Home > Archives > May 2003 > 11-20 May 2003


11-20 May 2003

20 MayPunishing Chile, rewarding Singapore
20 MayEnterprise Season 2
20 MayCivil Disobedience?
20 MayResponse to Eug's comments
20 MayAddendum: Using your own library card
19 MayPetition to NLB, and speaking to my MP
17 MayLibrary Tour I: Full Report
16 MayEve of the Library Tour
15 MayMacs, & a serendipitous find
15 MayReligion in The Matrix
15 MayMonkeys not writing Shakespeare
15 MayThe West Wing without Sorkin
15 MayTexas Democrats on the run, part II
13 MayTexas Democrats on the run
13 MayEnvironmentalists against the Third World
13 MayKlingon speaker ad correction
13 MaySARS & Civil Liberties: My response
13 MaySARS & Civil Liberties: An MP's response
11 MayDivine retribution
11 MayHospital seeks Klingon speaker
11 MayNLB should guarantee their users' privacy

Punishing Chile, rewarding Singapore

20 May 2003 10:58 PM SGT (link)

...[T]he administration's actions on the free trade agreements send counterproductive signals on democracy. The administration is rewarding a dictatorship, the Singaporean government, for overriding the views of its people, a majority of whom, as in every country except the United States and Israel, opposed the war. At the same time it is punishing a democracy, the Chilean government, for having tried to take into account the views of its people in crafting a diplomatic approach to the war. And Chile is a key democracy in a very troubled region, Latin America, where democracy badly needs some visible signs of U.S. support.

- Washington Post, Punishing Democracy

The article rightly criticises the Bush administration's lack of "generosity in victory", as the writer puts it, and the lack of understanding of the position countries like Chile made in trying to achieve a diplomatic compromise, while also addressing the issue of Iraq's non-compliance. Chile is being made the victim unjustly here.

But is Singapore a true "dictatorship" for "overriding the views of its people"? By that criterion Tony Blair would be a dictator too. Of course, national and bilateral interests between Singapore and the US played large parts in Singapore's decision to support the US, besides the oft-mentioned geopolitical common interest to fight terrorism. The Bush administration and its members like Wolfowitz need to examine what they really mean when they say they support democracy and later retaliate against democracies that oppose their policies, for whatever reasons. How much of the old realpolitik remains, and how will it return to bite the US in the back in the future, as it has now with Islamic fundamentalism & anti-Americanism?

Enterprise Season 2

20 May 2003 9:38 PM SGT (link)

Channel 5 is showing Enterprise Season 2 here at the absurd slot of 1-2 am on early Sunday mornings. That's right, you read it right: 1-2 am. Before this, I thought this kind of slot was only for reruns of reruns. Obviously Channel 5 thinks even less highly of Enterprise than I do. Still, it's strange that they would spend good money on the show and then dump it in a slot where only the most dedicated Trekkies will watch it (and I record it to watch later). What could they be thinking? Is there someone in high places who likes Star Trek so much he has to keep it on air no matter what?

Not that I disagree with that person, if he exists. I just wish Enterprise could be better than it is.

I watched the first episode, the conclusion to last season's cliffhanger "Shockwave". It was middling, and as usual the scriptwriters and producers are up to their old tricks of exploiting the sexuality of the two women in the crew. It's shameful to even consider this part of the Star Trek canon.

Meanwhile I have ordered the first two seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on DVD and will be enjoying the show. It is highly acclaimed, and the pilot episode I watched, "Emissary", is the best compared to the pilots of TNG, Voyager and Enterprise.

Civil Disobedience?

20 May 2003 9:26 PM SGT (link)

Today I "dumped" a book. For now I'm calling it dumping, until I hear an even better term for it.

I went into the library not to look for any specific book but to see what was available on the subject I was interested in. I didn't find anything worth borrowing. It was only when I was about to leave that I remembered the new measure. So I borrowed this book, walked out past the scowling library staff, and proceeded to deposit it in the bookdrop outside. The guy in front of me seemed to have done the same thing, but he was hesitant and looked away from me. If not, I might have approached him to shake his hand.

It should be clear that such a move only increases the work of the librarians, so we should all be cooperative and leave our particulars behind like all good browsers. But I feel rebellious today, and any day where I see that good time, money and effort are spent towards eroding civil liberties with nothing to show for it. (And I don't mean, no SARS infections in libraries. I mean that even if there were, the tracing would not be helped by this measure.) I even used a card other than my own, contrary to my MP's advice. I'm sorry: I was not a good Singaporean today.

Response to Eug's comments

20 May 2003 8:43 PM SGT (link)

(For some permanence I've decided to put my responses in a post instead of in the message board.)

You prob. have a pt in tt we should exercise some scepticism rather blindly placing our faith in the system. On the other hand, I think the additional measures are good. Is your pri. concern the borrowing records?(what I gathered from your first post) If it is, then you should have been concerned even before this because they prob could have records kept all along. On the other hand, if it's showing the IC tt irks u, i dun really c how badly it can impact privacy.

