Why I have yet to install TraceTogether, Singapore’s COVID-19 contact tracing app

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In a perfect world with complete trust in Government, every Singaporean would download the TraceTogether App to assist in national COVID-19 contact tracing efforts. Thus it is unfortunate that some of us do not yet have the requisite level of trust.

Unfortunate firstly because it seems like our brilliant techies engineered an app that has sufficient safeguards for those concerned about government surveillance.

The location and nearby-contact data sit on your phone, and are accessed by MOH only in specific COVID-19 circumstances with the user’s consent; TraceTogether is quite clearly designed to assuage privacy concerns, to allay fears of Big Brother.

The technical solution is so elegant and light, in fact, that governments around the world have asked us for the source code. Now that is something for Singaporeans to be proud of, not some humdrum comment by Barbara Streisand.

(All that said, an oversight by the TraceTogether team has just been exposed, reconfirmed directly by a contact of mine at GovTech. The original app included in its build wogaa.sg, a government data collection service, which means that TraceTogether collects more data than necessary and compromises its supposed anonymity and 21-day data hygiene. Thankfully GovTech is working to remove wogaa, a standard feature in such products, in TraceTogether’s next iteration. However the oversight, specifically the team’s unconscious acceptance of code that collects and sends your data to the government, is worrying for those of us concerned about social conditioning to surveillance. Separately, Digital Reach has also raised concerns in an article titled “TraceTogether: Disassembling Was Not Easy to Verify the State’s Privacy Claims“.)

For us not to download TraceTogether is also unfortunate because this pandemic is akin to a war with shadowy enemies such as ISIS. It is a time when some suspension of civil liberties, including privacy, may be warranted.

Many civil rights advocates will disagree. After all, we are living in an era of creeping authoritarianism around the world, when individuals seem to be unwittingly signing away their rights to Big Government and Big Tech. Yuval Harari articulates many of these concerns in “The World after Coronavirus”.

Nevertheless, there does appear to be a more conscious acceptance, especially during this COVID-19 period, of the need for intrusions into our private lives when it comes to dire issues of national security.1

The important caveat is that there must be accountability and transparency regarding the intrusion, and any other suspension of civil liberties, in order to prevent abuse. There must be appropriate societal checks and balances, whether through independent commissions, government watchdogs or the media. Citizens need to know that we can seek redress for any injustice or suffering because of the intrusion.

And this is where Singapore fails.

There are countless episodes in our history that prove the point. The most obvious one is the alleged Marxist Conspiracy of 1987.

That year Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD), under orders from the People’s Action Party (PAP) leadership, arrested twenty-two Singaporeans, a mix of activists, church and social workers, and theatre performers. The government accused them of plotting a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the state. They spent different amounts of time in prison, the longest three years, without ever being charged for anything. The ISD tortured some of them into making false confessions (so they claim).

Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, and most others in parliament then, including K Shanmugam and Goh Chok Tong, have maintained these allegations. However people such as politicians Tharman Shanmugaratnam and S Dhanabalan, former attorney-general Walter Woon, and Singapore’s pre-eminent historian Mary Turnbull have raised doubts about them.

Many of us believe Tharman and the latter group. If they are right, this suggests that the alleged Marxist Conspiracy was a horrible attempt by the PAP to fix its perceived opponents.

What is the relevance of all this to TraceTogether? Well, put another way, it appears that in 1987, the ISD relied on intelligence unethically gathered, including its knowledge of friend networks, to help the PAP execute a dastardly political manoeuvre.

For TraceTogether, on the one hand, GovTech has told us about its privacy safeguards and about the special circumstances under which MOH can request data. On the other, GovTech reports to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), helmed by the same person—take note, Barbara—who helped oversee the Marxist Conspiracy manoeuvre.

What assurances do we have that PMO (or ISD) will not somehow obtain and abuse the TraceTogether data sent to MOH, the same way personal network and contact data was (seemingly) abused in the arrest and detention of the “Marxist Conspirators”?

To be clear, this is not to suggest that TraceTogether is vulnerable or has a “backdoor”, or that it was cobbled together for some Orwellian purpose. There is widespread acceptance of its virtuous intent.

Rather, it is a belief that the dominant political forces have, can, and will abuse democratic norms for their own ends, with little recourse for victims or unsuspecting handmaidens.

To think of it another way, the technologists’ brilliance is clouded by their political masters’ (perceived capacity for) chicanery.

What can we do to rectify this situation? In the short term, not much. We are in the middle of a pandemic and have far more important things to do. (Like hold an election.)

But in the longer term, techies, policy wonks and others, this is what you can do: lobby your leaders and representatives, make sure they understand the need for accountability and transparency. 2 Perhaps we need a Commission of Inquiry into the alleged Marxist Conspiracy? And systematic declassification of documents after X years?

