A Singapore Story

The following article originally featured on North. Read it in its original form here.   

Yoke Clara Yansim

May 5, 2020

Yoke Clara Yansim weaves in her wonderful words and photos in this ode to Singapore. 

When I first moved to Singapore at fourteen years old, I was constantly overwhelmed by how fast-paced everything was.

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I remember how I was struck by how quickly people were walking in the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) stations, especially during rush hour.

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School was stressful with assignment after assignment, test after test.

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The education system in Singapore is one of the best in the world, after all.

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I did not like living here then.

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Fortunately for me, there were many kind people who helped me get settled along the way – they tried very hard to make Singapore feel like my second home.

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Now, I see that Singapore is so much more than what I had perceived six years ago.

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I have come to adapt and appreciate the work ethic and efficiency that are so valued in Singapore.

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The orderliness, the cleanliness and the safety of the city-state are some of the best things about Singapore – everyone knows that.

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The city is also enriched by the diversity of traditions, languages and food of the different cultures present in Singapore.

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But most of all, I love the quieter side of Singapore.

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I love watching people enjoying their afternoon strolls around the neighbourhood and having meals together in the local coffee shops and hawker centres.

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I love seeing people sitting at the void decks reading newspapers and socialising.

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Unfortunately, with the current coronavirus situation, many of these activities are no longer possible.

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Common areas are closed off to the public, and tables and chairs at the coffee shops are kept away to prevent people from gathering unnecessarily (and illegally).

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But given what I know about Singaporeans, they will bounce back from this crisis.

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They are resilient. They are hardworking.

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Life may never be the same again, but we have hope.


Two Groundbreaking Records Set as Singapore Commemorates Bicentennial

The following article originally featured on The IAS Gazette. Read it in its original form here.   

Yoke Clara Yansim

Edited by: Elaine Lee

April 24, 2020

Last December, in commemoration of the bicentennial anniversary of the founding of modern Singapore, the nation’s first-of-its-kind ground-up initiative celebrated the nation’s peace and prosperity by breaking two new records in the Singapore Book of Records – the Largest Mass Lion Dance Display and the Largest Lion Eye-dotting Ceremony.

An assembly of 720 lions that created a new record for “Largest Mass Lion Dance Display” in the Singapore Book of Records. | Photo Credit: Eunice Rim/TheIASGazette

Last December, Miss M Abinaya and her family, along with thousands of others, braved the rain to watch the Peace and Prosperity Singapura (PPSG) 2019 parade at The Float at Marina Bay.

The 20-year-old software developer told The IAS Gazette that her father has heard about the parade on Tamil radio and decided to bring the family to the event to spend some quality time together.

In celebration of the nation’s peace and prosperity in commemoration of the bicentennial anniversary of the founding of modern Singapore, the three-hour parade which was organised by Tao One, a Taoist non-profit organisation, featured a variety of live music performances by local artistes, lion dance on high poles, a car parade with 54 Lamborghinis, and a contingent of musicians and percussionists.

The event also included an interfaith prayer for Singapore’s continued peace and prosperity, led by leaders from the Inter-Religious Organisation.

Senior Minister of State Dr Maliki Osman said: “PPSG 2019 celebrates inter-racial and inter-religious harmony, and while at the same time, reminds and educates the community on how far we have come to achieve that harmony. (It) must not be taken for granted and needs to be continuously cultivated.”

The event also saw the largest assembly of lions – a total of 720 – on display in South-east Asia, generating two new records in the Singapore Book of Records – Largest Mass Lion Dance Display and Largest Lion Eye-dotting Ceremony.

Signifying 720 years since the discovery of the Lion City by Sang Nila Utama in 1299, 720 old and new lions were used to symbolise the social diversity and the transitioning of one generation of Singaporeans to the next.

The eyes of the new lions, which donned the red and white colours of Singapore, were also dotted by distinguished guests in order to “wake” the lions.

Minister of Education Mr Ong Ye Kung in the lion eye-dotting ceremony. | Photo Credit: Joseph Poh Shou Heng / Tao One Ltd

Commenting on the parade, student volunteer Lee Ming Yi said: “(PPSG 2019) actually tried to incorporate different elements, (such as) singing songs in different languages and having four hosts speaking in different languages to cater to all the people of different races who are watching the show.”

