Thursday, 26 February 2009

Govt is God

Just get on with it

Perhaps I slept too long or Australia has morphed into Alice's Wonderland, but please tell me why schools should erect plaques or roadside signs or arrange ceremonies to thank the Education Minister for rebuilding their schools.

Silly me, I thought that was what government was for, to use our taxes to provide services that we are all entitled to. Does this mean that if the Government bails out banks and other financial institutions and I use them, I need to donate a plaque of thanks?

What is happening to this country? It's our money. The Government is employed by us to spend money on programs that meet our needs. Why do we need to erect monuments to thank them?

Marion Harper, Reservoir
The Age, 26 Feb 09

I like to think that Ms Harper was thinking of Singapore too when she wrote her letter, and that the ST would publish it in the name of nation-building.

Saturday, 21 February 2009


Cavalierio: Hey Molly, come and see the snow.

Molly: Snow? What snow?

Cavalierio: You've to come out to see it. Hurry. February's coming to an end.

Molly: I see no snow. The sun is shining. Shining oppressively, probably in cahoots with the government.

Cavalierio: Is the sunlight hiding the snow? You can see the flakes falling out from nowhere just above. Look closely, past the timezone, where the red roof juts into the sky.

Molly: Ah, yes, these light falling things. Where do they come from?

Cavalierio: She once said that every snowflake is different.

Molly: Who?

Cavalierio: She said, If that were true, how could we ever recover from the wonder of it?

Molly: By forgetting. We cannot keep in mind too many things. There is only the present and nothing to remember.

Cavalierio: You remember what she said after all. 

Molly: Look at how they fall onto the ground, so gently, like a whisper.

Cavalierio: Then they disappear.

Molly: They do, into the past, where there're only abandoned secrets, stubborn nostalgia, and everything to forget.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Total Defence | Total Control

"Each Monday, about 1,500 students at Pei Hwa Secondary School - levels 1 to 5 - sit in the parade square to read The Straits Times. Teachers then follow up with discussions about the news during English lessons, spending at least an hour each week on current events.There is also an increased focus on national education. Singapore's historical sites and people who have made an impact are featured weekly in Big Changes and Big Heroes."

-- 'ST's school magazines talk about issues close to students' hearts', Straits Times, 23 Jan 09

Morning assembly. You find yourself back in Primary school, sitting in the large quadrangle. All two thousand of you, from Primary One through Six, silently reading the Little Red Dot magazine. The magazine introduces you to the breezy Dot Values family members, who tell you stories, and make you laugh. And you learn about your country Singapore, about the world, and about Singapore’s place on this planet called Big Big World. You learn that Singapore is small – a little red dot.

Afterwards, in Social Studies class, you learn about Total Defence. You don’t really understand what it means, but it feels like something important. You remember that the Dot Values family had mentioned it. And you like the thought of Singapore already, because you are just like Singapore: small. A pristine little dot in this Big Big World.

Later, when you go on to Secondary school, the Little Red Dot is replaced by the IN magazine. From IN, you continue learning about Singapore. You have grown much bigger. But somehow, Singapore still seems so small. And so vulnerable. A new word. You are reminded about Total Defence. You talk about it in History class, in Social Studies, in Civics and Moral Education class. You read about it in your English Language and Mother Tongue comprehension passages.

When you outgrow the IN magazine and start reading the newspapers, you continue to encounter these words: Singapore was vulnerable then; it is still vulnerable now; and it will always be vulnerable. And as time passes, they become part of your daily vocabulary. 

You learn to repeat these maxims without giving them another thought, without missing another beat: Vulnerable Singapore, always a Little Red Dot. Always vulnerable, always Little and Red.

"The new features are designed to be a must-have in the classroom and have been developed with input from teachers."

-- 'Little Red Dot packs a punch', Straits Times, 5 Jan 09


"Other programmes include teaching students how to be 'eyes and ears' on the ground in the fight against terror and how different Government agencies respond to a crisis. ...

Explaining the move, Brig-Gen (NS) Chua said that such education should start with school-aged children."

-- 'Children taught 'resilience', Straits Times, 2 Feb 09

This narrative of vulnerability justifies many things, amongst which are authoritarian government and Total Defence. One reinforces the other, and this suits the ruling regime just fine. This narrative consequently renders the doctrine of Total Defence compelling, logical, and systematic.

And circular too: Singapore is vulnerable; hence a strong military force must be built. But in order to build it, a strong economy must sustained. And in turn, a strong economy requires protection from a strong military. However, as Singapore is ‘small’ and ‘vulnerable’, Total Defence is necessary to build up that strong military – and that economy – and that neverending vulnerability – and Total Defence – Etc. – Repeat – and etc. - Repeat.

These words link together, forming a chain and a logical fallacy – no matter what Singapore does, it is always ‘vulnerable’, always ‘fragile’, always needing protection. 

But is it simply because Singapore is ‘small’? Or it is because when it suits us, we think ourselves small; and when it doesn’t, we think not? 

Size can be a matter of perspective. Can it also be an excuse too? 

This is not a call to cancel National Service, military build-up, and Total Defence. They are necessary, perhaps. But it is important that we unpack the terms and assumptions coded within these narratives – codes that we have come to internalize. This is because the discourse of ‘vulnerability’ can perpetuate a fiction of it. And as this fiction encircles Singapore, it can potentially become an enclosure for Singaporeans.

Singapore may indeed be vulnerable – as is every other sovereign state, strong and weak, big and small. But perhaps consider a few parallel possibilities and realities: Consider the possibility that our sense of vulnerability is an overestimation that eventuates the self-fulfilling prophecies of realpolitik and belligerent diplomacy – and that our security dilemmas have become intractable insecurity dilemmas fanning regional arms races.

Consider also the possibility that in addition to its objective of ‘defending’ Singapore, MINDEF might have become a vast military-industrial complex facilitating vested interests in arms manufacturing and defence science research (some of which might not be adhering to international conventions), fueling the economy and feeding on itself – and that there are other ways of instituting NS and organizing the country’s defence capabilities.

Most importantly, consider the possibility that the argument for a strong military based on the tenuous description of vulnerability has abetted the ruling regime’s authoritarian impulse for total control – and that Total Defence is the fulcrum for this function.

* * *

On one level, Total Defence is deployed as a comprehensive framework for national defence. On another level, the inscription of Total Defence is both a representation, and a production of it, including a production of a knowledge about it. At the same time, Total Defence operates as an empty signifier – part ambiguous and part invisible. We know what Total Defence refers to, but we do not know what it means. Thus anything can be used to invoke Total Defence – from vulnerability to sedition to terrorism to nationalism. It is kept inchoate so that this hallowed space – the script of Total Defence – can be scripted according to the desires of Power, emanating from the State.

Thus, given the nature of Total Defence (‘Total’), and its proclaimed objective (‘Defence’), whoever inscribes Total Defence holds the power to conscript its subject – the nation – totally.

This inscription of ‘Total Defence’ is essentially a totalitarian one. It is conferred by decree in the name of national defence and elaborated across the spectrum of Singaporean society. As a result, it brooks no objection, it obliterates defiance, and it commands complete obedience. Interestingly, Total Defence achieves its supreme function of control during peacetime.

Consequently, quite apart from enhancing military capability, Total Defence also ensures that propaganda is seamlessly and synergistically spread through the apparently neutral channels of society.

For example, through Total Defence, the Shared Values ideology is propagated, National Education and curricula are crafted, joining uniformed groups in schools are encouraged, mass media programmes are scripted, the National Day Parades are staged. Invariably, these culminate in the programming of our minds with the permanent avatar of the PAP.

Through Total Defence, the rhetoric of racial and religious ‘harmony’ is perpetuated, and through which social control is exerted. Consider how our curious phenomena of racial and religious ‘harmony’ are little more than hollow performances, and genuine attempts foster ‘harmony’ are countenanced by the State’s apparatus of control. Are we necessarily harmonious simply because we do not (because we’re not allowed to) talk about it?

Through Total Defence, a reliant, compliant, and disciplined population is continually moulded under the dominance, and for the dominance, of the State. Simultaneously, the fate of the Party becomes entwined with that of the nation, such that we equate the elimination of the Party with the death of the nation. Such it might live on, shaping lives and controlling minds.

The siege mentality that Total Defence conditions in Singaporeans, predisposes them – from soldier, to Leader – towards an increased readiness to enter a war. That is, a war that can potentially be avoided. This conditioning militarizes the nation by glorifying, and then naturalizing, the particular language and semiotics of war into civic life, making palatable, even desirable, Singapore’s brutalist form of compulsory conscription that stretches beyond the two years and into a lifetime. 

Accordingly, full-time NS has been consecrated as a ‘ritual’, and romanticized as a ‘rite of passage’, and where boys shall be transformed, not into ordinary men, but valorized guardians of the land.

But if Singapore must be defended and loved, then it must be defended and loved critically and self-consciously, not blindly and automatically. Not least when it is under a dominant one-party state and adopting the disturbing strategy of pre-emptive first strike. This strategy is underpinned by offensive operations and weaponry, along with a doctrine of pre-emption that, when put into effect, they contravene international law. This strategy is also in itself an admission that Singapore is ultimately indefensible. 

Nation before community and Society above self? Perhaps this is so that the ‘self’ can be mechanized – the men bear arms, the women bear children, and for the sake of survival, we all bear with it. 

Comprehensive conscription of the nation, under the fluttering flag of Total Defence, in the service of the State.

* * *

‘What will you defend?’ is this year’s slogan for Total Defence. There is a semantic slippage and sleight-of-word here, and perhaps they will go unnoticed. First, the question naturalizes Total Defence, and assumes the omnipresence of conflict. It demands your uncontested loyalty. It precludes the possibility of refusal, of resistance. 

Isn’t the question “What Will you defend?” a legitimate one too? 

Can one say “No”? 

Second, if you must go to war, you defend your loved ones. You defend people. You defend yourself. You defend the ‘who’. ‘What’ is a pronoun that intuitively leads one to articulate an inanimate object. A ‘thing’. 

When you are asked, ‘What will you defend?’, the desired answer might be, I (the ‘who’) will defend (my ‘home’) Singapore (the ‘what’). 

Even if ‘Singapore’ is not articulated, this unnoticeable linguistic dissonance ensures that ‘Singapore’ looms at the back of the respondent’s subconscious. This is a psychological subterfuge that one needs to interrogate, because this is a question that privileges objects and mechanizes people.

Singapore is a construct, a concept, an abstract. And if you must defend as abstract a concept as a constructed country, then it seems moral to defend a democratic one – one where you have a stake, rather than one whose stake has been thrust upon you – an inanimate and powerless ‘you’.

In Singapore, where Party – Government – State – Nation have been conflated into one entity – PAP – is this unity? Or is this totalitarianism? 

Are you defending the nation, or are you being used by the nation to defend it?

To answer this question, that is also to reflect upon what it means to be a citizen, the architecture of Total Defence has to be deconstructed. Total Defence weaves, through an order of things and archaeology of knowledge, a particular (His)tory of Singapore. This artifice in turn embeds in the nation, comprehensive structures that shape, discipline, and punish. It enhances and is enhanced by the State. It then evacuates the altruistic substance of ‘Total Defence’, and replaces it with its own ideological agendas of de-politicization and de-humanization, further consolidating and entrenching total control.

In Singapore, when you think a thought and express an opinion, how free is it from year after year of overt and subliminal State conditioning? 

This process of conditioning stretches back decades. Back to when you were a child sitting in the school quadrangle reading a colourful little magazine, unaware of the surreptitious maneuvres that were leading you to One prayer of Progress. 

Unaware that your life was being slowly but surely shaped in One vision of Modernity. 

And unaware that the allure of Total Defence is also, through the rouged lips of One Nation, a captivating camouflage for Total Indoctrination.


The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.

