Sunday, 21 December 2008

In between the silence

In popular banter, in coffeeshops, during taxi-rides, Singapore is often likened to a dynasty, a fiefdom, a monarchy. The benevolent emperor is aging, and the crown prince has ascended the throne. The new king of Singapore Inc., the sovereign and his wealth funds, the powerful little kingdom, its imperium across the continents. These are compelling images, revealing the people’s underlying pride and patriotism. They also reflect conventional sentiments of high office in absolute power. While people may partake in these jokes, their laughter nevertheless stem from a niggling discomfort, that this might indeed be a reality for them. The unease of the powerless. When the laughter dies down, there is always a furtive silence.

When the town councils’ investment losses came to light, there was a preceding silence, only broken three weeks later in parliament, broken by a question. Then the widespread unhappiness, and the queries raged. The fires fought by the foot soldiers – tarrying back and forth to douse and shield – only served to further spread the flames. The leaders stepped aback. They referred the residents to the town councils, the town councils deferred to the government, in between, the silence, and the people were left wondering where the leadership was. It was a surreal time to be in Singapore, this hollowed, depoliticised bureaucracy, cruising on autopilot, gliding on invisible leadership.

Grace Fu was right. Our responses were knee-jerk reactions. The town councils are at no risk of going bust, and really, residents have not lost much money. The investment lessons to be learnt in this episode are not just one for the town councils, but for the financial world at large. Singapore, its institutions, and its people have merely, like the rest of the world, been sucked into this frenzied paradigm of greed. There are victims, and there are victims of victims. And in the coming time, the town councils will be more transparent, their charges delayed or not increased, more frequent maintenance and upgrading works, and it all will pass. 

What will not pass, however, is the root of these anger that will find places to flourish no matter what. It is not about the town councils. It is about that goliath of an arrogance that the government has come to exemplify. Hence, each mis-step, mistake, or gaffe from them will invariably proliferate into a garden of dissatisfaction. 

It is that classic affective divide again, recurring, widening, ever dividing. Except that since Catherine Lim’s public affair with the State, there have been fourteen more years of increasing contempt, conceit, and swagger of the leaders and their millionaire mandarins. 

Proceeding in tandem was a different world, a world that had been slowly transforming the Singaporean consciousness. The state propaganda machinery was continually unmasked and under siege. That great affective divide had ruptured into a colossal chasm: the Wee Shu Min affair with another Singaporean serf, the NKF and its peanuts, Yawning Bread and that photograph, the fixing of the opposition, Mr Brown’s rendezvous with Ms Bhavani, bak chor mee and PM Lee’s mee siam, Mas Selamat and our complacency, Chua Lee Hoong and why she hates them, the rising costs of rising costs, the huge government salaries and their huge investment losses, all sprung from the fount of burgeoning hubris, further germinated by the Internet’s wind, hyperlinks, and solidarity. 

Little Davids were incessantly whipped, stripped and paraded around in the public square, and the growing Sunday crowd was beginning to tire and feel uneasy. They wondered who would be hauled up next.

But this hubris is merely taking Singapore’s system of government to its logical conclusion. Total power is arrogant; it is corruptible, and it is begrudged too. The knee-jerk resentments are but symptoms of desperation: life savings, lives, and futures are at stake, in the hands of a government that is appearing not to be as sterling as they say. Or have we only now begun to see? 

Hence the desperate calls for transparency, we do not want to be kept in the dark. But it will not come by itself. Hence the empty calls for a stronger opposition. But it will not allow one. Hence the feeble yells to liberalise. Give and take, a little tango, and it is still back to No, No, and No.

When the individuals lost their life-savings, there were desperate calls for help. It was a cudgel that the leaders should have taken up. Instead, they were chastised by Lee Kuan Yew that they had invested with their open eyes, so they had only themselves to blame. When the town council’s losses were exposed, presumably the bright ones had also invested with their bright eyes. But those were public coffers, and so the public roared. It was not about the town councils.

Hence this wringing anger. The government cannot be, and the present system cannot hold. Life savings, lives, and futures are at stake. The people are losing sight of their savings, the government its duty; it is losing their money, and the people are on the losing side, corralled on an island, and nowhere to go.

It was predictable that Khaw Boon Wan stepped in. He is an earnest man, his devotion to his religion appeals to the public, and he speaks with empathy. People’s anger are soothed somewhat. He can say that the town councils have absolute transparency, that there are no secrets, and still be credulous. 

But complete openness, transparency, and accountability in the present Singapore are a contradiction, an impossibility and a false hope. These are hallmarks of a functioning democracy. They seldom accompany a king, God’s regent upon earth, governing by divine right. If change can only come from the ruling party, and that any countervailing opposition would be crushed, as PM Lee had intimated, illuminating his totalitarian impulses, how can those qualities prevail, how can this kingdom hold? 

