Ugly Foo Diary

Sunday, January 29, 2006

 

An article from The Straits Times - 29 Jan 2006

Jan 29, 2006
BLOGGING OUT
Racist remarks? No more, please
These netizens have every reason to reject such comments - one has even set up a petition

By Arlina Arshad
Convicted blogger has learnt his lesson

TODAY when Mr Benjamin Koh, 29, greets his grandmother with two mandarin oranges and Chinese New Year wishes, he will make a vow to be good as well.

Looking back on the past year, he also has a lot to be thankful for, he said, gesturing to include his mother, younger brother and aunts as well.

They are his bedrock, he added, providing constant support when he was jailed for a month last October for making racist remarks in his online journal.

'I'm quite a baby. I really owe my life and sanity to them. Without them, I'll probably still be inside or dead.'

The hardship did not end when he walked away from the prison gates on Oct 25.
He could not live down the dreaded label: racist blogger. He sent out about 500 job applications but no one wanted to hire him.

Recalling the dark days, he said: 'I wondered how I was going to survive from now? Of all labels, I had to be slapped with the racist label. I wanted to protest because I'm not one. But what to do? People tend to remember only the bad.'

Last December, a friend came to his rescue and gave him a job in his events management company.

Today, Mr Koh liaises with suppliers and organises logistics for the events organised by Flo Concepts.

Said its director Eugene Tay, 27: 'I did not hire him out of sympathy.

'Ben is a perfectionist, dedicated and 100 per cent committed to what he does. Serving one month does not make him a hardcore criminal.'

Mr Koh and two others, who also made racist remarks online, were the first people in 40 years to be convicted under the Sedition Act. The other two were marketing executive Nicholas Lim, 25, and private school student Gan Huai Shi, 17.

Mr Koh's remarks on his blog, Phoenyx Chronicles on www.upsaid.com, were in response to a Muslim woman's letter in The Straits Times Forum last June suggesting that dogs should not be allowed in taxis.

In sentencing him, Senior District Judge Richard Magnus described his vulgarity-filled jibes as 'particularly vile'.

So what prompted him to do it?

His unhesitating reply: 'My lack of understanding of Islam.'

Then a part-time kennel assistant, he said he blasted the writer because he felt she should have been more tolerant. He was angry, not a racist, he said, a point he made repeatedly during the three-hour interview.

Last week, two Muslim religious leaders clarified that it is neither sinful nor offensive for Muslims to come into contact with dogs. What they will need to do after such an encounter is to wash themselves in a specified way.

While Mr Koh acknowledged that his remarks were racist in nature, he maintained they did not stem from prejudice.

As in court, he pointed to his several Malay/Muslim friends.

'One of them even dons the tudung. In fact, three of my closest friends are Malay. I've known them since secondary school and meet them regularly,' he said, adding that he also visits their homes during Hari Raya.

His Malay/Muslim friends had also jumped to his defence, with two of them giving written testimonials to the court and one appearing in court.

Housewife Siti Ainiyah Jafarin, 29, who has known Mr Koh for 15 years since their schooldays in Swiss Cottage Secondary, attributes his problem to his tendency 'to shoot his mouth off when he is angry'.

'He will bring up everything, not only race. But he doesn't mean any harm.'

She recalled laughing off the charge when she heard it.

'Racist? He's not that kind of guy,' she told The Sunday Times, adding that Mr Koh would call her to chat during his free time.

'He is full of humour and asked me to teach him bad words in Malay so he can scold his Chinese friends.'

Although friends and relatives rallied around him, the initial days after he was charged was filled with anxiety, he said.

He felt unsafe when he left his home in Geylang, an area with many Malays.

He wore sunglasses to avoid being recognised. 'But the moment I step out of my house, I see Malays. Because of the nature of my offence, I was so scared they were going to come after me,' he said.

He received death threats via e-mail. His home phone rang incessantly as relatives and acquaintances alike wanted to know what happened.

Mr Koh said: 'My mother was angry and upset that I'd done such a stupid thing. She was worried I would have a hard time in prison.'

Did he?

'The episode was pure physical and mental torture. I never, ever wish to go through it again,' he said, shaking his head repeatedly.

He felt suffocated by the 'rows and rows of metal bars' and 'four grey walls'. 'On the way to my cell, I felt like passing out. Everywhere was sealed up,' he recalled of life in Queenstown Remand Prison.

He was given a straw mat, two blankets, a pail of water daily for washing himself with, and a book. There was no pillow so he used a folded blanket as one.

Nights were cold and days were long and lonely, eased somewhat by Dan Brown and Anne Rice's books.

He tried to dispel his boredom by taking naps or planning strategies on how to beat his opponents at Dungeons And Dragons, his favourite role-playing game.

'Can you imagine my pain? I was killing monsters in my sleep,' he said.

'It was so hot in the day, I really missed my air-conditioned room. I also missed my dog, my family, good food, everything.'

