Archive for August, 2019|Monthly archive page

Long Live the PAP?

In News Reports on August 30, 2019 at 1:30 am

With a title like, Is the People’s Action Party here to stay?, you can bet that I flipped to the back of the book to find the answer. I was rather bemused at Dr Bilveer Singh’s parting shot: “Would it not be a duty and obligation for the one-party dominant state to think of Singapore and its interests to prepare an alternative government to continue administering the Republic in the best interest of its people?’’

So I had to ask the good professor whether he thought it was even conceivable for the PAP to think this way – prepare for its own demise. His answer was that one-party states do not last long (Singapore has the longest staying ruling political party in the non-communist world by the way). Rather than wait for a schism in the PAP to lead the opposition to power  – or worse, for the country to get a rude shock if the PAP was suddenly overthrown, the PAP, which prides itself on serving the national interest, should draw up a contingency plan.

Clearly, Dr Singh, who lectures political science at the National University of Singapore, believes that the PAP should stay on – for a myriad of reasons, including an Opposition that is unprepared and has no desire to form the government in the near future. Any erosion of authority should be – and more likely to be – a gradual evolution than revolution.

You can say the dangers of a freak election, which the PAP has warned against, is subtext in the book. But I would also describe it as an examination of the political culture that the PAP has engendered over the past 50 years, and the tools that the party, as the incumbent, has at its disposal to perpetuate its longevity. So what would have to happen for the PAP “to go’’?

The book, which runs to 302 pages including appendices on what other political luminaries have said about the PAP’s future and electoral results over the years, is a good text-book for students. It sets Singapore’s political history in chronological order right up to this year when two new parties, People’s Voice Party and Progress Singapore Party got themselves registered and Mr Heng Swee Keat was appointed Deputy Prime Minister. Dr Singh analyses the outcomes of the 2011 and 2015 general elections and why voters turned against the party in 2011 but returned in droves in 2015.

There is a chapter on Malaysia’s landmark election last year which returned the maverick Mahathir Mohammad to power as head of the opposition – and whether this would be replicated in Singapore.

Dr Singh, who has a text-book on Understanding Singapore Politics to his name, thinks it would take a huge scandal like the 1MDB saga, severe corruption and mismanagement and a splintered, fractious ruling party – which the PAP currently shows no signs of being.

“Singaporeans view the PAP not just as a ruling party to be elected every four or five years but a long-term governing compact that has successfully delivered political, economic and social goods since 1959.’’  The voter’s DNA has become used to the PAP, creating a “Pavlovian-type transactional ruler-ruled pact,’’ he added.

Dr Singh doesn’t pull his punches when he discusses how the PAP would not be entering the coming general election, due by April 2021, from a “very big comfort zone’’. The “mother of all issues’’, he says, is trust and confidence in the ruling party and government, also a consistent theme in recent ministerial speeches.

He cited commentaries on recent happenings such as the Hyflux saga, the SAF deaths, the SingHealth hacking, the SMRT breakdowns as raising question marks over the PAP’s vaunted efficiency. That the Chinese language LianheZaobao ran a critical editorial, and other heavyweight commentators have raised the issue of a supposed loss of touch showed that “issues of the capabilities of political leaders and the growing divide between the political elites and the masses have become mainstreamed’’.

“To that extent, will issues relating to the credibility and whether there is a growing trust deficit between the rulers and the ruled in society becoming hotly discussed in the coming general elections remain to be seen’’.

Before you ask, yes, he did raise the “Lee Hsien Yang factor’’, but he has no more insights than any political watcher on whether the Prime Minister’s brother will enter the electoral ring, save to say that there will be implications and ramifications if he does.

I wished that Dr Singh would go into greater detail on other factors that would lead to an extension or diminuation of the PAP’s hegemony such as:

  • How will the PAP capitalize on the legacy of its founding father, the late Lee Kuan Yew, as a reason for its continued dominance? While Mr Lee’s passing had an effect on boosting the PAP’s votes, will there come a time when a generation of Singaporeans look more at what the PAP can do now, rather than its track record, when they vote? As for the current and older generations, will they agree with the Progress Singapore Party, led by ex-PAP member Tan Cheng Bock, which appears to be campaigning on how the PAP has “lost its way’’ ?
  • Is the PAP’s network, which extends beyond government to the bureaucracy (through the Civil Service and statutory boards), workers (through the National Trades Union Congress), to community groups (through the People’s Association), to the economic sphere (through Government-linked companies) and the military, a boon or bane to voters? Or is it another reason for the voters to acquiesce to the status quo because Singapore simply cannot afford a plural political system?
  • Will social media play a bigger part in raising political consciousness of Singaporeans, such as placing more importance on non-material goods, such as individual freedoms and human rights? Or will those who are lagging behind economically magnify their material grievances to some effect?
  • Will the PAP rank-and-file start to demand more say in the selection of its leaders or is the PAP leadership convinced that its cadre approach will hold despite a better-educated base?

