Sunday, 25 January 2009

Orison of odium

In the midst of our CNY celebrations of luck, prosperity, and family reunion, or for our non-Chinese friends, a few days’ respite from another work-a-day, let us not forget that death is here and always. 

And that in Singapore, Disneyland with the death penalty, Death is a known Hour to some. 

And to some others, Death can be a wished-for spectacle. Death as Edifying Entertainment:

Kudos to death row coverage

I refer to the report, 'One-Eyed Dragon wanted to help others' (Jan 11), and commend the excellent coverage of the hanging of triad leader Tan Chor Jin.

Going behind the walls of Changi Prison and reporting the news was a good move. The report was a good attempt at highlighting what goes on in death row. Many people do not know what transpires behind the walls. Hopefully, in future, there can be more coverage highlighting the last moments of the man to be hanged, as well as the reaction of public officials.

I hope the Ministry of Health, prison officials and representatives of the various religious organisations can work out something that is acceptable to all parties concerned to encourage death row prisoners to donate their organs after death. But in the final analysis, the man to be hanged, and his close family members, should make the final decision.
-- Jasbir Singh, ST 25 Jan 09

In the past, public executions were possible because the rulers had absolute power. The spectacle of those executions served as a deterrent and a warning to all. It also instilled into the commoners the fear of the absolute ruler, thus further reinforcing the ruler’s power. As totalitarian rule gradually diminished in the last century, capital punishment, where carried out, had to become more opaque affairs. Graphic (re)presentations of death-row criminals had the unwelcome effect of undermining state power. The power of the State to exact revenge. The power of the State to kill. Thus newspaper reports of capital punishment usually revealed only the barebones of the said cases, functioning as a panoptical reminder of the State's power to unleash violence upon its own people, without necessarily risking the liberal public’s backlash.

Should I agree with the above writer - in supporting the death penalty, and in his suggestion of voyeurism - then pardon me for being a citizen of a state that kills efficiently and with impunity. Pardon me for being a citizen of a state that has no room for magnanimity, and with a people possessing no ability to forgive. Pardon me for bearing witness to my country’s crime.

Should I agree with the above writer, then, should the day comes that he might kill another man in a fit of inexplicable, irrational, incendiary fury, and is unmitigatedly sentenced to death, and is compelled to sign away his body parts in powerless, walled-off circumstances away from daylight, should the day comes, that he latches unto penitence and feels remorse, but yet shall never find pardon and that precious stroke of redemption, should the day comes, that he knows that the hour of his Death is tomorrow’s sunrise, and each second is an excruciating eternity to that spectacular Hour that will be relished by a cheering, waiting crowd, brimming with curiosity and anticipation, salivating with the writer's last moments and celebrating with his Death, should that regretful day comes, I shall remain ashamed of my country as an abattoir, I shall remain ashamed of myself as an abettor, and I shall remain adamant in the face of that writer’s impending, wrongful Death, that my sympathies for him shall abhorrently, but absolutely remain with me.



Thursday, 22 January 2009

Discordant note - Pax Singaporeana

Civil servants should remember the values of the Singapore Public Service: 'Integrity, Service, Excellence'. Our first duty is to serve Singapore and Singaporeans, and we should always conduct ourselves with decorum and humility. Everything takes its marking from this.

- Minister Teo Chee Hean

Remember the values. But how are these values evaluated? Through the billions in Singapore’s economy. To serve Singaporeans. But in turn, what do Singaporeans serve? To increase the billions in Singapore’s economy. Who holds the key to those billions, and where have all those billions... gone?

To serve Singapore. But what is Singapore?

Remember the values. Just do not forget Singapore’s economy: everything takes its marking from this. Remember to remember. Singapore is an economy.

Minister Teo’s words were a rebuke to Perm Sec Tan Yong Soon, not so much for his unbecoming deeds, as for revealing a fact that is the ivory echelons of the State. Revelations that have political ramifications in these sensitive times. Because the ruling regime and the state have become one. In fact, there is nothing unbecoming of what Tan did. In order to uphold the values of Integrity, Service, Excellence, the Civil Service, it has been argued, needs to be remunerated well. And when you are remunerated well, you shall find well-heeled places worthy of your munificence. If one reads Tan’s article more carefully, one would find little, if nothing, boastful about his vacation. It was presented rather as a matter-of-fact. Earnestly, he presented another world of Singapore. One that eats her cake in Paris. He was only and truthfully being himself.

MP Charles Chong offered a gem of wisdom:

Maybe it made lesser mortals envious and they thought maybe he was a little bit boastful.

He tried to clarify these scorching words afterwards, replacing ‘they' with ‘us’. But it was already too late. He had unwittingly let slip an ‘us’ and ‘them’, as there indeed is. And MP Charles is not with us. Whether or not he is 'they' or 'us', or even whether such a binary is meaningful in the first place, is not as important as what those words signify, what that very slippage conveys. His words encapsulate the meaning of Singapore: your worth as a citizen as measured by your economic utility. Your value as a human being as determined by your wealth. Otherwise, you are merely a lesser mortal. It is no less generous a sobriquet than a mere ‘digit’. If you can ignore the politically incorrect-ness, you will see that these otherwise innocuous tropes carry the simple ontology that is Singapore. The essential core from which such lexical violence and contempt are regularly, earnestly, and impudently unleashed upon Singaporeans, and essentially the same core that explains why Singaporeans regularly, earnestly, and resolutely accept such treatment.

