Monday, 7 December 2009

Reflections on the guillotine

Some compelling words by Albert Camus in his eloquent 'Reflections on the Guillotine'. The original essay is much longer, and worth its every word.

I'll leave you with some abridged paragraphs: ___

"The survival of such a primitive rite [the death penalty] has been made possible among us only by the thoughtlessness or ignorance of the public, which reacts only with the ceremonial phrases that have been drilled into it. When the imagination sleeps, words are emptied of their meaning: a deaf population absent-mindedly registers the condemnation of a man. But if the penalty is intended to be exemplary, how can a furtive assassination committed at night in a prison courtyard be exemplary? A law is applied without being thought out and the condemned die in the name of a theory in which the executioners do not believe.

If society justifies the death penalty by the necessity of the example, it must justify itself by making the publicity necessary. Yet, the power of intimidation reaches only the quiet individuals who are not drawn toward crime and has no effect on the hardened ones who need to be softened. And the condemned is cut in two, not so much for the crime he committed but by virtue of all the crimes that might have been and were not committed, that can be and will not be committed. The sweeping uncertainty in this case authorizes the most implacable certainty.

In order to continue claiming that the guillotine is exemplary, the State is consequently led to multiply very real murders in the hope of avoiding a possible murder which, as far as it knows or ever will know, may never be perpetrated. An odd law, to be sure, which knows the murder it commits and will never know the one it prevents. This punishment that penalizes without forestalling is indeed called revenge. Whoever has done me harm must suffer harm... whoever has killed must die. This is an emotion, and a particularly violent one, not a principle.

Beheading is not simply death. It is murder, to be sure. But it adds to death a rule, a public premeditation known to the future victim, which is in itself a source of moral suffering more terrible than death. Hence there is no equivalence. What then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal's deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? The devastating, degrading fear that is imposed on the condemned for months or years is a punishment more terrible than death, and one that was not imposed on the victim. Two deaths are inflicted on him, the first being worse than the second, whereas he killed but once.

... Without absolute innocence, there is no supreme judge. Now, we have all done wrong in our lives even if that wrong, without falling within the jurisdiction of the laws, went as far as the unknown crime. There are no just people - merely hearts more or less lacking in justice. Living at least allows us a little of the good that will make up in part for the evil we have added to the world. Such a right to live, which allows a chance to make amends, is the natural right of every man, even the worst man. The lowest of criminals and the most upright of judges meet side by side, equally wretched in their solidarity. Without that right, moral life is utterly impossible. None among us is authorized to despair of a single man, except after his death, which transforms his life into destiny and then permits a definitive judgement. But pronouncing the definitive judgement before his death, decreeing the closing of accounts when the creditor is still alive, is no man's right. On this limit, at least, whoever judges absolutely condemns himself absolutely."

___ And Camus cites the Italian philosopher Beccarria, who sums up the illogicality, and thus the grossest injustice, of the death penalty:

"If it is important to give the people proofs of power often, then executions must be frequent; but crimes will have to be frequent too, and this will prove that the death penalty does not make the complete impression that it should, whence it results that it is both useless and necessary."


It seems, beneath the surety and self-righteousness of those who support the death penalty, lies an ignorant, irrational, and impenetrable blank where no rational argument is possible. And I think this is the greater crime regarding the death penalty.

To those who are raising awareness against state murder, fighting the fight and saving a life, I lend you my moral support here from where I am.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

when lapdogs bark

What's with these condescending headlines, Straits Times?

Wasn't there just another one a few weeks ago? 'Stop whining and start serving the customer'?

Maybe the whining would stop when the Straits Times stop infantalizing Singaporeans?

Maybe for a start, tell Sumiko Tan to stop whining? Go tell her, Man Sun, she's just next door. Go. Stop whining yourself too. :)

Monday, 2 November 2009

We the citizens of no country

Remember when you were a child, you earnestly believed in the tales that adults told? The monsters under your bed that would awaken if you didn’t sleep by nine. The ghastly diseases that would beset you if you didn’t eat your greens. The policemen who were always ready to catch you if you didn’t behave yourself.

There was always something that adults wanted you to do, for your own good. Usually something that you disliked. Or else. . .

So there was a sense of déjà vu when the law minister K. Shanmugam exclaimed to a group of American lawyers last week that Singapore was ‘a city, not a country’.


Singapore, our poor nation, has suffered from much ignominy lately. Initially it was simply tarring the Opposition – any opposition – with an unpatriotic brush. It was childish behaviour indeed. Then, the brush strokes got bolder, and some Opposition members went bankrupt. They said it was needed to Protect Reputations. Then they went for the Pledge, tarnishing and tearing it up like a painter trampling on his own canvas.

