Untrimmed nature during the circuit breaker

The circuit breaker has allowed us to better enjoy nature untrimmed. The grass and other plants have been to grow and it has been wonderful to see the flowers come out, including the pink mimosa (touch-me-not) and purple morning glory in bloom by the rail corridor near Jelita, Holland Road. Aren’t the tall green grass and other plants let alone to thrive such a lovely sight?

 The grass verges next to our curbs and other parts of the city have also flourished in the absence of the whirring blades of the grass cutters.

 Less manicured, with more leaves releasing fresh oxygen and more places for insects, mice and other small animals to find refuge. Am I the only one who prefers it that way?



Post-pandemic: “More arts funding, more freedom, more social safety guarantees, please”

Arts and philantropist sector leader KC Chew calls on the government for more funding of the arts, for freedom for the arts to flourish, and to do “heavy lifting” to ensure a minimum standard of living. He was speaking at a Worker’s Party Youth Wing online forum on 16 May on change in a post-Covid Singapore (see the video recording here). Below are the talking points of his speech. The other speakers were economist Joanne Yoong, psychiatrist Munidasa Winslow, entrepreneur Liyana Sulaiman. KC’s bio is given at the end of the post.


  1. I will make three points.
  2. First point. We need to have more serious funding of the Arts, particularly from the government, and from private philanthropy. I suggest increasing the budget supporting the Arts to say, $1 billion a year for the next five years.
  3. Second point. A robust, autonomous and independent civil society and a more open and freer polity — in other words, a more liberal as opposed to illiberal democratic society – is vital for the greater flowering of the Arts. The Arts power the engine of the creative industries in the new knowledge economy. We need the creativity and innovation that is intrinsic in the DNA of the Arts to face the future and, to prosper as a society. Or, in other words, to Majullah Singapura. Let me put that more succinctly: Freedom of thinking and expression protected by Civil liberties are essential for the full flowering of the Arts. Diversity – not groupthink – is vital for progress.
  4. Third point. Government must step up to do the heavy lifting of funding the minimum standards of living in Singapore, so that Civil Society and private philanthropy can address the uplifting of the quality of life that will make us a thriving, prosperous, gracious and great society. So that we can become a beacon of a first world global city of the future.
  5. Let me elaborate on these 3 points in turn.WP banner
  6. INCREASED FUNDING OF THE ARTS IN SINGAPORE. Presently the NAC (the National Arts Council) gives grants of about $70-80 million a year to an ecosystem of arts groups. That is excellent, though many arts groups are still struggling to be financially sustainable. If you look at the published stats of cultural funding in Singapore, MCCY spent about $450 million last year, funding arts, heritage and culture institutions which includes: the museums, the Esplanade, the libraries, and the People’s Association.
  7. My suggestion of increasing the funding to $1 billion is actually not very bold. Indeed in 2014 and 2015 it reached close to those levels — $880 million in 2014 and $940 million in 2015.
  8. But when I speak of increased funding, I was referring more to the $70-80 million in grants given to arts organisations. I feel we should aim to increase those levels from $80 million to perhaps $350 million annually, in order to grow this sector in meaningful ways.