This is a natural outcome of ‘meritocracy’. Because the logical conclusion to meritocracy is elitism (from elitism), what more elitism in an authoritarian regime based on eugenics and fascist ideology. And meritocracy lies in the heart of the Singapore Dream. Meritocracy, the supposed backrock of Singapore’s civil service, exemplified to perfection in the generations of schoolkids pressured to ace the successive decades of imperial examinations, enticed with scholarships, entrapped by high salaries, before finally entering the permanent, cloistered halls of the government elite.

Serve Singapore and Singaporeans? Conduct myself with decorum and humility? But why should I? I worked for it. I made it. I am the nation’s best, without whom my nation shall perish. I deserve all these. Why should I be denied, or hide my rightful entitlements? The Civil Service is the Singapore Dream. And the Singapore Dream lives to be flaunted. The Singapore Dream makes the idea of Singapore possible. It makes the Singaporean life bearable. This is the pact that Singaporeans have willingly signed.

But what if, for the majority of Singaporeans, our meritocracy is a farce, and the Singapore Dream an illusion?

Meritocracy, another form of elitism, appearing more legitimate; the parallel maneouvres of 'intelligence' over 'wealth' AND 'intelligence'=wealth. Thus harder to displace. But as a mode of organising society, it is untenable over the long run. And our initially 'meritocratic' structures are showing signs of atrophy. But until then, our ‘meritorious’ will continue to rise and lead, according to narrow, pre-demarcated categories of merit, within restraining structures that reinforce these categories. Categories that are, predictably, an exact replica of our founding fathers: male, heterosexual, mostly Chinese, English-schooled, overseas-educated. Categories that have replicated themselves in the successive decades, entrenched the system, systematised the government, governed a nation's mind. Categories that reproduced the power that spun its own silk of power, power that strengthened its own silk web. Arachnidan power that stultified a nation's growth. Let these meritorious ones ‘rightfully’ rise to riches. And the remnants shall deservingly fall back, lucky just to live. Just be thankful you're a Singaporean.

This is the discordant note: rich civil servants – the meritorious, the elites – serving the people. No, the lesser mortals. There is little disagreement that civil servants need to be rewarded well. The concerns in these Straits Times Forum letters, writing in support of Tan Yong Soon, they are mistaken. The point is not about civil servants spending their own money during their own time.

What is harder not to pick apart, is the plethora of false justifications proffered, so that they could be remunerated excessively. Without high salaries, no capable minds would join the service, and therefore Singapore would perish? Laughable that a bureaucracy brimming with the best and the brightest cannot hold up the country. Or has the ruling regime monopolised the bureaucracy, indeed the Singaporean society, and held it all hostage? Or is it a case of Love thy country, But love thy money more? Or see, hear, and speak no politics perhaps? Singapore is not the only country fraught with dangers and feeding only 4 million mouths. But while others institutionalise a democratic form of government, and create a more egalitarian society, our successive cohorts of supposedly well-educated Singaporeans are made increasingly dependent on the ruling regime, made increasingly materialistic. That we have no natural resources? People are natural resources, and natural resources do not necessarily ensure prosperity and progress. Singapore is vulnerable? It might be less so if you reduce your overwrought sense of siege. Singapore is no longer that vulnerable. Singapore is unique? So is every other country. But that has not stopped us from trying to export our 'Singapore Model' to China and the developing world. The spreading wings of Singapore. The Singapore Flyer; Pax Singaporeana. Cheered on by our happy fellow Singaporeans, drunk with false nationalistic pride, numbed with collective fear, fed on fallacies and spin.

We do not like to hear the elites saying, "Let them eat cake." Yet, we like to have our cake, and eat it too.

Strip away all these hollow justifications, and that kind of salary figures would be difficult to justify. The ruling regime's achievements no longer that stellar, and in fact, you realise Singapore can survive without the ruling regime. That it is strong only because it deliberately kept everyone else weak and dependent. That it is holding Singapore back.

When top civil servants are paid according to market rates, they naturally live and think like kings. Especially when our civil service have been subsumed under the one-party system. Especially when the civil service is not the free market. Permanence and protection, along with the other usual perks. Why not? Thus, decorum, humility, and public service will be tokenistic, belaboured, if not incommensurable. If not a facade. In Singapore, there are few civil servants. Mainly mercenaries and elite mandarins. Every man for himself. No Singapore nation, but Singapore Inc. And the mandarins serve the king. Everything takes its marking from this.

That is why the likes of Tan Yong Soon will always be simultaneously envied and resented. Not because Tan and the elites have succeeded, but because the system that produces them is unjustifiably unfair. And because the system of rewards is fundamentally based on misguided values. That is why there shall always be two Singapores residing in two different worlds, hopefully the twain never shall meet. That is why the inaugural words of President Obama will always make the self-serving leaders of Singapore feel small. Undeserving. And phony.

