There are about 1,000 street homeless in Singapore

Issue 80

This week, my challenge has been to catch up with work and hold myself to more regular (and healthier) working hours. I’ve been doing fairly all right so far, but Friday’s plans went straight out the window because I ended up saving a five- or six-year-old cat from a migrant workers’ dormitory.

Homeless in Singapore

I’d volunteered for the single-night count for this study, and had wanted to be at the seminar in person on Friday night, but cat-rescuing duties meant that wasn’t possible. So thanks must go to Jolene Tan for live-tweeting the event!

The key points is that, between a cumulative study done over three months and a point-in-time count done over a single night, the study found that there are about 1,000 homeless people in Singapore. The majority of them are men, aged 50 and up, who are employed. People are also spread out across the island, particularly in the city, and in larger and older housing estates.

While we’re on this topic, please also remember to check out the book Homeless: The Untold Story of a Mother’s Struggle in ‘Crazy Rich’ Singapore by Liyana Dhamirah. This newsletter also had an interview with Liyana some time back.

Also related: on 30 November, Ku Swee Yong, Yeoh Lam Keong, and Tay Kheng Soon will be presenting a paper proposing solutions to deal with upcoming challenges with public housing.

A sudden ban on PMDs

Personal Mobility Devices (PMDs), or e-scooters, have been annoying many a Singaporean pedestrian for some time, seeing how we all have to share pavements. On 4 November, the government suddenly announced that e-scooters will no longer be allowed on footpaths—and the ban would be effective from the next day on. Given that there aren’t always shared paths (like park connector paths or bicycle lanes) around Singapore, and that e-scooters aren’t allowed on roads either, this effectively bans e-scooters from quite a large chunk of the island. Riders who go on the grass next to the pavements could also face a fine of up to S$5,000.

This has effectively pulled the rug out from under the feet of thousands of food delivery riders—working for companies like Foodpanda, Grab, and Deliveroo—who use e-scooters to get around for their work. Suddenly unable to work, and anxious about their future, they’ve been flocking to Meet-the-People Sessions. Retailers who have brought in e-scooters that are in line with the Land Transport Authority’s regulations are now also stuck with stock that they’re worried no one will buy.

The government and three major food delivery companies have since announced a $7 million grant, in place until the end of the year, to help the delivery riders: if they trade in their e-scooters, they can get up to $1,000 to buy a power-assisted bicycle (which is allowed on the roads), or $600 for a bicycle. It doesn’t look as if this had been the plan originally—otherwise they surely would have announced it alongside the ban?—so it seems like this is a quick response to the outcry from the riders in recent days. The cost of the scheme will be shared equally between the government and the three delivery companies.

Politics and politicking

There are plans for a new facial recognition system that’ll track the attendance of Members of Parliament. But attendance isn’t what Singaporeans have been talking about this week: performance is.

Specifically, Heng Swee Keat’s (i.e. The Chosen One) performance. On Tuesday, he stood up in Parliament to file a motion saying that the High Court had found that Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim of the Workers’ Party had “acted dishonestly and in breach of their fiduciary duties, and their conduct lacked integrity and candour”, and demanding that the two opposition politicians recuse themselves from all financial and oversight matters in the running of the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council. But it was reported that he had fumbled his delivery, and had to ask for an adjournment to consider how to respond to Sylvia Lim’s rebuttal that such a motion was “premature”, since she and her colleagues are still going to take the case to the Court of the Appeal. “We have been told time and again that the 4G leaders are ready to take over. They need to do a better job of convincing Singaporeans of this,” says Nicholas Yong in his commentary for Yahoo! Singapore.

In other partisan politics news, the Singapore Democratic Party is targeting the millennial vote, but when the election rolls around their slate of candidates won’t include their party vice-chairman John Tan. He isn’t allowed to stand for elections due to his contempt of court conviction—he was found guilty of scandalising the judiciary because he’d made a comment on the action taken against Jolovan Wham for his comparison of Malaysian and Singaporean judges.

Still got some more

Rest In Peace to two migrant workers this week: Jaspreet Kaur, who lost her life in an accident, but saved her employer’s son by pushing the stroller out of the way. And Velmurugan Muthian, who died when a crane collapsed at his worksite.

There’s been a slew of stories about sexual harassment and sexual assault in Singapore, from unsolicited dick pics from Hitch drivers to gang rape (although The Straits Times referred to it as a “threesome” in their headline, ugh). People have also been victim-blaming, which is most disappointing.

This week on New Naratif, we’re kicking off a series of pieces about the transboundary haze. Even though it’s cleared up, it’s an issue that shouldn’t be forgotten, because it’s ongoing and recurring.

