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Boo spyware and inflation, yay inclusivity

This week: An Israeli spy firm whose first customer was allegedly the Singapore government, inflation at a nine-year high, and positive moves towards inclusivity at pre-schools.

Gong xi fa cai! If you celebrate the Lunar New Year, I hope you had a good time; if you don't, I hope you made good use of the public holiday to have a good rest anyway!

Who's using spyware?

NSO Group was not the only Israeli spy firm to exploit a flaw in Apple software last year. QuaDream, who has kept a lower profile, also made use of that flaw to break into iPhones. Both companies sell hacking tools to government clients. Although they claim that this is to help security agencies catch terrorists, reporting has since shown that governments have — surprise, surprise — used such surveillance capabilities on political opponents, journalists and human rights defenders. What leapt out of this Reuters story on QuaDream? "One of QuaDream's first clients was the Singaporean government, two of the sources said..."

This is a global problem. The use of spyware (developed by a range of companies, and hawked to private and government clientele) is widespread, and largely operates in a black box with no transparency or accountability. Hungarian journalists who have been targeted with Pegasus spyware (operated by NSO) are planning to sue their state and NSO. The director of Human Rights Watch's crisis and conflict division was also hacked. In November last year, a Singaporean cybersecurity firm was blacklisted by the US government, who alleged that it had sold hacking tools used against individuals and organisations around the world.

Leon Perera of the Workers' Party had asked questions last year about reports of possible targets of Pegasus in Singapore, but was told that the government could not verify claims of potential Singaporean victims because no police reports had been filed. Minister for Information and Communications Josephine Teo urged Singaporeans who think their devices might have been infected with Pegasus to file police reports.

So... if I'm worried that the state might have used Pegasus to spy on me, then I should... call the police? Right.

The Budget debates are coming

Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong is due to deliver the Budget on 18 February. He says it'll help Singaporeans deal with "more immediate issues" like the cost of living, which feels a bit like a no-brainer because no finance minister is ever going to say their Budget doesn't help citizens deal with the cost of living. We're just going to have to wait until the 18th for details.

That said, there are real worries on the horizon. CNA points out that the latest data has put inflation in Singapore at a nine-year high. This rise prompted the Monetary Authority of Singapore to allow the Singapore dollar to appreciate a little, so as to make imports cheaper. That they did this outside of their regularly scheduled policy meetings is an indication of how important they thought it was to do something now rather than wait.

Whenever I read about such things, my first thought always ends up going to this report by Beyond Social Services about deepening inequality during the pandemic. For some families, household income has absolutely plummeted and there are many people still struggling even if the economy is recovering. Beyond's recommendations — which include things like strengthening employment rights and social protections — are still incredibly timely.

Pushing forward with inclusivity

Changi Airport has announced three initiatives aimed at making travel easier for passengers with invisible disabilities. They're creating easy-to-understand step-by-step guides that outline the entire process, which passengers and their caregivers can use as part of pre-flight prep. Over 300 staff have also received training to support passengers with special needs.

Elsewhere, we're also seeing pre-schools adding spaces and equipment to support young 'uns with special needs. I'd love to see more and more pre-schools become more inclusive so that children with special needs aren't needlessly segregated into their own schools. Years ago I wrote this story for Esquire Singapore looking at education and inclusivity, and talked about this very issue of supporting and creating spaces for children with special needs. I learnt so much writing that piece.

Got some more...

🏫 I missed this last week, but has this important editorial on academic freedom, responding to comments made in Parliament that tried to dismiss their survey findings. "If indeed a university is 'committed to safeguarding academic freedom', a reasonable response to such doubts would be to set up an independent oversight mechanism, including safe avenues for faculty to report infringements, and to publish periodic reports."

💊 Singapore has approved the use of the Paxlovid pill, developed by Pfizer, for the treatment of Covid-19 in adult patients at risk of becoming severely ill. The Health Sciences Authority says that, based on the clinical data available, the benefits outweigh the risks.

📖 Read Jolene Tan's review (paywalled) of Jeevan Vasagar's book, Lion City: Singapore and the Invention of Modern Asia, in Mekong Review. She does a great job of articulating the more insidious, upstream types of repression that's happening in Singapore today.

Checking in on the neighbours

I used to have a little Southeast Asia section, then I was a little too busy/overwhelmed to keep up with SEA news for awhile and it slipped out of the template. But I do think we should be at least a little aware of what's happening with our neighbours, so I'm going to make an effort to add this section back in!

🇲🇲 It's been a year since the military coup in Myanmar. AP spoke to people on the ground about how their lives have changed. Civil servants who refused to work for the military have had a tough year, but say they have no regrets in joining the Civil Disobedience Movement. Support the work of independent media outlets, like Frontier Myanmar, who are doing their best in a very risky and difficult situation.

🇲🇾 Malaysia is reviewing its use of the death penalty. A Special Committee formed to look into alternatives to capital punishment will present its findings to the Cabinet by the end of the month. One of the committee's most important tasks was to assess whether the death penalty is effective as a deterrent to the various offences it's currently applied to.

The uproar on social media about the NYT's video on "Singaporean chicken curry" gave me a craving and sent me straight to Toast Box.