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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Whose story is history?

In News Reports, Politics, Society, Writing on October 12, 2014 at 9:55 am

I like reading about the past. In fact, over the past two years, I have eschewed fiction. I read plenty of non-fiction, in particular, history. Whether the books are about adventurers who trek through the wilds, on ice or up the Nile and the Amazon, early pioneers in the United States or Australia or about dynastic families such as the Tudors, Hapsburgs or the Ottoman empire, I devour all. I often wished I did my degree in history rather than in political science. After all, political science is just a multi-varied framework that describes what really is political history.

It is important to know the past because it is a signpost of the future. I read about the different empire builders in history and wonder if ISIS is a repeat: that’s how empires begin, with an idea and then wholesale slaughter of those not in agreement, before coming to something more akin to stability. So it is now in Stage 2?

I read about the Crimean War because of what is now happening between the Soviet Union and Ukraine and was enlightened on four things:

  1. That the Lady of the Lamp Florence Nightingale served during this war and more people DIED under her care than in other hospitals. Because her hospital was built on a leaking sewer system which seeped into the water.
  2. That the Charge of the Light Brigade immortalised by actor Errol Flynn and poet Alfred Tennyson was a suicidal assault by unthinking calvary who obeyed orders of silly, squabbling commanders.
  3. That the phrase the Fourth Estate was coined during this time during a Parliamentary session in England to refer to pressure from the popular press to launch a war against the Russians (I have always thought it was of American origin!)
  4. Russian writer Leo Tolstoy was in the war and based some of his characters in War and Peace on real-life officers.

I guess those are the “facts’’ I have gleaned. As for impressions: The English wanted war, the French were dithering over it, the Turks were overwhelmed and Tsar Nicholas I was mad.

History books give the facts but how the facts are presented is another thing altogether. I read Eri Hotta’s Japan 1941 – Countdown to Infamy, on how the Japanese cabinet decided to go to war and I am left with the impression that every minister was either out for himself or very, very stupid. I read the Balfour Declaration and was sorry about how the Arabs appeared to have been conned by the crafty British to carve out Israel during the period of the Great Game played among colonial powers for control over other people’s territory.

Sometimes I read more than one book on the same period or people – and think I am actually reading about a different period and different people. So I read JOP Bland and Edmund Backhouse contemporary record of China under the Empress Dowager and Jung Chang’s Empress Dowager CiXi and wonder why she is so much more emphatic/sympathetic to the woman than the Englishmen.

I read Raffles and the Great Opportunity by Victoria Glendinning and want to put flowers under the statue of the great man (so brilliant but misunderstood). But I also read Raffles and the British Invasion of Java (crazy, cruel megalomaniac) – and I wish he stayed in Java.

Now we are being fed reams of newsprint on the Battle for Merger. I will go buy the book because I am interested in history and this has to do with my country. But, dare I say that I am also aware that it will be one-sided reading, from our former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew? Because I was not born during those times, I do not quite know what the communists did nor their views on why they do some of the terrible things they are said to have done. I wish I could hear from the older generation who lived through those times.

Also because then, I will have a better idea of why the G is so adamant that Tan Pin Pin’s film To Singapore, With Love, cannot be screened in public. (Actually I won’t have a better idea because I haven’t seen it). Some very tough words have been used by both Communications and Information Minister Yacob Ibrahim and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to defend the G stance. The G says that the film is full of drums – distortions, rumours, untruths, misinformation and smears. It was self-serving because the interviewees (communists who fled the country) chose to white wash their past and did not talk about their “wrongs’’.  (I hear background noises…like, did the Holocaust really happen?)

It’s so terribly odd. We decided not to screen a one-sided film, but are okay about reading a one-sided book – which is more or less on the same topic (?) or at least of the times. It seems to me it would be good to let both loose on the population, as Han Fook Kwang suggested in Sunday Times today. It is when there are two opposing ideas that people get excited and engaged; a monologue will have the opposite effect. Letting the film be broadcast might generate more interest in Battle for Merger, he says, and make it come alive.

I think it’s a good idea too. PM Lee says that a film is not like a book, and therefore cannot be easily countered. Frankly, I have great faith in the ability of the G to counter “anything’’. It seems lazy to resort to a ban when it might be better to engage the film. In fact, given what he has said, maybe Ms Tan should consider putting the exiles’ transcripts in a book! And they could be packaged together with Battle for Merger for sale! Okay, bad joke.

In any case, here’s what PM Lee said: “Why should we allow through a movie to present an account of themselves (that is) not objectively presented documentary history, but a self-serving personal account, conveniently inaccurate in places, glossing over inconvenient facts than others which will sully the honour and reputation of the security people and the brave men and women who fought the Communists all those many years in order to create today’s Singapore?”

I think the better justification is the later half of the statement on the need to preserve the honour and reputation of those who fought. I would dearly love to hear from them, for a firmer grasp on that period which most of us weren’t born early enough to experience.

But I was taken aback when PM Lee also said the communists were still vying for “a place on the winners’ podium’’. Goodness!  In 2014? I doubt most people understand the first thing about communism, unless they mistake it for consumerism!

