The day Singapore’s education minister lost some credibility

Ongyekung

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.

***

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

a conversation this Friday about ghosts & politics

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dear friends in Singapore, this Friday BooksActually, our favourite indie bookstore in Tiong Bahru, will be open for 24 hours (see the Facebook event page). Kenny Leck and team have scheduled an interesting series of talk cock sessions and performances.

At 8pm June 21st I will be on a panel alongside Kokila Annamalai and Sufian Hakim. We will explore the topic of “Ghosts & politics”. Who are the “ghosts” of our political world? What scary stories have we been told about them? Will Singaporeans ever outgrow our fear of “the dark”?

Should be fun. Hope to see you there!

Full event text:

BooksActually
presents

BOOKSACTUALLY’S 24 HOUR BOOKSTORE (it’s back!)

☞ 21st & 22nd June 2019, Friday & Saturday
Events run from 7PM – 2AM at
BooksActually
(9 Yong Siak Street,
Singapore 168645)

BooksActually will be holding our annual 24-Hour Bookstore! Yes you heard that right, BooksActually opened overnight 21st (Fri) to 22nd June (Sat)! Additionally, there will be many programmes lined up—performances, panel discussions, readings and more importantly FOOD! Come down for a good time and an unforgettable experience.

* BYOP – Bring Your Own Pillow!
** 20% Off Storewide (Except Magazines) from 21st June, 7pm to 22nd June, 2am!
–––
Event Line-Up:

7PM – 8PM
Reading & Panel Discussion — Epigram Books Fiction Prize Winners
with Sebastian Sim and Yeoh Jo-Ann
moderated by Edmund Wee

8PM – 9PM
Panel Discussion — Ghosts & Politics
with Kokila Annamalai, Sufian Hakim and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh

9:30PM – 10:30PM
Performance & Discussion — Pitch Witch and Inside Voices
by Main Tulis Group

10:30PM – 12MN
Reading — Peculiar Chris
with Eileena Lee, Miak Siew and Leow Yangfa

12MN – 1AM
In Conversation with Alfian Sa’at and Kenny Leck

1AM – 2AM
Open Mic — Ghosts, Ghosts, Ghosts!

on speech: the PAP’s cheerleaders are the last ones standing

The PAP’s cheerleaders are the last ones standing

NAS

Unfortunately the majority of commentators in Singapore would never say anything critical about the People’s Action Party (PAP) or the country. I am referring very broadly to anybody who comments—in universities, media outfits and elsewhere. Sure, they will opine on poor driving habits or spoiled Singaporeans or the haze, but will clam up if they think their comments may have the slightest professional or political cost.

Before I share a specific example, let me first propose that while many of them recognise their limitations, many others exhibit a shocking lack of self awareness. Several years ago I was speaking on a panel overseas about self-censorship. I said that it is something that afflicts everybody—for example with me, perhaps, when writing about Singapore’s judiciary or race and religion in Floating on a Malayan Breeze, my first book. Other panellists recounted their own experiences. But also on the panel was a senior person from a Singapore government institution who blithely said that there is no such thing as self censorship; people are free to write what they want in Singapore. What was worrying is that it looked like this person truly believed it. Many in the audience were incredulous.

So I certainly do not expect all of these wise Singaporean sages to accept this characterisation. Perhaps the true genius of the Singapore panopticon is not just in convincing people to give up their freedoms, but in subsequently convincing them that they have lost nothing.

Now let’s recall what happened in 2017: the PAP changed the constitution so that it could reserve the current presidency for Malays, with the specific intentions, most people believe, of preventing Tan Cheng Bock from running and ushering in Halimah Yaacob, the party’s favoured candidate.

And let’s remember for a moment all the horrible ramifications of this disgraceful manoeuvre. Democracy was hijacked and our basic electoral processes turned into a joke, most obviously by Chan Chun Sing who called Halimah “president” twice in parliament seven months before the supposed “election”. The Attorney General argued that the PAP can define “elected presidency” however it wants to, effectively saying the party can rewrite the dictionary and Singapore’s history however it likes.

Worse were the assaults on identity, multiculturalism and the broader women’s rights movement. The PAP told us that the “race” we all have on our identity cards, that has been hardwired into us, is actually switchable—even though Halimah’s was “Indian”, she could run as a “Malay”. Meanwhile the Presidential Commission decided that only one Malay in the whole of Singapore was fit to run. What a terrible, false message that sends about the Malay community. Overt racism against Malays, with slurs like “that makcik”, was suddenly in vogue.

Finally, what should have been a triumph for women—the election of Singapore’s first female president—was turned into a sham. Many believe that Halimah would have won a fair race against the two other Malay men (who were disqualified), and possibly even against Tan. Instead, history is going to remember our first female president as somebody so politically weak that she needed democracy to be usurped as she ascended to her throne.

To achieve a political objective, the PAP has done lasting damage to both Malays and females.

***

I apologise to readers who have heard these things ad nauseam. But they bear repeating here. Because as all these tragedies were piling up, one after another, like a slow motion crash, where was the pushback? Where were the Singaporean writers and talking heads and sociologists and political scientists and poets and comedians and artists and vLoggers? Continue reading

on speech: free speech, ethnic harmony and Watain

Free speech, ethnic harmony and Watain

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Societies everywhere have become too sensitive about speech. One person taking offence should not be grounds for the police to investigate speech (as regularly happens in Singapore). The broadening definition of micro-aggressions on US campuses is proof of this heightened sensitivity globally. I was quite shocked and disappointed to hear, for instance, that the University of California, my alma mater, had decided that it is a micro-aggression “to say that ‘America is a land of opportunity’, because it could be taken to imply that those who do not succeed have only themselves to blame.”

That doesn’t mean absolutely anything should be permissible. Freedom has its limitations. And while I instinctively disagree with the concept of “safe spaces”, this objection is secondary to a broader, more urgent notion: that the main imperative in society must be to enable different voices to be heard, to promote the free exchange of ideas. The internet has changed the dynamics of all this incredibly, and there is a great piece on content regulation at Reddit here:

“Does free speech mean literally anyone can say anything at any time?” Tidwell continued. “Or is it actually more conducive to the free exchange of ideas if we create a platform where women and people of color can say what they want without thousands of people screaming, ‘Fuck you, light yourself on fire, I know where you live’? If your entire answer to that very difficult question is ‘Free speech,’ then, I’m sorry, that tells me that you’re not really paying attention.”

If we accept that the free exchange of ideas—and not free speech per se—is the more important ideal for a thinking society, then we must first be aware that in any multicultural, unequal city, different groups will have varying levels of confidence in expressing themselves (for reasons of culture, history, income, access, etc.). Thus while my instincts lean towards free speech—with the usual exceptions of hate speech and incitement—I can also see why it may be prudent in certain, limited circumstances to allow for narrow “safe spaces”.

What does all that theorising mean in practical terms? Well, for a global city like Singapore, if we want to encourage, say, the Muslim community or the LGBT community to share their thoughts, we may need to create—again, in specific, limited circumstances—spaces for them to do so without fear that their core beliefs will be attacked.

That must never be a general rule, of course. In any thinking society, all religious doctrines—not the believers themselves—must be subject to open interrogation. I know there are many in Singapore who believe that religions must be immune from criticism, but I’m sorry—we live in a world where people kill in the name of God and priests fuck little boys captive to God. (Pardon my French but when describing paedophiles my niceties betray me.)

So for instance in Singapore, if pastors want to criticise what they might consider the indecent dress sense of gays, the law should not stop them—even if their own dreadful fashion sense might. Similarly if gays want to criticise perceived homophobic passages of the Bible or the Qu’ran, the law should not stop them—even if their respect for the beliefs of others might. But none of these people should be able to criticise relentlessly anywhere and everywhere, such that they frighten off gays and Christians and Muslims from communicating.

All of the above is nice in theory—including the definition of hate speech—but much harder in practice. But every society must try.

Do I trust Singapore’s partisan ministers to be the arbiters of this? Absolutely not. However noble their intentions, they have repeatedly shown that they do not possess the requisite sensitivity to do so.

***

Let’s take a recent example: the banning of Watain. I was actually inspired by the many Singaporeans speaking up, sometimes to great comedic effect, against government overbearingness, hypersensitivity, and the intolerance of a moral minority.

Continue reading

on speech: has the government ever spread misinformation in Singapore?

The deliberate spread of falsehoods and misinformation

Marxistplotuncovered

Yes this is a problem everywhere from India and Myanmar to Russia and the US. The consequences can be horrific.

But in Singapore? One can reasonably argue that the People’s Action Party (PAP), the government and the mainstream media channels it controls have historically been some of the main sources of falsehoods and misinformation (in terms of reach and impact).

Exhibit A

In the late 1980s, Lee Hsien Loong, then trade and industry minister, was one of the politicians who alleged that a group of people were plotting a Marxist Conspiracy.

In 2001, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, then senior minister, said “from what I knew of them [the alleged conspirators], most were social activists but were not out to subvert the system.”

Sadly, one of our two leaders has got his facts wrong. Since both statements are still in the public domain, I hope our new, superpower “true-or-false” ministers will soon decide and strike down the lie.

Exhibit B

During campaigning at the 2015 General Elections, Lianhe Zaobao, a Singapore Chinese paper, published allegations from a poison pen letter suggesting that Daniel Goh, the Workers’ Party candidate, had had an affair with one of his students. The Straits Times and Channel News Asia repeated the allegation, the latter with a salacious “Did he or did he not?” teaser.

One reason falsehoods and misinformation are of global concern today is because of their potential to affect elections. At Singapore’s last election, the worst and possibly only instance of widespread misinformation was produced by three of Singapore’s mainstream media channels.

One curious clause in the government’s new bill is General Exemption #61. “The Minister may, by order in the Gazette, exempt any person or class of persons from any provision of this Act.”

Well, dear reader, you don’t need to guess whom they are going to exempt; they already did so in the last election—none of those mainstream media channels were punished.

Likewise, no action was taken against PAP politician Charles Chong, whose printed flyers made a wild, false accusation against the Workers Party ahead of the election. Quite the contrary. After spreading what seems to be fake news, Chong was appointed chair of the government’s fake news committee (yes, you read that right.)

Of course there are anti-PAP campaigns of falsehoods and misinformation, like The Real Singapore. I have no respect for such publications. But the salient point is that because of their highly limited reach, none of them have had any material impact on the government’s or the PAP’s reputation thus far.

Whereas in the above two examples there was an immediate—and for the first, still ongoing—impact.

***

Finally, this may not represent “a deliberate” spread of misinformation but is in my opinion—I think I’m still entitled to that—highly regrettable and irresponsible online behaviour from PAP politicians Seah Kian Peng and K Shanmugam.

Continue reading

on speech: the slow death of honest discourse

Galileo_before_the_Holy_Office

“Galileo before the Holy Office”. Galileo, accused of heresy, was kept under house arrest until his death.

Perhaps what bothers me most about Singapore’s new “fake news” law is the sheer brazenness of it. The idea that a group of partisan ministers can determine what is true or false for the whole of society reflects a way of thinking out of touch with reality and lacking in humility (yes, theoretically the courts are the final arbiters, but practically the ministers probably will be).

While I do think some law is necessary to tackle the very real scourges of falsehoods, hate speech and other online hazards, it’s preposterous to give a politician (or any partisan person) the power to decide what’s legit.

Have we learned nothing from Galileo?

Cherian George articulates my concerns (here and here) far better than I ever could, so rather than dwell on the law itself I’d like to set its brazenness against the larger backdrop of what worries me as a writer in Singapore today: the slow death of  honest discourse.

What the People’s Action Party (PAP) has been recently doing to opinions it doesn’t like—and the people who voice them—is damaging and will eventually exact a heavy toll, I believe, on our country.

In some ways there has never been a better time to be a writer in Singapore. There are more media companies and publications based here for numerous reasons, financial, geographic and otherwise; more desire for Asian perspectives on Asia; and more interest in Singapore itself. This contributes to more opportunities for writers and other “content creators”. All this is happening alongside wonderful technological advances that have enabled much of our work to be done remotely—I am staring at Pasir Ris Beach while typing this. (I know; poor me.)

Yet when it comes to commenting about Singaporean society and politics, the mood is about as gloomy as it’s been in the past decade. Academics have been shunned or exiled for things they’ve said; activists have been charged for innocuous acts that would be passé in any other developed country; alternative media channels, many of whom rely on government advertising, have resorted to avoiding controversial topics; and many mainstream media journalists feel censorship reasserting itself.

