Singapore leads the world in coronavirus fight

Ruling party politician sanitises public housing lifts

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Every day Singapore’s leaders make great sacrifices for the people. The Honourable MP Low Yen Ling (middle) is seen spending a Saturday guiding a seven-person team through the intricate task of cleaning an elevator.

To the Honourable MP’s right are three South Asian workers. They are wearing imported sneakers that their cousins working in Qatar cannot afford. They are wearing masks because they are either sick or are at serious risk of contracting the virus. In Singapore only the sick and frontline healthcare workers wear masks, as per our WHO (We Help Ourselves) Guidance Rules instituted in 1965.

Since one Bangladeshi worker has contracted the virus, every South Asian migrant worker is a potential carrier. Transmission can occur in their lush dormitories or on Sundays at Serangoon Road, the recreational area Singapore has graciously designated for these workers. (“Edgy, hipsterish, popular among backpackers,” says the Singapore Tourism Board. “Complete darkness,” says a ruling party politician #tellsitlikeitis)

The Honourable MP, standing next to one worker, is not a virus carrier and hence needs no mask. Likewise for the Chinese men.

The men are dressed in descending order of formality to show their respective positions in the Ai-Pi, Ai-Chi hierarchy (“Want cheap, want good”, in our delightful Hokkien dialect.) If the Honourable MP wants to say something to the workers, she will pass the message down the food chain. The man in the blue shirt will then relay it sweetly to his workers.

If the three Chinese men perform well, they will have a better chance of appearing next to the Honourable MP in future photographs. If not, they will undergo retraining so they can work in comfortable jobs riding subsidised electronic bicycles or rental cars.

Singapore thanks all seven for their contribution to total defence. Our benevolent government has given each Chinese one stack of toilet rolls. And each South Asian an equivalent gift: a year’s subscription to The Straits Times.

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[Above is satire.]

Image: MP’s FB

For the record, as explained in previous post, I think the Singapore government has done a pretty good job in its response to the virus outbreak.

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Corona notes from the Singaporean backline

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Image credit: Twitter/@ikansumbat

– Why the fascination with comparing ourselves to other countries and one-upping them? I’ve seen numerous HK vs Singapore comparisons, from Singaporeans, Bloomberg et al, that fail to acknowledge basic differences. A tad ignorant and lazy.

Do look at a map. And conduct a thought experiment. Imagine if the virus emerged not in Wuhan, but in peninsular Malaysia. And that there was the fear of infected Malaysians streaming across the causeway in search of goods and medical services.

I suspect the PAP’s fans wouldn’t be laughing at Carrie Lam.

– The Singapore government has done a pretty good job so far, given what little I know. It’s not easy calming nerves, trying to control the spread, while also keeping the economy going. Hysteria and shutdowns have costs. Over 20% of Singaporean households live hand to mouth. They have trouble buying tomorrow’s meals, never mind a month’s worth of noodles.

I wouldn’t give the G full marks because we had a nutty supermarket run over the past few days, fuelled partly by worries that the government is hiding something.

“You don’t need a mask if you’re healthy but you do if you’re sick”, the government’s message, never made sense because a functioning mask can make some difference if you are near an infected person; and everywhere you went, banks, hawker stalls, shops, so many customer-facing workers were wearing masks. (Were they all sick?)

Many Singaporeans concluded that the government was not being completely transparent about mask stockpiles. (And if so, then what else?)

– Nerves are frayed. Tensions high. I’ve had a few testy conversations over the past few days. One good friend hopped on the fake news bandwagon last week and then became very defensive when called out. Interestingly, this person was actually on a business trip abroad when he decided to inform those of us back home about supposed school closures. Concern, uncertainty, haste, panic.

Another one, a foreigner watching from abroad, castigated me for giving my government a rating of “pretty good”. Insufficiently effusive. I should have said “the best in the world”.

And for this heinous crime, all the old slurs were trotted out: Singaporeans don’t know what life is like in the developing world, we are living in a bubble, skewed views, spoiled brats.

Aiyoh. When will people finally realise that Delhi and Jakarta are not benchmarks for Singapore?

So 2000s…

– My “pretty good” came shortly after reading Lee Hsien Loong’s speech over the weekend, which I enjoyed, and which has deservedly been given lots of airtime overseas.

