Breakfast Network – Singapore News & Internet Freedom

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News reports everywhere – and so little time. What’s worse, so little time to digest what has been said, written and commented on, even on matters that affect us daily. Breakfast Network will be your filter (note: we didn’t say aggregator). We aim to keep an eye on the news for you, especially Singapore news in both mainstream and new media that could affect your way of living or your way of thinking.

See this site as your breakfast menu.

We’re combing through media stories on Singapore, picking out bread and butter staples that we think you should know about. We will point out the questions (or at least try to!) which should have been asked, as well as the answers which tell you nothing. Most of us are past media practitioners. So we know that most readers skim the news or read without a full appreciation of the nuances – and the nonsense.

Why swallow everything? We’ll give you some bite-sized chunks.

Some people do not read news at all! If so, see us as your first cup of coffee to keep your eyes open to what’s happening on this little red dot.

We suppose you can see us as a media literacy tool – with a take. We’ll do our best not to be self-righteous when we write columns because we know no one has a monopoly on wisdom. In fact, we intend to have fun doing this. We do not claim to represent  anyone but ourselves although it is our hope that we reflect the sentiments of at least a strand of the population on this island.

So we’ll be a moderate site, beholden to no political group, ideological camp or commercial interest. Everybody who is part of this network will be named and have a mugshot. You can choose to throw eggs at us.

Singapore: Internet freedom under threat

When word started going around that news sites were going to be licensed, my first instinct was: I want to be there when they announce this. I tried to wrangle an invite but was told I am not “accredited media”. (By the way, I don’t think Yahoo! News was invited either. And the news site is going to have to get a licence and put up a $50,000 bond.)

I wanted to be there because I am still, at heart, a curious journalist. Second, I write a blog and am now trying to build Breakfast Network by experimenting with alternative ways of telling the news in a moderate voice. Third, because I am a concerned citizen who wonders why we need more, rather than fewer, rules to govern what we say.

I wanted to ask questions. Now I wish I had banged the door down because the MSM did a pretty poor job of asking tough questions going by all the reports I’ve read so far. Maybe they have been “gagged” or given some deep background briefing that is off the record that convinces them of the need for such licensing. Maybe they too believe that the licensing of sites is the right thing to do since they already have to obtain licences for their newspaper products. I doubt though that any self-respecting journalist would adopt such a dog in the manger approach. More likely, they would want parity to go the other way: If online sites are not licensed, newspapers shouldn’t be too.

Which is why it’s really odd for the Minister to talk about being “fair” to mainstream media by imposing the same rules for online sites. It makes MSM look as though it were them who asked for a level playing field. That, I cannot believe.

Now, it’s no secret that the G has been looking for ways to keep online commentators in line. We just have to refer to the rush of letters of demand in recent time. Sure thing, some comments are egregiously damaging, undermines trust in institutions and plain false. To keep policing by throwing the law at individuals looks like a pretty tedious process. Hence, why not a blanket approach?

Perhaps, as an online community, we have failed to police ourselves. The G might well argue that it had wanted an Internet Code of Conduct in place but the online community who see this as a censorship threat was reluctant to co-operate. It might well say this: “It’s your fault. And that’s why we have to resort to such a blunt instrument as licensing.”

The funny thing is, when the announcement was finally made, the G merely extended it really to just one site, Yahoo! News. The other nine are owned by MSM. So this is the light touch? Or the thin end of the wedge? It cannot be that the G is worried about MSM content. It has so many ways to make MSM compliant. It is probably worried about bloggers and sites that have a reach which will grow to rival those of MSM. So it’s a pre-emptive strike.

It will backfire.

