Go tie yourself to a tree, judge tells homeless man

I was saddened yet at the same time angry when I read this news report:

Straits Times, Aug 18, 2009

Jailed for living in illegal tent

By Sujin Thomas

HOMELESS and unemployed, Noor Mohammad Yassin Ismail pitched a canvas tent at East Coast Park in May, 2007, and lived there for almost a month – without a lease or licence to do so.

He was discovered on June 26 of that year, after he was apprehended by park rangers.

In court on Tuesday, Noor was asked to produce his Identity Card or passport but he said that he had lost both items.

It prompted District Judge Mr Shaiffudin Saruwan to retort in jest: ‘I suggest you use a bicycle chain to tie yourself to a tree or you may lose yourself as well.’

Pleading for leniency, Noor, who is tanned and skinny, said that he seldom ate, only doing so if friends gave him food.

He added that his mother is paralysed and looked after by a younger sibling, while an elder sister does not care about him.

He was fined $800 but could not afford to pay the fine so he was jailed four days instead. He could have been fined up to $2,000.

Jailed for living in illegal tent
By Sujin Thomas
HOMELESS and unemployed, Noor Mohammad Yassin Ismail pitched a canvas tent at East Coast Park in May, 2007, and lived there for almost a month – without a lease or licence to do so.
He was discovered on June 26 of that year, after he was apprehended by park rangers.
In court on Tuesday, Noor was asked to produce his Identity Card or passport but he said that he had lost both items.
It prompted District Judge Mr Shaiffudin Saruwan to retort in jest: ‘I suggest you use a bicycle chain to tie yourself to a tree or you may lose yourself as well.’
Pleading for leniency, Noor, who is tanned and skinny, said that he seldom ate, only doing so if friends gave him food.
He added that his mother is paralysed and looked after by a younger sibling, while an elder sister does not care about him.
He was fined $800 but could not afford to pay the fine so he was jailed four days instead. He could have been fined up to $2,000.

It is bad enough that this poor (literally) man who doesn’t even have food to eat and a place to stay is jailed, but when I read what Judge Shaiffudin Saruwan said to him as he sentenced him, I was completely aghast! Does the judge have no compassion whatsoever? He jails a destitute man and then insults him.

What is my country coming to? A land where the powerful elites sneer at the weakest members of society instead of helping them?

I thank reporter Sujin Thomas for highlighting this case.

No barrier-free access to ION? Forget it then!

Channel NewsAsia has reported that the pedestrian crossing between the new ION Orchard and Wheelock Place will be closed from today. This means shoppers will have to use the underground link. Able-bodied shoppers that is.

People on wheelchairs or babies in prams will have to use another road crossing 150 metres away. But wait, sorry only prams can. Wheelchair users will find the ramp too steep to use. Too bad for them.

Frankly I find it very frustrating that the “premier” new shopping centre in Orchard Road also doesn’t have barrier free access for wheelchairs and prams. It says a lot about mall developers, the Building and Construction Agency’s building codes and our society’s lack of empathy for the less able-bodied among us.

Continue reading “No barrier-free access to ION? Forget it then!”

Parliament debates HDB rental flats, upgrading, e-engagement and Gaza crisis

PARLIAMENT on Friday [6 Feb] debated the budgets of three ministries – Foreign Affairs, National Development, and Information, Communications and the Arts.

Ministry of National Development

Mr Low Thia Khiang (WP-Hougang) queried the Minister for National Development about the recent demolition of flats on Hougang Avenue 7. He lamented that the demolition took place just seven years after Hougang Town Council used its own funds to upgrade the lifts in those flats. (Hougang, being an opposition ward, is at end of the queue for the Lift Upgrading Programme [LUP]. The LUP expenses for PAP wards are typically borne by HDB with small co-payments by the local town council and residents.)

Mr Low remarked that much of the money was wasted because of the early demolition. He said that in future, HDB should inform the Town Council earlier of its redevelopment plans, lest such waste took place again.

In her initial response, Senior Minister of State (National Development) Grace Fu, skimmed over the issue. Mr Low later pressed Ms Fu for an answer, adding that HDB ought to reimburse Hougang Town Council for the money that went to waste.

Ms Fu reiterated the Government’s earlier commitment to complete the LUP by 2014. Given the time needed to complete the works, HDB would have to make their selections and announcements of contractors by 2011.

Regarding the flat demolitions, the Senior Minister of State explained that HDB regularly reviews its land use, and that her Ministry “can’t tell seven years in advance” of redevelopment plans – “not even seven months”.Mr Masagos Zulkifli (PAP-Tampines) and Mdm Ho Geok Choo (PAP-West Coast) asked the Minister about the shortage of subsidised HDB rental flats for needy residents.

Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan revealed that there were currently 4,550 applicants in the queue for subsidised rental flats. He said that “two-thirds of them have reasons not to be in the queue”. He cited examples of retirees who had no income but significant savings from the sale of their flats, yet qualified for rental flats. His ministry’s solution to this housing crunch would be to further tighten the eligibility criteria for rental flats.

Mdm Cynthia Phua (PAP-Aljunied) expressed dismay at this proposal, emphasising that in times of economic downturn, the Government “should have more love” instead of tightening the rental housing criteria for old folks. Mr Mah responded, saying that the purchase of a $90,000 two-room flat is “easily affordable” to someone earning $1,200. Continue reading “Parliament debates HDB rental flats, upgrading, e-engagement and Gaza crisis”

Is Straits Times protecting Govt from criticism?

The following is a letter from a volunteer with TWC2, a migrant worker advocacy group, that was sent last week to the Straits Times Forum. It got rejected for publication by the Forum editor, but was re-published by The Online Citizen. I felt it was an excellently argued piece. It makes no wild accusations, and cogently explains the difference in how the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and a victimised foreign worker defines a “resolved” salary dispute. If it was rejected primarily for the purpose of protecting MOM from criticism, I find it quite shameful of the paper to do that.

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Dear ST Forum,

(MOM deputy director) Ms Ng’s letter aims to counter a remark in an earlier Straits Times article in which Jolovan Wham, Executive Director of H.O.M.E., was quoted as saying ‘foreign workers here are given little real protection’.

Ms Ng stated that foreign workers wage claims are usually resolved before they return home except in exceptional circumstances. The veracity of this statement depends on what Ms Ng means by ‘resolved’. Workers may have accepted settlement terms and agreed to return home, but whether or not the settlement terms equal a fair and just outcome is a different matter. In the past few months, many foreign workers from Bangladesh and China have been repatriated and statements from MOM often claim their cases have been ‘resolved’. Yet it is not always the case that these workers are paid fully what they are owed nor are mediation processes necessarily fair.

While a salary case is pending, workers are generally unable to work and cannot afford to stay in Singapore for too long. When cases drag on, workers tend to grow desperate and, under pressure, agree to ’settle’ for whatever is given. The alternative, of prolonging their stay with no guarantee of a higher settlement, weighs mediation outcomes heavily towards employers’ interests.

Furthermore, it is not unreasonable to expect workers to be compensated for breach of contracts. Citing ‘impracticality’ and an economic downturn is questionable. A bad economy does not excuse unethical business practices nor flexibility in upholding the law. It must also be pointed out that there have been many cases in which construction workers from China have been fined hefty ‘breach of contract’ fees despite the fact that their contracts have terms less favorable than the Employment Act and should be void. Companies then deduct large sums of money from the workers’ unpaid salaries, citing ‘breach of contract fees’, before repatriating them. In the past few months, MOM has allowed these ‘breach of contract fees’ to be deducted from workers salaries during mediation meetings.. How is it that this is not considered ‘impractical’ in an economic downturn?

It is encouraging to know that the MOM is taking the recent media coverage seriously and is acting to ensure employers uphold the Employment Act. We look forward to greater enforcement of existing laws and prosecution of errant employers so that all workers will be protected. After all, it is not the mere existence of laws that provide protection but its active and consistent enforcement.

Ms. Stephanie Chok Juin Mei

(This letter was re-published with Ms Chok’s permission. MOM’s letter to the ST can be found here.)

Troubled families: Malay problem or Singapore problem?

But even as most Singaporean Malays are progressing, filling more places in universities and polytechnics, joining the middle class and living in bigger homes, one small group is falling behind.

And it is this minority — the dysfunctional families — that concerns Mr Lee Hsien Loong.

On the rise: Divorce rates, the number of single-parent households and an “unacceptably high number” of teenage births and early marriages. Calling last night on self-help group Mendaki to mobilise a community-wide effort to address the problem of such families, Mr Lee said this was vital to avert a “serious social problem” and “a human tragedy”.

“In the last two years, the community has started to tackle these issues. But you need to muster a major effort focused on this problem, and work out practical and effective solutions.

“In this area, your self-help efforts are critical….”

Excerpts from TODAY, 3 Sep 07

PM Lee, in his speech at Mendaki yesterday, brought up the issue about dysfunctional Malay families yet again. He had already mentioned it during the Malay portion of his National Day Rally speech last month, and I believe he also mentioned it during last year’s speech. Now he says it may result in a “serious social problem” and “a human tragedy”.

Obviously this is a very worrisome issue for the government, and the situation hasn’t improved much over the past year, otherwise PM Lee wouldn’t have mentioned it again and again.

But is this a Malay problem for the “Malay community” to solve on their own, or it is a problem that ALL Singaporeans need to collectively tackle? In his speech, PM Lee used the word “you” more than “we” to describe who needs to deal with the problem. I wonder why? Aren’t we all Singaporeans? Why the “it’s-your-problem-go-solve-it” approach? Should we continue on in our “self help” approach to problems, or is an “all of us help” approach more appropriate in today’s Singapore?

PM Lee mentioned that “it is much harder for the Government to intervene, or for other voluntary welfare organisations outside the Malay/Muslim community to take action, without being misunderstood or triggering a defensive reaction”. Is this really the case, or is it a false assumption? If done sensitively, would it be possible for Singapore’s limited social support resources to be redirected to where the need is currently most acute?

This post is not intended to be another smart alec commentary criticizing government policies. I don’t know enough about social problems to comment. I would really like to hear from readers what YOU think is the way forward.

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Acts of irresponsibility cause for concern


Acts of irresponsibility cause for concern
Straits Times forum, 9 June 2007

I REFER to the report, ‘M-cyclist was hit by a car, run over by another’ (ST, June 7). It is sad to read about the behaviour of the two drivers, who callously did not stop to render assistance to the victim.

Whatever reasons there might be (e.g., running an errand, fear), these paled in significance when a life was at stake, especially when one was responsible for the situation.

The recent spate of reports on personal misconduct or sheer irresponsibility (e.g., hit-and-run accidents, drink driving, senseless violent behaviour over inconsequential matters and self-absorbed acts) highlights some contemporary social values which could be taking root in our society.

While these might be isolated incidents, they warrant concern because the individuals spanned the age spectrum.

We live in a hedonistic age, where personal success is now measured by social status and wealth. The detrimental effects on our social consciousness arising from the pursuit of instant self-gratification and one-upmanship are becoming more and more evident.

However, unlike in the past, inculcation of the values of delayed gratification, self-denial and concern for others can no longer be left to government social campaigns.

After all, personal behaviour is not the responsibility of the Government, but of the individual himself. Ultimately, one has to bear the consequences of one’s choices.

As for children, it is vital that parents or even adults set a good example. As the Chinese saying goes, ‘if the upper beam is not straight, the lower one will be slanted too’.

Hence, it gives one hope to read about fellow citizens going the extra mile to do the right thing. Such examples of personal accountability and social responsibility are truly worthy of commendation and emulation.

The ‘slouch towards Gomorrah’ does not happen overnight, but on a gradual basis when we allow certain values to take root, or condone certain behaviour.

Once these values take root, we will be increasingly desensitised to such behaviour, and gradually become a self-absorbed citizenry.

It would be ironic if our social fabric, which was carefully built upon the traditional values of our forefathers, is so carelessly withered away by those who come after.

Tan Eng Tat
Beijing, China

This was a well-written letter by one of my friends and ex-colleagues.

It seems that the blistering pursuit of growing the economy and pragmatism (instead of idealism) has already led to our society becoming so self-absorbed that symptoms are being seen in so many areas of life in Singapore. From not giving up seats on the MRT to pregnant women and playing loud music on the train, to a lack of civic consciousness, political apathy and a general indifference to anything in society that doesn’t directly benefit oneself or one’s family.

Things have got to change, if we are to progress (not just economically) as a society.


