Saturday, December 27, 2008


Dec 27, 2008

ONE word best describes 2008: drama. There was drama in the economy, drama on the stock market, drama in Parliament, drama at the Olympics and even drama when you took a peek at your electricity bill. Of course, the top provider of drama this year was the economy.

At the start of the year, the big issue was rising prices. Fast forward a few short months, and a global economic crisis has everyone thinking fondly of the inflation.

But one event that gave a strong boost to Singapore's spirit was the drama at the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands. Singaporeans, however, had to sweat for two hours, listening to the 16-judge panel set out its arguments, before they heard the good news: Singapore had been given sovereignty over Pedra Branca.

2008 was also a year of loss. MP Ong Chit Chung, 59, died suddenly. Also unexpected was the death of opposition stalwart J.B. Jeyaretnam, 82, who had made his political comeback earlier this year.

The event that probably produced the heaviest drama early in the year was the escape of terrorist leader Mas Selamat Kastari from a detention centre here.

Beyond Singapore, events unfolded that made Singaporeans realise more than ever how interconnected they are to the rest of the world. Dramatic political changes in the United States, Thailand and Malaysia also meant a busy year for those managing Singapore's foreign relations.

With all this drama, especially on the economic front, it is with a wary step that Singaporeans enter 2009. But before that, Insight takes one last look at 2008.

1. Hide and seek

IT SPARKED a thorough review of the Internal Security Department's (ISD) operations, raised questions about officers being overworked, was at the centre of oh-so-many debates in Parliament, backed up traffic at the land borders, saw the launch of the largest-ever manhunt in Singapore, and spawned numerous jokes about going to toilet and not coming back.

By some distance, the escape of Jemaah Islamiah leader Mas Selamat Kastari on Feb 27 was the year's biggest political story.No one is sure of the exact path he took to escape or the number of pants he was wearing, but a re-creation by the Home Affairs Ministry had him out of the high-security detention centre at Whitley Road in just 49 seconds. He had been left alone for 11 minutes.

To get out, he probably took advantage of a string of security lapses and human errors, including a toilet window with no grilles, guards who failed in their duties and CCTV cameras that were not recording.

When presenting the details in Parliament in April, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng, who is also Home Affairs Minister, said the 'mistakes have turned out to be so simple as to appear silly and incredible'.

As a result, nine people - from the Gurkha guards up to the supervising officer in the ISD - were sacked, relieved of their appointments or disciplined.

The punishments themselves sparked a debate over accountability and where the buck should stop.

In the days following the escape, every mobile phone in Singapore received a picture and short description of Mas Selamat, which included the fact that he limped.

Soon, calls were coming in from everywhere of sightings, some of which were quite inaccurate.One call led to a Bangladeshi tourist - in Singapore to seek medical treatment for an injured leg - receiving a shock visit from several police officers at his flat.

Later in the year, a $1 million bounty was placed on the fugitive's head by private donors. Three men quit their private sector jobs to hunt him down.

Mas Selamat might be out of sight but he is one person who won't be out of Singaporeans' minds.

2. Shuffle and leap

IN A year when the Cabinet reshuffle was incremental, one big appointment stood out: Mr K. Shanmugam moved from the backbench to a prominent position on the front bench. The MP and Senior Counsel was appointed Law Minister and Second Minister for Home Affairs.

It marked the first time in 23 years that an MP had made such a leap. The last time was in 1985, when Dr Richard Hu became Trade and Industry Minister one month after he had been elected an MP.

Other changes included Dr Ng Eng Hen's move from the Manpower Ministry to the Education Ministry, with Minister of State for Manpower Gan Kim Yong stepping into the gap as Acting Manpower Minister.

The reshuffle also saw five Ministers of State promoted to Senior Ministers of State, including Mr Gan. The others were: Mrs Lim Hwee Hua, Mr S. Iswaran, Ms Grace Fu and Rear-Admiral (NS) Lui Tuck Yew. First-term MP Teo Ser Luck moved up from Parliamentary Secretary to Senior Parliamentary Secretary.

The changes were well received, with Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong noting that the slow and steady approach allows younger ministers to be tried out gradually.

3. At The Bar I: At The Hague

A 30-YEAR bone - or rather, rock - of contention between neighbours was finally resolved in May when the International Court of Justice ruled that Pedra Branca belonged to Singapore.