Two days ago, in Washington D.C., there were no flashy special effects, no flamboyant promises, no contrived flourish of letting a hundred flowers bloom. There were no need to. Just a man and his single dream to serve. Just a man standing in front of his country, graceful to those he defeated, thankful for His grace, and grateful to his country and her people for this opportunity to serve and to lead. This is heartfelt sincerity. Obama is a priceless symbol of America. A pure inspiration.

His words spoke to Singapore too, not to criticise, but to show how she could be better. Truer. Greater. Perhaps that is why when Singaporeans watched Obama’s inauguration, they rivered more than a tear. They forgot for a moment that they were Singaporean. For a few breaths, it was as though everyone was an American, and Obama was their president. They were lost, and Obama was leading them home.

Then, they remembered to remember. They were Singaporean. They were all that Singapore today stood for. And for what and for whom does Singapore stand? The way Obama rose to power, he would have been persecuted in Singapore even before he started. Passion, idealism, inspiration. Persecuted. Thorns on the side. And so those Singaporeans, perched in front of their LCD screens half a world away, imagined, if only, that Singapore was a place where thorns could grow with roses. Thorns supporting that cusp of enfolding petals and sweet nectar. Thorns protecting the very life of that rose.


Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

- President Obama, Inauguration Address, 20 January 2009

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The state of mind | MP set in flames

There is in literature a slipstream of works that impresses upon the reader the character more than the plot or the story. The reader rides on the horseback of him the character as he (usually a ‘he’) gallops into the adventure. Somewhere along, that character subtly morphs to become the story. Don Quixote comes to mind. Later incarnations of this quixotic fellow exploit roughly the same formula and gain literary fame, if not cult status. Holden Caulfield and his angst-ridden jaunt through Central Park, Leopold Bloom’s clock-ticking day in Dublin, Mrs Dalloway’s wispy amble in and out of Hyde Park, the inexplicable trials and tribulations of K. These works pay their tributes to Dostoevsky, and Knut Hamsun especially, who in turn were inspired by Cervantes. Of course, all of them had received their tutelage from the epic grandmaster of the Odyssey, Homer.

What gradually shifted away from Homer and through the millennia, was that the odyssey of Odysseus became Odysseus the Odyssey. Why would one be interested in Mrs Dalloway’s quest for a perfect party this evening, or in Holden’s midnight gallivant of nothing? Because the primal seduction of language aside, if you believe Freud, we’re ids and egos interested in ourselves. These works, in presenting their characters, lead us into the slipstreams-of-consciousness.  They plot out the timeless topography of the human condition. I am the I in the I in this and that fictional guise. More importantly, the interior geography of the I becomes a representation of, a comment about, the external territory of the state one is living in. That is, the state of one’s mind and the state of one’s country, both as a condition of the self.

Amongst these novels that delve into psychology, Dostoevsky is probably the one most consistently interested psychiatry, and that informed a separate tributary of existentialism. To Dostoevsky, the chronic psychosis of Russia of that time was starkly personified in his fictional characters, from the Underground Man to Raskolnikov.

The subject of psychiatry is seeing resurgence, with the unfortunate incident of MP Seng Han Thong being set in flames. Not long ago, psychosis helped to politically destroy one of our former presidents, Devan Nair. Should such similar strategies be employed, then whatever the 'psychiatric condition' of the perpetrator Ong Kah Chua and his ‘real’ motivations that shall emerge in due course will be a red herring, if not irrelevant. It will be fascinating to observe how the Singapore state might, in the coming weeks, exploit psychosis for political ends, much in the Foucauldian vein. The state’s objective in this instance would be to eliminate any hint that two of the ruling party’s pillars of governmentality – anti-welfarism and politician-people grassroots meetings – are failing. That even if Ong had been clear-headed during the time leading to his committed crime, he would still be labelled irrational. His psychiatric assessment (taken at face value) and the court's sentencing would provide some answers however vague.

I do not condone what Ong had done. But the the patterns of the state kicking into gear are already emerging. There is the media scramble to spin Seng as an honest to goodness MP. We are fed frequent updates of Seng, and thus know more about his condition than we do about Ong. Other than that Ong has a psychiatric history, and that he has swiftly been charged, no words have come from Ong, or from people who know him well, for example his family members. Each day passes with the plight of Seng appearing increasingly unfortunate, as the media milks maximum public sympathy and stokes moral outrage from its trusty backrock of middle Singapore. 

The dimension of Ong has been deliberately silenced. Remember the psychosis but not the man, and hidden will be the link between the two. The signifier de-signified, a sign of state machination at work. 

Wong Kan Seng’s statements have been the most significant so far, and his words imply two sets of laws, one for the common man and one for PAP politicians. You are also expected to act rationally even when you are mental. As Molly has characteristically pointed out, this is nonsense. What is most revealing is in Wong’s emphatic iteration that Ong shall be severely dealt with, that Ong’s vicious act will meet with a foregone conclusion. This is before Ong’s mental state has been ascertained, that could potentially be an intervening, if vindicating, factor in the court’s deliberations. This is before the courts have spoken. Is our Home Affairs minister a psychiatrist and a district judge now?

Sliding along the edges of this episode is the obvious fact that the state’s exhortation to self-reliance through gainful employment can only succeed to the extent that one is physically and mentally able. How is someone with a condition like Ong to find work or to remain in employment? How is someone like Ong to ask for help? 

