Friday, 14 January 2000

A case of semantics vs good samaritans

By Jamie Ee, The Business Times

   Socially-conscious people there are aplenty now in Singapore. But will the
combined strength of thousands of voices be effective in changing government
regulation with regard to Noah's Ark?

   THERE ARE several ways to tell that you're in a developed country: there are
plenty of avenues available for you to recycle waste materials, wheelchair
access is commonplace and - you see very few stray dogs and cats on the

   Even in supposedly impersonal New York, it's not uncommon to see buses with
special electric platforms that can be lowered to ground level for wheelchair
users. Is it any wonder that when a Singaporean sees something like that, he
or she wishes that the same kind of attention could be paid at home to such
seemingly non-relevant areas that benefit only a small minority?

   Household recycling is currently not second nature to us. Wheelchair access
is more of an exception than the norm. Facilities to house and re-home stray
animals are limited to the efforts of the woefully under-equipped SPCA and a
few kind-hearted individuals. And now, even the latter is threatened, thanks
to regulations that are generally impervious to human circumstance, much less
animal discomfort.

   The issue now is Noah's Ark Lodge, a privately-run animal shelter threatened
with closure because the operator, Raymund Wee, cannot renew the expiring
lease as he is a sub-tenant. As the main tenant is not renewing the lease, the
land, according to Primary Production Department regulations, has to be
returned "in vacant possession" so that it can be put up for public tender.

   This means that homes have to be found double-quick for Noah's Ark
inhabitants or they face extermination. Unless the PPD decides to bend the
rules a bit and allow Mr Wee to continue to lease the land in his own name.
The issue is not new. Government regulation stays unmoveable. The PPD talks
about land redevelopment and land scarcity. A small group of dissenters
grumble and write letters to The Straits Times forum pages, but protests
invariably fizzle out and lobbyists like Mr Wee are doomed to lose. Again.

   The difference this time, though, is in the amazing response Mr Wee has
garnered. Take one look at the website set up to receive signatures for a
petition that Mr Wee wants to send to the PPD. On Tuesday, there were some
2,000 names on the list. On Wednesday, the figure had hit nearly 5,000. By the
Jan 31 deadline, who knows how many thousand names will be on it?

   It certainly shows the growing maturity - okay, one should ignore the choice
expletives used to describe the PPD by one or two signatories - of an educated
population unwilling to let a perceived injustice go unchallenged. Remember
the barrage of indignant letters to support the lawyer who was beaten up after
telling an inconsiderate cinema-goer to stop using his mobile phone?

   Socially-conscious people there are aplenty now. But what I would be waiting
to see is how effective the combined strength of thousands of voices will be
in changing government regulation. Will the PPD bend to the pressure? Will it
see the folly of letting semantics get in the way of good samaritanism?

   Without getting into the emotional nature of Noah's Ark's case, it does seem
that it is successful in doing what it does - helping to take care of the
stray animal problem without using public money. And it seems that
redevelopment of that land is not on the cards yet - the surrounding land has
already had their leases renewed. So, given that Noah's Ark is doing more good
than harm, why let red tape destroy it?

   In any bureaucracy, there are regulations that need to be amended when there
is a greater good to be achieved rather than smooth logistics. A country
doesn't just develop because of its physical infrastructure; it develops when
its people and institutions are flexible enough to respond to, rather than
fight against, each other's needs. I hope the petitioners are successful. If
so, I'll take my hat off, not just to them, but to a system that knows where
its heart is.

Source: The Business Times
Date: 14 January 2000

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