I don’t think I will be sticking my neck out if I say that communism will never return nor take root here. Nor do I think Ms Tan’s film will be a threat to national security. Let everyone have their say. People will have different views, sure, but I really doubt that they will be so rattled as to shake the foundations of our country. The past belongs to everyone. Let the present people be the judge.

Sounds and silence

In News Reports, Society, Writing on September 7, 2014 at 6:49 am

The Prime Minister said something a couple of weeks ago which I think we should heed. He said that the Internet, far from leading to a great convergence on universal truth, has led to divisions of all kinds. People seem to think they have grasped the “truth’’ with the emergence of groups that are completely antithetic to each other. “We have to make sure we don’t get seduced by the delusion that we know everything, that what we know is the truth and that we are the sole possessors, and therefore we will fight it out to the very end.’’ It leads to a fractured society, he said.

He doesn’t think human society was designed with the Internet age in mind, like the good ole days with information lags and time lapses to let stuff sink in before coming to a considered and wise consensus. “But today, all of that is telescoped and the splash goes out tonight, and tomorrow morning, everyone knows the answer, which may be the wrong answer.’’ Far from having a faster circuit, we have a “collective short circuit’’, he added.

ST followed it up with a Pew survey report which talks about how people online tend to keep quiet when they think they have a minority view. Yesterday, it followed up with a major spread on whether the same “spiral of silence’’ applied to Singapore. The Anton Casey and Amy Cheong cases were brought up as examples of online vitriol, with moderate voices only emerging when the din has died down. The ease of the “sound bite’’ online with no need to substantiate views makes it impossible to have a good conversation, you have experts saying.

I agree somewhat.

I have watched different groups emerge online and those who push a line or agenda regardless of the topic at hand. If you watch the many conversations closely, you get an idea of who are among the like-minded and who sticks together, whether friends or not. The various Facebook groups which are agenda-based don’t help. They start off by promoting a cause which gets hijacked by immoderate elements who are countered by yet other immoderate elements. Hence, this wonderful term: polarisation.  

It’s the word of the day, week, month and maybe even year given the way people are agonising over east being east, west is west and never the twain shall meet.

Here in Singapore, I think we’re still novice navigators of the free speech space. It wasn’t too long ago, you know, that rules were relaxed for rallies at Hong Lim Park and you don’t need a public entertainment licence for indoor events. It used to be that you can’t even use a loud hailer at Speakers’ Corner and it was the police, not the parks or performance authorities who monitored your events. The internet hastened the pace of liberalisation and the flowering of views everywhere, yes. But here, it meant liberation of a different kind. Suddenly, it seemed the shackles were off and we don’t quite know how to use the new-found freedom.  So there’s a torrent of voices, a cacophony, so loud that it intimidates those who want to say something not quite “mainstream’’ – or rather, fits with what the supposedly online mainstream is saying.

I have been asked many times if it’s possible to bridge the different groups or bring a level of reason to discussions on the Internet. I reply that there are probably plenty of reasonable people on the Internet, those who watch and don’t post a word because they’re scared that they’re being watched. They’re scared that they will be called to account for their views and can’t answer rationally – all “gut instinct’’ you know. They worry that the more articulate will out-talk them and make them feel small. Worse, being called names and feeling bullied. They think of Anton Casey and Amy Cheong. They’re not like them at all, but what if….?

I call them the internet spectators. Funny that the climate of fear that people perceived as emanating from the authorities has become a climate of fear of fellow netizens.

There are probably many, many groups of people out there online who discuss issues rationally. But they are probably “closed’’ groups, that is, like-minded individuals who do not want to have their reasonable conversations interrupted by the unreasonable. That’s the problem isn’t it? Reasonable people don’t want to reason with the unreasonable and the unreasonable pitting themselves against other unreasonable people. No wonder it’s so noisy on the Net.

Ask you. Do you have any of the following traits?

  1. I have a view which I hold very dearly and will inject it into every conversation because MY view is important and everybody MUST share them.
  2. Everybody who disagrees with me is wrong. They have been brought up badly, are intrinsically bad or went on the wrong path somewhere along their miserable life.
  3. I cannot listen to other people’s arguments because they go against something very fundamental for me, for example, the PAP is evil, religion is evil, homosexuals are evil.
  4. I don’t care about the totality of your views. So long as ONE aspect offends me, you are not worth “friending’’.
  5. I have a right to my views and I don’t care how in-your-face I get. The internet is free space. So suck it up.
  6. I shouldn’t have to pick my words carefully because that won’t be ME talking or reflect exactly how I’m feeling.
  7. I don’t see the need to self-censor even if others are offended because censorship is just plain wrong.
  8. I will never say sorry for my views or acknowledge that I might have interpreted things wrongly because I know, at the end of the day, I am right.
  9. If you have not experienced what I have, you have no right to talk to me because you don’t know what you are talking about. So shaddup.