Interestingly, some friends who watched the speech over telly came away with the opposite impression: leaden, uninspiring, joke about noodles fell flat. Reminded me about the importance of medium and delivery.

– The racial elements and stereotypes fascinate me. And could be the subject of a piece once the dust settles. But this is what I gather so far.

First Chinese nationals, “zhongguoren”, made fun of themselves: bat, Wuhan jokes going around their own Weibo sphere. Then overseas Chinese, “huaren”, many in Singapore, made fun of the PRCs.

Then these same huaren got upset when other groups, like Singapore Indians, started lumping all ethnic Chinese together as “bat eaters” and “virus carriers”.

Singapore Indians felt a bit of schadenfreude at this prejudice. “Ah, now you Chinese know what it’s like to have people avoid you on trains, to get up and leave when you sit next to them.”

I actually felt this while riding on the MRT last week…such a strange, conflicting feeling, to know, after 42 years of living in a country, that you are no longer near the bottom of the (transportation) totem pole.

I’ve also heard stories that some South Asians believe they are naturally immune to this “Chinese disease”. Well, that’s at least before we had a Bangladeshi worker infected.

Finally, all the stuff about toilet rolls is great. “Why hoard? Why not just cebok, wash your bum?” has been the cry from Indians and Malays.

Background: Singaporeans have always cleaned their bums in different ways. Chinese tend to just use paper, Indians and Malays paper/wash or wash. Because of this, each side thinks the other is dirty.

“Eeeee, do you wash your hands after?” Chinese friends used to ask me in school. (“Yes. But I dig my nose first.”)

Well, here’s hoping that anal hygiene brings us together, strengthens Singaporean solidarity.

Stay safe. And if you are desperate for food or alcohol, drop by. I also, thanks to LiLing Ho, my wonky conservation wifey, have a year’s supply of unbleached bamboo toilet paper, which feels terrible on the ass but gets the job done.

For those of you, that is, who use paper.

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PS: my “peninsular Malaysia rather than Wuhan” example is not completely academic. Johor, for instance, has a reputation for its underground wildlife and bush meat markets. Bats, civet cats, monkey brain, some say even tigers. Possibly archaic practices, but still. A Singaporean cabby once told me that the finest meat he has ever tried is porcupine, in Johor.

PS2: Most of the panic buying appears to have been done by Chinese. Just read an interesting piece on the cultural differences between Chinese kiasuism and Malay lepakness (Drive caused by fear of losing vs being relaxed). Will mull…

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On Star Wars

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For anybody who lives in a drastically unequal city, where every day the rich and the poor collide, our introduction to Rey of Jakku in the early scenes of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) can be humbling.

We first see a masked prospector rappelling down a cavernous wreck, a cool blue headlight adorning his/her ski goggles. Having gotten the treasure, the person walks out into the desert sunlight and exposes her face: a pretty girl. She’s carrying a staff, looks like an adventurer. A latter day female Indiana Jones, perhaps. (Or, rather, an ancient one, since Star Wars is set “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”)

Rey then sand boards down a giant dune. What fun. At the bottom she gathers her things and mounts a nifty speeder—what one might expect if Ducati designed hoverboards—and then zooms across the stunning desert, the massive Star Destroyer she was plundering in the backdrop.

I want her job.

Moments later, the image is shattered. We see Rey interacting with Unkar Plutt, a grotesque junk boss. When he offers Rey a “one-quarter portion” for her bounty, everything we need to know about the political machinery, her position in the economic food chain, is captured in her expression.

Rey is no Indiana Jones; she is just one of those slum rats living on rubbish mountains.

In this world’s dense, unequal cities, the privileged sometimes parachute themselves into the lives of the destitute for a fleeting glance, perhaps in a bid to empathise, but more likely to rationalise social structures.

In Singapore, I have met car-owners who’ve jumped onto public buses and trains around lunchtime. “Car’s in the workshop!” is their opening cry, as if, like the prince spotted outside the palace, some justification is needed for their descent to the commuting doldrums. What follows is more worrying.

