28 January 2000
25 January 2000
05 January 2000
Coroner's strong words
STATE Coroner Tan Boon Heng had strong words for the four instructors whose negligence he said was responsible for soldier Ong Jia Hui's death. The soldier drowned during training - with the four men standing less than 10m away.
First Warrant Officer Ho Yin Choy, 43, bore the brunt of the criticism. As safety officer, he had the best view of the training area and claimed he could see all five trainees at all times.
But when the judge asked why he failed to see 2nd Sgt Ong dipping below the surface of the sea, he said: 'He just disappeared. It's so sudden.' The judge shot back: 'It just makes your story so ridiculous!'
The soldier was found lying on the seabed. His life jacket, which was later found to be defective, was never inflated.
1WO Ho and his three fellow instructors - Master Sergeants Julian Tan, 32, and Tan Kang Choon, 33; and Staff Sergeant Alex Chan, 28 - now face the possibility of criminal charges.
In arriving at his verdict, the judge said it was not beyond the control of the four instructors to prevent 2nd Sgt Ong's death.
He said: 'Sadly the lack of vigilance and the human frailty of being prone to distraction...resulted in the death of Jia Hui.'
CHONG CHEE KIN
02 January 2000
rST July 22, 2006
Did the Govt really shut down a bak chor mee stall?
If it's Internet chatter, it's okay. But because it was published in a mainstream newspaper, it's not. So said Minister Lee Boon Yang, explaining the Government's stiff response to a newspaper column by blogger mr brown. Li Xueying sits in as MP Penny Low, blogger Bernard Leong and polytechnic lecturer Gan Su-Lin come together for a round-table discussion to discuss the role of the different media
The mr brown episode: its background
THERE was a jibe about revised roti prata prices; a far-out suggestion of cashcard chips embedded in foreheads, lampooning the Government's infocomm masterplan; and a personal observation about means testing for special schools.
To the casual reader, the mr brown column published in Today newspaper three weeks ago was one laced with humorous sarcasm.
But the Government saw beyond the jokey tone and discerned something more insidious - a piece of 'diatribe' that is 'calculated to encourage cynicism and
The robust response from the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (Mica) to the column, in turn, spawned a train of reactions.
The newspaper dropped mr brown's weekly column. Internet forums buzzed. Fellow bloggers wrote treatises on the subject.
In a way, the whole episode has come full circle.
Mr Lee Kin Mun, 36, first came to public attention as mr brown the blogger. He was offered a writing stint in the Today newspaper because of his online popularity.
Now, with the newspaper suspending the column, he returns to writing just for blogosphere.
In the process, the episode has precipitated a debate on Internet content, the relationship between mainstream and Internet media and the relationship between the Government and both forms of media.
This is not the first run-in between netizens and the Government. When Sintercom was asked to register as a political website in 2001, founder Tan Chong Kee shut it down. Last year, three bloggers were prosecuted for racist comments.
But the mr brown episode is a pathbreaker, in that it throws into relief the Government's dual approach to online and mainstream media. This led to discussions on the evolving roles of both types of media.
Blogger Soon Sze Meng, a student, cited the Mica letter which stated: 'It is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the Government.'
Mr Soon questions if the Government has the authority to lay down the law on what newspapers can and cannot do. 'Has the role of a journalist or the newspaper been legislated by Parliament? If so, which law(s) supported this statement within the reply issued?'
If an article is favourable to the ruling PAP, does that mean that the reporter is 'a partisan player', asks blogger Molly Meek.
The Government's attempt to distinguish between content acceptable in mainstream and alternative media also drew attention.
Can such a distinction be made so clearly? Is it a false divide?
The mainstream media risks alienating readers and losing credibility if they do not reflect the buzz on the Internet, say some.
As Singabloodypore's soci puts it, 'to an older demographic, the Internet may be 'less real' but the young who will inherit Singapore are moving online'.
Last Sunday, MP Penny Low was accosted by an indignant 64-year-old woman.
'I'm a party supporter but I've been hearing things,' the woman said in Mandarin to the People's Action Party politician.
'Before the elections, the Government gave a number of goodies and therefore people voted for the PAP. But after the elections, the PAP got so tough they even shut down a bak chor mee stall!'
Startled, Ms Low asked for more details.
According to the elderly woman, the bak chor mee (minced meat noodles in Hokkien) seller wanted to sell more than just minced meat noodles at his stall, and had taken to adding two fishballs to each bowl of noodles he dished out.
The Government, she went on to say, then shut down the stall saying that 'you either sell bak chor mee or you sell fishball noodles, but not a combination. If you want to sell fishball noodles, then you need to put six fishballs, not two'.
Asked where she heard this from, the woman replied confidently: 'Gatherings.'
Ms Low recounts the story to make the point that there's a segment of the Singapore population who are unable to discern rumour from truth, and who mistake satire for fact.
The bak chor mee and fishball noodle story was one that clearly poked fun at the Government's recent attempt to draw a line between mainstream and online media, by telling mainstream media editors that what was acceptable online, was not necessarily acceptable in the mainstream media.
But a satirical story had come to be believed as fact.
This showed that while Singaporeans are free to express their opinions, says Ms Low, they must also be responsible and 'be prepared that if we say something that is hearsay, then the party which is aggrieved reserves the right to pursue the issue'.
The story came up during a round-table discussion on media issues organised by Insight this week.
The others who took part were polytechnic lecturer Gan Su-Lin and blogger Bernard Leong.
They were asked their views on the 'mr brown' affair, when the Government ticked off the blogger for his column in the newspaper Today.
In his satirical column, Mr Lee Kin Mun, 36, commented that increases in taxi fare and electricity tariffs had come after the polls and at a time when a government survey showed a widening income gap.
Today later suspended the column, after the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (Mica) issued a strong rebuttal.
Ms K. Bhavani, press secretary to Mica Minister Lee Boon Yang, had written:
'If a columnist presents himself as a non-political observer while exploiting his access to the mass media to undermine the Government's standing, then he's no longer a constructive critic but a partisan player in politics.'
Dr Lee later added that if the column were just part of the 'Internet chatter', it would have been ignored.
But the Government had to respond as it appeared in a mainstream newspaper, he said, adding that a mainstream newspaper had to be objective, accurate and responsible.
Should different standards apply to the mainstream and Internet media?
Panellists debated the issue.
FOR now, the Government has drawn a clear line in saying that what is acceptable in the footloose and fancy-free cyberspace is not okay in the traditional media - newspapers and television.
It is clear that the Government holds both to different standards, and allows more leeway online.
But are such 'double standards' tenable in the long run?
Dr Gan, for one, thinks online content should be held to the same high standards as mainstream media.
'At the risk of sounding like a pro-government flak, but given the pervasive, insidious reach of the Internet, I think that there is greater care that needs to be taken.'
Her experience as a lecturer has shown her that Singapore is still 'a very immature, developing society dealing with an immature blogosphere'.
Students are IT-savvy - but undiscerning in sifting out the truth from hearsay, she says.
'I believe in equity and fairness. I think what works for the gander works for the goose. If you want to disseminate information, you've got to be responsible about it.'
But she also adds that rather than censorship, it is 'media literacy' which is important, that is, educating people to become more discerning readers and
But as the panellists note, with media convergence being the buzzword of the day, and mainstream media companies boosting their online presence, the distinction between mainstream and online media is increasingly blurred.
The Straits Times, for instance, has a website and recently launched a new
interactive portal called Stomp that includes celebrity bloggers.
Should such bloggers be subjected to the rules of the online world, or that
of the offline mainstream media world?
Dr Leong, a research scientist and keen blogger, has this answer: Liberate the mainstream media and allow them the same degree of latitude given to online
One thing he is resolutely against, is subjecting online media to the controls imposed on the mainstream media.
He says: 'If we want to encourage creativity and growth in Singapore, having laws to tighten control over online media will do the exact opposite.
'It will be akin to suicide. It's a matter of space, because once you tighten this space that people have, you will be restricting their freedom to express what they truly want to say.'
WHILE Dr Gan wants online media to be subjected to the same standards as mainstream media, and Dr Leong wants both to enjoy the same freedom, Ms Low the MP adopts a stance somewhere in between.
She notes that cyber media content began as something on the fringe.
In contrast, 'the mainstream media, for a long time, has always been seen as an authority of information'.
This echoes Dr Lee's remarks that the mainstream media 'must adopt this model that they are a part of the nation-building effort, rather than go out and purvey views that will mislead people, confuse people, which will undermine our
Cyber media, on the other hand, was 'never meant to replace or even rival the mainstream media when it first started', Ms Low adds.
