Thursday, June 05, 2014

A Right Roy-al Mess (Vandalism, Defamation, CPF and the demise of the PAP)

It’s been a while since I last blogged.  But, quite a few things have been going on in our little red dot and some of them have been pretty red hot. 

Two things seem to have converged together to give the impression that there is a state of rage right now in this country and that the PAP needs to take heed of this.  Quite literally, the writing is on the wall. 


We have seen the issue of vandalism hitting the media spotlight with the Sticker Lady (Samantha Lo) a couple of years ago.  What she did had mild political overtones.  But, otherwise it was the case of an individual pushing the boundaries of acceptable social behaviour (whilst at the same time crossing the legal  boundaries).

The other famous instances of vandalism were the Michael Fay incident in 1993/1994 and Oliver Fricker’s train vandalism in 2010.  These had nothing to do with politics.

When the Vandalism Act was passed in the 1960s, it included caning as a punishment.  The reason was political.  Even if we were to put aside the question of whether caning should be a form of punishment at all, it is plainly obvious that caning for a property offence is extremely disproportionate.  It appears that in the 1960s slogan-writing by political opponents was a phenomenon the PAP government had to contend with.  LKY and his fellow Parliamentarians seem to be aware that they were not dealing with mere juvenile delinquents.  These were persons driven by ideological passion.  In his cruel, brutish fashion, the old man seems to have felt that a few strokes of the cane would set right whatever political thinking there was in the minds of the slogan writers. 

I have blogged about this issue of the politics behind the Vandalism Act before…

I feel it is appropriate to quote from the man himself on the reason for corporal punishment:

“a fine will not deter the type of criminal we are facing here.  He is quite prepared to go to gaol, having defaced public buildings with red paint.  Flaunting the values of his ideology, he is quite prepared to make a martyr of himself and go to gaol.  He will not pay the fine and make a demonstration of his martyrdom.  But if he knows he is going to get three of the best, I think he will lose a great deal of enthusiasm, because there is little glory attached to the rather humiliating experience of having to be caned.”  -  Lee Kuan Yew, 1966
So we have now come full cycle. 

“Fuck the PAP”.  

That is not the first time that I have seen that phrase.  There must be numerous public toilets in Singapore serving the function of being the canvas for the citizenry’s frustrations.  But, the display of that undercurrent of frustration on a wall on top of a HDB block is dramatic and audacious.  Before the authorities could whitewash those words away (and they were swift in doing so), pictures of the graffiti got posted, re-posted and shared on numerous Facebook walls.  To be honest, many of us cheered the figurative punch in the PAP face even if we may not condone vandalism.  The local media (dutifully attempting to protect the image of their masters) carried a photograph with the words “fuck” and “PAP” blurred which prompted many mocking statements online about how the Straits Times seems to think that the latter is a vulgar word that deserves to be censored. 

The authorities moved in swiftly.  The crime scene was whitewashed swiftly after police had inspected it.  5 kids were duly rounded up and have been charged and are out on bail.  Guilty or not guilty?  That is now for the court to determine.  But, it is undeniable that the anti-PAP sentiment seems to be boiling over. 

We don’t usually expect elderly persons to scribble graffiti.  This seems to be an activity reserved for teens and young adults.  So, when a 71 year old man was arrested for writing graffiti on bus stops, his age was itself a statement that spoke louder than the words that he scribbled:  “We support CPF blogger. Return our CPF money…”   In all, 11 bus stops were identified by the police to have been vandalized by the same individual.

What would drive a 71 year old man to take the rather risky step of defacing public property when the state’s intolerance of this kind of crime is well known?  Obviously, a deep-seated hatred for the government’s policies relating to CPF is sweeping the land.  The older generation (including my parents) has been pretty loyal in its electoral support of the PAP.  But, as many of them are struggling to make ends meet and as medical bills rise and as their children struggle to support them in their old age, they can’t help but notice the woeful inadequacy of CPF as a retirement fund. 

The frustrations are real.  I see many former PAP loyalists of that generation becoming openly critical of the PAP.  Persons that I have known to be lifelong PAP supporters have been lamenting that the current leaders have become completely out of touch.  The lack of transparency surrounding the GIC, Temasek and CPF has led many citizens to speculate about investment losses and even potential cronyism.  Just as there is no evidence to suggest that there is no wrongdoing, the non-transparent approach adopted by the state results in a lack of evidence as to whether all is well in relation to the CPF monies of the people.

On and off, there have been articles online speculating about Temasek Holdings and its financial health.  None of them managed to fire the popular imagination.  The usual opposition supporters would have been the likely readers of many of these articles. 