“This is like being on holiday! Singapore’s public transport is great.” Only a few seem self-aware enough to process that a one-off ride in the middle of the day is quite different from a daily slog through rush hour. Most return to la-la-land with an even deeper conviction that those below them are irredeemable complainers.

For their condescension and ignorance the elite have, of course, Singapore’s best and brightest as role models. Just a few months before The Force Awakens was released, Tan Chuan-Jin, then minister and now speaker of Singapore’s parliament, popped in to visit the city’s cardboard collectors.

These are the workers in Singapore, one of the richest cities on earth, who most closely resemble scavengers. A 75-year-old recently said that for the cardboard he collects after working all night, he earns S$3.10, barely enough for a meal and drink. Tan, with an annual salary of well over a million dollars, earns more in one minute than the 75-year-old does in one night shift.

Tan’s breezy take-away was that the cardboard collectors’ lives are not half bad; and that some of these geriatrics collect cardboard “as a form of exercise and activity”.

This is what happens when you observe Rey of Jakku and think she’s having fun.

 

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It is hard to overstate how influential Star Wars has been for many Singaporeans of my generation. My journey began in 1983 when I watched Episode VI: Return of the Jedi at the Cathay cinema on Orchard Road, my first ever show on the big screen…

Click to continue reading on Rice Media, where this was first published.

Top image credit: Slashfilm.com

a longform on Hong Kong vs Singapore

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With Joshua Wong, secretary-general of pro-democracy party Demosistō. We were both speaking at The Economist’s Open Future Festival in Hong Kong on Oct 5th 2019.

Dear friends, I just published a piece on Rice Media where I compare Hong Kong and Singapore, the “socio-economic twins but political opposites”. Click to read it there. Or, for a preview, first few paragraphs below.

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Just don’t wear black. In early October that was the pre-arrival instruction I received from friends enmeshed in that modern urban war zone, Hong Kong.

“Don’t worry, you can wear black, nobody will think you are a protestor,” rebutted Tang, the jovial cabby in his fifties who picked me up from the airport, gesturing at my brown skin. But for Cantonese locals like him, wardrobe options have indeed become limited.

Black for protestors. White for their opponents. Red for China. Blue for the police, i.e. those alleged to have tortured some “blacks”. “Also no pink, no green,” Tang joked, lest he be mistaken for a homosexual or a bleeding-heart environmentalist.

“So I wear yellow. Yellow is safe.”

Tang rattled off other jokes—“Where is the most dangerous place in Hong Kong? The police station”—while glancing at his smartphone, which beamed a digital buffet of protest updates, video clips, cabby chatter, and yes, even the occasional phone call. Tang’s calmness, coupled with the quiet on the roads, put my mind at ease.

A few traffic jams and subway closures aside, the next week would prove one of the smoothest and most enjoyable I’ve had in twenty-five years of visiting Hong Kong. I discovered new nooks, traipsing around the lush Sai Kung pier in the northeast, alongside hikers and tourists from China and the West, and slurping up beef tendon noodles draped in a rich restorative broth, in a Cantonese joint near the Aberdeen Centre in the far south, not a word of English exchanged.

The dramatic television scenes of petrol bombs, shattered storefronts, and masked protestors clashing with police seemed a world apart from my visitor’s bubble.

Hong Kong’s protests over recent years have often been led by precocious adolescents who have persisted despite the annoyance of the older generation.

This year the generational divide has narrowed. “We will be gone in thirty years,” said Tang. “They have to fight for their future.”

This includes his daughter, who has just graduated from university in Savannah, Georgia. She had wanted to return to be with her friends after seeing the million-person demonstration this past June against a proposed extradition bill, the spark for this year’s protests.

“I said sure. But you pay for yourself [her air ticket]. Is that fair or not?” he asked me rhetorically. “Fair right?”

Alongside this acceptance of youthful idealism is a more sober expectation of short-to-medium-term economic pain. “Yes, business has dropped, some days maybe fifteen to twenty per cent less,” Tang admitted. “But then there are no more mainlanders around. So am I happy or sad? Hahaha.”

It has become commonplace in multicultural societies around the world for older immigrants to cast scornful eyes at prospective ones, for instance with second-generation Indian Americans supportive of Trumpian border control. It is one of the many bizarre symptoms of a world in which liberal ideas of nationhood and identity are being seriously challenged by nativist ones, against the backdrop of yawning economic inequalities.

