Ups and Downs of writing in the pandemic year

Note: Amid this flight from the Facebook/WhatsApp empire, a quick note that I also have a Telegram channel: SudhirTV.

It has been a fun, fulfilling, rewarding year being a writer and commentator in Singapore. Thanks so much for following my work. I’m feeling more enthusiastic about Singapore’s social, political and literary climate than I ever have. It’s a terribly exciting time to be living and working here.

Nevertheless, I thought it might be good to spend some time going over some of the hurdles independent writers here face, something that I’m regularly asked about.

So, treat this for what it is, a reflective, end-of-year piece for the benefit of readers and young writers in Singapore interested not only in the product but the process.

Trigger warning: excessive introspection that may occasionally tip over into self-absorption.

Why do Singaporeans “bash” their own country in foreign newspapers?

Several new followers of my work have asked why I write about Singapore in foreign newspapers rather than local ones. There are two reasons.

To illustrate the first, let’s backtrack a bit. Before the dormitories blew up, I had written only one commentary about the Singapore government’s handling of the crisis—on Facebook, where I said it had done a “pretty good” job.

Then in April, like many others, I was absolutely shocked by what was happening in the dormitories, more so because for months many people, from contractors to non-profit workers, had warned about the risks. Had they all been ignored? 

Observing how the mainstream media (MSM) was covering the issue (nothing to worry about, government is blameless), I decided I had to say something. I wrote a commentary that I then pitched to a MSM channel. The editor rejected it. 

I then pitched it to some other channels, and was glad when PJ Thum accepted it for publication in New Naratif. Many in Singapore and abroad, including other journalists, thanked me for the piece. 

Though I was happy to see it in New Naratif—my second piece there—I also felt a bit sad because whenever I write on alternative media channels, including Mothership and Rice, it can sometimes feel like I’m preaching to the choir. If the MSM channel had accepted it, a different audience might have heard my message, which was an urgent one. (Read my New Naratif piece and decide for yourself how radical it is.) 

I have in the past written a couple of pieces for The Straits Times and I used to appear on some Channel News Asia shows. But my enthusiasm for the MSM has waned over the years because it is always damn leceh, ma fan, troublesome trying to pitch pieces to them.

As much as I respect some editors there—including several friends—I know their hands are tied. Over the years they have rejected my commentaries on these and other issues: reform of national service, inquiry into the Marxist conspiracy and assessing Ho Ching’s performance at Temasek.

The reality, for those who still don’t realise it, is that Singapore’s MSM simply will not publish certain commentaries that reflect non-kosher views. The same media channels that promise you a diversity of viewpoints are effectively all in bed with the PAP, with a single political party. (“Effectively” the operative word.)

This, I believe, is one of the main structural reasons for media and political polarisation in Singapore. The divide between MSM readers and alternative media readers grows by the day. The best way to solve it is for the MSM to showcase commentaries from different points on Singapore’s broadening political spectrum (with the usual exceptions about racist and hate speech). 

That, in turn, will lessen the pressure on writers and editors in the alternative media to always act as a counterweight to the MSM.

To be clear, I am critical of the MSM institutions and the operating environment that shapes them, not (necessarily) the individuals there, some of whom are the most socially- and politically-engaged I know. 

So, the first reason why I don’t write more for local papers is that they generally don’t like my voice and views. I have tried many times, but there are some things they just don’t want you to hear. Thinking society, indeed. 

OK, ego check: perhaps the reason that MSM channels do not want me to write for them is purely merit, i.e. my writing isn’t good enough. Based on my conversations with editors there, I don’t think that’s the case. 

Nevertheless, I am always open to the possibility that my view is blinkered. So, if indeed the MSM journalists and contributors are better writers than me, and that is the reason for my exclusion, then do let me know, dear MSM editor, and I will eat humble pie and publish a correction here.

The second reason why Singaporeans write in foreign papers is related to the prestige of the publication and its editorial quality. As a writer, I always want to push myself. There is a certain pride with seeing my work accepted and published in the likes of The Economist, Foreign Affairs, Mekong Review, South China Morning Post and Nikkei Asian Review, the last three in the past few months, with the SCMP and Nikkei pieces causing consternation to some in the Singapore establishment. (See here for a collection of my journalism over the years). 

That does not necessarily mean that I prefer my own writing there. When writing for a foreign audience, I often have to make analytical and literary concessions. First, I have to include a lot more background information and am unable to really get into the weeds with some issues. A great example of a topic for which I prefer my local version (on my blog) to the international version (in Foreign Affairs) is the Oxley Road Saga. 

Second, I have to curtail my use of Singlish in the international media. I try to include some in my local work, mostly because it just better reflects my voice, but also because I want to promote Singlish. (It’s our language!) Coincidentally, this past few months saw the first time I was able to sneak in some Singlish into a foreign publication. The first line of my Nikkei piece—one of my favourite Op-ed openings.

(I guess for younger writers in Singapore, I’d say it’s important to always do both. You may aspire to write for international publications that demand a sort of neutral, global vocabulary, but do balance that with enough writing where you can experiment and find your own voice.)

Nevertheless, in short, I learn a lot from working with different editors, different styles, different audiences. It has nothing to do with “bashing” Singapore in foreign publications. 

It is unfortunate that PAP right-wingers choose to push this narrative.  

Quite the contrary, Singapore should urge all its artists—writers, photographers, filmmakers, whatever—to publish their work as broadly as possible.

Why don’t you just shut up? Only the government should speak

Perhaps the most misguided, albeit well-meaning, sentiment Singaporean commentators had to contend with over the past year was this: self-appointed guardians of the peace and gurus of pandemic stability telling us to shut up.

This first emerged in April, I think, a short while after the workers’ dormitories crisis began. Since Singapore recognises the problem, so the argument went, any non-establishment commentary, whether coming from alternative media sites like TWC2 or people such as myself on social media, is just unnecessary noise. 

And this noise was apparently hampering efforts by politicians, civil servants and medical professionals, all clearly working under extreme pressure and stress, to address the numerous problems, for instance the rehousing of dormitory workers.

The main concern of these critics, I believe, was grounded in worries about fake news and misinformation. I remember a video circulating showing migrant workers being rehoused in an unused carpark with insufficient ventilation and amenities. Some friends of mine whined that such bite-sized, allegedly one-sided narratives might create false impressions in viewers about Singapore’s efforts.

I think there were elements of a sort of East Asian communal versus Western individualism comparison, as reductive as that sounds, baked into their critiques. Singapore is dealing relatively well with the crisis, in other words, because there is a fairly coherent national voice and strategy. We must never allow that to slide into the chaos of a marketplace of ideas, not now, not during a pandemic.

Listening to all this was a bit disheartening, partly because a few of these critics—the ones telling non-establishment commentators to shut up—are people close to me.

What I told them then is that it is even more important now to allow voices to speak. God forbid we allow the PAP and the MSM, both with a long history of massaging messages for the masses, to control the airwaves. (The TraceTogether debacle is merely the latest proof of the dangers.)

To one friend, I cited a passage from a great piece by Donald Low at the time: “The PAP government does not necessarily reject diversity and dissent, but it insists that in a crisis, the time for debate and dissent has to be suspended and that we should unite behind the authorities. Yes, but only up to a point. In a crisis, the biggest cognitive threat a decision-maker faces is not disunity; rather it is the tunnel vision that comes from “being in the trenches” for too long.”

I also told them that it is deeply insulting and offensive for you to tell me to shut up. Say what you want; but let me do the same. 

There is a direct line, albeit long and blurry, between your desire to censor me and all the vile nonsense (e.g. “traitor”) that we ultimately have to contend with. “Just shut up”, whether you intend it or not, has the ultimate effect of inciting bigots against us.

So, to all these assorted critics, as much as I appreciate your desire for national unity, here are two suggestions. If you can’t handle “the noise”, just log off social media, retreat to a safe cocoon.

If that still doesn’t work, then at your next session, the next time you feel caught between the closet autocrats and flaming liberals in your life, please ask yourself: would you rather live in a vibrant democracy or in an autocracy?

Why don’t you leave? (aka How to respond to nut jobs who don’t like change)

Conservatives and traditionalists who have trouble adapting, changing, dealing with the messiness of democracy, often tell me something to this effect: if you don’t like “the Singapore way”, just leave, move to the UK or the US.

Sorry, buster. We are in the process of building our democracy. Not by mimicking the West—God, no—but by doing it our own way.

So if you don’t like that, if you don’t like change, if you long for some romanticised vision of “the Singapore way”, then why don’t you leave? 

I’m sure North Korea or Turkmenistan would be happy to have you.

Why don’t you go back to India? and other attempts to curtail my anti-racist speech

Minorities in Singapore have a better shot at life than in many other countries. And yet, the reality of life here for us is just so, so far away from the multicultural paradise portrayed by the PAP and the Singapore government. 

There is little honesty and open-mindedness when it comes to dialogue on racial issues. The PAP and its handmaidens (e.g. the MSM) have long preferred to just sweep issues under the carpet.

In other words, racism may not be as bad in Singapore as in countries such as the UK and the US; but the disjoint between perception and reality is probably much greater here. There is more honesty in those countries, partly because there is more media and political diversity.

Throughout my career my attempts to address racial discrimination through my writing have, while supported by many, also been met with racism, slurs and other attacks on my character.

This past year, perhaps of my growing public profile, these have gotten worse.

These clowns don’t really bother me lah, after writing publicly for over ten years, it’s like in-one-ear-out-the-other for me. But after a couple of long conversations with people close to me, I have decided to mention two incidents. 

The reasons for naming and shaming these people are these: people should take responsibility for their words; hopefully this serves as a deterrent to others; and for many Singaporeans who think that “racism” doesn’t exist, well here you go.

And finally, young writers in Singapore eager to write about racism, just brace yourself for pushback by racists and apologists for the PAP’s racist policies.

But the great thing about writing in Singapore today (as opposed to, say, ten years ago): there are many of us who will come out to support you publicly. The fear is gone.

The background to these two incidents is a Facebook post I made that questioned the premise of a Straits Times editorial on racism. “If you [the writer] and The Straits Times are serious about understanding racism in Singapore and leading a discussion on it, you must have the gumption to tackle head on the racism of Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP.” 

In response to my post, Michael Petraeus, a Polish blogger in Singapore, published a boast professing the superiority of certain Anglo and Sino cultures. The post was so racist that it elicited a response from Calvin Cheng, a fellow PAP supporter.

“The Critical Spectator blog is propounding anthropological ideas that some races and civilisations are superior to others in governance and economic development,” said Calvin. “This is wrong and dangerous.” 

Nevertheless, Petraeus had already succeeded in stirring up racists against me. The vitriol on his page was so bad that numerous buddies wrote to me separately expressing their shock. (I don’t bother reading anything from Petraeus, his analysis is mediocre and his writing crafted purely to incite outrage.)

Below is one sent directly to me via email. Trigger warning.

From Albert Tan (Lai Fu Chen), a Singaporean based in China:

“Hello, 

When I say  you are an ungrateful Singaporean,  I am 100% accurate. You are  dirt on earth. You are one of those who will bite a hand that feed you. Perhaps I should not criticise you knowing that you belong to lower caste background. Of course you will not migrate to India as you know you can’t enjoy good living like what you have in Singapore. For that matter you will not migrate to any country in the world and not even US. In US you will soon be shot by white cops. This is the real racism. Frankly can you imagine if Indian is the majority and Singapore is being run by this majority,  Singapore will be like another India,  there will be a lot of rape Cases In Singapore and the culprits will not be punished. All kinds of criminal offenses will take place. Needles to say,  you will not have chance to enjoy good living like what you have now. Please read through article from criticalspectator,  the article is well written. Could you surrender your citizenship,  you are not fit to be a Singaporen.”

Separately, Jairaj Kumar, an Indian Singaporean, saw fit to stand alongside Petraeus against me.

Why, you might wonder, would an Indian take the side of a white guy professing racist views denigrating South Asians and South-east Asians?

Well, in my opinion, there are many ethnic minorities in Singapore who have internalised the racial hierarchy here and do not want to upset the mythical balance. 

There is nothing new about this personality type—see Uncle Tom and many others. Their words fuel the antagonism of racists towards us.

The point here, young writers, is that when you engage in anti-racist speech or actions in Singapore, expect pushback not only from racists among the Chinese, but also from some of your fellow minorities who may want to endear themselves to their masters.

“Skinfolk ain’t always kinfolk”, as Subhas Nair likes to remind me.

(And please please please! Whatever you do, don’t send any hate Albert’s or Jairaj’s way. Not the point of all this.)

Why don’t you stand for elections?

Last is the question that many often ask me in an election year. As a writer, I’m sometimes disappointed to hear people persisting with this.

“Why???” I always wonder to myself. “You don’t think I can make it as a writer? You don’t think I’m having an impact with my chosen craft?”

Yet I know it’s usually said out of some form of admiration, so thank you.

My throwaway answer is that “I’m too lazy, too vulgar, too drunk for politics.”

The more serious one is that I’m more interested in building a media business that Singaporeans can be proud of, even if not today, hopefully twenty or thirty years in the future.

I want to remain non-partisan, i.e. not aligned to any political party. That will allow me to criticise any political party when I want to. 

For instance, though I like The Workers’ Party, I was extremely upset with a policy in their 2015 manifesto, something I perceived to have a whiff of xenophobia. I criticised it here, and also in person whenever I met one of their leaders.

I’m happy that their new manifesto has been scrubbed of anything even vaguely nativist. Indeed, I think Pritam Singh is and will continue to be one of Singapore’s most important voices vis-a-vis multiculturalism.

Another example was with my New Naratif profile on Tan Cheng Bock (TCB), in which I criticised, among other things, the seeming contradiction in TCB supporting the creation of the GRC system in the 1980s, but then later complaining about the reserved presidency in 2017. (Both, in my mind, are examples of the PAP utilising multi-racialism as a cover for shady political moves.) This did not go down well with some members of TCB’s new Progress Singapore Party.

Anyway, the point is that I need to have independence if I want to write and possibly build a media business. 

That is my main focus. 

Aside from drinking.


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3 thoughts on “Ups and Downs of writing in the pandemic year

  1. Your writing style is humorous and sometimes insightful. I applaud your efforts to build a non-partisan and independent media voice. Do PM me. Would love to contribute to the journey in a thoughtful matter.

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