Anyway, what are the questions that should have been posed?

a. How did the G come to the 50,000 visitors figure?

b. How did it come up with $50,000 performance bond?

c. How did it come up with something like this as a content criteria: Report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs over a period of two months? It looks tailored….

d. Is it entirely within its discretion which sites to “notify’’ for licensing? If so, does this mean it might well not bother with some “nice’’ sites even though they meet both criteria on reach and local news content? What about individual bloggers and Facebook commentators with huge followings?

e. That 24-hour deadline on “take it down’’ or else. Who will determine what should be taken down? Is there an avenue of appeal? Does this mean that the current classification guidelines and code of conduct aren’t working and hence the need for this sledgehammer approach?

f. Can it cite instances when guidelines were regularly breached and by who or which site? In other words, who or what is it really targeting? Socio-political sites? Sites with shady foreign funding? Black ops type of sites? It can’t be just those 10 sites!

g. Are the current laws too weak to deal with egregious breaches?

h. How would it justify licensing in the light of what has been said about having an open, transparent conversation in a new normal Singapore?

i. How would it answer accusations that this would constrain those who have something constructive to say that might not be to its liking? Or those who say that it is adding to a “climate of fear’’.

j. Does it believe that engagement with the online community is a way to add to civic discussion? Did it engage the online on this licensing scheme at all?

Given the round of condemnation online so far, no one has been been consulted on this brainwave. So the licensing scheme has been imposed from up high. And there I was thinking that Singapore had entered a new era.

I would rather the G level with us and tell us exactly who or what it is targeting than put up that fig leaf of 10 sites. Can the G at least be honest about its intentions and upfront about what else it intends to do in the future even if it thinks the likes of us online aren’t worth engaging?

My more immediate question is: What should I do now? Odd that my fellow members on Breakfast Network and I would have to think about how NOT to make ourselves so popular that we would breach the 50,000 threshold. Even if we have $50,000 to spare, it’s not nice to have to wonder about phone calls in the night or an email to demand that a post be deleted. And it’s not nice to have to second guess what the G (or which god in which department) thinks about this post or that and that particular god-person’s threshold of “sensitivity’’.

I gather I cut too close to the bone sometimes when I write – even when I wield a scalpel and not a cleaver. Maybe I should stick to writing nice, boring stuff. But that isn’t me.

The Lady on the Lion City

So, the Lady sweeps into town and we hear her talk about our education system being “workforce oriented’’. Said Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi: “That made me think… what is the purpose of a workforce… of work… of material wealth? Is that the ultimate aim of human beings? Is that what we want?’’

Material achievement is important so that there is freedom from want, she said, but values such as love for each other, loyalty and spirituality were what kept her people going through years of oppression.

Aung San Suu Kyi

“So there are many things that help us to survive that had little to do with material achievement.’’

What a change from reading about foreigners who come over to learn from Singapore and heaping praise on how we work! What a change from reading about how little Singapores were being created in parts of China! Here is someone saying, “Thank you, but no thanks.’’

In fact, it is a reflection of our hubris that one of the questions put to her, according to the Straits Times (ST), was what she saw in Singapore that she might like to recreate in Myanmar.

Her response: “I don’t think ‘re-create’ is the word, ‘learn’ yes.’’

Of course she was polite. “One gets used to thinking of Singapore as a financial, commercial city, where people are more intent on business and money than human relationships, but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised that there is a lot of human warmth going round this place.’’ Ouch!

As for what Singapore can learn from Myanmar, she suggested a “more relaxed way of life’’. (Oh! Blasphemy!) She also suggested “warmer, closer family relationships’’.

We should do some furious thinking and soul searching.

Are we just a money-grubbing nation, efficiently churning out digits for the future workplace? Are we all about the Central Business District skyline? Is that really how other people see us? As calculative individuals who do not put much stock in human relationships?

We can play the finger-pointing game here. But maybe the root of the problem lies far deeper. Yes, we are a nation that survived hard times – but which moved on to being built on the promise of economic wealth rather than social health. Our relentless pursuit for the good life has become so natural that we aren’t even conscious of it.

Here’s one example. In my past life, there was an American journalism consultant who came to Singapore to look over the content of our newspapers. What he said surprised those of us who were in charge of putting the day’s news. He said The Straits Times was all about numbers, especially dollars and cents. Fees, cost, price, salaries, discounts, premiums, investment, household income, bonus, credit, subsidy, scams, indices, stocks seem to dominate all areas of coverage whether education, transport, health, sports – not just business news.

