Separation

The wildest Covid-19 border story I’ve heard involves a Malaysian speeding in her car towards Singapore, only to find a huge jam at the border crossing. Arriving at six in the evening, this friend of a friend had given herself plenty of time to make the midnight cut-off, after which foreigners would no longer be easily allowed into Singapore and the complications of modern travel would kick in: quarantines, swabs and stay-at-home notices. With her family and job waiting in Singapore, she had to make it back.

To be sure, there is always some traffic on the two bridges that connect the Malay peninsula to the island of Singapore. Memang jam gao gao, surely there will be a heavy jam, a Malaysian might quip, combining three languages in the most delightful creole phrase. Memang is Malay for surely. Gao is Hokkien for thick or heavy. And jam is, well, not the strawberry kind. Memang jam gao gao, but nobody expected it to be like this.

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Edmund Wee of Epigram Books

(Note: This is a longer version of a profile first published in May on Mekong Review. I have italicised the extra passages.)

Epigram Books owes its existence partly to Lee Kuan Yew’s secret police.

In 1981, as news broke that the Workers’ Party’s J.B. Jeyaretnam had won a by-election, thus breaking the ruling People’s Action Party’s stranglehold over Singapore’s parliament, plain-clothes officers from the Internal Security Department watched in horror as a young reporter from the Straits Times jumped up and down at the counting centre.

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Did we support, criticise or abuse Schooling? Let’s look at the data

For the first time since 2004, Team Singapore failed to win a single medal at the Olympics. Much attention understandably focussed on swimmer Joseph Schooling, who had won our first ever gold at Rio 2016, for the 100m butterfly, setting an Olympic record in the process. Following Schooling’s failure to qualify for the 100m semi-final at Tokyo 2020, finishing last in his heat, internet commentaries … Continue reading Did we support, criticise or abuse Schooling? Let’s look at the data

Tan Cheng Bock: A vision of Singapore’s future or past?

(Note: I researched and wrote this piece in mid 2019. It was originally published on New Naratif. Am republishing here for those who might have missed it. I have made edit notes on a couple of things that are out of date.)

The entry of Tan Cheng Bock and his newly registered Progress Singapore Party into the political fray has stirred up excitement. But is Tan, a former PAP backbencher, offering a vision of Singapore’s future, or a return to its past?

The winds that usher in Singapore’s election season are, in many ways, familiar to illiberal democracies everywhere. Flags and faces popping up; government handouts; public largesse on incumbent brand-building, camouflaged as patriotic projects; the instilling of fear through new demons within and old ones abroad; and the obsequious submission of media outfits that have grown dependent on juicy government contracts.

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How structural racism penalises minorities: is your HDB flat worth less?

Over the past week Singaporeans have been debating the definition of racism. Many within the establishment appear eager to define it narrowly: only crude, interpersonal racism qualifies. 

So, if somebody professes the inherent superiority of one race over another, or uses a racial slur—“Kiling Kia”, “Cina Babi”, etc.—that’s racist. Anything less obvious, so it goes, does not deserve the racist label.

The desire not to call something racist has sparked a cottage industry of euphemisms: “racial preferences”, “cultural insensitivity”, “racially problematic” and so on. Racism is Singapore’s Voldemort.

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Don’t date other races: the ghost of Lee Kuan Yew appears

Lee Kuan Yew once said that he would rise from his grave if he ever felt that “something is going wrong”. 

Few Singaporeans would have expected to see him reincarnated as Tan Boon Lee, a senior lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of Engineering.

On June 6th, Tan is seen on a Facebook video publicly admonishing Dave Parkash, who is of mixed Indian-Filipino ancestry, for dating a Thai-Chinese girl (behind the camera).

“I have nothing against Indians, but I think it is racist for an Indian to marry a Chinese girl,” said Tan, in a statement so puzzling and prejudiced yet also so familiar to minorities in Singapore, in its inversion of racism. You are the racist, not me.

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Is the doctors’ letter fair opinion? Or a dangerous view that should be kept out of the public square?

(Disclosure: both my parents are medical specialists; my wife has a graduate diploma in family medicine though she no longer practices.)

Over the past week an interesting informational contest has emerged in Singapore over the publication of an open letter by twelve doctors to parents in which they cast doubt on the value of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine—and broadly any vaccine that relies on messenger RNA technology—to children.

Their letter has been meet with ridicule by the establishment, including calls by Calvin Cheng, a former nominated member of parliament and conservative commentator, for their medical licenses to be revoked (as part of his broader critique of the knowledge and expertise of family physicians).

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Should the opposition be speaking out more against racism in Singapore?

This is what K Shanmugam, Singapore’s home affairs and law minister, called for this week in response to some quite awful anti-Indian incidents around town.

Yes, I agree with him. The opposition should. We all should. It is a daily battle.

However, we should also recognise the efforts made by the opposition over the years to distance themselves from racist and xenophobic strands. Here are two examples.

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The elites have run The Straits Times into the ground. What’s next?

Today we heard the news that Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) is spinning off its media unit, including The Straits Times and many other publications, into a non-profit entity. This follows years of consistently poor performance amid digital disruption and other changes to the media industry.

Wiser minds will engage in more thorough post-mortems—has anybody seen Ho Ching’s feed today?—but I wanted to spark a small conversation on the culture of elite governance in Singapore. 

“If not for the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS), the loss would have been a deeper S$39.5 million,” Lee Boon Yang, SPH’s chairman, said in reference to the media business’s first-ever lost of S$11.4m, for the financial year which ended Aug 31 2020. 

(Which includes management salaries. In case you missed it, since the JSS began in February 2020, the Singaporean taxpayer has helped pay even more for the upkeep of numerous millionaire elites.)

All this got me thinking. Why exactly is Lee Boon Yang the chairman of SPH?

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Why is there a paucity of political leadership in SG?

Over the past few days many in Singapore and overseas have expressed surprise at the seeming paucity of political leadership talent in the ruling People’s Action Party.

I actually think this has been a long time coming, and in many ways is just reflective of our city-state’s economic and democratic maturation, about which there is plenty to cheer.

I explain why in a commentary, “Concerns about ‘seeming paucity’ of PAP leadership talent”, published in The Home Ground Asia, a new Singapore-based media outfit.

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