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What governs the way public agencies use our data?

Issue 79

Burn-out is real, kids. Do not recommend, 0/10.

After I got back to Singapore from my whirlwind trip to Indonesia, I crashed out hard with flu?/food poisoning?/stomach flu?/chronic fatigue? Let’s just say it’s not been a very fun week. I’m going to have to come up with a better work schedule rather than my current schedule known as “24/7”.

How does our data get used?

72-year-old Clifford Theseira posted on Facebook that he could only get $575 out of his CPF (retirement savings) every month, which is nowhere near enough for him and his wife. To make ends meet, he has to work as a Grab driver—but now CPF is asking him to make Medisave contributions, failing which he won’t be able to renew his licence that allows him to work.

Anything CPF-related is more likely to touch a nerve with Singaporeans, and his post started to circulate widely, prompting a response from CPF. In their public statement, they revealed the amount of money that he’d already withdrawn from his CPF, plus the fact that he owns a fully paid-up five-room flat (I guess their implication was that he could sell it and downgrade to a smaller place for some money?)

I’m not going to rebut CPF’s statement here—Andrew Loh does better than I could on Facebook. What really gets me is how easily CPF released Mr Theseira’s personal information.

While Singapore does have a Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA), this law specifically exempts public agencies. So it’s perfectly legal for CPF to be blabbing about Mr Theseira’s finances and property, even without his express consent.

But isn’t it concerning that our personal information, entrusted to the state, can be trotted out in agencies’ defence if we say anything that might make them look bad? What should be the ethical guidelines around divulging a citizen’s information? This isn’t the first time that this has happened—in 2010, then-Minister for Community, Youth, and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan divulged information about a homeless couple’s finances in Parliament after they were featured in a news report on homelessness. Earlier this year, the CPF Board and Ministry of Health also divulged information about a woman’s prognosis—and the amount of money that had been paid out to her—after her husband’s appeal to be able to use his own Medisave funds to pay for her treatment went public.

Online vigilantism

Over the past week some Singaporeans online have been obsessed with their outrage over a guy who verbally abused the security guard at his condominium after he was told that there would be a $10 parking fee for visitors after 11pm. He’s since apologised, but there is more than one petition floating around, with thousands of signatures, calling for him to be sacked from his job and deported.

Sure, verbally abusing the security officer and bragging about how much his condo cost was a dick move, but I’ve not got much patience for such online mobs. They’re often laden with racism and xenophobia, and it can be pretty gross how Singaporeans prove that we’re capable of mobilising and demanding accountability and action—when it has to do with dumping on people who don’t have power to trigger repercussions against us. What happened to mobilising for accountability and action from actual people in actual power who actually make policies and laws that actually affect our lives?

The languages we speak

I love this piece in RICE Media, pointing out that Mandarin was never the Mother Tongue of Chinese Singaporeans. Most Chinese Singaporeans are descended from the people of Southern China, who spoke Southern Chinese languages (yes, languages, not dialects) like Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka and Cantonese. Thanks to the government’s policy of promoting Mandarin and eradicating the use of these other languages in public spaces, many of us Chinese Singaporeans are actually linguistically cut off from our roots—and it’s not like we’re so brilliant at speaking Mandarin now, either.

Got some more

The Workers’ Party has released a statement on the climate crisis on their website, outlining their position on the issue and what they’ve said about it in Parliament.

A group of mothers—whose children ended their own lives—have started a campaign for a national strategy on mental health and suicide. If you haven’t done so, please also get a copy of Linda Collins’ Loss Adjustment; it is such important reading.

What’s up in Singapore?

This weekend, we have the Freedom Film Festival happening at The Projector! Please remember to chope your tickets on Eventbrite—you can find more information here.

There is, of course, the Singapore Writers Festival. I’m not usually an attendee—am nowhere near organised enough to get tickets—although I’ve been occasionally spotted in the bookstore, a tsundoku in the wild. Here are some free events that have leapt out at me in this year’s programme: A Spotlight on Migrant Voices, My Language, My Narrative?, and the launch of the expanded edition of Budi Kritik.

And don’t forget Apa Itu Activist next Saturday!

First off, we’ve released a new episode of our Political Agenda podcast! Political Agenda is a roundtable discussion on issues of importance to Singapore, and this time we talked about youth activism, linking the conversation to questions and points made at the democracy classroom New Naratif facilitated on the same topic. You can also subscribe to Political Agenda (search: New Naratif’s Political Agenda) on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Overcast, Stitcher, etc.

Over the past week, we’ve also taken a look back at the international outcry against Brunei’s Syariah Penal Code that surged earlier this year, then disappeared as quickly as it came. Matthew Woolfe of The Brunei Project argues that the international press got caught up in the idea of gay people being stoned to death (which hasn’t happened and is fairly unlikely to), but neglected to take a look at the broader context and ongoing human rights abuses in the country.

And then there’s this really fascinating piece on barlake, a series of customary exchanges that take place during Timorese weddings. As Timor-Leste modernises—and grows increasingly capitalist in orientation—barlake has come to be seen as backward, even though it might be unfair to see barlake as a simple bride-price transaction. Modern couples are now finding their own ways to preserve cultural traditions while remaining critical.