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9/11 freaked me out

9/11 freaked me out

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But I never really comprehended the full impact of it. Until a few days ago.

By Belmont Lay

Just last week, when the New Nation editors had to sit down and talk about doing a a little tribute piece about where we were and what we were experiencing when 9/11 occurred 10 years ago, it didn’t take a lot out of me to go back in time in my mind to dig up the details.

And this very fact about how much I can still recall surprised me.

I think it says a lot that I can still remember that Sept. 11, 2001 fell on a Tuesday – without having to delve too deeply into my memory.

I was 17, pimply and awkward and I was in the first year of junior college. It was September, which meant I was trying to wrap my head around my economics homework.

News of 9/11 came to me close to midnight when I was discharging my nightly obligation of surfing free-to-air channels while homeworking (broadband Internet then, I must add, was a wet dream that was not fulfilled yet).

Footage on Channel News Asia that night was strangely transfixed on a very tall building in New York, as television viewers were informed that there had been an explosion of sorts.

I knew right then something was up.

Or rather, with my poorly developed instincts and a complete inability to grasp the significance of what was unfolding before me then, I, in fact, failed to guess that some things were soon going to come crashing down.

The following day in class, blurry-eyed and a little disturbed having stayed up until 3 a.m. and still not understanding what exactly happened, our Economics tutor was business-as-usual.

No talking about what happened. No point harping over fallen buildings. We have a year-end exam coming up, remember? Let’s dive in, and draw a curve showing how interest rates affects money supply.

That really annoyed me on two fronts:

1) I know my cat didn’t get killed tragically or my parents weren’t getting a divorce, but wouldn’t two buildings billowing with smoke bright and early one morning as seen on TV mean something traumatic happened and my educator was not going to put things in perspective for me?

2) We weren’t about to get some time off from class. To talk about important things, I presume, such as the state of the world for example, because interest rates and money supply are by far more salient? Ironic, no?

Fast forward to the 10th anniversary Sept. 11 weekend yesterday.

I flipped open our friendly broadsheet, The Straits Times on Saturday and read the commentary by everyone’s favourite public intellectual, Kishore Mahbubani.

Kishore said that the US failed to seize the moment to unite humanity. And then he went on about China and plugged his own books.

His article made my stomach turn.

And then I scanned The Sunday Times and pored through Janadas Devan’s missive.

Janadas shared Kishore’s chastising tone, claiming the US wasted the chance to transform the world because the world was emotionally in tune with America when she was attacked exactly 10 years ago but now the feeling has slipped due to a bunch of missteps.

What incessant rubbish, I thought.

After reading both articles, I am made more annoyed than I was 10 years ago. And I’m getting even more riled because neither wordsmith was putting the 9/11 issue in perspective.

In fact, both supposedly “fair-minded” opinions (do consider the quotation marks around fair-minded as optional) are as flippant as my Economic tutor’s reaction and countenance on Sept. 12.

Here’s why: I find it utterly despicable and odious that so-called public intellectuals and opinion leaders should turn the tables on America and accuse it of having made a hash out of the only chance she had to unite the world – after it suffered the worst attack on its domestic soil where mad terrorists targeted civilians to leverage maximum impact from their atrocities.

Because what you need to know about the significance of Sept. 11 and the perpetrators of such a vulgar and grotesque act of obliteration that disregarded any form of civility or of our coming-of-age modernity is this:

– The perpetrators were not only hijackers of commercial airlines. They were also hijackers of religion, self-appointed death squads whose sole allegiance is (or rather, was) to their leader Osama bin Laden.

– They viciously hate Jews, Christians and Shia Muslims, or in fact, any unbelievers in general.

– What they want to promote is not terrorism. They are not even interested in promoting the cause of the marginalised in their community.

– They are not even keen about speaking out against oppressive US foreign policy.

– They were and still are trying to explicitly relay the message to the world that there is only one rule, which is by a despotic empire, of which Al-Qaeda’s sole purpose is to create a new, world wide Islamic caliphate, with a complete break from all foreign influences in Muslim countries.

So let me beg you, dear reader, to consider applying Occam’s Razor: How hard is it to simply see the religiously fanatical mad men for who they truly are?

How difficult it is to see that there are people who are self-conceited and vicious enough to take it upon themselves to shove their worldview down the throats of other people?

Why should we idly sit by and accept that perhaps, just perhaps, America is at fault because public intellectuals or opinion leaders say so?

Therefore, why sound clever by blaming America?

Look, if Kishore even went so far as to quote a Hong Kong journalist who said that “China owes a huge debt of gratitude to Osama bin Laden” for diverting America’s attention away from China and allowing the Chinese to focus on expanding their economy, then there is even more reason to be worried about the future.

You might be allowed to be hopeful that Al-Qaeda or its surrogates will never eventually achieve what they set out to do because they will collapse under the burden of their own ideology.

But if America is no longer mighty enough to take the fight to fanatics, then Al-Qaeda or its surrogates might just achieve their expansion plans.

Then it is really time to start freaking out because you shouldn’t be expecting China to do its share of protecting any time soon on your behalf, because they never even had their eye on the problem the last 10 years since 9/11.

Politics compromises dignity of presidency, allows furthering of political agenda

Politics compromises dignity of presidency, allows furthering of political agenda

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The solution is to let electoral college throw up eligible presidential hopefuls, says Janadas Devan and Ho Kwon Ping. This commentary is a 60-second reduction of the original published in The Straits Times on Sept. 3.

Janadas Devan (left) and Ho Kwon Ping (right).

If the desired end is an apolitical presidency, then the means employed in choosing the president must also be apolitical too.

However, this year’s presidential elections was a divisive and highly politicised affair. It was also confused and unfortunate.

Why was it confused? Because the victor is accepted by the majority of Singaporeans as qualified to hold office, but he does not have a clear mandate.

And there was the suggestion that he would not have won if Tan Jee Say or Tan Kin Lian had not contested. Then Tan Cheng Bock would have been the winner.

Moreover, at least a quarter of voters saw this presidential elections as a rehash of the general election. They voted for Tan Jee Say who felt that the president need not be “restricted” by the constitution, and should act as a “check and balance” on the government and parliament.

Plus, a sizeable number voted out of frustration with the first-past-the-post system, and they saw this presidential election as a correction of an anomaly in the general election where the opposition won 40 percent of votes but only received 7 percent of parliamentary seats.

This presidential election is also unfortunate as it ended up diminishing Tan Cheng Bock and Tony Tan. The victory of one Dr Tan has been diminished by the tiniest of margin, while the near-victory of the other Dr Tan has been overshadowed by his failure to achieve his long-held dream.

It is also unfortunate that the only winner is Tan Jee Say. Jee Say recognised that the apolitical office for president can be politicised and an opportunity to extend the campaign he launched during the general election in May.

He has now made himself into a household name, more well-known than Low Thia Khiang, who is considered the de facto leader of the opposition. This presidential election has produced one winner in the form of Tan Jee Say, who now has the wherewithal to form his own political party if he so wishes and to further his political ambition in the next general election.

This fact will not be lost on other politically ambitious persons among those currently eligible to run for president. In this class of individuals, Jee Say would be included.

So what can Singaporeans expect from future presidential elections?

1. The presidential election will be a prelude to the general election or else a continuation of one. And when the apolitical presidency becomes the pursuit of politics, parliament will no longer be the primary arena of political debate. The dignity of the presidency will be tarnished.

2. Few or no minority candidates will be able to win a presidential race. With the presidential election as a giant single-seat competition, and with this presidential election a single-race affair, SR Nathan might well be our last minority president.

3. No candidate with the required calibre, with a reputation for personal integrity or fiscal prudence will want to run for presidency given the intense politicking that transpired from this recent contest.

4. Few or no candidates without prior political party affiliation will want to contest for the presidency so it will be politicians for now on.

Therefore, how can the system be reformed?

– We might need to return to parliament the right to elect the president. Plenty of Commonwealth countries are doing so. Before 1993, Singapore did that too.

However, this would be problematic as the government is choosing a person whose chief role is to act as a check on it, in particular, the use of past reserves and crucial public sector appointments.

– This is our favoured approach: Establish an electoral college to nominate the presidential candidates and elect one from among them.

The college must be large to be representative. Consisting of 50 to 100 persons, it will comprise of representatives from major stakeholder groups in society: Unions, combined university student groups, civil society organisations, political parties with parliamentary seats and so on.

From among those who offer themselves for presidency, the college can nominate three or four of them. This will be the first sieve that will produce a pool of candidates.

The eligibility criteria can either be liberalised or tightened further. We are currently agnostic on this topic of eligibility criteria.

As an additional safeguard, the Supreme Court or Public Service Commission can give the final approval to ensure only persons of integrity can run for presidency.

Shortlisted candidates cannot hold rallies. They can go on walkabouts and be interviewed by the media.

Electors should monitor what is being said in the media and social media about these candidates.

The electoral college can then exercise secret voting after in-depth interviews with the candidates. Three rounds of voting might be needed to weed out the weakest candidates, till only the winner being the candidate who has more than 50 percent of votes.

We admonish, politics is vital, but it must also be productive.

The politics in this presidential election that just past was unproductive and was for politics’ sake.

The non-executive nature of the presidency meant that a lot that was promised by the candidates cannot possibly be fulfilled.

Politics should be vested in parliament. If the aim is for an apolitical and impartial president, it is not possible in politics or ethics for bad means to produce good ends.

Ho Kwon Ping is the chairman of the board of trustees of Singapore Management University and executive chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings.

Janadas Devan is associate editor of The Straits Times and director of the Institute of Policy Studies. His father, C.V. Devan Nair, was the third president of Singapore.