He asked if Singaporeans were interested in nothing else. Because the image to foreigners from reading the media is that the country is all about materialism and money. Then the news editor, I was taken aback at his remarks. Yes, there always seemed to be an instinctive need to suss out the “accounts’’ of anything, so to speak. It became so that dollar signs also dominate headlines, never mind that the amount is insignificant to the matter at hand.

What about religion, he asked. With so many temples, churches and mosques, people must be interested in religious issues as well.

So we took a stab at covering religion. Quite tentatively, because ST is a secular paper and would not want to be seen as favouring one group over another. Still, quite naturally, articles would veer into the dollars and cents type of stories – remember Ren Ci? St Teresa? Now City Harvest?

Maybe we’ve forgotten how to report on the softer, spiritual side of life. Or maybe the media is merely a mirror of society, reflecting what citizens care and talk about. Money.

Now we seem to be taking steps to get back to the heart of who we are or want to be. The Our Singapore Conversation series concluded that we (too!) want a “more relaxed way of life’’ with more opportunities and chances to level up. We’ve come to realise too that the good life is more than just about money.

The fear, of course, is that we will move from being a hard-charging nation pounding the economic treadmill to being happy enough at walking pace. That is, we will move from one extreme to another, forgetting that, unlike Myanmar, we are a very small country that can be easily be overwhelmed by forces outside our control.

Private school survey – what will it prove?

More surveys. This time it’s the Council of Private Education’s (CPE) turn, and they want to know whether private school graduates are discriminated against by employers.  While the CPE wants to know if these grads are disadvantaged compared to public uni grads, our own undergrads want to know what the uses of such a survey would be. Here is what our Junior Chefs think:

Survey again? but what for?

Here we go again, quantifying “student outcomes”. Just a few weeks ago, the 3 universities released that Graduate Employment Survey. Now the Council of Private Education (CPE) is going to launch a survey of their own; it wants to determine if private school graduates are discriminated against when seeking jobs and if they are offered the same wages as their counterparts from public universities.

Is anyone unsure what it’s going to show? Do we really need a survey to tell us that private school graduates are paid less? Or that public university graduates are regarded more highly by employers? What’s new?

I’m not saying private school graduates aren’t as capable as public university graduates – that would be unfair because, well, we don’t know that. But what we do know is that in Singapore, employers are pragmatic – starting salaries are often pegged to grades. Even the G benchmarks starting salaries based on grades; starting salaries are different for those that graduate with honours, those that graduate with merit, and those that just pass.

In the ST article itself, private school operators say “(our) students are of a different academic calibre than those in public universities”. By extension, this means graduates from private schools are of a different academic calibre than those in public universities. Therefore, in pragmatic Singapore, they will be paid less, as a start at least. Nothing surprising there.

Heck, when UniSIM did its own survey last year, it showed that its graduates had no trouble finding a job, but were paid less than those from public universities. Now, UniSIM is probably the most highly-regarded private school in the country. It certainly was when I was in junior college. Before SUTD came about, most of my friends considered UniSIM as the fourth university after NUS, NTU and SMU. Even the G acknowledged as much when it announced last year that UniSIM would become a public university by 2020. So if the best private school is reporting findings like these, then it’s safe to say CPE’s survey is not going to show much different. It should simply prove, with the numbers and statistics that we have all come to worship and love so much, what we already knew all along.

What I’m more interested in knowing is what will happen after the survey. CPE’s CEO said the findings will be used to “fine-tune regulations..to raise standards.” That’s a lot easier said than done. But the figures on-hand will certainly provide CPE with a stick to beat private schools over the head with. And if that results in higher education standards, fantastic. Perhaps then this exercise in quantification wouldn’t have been completely pointless after all.

Looking out for a niche

The Council for Private Education (CPE) recently launched a survey targeted at the “perception of employability of graduates from private institutions.”

Regardless of the survey, I think it goes without saying that public unis are preferred over private ones, at least among potential (and well, current) undergraduates.

The stereotype is that local students enrol into private schools as a last resort. Usually it’s because these students scored less than competitive grades, and their parents hadn’t sold their flat to sponsor an overseas education.

This bias is not completely unfounded either. One only has to look at how students select a uni.