And now, for all our efforts and sacrifices put into creating a precious piece of country, we are told that we are not a country after all. It sounded vulgar; sounded like a shirking of responsibility, like a dereliction of duty.

Singapore, if you are not my country, who is?

And it is a heartening affirmation of a nation’s strength and spirit, that despite all the terrible things said and done to it by the people in power, Singapore rises like a nation when the occasion calls.

Perhaps nationalism is a red-herring after all – there is no need to create it, and impossible to destroy it. Our nationhood will always be there whether we want it or not.

But Shanmugam’s occasion was not a call for or against nation-building. Neither was it an occasion to quibble over the definitions of sovereignty. We know that Singapore is a nation and a country. It can, and it will.

Shanmugam’s motive was less lofty: he was arguing that Singapore’s political system shouldn’t be measured against the yardsticks of ‘a normal country’, where Singapore would invariably appear undemocratic. Instead, he argued, Singapore should be compared to ‘cities’ like Chicago, San Fransisco, and New York City – cities that have enduring one-party rule. Cities that are democratic.

Surely, then, Singapore is democratic too?


Sometimes when we reach into the crux of the matter, we find that it is the old chestnut again. The old self-serving chestnut of authoritarian rulers pretending to be a democracy, twisting logic to suit one’s power.

Surely, Shanmugam is aware that differences abound between the Singapore government and the mayor-council of Chicago? The differences in duty, accountability and constitution, and indeed the differences in political systems and electoral processes? One serves a city, the other a country; one is free and the other not free?

Chicago’s mayor is a representative of the inhabitants of Chicago, not the state of Illinois, nor the United States of America. The Singapore government governs the city, state and country, and governs without the systemic transparency and constitutional checks found in its American city and federal counterparts. The Singapore government exacts taxes, guards the treasury, maintains peace and declares war. It presides over a country of us and no one else.

Thus, Shanmugam’s argument is essentially a spurious one, and he probably knows it too.

Because his was a nimble manoeuvre to
camouflage, indeed explain away, the PAP's illiberal governance and
unsavoury tactics. For it would be hard to imagine American cities adopting these illiberal strategies, entrenching these controls, and legitimizing these gerrymandering inventions of the PAP. These American mayors wouldn’t be elected to office in the first place, much less remain in power.

His was a nimble manoeuvre made possible by size and founded on difference: Singapore is not a country; it is a city. It is small. It is different.

And this is the wonderful thing about being small. Like a city. We can be vulnerable. We must be vulnerable. And we must do the things that big countries do not do. Because we are different; we’re small; we’re vulnerable.

And so we are.

It is a wonderfully circular and unfalsifiable reasoning that can be used to justify pretty much anything the regime desires, really. Twisting logic to suit one’s power. Or else, or perdition looms. The nation is always in peril.

And this is how the PAP has exploited Singapore’s city-size and turned it into its greatest asset.


Perhaps, Shanmugam’s (and Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong’s) articulations are meant to smoothen the road for the APEC meetings next week, where the international spotlight would once again fall upon Singapore. Fall upon its brilliantly-authoritarian and nominally-democratic government. The usual smiles, scoffs, and scuffles.

So the government’s PR-machinery anticipates the impending attacks and fires the first salvo, hoping to prevent a repeat of its disastrous handling of international opinion during the IMF-World Bank meetings here in 2006: when foreign civil society activists were threatened with arrests and banished to Batam. When the then World Bank chief Paul Wolfowitz chided Singapore for being ‘authoritarian’. When PM Lee Hsien Loong’s four million smiles turned into Seelan Palay’s four hundred frowns. When Singapore became a laughing stock of the world.

So in the end, the answers that Shanmugam provided to his American guests last week, about our press, our judiciary, our political system, were non-answers really. Pertinent questions explained away in a camouflage of rational non-responses.

Like why there is a National Presses & Printing Act and press monopoly, and why SPH’s management shares provide the Singapore government with so much proxy power, amongst other interesting connections. It was a bit rich to dismiss Reporters without Borders’ indictment of Singapore’s mainstream media while lauding the findings from Transparency International. If one wanted to quibble over methodologies, aren’t both as guilty? Or is there a double-standard that no one wants to point out?

Like why there’re such high numbers of part-time High and Supreme Court judges on contracts, amongst other dirty linens hung out by the International Bar Association, by the numerous esteemed English, Canadian and Australian counsels. Like why Kangaroo T-shirts are charged and sued but not the English silks.

