Response to NYT piece on Singapore


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In response to a recent NYT piece, “A Sudden Coronavirus Surge Brought Out Singapore’s Dark Side”. I am glad to see others taking the time to write about us, there is always something to learn.

Nevertheless, if you allow me to put on my editor’s hat for a moment, I have two thematic critiques of the piece:

A) Feeding the impression that Singapore is an autocracy where robots blindly comply

Most recent Western commentaries tend to lavish praise on Singapore, in line with a greater appreciation over the past decade for state-led models of growth, Beijing consensus etc.

Unfortunately, this NYT piece takes us back to certain Western commentaries from the 1990s, ala Disneyland with the Death Penalty and North Korea comparisons.

That was the time when some commentators could not fathom why others might willingly accept trade-offs between personal freedoms and economic growth/“stability”. Commentators would conclude, often implicitly, that the citizens must be blind or brainwashed.

Not to imply that the trade-off is necessary—jury is out; or that the piece necessarily makes this argument. But it gives off the scent, triggering the patriotic Singaporean’s inner desire to rebut the neo-colonial.

The narrative flaw is this: throughout the piece there is the impression given of a population at the mercy of an overbearing state and its vigilantes, e.g. lady with the phone-camera.

The writer fails to identify and articulate the very real agency that many Singaporeans today feel—agency not only at the ballot box, which has always been there (to some degree), but agency to enact change in our lives, whether lobbying for gay rights, whether doctors clamouring for greater COVID-19 action, whether ordinary people writing and publishing online to circumvent traditional media controls, etc.

No, I certainly don’t want to make the case that Singaporeans have much agency, or that the state and public are wholly tolerant of dissent. We have a long way to go.

But this NYT piece takes it a bit too far. There is not enough to balance the discourse, especially in that paragraph that goes on about gay sex and drug dealers. A reader who has never visited might find it hard to distinguish life here from, say, in China or Iran.

How might I have changed things?

The most obvious is to include something about the party’s popularity. That all these draconian measures have long received popular support from one of the world’s most educated and widely-travelled populations at the ballot box, most recently by a thumping 70%. (Sure, when doing so, include caveats about illiberal democracy, GRCs, whatever.)

Not once does the writer mention electoral legitimacy, a glaring omission.

Another way would have been to mention one of the numerous ways ordinary citizens have been pushing for change and helping to protect and improve the rights of minorities, Pink Dot the obvious one.

This is not meant to be a long poli-sci discussion; I quite like the writer’s literary style. But one or two well crafted sentences at the appropriate junctures would have offered much-needed balance.

B) Focusing only on our communitarian society’s negative COVID-19 reinforcements—while ignoring the positive

The writer seems to be so absorbed by the policing of her behaviour that she just dwells on the penalties and the fines and the “neighbourhood vigilantes”.

But what about all the positive reinforcements? The opening of wallets, the donating of food and fruits to the worker dorms, the making and giving away of masks, the hand sanitisers left in public spaces, the redistribution of laptops from rich to poor kids, etc.

Again, I think we have a long way to go, but some acknowledgement would have been nice, would have shown that the writer has a broader and more balanced view of Singaporean society.

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All that said, I enjoyed the piece because it’s always productive to listen to the views of an outsider, true almost anywhere in life, especially in business.

I extracted some important lessons: Why are Singaporeans so eager to police each other? Looking at the history of tuberculosis and the ID act, are we too focussed on negative reinforcements and not enough on positive? (An allusion to life at large, as writer says.)

And, though not new, the writer gives one of the most poetic articulations of our “First world city, third world wage structure” problem, in that much-quoted paragraph on “geographic bifurcation”.

So, thanks to writer and NYT for taking the time.

Do remember, writer, that many of us don’t like the xenophobic sentiments going around in Singapore: “If you don’t like it here, please go home.”

Indeed, the only way Singapore can ever build a global city and knowledge economy is by welcoming all views by all people, whatever their nationality. (With the usual exceptions of hate speech, etc.)

There is a piece on Medium gaining popularity among patriotic Singaporeans. I skimmed it. So typical.

When some Singaporeans are offered a mirror, instead of taking a look, they throw it back in anger. “What about your stupid country?!?”

Just one of the many insanities in that Medium rebuttal: what do Singapore’s drug issues have to do with the US’s opioid epidemic? The countries are just so different, our drug problems so particular. The idea that our policies could be implemented there is nonsensical.