Governmentality in Singapore has been engineered so that the only access the people have to political expediency is through parliament, with the MP as conduit. But there are the residents’ complaints of absent and unavailable MPs, and the occasions where MPs cannot bring about desired outcomes. There is the possibility that meeting the MP is in fact not an efficient, if effective process of political interaction and bargaining, that in reality it merely gives the semblance of a helping hand. MPs as politics as administration, and somewhere along this impersonal process of ministration, politics disappears. Why ask, if help is a mirage?

Violence, always a political act, always a raw demonstration of power. And for the powerless, people like Ong, how else can they reclaim the political, if not with violence? Violence to yourself when you hurl yourself in front of the oncoming train, or violence to he who violated you. You hurl a flame into the state's paragon of politics. You hope to set alight the pyre of your fate. You hope to be heard. In that regard, irrationality becomes subjective. What may be irrational to you might not be to the other. What may be irrational in deed may not be in its intent. What may be then, may not be now. And the political does not end with death – it is ignited and re-ignited from amongst the demos. These are the sparks that the state will do its utmost to souse, as it is doing now. 

Virginia Woolf wrote a most sober Mrs Dalloway while weaving in and out of her bouts of insanity. Dostoevsky sketched out the most psychotic of characters that had method in their madness. The mental, the insane, the mad, they nonetheless reside in a simultaneous reality - life, still as lived - although a step apart from ours. 

But whose? Is it even about insanity in the first place? (Perhaps to be mad in a crazy world is not necessarily insanity, especially if we can/should get to know the character, follow his odyssey, and assess his condition.)

One might never know if Ong is truly schizophrenic, or to what extent that he is. Modern states have been all too happy to ascribe the charge of irrationality and insanity to those who do not conduct themselves in accordance to decree. Unwittingly, Ong entered this temple on his own. What remains to be seen is to what extent the state will sacrifice Ong on the altar of PAP deities as a warning to the rest of the non-believers, insane or otherwise. Remember? This is rational Singapore. Island of practicalities, realism and pragmatism. The thin red line between reason and treason.

Ironically, the evacuated p s y c h o s i s of Ong personifies/symbolises the Singapore state’s condition. The state, of mind - opaque, inexplicable, inversely irrational, utterly dehumanised. Except that we have no Dostoevsky of our own to hold up an authorial light. Only psychiatrists in the employ of an authoritarian state.

This is the state of mind that, like madness anywhere, it will deny. The state of mind that precisely triggers irrational acts, and bouts of insanity. The state of mind that could potentially return the lost picture of politics burning at its brightest flame: the quixotic assassination of power to revive the political, the politicians’ forgotten fear of the demos, the political fire not seen since the heady days of decolonization and Independence, the fire of desperation, the politics of delirium.

When they occur, do we isolate the character - or worse, the character's psychosis - from the story, forgetting that the character holds the story. Forgetting that the story is the key to the character's psychosis. Forgetting that we are not Dostoevsky. 

Forgetting that Dostoevsky was not and cannot be the State.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Justice looking for a name

The Scream is Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s most famous painting. I was in Oslo the last two weeks, spending Christmas and the New Year with old friends up in the mountain cabins snowed over with snow, and took the rare opportunity to one day slip into the National Art Gallery in the city to see this painting in its original.

They say a painting is all silence, and all presence, but never silenced. Like justice. That world there, living on the canvas, does not speak in the name of language. It only equivocates. A true piece of art, even though it only equivocates, can make a statement, can make a name for itself. It can be understood, if only we let it. Because art is not an alien creation minted in the unfathomable service of money – it is an expression of our humanness. So you stand in front of a painting, and you confront it, you question it: Why. This colour. This diagonal. Why. This intensity. Here and not there. Why. This light. Why. This boy, this pallor, this crease, this fold. Why. 

Why do Singapore's courts crucify those who question its truth?

The questions become an interrogation of yourself and your own truth, because the painting cannot speak. It equivocates, and you make a meaning out of it, through your own eyes, upon your own tongue, thinking in your own mind, feeling with your own haert. If a painting cannot speak a word – a soundful of a word – how can it scream? And when it screams, how can you hear? This: you stare and you stare at the scream and let the painting melt away. Glowing colours, undulating lines, simple life forms and the sea and sky and you, crystalising in your depths within, until you see, feel, and hear, right in front of you, in the name of that singular scream searing through your self.

When artists paint, it is an expression of their feelings, usually of pain. When artists paint, it is a message in a bottle, in it a letter for you to unfold. And within it a lover's name that you hold.

Naming is a difficult and time-consuming process; it concerns essences, and it means power. But on the wild nights who can call you home? Only the one who knows your name.

- Jeanette Winterson

They say that Lady Justice is blindfolded. But sometimes her blindfolds are off. And sometimes, she is made blind. Like God, human beings make her in their own image. Like God, human beings speak for her. But unlike God, human beings are here and fallible. 

Through justice, ‘truth’ is revealed. Through justice, power is illuminated. In whose name, who reveals, and who illuminates? When you question the authority of justice, like you would the jurisdiction of art, the onus is upon her – justice and art – to equivocate her truth. You question it, painting and truth; you interrogate it, justice and truth. 

And you indict it, Singapore and its unravelling of justice: why does its Lady Justice crucify those who question its truth?