-- Fascinating Fascism, Susan Sontag

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Just ask (from See Nao)

Dear Cavalierio,

I am writing to you in one of my many last moments of desperation. As you would know, I usually write to Molly. But of late it seems that this wondrous phenomenon that is Singapore is taking away her ability, time and inspiration to correspond with me. I am not necessarily saying that you are more able and have more time and inspiration than Ms Molly, but as I’ve said, I am in my many last moments of desperation. So I hope you would be as obliging as Molly. 

You see, ever since I lost all my savings in those High Notes investment schemes, I have been living from hand to mouth. Furthermore, it doesn’t help that the majority of the Straits Times news these days are about the depressing economy. I wonder what their agenda is. So anyway, imagine my delight when I read that PM Lee vows to help the needy: he will make sure that everyone who needs help, will get help. I do admire the ability of the ST to take our leaders’ rhetoric to ever-greater heights. To say they’re the government’s mouthpiece seems like a misnomer when they sometimes sound more like a Politburo choral group with loudhailers. The only other singer I know who uses a loudhailer to sing is Faye Wong. But I’m not sure if Faye belongs to the CCP Politburo. I’m also not sure if ST propagandists can sing like comrade Faye Wong, loudhailers or nohailers.

Sorry to digress. I read and re-read the article, and could not find any details about how to get help. In short, the article seems to be short of details. But the PM did say something about resisting the urge to have a crutch mentality. Yet at the same time, the ST lays the blame on us: “many Singaporeans in need of government aid are either unaware that they can get help, or do not know where to turn.” O Cavalierio, I’m confused. If Singaporeans aren’t aware of the availability and the avenues for help, how can Singaporeans ever develop a crutch mentality? Given your undesirable obsessions with metaphors and the mental, can you kindly provide some advice?

Yours perfidiously,
Lee See Nao (Mr.)


Dearest See Nao,

Cavalierio advises you to stay calm. Molly can’t be attending to your whiny-Wee-whims all the time, especially in these dire times of ungolden lunacy. Blogging for a nation of hum sup admirers can take its toll, and you might rather write Molly some romantic sonnets to salve her bereft, yearning soul.

As for your investment losses, all I can say is: what to do, serves you right. But now, we’re in a speedboat in hostile sea, and protecting our billions of reserves is more important than the million that you lost. As you would have no doubt read what PM Lee said: “When the sun comes out again, we will emerge stronger, readier, more competitive and able to do better for our children and for our future.” So close your eyes and sit tight, have faith as always, and if you do make it out alive, forget about what had happened, and move on. If you perish, then I reckon your problem is resolved.

I have to disagree with your biased opinions about the ST. It is a responsible, nation-building press of utmost honour and integrity. For one, it never plagiarizes. Second, its main agenda is to constantly provide readers with good news and updates about how wonderful our leaders are, so that we’ll have little to worry, and happily live our happy lives on our happy sunny island where happiness abounds happily. This is not an agenda as much as a unique virtue. As the ST has already informed you, when PM Lee says he ‘will’ do something, he is actually making a ‘vow’. So, See Nao, if you say you ‘will’ seek their assistance, it’s as good having vowed to do so. 

If the ST’s headlines are as avowedly reliable as the previous one (and all other previous ones), then it seems that if you need help, all you need to do is just ask, and it shall be given. It's that easy, really. I wonder where you got the notion from, that you cannot ask for help when you need it. Should they enquire about the amount that you need, and whether you plan to eat your meals at the hawker centre, the foodcourt, or the restaurant, do inform them that you will either eat at the hawker centre, the foodcourt, or the restaurant , as long as there’re enough left for a decent haircut. (I trust that you have mastered the Wong Kan Seng Method of answering MCQs, and the Lim Hng Kiang Dialectics de Hirsute). After all, you need to look presentable when you go for job interviews at the foodcourt. Do not learn from that poor guy who simply threw himself in front of the MRT train. You see, it’s his fault that he stopped asking for help when help is actually so easily available. All you need to do, remember, is just ask. If you don't, then it's your fault. If you do, but are rejected, it's also your fault for failing to qualify, regardless of the excuses that you may have. 

As for the crutch mentality, See Nao, you need to have a mentality to begin with before you can acquire a crutch. 

Yours superfluously,
Cavalierio de la Satirique Innocenté