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.