Dr Singh refers to Law and Home Minister K Shanmugam’s remarks that the PAP will stay in power till at least 2029, or two election cycles. Maybe we will have another book before then. With a title that is less click-bait please.

So, is the PAP here to stay? Well, it depends on how you define “here to stay”.





Preetipls saga: The level of Chinese tolerance

In News Reports on August 23, 2019 at 2:02 am

Ask you: If the Preetipls video about the “brown face” ad was allowed to stay up online, would someone in the Chinese community respond with a similar one? I don’t mean a polite riposte, but one as profanity-laced and as explicit in target as the siblings’ video?

I think there is a possibility, although people’s first instinct would be to make a police report. Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam thinks it’s a probability which is why, he said, the G didn’t want to take chance of having the Internet filled with “attack videos”. So the siblings were censured and warned about breaching Section 298 of the Penal Code. “You think others would do something similar now?” he asked.

Some would say that Mr Shanmugam was indulging in the slippery slope argument, and that the citizenry on the Internet would have decried such videos and forced them out of existence. Mr Shanmugam doesn’t think so, citing the experience of other countries which have allowed hate or offensive speech to creep into the mainstream discourse and become “normalised”. Singapore, he said, was not a unique nor superior country.

Then comes the question of whether the video was really hateful or offensive. Most of the people in the audience he spoke to at the National University of Singapore agreed that it should be taken down. They found it offensive, but didn’t say why. I can only presume that they were turned off by the profanities. It was an own-goal for the siblings whom I think wanted to goad people into a judgment about the brown face E-pay ad that was the source of their discontent.

We can go on and on about what to feel and think and whether what we feel and think is “right”. No one should tell us how to feel and think but I do think it’s time to ask ourselves why we feel and think in a certain way.  (Sorry, did that sound complicated? Anyway, you can read my post here about being a minority confronted with race issues. )

Mr Shanmugam conducted a three-hour seminar yesterday, asking questions of and taking questions from the audience. He had powerpoint slides with statistics. I wish more politicians would talk to the public this way, rather than conduct a top-down lecture. This is not to say that I agree with everything Mr Shanmugam said. Nor do I think he wished for that. Let’s say that such a style of conversation allows room for disagreement and engagement.

What I took away from the seminar was this: How the Chinese majority feels and thinks is probably more important than what the minority community feels and thinks. Because if the Chinese community took offence and responds in kind to the siblings’ video, then “the minorities will be the losers in such a conversation,” as Mr Shanmugam put it.

This, I think, is the flip side of Chinese privilege. The Chinese may not even realise that they are being casual racists when they make flippant comments about minority members, but it also means they have a higher threshold of tolerance when they are the subject of racist comments. That comes from being secure in the position of the dominant majority. This is why the Chinese community isn’t fussed about Gurmit Singh’s Phua Chu Kang persona. I wager that Mr Singh is probably not even viewed as non-Chinese – he’s half Chinese. You don’t see the minorities taking offence either, although if we want to be scrupulously fair, the Phua Chu Kang portrayal was worse than Dennis Chew holding up plates of food in the E-pay ad.

Nor did many people take offence at Ms Preeti Nair’s unflattering portrayal of a Chinese woman in a cheongsam celebrating Chinese New Year in an earlier video. I can only assume that the Chinese who had watched the video laughed it off, while the minorities were ambivalent. But what would have happened if she had donned a tudung and made stereotypical comments about Malay/Muslims celebrating Hari Raya? The uproar from the community would have reached the heavens!

So when is a joke taken too far and what is our level of tolerance towards casual racism? How even-handed should our policies be towards different races? Or should we let societal norms – we can take pot shots at the Chinese but not the minorities – rein?

Mr Shanmugam thinks that Singapore has become “”more race conscious” but “less racist”, as evidenced by surveys. “Therefore, we are more quick to accept that others might take offence. In the past, if anyone had complained about it, they would have dismissed you.”

That’s quite counter-intuitive. You would have thought more complaints meant more racism. Perhaps, it’s all about how you argue the case: It’s not about more racism but more people saying that racism is unacceptable. Is it therefore good to be “race conscious”? Or should we disregard “race” as a factor?

We can’t disregard race at all in Singapore, not when it’s pushed into our face by the G’s ethnic policies. So you have the CMIO categories to fill in on forms, ethnic quotas in housing estates and guaranteed minority representation during general elections. The Chinese majority didn’t raise a fuss about the right of a Chinese to sell his flat to a Malay or Indian  (although it’s probably less of a problem than a Malay having to find a Malay to sell his flat to). The Chinese majority didn’t complain that it wasn’t democratic to discriminate against the majority who might wish for more of its own kind in Parliament.

I think the Chinese would have complained more if they bothered to keep up with the process that led to an elected presidency with a race element in 2016. They didn’t, at least, not enough to derail the process. In fact, the complaints came from the other side: minorities were upset to be singled out for some kind of special protection.

So race can’t be disregarded because we’re not allowed to, and because the G thinks that’s the way to ensure we can all live together peacefully within the rules. Unless, of course, future generations of Singaporeans think differently and there already signs that they are less racist than their forefathers.