Most students use a heuristic that includes the cost of the degree, the uni’s reputability and the quality of the education provided. Private unis usually lose out to public unis in all three aspects: They are more expensive, not widely recognised, and nobody really knows much about the quality of education, especially since it has never been compared across a standard.

Which is why this survey is probably a good thing. There is no doubt that private schools’ “students are of a different academic calibre than those in public universities.” The question is how so?

Are our prejudices justified? Or does private education provide non-academic added value?

Perhaps private unis have smaller class sizes and better lecturer to student ratios. Or they have less stressful, more productive learning environments. Maybe private uni undergrads are more sensible.

These are the things I would want to know. If there are such strengths and advantages to a private uni education, they shouldn’t be kept private.

SingTel’s SMS service disrupted last evening, draws flak

Some SingTel customers had “intermittent difficulties” sending SMSes late last evening but services are now back online, the telecom operator said on its Facebook page this morning.

The incident is the latest problem to plague Singapore’s telcos of late, despite several fines and warnings from the government regulator for poor services in the past year.

Yet, the funny thing is the comments that followed SingTel’s update.

Said one user Raj Thanga, with a couple of friendly or perhaps ironic smiley icons: “We know technical glitches cannot be avoided. Glad we have what’sapp (sic) today.”

Another user, Nicholas Tan, said: “Actually I didn’t even know SMS was down haha. I have been using whatsapp. Anyway thanks for informing.”

It’s telling that many users are turning to so-called over-the-top services such as WhatsApp, an online messaging service that mimics SMS but uses the Internet instead to send messages to friends. These services let users avoid traditional telco charges, such as those for SMS.

Previously, a breakdown in an SMS service would have been as bad as, say, a disruption in cellphone calls. Today, there seem to be alternatives to traditional telco services.

All these online services, like WhatsApp, of course, still depend on a good mobile Internet link, provided either by 3G or the newer, faster 4G networks rolled out of late.

That’s another bone of contention for many users as well. Told of the SMS issue yesterday, they took to SingTel’s Facebook page to bring up other perennial problems like poor or slow connectivity to Singapore’s biggest telco.

And it’s not just mobile networks, but also broadband and pay-TV, that have been facing problems over the past year. Users just don’t have the patience for yet another disruption.

Broadening the peak hour

Madness always ensues every morning at the bus stops and train stations as throngs of people try to squeeze onboard each arriving bus and train. Then came the salubrious idea of pre-peak travel. It would be free for as long as you woke up earlier and stopped at one of the CBD stops before 7.45 am.

And then now, we have many companies claiming that they would try to find arrangements to shift away from the peak hour. But, is it really necessary for all to amend working hours and take advantage of pre-peak travel?

In theory, the idea of the free pre-peak travel is works only if some segments of the population travel earlier (and not all of it), so that this alleviates the total peak period crowd. Whether this carrot works in practice is too early to tell, but it makes little sense if too many people get incentivized to turn up for work earlier, only to push the peak period crunch forward in time.

While perhaps it might be easier for older workers to adapt to earlier timings, the same cannot be said for students who have been used to burning the midnight oil, sleeping at times ranging from 2 am, up till even 4 am. However, a new concern arises: how would these private bus companies be able to rearrange earlier transport for workers if they already have very tight schedules: they usually devote early morning shifts to school students who need to arrive at school by 7.30 am, but because of this recent news, might now be asked to do the same for workers who are trying to meet the 7.45 am cut-off timing. Would school bus fees rise because of increased demand for their services?

A more plausible alternative – but one that will take very long to fulfill – is the geographical decentralization of those companies that can afford to do so, without adversely affecting operations. This however means the G must take initiative, since it is easiest for them to relocate from within the CBD to outside.

Perhaps, flexi-hours does not work for everyone, and hopefully, not too many people try to snatch for the carrot and no one ultimately benefits.

Will changing EP limits be enough?

The Business Times’ front page broadcast Manpower Minister’s plan to raise the salary threshold for Employment Pass (EP) holders above the current $3,000 per month for Q1 passes.

Ostensibly, the intention is to make sure that white-collar Singaporean salaries, (particularly for fresh graduates) do not become stagnant because of price competition from abroad, hence the need to shift the EP goalposts ever further. Compare that wage growth and the fear is that EP cut-offs may not have moved in tandem with our economy.