I find the additional measures by NLB are crude, blunt tools that target nothing specific and hence have little effect except to introduce the danger of violation of privacy of library-goers. From what I gathered from my MP & the helper, their concern was with the effectiveness of the measure to fight SARS, rather than whether it infringes on civil liberties. My concern was that the measures are wildly disproportional to the real threat, and besides not being very effective against the threat, ends up inconveniencing library-goers, and open the gates for NLB or others (who knows?) to view library visit and borrowing records.

That is what some refuse to see: that the problem is not whether you have the "guts" to introduce draconian, extreme measures to protect people from SARS, however improbable the threat - the problem is what you give up in the process for some false security. I'm sure that if there was a possible way to fight SARS, but it would endanger national security or fundamental precepts of our society, then people will weigh the options much more carefully. I can't think of any example now but I'm sure one can imagine something like this.

Borrowing records

As for whether I am merely exploiting the SARS issue to highlight the problem of lack of guarantees from NLB regarding the privacy of borrowing records - that is true now in a way that it has never been clearer to me, as it should to the majority of library-goers who have "enjoyed" the convenience of not having to leave their particulars if they had borrowed books. Perhaps we might have assumed the NLB will use borrowing records for two purposes: (1) administrative purposes (2) other purposes. (2) would include assisting the police in investigations, or in times of crisis like now, leaving a record of who was at what libraries when. What we're seeing now is that the criteria for invoking the second is pitifully lax, and decisions on who to release what information to are decided behind closed doors at the NLB together with the government or who knows what other agencies.

This "convenience" is all the more ridiculous because library users are allowed to use other people's cards to borrow books. If they are to do contact tracing using library borrowing records, they will target substantial numbers of the population who have nothing to do with the source of infection. How is this "good"? Temperature checks make sure that no one exhibiting possible symptoms of SARS enter the premises concerned or the country. Health declaration forms allow the authorities to keep track of the health condition of large numbers of people. Thermometers issued to schoolchildren allow them to keep close tabs on their temperatures. Hospitals are refusing visitors because of possible risks of cross-infection. How are we to say that this too is "good": targeting large swaths of the population unnecessarily, in order to ward off an improbable threat?

Say a murder is committed and the sole witness says it was a middle-aged man. Would it be warranted for the police to arrest everyone fitting this criterion in the vicinity, and then slowly find who the killer was? After all, they would stand a 99.99% chance of getting the guilty person.

Leaving particulars behind

I am "irked" by the procedure of leaving particulars behind because (1) we have no guarantee that these records will be used only for the possible purpose of contact tracing and no other, save a "trust us", and (2) it's compulsory. While NLB staff might not have the legal authority to detain you in the library if you refuse to leave your particulars, there is strong pressure to do so, and I suspect we will go down the slippery slope - someone will complain: "The measure is effective, and I thank NLB, but then the other day I saw someone refuse to leave his particulars & he got away. Couldn't NLB enforce the ruling strictly?" Then you will see CISCO guards or policemen giving legal punch to NLB's arbitrary rule. Sometimes the slippery slope is a fallacy. But can we really doubt that if this measure is not imposed strictly, tougher measures will follow? It could turn ugly very quickly. And mind you, all this while, neither the merits of the measure nor the extent to which NLB can enforce it is questioned. We seem to be very willing to forfeit all say in such matters whenever something seems to endanger us.

Perhaps you are correct in saying that it doesn't really matter whether somebody has a list of the people who visit a library at particular times. For now, I can't think of a reason how anyone could misuse such information. But does it matter whether people behind the scenes know that you visited a library at time A? A cinema? A supermarket? A bookstore? Took bus B or train C from location D to E? I believe freedom of movement is important for the sole reason that if we feel we are being watched, for unknown purposes, by unknown people, for unknown periods of time, this affects us, our behaviour, our individualities. Why does it feel creepy to feel that someone's stalking you - even if you don't get assaulted, harassed or talked to? We let it get to us: we start to behave in ways we feel conform to that stalker's (in this case society's) expectations, so we try to do nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to possibly get ourselves in trouble.

Who are these behind-the-scenes people anyway? What are their motivations? When will they stop? Will they stop? If they say they are doing it for our own good, should we just believe them & get on with it? Except that it won't be "it"; instead it's the usual minus anything they might find objectionable.

But maybe I'm being paranoid, and the people in the NLB and government have nothing but the best of intentions for me. Every one of them. I love Big Brother :-)

Addendum: Using your own library card

20 May 2003 12:02 AM SGT (link)

I remembered something my MP said to me regarding this point I made in my petition, and to her:

[The issue of NLB tracking borrowers with borrowing records] is worse that it looks: library users are allowed to use other users' cards to borrow books. Hence, any investigation that looks into who went to which libraries, or who borrowed what books, will have to look into who used the library user's card to make the loans at the time. The NLB thus seems to have carte blanche in tracing not only who was in the library at that time - resulting in far-reaching probes that could involve family members, relatives, colleagues and friends. At best, no one is harmed in the long term, but wrongful incriminations seem likely to happen.