The even more puzzling thing is that the NYT has produced great journalism on the opioid epidemic. NYT, one of the best examples of a traditional media brand successfully navigating the digital transition, is never afraid to criticise its own country. (Unlike Singapore’s sycophantic mainstream media channels.)

So, while patriotism is inevitable, I do hope Singaporeans can also see the need for self-reflection. And the need to keep our lovely city-state open and welcoming to all people of all shades and nationalities, even as we try to strike the right balance on immigration.

 

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Pandemic politicking: an open letter to a minister

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PAP politicians Sun Xueling and Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim handing out reusable masks to the homeless in Potong Pasir on April 29th 2020, during Singapore’s circuit breaker (effective lockdown) and more than two weeks after the party officially stopped all ground activities. 

Dear friends in Singapore, below is the last piece I intend to write on pandemic politicking. It is an open letter that I have just sent: a request made in good faith to our dear minister to see if he will issue a reminder to all politicians of all parties about the dangers of pandemic politicking.

I do believe this is an issue of global and national importance as it concerns our lives, and I also know that most people in the media here, for their own legitimate or wonky reasons, will not talk about it. So I will.

As you may know, I published one article in the South China Morning Post for a global audience, including Singaporeans. The piece proved extremely popular, especially among doctors and other healthcare workers. I then published a separate one on this blog, mostly for a domestic audience; and now, finally, this request below to the minister for specific action.

I cc-ed the letter to Singapore’s consul-general in Hong Kong. Those of you who read her response to my SCMP article may be interested in the last bit of this letter where I mention her.

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Dear Minister Masagos Zulkifli,

I am writing today to ask if you will consider issuing a reminder to all politicians of all political parties that they are not to engage in any potentially risky politicking during the circuit breaker period.

Certain examples of this behaviour over the past month have worried me tremendously. If they are not curtailed, I fear that they will pose a grave threat to Singaporean lives and our country’s overall pandemic response. One need only observe the emergence of a recent new cluster in Seoul to see what can go wrong when a society prematurely lets its guard down during this long “war”.

I have documented many instances of potentially risky pandemic politicking in a blog post. The most obvious apparent offence was committed by Chia Shi-Lu, who visited a food centre on April 12th, six days after Singapore enacted its circuit breaker.

Chia handed out masks to hawkers already wearing their own, accompanied by a prospective candidate, a photojournalist and others. Photographs of what Chia called “an education thing” were then splashed across mainstream and social media.

A separate, but just as damaging incident, in my opinion, involved Josephine Teo visiting new residents in a new constituency just days before the first major dormitory cluster emerged.

I shudder to think of how those signals might have, consciously or subconsciously, affected the behaviour of ordinary Singaporeans. Might Chia’s behaviour have indicated that it is alright to roam around town with friends as long as you are trying to “help”? Might Teo’s actions have suggested that the lives of migrant workers are less important than her own electoral future?

In “Why we fail to prepare for disasters”, a recent piece in The Financial Times, economist Tim Harford points to cognitive biases like the normalcy bias and herd instinct as reasons why people are sometimes stunned into inaction in the face of harrowing news—and instead of acting independently are instead much more likely to simply follow the cues of those around us. In my opinion this is even more so the case in Singapore than in many other countries.

For sure, there should be nothing partisan about this message. Just because all of the seeming offences thus far have come from the People’s Action Party (PAP) does not mean that other parties have not committed offences or that they never will. We might never know what has been or will be done off camera.

Thus far Singapore has relied on COVID-19 self-regulation by the political parties: major opposition parties suspended ground activities on March 26th 2020 while the PAP did so on April 13th 2020.

However Seah Kian Peng committed another seeming offence on April 26th 2020, “playing the role of a safe distancing ambassador” in a wet market. Meanwhile on April 29th 2020 Sun Xueling and Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim handed out reusable masks to the homeless in Potong Pasir accompanied by a photojournalist—an activity that surely could have been performed either in a contactless fashion or with fewer people.

Hence I am not convinced that political party self regulation is sufficient. I believe that a firm message from the top is necessary.

When you were seeking to regulate home-based bakers and other food businesses, Minister, I was delighted to hear you say “the Government cannot make exceptions to any sector affected in the tighter circuit breaker period”. Indeed, I note the hefty fines and punishments that your ministry has meted out to ordinary Singaporeans as well as to migrant workers and other foreigners.

The pandemic has exposed inequalities around the world. I think Singaporeans will be comforted to know that the government has the ability to act against not only low-income Singaporeans struggling to get by, but also politicians who earn millions of dollars a year.

Now that Singapore is emerging from the tighter circuit breaker period, a message from you might go a long way towards dissuading politicians of all parties from considering potentially risky politicking.

Sincerely

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh

p.s. I have cc-ed Foo Teow Lee, Singapore’s consul-general in Hong Kong. In a recent letter she appeared not to see the link between elections and Singapore’s pandemic response. As she sits far away in Hong Kong, I think she might benefit from the view of those of us actually on the ground in Singapore.

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Top image credit: Straits Times

 

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Rising anti-Indian sentiment in Singapore

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Dear friends in Singapore, I am writing because there appears to be an uptick in anti-South Asian prejudice recently, and I hope the moderate and sane among you can do what you can to extinguish little fires if and when you see them.

Seemingly harmless statements like “Eh, why Indians again ah?”, if left unchecked, can lead to resentment, if even in the smallest, most subconscious of ways.

Of course I don’t support the actions of her highness the sovereign, or her imitator, but there is no need to make it racial. Have you heard about the Chinese and Malays and Others who have threatened safe distancing ambassadors, including one who tried to stab them? (Check out this YouTube video called “Compilation of Crazy Singaporeans during Circuit Breaker period”, bottom of this post)

Why do I say there is an uptick? Three things have alerted me:

a) Last week three or four separate Chinese friends were doxxing the wrong Indian lady. I had to respond to each individually, most didn’t even know it was a crime.

(Some said: “Nothing to do with race. Just curious.” My response: “When is the last time you doxxed a Chinese?”)

b) Individual Indians have written to me to share their experiences both in real life and online. Some of the commentary online is really vile.

Two things have surprised me: first, usually moderate Chinese will be quick to stand up and knock down the racists, either directly or with humour (“Is it because I’m Chinese?” being a great example). This time the moderates seem to be silent, possibly because of our overall cognitive dissonance amid COVID. Too much on our minds.

Second, there seems to be more anti-Indian sentiment coming from some Malays online than I’ve seen in the past.

To be clear, I know these racists are just a tiny minority in every group. I am not suggesting it is broad-based.

c) My race video published last year (see above) has over the past week suddenly become popular among some Indians. People are sharing it as a form of solace, solidarity, I’m not sure, and then sending me random messages of thanks.

Some wondered why I had only published on Facebook. I have now published it on YouTube. Feel free to share it if you think it’s helpful.

Finally, what are the reasons for the uptick? This is complex, and will take some time, but I believe in a nutshell there is a conflation of some anti-migrant worker sentiment and the more recent anti-sovereign sentiment, set against the backdrop of long-standing anti-CECA feelings.

The conspiracy theorists will argue that Singapore’s politicians are only too happy for this anti-sovereign, anti-South Asian rubbish to distract society while they are facing tough questions. (“Deny responsibility, find a scapegoat, incite a culture war”)

At the moment I have no reason to believe such theories. I am however keeping a close eye, looking to see how authorities handle online abuse, among other things.

No doubt, Singapore’s politicians have repeatedly in the past used race and religion as tools to further their own agenda, as I discuss in above video.

Take care, stay safe, be kind to everybody, whatever their skin colour or station! We are all in this together.

#sovereignmyass

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Have politicians been setting a good example? A pandemic timeline.

Have politicians been setting a good example? A pandemic timeline.

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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.

Stranger, still, that Chia was simply replicating ongoing civil service outreach, and that he felt the need to educate and hand out masks to stallholders who were already wearing their own masks (see picture).

A day after Chia’s “education thing”, the PAP, perhaps recognising the mistake, made an announcement that it would be suspending all ground engagement efforts.

In the week before the incident, the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources issued over 6,200 “stern warnings” and 90 fines to ordinary Singaporeans for flouting circuit breaker measures. Yet it saw no need to reprimand Chia and his team. Many wondered if politicians and their hangers-on are exempt from social distancing rules.

Singapore’s incremental approach—what its leaders call “a series of brakes”—has meant that over a two-month period this global city’s throbbing heartbeat has been ever-so gently slowed.

While some Singaporeans support the incremental approach—often on economic grounds—one downside is that, compared to the clarity of a total lockdown, successive waves of social restrictions invariably confuse individuals about what is or isn’t allowed on any given day.

With a series of brakes, one never quite knows how far away the Stop sign is, each passenger in the car jerking to a different beat.

“Can couples and families sit next to each other at the hawker centre?”; “Are you allowed to chat with a buddy whom you meet at a park?”; “Do we now have to wear masks every time we go out?”

While trying to digest global apocalyptic news streaming in from every portal, Singaporeans have also had to contend with relentless local behavioural changes. Cognitive dissonance is perhaps at a high.

Unsurprising, then, that some have defaulted—as Singaporeans do—to strictly following the letter of the law. Yet at the end of March Lawrence Wong, minister for national development, appeared to admonish those doing so, when he said that people still gathering in groups of ten, the legal maximum then, were “missing the point”.

The implication was clear: in these extraordinary times, a Singaporean’s civic duty should compel them to do more than the bare minimum.

In “Why we fail to prepare for disasters”, a recent piece in The Financial Times, economist Tim Harford points to cognitive biases like the normalcy bias and herd instinct as reasons why people are sometimes stunned into inaction in the face of harrowing news—and instead of acting independently are instead much more likely to simply follow the cues of those around us.

Continue reading

Some recent corona-related writing

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Photo by Rob O’Brien/Flickr

Dear reader, if you follow me on Facebook you might find the below repetitive. This is mostly for the benefit of those who don’t.

It’s been a busy month, as many of us have felt the need to speak up about the horrible COVID-19 crisis at Singapore’s migrant worker dormitories—what I have called “independent Singapore’s biggest ever humanitarian crisis”, a phrase that has been picked up. Good.

There has also been a lot associated racism and xenophobia.

Writing has been especially taxing because assorted censors have sprung up all around society, seeking to shut us up. My posts below, some satire, touch on these aspects.

Thankfully there has also been a lot of support from readers. Much appreciated!

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Singapore: Let’s not ignore the downtrodden; nor those who speak up for them

On April 9th I published a commentary in New Naratif about the migrant worker crisis. First few paragraphs here:

Singapore has rightly won plaudits for its pandemic response thus far. Yet the recent emergence of clusters of infections at four foreign-worker dormitories shows that complacency is creeping in. What can we learn from this episode?

Consider first the warnings that were ignored. On 23 March, in a letter to The Straits Times’ Forum page (“Employers’ practices leave foreign workers vulnerable to infection”), Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a Singaporean NGO focused on low-wage migrant workers, called on the government to provide better accommodation for workers and crack down on errant employers. These are pleas that TWC2 and others have made for years, but with added urgency amid the Coronavirus pandemic.

Coincidentally, the very next day, the Singapore government announced that it would begin to house returnees from the UK and the US at hotels, including five-star luxury ones on Sentosa, for their mandatory fourteen-day isolation. After some initial disgruntlement, it appears like most returnees adjusted to their new routine, finding solace in that beloved Singaporean pastime: one-upping other countries to feel good about ourselves. Nowhere else in the world, so it goes, would potential vectors be isolated in such decadence, able to enjoy biryani, bubble tea, care packages from loved ones and fresh laundry dangling from the doorknob.

Click to continue reading on New Naratif

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On April 10th I published a rebuttal to all those who were seeking to get “critics” to shut up in this time of crisis.

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Stop all complaining and criticising, Singaporeans. It is time to get behind our government. Politicians are already working so hard—what more you want? “Do not demoralise them [her team] with finger-pointing,” says Jo Teo.

Well isn’t that bloody convenient?

When things were going well, your party and its sycophants gleefully dissed others. Your provocateur in chief, “Our Beng”, filled an evening with his inane jokes, targeting Hong Kong and all the idiot Singaporeans around.

(Hey, Beng. Have you seen the latest figures? Carrie Lam has you in her pocket.)

It would be one thing if such mindless “Don’t complain” waffle was spewed by PAP fanatics. But over the past week I’ve seen it all over the internet, from the unlikeliest voices, people somehow transformed into PAP goons by patriotism’s worst instincts.

I think many in this group mean well, in a Singapore semangat, gotong-royong kind of way #SGunited

Sadly your desire to mute criticism is misguided, foolish, and even dangerous. We need the “critics” in civil society to help us mind gaps, even more so now.

Of course Jo Teo wants citizens to look away. Continue reading

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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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.

Continue reading

The day Singapore’s education minister lost some credibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a conversation this Friday about ghosts & politics

books-actually-singapore-cr-courtesy

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