LTA mobilising SAF soldiers during MRT breakdowns

From ‘Talk of SAF helping out in rail incidents sparks debate’, 22 Aug 15, article by Jermyn Chow, ST

News that soldiers could be roped in to help out during massive train breakdowns has sparked a debate about whether the military should pitch in during such incidents. Many questioned if rail disruptions are a “matter of national security” and whether the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), “a national resource”, should be called upon to help the public transport operators, which are commercial entities. Others, though, felt it was worthwhile tapping the military, which can be mobilised quickly and is “quite dependable”.

The Straits Times reported that the Land Transport Authority (LTA) has approached the SAF to explore deploying the men in green to give directions and manage crowds. They will be tapped only during large-scale disruptions.

Currently, personnel from the police, Public Transport Security Command and Singapore Civil Defence Force already help the LTA and public transport operators to manage such incidents.

On the issue of getting soldiers to lend a hand in the case of major disruptions, commuters had a variety of views. Accountant Lee Boon Chye, 29, who takes the train from Ang Mo Kio to work in Raffles Place, said: “While the army has the manpower and resources to get things done, it should not be helping to solve problems of companies that are profit- driven... It is also not a national crisis that requires soldiers. “These companies can hire auxiliary police officers or private security firms.”

…Defence analyst Ho Shu Huang said it is “not a bad thing” to involve the SAF for contingency planning, especially for worst-case scenarios. The associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University said: “Train breakdowns have so far resulted in delays for a few hours.

“But a train breakdown could become a crisis if there are other untoward consequences, such as a stampede, civil unrest or if the train breakdown continues for days or weeks… it will then be justifiable for the military to support efforts to manage the crisis.”

The last time the SAF was activated for a major event that had nothing to do with shooting and killing people was LKY’s state funeral, where 10,000 men and women were roped in to make sure the procession went smoothly (No job too big for Ah Boys, 16 May 15, ST). Other festivities which involved the army include the Youth Olympic Games in 2010, the recent SEA games, and of course the annual staple that is the NDP. The military supposedly has the most experience in organising massive groups of people quickly, and besides defending the nation or going overseas for humanitarian relief efforts, it sidelines as the country’s largest logistics organisation. It’s also a dependable source of cheap labour.

Event planning aside, SAF soldiers have been also tasked to patrol airports to beef up security against terrorists, which led some to question whether our boys in green are even qualified to handle hostage situations or urban warfare. There’s an unlikely long-standing relationship between SAF and public transport operators. In 1976, SBS ‘borrowed’ SAF mechanics to repair their buses in the midst of labour shortage. More bizarrely, soldiers were ‘volunteered’ to become guinea pigs in an 1987 experiment where they were subject to a mock breakdown exercise in the middle of a tunnel, squeezed into two cars to mimic peak hour conditions without air-conditioning. What is this, the Third Reich?

So not only does the SAF supply us with human bodies to do ‘sai-kang’, they also provide trial participants for ethically questionable experiments that test the limits of human endurance. Presumably because they’ve been adequately hard-drilled by the war machine to swallow unspeakable torture. Incidentally, both the LTA and SMRT chiefs are former military stalwarts, so no surprise that they probably agreed on this brilliant idea with a top brass handshake. Ah Boys to MRT Ushers, really. Furthermore, shouldn’t stampede control be managed by the riot police? Or we’re all reserving those guys for Little India scuffles?

So if we’re all fine with sacrificing our army pawns to tackle ‘national crises’ in peacetime, why stop at MRT breakdowns where there’s a remote chance of stampedes and ‘civil unrest’? We could apply their operational finesse in other matters that may affect ‘national security’, so that our police officers can focus on other areas like arresting bloggers. Here’s a list for consideration:

  1. McDonald’s Hello Kitty Queues
  2. Primary One Registration
  3. Securing JEM in event of fire/ceiling collapse/flood
  4. Security at K-pop concerts
  5. Crowd control when Kong Hee goes to court
  6. Sentry duty at SMRT depots in case of trespassing vandals
  7. Collection lines for SG50 Commemorative notes
  8. Picking up dead fish hit by mysterious seaborne disease
  9. N95 mask distribution during bad haze conditions
  10. Road marshalling at marathons. Wait, they’re probably already doing that for that Army one.