Like why Singapore simply cannot let go of itself and be fair, transparent, and truly democratic. Like proper country. Perhaps Shanmugam knew he didn’t have a case.

Or perhaps, Shanmugam had no need to provide answers. After all, Singapore’s illiberal regime did create the Great Singapore Model. Despite the odds, contradictions and false dichotomies. The Great Singapore Model that brought the WTO, IMF-World Bank, and APEC to Singapore. The Great Singapore Model that brought Singapore from Third World to First.

After all, Singapore is unique. It is a city, not a country. It is small, it is vulnerable.

And you wonder when Singapore would grow up.


As you enter adulthood, you reflect on those horrible tales of monsters and diseases and policemen that those adults told, and you laugh them off now because, really, how silly you had been. There was no danger out there.

But you weren’t silly. You were a child.

We like to think of children as inept and ignorant things that we can bend to our wishes so long as we instill fear in them. But children possess immense wisdom. They enter first into this earth, and are more experienced in the ways of the world than the adults who come later. They may be more easily frightened, but they also know that the truth will soon be out.

This is why when adults play on children’s fears, adults often look like children themselves. Fearful, vulnerable, and small. And oftentimes the child looks on, unperturbed, nonchalant. As Wordsworth once cried, the Child is father of the Man.

And it is testament to a child’s purity of heart and generosity of spirit, that he and she is ever willing to forgive these frightful, ignoble adults, despite all that they have said and done in the false name of their goodness. Adults who stymied and almost scarred a child for life. Adults who never got to grow up.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Fascism that works

He was a leader who held a nation in his thrall.

From the excesses of empire and occupation, he arose with a voice so clear it could not but give his people hope, give his people dreams. He arose and gave them such ravishings of riches never before imagined. He had no fixed ideology, only a vision, and an acute sense of what would work or not. He used coercive methods, stoked the fears of communist plots. But he did arise democratically. Later, he discovered that the law could be used to stop the Opposition from entering parliament. The law could be used to maintain dominance, to do wrong. Entirely legal, entirely legitimate. It helped to have an extravagant propaganda machinery in his hands.

And he followed his vision as long as the destination was a nation strong and free.

Although he upheld the principles of private property, and his people given an illusion of private ownership, most of it belonged to the State. That is, after numerous land grabs and forced evictions. The state colluded with private capital, chanelling economic growth through top-down regulations and contracts, through prolonged working hours and suppressed wages. State-owned enterprises controlled the economy, the labour movement was quelled in the name of unity, and the capitalist class was feted accordingly. This nationalist autarchy was an efficient blend of capitalism and socialism, a Third Way ahead of its time, a shining emblem of a corporate state. By necessity, the masses were reduced to a kind of serfdom. Hostage to the state, servants to capital. But no matter, for the means justified the ends.

This was a society based on the doctrinal trilogy of order, discipline, and hierarchy. Based on the elites of the few and the mobilization of the masses. To this end, the elites – belonging to a certain race – had to be born. Their births and citizenship were encouraged. On the other end, the inferior had to be prevented. Their births were reduced, residency curtailed, and some others sterilized. Of course, homosexuals were persecuted. An elitist, racist, and sexist society was thus nurtured by a state-wide eugenicist programme, determining marriage, immigration, and first birth. So as to proliferate the favoured types and races, so as to achieve a nation strong and free.

Such a nation naturally needed a strong leader. A father of founding fathers the mantle of legends and myths. And how indeed he made good his promises to make his people strong again. How triumphant they were, how prosperous, and how they loved him so. The father embodied in one people and one nation, exalted in its youths and cultivated in its men.

Such were his people then, like a flock waiting for their messiah, for national rebirth, such stirring, incandescent passions, that they were willing to condone the wrongs that he did and the evils that he wrought. Such was the compelling power of his particular fascism, the extent of their dehumanization, to have his nation so ravished by riches, so enthralled by visions, so fascinated by the always present, always beautiful fantasy of unity, of sacrifice, so as to achieve a nation strong, glorious, and free.


And know this story of Hitler well. The tragic intoxication of a nation with his dreams. The imperative of war. The gas chambers. A solution, as long as it worked. The means justified the ends. Even better if they were within the law – his laws. The unimaginable possibilities of evil. But he did not live happily ever after, thankfully, and gone with him was his particular fascism.

Today, even though patently-fascist organizations operate in many countries, they are few in number, generally weak, and virtually ostracized by mainstream society. To garner electoral support, they have to first de-fascistize themselves and become more moderate – such is the ideological dilemma that they face. (This containment, though, is only effective in functioning democracies.) Nonetheless, it will be difficult for another Hitler to emerge. The times have changed. Gone are the days of great wars, racial domination, and imperial conquests – conditions that created a certain kind of fascism. Today, Hitler is a lesson to be learnt, but not an example to be followed.

