The complex question that is POFMA

By Michael Han

Picture the following:

1) A man says, “I love you”. That is what the eye observes.

2) Then, the camera zooms out a little, and what is revealed are beads of sweat running down the man’s forehead together with what seems like a gun pointed to his right temple.

Question: Did he mean it (when he said I love you)?

3) And the camera zooms out even more, further revealing a child holding that gun.

Question: Are they playing a game?

4) After that, the whole picture comes into full view as the man smiles and you realised he is the boy’s father. They have been playing cops and robbers all along.

5) The son was pointing the plastic gun to his father’s head, and that’s where the father uttered, “I love you.”

6) It was a genuine show of affection between a father and his son, playing together, having fun.

Okay so what just happened? I shall revisit the above shortly to explain myself.

Former US president Barack Obama’s reply when was asked by a moderator during a recent charity event this question, “Should today’s global leadership be a source of worry?” kept me thinking for a bit.

Obama said: “What we need, in terms of global leadership, are people who are comfortable with and understand complexities. But that, of course, requires citizens to be comfortable (with) and understand complexity.” He added: “The world today faces not just a crisis of leadership but a crisis of citizenship.”

So, the relevance of my father-and-son’s illustration above is about understanding complexity in this current global climate, which included what is most existentially pressing about us, that is, the climate emergency. Or, seeing things, the complexity and all, in their proper context.

While I leave the crisis of leadership aside in this piece, I would like to talk about the crisis of citizenship. I feel that we need to possess an eagle-eyed view of things so that we may be able to see the full picture rather than a knee-jerk, myopic one akin to some ostrich's head buried in the sand.

Just as leaders have to step up and be accountable and responsible, its citizenry have to take ownership too of the democratic process by exercising independent, unbiased thinking instead of turning inward and tribalistic no thanks to being coaxed by irrational fears and anxieties, thereby eschewing the real cause behind underlying complexities because these would require time, objectivity, patience and an open mind to dissect.

More relevantly, that would take an eagle-eyed view of things. Let me reinforce with a post written not too long ago by the founder of political party People’s Voice, Mr Lim Tean.

He said: “the total pot available for Singaporeans (is) $167 million compared to the $238 million that is spent on foreign students.” He added: “PAP spends $167 million on grants and bursaries for Singaporeans but $238 million on foreign students??”

MOE head Ong Ye Kung came forward and asserted that the post was “false and misleading”. Ong said: “Almost all of MOE’s annual Budget of $13 billion was spent on Singaporeans. The figures of $167 million and $238 million are therefore not comparable.”

If I may use that father and son illustration, I guess the first picture would be this: “PAP is favouring foreign students as against local students.”

If the camera pans out a little, you will see the gun with these words in support of the first picture: “PAP spends $167 million on grants and bursaries for Singaporeans but $238 million in foreign students??” (Note, the “??” says a lot).

Then, as the camera pans out even more, in comes Ong who reveals that about $13 billion were spent on Singaporean students. That’s the annual budget allocated.

And that would probably be equivalent to the moment the child holds the plastic toy gun, thus unveiling both father and son playing with each other before the father says, “I love you.”

But the picture does not simply stop there. If we as citizens are to hold our government accountable, we have to attempt an eagle-eyed view - probe deeper, further.

We have to ask, “Was Lim Tean merely expressing an opinion because it should be noted that the numbers were not outright denied by the MOE?”

In any case, this was what Lim Tean said: “Anyone who reads my post and the series of posts I made on this subject last week would have been under no mistaken impression that I was discussing the amount of money spent on grants and scholarships and not the overall spending on all Singaporean students.”

If this is so, was the premise of POFMA applied correctly or fairly? On the contrary if Lim's words were meant to manipulate, to give a biased view or to divide society, was invoking POFMA thus justified?

What about freedom of speech? Was that an irresponsible statement or one intended to bring out a point that our government may have spent disproportionately based on disbursement of grants and scholarships alone? Is there more than meets the eye then?

Alas, whatever it is, I fear that nothing is really what it seems. And more so, if we maintain an overall ostrich-eyed perspective on national issues of concern.

You see, Lim Tean’s figures were not disputed. But as it stands alone, it does put forth a particular impression no doubt. Yet, when you compare these with Ong’s figures, you see another side to things. The picture is amplified for some context.

And then, as the camera zooms in further, the depth of the picture is revealed, where one questions Lim Tean’s intention and concurrently enquires about the necessity of POFMA, that is, was it being unfairly applied versus the freedom of expressing one’s views?

What the Singapore citizenry needs now (especially at such time where the global leadership is facing a lack of trust, accountability and transparency): dispassionate discourse to separate truth from fiction. Just my two cents.

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