Pappy washing powder video is a political film

From ‘MDA reminds parties to not contravene Films Act ahead of General Election’, 17 Aug 15, article by Faris Mokhtar, CNA

The Media Development Authority (MDA) on Monday (Aug 17) said it will not be taking action against the Opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) for releasing a political film, which contravenes the Films Act.

The SDP uploaded two videos as part of its online campaign for the coming General Election. One focused on the local education system, suggesting that the system is stressful and has affected students’ well-being.

The other video is a tongue-in-cheek commercial featuring a made-up washing detergent brand called “Pappy White“. It shows a woman putting clothes printed with words like “transparency” and “democracy” into a washing machine. MDA has classified the video as a political film.

However, the authority said it will not be taking action against the SDP, noting that this is the first such incident. MDA added that parties may not have been fully aware of what is contained in the Films Act.

The authority reminded parties and candidates that they need to ensure that their political films do not contravene the Films Act. MDA also said it will not hesitate to enforce the law should they continue to publish such films.

The Films Act bans the making, import, distribution or screening of “party political films”. However, some films which meet certain criteria can be exempted. These include factual documentaries and manifestos of political parties produced by or on behalf of a political party.

The first ever political film to be shown to public is likely to be 1959’s ‘newsreel’ about PAP electioneering. Opposition parties complained that this was biased towards only one party. Ironically, the same ruling party that came up with the ban decades later could themselves have been breaching the said regulations when they first started out.

SDP’s Pappy washing powder creation has an unlikely connection with Forrest Gump. In 1998, BG George Yeo, then head of the Ministry of Information and the Arts, passed an Amendment which disallowed the distribution and exhibition of ‘political films’. He was convinced that opposition parties had sufficient avenues to disseminate their views. Fellow ‘pappie’ Jacob (Yaacob?) Ibrahim was concerned about the ‘danger’ of digital technology creating false images, as depicted in the movie ‘Forrest Gump’ when Tom Hanks’ titular hero was morphed into a scene with JFK.

Which means you can forget about recreating LKY’s CG clone for a future film after all those actors worthy enough to portray him have died.

Today, our dear George is lauded as PAP’s Internet ‘maverick’, and the Films Act has since been ‘clarified’ to exclude certain types of content from the ban. For example, a film that is a live recording of any event (performance, assembly etc) which does not depict the event, person or situation in a ‘DRAMATIC’ way. An classic example of how this apparent ‘relaxation’ of legislation took effect was the decision to unban Martyn See’s ‘Singapore Rebel’. From the video on Youtube, you see scenes of Chee Soon Juan mobbed to fever pitch by the police and bystanders rabble-rousing. Nope, not the least ‘dramatic’ at all. Another of See’s films, Speakers Cornered, also features CSJ, but was passed uncut with an NC-16 rating because the MDA decrees that you need ‘maturity to discern the intent and message of the film’. No such luck for Tan Pin Pin’s ‘To Singapore With Love’. All the maturity in the world can’t offer you a glimpse of the banned, allegedly manipulative documentary.

Even without ‘dramatic elements’ or ‘animation’, an unedited video of someone telling his life story would still fall afoul of the censors if it ‘undermines public confidence in the Government’, as what happened to another Martyn See work starring ‘ex-leftist’ Lim Hock Siew. Vague terms like ‘dramatic’ or ‘factual’ have no place in the Law when the Authority, or its ‘independent panels’, have the wherewithal to decide what is ‘non-partisan’ and what is ‘political’ regardless of what the Act says. Undermining public confidence in the PAP is exactly what the Pappy washing powder implies, though the MDA failed to point this out as a ‘political’ element for some reason.