She agrees with those who argue that the Internet has the potential to be 'self-regulating' in the sense that wrong or extreme content will get shouted down by others.
But until that ideal self-regulating world comes about, Ms Low believes that rules, and 'certain beacons and signposts' help ensure that there is a 'smoother transition'.
But she cautions against taking too rigid an approach.
She says: 'We do need to give some space for people to mature, to comment, and to banter. And I think that space is important in maturing a society's thinking.'
The regulators themselves, she reckons, are feeling their way forward.
Reaction to Mica's response
HENCE she thinks Mica's response to the mr brown column was a 'little bit too robust'.
'While there is a need to clarify - and I think any government that is credible, that is responsible will need to make it clear to the population what is or is not the case - I think the language itself can be a little less emotive, and more communicative and persuasive,' says the PAP MP.
'I think the Government is also learning.'
She hastens to add that she agrees with the substance of the reply, adding: 'The thing that really sells, that really gets off as a viral thought is always half-truths. And there were a lot of it within the column.'
THE Internet may have started as niche and fringe, but at what point can it be considered 'mainstream' media?
Like Ms Low, Dr Leong points out that the blogosphere is evolving.
For one, there is greater aggregation of content.
For another, there's a movement to raise cyber-etiquette standards. For instance, the blog Dr Leong contributes to, Singapore Angle, is made up of a number of professionals dedicated to 'civil discourse'.
Far from purveying untruths, there are now blogs written by specialists such as a lawyer, known only as Mr Wang, who uses his legal knowledge to probe government policies, notes Dr Leong.
Over time, the distinction now made between traditional and online media will blur, as online media increases its reach and influence to become more mainstream.
In the meantime, having a stricter set of rules for traditional media hampers its ability to attract younger readers or viewers, he thinks.
This is why he would prefer to see in the mainstream media, the same free-for-all as in cyberspace.
Ms Low, too, believes that the role of the media is evolving.
Rather than have the Government lay down the law on what the role of each media should be, she thinks the issue should be raised for public discussion, and a social consensus forged.
'Some of these issues can be better debated in the public space and the result put as feedback and consideration for both the Government and the media players to decide,' she says.
Ms Low, who used to write a blog, believes in giving more space for self-expression.
She says: 'If we believe this century to be the century of people power vis-a-vis military power in the 70s and maybe economic power more recently, then I think that space for people to express themselves has to be a little bit wider.'
S'porean parents don't understand their kids: Survey
TODAY - Wednesday • June 29, 2005
Loh Chee Kong
THE tables have been turned.
Parents, who fix their child with a disapproving gaze when the teenager brings an indifferent report card home, suddenly find themselves being graded — by their children.
In a Reader's Digest survey, 3,212 teenagers aged between 14 and 18 from eight Asian lands, including Singapore, were asked to rate their parents.
Singapore came in sixth — beating only Hong Kong and Taiwan — in this ranking exercise. Parents from Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia came out tops.
When it came to listening to their teens and understanding them, Singaporean parents were at the very bottom of the heap.
Also, according to the 402 teens surveyed here, less than half their parents are able to talk things through without losing their temper.
They also have a tendency to preach and lecture. And, when it comes to talking about sex, they are third from the bottom.
Reflecting a trend common through Asia, mothers were perceived to be doing a better job than fathers.
The survey also showed that if teenagers had their way, most would send their parents for makeovers. Singaporean parents got Cs for their fashion sense.
Mothers, at least, have "a clue about fashion" according to the teenagers. They are also better at explaining sex and also more likely to know what their children's best friends' names are.
Said Mr Jim Plouffe, editor-in-chief for Reader's Digest (Asia edition): "Kids just want to spend more time with their parents, to sit down and have meaningful talks over a meal and maybe cook with them."
As for the fathers' perceived aloofness, Dr Ng Guat Tin, a National University of Singapore professor who specialises in family well-being, said: "Gender literature generally points to fathers' lack of skills in interacting with children. Ideally, the bond should be developed from infancy as adolescence is a trying time."
Mdm Jean Lum, 50, said her 15-year-old son turns to her, rather than her husband, for a listening ear as they are very close.
She has spoken to him about sexual issues and makes it a point to talk to her son for half-an-hour every day, while her husband provides the "financial support".
Still, three-quarters of the Singapore teenagers interviewed said they liked their parents, but hoped that they would push less and spend more time with their children, Mr Plouffe said.
So why did parents from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore fare so badly?
According to Mr Plouffe, "it comes down to the fact that these are predominantly Chinese societies. I believe it's because the Chinese parents are parenting in the same way as their parents were when the Chinese kids are getting different messages through the media".
Parents' Popularity Polls
Top of the class in:
• Being a hard worker
• Giving unconditional love
• Teaching what's right and wrong
Areas for improvement:
• Explaining sex
• Memorising children's friends' names
• Were rated A or B by 67.7% of children on average, with Thai children giving them the highest marks (85%)
Top of the class in:
• Being a hard worker
• Teaching what's right and wrong
Areas for improvement:
• Explaining sex
• Helping with homework
• Giving advice without lecturing
• Were rated A or B by 72.6% of children on average, with Thai children giving them the highest marks (93%)
How parents ranked
1. Thailand 89%
2. Indonesia 85%
3. Malaysia 83%
4. S Korea 81%
5. Philippines 80%
6. Singapore 73%
7. Hong Kong 58%
8. Taiwan 53%
How mums ranked
1. Thailand 93%
2. Indonesia 91%
3. Malaysia 90.6%
4. Philippines 89.1%
5. S Korea 88.5%
6. Singapore 84.3%
7. Hong Kong 68.5%
8. Taiwan 60.2%
How dads ranked
1. Thailand 85%
2. Indonesia 78.3%
3. Malaysia 76.2%
4. S Korea 75.3%
5. Philippines 71.4%
6. Singapore 62.9%
7. Hong Kong 47.1%
8. Taiwan 45.5%
Children surveyed in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia
Copyright MediaCorp Press Ltd. All rights reserved.
01 January 2000
Don wasn't non-partisan in his analysis
DR CHERIAN George, in his letter 'Govt shouldn't equate analysis with advocacy' (ST, Oct 13), regrets that the Government had 'cast (his) article ('Managing civil disobedience'; ST, Oct 10) in partisan terms'.
His article states that it was 'based on an academic paper on calibrated coercion'. This paper, titled 'Calibrated coercion and the maintenance of hegemony in Singapore', describes Singapore as an instance of 'authoritarian rule', declares that 'the normative thrust of this essay is directed at democratisation', and claims to offer a 'sophisticated understanding of what makes certain kinds of authoritarian rule endure - the better to resist and challenge them'.
These statements, which show Dr George's true intention, were omitted from his Straits Times article, which was a sanitised version of his original paper. Is this being non-partisan?
Dr George also denied that he had 'commended' the strategy of civil disobedience. He protested that a terrorism expert who explains the motivations of terrorists is pursuing academic research, and not siding with the terrorists.
But if the expert goes further to suggest that there are good and legitimate reasons why a person has to resort to terrorism, that must be a different matter.
Indeed, Dr George's article did not directly commend civil disobedience. However, his attitude can clearly be inferred from its conclusion, which I quote:
The contemporary scene of calibrated coercion is a mixed blessing for Singaporeans who want more freedom. This is bad news for pro-democracy activists, who consequently have a tough time reminding Singaporeans that they should care about political liberalisation. That is where Dr Chee (Soon Juan)'s strategy of civil disobedience comes in. It is a predictable response to the PAP's success at calibrated coercion.'
I am, however, happy that Dr George has now clarified that, in his view, Singaporeans who want to press for change need to do so within the law.
It is no surprise that critics of the Government, especially those who are academics, will want to portray themselves as being dispassionate observers who are above the fray.
However, the Government's response will depend on the substance of what they say, rather than the pose they strike.
Chen Hwai Liang Press Secretary to Prime Minister
1. Mr Speaker, Sir, the revelations in the High Court on July 11 and 12 by Mr T. T. Durai, then-CEO of the National Kidney Foundation (NKF), gripped the attention of Singaporeans and sparked widespread outrage. They eventually led to his resignation and the resignation of the entire Board of Directors.
2. The intensity of the public reaction is understandable. Many Singaporeans have donated to the NKF with good intentions of supporting the less fortunate who suffer from kidney, cancer and other diseases. The donors are naturally upset by the disclosures which seemed to suggest overly-generous staff compensation, improper spending, weak Board governance and misleading statements on fund reserves. They feel misled, betrayed and deceived.
3. While such emotions are understandable, we need, at the same time, to remain objective and not lose sight of the bigger picture. The NKF cause is a worthy one. There are real patients out there who have benefited from the work of the NKF and who continue to require care. I have visited the NKF dialysis centres before, and so have many Members of this House. We have spoken to the patients. They were sincerely grateful and happy with the work of the NKF in giving them a new lease of life.
4. I believe that Singaporeans know this and support the NKF’s fundamental cause. That is why the NKF enjoys such widespread support, with more than half a million Singaporeans making donations to the NKF last year.
Continued Patient Care
5. Therefore, while it is important that we look into the issues which the court case has thrown up, we must not allow them to distract attention from the NKF’s patients in need.
6. Our top priority must be to ensure that patient care and existing clinical services are not disrupted. The NKF runs 21 dialysis centres, serving 1,800 patients regularly. Professional standards and services must remain intact. Patients must continue to receive their medical treatments. They must continue to have access to their doctors and nurses, to dialysis machines, to medication and medical advice.
7. Equally important, we must not forget the staff of the NKF: the doctors, nurses, administrative and support staff. Their morale has taken a beating. They are a dedicated group, serving a cause which they believe in. They need the assurance that their work is appreciated, and that they can carry on delivering patient care without distraction or worries about their future. Despite a difficult week, they have rallied together to ensure that the work still gets done. They need our moral support.
Regaining Public Confidence
8. But NKF must acknowledge that public confidence has been shattered. For the NKF to continue its work, it must address this comprehensively.
I. Putting a New, Strong Board in Place
9. The immediate task is to put in place a new, strong Board to stabilise the situation. A few people have questioned my involvement, and by extension, the Government’s involvement in this matter. They are concerned about the Government’s intervention in the affairs of a voluntary organisation.
10. Mr Speaker, Sir, the NKF is indeed a private non-Governmental Voluntary Welfare Organisation (VWO). It was founded in 1969 and registered in 1984 under the Charities Act. It is not a Government-linked entity, nor is it run by the Government. It has its own governance framework to manage its organisational issues.
11. However, as public pressure built up last week, the NKF Board of Directors and its CEO came to see me on Thursday July 14. They asked for advice on how to respond to the crisis. They sought my help, presumably because patients’ welfare was at stake, and their Institution of Public Character (IPC) status, which allows them to collect tax-exempt donations, was issued by my Ministry.
12. I told them candidly that they had lost the public trust. The NKF was built up by public donations. Without public support, the NKF could not continue. For the NKF to survive, its top priority was to regain public confidence. They agreed with my assessment and asked me if I could help shepherd the NKF through this crisis.
13. I told them bluntly that the status quo would not do. I added that a new Board and a new CEO would offer the best chance of winning back public confidence. They took in the message and offered to resign en-bloc to give me a free hand to reconstitute a new Board and to appoint a new CEO. That was how I got involved in this assignment. This was July 14.
14. In my view, the key to preserving public confidence and sustaining a vibrant voluntary sector is full accountability and transparency of all charities and IPCs. This should be achieved, first and foremost, through the efforts of the voluntary organisations themselves – their ethos, culture and policies – as determined by their Boards of Directors.
15. This is why my first urgent task was to find a suitable Chairman for the NKF. After pondering a few possibilities, I approached Mr Gerard Ee. I felt he was the best person to lead in this healing process. He is synonymous with charity and compassion, and is a well-known public figure. On July 15, I got his agreement to chair the new Board.
16. Gerard and I quickly got on to the next task of forming the rest of the Board. To regain public confidence, the Board needed Directors with high standing in their professions and in the community, with reputations for integrity and high ethical standards.
17. Today I am pleased to report that a new NKF Board of Directors has been appointed. In fact, they have already held their first Board Meeting. The new Board comprises:
a. Mr Gerard Ee, as Chairman;
b. Mr Koh Cher Siang, a retired Permanent Secretary and a former Commissioner of Charities, as Deputy Chairman;
18. The other Board Members are:
a. Mr Gan Seow Aan, Executive VP of Singapore Exchange Ltd;
b. Mr Philip Jeyaretnam, a senior counsel and current President of Singapore Law Society;
c. Mr Ng Boon Yew, Chairman of Raffles Campus and a member of the Council that drew up the new Code of Governance of IPCs;
d. Mr Peter Seah, Member of the Temasek Advisory Board and Chairman of both SembCorp Industries and ST Engineering;
e. Mr Ernest Wong, Group CEO of MediaCorp. He is also a Director on the UOB Board and chairs Nanyang Technological University’s Endowment Fund Investment Committee; and
f. Prof Woo Keng Thye, Senior Consultant Nephrologist at Singapore General Hospital.
19. These are competent and senior individuals, with vast experience and diverse skill sets, covering accounting, banking, business, corporate governance, management, legal and medical expertise. Together with Gerard Ee, they form a strong Board with sound values and good community instincts. I know most of them personally, and I believe most are known to Members of this House too. They have good hearts and good heads. And this job requires a good balance of the heart and the head.
20. I was not at their first Board Meeting, but I was told that their mood was cheerful and determined. I think the obvious competence of these Directors helped everyone feel comfortable. And Gerard Ee was, as usual, organised, confident and calm. I am optimistic that the new leadership will enable the NKF to start afresh, on a sound footing.
21. Their first task is to appoint a new CEO. Choosing a good CEO is the single most important responsibility of any Board of Directors. They will need to take their time on this assignment. Being new to the NKF, they would first need to be clear of the organisation, its mission and objectives, before they can decide on the skill sets that a CEO needs. They should not rush through this.
22. That said, there is much work to be done, with daily operations to run and reviews to address the various issues which have been raised.
23. Hence, I suggested to the Board that in the meantime, I ask a hospital cluster to second a senior hospital administrator to be the interim CEO. An experienced hospital administrator who is familiar with managing healthcare facilities will be most appropriate at this time of need. I have such a candidate in mind but the person has to be acceptable to the new Board. We hope to settle this and announce it within the next few days.
24. Meanwhile, the Board has to identify and prioritise the many issues confronting the NKF. As I see it, six crucial areas require their early attention.
25. First is the continuation of patient care and the restoration of staff morale, which I touched on earlier.
26. Second, they must fully address the public unease and disquiet over allegations of questionable practices and inappropriate spending of charity funds. Let me note here that the NKF’s accounts have been audited by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) since 1999. Based on MOH records, no major findings were raised, at least post-2001 when NKF’s IPC came under MOH.
27. The new Board will no doubt want to discuss further with PWC, to get their insights on the NKF based on their past audit experience. Nevertheless, it would be helpful for the Board to commission a fresh, detailed review of financial controls within the organisation. They need to specifically ask the questions which Singaporeans have been asking: Have donations been wasted on inappropriate things? Were charitable funds used lavishly or improperly? Have there been lapses in judgement? Were any funds misappropriated? If so, could these lapses have been detected earlier?
28. The new Board has moved very quickly and appointed KPMG to conduct this review. The Terms of Reference of the review are being discussed. I will advise the Board to make public the findings in due course.
29. Third, the Board should review the adequacy of the reserves built up for dialysis patients. Is it 3 years as presented by the NKF or 30 years as argued by Singapore Press Holdings in the High Court? This will help the Board determine its immediate fund-raising needs. Meanwhile, I am glad that the NKF has taken my advice not to embark on new fund-raising activities until the Board has deliberated and determined what the funding needs of the NKF are.
30. Fourth, they should review corporate governance. A Board of Directors has fiduciary responsibility for overall good governance. Did the NKF Board maintain sufficient independence from the management, to provide the necessary oversight and checks on management? How was CEO’s compensation determined? What was the basis of his bonus payment? Court disclosures suggest that the organisation’s system of checks and balances was inadequate. Was this the case? If so, what safeguards should the Board put in place to prevent a recurrence?
31. Fifth, the Board should review the NKF’s communications with their donors. Are there misleading claims? Are there errors? If so, they should correct any misleading statements.
32. Sixth, they should review the pricing and subsidy policies of the NKF’s dialysis programmes to ensure that adequate assistance is provided to the intended recipients. Over the last few days, I have received several emails advising me that the NKF should provide dialysis services for free since it has such healthy reserves. This I must strongly advise against. It is one sure and quick way to kill the NKF.
33. The NKF has been able to build a significant reserve precisely because it does not unconditionally give away free services. Patients are means-tested and the level of subsidy varies according to the patients’ ability to pay. One reason for such a stand is its belief that patients and their families should take co-responsibility for themselves. By making an effort to earn a living, the patients retain their self-esteem and live their lives more confidently. I fully endorse this philosophy, but the Board should review if the subsidy rules have been unduly stringent.
II. Ensuring a Robust Regulatory Framework
34. A second component of restoring public confidence is putting in place a robust regulatory framework is in place for charities and IPCs. Arising from the NKF saga, Singaporeans are asking if the Government had adequate safeguards against abuses and malpractices by charities and IPCs, and whether a tighter regulatory framework could have prevented the sad turn of events for the NKF.
Current Approach towards Governance of Charities and IPCs
35. Charities and IPCs are governed by two pieces of legislation, through which the Government sets the basic requirements for governance and transparency. The framework is basically sound and the legislation has served us well:
a. First, all charities are subject to the Charities Act. The Act promotes the effective use of charitable resources by encouraging the development of better administration, by giving charity trustees information on any matter affecting the charity and by investigating and checking abuses. Under the Act, the Commissioner of Charities (who is concurrently the Commissioner of Inland Revenue) is vested with investigative and enforcement powers to regulate charities. As a charity, the NKF comes under the ambit of the Charities Act; and
b. Second, charities which acquire IPC status are subject to the Income Tax Act. The Act requires IPCs to submit audited accounts and post financial information online. Under the Act, the Ministry of Finance appoints Ministries as Central Fund Administrators (CFAs) to assess and approve IPCs for tax-deductible donations. There are quite a number of CFAs and my Ministry handles healthcare-related VWOs. As a CFA, MOH ensures that an IPC maintains proper donation and accounting records, and uses any tax-deductible donation within the Income Tax guidelines. The NKF's tax-deductible fund-raising activities are covered by its IPC status under the purview of my Ministry.
36. The Government has been mindful to monitor developments and enhance the framework whenever necessary. Last year, the Government set up a Council on Governance of IPCs to review existing practices and to recommend enhancements to the standards of governance of IPCs. The Council was chaired by Ms Lim Soo Hoon, then-Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports. It comprised experts from the public, private and people sectors.
37. After extensive deliberations and consultations, the Council published its recommendations in May this year. Most of their recommendations were accepted by the Government. In essence, the recommendations were to subject all IPCs to stricter mandatory requirements from 1 Jan 2007. These include:
a. Ensuring that information provided to donors, potential donors and the
general public is not misrepresented;
b. Disclosing the intended use of funds when soliciting donations; and
c. Ensuring that funds and donations are used according to donors' intentions and the specific purpose communicated when soliciting for donations.
38. The charities and IPCs need some time to comply with the new rules and best practices. Hence, the Council has set the deadline for mandatory compliance at 1 Jan 2007. I would however encourage them to adopt these guidelines and the best practices as soon as possible, ahead of the compliance timetable.
39. For a professionally-run IPC like the NKF, they should be the first to achieve the higher standards and be the model for the other IPCs to emulate. I will ask the new Board to set this as part of their mission.
40. Meanwhile, the public can and should play their part in encouraging their target charities to adopt these rules and best practices wholeheartedly. They should not feel that they must accept the charity’s word when making donations. Vote with your donations. If the charity does not measure up to your expectations, donate to another cause instead.
Moving Forward: Balancing Regulation and Flexibility in a Diverse Landscape
41. Notwithstanding the current regulatory framework, one may ask if we need more and tighter rules for charities and IPCs to prevent future mishaps. The answer is not a straight-forward one.
42. One key issue is finding the right balance between regulation and flexibility. This balance is not easy to strike. If rules and regulations are inadequate, the risk of abuse is high. Yet, if we go for a very stringent standard, and hard-wire onerous regulatory requirements into the system, we are likely to snuff out many charities and IPCs which focus on assisting specific groups of the needy, and which lack the resources for elaborate administrative overheads to fulfil regulatory requirements.
43. The issue is further complicated by the diverse range of charities and IPCs in Singapore. There are 1,750 charities and 900 IPCs. They represent a wide spectrum of organisations of different sizes and scales, with different philosophies, interests, target beneficiaries and programmes. They cover social services, education, health, self-help groups, sports, arts and culture, advancement of religion or the community. While some people may consider this an untidy situation, it collectively represents our ecosystem of people-sector organisations supporting the needy and other worthy causes across multiple niches. All play a part in inculcating the spirit of giving and helping others.
44. Given this situation, it is not practical to adopt a one-size-fits-all framework in regulating charities and IPCs. We must leave room for smaller charities, which rely on a “traditional” or “cottage-industry” approach to do good work without too much fuss. We were all students once, and those of us with children will still be familiar with school flag sales, lucky draw coupons, and sponsored sports activities and challenges to support charities. It is important to have organisations continue to serve in this niche. In addition to delivering aid to the needy in specific areas, they also actively engage the community and the younger generation in community efforts. This is critical for sustainable people-sector renewal and community-building.
45. At the same time, we must cater to other models of charity. We must be prepared to accept larger, more sophisticated organisations which want to and can mobilise the ground, garner support and donations, and systematically raise large amounts for charity. Unlike smaller groups, these charities can deliver higher levels of service to different corners of the island, employing professionals to ensure that beneficiaries get the care they need and that the quality of medical care is continually improved. They have to plan for the long-term, so as not to worry excessively where their donations for the next month will come from. They have the focus and staying power to develop and grow programmes which take longer to yield results for their beneficiaries.
46. We therefore need to work out a framework with sufficient regulatory controls on larger charities, and yet which does not stifle the small charities. There is a need for differential regulation so that larger charities with large funds may have to follow some requirements from which small charities are exempt. Indeed the Council on Governance of IPCs has included in its recommendations the principle of subjecting bigger charities to higher standards, such as reporting standards.
47. The Council’s recommendations on differential regulation do not specifically recommend differential rates of the expense ratio. The current expense ratio requirement limits charities’ fund-raising expenses to below 30% of funds raised. Some people think that large fund-raisers should be subjected to lower expense ratio. But it is not clear that there are economies of scale in fund-raising. In fact, each incremental dollar may take more effort to bring in. But we can certainly re-look at this. I will definitely ask the new NKF Board, after they have settled down, to consider the expense ratio that they should be aiming for.
48. But frankly speaking, no expense ratio or disclosure requirement will be tight enough to catch a gold-plated tap – that is a matter of self-restraint and tone of the organisation and its leaders, which the charities themselves should set.
49. Over the years, the NKF has grown into a large and complex charity. It has made many positive, innovative contributions to the Singapore community, not only in dialysis. For example:
a. The NKF conducts preventive health screening for up to 250,000 Singaporeans a year, and operates 3 prevention centres and 5 mobile “prevention buses”;
b. The NKF Children’s Medical Fund, set up in 2001, supports 6 centres of excellence in local hospitals and institutions, provides support to children under 7 programmes, and provides help to other children’s charities;
c. The NKF Cancer Fund set up more recently has begun to support some 140 cancer patients. Indeed, the recent NKF shows on TV were not to raise funds for kidney dialysis, but for cancer patients; and
d. The NKF also trains 500 clinical staff in Nephrology nursing under the NKF’s Institute of Nursing, Education and Research, including continuing education in partnership with overseas universities.
50. From a small local VWO, the NKF is today recognised as one of the leading dialysis providers in the world, with very good clinical results. The NKF has a vision to becoming a pace-setter on the international stage. It organises international medical conferences on nephrology and transplants, in conjunction with world-renowned nursing institutions.
51. It has even exported its operating model to the South Pacific. Last year, the Samoa Health Minister visited Singapore because he had heard of the NKF. Kidney disease is a big problem in the Pacific Islands. Samoa had no local kidney dialysis facilities. Patients had to be flown to New Zealand and hence few received treatment. I arranged a working lunch for the Samoa Health Minister and Mr T. T. Durai. Within a few months, the NKF helped them set up the Samoan Kidney Dialysis Unit. When it was opened in Samoa in March this year, practically all the Health Ministers in the Pacific Islands attended the launch. It was a major event in the South Pacific.
52. Soon after that, the Fiji Health Minister visited me. He asked me to persuade the NKF to do the same thing in Fiji. I understand that discussions with Fiji, as well as Seychelles, are now ongoing.
53. We cannot and should not ignore, nor discount these visions and achievements.
54. I know many find such developments jarring. They are used to the traditional model of charity. Yesterday, Dr Robert Loh wrote to the Straits Times to suggest that the NKF should return to this model. Bob Loh is another person synonymous with charity and compassion. He is a former President of the National Council of Social Services. He personifies kindness and decency, a most wonderful man. He even finds time to help me in my Moulmein Constituency as a grassroots leader. Volunteers like him, Gerard Ee and Jennie Chua spend much of their time, energy, expertise and resources contributing to charity work without any compensation. They teach us and spread the message of philanthropy. Singapore is a much stronger society because of such individuals.
55. But I believe that our charity landscape can accommodate a diversity of models. There is nothing wrong with a large charity outfit run by professionals instead of volunteers, provided it is properly governed and managed. As one commentator pointed out, it is not wrong to combine "the passion of a social mission with an image of business-like discipline, innovation, and determination." We should not lose sight of the possibility that there can someday be a Singapore Oxfam or the equivalent of an International Red Cross.
56. Running such a large charity outfit will require full-time professionals. To recruit and retain such talent, the charity outfit has to pay a competitive wage. It is the responsibility of the board to determine what this wage is and to defend their decision, if necessary. To avoid abuses and criticisms, the Board will need a robust HR management system to design an appropriate compensation scheme, a sensible incentive bonus programme and proper checks-and-balances which ensure independence between the Board and the CEO. Unfortunately, the former NKF Board appears to have fallen short in this regard.
57. It will also be necessary for such an outfit to be transparent in its disclosure, so that donors can be satisfied that their money is being put to good use. There is a dilemma here – if the charity declares every detail of its senior staff’s remuneration, many capable people may not want to work there, but if it does not do so, donors may be unsatisfied, and may take their donations elsewhere. This is a real problem which many organisations face. There is no ideal solution to be found in governance rules or disclosure standards, though these are necessary. In the end, we must depend on putting people of integrity in charge, and earning the trust of the public that honourable men are doing their best for a good cause.
58. Mr Speaker, Sir, charity’s work is never done. There will continue to be many needing help, and those who are more fortunate will always need to reach out and lend a helping hand. That is what being a society, and indeed, a nation, is all about.
59. I am most heartened by the outpouring of constructive suggestions and offers to help. Over the weekend, I have received so many emails from people volunteering to contribute their effort and time to improve the NKF. Such civic responsibility and social conscience of Singaporeans will certainly help to build a stronger volunteer and charity sector.
60. I am confident that together, we can turn this unhappy saga into a fruitful learning experience with a positive outcome. The cause for charity should not be diminished by this episode. If we learn the right lessons, and are skilful in managing the growth of our charities and IPCs, our charity landscape and our society will emerge stronger, to the benefit of all Singaporeans. While the process of change takes place, I appeal to Singaporeans to remain objective, patient and generous.
61. Meanwhile, Singaporeans with the passion, expertise and knowledge should continue to step forward and help our many charities. They can offer to serve on Boards to help improve governance, or serve as volunteers to help charities provide better services at lower cost. Indeed, many Singaporeans are making a difference to the community every day. Let us not allow one sad episode to discourage us from doing good. Instead, let us pick ourselves up and do even more to help our fellows in need.
1. When Singapore became independent in 1965, the situation looked bleak. Just two years earlier, the people had chosen a merger with Malaysia because they believed that Singapore was too small to survive on its own. Now that we were indeed on our own, almost no one thought we could survive.
2. There were two key issues. One was security; the other, economic viability. We were only 224 square miles in size (or 580 square kilometres – we measured things in miles then). Very small as countries go. Our population was about 1.8 million. We had no natural resources – we did not even have enough water – and we had just been cut off from the Malaysian hinterland. Indonesia was actively pursuing Konfrontasi against Malaysia and Singapore. We had no security force and depended on the UK for our defence.
3. Those challenges, while daunting, were not particularly unique. In fact, they continue to plague many small countries today, in fact even big ones. With a small population, little land and little resources, and a lack of strategic depth,, “ economic and security vulnerabilities are almost inevitable. How did we, in the course of one generation, make ourselves less vulnerable?
4. What we did was basically to break out of our security, resource and population constraints. Instead of allowing ourselves to be boxed in by our limitations, we found ways to enhance our space. This is the approach we continue to adopt. This approach has given us peace and security, and a flourishing economy. By many economic measures, Singapore ranks much higher than our physical or population size would naturally warrant.
5. Singapore also has a role and influence in regional and world affairs that is out of proportion to our physical size. That comes from the value that others see in our contributions to international debates, and from the respect they have for the Singapore model of development and governance.
6. Our defence capability gives us security. It also means that we do not have to succumb to the pressure and bullying that small states sometimes suffer. We can choose to do what’s in Singapore’s best interests and determine our own future.
Security Space – The Ultimate Guarantor
7. The security space that we enjoy today can be traced back to the decision taken in 1965, immediately after independence, to build the Singapore Armed Forces. The challenge was how to build a credible defence force with such a small population. But the Defence Minister at that time, Dr Goh Keng Swee, believed that the potential of a nation to defend itself by making full use of a vigorous, well educated and highly motivated population, albeit a small one, should not be under-estimated.
8. And so National Service was introduced in 1967. We made well-considered investments in military equipment and advanced technology. When we bought the E2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft in 1985, it was like buying ourselves a high mountain on which to place a radar so that it could see further and give us precious extra minutes of warning and reaction time, than placing a radar on the highest of our hills could ever provide us. Most importantly, we invested in people so that we could build an SAF with committed servicemen and servicewomen and able leadership.
9. The SAF that started off with only two infantry regiments, two old navy ships and no air force, has matured into the respected armed forces it is today.
10. This defence capability is the bedrock of our security. It deters potential aggressors; and it allows us to stay calm and maintain an even keel through the ups and downs of regional developments and our relations with other countries. It contributes to stability as those who may not be so friendly are nudged towards take the rational path of diplomacy and negotiations, instead of resorting to the temptation to use force against a small country.
Economic Space – The World as our Hinterland
11. Security provides the foundation of our nationhood, but we also had to make sure we could feed our people. We had to carve out economic space. The need was clear, but in 1965 the solution was not obvious. Land was an important determinant of wealth and represented a country’s productive potential. A country without land simply could not generate sufficient domestic output. So we adopted the strategy of adding value to the output of others. We borrowed their brand names, products, technology and markets – legally of course - by inviting them to invest in Singapore; to set up their manufacturing, distribution, and servicing centres here, bring jobs for Singaporeans, and help upgrade their skills and knowledge.
12. We began by focusing on simple export-oriented manufacturing. Jurong was developed as an industrial park and factories manufacturing a wide range of products were set up. We were no longer dependant on being merely an import-export centre for our one dominant market in Malaysia. By buying and selling globally, the world was now our hinterland. This was the expansion of our economic space.
13. We then moved up the value chain to specialise in higher end manufacturing, such as the production of semi-conductors. We also went into the services sector, such as shipbuilding, port facilities, and oil refining. How far we have come in expanding our economic space, our ability to think out of the box, can be seen in the fact that today we rank 3rd globally as a refinery centre for oil and petrochemicals, even though we do not produce a drop of oil ourselves.
14. We are now moving into the next bound of a knowledge economy, which includes sectors such as telecommunications, biomedical, education, and even design – what Diane Coyle has described as a “weightless economy”, where knowledge matters more than land mass or population size.
15. To ensure that economic activity continues to flow through Singapore, we have also become a source of foreign direct investment, i.e., we invest in other countries, and are not just a recipient of foreign investment. For example, by shifting manufacturing to low-cost countries, we are able to retain higher functions such as design, finance and marketing in Singapore where skilled labour is our competitive advantage. This has allowed us to tap the growth of developing countries. China and India today are areas with great potential for us to focus on.
16. Looking ahead, we will need to continue enhancing our economic connectivity. Hence, the various free trade agreements which we have concluded with key trading partners such as Japan, Australia, the United States and, most recently, in India are important. We have also pushed for multilateral trade liberalisation through the World Trade Organisation. This guarantees access to international markets for our goods and services and helps draw more investments and business operations to Singapore.
Population Space – Immigration and the talent handicap
17. The ability to grow our economy also depends on having sufficient people with the requisite skills and talents. Most countries can meet this demand with their indigenous population. The most able and enterprising are drawn from the countryside into the cities, where they search for and create new opportunities, spurring development and progress.
18. We are a city-state with no natural pool of manpower residing in the hinterland that we can draw on. If we look back in our history, it was periodic waves of immigration from our immediate region in South East Asia, and beyond, that provided that injection of manpower, right from the first days of modern Singapore 200 years ago. The immigrant make-up of our society remains evident. The majority among you, for example, would have either a parent or a grandparent who was not born in Singapore. As we move into a knowledge economy where the ability to meet the demand for people with the right knowledge and skills is key, we will have to continue to keep our doors open. Otherwise we will choke ourselves off from what is necessary for our growth We will educate and train Singaporeans as best as we can, and we will need to supplement Singaporeans with others to strengthen our team.
Geopolitical Space – Enhancing International Structures and Norms
19. As a small country, Singapore can only thrive when there is a stable world order in which all states, large and small, are bound by the same rights and obligations. Otherwise size and might become right. The concept of sovereignty and equality among states is rather an unnatural notion, for through most of human history it has been the dominance of the strong and conquest of the weak. It took two world wars and the United Nations before small states got a voice.
20. Singapore wants to be a responsible member of the international community and we have tried to do our part by contributing to the UN and its peace-keeping operations, or PKOs. We have participated in 14 UN PKO missions over the years, most recently in East Timor when it became newly independent. We have also contributed to disaster relief and humanitarian assistance missions. I am sure most of you would have followed the SAF’s operations in Aceh after the Boxing Day tsunami with some interest given the proximity and human drama of that tragedy. The SAF was able to move quickly and provide effective assistance, and make a difference when it mattered.
21. We must continue to engage and contribute to the key international organisations because these enhance our geopolitical space. Besides the UN, ASEAN, the ASEAN Regional Forum (or ARF) and APEC are other important organisations. The ASEAN norms of consensus and confidence-building serve its members, including Singapore, well.
22. Later this year, ASEAN will be convening the East Asian Summit, which brings the rising Asia-Pacific powers China and India into an important dialogue which will shape the regional architecture and contribute to regional peace and stability in the decades to come.
Challenges and Opportunities
23. We have, over the past 40 years, built a secure and vibrant nation where young people like you can look forward to many opportunities. But life is unpredictable and it is a constant challenge to ensure that Singaporeans will have that security and the economic opportunities to prosper and lead full and meaningful lives. We never know what surprises are waiting for us around the corner.
Radical Islam and terrorism
24. There is a clear and present threat to our security today in the form of radicalism and terrorism. No country is immune and we have just seen the horror of the attacks in London and Sharm el-Sheikh. You would know too of the plans by the Jemaah Islamiyah cells in Singapore to construct seven 3-ton bombs to hit various targets in Singapore. This challenge needs to be addressed at the level of what the security and other agencies can do to prevent attacks, and to respond to and manage the consequences of an attack should there ever be one.
25. But the challenge also needs to be met by the people – in staying vigilant and prepared, in remaining calm and resilient should an attack take place, and, most importantly, in staying cohesive as a society. Because societal cohesion is one of the targets that terrorists and extremists are aiming at.
26. The threat will be with us for a long time. This is an ideological conflict and countering the terrorists will require more than security measures. It will also require social and economic measures. Most importantly, Muslims worldwide and in Singapore will have to wrest back the agenda from the extremists who claim to be Islamic but are only perverting the religion for their political ends.
China and India - Economic Clout and Global Talent
27. The rise of China and India is regarded by many countries, including Singapore, as both their biggest threat and their biggest opportunity. Their increasing power will have an impact on the strategic landscape of the Asia-Pacific region, if not the world.
28. China and India are the two fastest growing economies and major engines of global economic growth. Over the last 20 years, more recently in India, economic reforms in these two countries have unleashed powerful energies which now bind the well-being of a good two-fifths of the world’s population to the international economy. Given their sheer size and weight, the rise of China and India will inevitably have an impact on the economies of countries not only in this region but beyond. We will have to adjust to the new economic paradigm, and our people will have to be flexible and resilient.
29. China and India have abundant talent, and that will propel them up the value chain. Singapore’s domestic talent pool is far smaller. The only way that Singapore can continue to compete is to become a hub for global talent; to make the world our intellectual hinterland and to attract talent to Singapore. Otherwise, we would be severely diminishing our economic space in the long term. Excellence – Our only permanent competitive advantage
30. The ultimate challenge may be to sustain the will to strive for excellence even as our affluence rises and our creature comforts keep improving. We have to stay hungry. Excellence is the thread that ties everything together and explains why we have succeeded while others have not. It is this that has allowed us to break out of our physical constraints, and to become a model that other countries want to learn from. It is this excellence that all of you here, as the future of Singapore, must strive for if you want Singapore to continue to be more than a little red dot.
By Susan Long
Controversy stalks the National Kidney Foundation, with critics lambasting its fund-raising methods, brazen self-promotion and work practices. Is the NKF just a cutting-edge charity ahead of its time, or is there more to those rumblings?
A RETIRED contractor who wants to be known only as Mr Tan used to be a National Kidney Foundation (NKF) donor until he was hired to install some bathroom fittings for its new headquarters at Kim Keat Road in 1995.
Inside chief executive T.T. Durai's office suite on the 12th floor of the $21 million building, he says he 'lost it' when he had to install, among other things, a glass-panelled shower, a pricey German toilet bowl and a gold-plated tap.
'I started screaming my head off. The gold-plated tap alone cost at least $1,000. It was crazy. If you're Bill Gates and own your own multinational, whatever you want, fine. But you're a charity, using donors' money,' he huffs.
After his outburst, he was told to 'just do' his job. The shower stall remained, but the taps he eventually installed were 'scaled down' to an upmarket chrome-plated model.
To this day, the 54-year-old belongs to NKF's die-hard detractor camp, unmoved by its shining success in social entrepreneurship and its track record in saving lives. As he puts it: 'After that day, not a cent from me. I'm not going to pay for gold-plated taps.'
Asked for its response to the contractor's story, the NKF's public relations arm sidestepped the details and said yesterday: 'Since you can't give us details of the contractor... it is difficult for us to give an answer to enlighten your readers.'
In the past fortnight, the NKF has hogged the headlines. Propitiously, the news of its amazing $189 million in reserves broke the very day it celebrated its 35th anniversary on April 7. Since then, a stream of more than 130 people - former employees, former donors and disgruntled members of the public - have e-mailed or called this newspaper to let off steam about its hard-sell tactics, thick carpets and controversial chieftain.
At the same time, about 30 others, individuals and organisations, have sent in letters of support for the organisation, praising its dialysis programmes and pledging continued donations.
So far, the NKF kitty appears none the worse for wear despite all the caterwauling. On April 11, its 11th NKF Charity show raised $6.7 million, just a fraction short of last year's $6.8 million. Last night, it netted another $6.4 million.
These serious sums of money - how the NKF gets it, spends it and accounts for it - have been a well-gnawed bone of contention among its naysayers. Way before details of its $5 million tie-up with insurance giant Aviva unleashed a ferocious debate on donor privacy issues, charges of 'invasive' fund-raising have dogged the outfit.
But the NKF has made no bones about gunning for the charity dollar - the more the merrier, just like any other profit-and-loss business. Relentless innovation over the years has brought new ways of fund-raising: greeting cards, live charity shows, donations via SMS, consultancy services, even selling its spare telemarketing capacity to private companies. In the social service sector, the NKF is the unparalleled paragon of the art of 'heartsell'.
Most impressive of all, notes Mrs Tan Chee Koon, executive director of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, is its ability to tap on the health screening it conducts for heartlanders to ensure a 'sustained pool of regular givers'.
Unlike many charities which rely on large, one-off infusions from wealthy foundations, NKF's bread and butter is the $3 to $5 monthly Giro donations from about one million ordinary Singaporeans. With such a big base of small heartland givers - its website says nearly two out of every three Singaporeans are donors - the pennies add up.
Every day, seven days a week, some 100 'prevention evangelists' and nurses fan out to companies, army camps, condominiums and churches islandwide to test the blood, body fat and urine of at least 1,600 people daily.
Since 1997, more than one million Singaporeans have undergone these free health screenings, which are followed typically by an impassioned pitch: 'This is something we're doing for you; is there something you'd like to do for us?'
A voluntary sector consultant notes: 'Even old grannies are not spared the spiel. Most are pressured to do a Giro contribution for a minimum of six months. Nothing they do is illegal, but it's all very aggressive. Nothing wrong with that, but when they push the fund-raising envelope, they tend to be insensitive to the larger consequences for the charity sector.'
But the NKF's head of what it calls 'prevention marketing', Ms Shirley Tan, makes no apologies for the 'heartfelt pleas' it delivers along with its basic health checks, which she notes would cost at least $60 in private clinics. She says these are 'free-will offerings' and the 'evangelists' have no financial targets to meet at each venue.
NKF chairman Richard Yong, 63, a former private banker who has been on the NKF board for 18 years, makes clear that lucre is the necessary lifeblood of the organisation.
Every cent literally buys time for each patient. And the NKF's mission to save the lives of those with kidney failure is undeniably daunting, which explains why there are no other self-funded, non-profit dialysis providers in the world.
Each patient is admitted for life - or until they are lucky enough to get a kidney transplant. The average life expectancy of those on dialysis is 10 to 15 years, at a cost of $150,000 upwards a head to the foundation.
Mr Yong says patients themselves pay from nothing to $800 each month for three-times-a-week dialysis which would cost at least $3,000 each month outside.
The incidence of kidney failure here - increasingly a lifestyle disease closely associated with diabetes and hypertension - is now the third highest in the world, trailing only affluent countries like the United States and Japan. This, coupled with a fast growing grey-haired population, means that the NKF has plenty of costly work cut out for it.
Its money-minting machinery, however, was not always so hard-nosed or well-oiled. Starting out in an unprepossessing Singapore General Hospital attic with just two beds and one metal tray in 1969, Mr Yong says, it battled the same growing pains that less publicised, cash-strapped charities face today.
When it set up its first dialysis programme in 1982 in Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital, it dispensed free treatment with little regard for outcomes and costs.
In 1986, it ran out of money, so he and other board members had to make the heart-wrenching decision of who among their 32 patients should continue with dialysis, and who would have to be sent home with morphine to die.
'I couldn't sleep; I couldn't eat. Who were we to play God?' he recalls. It hit home then: It was important to have 'healthy reserves that can withstand even the most dire economic times', and self-generated income 'so that we can be independent, instead of on our knees, poor and begging for life'.
So the irony is that, despite being one of the oldest, the NKF is yet one of the most progressive charities here. As a mature 35-year-old, it is looking at sustainability and continuity issues for the next 100 years, even as most other voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) grapple with day-to-day survival issues.
In the international arena, it is such a trail-blazing model of social entrepreneurship that American universities like Harvard, Johns Hopkins and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have done case studies on it.
Locally, however, it is so far ahead of its time that society has yet to keep pace. Unlike in the West - where charities aggressively campaign for the charity dollar, professional fund-raising is a bona fide industry and tie-ups with commercial entities are old news - the social sector here unfortunately is still in its infancy.
According to Mr Terry Farris, head of charity management for Asia at European private bank MeesPierson, the fact that it costs money to raise money - the accepted norm, he says, is now 15 to 20 cents out of every dollar - may not have sunk in here yet.
Many VWO chiefs note there still exists an arcane expectation that non-profits should survive on the 'goodwill and sacrifice' of volunteers, even though it is recognised worldwide that the public good is much better served by hiring professional managers at market rates.
THE NKF has tried to break away from the 'third-tier' image charities suffer from, by sourcing for talent worldwide and paying them fair market value. According to NKF's honorary treasurer Loo Say San: 'Many Singaporeans prefer not to work for charitable organisations, so we go overseas to hire.'
It does its recruitment drives at top institutions like the Indian Institutes of Management and Beijing University, competing with the likes of General Electric and Morgan Stanley for the best brains money can buy. Since 2001, it has also tapped the skills of a steady stream of MBA interns from top business schools like Harvard and Stanford.
It staff strength is 947, a figure that NKF defends as necessary to man the three shifts of dialysis sessions, each lasting four hours, which its 22 centres around the island run daily.
Pressed for details on staff composition, Mr Yong said 'more than half are medical personnel'. The rest are spread among the administrative, marketing, fund-raising and communications departments.
The taboo it seeks to break is that charity is synonymous with poor quality. As Dr Gerard Chuah, an eye surgeon and chairman of the NKF Children's Medical Fund, says: 'What bothers me is when people say, why can't you continue to function out of containers? Hello, just because we're a charity doesn't mean we have to operate in a hovel out in the rain.
'Would you ask a family member of yours who has an honours degree to work in a container? We want to get the best people we can find who will run good programmes to save more lives.'
Even when administering its dialysis and patient rehabilitation programmes, the NKF approach is controversial. You might call it 'tough love'. According to Mr Job Loei, a dialysis patient who also helps counsel new admissions at NKF, those wallowing in self-pity are set straight.
NKF demands that patients co-pay for dialysis, hold down jobs and stick to their diet - or pay more. Patients' fees, for example, are reduced by $50 to $100 as an incentive, if they find a job, get promoted, tie the knot, give birth, or even when their school-going children score As.
It helps patients find jobs, provides courses to upgrade their qualifications and holds personal grooming classes to help them remain attractive to their spouses. If their children's grades slide, it even helps engage, and provides subsidies of up to 80 per cent for, tuition teachers to coach them.
As Mr Yong says: 'We don't dialyse them to go home and sleep. We want them to have jobs, bring home the bacon, contribute to the economy, have normal relations with their spouses and their children to do well in school. We say openly to them: 'If you want to die, go and die by yourself; don't come to us'.'
As a result, 93 per cent of NKF dialysis patients work, support their families and lead productive lives, compared to less than 60 per cent worldwide. The general philosophy is: No free rides.
OTHER PEOPLE'S MONEY
LIKEWISE for employees, adds Mr Loo. They are constantly reminded that their wages come from donor dollars. To prevent wastage, there is an extensive list of fines, from $5 for getting to work five minutes late, to $30 for forgetting to switch off the lights. All staff functions are held in the in-house auditorium 'for fear of being labelled spend-thrift' if they venture outside.
For the record, Mr Yong says, there is no such thing as 'first-class travel'. Senior executives, from directors up, including CEO Mr Durai, fly business class. The rest fly economy.
Little is known of Mr Durai, 56, apart from the fact that his name T.T. (Thambirajah Tharmadurai) means a charitable man in Tamil. A former president of the then University of Singapore Students' Union, he graduated with a law degree and worked in the government legal service for six years until 1977.
The elegant and eloquent man eschews publicity and, despite 3 1/2 hours spent with top officials at the NKF last week, this reporter received only a handshake from him. No quotes.
His staff know him as a 'visionary' who cares deeply for NKF patients and knows each one by name. He is also a 'tough taskmaster' who works from 6am to 10pm, and eats and showers in his office.
He is said to run a tight, results-oriented ship, with a labyrinth of departments within departments and units within units.
But even the most embittered acknowledge it is a 'dynamic' workplace and training ground. Its staff turnover is high; employees are so often poached that managers now have to sign three-year contracts.
One downside cited by former employees is a corporate culture described as 'cagey', in which staff are discouraged from discussing finances.
Despite much public prodding and the Finance Ministry's encouragement to charities to reveal the salaries and benefits of their top employees, NKF top guns are sticking to their guns not to allow more public disclosure.
What they keep reiterating is: 'Although the NKF is a non-profit organisation, the people who have chosen to work in the NKF are private individuals, who are entitled to their privacy.'
But therein lies the chink in an otherwise spiffy armour: NKF's forward-looking business model lacks the financial transparency that would enable it to stand tall and get out of its controversy-laden shell.
After all, if it is governed by the creed of the marketplace, it should also appply rigorous standards of disclosure and accountability.
As a VWO analyst notes: 'You can find out how much any CEO of a public company makes, so why not them? How can it be that when they feel like it, they can be 'private', but when raising funds, they are 'non-profit' and 'public'? If any member of the public asks, why shouldn't the information be made available to them?'
As society matures, says Mr Farris, people will have higher expectations of non-profit governance.
'Like it or not, if you turn over as much as $67.5 million a year, you're a business, though it be the business of doing good,' he says. 'As a charity, you have to always remember: You are spending other people's money.'
On the NKF's part, so often has it been bad-mouthed - which it attributes to 'professional jealousy' - that it seems to have developed a persecution complex of sorts. 'Why is it us, always us?' is a plaintive cry its board members often utter.
It has also gone beyond plaintive cries, to being the plaintiff in defamation suits - at least three times. In 1999, for instance, it sued Madam Tan Kiat Noi for sending out an e-mail message accusing it of paying ridiculously high bonuses to its staff. An estimated 100,000 people received it. The case was settled after she apologised publicly, and paid $50,000 in damages, as well as NKF's legal costs.
Whither the NKF from here? Although it continues to bid the public judge it by its works and its effectiveness, detractors will continue to be fixated by the shroud over its numbers. Like it or not, rumblings are likely to persist until there is more publicly-transparent accounting.
ST Sept 8, 2005
Action for Aids' probe dispels sex claims
Group's 106 volunteers deny any improper conduct with patients they were counselling
By Lee Hui Chieh
ALLEGATIONS that volunteers from Action for Aids (AFA) had been sexually intimate with people they were counselling have been found to be baseless, an investigation by the Aids awareness group has concluded.
The group's 106 active volunteers denied having sexual relations or engaging in improper conduct with the people they were counselling.
All the volunteers also denied having heard of other volunteers engaging in such behaviour, and most said they would inform their programme coordinator or AFA's executive committee if they found out about anyone doing so.
Ninety of the volunteers were interviewed face to face over five days, for about 30 minutes each.
Another 16 volunteers who could not make it to the interviews were asked to fill up questionnaires.
The interviews were done by two doctors from the National Skin Centre who are not AFA members - Dr Tan Hiok Hee, who heads its department of sexually transmitted infection control, and Dr Priya Sen, an associate consultant.
In their report, the investigators said: 'The volunteers are intensively trained and appear to maintain extremely high professional standards in their capacity as volunteers. They adhere strictly to the AFA volunteer code of conduct and it would seem that any allegations of AFA volunteers having physical or sexually intimate relations with clients were unfounded.'
For example, all the volunteers said that following AFA's rules, they would not give out their personal contact numbers to those they were helping, and do not lock doors during one-to-one counselling sessions.
The probe was sparked by a report in The New Paper on July 10, which said that five of AFA's volunteers had contracted the virus after becoming volunteers, and that there was concern that 'young male volunteers are coming forward because they see the MSM outreach programme as another avenue for them to meet other gay men'.
Volunteers under the MSM (men who have sex with men) outreach programme advocate safe sex and distribute condoms and educational materials at entertainment outlets and events frequented by the gay community.
The AFA had refuted the report, saying only one person tested positive for HIV after becoming a volunteer and it did not mean that he had acquired the infection in his role as a volunteer.
It then started investigating its active volunteers who have regular contact with the public.
The AFA has since also drawn up a code of conduct, with clauses stating that volunteers 'will specifically not engage in any romantic or sexual relationship with clients' and 'will not engage in unsafe sexual practices or other high-risk behaviour'. All its volunteers will be asked to sign the code.
Commenting on the AFA investigations yesterday, The New Paper's news editor Santokh Singh said the thrust of the paper's article had been that the volunteers advocating safe sex were not practising what they were preaching, and not that they had been intimate with their charges.
He said: 'AFA barked up the wrong tree. The New Paper report did not say volunteers caught the virus from their clients.
'It merely pointed to the fact that some AFA volunteers had contracted the HIV virus after they became volunteers. Nowhere did our sources say, allege or allude to the fact that the volunteers caught the virus from their clients. That was a wrong assumption on AFA's part.'
For the Health Ministry, however, the matter now appears to be closed.
In a statement yesterday, the ministry said it 'noted that the investigations did not uncover any unethical conduct, and that AFA is strengthening their internal control by instituting a written code of conduct'.
ON THE GROUND
Here's where PM can listen to the voice of the heartland
By Zuraidah Ibrahim and Li Xueying
AS DUSK gives way to darkness, the heartlanders of Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3 disappear into their flats, where dinner, television and a good night's rest beckon before another working day dawns.
At Block 322, however, the air drips with expectancy. Rows of people with paper slips in hand wait in a hall. Some peer out through the slats of the glass-paned windows. Plainclothes policemen stand around trying to blend in, but look too neat and freshly showered for a weekday evening.
A white car draws up next to the void deck and the doors swing open. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unfolds himself from it and strides into an inner office.
He has arrived for the Meet-the-People session (MPS) at his Teck Ghee ward of Ang Mo Kio GRC.
It is like clinics run by Members of Parliament in the 83 other constituencies, except here, the MP is the PM.
Business starts almost immediately. Files are passed through the door from the outer office. Men and women, some with children in tow, enter.
They are usually a little tentative at first, appearing surprised that only a small desk separates them from the PM. They relate their problems to Mr Lee, who switches between English, Mandarin, Chinese dialects and Malay depending on what his constituents are speaking.
In an interview at the Istana the following week, Mr Lee said he has not been able to attend his MPS as often since he became prime minister in August last year. The party allows senior ministers to delegate their constituency work to junior colleagues. 'But when I can, I go down,' he said.
It is partly to give encouragement to the volunteer workers at the branch, who are inundated with cases even when the PM is not present. The MPS is also a way to get 'a feel for what the mood is like among the residents, what they're preoccupied about', he added.
Then, once in a while, cases surface that show a policy needs to be changed. For example, a year or two ago, he saw a series of immigration cases. 'All of them were falling foul of the rules as they were then, so we had a look at the rules and we made some adjustments. So I think it's better now,' he said.
When he comes across a case that may be a symptom of faulty policy or a poorly implemented one, he puts a red sticker on the file. This evening, the stickers are on standby on the desk before him.
The first petitioner of the night is a 77-year-old. He bounces in and asks for his Block 175 to have a lift on every floor. He's read that the Government will install them over 10 years. He wants his now.
'Mao Zedong said everyone is equal. But how can that be true? Rice in communist China was rationed. Everyone got a sack every year but do you think that Mao himself - the head of the People's Republic of China - would have eaten just one sack?' he says.
Later, he explains his appeal in more prosaic terms. 'Mr Lee is PM, I hope he can use his status to help us. With one phone call, he can make things happen.'
He gets a letter. But his file has no red sticker.
Two middle-aged sisters in pink outfits and dyed hair giggle as they press Mr Lee for help with their neighbourhood shops. Another woman is more forceful in her demand that rent for her stationery shop be reduced.
Mr Lee is patient, humorous at times, taking the opportunity to find out more about their lives, their children, their studies, their work.
A young man wants to marry his Chinese Indonesian girlfriend.
'How long have you known her?' asks the PM.
Less than six months.
'Wah, very fast,' replies Mr Lee as everyone breaks into laughter.
'It's yuan fen,' says the youngster, using the Chinese word for fate.
More working-class young men pop in, asking that their foreign wives be allowed to come here to live with them.
'Singapore girls don't want these men,' muses Mr Lee.
A prata man in his 40s has a different immigration problem. He has lived in Singapore since he was five, but never took up citizenship because his father didn't want him to do national service.
Now, he desperately wants a pink IC like his wife and two sons. Compared to them, he feels 'second class'. He is crestfallen when Mr Lee replies: 'A bit hard, now.'
Mr Lee says he will write him a letter, but warns that the appeal probably won't succeed.
There are numerous sad stories, such as a woman whose brother is in prison. She is looking after his wife, who has given birth to a premature baby. It's taking a toll.
A woman with cancer comes in with her mother, asking to be allowed to rent a Housing Board flat. They are Indian, but speak fluent Mandarin. When they switch to English, there is a Chinese accent.
Retired teacher Chan Yang Hui, 62, limps in with newspaper clippings and a worn file in his hand. He has nasal cancer and is supposed to go for a special scan.
As a pensioner, he is entitled to medical benefits, but they don't cover the scan he needs. He could ask his children for money, but feels that the Government should keep its promise to pensioners with medical benefits.
He takes his time, repeats himself, but no one interrupts him. Mr Lee says he will look into it. As soon as Mr Chan leaves the room, his file gets a red sticker.
Later, Mr Chan says: 'It changed my perception towards Lee Hsien Loong and the PAP. A simple shake of the hand won my heart over, because I felt so close to my PM. He was willing to listen to my long-winded story, and talk, and promised to look into the matter.'
More than 70 constituents are given a listening ear that night, about a quarter of them by the PM. The rest talked to grassroots leaders or fellow Ang Mo Kio GRC MP, Mr Tan Boon Wan.
For the residents, the visit to Block 322 has been about trying to fix the problems of daily life at its rawest - a roof over one's head, securing one's rice bowl, tying the knot with the one that 'yuan fen' has found, dealing with failing health.
For party volunteers, it has been about the unglamorous and largely unheralded task of helping Singapore at its grassroots.
For PM Lee and his Government, it is about listening to the voice of the heartland, and getting the minute details of policy right.
It is nearly 11pm when the MPS is wound up for the night. When Mr Lee leaves the inner office, he's carrying one item he didn't have when he came in: a single file with a red sticker in the corner.