Oct 30, 2007

Dr Thio Li Ann's Infamous Speech

Recently, NMP Thio Li-Ann received what she described as "hate mail". Personally I would describe it as karma.

Looking around the Internet, it appears that a great number of Singaporeans do find Thio Li-Ann's own behaviour quite hateful. Click
here, here, here, here, here and here, for a few examples.

What happened? Last week Thio Li-Ann had gone to Parliament on a mission to attack the rights of gay people. I believe that she set a new national record. Her now-infamous speech has probably made her the most intensely disliked NMP in the entire history of Singapore. Among gays and straights.

I am quite serious. Which other Nominated Member of Parliament, past or present, has ever attracted such a storm of angry, negative comments from the general public of Singapore? You tell me.

Even the respectable, gentlemanly Dr Cherian George from NTU (also Stanford, Columbia and Cambridge University) could not find a single good thing to say about Thio Li-Ann's speech. Here's Cherian, in his own
" .... more distressing than the final result of the debate was the retrogressive speech by the high-flying legal scholar Thio Li-Ann. Her convoluted, caricatured rendering of political philosophy and comparative politics needed to be corrected by good political science, but she got away with it in Parliament. Her theories about what constitutes a minority could have been debunked by any graduate student of sociology or anthropology, but this did not stop her.

Then there was Thio’s tasteless digs at homosexual sex, which some of her comrades considered witty, but really deserved no place in the highest forum in the land. Thio has been celebrated for supposedly speaking up for the silent majority. This is an insult to the majority, most of whom have the basic decency to know the difference between what should be uttered in public and what should be confined to close friends or private blogs.

Thio also did a disservice to the majority of God-fearing Singaporeans – we who would like to believe that our faiths are ultimately about compassion, not the hateful, hurtful cheap shots that Thio felt compelled to deliver on our behalf. How I wished a theology professor or other religious scholar would have stepped into the debate at that point, to show how it might be possible to express a faith-based objection to homosexuality – minus the hate speech .
"Hate speech". Wow, wow. Isn't that a rather harsh sin for one distinguished professor to accuse another distinguished professor of? I wish I could say that Cherian was exaggerating. Unfortunately I think that Cherian was just being his usual self. That is to say - very perceptive, very accurate and very precise with his choice of words.

See for yourself what hate speech
means. Note how the term is legally defined under the laws of Ireland, Canada, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway - "... publicly making statements that threaten, ridicule or hold in contempt a group due to race, skin colour, national or ethnic origin, faith or sexual orientation" etc.

Then ask yourself whether Thio Li-Ann's parliamentary speech would have constituted a criminal offence, if she had made that speech in any of those countries. Although I, as an ex-Deputy Public Prosecutor, have prosecuted crimes only in Singapore, and not in any of those other countries, I personally think that the chances would be ... high!

And so this is a rather sad moment in the history of Singapore. Hate speech has made its own way into Parliament. For so many years, Singapore has placed significant restraints on the freedom of speech, supposedly as a trade-off for ensuring the greater good of social harmony and peace. Yet hate speech has managed to make its own way into Parliament.

And according to reports, it even gained the noisy, boisterous support of some chair-thumping PAP Members of Parliament.

What happened? Where did we go wrong? What a sad moment this is, for Singapore. Prime Minister Lee, you should consider reviewing the selection process for NMPs.

Oct 27, 2007

Two Men and a Hypothetical Woman in a Public Place

Just three days ago, PAP MP Charles Chong suggested in Parliament that the laws in the Penal Code should be drafted in a more gender-neutral manner. A quote from the ST report:
"TAKING a swipe at what he considered anachronistic differentiations between the sexes in the Penal Code, MP Charles Chong (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) said the law seems to consider men 'less modest' than women.

Arguing for gender neutrality in the way statutes are framed, he noted that under criminal law, a woman's modesty can be insulted by words, sounds, gestures or objects, but a man does not seem to have modesty enough to be outraged, he said in a speech peppered with the glib humour that has become his trademark."
For example, if a man enters the ladies' changing room at a public swimming pool, strips himself naked, peeks into a cubicle where a woman is changing and then masturbates himself in front of her, this would be an offence under section 509:
Word or gesture intended to insult the modesty of a woman.
509. Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.
However, the victim must always be a woman. If the victim is a man, then there is no offence under Section 509.

Today, it so happens that the Straits Times reports such an incident - except that it takes place in the men's changing room and the victim is a man. Therefore Section 509 cannot apply:
ST Oct 26, 2007
Man fined for exposing himself in changing room

A 39-YEAR-OLD man was fined $500 on Friday for exposing himself to a swimming instructor at a male changing room.

Chur Kim Guan, unemployed, admitted to the obscene act in the changing room of the public swimming pool on April 23.

The 27-year-old instructor was whistling while changing into his swimming trunks when Chur peeped out of the cubicle he was in.

Shortly later, Chur stepped out and used his right hand to masturbate himself in front of the victim, who shouted at him and threatened to call the police.