Only when Singaporeans trust the integrity of the entire socio-political process will we easily get buy-in for (seemingly defensible) surveillance. Some argue that surveillance in Singapore is already so widespread that any marginal risk from TraceTogether is negligible. Perhaps, but there is a fundamental difference between a government spying on its citizens and citizens voluntarily capturing and sending data whose integrity might later be compromised. Moreover, TraceTogether’s use of Bluetooth provides an additional level of granularity not otherwise available (say, through regular mobile phone user data).

So we need to have these conversations before the next crisis, natural or man-made, which probably won’t be far off. We need to nurture a society which, in the words of writer Jolene Tan, does not instinctively poo pooh claims of state abuse.

On that note, it is sad to see several on the pro-TraceTogether side dissing privacy advocates: “Oh you think you are so important that the G wants to track you?” Ad-hominem attacks like this only poison otherwise genuine exchanges.

The very essence of a panopticon, in fact, is to blur the lines between irrelevance and importance, to ensure that everybody excessively self censors. Singapore’s history is littered with examples of persecuted people—from the “Marxist” church workers to Jolovan Wham, social worker currently in jail for a Facebook post criticising the judiciary—who might have hitherto been considered by many to be “unimportant”.

Without doubt, GovTech deserves praise for TraceTogether, a nifty, well-intentioned addition to our COVID-19 arsenal. But one hopes GovTech can appreciate Singapore’s broader socio-political environment; and the numerous ethical issues we must work through, together, before such initiatives can achieve broad success here.

“Technology does not exist in a vacuum,” as a friend says. “The values and past histories of those who make it and own it influence how a technology will be perceived and accepted/resisted.”

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1 Countries everywhere, from Israel to South Korea, have implemented or are considering enhanced measures, which might worry civil rights activists, in order to deal with COVID-19.

2 Nobody is under any illusions that this will be easy. Given Singapore’s one-party dominance, there seems very little political impetus for this sort of accountability and transparency.

Note: I have yet to install TraceTogether. Am undecided. Ultimately, with countries everywhere rolling out their own contact tracing apps, we may all be forced, by custom or otherwise, to install it. (For the sake of our species! Gosh, are we there yet?)

Nevertheless, with a lot of misinformation and straw man arguments out there, it is important that people in GovTech and elsewhere understand the reasons for resistance among some Singaporeans. I hope this piece is read in that spirit, not as some attempt to undermine an impressive technology intervention to a public health crisis.

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Comrade Gorbachev Marx Homas, son, brother and adventurer, 2010-2020

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Two years ago, when Li Ling, the kids and I moved out of my parents house in Bukit Timah to our own flat in Pasir Ris, it was hardest on Gorby.

Ling and I had the benefit of time, foreknowledge, active hands in the process. Blooby, Gorby’s sister, had by then retreated to a familiar sedentary life of eat, sleep, and the occasional lizard, dragged in leaving a trail of blood, body parts strewn across the terrazzo floor.

But Gorby was still Mr Bukit Timah. We would spot him prancing around the actual Bukit Timah Road, near the Tessarina Apartments and Tan Chong Motors, a full two-hundred metres from our house. Unlike us, Gorby had two channels of entry/exit: regular sidewalk when pesky humans weren’t around, or the wide drain when we were.

Once Gorby went missing for a full eighteen hours. It was his first full night out. We grew anxious. When he returned the next morning, smelling of stale beer and garbage, I saw my younger self in him, remembering my own adolescent nights of too many Graveyards at Zouk, slobbering up the driveway after stumbling out of the cab.

Ling and I eventually figured out that Gorby must have gotten locked in the Tessarina’s rubbish room. Was it love that distracted him that night? While I appreciate stray cat challenges everywhere, a part of me still, father to son, regrets that we snipped him, that we stopped him from living a full life. Perhaps then not only his spirit, but his blood, would still be around.

There is some irony in the fact that Gorby, such a wonderful longkang cat, was not himself allowed some gutter sex, to father another longkang cat. On that note, please resist the use of “Singapore Special”, yet another in our globalising society’s subconscious efforts to eradicate Malayan colloquialisms in favour of bland, anglophilic universalisms. “Longkang cat” is much nicer, much more befitting of the samseng swagger of Gorby and his ilk.

Then there was the six month period when Gorby morphed into some Arnie-type Terminator, protecting my parents’ house from the marauding feline invaders. It was the only time his fur has ever grown stiff, his entire habitus electrified like a cartoon cat, one uni-shaped ball of energy.

Ling saw all this but I never did cos I’m too much of a chicken. Just the shrieks alone, when the cats ripped into each other as poor Ling screamed for them to stop, would give me nightmares. I would wait in bed for them to return, and then mutter something about the need to keep Gorby in at night. Ling would somehow manage in one breath to both admonish and cheer her boy, the protector.

