On Sunday April 12, five days after Singapore’s effective lockdown (known as circuit breaker) began, Chia Shi-Lu, a politician with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), visited the Alexandra Village Food Centre.
“We were not doing a walkabout, we were there to tell people to wear masks when serving and please wear masks, it was more an education thing,” was Chia’s response.
Strange, then, that Chia, a medical doctor, chose to perform this selfless act accompanied by an entourage, including a prospective political candidate and a photo journalist from Lianhe Zaobao, a government-controlled Chinese newspaper.
Singapore recently set up a Select Committee on fake news and invited public submissions. It is encouraging to see many Singaporeans getting involved. Here is my small contribution:
There are many aspects of fake news that need addressing. I will limit my discussion here to one broad philosophical point: whether or not established media channels globally are partly responsible for creating an environment in which fake news can thrive; and what can be done about it.
Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, writer
The very idea of Singapore is founded on fake news. The modern zoological consensus is that lions never roamed around Malaya. So in 1299 when Sang Nila Utama, the Srivijaya prince, landed in (what was then called) Temasek and spotted a handsome beast, it was most likely a tiger. Singa-pura, lion city, could well have been named Harimau-pura, tiger city, in modern Malay, or even Vyaghrah-pura, in Sanskrit, in use then, and the roots of “Singa”.
Yes, Vyaghrahpore. Without fake news, our little red dot might have pre-empted erectile dysfunction’s saviour. 
Yet that was more a simple falsehood than “news” as we know it. One of the first instances of fake news in the mass media was in 1835, when the New York Sun published observations of the moon by astronomer John Herschel, detailing “giant man-bats that spent their days collecting fruit and holding animated conversations; goat-like creatures with blue skin; a temple made of polished sapphire”.
The fake news had the desired effect—among a public hungry for galactic fantasies, the Sun’s circulation rose from 8,000 to over 19,000, making it the world’s bestselling daily.
All this is simply to point out that fake news has been around for over a century at least. It is not just some new-age digital poison spewed by greedy Macedonian teenagers, disenchanted trolls in Saint Petersburg, or others of their ilk.
Moreover it is not only dubious, fly-by-night media outfits that are prone to publishing fake news. Some of the industry’s most venerable brands are too.
It would be convenient for me to make this point by pointing out possible fake news by conservative stations, like Fox News, whose political views differ from mine.
So instead I will point out possible fallacies in two newspapers which I hold in the highest regard: The Economist and The Financial Times.
And I will do so by defending two politicians whose views I find ignorant at best: Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.
For months I have been committed to spoiling my vote.
The way the government has gone about the entire exercise is problematic. First, amending the constitution with the main intention of—most people believe—blocking a candidate it doesn’t like. Then, dressing up the political manoeuvre as affirmative action for Malays. Then organising endless surveys, forums, articles, etc. to sell it to Singaporeans, in the process draining taxpayers’ time and money.
Finally—and this is the real worrying thing—showing basic incompetence in its execution, in the definition of “Malay”, in the definition of “elected presidency”, apparently unaware of the numerous pitfalls of this manoeuvre, of the horrid racial interrogations that would follow.
Every bit of political messaging, every sound byte emanating from the Orwellian top, had me wondering: is this Pravda, is this Newspeak, am I living in some parallel universe? Does the government really think we are that stupid?
And yet, over the past two weeks I have changed my mind. I believe it is necessary, as somebody committed to multiculturalism, to endorse this reserved election and vote for a Malay candidate. Spoiling my vote could, in some microscopic way, threaten societal cohesion, as I will explain below.
Assuming there even is a vote, whom to choose? That doesn’t really matter so much, I feel. Personal preference. They are all talented and competent in their own way.
For me, I would choose Halimah Yacob, because she’s female and because she seems to be that rare politician committed to simple living—two causes I believe, in whatever small way, need to be encouraged.
Yet even if she becomes president—as seems almost certain—her presidency will always be tainted. If we, as citizens, are to have an honest relationship with her, we must never let her forget that.
I remember the moment like it were yesterday: during campaigning for GE 2015, Tan Cheng Bock strolling into a nighttime SDP rally headlined by Chee Soon Juan and Paul Tambyah, his avuncular smile moving in and out of stadium lights and shadows.
The people around me, tiptoeing on soft earth, flag-waving arms growing weary, went ballistic. Thunderous applause and cheers, yet different from before. This was a self-affirming chest bump, the kind offered to high-profile converts anywhere, and for the demure-looking political virgins there who still believed that even uttering “S.D.P.” might be a crime, here was their ultimate vindication.
