Saturday, February 21, 2004

Straightening the Straits Times (6)

You may have noticed that the three favourite media spins in the Straits Times recently are the wonderful capabilities of the Singapore Armed Forces, the hitherto undiscovered softer side of Lee Hsien Loong, and the many benefits for having babies – though not necessarily in that order. Judging from the number of pages devoted to push these “agendas”, there can hardly be any doubt about the perceived lack of objectivity of our national daily.

I suppose it would take someone who’s particularly gullible to believe that the Straits Times has never been used as a propaganda vehicle by the party in control of the government.

Easier said than done
In a follow up to his Harvard Club speech, deputy prime minister Lee Hsien Loong commented on “crusading journalism” (ST, Jan 19) by saying that “newspapers are to report the news, explain what is going on and take a national view and not a partisan view”.

Judging by the partisan coverage routinely churned out by the Straits Times, it’s obvious the editors and journalists haven’t been following instructions. Either that, or this is just one of those empty rhetoric from a government official again.

All in the familee
For the first time in 30 years, we finally got to know that the state-owned Temasek Holdings has not squandered taxpayers’ money. Even then, details of its investment record are not readily available, as Temasek will only open up its books to an external rating agency sometime this year or next, according to its executive director Ho Ching in a Feb 13 report. Meanwhile, we will have to take her word for it that Temasek achieved “respectable” compounded annual rate of return of more than 16% over the past 30 years. So much for transparency.

On whether Temasek Holdings was open to diluting its stakes in existing companies, Ho, who is also the wife of Lee Hsien Loong, said: “We don’t intend to raid the larder nor sell the family jewels.”

I can understand that journalists are ever eager to please government officials by quoting their sound bites, but when Ho mentioned “family jewels”, I believe it was a genuine Freudian slip.

Cut waste? Cut the red tape first!
Recently, several forum writers questioned the effectiveness of having a Cut Waste Panel if the various ministries only pay lip service to such an initiative. The main sore point cited is the public sector’s budgeting practice, but in my opinion, something on a greater magnitude has escaped attention. I’m referring to the Economic Restructuring Shares (ERS) encashment procedure.

As reported in the Jan 6 edition of the Straits Times, more than 80,000 Singaporeans will not get the second lot of their ERS because they failed to top up their Central Provident Fund (CPF) before the Dec 31 deadline. Why is that so?

The reason is simple. Anyone (including senior citizens and those unemployed) who is interested in getting the ERS can obtain a CPF form from any Singapore Post office or download it from the ERS website, complete the form and return it to the CPF board. Alternatively, people could submit their request for encashment electronically via automated teller machines (ATMs).

For the majority of us, either way would be an easy kill. But what about those who are impoverished, illiterate, and/or immobile? Does the government really believe that this group of people will download the form, much less complete it? A construction worker, for example, was quoted as saying, “it’s [referring to ATM] too complicated, and I didn’t know which buttons to press.”

If the government is sincere about helping the needy, it should have allowed the allotment and encashment of ERS with no strings attached, rather than use the lame excuse that the form will serve as a form of authorisation for the CPF board. What other authorisation is required for this supposedly national exercise? And who (especially those targeted by the ERS) in the right frame of mind would prefer not to authorise by rejecting the ERS offer?

Instead, we are being served the usual dosage of rhetoric by none other than our deputy prime minister Lee Hsien Loong. Explaining the decision not to extend the deadline, Lee said: “We have put out information, posters in public places, newspaper advertisements, publicity on radio and TV, individual reminder letters, grassroots have visited homes. It’s quite hard to give money away in Singapore.”

Surely, by cutting the red tape involved, the government would not have needed to waste so much money (public money, dare I mention) on the media blitz, or waste so many resources tidying up the paper trail and having social workers do the rounds to help senior citizens complete the form (as reported on TV).

But that’s not all. Lee added: “If people have moved and don’t tell us where they are, it’s not really our business to look for them and give them the money.”

That just about sums up the government’s stance and sincerity in this whole exercise.

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