Narcissism, egotism and self-righteousness is everywhere on the Net. I tend to think that maybe some people don’t want to be any of the above but lack the tools or experience to communicate effectively. They come off as blunt and abrasive because they’ve never had to engage in the cut-and-thrust of debate in the past. And they haven’t collected a body of knowledge with which to defend their viewpoint against the more erudite. So they either come off as defensive or they seek solace in silence. Or these people might really hold those positions from a. to h. In which case, I don’t see how any sane discussion can be had with them.

I liked what Mr Baey Yam Keng said in the ST report: “Facebook itself is a neutral platform. What is the style or character of that page depends on the people in charge of that page.’’

There is something to be said for having “moderators’’ and rules of engagement. Too often, people are turned off from voicing views when they see a few dominant voices making a point so aggressively that they seem to be spoiling for an online fight. Or the page or chatroom becomes so sour that you are worried about being infected by it. Of course, blocking and deleting views is an option – for which you get vilified elsewhere.  Questions will be raised about “censorship’’ – and you will simply have to bear with it. The bottomline is this: If “censoring’’ or editing some people can lead to more people taking part in the discussion and bring more views on board, why not?

I have blocked a grand total of three people on my FB wall, and this after many, many nice warnings to them to behave and get with the programme. My rules of engagement are simple: No vulgarities, personal attacks, hijacking of conversation threads or protracted bilateral feuds. There must be space for moderate voices or reasoned voices that doesn’t descend into name-calling or pure assertions. I like the way some people try to tamp down tempers by resorting to humour. I like people who are clever but also self-deprecating. Those who put down others oh so nicely are also appreciated. There can be “hurt’’ feelings but there should not be long lasting “hard’’ feelings. And I get a nice, warm feeling when someone who is defeated in argument actually admits it.  

This is the way the Internet space should be : where no one need fear one another and where you – and me – can admit that we are not always right. With humour and elegance, of course.     

 

The challenge of writing an assessment

In News Reports, Politics, Sports, Writing on August 12, 2014 at 2:07 am

I guess not many people realise that today marks the 10th anniversary of PM Lee at the helm of Government. Well, The Straits Times remembered and has a long essay assessing the Lee decade. It is a fine balance of he did this, but…he didn’t do this, still…
And it starts off by using the catch-all word “challenging’’ to describe the PM’s first decade.

Sigh. It’s a safe word, of course. Challenging can mean anything. You always rise up to challenges, you never merely solve problems. Challenges mean tough times, but not so tough as to not be able to overcome them. A challenge is like a dare. It evokes courage.

It must have been a challenge to write this piece. You have to give credit where credit is due and not over rah-rah such that the article becomes sycophantic. Every action should have a reaction. The piece must be very clearly analytical, with no biases that are detectable.

So the article goes this way….(excerpts are in italics)

GOOD…Leading Singapore relatively unscathed through the global financial crisis was cited by several observers as among Mr Lee’s top achievements in the decade. (Annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaged 6.3 per cent from 2004 to last year. GDP per capita went up from $46,320 to $69,050 from 2004 to last year)

BUT…The global buzz also comes at a price – cohesiveness.

STILL…. One of the signal achievements of Mr Lee’s Government is the move to bridge inequality by raising the tranche of subsidies for the lower- and middle-income group in all areas: from an income supplement for low-wage workers to grants for housing to subsidies in health care and childcare.

THEREFORE… By last year, the Gini coefficient was back down, to 0.463. After government transfers and assistance, it was 0.412. (Major re-ordering of the social compact)

BUT…. Trouble is, many Singaporeans do not see it that way, as they grapple with rising housing costs and feel the heat of competition for jobs. Instead, anxieties on overcrowding abound. Over the past decade, the population went up too fast, before transport and housing infrastructure could cope. Some observers consider this the greatest policy failure of the last decade. How did a government that prides itself on keeping close tabs on numbers allow an influx of foreigners beyond the housing and transport infrastructure’s capacity to cope?

STILL…. Mr Lee himself did not shirk this responsibility. In the heat of GE 2011, he surprised many when he apologised to the people of Singapore for the mistakes made, in an election rally at Boat Quay. That public mea culpa and events after GE 2011 raised widespread expectations of political change. (Which are in the form of nips and tucks, such as liberalising the use of Speaker’s Corner)

ALSO…he stopped doing some things. He sought to be seen to be fair when he called for polls, reducing the surprise element in timing them. Nor were there wholesale changes to electoral boundaries. He stopped using estate upgrading as electoral carrots. In GE 2011, opposition candidates’ views, not their personal character, were attacked. In choosing fair election campaigns, and in refraining from browbeating opposition candidates, Mr Lee made it less risky for people to enter the opposition fray. Hence, more opposition members got in.

BUT… Mr Lee stopped short of fundamental reforms to the electoral system that some sought, ignoring calls for an independent election commission, for example.

ALSO… still very much top-down/command and control approach, like the Population White Paper introduction. (Backed by an opinion from a commentator, that is, not writer’s words)

WRITER’S FINAL ANALYSIS… What is one to make overall of Mr Lee’s roller-coaster decade? One can take the optimistic view and say Singapore has weathered crises remarkably well and remained intact as a society, despite the train breakdowns, the Little India riot of last December, a bus drivers’ strike, and the sex and corruption scandals. Critics might say there are signs of a ship that is cruising, or even adrift, tossed about by the global winds of change. I would say that the truth as usual lies in between.