Chur dashed out and was detained by a lifeguard who heard the commotion.

His lawyer said he committed the offence due to his mental illness. Since 2000, Chur had been in and out of the Institute of Mental Health after a relapse.
The ST article says that Chur was fined, but it does not specify which specific provision of the law was used. From the wording of the first sentence of the article - "fined for exposing himself to a swimming instructor at a male changing room" - my guess would be that the prosecution used section 27A of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act:
Appearing nude in public or private place
27A. —(1) Any person who appears nude —

(a) in a public place; ....

shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $2,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months or to both.
The men's changing room of a public swimming pool is still a public place (any man can walk in, and in fact as far as I'm aware, it wouldn't be illegal for a woman to walk in either). In our case, section 27A does get the job done, in the sense that Chur the offender still gets convicted and receives a punishment.

However, the section 27A charge is conceptually unsatisfactory given the facts of the case. In fact it would be quite displeasing to those lawyers who desire as a general principle that the law reflects clearly what a person is being punished for.

After all, men are always walking around nude in men's changing rooms, in full view of one another, and no one ordinarily gets prosecuted for that.

In Chur's case, the offence really lies in the masturbatory display. The section 27A charge would have failed to reflect that, for section 27A merely talks about appearing nude in a public place. Section 509 of the Penal Code would have worked very well to capture the essence of the crime, except that section 509 doesn't work where the victim, as in our present case, is a man.

One significant point is that while the same act may theoretically be prosecuted as different offences, the sentencing options available differ from offence to offence. For example, all robbery is theft (but not all theft is robbery); and all rape is also outrage of modesty (but not all outrage of modesty is rape). Yet we wouldn't expect robbers to be punished merely as thieves, or rapists to be punished merely as molesters.

Of course, Chur is mentally ill, and a regular IMH patient - another important factor in the overall sentencing considerations.

Oct 26, 2007

The Right to Use a Condom

So the Christians spoke loudly against homosexuality, and Parliament decided to retain section 377A of the Penal Code, a law that can put homosexuals in jail.

Religion is part of society, and it is inevitable that the very existence of different religions in Singapore - whether Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or whatever else - will influence the way Singapore is run. However, it is interesting to consider how each religious group may seek to influence society according to its own beliefs.

We know for instance that the Catholic Church is strongly against the use of contraceptives. But we also know that the Ministry of Health provides health advice like
this, on its official website:
Persons who engage in high-risk behaviour i.e. multiple sexual partners, casual sex or sex with prostitutes, are strongly advised to use condoms to reduce their risk of HIV infection. Condoms should be used consistently during every sexual encounter ..... Persons who have unprotected sex while engaging in high-risk behaviour have a higher risk of HIV and other Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI).
What if tomorrow you opened your newspaper, and found that the Catholics in Singapore are now loudly telling Parliament that the Ministry of Health should remove such advice from its website? That such health advice (to use condoms) offends their religion and is immoral like homosexuality? That Singapore is "not ready" for such health advice to be stated in a public manner?

Does this scenario sound absurd or unlikely to you? Perhaps it is. Yet the Ministry of Health's advice is against Catholic teachings - quite unmistakeably so. In Catholic thinking, the use of contraceptives is wrong, even if by a married couple. Contraceptives are regarded as part of the
Culture of Death - a term coined by Pope John Paul II. Wikipedia tells us that the term:
"...... is used in contemporary political discourse in many countries, including the United States and Poland, to describe supportive positions on certain subjects, such as abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, poverty and capital punishment which adherents of opposing positions deem to be inconsistent with their concept of a "culture of life". Some commentators would add to that list homosexuality, contraception and other phenomena perceived to attack marriage and the family."
See what many Americans are worried about in the US right now - "Bush Family Planning Appointee Called Contraceptives Part Of The ‘Culture Of Death’".

What are the possible implications of the Catholic Church being against the use of contraceptives? We don't have to use our imagination here, for real-life examples are readily available. See this article from the
Guardian, which provides a somewhat international perspective "across four continents":
Vatican: condoms don't stop Aids
Steve Bradshaw, The Guardian
Thursday October 9, 2003

The Catholic Church is telling people in countries stricken by Aids not to use condoms because they have tiny holes in them through which HIV can pass - potentially exposing thousands of people to risk.

The church is making the claims across four continents despite a widespread scientific consensus that condoms are impermeable to HIV.

A senior Vatican spokesman backs the claims about permeable condoms, despite assurances by the World Health Organisation that they are untrue.

.... The WHO has condemned the Vatican's views, saying: "These incorrect statements about condoms and HIV are dangerous when we are facing a global pandemic which has already killed more than 20 million people, and currently affects at least 42 million."

The organisation says "consistent and correct" condom use reduces the risk of HIV infection by 90%. There may be breakage or slippage of condoms - but not, the WHO says, holes through which the virus can pass .

Thank goodness the World Health Organisation is doing what it can to correct this misinformation. Still it is a tough battle. From the Guardian article, we get a sense of the actual, day-to-day difficulties of combating such misinformation.

