Archive for the 'personal perspective' Category

A mixed proportional and SMC electoral system


While we wait for the general election results this evening, let me plug my ideas for reform of the electoral system. My proposals aim to address these present weaknesses:

One of the biggest bugbears of voters is that in many constituencies, they cannot stomach the idea of voting for one party, yet the alternative available to them in their constituency is nearly as unpalatable. This is the siamese twin to the fear that three-cornered fights are likely to give the advantage to the People’s Action Party. So pro-opposition people clamour for opposition parties to avoid three-cornered fights, but in so doing, it leads to the above, where in some constituencies, voters are faced with lousy choices.  Continue reading ‘A mixed proportional and SMC electoral system’

Don’t smile at me: Culture conflict from immigration

A few doors away from my flat lives a family that hails from Tamil Nadu, India. There’s a man, his wife and two young daughters. He goes to work each day in industrial overalls, and my guess is that he is either an S-Pass or Employment Pass holder working for a process company in the Jurong area. The Mrs is a homemaker.

Their flat faces a common corridor shared by two others, both of which have Chinese-speaking locals staying in them. So from the first month this Indian family moved in, I felt I should go out of my way to be friendly. I never see the Chinese neighbours speak to them, or even greet them; language may be the barrier.

The man — he speaks English — returns my greeting. I can’t say I’ve gotten to know him, we just exchange hellos whenever we pass each other. But over the past year or so, I think I have made enough of an impression that should he ever need some assistance from a neighbour I believe he would feel that he could ask me.

With two young children and a husband coming home with soiled workclothes, the wife has a lot of laundry, and she uses the common corridor to dry them since the hot afternoon sun comes in that way.  I started off doing exactly the same as I practised with her husband: a smile, a hello, as I walk past, but I’m afraid, it has been a ‘culture shock’, perhaps both ways.

More than a year now, and she has never returned my greeting. At first I thought I was wrong to presume she knew any English, so I soon reduced it to a smile, and no words. Surely, that’s universal enough, no? But still she never smiled back. It wasn’t long before I realised that she doesn’t even make eye contact with me. Sometimes she just looks away and pretends to be busy. But more often than not, she scurries back into her flat when she sees me approaching from a distance. Her laundry would be half hung. More wet clothes would still be in the tub. Yet she would interrupt her work and duck quickly into her own doorway on sight of me. At first, I gave her the benefit of doubt: Oh, she needs to get more clothes pegs or that sort of thing, but after several such instances, I tell myself there has to be another reason.

Perhaps my body odour is intolerable, perhaps my smile just looks sick and predatory.

It gradually dawned on me that she was just uncomfortable, for cultural reasons, to be interacting in any way, however innocent, with a male stranger. To exchange greetings would be akin to speaking, and that was a great big no-no.

I was stressing her out by my insistence on being friendly.

Lately, I also began to notice how cultural habits are being passed down. At the beginning, the daughters were too young to play outside the flat, but now they’re a little older, they have tricycles and similar toys that require space and mobility. Occasionally I see them play in the corridor. But now I find that the girls are called in by their mother when I am within sight. The only times when they’re not called in are probably when the mother isn’t aware that I am passing through.

* * * * *

Earlier this year, friends and I (all Singaporeans) spent a weekend in a condo apartment in Kuala Lumpur. It being Chinese New Year, the kitchen was soon full to overflowing with food. As we were not staying for more than a few days and the apartment would be empty when we left, we just had to get rid of all the food, and fast.

One member of our group suggested we give it to the condo security guards.

“No, don’t,” I advised.

“Why not?”

“What we have is not halal,” I reminded him. “The guards look Malay to me. This is Malaysia and the sensitivity threshold is probably lower than in Singapore. We should not risk causing offence.”

* * * * *

I would situate at least the first tale, if not the second, within the larger issue of neighbourliness and integration of new migrants. Much is made of how we should make extra efforts at getting to know our neighbours and making new arrivals feel welcome. There is certainly undeniable value in not being total strangers to people who are next door, though on this topic too, the government’s propaganda machine has made a social good into another toxic commandment, just begging for resistance. But, leaving aside this propaganda contamination, the point that might be worth considering is how even “neighbourliness” comes with cultural assumptions.

What is friendly behaviour in one cultural context is imposition and intrusion in another. The sharing of food, so often used to cement social bonds in certain cultures, not least the Chinese, and so regularly celebrated by American television and films — new arrivals in a neighbourhood are welcomed by showing up at their door, quite often with a pie in hand — can be explosive.

Integration, despite the best of intentions, can be minefield. And a moment’s thought will tell us why: it calls for a modulation of one’s cultural norms in order to accommodate the outsider. There are very few behaviours that have exactly the same meaning in different cultures. If we use our usual behaviour unthinkingly, what may to us be a welcoming gesture may be awfully misinterpreted.

But then it raises the question: If we want to integrate new arrivals in our midst, should it be the new arrivals who should re-organise their cultural habits to “fit in”, or should Singaporeans too change our cultural habits to accommodate them?

Should I persist in greeting and smiling at the wife? Or should I go easy on her and ignore her, the way her culture expects me to behave? It seems to me that the latter would probably be her preferred solution, but would you then accuse me of surrendering Singapore to the foreign hordes?



Ourselves through Istanbul

Galata Bridge

Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn

This spot on planet Earth has been inhabited for well over two thousand years — as Byzantium, Constantinople, then Istanbul — and was a great cosmopolitan capital city for 1,500 of those. Merchants and scholars from all over the then-known world flocked to it.