I think we should have pressed Mr Shanmugam more about what he thought about the E-pay ad. Clearly, he didn’t find it as offensive as the video. The ad was more a case of being “unthinking” – and complaints would probably have been dismissed in the past. Those in the audience who found the ad offensive said that it demeaned other races (not okay for a Chinese to act as someone not of  his race) and how other races shouldn’t be viewed as costumed caricatures. Mr Shanmugam pointed out the dangers of taking political correctness too far, by mandating, for example, that nobody should impersonate race, and even another gender.  He asked if people found the ad offensive as an afterthought, in the light of the publicity surrounding the issue.

I think the ad was offensive because it was aimed at the Chinese-speaking heartlander, rather than the population as a whole. It was conceived – thoughtlessly – as an inside joke for the Chinese community who watch him on television. Mr Chew is unknown to the non-Chinese. So the Chinese might smile at the sight of him in drag or in a tudung, but the non-Chinese would simply ask why the company couldn’t afford to pay other races to be featured in the ad. I daresay that if it was Gurmit Singh who had the role, there would be a great deal less fuss, or even no fuss.

I was glad that Mr Shanmugam reiterated that the siblings had a right to express themselves – although the tone of expression was beyond the pale. This is not about clamping down on the right to say what you feel or think, but about realising that how you say it is as important.

This is not a rap, just a ditty. I hope it passes muster as a sanitised summarised version of what the siblings were trying to say.

Hey you Chinese people

Can’t you see what you just did?

You think you can be like me or him?

Who are you trying to kid?

It’s not funny when you wear a tudung

Or put a bindi on your face

Because we’re not costumes,

We’re members of a race.

Sure, we can clown around,

Crack a racist joke or two

But let’s see if you like it,

When the majority is not you.









NDR: Open letter to PM

In News Reports on August 18, 2019 at 4:03 pm

Dear Prime Minister,

I was at the Jewel at Changi Airport today and until you mentioned it in your speech, I had forgotten that you had spoken about this several National Day rallies ago. I usually switch off when you talk about infrastructural changes; you almost always refer to one project or another in every NDR. It makes me think of you as a property developer more than a PM!

But I was at the Jewel today….

It was a magnificent structure and that indoor waterfall-cum-forest concept was simply breathtaking. Like most malls, the place was filled with eating outlets and I am glad that most aren’t priced out of reach of the ordinary person. Stores are varied.  Everything was well laid out. And thankfully, the crowd had thinned considerably since Jewel opened a few months ago.  Yes, you delivered on what you promised. (But can cut ticket price for canopy walk or not?)

I raise this because I am probably among many people who don’t think too much about the sort of long-term planning that goes into the making and re-making of a country. I think I yawned through what you said about Greater Southern Waterfront when you mentioned it at yet another NDR some years ago. But I sat up this time when you raised it.

That’s because I can see how the city port is emptying out and I have a view of Pasir Panjang container terminals from where I teach at the university campus in Kent Ridge. I have always wondered what would replace my view. Now, I hear you say it will be a Punggol by the Bay. I see a government with a long-range view, with every step in place.

But it was when you spoke about climate change that it truly dawned on me that as a people, we need to figure out what we’re putting in place for future generations, lest they be “ashamed of what our generation did not do”, as you put it. I was glued to the TV when you sketched out the possible ways of safeguarding our land against rising sea levels. Polder or reclamation? Or several Marina Barrages along the shore? I live in the east, you see, one of those low-lying places.

I like this sort of sharing of challenges and possibilities. It is, in my view, far better than simply presenting the future-as-designed-by-the-Government. This is a reason we do not think big picture or long-term – because we already have a government to do it for us. Yes, it is the duty of a Government to deal with challenges, but increasingly people would also want to be a part of the discussion. Failing which, you will have a people who only look for incentives, subsidies and immediate relief to current problems – and whine when they don’t get what they want. A weak people.

There is plenty of negativity in Singaporeans these days methinks. We might be ranked No. 1 in the UN Human Capital Index, but we prefer to talk about the amount of stress that is put on our children to reach that potential. We might have more than 1,500 centenarians but we wonder if we really want to live so long, physically impaired and with medical bills to pay. Some people don’t even think Nas is correct about Singapore being a wonderful place.

This time though, I doubt that anyone can complain too much about what is being done on the education front. I seem to be seeing another Jewel in the making. After expanding university places, successfully branding polytechnics as equal to JCs, ridding ITE of its moniker It’s The End, making changes to streaming and PSLE, we have come back full circle to pre-school education. Those cuts in pre-school education fees are deep, and I wonder why no one saw the anomaly earlier. How can it be that pre-school education is so much more expensive than main school education?

I am glad the subsidy scheme will be extended to include more of the middle income group: that sandwiched generation who aren’t poor enough to pass means tests but not rich enough to spend freely. This is one segment of the population who live the typical Singapore way – a working couple with kids in school, living in a HDB flat and who probably have elderly parents to look after. The Pioneer Generation package and soon, Merdeka Generation package, is a relief to these hardworking families and it is good to know that they will have money to pay kindergarten fees. It will help level the playing field at the start of a Singaporean’s life, although I am quite sure the better-off will find more ways to ensure their progeny stay ahead sooner or later. The sharp edges of meritocracy always need blunting.