Nowhere is this impulse stronger than among Hong Kongers, who have turned sharply against the land of their ancestors, less than an hour’s drive away. The prejudice can be vile, expressed in physical attacks and slurs like “cockroaches”.

Indeed, some of the fiercest Sinophobia one might experience around the world occurs in two of its richest Chinese-majority territories: Hong Kong and Singapore.

The cities’ differences and similarities offer a prism through which to better understand their relative fortunes, as well as the impact of global capitalism on Asia.

Comparisons Between Hong Kong and Singapore Since the 90s

Which Chinese-majority, East-meets-West, Asian Tiger city-state do you prefer: Hong Kong or Singapore? Over the past few decades each person’s answer to that has fluctuated in tandem with China’s emergence onto the world stage.

Continue reading at Rice Media, where this was first published.

 

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Lee Eng Su, chef and champion cock talker, 1979-2019

Two months ago one of my closest friends and biggest fans/inspirations/all the rest of it passed. This is a bunch of random reflections, in the disjointed fashion in which we spoke (past tense…sigh). Some of it won’t make sense. Sorry. The only part that might approximate a traditional obituary, if you’re keen, is the last section, “A suitable marriage of Singaporean idealism and pragmatism”, where I tell the story of the time Engsu hosted Lee Hsien Loong and Rodrigo Duterte, leaders of Singapore and The Philippines, at The Coconut Club

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Because I’m still in love with you, I want to see you dance again

On Thursday night, September 12th, hours before I heard the news, I was watching HBO’s Big Little Lies, after a day of walking in rural Portugal, and I thought of Eng Su. Nicole Kidman and her husband were dancing to Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, and I remembered the way Eng Su used to sing Young’s Old Man.

Those were the days when Nengks used to sing regular songs, before he decided that he had an obligation to feed our ears with undiscovered gems, that he needed to excavate Motown with the same tenacity he did his own feelings and past.

He would close his eyes and sing the chorus—”Old man take a look at me now, I’m a lot like you”—with such passion, his usual passion i guess, and I always assumed he was thinking of Uncle Eu Seng.

Now, looking back at that moment, knowing that he is gone, I realise that I see him everywhere. Outsiders know him for his food. Insiders, the many of us in his exceptionally big tent, know him for all sorts of other things. Eng Su is in my music, in my movies, in my books, in the swimming pool, in the fresh air among the redwoods, in the dirty toothbrush destined for secondary work.

On August 11th Eng Su came over to visit me in Pasir Ris, 8am on a Sunday morning. We spoke for four hours, he had many things on his mind. We marvelled at my ability to detach myself from the world and lamented his inability to, something we always do when we are alone.

Throughout our twenty-five years together he was always telling me to try and do some fantastical great thing with my life, and I was always pushing back saying I just wanted to get drunk on a beach. Eng Su wanted to change the world in a big way, to fight every injustice he saw, to overhaul entire systems. He was never satisfied just touching one person, improving just one life.

Continue reading

4 Hours in Singapore: for visitors flying in

Dear friends, here is a short clip from my contribution to “4 Hours in Singapore”, a feature in the Business Traveller programme, being shown on multiple airlines right now.

I’m only allowed to share a 30s preview, but you should be able to watch the rest on the inflight entertainment system.

I look awful (the truth hurts, yes) and now regret my choice of shirt, but nevertheless it was nice to do a show where I just get to trumpet my birthplace and current home.

There is a tendency for non-establishment writers and commentators in Singapore—the precious few of us fortunate not to rely on the government for our livelihood—to be a bit critical and cynical about our lovely city in our work.

It’s partly a writer’s natural skepticism, but compounded by the fact that we constantly need correctives to Singapore’s dominant narrative—our government, the media it controls, and its numerous other thought-control tentacles generally offer highly-partisan viewpoints. (I say “generally” because there are of course great exceptions.)

So yes, it’s nice to step out of the critic’s corner I sometimes feel forced into. I had fun a couple of years back doing a show with the late Anthony Bourdain (huge fan of Singapore), and now had another fun day out showing off Singapore to James MacKinnon of Striker Productions.