This does not mean, however, that fascism does not manifest itself in other forms, in lesser degrees, certain qualities adopted, changing and moving along with the times. Fascism’s definitions have always been fluid; it has never been a coherent set of philosophy. Look more closely, less literally, and you might just detect its presence; transformed and reproduced into other morphologies, lambent, like a dark promise.


There is, above all, the amazing stereotyping of all the fascist propaganda material known to us. Not only does each individual speaker incessantly repeat the same pattern again and again, but different speakers use the same clichés. Most importantly, of course, is the dichotomy of black and white, foe and friend.

- Theodor Adorno, Anti-Semitism and Fascist Propaganda

And the essential face of fascism remains the same: the cult of leadership and its coterie of yes-men, elite rule and mass mobilization, authoritarianism and a depoliticized bureaucracy, assertive nationalism, statist economics, a propagandistic mass media, and an emasculated labour movement (thereby enjoying the support of the rich). More dangerously: the ruling elites’ belief of an innate human inequality, of socio-biological eugenics, state-sanctioned executions, the inculcation of military virtues, the insidious sense of siege, a nation if not preparing for war, at war, then ever-ready to wage a war – all inoculated in the name of efficiency and advancement. Of survival. Totalizing state power for an ultimate vision of utopia, for fascism is after all a politics of vision.

So the stirring mass displays of precision and one-ness, the impressive weaponry and grand infrastructure, the fireworks that swathe the sky and surge one’s heart, and of course, always, the timeless image of the messiah. In all these, the youth on the centre-stage, the Father’s youths, for fascism exalts the youth. Like the National Day 2009 music video “What do you see?” with a curious, conspicuous absence of the old, as if the nation consists only of young, smiling boys and girls, precious children of the State. Like the old who ‘would not conveniently die off’, labeled too, inhumanely, as a ‘silver tsunami’. Such illuminating connotations of obstinacy, of recalcitrance, of catastrophe associated with the elderly.

Once more from Adorno:

[A]ll fascist agitators dwell upon the imminence of catastrophes of some kind. Whereas they warn of impending danger, they and their listeners get a thrill out of the idea of inevitable doom.

Or else, or perdition looms. The nation is always in peril.

In fascist regimes, where individual lives are insignificant, it is unsurprising that citizens are treated with contempt, offenders punished punitively, criminals executed swiftly, for brutal regimes breed a brutal people. Of course, the people soothe themselves (but what else can they do?): it’s a necessary evil, it’s for the greater good, lest the great nation falls. It’s that smell of blood and the thrill of doom.

But fascism doesn’t just flourish in authoritarian regimes. 20th century European fascism did thrive in an era of democracy; and as recent as 2008, Austria's far-right Freedom Party continued to win seats in its parliament – such are the disturbing signs of the times. While mainstream Austrians and the international community expressed their alarm at this development, they could do little to prevent George W. Bush’s post-9/11 America from racially profiling its citizens, passing the Patriot Act, and continually invoking the fantasy of a united nation – the fascist inflections in democratic America. But at least there were critical awareness and vigorous debates in those countries.


Compared to times past, much of contemporary fascism is subtler, more banal – it has avoided its previous mistakes, adopted its best practices. It helps authoritarian regimes to better themselves.

As a diffusion of capitalism – and capitalism having become a celebrated ideology the world over, splendent in its neo-liberal variant – fascism remains a potent poison. No longer just administered by military adventurism, or even the more contemporary ‘wars’ of religious extremism and the fears of terrorism, there is also now the lure of consumerist comfort. A politics of fear combined with a culture of contentment to lull us into embracing a dictatorship of competence (fascism as blithely defined by Pierre Bourdieu).

Thus, to be rich is glorious, and life is after all incomplete without shopping. In certain quarters, it can be dressed up as ‘good governance’. Fascism by any other name now comes in even more attractive versions. But fascism is fascism however demure it appears.

Thus, before we can curb what Susan Sontag has called the ‘fascist longings in our midst’, for fascism is always compelling, always alluring, we have to first be willing to countenance its banality of riches, to recognize its swastika in yet another guise, and to call it by its only rightful name. For before one submits to temptation, the temptation to its unimaginable possibilities, one is first susceptible to it. Fascism inures, it inoculates, it makes one susceptible.

Compared to its versions of past failures and full regalia, ours is a fascism that holds us tighter in its thrall. And it is not just because one lives in an authoritarian state. But that this time, it is ribboned with a smug, enticing smile: Ours is a fascism that bestows us the good life. Ours is a fascism that works.