We’re so used to Mediacorp ‘current affairs’ programmes featuring Cabinet ministers, such as 2005’s ‘Up Close’, that we forget that these too may potentially breach the Films Act. And there are so many other ‘films’ out there with hidden political ‘agendas’ that get off scot-free. Like a cringeworthy, totally non-partisan Young PAP recruitment video about ‘re-igniting a passion for servant leadership’, which was spared because it did not have ‘animation or dramatic elements’. Others that inevitably fall out of MDA’s radar, including those with song, dance and animation, include:

  1. A homemade tribute video on the PAP’s 60th annivesary, with a soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place in a Tarantino Western. Pappy Unchained?

2. A Steven Lim monologue urging you to vote PAP. Which the PAP may decide to ban for an entirely different reason.

3. This Taiwanese animation on Chee Soon Juan getting jailed.

4. This multimedia presentation that climaxes with a PAP logo next to a thumbs up. With cool retro 8-bit music.

5. This ‘Friday parody of how wonderful Election Day is.

6. Mr Brown parody on our ‘One Party’ leadership.

Which goes to show how archaic our laws are when it comes to catching up with new media. MDA’s ticking off aside, the Pappy video remains online as we speak, and in the meantime, if you need some legal ‘political’ entertainment, there’s this:

Retiring Chief of Defence Force entering politics

From ‘Chief of Defence Force LG Ng Chee Meng to retire this August’, 31 July 2015, article by Neo Chai Chin, Today

In a move set to spark speculation on whether he will enter politics, the Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General Ng Chee Meng, will retire from the Singapore Armed Forces on Aug 18. Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen had announced LG Ng’s retirement on Facebook.

On his plans moving forward, LG Ng said: “While I do not rule out the option of returning to the Administrative Service or entering politics if the opportunity presents itself, my immediate focus is on handing over my duties to the incoming Chief of Defence Force.”

Dr Ng said on his Facebook post that there would inevitably be questions asked about LG Ng’s future plans. “Given his tested leadership and proven capabilities, I would not at all be surprised, if indeed he is (entering politics),” wrote Dr Ng, who is also the People’s Action Party’s organising secretary.

According to the book ‘Singapore Politics Under the PAP’, military scholars in the early seventies were second choice to ‘academic and professional’ talents when it came to recruiting new blood for the ruling party. What was once the domain of lawyers, architects, bankers and doctors has given way to Brigadier Generals and Rear Admirals. Our second PM Goh Chok Tong was reportedly ‘aware that having too many military men’ in government was BAD for Singapore’s image, and Cabinet should not have a majority of so-called ‘paper generals’ with the same military mindset. Goh, incidentally, was once a TROOP LEADER in the Boy Scouts.

Hmm, I wonder what kind of impression that a government dominated by ‘scholar-soldiers’, some of whom get promptly appointed Minister of States after elections, would give the rest of the world.

Nevermind that the captain of the Singapore ship is the shining example of the military-PAP-public service complex, the youngest ever Brigadier General at the tender age of 32. Our DPM Teo is another, so is the current Secretary General of NTUC and the Minister of Manpower, a man who knows more than a thing or two about cardboard exercise. They even got an army guy as Auditor-General. Which turned out to be not a bad thing after all.

But it’s not just Parliament loading up with SAF powerhouses, military men have been snagging top positions in public transport operators and statutory boards as well, the most prominent one hogging the limelight at the moment being the ever apologetic Desmond Kuek, former Chief of Army and now SMRT CEO. Incidentally, Minister of Transport Lui Tuck Yew also happens to be a former Chief of Navy. Their combined military prowess could not prevent salt water from causing one of the worst train breakdowns in history.

Your retirement money is also in the safe hands of a military man. Earlier this year, Ng Chee Peng, former navy chief was appointed chief executive of the CPF board. He also happens to be Ng Chee Meng’s brother. Rear Admiral Ronnie Tay was chief of NEA and then IDA. BG Tan Yih Shan spearheaded IPOS. Chew Men Leong, ex Navy Chief, helmed PUB and is currently the head of LTA. So, assuming that men drilled in the ways of the warrior have the skill-set and discipline to deliver with clockwork precision, it’s inevitable that your money, your drinking water, your internet, mobile phone, car, even groceries all somehow have links to the SAF hydra. If an SAF scholar ever takes the chair at MDA, you can kiss your porn goodbye.

Maybe we should reserve our SAF scholars for something more befitting of their calibre than running ministries. Like saving our country from an alien invasion, a doomsday asteroid or Ebola. Like this badass below.

SG50 salary bonus should be for everyone

From ‘Extend SG50 bonus to all’, 19 June 2015, ST Forum

(Sim Ghee Choon): IT IS encouraging to hear that a $500 bonus will be given to civil servants (“Civil servants to get $500 in special SG50 payment”; yesterday). However, it is disheartening that Singaporeans who work in the private sector will miss out on this jubilee celebration.

Stay-at-home mothers who are taking care of the next generation and retirees will also not be similarly rewarded. Would the Government consider giving this bonus to all citizens in their Central Provident Fund accounts instead?

If the writer had done his homework, he would have known that DBS Bank had already given employees ranked vice president and below TWICE the civil service bonus (Companies urged to recognise employee’s contributions with special SG50 reward, 29 May, ST). SMRT also rewarded their staff with $500 worth of shopping vouchers. If the Government had decided to give not just civil servants, but EVERYONE in the country $50 cold hard cash ($500 would be ridiculous), people would still be complaining as if a millionaire relative just gave them a $4 ang pow during CNY .

One gripe that non-civil servants have towards the SG50 bonus, other than it not being distributed to every citizen, crooks and that bastard neighbour included,  is that it comes from taxpayers’ pockets. In 2003, a freelance journalist suggested in a Today commentary that the civil service is a burden to other Singaporeans who don’t live off an ‘iron rice bowl’, that those who work for the government ‘do not generate wealth’, and 1 in 9 people in the private sector is supporting a civil servant. That would be seeing the civil service in pure economic terms, without realising that that civil service extends beyond paper-pushing bureaucrats to the people that keep the streets safe, our young ones educated, and ensure the ill and infirmed are well taken care of. Yes, the same folks who will be working and sweating their butts off while the rest celebrate SG50 in August.

In 1971, Dr Toh Chin Chye was against the policy of dishing out civil service bonuses, for the very fact that this may become a ‘political issue’. To quote the man:

If Prime Minister Lee says to give each one a bonus, then I’m sure the confidence of the people in the Government will collapse.

As he predicted, once the bonus floodgates opened in a bid to keep the civil service ‘attractive’ and ‘clean’, ministries included, people began to question how the Government spent our hard-earned money. Today, those who don’t get the SG50 cut frantically take out their calculators and deduce what could be bought with that enormous sum of money ($71 million to be exact, according to TOC). No two people will ever agree, however, on how best the money should be spent. For every suggestion to pump dollars into ‘the arts’, there are others calling for more hospital beds, affordable housing or adding a Harry Potter attraction to Universal Studios.

Then there are those who call the Government out for vote-buying and begin to speculate on the timing for the next election. Though it may seem that $500 is the crunchiest carrot of the truckload of goodies that they have been dishing the past few years, any gratitude and pleasure over this bonus may just diminish over time due to hedonistic adaptation. It may be ‘Wow!’ one moment, and ‘Meh’ the next, simply because it doesn’t feel like you earned the $500 out of your individual achievements, especially since every Tom, Dick and Harry in the civil service got what you got. Besides, you don’t need to tempt civil servants to vote in the PAP. The whole system was designed such that they have an obligation to do so anyway.