A photo with buddy Patricia Lee, who works at the National Gallery, James and Jesse Chan, camera man for the day.

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on W!LD RICE’s Merdeka (Raffles must fall)

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I enjoyed Merdeka last night and would happily watch it again tonight. It’s good. However an American friend, caught between an impulse to stand and the fear of imposing peer pressure, asked me afterwards whether Singaporean audiences give standing ovations. I said sure. I’ve stood up to applaud Ian McKellen and Kevin Spacey in Singapore.

I believe Alfian, Glen and all the rest should aspire to those heights—especially when they are charging me $14 for a tiny drop of wine—so there is still quite a long way to go. Treat my below comments with that benchmark and perspective in mind. Also, pardon my ignorance on many things, I am not a theatre critic, just an armchair busybody.

I will focus on two things.

Acting

They impressed with their seamless change of roles, their singing, their power, their passion. I could watch each of them for a long time. Perhaps my main critique is that there seemed to me to be very little character development over the course of the two hours.

I would have liked to see the members of the reading group growing, maturing in some way, as they took on one chapter of history after another, as they revelled in some group realisation about Singaporean history and identity. As each told their story, the others became aware of new facts, sure. But there was not enough sense of wonder, of discovery, of change in the person (that cute little Chinese romance aside).

For instance, the seeming reconciliation of differences between the two actresses, Chinese and Malay, seemed terribly forced, especially the awkward apology from the Malay lady for her earlier snide “Chinese girlfriend” comment. I liked the initial, off-the-cuff, fiery comment—not the mawkish, tailored-for-strawberries retreat.

I have no experience in the craft of playwrighting, but I wonder if part of the issue is an over reliance, especially in the beginning, on large chunks of recorded text, rather than the individual character’s own voice.

Then again, perhaps there is so much fine detail packed into the play, which is necessary, which is informative, in this history-starved and -biased country of ours. So perhaps I am asking too much, I should be happy that each took on so many roles, that each served as wonderful interlocutors of history.

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Story

At at a high level, I believe an important missing ingredient is the complicity of Singaporeans in colonialism. To put it glibly, the reason Raffles CAN’T fall is that we have all become Raffles. We are all the children of Raffles.

There was not enough in this play about how “the Singaporean” evolved from the early 1800s to be a handmaiden to the British, a bupati, a willing participant to foreign enterprises, EIC and otherwise, as we, collectively, exploited Asia.

To use a traditional decolonisation lens, the abuser and the abused, is inappropriate for Singapore. Other ex colonies, the Indias of the world, had sizeable indigenous populations with rich cultures and definable identities before the colonialists arrived. Singapore, like Mauritius, did not. Raffles may not be the “founder” of anything, but he certainly sparked the creation of “the Singaporean” as we know today. (Controversial assertion: please see notes and comments below for fuller picture.)

Singapore, as a trading hub of the British Empire, was the varnished administrative center, a glittering front that sheltered its inhabitants from tragedies elsewhere. Singapore, and Singaporeans, became rich off colonialism.

Not all of us, for sure. Yes, it is important to remember the fallen and the beaten and the skeletons paraded around town, especially given our whitewashed dominant narrative. But Singaporeans must ask the question why the colonial-era abuses in Singapore were negligible compared to those elsewhere, not least in Jogya just years before Raffles landed here.

I stress this not only for introspection and historical appreciation but also because not much has changed. Singapore, the Switzerland of the East, continues to preach about incorruptibility at home while gleefully welcoming (suspected) drug lords from Myanmar, bigots from Zimbabwe, absconders from Indonesia. We routinely underpay and abuse Bangladeshis and Filipinos—or ignore their abuse en route to Singapore—appeasing our conscience with neoliberal yarns about providing opportunities to the downtrodden.

Every time the Indonesian haze blankets us, we fall back on ignorant, superficial critiques of corrupt governors and lazy farmers—rather than taking aim at the real power mongers, the ones domiciled in Singapore itself: the unscrupulous palm-oil companies engaging in land grabs, and their bosses (I don’t believe all are unscrupulous but some surely are.)

Decolonising the mind, for Singaporeans, should not simply mean a rejection of the West or Western figures or the use of the name “Raffles” around town, but a rejection of the exploitative attitudes that still run through us all.