- my petition, under point 3

My MP responded by saying that as a responsible library user, to facilitate contact tracing, you should use your own card, no one else's. Now I was quite taken aback by this argument - not only because nobody has ever made it to me before, but the claim itself that one's social responsibility consists of declaring that it was you and you only who visited the library, forfeiting your right (which present NLB regulations allow) to use other cards. It reminds me a bit of this episode of The Practice where a man detained without trial for a terrorism investigation volunteered to forfeit his constitutional rights to prove he was a loyal American.

Petition to NLB, and speaking to my MP

19 May 2003 9:11 PM SGT (link)

Today I went to see my MP (Member of Parliament) to ask her to forward my petition to the NLB, or to the agency responsible for the mandatory contact tracing measures that I talked about here. I also hoped to convince her about the merits of my case.

For those who have not gone to one of these Meet-the-MP sessions, it's pretty interesting. For my district they are using a kindergarten. Everyone has their temperature checked and submits a declaration form before registering to see the MP. Newcomers like me are given a new manila folder with our particulars written on it, as well as records of each session we have had with the MP (and about what). We also get number tags, but in practice they call our names and use the numbers just for checking. (If they use the numbers, it'll really be like a clinic - going to see the doctor to heal society's ills.) I had thought that there would not be many people, but there were, and I got number tag 14. The tags are coloured differently, presumably for different concerns. I would imagine the usual ones to be complaining about something wrong with your HDB apartment, taxes, CPF etc. or pleading for job recommendations or financial relief.

Before I got to see the MP I first spoke to a helper, there to write a summary of what I was seeing the MP for, and perhaps filter out some of the cases. Surprisingly he was quite sympathetic to my case, but he also asked some strange questions. For instance, he asked whether I was from China. (No, but I've been told that I look like a Chinese - from China, that is.) He also asked whether I was planning to leave Singapore. (No I wasn't overly aggressive or wild-eyed like, say, Dr. Chee Soon Juan would be. I thought I was extremely polite and amicable.) Then (I might have misheard) he asked whether I was going to the Law faculty in NUS. (No, Science, I told him.) Towards the end he helped me find a counter-proposal for the NLB to have temperature checks at their entrances instead (I have added this at the end of my petition). This was good: as a practical matter of politics, it's good to have something else on the table to consider.

The MP

First I'd like to reproduce one of my favourite parts of Philadelphia, a movie about a homosexual lawyer who contracts AIDS (Tom Hanks) who hires a homophobic small-time lawyer (Denzel Washington) to bring a wrongful dismissal suit against his former employers.

[earlier, an unrelated case]

Joe Miller: Alright, look, I want you to explain this to me like I'm a six-year-old, OK? The entire street is clear except for one small area under construction, this huge hole that is clearly marked and blocked off, right?

Client: Yes.

Joe: You decide you must cross this street at this spot, no other. You fall into the hole - now you want to sue the city for negligence, right?

Client: Yes. Do I have a case?

Joe: Yes! Yeah, of course you got a case.


[Andrew Beckett wants to sue his former employers for wrongful termination, for firing him for having AIDS.]

Joe Miller: Alright, explain this to me like I'm a two-year-old, OK? Because there is an element to this thing I just cannot get through my thick head. Didn't you have an obligation to tell your employer you had this dreaded, deadly, infectious disease?

Andrew Beckett: That's not the point. From the day they hired me to the day I was fired, I served my clients consistently and thoroughly with absolute excellence. If they hadn't fired me, that's what I'd be doing today.

Joe: And they don't want to fire you for having AIDS, so in spite of your brilliance, they made you look incompetent, thus the mysterious lost file. Is that what you're trying to tell me?

Andrew: Correct, I was sabotaged.

Joe: [Scoffs, shrugs] I don't buy it, councillor.

Andrew: That's very disappointing.

Joe: I don't see a case.

Andrew: I have a case. If you don't want it for personal reasons -

Joe: I do... that's correct, I don't.

Andrew: Thank you for your time, councillor.

- Philadelphia

Now, besides illustrating Joe's homophobia, this excellent scene gives a great example of how a person who has already made up his mind behaves. I'm disappointed with my MP for behaving in this way. Substitute the first client for someone who wants help to find a job, or a little financial support, and Andrew, someone who has larger concerns.

Unlike the helper before, who asked good questions about what exactly I was objecting to, and the reasons why I did (three, as in the petition: questionable benefits towards fighting SARS, violation of library-goers' privacy, possible violations of library users' borrowing records), my MP summarily dismissed the case & said that it was necessary to fight SARS, that NLB and other agencies must have thought about the implications carefully before doing this.

