popular website will only stir the hornet's nest.

The search for alternative news, views and politics in Singapore will continue. A gladiator arena is no spectator sport with just one dominant actor. What is unfortunate for Singapore is, the main opposition, WP, does not have a clear online agenda and the main alternative online news portal, Yahoo, is a form of neo-imperialism American corporate power.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

From Drumsticks to Chickens

The dust has settled somewhat on the Population White Paper.  It is perhaps time to really examine this document especially in light of the on-going Budget debate because, fundamentally, the key tenet of this Population White Paper is whether the Government can deliver on the accompanying infrastructure development plan to buffer the impact of a rise in population numbers.

The fact that the White Paper has become one of the most contentious issues since post-independence Singapore can be traced to the fact that the average Singaporean has developed an irrational xenophobia which has been deeply accentuated by a real lack of space in Singapore.  So it could have been 6.9 million, 6 million or any other arbitrary figure, this xenophobia will continue to persist so long as infrastructure development does not keep pace with population increase.  Public sentiment on this issue has evolved into an irrational, sensitive and hence, unpredictable psyche among Singaporeans.

The key then is to alter the daily reality for Singaporeans, in the words of the White Paper, to give the people a “good quality living environment”.
Imagine a Singapore where the trains run smoothly with multiple redundant lines to ease congestion and where a young couple seeking to start a family is able to afford high quality public housing options without being saddled by crippling loans.

The sad reality is that such a Singapore could have existed today if not for the myopia of our economic planners. 
A former senior Government bureaucrat, Donald Low, had in his post-2011 GE analysis revealed that, MOF routinely turned down requests from MOT and LTA to finance new rail lines”.  There are other pointed revelations in his thesis which suggest that perhaps, the crux of this Population White Paper for 2030 rests primarily on our Government’s money men to overcome their tendency to run Singapore like a giant profit-driven MNC and to stop equating Singapore’s growth purely in terms of dollars and cents. 
It can be argued that it is this profit-minded mind-set of our fiscal planners which has basically eroded the carefully built-up trust or social compact between Singaporeans and the Government.  Nowadays, it is a commonly held perception that this Government may give you one dollar through market subsidies or other cleverly disguised cash hand-outs, but at the same breath, devise even more clever schemes to take back two dollars; the ERP and COE policies are prime examples of such puzzling fiscal earning schemes which irk Singaporeans tremendously. As one of my friends wryly remarks in colourful Hokkien, “they give you a drumstick but take back a chicken”.

The greatest irony is perhaps that these civil servants from the Ministry of Finance, so tight-fisted with public expenditure that can help Singaporeans, are strangely very generous and have no qualms whatsoever to provide a mind-boggling $4 billion loan of our taxpayer money to a reviled international organisation like the IMF.  In this now forgotten episode which happened last year, I truly applaud Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam for having the courage to doggedly challenge our DPM and Finance Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, on the legal constitutionality of this loan.

The Population White Paper, in the end, is just a piece of paper with numbers and words.  The test is not in the White Paper.  The test is in the resolve and will of the Government to fully fund the implicit infrastructural development plan required to accommodate 6.9 million people by 2030 without worrying about imagined investment returns or financial risk and to stop devising cunningly disguised plans to claw even more money from us, the true Singaporeans, to pay for this new infrastructure plan.
The test for the next 17 years is to grow in a manner that does not feel like what Singaporeans have painfully experienced in the past decade or so.  To match that desire for growth among Singaporeans that is not measured on statistical investment returns but on emotive intangible returns like quality of life and happiness indices. 

In short, the Government has to gain back the trust that Singaporeans used to have in our public institutions through development policies which have the Singaporean at its core.  If not, the political price the Government has paid thus far over this issue will be pittance once the anger in the Singaporean core evolves into flames that will not subside.