The problem is that it’s impossible for the Government to know what EVERY damn Singaporean wants, nor should they pander to people who become instant financial advisors once there’s goodies to be given out. They declare an additional SG50 public holiday but some of us complain that we still need to work on shift, while those who don’t need to work take the opportunity to zip out of the country for a long weekend vacation like the ungrateful brats that we are. They give us fun packs but we complain that these are bloody useless and a waste of money. They give us free public transport and we scoff at their ability to deal with the impending crowds. They give our babies SG50 slings and we ask why no milk powder vouchers instead. They donate money to disaster-hit areas and we complain that we could have done more. They give electricity bill discounts and we complain that this encourages indiscriminate use and hurts the environment. If we push our luck any further, the Government may just use the spare dough to ship the whole lot of us to some Third World village for a week, just for us to see ‘how good we have it’ here, that we should be thankful we even get paid at all.

ST editor Chua Mui Hoong thinks that the $500 lacks sincerity (Cold hard cash lacks warm, fuzzy feeling, 21 June, Sunday Times), and compares the bonus to a man giving his girlfriend cash instead of making the extra effort to find out what she really wants.  She even thought of a ‘special gold-plated medallion’ to commemorate the event, like what we give to SG50 babies, which I would reject on the spot because it’s like a clueless relative giving you redundant kitchenware during Christmas. At least you can fetch a higher price selling crockery on Carousell. Nobody wants your stupid SG50 medallion, not even people with a fetish for medallion smelling. Hell, if you want sincerity and love let’s just forget the money and instead have our MPs come deliver to every Singaporean 50 seconds of hugs and kisses then.

Uber and Grabtaxi drivers requiring a vocational licence

From ‘Uber, Grabtaxi drivers may need vocational licence’, 10 June 15, article by Zachary Soh, My Paper

DRIVERS who run chauffeur services under ride-booking apps such as Uber could be required to obtain a vocational licence in the future.  While they are currently free from this requirement, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) said yesterday that it is looking into removing this exemption, as a way to ensure the safety of passengers taking private-hire rides.

In a forum letter published in The Straits Times, LTA noted that chauffeured vehicle services have become more accessible to the public with technology and given the industry’s recent growth, it is studying possible measures to safeguard commuter interest. The cab community has cried foul recently, following news of ride-matching apps and rental companies working together to run their own fleet of “taxis”.

The rental firms lease out cars to drivers at a rate cheaper than taxis. The drivers then use the vehicles to fulfil bookings from apps like Uber and GrabTaxi. These companies and drivers, however, do not have to meet the stringent requirements imposed on the taxi industry, such as vocational training.

…Meanwhile, Uber drivers have told The Straits Times that the time and money required to take a vocational course will be an extra burden for them. One driver, Yu Kim Reed, 30, asked why vocational licences have to be implemented now, given that chauffeur services have been around for so long. “The only difference is that a (car hire) call centre has been replaced by the Internet,” Mr Yu said.

According to the Sunday Times (Are ride-matching apps an UBER problem, 14 June 2015, ST), some Uber drivers do in fact ply their trade like ‘chauffeurs’. One subscriber known as ‘Marcus’ supplies mints, newspapers, water, even a socket for phone charging for his customers. Uber also has a strict rating system whereby any score below an average of 4.3 (out of 5) warrants a suspension or total ban, so drivers are forced to go the extra mile, sometimes literally.

Other requirements before becoming a full-fledged Uber driver include a 2 hour training session, online lessons, up to $5000 commercial insurance, and setting up your own company and registering your car for commercial use should you choose to drive your own vehicle. All that, however, doesn’t ensure passenger ‘safety’ as what LTA is hung up about. Then again, your safety isn’t guaranteed even if you’re in the backseat of a ‘proper’ taxi anyway, especially if you’re drunk and vulnerable.

One ride-sharing/matching app supporter explained in a letter to the ST that the business model satisfies a genuine need among frustrated passengers who have tried calling call centres and forced to ‘listen to their holding music’ (Ensure licensing doesn’t stifle progress, 12 June 2015, ST Forum). He also hinted at an element of ‘protectionism’ given that main players like Comfort Delgro, having tremendous ‘economies of scale’, still reap profits despite their high rental costs. As the occasional app-user myself, I tend to agree that there is a market for such services, more so if my Uber ride includes complementary perks like an iPhone charger or a bottle of champagne.  It is also a wake up call for regular cabbies not to disappear just before midnight charges kick in, not to rely on the customer for directions, or drive like demented road warriors in Mad Max.

Financial factors like app companies taking a cut from your earnings aside, 3rd party booking apps have their share of problems too. Grab Taxi requires you to exchange handphone numbers with cabbies, for instance. Passengers could screw you over by cancelling last minute or not appearing at the designated pick-up spot. You still risk having someone puke all over your backseat, or rob you with a box-cutter. Someone got duped into paying $97 to a fake Uber driver. But that is how ‘market forces’ work. If you want your privacy, or if you don’t trust private cars, take the train, but bear with the crowd and breakdowns, or fight with other flag-down passengers.

Ride-sharing/matching is still, at the very least, more reassuring than the ‘pirate taxis’ that once roamed the streets.  These flourished as early as the mid fifties, when entrepreneurial drivers capitalised on the bus strikes to perform a public service when people could no longer rely on the main form of public transport. Business was so competitive in fact, pirates were willing to charge 5 CENTS per mile and provide ‘doorstep’ escorting services.  It’s a misuse of the traditional use of the word ‘pirate’, though. These drivers aren’t plundering from anyone. They’re pirates like how people operate ‘pirate radio’ before the Internet. Comfort DelGro is your ‘Top Hits’ station, with the same old songs played to death, while Uber/Grab Taxi is where you get to hear the ‘cool stuff’ without ‘royalties’.

Of course, the Government had to clamp down on these guys and declare all out war, not so much that passengers were harmed by it, but because they had to protect the interests of our taxi-drivers, who were partly the reason why pirates had their supporters in the first place. Taxi drivers then tend to ‘choose’ tourists over locals, and people complained about their ‘attitude’ after an evening at the cinema. Today, taxis choose to wait in queue outside our casinos rather than pick you up when you’re stranded in some godforsaken ulu place past midnight. By the time you get an actual human voice on the Comfort Cab booking line, you would have been assaulted and left to die pants-down by the road.

In 1970, the Government coerced drivers into ‘job conversion’ in a bid to phase out pirate operations, and anyone who continued to go pirate would be fined and have their ride confiscated. In 1971, a man who depended on pirating as his livelihood was driven to suicide by traffic offences slapped by the police, among other debt woes. By 1975, the pirates returned to the new towns, because the waiting time for the only bus on the road was probably longer than that needed to set up your one-man taxi business.  Even if bus frequencies have since improved, we sometimes still watch helplessly as bus after bus zooms by, the captain ignoring your flailing arms, oblivious that there’s a gaping hole in the middle because nobody wants to move in.

Today, the authorities are considering a softer approach in contrast to the ‘Operation Pirate Taxi’ blitz of the past, but the fact that we’re even discussing frameworks and legislation now despite our ‘world class’ transport system, in view of the high demand for these apps (6 companies and counting, the LTA one not included), suggests that not enough is being done to move people around an increasingly crowded city efficiently. Well yes, there are good and bad Comfort drivers, just like there are good and bad Uber/Grab Taxi drivers, but there isn’t enough evidence to say that the one without an official licence is more likely to drive you off a pier and plunge into the river. For the record, regular taxis have driven into condo pools before. At least I know which of the two is more likely to carry a float just in case the unimaginable happens.

Instead of a knee-jerk reaction of mandatory licensing, the first thing LTA should work on is figuring out what’s wrong with the current system, and consider the benefits of these apps not just in terms of moving the public, but as a form of employment, without having their judgement fudged by taxi giants with vested interest in seeing the demise of their hi-tech rivals.  In the meantime, if I want an ‘uber’ chauffeur service at a fraction of the price of an actual limousine, I know who to call.