But then again, that would also imply a fundamental reform of core practices—free and open trade!—that make us economically successful, that were the very basis for the entrepôt.

Perhaps we are not yet willing to look so closely at ourselves, at what we’ve become.

Not even W!LD RICE.

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Notes:
On the creation of “the Singaporean”. There are at least two important, perhaps overlapping, caveats here worth further exploration: the extent to which the Orang Laut, as part of a broader maritime geography, comprised a cohesive “Singaporean” or “Straits” identity; and the extent to which pre-1819 Singapore was already part of a Malay-led commercial network that perhaps, among many other things, already had exploitative elements around South-east Asia.

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Finally, here’s a piece I wrote for Nikkei Asian Review on Singapore’s bicentennial commemorations, with some related thoughts.

my talk on identity at The Economist’s Open Future Festival

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Dear friends, click below to watch my ten-minute talk on identity and multiculturalism in Asia at The Economist’s Open Future Festival in Hong Kong on October 5th.

I cite the different approaches to ethnic/cultural identity that we find in China, India and Singapore, and give my reasons why we all need to think a bit harder about our identity choices, given current larger forces at play in the world today.

In a sense, this Economist talk is a direct product of the brownface brouhaha in Singapore in July/August this year. I made a couple of videos on brownface and race, which got passed around by some of my former colleagues at The Economist Group in Singapore, Hong Kong and London. (Read more about my work there from 2006 to 2013.)

That in itself was surprising, because I thought the videos were hyper-local, what with my generous use of Singlish. I guess it shows that these issues are quite universal, no matter my bumbling delivery.

I took that as a cue, and decided to have a Singlish segment in this Economist talk. First time I’ve used so much Singlish at a “proper presentation” overseas. It went down well, especially with Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party in Thailand, who was laughing away in the front row (and later introduced himself). I guess South-east Asians have a soft spot for our Singlish!

It was both tougher and easier than other talks I’ve given. Tougher because it’s a big topic for ten minutes; and I felt the pressure of both the live stream and the very tight timing, the clock counting down at me from a screen at my feet. I missed a couple of lines, but oh well. Happens.

But easier because I had lots of support and encouragement from the floor, including a bunch of former colleagues and bosses, some who gave me many opportunities to speak and write early in my career, some thirteen years ago now.

Also great to have Singaporean buddies Amanda and Mel in the crowd, who kindly took me out for a smashing time after. Long time since I partied in Lan Kwai Fong.

Many have asked me about whether it’s safe to travel to Hong Kong now. My response: it’s the best time! Fewer tourists, hotels are cheaper, easy to get around. The protests are very well organised and planned, so you know where to go or not, you know whether to take the MTR or taxi. I had a great time (while also acknowledging the pain others on all sides are enduring…).

And, finally, very grateful to Kaiyang Huang and Rohan Mukherjee for helping me refine my arguments.

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There were many other cool segments at the conference, including this debate between Joshua Wong, Hong Kong’s most famous pro-democracy activist, and the pro-Beijing Shaun Rein, managing director of the China Market Research Group.

 

 

The day Singapore’s education minister lost some credibility

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Last Monday was a dark day for Singapore’s parliament. Ong Ye Kung, our education minister, presided over a shameful, horrid witch-hunt, using language that might have impressed the Puritans of 17th century colonial Massachusetts.

The primary target was Alfian Sa’at, a local playwright. It was the latest salvo in the ongoing fracas over the cancellation by Yale-NUS of a course by Alfian entitled ”Dissent and Resistance in Singapore”. The larger backdrop is the years-long demonisation by the current government of academics, artists, critics, social workers and other Singaporeans who have committed the treacherous crime of speaking out of turn or possessing unpalatable political views.

In Singapore any overbearingness, paternalism, immaturity, or even ugly mudslinging by the ruling PAP is often sanitised and rationalised by our country’s “age”. We are a young democracy, or a young country, apparently.

What one does not expect is for that to become an excuse for colonial-era viciousness.

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First was the selective quoting of Alfian’s poetry to prove that he is unpatriotic to Singapore. Ye Kung seems not to comprehend that Alfian’s Singapore You Are Not My Country is a love letter, one tinged with the loss, yearning and irony that any true love involves.