While the parade has successfully promoted inclusiveness, the 15-year-old felt that more could be done.

“There might be some kind of impact, but it’s not as big an impact as, say, a long-term education.”

Student volunteer Lee Ming Yi (left) with his other volunteer friends. | Photo Credit: Eunice Rim/TheIASGazette

Throughout its history as a port city, Singapore has been a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities, comprising four main ethnic groups: Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians.

Today, underneath conscious efforts by the government to preserve multi-religious and multi-racial harmony, Singapore also grapples with xenophobic sentiments towards foreigners, as the world’s most competitive economy increasingly relies on immigrants to help shoulder its economic burden, especially with low population growth.

While these issues continue to be addressed one step at a time, Miss Abinaya believes that one thing that Singapore can learn from the past 200 years is to “be together in all situations and stand up for each other”.


Chasing the Crazy Rich in Cambodia: Unveiling the Truth

The following article originally featured on The IAS Gazette. Read it in its original form here.   

Yoke Clara Yansim

Edited by: Elaine Lee

February 14, 2020

As we commemorate Cambodia’s Victory Day last month, Reuters journalists Andrew R.C. Marshall and Clare Baldwin shared with us their ups and downs in investigating the wealth and foreign citizenship of the family and allies of Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen.

Reuters special correspondents Ms Clare Baldwin (left) and Mr Andrew Marshall (right). | Photo Credit: Dondi Tawatao

It was only one day before they published their exposé that they managed to obtain a final critical piece of evidence to substantiate their year-long investigations of the crazy rich in Cambodia, who also happen to be closely affiliated with the current longest-serving prime minister, Hun Sen.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. | Photo Credit: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters

But the blood, sweat and tears of Reuters special correspondents Clare Baldwin and Andrew R.C. Marshall eventually reaped enormous rewards in ways they could not imagine – to strip Hun Sen’s associates of their European citizenship.

While they declined to further elaborate on how they secured the documentation, Ms Clare Baldwin told The IAS Gazette in a telephone interview from Hong Kong last November that the final piece of evidence was a “visa blacklist”, which the US State Department created to ban those who undermine democracy from travelling to the States unless they are on official business.

“That (US visa blacklist) was a tricky one (to obtain),” she said.

The national police chief, Neth Savoeun, the prime minister’s niece, Hun Kimleng, and their three children were included in the visa blacklist in 2017.

“I think that was something that was really bothering me because I knew we could get it, and it was just a matter of time. But I did not know if we would get it before we had to publish.”

The husband and two daughters of the Prime Minister’s niece, Hun Kimleng. | Photo Credit: Vichhuna Neth/Instagram

Titled Khmer Riche, the report, which was published by Reuters in October last year, details the story of how the Cambodian elites are amassing huge amounts of foreign assets to seek and buy European citizenship through Cyprus – an island country in the Eastern Mediterranean – via its Cyprus Investment Program, which grants full Cypriot citizenship to wealthy individuals who invest at least €2 million (S$3 million).

While the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner did not necessarily set out with a particular goal to achieve with the publishing of the article, Mr Marshall told the Gazette in a phone interview from London: “If I have any hope for it, it would be just to shine a light on a subject that is important.”

After years of speculations and hearsay, the phenomenon, which contradicts Hun Sen’s portrayal of himself as a humble leader who “eats grass with the Cambodian people”, is an intriguing one.

“(But) what is really amazing about this story is that we have shown how that is not true,” said Ms Baldwin.

“Our investigation showed how his family members and his closest business and political associates…live very lavish lifestyles, and have tens of millions of dollars of overseas assets, and (even) purchased foreign citizenship.”

While his associates such as Hun Kimleng and her family continue to lead extravagant lifestyles both at home and abroad, Hun Sen has on several occasions sought to ban dual citizenship for those who hold political leadership positions – especially vis-à-vis presidents of opposition political parties – calling the practice of buying foreign citizenship as “unpatriotic”.