Through an indictment of justice, justice is conceded, confessed, and declared. And justice is freed. But when power is used to stopper the questions, and impose upon all its own truth, that is not a painting or a revelation of justice. That is a scream that can neither be seen nor heard. That is injustice in its every letter: it is 'justice' because it tells you that it is; it is a 'scream' because it tells you that it is. It is not the painting that is silenced. It is you who are censored. It is the truth that no one believes in. It is the truth imperiled and justice imprisoned.

And The Scream lives on unheard. 

Actually, Munch had painted another piece, that is less well-known, less well-liked, but that is my favourite. It is a self-portrait. Self-portraits of artists are infinitely intriguing pieces of art, because they reveal more about the artist’s heart than any other. Munch’s Self-Portrait with Cigarette has his face turned towards you. His sombre clothes are blended into the darkness behind, and his lower torso melts into a sepulchral mist, as if he were an apparition, a ghostly yet vivid mirror of his self. Why are only his face and hand illuminated? And why is he gazing so intently at you? Why is his hand placed, seemingly so gently, upon his heart? The face, the hand, and the heart of the artist and his singular piece of art, what is the portrait of the artist saying to you? 

No one knows, though you might. And neither do Munch nor his paintings impose their truths upon you. Truth, painted. You the viewer, stare and stare it down. You question it, you interrogate it, and you indict it, the painted truth. Only then can its truth be revealed in its full colour, the painted truth unveiled. 

Only then can an artist do art the truth and justice that it deserves. And only then can one in the name of one's heart, feel the truth, and believe in it.

So indict it, Singapore and its unravelling of justice. Why does its Lady Justice crucify those who question its truth?

Until then, it is you who are censored, it is justice unbelieved, it is art that lives in shame, and it is injustice without another name. 

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Disgrace | The Life & Times Chua Lee Hoong*

One of the characteristics of the esteemed novelist J.M. Coetzee's prose style is his use of the rhetorical question. Rather, questions – in the plural – posed where he wishes to provoke thought, to cast doubt, to suspend his reader's initial prejudice, and to hint, only just, at what his own predilections might be. Questions leading questions, leading the reader, and no answer in sight, until the reader realises that an answer is neither the point nor destination – the question is.

Questions, when posed skillfully, artfully, are like a chessmaster's move of pieces across the checkered maze, each move a question, each question an answer, though the question is the answer. And before your eyes, Coetzee's last question in his novel would have maneuvred you into his delicate checkmate, leading you no other way but to his final sentence – an exquisite master's piece – a laurel written just for you. 

While Chua Lee Hoong of the Straits Times is nowhere near being a prose stylist, nor is she a seasoned chess player, she does harbour pretensions to be court advisor to the ruling regime. But subtlety is not her forte; subterfuge is. Thus when she pours scorn on the Internet only yet again ('Political Challenges for 2009', ST 3 Jan 09), it reminds one that journalism is merely a gambit for her more duplicitous ambitions. Chua Lee Hoong is not a journalist; certainly not of a class of the more respectable newspapers, but rather like a pawn columnist of a party newsletter. Pity her subordinates.

But when Chua Lee Hoong releases a frenetic spray of questions about the Internet – and nine at one go, no least, it looks as if she is sweeping her hand across the chess board and sending those pieces – Kings, Queens, Bishops and Knights – scattering onto the ground before her opponent can move into awaiting victory. It is as if a caught and cornered spy had desperately held onto her pistol for that one last rackling into the indifferent sky, before being engulfed by the advancing night. And you begin to suspect that she is more worried about what is left of her ignominious career as the Straits Times' doyenne of propaganda and regime apologia than the yearly maturity and vindication of the Singaporean blogosphere:

What proportion of Singaporeans turn to it for news and views? How much of an influence does the Internet have on their lives? How much does it affect their thinking? How is the local blogosphere evolving? What impact does it have on national discourse? Five to 10 years from now, what will it be like? Will the Internet's reach attain some kind of equilibrium and stabilise? Under what circumstances or in what kind of societies will the Internet be at its most influential, and what least?

There are no answers to all of Chua Lee Hoong's questions above. The answers will only bear out on hindsight with the passing of time, chance, and technology, and with empirical research. But they do appear to portend the imminent demise, if not an attenuated influence, of the printed newspaper. So, more importantly, there are no answers to her questions because hers are not questions. They are flares of SOS to her masters, and entreaties for the containment of online socio-political commentary.

Subtlety is not her forte; subterfuge is. Especially when night is settling in fast.

* * *

Chua Lee Hoong had one more question, however. It was actually her first: 

The problem with the Internet is reliability: To what extent can you trust what you read online? Whether due to ignorance, mischief or sheer absence of quality control, much of what is written online has to be taken with a pinch of salt.

This is a genuine question, and well worth thinking about. And the answers are multiple. The Internet is reliable, and it is not. It can be reliable, and it can not. Rather, its reliability is not that important. Writings on the Internet require the discerning eye as much as the Straits Times needs similar scrutiny – the latter all the more so. Discerning eyes are just what this country needs. What are indispensable are the Internet and the Singaporean bloggers' ability to break the monopoly of information control, debate-framing, and the manufacturing of consent, and to expose the spin, hype, and chicanery of venal scribes and fawners from the mainstream media.