I can’t say, however, that it is cosmopolitan any more, certainly not by the standards of London, New York, Paris or Sydney today. Or even Singapore. Istanbul has a cultural homogeneity that our more nostalgic romantics might wish we had. Continue reading ‘Ourselves through Istanbul’

Oysters and diamonds


Income and wealth inequality has become an albatross around many governments’ necks  — Singapore’s included — provoking distrust and resistance to policies.

Meanwhile, readership of the Straits Times is falling. Media academics have pointed out that the Straits Times, in blindly following the direction set by the People’s Action Party government, does the government no favours. Sheepishly echoing government edicts alienates people.  Continue reading ‘Oysters and diamonds’

Culture, lifestyle diseases and the commandant’s room


Three hours I sat in a police station breathing second-hand smoke. As a small mercy, the officers would slide the windows open by 5 to 10 centimetres every now and then, and the stiff breeze from outside would cut in and dilute the carcinogens somewhat. Better yet was the whoosh of clean bracing air each time the door opened, but unfortunately it wasn’t often enough. There wasn’t much coming and going. Continue reading ‘Culture, lifestyle diseases and the commandant’s room’

My trial for contempt of court, part 5: mens rea, tone and tenor

Parts 1 to 3 dealt with the specific stings that the Attorney-Generals’ Chambers complained of, from two articles on this blog Yawning Bread: “377 wheels come off Supreme Court’s best-laid plans” published on 5 October 2013 and “Church sacks employee and sues government” published on 12 October 2013. My lawyers vigorously contested the accusations, describing the AGC’s case as a “house of cards”. Part 4 dealt with the legal burden and examples from the Shadrake case.

During the trial on Tuesday 21 October 2014, several other issues were also addressed that did not refer specifically to any statement complained of, but were nonetheless important overarching issues. I will record what was said on these points here in this fifth (and last) article. Continue reading ‘My trial for contempt of court, part 5: mens rea, tone and tenor’

My trial for contempt of court, part 4: legal burden and Shadrake precedents

My lawyers Peter Low and Choo Zheng Xi submitted, citing the Court of Appeal decision in Shadrake, that for the AGC to succeed in its application for my committal,

it must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Publications prose a real risk of undermining public confidence in the Judiciary… The real risk test will not be satisfied in a situation where the risk of undermining public confidence in the administration of justice is remote or fanciful. Further, a Respondent will not be liable for contempt of Court if his comments amount to fair criticism. The legal burden is on the Prosecution to establish that the impugned statement does not constitute fair criticism, although the evidential burden is on the party relying on it.

My understanding of the AGC’s position is that it more or less agrees with the above description of its legal burden, with two areas of possible dispute. Continue reading ‘My trial for contempt of court, part 4: legal burden and Shadrake precedents’

My trial for contempt of court, part 3: the second article

Christ and the woman taken in adultery, by Nicolas Poussin, 1594-1665

Christ and the woman taken in adultery, by Nicolas Poussin, 1594-1665

In his oral submission, Peter Low, arguing in my defence, took only about twelve minutes to address the allegations made by the Attorney-General’s Chambers with respect to the second article “Church sacks employee and sues government”. The written submission however was more substantial.

Peter cut to the chase which was why he didn’t need much time. In addressing paragraphs 67 to 97 of the AGCs’ written submission (dealing with the second article), he reiterated that “what is alleged is not borne out by the plain words of the contents of the second article.” Within those 31 paragraphs from the AGC, he said, the AGC relied on the word “insinuation” six times, the word “imputation” three times and the word “implication” once. Continue reading ‘My trial for contempt of court, part 3: the second article’

My trial for contempt of court, part 2: first article, second sting

pic_201410_09The other part of the first article “377 wheels come off Supreme Court’s best-laid plans” that the AGC took exception to concerned my description of events leading to lawyer M Ravi (pictured at right) withdrawing his client’s application to intervene in the Kenneth and Gary appeal. I had written in the article that

M Ravi … in August 2013, acting for his client Tan Eng Hong, made an application to the High Court to be recognised as an interested party in the Court of Appeal hearing on the Kenneth and Gary case. The argument is that since the outcome of Kenneth and Gary’s appeal will affect Tan’s case (for which the High Court judgement was still pending at the time) Tan should be permitted to intervene.

This move must have upset the best-laid of plans. From a legal point of view, it would be very difficult to deny such an application. The fact of the matter is that the two cases are very similar. Whatever ruling comes out of the Court of Appeal in Gary and Kenneth’s case, it would clearly impact Tan Eng Hong’s case. Continue reading ‘My trial for contempt of court, part 2: first article, second sting’

My trial for contempt of court, part 1: first article, first sting


Opening my defence, my lawyer Choo Zheng Xi said the Attorney-General’s Chambers’ case relied heavily on reading innuendo, insinuation and imputation into my words. The words used in the prosecution’s submission to describe the allegations I was supposedly making against the judiciary do not exist in the articles complained of, he said before Justice Belinda Ang, and that it would be important to always keep this in mind when considering the prosecution’s case. He further characterised the AGC’s case as full of hyperbole.

In written submissions, my lawyers had also written that “the Applicant [i.e. AGC] has had to twist Mr Au’s words out of context and to editorialize to impute sinister innuendo into his article where none exists. In so doing, the Applicant has mischievously ignored the caveats in Mr Au’s article that clearly flag out to his readers that he is theorizing, as opposed to making statements of fact.” Continue reading ‘My trial for contempt of court, part 1: first article, first sting’

For an update of the case against me, please see AGC versus me, the 2013 round.




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