I listened closely when you talked about retirement and re-employment age because I am going to hit the age-group soon. I think many people will question your assertion that people want to work longer. (I can just see people arguing that they have to, simply to keep body and soul together because of CPF rules on what can be withdrawn and when). I wish you had given figures on how many people actually worked beyond the current retirement age of 62. Even if seniors are keen to work, will employers keep them on,  especially since CPF contributions will be raised? You have heard, I am sure, many accounts of employers who know they have to make an offer of employment but simply make it too hard for seniors to stay on.

But back to the big picture.

I wish you spoke more about the Singapore identity in your English speech. I know you lauded the Malays for building a unique identity which differentiates them from Malays in the region and Muslims elsewhere. I also think that in this current climate of US-China tensions, your Chinese speech can be interpreted as a call to the Chinese community to be citizens first and ethnic Chinese second. But what of the nation as a whole?

One reason I slept through the infrastructural bits of past NDRs is because I can’t help but feel we are focusing on the physical facade rather than the intangible values and aspirations we have as a people. We use this phrase often: a better life. But is this to be measured in GDP terms only? Or in rising incomes? It has always bothered me that our hard-headed government doesn’t have a soft touch to stir the soul. If I can describe your message in one line, this might suffice: We have to send our kids to school earlier and we have to work longer, but we’ll have a better environment to live, work and play in. Not very rallying.

I, for one, am grateful that we have a government which delivers. We should never sniff at long-range thinking and long-term plans. We know we have a clever government but a government that’s too clever by half will result in a weak people that will turn to it for every need. Worse, a government which charges arrogantly forward with its plans – and leave the people behind.

But, hey, we can’t have a perfect government.

I think ours is pretty good liao.





On this day, our country’s 54th birthday, we wish that…

In News Reports on August 9, 2019 at 1:00 am

Inspired by Professor Tommy Koh’s article on birthday wishes for Singapore, I asked people on my Facebook wall for their own top three wishes. And they shouldn’t just copy parts of the Pledge, I said. More than 100 people responded. I won’t say that they are representative of Singaporeans; they are just people who happen to have seen my post.

Some wishes are universal, asking for happiness, progress and prosperity (sound familiar?) and some were clearly dictated by the news of the day, such as the brouhaha over an ad and a video and the ubiquity of personal mobility devices. If the news on how Singaporeans are among the most over-worked (or hardest working?) people on earth appeared a day earlier, work-life balance might have featured more often on the list. Some wishes can  be described as populist – like free education, free health, no GST or some discounted variation of all three. It also appears that not many people are convinced that the G puts Singaporeans first, with some calling for a further tightening of its foreign workers policy.

I also should not forget this constant refrain: to have CPF returned to the people at an earlier age.

Still I can see a few common themes emerging, and they have to do with:

a. Civility and respecting the views of others

I think this wish stems from a sense of disappointment over how the Internet is home to bickering quarters who give no quarter. One poster said he wished we would cultivate “a habit of listening to others around us instead of constantly trying to shout over each other”. There were other variations, such as being able to “argue respectfully” and to “learn the tools for critical thinking and constructive civil discourse, rather than relying on silencing opponents by filing police reports, censorship, character assassinations, or issuing takedown orders”.

Personally, I am heartened by such wishes. There is just too much hatred and nastiness on the Net. At times, I wonder if extreme views are truly held or simply expressed as a form of one-upmanship. I believe we call this the politics of outrage. There were also a few who called for more critical ability to distinguish between fact and opinion, and not to follow “blindly” some fad or other. Of course, this leads to calls for the education system to do more to nurture such ability.

There is one facet to this which I think is worth elaborating on – the phenomenon of the silent majority. Sometimes it is the vehemence with which some people hold the line that prevents even moderate voices from speaking up. It is emotionally draining to converse with people who simply will not see another point of view and resort to ad hominem attacks. Actually, it is more frightening to talk to the articulate, whose command of the language leaves you unable to respond in as elegant a manner. Then there are those who can cite “facts” and “figures” which sound real enough but which really require you to fact-check.

Holding a respectful, civil discussion is actually a tiring – but do-able – exercise. In fact, my own experience on Facebook shows that discussion among people is usually better than a dialogue between two individuals which usually descends into a slanging match. That is because in a group, different individuals, besides having different perspectives, have different pockets of knowledge and expertise which can be brought to bear on the discussion.  I have always been grateful to posters who dig up or share expert information to shed more light on an issue in the news, thereby shoring up the shortcomings of  MSM.

There is this term that is now very much in vogue: “safe spaces”. It’s supposed to refer to a forum where you can say what you like without fear of being condemned or laughed at. And it’s usually private or closed-door. I do not see how closed-door discussions advance the understanding of the majority of the masses who are “out” door. The usual excuse is that frank discussions can inflame passions. I am not sure. I have a few rabid types on my wall and my sense is that most people know what to expect from them and take their comments in their stride. In a discussion, we must welcome all types including the irrational and the emotional. I think we are capable of having a mature discussion without resorting to fisticuffs.

b. A transparent and humble G

It says a lot about how pervasive the G is in our lives that we connect our birthday wishes with the state of the State. There are wishes for the G to be more humble, generous and emphatic and to treat the people as citizens, rather than “resources” or a “statistic for reporting””

One poster wanted “more transparency and accountability of government, buy-in of citizenry, instead of policies and decisions rammed through”. Another one: “No more overly broad Bills/laws placing outsized power in the hands of politicians, leaving ordinary citizens to rely on the hope that all politicians (and future politicians) can be trusted to use these powers judiciously.”

I suppose they are referring to laws like the Protection from Online Harassment Act and the changes to the office of President, issues which have discomfited citizens, even though the G will maintain that there was enough consultation with a parliamentary select committee convened for the first, and a constitutional commission for the second. There is a sense that the G is being given carte blanch to intervene in people’s lives based on (let me count the ways) the need to uphold law and order, or maintain social harmony, or prevent foreigners from influencing the political system.

I know most people want more checks and balances in the system and it appears to me that the G would have to do a lot to recover some ground with those who think it has been high-handed and arrogant in recent time. What should console the G is that more of the wishes was about getting the G to change than getting it thrown out.

Perhaps with an eye on the succession plans of the People’s Action Party, there were a few who called for a G unafraid to make bold moves and to have a diversity of talent within its ranks rather than, I am guessing here, ex-civil servants and ex-generals.

c. A freer, more diverse media

This was a bit of a pleasant surprise to me. It was number one for a few people and one even said that it was his only wish for Singapore. I can only presume that they see a free media (in this case, it seems that they are referring to mainstream media) as a kind of panacea for several ills. A freer, more independent media would hold the G to account, demand transparency of processes and include a diversity of views for dissemination. Of course, birthday wishes being just wishes, there is nothing about how this can be achieved.

There are plenty of other wishes I have left out that ranged from freeing students from stress and giving more help to Singapore firms. You can read them here. The picture I get is that Singaporeans very much want to be a mature, peaceful and civilised society, led by a G that recognises their worth as citizens. As birthday wishes, they don’t seem like very much to ask for.

I think the next step is to think about how we, the individual citizen, can make those wishes come true.











Is it because I’m Eurasian?

In News Reports on August 7, 2019 at 1:40 am

Hello, I am Singaporean.

I know that going just by my name, a fellow Singaporean who doesn’t know me wouldn’t think it. They always expect someone “lighter” in colour. After I open my mouth, theirs drop. Because, hey, I speak better Singlish than they do! I explain that I am Eurasian and I see the gears in their brain working, figuring out what part of my face/body belongs to which side of the family.

Then comes the inevitable “So your parents are….?”. I tell them my ancestry. Sometimes, they go further and ask for country of origin. These days, I  wonder if I should be flattered that they are interested in my origins or offended that they should presume to ask me for such personal details. I think that if  I had asked the same question of those same people, they would give me their parents’ occupation rather than the dialect group (it’s usually the Chinese who are curious by the way). I wonder also how many can give an answer if I ask which province in China their ancestors came from.

Race is a topic that has been increasingly pushed to the front of my consciousness in recent years. I would have shrugged off any queries about my race in the past but I am starting to look at it differently. Have I become (yikes!) more sensitive?

I know a lot of people hark back to the “good ole days” when races live in peace and harmony and everyone could speak a bit of Malay and Hokkien to get along. But I think we’re looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses. My first experience of outright racism was when I was in primary school.  My Chinese mother was publicly taunted by some Chinese men for being with an “ang moh”, that is, my father. She was close to tears. He was dreadfully angry. I was so damn frightened. There was nothing “casual” about it.

But for the most past, I am ambivalent about my race. Maybe it’s because I’ve developed some sort of “double consciousness”, knowing that I am “different” yet inhabiting the world of the majority and adopting their world view. People can laugh at my race and I laugh along – unconsciously. Is this a right response from a member of the minority?

My “lived experience” might have much to do with it.

I wasn’t discriminated against in school but actually treated like a precious flower (positive discrimination) because I seemed so exotic to my fellow schoolmates, mainly Chinese. The fiercest types always took me under their wing. Out in the workplace, I was admired for being able to speak Mandarin, even of the half-past-six variety.

Of course, people ask me questions that reflect their stereotypical image of a Eurasian, like whether I was educated in a convent school. (I wasn’t). I have even been told to my face that I must sing and dance very well because…Eurasian. And before you ask, no, I don’t know how to cook feng.

Again, I shrug off such comments. Now I wonder if I should be offended at people’s presumptions, such as more inane questions like “how come your hair so dark?” (my mother’s overpowering genes?) or “why your name so funny?” (yours isn’t?), or “you have what kind of blood? (red?)”. The worst one: “you must be very havoc” (no, but I can cause some).