Sylvia Lim: WP will not push gay issues in Parliament

Workers’ Party (WP) Chairman Sylvia Lim told a packed audience of over 80 people at the WP Headquarters yesterday that her party will not be canvassing for the de-criminalisation of gay sex in Singapore.

Ms Lim, who is also a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP), was speaking at a public forum organised by the WP to discuss the Singapore Government’s proposed amendments to the Penal Code — the primary criminal legislation that defines crimes like defamation, criminal breach of trust and rape, and their respective punishments. It was the WP’s first public forum this year and part of a series of events to mark the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s oldest political party in this November. The event featured presentations from several speakers.

Ms Lim kicked off the discussion by lamenting about the lack of attention paid to legal issues in Singapore by the media and the public. As a result, when the issue of crime was discussed, the “right wing school” often seemed to dominate the debates. She expressed concern about the sharp increases in prison terms for some offences. For example, if the amendments were approved by Parliament, the punishment for assaulting an MP would increase from 7 years to 20 years, and the penalty for being part of an unlawful assembly (itself a contentious matter) is to increase from 6 months to 2 years. Ms Lim felt that these new sentencing guidelines might further increase Singapore’s prison population, which was already the second-highest in Asia (as a percentage of the total population). This, she said, would not bode well for efforts to create an inclusive society.

Lawyer and TODAY columnist Thomas Koshy noted that while the proposed amendments included lifting of some immunity for husbands who rape their wives, it didn’t go far enough to cover all instances of marital rape. Party member Firuz Khan contrasted the process of enacting legislation in Singapore and the UK. He pointed out that in the UK, there were two Houses of Parliament, many non-government organisations (NGOs) and a diverse media to scrutinise bills before they were passed. This is not the case in Singapore, where the media tends to favour the Government’s position on proposed legislation and there is little organised action by NGOs to push issues. Marriage counsellor Anthony Yeo, who was the last to speak, encouraged ordinary citizens and NGOs to submit their views on the Penal Code, instead of depending on the Opposition to voice its disagreement.

WP reveals its position on homosexual issues

The issue of decriminalising gay sex gave rise to a heated debate during part of the question-and-answer session following the panel presentations. Two gay lobbyists in the audience questioned the apparent bias against gays in Singapore, arguing that it went against the Constitution, which guarantees equal rights to all Singaporeans. They wondered if the WP would be their representatives to speak up in Parliament for the gay community. The gay community was understandably upset that the proposed Penal Code amendments did not revoke Section 377A, which states that:

“Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.”

Ms Lim revealed that the issue of decriminalisation of gay sex had been discussed by the Party leadership. She said that while there was some “sympathy for the gay position”, there was no agreement among the Party’s leaders on moving this issue forward as a party agenda. Therefore, the WP would not be pushing that in Parliament. The WP chairman gave no indication that this position would change in the future. She did observe, however, that the gay lobby in Singapore was already very vocal and more than capable of pushing this issue on their own.

The WP’s stand of homosexuality may have surprised, or even disappointed, some who were hoping for Singapore’s largest opposition party to advance a more liberal agenda against the People’s Action Party (PAP) Government, which has been criticised by many as being out of step with the times on several issues, particularly with regards to political freedom and social mores.

In recent years, the WP has sought to distance itself from the confrontational politics practiced by the likes of its former chief J.B. Jeyaratnam and the SDP’s Dr Chee Soon Juan, in order to win the support of a broader spectrum of the Singapore electorate. Its position on not campaigning for gay rights is therefore unsurprising.

While a recent Singapore Polytechnic student-led survey of 800 teens aged 15 to 19 years revealed that half of them found homosexuality “acceptable”, a similar survey conducted by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) six years ago found that a much higher 71 per cent of young Singaporeans found homosexuality unacceptable. The young people covered in the MCYS survey would now make up the 21 to 25 year age group. It is widely believed that resistance to expanding the space for homosexuals is even higher among the middle-aged and older Singaporeans, who make up the bulk of eligible voters (63 per cent).

Even if one were to set aside moral arguments, this stance by the WP is certainly a sound political move which will put it in a good position to reach its target voters, namely Singaporeans who want an alternative but credible voice in Parliament to check and balance the ruling party.