I’ve taken to posting the occasional blog entry about Singapore, entries that might confuse regular HelpGov readers. After all, as the header says, HelpGov is about trying to make sense of government and public services, and other stuff. Why would I be interested in this small, far-away island state?

The truth is, I feel quite sentimental about the place.

I was part of a large tribe of children – mainly British, but also Australians and New Zealanders – who spent part of their childhood in the country when their fathers served in the various Commonwealth armed forces based there right up until the 1980s.

Singapore Orchard Road 1960

Singapore Orchard Road 1960

Our time in Singapore was idyllic. We led a largely open air life in shorts and flip-flops. We swam in mostly European-only pools and in the warm sea. If our parents weren’t looking we ate exotic spicy foods from street vendors and cooled off with brightly-coloured, sweet ‘ice balls.’ We soaked up the tropical climate and the sights, sounds and smells of cultures a million miles removed from the drab greyness of our own countries. And almost universally, our mothers had a female servant, an amah, to take the drudgery out of domestic work.

So it’s not surprising that we mostly feel good about our time there. If you don’t believe me just Google ‘far east britbrats’ (what we tend to call ourselves).

What we don’t remember – by and large – is the downside.

The fact that what we enjoyed was a by-product of Empire, an empire dead or dying by the time we got there.

The fact that our comfort and delight in the place was built on the availability of cheap labour.

The fact that for at least part of the period there were still open drains discharging into the filthy Singapore River, that most Singaporeans lived in poverty with a life expectancy way below ours, that many children wore no shoes, that it was not uncommon for Europeans to say things like ‘Get the boy to do it’ when referring to a waiter or male servant.

All that makes the achievement of the country since those days the more remarkable.

An island with no natural resources has been transformed into a modern state with an income per head significantly exceeding that of the old colonial master. Singaporeans, rightly, compare themselves to other ‘first world’ countries. There is an elected parliament and a properly-constituted judicial system. The country ranks fifth on Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index – higher than the UK, Australia or Canada. And for fans of HelpGov’s more traditional subject matter, the head of the Singapore civil service was invited last year to contribute to The Guardian’s Global Public Leaders Series.

So bearing in mind my own background and what the country has achieved, I’m reluctant as a foreigner, an ang moh* to boot, to criticise Singapore. It somehow seems impertinent.

But my browsing on the web has brought me up against a less congenial side of the country, for example the strange case of Professor Tey Tsun Hang and the apparently esoteric subject of a government population white paper.

I would be less than honest with myself if I didn’t share my thoughts on other aspects of that less congenial side so, seeking the forgiveness of Singaporeans in advance, I will do that in my next post on Singapore.

* Ang moh or  红毛 – a Chinese term for Westerners, often derogatory, but I’ll live with that.

Tey Tsun Hang trial

The headline above from the Singapore Straits Times newspaper web site  may seem  obscure to many regular readers of the HelpGov blog. But it’s about government in the widest sense and I feel quite strongly about it.

I was alerted to it by comments on Facebook condemning both the alleged perpetrator and his victims in what was said to be a ‘sex-for-grades’ case.

On the face of it, this is the story of a 41 year-old male law professor who had sex with a 23 year-old female student, arguably a minor but salacious court case.

My initial thought was to respond to Singaporeans who commented approvingly of a guilty verdict along the lines of ‘What irks me is that the ladies always treated like they were guiltless’ and ‘Our chaps know the ladies are a contributing factor, no doubts about that.’ I was going to point out that perhaps there was an abuse here by someone who held disproportionate power over much younger students.

The way the poster of the link to the (government-owned) Straits Times had set this up meant I could not respond on his Facebook page.

A couple of clicks on Google and I was glad I didn’t because, lo and behold, as sometimes happens in that country there is an alternative narrative. It’s difficult to summarise all the in and outs of the story but they include

  • An academic who writes a book critical of the relationship between the Singapore government and the legal profession of the country
  • Failing to find a publisher in Singapore, he has it published in Hong Kong
  • The emergence shortly after of allegations that he had indeed traded ‘sex for grades’ with one or more students
  • Ambiguity about his university’s response to the allegations
  • Questioning by police that lands him in an ambulance trip to hospital
  • A trial procedure that on the face of it has a number of curious features about it.

Anyone interested in the story could do worse than read the Trial of Tsun Hang blog.

I don’t know enough to judge where the truth lies in all this but I’m glad I didn’t see the subject as merely a question of cross-cultural differences in the treatment of perpetrator and victim in sex abuse cases.

As British readers will know, a London police officer – PC Simon Harwood – has just been found not guilty by a jury of manslaughter.

The incident that led to his trial received wide publicity at the time in 2009.

There is a widespread disturbance in the City of London against the G20 summit.  In one spot demonstrators stand a few yards from a police cordon. A middle aged man wanders into the space. He is, it turns out, Ian Tomlinson, an innocent newspaper seller on his way back to the hostel he lives in.

Someone filming on their phone catches the incident.

A man in riot gear emerges from the group of policeman without apparent warning. He strikes Tomlinson from behind on the legs, then pushes him forward. Tomlinson falls to the ground and is left there by the officer, who returns to the group he emerged from. Someone from the crowd comes out to help the man to his feet. Within hours he has died.

Two legal processes later return apparently conflicting verdicts. A jury at a coroner’s inquest said the man died by unlawful killing. The trial of PC Harwood finds him not guilty.

After the acquittal it is revealed that PC Harwood has a record of complaints against him, some involving the sort of behaviour described here. Most complaints remain allegations but curiously at one stage in his career he resigns as a police officer then is immediately engaged as a civilian employee by the same force. Later he becomes a police officer with a neighbouring force and transfers back as an officer to his original employer, the Metropolitan Police.

In a different time and a different place I was a member of another jury.

It was a simple, some might say routine, case.

A young male driver was accused of two alternative counts of, in effect, causing or contributing to the death of a woman in another car.

His car and the other vehicle collided at a junction where a number of accidents had occurred. He was driving too fast and crashed into the other vehicle. A middle-aged woman in the other car, the mother of some of the other passengers, died.

During the trial the young man’s lawyer painted a picture of a single aberration by an otherwise serious young man who was a student at a critical stage of his studies. A guilty verdict, especially on the more serious charge, could have a serious impact on his future.  His girlfriend, who was a passenger in his car, testified on his behalf.

The family of the dead woman attended the two days of the trial and were visible to the jury.  Not surprisingly, they looked distraught at various stages of the proceedings – the description of the accident (some of them had been in it), the expert witness who had calculated the excessive speed of the other car, the defence lawyer’s characterisation of his client.

We were told by the judge that we could return a guilty or not guilty verdict on either charge. After an hour or two’s deliberation we gave the young man the benefit of the doubt and found him guilty of the lesser charge. The legalities of it slip my mind now but our verdict was akin to saying he was guilty of careless driving but not much more.

When the verdict was announced the young man was required to return later with his driving licence (which he should have had with him) for sentencing. The jury was also required to attend. The family of the dead woman were, again, in the public gallery.

Before the sentence was given, it was revealed that the guilty man had previous offences for dangerous driving and speeding.

If that moment could have been frozen in time it would have shown

  • gasps and looks of disbelief on the faces of the family of the dead woman in the public gallery
  • one of the women in the group, probably a daughter or daughter-in-law, crying into a handkerchief
  • another looking accusingly at the jury as if to say we had betrayed them
  • a collective feeling of unease amongst the jurors
  • a blank look on the defendant’s face
  • the judge looking at his papers: he must have seen this many times before.

As one of the jurors I shared that collective unease.  I still feel it. I wonder how the jury in the Simon Harwood case are feeling.