  9. But the government must enable this increased funding in a self-enlightened way. It should not seek to control or censor such growth funding. This is not intended to be a Growth Fund for organs of propaganda. It is a Growth Fund for organs of creativity. Of course, Government wants to be responsible and accountable for the disbursements of such funds. They are tax-payers’ money.
  10. It can achieve this accountability by establishing panels and committees of independent jurors and assessors, taken from the ranks of practicing artists (and not: academics, economists and other professionals?) who understand and value creativity, innovativeness, and criticality, and who understand the self-defeating consequences of censorship.
  11. An analogy would be the pursuit of pure science in the best research universities in the world, as different from the applied sciences. The rationale for the pursuit of knowledge and curiosity for its own sake — leading to new knowledge and paradigm shifts — is well established in academia.
  12. In case it is not obvious why the growth of the arts is so vital to the future economy let me explain this simply.
  13. The arts are an essential component of the creative industries, which have a significant place in powering economies.
  14. In other major cities in the world, the Gross Value Add of the creative industries to London, Paris, Berlin, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tokyo, is highly significant.
  15. In London, to take just one example, one thinks of the financial sector as predominant. Yet the creative economy in London accounts for 17% of employment, whereas the Financial Sector employs 15% of London’s workforce.
  16. Let me add that the creative industries refer to performing and visual arts, music, design, architecture, film and television, radio and photography, theatres, museums, libraries, software and computer services, video games, advertising and media, journalism, creative writing, books and publishing. And this is of course not an exhaustive list.
  17. Let me now come to my second point.
  18. For the arts to flourish, to be diverse in its offering, it requires an open and tolerant society.
  19. We don’t need to look just to the West, to America and Europe, we can look to the East, to some parts of Asia. Look at Taiwan and Korea.
  20. Taiwan, I am told, is at the cutting edge of Chinese-language literature and films. The Golden Horse Awards in filmmaking is a Taiwanese event. There are something like 137 independent local magazines and 4 independent radio stations in Taiwan.
  21. From Korea, you have what is known as the “Korean Wave” – the cultural export of Korean art, music, drama, television. Fans the world over — including South America — follow K-Pop and K-drama television. And the latest phenomenon – the Korean movie Parasite made unprecedented wins at this year’s Oscars. “Bong Joon-ho’s comedy-drama about an impoverished family who infiltrate the household of a wealthier one is the first film not in the English language to take the top prize (of Best Film). It also took best directorbest original screenplay and best international film.” ( I am quoting from a Guardian report.)
  22. It is amazing to note that a scant 35 years ago, Korea and Taiwan were totalitarian military dictatorships. But then they opened up their societies decisively to significant democratic practices, and the result is what you see today, where their creativity is reaching the highest standards of global benchmarks.
  23. I am not saying that an open, liberal, tolerant and diverse environment is the only factor for the arts to grow and flourish.
  24. You do need to create or develop a conscious ecology of the creative industry – training, education, investment, funding, even initial cultural protectionist policies perhaps. But the openness of a society is the sine qua non – that indispensable and essential condition “without which it cannot be”.
  25. Here in Singapore the bane of the serious artist, especially the artist wanting to reflect on the social condition – is censorship, which also gives rise to self-censorship.
  26. Some people have asked why some local world-class works are disavowed in Singapore that have won the highest creative acclaim internationally? The cartoonist Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye published by Epigram Books comes to mind. It has won not one but 3 Eisner Awards (equivalent to the Oscars for the Comics Industry) but in Singapore its modest funding award of $8000 was retracted!
  27. Another example was the banning of Tan Pin Pin’s movie To Singapore With Love. It committed the cardinal sin of including one or two former CPM members being interviewed for their reflections. The CPM – the Communist Party of Malaya – mind you, is history, and have ceased to exist for over 30 years.
  28. One might wryly remark, but great art is produced under conditions of repression, for example Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Let’s look more closely at that. Milan Kundera was a Czech citizen who went into exile to France in 1975. His Czech citizenship was revoked in 1979 and it wasn’t restored till last year 2019, 40 years later! He published his most famous book in 1985, ten years after living as a free citizen in France.
  29. Perhaps yes, many artists oppressed or repressed by the state have produced great works of art. But these would tend to be dissident art. And art and creativity is certainly much more than just art that is anti-establishment.
  30. The pandemic crisis, global in nature, unprecedented in social and economic impact, has given us an opportunity to pause and rethink a number of things in a fundamental way.
  31. My third and final point is that Government has now the opportunity to address grave social shortcomings in the lives of people in Singapore, citizens and non-citizens, residents and visitors.
  32. At the bottom of the social pyramid in Singapore are the poor, not in a position to enjoy the great success, the environment, and material well-being, comfort and ease that life in Singapore offers.
  33. Who are these people? How many of them are there?
  34. Someone who has studied this subject, my friend the economist Yeoh Lam Keong, has put a number on it. There are 125,000 households, and so perhaps about 250-300,000, maybe more, individuals who make up the absolute poor in Singapore.
  35. They are working poor, the unemployed poor and the elderly poor.
  36. With just a few simple schemes, like increasing the Workfare Income Supplement by another $5-600 for each recipient, and increasing the Silver Support Scheme by another $5-600 for each recipient, and having a basic unemployment insurance system, we can largely meet the essential need for food, shelter, utilities, and medical care that these people have trouble covering.
  37. This is what the VWOs, now called SSOs (Social Service Organisations) are spending all or much of their energies, trying to plug.
  38. The government can supply this next month if it chooses to, at a cost of $3-4 billion a year, which is less than 1% of our GDP. Yet it doesn’t do this.
  39. So SSOs (Social Service Organisations) and charities spend their energies and resources taking up the slack, providing food, paying for utilities, providing healthcare. Instead the SSOs can cater to higher value-added services for their clients or beneficiaries, like enhancing their quality of life, their dignity, enabling their fuller inclusion in society, addressing perhaps stigma against them, and enabling their upward social mobility.
  40. Because the bill is $3-4 billion a year to cater to the gap in meeting the minimum standard of decent living for the 300,000 poor in Singapore, the SSOs can never hope to fulfill this – they just don’t have the resources. But the government has these resources, amply.
  41. The government’s rightful role is to do this heavy lifting.
  42. Private philanthropy has a vital place in society. But it is not to do the government’s work.
  43. There are 2,277 registered charities in Singapore (2019).
  44. Total donations given to all charities in 2017 (the latest published report) amounted to $2.7 billion that year.
  45. The lion’s and lioness’ shares go to Religious Organisations which received $1 billion and Higher Education (which received $333 million).
  46. Arts and Heritage organisations received $101 million in donations in 2017. I don’t think these are evenly spread out. Private philanthropy could do more for this sector, but it is not an easy sell, like it is for higher education.
  47. So my point is that the partnership between Government and Civil Society in meeting citizen’s needs and aspirations is what is critical to advance society.
  48. The government should look upon civil society as its partners in progress and its supporter of common objectives. Civil society – bar none of its members — is not its enemy, to curb, control and restrain. Not even those members who may be highly critical of it — holding the government to account, and keeping it honest.