This is the lyre and the legacy of fascism. From Third Reich to First.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Requiem for a dream

I was a schoolteacher for a time. The hours were long and the work was grueling. But I enjoyed every moment of it. The students – for it was always about the students – had made the job possible. In many ways, they made me possible. It was, as the cliché goes, the most wonderful time of my life.

I still keep in touch with some of them. And lately – it must be that time of the year again – they were asking me about what subjects to take in JC, in university. The sad thing is, they were constantly evaluating their choices in view of a ‘future career’. Thus, their subjects had to be ‘relevant’, ‘useful’. For some of them, their parents forbade them to even consider the Polytechnic. I thought it ludicrous, and felt a little rueful. They were basing their education on appearances, on an imagined future job that might well change, that they might not be interested in, or that might not even exist by then. Were they planning for a future life of frustrations and regrets?

It is not wrong – a career and a future are important considerations. But it is sad – they are only sixteen. And it can turn cruel when, without their realizing, their future becomes futile. By then it might be too late – living out a life not one to call their own, dreaming of someone else's dreams.

And so it was a nice surprise to hear PM Lee telling students at the recent NTU forum to ‘dare to dream’, to ‘surprise yourself with what you achieve and create a better future for all of us.’ It was surprising not because such things even needed to be told – and told to university students. It was surprising for its familiar echo of what he had said in 2004: during his first National Day Rally speech, PM Lee urged a freer Singapore. ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom’ were those promising words.

In the ensuing five years, we have had ample opportunities to admire how our garden city has bloomed: the New Media has a new lasso, the Films Act gained some sophistication, the Public Order Act transforms one into an illegal assembly, and T-shirts with marsupial prints are roundly sent to jail. And these blooms merely skim the soil of the more sturdy trunks and deeper roots of control, censorship, and surveillance. I must have repeated these examples too many times. But some things simply never change.


We are not actually an apathetic people. At the cusp of our independence, in the fifties and sixties, Singapore was a hotbed of social, commercial, and political activities. The women were active in politics; community and entrepreneurial spirit were sustained by the countless merchants in their shops, hawkers by their stalls, and peddlers on the streets. The kampungs were little paradise for kids. They were a home for all. Artists, poets, singers and painters were all dreaming up their various different reality. Singapore looked like a proper city then; authentic, lively, and inspiring. So where have all the flowers gone?

It is not that our children do not dream, for to dream is only human. It is what happens to their dreaming as we put them through the State’s dehumanizing system, through those indoctrination camps pretending to be schools, where cold, economistic rationalism reigns supreme, must reign supreme. It is this same system that renders politics into mere administration, citizens into populations, into collective waged labour, and art and dreams in the state’s own image: cold, economistic, utilitarian. It is not the absence of revolution and tumult that there’s a dearth of political leaders. It is this illiberal, dehumanizing system that douses political fire. All our fire.

A few years ago, when Singapore decided to be a 'renaissance city', its methods were predictable: it conjured a Renaissance Masterplan. And dotted throughout the edict were words like: hardware, software, systematic introduction, documentation, upgrade, benchmarking, baselines, multiplier effect.

But these are not the noble names of art. They are not the phrases of inspiration, passion, and the singular vision. They are the language of civil servants and technocrats, the meaningless jargon of econometrics.

And yet and yet, in Singapore, art cannot be a wildflower. One ‘must be realistic’, intones the Straits Times: ‘If you do not plan on becoming a concert soloist, there are enough job opportunities in the arts and arts-related fields. As Singapore gears up to be a creative hub, the number of jobs in the creative industry can only grow.’[1]

Can one plan on becoming a concert soloist? And so art becomes a ‘job opportunity’ in a country ‘geared up’ for art. Art as an investment. Art to enrich the State (now a ‘creative hub’). This is how the state dreams its dreams – the hubbub in a technocracy, the fallacies, the diktats (the fantasia of dictators). And so let a hundred artists bloom.

But Art is not an investment. It cannot be geared up. Art refuses dictation.

Like dreams, it is free. It has to be.


I am reminded of the story of three Singaporean boys – Cheng Yu, Keegan, and Wen Yi. Two promising pianists and a passionate actor. They were boys who dreamt, even if tentatively:

When Cheng Yu was thirteen, he won the first prize and the Marion S. Gray Outstanding Musician Award at the prestigious Bartok-Kabalevsky International Piano Competition in America. That was in 1998. Ten years later, he ended up a medical student at NUS. Couldn’t he have gone on to become a pianist of acclaim, and be alive in his dreams? No. Cheng Yu’s father had threatened to ‘become a beggar’ if he continued to study music.