When he was freed, the self-confessed Internet addict went straight to his computer to e-mail friends, chat with them via MSN Messenger and play his computer games.
For a week, he was glued to it.

He also began to blog again, on baisuzhen.livejournal.com
But now, he uses pseudonyms and asks friends to vet his writings before publishing them on the web.

'I've learnt my lesson. Whether they're private or public entries, no more racist remarks.'

arlina@sph.com.sg

 

An article from The Straits Times - 29 Jan 2006

Jan 29, 2006
Netizen petitions against blog

POPULAR blogger Xiaxue has come under fire for accusing foreign workers of molestation at the Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve street parties in Orchard Road.

The 21-year-old, whose real name is Wendy Cheng, said in a Dec 28 posting that foreign workers are 'usually the ones' to molest 'because they are not in their own country, and they think they can get away with it'.

It has prompted an angry netizen, full-time model Mia Tan, 25, to start a petition condemning the remarks and to spur the relevant authorities to take action. It has attracted more than 400 signatures so far.

Miss Cheng had specified the nationality of the foreign workers in an earlier entry, but replaced it with a general term after she was lambasted online.

She also wrote: 'So yes, I don't like our foreign workers, whatever race they are - but you know the kind we all dislike the most.'

The Internet community condemned the posts as 'racist', 'irresponsible' and 'insensitive'. Some called for her blog, which attracts over 20,000 visitors daily - mostly teens - to be shut down.
Miss Tan, who has had positive encounters with foreign workers, said: 'I support freedom of speech and I applaud Miss Cheng for speaking up against molestation.

'But pointing fingers vindictively, and using vulgarities against foreign workers, cannot be condoned.'

Mr Benjamin Koh, 29, who was jailed a month last year for making racist remarks, also e-mailed the Ministry of Home Affairs to complain.

In her defence, Miss Cheng told The Sunday Times that 'the only mention of race' was in her earlier entry, which had her saying that she 'preferred not to club with Bangladeshi workers'.

But racial comments are sensitive in Singapore and youths need to take extra care when expressing these views publicly on their blog, said Mr Poh Yeang Cherng, manager at Touch Community Services, which runs cyber wellness programmes in schools.

Social psychologist Koh Cheok Eng said Miss Cheng's readers may see people as foreigners versus Singaporeans, low versus high social status, men versus women.

'When people are perceived as members of groups rather than as individuals, it's easier for those who are impressionable to stereotype others and become prejudiced,' she said.

Ms Doris Chia, partner of Harry Elias and Partners, said if words used in a blog lower someone's reputation, and are read by third parties, issues of defamation can arise.

She added: 'However, the law does allow a person to express a statement of fact that is true or give an opinion or comment provided it is based on facts even if the words are defamatory in nature.'

The Media Development Authority said it has not received any complaint on Miss Cheng's postings.

Arlina Arshad

Saturday, January 21, 2006

 

An article from The Straits Times - 21 Jan 2006

Slog all day for $700 a month? Some do
By Lydia Lim

CLEANERS, odd-job labourers, hawker assistants - they are among the lowest-paid workers in Singapore.
Their plight hit the headlines last week, when a ministerial committee proposed a billion-dollar package to help raise their income. About 150,000 workers here earn $900 or less a month, even though they have full-time jobs, which means they work 30 hours or more a week.
In this group are those who struggle to support their families on wages of between $500 and $700 a month, workers like Mr Tay Keng Leong, 52.
Although he pulls a full eight-hour shift a day as a town council cleaner, his take-home pay hovers around $700, not enough for him, his wife and their three children, aged six, four and two.
The stark facts of the life of workers like Mr Tay raise questions about why Singaporeans say 'yes' to jobs that pay them such paltry sums, and why wages at the bottom-end have not kept pace with economic development.
To what extent is this due to the inflow of low-skilled foreign workers over the years, especially into sectors such as cleaning?
What can be done to help Singaporeans stuck in these low-wage jobs?
Deputy labour chief Lim Swee Say says these workers can move up to higher-paying jobs if they are prepared to go for training, learn new skills and have a good work attitude.
Insight reports on the daily struggle of low-wage workers and what is being done to help them change their lives for the better.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

 

An article from The Straits Times

Dec 31, 2005
THINKING ALOUD
Protect those who blow the whistle on charities too

By Bertha Henson
SUPERVISING EDITOR (HOME)

THERE is a man who deserves some credit in helping to expose the excesses of the old National Kidney Foundation, except that few know who he is.

He is the 54-year-old retired contractor whose revelations about a gold-plated tap sparked off the chain of events that Singaporeans are still reeling from.

He refused to be identified and asked to be known only as Mr Tan.

His reason: 'I had heard that the NKF sued people. Although I was telling the truth, ordinary working-class people like me simply cannot afford to fight any court cases with a big organisation like the NKF.'