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Is Density Destiny? : Singapore climbs global Covid-19 charts amidst worrying new upswing


Amidst a concerning climb in daily new cases in the last week, Singapore has reached the grim milestone: 11th country in the global ranking of coronavirus per capita. In the table here, the greenish columns show the number of cases per million people and the global ranking. Singapore has 22,460 cases or 3,839 cases per million people (using 5.85m as the population).

As can be seen, Singapore has overtaken Italy, Switzerland, UK, Bahrain, France, Portugal, Sweden and Netherlands. It is just below tenth-placed USA. The countries/economies with the most Covid-19 infections are San Marino (population 33,800) followed by Vatican City (pop 825), Andorra (pop 77,000), Qatar, Luxembourg, Spain, Iceland, Ireland, Belgium. Among the countries (and territories) that have been praised for their management of the pandemic: Hong Kong is tied 117th, Taiwan 167rd, South Korea 97th, and Vietnam 190st. China is 146th.  They are too far below to be captured on this chart.

coronavirus ranking may 10

In the coming days, there is a possibility that we will break into the top ten. Let’s hope not.

The coronavirus data used here comes from the highly regarded website Worldometers, which tracks daily statistics of the spread in just over 200 countries/terrritories. It provides a live tally, and the statistics used here were downloaded at 7:30am on May 10, Friday. For this article, I have added ranks for the measures in the data. I have also excluded some places that are not independent countries covered by Worldometer such as Falkland Islands, Faeroe Islands and Gilbatrar (these also tend to have high cases per capita.)

