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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my talk on identity at The Economist’s Open Future Festival

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Dear friends, click below to watch my ten-minute talk on identity and multiculturalism in Asia at The Economist’s Open Future Festival in Hong Kong on October 5th.

I cite the different approaches to ethnic/cultural identity that we find in China, India and Singapore, and give my reasons why we all need to think a bit harder about our identity choices, given current larger forces at play in the world today.

In a sense, this Economist talk is a direct product of the brownface brouhaha in Singapore in July/August this year. I made a couple of videos on brownface and race, which got passed around by some of my former colleagues at The Economist Group in Singapore, Hong Kong and London. (Read more about my work there from 2006 to 2013.)

That in itself was surprising, because I thought the videos were hyper-local, what with my generous use of Singlish. I guess it shows that these issues are quite universal, no matter my bumbling delivery.

I took that as a cue, and decided to have a Singlish segment in this Economist talk. First time I’ve used so much Singlish at a “proper presentation” overseas. It went down well, especially with Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party in Thailand, who was laughing away in the front row (and later introduced himself). I guess South-east Asians have a soft spot for our Singlish!

It was both tougher and easier than other talks I’ve given. Tougher because it’s a big topic for ten minutes; and I felt the pressure of both the live stream and the very tight timing, the clock counting down at me from a screen at my feet. I missed a couple of lines, but oh well. Happens.

But easier because I had lots of support and encouragement from the floor, including a bunch of former colleagues and bosses, some who gave me many opportunities to speak and write early in my career, some thirteen years ago now.

Also great to have Singaporean buddies Amanda and Mel in the crowd, who kindly took me out for a smashing time after. Long time since I partied in Lan Kwai Fong.

Many have asked me about whether it’s safe to travel to Hong Kong now. My response: it’s the best time! Fewer tourists, hotels are cheaper, easy to get around. The protests are very well organised and planned, so you know where to go or not, you know whether to take the MTR or taxi. I had a great time (while also acknowledging the pain others on all sides are enduring…).

And, finally, very grateful to Kaiyang Huang and Rohan Mukherjee for helping me refine my arguments.

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There were many other cool segments at the conference, including this debate between Joshua Wong, Hong Kong’s most famous pro-democracy activist, and the pro-Beijing Shaun Rein, managing director of the China Market Research Group.

 

 

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

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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!

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

Singapore, Bali diaries

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View of Gunung Agung from Gili Trawangan, the biggest of the three Gili islands, where I was lucky enough to spend a week

Response to my piece on Singapore’s presidential election

Usually when I write about SG politics, some pro-PAP people will criticise something about my argument, as well as my character and integrity. This time, they were quiet; in fact, some sent me personal messages thanking me, and saying that now, for the first time, they are losing hope in the party.

Of course, nobody expects a significant electoral impact in the short term. Ahead of the next general election, the PAP, just like incumbent parties everywhere, will probably drop money into the pockets of Singaporeans, and all will be forgotten—the subverting of democracy and meritocracy, the flooded train lines, all will be forgotten.

This time, with my piece, most of the critiques came from non-establishment folk. Quite refreshing! While they shared my disdain for the process, they disagreed with my conclusion that it is important to nonetheless vote—if we had had the chance—for the sake of racial harmony. They felt, for a variety of reasons, that it was more important not to endorse a flawed process. (The comments on Lynn Lee’s FB post are a good summary.)

Political messaging and jousting

The below is highlighted as a negative example. Those words are copied from the post; they are not mine, and I certainly don’t agree with any of this.


Halimah 9:11 Facebook

Given my worries about sectarianism, I was appalled to see an alternative-media journalist I respect posting the above image. Perhaps there is some base humour to be distilled from the 9/11 commonality, but to compare the impact of Halimah’s walkover in Singapore to the impact of Islamic terrorists in NYC is irresponsible.

Continue reading

Yayoi Kusama in Singapore

Yayoi Horse.jpg

Horse Play Happening in Woodstock, 1967

 

Embrace narcissism.

When you recover from the invasion of polka dots on your smartphone—yellow-and-black, primary colours on white, pixelated stardust from some neon galaxy, arresting but soon annoying, with the never-ending shower of selfies, with Singaporean FOMOness suffocating all sensibilities—when you recover from that all, remember that Yayoi Kusama probably wanted you to embrace narcissism.

How else to explain the alleyway of convex mirrors, where you are forced to either stare down or stare at your reflection, sidestepping couples waiting patiently for a break in traffic. Or the Infinity Mirrored Room—Love Forever, into which you pop your head and see your friend’s face, and endless reflections of yourselves lit up by psychedelic lights.

And how else to explain the most popular exhibit, Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, a hanging-LED infinity mirror room, into which you walk, and immerse yourself in some glittering self-absorbed universe, trying not to think of the next person in line and the usher outside timing you, for precisely thirty seconds, with a stopwatch. (“It’s the only fair way.”)

“Up till Kusama, there were many artists from the Renaissance on, who were involved with perspective and infinity but it was all a fake because you knew, you were the viewer you were always aware that you were the master,” said Richard Castellane, a former gallerist, in a documentary on her.

With her infinity rooms, Kusama fools us in a way never done before. Does “Infinite You” prove your infinite worth or your infinite irrelevance?

The Singaporean, a species engaged in perennial status competition, is the perfect subject for her play. Over the years, we have become far more sophisticated in our social media mating dances. The garish displays of branded leather are disappearing. Today there is a new battleground: travel.

So we are treated to selfies that say nothing more than “I am here.” Of course, all this is not the preserve of the Singaporean, arguably less cultural than generational, of Xs and Ys. Still, as with most money-fuelled pursuits, Singaporeans tend to go the extra mile. (A photo of your holiday business class seat? Are you trying to show off your carbon footprint?)

No surprise, then, that Yayoi’s dots have colonised our smartphones. Yet now that the torrent has slowed, one hopes her audacious aesthetics are not the only thing we remember.

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Continue reading

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

 

 

Singapore, the (occasional) garden city

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For a bit of context, this reflection was originally published in Suddenly The Grass Became Greener, a limited edition “book of photographs made in Singapore during her 50th year as a nation, and the coincidental death of her gardener”, by photographer Kevin Lee. Check it out here.

A friend wrote yesterday to say that she found the piece relevant given the return of the dreaded haze, so I’ve decided to publish it here.

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All of Singapore’s glories, successes, tensions and contradictions are played out in the green.

Surely Lee Kuan Yew deserves credit for nurturing the Garden City, but there were many other green thumbs plucking and planting. What of them? In the green, as in much else, we deify one to the exclusion of many.

We are lucky to have been born into a Garden City rather than a choking, clogged one. But how is it possible that we grew a Garden City while felling almost all of our primary forest? When we call Singapore a Garden City, it does not mean that we’ve nourished a garden out of nothingness; rather, that compared to the Bangkoks, Beijings and Delhis of the world, we’ve destroyed less.

Even as the urban jungle has grown, relentlessly, irrepressibly, we’ve kept a bit of the tropical: cow grass on which black mynahs hop and couples canoodle; bougainvilleas whose stalks droop lazily over green fences, flowers fluttering in the wind, gaily watching the morning rush; durian trees under which tycoons in Beemers slouch, bucket in hand; frangipanis that wink at you, stain the tarmac and herald the pontianak; the untamed splendour of MacRitchie, our wellspring, which sparks memories of group runs and puppy loves; and rain trees, expansive, dependable, unmistakable, a guard of honour from Changi, ushering in guests, welcoming home peripatetic residents.

There is romance in scarcity yet it is unclear if we’ve struck the right balance. Do we need so many refineries on our islands? Must we build a footpath everywhere there is none? Why do we flatten Bukit Brown while spending a billion dollars for an artificial garden on an artificial bay?

Even in our crowning green glory, the Botanic Gardens, Singaporean exceptionalism is evident. World Heritage Sites are typically celebrations of ancient, traditional culture. Singapore’s is an homage to a colonial legacy. We are arguably the only post-colonial state that is comfortable with, even glorifies, our colonial past. While other countries bicker about reparations, we worry about our English.

If Raffles hadn’t chosen Singapore in 1819, what would this island be like today? Smaller, poorer, and probably greener. A Garden City this might be, but by being among the world’s leaders in food wastage, energy consumption and carbon emissions (in per capita terms), it is clear that we are not very responsible stewards of the earth.

We squeal about smoggy air and barricade ourselves against rising sea levels, blissfully unaware of our own complicity. The irony is that if every person in the world lived like a Singaporean—like a “Garden City” inhabitant—humanity would need more than four planets to subsist (says the WWF).

While the edifice of a Garden City exists, its soul needs cultivating.

For long Singaporeans have had an uneasy relationship with nature—flora and fauna are to be manicured and managed like everything else in life. The experience of the natural world here is a distant one, mediated by buffer zones, safety signs and the closest toilet.

Yet there seems to be a growing appreciation of the oneness of life on earth. We have started muddying our feet, growing edible gardens on sky-high balconies and paying attention to our meat’s provenance. Slowly, Singaporeans seem to be realising that humanity’s fate is intertwined with every other living thing’s.

And that death, when it comes, will be a return of our ashes, eventually, to the earth, to a planet more than four billion years old.

We do not know what will be of Singapore in a hundred years, never mind a billion. Yet the insignificance of our lifespans need not dampen the significance of our lives. And even as we touch strangers far away, we love, intensely, those closest to us.

Those, perhaps, are Mr Lee’s greatest life lessons. Even in death, his heart flickered: “I would like part of my ashes to be mixed up with Mama’s, and both her ashes and mine put side by side in the columbarium. We were joined in life and I would like our ashes to be joined after this life.”

 

Image credit: Jodarl collections