Saturday, March 22, 2008

Bullies Rule, A OK!

It's now been 24-days since Mas Selamat escaped from prison and nearly everyone who has read my recent postings will be aware that I've been somewhat engaged in a verbal dual with a young grassroots leader from Pasir Ris GRC. The young man has now decided that he needs to enforce the fact that he's been speaking in his personal capacity. A friend of mine then pointed out that I was picking on someone smaller than myself. In short - I had become a bully. Well, perhaps I have. My only defense will be:

1 - I won't patronise him by arguing at a lower level. - As long as he's keen raise issues, I will address them.

2 - I've noticed that I've become something of a regular to Singapore culture - power corrupt

Singapore is officially one of the least corrupt countries in the world. According to Transparency International, Singapore is ranked fourth in least most corrupt country in the World - Behind the Nordic nations but ahead of the World's Hyper Power, the USA and our former Colonial Master, The UK. For what all my postings asking for the Minister of Home Affairs to resign for incompetence, Singapore's highest ranking government officials are men and women of integrity. I can confidently say that it's virtually impossible to bribe any government official here.

But there is another form of corruption in Singapore that is equally insideous and pervades our culture - Power Corruption. It's not a government thing - it's far more seroius - it's a cultural thing.

What is power corruption but a desire for power or at least proximity for it. Lee Kuan Yew, Modern Singapore's founding Prime Minister has worked tirelessly to combat it. Unlike the late President Suharto, former Prime Minister Lee has ensured that every business activity that his family is engaged in is above board and properly earned. The Lee Family, which includes the Prime Minister, Minister Mentor and Chairman of F&N, one of Singapore's most prominent companies, has earned its success the old fashioned way - through hard work and brains.

But while the Minister Mentor has strenuously kept his family unaffected by his political power, the system has somehow ignored his efforts. While bribes may not work in Singapore, being related to or coming from the same school as someone prominent certainly helps.

To be fair, "Old Boy" networks have been in existence since human kind could scribble. In the Middle Ages, there were "Guilds" of craftsmen. In the UK, Public Schools, particularly the prominent ones pride themselves in the number of Old E's C'c W's in the various companies on the FTSE 100 willing to dool out jobs to the alumni. Now that East Asia is becomming the "In" place for business, we get the Japanese Kiratsu or the Chinese Guanxi.

And there is nothing wrong with contacts. The world functions on contacts. In this day and age of multiple applicants for a single job - contacts become the trump card in the competition for a job. I remember when I was an intern at Citibank, I was told that I had nothing to be embarrased about admiting the fact that my father was a golfing buddy of the department VP - everyone, I was told, got their job through a contact. The fact of the matter is - your CV only get's a glance by the HR manager because someone told him or her to look at it. I've used contacts just to survive in the last five-years. Dad's name got me an internship in Citibank. Mum's contact got me interviewed by PN Balji of Today (thus my regular writing gigs), Dad got me the job at 10AM, keeping in touch with PN Balji got me the job at BANG and so on. Knowing the right people is part and parcel of life and I've been privelleged to meet certain people in life. I may not have a powerful organisation behind me, but being able to drop the right names does compensate from time to time.

But is there a point where guanxi or old-school-ties becomes corruption? I believe the answer lies in a subtle difference - namely the difference between doing something because you fear offending someone instead of doing something because you know the the guy has qualities and you want to give him or her a chance.

It's a subtle difference but an important one. Take the analogy of job interviews. Guanxi can get you a job because the VP of the department told HR he wants you to work for him. Corruption comes when you are chosen over more qualified candidates because the VP does not want to offend one of your friends or relatives.

One of the most prominent issues in Singapore in recent years was the "White Horse" system. This was basically a system where relatives of prominent people or "marked as the elite" were posted to privilleged positions within the army and treated allot better than the other grunts during National Service. Could you call this a form on "Power Corruption?" Well, Mr Cedric Foo, formerly the Minister of State for Ministry of Defense argued that it wasn't - he got onto National TV and admited that the Ministry did mark out those from prominent families but only did so ensure that no one gave them special treatment. - Alas poor Cedric - in the eyes of everyone who had served National Service - he became known as "Cedric Fool."

I believe the most damning thing against the White Horse System was the fact that it was....part of the system. The "REAL WHITE HORSES," namely the sons of Ministers, MP's and high ranking officers were embarrased by the difference in treatment they recieved. Really prominent people in Singapore, as elsewhere are decent people and don't need "Special" treatment to be supperior.

But then again, what Commanding Officer with an eye for his next "Crab" wants to be known as the person who "Ill treated" the son of Minister So and So? The Ministry has taken pains to rectify this but while the Ministry can issue guidelines and policies, changing the mentality of the people running the system is a different matter.

Speaking as an anthropologist, I think allot of this is due to the fact that many of our institutions are centrally controlled. In the case of the military, there is a political reason - namely that of ensuring our military people don't get the chance to think of overthrowing the system - we do live in a region where coups are quite common. However, this leads to a situation where commanders are robbed of initiative to act as professionals should. In Israel, prominent people entrust commanders to look after their children in a professional way. It's something we need to work towards.

The White Horse issue and the military are not the only instances of power corruption. It's merely one of the few issues of power corruption that is clear cut. Others are not so clear cut and hard to prove. Take the media industry where editors on occasion recieve phone calls reminding them to practice "Responsible Journalism," which included hints to go easy on criticism of the way the last Presidential Election in Singapore was run. You can argue that the editor's decision to not publish an article was not a case of "Responsible Journalism" but simple editorial judgement.

I did point out to someone from the Straits Times that I noticed that my letters whinging about how Singaporeans lacked basic manners on the public transport system were published with glee but a letter I wrote to disagree with an article writen by the Minister Mentor (it was about Middle East policy) was dismissed as being editorially unsuitable (considering I had my news points covered). I think the editor was quick to point out that they really didn't think my reply to MM Lee was newsworthy - can I prove would be economically pointless.

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong did point out that the news media is not just a business but a social tool. I'm still trying to figure out how social our news media has to be. For example, is it harmful or helpful if an editor publishes a story about what a politician said when the politician instructs the editor not to publish his comments? Personally, I think the politician is living in a fantasy world of delusion if he or she expects the news media not to publish things he or she actually says.

But then again we live in Singapore, the land of 7.68% economic growth, many transactions but few cheques. Things here work on repackaged Asianised Victorian Values - respect for authority without reponsability.

This is particularly fun when you probe opinions and look at editorial about two international incidents - Palestine and Tibet. When it comes to Palestine, I think one has to credit the Israeli spin mashine for enforcing the myth of vulnerability - hence most people will be quick to point out that Israel can write-off its anti-semitic murdering of Palestinians as self-defense.

Mainland China does not have the same excuse when it comes to the way it has treated Tibet. True, the Chinese have brought "development" to Tibet but at the same time, they have flooded Tibet with Han Chinese by giving them vast incentives. Tibetan's are forbiden by law to hang portraits of the Dalai Lama, in most cases forbidden to speak their own language and often have their thumbs cut off if they get too religious. Last week's violence included, Tibetans have never resorted to terrorist tactics against Mainland China in the nearly 60-years since Mao marched the Red Guard into the Potala Palace. - Why - The Dalai Lama has kept Tibetans from resorting to violence.

But somehow, when you talk to Singaporeans about these two issues - they will inevitablly side with the larger power. I've had good friends ask me:

"Why don't the Palestinians give up? Don't they realise the Israeli's are military stronger - they should look for new land in Jordan."

The Straits Times ran an editorial that said that Tibetans had to "Learn to accomodate the Chinese."

Humm, based on this train of thought, I think its time to abolish National Service. After all, why bother fighting with a bigger country and culture, when you can simply learn to be accomodating to his or her demands.

For reading spooks:

My name is Tang Li, NRIC S7439818I
Address - Blk 27 Marine Crescent, #22-03, Singapore 440027
Tel - +6590256957

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