The table also shows that Singapore ranks 26th in total number of cases (the bluish columns).

It ranks 30st in the number of tests per capita (the orangey columns.)

Continue reading


Migrant workers and access to the arts

I gave a speech as a panellist two years ago at a conference held at The Esplanade by the Culture Academy on accessibility to the arts that in retrospect is a little relevant to today’s discussion about the place of migrant workers in our society. The panel asked the question “Accessibility in Diversity: Who are we Addressing and is it Old Wine in a New Bottle?”That is, what does accessibility mean and for whom.

I didn’t want to deal with the old issues about who among Singaporeans did not have enough access to the arts, but instead raised the problem of why access to the arts in our country should be limited only to Singaporeans (or at most, permanent residents). I spoke mainly about access for the (female) foreign domestic workers. Unfortunately, I barely dealt with other (male) migrant workers such as those who are not assailed by the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps, they were semi-invisible (translucent?) to me then.

Of course, censorship is never far from any non-superficial discussion of arts and culture in Singapore, and I tagged on a short section on how the regime limited access to the arts for the “non-normals” among Singaporeans, and how all of us were given access only to “safe” content.


Here’s the summary of my presentation:

Access to the arts needs to go beyond the usual mode of merely bringing the arts to communities or vice versa towards a wider and more meaningful conceptualisation of ‘accessibility’. There is also a need to rethink the meaning of ‘disadvantaged’ communities to one more relevant to Singapore’s much-vaunted if contested cosmopolitanism based on the ideas of openness and tolerance.

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Surreal coronavirus lockdown life in Singapore

https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/article/3081538/surreal-life-singapore-covid-19-circuit-breaker-and-migrantI have the distinct feeling that there is perhaps no other place on Earth where life is split so acutely and strangely. Between a thing and its name, between what needs to be spoken and what is said, between most of us and the others among us, and between “us” and “them”. If that is not surreal, I don’t know what is.

From my article in the South China Morning Post:

queueing for food




The second wave: How did the fight go wrong?

                                        [Warning: This is a long post]

The measure of a society in normal times is how well it takes care of its people and plays its role as a member of the global community. In times of crisis, however, it is also in how well that society anticipates and averts disaster, how well it overcomes an inadvertent disaster, and how well it learns from one disaster to prepare for the next.

At first, Singapore acquitted itself excellently against the novel coronavirus. We were praised as the “gold standard” in containing Covid-19, often together with Taiwan and Hong Kong. Singapore is a particular example: 1) unlike Taiwan, we are a transport crossroads and home to many more non-citizens workers and residents, and 2) unlike Hong Kong, we kept schools open and abided by the World Health Organisation’s (continuing) advice on masks. Our achievement remains remarkable.

0 foreignworker-singapore-contributions-buildup-prosperous-comforts

The doubly invisible (Source: All Singapore Stuff)

But countries have been warned of second waves of Covid-19 infection. That second wave is with us now. How did the good work unravel?


Experts are divided on this. Is it the fault of our early mask-wearing policy and/or non-closure of schools (which also has the side effect of making people not taking social distancing seriously)? Was it non-compliance: by companies not instituting work from home, by individuals defying social distancing measures, by the public ignoring good hygiene advice, and by the sick going out and not masking up when they do? Was the new wave was seeded by  “imported” cases, especially the undetected/asymptomatic returnees? Or were we just unlucky for some unknown reasons, because we can only act on what is known? Or were there multiple causes combining into a multiplier effect? (Please let me know if there are other possible reasons.) Continue reading


The Straits Times gets it wrong – and why it matters

ST front page 9 April 2020_cr

Where’s the real news?

One would have thought that for Singaporeans the most important news of the last 24 hours is the country breaking another record of new coronavirus cases (142). Yet The Straits Times chose to downplay this frightening news. , As an ex-journalist and a media researcher, I find this quite befuddling — and disturbing.