But he agreed to give a sworn statement in which he declared that what he had installed was 'certainly not the type of tap one would expect to find in a normal office'.

He was also willing to come out in the open if he was called to the stand during the NKF's defamation suit.

So there Mr Tan sat quietly in court when the hearing was held in July, waiting for his turn to give evidence.

It never came to that as Mr T.T. Durai withdrew the suit, and the old NKF unravelled in the weeks that followed.

Contacted by The Straits Times this week, following more revelations by KPMG in its report on the old NKF, Mr Tan was amazed - or rather aghast - at the host of excesses practised by the old management.

But he declined to be identified even now: 'A wounded tiger will turn around and bite. And I have my family to think of.'

This 'don't quote me' mentality is commonplace in Singapore, although Mr Tan is to be commended for being willing to back his words in a court of law.

What of others?

Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan lamented this failing during last week's press conference, when he recalled how he had received many anonymous phone calls and e-mail messages about the NKF.

'They were telling me all sorts of allegations about the former CEO but many always end up, 'please don't quote me' and when I press for evidence, no evidence.'

In fact, much of what he was told was hearsay: 'I heard somebody said this and that but 'please don't quote me'. 'Please don't quote me, okay?' '

Said Mr Khaw: 'Now how do you act on that kind of feedback?'

The minister's lament flummoxed a foreign journalist who was at the press conference.

What explained this 'culture of fear', he asked?

Rather tersely, Mr Khaw replied: 'I have no fear. Do you have fear? There are plenty of questions for me, even asking me to resign and so on. We have no fear.

'So why is there fear? And why are people anonymous? I don't know.'

In the end, he put it down to the Asian culture of self-effacement. It took a long time, he noted, for The Straits Times to launch its policy of getting letter-writers to give their real names.

Then again, perhaps, in the case of the old NKF, it was understandable that people were fearful given its litigation-happy reputation.

There have been at least four reported cases in the past seven years of the NKF successfully pursuing individuals for defamatory remarks.

You need to be pretty pristine to fight a defamation suit. The same applies to the supposedly aggrieved party, as it lays them open to investigations on a host of other issues beyond the allegedly wounding words.

The suit by Mr Durai and the NKF allowed the Singapore Press Holdings lawyers to summon for documents which, as it now turns out, Mr Durai would probably preferred to have left in the bottom drawer. These included details of his salary and perks.

But both sides in a defamation suit would need deep pockets to stay the course. An individual, even with evidence in hand, would baulk at the expense of going to court to take on a giant.

One way out is to give those who have something to say a secure channel to regulators as well as the Commissioner of Charities.

But how many people know who the regulators are? For the record, there are 13 central fund administrators who oversee Institutions of a Public Character, voluntary welfare organisations that issue tax-exempt receipts.

Two are now well known: the National Council of Social Service, which manages the 184 IPCs in the NCSS Charitable Fund, and the Health Ministry's Health Endowment Fund, which has 100 IPCs.

Who are the rest and which charities are under their charge? How do you reach them if you have misgivings but also need protection?

Asked for the list, the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore said there are 13 funds managed by the remaining 11 administrators. The People's Association alone manages three funds. The Education Ministry manages 382 IPCs under its Education Fund, even more than the Health Ministry and the NCSS. You didn't know that, did you?

But even if you did know who to call, there's still the risk of getting into trouble for whistle-blowing, especially if you are an employee. One director in the disgraced Singapore Association for the Visually Handicapped was booted out after the board found out he had passed some material to the NCSS.

In some countries, there are laws that encourage and protect whistle-blowers. There is the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in the United States and the Public Interest Disclosure Act in Britain.

A survey last year by the US Association for Certified Fraud Examiners showed that almost 40 per cent of fraud cases were discovered from a tip-off. And fraud surveys by accountancy firm KPMG found that about 30 per cent of respondents uncovered fraud through notification by external parties, informants or anonymous letters.

Here, the subject of such legislation was brought up in Parliament last year but rejected on the grounds that it could lead to a proliferation of unfounded allegations by those with an axe to grind.

Still, banks and major companies such as Singapore Airlines have taken it upon themselves to establish a regime for whistle-blowers.

In the government sector, the Manpower Ministry's whistle-blowing hotline for reporting lapses in construction safety led to nine stop-work orders.

The Land Transport Authority has also instituted a protocol for whistle-blowers: Those who wish to make a report need to fill out a form and mail it to LTA's safety division. The whistle-blower has to include his personal particulars, but the information will be used by the scheme's programme managers only to clarify the report or obtain more information. The report's details will be entered into a database, without personal information, and the form returned to the sender.

Perhaps, the agencies responsible for IPCs could do the same. Or the office of the Commissioner of Charities should be broadened to take on the job.

Yes, it would mean more work. But let's protect public donations as much as companies do their coffers.

bertha@sph.com.sg


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