The Internet is not the perfect mass medium, and it need not be. Being an excellent one is enough for its purpose. Its inconsistency, unpredictability, and dilettantism are precisely its strengths. Its excellence and political potency cease only when individuals no longer blog, participate in forum discussions, forward that incriminating email, access a plethora of info-news websites – professional and amateur, local and foreign – and continually comment, debate, and quarrel, post pictures and put up videos and form communities. Its potential for political change is anywhere and everywhere.

But political activism is neutered at its heart when individuals forget that change comes not just from the arena of parliament and street protests, but also from the sitting and thinking individual. The personal is the political, and the political is in the quotidian and in the everyday. Action originates from one's thought, conscience, and consciousness. An impassioned thought is in itself activism.

Taken together, they constitute the truer citizen, one that perpetually questions received wisdom, rips up underlying assumptions, and resists and unmasks the artifice, injustice, and sophistry emanating from those enthroned in the white chambers of power.

Taken together, you rebuff the vacuous regurgitation of propaganda by those indoctrinated ones, and you expose their shallow, hollow, and spurious patriotism.

But politics, conscience, and activism are numbed when one receives news and information solely from the mainstream media. The Ugly Singaporean has come to be one of the enduring appellations of the country's citizenry, and one suspects that the numerous unbecoming, even mortifying traits, of the average Singaporean are precisely cultivated by a daily imbibing of those craven, mediocre, and less than hounourable newspapers. It breeds an infantile Singaporean society that constantly needs a PAP government to, in Chua Lee Hoong's ominously revealing words, educate a new generation of Singaporeans on what governing Singapore entails. Do we need any more propaganda? And from which other national paper can one find a journalist of Chua Lee Hoong's ilk that holds such a condescending view of her compatriots? 

While the Straits Times need not strive to be the perfect national daily, a stratospheric aspiration, given its current pedestrian standards and dictated modus operandi, it need not be pathetic either. At least it should not be a national disgrace.

Since the Straits Times has abdicated its role as the paramount purveyor and conduit of critical, independent thought, then the Internet should attempt that role. As long as you have something original to say, the keyboard is yours.

The alternative is the perpetuation of the illusion that the Straits Times is the model example of an objective newspaper and the epitome of truthful reporting. Illusion, because these are non-existent standards that Singaporeans have been duped into believing.

There is no such thing as an objective viewpoint, a balanced opinion, or a non-partisan position, just as there exists no fiery ice, or for that matter, icy fire. There is only a voice that is yours and yours only – better still an enlightened one – and whether or not it will be quashed.

You, the subject; You, the subjective. And You should never be subjected.

There is no letting of facts to speak for themselves. Facts do not speak for themselves – You do. And truth is what you make of it. This is why there must be a proliferation of objectives, viewpoints, and objecting viewpoints, unbalanced opinions and partisan positions, to demolish the innumerable half-truths in here, and to debate the many-multiple truths out there. This is why freedom of speech is a fundamental birthright and not a conferred reward. And this is how Singaporeans can then begin to grow a mind of their own, abandon their puerile diapers, and finally grow up. This is why the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act has first to go. This is why our nation-building media has failed.

The alternative is the one-dimensional drivel that you get from the Straits Times every morning.

The alternative is the dumbed-down Singaporean citizen that receives its daily insult without even realising it.

The alternative is the Internet. But you have to make it so, because You are in the Net. This space is yours – from cyberspace, to actual space.

* * *

So to pose Chua Lee Hoong's question back to herself: The problem with the Straits Times is reliability: To what extent can you trust what you read in print?

I believe Reporters sans Frontieres has a few answers dating from 2003, each year a damning echo to the Straits Times, each ranking – take your pick, 144th? 147th? 140th? 146th? 141st? or the latest 154th? – a plangent riposte to Chua Lee Hoong. They make a mockery of every word that she types.

The problem with the Straits Times is precisely one of reliability, in addition to its sub-par journalism, in prose, style, and substance. Prose style is what separates a merely excellent argument from an absolutely brilliant one. Writing is always a tribute to poetry, and an argument for the splendour of literature – but when it comes to the Straits Times, what style, what substance, and what argument? Beyond its incessant self-glorification and vanity revamps of adding more vibrant colours and tweaking trivial typefaces, what quality sentence and thought can be found flowing from the Straits Times? Its newsroom is bereft of courage, critical minds, and an affinity with the English language – a microcosm of the embarrassing Singaporean society that it has been complicit in moulding. A press that is cloying and not free is an unreliable press, a shackled Chua Lee Hoong is an unreliable witness, and dignity slips from the totem poles of both.

To what extent can you trust what the Straits Times prints?

I may be no Coetzee, and this may be no rhetorical question. Following the RSF's rankings, I'll hazard an easy answer: To the extent that you trust what Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and China print.

To what extent can you trust what the Straits Times prints? 

To the extent that Chua Lee Hoong and fellow sycophants at the Straits Times will continue to move their substandard, groveling, and gutless pieces of 'journalism' through the square tiles of international opinion and press rankings, blocked by the stubborn Kings on their right, and mocked by the Net Rookies on their left, until they have nowhere and no way but to fall into their deserved, divined, and rightful tomb, that is their laurelled checkmate at the end.