The news about Singapore’s worst day of the crisis so far was not on the front page of the print edition I got this morning. Instead the editors chose as the lead article the good news of “Better connectivity to make work, study from home easier.”

Not only was the bad news not the lead article, it was not even mentioned of it all in any of the “blurbs” on the front page meant to alert readers to what the newspaper considered the other key news inside the newspaper.

Similarly, the Straits Times website also buried the news on its webpage. It was not on it’s Global page (which is the landing page for most people when the visit the website), and only the second item on its Singapore page.

What is happening here? Good editors will have slightly different news judgement about what deserves top billing every day, but the utter lack of piority given to the new record surely cannot be due to that – unless the news judgement of The Straits Times’ editors is really poor, which I don’t think is the case.

Instead, the decision to play down this news could be political rather journalistic. There are two ways this could happen.

First, it could be done on instructions direct or otherwise from the government. This instance was probably not what happened. We can tell this by comparing The Straits Times coverage with that of Channel News Asia, which put the news as its top item. It wouldn’t have if it had also have received the same instructions. I also believe that the government has decided that as far as the coronavirus is concerned it should be open and transparent.

Second, it could be that The Straits Times’ editors chose on their own accord to “protect” the government by hiding as much as they could bad news from readers. Perhaps the editors have the impending general election at the back of their minds. Perhaps they were second guessing what would please the government. A famous example of The Straits Times trying to “help” its political masters (but embarrassing them instead) is editing out in its first report of PM Lee Hsien Loong’s famous words about “fixing the opposition” in a 2008 2006 election rally.

Whatever the reason for its present journalistic lapse, the reason The Straits Times’ decision is disturbing is that the news of the new high is critical to reminding Singaporeans of the dire and probably deteriorating state of the epidemic, and also serving as a further wake-up call for all of us to follow the rules of the “circuit breaker”. Hiding the news, whether intentional or not, performs no national service but does the very exact opposite.

Anyway, as citizens and residents, let’s help ourselves and our fellow citizens and residents by observing the lockdown measures.

P.S. I worked in The Straits Times for 16 years. Here are some of commentaries from that time.

P.P.S. On another matter, I’m quite puzzled by whythe government calls it a “circuit breaker” instead of a “lockdown”. The latter communicates the seriousness of the measures more powerfully then than the former term. As someone told me, “Just call it a lockdown!” But that is another whole story.

P.P.P.S Listen to this powerful speech by German leader Angela Merkel on what each person can do.


Commentary on Coronavirus

This was published yesterday in the South China Morning Post:



Why the West’s coronavirus response shows it isn’t better than the rest of us

  • Complacency and hubris caused economically advanced societies to believe they could easily handle the threat without understanding it fully
  • The failure of Western leaders to properly prepare has exposed their weaknesses, and could mark an turning point in global history



Now we have test numbers for coronavirus

Two updates.

First, I wrote five days ago in this post that the government should reveal the total number of people who have been tested so far:

The data on cases put out every day has been detailed and prompt. Could we also have updates on how many tests are being conducted each day and to date? It will be similar to that put out by South Korea.

Yesterday, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong disclosed that Singapore had performed around 39,000 COVID-19 tests:

“This translates to 6,800 tests per million people in Singapore, compared with around 6,500 in South Korea, and 1,000 in Taiwan. These tests are important in helping us to detect as many cases as possible and as early as possible.”

Probably just a coincidence. But impressive numbers!

Second, I wrote in the same post that I had given feedback to the government phone app TraceTogether which tracks your movements and compares that with other people’s to help with contact tracing. I said:

Great idea and implementation except that there needs to have an easier way to shut it down temporarily for when we are at home or in certain other places where we are unlikely to meet strangers.

Yesterday, I got a replying saying that they were looking into the suggestion. I suppose I could just turn off the phone Bluetooth at home, as suggested by a friend. This works except that I can’t get rid of the notification that the app is “not scanning” other than to go to system settings to shut it down.