We begin with this powerful piece from our Comics and Illustrations Editor, Charis Loke. We’ll be following up with photos, reporting, and video. This weekend, we also have a fundraising event in Kuala Lumpur, in collaboration with Malaysian environmental groups. We’ll be raising funds for WALHI, an environmental group in Indonesia that has prioritised anti-haze advocacy.

For those of you in New York City, we have our first diaspora event, talking about diasporic identity with award-winning author and New Naratif member Jeremy Tiang. This is being held in conjunction with the Columbia University South Asian Feminisms Alliance, but non-Columbia students are welcome too!

Last but not least, we’re in the middle of crowdfunding for a very important story. We want to bring the voices of villagers in Aceh who allege that they were arrested, beaten and tortured by members of the Indonesian army guarding the ExxonMobil plant to light—but we need your help to do it.

What governs the way public agencies use our data?

Issue 79

Burn-out is real, kids. Do not recommend, 0/10.

After I got back to Singapore from my whirlwind trip to Indonesia, I crashed out hard with flu?/food poisoning?/stomach flu?/chronic fatigue? Let’s just say it’s not been a very fun week. I’m going to have to come up with a better work schedule rather than my current schedule known as “24/7”.

How does our data get used?

72-year-old Clifford Theseira posted on Facebook that he could only get $575 out of his CPF (retirement savings) every month, which is nowhere near enough for him and his wife. To make ends meet, he has to work as a Grab driver—but now CPF is asking him to make Medisave contributions, failing which he won’t be able to renew his licence that allows him to work.

Anything CPF-related is more likely to touch a nerve with Singaporeans, and his post started to circulate widely, prompting a response from CPF. In their public statement, they revealed the amount of money that he’d already withdrawn from his CPF, plus the fact that he owns a fully paid-up five-room flat (I guess their implication was that he could sell it and downgrade to a smaller place for some money?)

I’m not going to rebut CPF’s statement here—Andrew Loh does better than I could on Facebook. What really gets me is how easily CPF released Mr Theseira’s personal information.

While Singapore does have a Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA), this law specifically exempts public agencies. So it’s perfectly legal for CPF to be blabbing about Mr Theseira’s finances and property, even without his express consent.

But isn’t it concerning that our personal information, entrusted to the state, can be trotted out in agencies’ defence if we say anything that might make them look bad? What should be the ethical guidelines around divulging a citizen’s information? This isn’t the first time that this has happened—in 2010, then-Minister for Community, Youth, and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan divulged information about a homeless couple’s finances in Parliament after they were featured in a news report on homelessness. Earlier this year, the CPF Board and Ministry of Health also divulged information about a woman’s prognosis—and the amount of money that had been paid out to her—after her husband’s appeal to be able to use his own Medisave funds to pay for her treatment went public.

Online vigilantism

Over the past week some Singaporeans online have been obsessed with their outrage over a guy who verbally abused the security guard at his condominium after he was told that there would be a $10 parking fee for visitors after 11pm. He’s since apologised, but there is more than one petition floating around, with thousands of signatures, calling for him to be sacked from his job and deported.

Sure, verbally abusing the security officer and bragging about how much his condo cost was a dick move, but I’ve not got much patience for such online mobs. They’re often laden with racism and xenophobia, and it can be pretty gross how Singaporeans prove that we’re capable of mobilising and demanding accountability and action—when it has to do with dumping on people who don’t have power to trigger repercussions against us. What happened to mobilising for accountability and action from actual people in actual power who actually make policies and laws that actually affect our lives?

The languages we speak

I love this piece in RICE Media, pointing out that Mandarin was never the Mother Tongue of Chinese Singaporeans. Most Chinese Singaporeans are descended from the people of Southern China, who spoke Southern Chinese languages (yes, languages, not dialects) like Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka and Cantonese. Thanks to the government’s policy of promoting Mandarin and eradicating the use of these other languages in public spaces, many of us Chinese Singaporeans are actually linguistically cut off from our roots—and it’s not like we’re so brilliant at speaking Mandarin now, either.

Got some more

The Workers’ Party has released a statement on the climate crisis on their website, outlining their position on the issue and what they’ve said about it in Parliament.

A group of mothers—whose children ended their own lives—have started a campaign for a national strategy on mental health and suicide. If you haven’t done so, please also get a copy of Linda Collins’ Loss Adjustment; it is such important reading.

What’s up in Singapore?

This weekend, we have the Freedom Film Festival happening at The Projector! Please remember to chope your tickets on Eventbrite—you can find more information here.

There is, of course, the Singapore Writers Festival. I’m not usually an attendee—am nowhere near organised enough to get tickets—although I’ve been occasionally spotted in the bookstore, a tsundoku in the wild. Here are some free events that have leapt out at me in this year’s programme: A Spotlight on Migrant Voices, My Language, My Narrative?, and the launch of the expanded edition of Budi Kritik.

And don’t forget Apa Itu Activist next Saturday!