Roy and the Emperor’s Opaque clothes

Frustrations are such that very few people have the ability to intellectually dissect and try to understand and come to terms with the exact source.  If I have been feeling frustrated about one issue, it can very easily be morphed over into being a frustration about another issue.  For some time now, Singaporeans have been troubled by transportation woes, rising property prices, rising cost of living, depression of wages, overcrowding and of course many of these frustrations have been channeled into being a general resentment of the government’s population policy. 

But there is a more fundamental sore point that haunts many Singaporeans.  We don’t often articulate it as the single biggest issue.  When you come to think of it, the issue surrounding CPF savings and the ability of Singaporeans to retire has been something that has troubled us long before immigration and overcrowding became issues. 

Many Singaporeans have a legitimate concern about the viability of the CPF system as a retirement plan.  Personally, I don’t think I can retire comfortably with my CPF savings.  I have to make other financial plans for retirement.  If you are still in your 20s or 30s, you would be well advised to start early in saving and investing for your retirement.  Don’t put it off till you are in your 40s or 50s.  I believe that for the average Singaporean, the CPF savings and the amounts in Medisave will be insufficient for their retirement and medical needs. 

For the elderly today it is already too late to do anything.  My parents’ retirement investment was their kids.  That’s the same with my wife’s parents.  I believe that for many Singaporeans in their 70s and 80s the common problem is that they have become entirely dependant on their children for medical as well as daily living expenses.  Medical expenses can be a real killer.  From my own experience, my wife’s Medisave has been completely depleted after using substantial sums for her parents’ medical expenses.  My parents are presently dependant on me and my sisters for daily expenses as well medical expenses.  My mother’s medisave is depleted and my father’s would be easily depleted if either one of them has a major hospitalization expense.  It was not common during my parents’ generation for them to have medical insurance. 

I am aware that many other elderly Singaporeans don’t even have the luxury of depending on their kids.  These are the Singaporeans that must be feeling that there is a certain breach of faith in the social contract.  We have a generation of elderly Singaporeans that are not able to support themselves financially:  A generation of Singaporeans that toiled really hard; a generation that did not have much by way of education but one that compensated for it through sheer hard work; a generation that was literally being abandoned by the government and the general society until the recently announced Pioneer package (which the cynical amongst us can’t help but feel is nothing more than a desperate attempt to prevent further erosion of votes). 

We then have Singaporeans in their 50s and 60s that are experiencing immediate issues with the postponement of the retirement age and the increase of the minimum sum for the CPF.  This, I believe, is a very angry group.  If you were to speak to individuals from low income background (or even middle income) that are part of this age-group, you’d find that there is a general resentment at the CPF policies.  The fact is that many people do not have any idea as to how the CPF rules work and there is of course the general dissatisfaction over the low interest payment of 2.5% that is paid into the CPF. 

Against the backdrop of this general dissatisfaction, we have Roy Ngerng blogging about the CPF issue.  I have read Roy’s blog on and off and he has done some good work on many socio political issues relevant to Singapore.  Recently, when I came across the offending article that is the subject matter of the dispute between the PM and Roy, I was somewhat disappointed at the rather sensationalistic headline and layout of the article.  When I saw the analogy drawn between City Harvest Church and the movement of CPF monies through Temasek and GIC, I couldn’t help but feel that Roy was acting recklessly.  When the PM’s letter of demand was eventually made public, I wasn’t surprised. 

There have been other instances in other local defamation cases when the words were on the borderline of being defamatory.  But, in the case of Roy’s article, I have to say that the legal requirements for defamation can be easily made out. 

I feel that the PM’s decision to send a letter of demand with not just a request for apology but also for damages was a mistake.  By doing so, he gave Roy no alternative.  Apologise and pay damages?  Fight, lose the case and pay damages?  That’s not much of a choice.  When Roy did offer an apology and the sum of $5000, it was turned down. 

I expect that from a PR perspective this case is going to be pretty much a downhill affair for the PM.  Already, the general public perception has been that this is a case of the big guy bullying the little guy.  The swift online fund-raising campaign on behalf of Roy demonstrates that there are a significant number of people that are willing to put their money where their mouth is.  Hitting $70,000 in collections in 4 days is undeniably a record.  The contributing public is clearly not homogenous.  Some see this as a battle to find out the truth about the CPF.  There are others who hate the PAP and just want to help out Roy in his fight.  There are contributors adopting a nuanced position on this whole saga: ‘I don’t agree with Roy’s assertions but I defend his right to speak up fearlessly’.   (I personally feel that way as well.  It is for precisely this reason that I did not support the petition to close down STOMP.)

What the PM needs to recognize is that this is not just another one of those old defamation cases pitting PAP Ministers against opposition politicians.  For one, Roy is just an average citizen earning a meager income as a social worker.  And secondly, the issue raised up by him is closely tied up with that very issue that is most Singaporeans’ biggest sore point.  Forget about immigration, the population white paper and the infrastructural squeeze.  CPF strikes a raw nerve. 