So far the app has been downloaded just 100,000+ times on Google Play. Let’s double that to include the non-Android phones. Not bad in such as short time, but I wonder if that’s enough critical mass to be really useful. [Oh, my bad, the developers said two days ago that it had reached 685,000 unique users. See this link, which also has advice on a scam (!!!) involving contact tracing. I wonder why the numbers on Google Play are different; perhaps the next step is 1 million downloads.]

Perhaps the government could sell it a bit more. Or give figures about how much of the contact tracing done recently has benefited — or could have benefited — from the app.



Source: Reuters




Coronavirus: Good job, more data perhaps

lawrence wong

Credit: The Independent Singapore

Good job by our government on the fight against the new coronavirus so far! We (often together with Hong Kong and Taiwan) have been called the “gold standard” the several times by different groups. I am particularly impressed by the briefings by Minister Lawrence Wong: clear, comprehensive, measured and of the right tone, not the military patronising talking-down know-it-all style that some of his colleagues have been unable to shake off.

The data on cases put out every day has been detailed and prompt. Could we also have updates on how many tests are being conducted each day and to date? It will be similar to that put out by South Korea.

Another useful bit of information is where stocks of groceries are available or not available. NTUC Fairprice could take the lead, with a nudge from the government. An old couple I know went to Clementi the day after the Malaysia border closed wanting to buy some vegetables from the Fairprice in Clementi Mall but found that the shelves for these had been almost cleared out. They were not looking to stockpile but to get enough for a couple of day. NTUC had assured people that there would be sufficient supplies.

I just installed the TraceTogether app. Great idea and implementation except that there needs to have an easier way to shut it down temporarily for when we are at home or in certain other places where we are unlikely to meet strangers.



The list lengthens to 18

Three more names have been added to the list of 15 people (see https://tantarnhow.wordpress.com/2017/10/30/the-mystery-are-activists-and-artists-being-locked-out-of-academia/ ) who believe that they might be locked out of academia for their art practice or activism. A fourth case is unclear but useful to discuss functionaries doing what they think the bosses (earthly or the ones up there in the sky) want. All are Singaporeans. All asked not to be named, at least for now.

Two of the three contacted me, and one discovered through another person. Two are acclaimed artists, one a low-profile activist. They are in the list because despite being told by the department heads that they had cleared the academic bar for teaching, they still failed to get the job because of objections by the Ministry of Education or some other government agency. Like the other 15, they have no documentary proof that the problem is their art or their activism. Hence they cannot be sure of the exact non-academic reasons.


Photo from https://www.flasco. org/

Two of them are distressed by not being able to get a job, which they said they really need. One said, only half-jokingly, “Shall I leave Singapore?” In the previous post, I wrote that a few of the Singaporeans were forced to find work overseas.

What sickens some people make others happy (since the punishment is working.)

The three intend to apply again to other academic institutions in the hope that they are not really   blacklisted.

The fourth case does not make the list (at least not yet until more is known). This is because he is not sure if his application to teach part-time at a polytechnic went up as far as the Ministry of Education (which would put him on the list) or he was jammed at the polytechnic level. He only knows that the department head wanted to hire him, but the Human Resource Department objected. He is also very low-profile, so behind the scenes that, unlike the other three, I did not know him until now.

Was he blocked by someone in HR, and if so, why? It could be there is an in-house policy against his area of activism. Or it could be some manager or higher-up taking his own initiative to assure himself of being in the superior’s or a god’s good books. Or it could be that the person did some Googling –  as one of the four revealed the department head who wanted him speculated had happened – and decided to be “safe”. Being safe would bring no rewards, while taking risks could lead to a reprimand or even losing his job.

Again the evidence is all circumstantial. Talking about circumstantial evidence often reminds me of the amazing case of Sunny Ang Soo Suan and Jenny Cheok Cheng Kid.