Pearl Bank apartments to be gazetted for conservation

From ‘Why the sudden decision to conserve Pearl Bank?’, 5 June 2015, ST Forum

(Loke Chee Meng): I AM surprised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) decision to consider conserving the Pearl Bank apartments based on a submission by the owners (“URA sees merit in conservation plan for Pearl Bank”; last Saturday, and “Conservation ‘can unlock Pearl Bank’s value'”; Monday).

Until recently, Pearl Bank would have met the wrecking ball had the owners’ last attempt at a collective sale been successful. The owners’ representative made no bones about conservation being hatched up as an afterthought to salvage the dwindling value of the ageing property after previous collective sale attempts failed.

Integral to this conservation deal is a consideration for an increase in the property’s gross floor area. If this increase were not granted, would the owners still be keen on pursuing conservation?

URA’s principle in conserving the building befuddles me. It was perfectly willing all along to allow Pearl Bank to be redeveloped after a collective sale. Why does the URA now deem the development worthy of conservation, after three attempts at a collective sale failed?

Conservation rules should not be so arbitrary that they can be exploited for self-interests. It is the authorities’ responsibility to proactively identify potential conservation buildings, as owners would make submissions only as and when it benefits them.

With more leasehold properties ageing, we may see more frivolous submissions, if the authorities do not step in, and this will undermine the process of conserving genuine historical buildings.

The 40 year old horseshoe-shaped Pearl Bank Apartment (PBA) was once described as a 38 storey 3-D jigsaw puzzle, housing 272 units, plus 8 penthouses, in a single  block. One ST writer waxed poetic about its ‘cylindrical design inspired by rounded river pebbles, fabricated to exact tolerances with just the right balance between tightness and looseness’. Its interlocking facade has also been compared to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, an example of the style known as ‘Brutalism‘. Though described as a complex structure created by an alien space race to inspire us pathetic earthlings, it was really the brainchild of local pioneer Tan Cheng Siong.

Unlike other conserved buildings which include shophouses and bungalows, PBA may not be aesthetically pleasing to the eye at first glance, which could be said the same of other buildings of the era, including People’s Park Complex and the vertical slum that is Golden Mile Complex. They’re like the ugly forbears of the sleek condos and DBSS flats that we have now, but like the recently gazetted national monument Jurong Town Hall, what ultimately matters if how influential and aspirational the structures were at the time, even if they look like discarded engine parts of a Borg mothership. Not so lucky was Eng Cheong towers, also a child of the 70’s, which was torn to the ground to make way for the Southbank development. Another relic that was quietly removed from the face of the earth, as I was surprised to discover, was the 7th storey Hotel in Bugis. In its place now lies the Downtown Line Bugis station.

Yet beauty and heritage value alone may not preserve buildings in their entirety. In 2007, a petition was launched against the demolition of the century-old ‘Butterfly House’ at 23 Amber Road, the only bungalow with curved wings and designed by the same Regent Alfred John Bidwell of Raffles Hotel and Goodwood Park fame.  Today, only the porch sans wings remains and it serves as a ‘world-class entrance lobby’ to the 18 storey Aristo condo, described as a juxtaposition of ‘classic charm and modern luxury’.

Personally, it looks like colonial bungalow with a giant concrete tumour sticking out of it. How URA could allow this token monstrosity to exist eludes me. Regent Alfred would rather see his work burnt to ashes, than having a gorgeous house latched onto a condo like a princess forced to carry a tower of bricks on her back. Now that is Brutal. Let’s all pray that PBA doesn’t meet the same fate.

NAC withdrawing $8000 grant for Sonny Liew’s graphic novel

From ‘NAC withdraws grant for graphic novel publisher due to ‘sensitive’ content’, 30 May 2015, article in CNA

The National Arts Council (NAC) has withdrawn a publishing grant for the graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye on the eve of its Singapore launch because of “sensitive content”. The council declined to elaborate on the reasons behind the decision to revoke the S$8,000 grant.

