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Sounding the privacy klaxon 🚨

Issue 95

WHAT. A. WEEK. I’m looking at you, Malaysia.

This week, New Naratif also published a longform feature I wrote about life in Singapore during the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s a piece we produced in collaboration with Hong Kong’s The Initium, who have published a Traditional Chinese version of the article.

What are we giving up to facial recognition?

Singapore is forging ahead with integrating facial recognition into national systems and services, so you can scan your face at kiosks and have it matched to the government’s national biometric database when you want to do things like check your CPF or carry out bank transactions. They’re selling it as an immense benefit: imagine the convenience of not needing passwords anymore! YAY!

But what about privacy and surveillance? What is the cost of giving the government so much power over the centralisation of our data? What are the inbuilt safeguards and checks and balances? When things go wrong, how much accountability will there be? How will victims of privacy breaches be protected and compensated?

So. Many. Questions. Such Bad Idea Bears.

In the light of this, I’m sharing New Naratif’s 2018 article on Singapore’s data privacy regime, and our 2019 podcast on privacy breaches, again.

Budget talk

We’re in the middle of the Budget d̶e̶b̶a̶t̶e̶s̶ series of speeches, so there’s been plenty of updates. Given the week I’ve had, it was a bit of a struggle to keep up with them all, so I’m just picking out some of the ones that caught my attention this week.

All political office holders and MPs are going to take a one-month pay cut, and senior public service officers are going to take half a month’s pay cut. The President, too, is going to take a month’s cut. It’s to show solidarity with fellow Singaporeans given the COVID-19 struggles. It’s a nice gesture, although I’m not really expecting the President, ministers, or MPs to really feel much of a financial pinch given how much they actually make.

There’ll also be a special bonus and grants given to frontline workers and GPs to acknowledge the hard work that they’ve put in to fight this outbreak. I’m all for this—it’s much deserved—but would also like us to all pay especial attention to this stellar performance by NMP Walter Theseira, who called for a permanent salary increase for workers like cleaners, security officers, healthcare workers, and emergency responders. Here are some quotes from what Theseira said in the House:

“Let me suggest that this year, we orient all efforts towards protecting and even increasing the wages of lower-paid Singaporeans, and paying for it by restraining and restructuring the wages of those higher up – which would include, I would suggest, honourable members as leaders in their own professions.”
“We cannot depend just on charity for filling in the gaps, especially since charitable activity may also be affected by an economic or social crisis.”
“In any case, the solution to being a nurse is not for that nurse to become a doctor and the solution for cleaners is not to hope that our children do not have to take up that job or to depend on an inexhaustible supply of low-cost foreign labour… Society needs both nurses and doctors, cleaners and lawyers. The solution is to pay and respect low-paid workers better.”

Sorry for quoting chunks of text there, but I just really wanted y’all to see them.

Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo had an exchange with the Workers’ Party’s Sylvia Lim in the House, arguing that WP’s suggestion of unemployment insurance had serious downsides, like reducing the motivation to seek employment. Here’s former GIC chief economist Yeoh Lam Keong pointing out some of the issues with Teo’s arguments: “[T]here is little evidence of an inefficient reduction in incentive to work in properly designed UI systems as Minister Teo claims. In fact, the labour market evidence shows that UI for about 3 months enables optimum job search that prevents workers from jumping at the first job that may not be such a good match for their skills or experience.”

The Lee family feud is back again

This must be the 500th episode of this drama, except we seem to be going back-and-forth on the exact same plot point about the will. A disciplinary tribunal has found that Lee Suet Fern misled Lee Kuan Yew, who was sick and frail, into signing his will. It’s sparked another flurry for Facebook posts from the siblings, with Lee Wei Ling insisting that her father knew exactly what he was doing. The whole “sick and frail” narrative does sound a little odd, considering we’d never really heard that Lee Kuan Yew had been so addled, while we’d definitely read laudatory news articles about how strong and sharp he’d been even in his old age (including having Chinese lessons on his birthday a year after he was meant to have been so doddery he couldn’t understand his will!) It’s actually problematic, really, if LKY had been so mentally incapable, because he continued to serve as a Member of Parliament right up to his death. Anyway, Lee Suet Fern says she’s going to fight the case in open court, so we’ll see what happens next.

And because there were plenty of complaints of “ugh this stupid family drama again”, I wrote an op-ed for New Naratif to remind everyone that it’s not just a domestic affair—there are issues here that have relevance to governance and politics in Singapore.

Enforcing rules during COVID-19

The Singapore government is absolutely not messing around with these Stay-Home orders. One guy violated the order and then tried to leave Singapore, and ended up not only losing his Permanent Residency, but also being barred from returning to the country. Two people have been charged under the Infectious Diseases Act for giving contract tracers false information. As of February 24, 14 workers have been penalised for flouting leave-of-absence rules, losing their work passes and receiving bans from working in Singapore, 11 have been punished for entering Singapore without approval, and 15 employers have had work pass privileges revoked. Migrant workers NGO, HOME, has pointed out that workers are usually dependent on their employers for having the right paperwork to bring them into the country, so workers might not be the ones who should be culpable if they’ve entered the country without the right approval papers. The Ministry of Home Affairs is also investigating an unregistered chapter of the Shincheonji Church from South Korea—many of the confirmed COVID-19 cases in Korea are members of this cult.

This Week on New Naratif

It’s been quite a week for New Naratif. We’re working on producing more timely content alongside our relatively evergreen pieces, and this week really put that to the test. I’ve already added links to the Singapore pieces above, so here are the non-Singaporean pieces:

With all the political turmoil in Malaysia, we figured it would be helpful for everyone to produce an explainer summing things up (it’s also available in Malay). Because we also publish art, our Comics and Illustrations Editor Charis Loke reached out to four other Malaysian artists, and together they produced this really powerful response to the situation. It was also a particularly good time to publish our latest comic explainer on partisanship.

But while the news cycle might have been absorbed by Malaysian political drama, it wasn’t the only thing going on. In keeping with our promise to publish more on the environment and the climate crisis, here’s a piece on flooded forests on the Tonle Sap, produced in collaboration with VOD in Cambodia. We also have an op-ed on arts censorship in Malaysia, which I think will resonate with some in Singapore.