In Singapore, when they tell you there are no secrets, it might just be true. Secrets are contained in whispers, they thrive on rumours. But in Singapore, there is only silence, self-silence, enforced silence, the silenced all, killers of secrets. As long as you do not say a word or question too hard. . . Occasionally, there would be the averted eyes, hidden thoughts, and the willed amnesia. There would be the always present fear. But there are no secrets. The secret police take care of that. So the emperor’s new clothes can be admired in all its nakedness. They are transparent enough, they cannot be anymore transparent. Anymore, and the emperor would be no more. 

The people's question is hanging still. It is an old question, a perennial, a Roman one: In Absolute Singapore, who can guard the king and guardians? 

The emperor? 

How can this kingdom hold? 

Expectedly, the silence is cutting out in the deafening air, this furtive silence, the silenced, and all the silenced disquiet, silent testaments to that always present fear, raising this curious transparent glass of silence, waiting, yet to be broken by their king. 

Friday, 19 December 2008

Mother machine

Last week there was a Straits Times story about a family with four kids. It’s a regular feature that seeks public donations for the paper’s school pocket money fund. An altruistic enough endeavour, and 8,000 needy kids receive their pocket money from the ST. 

What is more illuminating, though, is the parallel narrative that runs along the portrayal of a family in financial need. A more subliminal narrative, but none the less potent.

As we read the article, we are led into the Lim’s ‘sparsely-furnished’ household and its assorted intimate details. Mr Lim is a contractor. He earns $1,600 a month. But it is insufficient, so he moonlights for another one, two, hundred dollars. Mrs Lim is a housewife. She stopped schooling after primary six, and as a result finds it hard to get a job. Both parents are constantly looking for additional means to provide for their children, with education being the foremost concern. ‘I can’t even read some of the children’s books; the words are so difficult,’ said Mrs Lim. Forget too, about tuition. ‘No money – no need to talk about tuition.’ 

These form a story, but there is another story, a subtle reminder.

When Lee Kuan Yew spoke at a conference in Singapore two months ago, he reaffirmed his long-held belief that intelligent babies came from intelligent mothers, and intelligent mothers are so, when they attain a university degree. It is an old belief, stretching back decades. Once, on the anniversary of the nation’s birth, Lee posited what he saw as a seminal crisis of national proportions: graduate mothers were failing in their duty to produce 1.65 quality children. As a consequence, technological progress would halt, the economy would suffer, government would falter, and the country would perish.

Never mind that it was a skewed study: ‘It was an awful truth!' Never mind that the debate is far from done: ‘You marry a non-graduate, then you’re going to worry whether your son and daughter is going to make it to the university.’ Never mind that intelligence comes in different forms, that intelligence is not the only reason to life, and that life is not all a digit in an economy. And economy does not a nation make.

Never mind that it was you who erected policies and penetrated society in such a forceful manner that it cannot but submit and mindblowingly come true. 

As the Lim children grow up, they would find life a little harder. It has been designed to be so. Some schools would be out of reach. There would be little social and education support at school. An education system that is driven by private tuition would put them at a greater disadvantage. From young they would be streamed continually, every stream leading them a little further from that headstart, a little further from the university, before it all converges into a torrent of foregone conclusions. 

All from a mere education system. 

Imagine all the other systems, all those embracing arms and cajoling strokes of the government and its institutions that have spread themselves across the state and spellbound your minds, conjuring your foregone conclusions.

It doesn’t mean the children wouldn’t succeed; just that success would come in spite of the odds. That’s the way it’s made out to be. Looking around us, we get to see only a relative picture: your success relative to mine, her failure relative to yours. If she failed, it’s her fault. She didn’t work hard enough. If she met with success, it’s because of the system… too? The wonderful myth of meritocracy. So is it the individual or the system? I’ll know if it’s both when I can falsify Singapore. But the absolute numbers are kept away, hidden. The absolute successes are ensconced in the ivory echelons of the state. Occasionally, an exception to the system would be paraded in a triumphant celebration of meritocracy. It numbs our disquiet and lights up hope for the rest of us, and we forget that in a true meritocracy - a system not without its own problems and contradictions - these parades are redundant. 

So, we have no sense of perspectives. Lee Kuan Yew was right when he said this in parliament when he was begging for more coins. We have no sense of perspectives because we have no way of weighing the relative with the absolute. This way Singapore is unfalsifiable. Things are so, because it says so. It says so because it can. It can, because it's Absolute Singapore.

When readers read about the Lim household, there’ll be genuine pathos, no doubt. But there’ll also be a contrapuntal voice, that admonishing voice conveyed in the looming timbre of the Father: Remember Singapore. Are you a graduate? Look at them and their plight. Are you like them? 

Are you sure want to be like them? 

Remember now and not too long ago, the tax penalties, the exorbitant hospital charges, the forced abortions, the clipped fallopian tubes, the public put-downs, the permanent stigmas? Forget those lives that could have led, for want of a better word, a better life. 

Never mind a life, as long as you produce quality genes for your fatherland. 

Society above self. The self is a machine.

Look at them and their plight. Are you a graduate? Remember this is Singapore. Know your place in society, and take your pick: strata, structures, strictures, streaming, schools and scholarships, Singapore society's strangleholds. Your station in life, closed and chosen even before you were born. Anything after is a continuous struggle against, the comparison with, the constant judgement, and a ceaseless proving of yourself. In the end, some may make it, many don't. Because one man had an obsession with utopia, and made it a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

So as to achieve happiness, prosperity, and progress for our nation.


An earlier version was posted at

Molly has written about another family with a similar tale, this time inflected not just by class and sexuality, but also race and religion. I reckon only seditious bloggers dare take on these inflammatory topics. :) Nonetheless they're different pages in the same book. 

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Jobs aplenty!

'Oh, yes, Mrs Stitch.'
'...I absolutely loved Waste of Time. We read it aloud at Blakewell. The headless abbott is grand ... I put it in the Prime Minister's room.'
'Did he read it?'
'Well, I don't think he reads much.'
'Terracotta is too long, madam, and there is no r.'

- Evelyn Waugh, Scoop

Newspaper headlines are naughty little things. They seduce readers with keywords, slogans and messages without needing readers to actually read the articles, especially when they are slightly esoteric and scantly erotic. And our mighty media can turn a local minority community's event into a State of the Number of Jobs Address, setting the scene, casting the gloom, holding up the light, galvanising a nation, a clarion call to arms, inspiring one and all, and all with an innocent headline.

But read on and danger lurks, for our media's content is neither for the timorous nor the critical. Despite the gloomy economic outlook, jobs are still aplenty. Hear, hear! Every ministry will rev up (rev up!) its hiring and spending plans. Spending plans! Because the bureaucracy can be expanded to absorb the jobless! (They who shall be exorcised by state employment!) And it won’t go into the red! Hallelujah! Most civil service organizations ride on the backs of the private sector, but fear not! Singapore’s civil service is the private sector! Anything to embellish the unemployment rate! Anything to render welfare A Dirty Word! And the Little Red Dot, World Class in a Garden City, A Gracious Society, A Nation in Harmony, Regardless of Race, Language, or Religion, Upturns the Downturn, arrives from Third World to First, Again and Again, Again and Triumphs, and Triumphs Ever Again!

O do not wonder why Mr Tharman said: "In the hotel sector, front line jobs, service jobs, quite a lot of jobs are available so Singaporeans need to have the confidence so that they can obtain those jobs. We can provide them some training," for he's Tha-Man! Never be tempted to think that the hotel and service industries are the most volatile during economic downturns! Never suggest that they've been filled up by Foreign Talents!

O do not refer to MOM's analysis of the third quarter of 2008, one that the Straits Times reports as signaling ‘the growing depth of the economic crisis’! Read not the warnings of analysts! (“…expect more … it is just the tip of the retrenchment iceberg.”) O Ssssshhhhh!!! We are no Oliver Twist!

Belief! Have faith in our A-team cabinet, the crème-de-la-crème of Singapore, with a fearless reputation so solid and fragile! They shall overcome, and overcome they shall! No one shall Do Them In! Indeed, no one can! The service sector is likely to continue to hire in the fourth quarter for the year-end festivities! And so it shall be, a happy Christmas and a Merriest New Year! Spend! Spend and All Shalt be Well! Spend, and Thou Shalt have Jobs for Now!

After that, what then? Fear ever not! The media can always craft another sunny headline! For, as the poet T.S. Eliot once opined, next year's words await another voice! As long as the headlines shine forth: “Finance Minister says many jobs still available despite weak economic outlook” in its myriad of colours, never mind that the articles are disjointed! Never notice that they bear little relevance to the original events! Just remember that there’re silver linings, even if they don’t make sense! As long as a minister says so, it therefore must be true! Our respected, nation-building media will never mislead its Dear (R)eaders with insidious propaganda or inept journalism!

O Read the headlines with our open eyes! Remember the headlines in our deepest minds! And recite the headlines till the day we die! With headlines in our heads, and hopes in our hearts of hearts, we shall all unite, Singapore Heartbeat! and march to the thoughts of Dear Eternal Mentor, and his forever beating heart! O well! Oh well! Orwell! This way we're all Singaporeans now! One People, One Nation, One Singapore!!!

(And the Little Red Dot, World Class in a Garden City, A Gracious Society, A Nation in Harmony, Regardless of Race, Language, or Religion, Upturns the Downturn, arrives from Third World to First, Again and Again, Again and Triumphs, and Triumphs Ever Again!)

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The keys to.

There's a story, always a story, behind, beneath, in the folds, that has to be told. They say that everyone has a story, always a story, that's like Finnegans Wake, A way a lone a last a loved a long the . . . that's like a neverending breath. 

Here's mine: one day, a long time ago, they took away my magic flute. An end. 

And along went too, my neverending breath. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! And so on, and so on, and the rest, is about the return of my lost music, a finish to that last exhalation.

And it's old and old it's sad and old it's sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father, till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it, moananoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms.

- Finnegans Wake, James Joyce