The experimental graphic novel by artist-illustrator Sonny Liew follows the story of comic-book artist Charlie Chan during the formative years of Singapore’s modern history. It weaves together fictional and historical elements, with nods to events and personalities in the nation’s history, such as Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, opposition politician Lim Chin Siong and Operation Spectrum, the so-called Marxist Conspiracy, in 1987.

In a statement, NAC’s senior director of the literary arts sector Khor Kok Wah said: “We had to withdraw the grant when the book The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye came out because its sensitive content, depicted in visuals and text, did not meet our funding conditions. The Council will continue to support and work with Epigram, a leading publisher of Singapore literary works, on other projects.”

…Mr Liew expressed his disappointment with NAC’s decision. “I’d hoped the book was nuanced enough in … dealing with the issues. But developments have made it clearer that NAC works under constraints that make it difficult for it to support works that are deemed politically sensitive.”

In 2011, the NAC withdrew a grant for a volume of playwright Chong Tze Chien’s collected plays, which had included Charged, a play that dealt with national service and race.

According to the Funding Guidelines, NAC will reject works that appear to have a ‘negative influence on society’, those that advocate for lifestyles that are seen as ‘objectionable’ by the public, denigrate on the basis of race or religion, undermine the authority of the government or threaten the nation’s security or stability. In Charlie Chan, Operation Spectrum is satirised as a plot to ‘replace all music in Singapore with the melodies of Richard Marx’, which gives a new, rather ominous twist to the lyrics of his greatest hit ever, Right Here Waiting (wherever you go, whatever you do, I will be right here waiting for you). Not only will this ‘indirect censorship’ boost sales of Sonny’s book, it will also draw audiences to rediscover the adult contemporary music genius that is Richard Marx.

A more extreme parallel to Charlie Chan would be the charges slapped on fellow cartoonist Leslie Chew, the mastermind behind ‘Demon-cratic Singapore’. But I would think another reason why the depiction of LKY in a comic book is considered ‘too sensitive’ for funding is probably because of recent discussions to make it illegal for anyone to commercialise the image of our great leader for personal gain. I wouldn’t be surprised if MDA goes around pasting black boxes over panels of Charlie Chan containing references to LKY or the Marxist insurgency. The way around that, of course, is to order the unedited ‘US version’, or head over to the Causeway to buy it, along with a DVD for ‘To Singapore, with Love‘, which would neatly serve as a ‘behind the scenes’ companion to Charlie Chan if you want to know more about that fog of Singapore history known as Operation Spectrum.

Interestingly, Chong Tze Chien, the other victim of NAC’s sudden withdrawal was featured on the organisation’s publication titled ‘Literary Singapore’. The ‘directory’ of writers describes the play ‘Charged’ as such:

Through his signature use of experimental and innovative puppetry and stage devices, Chong’s “Charged” is Singapore’s most controversial and nuanced political play to date – addressing the issue of racial tensions in the most explosive of scenarios – that of a Chinese corporal shooting his Malay counterpart while on military duty.

And then NAC decided: Hmm, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea supporting this after all, I want my money back. What was once lauded as a ‘most controversial’ portrayal of race relations becomes a ‘taboo’ overnight. One moment you’re giving yourself a pat on the back for a ‘progressive’ stance, and the next you’re hurriedly taking it back, like ‘modern’ parents having second thoughts about giving their 18 year old son the car keys before his big date, afraid that they may have to pay an abortion check later. Incidentally, ‘Charged’ won the ‘BEST ORIGINAL SCRIPT’ at the 11th Life! Theatre Awards.

I suppose one has to be prepared to make a living the hard way if your grant doesn’t qualify because your book or script is too provocative by NAC standards and may spark a mass riot like Charlie Hebdo. If only they’d told you sooner though. MDA did the same last-minute about turn when they banned Ken Kwek’s Sex Violence Family Values when it was just about to premiere in local cinemas. You could say the authorities were ‘right there waiting’ before deciding to pull the plug.

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