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Robot cops, SPH's circulation drama, and George Goh's bid for presidency

This week: The international media fixates on robot police, we get more information on how SPH inflated its circulation figures, and George Goh starts with his PR offensive.

I'm writing this at 1am on Saturday morning, because I've had a packed Friday which included going to the NMIXX showcase (yay!) Maybe it's awesome concert vibes but I'm not doing too badly energy-wise right now despite the time, so I'm writing happily while cosy in my bed. Am pretty content right now... only can someone tell me how to get rid of this lingering post-Covid cough?

Everyone (outside Singapore) wants to know about the robots

This past week I've been fielding journalist requests seeking comment about the robot police being rolled out in Singapore. Suddenly lots of foreign publications want stories about them. It's in sharp contrast to the lack of interest and comment in Singapore itself.

What are these robots? According to CNA, they can get up to 2.3 metres tall and are equipped with 360˚ cameras, so as to help cops get a better view of the area. They have speakers and blinkers and sirens so they can broadcast messages and presumably beep or wail at you while they're enforcing cordons. They also have buttons that members of the public can press to lodge reports. Basically, a sort of police call-box plus CCTV camera on wheels, that could potentially scold you. A couple are already working the ground at Changi Airport T4, and there are plans to roll more out across the island.

Ermagerd, robocops! exclaimed the international media, with varying degrees of interest or alarm. This is the sort of tech-infused, quirky, "omg is this Black Mirror dystopia" type of story that plays well to readers, presenting Singapore as an odd futuristic city that may or may not be a police state. But it's much more complicated to explain the reality and reactions on the ground.

The thing is, policing is very normalised in Singapore, repeatedly framed as guardianship and keeping us safe, to the point where many Singaporeans actually quite like the idea of there being more policing around (especially if they come from social classes that are less likely to come into conflict with the law). This thing about robot police is also not new: Singapore has been piloting such schemes for awhile now. Remember how they deployed robots to patrol the migrant worker dormitories during lockdown? Or that ridiculous-looking robot dog reminding people to safe distance in parks? They've also been looking into the use of facial recognition lampposts, remember? And all that tech that they've got in the prisons—if they think it works well in the prisons then we shouldn't be surprised if the state finds other use cases. These pilots and projects are usually reported in the local press as fait accompli; there's little space or opportunity for anyone to question or express any sort of worry about how enthusiastically we're leaning into such technology. Over time, people have just got used to it.

Concerns about surveillance and policing aren't unfounded. The police say these robots are a means to "project additional police presence" and have "additional eyes on the ground", which they are of course presenting as a good thing. It's worth reflecting on that more—is it really an unqualified good for our society to become even more of a panopticon than it already is? What does it do to our psyche to further increase and normalise police presence and state surveillance in Singapore? What oversight is there over the data that such robots collect? Who makes sure they are securely stored, and what recourse might there be for citizens if the data is misused (would we even find out about it)? These are important questions that we should be asking.

Finally, some follow-up on the SPH circulation drama

About half a year after the nonsense about Singapore Press Holdings' inflated circulation figures was exposed, we've finally got some follow-up from the investigation that was conducted. A redacted audit report can be found here.

How were the figures inflated? Some examples:

There are other cases and issues mentioned in the report, whose authors noted that they'd not seen any evidence SPH Ltd's board of directors or most of its senior management were involved. They did make an exception for someone(s) in senior management, but we don't know who it is/they are because that bit has been redacted. They also noted that there was no evidence the journalism or editorial departments had anything to do with the inflated circulation figures either.

Parts of the report highlighted issues that could potentially constitute criminal offences, so SPH Media Group has filed a police report to get the cops to look into the matter. It's not clear what these potential offences are, since they're redacted in the report released to the public, but SPH Media says they gave the police access to the full report.

George Goh guns for the presidency

Campaigning hasn't officially started yet, but I'm seeing more stuff about George Goh pop up on social media—he's definitely wasting no time trying to build familiarity with the public. He's also already had to issue a public statement to debunk misinformation circulating about him, like an imposter on Twitter and claims that he's chairman of some Citizens' Consultative Committee (that's a different George Goh).

He and his team have been putting out stuff emphasising his humble beginnings, how he came from a poor family and took the leap to start his own business, learning things along the way, etc. I don't doubt that he's had to be very determined and work very hard to get to where he is today, but this video is laying it on a bit thick—is the host who's interviewing him crying?!

I can see why he's not got a moment to lose—Tharman Shanmugaratnam is going to be a formidable candidate who already has widespread popularity and respect. And with all this talk about whether George Goh is even eligible to become a presidential candidate, it probably doesn't hurt him to generate some public support and momentum right away. I hope he qualifies and gives Tharman a run for his money because it would be better for Singaporeans to get a chance to make their feelings known—even if some people want to spoil their vote, which I've heard—than have one person win by default.

Strangely, a video of George Goh driving cardboard collectors in his Bentley to his big home, as part of the charity work that he does, was made private after it was shared on social media.

I don't know for sure if the video was restricted because it'd attracted this sort of attention on social media. I'd seen the tweet earlier but when I went back to watch the video I found that it had been made private, which just made me more curious. You can still watch it here. I'm not a fan of referring to cardboard collectors as "Urban Recyclers" and found the video quite cringe, especially the bit where he wishes for them to have a "strong body for work" where they can keep working for 10–20 more years. It's a shame that elderly people in a rich city like Singapore need to collect cardboard to survive; we need structural change to end such poverty, not romanticise them as "urban recyclers" who we hope will be able to keep working for a long time at their age!

Why was the video made private? Did someone in his team find it cringe too?

Got some more...

💰 Migrant domestic workers in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are earning below minimum wage. If this finding by a International Labour Organisation study surprises you, you've not been paying attention.

🎤 Here's a weird one: Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing says that if a kid can get Taylor Swift (or any other "A-lister") to perform for free at their school, the school can declare a holiday for everyone to enjoy the show. Or maybe they can declare the next day a holiday instead? The silliest part is how the local media is reporting on this for real—"Education Minister Chan Chun Sing issues challenge to Taylor Swift fans"—when it seems quite clear the minister's taking the piss because asking a government minister to declare a school holiday just so you can go to Taylor Swift's show is unserious.

Have you checked out and registered for the Singapore Independent Media Fair yet? You can now support the fundraising efforts to cover the costs of the event by buying an "I Support Independent Media" tote bag, into which you can put all those copies of Mekong Review that you can buy at the fair. 😜 Register here.

See you at Pink Dot this afternoon!