Hun Chantha, one of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s nieces. She co-owns London properties worth millions of dollars and takes private jets to posh European resorts. | Photo Credit: Hun Chantha/Instagram

Having to cross country borders and continents, the 36-year-old correspondent described the investigation process as a non-linear but “constant conversation”.

“You get a tip at one place, and then you go to do some research at another place.

“Then, a tip (goes) there, and it bounces back. So, the best way to think about it is a conversation.”

Mr Andrew Marshall described his partnership with Ms Clare Baldwin as a “well-oiled” one, having collaborated on many stories before. | Photo Credit: Dondi Tawatao

The duo shared the workload by covering different geographical areas concurrently.

Mr Marshall would do most of the on-the-ground reporting in Cyprus, while Ms Baldwin took on that responsibility in Phnom Penh.

They would also share the reporting in London and do further online research together.

Explaining that this was an issue that has been speculated and rumoured by many, 53-year-old Mr Marshall said what made their story stand out was that they were the first to obtain actual evidence and documentation of this occurrence, proving the significant wealth as well as the second passports that Hun Sen’s family and cronies held.

Despite not having faced any form of danger during this operation, the veteran reporter emphasised that practising “good security hygiene” is important.

“We needed to be very meticulous in keeping all documents safe and backed up well.”

Mr Andrew Marshall reporting from the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh in 2018. | Photo Credit: Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Moreover, with such a huge amount of information coming in all the time, Ms Baldwin added that she would organise every little detail of information that she received in spreadsheets.

“What did not seem important at the time might turn out to be the key piece of information that links everything together.”

On top of that, Ms Baldwin, who constantly seeks to discover new ways of reporting and combining the different mediums, decided to utilise social media as one of her reporting tools.

For instance, she took photos from the Instagram profiles of Hun Sen’s relatives – Vichhuna Neth, Hun Panaboth and Hun Chantha – to show how the family had boasted about their crazy rich lifestyles online.

Ms Clare Baldwin doing investigations in the Philippines. | Photo Credit: Andrew R.C. Marshall

Describing their partnership as a “very profitable one”, Mr Marshall, who perceives the both of them as a bridge to the story because of the accessibility to information as compared to their local Cambodian counterparts, said: “In many ways, this (Khmer Riche article) is just an extension of the partnership that is already kind of well-oiled.

“We (also) know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and what we’re best at. That was very useful when we came to approach a story.”


‘Golden Passports’

Their biggest achievement thus far?

To successfully elicit a response from the Ministry of Interior of Cyprus, who will be stripping 26 foreign investors – including eight Cambodians – of their “golden passports”.

FILE PHOTO: Photo illustration of a Cypriot passport. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Its interior minister, Constantinos Petrides, said authorities would also investigate all investors who were granted Cypriot citizenship before 2018, which was the year when tougher eligibility criteria were put in place.

Mr Petrides said “mistakes” had been made in processing some citizenship requests.

“It was a mistake not to have criteria, for instance, for high-risk persons.”

In July last year, the country introduced 11 categories of “high-risk individuals excluded from applying”, added Mr Petrides.

One category is “politically exposed persons (PEPs)” – that is, any holder of public office. PEPs are considered a corruption risk because of their prominence and influence.

Cyprus also now excludes anyone previously convicted or under investigation in their own country, anyone linked to an illegal entity, or anyone under international sanctions.

But when asked if Hun Sen would outlaw the practice of purchasing foreign citizenship in Cambodia, Ms Baldwin remarked: “I think it would be a difficult thing for him to do.

“He could reopen that process, but he would have the problem of a bunch of people that are close to him getting affected. So, I do not know if he would go ahead with the case.”


The Role of Social Media in Recent Student Protests

Yoke Clara Yansim

October 11, 2019

While the Hong Kong political turmoil is still ongoing, the Indonesian government too faced massive nationwide protests on several issues at the end of last month.

Superficially, the issues brought up in the protests in Hong Kong and Indonesia are not related in any significant way, but both cases have a common denominator – the way that social media has influenced large-scale mobilization of masses.


Hong Kong in 2014

Since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters have evolved into a more sophisticated, technologically savvy group capable to self-organize without the presence of any leader.

Five years ago, protesters were led into a 79-day occupation of major roads by nine high-profile democracy activists known as the “Umbrella Nine”, most of whom eventually faced up to 16 months of imprisonment.

Social media had been used then to garner support for the movement from the public, such as using Facebook to spread of the image of a yellow umbrella. The anonymity feature of some social media platforms was desirable for demonstrators avoiding identification and arrest by police.

Though the movement was unsuccessful in achieving its goal, social media still proved to play a critical role in increasing awareness.

What’s different now?

The protests that started in March 2019 as peaceful rallies against the controversial extradition bill now have a decentralized, leaderless, yet surprisingly organized model, which seems to be a tactical strategy to avoid mistakes of the Umbrella Movement.

Tracy Loh, senior lecturer of communication management at Singapore Management University, told CNBC that social media has been used beyond just mobilizing supporters, spreading information and concealing identities.

“I think that what has changed now is that social media is used to win the hearts and minds of the people. Both sides are using images of police brutality and/or protester brutality to further their own agendas,” she said.

Twitter has also suspended over 200,000 Twitter bots believed to be backed by Chinese authorities for “attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong”. Meanwhile, messaging service Telegram is popular among the protestors for its channels that enable coordination among their members for various purposes, such as for logistics, strategy and first aid. LIHKG, or ‘Hong Kong’s Reddit’, is also another popular online forum for anonymous users to post ideas for creative protest.

Ultimately, there are great challenges to social media being a “tool for battle of public opinion”, as it becomes more difficult for users to “deal with misinformation and fake news and the associated damages”, said Loh.


Social media in the student protests in Indonesia

Meanwhile, Indonesian students across the archipelago rallied to raise a variety of issues, including the recent graft law, the controversial Criminal Code bill, the forest burning in Sumatra and Kalimantan and militarism in Papua, among others.

Using hashtags like #ReformasiDikorupsi (‘Corrupted Reform Era’), #MosiTidakPercaya (‘Vote of No Confidence’), #GejayanMemanggil (‘Gejayan Calling’, a reference to the 1998 movements to protest Soeharto’s regime in Jalan Gejayan of Yogyakarta), social media is flooded with calls for public support in the street protests in at least 8 cities across the country, including Jakarta, Medan and Yogyakarta.

Particularly in Yogyakarta – known as the City of Students – students from various universities were encouraged by lecturers to join the protests. David Effendi, a lecturer from Muhammadiyah University of Yogyakarta (UMY) who moved his lecture to the streets became popular on Twitter after his WhatsApp message that allowed his students to join the Gejayan action went viral.

Being digital natives, youngsters have gotten more creative in sharing issues of interest. One such person is Efi, an illustrator and an activist with the Civilians Alliance for Justice and Democracy, who shared illustrations inviting the public to join the rallies and informed people on what to bring to the rallies through her Instagram and Twitter account (@efi_sh).

However, despite the popularity of these issues on social media, there are still those who are apathetic and consider street protests a public nuisance.

CNNIndonesia.com also reported that there were hundreds of students who joined the protest in front of the People’s Representative Council (DPR) building without knowing what they were protesting because they received chain messages from WhatsApp inviting them to participate.


A double-edged sword

It is evident in these cases in Hong Kong and Indonesia that social media is an indispensable tool in the mobilization of masses today, although Hong Kong has shown greater effectiveness in utilizing social media to facilitate their protests.

Having said that, social media also has the capacity to cause – or at least effectively catalyse – widespread uprisings and unrest. Think: Arab Spring. The 2011 anti-government protests across Arabic-speaking countries in North Africa and the Middle East have shown evidence that social media was used by opponents to the regimes by identifying goals, building solidarity and organizing demonstrations that allowed public sense of shared grievance and potential for change to develop rapidly, according to Philip Howard. The protests managed to topple the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.

Another worrying danger of social media in politics is what we call ‘confirmation bias’, which usually happens when being surrounded by like-minded people in our online community tends to reinforce our existing belief systems and opinions, while rendering it difficult for us to be tolerant of alternative points of view.

There is thus a need for every digital user (including this writer) to constantly stay vigilant in the era of artificial intelligence algorithms and fake news.