Over the years, we’ve been treated to complaints about casual racism. With the Internet playing its megaphone role, I’m left wondering if more people are getting more easily offended or whether it’s always been the same – but louder. And I’m wondering if I have been wrong all these years about how I “feel” about the race.

The movie Crazy Rich Asians, for example, provoked a minor controversy here because the minorities are being cast in subordinate positions while the Chinese took the “privileged” parts.  I followed the comments, arguments and counter-arguments with interest but I couldn’t decide how to “feel” about it. Non-plussed is a good word methinks.

I’ve written about the NETS E-Pay ad and the video that was produced in response. You can read it here. What I didn’t write about was how conflicted I felt. Should I get angry about the ad because minorities are angry and even some intellectual members of the majority Chinese are speaking up for them? If I am not angry even though I am a minority member, should I search deep into myself and ask why?

Should I get angrier/equally angry/less angry/not angry at the video that was produced in response? Should I understand that they are entitled to express themselves because their feelings were hurt, as some quarters have tried to explain?

In hindsight, I think my response wasn’t that of a minority member but of an “older” person. I am more surprised than angry that the ad made it from conceptualisation to distribution. And I cannot get my brain around statements that the video is “just a rap” or how “f***ing it up” is just a phrase, can be excuses for vileness and vituperation. Then I also see comments about how old fuddy duddies should get up to speed with the new thinking and new phrases of the new age. I wonder if I can turn the comments around: Old fuddy duddies aren’t dead yet and is it too much to ask that the younger people respect their norms on civility?

The episode has raised some interesting questions for the individual (of any race) to ponder over, to examine the depths of their attitudes towards each facet of the issue, including whether the G is a good neutral arbiter of racial issues and how heavy a hand it should have. I wonder, for example, if social media is making me feel inadequate as a minority member because I am not speaking up louder about injustices (perceived or real). I wonder if I should be embarrassed or thankful that I don’t feel I’m treated differently on account of my race.

Frankly, it is easy to play the victim card and indulge in the politics of outrage because there is an expectation that the majority should sit down and shut up when we speak. We can turn ourselves into champions for a cause protected by the idea that nobody should deny me “my feelings” especially those who have not “walked in my shoes”.

I think it’s good to confront such questions as an intellectual exercise rather than give vent to our emotions. When we engage the brain, we end up with a cooler head. We see beyond our own feelings, see the feelings of others and see what is in the best interest of all tribes. We do not say or do what is expected of us, or what is fashionable. We take a step back and do not let our emotions rush us into judgment.

I have concluded that I should be comfortable in my own skin, and be the individual (regardless of race) that I am. This is not to say that minority races do not face discrimination; they do. It is also not to say that the majority hasn’t made some forced sacrifice for inter-racial harmony; the loss of Chinese-language schools, the near complete erasure of dialects being some examples.

The truth is there has always been casual racism of the unthinking variety and it’s too much to expect that everyone will be “sensitive” or “politically correct”. But the important thing is we have set up formidable barriers to prevent institutional racism from setting in.

On my part,  I will not let comments that begin with “You, as a member of the minority, should know better” affect how I feel about myself or about my race or my place here.

Hey, I am Singaporean.


















PSP launch: Having your cake by looking at it

In News Reports on August 3, 2019 at 11:57 am

Dr Tan Cheng Bock said he could only reveal the cake but not its ingredients. So those who went to Swissotel Merchant Court hotel hoping for details about candidates and constituencies were disappointed. But I figured that he could at least talk about what type of flour he used, in terms of agenda and policy proposals. Alas, that was not forthcoming either.

All we got from the public launch of the Progress Singapore Party was its proposal to have the voting age lowered from 21 to 18, just as neighbouring Malaysia has done. Singapore is “behind the times”, said Ms Michelle Lee, a Central Executive Committee member given the job of connecting with the younger people.

Yes, this time, we got to hear from other members of the CEC, some of whom gave a short summary of the why and how they got involved in politics and the issues close to their hearts.  They fielded some questions, but it was still Dr Tan who stole the show with a half-hour speech that was an expansion of his previous script when he met the media last week.

Dr Tan spoke of the “ethical framework” of the party: independence, transparency and accountability would underpin its proposals and actions. (I suppose that’s the cake-stand) He repeated his call for transparency in the appointment of office-holders. (Read here) Even if the person was the best man or woman of the job, “seeds of doubt” would be sowed, he said, leading to an erosion of trust.

One thread running through the speeches and answers was the employment of foreign talent. The party wants to know what impact the Singapore India Comprehensive Economic Co-operation Agreement, which allows free flow of talent, has on the country. “How many local jobs have gone to Indian professionals? And how many Singaporeans have gone to India?” asked Dr Tan. Making sure that jobs go to locals first and getting Government-linked companies to leave the local space to SMEs was also a consistent theme. It reminded me very much of the agenda of the Singapore First political party.