- 王菲 | 棋子

* * *

*The title is borrowed from the two Booker Prize-winning novels of Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee: Disgrace, and The Life & Times of Michael K. The characters in the novels bear no resemblance to Ms Chua Lee Hoong. 

Entry first posted in The Online Citizen.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Writing home | To the memory of JBJ

Evening brought the breeze, channelled by the concrete blocks, blowing across Singapore. Evening set the birds chattering, as if desperate for one last word before darkness silenced them. Evening brought light, flooding the corridors of the concrete blocks and lining the roads. The daytime of tinted windows and air-conditioning was giving way to the night-time of flourescent tubes and halogen headlights. White then red flashed from the cars speeding past on the road outside Ah Leong's window.

Across the country, televisions were coming on … Husbands greeted wives and changed channels. Children greeted mothers and clamoured for dinner. Ah Leong stood at the window and looked out, trying to fix all Singapore in his gaze.

In the hazy distance, the skyline of the central business district stood in quiet repose, an august ovation to the country's wealth and prosperity, a singular metaphor for Singapore.

Your eye caught a plane slanting from the southwest, tiny from afar, slowly descending over the scattered islets. Then it turned from round the Marina Bay area, cruised along East Coast park, and disappeared among the thicket of buildings and trees.

It reminded you of being on a plane once, returning from a holiday, and how Singapore looked from above as the plane neared its shores. First the cosy cluster of skyscrapers appear, gleaming in the late afternoon light; then the neat landscape of trees, fronted by new condominiums and repainted HDB flats; and then the red-roofed terrace houses of Tanah Merah, the neat white boxes of Changi Business Park, each view the gentle turning of a page, before you landed on the tarmac. Changi Airport. You felt a rising pride. Singapore was already resplendent in your mind, and Singapore was not just Singapore. It was the garden city, it was the oasis in Southeast Asia, a buzzing metropolis, a city of possibilities, it was the legion epithets from the saga of modernity, Singapore as knight examplar, and you, citizen, were the custodian of her lustrous honour.

But what was Singapore really like, as seen on the ground, beneath the sleek taglines dreamt up by the Tourism Board, behind the daily spiel from its contemptible, state-controlled media, beyond its inebriated and indoctrinated citizenry from amidst its shopping malls and skyscrapers? What was Singapore really like, as lived?

'Welcome home,' the demure Singapore Girl exuded through the announcement.

The passenger beside you turned around, and said, 'Doesn't Singapore look like a wonderful Legoland?'

Yes, you said.. 'Wonderland. Unreal City.'

* * *

There was a time when Singapore appeared indubitable to you, almost paradisal. Everything worked, you were told. Worked like indefatigable clockwork. Everyone was housed, everyone received an education, everyone carved out a career. It was the life; the life to have, and the life to live. You saw it for yourself. You lived it; you lived it up. And so did everyone else. Little did you know, it was only a life to live and dream the permitted dreams. That time was like a previous life now.

Once, while you were still living in that previous time and its prescribed dreams, you were walking through a lunch hour crowd, and a voice thundered out from nowhere. You turned to that voice, and caught an elderly man with unusual sideburns, gazing at the flowing throng. He had on his face an absorbing expression, and he was holding on to a book.

'Make it right! Make it right for Singapore!'

It was that thunder again. It was as if he was declaring independence..

You paused for a moment, standing a few steps away, taking him in. You were curious. There was nothing wrong with Singapore, you thought. Everything was right in their places.

You looked around at the passing crowd, crisp shirts, shopping bags, after lunch, and all of them seemed to agree with you. Life was right. They ignored him. You felt vindicated.

Was that man a lunatic?

You were curious about why that man was there, standing like a stubborn sunset against another burning sun. What was it he saw in Singapore that was wrong, that had to be made right? But you were afraid of approaching him. You did not know why you were afraid. You just were. So instead of plucking his story off his waving hand for a few dollars, you went away and got his story off other people's mouths and through another's eyes.

He was a London-educated lawyer, a former magistrate, and an opposition member of parliament – the first one. He spoke against the government. He was sued for defamation, and he was made a bankrupt. He lost his silk and his robes. Now he was a lone figure beneath this gleaming city, peddling his stories.

You wanted to know what that man had done, who had risen so high only to have been reduced to this ground. The readings that you had gathered revealed little and gave no real answers. So you cast wider your search, for materials not available easily, for perspectives not presented in the mainstream channels, for books the local bookshops did not stock. You wondered why they were not easily found.

As you read on, another story of your country beckoned, another Singapore, one that was seen through that fiery man's eyes. It was the Singapore that you had not noticed, or felt was inconsequential, or did not care much for and thus abstracted and erased from your mind.. You do that to images that either disturbed or that you did not comprehend – ignoring them was easier on the eye, and they would be absent from your mind. It made life look rosier. As you read on you felt an awakening that gradually obliterated the glittering Singapore that you thought you had always known, the white-washed Singapore.

Put together, it was a fuller painting of your country, blemished, imperfect, but one that was more authentic, and one that had heart and character, like that masterpiece of oil on canvas, bravely true to its faults and thus so precious, rather than an amateur's attempt at perfect reproduction, barely true, and merely producing pastiche.