Not only do we ourselves stop dreaming, we stop our loved ones from dreaming too.

Then there is Keegan. Like Cheng Yu, Keegan had also won the Marion S. Gray Outstanding Musician Award – the second Singaporean to do so. Like Cheng Yu, he also wanted to study music. But no, This time it was the State. He had to complete his full-time National Service first. ‘I tried to practise while in NS but there was hardly any time,’ Keegan said. ‘I felt quite bad about it initially; there is regret. But never mind, I have learnt to move on.’ When Keegan completes his NS, he will switch to business studies. But never mind. He has learnt the language of reality, of pragmatism. The lingua franca of Singapore.

They all have, because they must. Their respective fathers insisted on that. Nafa's lost boys, as the media termed them. Father's missing sons. Except, they're still here, in captivity, kept by other people's dreams.

Except for one. The one who got away and never came back:

Wen Yi was a fifteen year-old student. He wanted to switch his CCA from track-and-field to drama. But his parents objected to it. Sports medals count, because they can be counted. Theatre and drama can't.

When passion meets pragmatism, the choice can be hard to bear.

So Wen Yi enacted, in real life, from his original script, his ‘final act of rebellion’. Like a good artist, the day before, he had sent out his invite, and the play had to go on: ‘Will you as a friend accompany me on this day?’

And from the eleventh-floor bedroom window of his home, he turned to brave his invisible audience.

Wen Yi reminded me of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

… Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,

We will make amends ere long;

Else the Puck a liar call;

So, good night unto you all.

Give me your hands, if we be friends,

And Robin shall restore amends.

Except for Wen Yi, it was no dream, there was no awakening, and there was no more restoring of amends.

Wen Yi stands atop his window ledge and falls away.[2]


They say art mirrors reality. Doesn't it?

Some of us wonder why Wen Yi ended his life over such a seemingly small matter. We wonder why Cheng Yu and Keegan couldn't cut a compromise, or resume their pursuits afterwards. But after what?

For some others, they wonder why, in Singapore, dreams are made out to be a small matter, that dreams have to relentlessly be haunted by reality. And whose reality is it?

So we shake our heads and slant our glances. A life is gone, and perhaps, we all know why.

Perhaps in Singapore, it is better not to dream.

There is this marvelous song by Faye Wong, called 开到荼蘼 [kāi dào tú mí]. It is sung with incredible panache and voice, the lyrics are exquisite and steeped in the Buddhist philosophy of transcendence. Near the song’s end, it describes how a resplendent promise made by a loved one can send one’s heart a fluttering, just like how a flower blooms. But inevitably, just like every flower, every blossom – that very apex of beauty and hope – is also when that flower meets its death. 心花怒放 | 却开到荼蘼. Let a hundred flowers bloom indeed.

When we wonder, where have all the flowers gone – the musicians, artists, writers – it's not hard to find them. Beneath the swathes of engineers and accountants, doctors and lawyers, there are those piles of abandoned hopes and deserted dreams. Occasionally, a wistful soul might catch a momentary glimpse of that other life. The life that might have been, but now hidden in the shade or withered on the vine. And in the end, they themselves, too, like those detritus of dreams, would be buried under, in someone else’s happiness, prosperity, and eventually be forgotten, as if none of them had ever lived.


My advice to my former students was simple (but what else can I say?): Look around you, look at the adults, at your own parents. Working in their jobs, living out a daily drudgery, dreaming of another life. So why not wake up to that other life that you dream about?

Wouldn’t they then be more worldly-wise, more dreamful? More fluent in laughter, in passion, in love? Wouldn’t they be happier then, however their future might turn out?

But perhaps even that is too much to ask. Too idealistic. Not practical, not pragmatic. Dream on, we like to say. This is why PM Lee’s dare to dream is revealing in itself. Against the reality of Singapore, it sounds almost like a taunt: to sleep, perchance to dream, but only if you dare. For those who do, the awakening is often rude; it is the bright daylight of Singapore. And for that they are fortunate. Because for some others, their dreams disperse without the consolation of morning.

Article first appeared in The Online Citizen.

[1] The Straits Times, “Careers in the Arts”, 14 December 2008.

[2] The Straits Times, “Boy Jumped over CCA”, 27 November 2008.


Monday, 24 August 2009

Once Upon a Time in Singapore

There was a time not too long ago, when we clenched our fists upon our hearts, and pledged ourselves as one united people. Regardless of race, place, and united by Time, 8:22 was a rousing moment towards the sublime. Across the country, a fusillade of imagined community. An image so rare, of Singaporean unity. Imagine, a nation. An imagination. An image, a magic, coming true at 8:22.

But Singapore won’t make it, a wise man said. And he duly rose up from his living grave, to bring his highfalutin flock back down to earth. And how swiftly that vertiginous paradise disappeared. The tenets of our Pledge, the wise man said, are grandiose ideals that, if undemolished, would demolish Singapore.

And from the highest office of the land came this lowest living lie. That a democratic nation would destroy Singapore. It was a wonderment how a nation’s founding father would fight so forcefully against the founding of a nation.


When we think of nations, Benedict Anderson’s classic formulation often comes to mind, where a nation is a ‘deep, horizontal comradeship’ that only exists in a people’s collective imagination.[1] Nations as imagined communities. Might MM Lee be right that our nation is really a fantasy.

But Anderson’s treatise is not the final word. Nations are European inventions, one of many forms of political organizations, of creating communities. But what about us?, the political theorist Partha Chatterjee wondered – the once-colonized, the bastard children of Empire who have no choice of nations other than from those bequeathed by Europe – what do we have left to imagine? Europe has already written for us our colonial and postcolonial scripts of victory and failure, resistance and destiny. ‘Even our imaginations must remain forever colonized.’[2]

A nation, conjured by one's imagination. More important for a nation, the freedom of imagination. And freedom, in PAP parlance, an abomination. Unsurprisingly, we remain colonized subjects. It’s Empire once more.


It is this connection between nations and the freedom of imagination that allows us to understand MM Lee’s outburst. It has little to do with the Constitutional sanctity of the Malays’ indigenous rights.

Examine closely MM Lee’s well-documented eugenicist views on the ‘superiority’ of the Chinese ‘race’, his political intervention in the Association of Muslim Professionals’ (AMP) in 2000, as well as the various frank academic writings about the Malay community, and we’ll notice how his supposed Constitutional considerations evaporate. In any case, parliamentary dominance ensures that the Constitution can be arbitrarily amended, as it has been. And we wonder if Singapore really has a ‘Constitution’. We might well pay MM Lee a backhanded compliment when we say that he is above parliamentary and Constitutional powers, but that’s merely typical of tyrants and their regimes. Can there be harmony in the race between freedom and tyranny?

Rather, the true Pledge of our nation, as desired by NMP Viswa Sadasivan, strike right into the heart of the PAP’s strategy of divide and rule. The sociologist Chua Beng-Huat offers a perceptive reading: instituting multi-racialism enables, no – compels, the Singapore state to ‘set itself structurally above race’, giving the state enormous political leverage. A multi-racial Singapore would then necessitate the enactment and enforcement of racial harmony. This is a masterstroke that corrals Singaporeans into the paradoxical logic of deterrence: ‘it is because of deterrence that misdeeds are kept low, if not entirely erased – thus, deterrence must continue; however, since deterrence is never lifted, the validity of the assumption that, if lifted, misdeeds will indeed break out is never tested – thus deterrence continues.’[3]

‘Racial harmony’, like most other PAP political strategies, serves two simultaneous functions. First, a regime of power surveilling a compartmentalized citizenry. Its elaborate walls surreptitiously woven into discriminatory legislation, housing quotas, NS deployment, education trajectories and traps – the major institutions that govern the state, control the populace, and shape our assorted fates. Second, every strategy, invariably self-serving, cumulatively strengthens and entrenches its political dominance. That we don’t even notice how the necessity of ‘racial harmony’ conveniently requires a GRC system, is testament to MM Lee’s brilliance. ‘Racial harmony’ is not just that. It institutionalizes gerrymandering, legitimates control, and perpetuates a Chinese-dominated political party/-country/-nation.[4]

Thus, to pledge a Singaporean identity regardless of race is already to position oneself politically against the state.

Among the plethora of contradictions in Singapore politics, the cruellest must be this: The regime’s control is so complete that even displays of patriotism, like fulfilling the ideals of our Pledge that we hold so dearly, is also a brazen act of high treason.

No wonder then, we dare not pledge ourselves too seriously. For the freedom of imagination is to imagine a nation free from the PAP.


The late S. Rajaratnam is now well-known for having penned our Pledge. What is less-remembered, is his disappointment, publicly expressed in 1990, with how Singapore had turned out: our materialism, philistinism; and how we have become a soulless, unthinking flock. A people reduced to waged labour.