There are only two groups of thinkers/writers/media peeps operating freely in Singapore now: those who do not cover Singapore; and those who do but would never say anything critical about the PAP or its policies, like the party’s newest fanboy, Nuseir Yassin (aka Nas Daily). Everybody else is working with fear. “Nobody is safe [from prosecution],” a friend recently told me. “Remember Li Shengwu.” Even Lee Kuan Yew’s grandchild, a Harvard professor, has been charged for a private Facebook post and effectively exiled. Nobody is safe.

This does not bode well for our country. At a time when the future is uncertain—identity politics, terrorism, automation, inequalities, the rise of leggings—we should be encouraging a diversity of voices to help us think through issues. Instead, we are creating a climate of fear that is starving public thought.

But first, let’s see what’s happening to journalists and speech globally.

The global chill

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Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year issue had four covers featuring different persecuted journalists: the staff of Maryland-based Capital Gazette; Burmese Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo; Filipino Maria Ressa; and Saudi Jamal Khashoggi.

Continue reading

Singapore—history haunts the ultra-modern state

Excerpt of my piece on Singapore’s bicentennial, i.e. commemoration of the arrival of Raffles and The British Empire in 1819, first published on Nikkei Asian Review

pioneer statues

From Cape Town to San Francisco, cities have been toppling monuments to historical figures with troubling legacies. In Singapore, authorities have opted for a more genteel way of dealing with the statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British colonialist who in 1819 chose the tiny island as the East India Co.’s new regional base.

They are diluting the imperialist’s prominence by erecting for the year four new statues of Asian pioneers near Raffles.

The government is commemorating the bicentennial of Raffles’ landing with a yearlong pageantry of exhibitions, essays and events (there may even be a national election).

It is a means to interrogate Singapore’s rich but oft-overlooked pre-independence history. Yet the process involves risks — it exposes some inherent contradictions about a global city’s identity, as interpreted by a heavy-handed state.

Compared with India and most other former British colonies, independent Singapore has always had a romantic view of colonialism.

Continue reading at Nikkei Asian Review

Malaysia and Singapore: Here we go again

Malaysia-Singapore-Lee-Hsien-Loong-Mahathir-Mohamad-November-12-2018-960x576

Malaysia’s and Singapore’s governments at each other’s throats? We’ve been here before. One of the reasons why Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) and, until May this year, Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional (BN) have won national elections more consistently than any other party in democratic Asia is their ability to ratchet up domestic nationalist sentiment against the other.

The PAP has ruled Singapore for almost 60 years while the BN era (including its Alliance predecessor) lasted 61 years. BN may no longer be in power, but Malaysia’s current governing coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH), has as prime minister ninety-three-year old Mahathir Mohamad, a former BN leader and persistent thorn in Singapore’s side. There is a tiresome familiarity to it all.

We can be sure of three things. First, once the sabre-rattling is done, the governments will eventually resolve all aerial and maritime boundary issues amicably.

Second, the big losers will be us, the citizens. In a world struggling to deal with nativism, and the dangers posed by demagogues who preen their exclusive identities at the expense of our common humanity, it has been worryingly easy for politicians to ignite dormant antagonisms against the other.

Malaysians and Singaporeans are essentially the same peoples—in both countries one finds the same ethnicities, the same religions, the same cultures, the same cendols (almost). If even we can be so easily turned against each other, what hope do other more conflicting identities elsewhere in the world have?

Politicians on both sides have exhibited passive-aggressive tendencies. Rais Hussin, a supreme council member of Bersatu, the Mahathir-led party that is part of PH, wrote an Op-Ed that combined a conciliatory call for cooler heads with a bald-faced threat that Singapore was at risk of “pain by a thousand cuts”. It was remarkable not least because one rarely sees a Malay channelling a punishment from Imperial China.

Tan Chuan-Jin, Singapore’s speaker of parliament, reposted on Facebook a potentially incendiary video that suggests Malaysia may have nefarious motivations for its actions, such as inciting racial disharmony in Singapore. He also asked followers to keep Singaporean soldiers “in our prayers”, a divine exhortation one usually associates with boots on battlefields. He ends off saying that “no one is trying to be jingoistic”, which is precisely the sort of disclaimer that makes one worry about jingoism.

***

The third thing we know for sure is that the big winner from all this will be the PAP. Continue reading

on Singapore’s presidential election

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Farid Khan; Halimah Yacob; Salleh Marican

 

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.

#tanchengblock
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.

Continue reading

some final thoughts on Oxley

38 Oxley GPox21304

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.)

Continue reading