I thought the party would raise Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing’s announcement of extending the scheme to get in top foreign tech talent to Singapore – but nobody did.  A question on how the party would have handled the current  E-Pay advertisement and video saga received a garbled response. I gather members were too busy preparing for the launch, which had both a morning and afternoon session.

But, seriously, there was not much else that was new.

The usual hot-button topics like ministerial salaries and the stressful education system elicited applause from among the audience of some 500 people. Issues like income inequality, CPF, healthcare costs need to be addressed, we’re told, but revised proposals would need data, which would only be forthcoming if the party members got into Parliament to ask for them.

I thought this was a bit like putting cart before horse. So proposals are contingent on their entry into Parliament?

I suppose we have to recognise that opposition politicians are on the back foot when it comes to access to data that would help them in policy work. Journalists and academics find it hard enough to pry information from the bureaucracy. What more opposition politicians…

If policy proposals are not based on good, comprehensive data, then it will have to be differentiated in terms of key principles and ideology. The PSP doesn’t have an ideology, said Dr Tan last week. And it doesn’t want to be populist either, said his assistant secretary-general Lim Lee Yung Hwee today.

To a question on the CPF withdrawal age and retirement adequacy, Mr Lim Lee said the party would need more data because CPF has so many elements attached to it, like housing payments and healthcare costs. Work has to be done to see what section should be pared down to add more to the retirement fund. As for withdrawing everything in the CPF account at age 55, he said this would depend on whether safety nets are in place in case too many people fritter away their savings before the end of their lives. I asked him later if this meant that we won’t see anything before the election since “no data” – and was told that there would be some proposal, based on available information. Hmm. Ok lah.

Clearly, the PSP is campaigning for votes based on its contention that the ruling People’s Action Party has changed its style of governance and needs to go back to its original values. This is a seductive line given that there is some queasiness over the G’s new tools to deal with dissent, such as the Protection against Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act. Dr Tan made much of the “climate of fear” pervading Singapore which induces some people to “complain in whispers”. “Speaking up,” he said, “should not be seen as ingratitude or betrayal”. Nor is a leadership of like-minded people (he was very dismissive of scholars and generals) using old methods enough to take Singapore to a higher level.

He had some choice words for Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who warned against “adversarial politics”. It was the PAP which engages in adversarial politics, he said, recalling a quip by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2008 that he would have to spend time “fixing” opposition politicians if they entered Parliament.

But what took the cake was his response to Mr Heng’s rebuttal on airing the FamiLEE saga in Parliament. Dr Tan had said Parliament was not the place to discuss family matters. Mr Heng said that on the contrary, it showed how transparent the G was willing to be. Dr Tan asked how a parliamentary session dominated by one political party could be transparent, especially when opposite side, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, could not be present to give their side of the story. (He didn’t say the party whip was lifted although I personally didn’t notice any difference in the way the PAP MPs spoke – whip lifted or not)

Dr Tan’s jibe, however, did bring something home to me. Too often, we’ve been told that we should move along because Parliament has discussed the matter, the law has been passed and everything has been recorded in Hansard.

But issues, quickly dispatched, are not always dusted off so easily. It takes time to bake a cake that everyone will eat and enjoy. I myself have faith in the institution of Parliament as a place for differing views and contentions so that the best solution, which may not always be the G’s position, can emerge. So long as the PAP backbenchers hold up their end of the bargain by making the G accountable, I can countenance even a one-party Parliament. But now, it appears that people need to get into Parliament just to ask for information as well.

Perhaps, I was too hasty to judge the cake by its (lack of) ingredients. The cake-stand, while inedible, looks quite nice too. I hope it’s sturdy.

*My apologies for getting Mr Lee’s surname wrong. It’s LEE. Not Lim.











Is it because he’s Chinese?

In News Reports on August 2, 2019 at 1:08 am

I don’t wonder any more about why people don’t want to talk about race. Anything you say can be mis-interpreted. Worse for you, if you are inarticulate about expressing your views.  The only phrases that would be acceptable are how we should “increase multi-racial tolerance” (or is it harmony?) and grow as a cohesive nation “despite our race, language or religion” (and sexual orientation?).

We’re becoming a fractious people, belabouring over the extent of an offence and even whether it is, in fact, offensive. And offensive to who? With what sort of consequences? We will either shrug off the “offence” or go to the other extreme to paint doomsday scenarios with the usual slippery slope arguments.

Of course I blame Internet. Racist comments are excised from the mainstream conversation because the objective is to maintain the peace and to be “sensitive” to people’s feelings. But comments carry on being uttered anyway on the universal megaphone known as social media. What was private can easily be made public and, as in the case of the Nair siblings’ video, dramatised for further effect.

I have been looking at the “offending” ad on E-Pay and the “offending” video in response. (I am using quotation marks advisedly).

What’s the genesis?

The ad is a publicity campaign by NETS, “to communicate that e-payment is for everyone”, it said in a statement apologising for any hurt the ad had caused.

“The campaign was in connection with the unified e-payment initiative, a multi-agency effort led by Enterprise Singapore, where NETS was appointed as the master acquirer to handle payment transactions and drive adoption of e-payment in small food businesses.”

NETS engaged HAVAS Worldwide as its creative agency, which then engaged Mediacorp’s celebrity management arm to cast television actor and deejay Dennis Chew as the face of the campaign. Or rather, Mr Chew became several faces, including female and brown.

I gather that the draw of having Mr Chew is his television drag persona as the neighbourhood busybody Auntie Lucy, adorned with wig, lipstick and plucked eyebrows.

Mr  Chew, said NETS, was picked because he’s well-known for his ability to portray multiple characters in a single production. “He appears as characters from different walks of life in Singapore, bringing home the point that everyone can e-pay.” (Note the phrase “walks of life”, not different races.)

I suppose he would be a recognisable face to heartlanders who patronise hawker centres, where E-Pay was being rolled out. I think this is the part where the players involved fell down. They think their target audience, which is the majority of people here (read: heartlander Chinese), would chuckle at the sight of Mr Chew impersonating other faces/races.

It can’t be for lack of money to hire other actors, given that E-Pay is a big push in our Smart Nation initiative. It is more like some not very smart people failing to take into account how an Indian or a Malay would feel about having a Chinese impersonating them. I mean, have people at The Celebrity Agency forgotten how its own company MediaCorp was fined in 2017 for featuring a Chinese actor  as a black man with black face makeup in an episode in I Want To Be A Star ?

I know the counter: What about Gurmit Singh who played contractor Phua Chu Kang? No Chinese got offended. Let’s face it: Gurmit could pass off as a Chinese character anytime. Also, the Chinese community here is probably less “sensitive” to other ethnic groups portraying them. Why? Because they are in the majority here and hence, are more secure about their place in society. They can laugh at themselves, and think that others should laugh along when the same gimmick is applied to them.

But a joke to a big group is a reminder to another from a small group about how small they are and how easily they can be poked fun at. It is, in other words, not funny.

Remember the kerfuffle in May last year when a Caucasian American girl in the donned a cheongsam for high school’s prom night, boasted about it on Twitter and was accused of cultural appropriation by, ahem, “non-whites”? And that was just a dress.

Some have raised the continued popularity of drag queen Kumar’s shows which also poke fun at the races. But the audience members who pay to see Kumar perform know what to expect. Methinks this is different from having something pushed into your face for your attention, like an ad.

Workers’ Party secretary-general Pritam Singh put it best when he said on FaceBook that the ad left him non-plussed (confused/bemused/unsure how to react).

“That is probably a reflection of my own threshold for what I consider to be distasteful or offensive or perhaps even how thick my skin is,” he said. “But my lived experience is different from someone else’s. If one experiences racism all the time, he/she would logically respond differently and feel like a lesser citizen.”

I agree. Face it. How many people looked at the ad after the news broke to decide if it was offensive or not? If you do not find it offensive, then others who complain must be over-sensitive. Right? If you think it is offensive, then those who think it isn’t must be insensitive. Right?

I am pretty ambivalent about the ad, but that’s just me. But I don’t have to be in advertising to know how some people on the ground would react. And I definitely wouldn’t have put a name tag on the brown faced “Indian”. The fault, therefore, lies with the big boys who put out the ad; they should have known better.

Nevertheless, I wonder what accounts for the sudden rise in political correctness over the years? This is Singapore, not the United States with its history of slavery and segregation. As different communities, we’ve lived together long enough in harmony not to have to tip-toe around each other for fear of being perceived as insensitive.

Which brings me to the video which was put out in response.

I think the video was a crass production, a vulgar, over-the-top response to the ad. Given how in-your-face it is, I wouldn’t call it satirical – as some people have. Could the siblings have made the same point without castigating the Chinese community? I would have aimed my fire at the people behind the ad, who may or may not be Chinese.

What’s interesting is the G’s response. I wish it had weighed in after the ad appeared,  rather than only after the  video went viral. Though politicians were careful to criticise both the ad and the video, the brunt of the criticism fell on the siblings, to the point of having their livelihoods affected. So ChannelNewsAsia, an arm of MediaCorp, dropped Mr Subhas Nair from its musical documentary because it “strongly objects to all such offensive content which threatens racial harmony and will not associate with individuals who intentionally create such content”.

The thing is, individuals will make mistakes, get emotional and act impulsively. I don’t know what the siblings are going through now with so much public attention on them, but we haven’t heard a peep from them. They might want to think about proffering an apology to those they’ve offended.

On the other hand, organisations and companies have protocols to adhere to, and have more heads looking at an issue. I have no doubt that NETS et al never intended to denigrate other races with the ad. As I said, they are just not very smart people who didn’t think carefully when coming up with a marketing concept. In fact, it’s a wonder that the E-Pay ad made it through from conceptualisation to final dissemination without anyone raising a red flag.

I have a strange feeling that the outpouring of ministerial angst is about laying the groundwork for hate speech laws. I hope the G remembers that individuals are merely human beings who love, hate and sometimes lose their heads. But we should expect more from organisations and institutions.