The man of the people, the former insider and newly baptised insurgent.
Dear reader, yesterday I published a piece on Oxley mostly for a foreign audience.
During my research, my conversations with numerous people threw up lots of fascinating insights into personal motivations, characters, the way Singaporean institutions work with each other, the way power is deployed, and so on. Much of the juicier, hearsay stuff should probably be saved for coffeeshop talk, but here are a few issues—separate from the ones I address in the piece—worth pondering:
Let’s not talk about it? First, the most worrying thing. If Singapore ever faces a serious corruption problem at the top, we now know there are many Singaporeans who won’t bother. A corrupt leader may simply be able to waltz off with the family jewels.
Think about it. The prime minister’s own siblings had accused him of abuse of power. Instead of simply being curious about the incident, never mind calling for an investigation, many Singaporeans shot the messengers—please don’t air your dirty laundry in public.
Worse, there were suggestions that Singaporeans shouldn’t talk about this because it damages our country’s reputation. People were more concerned about face than abuse of power. Let’s just sweep everything under the carpet, now. That’s the mature way to deal with problems.
The Old Man. Shouldn’t LKY shoulder at least a bit of the blame? For somebody so decisive in life, he has proved frustratingly ambiguous in death. He flip-flopped over including the demolition clause in his will. He gave each kid an equal share of his estate; but, knowing that they disagreed over the fate of the Oxley Road house, he gave the property to Lee Hsien Loong but placed his demolition desire, legally, in the hands of the executors, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, the only one to live there. Settle your differences, he seems to have been saying.
The Old Man, clearly, was never able to reconcile his two competing morals: on the one hand, shunning monuments (destroy the house), and on the other, realising that the state’s interests must always supersede the individual’s (let the government decide).
I suspect, given what we now know about his squabbling children, that he may not have died in peace. Which is sad.
On a related note is LKY’s fabled belief in simple living. It’s all quite ironic, isn’t it? This was a man who inspired a country of materialists. So while the rest of us have been upgrading our shoes, phones and TVs every chance we get, the founder was still chilling in his midcentury wooden chair. And now we want to preserve it all.1
Sarojini Naidu, a poet and political activist, once joked that it cost India a fortune to keep Gandhi in poverty. She was referring to, among other things, the fact that while he travelled in third-class in his homespun dhotis, lots of money had to be spent on buying up tickets to clear up the cabin and ensure his security.
Observing the fracas over 38 Oxley Road, one wonders if we might one day say the same about LKY’s simple living—that it ended up costing us a fortune.
The squabbling children. With Hsien Loong, his motivations seem fairly clear. The house offers a physical link to his father, from whom he derives much legitimacy. It is fairly well accepted that if Hsien Loong were not his father’s son, there are others in the party, including George Yeo and Tharman, who might have posed a bigger challenge. (That said, let’s acknowledge that Hsien Loong was born with a challenge, with shoes to fill, beyond our wildest.)
Do people become subversive after reading Animal Farm?
George Orwell’s allegory on totalitarianism was one piece of evidence Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) allegedly seized in 1987 during Operation Spectrum. Thirty years on, the arrest and detention without trial of twenty-two people accused by the government of plotting a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the state is still an episode shrouded in fog. There are good reasons today for society to embrace a more honest conversation about it.
The facts bear mention. On May 21st and June 20th 1987, a total of nine men and thirteen women, aged eighteen to forty, were arrested and detained by the ISD using powers conferred by Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA). The accused were a mix of activists, Catholic Church members, social workers and theatre performers. Some had ties to the rejuvenated Workers’ Party.
A week after the first arrests, the government released a statement tying them to a supposed plot masterminded by Tan Wah Piow, a Singaporean student activist who had gone into exile in London a decade earlier. All of the detained eventually gave written and/or video confessions.
By the end of 1987, all except Vincent Cheng, a church worker, had been released. On April 18th 1988, nine of the ex-detainees issued a statement recanting their confessions, saying they had been made under duress.
All but one, who was overseas, were rearrested the next day. They eventually reaffirmed their original statements and were again released. Two lawyers representing the detainees were also arrested, detained and later released. Cheng, the last detainee, was released in 1990.
Almost immediately doubts emerged about Operation Spectrum’s veracity. In 1991, Walter Woon, later to be Attorney-General, said “As far as I am concerned, the government’s case is still not proven. I would not say those fellows were Red, not from the stuff they presented.” In 1992, Minister S. Dhanabalan resigned from the Cabinet because of his discomfort with Operation Spectrum.