First off, we’ve released a new episode of our Political Agenda podcast! Political Agenda is a roundtable discussion on issues of importance to Singapore, and this time we talked about youth activism, linking the conversation to questions and points made at the democracy classroom New Naratif facilitated on the same topic. You can also subscribe to Political Agenda (search: New Naratif’s Political Agenda) on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Overcast, Stitcher, etc.

Over the past week, we’ve also taken a look back at the international outcry against Brunei’s Syariah Penal Code that surged earlier this year, then disappeared as quickly as it came. Matthew Woolfe of The Brunei Project argues that the international press got caught up in the idea of gay people being stoned to death (which hasn’t happened and is fairly unlikely to), but neglected to take a look at the broader context and ongoing human rights abuses in the country.

And then there’s this really fascinating piece on barlake, a series of customary exchanges that take place during Timorese weddings. As Timor-Leste modernises—and grows increasingly capitalist in orientation—barlake has come to be seen as backward, even though it might be unfair to see barlake as a simple bride-price transaction. Modern couples are now finding their own ways to preserve cultural traditions while remaining critical.

Building ramps, workers' rights, and... "vigilante conduct"?

Issue 78

Selamat pagi from Jakarta (although as you read this, I should be on my way to Medan)! Yesterday I spoke at the Digital Discourses mini-conference organised by the Goethe Institut; my presentation focused on Singapore, POFMA, and the shrinking space for civil society. I’ll try to put together my notes from my speech into a coherent piece for Milo Peng Funders.

How hard is it to build a ramp?

As it turns out, building ramps aren’t necessarily a straightforward business in Singapore. Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh brought this up in a post last week, saying that a ramp at Bedok Reservoir Road had finally be completed seven years after it was first proposed. Why leh?

You see, the government makes money available to all town councils across Singapore for upgrading and improvement works. But MPs have to go through People’s Association Grassroots Advisers to have proposed projects considered. And who are these Grassroots Advisers? PAP members. This means that even in opposition-held constituencies, they have to go through PAP-affiliated advisers (usually the losing PAP candidate) to get improvement projects put forward.

In response to the post, Chua Eng Leong—a losing PAP candidate in Aljunied in 2015, and thus Grassroots Adviser—claimed that Pritam had raised a “red herring”. He claimed that project had also been mooted by the Eunos Citizens’ Consultative Committee (aiyoh, Bedok Reservoir Road in Aljunied GRC but also linked to the Eunos CCC) so there was no reason to delay it. He said it was “politically mischievous” of Pritam to suggest that things get held up for political reasons.

In came Pritam again: this time with a compiled summary of communication between the town council to the People’s Association. I’ll admit that I’ve only skim-read it so far; it’s just so much like death-by-bureaucracy I got tired. I’ll try to dive into it again some other time.

My main question for this entire episode, though, is why grassroots advisers are PAP members—that really doesn’t help with trying to convince Singaporeans that the People’s Association isn’t politicised, does it?

Erm, I don’t think “vigilante” means what you think it means

Jolovan Wham had his appeal to the High Court against his conviction and sentence for organising an illegal assembly (read: indoor panel discussion on civil disobedience and activism in which Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong Skyped in) dismissed today. The judge upheld the S$3,200 fine, although he rejected the prosecutor’s argument that Jolovan’s bail should be upped from S$8,000 to S$15,000. Jolovan’s lawyers are going to file another appeal.

Jolovan’s lawyer, Eugene Thuraisingam, had argued that citizens should be able to organise such events, and that it would be up to the police commissioner to prohibit it. And if the commissioner’s prohibition is later found to be unwarranted, then the citizen has committed no offence for organising the event anyway.

Nope, said the judge, describing that as “vigilante conduct”. That’s, erm, literally not what “vigilante” means...

Bus drivers go to court

Five SBS Transit drivers are taking their employer to court. They say that they’ve not been paid the right amount of overtime, plus other breaches of the Employment Act, like being made to work more than 44 hours a week. SBS Transit says that this should be referred to the Industrial Arbitration Court, because it affects the collective agreement made between the company and the National Transport Workers’ Union, instead of the State Courts (where the drivers have made claims). But the drivers’ lawyer, M Ravi of Carson Law Chambers, says that the arbitration court is for issues between the employer and the union. He says that his clients have lost faith in their union and withdrawn from it, and should therefore have their case heard in the State Courts.

What’s up in Singapore?

The T Project’s fundraising campaign is ongoing! They’ve got to raise S$100,000 to keep supporting trans people in Singapore. Please support if you can.

This looks like a fascinating event: Kelelakian /ஆண்மை: Dialogues on Minority-race Masculinity in Singapore. They’ve got a few sessions going, and you can sign up here.

New slots have opened up at civil society conference Apa Itu Activist (happening 9 November), so don’t miss out and sign up here!

