By The Way

'Here we go again' with Mahathir: What politicians are up to this week

The Straits Times looks at what politicians, and the politically related, are up to in this weekly series. PHOTOS: LAWRENCE WONG/FACEBOOK, ASTRO AWANI/YOUTUBE, JAMUS LIM/FACEBOOK

SINGAPORE - The Straits Times looks at what politicians, and the politically related, are up to in this weekly series.

In this edition, Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin wades into the perennial Singapore vs Malaysia debate, ministers and MPs keep up efforts - like the rest of Singapore - to move past the pandemic, and the Facebook page of a former head of state gets presumably hacked.

Look out for the latest edition of the series every Friday, and check out past ones here.

Rambunctious remarks

Two emojis, representing "strong" and "Singapore": That was all Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin needed for an assured response on Facebook to former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad's comments over the weekend that Singapore should be returned to its larger northern neighbour.

The 96-year-old Dr Mahathir, who has a long history of uttering inflammatory rhetoric - including threats and insults aimed at Singapore - said in a live-streamed speech last Sunday (June 19) that Malaysia should demand that Singapore and Indonesia's Riau Islands be given back "as they are Tanah Melayu (Malay land)".

Mr Tan also tweeted "here we go again" to accompany a link to a Straits Times article on Dr Mahathir's remarks, which have roused some ire and debate online.

In a comment under his Facebook post, Mr Tan hit out at how some Singaporeans "wax lyrical about how great it is on the other side of the Causeway and how poorly we are in comparison".

"I'm proud to be a Singaporean and don't spend my time running my own country and people down," he wrote.

He also pointed out that there are "many kind and generous souls here too", in reaction to an unidentified anecdote of a coffee shop owner in Malaysia offering free drinks.

Mr Tan was likely referring to a post last week by pioneer architect Tay Kheng Soon, who related how he was treated to a teh o kosong - tea without milk - at an eatery in Johor Bahru, and commented: "This is Malaya all over again. How different, we have become so money-minded in Singapore!"

On Wednesday Mr Tay laughed off the criticism, writing on Facebook that "one cup of teh o kosong can stir up so much flavour".

The posts by Mr Tan, a former brigadier-general, also drew public observations from National University of Singapore political scientist Chong Ja Ian - who questioned the point of paying attention to an increasingly irrelevant Dr Mahathir.

Associate Professor Chong also noted that Mr Tan, as Speaker of the House, "is not part of the current Singapore administration, and it may be helpful to see his comments in that light".

At least one anonymous Twitter user disagreed with Prof Chong, arguing that Dr Mahathir's outrageous claims could set a precedent for other Malaysian politicians and one day perhaps even lead to "a special military operation".

This was the phrase used by Russian president Vladimir Putin when he launched the ongoing invasion of its neighbour Ukraine in February.

Meanwhile, the Critical Spectator Facebook page, run by a pro-Singapore government Polish national Michael Petraeus, described Dr Mahathir as the People's Action Party's (PAP) "man in Malaysia".

"Dr Mahathir has been an invaluable ally to Singapore and its ruling PAP, by making it much easier for the party to justify spending on national defence, water infrastructure or keeping its borders open to foreign investment and foreign talent alike," Petraeus wrote, tongue firmly in cheek.

Livin' Covida Loca

After more than two years and dozens of live-streamed media briefings as co-chair of the multi-ministry task force tackling the generational crisis that is Covid-19, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong on Tuesday (June 21) held his first physical press conference - in the same briefing room.

In what was also his first significant announcement since he was officially promoted just over a week earlier, Mr Wong, who is Finance Minister, unveiled a $1.5 billion support package to help lower-income families and vulnerable groups amid rising global inflation.

Rising cost of living was also the main issue raised by some 30 residents to Sengkang and Workers' Party MPs Jamus Lim, He Ting Ru and Louis Chua at the GRC's first physical town hall on Sunday, alongside mental health and wealth inequality concerns.

This was the second edition of the forum, dubbed Sengkang Conversations, after the first was held online in January due to the pandemic. The plan is to conduct these sessions on a quarterly basis.

Associate Professor Lim wrote on Facebook that developments in the local and global economy have "reinforced the case for not just a further postponement, but a reconsideration of the wisdom" of a planned goods and services tax (GST) hike from 7 per cent to 8 per cent in 2023 and to 9 per cent the next year.

At his press conference on Tuesday, however, Mr Wong said the GST increase would proceed as planned as it was necessary to raise revenue for the growing needs of an ageing population, including on healthcare spending.

Even as most politicians attempt to resume face-to-face events, some like Ms Yeo Wan Ling (Pasir Ris-Punggol) were reminded that we are still not quite out of the woods.

"It's a rather unusual MPS (Meet-the-People Session) today as I'm still down with Covid," she wrote on Monday. "I am self-isolating at home and called in to our MPS via Zoom… Please take care everyone! Stay safe!"

Words from a not-too-distant dark age, which many of us perhaps thought - prematurely - that we would never hear again.

On Wednesday, Ms Yeo had to participate in a panel discussion virtually as she was still Covid-19-positive; ditto for Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat who as at mid-week remained in isolation and had to activate the contingency of a pre-recorded speech for a forum in Switzerland.

Mr Heng first tested positive on Saturday while in Berlin, despite donning masks and avoiding crowds throughout his ongoing trip to Europe.

As Mr Wong emphatically put it in another post, the recent uptick in case numbers is a stark reminder that the pandemic is not yet over.

"We cannot afford to let our guard down… The next wave is coming and we must expect more infections in the coming weeks."

'Any one want gf hmu'

Why anyone would be monitoring or even browsing the Facebook page of former president Tony Tan - who left office five years ago, in 2017, and has not posted since April 2020 - is a question in search of an answer.

But it led to alternative news site Wake Up Singapore noticing a suspicious, Chinese-language post put up on Dr Tan's page on Sunday (June 19) before being deleted the next morning.

The text-only post asked anyone who was Chinese and searching for a girlfriend to get in touch, and concluded with an eye-rolling emoji. Facebook's automated English translation was "Any one want gf hmu Chinese oh".

Hmu stands for "hit me up".

This was surely an act of hacking, perhaps by bots given the rather nonsensical nature of the post.

Such incidents, involving politicians specifically, are rare in a country which typically places highly in global rankings of cyber-security readiness and literacy.

In 2020, PAP grassroots leader and Aljunied election candidate Victor Lye "lost control" of his Facebook page, which became filled with Vietnamese posts and videos of women hawking dresses and pans online.

Prior to that, one has to go all the way back to 2013 when the official websites of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and Istana were defaced and displayed mocking messages and pictures from international hacker group Anonymous. A 28-year-old Singaporean was found guilty of defacing the PMO website and jailed for two months.

Singapore's worst cyber attack remains the 2018 hacking and theft of the personal particulars of 1.5 million SingHealth patients - including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and a few ministers.

More recently, Workers' Party MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) told Parliament in February this year that she received a threat warning from Apple suggesting her iPhone could have been hacked by state-sponsored attackers.

She asked for assurance that Singapore government agencies were not trying to hack her phone. This prompted Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam to take up the matter with the defence ministry and conclude categorically that state agencies did not hack her phone.

Not if, but when

In the name of improving vigilance and the ability to respond effectively to emergencies, the Tampines East Community Emergency and Engagement (C2E) Committee on Saturday (June 18) conducted a large-scale crisis response exercise.

In true Singaporean fashion, Tampines MP Cheng Li Hui said the Community Club is the first in Singapore to try out a combined crisis response format, with dispersed ops centres trying to keep each other updated.

C2E committees can be found in every constituency and are made up of grassroots volunteers. They come under the People's Association and the national SGSecure movement to strengthen security in public places and build community resilience.

During peacetime, the committees organise activities such as fire and evacuation drills, to stay prepared for emergencies.

In the event of an actual crisis, the committees help coordinate resources and disseminate information, working with other grassroots bodies to try and defuse tension and restore normalcy.

Ms Cheng shared that Saturday's exercise in Tampines East involved a terror attack scenario. Multiple rooms were set up to serve as ops centres, which then tried to relay to one another key information, such as ground sentiment.

Some C2E members admitted that the situation was too fast-moving for them, and Ms Cheng noted that it was a good learning exercise and opportunity to fine-tune communication methods.

"We will never take our peace for granted," she wrote. "We hope we never have to activate the crisis team but it is important that we are always ready."

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