a longform on Hong Kong vs Singapore

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With Joshua Wong, secretary-general of pro-democracy party Demosistō. We were both speaking at The Economist’s Open Future Festival in Hong Kong on Oct 5th 2019.

Dear friends, I just published a piece on Rice Media where I compare Hong Kong and Singapore, the “socio-economic twins but political opposites”. Click to read it there. Or, for a preview, first few paragraphs below.

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Just don’t wear black. In early October that was the pre-arrival instruction I received from friends enmeshed in that modern urban war zone, Hong Kong.

“Don’t worry, you can wear black, nobody will think you are a protestor,” rebutted Tang, the jovial cabby in his fifties who picked me up from the airport, gesturing at my brown skin. But for Cantonese locals like him, wardrobe options have indeed become limited.

Black for protestors. White for their opponents. Red for China. Blue for the police, i.e. those alleged to have tortured some “blacks”. “Also no pink, no green,” Tang joked, lest he be mistaken for a homosexual or a bleeding-heart environmentalist.

“So I wear yellow. Yellow is safe.”

Tang rattled off other jokes—“Where is the most dangerous place in Hong Kong? The police station”—while glancing at his smartphone, which beamed a digital buffet of protest updates, video clips, cabby chatter, and yes, even the occasional phone call. Tang’s calmness, coupled with the quiet on the roads, put my mind at ease.

A few traffic jams and subway closures aside, the next week would prove one of the smoothest and most enjoyable I’ve had in twenty-five years of visiting Hong Kong. I discovered new nooks, traipsing around the lush Sai Kung pier in the northeast, alongside hikers and tourists from China and the West, and slurping up beef tendon noodles draped in a rich restorative broth, in a Cantonese joint near the Aberdeen Centre in the far south, not a word of English exchanged.

The dramatic television scenes of petrol bombs, shattered storefronts, and masked protestors clashing with police seemed a world apart from my visitor’s bubble.

Hong Kong’s protests over recent years have often been led by precocious adolescents who have persisted despite the annoyance of the older generation.

This year the generational divide has narrowed. “We will be gone in thirty years,” said Tang. “They have to fight for their future.”

This includes his daughter, who has just graduated from university in Savannah, Georgia. She had wanted to return to be with her friends after seeing the million-person demonstration this past June against a proposed extradition bill, the spark for this year’s protests.

“I said sure. But you pay for yourself [her air ticket]. Is that fair or not?” he asked me rhetorically. “Fair right?”

Alongside this acceptance of youthful idealism is a more sober expectation of short-to-medium-term economic pain. “Yes, business has dropped, some days maybe fifteen to twenty per cent less,” Tang admitted. “But then there are no more mainlanders around. So am I happy or sad? Hahaha.”

It has become commonplace in multicultural societies around the world for older immigrants to cast scornful eyes at prospective ones, for instance with second-generation Indian Americans supportive of Trumpian border control. It is one of the many bizarre symptoms of a world in which liberal ideas of nationhood and identity are being seriously challenged by nativist ones, against the backdrop of yawning economic inequalities.

Nowhere is this impulse stronger than among Hong Kongers, who have turned sharply against the land of their ancestors, less than an hour’s drive away. The prejudice can be vile, expressed in physical attacks and slurs like “cockroaches”.

Indeed, some of the fiercest Sinophobia one might experience around the world occurs in two of its richest Chinese-majority territories: Hong Kong and Singapore.

The cities’ differences and similarities offer a prism through which to better understand their relative fortunes, as well as the impact of global capitalism on Asia.

Comparisons Between Hong Kong and Singapore Since the 90s

Which Chinese-majority, East-meets-West, Asian Tiger city-state do you prefer: Hong Kong or Singapore? Over the past few decades each person’s answer to that has fluctuated in tandem with China’s emergence onto the world stage.

Continue reading at Rice Media, where this was first published.

 

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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

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

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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

Singaporean fornications

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A Singaporean pro-government, ultra-rightwing group today accused China of interfering in the country’s domestic politics. This came after China’s premier, Li Conqiang, met Singapore’s deputy prime minister, Tharman Shanmugahentak, in Dalian, China. In what is seen as a thawing of the prickly bilateral relationship, Mr Li accepted an invitation to visit Singapore from Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister, which was conveyed by Mr Shanmugahentak.

However, supporters of Mr Lee are concerned that Mr Shanmugahentak’s public success will boost his popularity in relation to Mr Lee. Though he has often downplayed his own political ambition, Mr Shanmugahentak is seen as the most obvious challenger to Mr Lee’s leadership of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). His success in wooing the Chinese stands in stark contrast to Mr Lee’s numerous gaffes in dealing with them.

“Why does China ignore Lee Hsien Loong but then show face to Tharman?” asked Jerkoff Chua, founder of the extremist organisation, Fornications Within The PAP. “They are trying to show that the centre-half is better than the striker. They are trying to show that race doesn’t matter. But Singaporeans are smarter than that. We know that race matters. We know that Singapore is not ready for an Indian prime minister.”

This is not the first time China has interfered, claims Jerkoff. He says that prior to the 2011 Singapore General Election, China paid Taiwan-based lawyer Chen Show Mao “shitloads” of money to return home to Singapore and join the opposition Workers’ Party. “In terms of the worst ever Chinese overseas investment, Show Mao is second only to Forest City in Johor,” laughed Jerkoff.

The meeting coincides with the most serious test of Mr Lee’s leadership to date, as he fends off accusations of abuse of power from his two siblings.

Yet not all pro-government forces are worried. “Tharman cannot rally Indians, lor” said Xiu Xi, a Singaporean vlogger known best for her ability to colour her hair. “Tharman don’t even sound Indian! The Mama accent damn funny one. But Tharman don’t have it. He want to be actor but our world-class director Jack Neo neber hire him. Tharman is a Power England kind of Mama.”

K-Pop Mahburani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Apology, wanted to say just three things: “China is big; Singapore is small; the Old Man is gone.” K-Pop volunteered his opinion on the sidelines of a MinLaw documentary entitled “Hantam academics to distract public from ownself problems.”

Prime Minister Lee appears unbothered by these suggestions that China and Mr Shanmugahentak are in cahoots. “We do not take these accusations of meddling seriously,” said Cha Ching, representing the Prime Minister’s Office (Cha Ching is Mr Lee’s wife and the head of Termasak).

When we visited Cha Ching at 838 Oxley Road, she was in a relaxed mood as her twenty bulldogs, released from their Cabinet, helped her gather items strewn around the compound. “These aren’t nobodies,” said Cha Ching, stroking her obedient pets. “They are dogsbodies.”

Most Singaporeans surveyed said they don’t care about politics; but are happy that Mr Shanmugahentak has secured access to our Chinese lifeblood—Taobao.

Mr Shanmugahentak himself was not available for comment. According to his spokesperson, he is currently in Alor Setar, Malaysia, “learning how to wear a songkok and speak Malay”.

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The above is satire. Original news article here.

Hat tip to Mr. Brown.

“Government bans ’69’ sexual position”, one of my older satires, is here.


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a piece on the Lee Family Oxley Road saga

Dear reader, I recently published something on the brouhaha involving Singapore’s Lee Family in Foreign Affairs. I’m allowed to republish the first 250 words here; for the rest one must visit the site here (free signup necessary):

Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, is facing the toughest test yet of his 13 years in office. In June, his two siblings publicly accused him of abusing his power to prevent the demolition of the home of their late father—Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Although Lee Hsien Loong will probably emerge from the controversy mostly unscathed, the scandal has increased public scrutiny of Singapore’s leaders. That is a good thing, since it could herald a turn toward more transparency and public engagement in the country’s politics.

Lee Kuan Yew lived in a prewar bungalow at 38 Oxley Road for most of his life. It was there that the founding members of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) met to discuss the formation of the party in 1954. Under the PAP, Singapore gained independence from Malaysia in 1965 and grew from a colonial trading port into a metropolis. As urban development has transformed Singapore’s landscape, the house—with its weak foundations, tiled floors, and mid-century furniture—has remained mostly unchanged, a symbol of modern Singapore’s origins and of Lee Kuan Yew’s commitment to simple living.

Some Singaporeans believe that the house holds important historical value. Yet Lee Kuan Yew wanted it demolished once Lee Wei Ling, his only daughter, moves out. Lee had little interest in being memorialized by historic sites. (He once told an interlocutor who mentioned that Singaporeans wanted to build monuments in his honor to “remember Ozymandias,” the pharaoh whose ruined statue Percy Shelley commemorated in a poem on the transience of worldly power.) But that aversion was tempered…

Click to continue reading on Foreign Affairs

 

 

GE2015: Final thoughts (4 of 4)

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This is part 4 of 4. To read part 3, click here.

Conclusion: GE 2015

Over time, the PAP has become a party more for the rich and for the elite. Yes, it will do things for the lower- and middle-income citizens. But more because it wants our votes to stay in power. I’m not convinced it genuinely, compassionately considers every Singaporean as an equal human being. Maybe a long time ago it did; but not anymore.

Some government critics think the party is corrupt and is enriching itself at our expense. Again, I don’t buy that argument at all.

I just think the PAP has become so fixed in its ways, in its belief in a natural aristocracy, that the best way for society to progress is by nurturing the elites.

Which many of us don’t agree with. So, in 2011, I thought, OK, if the PAP loses one GRC, it’s going to reform.

Sadly, no. A few tweaks here and there, but it’s the same old party with the same archaic beliefs. Does the PAP have the ideological adaptability to lead Singapore in our next phase of growth?

I have serious doubts. The demands of the next fifty years are immeasurably different from the last. The PAP’s perennial, indefatigable, prioritisation of growth over distribution, and its aversion to welfare, are ill-suited for an ageing population, slower growth, rising income inequality and wage stagnation.

On a related note, one of the many problems governments around the world are grappling with today is striking the right balance between national priorities and the demands of transnational corporations/the global elite. The PAP has always been far too accommodating of both constituencies. (And, as mentioned, all its leaders probably belong to that global 0.1%.)

How I think about my vote

Continue reading

GE2015: Final thoughts (2 of 4)

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This is Part 2 of 4. To read Part 1, click here.

The nexus of power

Conflicts of interest in turn point to the dangerous nexus of political, policy and business power in Singapore.

Before I begin describing this and highlighting why it is bad for Singapore’s future, I want to emphasise three points. First, my arguments here are about conflicts of interest; not cronyism or nepotism. There is no evidence that cronyism or nepotism afflicts Singapore in any significant way.

Second, I have chosen to name certain public figures below simply because there is no other way to show the existence of these close networks of families and friends in power. Naming them in no way implies that they or their families/friends have ever been involved in anything illegal.

Third, this point is a non-partisan one. Though all the names below are of people close to the PAP—owing to our country’s unique political and institutional history—my broader argument is that Singaporeans should, from here on, vigilantly guard against the emergence of these networks. Today the PAP; tomorrow perhaps the WP.

Every time I think I finally comprehend how closely-knit our leaders in Singapore are, I learn something new that shocks me. This time, it is the network of a new PAP candidate in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, whom I will eventually get to.

But first, we need to start at the top: Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Hsien Loong and Ho Ching. Though all of you are aware of this trio, it is important to reiterate its existence and continued power in Singapore today, albeit without the late Mr Lee.

Continue reading

GE2015: Final thoughts (1 of 4)

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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.

Continue reading

Workers’ Party’s Manifesto: What I like and What I don’t

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He Ting Ru, one of my favourite new politicians, partly because she puts paid to the notion that opposition candidates are necessarily substandard. But more importantly, because she is a “crazy cat lady” with eight!

“The opposition has nothing new or concrete to offer.”

I am tiring of this lazy, ignorant, biased statement. So I have put my unemployment to good use and done some homework.

Having just gone through the WP’s manifesto, I have selected here the many statements that I like and also the three that I don’t like—including the one that I REALLY dislike. (Scroll to the bottom for those.)

I have selected policies that I believe are significantly different from PAP policies. Like political parties everywhere, they both indulge in a lot of waffle—so forgive me for not humouring vapid commentary about helping SMEs, boosting productivity, broadening our definitions of achievement, encouraging flexible work arrangements, enhancing healthcare systems, strengthening regional stability, assisting Singaporeans abroad, etc. etc.

Those are all noble, lofty pursuits. Below are the ones I believe are practical and implementable. (Caveat: as with many of the PAP’s proposed policies, a more thorough analysis of the trade-offs and fiscal impact is necessary.)

Note: I have read up on the WP, since it is shaping up to be the most likely opposition in a possible two-party system; if, however, I detect enough interest in this post, I’d be happy to glean the other opposition parties’ manifestos.

What I like Continue reading

Oh Roy, my heart goes out to you

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At a book event at BooksActually two weeks ago, I was making a point about Roy Ngerng—that what he insinuated about Singapore’s prime minister was clearly wrong, but I still sympathised with his predicament—when Jen Wei Ting, moderator, good friend and fellow scribbler, interjected and switched topics.

I later realised why. Roy was actually there, standing in the back. Some of my former colleagues at The Economist had just been interviewing him, and decided to drag him along to the event. (Click here to read the piece they wrote, which gets to the heart of “the Roy Ngerng case”.)

Wei Ting had perhaps wanted to cut me off before I said anything too critical about Roy. She needn’t have worried. Roy and I met after the event and he told me he had enjoyed the talk. I regret not taking a photo with Singapore’s latest enfant teribble; just for the heck of it, not that he needs any further attention.

What a meek, innocuous figure he cuts. With his disarming smile and diffident touch, he looks hardly capable of harming an ant, much less the great and mighty Lee Hsien Loong. Roy’s appearance and demeanour may seem irrelevant here, but in what is quickly turning into a PR disaster for the government, they will fuel the perception of an irascible prime minister bullying a harmless, hapless citizen.

My heart goes out to you, Oh Roy, not for your defiance, but for the deep-seated informational, data and communication asymmetries and imbalances that underpin this country’s drastically unequal social power structure.

Continue reading