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Here we are, talking about ministerial salaries again

How is it August already?

If you didn’t get to watch Wild Rice’s Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம் last year, stream it on demand here!

The issue of salaries pops up again

We’ve got more clarity about the Leader of the Opposition (not LOTO, as we might have thought, but LO) position that Workers’ Party’s secretary-general Pritam Singh has in this new Parliament. As the name indicates, he’ll be leading the opposition presence in the House (with more time to speak), and will also be involved in appointing members to select committees, as well as fulfilling some official state functions. He’ll be given parliamentary privileges, an office, and a larger allowance to have more legislative assistants. He’ll also get double the allowance of an ordinary MP, which means it comes up to $385,000 per year.

Pritam then announced that he’ll be giving 50% of the additional LO salary — $96,000 per year, although the final amount will be less after taxes — to community programmes and initiatives to assist low-income residents in WP constituencies, to charity, and to his party’s needs.

For this, Pritam has been accused of engaging in political theatre, presumably by people who also get upset about actors being dramatic, lawyers getting argumentative, and cats taking naps. Ho Ching felt the need to weigh in with a Facebook subtweet (subFacebook?), thus reminding people that we still don’t how much she’s getting paid every year, and how she balances her incredible amount of Facebook sharing activity with the work she’s supposed to be doing as CEO of the state investment company.

Of course, all this talk about Pritam’s LO salary also reminded people of how astronomical ministerial salaries are in Singapore. $385,000 might sound like a lot of money, but that’s still significantly less that what a parliamentary secretary gets, much less a junior minister or full minister. And, unlike Pritam, who has already been in Parliament for some time, some of the new entrants from GE2020 have already been appointed to the Cabinet — an extremely sweet promotion for political newbies. It’s lucrative, too: people like Gan Siow Huang (who at least won her own seat in an SMC) or Alvin Tan will be getting $770,000 per annum as Ministers of State (on top of their $192,000/year MP’s allowance), while Tan See Leng has been made a full minister from day 1 of his entrance into Parliament, for which he gets $1.1 million per year.

Also, what do mayors do? ‘Cos they’re paid awfully well for whatever that is…

So this is what an actual foreign agent looks like

This should have been in last week’s update but it came in just before I was going to bed after I’d already finished writing and scheduling the issue, so I’m going to catch everyone up now.

On 24 July 2020, the Department of Justice in the US released a statement saying that Dickson Yeo, a Singaporean, had pleaded guilty to acting as an illegal agent for the Chinese government in the US. According to the statement of facts that Yeo had signed, he began working with Chinese intelligence while he was a PhD student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, where his core research focus was, according to a quote from him now removed from LKYSPP’s website, “China’s framework of treatment for Small but Pivotal States (Nexus States) along its Belt and Road Initiative trajectory.” His PhD supervisor was Huang Jing, an academic who was expelled from Singapore in 2017 for being an “agent of influence” for an unnamed foreign country (but we’re all thinking it lah). However, Huang Jing has denied recruiting Yeo, since he also denies everything Singapore has accused him of. In any case, Yeo’s statement of facts says that he was approached after giving a presentation in China.

As part of his work for the Chinese government, Yeo was told to set up a fake consulting company and target individuals with access/security clearance in the US to gather non-public information. China has said that they’re “not aware” of Yeo’s case, and accused the US of trying to smear them with this charge of espionage.

Singapore says that Yeo is receiving consular assistance, and the Ministry of Home Affairs has said that there’s no direct threat to Singapore’s security. But such cases might lead to a perception that Singapore has been compromised.

On social service and our approach to poverty and inequality

Over the past week, a story of an elderly woman circulated on social media. Meng Shuen Koh said he’d encountered her on public transport, and wrote about how she worked as a cleaner for a low wage (he reported $5/hour, although it was later said to be $6.50/hour), which made it difficult for her to make ends meet (on top of health and other concerns). The story (now taken down) went viral, and because it included information on where she worked, people went to seek her out, which she reportedly found distressing. As expected, the Ministry of Social and Family Development put out a response on social media, which revealed even more personal information of the elderly lady.

There’s been many takes on this situation. Because it turned out that there were inaccuracies in the original story that circulated on social media, some have claimed this as an example of how ‘there is always more behind such stories’ and how people should always wait for the facts before commenting. Others have pointed to details that MSF revealed about her living situation, her citizenship, etc. in response to comments about poverty and inequality in Singapore. People have slammed the original poster, whose employers have been contacted by the government.

I agree with the general principle about getting facts right, but at the same time, honest mistakes can happen—Meng Shuen Koh was having a chat with an old lady on the train, not an investigative journalist doing a long sit-down interview. Wires can get crossed, things misremembered or misquoted, etc. Public discourse can be messy in this way. Despite the inaccuracies in the details, there are core issues in his account that still point to problems we have to deal with: whether it’s $5/hour or $6.50/hour, why are there jobs that pay so little in such an expensive city? When an old lady has to work for such pittance, why are we more concerned about who she lives with, and in what size flat? Is it time for us to reconsider this expectation of families to be the ‘first line of defence’ to cover the gaps when people aren’t able to make ends meet through their own work—not through any fault of their own, but because compensation for their labour is so pathetic? When can our efforts to deal with the problem go beyond these individualised approaches, and look at systemic and institutional reform?

Separately, the issue of consent is important too. Meng Shuen Koh was wrong to have shared the story without consent, just as the government was wrong to divulge more personal information (even while they were chiding someone else for non-consensual sharing). This is a good read on the whole episode.

Still got some more…

The High Court has found Li Shengwu guilt of contempt of court in absentia. He’s been fined $15,000, or a week in prison if he refuses to pay it. “In response to three words in a private Facebook post, the government has wasted three years of civil servants’ time,” he said in a response on Facebook.

Cherian George has called for a review of Section 298 of the Penal Code, which criminalises actions and speech that wounds religious feelings or promotes enmity between different religious and racial groups. It’s the law that the Workers’ Party’s Raeesah Khan is being investigated under. Meanwhile, Howard Lee makes an argument for freedom of information.

A little bit of history…

I was procrastinating and poking about the NLB newspaper archives, and came across this quote from Ong Eng Guan, after he was elected Mayor of Singapore in 1957. He rejected the mayoral regalia and mansion, and this was why:

“I do not believe in these trappings of office. We are living in a revolutionary Asia, and we, the people of Singapore, are a part of the Asian revolution. We do not want to follow the centuries-old tradition of the British mayors. We do not want to live or dress differently from our people. We do not want to see the chains of colonialism and the mantle of despotism worn by the representatives of the people in this City Council.”