The article included an admission to lack of success in attempts to tighten foreign manpower in “the last few years”. What that meant exactly remains unclear – are we going for fewer foreigners? Higher quality foreigners? Better salaries for Singaporeans? Less social tension from foreign manpower?

The play will have some of the desired effect, namely increasing Singaporean wages, but many side effects are to be expected like higher costs of doing business but if companies are intent on simply keeping costs down, all we are going to see is offshoring, or businesses moving away from Singapore, as the article noted.

Curiously enough, Minister Tan specifically said that he didn’t want a “Singaporean-first” system, but he didn’t specify what kind of system would ensure the combination of outcomes he seemed to want: strong domestic business, growing wages for Singaporeans, economic growth, market competition, and an absence of discriminatory hiring based on nationality.

The overall tone set is also extremely cautious, with small adjustments being proposed. Tan also was bearish about labour market testing, worried about “losing sectors” to global price competition, and made repeated indications that he would wait for more input from yet another round of Our Singapore Conversation.

He was also negative about the minimum wage, saying that he preferred wage subsidies to be paid for with public funds rather than let businesses shoulder the brunt of wage reforms though a minimum wage. It was unclear if he was referring to NTUC’s Progressive Wage Model, which contains a minimum wage structure.

But really, how worried should we be? Are the issues we face here and now significant enough to warrant more risk-taking from the G? Will a cautious approach take too long or fail to address the real fundamental reasons why we can’t seem to keep our wages up? Is losing business to international competition a risk we should take? Are there up-sides like morale, national loyalty, entrepreneurship and dignity that the G can’t seem to quantify that will mitigate higher wages?

We may be so intent on safeguarding Singapore’s business advantages (like transparency, stability and lack of corruption) that we find our hands are tied when it comes to dealing decisively with our business weaknesses.

Fighting Fit with Asthma

Today’s news in the media about the Coroner’s Inquiry into the death of Private (Pte) Dominique Sarron Lee, due to an asthmatic attack triggered by inhaling too much smoke from smoke grenades, exposes a lot of issues the SAF faces.

It’s easy to take a simplistic approach and blame the officer in charge of this tragedy, who apparently did not follow protocol by throwing six grenades instead of two during the training exercise.

But by looking at the bigger story here, one has to look at the system in place before pointing fingers at the first scapegoat. Another factor that could have caused Pte Lee’s death could be the lack of proper training by the medic in charge to deal with asthma attacks.

According to the Health Promotion Board, 1 in every 20 adults in Singapore has asthma. With such a large percentage of the population with this condition it would be a pretty obvious choice for SAF medics to be trained in dealing with this issue as compared to drowning which would be more unlikely during an exercise.

An interesting comment on TODAY’s Facebook page by a former SAF medic states that they are actually taught how to deal with this condition during paramedical level 2 training.

However, he mentions that paramedics do not have the right to administer life saving procedures due to strict legal implications and can only be certified by a medical officer. While it’s good that the SAF has certain guidelines in place to prevent wrongful medical procedures to be administered, too much red tape in place for situations of life and death will inevitably result in dire consequences.

Manchester United, Sir Alex, and me – Back Page Football

A school girl from China studying in a local junior college shares a heartfelt note on facebook, reminding us about the importance of school and CCA in building a sense of belonging.

Zhu He with her soccer team mates.

记得那年曾经,之身一人漂洋过海
抱怨着所有的改变
曾经的我,无数次幻想如果我没有…
不熟悉的面孔,不流利的语言
让原本枯燥的生活更加艰难
我曾要放弃过,我曾经颓废过

初中读了共7年,
我懂这是我必须付出的代价
2012,又要再一次进入陌生环境
我害怕过,彷徨过,不知所措过
开始时候,很困难,很憋屈
再一次失去了能够倾诉的对象

直到单纯的选了足球
初院的生活彻底颠覆

我们从陌生到熟悉
从熟悉到了解
从了解又到了追求共同的目标

我们一起哭过,笑过,赢过,输过
这一切无法用金钱衡量
只有亲身体验过,
才终能了解其中滋味

而如今,我们要离开这个队伍
不久得将来,我们将各奔前程
我不敢保证未来我会在哪里
也许我会消失在人海之中
当我们偶尔回忆曾经的努力
那精神的财富将永远把你我紧紧系在一起

这些人,丰富了我的留学生活
这些人,参与了我的短暂人生
这些人,改变了我去留的选择
这些人,完整了我对足球的热情

这篇文章,不是因一时的感性,而是因感慨而萌生
我只想留作纪念,纪念我们之间的曾经!