See? Told you it would be a challenge to write the piece….

This troublemaker thanks you

In Reading, Society, Writing on August 3, 2014 at 3:29 am

I had a magnificent time last night! All that stress started dissipating as the night went on. I want to thank those who were at the launch of Troublemaker. I don’t even know most of you personally! I am gratified you came. (More importantly, got buy the book or not?)
The book is available at all major bookstores from mid-August or you can go to http://www.ethosbooks.com.sg to order. Anyway, here’s the introduction to the book.

“Troublemaker’’ was the word Professor Tommy Koh used to describe me when we were talking about the demise of the Breakfast Network site. “But you are a good troublemaker. We need more good troublemakers,’’ Singapore’s veteran diplomat added.

Well, that was a relief!

I came to thinking that the phrase would be a good title for this book, a collection of blog posts and columns I had written in my post-Singapore Press Holdings days. I started on the day after I left my job of 26 years, when my free SPH newspapers did not appear on my door step. The absence of my morning reading material impressed on me firmly that I was no longer a journalist – at least, of the employed kind.
So I started Bertha Harian; the name was given to me by a top level civil servant some years ago. An alternative, he suggested, would be Berita Henson. I didn’t think it had quite the same ring.
People ask me why I write and have variously described my writings as that of a disgruntled ex-journalist, a Trojan horse set by the Government to infiltrate the online community, a political opposition supporter finally free of the fetters of the establishment that my career had imposed on me.

I laugh.

For some people it seems, content should not be assessed on its merits alone. Questions must be asked about the “motivation’’ and “agenda’’ behind the content. I have never seen the need to take an ideological standpoint, whether anti-this or pro-that, although there are certain principles I cherish. I believe strongly in transparency and access to information, which will allow citizens to make informed choices. I prefer less government, not more, with governance underpinned by the rule of law, not the discretion of executives. I uphold the ethical principles of professional journalism especially the need for accuracy and context, because it is the prism through which most information are presented regardless of the widespread use of social media.

After so many years in the practice of journalism, I thought I possessed enough institutional memory, knowledge of the workings of government and media and the ability to “read between the lines’’. I thought they would help me become a useful moderator or filter on issues that affect citizens.
Much of my content is based on mainstream media reports. I regard them to be the best source of information, properly researched and verified. Most of the time. They are my jumping-off point for further reflection. That is why I cannot abide unprofessional work such as sloppy reporting or a lack of reporting which result in incomplete and half-baked reports that misinform the unwary reading public. When I spot them, I feel cheated.

My writing inspiration is a column that used to be published in The Straits Times on Saturdays close to three decades ago. It was titled Look back in wonder by Ms Tan Sai Siong. She didn’t always attempt single-issue columns to fill up her allotted space. Sometimes, she just gave her “take’’ on three of four news items that had appeared over the week. When she did so, the column was extremely readable. Why spin so many words to fill up space when you only want to make one point?

This is one of the freedoms I enjoy from writing online: Freedom of space. Short or long, content must dictate space, not the other way round.

The second joy is freedom from editors who sometimes draw the OB markers far closer and tighter than I think necessary. Sure, I take a risk when I make critical comments about the Government, or the G, as I call it. But I weigh every risk, and right every wrong in my posts when they are pointed out. I have never been afraid to say sorry. Should I equate this with freedom of speech? Perhaps the right phrase is freedom of responsible speech, from a citizen with no greater agenda than advancing the cause of rational thinking for the collective good.
Third is the freedom to experiment with writing styles. The mainstream media’s methods are outdated – news reports with facts framed in a reverse pyramid or in blocks. For print and broadcast, there is that newsprint and airtime space to fill. Frankly, squeezing out regular columns in a regular style in a regular spot of a regular size is a draining exercise and terribly uncreative.

Now, of course, story telling has gone beserk with Twitter, storify, listacles and memes. They cater to people with short attention spans. But not everything can be short-formed. The long form should not be consigned to the Internet trash bin because sometimes it does take a lot of more words to make or argue a point – not pithy one-liners.

Did I make trouble? I gather I did. Civil servants and politicians have me on their radar but, hand on heart, none have ever gone beyond a “aiyah, why you write like that?’’ when commenting on specific posts which affect them. Some have even tried to engage me by giving me the heads-up on policies to be introduced, like they did in my past life.

My blogging segued into the establishment of Breakfast Network, on which I have devoted a section in this book. Suffice to say that I was glad to be back in harness, as a news editor, columnist, reporter. Even temporarily.
The start of my online writing adventure coincided with the post 2011 GE and the “new normal’’. It was an era which tolerated and, in fact, welcomed and fostered the discussion of big and small issues. Much of the news happenings post-2011 are unprecedented. An illegal strike? A riot? A philandering Member of Parliament? A dead prisoner?

So much content.

Why do I write?

I write to be read.

Brazil-Germany post-match commentary

In News Reports, Sports, Writing on July 10, 2014 at 3:07 am

Ah Seng, bookie extraordinaire holds court in a coffeeshop after Brazil was trounced 7 – 1 by Germany in the World Cup semi-finals.

Wah lao eh! Got watch football or not? Brazil kena hantam terok terok. Seben one! One masuk…two masuk…three masuk…The goalie stand there like gong cha cha…No! No! Not kelong. More like Brazil after first few minutes already pengsan. Stress lah. So much pressure. Such big crowd. How to tahan? That’s why I tell my boy no need to study so hard for exams. Never mind if get relegated to lousy stream. Just don’t break down during exam…

But Brazil also so malu….Where the team going to put face like dat? Where got such thing as seben-one scoreline in World Cup? Okay lah, better than seben jiro.
Anyway, shiok to watch although not much fun since already know winner before half-time…You should watch Brazil panick. Dive here. Dive there. I tell you that Scolari!

He don’t know what he doing lah. Donno how to pick his team. Just because Ney-ah-mar not there, whole place collapse. Then the coach go and pick this fella with big permed hair to become captain! What sort of captain! Run around like headless chicken…and after the game, crying all the time. And everyone in Brazil crying. All very upset. One place, got bus burning. Like Little India riot like that. No, sorry, salah, on beach, got shots fired some more. So not like Little India. Maybe our own police should go there to do crowd control during finals on Sunday. Practice! Like what that Sylvia Lim wants!

Actually, quite heart-break for me. I follow Brazil since dunno how long. I got yellow jersey. Brazil now not like the old time of Pillay, So-crates and those old fellas. I see on Internet Pillay so embarrassed, he want to migrate to Ghana. Donno true or not. Cannot always believe what you read on the Internet.

But I tell you something…our council for problem gambling very good. Say to bet on Germany. Wah. I hope got second advertisement from them. Anyway, there’s this tall German, some Close fella. Wah, already 30-something and still so fit! Very good active ager. Old is gold! Old is gold! All-time World Cup top scorer! Beat even Ronaldo! You saw him do back flip? I cannot even do IPPT standing broad jump!

This German coach Mr Low very, very good lah. He don’t smile very much but he got nice hair-style. Like mop like that. Germans also quite humble. Hug and kiss the Brazil boys. Didn’t over-celebrate. Got no champagne like F1. Maybe they regret scoring so many goals, like hu-mi-li-ate Brazil. Not nice. But the Brazil people actually seem quite sporting. Cheer them and so on. Still don’t think the garment going to last long lah. So many problems hosting this World Cup, so many million dollars spent, like they raid their reserves like that…and then got no World Cup trophy to hold…

Anyway, see how the Brazil team play against Netherlands lah in next round. Donno whether they finish crying by then or not. Maybe they not condemned yet. Maybe Netherlands will give chance and don’t have such big margin to hu-mi-li-ate. Maybe I keep my yellow jersey.

Okay, I taking bets now…

PS. If you can’t read this, you can’t have been living here for very long…

For the love of Mandarin….drama serials

In News Reports, Politics, Society, Writing on July 8, 2014 at 2:56 pm

For the past three years, I have been watching Chinese drama serials almost every day. I started because I had a vague notion of wanting to work in China and thought that I had better brush up on my secondary school level grasp of the language, especially its spoken form.
I can now say that I can craft imperial decrees with the right amount of gravitas and converse fairly fluently, almost like water, on any period of Chinese history pre-1900. I would be even better in a court of law presided by Justice Bao and any magistrate with a peacock feather in his hat. You should watch my rendition of a wronged victim who is asking for her life to be spared.
It was a tough remedial lesson for me when I started because I chose the China-produced Three Kingdoms series as a starting point with its extremely fine, poetic language and four letter words that every student of the language knows is an abbreviation for something far deeper. Plus, there were no English subtitles.
But it got me going on to a eunuch’s sea voyage, court intrigues, magisterial incompetence and plenty of bloody wars and sword-fighting battles that involved demi-gods and semi-devils. After a few months, I no longer needed English sub-titles but I still needed the Chinese subtitles to follow the dialogue.
When I started, I made a pact with my DVD vendor that I would only speak to her in Mandarin while I was in her shop. We continued the charade for more than a year until her shop closed down. In the meantime, I got to know the vendor of almost every DVD shop that hawks Chinese drama serials in the east, whether it be TS Laser, Blue Max, Poh Kim or Veego.
I am now the proud owner of several hundred drama serials and have to trawl shops like Canton Video for really old serials in VCD format because China cannot keep pace with my demand for period drama.
I didn’t grow up loving the Chinese language. Learning it was a mighty chore as no one in my family spoke Mandarin. I thought in English and spoke in Mandarin, which can be hilarious because of mixed syntax and sentence construction. Still, I scored relatively well in examinations, mainly because of rote-learning.
Now I am listening to Chinese dialogue or reading the Chinese subtitles that fly past my television screen every day. I am also devouring books on Chinese history – the English translations.
I have learnt to love the language, especially the construction of four-letter or rather, four-character, phrases that mean so much more than they seem and the use of homonyms as riddles. I still cannot grasp Tang poetry or the more philosophical works, but I think it is good enough that I know of them.
For me, historical dramas are best because they serve so many objectives – purity of language, Chinese cultural values and of course, a bit of history even if it is more fiction than fact. My mother was flummoxed when I offered to serve her her meal personally, because it was an expression of filial piety, much like the patriotic general Yue Fei washing his mother’s feet. I see how examinations play such a big role in gathering mandarins for the use of the state, or rather, the kingdom. Missing the examinations meant a wait of several years, making top scholar brought pride to the village and those who didn’t excel went on to lesser court posts.
I see so many parallels with the Singapore system. But I also see how corruption and venality can destroy a kingdom and how even the most enlightened ruler needed a coterie of good and unselfish advisers.
There is, of course, the dark side of Chinese history, with its numerous patricides and fratricides committed in the struggle for power. I think I have seen enough torture methods to declare that the worst that anyone can ever experienced is to have his eyes gouged out, tongue cut and all four limbs chopped off and be left alive to root around like a pig. At least, that is what a deranged empress did to a concubine.
The great failing of my pursuit of the language is that I decline absolutely to watch anything “modern’’. I don’t know, therefore, the equivalent Mandarin terms for technological gadgets and everyday working life. When I am asked why, I give the very unsatisfactory but nevertheless truthful reply that I like looking at fancy costumes.
Several times, vendors have also offered me Hongkong-produced period dramas to watch but I always end up a little disappointed at the quality of the Mandarin dubbing. The language is not as refined as those produced by the Chinese even though the plot might be superior. I was told I should listen to the original Cantonese version and then read the Chinese subtitles but I believe that would put too much pressure on my ability to hone the language.
The Speak Mandarin campaign is now in its 35th year and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called on Singaporeans to stick with Mandarin despite the increasing calls to return to the use of dialects. There is room for dialects but not as a replacement for Mandarin. I agree. It would be so much more difficult for me to have to grasp the variations of the language. Then again, I am not Chinese and do not know what the loss of a dialect means to dialect-speakers.
What I know is this: I have chafed against having to learn this complicated language all my life but am now grateful that I had mastered the basics in school. I know the meaning now of learning a language so as to “open a new window’’ on the world.
It is not an empty phrase.

Shaddup and sit down

In Society, Writing on July 5, 2014 at 3:05 am

Been thinking about the way people argue offline and online….

How to silence critics
a. Do you have a better idea? A solution? No? Then shaddup and sit down!
b. Do you agree that we should help the poor? Yes. So good, we agree. Now can you please shaddup and sit down?
c. What right have you to talk about poor people when you live in a bungalow in Bukit Timah?
d. You not a doctor, lawyer, teacher are you? So don’t tell me what you think about the medical profession, the law or the education system.
e. You are gay right? Enuff said!
f. How many people did you talk to when you say you represent what people think? 1,000? 100,000? No?
g. You are a member of a vocal minority. Shaddup and sit down.
h. You think cleverer than all the experts we have? No? Shaddup and sit down.
i. You don’t understand anything because you don’t have the full facts. And I’m not giving you the facts because you won’t understand them anyway. So shaddup and sit down.
j. I don’t talk to people who have agendas, even if I not sure what the agenda is.
k. You have a position on the issue? Or are you just wasting my time nit-picking?
l. You usually drive right? Please don’t talk to me about bus fares and stalled trains. No locus standi.
m. You don’t take public transport all the time right? How frequent a user are you to talk about bus fares and stalled trains? No locus standi.
n. You are a property investor and developer right? That’s why you want cooling measures to stop? Vested interests!
o. You haven’t lived through war and riots right? Don’t talk to me about public order
p. You are too young to have accumulated any life experience, and therefore too young to have any views worth hearing.
q. You agree with the G? No wonder you support whatever they say. No place here for you. You’re predictable.
r You don’t agree with the G? No wonder you attack whatever they say. No place here for you. You’re predictable.
s. You shouldn’t just talk, must take action also. In fact, just DO. Don’t talk. So shaddup and sit down.
t. You are going off-topic. Stick to business at hand or shaddup and sit down.
u. You can’t see the big picture, that’s why you are so small-minded.
v. You don’t think long-term, that’s why you are so short-sighted.

FINALLY, with overwhelming force, say: SHADDUP AND SIT DOWN.

Words of mass destruction – a Singaporean lexicon

In Society, Writing on May 26, 2014 at 11:38 pm

Last night, I wrote on my Facebook wall that MSM will be full of constructive politics today so I started thinking about destructive politics. I came up with a list of what destructive people say. Some wags thought it instructive enough to add more to the construction. Therefore, here are the words of mass destruction – a term coined by another wag. Please take this constructively.
I am not xenophobic; I just don’t like foreigners
The Filipinos should not hold their independence day here, because it does not coincide with Singapore’s independence day
You can’t call yourself a Singapore unless you, your father and your grandfather were born here.
My son did badly in school because he is not in a good school
My son did badly in school because the exams were too tough
My son behaves badly because his teachers did not discipline him
Teachers cannot discipline my son because he happens to be MY son
If you are pro-family, you must be anti-gay
If you are gay, you can’t be pro-family
The nursing home should not be in my backyard because I can think of so many other places you can put it
Foreign workers should not be seen nor heard
If you praise a Government policy, you must be a PAP lackey
If you criticise a Government policy, you must be an oppie
If you stand in the middle, you must be Workers’ Party
Everything bad that happens to me is because of the Government, even that cut on my big toe
Everything good that happens to me is because of… me
Prices are high because ministers pay themselves high salaries
I pay so much to own and drive a car, so why should I subsidise public transport?
I am not eligible for an HDB flat, so why do I have to pay property tax?
Men should not do National Service, because the women don’t have to
Men of military age and women of child-bearing age should get the same perks in the name of equality
I don’t have great expectations, only rising aspirations
I want work-life balance because I studied so hard in school
I am all for free speech – when I like what I’m hearing
Vandalism is a manifestation of freedom of expression – when I like what I’m seeing
I must be reading the right stuff because I’m reading The Straits Times
I must be saying something right because the Government is suing me
I must be saying something right because the trolls are flaming me

Not a Hard Choice: Just read

In Politics, Society, Writing on April 30, 2014 at 2:12 pm

I finished reading Hard Choices by Donald Low and Sudhir V in one sitting today. Yup. It’s that grabbing. A bit cheeky to call it Hard Choices but it’s appropriate since it challenges some of the Hard Truths we’ve always been told about. It’s a quite balancing act for the authors who also include academic Linda Lim based in United States: They’re careful about not knocking the past too much; instead they maintain that the past might not be a good guide for the future. They are, as they say, challenging the consensus or rather, exploding some myths.
The authors acknowledge that policymakers have made adjustments by, for example, moving left of centre in social policy. One thing they couldn’t avoid saying: The policy of flooding the country with foreign workers over the past decade in the go-for-full-throttle economic growth era is to be blamed for some of malaise we face today: stagnant incomes in the lower ranks, low productivity because of access to cheap labour and pressure on housing prices which now need cooling.
For baby-boomers (and almost baby boomers like me), there was this interesting bit: Singapore’s strong reserves were built on the backs of this generation and it makes sense for the state to return some of it to the generation as it ages rather than find new ways of getting more out of the younger people.
At the risk of summarising, I think the key thesis goes something like this:
a. Some of the strongly-held political and economic mantras that helped Singapore to what it is today might not apply if we want to move forward. The “vulnerability’’ narrative, for example, has outlived its usefulness as an inspiration for most citizens while the vision of a “global city’’ might actually be pretty limiting. Why not try for a vision of a just and equitable city?
b. Rather than look at policies from a dollars and cents or economic point of view, why not look at them from the point of view of strengthening the social compact and social trust. Singapore, in the words of Linda Lim, is more than just its GDP. Citizen “well-being’’ is a better measurement of success than economic growth rates.
c. The G should rid itself of some mindsets such as contending that more welfare leads to an erosion of work ethic or automatically reaching for “co-payments’’ and “means-testing’’ and monetary incentives to achieve social policy goals. Rather, all citizens should be guaranteed a basic level of help, that is, go “universal’’ rather than hew to a targeted approach. Ensure one level, and then means-test for the rest. Also, most “welfare’’ approaches seem to be contingent on “employment’’. But what if people are involuntarily unemployed in these times of economic restructuring? What about wage loss insurance?
d. The trouble with sticking to past models and predicting the future based on extrapolations is that the system becomes rigid, inflexible – and late. Like the drastic imbalance in housing supply and demand in the past, or how more rail lines were needed far sooner than expected.
e. The country’s leadership is an incestuous one (that’s my phrase) populated with like-minded people thrown up through similar channels and reinforcing a group-think mentality. Because they had benefited from the policies of the past, they conclude that what had worked for them would work for future generations. That is, they are already “biased’’.
All in, the authors are calling for mindset change if Singapore wants to move forward. Some of the principles policymakers have held on to may no longer work. Higher income taxes do not necessarily crimp work ethic nor is a universal approach to welfare always accompanied by laziness on the part of the recipients. The view that housing is an “appreciating asset’’ needs to change since it’s so vulnerable to booms and bust and not easily “unlocked’’ as a retirement fallback.
They call on the G to have less of a stranglehold on public discussion and dialogue, contending that political openness is needed for ideas to flower and flourish. The book has some policy solutions or alternatives as well, some of which would be unpalatable to the G, like taking out the “political’’ element out of grassroots bodies, such as the People’s Association.
The Singapore of today, they argue, demands “equity’’ and “fairness’’.
I’m sure I’m not doing the book much justice at all. So why don’t you just go buy it and read?

The flip side of the Filipino Day

In News Reports, Society, Writing on April 16, 2014 at 2:34 am

We all know that there are racists and xenophobes in Singapore, as there are in any society. The sane among us know not to add fuel to their fire. We do not encourage their sentiments – because we do not share them. Sometimes we ignore them because there is no way to change how they feel. And, of course, no one would acknowledge to being racist or xenophobic.

So when does racism and xenophobia become news?

I ask this because I was aghast to read the article, Filipino group gets online flak over event, published in The Straits Times today.

It said: Organisers of a plan to celebrate Philippine Independence Day here had to remove a Facebook post about the event, after it drew a storm of vitriol and protests from netizens.
The online response came as a shock, they said, though they still intend to proceed with the celebration on June 8 at Ngee Ann City’s Civic Plaza, pending approval of permits from the authorities.

A lot of things get “online flak’’, so when is “flak’’ so heavy that it deserves further magnification in The Straits Times? Well, it seems that the removal of a FB post about the event by the hapless organisers was enough to merit a piece of real estate in ST. It was prime estate as well, on page A8, not in the bowels of its Home section.

Note: The organisers weren’t compelled to stop the June event. They are still proceeding with it as soon as they get the licences. If they were bullied into stopping altogether, methinks it would be worth some newsprint space.
So perhaps the online flak itself is enough to merit a story?

The article continued:
The Pilipino Independence Day Council Singapore (PIDCS), a group of Filipino volunteers, put up a post on Facebook about the event last weekend and drew fire almost immediately.
Negative comments from Singaporeans flooded in, with Facebook page “Say ‘No’ to an overpopulated Singapore” urging locals to protest on the PIDCS page.

The page, which has 26,000 “likes”, is against the celebration of the Philippine Independence Day here and said that festivities should be confined to the Philippine Embassy compound.

It was the 26,000 “likes’’ that prompted me to check the particular page. I couldn’t believe that 26,000 would say no to the community holding an event here. We have that many xenophobes? If so, it is something worth reporting because there is something seriously wrong with Singapore society.
It turned out that the FB page has been set up way back when the White Paper on Population was still a hot issue. The page has all sorts of posts, including on the death of a wrestling star, the haze and the predictable pillorying of G leaders. It wasn’t a page that was dedicated to the event.

The post which called for the protest drew 300-plus likes – a more “respectable’’ number. In fact, it is a number which should not even bother any journalist. It is inconsequential in the scheme of “likes’’ in the internet space. So why does it even deserve newsprint space in the august ST?

Now, I am firmly against the protest. I think the arguments against the Filipinos holding its own day at Ngee Ann City in Orchard Road are narrow-minded.

The protesters said on the FB page that they are against three things:
a. We are against them using the Singapore skyline in their logo for their Philippine Independence Day logo & posters, Facebook page, websites, etc.

Why? They live and work here presumably, and we are the host country. Perhaps some people think it looks as though the Filipinos have taken over the country? And Singapore is the Philippines? Why such insecurity? I happen to think it’s a nice gesture to the host country. It should be the Filipinos back home who are aghast that their own national symbols aren’t used. Not us.

b. We are against them in using the terms “Two Nations” and “Inter-dependence” in their Philippine Independence Day celebration posters. Singapore only observe and celebrate our own National Day on the 9th of August and we DO NOT and WILL NOT have a joint-celebration of “Inter-dependence” with another sovereign state. Their event is insinuating a very serious and misleading assumption; which we Singaporeans have never endorsed.

Hmm….is there a communication problem here? Something lost in translation? Isn’t it good that the community recognises the inter-dependence of nations? I don’t think the Filipinos are calling for a joint celebration! Rather, more an invitation to Singaporeans to join them in their celebrations.

Its organiser was reported as saying in ST: “We are not saying that we are trying to take over. Our drive is to be part of the community and try to open up to other nationalities. Interdependence doesn’t mean Singaporeans depend on us, but that we all help each other.”

I agree. It seems to me that the protesters have misled themselves

c. We are against them in celebrating their country’s Independence on Singapore soil. We urge them, however, to do so in their own Embassy compound.

For crying out loud…By the way, the community has held similar celebrations in the past, in Hong Lim Park and Suntec City. Is Orchard Road so sacred? And what does it say about the country’s own celebration of Singapore Day around the world; we took a public garden in Sydney and more recently, spent $4m or so in London. So Singapore should stop its own celebrations on foreign soil and confine the activities only in the embassy compound? If the other countries reacted like these “protesters’’ did, then perhaps we should.

The so-called protest leaves a bad taste in the mouth. But then again, it’s a SMALL group, not some 26,000 or so as ST seemed to have implied.

Which brings me back to the question: What is the duty of care that MSM should exercise when publishing or broadcasting what goes on on the Internet? There will always be vitriol, even in pre-Internet days. But to have the MSM further magnify this (based on 300, not 26,000 likes) is downright bad reporting and bad judgment. If it was a question of numbers only – that is, so many thousands of people protesting – then it should take a look at the anti-STOMP petition and publish a story. The same rules must apply, even to itself.

What I cannot abide is how the article has given the impression to its much touted 1million readers or so that the entire Internet community is a bunch of rabid, raving xenophobes. I wouldn’t put it past some politician to refer to this as an example of the terrible nature of the community.

Now I certainly hope the authorities aren’t going to get cold feet and deny the licences to the organisers because of this and cite “security and law and order considerations ’’. I hope the Filipinos go ahead and organise the celebration. Just make sure you don’t riot or consume too much alcohol or litter or pee in the plaza.

This Singaporean wishes you a good Independence Day.

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