From this act we can postulate that Ye Kung and his chums understand only brash, symbolic patriotism, the mindless waving of the flag and singing of an anthem whose words you don’t understand, the unaccommodating “with us or against us” siege mentality, the worldview of an establishment led by military men with oversized egos who have never seen actual combat.

I have sadly never read much poetry, but let me try a Ye Kung with three of my favourites: Continue reading

On my first two videos: race in Singapore

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Please click to watch my first two videos, published on Facebook a few days ago:

Race in Singapore: We can’t trust politicians

 

Brownface in Singapore: Why the fuss?

 

Why video?

K Shanmugam. Michelle Chong. Nuseir Yassin aka Nas Daily.

Those are the three reasons why I am experimenting with video now. At a broad level video has been on my mind for a while, part of my own professional growth, reskilling, continuing media education. Writing will always be my first love but I need basic proficiency in video, especially if/when I start my own media business.

The three of them, however, have made the issue more pressing, because they have contributed to an increasingly ideologically-biased video landscape. Shanmugam is a constant video presence on big issues, for instance commenting on Preeti and Subhas. I am told, among other things, that those “interviews” are often scripted, staged, and re-shot if he doesn’t like something.

There is no pushback. Nobody would dare, for example, ask him whether the government made a mistake in publishing the Brownface ad, something journalists in any other developed country would feel comfortable doing. This is not journalism or even authentic reporting, since he can order re-shoots. It is Shanmugam TV.  I am not sure viewers really understand this.

(This is true for many political “interviews” in Singapore; I am focussing on Shanmugam simply because he is a strong and recurring presence on video.)

Michelle Chong and Nuseir Yassin, much as I like their style and some of their work, have knowingly or not become part of the PAP’s band of useful idiots. Some of Michelle Chong’s work for the government is great, I like her impersonations of Marie Kondo, for instance.

But I was absolutely shocked by her video interview of Shanmugam to help the government sell its new fake news law. The interplay between truth and fiction is a key tenet of any art form. Imagine my surprise, then, that a Singaporean artist would willingly help politicians take away that power.

I’ve met Michelle Chong once, briefly, she seems like a lovely person. But I’ve also been told that she’ll say anything for money. Perhaps it was her jealous enemies bitching about her to me, but if true, it is troubling for all sorts of reasons.

Also, it is unethical that her video did not mention that it was sponsored by the government. In other words, taxpayers like us paid Michelle and Shanmugam to make a video that ultimately just seems to be an exercise in personal branding (rather than a proper analysis of the new fake news bill). But this appears to be the way of the influencer world, take money and keep quiet about it.

I hope Michelle continues doing her great work across Singapore—but she should steer clear of certain issues. I suspect media studies departments in the future will classify her Ah Lian interview of Shanmugam as a textbook example of authoritarian propaganda. Horribly naive.

(To be clear, fake news is a big menace that must be dealt with. But we can never allow politicians from any party to be in charge, for the simple reason that they will be able to manipulate elections.)

Finally, Nas Daily videos are gross simplifications of complicated problems. I believe they are doing a disservice to the world. His superficial commentary on Singapore is proof that one can’t parachute into a place and understand it. There are a million critiques to choose from, but I’ll give you just one: it is absurd for a Muslim-Arab to call Singapore, a country with institutional discrimination against Muslims, an “almost perfect country”. But that’s what happens when you observe the veneer of multiculturalism and are wilfully ignorant about real problems.

That said, I’m delighted that Nuseir has moved here. It’s great for our country, hopefully he’ll help jumpstart our new media sector. I certainly have lots to learn from his delivery and comfort on screen. I just hope he will graduate to making more well-researched pieces akin to John Oliver and Hasan Minhaj.

Michelle and Nuseir are just two of the most prominent video personalities who are becoming dependent on government funds, which hinders their ability to act and speak freely. Many smaller media outfits in Singapore face the same challenge.

And that is why I worry that the video world is increasingly ideologically-biased. Unlike say the written word, for which Singaporeans can now access a whole range of views online.

My mistakes with these videos

Yes, I made many, including perhaps with the background music, delivery, subtitle typos. Here I will discuss the two main ones, after several days of debriefs.

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