But his greatest disappointment was with the PAP’s insidious strategy to racialize Singaporeans. He believed the CMIO policy would end our quest for a united nation, a Singaporean Singapore: ‘At this rate there will be a long ethnic queue of Singapore citizens proclaiming Sikh identity … Ceylon Tamil identity … Indian Tamil identity … Cantonese identity … Hokkien identity – and goodbye Singapore identity.’[5]

For us, Rajaratnam’s hard-hitting speech illuminates how the PAP that had led us in the first decades is no longer the PAP that is leading us now. Passion, conviction, and that roaring fire have been replaced by a cold-hearted elitism and the rampant profiteering of Singapore Inc.


Our National Day celebrations are resplendent affairs. Clothed in fascist irrationalism, luminous in their silken totalitarian complexion, they’re our annual thanksgiving dear supreme leader, Fatherland’s only son. Tightly-scripted and controlled, these celebrations’ surging militarism overwhelm our senses, appealing to our basic instincts for survival, for war, their pomp and pageantry paced to perfection.

But underneath these grand gestures, there are some realities that we overlook. For most of us, the words of our national anthem remain a foreign mystery – a mystery we’re in no hurry to resolve. We recite our Pledge; it is fluent, but empty. The significance of our flag – the five stars and the crescent – is gazed past with ignorance, with diffidence. Sometimes it is hung backside-front, upside-down (although that is not necessarily a bad thing). If we were honest with ourselves we would admit that our nationalism rings hollow, our patriotism shallow.

I am no nationalist, but I share Rajaratnam’s 1990 sentiments: ‘…after nearly 20 years of growing prosperity, peace and better education, a Singapore identity must be even more deeply-rooted and indelible than in 1971. If not, there must be something seriously wrong with our nation-building process.’[6]

Yet another twenty years have passed, and little has changed. Our nation remains imagination-free.


National Day Rallies: images and stories of yore, again and again, Time past and Time future. Reminders of how we came, from Third World to First, and who had brought us here. But this arrival is a mirage. If our existence is dependent on PAP rule, without whom…, then arrival will always be a mirage. And our government and its nation-building press would have failed our people. A Singapore that cannot survive without the PAP is a failed Singapore. And Time would have passed us by.

That Rally night, a glossy, contrived theatre, puppets and marionettes coming with strings attached, everybody performing perfectly to canned laughter. That Rally night, a treat to fabulous fantasies, foreign islands in a faraway time. But ask, here and now in our Singapore for a democratic society…, and see how the lights go out, the curtains come down, and how hearty laughter takes a bow. Night falls, and fear, timeless fear, is invoked. The fear of racial riots. The fear of our perdition. The fear of a Singapore without the PAP. Those faded, black-and-white photographs of old Singapore coming alive in their rowdiest kaleidoscopes. Unrealistic, unpragmatic, ungracious, irrational fear, ruthlessly untouched by Time.

So we haven’t arrived. Time exploded, and we remain in 1965. The chimera of skyscrapers and the reality of slums.


After four decades of nation-nothing and wasted years, perhaps we do have to start over. Rebuild our own nation, on our own terms, on our own earth. The story of Singapore cannot be told by just one man. It cannot be just one story, where we live on one man’s island, one man’s vision, while our imaginations remain colonized, forever trapped in his time, living our lives as voiceless people in a lifeless story. A nation is possible, and it is already in our thoughts. Remember our Pledge, and remember 8:22.

And we’ll imagine better. We have to imagine truer, in fragments, in freedom. To MM Lee our deepest gratitude, who has given Singapore the best as well as the worst, and so whose rightful name shall always come to be our messiah and curse. But the lovely night can only last so long.

An age has passed, and time belongs to a new day now. For us to render a Singapore that is not the fraudulent Pax Singaporeana built on money, exploitation, appearances, and fear. But a nation that is forged from our own hands, hearts, and dreams. Just like how it was, once upon a time in Singapore.

[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, Verso, 1983.

[2] Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1998.

[3] Chua Beng Huat, “Multicultiralism in Singapore: An Instrument of Social Control”, Race & Class, 44:3, 2003, pp. 58-77.

[4] For more on the structural disadvantages that the non-Chinese minorities face as a result of PAP policies, see Michael D. Barr and Zlatko Skrbis, Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity, and the Nation-Building Project, Copenhagen, NIAS Press, 2008; Lily Zubaidah Rahim, The Singapore Dilemma: The Political and Educational Marginality of the Malay Community, Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press, 1998; Christopher Tremewan, The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1994. It is unsurprising that most of the trenchant analyses of Singapore politics are conducted by foreign academics and not local ones.

[5] The Straits Times, “Raja Wants Revival of ‘Singaporean Singapore’”, 11 March 1990.

[6] ibid.