Malaysia did not come away empty-handed though, as the court awarded it the nearby Middle Rocks. Who owns a third maritime feature, South Ledge, is being worked out by the two countries.

The reading of the verdict took two hours, with Singaporeans watching via a live telecast from The Hague. It was not the most entertaining television, but it had its audience rapt.

The first half made for terrible viewing for Singaporeans, as the court listed why Malaysia had the original title to Pedra Branca, contrary to Singapore's argument that it was no man's land. Then, about halfway through, the tone switched and it was the Malaysians' turn to twitch in their seats as the verdict seemed to swing in Singapore's favour.

In the end, the island, home to the Horsburgh Lighthouse since 1851, was awarded to Singapore because Malaysia had not protested against Singapore's activity there until it was too late.

4. At The Bar II: In Singapore

THE Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) - its leaders as well as several members and supporters - indisputably made up the most regular non-lawyer visitors to court this year.

Whether it was for illegal assemblies, speaking in public without a permit, contempt of court or defamation, they were there to face charges.

In one instance, three people who went to court to watch a hearing were found guilty of having committed an offence by wearing T-shirts that depicted a kangaroo dressed in a judge's robes. The three refused to apologise for their act and were jailed.

The hearing they attended in May was one that captured unprecedented public attention. All eyes were on the courts as they sought to assess damages in a defamation suit won by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew against the SDP, its secretary-general Chee Soon Juan and his sister Chee Siok Chin.

The hearing drew huge crowds, who queued outside the Supreme Court building before it opened, keen to see the Chee siblings cross-examine the PM and the MM.

In the end, Justice Belinda Ang awarded the Lees $950,000 in damages. If the SDP fails to pay its share of the sum, the party could be wound up.

That was just one of the many times the Chees were in court this year. They were also there on trial as part of a group of 19 who had been charged with illegal assembly.

The year also saw the courts acting to defend their integrity from attack.

Apart from the kangaroo T-shirt case, the Attorney-General's Chambers launched contempt of court proceedings against Dow Jones Publishing (Asia) for three articles that alleged bias and lack of independence on the part of the Singapore judiciary. The publisher was fined $25,000.

In another case, former Singaporean lawyer Gopalan Nair was taken to task for writing a blog that had accused Justice Ang of 'prostituting' herself to the MM and PM during the assessment of damages hearing. Mr Nair, a US citizen who flew to Singapore to attend the trial, had also challenged the Government to arrest him. He was jailed three months for insulting a public servant.

Now back in the US, he has retracted the apologies and statements made against the judiciary and a judge in another case, and repeated the criticisms that got him into trouble in the first place.

5. Newest hot spot in town

ON SEPT 1, Ms Nithya Sree, dressed as an abused maid, sat in a chair in Hong Lim Park wearing a neck brace and an arm sling. Beside her, fellow activist Mike Goh gave a short speech while others handed out leaflets about maid abuse.

The event lasted 10 minutes - but it was a landmark few minutes.

The event was the first legal outdoor protest in Singapore in 20 years, made possible because of a loosening of restrictions at Speakers' Corner.

In his National Day Rally Speech, PM Lee announced that outdoor protests would be allowed at the park, and that the National Parks Board, not the police, would see to events held there.

Response to the opening up has been mixed, with some applauding it as a big step forward and others saying it wasn't enough.

Still others, such as Mr Lau Su How, who had opened a cafe at the nearby community centre, hoped protests would bring more business.

The opening up certainly brought new life to the area, with meetings taking place almost every weekend.

The events there have ranged from rallies by investors who bought products linked to failed US investment bank Lehman Brothers, to a memorial for late opposition figure J.B. Jeyaretnam, to an event for parents to match-make their children.

6. Tears of joy, and sadness

FOR the first time, a rescheduled TV show made front page news. Of course, this was no ordinary show: It was the telecast of the National Day Rally.

The rally itself would go ahead, but the telecast was pushed back a day so it would not clash with the Olympic table tennis final between Singapore and China.

The game was history-making as it would determine whether Singapore's first Olympic medal in 48 years would be a gold or a silver. Though the Chinese won, everyone was delighted Singapore finally had another medal.

PM Lee interrupted his speech to send his congratulations to the team.

Still, a stunning announcement barely a week later put a damper on things. Table Tennis Association president Lee Bee Wah, an MP, said the services of team manager Anthony Lee were no longer required. Also, a committee would decide the future of head coach Liu Guodong.