For example, the article relates how the director of an Aids testing centre was prevented from distributing condoms, because of church opposition.

A video produced by the Catholic Church (presumably an "educational" video) shows a nun advising her choirmaster (who was already infected with HIV) not to use condoms with his own wife because "the virus can pass through".

According to the Guardian article, the Church has been reiterating these sorts of claims (that condoms don't help to prevent AIDS) .... across "four continents", and "as far as apart as Asia and Latin America".

I don't know if such claims are being made here in Singapore, and if they are, to what extent. But if they are being made in Singapore, then this, in my opinion, would constitute a public health hazard.

Of course, the problem is that if you spoke up publicly on this issue, some Catholics might well say that you're being religiously offensive. But think of it this way - if you spoke up publicly on this issue and raised awareness of the importance of using condoms, you would be saving lives.

As opposed to contributing to death. I mean that literally .... I'm not just referring to the "culture" of it.

Oct 24, 2007

Sexual Discriminations in the Law

ST Oct 24, 2007
Men have modesty too, so make laws gender neutral

TAKING a swipe at what he considered anachronistic differentiations between the sexes in the Penal Code, MP Charles Chong (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) said the law seems to consider men 'less modest' than women.

Arguing for gender neutrality in the way statutes are framed, he noted that under criminal law, a woman's modesty can be insulted by words, sounds, gestures or objects, but a man does not seem to have modesty enough to be outraged, he said in a speech peppered with the glib humour that has become his trademark. He acknowledged that there have been improvements - now the law recognises that a minor can be assaulted by a male or female predator, for instance - but still much more could be done, he noted.

For instance, he said that under Section 493, a man can be charged with deceiving a woman into believing she is married to him - so she would cohabit with him and have sex with him.

But it was not 'completely outrageous' that a woman could also similarly cheat a man in similar circumstances.

'The law seems to suggest that only women can be duped while men cannot be duped. This seems to underestimate women while it gives too much credit to men!' he said, to guffaws in the House.

........ In response, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and Law Ho Peng Kee noted, with a smile, that archaic terms and gender neutrality were some of Mr Chong's 'favourite themes'.

Associate Professor Ho said that, in the Government's view, not all crimes should or could be gender neutral. There are 'logical and physiological differences' between men and women, he said.

Rape cannot be gender neutral, and the provision to stop rape in marriages in some circumstances also cannot be applied equally to men and women, he said.

Ho Peng Kee is wrong, of course. It is quite possible to draft all sexual offences in a completely gender-neutral way. Australia did this long ago.

How do you do it? Well, basically, instead of saying "Any man who does X is guilty of an offence," you simply say, "Any person who does X is guilty of an offence."

Instead of describing the victim as a "woman" or "man", you simply describe the victim as a "person".

For offences involving victims who are minors, instead of using words like "boy under 16 years of age" or "girl under 16 years of age", you simply use a term like "minor", and define "minor" as "person under 16 years of age". And so on.

This is not merely about political correctness or linguistic games. Such changes lead to very definite changes in the effects of the law. In fact, Singapore's laws against family violence (found in the Women's Charter) are already drafted in a gender-neutral manner - thus protecting not just abused wives, but also abused husbands, for example.

One example of how gender-neutral termininology in sexual offences would work is that the same legal protection will be extended to young boys and young girls alike. Women can also become guilty of sexual assault. You may, at this point in time, be reminded of an incident in Singapore whereby the members of a female teen gang assaulted a female teenager - stripping her naked, forcing objects up her vagina etc. With gender-neutral laws, such acts could then be dealt with as sexual offences.

In general, gender-neutral terminology simply removes a lot of unfairness and discrimination from the law. Men and women, whether they are the criminal or victim, are treated with equality. For example, if we treat soliciting in public places as an offence, then we treat soliciting in public places as an offence, regardless of whether the prostitute is male or female.

We also avoid absurd situations where the laws say it may be okay for you to penetrate an anus, but that it really depends on the gender of the person whose anus is being referred to. Similarly, we avoid absurd situations where the laws say it may be okay for you to suck a penis or kiss a vagina, but that it really depends on whether you yourself have a penis or a vagina.

Oh wait. My absurd examples just described Singapore, as it has just become. No wonder Ho Peng Kee doesn't want gender-neutral legislation:

Anal Sex Now Legal for Heterosexuals But Not Homosexuals in Singapore
Short News - 23 October 2007

Singapore: Parliament has repealed a law criminalising "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" thus making oral and anal sex between heterosexual couples legal. New laws were enacted to deal with sex tourism and child prostitution.

The parliament declined, however, to repeal a section which makes sex between men an offence punishable by up to two years in jail. The decision to keep the seldom enforced law came after spirited debate which included the presentation of a petition.

"They [homosexuals] live their lives, that's their personal space. But the tone of the overall society, I think, it remains conventional, it remains straight and we want it to remain so," said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Oct 23, 2007

Revisiting the City of Sodom

As a non-Christian, it may seem strange for me to post a long post about the Bible. But sometimes I am really astounded by what I personally perceive to be a very shallow understanding, on the part of (some) Christians, of their own holy book. And so I would really like to get this off my chest.

Last month I posted this post -
Honest Words from a Local Christian Boy on Singapore's Gay Issue - featuring a letter from a reader. That post continued to attract other readers' comments even after it was no longer on my main page. One such reader insisted in telling me in great detail about Sodom (a city which, according to the Bible, God got very angry with and promptly destroyed).

Anyway, the reader's comment (with a lot of Biblical verse interspersed) went as follows:
Have you heard of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible? These were 2 cities that had reached the point where homosexuality was rampant.

When angels came in the form of men to visit Lot (who lived in Sodom). He brought them into his house. Men came from all over Sodom when they knew about Lot’s visitors.

Gen 19:4 But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter:

Gen 19:5 And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know (have sexual relations with) them.

Gen 19:6 And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him,

Gen 19:7 And said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly.

Gen 19:8 Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.

Gen 19:9 And they said, Stand back. And they said again, This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he will needs be a judge: now will we deal worse with thee, than with them. And they pressed sore upon the man, even Lot, and came near to break the door.

Lot, in desperation to protect his guests, even tried to offer his daughters to the homosexual men, but to no avail.

Gen 19:13 For we will destroy this place, because the cry of them is waxen great before the face of the LORD; and the LORD hath sent us to destroy it.

The angels later told Lot that God had sent them to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.

Gen 19:24 Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven; Gen 19:25 And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.

This is how the term “sodomize” came about. I don’t know about you, but I don’t wish for Singapore to end up in the state of depravity that Sodom and Gomorrah was. When Man is left to his own devices, ignoring God-given laws, there is nothing to stop him from propelling to that state of depravity. We have to draw the line clearly, or else, a hundred years later, what’s stopping me from marrying my pet cat whom I adore so much?
The Cat Welfare Society or the SPCA, I hope, but that's not the point.

The point is that it is by no means clear that homosexuality was the sole reason, or even the main reason, or even a reason at all, why God destroyed Sodom. Sodom was well-known to be a bad, bad place for a wide variety of different reasons, including its ill-treatment of the poor and needy. See Ezekiel 16:49-50 -
"Now this was the sin of Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen."
So they were proud, arrogant and unkind to the poor and needy. They showed no concern for others. Furthermore, the people of Sodom was also known to regularly perpetrate violence and torture on strangers and visitors to Sodom - to the extent of sexual assault and rape - and do all sorts of other nasty things. The classical Jewish texts even describe the case of a young girl in Sodom who gave some bread to a poor man. When the townspeople discovered this act of kindness, they smeared her body with honey and hung her from the city wall until bees stung her to death.

In another case, another young girl by the name of Paltith performed a similar act of kindness. She was burned to death for it. You get the general idea now, don't you. You might even feel like zapping the city of Sodom into instant ashes yourself.

Back to Lot's story (which my reader had referred to). Lot, a relatively good, kind Sodomite compared to his townsfolk, had warmly received two men as guests into his home. Except that these "men" only appeared to be "men" - in fact, they were angels in disguise, sent by God on a mission.

When the men of Sodom saw these two "men" hiding in Lot's house, they wanted to capture and sexually assault them (oh yeah, nothing personal, just the Sodomites' usual bad behaviour to strangers). Of course the Sodomites didn't succeed (you guessed it, God made a direct intervention right around then, struck the bad guys with blindness, and shortly after, destroyed the entire city of Sodom with fire, brimstone etc).

The point to note here is that those men of Sodom were out to rape the two angels. What is the real evil here? The violent, non-consensual aspect of the intended act .... or the fact that it would have been between members of the same sex? To me, the answer is very clear. It is the former.

I mean, suppose the two angels had decided to appear at Lot's house as "women", instead of as "men". And suppose the two angels still got the same bad treatment - in other words, suppose the Sodomites still sought to sexually assault them.

Would it have been okay then? Would God have said, "Oh never mind, it's just heterosexual violence after all. Let the angels be raped."

Of course not!

The wrong, the real wrong, lies in the violent, non-consensual, gang-rape aspect of the intended act. Whether it was heterosexual or homosexual is really not the point!

Bird Talk

I don't really care. It's a non-issue to me personally, since I don't drive. Still I found this quite hilarious.
ST Oct 22, 2007
ERP helps more S'poreans to own cars: Minister

THE use of Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) has made it possible for more Singaporeans to own cars.

Responding to a question for written reply in Parliament on Monday, Transport Minister Raymond Lim said this is reflected in the growth of Singapore's car population from 680,000 in 1997 to 800,000 in 2006.
[So according to Raymond, the government implemented ERP, therefore more people bought cars. Muahaha, what nonsense.]
Dr Fatimah Lateef, MP for Marine Parade GRC, had asked the Minister if the ERP scheme has met the objectives that it was meant to achieve and if it has improved the traffic flow on expressways especially during peak hours.

In his reply, Mr Lim said since its implementation in 1998, ERP has been effective in maintaining average travel speeds on priced roads within the optimal speed range through regular reviews and rate adjustments. For example, average speeds on the expressways have remained at above 45km/h during peak hours.
Read that again. Slowly. What Raymond is really saying is that since ERP was implemented in 1998, average travel speeds on priced roads have stayed the same. Despite regular increases in ERP charges and the number of ERP gantries, there has been no improvement whatsoever in the average travel speed.
"The use of ERP to manage traffic has made it possible for more Singaporeans to own cars than we otherwise could, and our vehicle population has grown from 680,000 in 1997 to 800,000 in 2006," he added.

"It has also allowed the Government to rely more on car usage charges and less on car ownership taxes to manage traffic demand, and as a result, vehicle ownership taxes have been reduced."
So instead of paying more money to own a vehicle, you pay more money to use it. Is that a real difference? The last time I checked, money is money - even if the government modifies the way it takes the money from you.

Incidentally the increase from 680,000 to 800,000 cars over nine years works out to a per annum rate of less than 2 per cent. This is probably a lot lower than the growth of Singapore's resident population over the same period (don't forget the huge increase in the number of foreigners coming to work and live in Singapore, over that period).

That's actually quite positive news, from the environmental perspective.

Oct 20, 2007

Illusions for the Weekend

I found this on the Herald Sun:
THE Right Brain vs Left Brain test ... do you see the dancer turning clockwise or anti-clockwise?

If clockwise, then you use more of the right side of the brain and vice versa.

Most of us would see the dancer turning anti-clockwise though you can try to focus and change the direction; see if you can do it.

uses logic / detail oriented / facts rule / words and language / present and past / math and science / can comprehend /
knowing / acknowledges order / pattern perception / knows object name / reality based / forms strategies / practical / safe

uses feeling / "big picture" oriented / imagination rules / symbols and images / present and future / philosophy & religion / can "get it" (i.e. meaning) / believes / appreciates / spatial perception / knows object function / fantasy based / presents possibilities / impetuous /risk taking.
I see the woman as turning clockwise, and I can't change her direction.

Oct 17, 2007

A Flawed Survey

ST Oct 17, 2007
80% of readers say ST is important to their lives
By Oo Gin Lee

……. Addressing the Forum writers in the auditorium at Singapore Press Holdings' Toa Payoh premises, ST editor Han Fook Kwang noted that a readership survey in April found that nearly eight in 10 of the paper's readers polled in face-to-face interviews considered it an 'important' or 'must-read'.

Aha. Here we see something known as “survivorship bias” at work. The flaw in the survey is that its sample population comprises only people who currently still read the Straits Times. Thus the survey excludes all those people who had already stopped reading the Straits Times precisely because they considered the Straits Times to be “unimportant” or “unnecessary”.

Survivorship bias is a concept often mentioned in the financial world, in relation to the performance of unit trusts and mutual funds. For example, a fund manager may claim that more than 75% of its funds have outperformed the industry average. This sounds like an impressive statistic - until you find out how many funds the manager had already shut down, precisely because they performed below the industry average.

We say that there is a "survivorship bias", because the "more than 75%" statistic is based only on the funds that still survive. Those funds which had already died from their own poor performance are conveniently dropped from the survey.

Oct 15, 2007

Race, Religion and Media

An article from AFP:

Lee Kuan Yew dismisses low press-freedom ranking for Singapore

(AFP) — Singaporeans are free to read whatever they want, the influential founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew said of his country, which ranks near the bottom on a watchdog's index of press freedom.

Lee was referring to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) annual ranking for 2006, which placed the city-state at 146 out of 168 nations, and lower than Zimbabwe at 140.

RSF cited "new legal action by the government against foreign media" for Singapore's slipping six places in the rankings.

"There's nothing that you'd want to read which you cannot read in Singapore," said Lee, who holds the influential title of minister mentor in the cabinet of his son.

"You can buy our newspapers and see whether we read like Zimbabwe..." he said Sunday night in a keynote address to the International Bar Association annual conference, which has attracted thousands of lawyers and jurists from around the world.

Lee said Singaporeans have wide access to information.

"Everybody's on the Internet. Everybody's got broadband. They've got cable television, access to all the information. You can blog. You can do anything you like," he said in the speech which drew frequent applause.

"But we do not allow certain subjects to be made bones of contention."

Lee said issues of race, language and religion had to be handled sensitively. Singapore is majority ethnic Chinese but with significant Malay and Indian minorities.

"A multi-racial, multi-religious society is always prone to conflicts," Lee said.

The city-state has bitter memories of past racial incidents in its early years and clamps down hard on anyone inciting communal tensions.
Whenever you hear Lee Kuan Yew talk about race and religion, you may get the impression that the multi-religious, multi-racial society is a rather unusual, rare species in the world, and furthermore suffers from some wicked, magical curse that dooms it to endless riots, civil war or other conflicts.

Actually, Singapore’s multiracial, multi-religious nature is hardly unique among modern cities. Think, for example, of Kuala Lumpur … Bangkok …. Melbourne … Sydney …. New York … London …. San Francisco …. Vancouver …. among others.

Even China, which we often think of as relatively homogeneous, has as many as 20 million Muslims, and 40 to 100 million Christians (according to
these estimates).

We have to lose our traditional Singaporean mentality that just because some of our HDB neighbours are of a different skin colour or pray to a different God, we are all on the perpetual verge of beating each other up and therefore Singapore is constantly in peril.

As for RSF's rankings, well, LKY can dismiss Singapore’s low ranking for press freedom, but others will not be so easily convinced. The link between state and press in Singapore is just simply much, much, muuuuch too strong, for most people to believe that our press is independent of the ruling party's influence.

"Hey, Tony. Is it true that before you became the
Chairman of the Singapore Press Holdings Board of Directors,
you were the Deputy Prime Minister; the Minister of Defence;
the Minister of Education; the Minister of Finance; the Minister of Health
AND the Minister of Trade and Industry of Singapore ...?"

Oct 10, 2007

Singapore And Its Laws Against Gay People

If you believe that Singapore should get rid of its laws against gay people, do take a moment to sign the online petition here - Repeal Section 377A.

For more information and views on gay issues and the law in Singapore, you can revisit my old posts
here (yes,they're all nicely presented on one page, just click the link and scroll down).

I still like this old cartoon, which sums up a lot with very few words:

Oct 5, 2007

Learn, People, Learn.

The Straits Times has an article today about religious charities. It sounds like some churches have been busy trying to avoid being supervised by the Commissioner of Charities under the standard rules applicable to all charities.
ST Oct 5, 2007
No separate watchdog for religious charities
They'll come under office of Commissioner of Charities, but their 'special nature' will be taken into account
By Theresa Tan

SOME churches have urged the Charity Council to let them be governed separately from secular charities, but the council is standing firm.

It told The Straits Times there is 'no need' for a separate administrator to regulate religious charities.

Instead, churches and temples will still come under the Commissioner of Charities (COC) office, said the council, which advises the commissioner.

This is the strongest indication yet that all charities - secular and spiritual - will have to follow a new draft Code of Governance for charities to improve the way they are run.

While the code is not mandatory, charities which do not comply with its guidelines will have to explain why.

It is believed a number of churches expressed concern to the council when asked for feedback on the code. Some points raised were that:

* As spiritual leaders of the church, clergy cannot be excluded from the governing board. The code demands separation of the governing board and management staff, to ensure proper oversight of the charity.

* Rules on fund raising should not apply to churches. This is because church members give voluntarily as part of their religious beliefs and churches say they do not solicit from the public.
After the NKF scandal, I am suspicious of such arguments. The above article instantly reminded of past events such as this one:

Florida priests 'embezzled $8.6m from parishioners'
By Andrew Gumbel

Two Catholic priests in Florida stand accused of embezzling $8.6m (pounds 4.6m) from their parishioners over a 42-year period and spending the money on holiday houses, luxury travel, gambling in Las Vegas casinos and secret girlfriends.

The scandal, at St Vincent Ferrer Church, in Delray Beach, north of Miami, cast yet another embarrassing spotlight on a Catholic diocese that recently lost two bishops to child sex abuse scandals.

According to police who investigated the suspect finances at St Vincent Ferrer for more than a year, Fathers John Skehan and Francis Guinan acted as "professional money launderers" who took money from the collection plate and set up a network of slush-fund bank accounts to which only they had access.

Fr Skehan, 79, was a highly regarded priest whose congregation included many prominent politicians and public figures in southern Palm Beach County. According to the police, however, he also used laundered money to buy himself a condominium near Delray Beach, a cottage on the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland and a pub in Kilkenny, where he was born. The police complaint says Fr Skehan spent $134,075 in church money on a woman described as his girlfriend, another $11,688 on family members, and more than a $250,000 on himself - for car payments, dental work, property taxes and housing fees, and credit card payments.

Fr Guinan, 63, a longtime friend of Fr Skehan who took over the parish in 2003, owns a string of properties in the area. The complaint said he was a gambler who spent lavishly in casinos in Las Vegas and the Bahamas. He was also alleged to have made cash payments to his secret lover, who once worked as a bookkeeper at his old parish of St Patrick's in Palm Beach Gardens, and to have contributed more than $7,000 to the cost of the woman's son's education. He, too, racked up impressive dental bills. The complaint said he spent $15,000 of illicit funds on his teeth.
Suppose Father John Skehan now said: "As a spiritual leader of the church, I cannot be excluded from the governing board. I must be on the governing board and also part of management staff. Screw any potential conflict of interest." How would you feel?

Suppose Father Guinan now said, "Rules on fund raising should not apply to me. This is because church members give voluntarily to my church as part of their religious beliefs and I do not solicit from the public". What would you say?

Learn, people. Learn.

Oct 3, 2007

Why We Should Be Foreigners

ST Sep 28, 2007
Needless expenditure on English courses

I AM writing with regard to GeBIZ (http://www.gebiz.gov.sg/), which is the Singapore Government's one-stop e-procurement portal.

All the public sector's invitations for quotations and tenders are posted on GeBIZ. Suppliers can search for government procurement opportunities, download tender documents, and submit their bids online.

While surfing the website, I came upon a government school seeking private-sector companies to conduct English courses for its PRC scholars, paying at least $35,000 for 300 hours of instruction.

I was amazed at the huge expenditure. Aren't schools supposed to be educating our young? Aren't our teachers qualified to teach English?

If it were courses in leadership skills or public speaking, I would understand the need for external vendors to come into the picture as such courses require special knowledge and skill sets.

The Government should think twice before spending taxpayers' money unnecessarily.

Fok Kah Hon

This Fok Kah Hon person is not very clever. Doesn’t he know? This is Singapore. We must give foreigners more advantages than citizens.

Singaporeans can pay for their own private tuition lessons. And if they fail their O-level English exams, well, that is just too bad.

But as for the PRC students - ahh, we can't allow that to happen. We must make the taxpayers pay for their extra English lessons!

On Beggars and Hawkers

ST Oct 2, 2007
Rid Orchard Road of beggars and hawkers

ONE cannot help but notice an increasing number of people begging for money and selling tissue paper along Orchard Road.

Also on the rise are illegal hawkers at places such as outside Orchard and Somerset MRT stations, selling anything from mobile-phone covers to roasted chestnuts.

I urge the authorities to take action against this group of people, as they are giving a bad image to spanking clean Orchard Road.

This is especially so as Orchard Road is a major tourist attraction and we wouldn't want tourists and foreigners alike to bring home an image of Orchard Road riddled with sidewalk beggars and illegal hawkers.

Nuryusman Mohamed Ibrahim

Actually the tourists probably find the roasted chestnuts quite interesting. The illegal hawkers add a little local flavour into our otherwise sterile cityscape. Think of the Suan Lum or Chatuchak night markets in Bangkok – they’re always crowded and messy. And always a big hit with tourists.

As for the tissue paper, it's usually sold by some poor blind woman or one-legged man. Mrs Wang is very kind. When she sees such people, she often gives them $5 or $10 for one packet of tissue. These people need our help. If you don't want to help, at least don't cause them to get arrested.

I don't know what this Nuryusman person is thinking. He notices an increasing number of poor people on Orchard Road, and his biggest concern is the bad impression that the tourists may have. For goodness sakes, Nuryusman. Your biggest concern should be for the poor people.

On Credit Lines & Credit Cards

ST Oct 3, 2007
Using cash advance from DBS credit card? Beware this catch

DBS allows customers to borrow cash (credit line) for six-months with 0% interest from their POSB Everyday credit card for a fee.

However, every month, when you make payment to your credit card, all payment goes first to repaying your credit line until it is fully paid before it applies to your credit-card transactions.

Let's take this example: You draw a credit line of $1,000 for six-months with 0% interest on your DBS credit card for a fee and, in that same month, you charge another $500 to your credit card.

When you make a $700 payment for that month, the $700 will go fully towards repaying your credit line (after which you still owe $300 on the credit line). This means you incur finance charges (in the 10-25% annual percentage rate) on the $500 of credit card transactions automatically.

I called up DBS, and they say this is due to the payment hierarchy.

There is no way to specify how my credit card payment should be directed to.

OCBC has a much fairer credit-line scheme which I have used, as it allows you to specify which account you want to pay back, that is, I can fully pay my credit-card transactions monthly, and/or pay back a little of my cash line.

Chang Kui Yu

Quite apart from all that, please use your common sense. Can any bank really lend you money and charge you nothing? Only your mother could do that. And no bank is a mother.

Read the small print, please. “DBS allows customers to borrow cash (credit line) for six months, with 0% interest … for a fee." So instead of charging you interest every month for the sum you’ve borrowed, DBS charges you a fee.

Well, you can call it a “fee” or you can call it “interest”, but either way it’s money you have to pay the bank, for what you’ve borrowed.

According to the DBS website, the fee (which they call an administrative fee) is 2.5% of what you’ve borrowed. That is perhaps not that expensive, but it is also not as cheap as it may sound. An administrative fee of 2.5% should not be confused with, say, an interest rate of 2.5% p.a..

One difference is that interest is charged on what you actually owe in any given month, while an administrative fee is paid upfront on the entire sum you initially borrowed. No portion of the administrative fee is refundable, even though within 1 or 2 short months you may have dutifully repaid every cent you had initially borrowed.

Personally, apart from my mortgage, I simply do not live on credit. All my credit cards are paid in full by GIRO every month. Some years ago, I did sign up for DBS Cashline, but that was just to get a free umbrella. Since then I have not used the DBS Cashline even once, but I do still have that umbrella. Like my money, I save it for the rainy days.

Oct 2, 2007

A Response To TW Tan's Letter

I have received another interesting email, this time from a reader, D. He writes in response to the earlier letter from TW Tan (see two posts below).
Dear TW Tan,

As a young gay Christian myself, I applaud you for your letter. From the bottom of my heart I thank you. Of the many responses Christians have towards people like us, yours is the most Christ-like I've seen.

Most Christians today are unfortunately unable to see past the black and white of the issue. I dare say their faith is one-dimensional, based on a book. Sure, it's a very important book, but I don't believe that it is the be-all and end-all of Christianity. God is so much more than just the Bible. One-dimensional faith is easily destroyed. That's why many Christians defend the Bible so vehemently. Without it, their faith is reduced to nothing. Conceding the fallacy of some verses in it will render it questionable, and that is inconceivable in their eyes.

I think the important point here is for everyone to engage in a process of open and thoughtful exploration. The vast majority of Bible-thumpers don't even know how many verses are there in the Bible which say that homosexuality is wrong, where they are or in what context they were written. To have these people spit in my face and tell me I'm an abomination reeks of spiritual blindness and arrogance. Yes, I admit I may be wrong to think that being gay is ok, but do homophobic Christians realise that they could be wrong too?

The sad part of this debate is that the vitriolic reaction of the larger Christian community towards us has ruined the name of Christianity. Not only have they made a fool of themselves by spreading untruths about us, but in doing so they have portrayed a very negative image of Christianity. But the gay Christian community is not without blame. Many a time we have responded with harsh words, only to realise later that we could have done better...

I feel that society's reaction to the queer community is one motivated by self-preservation. Although many claim that Christians only want to help, their words and actions seek more to discredit and keep us out than anything else. This vexes me greatly, because gay people are not out to destroy anything! We are labeled as destroyers of families, corrupters of youth and agents of disease. None of this is true! I fail to see how accepting us and\nallowing us to form loving relationships will ruin family structure. Ask any gay person and they will tell you that they never made the choice to be gay, much like how you never made the conscious choice to be straight. And just like how straight men are capable of celibacy and fidelity, so are we! And hard as this is to believe, we are not out to discredit religion and faith. The reaction of the gay community to Christians all round is no more than a knee jerk response. Just like how you leave non-believers and people of other faith alone, we only ask that you preach your message in a considerate and sensitive way.

"We are only protecting our children" seems to be a trump card played by conservatives to silence gay-affirming groups. That one statement appears to allow people to at once stop their ears and reject all opinions contrary to their own, regardless of how rational or logical they are. For those of us in the gay community who are trying to reach out to engage, inform and educate, this is a frustrating statement to hear, because it instantly halts all exchange. What we fail to understand is what they are protecting their children from? No amount of exposure to gay people will convert a child who is not gay. If only people would come round to this fact. I grew up with absolutely no idea of homosexuality. What the silence only fuels is the torment that youths who are gay go through. The road to healthy self-acceptance and a well rounded life is fraught with much loneliness and depression. What the conservatives are doing only increases the struggles which gay youths have to go through, and here I am speaking from personal experience.

Having said all this, I must concede that the gay community as it is leaves much to be desired. There is a tremendous lack of positive role models, while unhealthy practices are common and tolerated. I firmly believe that before we ask for society's acceptance, we have to hold ourselves to a standard that is beyond reproach. As it stands, the gay community is simply not a safe place for youths who are in the process of coming out. But not all gay people are predatory. Many of us are working hard to provide safe platforms for those new to the community, but there is a verylong way to go.

Homophobia is a vicious cycle. Fear of discrimination andrejection drives us into the shadows, forcing us to engage in risky andclandestine behavior. This behavior then only serves to fuel the negative image which the community suffers from, and causes people to fear and reject us. The solution to all this lies not with the government (though what we asked of them was not exactly very difficult or demanding), but with each person. All I ask is for you to reexamine the way in which you react about, and to, gay people. A little thought on our parts goes a really long way...

"Before you seek to condemn, have you sought to understand?"
A quick note. I receive many emails from readers all the time. I do read all the emails, but I do not have time to respond to all of them. If I do respond, my reply may be very brief, for lack of time. Sometimes readers send me articles which they'd like me to publish on my blog - please note that I won't do so unless I find the articles interesting (like TW Tan's and Darryl's letters).

Recently I've also turned on the comment moderation function. I have adopted this practice for a variety of reasons: (1) to prepare myself for the arrival of the revised Penal Code, (2) to screen out comments of certain undesirable, blacklisted individuals; and (3) to improve the noise-to-signal ratio in the comment sections. I discourage flame wars, personal attacks and unnecessarily insulting remarks.

In the near future, I will post an "editorial policy" of sorts, where I'll explain in greater detail about the kinds of emails that I will or will not respond to, and the kind of comments that I will or will not publish. Also I may explain some new directions that I intend to take for this blog, so that if these are not to your tastes, you can start looking elsewhere for your Internet readings.