I am at pains to say that I do understand the reasons for NLB's measure (& I say it in the second paragraph under point 2 in the petition), and that while it may be unlikely that someone with SARS & symptomatic of SARS visits the library and infects others, and that people who come into contact with this patient at the library may evade calls to come forward, it just takes one irresponsible person to propagate the disease to a significantly large group of people. I do not claim to speak for all Singaporeans, or to say that definitely, 100%, Singaporeans will come forward. But can we have 100% guarantees in the balance between public order and individual liberties? You could conceivably protect people from potential harm 99.99% - by, for instance, imposing night curfews or giving the police greater powers of search and arrest, but we must see what the benefit of these measures are compared to what harm to the public interest they do.

If the NLB does not have mandatory contact tracing, or instead has temperature checks at the entrances, and someone still gets through and infects others at the library, who's responsible? The helper thought it would still be the NLB, in the public's eye, in spite of my pleading to him to see the culprit for who it is: the person who's contagious with SARS. Abolishing tough measures might cause deaths and tragedies, but how likely is it? and what do we give up for that assurance? These are important questions that everyone must consider, not just the government. If tragedies do happen, do we just blame the government or the authorities for not instituting harsher measures? Or should we consider whether the Singaporean has failed in playing his part?

What's more, to me, the government - MPs, civil servants etc. - is not primarily concerned with maintaining this balance. They are more concerned about doing what they feel is right and safe, so that they don't get blamed if anything wrong happens. This is not a cynical view, just what I gathered from today's meeting. The government knows what is good for the people, and you must have faith in them. Yes, not legislation, political opposition or civil society, but faith in the government. In SARS & Civil Liberties: My response I gave my views on that kind of blind trust in an all-powerful government. One also must have faith in the NLB, she says - if they say they will only use the particulars gathered or borrowing records for SARS contact tracing, then that's that.

Again, just so that people don't think I'm some wild-eyed libertarian or anarchist: I do not oppose temperature checks, health declaration forms, home quarantine, cameras in homes for home quarantine violators, or even voluntary contact tracing as mentioned here (if people want to give up their particulars it's up to them). What I oppose are paranoid over-the-top measures that indeed makes everyone less secure.

So I was there, trying, even pleading her to see my view, not just her the-government-is-always-right view, and after a while I thought I heard sniggers from behind (those were presumably higher-level helpers or civil servants). In the end my MP promised to send my letter to the NLB, and let them reply to me, but also making clear that she disagrees with my opinion. I have a feeling this will go nowhere, just like the letter to the Forum.

After it has been made exceedingly clear to me what kind of society we live in, and indeed what the government wants Singaporeans to live in, I find myself reconsidering that helper's question about whether I was leaving. I mean, any kind of civil disobedience on my part - emigrating, or boycotting the NLB - is quite pointless, and indeed would be the sort of thing people who just want to put on a show and ingratiate themselves with the perceived human rights movement will do, instead of putting the needs and concerns of Singaporeans first.

Library Tour I: Full Report

17 May 2003 9:59 PM SGT (link)

Check out the full report, including whether I succeeded in the challenge. Note: I shall be uploading the latest versions of the report as I do them, in case anyone's eagerly waiting for some news of how it went for me.

Eve of the Library Tour

16 May 2003 10:56 PM SGT (link)

Folks, the day has finally come! Despite my recent unhappiness with the NLB, I'm going ahead with the crazy tour as mentioned before. I have to be brief tonight, but tomorrow night, if I'm not too tired, I'll blog about the outcome and the "adventures" I had. Personally I think it'll be pretty dull, with just me, a street directory, a bus guide and a water bottle. But I'm eccentric enough to be interested in this challenge.

In other developments, I'm reading John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty that was mentioned in the MP's letter about civil liberties vs. fighting SARS (his letter, my response). I've finished about 75% of it & what I can say for now is that it's definitely not outdated. Ironically, it focuses not on the civil liberties of movement and privacy but rather on freedom of expression and tolerance of differences. In fact it goes beyond tolerance... I'll write about it when I've finished the essay. Meanwhile you can read it yourself.

Macs, & a serendipitous find

15 May 2003 11:52 PM SGT (link)

Today I talked to my uncle, who's a real fan of Apple & the Mac, about switching - why, and the possible pitfalls. He has a cool blog of his own at The Ultimate Business Machine, where he talks about why he loves the Mac, plus provides tips on things like setting up web and mail servers on OS X. I'm thinking of switching because I'll soon be going to university and it's time to sink some big money into a notebook that I'll be using as my main computer for the next few years to come, and probably more.

As I've said to many, what's attracting me to the Mac - specifically, the iBook (cheap, if not as high-end) and OS X - is that it offers the easy-to-use GUI of Mac OS, with most, if not all, the applications I need (mostly Office, surfing & DVD), and if I want to get dirty with programming or such things, I have recourse to OS X's FreeBSD core and GNU tools like the Terminal, gcc, Apache, Perl and so on. I've stuck to Windows all this while because, frankly, I've used it for years and I'm at least pretty familiar with it, even though I don't like it much. Plus I really don't want to spend too much time installing, configuring and tweaking Linux, certainly not when some think the GUI & all are still not ready for general use yet. I'm not really salivating over the cool Aqua effects in OS X, and certainly not over the Mac's prices, but it's either try something new or be stuck with a merely adequate computer for the rest of my life (and we all know what that is).

I know, switching is going to be a big job, should I go ahead & take the plunge. I probably won't fully get up to speed with the new platform for months. But with more research, I'll see whether it's something worth doing.

Serendipitous find

While googling for information on using Macs in my university (Using a Mac on campus), I came across my ex-JC classmate's posts on a Mac forum, and subsequently to his brand-new blog (audi alteram partem). Turns out he's seriously considering switching too. I think it would be great if we both did it together on matriculating.

Religion in The Matrix

15 May 2003 11:44 PM SGT (link)

I'm not into the movie - the first part or the one that's opening tomorrow - but for those who are, you can read the BBC's Forget sci-fi and guns - The Matrix is really about religion and the Christian Science Monitor's The Gospel according to Neo. Today's ST has a favourable article on Keanu Reeves & his career: A man of many faces.

Monkeys not writing Shakespeare

15 May 2003 11:06 PM SGT (link)

When the story (for instance, Monkeys Don't Write Shakespeare at Wired) appeared some days ago, I didn't want to even acknowledge it because it seemed so silly. As a test of the quip that an infinite number of monkeys given an infinite number of typewriters will eventually at some point produce the complete works of Shakespeare, this experiment is hardly one, and it shouldn't even be given a second thought. See some amusing commentary at Reason: Not Even a Stinking Sonnet.

However, looking at the researchers' website (Notes Towards the Complete Works of Shakespeare) I found that it was sponsored by the "National Touring Programme of the Arts Council of England and the Institute of Digital Art & Technology", and that their aim was not directly about the claim of the infinities:

...The performance illustrates the monkey formula, but does so in such a way that a reductive view of animal life is undermined. Animals are not machines. Monkeys producing actions are not equivalent to a random generator such as a computer. On the contrary, it is possible that the monkeys will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare but not simply because of chance, but also because they can think and learn. The project does not undermine the possibility of the monkeys learning from the activity nor from succeeding in communicating.

The project is clearly not a scientific experiment, but hopefully does display some sense of integrity. Although it appears to test the truth of the formula, in reality it emphasises the unreliability of human (scientific) hypotheses. Animals are not simply metaphors for human endeavour. The joke (if indeed there is one) must not be seen to be at the expense of the monkeys but on the popular interest in the idea - especially those in the computer science and mathematics community (interested in chance, randomness, autonomous systems and artificial life).

- Notes Towards the Complete Works of Shakespeare

The statement about monkeys typing Shakespeare is generally attributed to Thomas Huxley, a supporter of Darwinian evolution in the 19th century. However I can't really see how it can explain how eventually creatures with the complexity that our species exhibit will arise (Those Typing Monkeys Don't Prove Evolution). What these artists (as I assume the project's researchers are) are saying, instead, is that we've been looking at it from the wrong angle, by assuming the monkeys can be treated as random generators and not animals capable of learning and evolving.

At least it doesn't try to say that because 6 monkeys don't come up with anything in a month, the theory is wrong, or that it means concepts like infinity don't mean what they should mean - it's sad that the media has misunderstood not only the mathematics/computer science quip but also the artists' experiment.

Then again, what makes a good random generator? I suppose the monkeys were called on to spice up the metaphor of infinity upon infinity, but if (as we all probably knew but didn't acknowledge) they don't work out, what about, say, a computer program? A computer programmed to randomly generate keystrokes in an infinite number of word processing documents on an infinity of computers will eventually blah blah blah? No, I think even randomizers in computers work on the basis of an algorithm, and these cannot be truly random. But what the hell does truly random mean, if we cannot find a true random generator? Can it mean anything in the real world? Seems like an impossibly Platonic concept. Sigh I'm getting way above my limits.

Modern cosmology of infinite space: Scientific American discusses modern physics' understanding of Parallel Universes and the like. I got this from Matthew Yglesias's Real modal realism, where he discusses David Lewis's On the Plurality of Worlds, about the various theories for multiverses & alternate universes, I gather. I can't say anything intelligent about this subject, so I won't.

The West Wing without Sorkin

15 May 2003 10:58 PM SGT (link)

Salon asks Will "The West Wing" go south? after the departure of creator Aaron Sorkin and director Tommy Schlamme at the conclusion of Season 4. (That's one season ahead of the one that's currently showing in Singapore, for those here.) It's hard to imagine how the show would not take a few knocks; already the New York Times has a lament: A Whiff of Camelot as 'West Wing' Ends an Era.

Texas Democrats on the run, part II

15 May 2003 10:50 PM SGT (link)

Via Instapundit, Bill Hobbs says that the legislators are not only violating the law but also thwarting democracy. Read his later entries also.

Texas Democrats on the run

13 May 2003 11:04 PM SGT (link)

Um, I don't really know what to make of this.

AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- The political version of the Amber Alert was posted for 53 Texas legislators who fled the state Capitol to avoid a vote that could cost Democrats as many as five congressional seats.

Without the Democrats present, the Republican-controlled House does not have the two-thirds quorum needed for a vote on legislation to redraw congressional districts...

- CNN, 'Amber Alert' issued -- for on-the-run Texas lawmakers

Environmentalists against the Third World

13 May 2003 10:17 PM SGT (link)

Via Instapundit, Samizdata writes that extreme environmentalists' campaign against DDT in Africa because of the problems it causes, as detailed in Silent Spring and other books. Now some African countries are disregarding their objections because DDT is still the most effective weapon against malaria - "about 300m people suffer from malaria every year, and more than a million die" (the Economist - A useful poison). It's one of the scandals of the green movement, together with GM crops.

Klingon speaker ad correction

13 May 2003 10:10 PM SGT (link)

An investigation by Kuro5hin reveals that the Klingon speaker story was overblown.

SARS & Civil Liberties: My response

13 May 2003 8:19 PM SGT (link)

Again, pretty much everything in this letter has been said in my last post:

Civil liberties should not be carelessly given up

Dear Sir,
I read with interest MP Mr. Koo Tsai Kee's letter "Infectious Diseases Act hasn't hit civil liberties" (13th May), a response to Ms. Chua Mui Hoong's article "Govt's Sars action swift, but shows up lack of checks" on 10th May.

In his first sentence, Mr. Koo questions whether it is appropriate to raise the issue of public health versus civil liberties, and seems to insinuate that Ms. Chua might be undermining the effort against SARS.

This is wrong. Ms. Chua raised an important issue that Singaporeans have to grapple with: civil liberties are curtailed by the measures to stop SARS from spreading, within the scope of the Infectious Diseases Act and outside of it. This cannot be denied. The question is the extent of draconian measures our society is prepared to accept, especially when the merits taken from such measures are questionable or undesirable. Singaporeans should not blindly cheer on increasingly harsh measures. Instead, greater "public justification and scrutiny", leading to greater understanding of the policies, their effectiveness and everyone's part to play, enables us to better battle the spread of SARS.

Mr. Koo also thinks that Singaporeans need not worry about their civil liberties because our "clean and honest government" will protect them. As Ms. Chua has said, "a track record is no guarantee of future performance". It is not written in stone that our government will always be clean, open and trustworthy. While we strive to maintain the high standards of our government, we should also consider the consequences should a corrupt or oppressive government come into power, unfettered by the checks that Ms. Chua has mentioned.

One of the National Education messages is that nobody owes us a living. Similarly, nobody owes Singaporeans their civil liberties: If Singaporeans continue to be careless about them, or are unwilling to fight for them, they could easily lose them, and that will be a sad day indeed.

Mr. Lin Ziyuan.

SARS & Civil Liberties: An MP's response

13 May 2003 6:27 PM SGT (link)

...I find the lack of concern over infringements on personal freedoms and privacy perfectly predictable given Singapore's communitarian values, but disturbing nevertheless.

The state protects public order. Who is there to defend individual liberties, if citizens do not do so themselves?

- ST 10 May 2003, "Govt's Sars action swift, but shows up lack of checks"

Another important issue, another rejection letter. Instead the ST today published MP Koo Tsai Kee's letter, which addressed the civil liberties article as a whole (ST, Infectious Diseases Act hasn't hit civil liberties). All following extracts are from his letter:

EVEN before the war on the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) has been won, Ms Chua Mui Hoong ('Govt's Sars action swift, but shows up lack of checks'; ST, May 10) is asking if victory would come at too high a price, at the expense of civil liberties.

Many civil libertarians uphold as sacred truth what John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty. But that was a pre-globalised world of horse carriages with poor medical knowledge, few international terrorists and snail mail. Not all modern civil libertarians look at the Infectious Diseases Act as a political exercise to curb civil liberties.

Read the first sentence again; I missed it the first time myself. Mr. Koo is subtly insinuating that Ms. Chua is trying to undermine the effort to fight the spread of SARS by raising concerns about civil liberties. Then he proceeds to set up the Straw Man of a crazed libertarian that's opposed to anything that conflicts with his civil liberties. That is ridiculous, because Ms. Chua or any other person could never reasonably say that any person can enjoy total civil and political liberties, not to mention in a situation like the SARS epidemic. Another point: is Mr. Koo saying that On Liberty is irrelevant? Outdated? Inapplicable to Singapore?

...In this emergency, public health is paramount. Singapore may have weighted community safety over individual liberties more heavily than other countries. But even in the US President George W. Bush has signed an executive order authorising involuntary quarantine of people who have Sars.

The Infectious Diseases (Amendment) Bill received unanimous support when it was debated in Parliament. Opposition and Nominated MPs supported it as strongly as People's Action Party (PAP) MPs. Sars has no political agenda. It is an equal-opportunity virus, as dangerous in Potong Pasir and Hougang as it is in Marine Parade and Tanjong Pagar.

The question of whether the Infectious Diseases Bill amendment was widely received is irrelevant: of course it was, that's a fact. Ms. Chua did not say that she was worried that the amendment was somehow an illegitimate piece of law. She also never said anything as ridiculous as what Mr. Koo addressed in the second paragraph, or that opposition MPs or a government by the opposition was the solution to the problem. In fact this issue of the opposition was brought up from nowhere. Nobody is questioning the opposition's near-non-existent role simply because there's nothing much to talk about.

Ms Chua pointed out that we have amended the Constitution about 10 times since 1993. But none of these amendments affected Part IV of the Constitution on Fundamental Liberties.

Indeed, these fundamental liberties are protected by presidential safeguards. When these presidential powers are brought into effect fully, Parliament will be able to amend Part IV of the Constitution only if the President, acting in his discretion, agrees to it.

Finally, a worthy objection.

But while legal protections are important, Singaporeans have to rely on men and women of integrity and ability being in charge of the nation, and acting in the people's best interests. The PAP has strived hard to identify and field such men and women as MPs and office-holders, and Singaporeans can see the results.

In my 11 years as MP, I have never heard so many substantive motions moved and debated in Parliament as in the last 1 1/2 years. No issue has been sacrosanct. The strongest critics of the PAP are the PAP MPs, not the opposition MPs or the NMPs.

We must uphold and protect this system of clean and honest government. It is our best assurance for civil liberty, and for the future of Singapore.

Again we are to believe that a clean and honest government is the only way for Singapore to continue to survive. That might be true, but it's a false dichotomy between a clean and honest government (read: a PAP government) and a weak, divided oppostion. What Ms. Chua is saying that perhaps we have come to rely too much on the government's goodwill and wisdom, especially in crises like these, that we have almost forgotten the importance of civil liberties. She is not questioning the government's ability to deal with crises, or its integrity. She is raising the issue of the role of Singaporeans at large - who is going to stand up for them should a non-benevolent, oppressive government come along? But Mr. Koo's logic seems to be this:

  1. A clean and honest government is the only credible way Singapore can survive.
  2. It must hence have the power and authority to put into place strong measures for survival, especially in times of crises.
  3. When these succeed, Singaporeans will be better off.
  4. Civil liberties are mostly irrelevant: they will be accorded respect by the benevolent strong government, but they will not take precedence over other, more important priorities.

The main problem with this rosy scenario is nicely brushed away by Mr. Koo, & the government at large: how to maintain our civil and political liberties - our freedom as human beings - in the face of strong opposition, when the populace is so ready to believe everything the government says, or otherwise, do nothing about it except gripe in coffeeshops. "Singaporeans can see the results": a large part of our government's legitimacy, and the reason why the populace often keeps quiet, is because the government has delivered before, and seems poised to continue to deliver in the future. But what if this conveyor belt of able, trustworthy government leaders breaks down in the future and the government becomes corrupt in some way? Is that so inconceivable? What will happen then?

We should not expect any such government to look out for its people. In politics, it faces only a weak, token opposition and a tight cadre-party leader system in the PAP; in the judiciary, judges that have been browbeaten to step out of political decisions or rule in favour of the status quo, even if it's legally questionable (e.g. Jehovah's Witnesses not doing NS); in the media, hemmed in by legal constraints or not courageous enough to raise one's objections; among general Singaporeans, a meek audience that will either blindly go with what the leaders say, or not say anything at all. An unchecked government (only a few steps away from the Singapore government today) is a government that is free to do anything it likes, whether it's for the good of Singapore, or whether it's for the interest of itself. This is a recipe for disaster. This is the critical idea Ms. Chua had to make: the only beneficiaries, the ones who possess civil liberties, are the ones that will have to protect them. Nobody should expect the government to look out for them in this aspect, especially when it's not in the government's interest.

Divine retribution

11 May 2003 3:22 PM SGT (link)

From today's ST, something that made me smile:

...Mr Chan Soo Sen, Minister of State (Prime Minister's Office and Community Development and Sports), took up the issue of the Hungry Ghosts Festival.

One participant at yesterday's dialogue at the Kampong Ubi Community Centre, said there should be audit controls and registration of the festival committees.

Mr Chan said that like the IRCCs' work which is initiated by the community, the festival organisers run the show without any government involvement.

Audited accounts aren't necessary, he said, because the organisers know that if they misuse the funds, they are open to divine retribution.

- ST, It isn't just football that can bring races closer

Well if that works as advertised, what do we need the police for?

Hospital seeks Klingon speaker

11 May 2003 3:19 PM SGT (link)

Heh, this is cool:

...Although created for works of fiction, Klingon was designed to have a consistent grammar, syntax and vocabulary.

And now Multnomah County research has found that many people -- and not just fans -- consider it a complete language.

"There are some cases where we've had mental health patients where this was all they would speak," said the county's purchasing administrator, Franna Hathaway.

- CNN, Qapla'! Hospital seeks Klingon speaker

Note to non-Trekkies: "Qapla'!" is the salutation offered by a warrior to another, meaning "Success!". It is said together with the rght fist thumped on the left breast.

NLB should guarantee their users' privacy

11 May 2003 2:57 PM SGT (link)

They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

- Benjamin Franklin (1706-90)

So it has come to this. Yesterday I visited a National Library branch and discovered NLB's new regulation: anyone who browsed but did not borrow any books must show their NRIC, so that a record can be preserved for SARS contact tracing if necessary. I did not want to share this information, but I also didn't want to create a scene; I borrowed a book instead.

Mandatory regulations like these, and the trend of non-compulsory Contact Bowls set up by cinemas, department stores and hotels ["Stay in touch - with outbreak" - ST, 3 May 2003] makes the issues raised in yesterday's article "Govt's Sars action swift, but shows up lack of checks" (ST, 10 May 2003) all the more pertinent.

Ms. Chua in "Govt's Sars action swift, but shows up lack of checks" mentioned the overwhelming powers of the government, in passing home quarantine orders, installing cameras in private homes, cutting off call-forwarding services, and marshalling the resources of society in contact tracing and other operations. She also correctly points out the danger of blind faith in the government's goodwill. However, I think one point has been neglected: the hysteria about the spread of SARS, and the resulting slump in tourism, eating out and other economic activities, is compelling businesses and government agencies to implement measures that would make them seem responsive to this threat, sometimes surpassing the government's own recommendations. The government may not directly infringe individual liberties - private businesses and government-linked organisations might do that instead, and ordinary citizens may not have any recourse to the courts or the government for relief. I believe we are now seeing this with the NLB's regulation.

There are two factors implicit in NLB's regulation: it is willing to use borrowing records to obtain information on who visited which libraries at what times, and for those who do not borrow books, it will keep records of them separately to ensure completeness. This is for purposes of contact tracing. I can see the logic behind this: If any library branch is pinpointed as a source of infection, and community leaders and the media reach out to the public to come forward and be quarantined for the sake of public health, there might be one or two Singaporeans who, for fear or other reasons, refuse to come forward, and this might perpetuate the spread of SARS. Hence NLB wants to be able to trace anyone who comes to their libraries so that this possibility is negated.

One has to acknowledge the NLB's pro-activeness and strong stand for protection of library users' health, going above what businesses have done with the non-compulsory gathering of visitor records. However, it also reveals a worrying lack of regard for the privacy of library users in where they visit and what materials they borrow. Individual freedom and public health and order is a false dichotomy: It is not true that we can only have one without the other. For instance, regardless of the low crime rate in Singapore, some women are still accosted or robbed when walking in the streets at night. Should the government then enact a night curfew for women, for their own protection? Similarly, is the unlikely possibility of SARS spreading through a library worth sacrificing its users' confidentiality of where they have been?

We must make that decision ourselves, not leave it to NLB or others, and rue the consequences later. We must access the benefits of individual freedoms and whether the potential of others coming to harm is great enough to overrule them.

The national libraries are public resources: repositories of books and other media allowing its users access to new worlds and ways of thinking. Libraries are a critical institution of our nation where Singaporeans can read and think, and challenge, discuss and create new viewpoints with others. However, the freedom to choose what to read and how to think about what one reads must come before people can participate without worrying about Big Brother looking over their shoulder.

Hence, information about which libraries one has been to, and what books one borrows, should be private and confidential. Libraries should keep such information only if it is necessary, like tracking borrowed books. Records of a person's reading habits over time, and which branches they went to, should be periodically purged, for instance, every month. This will ensure that no one, library staff or outsiders, gains access to them and uses them for unintended purposes.

In the US, the Patriot Act passed in 2001 allows the FBI to obtain library borrowing records by going to a secret court and merely certifying that the information they obtain may be relevant to an intelligence investigation. Some librarians are rightfully worried about abuse of such powers that could lead to harassment or wrongful arrests, and have taken it upon themselves to destroy unnecessary records of their users promptly. [Patriot Act prompts outcry by librarians, Philadelphia Inquirer] They are not trying to obstruct the course of justice, or being unpatriotic. They believe that when the confidentiality of library users and what they read is broken, regardless of whether arrests turn out to be fortuitous and the right ones, society is irreparably harmed. Legitimate searches should only be allowed with a court order and probable cause shown, not for secretive investigations or harassment.

I believe this is a worthy stand to take. When the NLB demonstrates that it is ready to share records of where their users have been, is it not also demonstrating that borrowing records may also be shared in times of crisis or police investigations? The NLB, managing the largest network of public libraries in Singapore, has to guarantee the confidentiality of its users' records, because this directly determines whether Singaporeans can freely make use of library resources without fear of spying or unfair persecution.

Update: I added the quote from Benjamin Franklin on remembering it later.

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