It is quite likely that as the case against Roy proceeds, the issue of retirement funds will be kept high up in the priority list as far as voters are concerned.  I am sure that the PM’s lawyers will try their level best to ensure that they get a summary judgment in the case so that the matter will not go for trial.  Once it doesn’t go through the trial process, then there will be no embarrassing questions that can be asked about the CPF or Temasek or GIC. 

In all likelihood, they will succeed in obtaining a summary judgment and the matter will be concluded through a chamber hearing and members of the public will miss out on any juicy cross-examination in open court.  Roy’s rather public display of his admission means that he doesn’t have any defence when the matter proceeds to court.  His letter of apology states the following:

“2.   I recognise that the Article means and is understood to mean that Mr Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore and Chairman of GIC, is guilty of criminal misappropriation of the monies paid by Singaporeans to the Central Provident Fund.
3.   I admit and acknowledge that this allegation is false and completely without foundation.”

One of the defences to defamation is ‘justification’.  This is an assertion by the defendant that he is stating the truth.  Some netizens that have expressed support for Roy seem to think that Roy should ‘expose the truth’ in court and prove that what he said is true.  That statement in paragraph 3 of Roy’s apology letter renders any such attempt an impossibility.  If he tries to run the justification defence, the PM’s lawyers will rely on Roy’s admission that what he wrote was false and without foundation.

If Roy had privately communicated through his lawyer and attempted to settle the matter through ‘without prejudice’ letters, the communication would have been ‘privileged’ and would not be referred to in Court.  But, by making a public show of the apology letter, Roy has effectively waived the privilege.  PM’s lawyers will apply for summary judgment and there’s a high probability that they will get it. 

The most likely consequence of this is that the matter will eventually be fixed for assessment of damages and it is at that hearing that M. Ravi (Roy’s lawyer) will get to cross-examine the PM.  However, any questions asked about the subject matter of the defamation will most likely be overruled by the judge as being irrelevant.  The judge would only entertain questions pertaining to the issue of the damage to reputation.  This may not go down very well with the general public.

The irony of all this is that even through the law taking its ordinary course and the judiciary acting impartially and fairly in accordance with the law, the public is going to end up getting the impression that the proceedings are biased and unfair.  Perception, not truth, is everything in politics.  PAP politicians, more than any others should be aware of this. 

Pursuing this case all the way is going to be a serious PR disaster for the PM. 

Thanks to the increased publicity generated by Roy Ngerng’s case, I have noticed that social media is abuzz with plenty of articles focusing on CPF, Temasek, GIC and transparency. (SG Daily carries links to most of these articles  If these issues are kept on the agenda consistently, it will turn more and more voters away from the PAP.  I am not sure if the PM’s PR people realize that they have stirred the hornet’s nest.

Saturday, 7th June 2014, Hong Lim Park will witness another protest.  Turnout is likely to be strong.  Many friends and acquaintances have expressed a desire to go for this protest.  It would be interesting to see how many people feel concerned enough about the CPF issue to turn up for the protest.  The protest is not about Roy Ngerng.  But, the defamation suit has definitely coloured the event. 

There are some serious issues that need to be addressed in Singapore about what should be the ideal retirement plan that is feasible not only for the rich but also for the weakest amongst us.  The “Return Our CPF” protest would hopefully help to get the ball rolling in terms of greater transparency in the system and in ensuring that we as a nation can work out a more viable retirement plan for our citizens.  But of course, one can’t help but feel cynical. 

Whatever your position might be on the Roy Ngerng saga, I feel that it is important to have a good showing on Saturday to send a clear message to the government that we are not happy with the way that the CPF system is being administered. 


Anonymous said...

When reading Roy's offending article did you believe that the PM pocketed all those billions of CPF money? Do you think anyone would? It is surely an absurd charge, if indeed Roy, intended it. So what do you think the damages would be if no sane person would believe it? The decision to sue is, in my opinion, a purely political one.

The said...

/// Roy and the Emperor’s Opaque clothes ///

Analogy/idiom runs wild. Surely, you want your clothes to be opaque, and not transparent (unless you are a flasher)?

The Pariah said...

CPF LIFE + Medishield LIFE: PAP Govt peddling these as Life-Saving Schemes for the People who may make it Life-Sucking Schemes for the Party in GE2015-16.

Anonymous said...

If it is a political reason, then it is stupid, amounting to political suicide.

Anonymous said...

on point! hope one day they'll learn the importance and benefits of being more transparent and open.

Anonymous said...

Even that Idiot by now will have realised that he is going to alienate even his supporters and won't be able to buy their votes if he insist on getting his pound of flesh?

chang! said...

Granting a summary judgement in chamber in favour of
the PM will be another proof that the judiciary is deferent or worse, beholden to the Executive. The ruling party is their master. The judiciary self-contempted itself.

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