This past week on New Naratif, we released Episode 19 of Southeast Asia Dispatches, our fortnightly podcast of features, interviews and op-eds from around the region. In this episode, we visited Rohingya refugee camps on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, talked to two Malaysian students protesting their university’s involvement in a problematic event, and examined the state of activism and dissent in Singapore.

Then we had a research article about Singapore’s second colonial Resident, John Crawfurd, who retired in 1827 and ended up embarking on a second career opposing the “White Raja” in Sarawak, James Brooke.

We also published a photo essay about the informal street pickers in Phnom Penh, who do the lion’s share of the work sorting through trash and sending them on to recycling centres.

We’re also going to have our next online open meeting on 29 October from 7–8pm (Singapore time, GMT+8). Our Managing Director PJ Thum and Membership Engagement Editor Deborah Augustin will be on the call, so follow this link to call in and have a chat with them or ask any questions you might have!

(Bad) nasi lemak, the retirement of Chiam See Tong, and challenges to 377A

Issue 77

I’m writing this late—like, late—at night because I didn’t get home from New Naratif’s democracy classroom on youth activism until about 11:45pm. My cats, who expect to have their dinner at 5pm, were furious. But they’ll get over it, and there were great conversations at the democracy classroom as usual!

On Thursday evening I watched Merdeka at Wild Rice’s beautiful new theatre in Funan. ❤️ I’m still mulling things over and processing it, and will be working on something that’ll be sent to Milo Peng Funders, hopefully soon!

Political rustlings

After over 40 years in politics, Chiam See Tong has officially retired, taking a step back from the Singapore People’s Party. His name wasn’t put forward for the party’s Central Executive Committee, which means that he’s stepped down from being Secretary-General. The new committee will have to meet to decide on key appointments soon.

Unwilling to just sit and wait to find out when the elections are going to be, the Singapore Democratic Party is having a pre-election rally at Hong Lim Park later this afternoon.

Lee Hsien Loong is getting lots of kudos from the mainland Chinese media for his comments on Hong Kong. He’d earlier said that the demands of the protesters were meant to “humiliate and bring down” the Hong Kong government. Then he said that Singapore would be “finished” if such protests were to happen here. I don’t get why government officials keep talking about this as if the Hong Kong protests were going to spill over or be replicated in Singapore. It’s. Not. Going. To. Happen. What. Are. They. Paranoid. About?!

Chan Sek Keong takes a swing at 377A

Former Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong has written a paper arguing that the constitutionality of Section 377A—which criminalises sex between men—should be reviewed. That makes him the third former Attorney-General, alongside VK Rajah and Walter Woon, to take issue with the statute. There are three challenges to the law coming up, so we’ll see how that goes.

Related on the LGBT front:

This profile of Becca D’Bus, who is always on fire 🔥

This (paywalled) piece in The Straits Times that’s a good explainer-type piece about gender non-binary people.

And also this piece about how censorship has pushed LGBT artists towards more creativity and ingenuity in working around the authorities.

Ugh, this Telegram group

Four men suspected of being involved with a Telegram group called “SG Nasi Lemak” (why defile nasi lemak in this way?!) have been arrested for allegedly circulating obscene materials and promoting vice activities. Multiple women had reported the group.

Since then, another SG Nasi Lemak Telegram group has sprouted—this time actually sharing photos of nasi lemak.

No offence, but !@%$ Jewel

Lee Hsien Loong is really leaning into taking up Jewel. (Almost as if he wants it to be remembered as his legacy as his premiership approaches its close or something 🤔) During a speech, he said that Jewel and Changi Airport are symbols of how Singapore must “dream boldly”.

I don’t have a problem with bold dreams, and am a big fan of Changi Airport, but it’s still depressing AF if a symbol of our aspirations and dreams for Singapore is an airport mall. I’ve been to Jewel. It’s a mall. A mall with a nice waterfall in it, sure. BUT A MALL.

We can do better with our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations. We must.

This week we published a new comic explainer, this time looking at the need to deal with difference and disagreement in society, and to navigate tensions in ways that don’t marginalise groups with less power.

The comic was a nice intro to the next piece we published on a Christian community in Aceh Province, Indonesia, who have seen their houses of worship either torn down or burnt to the ground. This is a story our deputy editor Aisyah has wanted to tell for years, and she was finally able to with the support of New Naratif’s community—people came forward to donate to cover expenses. This is why we keep saying our community are utterly indispensable to what we do.

You might notice that some of the New Naratif links have banners above the header image saying that I’ve gifted the article to you; while New Naratif has a paywall, members have unique member URLs that they can share with anyone they want, anywhere, anytime. It’s our way of balancing access to information with reminding people that such work needs to be paid for—please support our work (longform journalism, research articles, comics, podcasts, events like the democracy classroom) by becoming a member of New Naratif!

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