Translation: I remember the year I travelled on my own overseas, complaining about all the changes that were happening. The person I was then was always wondering and imagining what if I hadn’t left China. Unfamiliar faces, and a language I wasn’t fluent in.. These made the already burdensome situation even worse. I was discouraged, and had once considered giving up altogether.

Having studied for 7 years, I understood this was the price I needed to pay. 2012, it was once again a trip into a unfamiliar environment. At the time I experienced fear, panic and was at a loss at what I should do. At the start, it was very difficult and hard to surpress these feelings of once again losing people I could talk and confide in.

Until I coincidentally chose soccer. Then, life in JC began to utterly change. We developed from being strangers to becoming acquainted, from being acquainted to an understanding, and then from understanding each other to pursuing a common goal.

We cried together, laughed together, won and lost together. The value of these experiences is something that cannot be measured in monetary terms. Only having personally been through these experiences, would anyone understand the emotions therein.

And today we are leaving this team. In the near future, we’ll all be going on to separate pathways. I dare not predict or guarantee where I’ll be in the future, perhaps I’ll simply disappear in the masses of people. But when we occasionally think back to the experiences we had been through, the richness of that spirit will forever keep us close.

These people enriched my student life overseas.
These people participated in my transient human life.
These people changed the choice that I made to study overseas.
These people completely transformed the passion I had for football.

This article is not the product of a fleeting notion, but the outcome of a passion. I only wanted to leave a memory, and commemorate what we had once together.

S’poreans should shack up sooner rather than later?

There’s this billionaire who thinks Singapore can pick up its birthrate if people shacked up much earlier, according to a Bloomberg report.

Now, Bhupendra Kumar Modi is a respected figure in India, and a grandfather in his 60s, so he’s not exactly your decadent international playboy type. But he’s clearly seen enough of the world to be a bit of a pragmatist.

“Most of the girls and boys these days would like to have sex before they marry,” Modi is quoted as saying, blithely sidestepping decades of conservative mores regarding premaritial hanky-panky. His point is that it’s happening anyway, so why fight the times, with little to gain?

Firmly believing that “there are no virgin marriages” these days, the chairman of conglomerate Spice Global wants the government to allow single Singaporeans to buy HDB flats from the lower age of 25.

The idea is that the earlier people set up home for themselves, the sooner they are likely to explore serious relationships, marriage and having kids. Which is pretty much the opposite of conventional thinking about HDB flats: that you only need one if you’re already planning to settle down for good — or are perhaps too old to try.

Rules to allow singles over 35 to buy new HDB flats (with restrictions) were only announced just this month. Previously, they had to settle for resale flats, or the private market.  That’s the sort of barriers Modi’s suggestion might blow wide open.

But what of the impact on the property market? Wouldn’t the sudden crush of new young buyers drive prices upwards, as one analyst suggests?

The problem, if it occurs, could well only be a temporary one, as buyers bring their housing purchases forward. If someone has already bought a flat at age 25, they’re not going to need to buy one at 35, or when they get married. So demand is probably going to be brought forward, demographically speaking, rather than greatly expanded overall.

Ok, more people might want to move out of parental homes to live on their own, but maybe that’s exactly what Singapore needs. More Singaporeans with homes to call their own? More young people learning to be financially and domestically responsible for themselves, and thinking about their own futures? Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

HDB has not responded to his bold suggestion, but it is is unlikely to take it up wholesale: there’s simply too much at stake for now. But recent concessions made for singles suggests that some long-standing rules might well be up for negotiation.  If our fertility rates continue to free-fall Modi’s idea could be worth a more careful look.

And since Mr Modi is now a Singaporean citizen, he could step up to help make it work.

 

 

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