What is happening to my country?

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By P N Balji

I am beginning to feel despondent about Singapore, the country that gave me so many opportunities to build my home, educate my children and lead a safe and secure life.

But in the last few years I am seeing a different Singapore, one that moves clumsily from one error to another with alarming regularity. The system is creaking, even cracking. The journey down the slippery slope started in 2008 when the country’s most wanted man, terrorist Mas Selamat, slipped out of a detention centre in the simplest of ways – by jumping out of a toilet window.

There were many slips after that. But the most embarrassing one was a photograph that popped out of The Straits Times’ page one earlier this month reminding me of something that can only happen in a Third World country. The Changi General Hospital was experiencing a bed crunch and it had set up a tent outside the hospital to treat patients. For a country known for its 20-20 vision, that one is inexcusable, especially after the then Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan promised in 2010 that Singapore won’t be in such a fix again.

Even the mild-mannered and moderate sociologist Paulin Straughan could not mask her angst when she let fly with this post in her Facebook:

“I knew that we had a bed crunch issue… but I didn’t realise that this was a sustained phenomenon and it had gotten so serious,” she said. The NUS Associate Professor had rushed her husband, who was suffering from internal bleeding, to hospital only to witness the overcrowding at first hand .

The reactions become different when you feel the pain yourself. Far removed from the pain, one can make incredible statements, like the one by PAP MP Chia Shi Lu blaming the December holiday season for the problem.

What is worrying is that the government just digs in its heels and tries to overplay the positive elements, downplaying the negative aspects of the mistakes.

Yesterday’s ministerial statement by Home Minister and DPM Teo Chee Hean on the Little India riot is one classic example. He was giving an account of that tragic night when Singapore’s tough stand on crime was in tatters for the whole world to see.

Two points are worth highlighting

One-hour delay: The Special Operations Command (the Riot Squad of old) arrived about 40 minutes after they were activated and one hour after the ground commander had first asked for their support.

Teo’s explanation sounded more defensive than constructive. He said the Special Operations Command needed time to act, it cannot be every where all the time where incidents may occurr and that one group had to go elsewhere for deterrence patrols.

They also need time to move from one location to another and to assess how serious and urgent the situation was.

I worry if this is the kind of regime our men and women in blue operate in. Emergencies require split-second action; there is hardly any time to think, ponder and then act. A split-second can make the difference between life and death or, as in this case, a huge embarrassment and rampage.

You can give all the reasons you can find for the delayed responset. But you can’t hide from the reality, despite all the explanations, that you were late. .

The best commanders are the ones who are quick-witted, decisive and pin-point accurate with their response.

Another delay: It looks like the Home Team did not learn from the PR blunder it had made during the Mas Selamat episode. The first statement was issued four hours after the prisoner jumped ship; if they had done so immediately, somebody could have spotted the man with a limp. But the team was so cock-sure that they would capture him and a victory statement could then be issued to show that yes, he escaped but we were quick enough to catch him.

Now we all know how wrong they were. Fast forward to the Little India riot; the first police statement was made two hours after signs of first trouble. But by then, social media had already filled the news vacuum with videos of police and civil defence vehicles being set fire and overturned.

DPM admitted: “There has been feedback that Police could have issued

short alerts and updates earlier. I agree and have asked Police to review its

information-dissemination processes.”

Let’s see.

Now, to the thrust of DPM’s statement. He wants to make Little India a mini-war zone, give police the power to ask those in the area their names and addresses and why they are there and empty thier bags and pockets. And finally, the power to strip search them.

Criminal lawyer Mark Goh said: “I have no issue with giving police more powers, but on two condition: what is the extent of the powers and what is the underlying mischief that the extended power hopes to prevent.

“Without a report from the Committee of Inquiry, do we know the underlying issues and problems which caused the riot. It seems that they have already decided that the mischief was alcohol.

“The bigger issue is that strip-search powers seemed to be aimed at one community and it can inflame an already tender issue.”

This is what this argument for new powers really mean. They couldn’t prevent the riot from happening. So they need extra powers to tighten the screws and choke the area so that
its charm, colour and character will disappear over time. What a killjoy.

And does the PM do? He goes on to his Facebook and congratulates the police for not firing a shot.

Mas Selamat’s escape, Orchard Road floods, train breakdowns, corruption cases, immigration foul-ups …. all these point to a systemic problem that, if not tackled with the hard-nosed approach of the Lee Kuan Yew era, will blow up in our faces and make Singapore a normal country.