In the weeks leading up to the move, I spoke more to Gorby. “Go! Leave the house! Enjoy the great outdoors while you can!” I like to think that he heeded my advice, that he roamed the neighbourhood while he could.

But nothing, not even salmon treats or Cheetos puffs, can really prepare you for the unknown. And so when Ling and I moved Blooby and Gorby to our eleventh-storey flat, it was paradise for one, prison the other. Blooby quickly settled in to her new, sheltered routine. True, her favourite lizards are less common here. But on the flip side she doesn’t have to worry about my younger sister, who loved scaring her, or my two nieces, whose shrill voices unintentionally scared her, or the countless visitors my semi-retired father would have trooping around “her” space. Blooby has become so decadently comfortable in Pasir Ris that she has ballooned and we have since put her on a strict diet.

Gorby, however, always seemed to have this quizzical look on his face in Pasir Ris. Where is the bigger playground? Where are the birds and squirrels? Why am I stuck so high? Where are you going when you step through those closing doors? How do I get back down to earth? OK, Mama & Papi, the joke’s over. When can we go back home?

I still feel bad for shrinking Gorby’s universe from one square kilometre to one Singaporean flat (and its balconies). There’s nothing wrong with the flat, of course. Singapore has some of the best in the world, Ling and I are loving every minute of it—and will be through the next hundred and fifty years of mortgage payments.

But Gorby, through no fault of his own, was spoiled. Should I be happy that Gorby spent his youth roaming, paws to earth as his ancestors might have? Or sad that he was forced through this emotional rollercoaster, his last days lived as another digit in the Singaporean high-rise matrix?

Gorby is my first BFF/ being/ loved one to have died during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not because of it, just during.

The coincidental thing, as Gorby will surely tell you when you see him in heaven, is that for two years now he’s been on a strict Stay at Home notice.

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I have nicknames for my closest friends. Crowd favourites include Nickelodeon for Nicole and Bombay Sapphire or Sapphy for my elder sister. Years after they met her, some friends like Jacko knew my sister only as Sapphy. In the days after Gorby died, serendipitous Facebook conversations lifted my spirit, like one about food between Bunny, Channy and Kecoh, all of whom knew Gorby.

While each nickname is special in its own way, I have always derived the most pleasure from introducing and explaining Comrade Gorbachev Marx Homas, or Gorby.

Gorby joined our house a year after Blooby did.

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Chan Chun Sing, our beng?

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Everybody I know who knows Chan Chun Sing likes him.

Smart, folksy, straight-talker, authentic, humble beginnings, frugal, hard worker who tirelessly works the ground, all well known attributes. I like his accent and liberal use of colloquialisms.

I have enjoyed stories about how he likes driving his security detail around (rather than being driven) and how, in conversations with elite civil servants, he has championed the need to cultivate closer ties with our immediate neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, an issue close to my heart.

All that gives me reason for pause when critiquing CCS. In the ivory tower that writers sometimes appear to occupy, one invariably wonders about the image of a person that the media projects. CCS is not the bumbling buffoon caricatured by his kee chiu antics, something I’ve heard many times.

Yet, as with most things, there is value in the views from both near and far. From my  distant trench, the evidence that keeps emerging about him—the latest being a leaked recording of a closed-door discussion with the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI)—only deepens my conviction that he has ascended far higher than he would have if we had genuine meritocracy at the top.

CCS, in other words, would probably make a great Permanent Secretary (PermSec), pinnacle of the civil service, or agency head, or possibly a more junior politician, somebody that can connect with, and rouse, the “heartland” ground.

That he has risen to our putative second in command worries me.

And the fact that many Singaporeans have actually praised CCS for his comments at SCCCI suggests to me that our bar for leadership is just so low.

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Many believe, firstly, that CCS’s explanation of the COVID-19 mask situation was indicative of transparency about stocks and logical decision-making. Yes, I enjoyed the clear-eyed thinking but then I remembered something: you and I were never supposed to hear that.

Instead the message the government publicly gave us was a cursory “Don’t wear masks if healthy, wear if sick”, which was confusing for all sorts of reasons.1

Instead of patting CCS on the back for being upfront with a closed group, we should ask: why did our politicians not treat us, all of us, as smart, responsible citizens and give us a fuller, more thorough explanation from the start?

Oh yes, that is a non-starter. A little more than a month ago, when CCS faced a parliamentary question from the Worker’s Party Pritam Singh about specific PMET employment numbers, his blithe, brow-beating response included “What is the point behind the question?”

If even our democratically-elected opposition leader is unable to easily extract basic data about our employment situation in parliament, then you and I, ordinary citizens, should be grateful simply to be told what day of the week it is.

CCS is a straight talker? Yes, for whatever he chooses to talk straight about.

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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

Han-and-Leia

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.

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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.

merdeka group

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.