Another Year, Another Fiasco

Ben Leong
7 min readJan 5, 2021

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed herewith are strictly mine as a private citizen and has nothing to do with my employer, the National University of Singapore.

Truth be told, I really shouldn’t be blogging. School is about to start again next week and I feel like dying. But I am incorrigible.

In case people haven’t been paying attention, the current fiasco going on in this country is what I would call TTgate (TT = TraceTogether). This is the summary of the fiasco:

  1. Minister Vivian Balakrishnan had said several months ago that the TraceTogether data would only be used for contact tracing and not for anything else.
  2. MP Christopher de Souza asked if TraceTogether data will be used for criminal investigations and what the legal provisions and safeguards are for using such data.
  3. MOS Desmond Tan said that the police can legally access the data under the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC).
  4. Vivian was forced to apologize for saying the “wrong” thing earlier because he was not aware of the CPC.

Opponents of the Government are v upset and use this incident as evidence that the Singapore Government cannot be trusted. Apparently, this is also all over the news in the international media because these ang mos seem to have this fascination for holding up Singapore as some Fascist Big-Brother state. Pro-Government folks claim that it is not a big deal because if people are not crooks, they have nothing to hide. More or less like that.

Was the Government Lying?

First, I personally believe Vivian when he said he had not intended for the TT data to be used for anything other than contact tracing. A lot of features like auto-wiping of history was built into the token to convince people of that. It was also clear that addressing privacy concerns was critical in persuading people to install TT and to carry the tokens.

As for Desmond, he is new so he probably had to consult with his legal counsel before he answered. He couldn’t have answered that the Police cannot see the data because our current laws, the Police had access to the data. If he said anything else, he would be lying and so he gave the straight answer in Parliament.

MHA and the Home Team probably don’t think that it’s much of an issue and they should as a matter of principle be entitled to do whatever it takes to catch the criminals to keep our people safe. They probably also think that most people don’t really care about privacy and weren’t planning to rob a bank anytime soon, so why should they be worried — and they are likely right.

That said, I think leaving the situation in the current mess would be terrible for the Government. People are pissed not so much because they are worried about privacy. People are pissed because they believed what the Government said and they now feel misled. There is actually significant political cost.

Fixing Mistakes

We are currently facing a national emergency. Mistakes will be made. A mistake was made last year and our foreign worker dorms went up in flames.

That said, I actually think that Singapore did well — not so much because we didn’t screw up (we did. :-(), but because of how we cleaned up after our own mess. We didn’t shirk in our responsibility to the foreign workers in our midst. We didn’t tell them they die their problem. Life sucks. Sorry. On the contrary, our PM went on national TV to assure them that we will make sure that they are safe and they will get paid. Together, we cleaned up that mess.

But doing so, we have assured the migrant workers in our midst that we are a good country and an honourable people. This is why, in spite of our many faults, I am proud of our country.

Now we have another mistake. Vivian, as a representative of the Government, had earlier said that the TT data would not be used for anything other than contact tracing, but that statement is now in question.

But I believe that this mistake can be fixed. Parliament is supreme. I suspect that the Government can probably pass an amendment to the COVID-19 Bill and make TT data exempt from the CPC.

Why should we fix this?

While the hawks in the present administration are likely correct that the majority of 80% of our people who have already installed the app or collected the token are not too concerned about privacy (because they are not presently planning to rob a bank), they have to understand how our people think.

A sizeable number could decide to uninstalling the app or not carrying the token as a form of protest. These tokens and app have been fabricated at great cost and if people stop cooperating with the Government, it will undo much of the hard work and good work over the last few months.

People please keep in mind we still have a raging pandemic on our hands notwithstanding the present lull. We are really in the eye of the storm.

My suggestion is likely raise the ire of MHA and the Home Team (and I would not be surprised by a robust and public rebuke by the Honourable Minister Shanmugam), so allow me to take this opportunity to make the following points to MHA and the Home Team:

  1. The TT data is not likely to be v good for investigations. Bluetooth range is something like 3–5 m and there are likely to be hundreds of contacts. We have no location information, so even if Police gets hold of the data, it’s likely impractical to call up all the contacts, the majority of which probably have no recollection of ever seeing the suspect. What crimes are big enough for the police to want to do something like that? Don’t we already have enough CCTVs that do a *much* better job?
  2. Even if the police had access to the data, we are talking about only for a year (hopefully!) because once we are fully vaccinated, people will probably start uninstalling the app or throwing away the token. TT data is not long term capability or asset.
  3. We should try not to miss things that we should never have had. There was no way that the police could have convinced anyone to install the app or carry the token to help fight crime. This is really circumstantial.
  4. Finally, I think Government agencies should try to play as One Singapore. The current situation happened because left hand never talk to right hand. Maybe left hand shouldn’t have talked without checking with right hand, but what’s done is done. Given that left hand was trying to do good (and I actually think it is the right thing to make TT data private to encourage adoption), it might perhaps be good to be charitable and not to throw left hand under the bus? :-)

Final Random Story

Sometimes when people ask me what I do, I tell them that I tell stories for a living and so I will end with a story.

I have the coolest job because I get to work with our young people and I recently had dinner with 2 bright young men. Talking to folks like them gives me hope because I can see them growing up to become the future leaders of this country.

Among them, one was a little older and he has had some experience working in the region and also in China. He said that after this experience, he has become a staunch Government supporter.

Then we talked about Singapore’s future economic strategy. He said (and I agreed with him) that Swee Say’s strategy of “cheaper, better and faster” is not going to work.

Nobody in his right mind will think that we are cheaper. Our cost structure is way too high to be competitive. And better is frankly questionable. Better at what? Taking exams and doing well in the Pisa?

Faster is however still true. The way that we went in to clean up the COVID problem in the dorms is nothing short of breath-taking and unlikely can be replicated anywhere else in the world — but who really wants to pay for faster? Who is in a hurry?

He also mentioned that from his adventures in China, the Chinese like us. But not so much because we are “cheaper, better and faster,” but because we are honest. Before people get too smug, by honest, they mean tut, aka so stupid that even if people put money before us, we also dunno how to steal. :-(

Nevertheless, I am not entirely offended and I think we need to learn to like ourselves and embrace who we are.

How we deal with this TT fiasco is not just a public health issue. We are telling the world what we stand for.

The hawks will claim that addressing the privacy concerns represents a surrender to the leftist privacy Fascists. I don’t see it that way. I see it as an instance of committing to something we didn’t intend, but making good simply because our word is actually worth something (and because we are in the middle of a bloody pandemic and doing so will help!).

Are we a country that signed an agreement to build a HSR and subsequently reneges, or can people trust us at our word? Can our people also expect the Government to make rational and hard decisions — and fix things if we screw up?

2021 is a new year and a new beginning. I hope that the Government will do the right thing, aka clean up this fiasco the right way, so that we can move on to deal with the vaccination.

Vaccination (because it is not compulsory) will require yet another PR exercise.

Without trust, how to do PR? >_<

Happy New Year everyone and please stay safe!

In case people want to post comments, the discussion is here.