Bread. 24 April 2010
At the feet of gods
Two recent news stories were left dangling by our traditional media. One was about the extraordinarily high initial valuation put on a donation to the Peranakan Museum, and the other was about the Education Ministry disinviting a distinguished American educator to a conference here.
Both were more than mere gaffes, though not quite putrid enough to be called scandals. Both were reported by our press. Up to a point.
Yet, I could smell a back story in each case, and I'm sure any half-respectable journalist would too. But so far I don't see anyone whose paid job it is to ferret out the news doing so, even though both cases would meet the public interest test.
Now why is there no ferreting? And what might the back stories tell?
All I have are suspicions. These suspicions however hint at an ugly side of the "Singapore establishment" and bureaucracy. They contest the oft-bandied claim that here we have a competent, nay, meticulous meritocracy, and that integrity is in the DNA of public officers.
I am certain many others share the same thoughts. Actually, the fact that paid reporters are not digging into these two stories leads me to believe that they too share my suspicions. The fear of unearthing truths unflattering to the government is the most likely reason why further questions are not asked.
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Let's start with the Peranakan Museum fiasco. The outline of the story is this: In 2008, a Mr and Mrs Tan Eng Sian offered to donate 300 pieces of Peranakan items to the newly set up Peranakan Museum. These were valued at S$15 million and the donation accepted. The Tans were not paid for the items but they received a tax deduction equivalent to twice the value, i.e. S$30 million. Additionally, they were honoured with the Distinguished Patron of Heritage Award last year.
Apparently, some members of the Board of Directors of the Asian Civilisations Museum, which oversees the Peranakan Museum, had doubts about the valuation. Exactly when they first raised their doubts does not seem to be clear, but seven of the nine members of the Board including chairperson Priscylla Shaw resigned in December 2009.
At some point, two additional valuation exercises were conducted. Both came up with valuations far below S$15 million; the lower of the two said the collection was worth less than S$2 million.
The Tans asked for a return of the collection; the museum agreed. The couple also returned the Distinguished Patron of Heritage Award.
On 19 April 2010, it was reported  that Lui Tuck Yew, the Acting Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, had apologised to the Tans, I would imagine for any distress and embarrassment his ministry might have caused. Lui also acknowledged the important role played by the museum Board in alerting the National Heritage Board that the donation could have been overpriced.
The Sunday Times tracked down the person who provided the initial valuation. He turned out to be Peter Wee, a dealer in Peranakan antiques with a shop in Katong . He told the newspaper that he continued to "definitely" stand by the value he had put to the collection. "I do not look at value merely in terms of dollars and cents," he said. "I look at it in terms of the history, heritage, culture and the rich individual stories behind each work.
"How I value my history and heritage will be different from the way you value it" – which struck me as a rather odd statement. When commissioned to put a market value on something, surely one should try to be as objective as possible.
However, putting the focus on Wee, as the Sunday Times did, would be to chase a runaway hen when there's a fox in the chicken coop.
The fox is this question: Why did it take a mass resignation of Board members to get the minister's attention and compel museum executives to get a second opinion? Resigning would not have been the first step taken. That it had to be resorted to suggests that initial queries were either not taken seriously or stonewalled.
It looks awfully as if the museum officers involved were not only very invested in their decision to appoint Peter Wee as the valuer and accept his valuation of S$15 million, they also resisted oversight by their very own Board. Even the reasonable idea of getting a second opinion -- which surely must be considered good practice in any museum -- appeared to have made no headway.
How do public servants get to this point where they feel they can act with impunity? I found it disturbing that the story begged this question.
I posed it to a friend at dinner one evening. Yes, he said, he too thought there was more to the story than the newspapers told. More interestingly, he offered his speculation -- and I must stress, it's speculation -- as to what could have happened.
One possibility, my friend said, was that the donors could have known a minister or two, and that at some early point in the process, a word could have been dropped from on high to please consider the Tans' offer.
This is not to say that the "high-up guy" meant anything more than strictly that. I do not think it is in the nature of our ministers to try to sway such decisions.
But in the Singapore system, middle and junior ranks tremble at the feet of gods. They've been brought up that way. It's the Singapore system. So they would have plunged headlong into acquiring the collection believing it had blessings from the highest levels... and when their own Board questioned the decision, well, who the hell are these directors compared to the gods who have spoken?
Wouldn't even getting a second opinion, possibly revising the valuation, embarrass not only the donor but the gods too? How dare anyone risk crossing the expressed wishes from high up?
Now, as I said, this is just conjecture. We really do not know the back story. But I'll say this: any one of us who knows anything about the Singapore-Confucian system (in particular the rule: never question your superiors) will say this is entirely plausible. It has a despairing ring of familiarity.
* * * * *
Susan Elliott is the 2009 Colorado State Teacher of the Year and one of four finalists for the 2009 National Teacher of the Year. Despite being hearing-impaired, she teaches her subjects -- history and social studies -- to mainstream and hearing-impaired students at the same time, in the same classroom.
As reported in a blogpost by Anthony Mullen in Teacher Magazine, Elliott was first invited by our Ministry of Education, then disinvited (and after the story broke, re-invited) to a major education conference to be held here in September.
Today's Straits Times reported that the disinvitation has
been retracted. She is now welcome again. See box at right.
Every bone in my body tells me somebody in the Education Ministry failed to think, failed to check facts, and jumped to conclusions.
Think about it:
As Mullen said in his blogpost, "they" must have known from the outset that she was hearing-impaired. Who would be that "they"? For starters, it must include whoever it was who initially put her name on the invite list. This person (let's call him or her the proposer) must have known about her background and achievements -- why else propose her as a speaker at the conference?
Yet, as the Straits Times report indicated, the withdrawal of the invitation had something to do with the conference being about mainstream education, and that someone jumped to the conclusion that she had nothing to do with that, being "a teacher of only deaf students" (emphasis mine); furthermore, that there would be a logistical problem, "a misunderstanding about the need for interpreters" -- euphemistic words from the ministry's statement to the media.
This person who jumped to conclusions and "misunderstood" is unlikely to be the proposer for reasons stated above. It is likely to be the proposer's superior or other higher-ranking members of the conference organising committee who obviously didn't bother to find out why Elliott was proposed in the first place. My guess is that the superior officer(s), on discovering that Elliott is hearing-impaired, immediately pigeonholed her as "a teacher of only deaf students" and someone unable to communicate with a mainstream audience without interpreters. The superior officer(s) never realised that Elliott teaches mixed classes.
Why didn't the proposer then correct her superiors' misconceptions before someone meekly carried out the instruction to disinvite Elliot?
More trembling at the feet of superiors, perhaps? Have higher officers in our civil service cultivated a reputation that juniors questioning their "wisdom" would be committing career suicide? Do they think of themselves as demigods?
What thinking skills do officers in the Education Ministry have if they are so prone to pigeonholing based on unchecked assumptions? Oh wait, isn't that what they've been doing for years and years? Mother-tongue policy would be the first example that comes to mind. Is not pigeonholing the "Singapore way"?
Indeed, stereotypical thinking is rampant in this ministry. Here we have deaf = non-mainstream, deaf = sign language. Other days we have gay = bad and Malay = Muslim = don't bother to push them too hard, they're not very intelligent (Indeed, I heard this one from a teacher herself who was appalled at her colleagues' attitudes towards Malay pupils).
* * * * *
These two cases show up two chronic diseases that ail Singapore: uncritical thinking and excessive deference to authority. And yet we boast about our education system.
But as I said, I'm only making educated guesses at best. We don't know the true back stories. And that may be because some senior editors believe it's the Singapore way that we should not know too much, lest we think less of gods, cease trembling at their feet, and it is the gods themselves who have cause to tremble.
© Yawning Bread