In 2001, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, personal friends with some of the accused, said “although I had no access to state intelligence, from what I knew of them, most were social activists but were not out to subvert the system.” Mary Turnbull, noted historian on Singapore, has called “the alleged Marxist conspiracy” a myth. (Source: C.M. Turnbull (2009). A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005.)
Despite this broad-based suspicion about what happened, the government has yet to conduct an inquiry. In 2011 the Ministry of Home Affairs reasserted its position that the twenty-two “were not detained for their political beliefs, but because they had involved themselves in subversive activities which posed a threat to national security.”
Many believe there is nothing to be gained from an inquiry into something that occurred thirty years ago. That is myopic. A nation cannot be built on collective amnesia. By conducting one, Singapore can finally ascertain the truth, strengthening societal cohesion, as well as public faith in its national security apparatus.
To understand why, it is worth first considering the allegations made by the detainees about their time in jail. Long reticent because of their fear of reprisals, some have in recent years started speaking out. Many claim they did not know each other before the arrests. The picture they paint of detention without trial, if true, is grim.
For the first seventy-two hours detainees claim they were made to stand barefoot in thin clothes while being interrogated in a tundra-like room by ISD officers wrapped in winter wear. Sleep deprived, the detainees started hallucinating.
Dear friends, I will be taking part in a dialogue at Bras Basah Complex this Saturday at 230pm alongside Alex Au, Braema Mathi, Derek Da Cunha, Jack Lee and Rafiz Hapipi, organised by MARUAH, a Singapore Human Rights NGO (no, that’s not an oxymoron).
There is something crude and reductive about how an individual’s complexity and preferences get compressed into a single vote once every five years.
But there is also something beautiful.
When all the chatter is done, that vote, ultimately, is the only expression that counts.
Once the results started streaming in, and words like “massacre” began floating across living rooms, close friends and family asked if I was sad. Astonished, certainly, as I sat there mouth gaping open, just like when Germany beat Brazil 7-1.
But not sad. The results are enlightening, informative, and should give each of us, whatever our political inclinations, a humbling sense of where we stand in the larger Singaporean community.
In Singapore, we don’t have the luxury of regular sentiment polls, and so elections are, even more so, those wonderful, occasional snapshots. I savour them.
What does sadden me, however, are suggestions that certain groups of voters are silly, ill-informed, ignorant. This election campaign has certainly seen its fair share of wacky commentary. One of my favourite strands was the conflation of the PAP and Christianity. Some WhatsApp messages compared the WP to the devil; the hammer, apparently, was going to rise up from the fiery pits of Hell to destroy everything Singapore had built.
We are at a curious point in history. Whenever I share my electoral preferences, my PAP friends call me an opposition supporter; and my opposition friends call me a PAP supporter.
Why? I’ll come back to that at the end of these four pieces, but first I want to discuss three issues I think are important.
This is not some comprehensive analysis of this election. Just three issues that I think haven’t been given enough consideration; and that have affected my choice.
They are: the diversity of ideas in Singapore; the nexus of power in Singapore; and Singapore’s population policies.
Diversity of ideas
First, as Singapore prepares for its next phase of development, we simply do not have a sufficient diversity of ideas in the public realm. Our level of public debate and discourse is terrible. Our country is not having the conversations it so desperately needs.
I will once again not be in Singapore for this year’s Pink Dot celebration, scheduled for 5pm, June 28th at Hong Lim Park (see here).
Aside from being our biggest civil demonstration, and looking like a rather fun party, of all the illiberal policies in Singapore, nothing offends my sensibilities more than the continued criminalisation of male homosexuals.
As I mentioned at the launch of Hard Choices (see here), I strongly believe that the presence of this law is a stain on our collective moral conscience. In the same way that future generations of humans may wonder how the world took so long to get ecological sustainability right, I am certain future generations of Singaporeans will ask how a developed, democratic, aspiring global city took so long to guarantee fundamental rights to a minority group.
Of course gay rights, just like ethnic rights, women’s rights, and every other human right, is a function of the social norms of the day. But this is the 21st century: while the rest of the developed world wonders whether or not to legalise gay marriage, some Singaporeans cling onto atavistic fears, dressed in cultural relativism, about legalising homosexuals themselves.
Though I have spoken publicly about this bigotry many times and touched on it in Floating on a Malayan Breeze, this is my first article or blogpost on the matter.
I actually didn’t think it necessary to write this—since many more enlightened souls have already spoken—but two people recently convinced me to do so. But since so much has already been written in Singapore and overseas, I will limit myself to what I believe are under-explored areas on the issue. This is not meant to be a comprehensive essay.