Singapore's top male paddler Gao Ning had found himself with no coach by his side for his third-round singles match. He crashed out to a much lower-ranked Croatian, proving the importance of having someone yell at you from the sidelines. Gao was left crushed and in tears.

This slip-up triggered an angry response from Ms Lee, hence the big changes.Her news, in turn, sparked anger among fans and the team, with many accusing her of poor timing.

She would later apologise for it.

Mr Liu ultimately turned down a new deal, declining to extend his contract beyond the end of this year.

7. New media rising

NOT only did new media matters grab more headlines in old media than ever before, but the influence of new media began to catch the attention of governments in Singapore and elsewhere.

In Singapore, a much-anticipated report by a government-appointed council looking into the impact of new media was released this month. The council took a year of study and a further six weeks of public consultation before releasing a 224-page final report.

One major change pitched by the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society was the lifting of the outright ban on party political films. The council recommended doing it in stages, with the films requiring the approval of a panel in the first stage.

Whether the proposal gets the nod will be known when the Government responds to the report early next year.

As was the case with the announcement allowing protests, some hailed the move while others said it wasn't enough.

Still, there are signs of further opening up. A film documenting the protest at Speakers' Corner during the 2006 World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings was passed by the censors.

No less significant is howhappenings elsewhere have raised questions in Singapore about the extent to which new media will affect the country's politics.

The big part it played in the US polls last month and the shock outcome in the Malaysian general election in March prompted multiple seminars and talks on whether such scenarios might be repeated in Singapore.

The one point that broke through was that new media cannot be ignored.

8. Money, money, money

IN SOME quarters, the colour of PM Lee's shirt at the National Day Rally was a good indicator of the times.

Last year, when the economy was booming, he wore a bluish-green shirt that was cheerfully bright. This year, the shirt was grey.

Little wonder too, as the economic turmoil has unleashed many difficult problems for political leaders.

At the start of the year, rising costs were the big issue, with the price of everything from fuel to rice to a cuppa going up. In March, inflation in Singapore hit a 26-year high of 7.5 per cent.

Right up to the National Day Rally, inflation was top of the agenda. PM Lee, in his speech, reassured Singaporeans the Government was on top of the problem.

He announced that the Government would spend more than $3 billion to help defray the higher cost of living. The money would be used to fund measures such as a goods and services tax offset package, Budget 2008 surplus sharing, and a Workfare Income Supplement Scheme to boost the earnings of low-wage workers and Central Provident Fund savings.

In addition, the National Wages Council urged employers who could afford it to give workers a one-off inflation bonus.

But the problem of inflation would be overshadowed in September when US investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed. That marked the start of a crisis that would spread like wildfire across the globe.

In Singapore, the first casualties were investments linked to Lehman Brothers. About 10,000 retail investors had pumped more than $500 million into structured products linked to the bankrupt bank. Eight town councils had also put money into those toxic investments and could lose about $16 million.

Although the People's Action Party argued that the sum amounted to just a fraction of the total sinking fund managed by all its 14 town councils, it acknowledged that it was understandable for residents to be upset.

In an interview with The Straits Times earlier this month, Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan assured Singaporeans the sinking fund was well managed, adding that this was a year when even the best of investors would have lost money.

Then came retrenchments, with DBS Bank and Neptune Orient Lines among the first few to cut staff.

The Government swiftly rolled out a slew of measures to help temper the effects of the global crisis.

First, in October, it guaranteed all local and foreign currency deposits in banks, to ensure spooked clients did not move their funds to safer pastures.

To help stave off retrenchments, it started a $600 million training package that would give higher subsidiesfor course fees, as well as pay up to 90 per cent of a worker's salary during the training period.

The Government also pledged $2.3 billion to help businesses gain access to credit.

Finally, the Finance Ministry announced the Budget would be out in January, almost a month earlier than normal. Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam promised the Budget would pay special attention to businesses and families hit by the downturn.

Like many people, top civil servants and ministers saw their pay packages shrink as bonuses dived. An increment in their pay, scheduled for early next year, was shelved.

More challenges lie ahead, but Mr Tharman did sound an optimistic note when he spoke about the coming Budget.

'We have accumulated surpluses over this term of government which we didn't spend entirely in this year's Budget,' he said. 'We think we will come out of the tunnel in good shape.'

No comments: