Straightening the Straits Times (2)

By | December 10, 2003

Since the last piece, I have been told, discreetly, by various people that I should ease off the pedal a bit lest some men in white/blue (or any colour in between) decides to nip the “problem” in the bud. Such was the irrational fear amongst the general population that you often see people survey the surrounding before making negative comments about the establishment.

I won’t go as far as say that this kind of mentality is unwarranted – just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get you. But if all we do were to say the nice things, then I would imagine people would always get the impression that the ground is sweet.

Moral of the victory?
An example of “feel good” reporting appeared in the sports pages of Dec 4. After the Singapore team was knocked out of the S.E.A. Games soccer competition by Malaysia, a journalist wrote: “Congratulations, Young Lions, you performed for the flag, you toiled for the country, no-one back home could ask for more in the spirit of the game – for yours is a moral gold medal.”

How convenient. Claiming moral victory where a real one is lacking. Notwithstanding the flowery praise, the bottom line is that this defeat shows how far we are from the lofty Goal 2010. Then again, we can always cast aside the moral side of things, splurge on the Ronaldos of the world, and be a force to reckon with overnight.

Whose public interest?

In the Dec 7 edition of Sunday Times, it was reported that the police rejected an application by the Open Singapore Centre to hold a forum – “Freeing Myanmar – How Can Asians Help?” – because, according to a police spokesman, “the proposed event is likely to be contrary to the public interest”.

Just curious, on what basis did the police arrive at such a conclusion? And whose and what public interest would that be? Could it be due to the fact that the Open Singapore Centre is led by opposition politician Chee Soon Juan?

Fly the unfriendly sky
By now, almost everyone in Singapore should be familiar with the tripartite row between the Singapore government, Singapore Airlines (SIA) and the Air Line Pilots’ Association-Singapore (Alpa-S), so I shall not repeat the obvious.

However, there were comments by government officials that, as usual, were not taken to task. First up is acting manpower minister Ng Eng Hen (again). I must confess I’m rather fascinated by the rhetoric that Ng has been busy dishing out.

In one of his speeches, Ng mentioned that “it would be understandable for the pilots to resist the temporary layoffs and unpaid leave”, but having a confrontational union will not resolve the problem. Granted, but if the temporary layoff becomes permanent and unpaid leave simply becomes unpaid, it would be even more understandable to stand up for your own rights.

Ng further added that “employers must communicate their plans and reward their workers for good performances when the company does well”. Problem is, too often they don’t. And since most expect SIA to post net earnings of around S$600 million for the financial year ending March 31 next year, isn’t the demand of the Alpa-S rather in line with what Ng has suggested? It’s no wonder that an SIA pilot, who, significantly, asked not to be named, said some of his colleagues “were leaving SIA to join other airlines which offered better salaries”.

By planning to tighten labour laws so that the union’s members no longer have the final say over negotiated agreements, the government is effectively closing the door on a clause that, according to Alpa-S spokesman Captain P. James, “was actually a safeguard put in place after the industrial action in 1980 to ensure that excos cannot commence industrial action without consulting members or accept any packages that are detrimental to members”.

Notice that the keywords here are “safeguard” and “detrimental”, not “confrontational” or “big pay cheque”. To reinforce these points, all we need to do is examine the statistics from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). According to MOM, the highest number of disputes between SIA pilots and the management involves rest time (six) – i.e. operating patterns of the crew, how long rest periods should be, how long the pilot is free from duty and limits on flying time. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? The surprise – salary disputes (four) and grievances such as wrongful dismissal (four) ranked below it.

It is no wonder Ng said that unionists from other countries “cannot understand why our labour conditions are so harmonious”. I’m not surprised they can’t, because such harmony is artificially maintained, as illustrated by the changing of labour laws at the government’s whim and fancy.

But Ng isn’t the only one making potshots. Our senior minister Lee Kuan Yew, not one to be left without his say, commented that “they’ve [the pilots] got huge egos, I’m told”. I don’t know about you, but I would assume that someone in Lee’s position would know better than to rely on hearsay to form an informed opinion of things.

To support his statement, Lee cited pilots defending their rights to be seated in Business Class during their rest period as an example of having “huge egos”. Again, I’m not so sure. If you’re an airline passenger, particularly on a long-haul flight, I believe you would want your pilots to be in tip-top condition when they pilot the plane, what with the dangers of terrorist attacks, air-traffic miscommunications, and many unexplained natural calamities. Or would you rather have the pilots squeeze in Economy and resume their duties without proper rest, like the rest of us poor souls do?

Besides, I’m curious whether the pilots’ huge egos ever got in the way of bringing Lee’s wife home not too long ago from Britain, shortly after she suffered a stroke. On the contrary, Lee at that time has nothing but praise (filled with much emotion, as reported by the Straits Times) for the way SIA swiftly and efficiently responded to his call. A case of using selective memory to serve one’s own purpose, perhaps?

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