And you thought how ignorant you otherwise must have been, how one-dimensional, how shallow.. And how easy, to half-asleep through your life that only lives and dreams the permitted dreams.

* * *

There was also a personal story of that man, his story, intricately intertwined with the myriad recent histories of your country. It was one of courage and of conviction, told from another side, but that was seldom heard.

You thought very few Singaporeans came near this man's achievements. Even fewer who had that kind of courage and convictions. He understood and meant every word of Majulah Singapura. He recited the Pledge not as a pledge of dependence; not as emptiness or distraction. He dared live out his convictions in a country that convicted those beliefs. He resolutely countenanced not only the powerful, but also the powerless and the weak, who had viewed him either with disdain, or dared not look him in his eye, though his irises never lost that gleam like a child's.

Why was there no place here for someone like that man,
you wondered. Someone who had courage, convictions, and humanity, flowers so rare in this country. Was it right for convictions to come head on with the white night of power, only to wither and lose, everything and all, and for what reason?

Truth, justice, and liberty; grand words but for whom?

That man could have lived the high life of the state, amongst the legal fraternity and high society. But he did not, for that would have compelled him to close an eye, to bury his beliefs, and to forget one's heart. So he left that lofty circle to be amongst ordinary citizens like you, who could only dream of attaining a flake of what he once upon a time had, in riches and in poverty. Where he could have earned millions, you made him pay millions, because he dared to speak up for you, when you were wavering in hesitation and in fear. Because he was willing to give up all that most of you would never have, not with all the dreams in the world.

When this man died, his name was whiter than white, a colour above those draped always in white. He had no slush funds, no secret bank accounts; how to, when he had nowhere and no wish to hide? Decades of ruthless hounding and smearing, and not bone in his closet, not a stain on his clothes. And you wondered how many among the cloistered powerful in Singapore could hold on to as pristine a flake as his.

Why were they so afraid of him, and what were they afraid of?

This great man died of heart failure. But was it only his heart that had failed him?

* * *

Across the sky, it was almost pitch dark now, except for the Singapore below you, all ablaze with lights, presenting this luminous tapestry on the horizontal, hanging a different view of Singapore.

This country could indeed appear different if only you would contemplate it with your own eyes – your own – and under a different light.

You thought of that man and his lone voice, a pure plume of sound, rising quick above the diffident crowd, 'Make it right! Make it right for Singapore!' And you remembered that you would not have had this other glimpse of the Singapore that you now see, that had been kept away from you, by others as well as by yourself, had you not paused for just a moment that afternoon in the city, and pondered about that man's words, and about the Singapore that you smugly thought you had always known.

Still standing on your reverie by the window, your recollecting gaze kindled one more memory, one that told the story of how you came to pause moments, of pausing moments stopping time, and how, like magic carpets and gems of literature, they could take you to another world.

You were thirteen, a teenager, you were finding yourself a stranger in this world, alone, very afraid, and you were trying to find your own secret hiding place. It was the school library, the perfect place for pausing moments, and getting lost in your own searching world. One time, your running fingers along the bookshelves stopped you at a slim novel, First Loves. It was a story about Ah Leong, a Singaporean teenager, just like you, written by a certain Philip Jeyaretnam. As you read it, you felt connected to Ah Leong, his adventures and his feelings, and you laughed at all those vivid thoughts of his, because you knew where he was coming from. The two of you grew up in the same place. You knew all about the sunset that he saw. It was the sun of your own land.

The things you read once upon a time often come to rest at a certain corner in your mind, not as forgotten relics or aimless dust, but as returning motifs of particular images and specific sensibilities, that unbeknownst to you, had palpated your base emotions, guided your thoughts, and influenced your self.. Reading a novel about your own country, written by your fellowman, you discovered through crafted words and local language, through the familiar scenes and remembered corners, a more authentic, and a more enduring soul of the place, the place you that would like to call home, with a sunlight that only you would know. Even as the ground beneath you shifted, the places transformed, or even disappear, there was always a pellucid Singapore in your memory to home in to, across time, wherever you were, however far, however Singapore changed.

As you grew up, there were many times that you walked home in those rusted evenings and remembered Ah Leong, standing there by his window as the evening brought breeze, as he tried to fix all Singapore in his gaze. In a way, he was like your older brother heading first where later you would go: finishing school, falling in love, landing your first job, having your first kiss; all the familiar moments of Singapore that you had duly lived, and always that homely colour of evening.

In a way, you were Ah Leong, already written into a story without your knowing.

Without your knowing; has it been so long ago, when you had first read a book that spoke to you, heart to heart, and told you a story about home, reviving your childhood memories and conjuring your future time, all from a single opening line: The evening brought breeze, channelled by the concrete blocks, blowing across Singapore …

And you were thankful for that second of serendipity, for thereon, your evenings had often brought along with them, those precious reflections of light; those that bided time, dappled your conscience, and led you to see and imagine a different, a truer, and a more heartfelt Singapore. Those that led you to ponder a moment the words of that lone man, all fire and all heart, hidden in the chary crowd, in the sun of your own land, pure voice above them all.


Kindly support the JBJ Scholarship Fund for Postgraduate Study in Law and Human Rights.

For more information, please contact: Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam (