Singapore’s Public Spheres – Between Keyboard Warriors and V for Vendetta in Hong Lim Park

The newly announced requirement for online news sites with more than 50,000 viewers a month to put up a bond, and to comply within 24 hours to remove any content that Media Development Authority finds objectionable, marks yet another encroachment into the public spheres of Singapore.

The move reminds one somehow of the 1980s, when all major newspapers were incorporated under the control of a single Singapore Press Holdings, following PAP’s loss of one seat to the opposition in 1980, with WP’s J.B. Jeyaretnam capturing Anson in a by-election. How would it augur this time for democracy in Singapore?

As it is, Singapore as a city-state has been conspicuous as a bonsai showcase of cosmopolitan life, but one hardly known for providing public places for freedom of speech and assembly. Anywhere downtown that resembles a public square is usually reserved for commercial activities of sales promotion, while the location of Hong Lim Park as Speaker’s Corner seems relatively isolated and apparently not very hip.

This marginalisation of the public sphere works to place Singaporeans in a mental loop that is hard to break free from. Surely the young and trendy Singaporeans would prefer to congregate around Greek-God-like posters of A&F in Orchard Road, and shop for cheap but fashionable outfits from H&M, made in Bangladesh it may be? Why travel in the direction of Chinatown where you may only find old men carrying their miserable bird cages, when life in Singapore already calls to mind the misery of a bird cage? Don’t we all need an escape from a boring life, where every other locality in Singapore seems like the exclusive territory of People’s Association?

A similar effect may be intended with the latest control over the social media this time, which has managed to sneak through the back door by gazetting it under the Licensing Regime, without public consultation or parliamentary approval. The new rules will serve to deter bloggers in Singapore from discussing social and political issues, and encourage people to blog about facial cream or their pet dogs instead.

This would presumably help create a ‘safe’ environment for the ruling party’s continual domination in Singapore, free from criticisms. All they need to do would be to stage a little ‘national conversation’ before asserting that they are working as ever to the best interest of the people, be it in the wage scheme or the population policy or the land use in our country. We may not find the precious little information to contradict them anymore.

The question is: would this be a miscalculation on the part of the PAP government? Will the same tactics that worked before Singapore’s first economic downturn in the 1980s work again now, with the new generation of electorate? Or will it lead to further distrust of the regime and force Singaporeans in the direction of civil disobedience, into more creative spheres of resistance?

The assumption seems to be that online voices of dissent reflect an anti-government sentiment that is purely irrational, and the only way to deal with it is to stamp it out before it spreads further like a disease. Well this is an inaccurate picture that they are seeing with their blinkers on, which may just lead to their own tumble. A good 40% of Singaporeans are not ‘anti-government’ as such. They are simply against the government being anti-democracy and anti-community. Does the regime want to push on with a de-humanising approach of treating the electorate as fools, and see how they react?

As post-GE2011 surveys have indicated, cost of living and job situation have been major concerns among voters. Smear tactics as perpetuated with the help of local press do not seem to work well anymore. At the end of the way, would people really be so interested in the sex lives of MPs, ministers, law professors or activists, when bread and butter issues are at stake? Would digging that little dirt alarm Singaporeans so much that they would run back into the arms of authoritarian rule immediately? You can only fool some people some time, not all the people all the time.

In a way, the secret ballot has made cowards of many a Singaporean. Hence there are those who would vote for the sake of upgrading in their constituency or for rubbish-clearing by the town council, instead of for how the economy will be run in the whole country. But how much upgrading does one really need before the bubble bursts? What we need is a more open society where people can stand up for their own political orientation in debates on the common good of Singaporeans as a whole.

Lest we forget, the PAP rose into power because it was a progressive party back in the 1950s. Today people just assume that going on strike is un-Singaporean, or that street protest is unheard of. But the PAP itself would walk down the streets with a banner in those days. Things changed of course. In the words of our first Culture and Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam in 1969: “We started off as an anti-colonial party…”

The 50s of course belong to a chapter in history that is still recovering from collective amnesia and whitewash, and scaremongers would still cite chaos at the time to scare the chicken back to the fold. But there is clearly a new spirit of awakening among Singaporeans now, which may yet be steered in a positive direction. One aspect may be an ‘anti-globalisation’ consciousness – at least, that is how I would prefer to characterise the ‘fashion punk’ who was carrying the banner ‘Singapore for Singaporeans’ in the February protest against the population white paper, instead of dismissing it as ‘xenophobia’.

‘Globalisation’ is of course a very complicated word, and what we must realise is that it is not a matter of a ‘tidal wave’ coming to our shores, but a many-headed monster which includes the roles played by our trade unions and our manpower ministry in their peculiar practices. It is also a matter of the state ideology, down to the claim by some politicians that there is no local identity in Singapore as such, apart from the belief in meritocracy or the ‘Confucian ethics’ of diligence – as if Confucius said 2,500 years ago that you don’t really need a university education for self-improvement, you just need to work overtime for better pay.

So what is a ‘real’ Singaporean? Let’s just say that one does not need to prove himself or herself as Singaporean by citing how differently a person from another country would behave. If ever there are ‘real Singaporeans’ as such, I would say it should refer to people who truly care for Singapore as part of a community. It would include people who may sound ‘subversive’ to the authorities, but really have the interests of Singaporeans at heart. Unfortunately, it is exactly such a sense of community that is being targeted by censorship.

Hence this latest instrument is indeed a test for us. Should Singaporeans not sense a foreboding of what this will mean for each and every citizen? One just needs to reflect a little more to learn from history: in the 1960s, the ISA came for the Chinese-educated who were ‘communists’, people kept silent, because they were not Chinese-ed; in the 1970s, the ISA came for the English-educated ‘communists’, people kept silent, because they were not leftists; in the 1980s, the ISA came for ‘communists’ who were supposedly embedded in Catholic church, people kept silent, because they had nothing to do with the church or the social activism; in the 2000s, the new excuse for ISA was the threat of terrorism identified with Muslim extremism, people kept silent, because they had nothing to do with such terrorism. And now, will people say it doesn’t concern them, because it is only the bloggers who will be affected? Who will speak for the people then when the bloggers are gone?

The defeatist attitude may say that there is nothing one can do, because there is no democracy in Singapore anyway. But that is simply mental slavery. One has to recognise that there is at least some semblance of democracy, at least a symbolic space for voices of dissent – Hong Lim Park is such a space, and judging by the latest trends, it will become the ‘fashion’ of true-blue Singaporeans.

Will the internet remain such a space too? It is now up to us, to express ourselves or share the opinions in whichever way we can, to make our presence felt. Think on what it will mean for yourself, your loved ones and for fellow Singaporeans. Think on many future generations of Singaporeans to come – assuming of course, that Singapore as a nation is not auctioned away in the global market soon. Get up, “Stand up, for Singapore”, shall we say?


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Singapore’s Magic Numbers: A Tale from the Dark Side

“Nation before community and society above self”?

There are always risks, but there are always opportunities too, says the Gambler. Whatever you call evil can be turned into some good, he insists, for he got his eyes set on the winning margin, somewhere in the horizon.

Some might say that the only thing constant in this world is change. What is your home today may not be your home tomorrow. Just consider the investment opportunities, and you will feel so rich, says the Gambler. Nothing is ever sacred according to the Gambler’s logic, except for his own practice of gaming.

There is hence no ‘magic number’, if you ask the government what should be kept aside as minimum income, in order to sustain a family. The typical reply of the Gambler is: when you have more money, you can celebrate with a feast at a restaurant; when you have less, just skip one meal. The Gambler is superstitious, talking about ‘minimum’ is bad luck and is taboo.

There is however some magic formula, for the state to calculate how many new citizens should be introduced each year to inject new life in the economy. It’s just like there is some formula for an insurance company to calculate your monthly premium based on your medical history. Or calculation on how much return or interest you should receive from CPF each month as pension, based on the needs of the ‘nation’, not based on your needs. Money has to be circulated in some mysterious way, that you and I need not know.

In fact, many of us would simply trust everything in the hands of people who are bureaucrats or technocrats, people who are the ‘experts’. It’s like how a lot of people like to keep placing their bets on the same colour that was their lucky colour many moons ago, though the world is fast changing. If the state comes up with a magic number of 30% increase in productivity over 10 years as condition for wage increase, take it as heaven’s decree.

Perhaps the ‘experts’ think they have a popular vote of 60% to support whatever they do. As they are talking as if people are just being unproductive, they forget that Pride, like Greed, is what some people would call one of the seven deadly sins, and ‘Greed’ is what other people would call exploitation. Maybe they have forgotten that there are other principles in life, apart from the Economy, just like there are other models of government.

Or maybe they want the people to keep worshiping this hungry beast called Economy as they do, to chase the same bubbles, so that the bubbles will keep growing. Money is the essence that drives their logic. Hence even when the number of cars needs to be controlled due to pollution of the environment, the pros of revenue from COE prices can always outweigh the cons. That’s how the mind of an opportunist works.

Hence the Gambler has looked at the fengshui of Singapore, and decided it would be a pity not to build a couple of casinos here. Well I may not know much about fengshui, but I have heard this: casinos are designed to suck in money, and to shred you into pieces as you enter. It’s not a playground for everyone.

Yet all of us might have unwittingly given our blessings to such new symbols of a neoliberal economy. In NDP2009, the whole nation was asked to recite the Singapore Pledge at 8:22 pm, numbers that echo ‘prosper easily’ in Chinese. You know, it’s like the well-known urban legend about the octagonal shape of the new $1 coin launched in 1987, just two months before the launch of the MRT, – the bagua to counter the damage of fengshui in the island with all that digging.

There are more stories about fengshui in Singapore that can be shared, but don’t ask me if these stories have a happy ending. You may just ask: what’s the moral of the story? And I may say, the riddle is in the true meaning behind this ‘shared value’ of Singapore: “Nation before community and society above self”.

The thing is, everybody will have his or her own belief in life. But I have this mental image that people in this country are just tokens or chips for the Economy, they may be used as capital, but they are also expendable and replaceable. Similarly, communities are used as chess pieces to counteract one against another. Clan associations for instance may be used as pawns to usher in the king, but pawns will ultimately have to sacrifice for the good of the ‘nation’. If the pawns ask what actually make up the ‘nation’, they will be told that they have no right to ask unless they are prepared to die for the nation.

Hence it is not surprising at all that we would also hear ‘learned’ or well-respected men in this country telling us that there is no Singapore identity, or that there is no Singapore culture. Ultimately, they would rather tell us it is all a myth in the making. If truth be told, we are not exactly all ‘in the same boat’; we are in a luxury liner, where some are first-class passengers, while others are crew or servants.

Perhaps the myth all began with the construction of this mythical creature called the Merlion in 1972 at the original Esplanade, before the British army withdrew from the port of Singapore. Three decades later in 2002, the Merlion, which had stopped spouting water, was relocated to its new ‘majestic setting’ at a cost of $7.5 million, so that it could again ‘bask in its former glory’ at the mouth of the Singapore River – to signify a new reign of prosperity, apparently. Hopefully it is not a bad omen that it later got hit by lightning, literally.

Water is a symbol of life, for it is from water that every living thing is made. Water is used for purification in many beliefs. But for the Chinese, it symbolises wealth and fortune above all.

It is not surprising then that there is also a Sky Park on the top of Marina Bay Sands, with a spectacular pool overlooking the city. A great symbol for the new ‘Singapore Dream’. There is of course an entrance fee, and it is subject to availability. We may need a fengshui master to tell us if this symbolises prosperity for all Singaporeans; or what should it mean when water is just stuck up there for the privileged ones?

It has just been announced that the Singapore River will have to change its course due to construction of MRT, and it may look somewhat different in the future. Now will LTA give local archaeologists some months for excavation before work commences? Excavations in 1998 at the Empress Place site found at least 40,000 artefacts, many from periods before Stamford Raffles; in 2010, the NUS archaeological team was allowed only 20 days to salvage whatever they could at the future National Art Gallery – Chinese coins and pottery from the Yuan and Ming dynasties as well as 17th-century Spanish silver reales.

As it is, so much history in Singapore has been lost due to MRT. Bidadari Cemetery was cleared away with construction of MRT cited as part of the reason. And an MRT line has also been laid down at the doorsteps of Bukit Brown, clearly a strategic move for future property development.

Ancestral graves have been an important part of Chinese fengshui beliefs traditionally, as a good location is believed to help descendants prosper. It was hence said that during the Qing dynasty, the Manchurian government destroyed the ancestral graves of Hong Xiuquan while he was leading the Taiping revolutionary movement. It was also said that the KMT army of Chiang Kai-shek tried to destroy the ancestral graves of Mao Zedong during China’s civil war in the 1930s.

I know what some people would say: if the old does not go, the new will not come. I would just ask: why is the old always considered a hindrance? Why did all the kampungs and all the ethnic quarters like Chinatown with their tightly knit communities have to go? And why should man consider nature as his enemy, and the elements only as something to be exploited for his gains? Is subjugation of nature a proof of man’s power and superiority, and should all members of society subscribe to such a view?

Perhaps the most terrifying of well-known urban legends in Singapore was the story about children being kidnapped in the 1970s, for their heads to be used as foundation of the Benjamin Sheares Bridge. It was apparently unfounded. But stories like this reflect our primitive belief that sacrifice is always needed for a ‘greater good’, as long as you are not the unlucky one.

Perhaps this is the same rationality or irrationality that persuades us into thinking that the rights of an individual must also be sacrificed for the good of a nation. Perhaps it is also the calculation of the careful Gambler that it is better to err on the safe side, especially when it is one’s power or capital at stake. This reasoning leads to a policy that presumes every person as guilty or dishonest until proven innocent. Thus is the logic of ISA, as well as the worry that a welfare system will always lend itself to abuse.

But what is left of our ‘nation’, when there is no regard for the dignity of the individual, only consideration of individuals as human resources; or when there is no respect for the rights of communities to their cultural heritage, only relegation of responsibility to each community for its own welfare?

We are then left with a nation without basic principles of respect and dignity for the individual and for the communities. I guess that’s why they call it Singapore Inc. It’s the dream of a ‘multiracial meritocracy’, a pyramid system where money attracts more money for those at the top, while those on the losing end will have to make themselves cheaper and cheaper, all in the name of ‘competitiveness’.

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Don’t Talk Bersih to Me, Singapore only Talk COC Sing Song


Don’t talk to me about Malaysia’s Bersih

In Singapore the only colour is putih

Don’t ask if it’s fair

40 per cent a GRC to share

Let some people repent but not me


Don’t ask gahmen for wage shock therapy

Economist from NWC it may be

Cheap labour, they like

Bangladeshis may strike

But our labour chief is a hero from PAP


Tonite, gimme some TFR, baby

Before they march in like an army

One thousand, two thousand

One year 25 thousand

Welcomed with open arms by my company


Little 4-room flat costs $368K in Bedok

Our friend Anak Abu finds life so terok

Don’t over-stretch

HDB’s within reach

That’s minister’s advice, so who’s bodoh?


Rain, thunderstorm, flash flood, go away

Come again, in 50 years, another day

‘Urban Heat Island’, never heard?

Urban growth made it worse

But MSM separated science like chaff away


There was a CEO on a sedan cruising

While others, in a tunnel, were fainting

But now disruption

Is normal occurrence

And $900 million will go a sinking


There was a heritage called Bukit Brown

But the highway refused to go round

Our population’s not up

But houses must be up

A red carpet for new citizens laid down


Old folks pushing cardboards in the streets – such eyesore

So PM’s Office invents new scenario – for Singapore

Support the elderly

Get immigrants quickly

And Marina Bay Sands will prosper ever more!


Don’t put foreigners in pigeonhole

They’re flying in to MPs’ big drumroll

Thaipusam’s noisy

Curry is too spicy

But freedom of assembly is PA’s passionate goal!

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An Unnatural Country and a Sin City – Singapore’s Brand of Democracy and Globalisation

Make no mistake about it. The recent speech by Singapore’s Ambassador to the US, Chan Heng Chee, on the topic of democracy in Singapore (delivered on March 8 to students at the Yale Law School; edited version published in ST, 20 April 2012) is an excellent summary of the state of our nation today, whether you buy the Yale-Singapore cooperation or not. The edited and published speech looks like a perfect bait screaming for responses. Somehow, the very way it couches the current challenges of Singapore in diplomatic speak only serves to remind us of everything that is wrong in the country. So let’s entertain ourselves:

TITLE: An Unnatural Country’s Take on Democracy. (If Yale can go to China to teach and set up programmes, why is it so controversial to go to Singapore?)

Well, thank you, we got one keyword in the title right. Singapore is indeed a country most UNNATURAL. What’s unnatural is not just the fact of Singapore being under the rule of a one-party government for the past 50 years. It’s also the way Singapore has developed under a unique model of capitalism under authoritarian rule, which goes against the logic of liberal democracy.

What’s unnatural is not just a population ratio of one foreigner to two locals being taken as ideal by the government of our sovereign country (and now the NPTD report says Singapore needs 20,000 to 25,000 new citizens each year). It’s also the way the state has embraced neo-liberal globalisation without meeting demands of accountability and transparency as part of liberal democracy – nobody can even oppose the way public transport such as buses and MRT is run in Singapore, the transport minister would say “it is the profit incentive of commercial enterprises that spurs efficiency and productivity improvements”, and now LRT passengers have to walk on a sky bridge. What is the excuse for all this?

1st Para: “IN THE last decade, Singapore has been frequently cited as a model of success. One hears references to the ‘Singapore model’, whatever the speaker may mean. Mr Yasser Arafat proudly asserted that he wanted Palestine to be the ‘Singapore of the Middle East’ and Mr Shimon Peres suggested Gaza could be the ‘Singapore of the Middle East’.”

What’s the point of all this? That Singapore has made it and we can all live happily together ever after? Or is this a hint that Singapore has to be the “Israel of Southeast Asia”? Is this why Singapore has the 4th highest defence spending per capita in the world?  In terms of percentage of government expenditure, Singapore even has higher defence spending than Israel, with 24.4% of budget allocation, versus 15%, whereas Israel has higher social spending than Singapore.

So what achievements can Singapore boast of at the moment? The S$8-billion casino resort Marina Bay Sands, built by the influential magnate Sheldon Adelson, the patron of Newt Gingrich and friend of Binyamin Netanyahu, the man who funds rightwing groups in Israel and anti-Muslim campaigns within the US?

Never mind where all that money is going to. What happens when we have cases like some man who lost $25k in one night and $100k in all? We just call it a social problem, call it ‘problem gambling’ and refer him to a pastor? Shall we also celebrate the growth of pawnshops in Singapore?

“The 1970s and early 1980s saw double-digit growth. Singapore’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) today is around US$50,000 (S$63,000), depending on the exchange rate.”

But what does this mean for Singaporeans’ well-being and quality of life? Interestingly, a latest IPS report entitled ‘Inequality and the Need for a New Social Compact’ has just highlighted that while Singapore’s per capita GDP in 2000 was 83% of the US, Singaporeans’ well-being (measured by consumption and adjusted for factors such as leisure, longevity and income inequality) was only 44% of the US level.

“We are known for non-corruption…”

Well, last year we came to know that a clerical officer for the Ministry of Home Affairs was accused of 455 fraud charges and cheating the government of more than S$600k, and a deputy director of IT at Singapore Land Authority cheated the government of more than S$12m. This year, we have a former commissioner of Singapore Civil Defence Force and a former director of the Central Narcotics Bureau arrested for ‘serious personal misconduct’.

This month, procurement lapses have been found in 6 ministries – lapse such as committing to a purchase beyond approved budget; using inappropriate term contracts resulting in gross overpayment for items purchased; setting unrealistically short period for submission of bids thereby limiting competition; and not giving equal opportunity to tenderers to revise their bid prices when requirements were changed.

“Why this fear and anxiety particular to Singapore? In 1901, Yale set up a Yale-in-China programme in China, then hardly a thriving democracy.”

Now that’s comic relief – Singapore is compared to an old Chinese dynasty, back when men were wearing pigtails and women had to bind their feet!

“Singapore is a democracy. Information flows freely and there is freedom of expression; not like the US, but…”

We are definitely not like the US or more than 80 other countries which have seen movements inspired by Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Singapore at Raffles Place was an expected flop given the police control (Read: ). We only have events like Occupy Bishan or Occupy Dhoby Ghaut when the MRT breaks down.

Here is what Dr Michael Montesano, who formerly taught in NUS, wrote about ‘freedom of expression’ in Singapore in his article ‘Is Yale a Reliable Partner for the National University of Singapore?’ (3 April 2012):

‘Singapore’s PAP government pays no heed to most criticisms levelled against it, whether by scholars at Singaporean or foreign institutions.  It has long since concluded that only criticism of very particular kinds can do it damage.  And it simply does not take most scholars in the humanities and social sciences seriously in any case; too many of them are liberals.  Second, Singapore’s regime of self-censorship is enforced through unspecified “OB markers” (with “OB” meaning “out of bounds”).  Never knowing how far one can safely go in expressing oneself, Singaporeans learn to remain carefully short of where they think the line might be.’

Ask for freedom of expression in Singapore? Our cultured minister Yaacob Ibrahim will say traditional media can ‘separate wheat from chaff’. No wonder a Facebook page of him has only 89 likes at last count. Netizens may be exercising ‘code of conduct’.

Singapore now ranks Number 135 in the world in Press Freedom Index.

“Democracy is a concept best understood in reality as elastic. There are basic criteria that must be met. The most important is free and fair elections.”

OK, never mind the gerrymandering. Basic criteria do not even include free press or freedom of assembly? Is it fair that despite 40% voting for the opposition, only one GRC has been won by the WP? Is it fair that the SDP can’t even hold a townhall meeting to discuss healthcare issues? Is it fair that the PM can just drag his feet in calling for a by-election? (Is he too busy with his dinner menu?)

“The United States is more democratic than India, and India is more democratic than Singapore in some respects, but not others. We are more egalitarian and meritocratic.”

Well, our Primary 1 registration can be as complicated as the Indian caste system too.

“The birth of nations do not come with a clean slate. Societies have history, traditions and different ethnic and religious mixes and endowments of natural resources. Democracies evolve. Our first generation leaders wanted a political system that would help, not hinder, the development of the unlikely nation. It was a matter of survival.”

One can only speculate what this is supposed to imply. As in, ISA was necessary? It was necessary in 1963, and in 1977, and in 1987, and today? Disregard of human rights is a matter of survival?

“The link between democracy and growth is not so simplistic and the link between democracy and successful economies is not so clear-cut.”

Indeed, an assumption that economic development requires autocratic rule is a terrible assumption. But let’s cite Dr Montesano again:

‘PAP Singapore has achieved what it has achieved through the use of institutional forms alien to liberal economic climates: the Housing and Development Board, which has built the flats in which some eighty percent of the country’s population lives; the Jurong Town Corporation, which created to turn-key facilities on this island for foreign investors in the industrial sector; the National Trades Union Congress, whose leader sits in the PAP cabinet and which functions to keep the country strike-free; the Development Bank of Singapore, which originally served to channel finance into sectors of the economy deemed crucial to national progress; a range of state firms across numerous sectors, now corporatized and called “government-linked corporations”; the People’s Action Party, a vanguard party with a small cadre membership whose secretary-general serves as prime minister; the People’s Association, devoted to the promotion of “racial harmony and social cohesion” in Singapore; Temasek Holdings and the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore, two sovereign wealth funds; and many, many other institutions . . . including the National University of Singapore.’

“Singapore is a democracy. Ministers can lose their seats. We lost a very talented Foreign Minister George Yeo in last year’s elections.”

We may not have lost George Yeo if not for the GRC system. A lot of us may have preferred to lose someone like Lim Swee Say instead.

“The governing party is trying to win back votes. It has become even more responsive to the ground.”

For example, in Bukit Brown?

“Because of our history – birth, location and ethnic mix – press freedom would be different. The liberty to say whatever you want runs into an angry Muslim population north and south. Rights and freedoms come with responsibilities. There are limits to freedoms.”

It’s incomprehensible why such Western rhetorics of ‘clash of civilisations’ have to be repeated in multicultural Singapore yet again, and why the same religious community has to be highlighted again. If we are talking about liberty in sexual orientation for instance, it was an anti-gay church that AWARE was running into a few years back (or rather, the church infiltrated AWARE). The liberty of churches in claiming Darwin’s evolution theory is wrong may also run into an angry secular population everywhere. Freedom in society may also be limited by the ideology of Confucian ethics in legitimising elite rule. Does MDA represent any particular religious or ethnic group?

“But globalisation also creates greater inequality and we have seen its dark side in recent years.”

Just say it: yes, we have seen its dark side in Singapore. Singapore already ranked as having the second highest level of income inequality in developed countries in 2009, with Gini Coefficient of 0.425. And now when economist Lim Chong Yah proposes a wage shock therapy, it is immediately rejected by Lim Swee Say, the minister that local media identifies as the ‘labour chief’. Let’s not blame it all on globalisation, as if the government cannot control the processes.

The sensational case of the 48 men hiring an underaged prostitute also reminds us what wealth disparity can do.

“Democracy is precious. It is important, but so is economic development, and producing a future for the people to live decent lives. For Singapore, used to enjoying good governance and development, I hope we find the right balance. I hope citizens join the debate so we can have the best of all worlds.”

Damn right. Let’s have more debates. Enough of assuming that democracy and economic development are enemies to each other. And enough of assuming that economic development alone will bring well-being and quality of life to the citizens. We need more democracy to ensure it.

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Who is Anti-Singapore and Who is Mad? (From one angry bird to another)

I must confess, I’ve never been a fan of iphones and computer games. I thought indulging in a thousand applications of the virtual world is just a complete waste of time, people should try to connect with the natural world or the social reality around them instead.

But a few days back, I learnt of a free iphone application created by Nature Society (Singapore) called Birds of Singapore, featuring more than 500 stunning photographs of birds species; and there is a non-fiction 3D game called World of Temasek, born of a cooperation between professional game developers and heritage experts here including archaeologist John Miksic. And I suddenly realised, what a lack of imagination I had, you never know what technology can be used for!

Well Singapore needs some happy news, so there you have some. Must try to stay positive!

Maybe it is indeed time to consider the old Chinese wisdom, that there is always a seed of black in what is white, and a seed of white in what is black. The world is more complicated than just a constant struggle of good versus evil, of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. One must not always fear anything that is unfamiliar. The enemy may also be within oneself.

Unfortunately we are not all trained to think that way. We don’t usually like to talk to people who are different from us. Maybe we are not yet a gracious society, where people would care to consider a different perspective. In our country, drivers are used to respecting the traffic lights and the speed cameras, rather than the pedestrians on the road. The government regulates everything, so all you have to make sure is that you are not on the wrong side of the law. If something goes wrong and it’s not our fault, we lodge complaints. We believe in answering to the government, not talking to one another – except to throw some insults from a distance.

A local blogger with the pseudonym ‘Jentrified Citizen’ wrote an article a few days back entitled ‘Speaking Up is Not Anti-Singapore’, arguing that it is wrong for the more conservative Singaporeans to label people who speak up and question government policies and PAP as being “anti-establishment”, “anti-government” or “anti-Singapore”.

In the comments, someone responded that it is also wrong to mock the 60% who voted PAP in the GE as being “gullible”.

Should one conclude then, that everybody should avoid name-calling altogether as a rule, in order to be ‘fair’? I think that may be missing the point. Of course, we should bear in mind that people representing the 60% are not therefore PAP ‘cronies’, they may also be moderates who are voting for stability, or people who truly believe an ‘inclusive’ economic model would take time. But does that mean we also have to ban all websites where PRCs or ‘foreign talents’ are always targeted?

What it just means, for some healthy dialogue in our country, is that we should all try to listen to arguments from other Singaporeans on any public issue without prejudice. We must not fall into a trap of obsessing so much with ‘rules of engagement’ that it in turn becomes another way to point fingers and shut up anyone who uses emotional words in a debate. Sure, a comic like Demoncratic may seem quite compulsive in its style of sarcasm, but you can let readers themselves get tired of it automatically (I thought the one on rejection of SDP’s healthcare plan is quite funny though).

Why would anybody ever have to shout in an angry voice in the first place? There can be one simple explanation: you do it when people who are supposed to listen to your message just do not seem to be listening.

I think one oldest trick in the book for any regime resisting change is to label people who are more progressive as being anti-establishment or even mad. It’s hence not surprising that we have a tabloid newspaper describing an opposition party member as a ‘loose cannon’, or a mainstream newspaper labelling activists as ‘naysayers’, just as we would read about some nymphomaniac blogger being sent to IMH.

Given such an oppressive environment, it is not surprising too that we the people ourselves may use the same tactic in shutting up fellow citizens who have a different opinion or a different approach in dealing with issues. We label others as mad, because we are convinced that we hold the truth and nobody else, or we label others as troublemakers, because we insist we are the only ones with the wisdom and the good intention. Now that’s a real concern, if we want to be a more open society.

Maybe we are all programmed by a fast-paced consumerist society to react this way: when you see something, you either buy it, or you don’t buy it; it either belongs to you totally, or you must reject it altogether. Maybe it’s even like a computer game: when you spot an object, it’s either for you to collect as your own gadgets, or it’s some form of threat that must be shot down immediately.

It is of course not always easy to reconcile different positions on the same issue. Sometimes the other party may need time to come to see things from a different perspective. We can also give ourselves some distance, to reserve judgment. Maybe we all see problems from different angles and we may in fact all be trying to help in our own little ways.

What is ‘madness’ by the way? In medieval Europe, it was not simply regarded as a mental condition, but rather a challenge to standards of normality, for madmen might also provide insights that the usual reasoning in society does not provide. When somebody seems to be going on with some mad ranting, do we need to take everything so literally and be angry in turn? We can try to understand what’s behind the anger instead.

In a public forum, when somebody is taking too much time talking about his or her own concern, we may have to tell the person not to go off-topic, for others need a chance to speak too. But when some website appears to be excessive, we can either switch channel or if we are really so concerned with the topic, then write a comment to express a more moderate view. Focus on the issue. Is there a need to keep branding one another with even more labels? Maybe we are all ‘angry birds’ anyway?

But some of us who are considered ‘mad’ as in ‘anti-establishment’ may like to learn one trick. We can’t maintain the same tone and loudness all the time, or it will just become background noise. We also need to stand down in our display of anger now and then or improvise a little, so that people who are moderate would know the difference when it is really red alert. And you never know when that might strike; it has been ‘yellow alert’ most of the time here.

(Or is it way past red already? Maybe we need to invent more colour codes to communicate with fellowmen?)


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Sensational News on ‘Church Wall Defaced …’ / A Debate on Secular Liberalism and Religious Harmony

Netizens on Facebook have criticised a Straits Times report on graffiti outside a church building, entitled ‘Church Wall Defaced During Easter Weekend’ (Tuesday 10 April 2012), as being inaccurate and sensationalising.

In a status update circulated within Facebook, one wrote: “The graffiti had appeared some time ago. At least a week, if not two. It did not mysteriously appear over Easter weekend. I know because I walk past the cathedral almost every day. Trying to link it to Easter is disingenuous. Furthermore, it is not just the cathedral wall that was vandalised, but also the back of some of the bus schedules. Anyone who walks around that area would know.”

Another netizen posted on her Facebook wall on Tuesday night: “Just a while ago, I posted on Straits Times site that the headline for this particular article was [inaccurate] because I had seen and possibly even documented the graffiti some days before Easter Weekend, which might go towards proving that the Church was not, as it was rather strongly worded, ‘defaced during Easter weekend’. Now I see the message: ‘The site has blocked you from posting new comments.’ GREAT JOB AT JOURNALISM, STRAITS TIMES.”

Why the sensationalising?

While the case is still under investigation (anyone who has seen the graffiti earlier should inform the police), what seems unusual is the way the newspaper article highlights in the 3rd paragraph that the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd is a “national monument” and “the main church of the Singapore Catholic Archdiocese, and is also where the archbishop lives”.

Compare this with an ST report dated 8 September 2009 on ‘Widening cracks found in historic cathedral’ due to LTA construction work – it mentioned the church is a ‘national monument’ only towards the end in the 19th paragraph, and not a word on the ‘Archdiocese’ or the archbishop!

Surely some graffiti on a perimeter wall can easily be remedied by painting over it, and really negligible compared to cracks on the walls, columns and floors of the cathedral building? Is being a ‘national monument’ the real issue here?

Below are four paragraphs from the online ST report published on Tuesday:

“The wall surrounding the compound of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd was defaced during the Easter weekend.

A single word – possibly ‘Grow!’ or ‘Growl’ – was spray-painted in black across the white wall near the front of the church facing Bras Basah Road.

The cathedral, a national monument, is the main church of the Singapore Catholic Archdiocese, and is also where the archbishop lives.

Cathedral staff said they discovered the graffiti last Saturday afternoon and filed a police report on the same day. A spokesman for the archdiocese said it did not want to speculate on why the church was defaced or what the word meant.”

(The original full article was published in the newspaper below another news article entitled ‘Taoist upset over priest’s robe worn at fashion show – Designers’ society reportedly says sorry for not knowing the outfit is for religious purposes’)

What was the problem with Chjimes?

The news on graffiti outside the cathedral came just a week after the Catholic community here denounced the Escape Chapel Party that was supposed to take place at Chijmes over the Easter weekend, that had been promoted using girls in nuns clothing modified to look provocative.

In an article entitled ‘Why call the police over everything?’, local blogger Belmont Lay last week criticised the approach of seeking police help in resolving the issue: “If religious people are unhappy with secular event organisers, they should sort it out among themselves privately like adults.

Such matters involving taste and values lie completely outside the purview of the men in blue or any state official, for that matter.”

But some consider it in bad taste to promote the event using words like “sacrilegious night of partying”. The problem also seems to be that conditions on the use of Chjimes have not been clear and people do not think much of it as the place has already become commercialised. One netizen commented on Facebook: “I think before the place was developed, when it was gazetted and all the debates going on, this (only certain activities) was one of the things many wanted and was I think agreed on (with nothing concrete on paper, I think), but over the years, it got worse and worse.”

With regards to the controversial Chjimes party, the way Escape Recordings chief executive David Griffiths has described it as “a pity” to cancel the event, as the company was “looking to expand into Singapore” , also may not go down well with netizens. One described the tone as a form of “arrogance”, and such indulgence in Singapore as “moral bankruptcy”.

Another said: “The Catholic Church and State conflict must go back to 1987 Operation Spectrum. Understand today’s state of affairs in that light.”

A Debate on Secular Liberalism and Religious Harmony (Do we need the police?)

Below is an extract of comments on a personal Facebook wall reacting to the reposted status update that expressed frustration on comments being censored on the online ST report ‘Church wall defaced…’.  Part of it is a debate with regards to secularism and regulation of religious harmony.  (comments below reflect immediate reactions and may lack certain sensitivity or may sometimes be out of place in making generalisations on religious practices):

A: Whoa! Blocked?!! Is this how our once-in-50-years MICA Minister’s plan to introduce self-regulation on the Internet – by blocking those deemed critical? … A pattern is emerging… and it isn’t good.

B: I [am not on the side of] the Church here. Like it or not, rising religiosity in Singapore means there will be more clash between non-believers and believers. Instead of using the law to suppress non-believers, the law should be balanced [with regards to] believers as well.

A: I do sympathise with the Church, but I don’t think this is a religious desecration. The graffiti is on the outer wall. It could be the work of some prankster with no intent towards religious malice.

B: I don’t think religion deserves any special treatment at all. It should be treated equally as any other human construct. The word ‘holy’ should have no legal interpretation or significance.

C: It’s a perimeter wall…

A: I agree that the ST article is unnecessarily ALARMIST.

D: This is just a way to divert certain attention. Sad to say, our society is getting worse.

C: If there are genuine cases of blasphemy or racist remarks, there can be civil lawsuits. But it’s irresponsible to publish a report with such sensational headline if one cannot confirm…

B: If [anyone wants] to use civil suit for blasphemy, he won’t be on my good side. I think such an act may be constituted as a declaration of war between believers and non-believers.

C: But one would argue then that the person responsible for blasphemy is the one declaring war. Have to put it in context. There have been artworks considered blasphemous too.

A: Grow… Growl… anything religious or blasphemous about the graffiti?

B: As if preaching religion is not offensive to non-believers in the first place… (Ed: this may be referring to separate cases such as Campus Crusade for Christ in NUS)

C: Well preaching itself is ok, it only starts becoming offensive when one claims that non-believers would go to hell. Same like advertisement, you can boast your product is the best, but you can’t claim other brands are fake.

B: If believers are free to preach religions, then non-believers are equally free to preach the rejection of religion. There is no equality if promotion and rejection of religion cannot be treated equally.

C: I think there is argument against that. Believers who adhere to their religion are duty-bound to defend their religion. But atheists are not bound by any such duty, based on faith in any supreme being higher than man, to defend their belief.

B: Too bad for believers. They volunteered to be duty-bound. Actually, you can claim other brands are fake. Go look up at medical journal papers that investigate the effectiveness of expensive pharmaceutical drugs against placebos.

C: Medical products are related to science and hence can be falsified. Religions are not falsifiable. Well one can choose to be a free man without treating others as inferiors.

B: The problem happens when believers attempt to regulate non-believers.

C: Well the issue then, whoever appears to be regulating who, is whether one’s sentiments and dignity get hurt. Everyone has the right to choose what he or she believes to be the truth, whether it’s a personal truth, or truth belonging to a community. To insist only science can be a source of truth is the same as insisting only one religion is the truth. Scientific theories can become obsolete anyway.

B: Yeah… That’s why science never claims to be truth. Science is a process that refines and rejects the understanding of natural phenomena over time.

B: Offence is taken, not given. If any, the ‘hurt’ is self-inflicted by choosing to take offence.

C: If one knows that certain things are taboo to a community, why would one deliberately try to provoke? It comes down to whether one is aware of the general sentiments of a religious community in a certain country or region, and whether one chooses to respect.

C: Interpretations of religious scriptures can also be revised over time.

B: But such revision doesn’t add legitimacy, unlike the process of scientific inquiry.

C: Scientific inquiry doesn’t add legitimacy either, the best theory is just what serves one’s practical application best. Whereas religion is institutionalised belief, there are religious authorities to refer to.

B: [Haven’t seen secular-vs-religion debate] for a long time in the local blogosphere.

C: When was the last time?

B: The last time was when Thio Li-Ann almost went to NYU.

C: I remember she talked about secularism and Christianity. Can’t remember the rest …

C: Any Catholic/Christian out there would like to comment?

E: I would love to, but I’m afraid my comments won’t contribute to a very satisfying discussion. My religious faith is based on personal experiences, I believe it ought to be based on personal experiences (“encounters”) and though I love a good debate as much as the next man/woman, I think Christians who engage in such discussions are trying to use reasoning to substitute for these experiences.

C: I think that’s a useful perspective actually. Instead of making judgments based on generalisations, one can also reserve judgment to prevent sentiments of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Encounters always differ from one person to another.

Further comments on discussions above? (Do we all have our own blindspots?)

F: “I don’t know. I find it all feeds into the anger in Singaporeans. No one knows that the Catholic Church here is struggling to get the social teachings of the Church back on its feet after it was knocked down badly during Operation Spectrum. People seem to be angry with the Institution at large because of the paedophilia etc…I understand that but there seems to be no other position with more information from the inside so it does frustrate me. Everyone is so fucking quick to judge. There is so much smugness. Smugness that comes from anger but not accountability.

Singaporeans are blaming anything and everything these days. It’s ridiculous that they don’t at all implicate themselves or put themselves in the picture. I’m so weary of this attitude at the moment. It’s not going to get us anywhere. It’s true. There are times it’s necessary to point out the faults. But after a while, don’t you want to move on? Why do we harp and harp on it? It’s an ailment.”

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(3) Protecting Our Shared Cultural Heritage is Singapore’s Psychological Defence

If ‘heritage’ is composed of nothing but memories, Singaporeans can now deposit any random old photos and childhood anecdotes in the Singapore Memory online portal, and then pat themselves on the back for accumulating ‘virtual heritage’. But that’s not even collecting history. If we all decide to collect oral history from our parents or grandparents, we should collect not only sound bites of them speaking in their authentic language or dialect, but also their perspectives on social changes through the decades, we need to ask them how things were like and how things could have been. If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.

Standards for Heritage Protection

And in case anyone comes away with a wrong impression after the recent parliamentary debate (the speech “Celebrating and Co-Creating a Rooted Community” by Minister of State Tan Chuan-Jin dated 5 March specifically), let us be clear: Heritage protection is not about us indulging in personal nostalgia, for that would mean any place in our country from Toa Payoh to Sengkang can be equally valuable and equally dispensable too, for there are no criteria then. Heritage protection involves scientific and technical studies in order to assess the historical, aesthetic, spiritual and other values of a site, and to counteract any threat against the physical site.

Perhaps Singapore just does not believe in any global standard or any international convention. Never mind the 2003 Intangible Heritage Convention. Singapore has not even ratified the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention, for which Bukit Brown might qualify as a cultural landscape (and of course Kampong Glam and Little India must also be protected to complete the Singapore story, like how Melaka and George Town are now world heritage sites in Malaysia).

Singapore has signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, but when it submitted its 2010 national report, it failed to mention Bukit Brown, which is not only important in its vegetation for the City Biodiversity Index, but also home to a quarter of bird species in Singapore, including 13 threatened species as the Nature Society has pointed out. Perhaps guarding a legacy of Mother Nature is just not as prestigious as building some man-made Gardens by the Bay next to a casino resort for its well-heeled visitors.

I wonder if I’m the only one feeling this way last week, as I read the news of our minister for national development insisting that a highway through the heart of Bukit Brown is necessary, and that such plans for road-building or housing cannot be shared with the public beforehand due to ‘market sensitivity’, or as I read that another building in Geylang Serai will be making way for a condo. I was thinking, at some point in time, people will just have to build condos in Johore instead, or those people who can no longer afford to live in Singapore may soon have to retire there. And I was asking myself, after all that NS, if ever war breaks out in Singapore, what should the soldiers of our country be defending? Vaults of gold in the IR?

Heritage and Harmony

There are people who may ask: Why this sudden interest in Bukit Brown? Why not, say, Bidadari Cemetery which was cleared away the last decade? Indeed, I ask myself: Why didn’t we have better heritage awareness back then at least? Why didn’t have something like Facebook to connect like-minded individuals as a heritage community? And surely a common respect for cultural heritage should bind us as Singaporeans, not segregate us?

I am sorry to say but I think people who describe cemeteries as nothing but ‘eerie’ in the newspaper are plain ignorant or just intolerant of whatever they do not identify with. I grew up living near Bidadari by the way, and till now, I consider that as one of the biggest blessings in my life. The word ‘Bidadari’ means ‘fairy’, for those who do not know; and for people who maintain that Singapore’s history did not begin with Stamford Raffles, they would be glad to know there was actually a school named after Sang Nila Utama, along that serene Upper Aljunied Road. And I remember seeing Gurkha soldiers jogging in the vicinity – tanned, stout and stoic-looking men who were supposed to protect us Singaporeans as a young nation, I was told as a boy.

To me personally, that was the most beautiful road one could ever find in Singapore, and it was not just about the green canopy of rain trees providing shade to whoever travelled up the road. What left an indelible mark on my mind was the fact that the area was meant to be a final resting place for people of different cultural and religious backgrounds – there was a Muslim section on one side, and a Christian section on the other, not to mention a Chinese columbarium with a towering pagoda on a far end, as well as a crematorium for people of any faith. It was a perfect place for one to learn respect for life before and after death. Every time one passed by, one could feel a mystic and radiant sense of wonder, what with rays of sunlight shining through and the soft whispers of time amidst the quiet tombstones and the greenery, and it left me with the conviction that there is only one heaven, where all souls will go as long as they are at peace.

Heritage and Sustainable Development

All that is now gone. The tombs have been exhumed, leaving an empty land, and there are hardly signs of housing construction after several years, which goes to show there was no urgency in the first place. Maybe it is just awaiting property development at a good price, but apparently the public is not entitled to know anything, due to ‘market sensitivity’. So, are we left with any logic in our society other than that of money? One felt similar pain as one learnt of how the shrine of Siti Maryam in Kallang was removed in 2010, when one could only find remembrance of the sacred space through the temporary exhibition of “The Sufi and the Bearded Man” at NUS Museum.

Now with Bukit Brown, heritage activists are being dismissed by the same rationality of ‘development’ again. The same old quote referring to exhumation in Tiong Bahru eons again is being resurrected: “Do you want me to look after our dead grandparents or do you want to look after your grandchildren?” Well that argument might have been valid decades ago when the government was telling people to stop at two in family planning, but not today when it is the government insisting that the population must grow for the sake of economy. Today the question may well be: “Do we want the government to look after the heritage of our forefathers and our pioneers, or do we want them to look after the grandchildren of the projected incoming population of new immigrants?” We need to ask whether such unbridled development is sustainable.

When BG Tan Chuan-Jin was using words like ‘our spirit’ and ‘our soul’ in relation to the Singaporean identity, I supposed the word he was looking for should just be ‘resilience’. It is not helpful to use those words so freely when the actual spiritual values of our heritage sites are clearly not even admitted into the equations of our cold reasoning. So let’s consider the ‘resilience’ of our nation then, in terms of ‘psychological defence’, since our ministers are mostly military men.

Non-racialised Heritage as Psychological Defence

Let’s consider how cultural heritage has sometimes been the unfortunate targets of war in the ugliest chapters of history. Towards the end of World War II, the beautiful German city of Dresden built in baroque and rococo style was bombarded senselessly by British and American air forces and destroyed along with the lives of 25,000 to 40,000 people. The beautiful Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche) crumbled and fell. There was no justification for all this, the strategic railway facilities were far away, it was just a display of military might and an attempt to break the spirit or morale of the people. Now surely a nation’s cultural heritage is something to be respected and protected by all, and last of all to be destroyed by the nation itself, or what message would that be sending? Anyway, a church made of stones like Frauenkirche can still be reconstructed decades later, but not a cultural landscape like Bukit Brown.

Perhaps heritage activists in Singapore already know they have lost half the battle here, when it is down to a minister of national development instead of the minister of arts and culture in leading an attempt to document the heritage of Bukit Brown, and when URA, LTA and NLB come before efforts of NHB. But hopefully Singaporeans do not mislead themselves into thinking that heritage is a racialised matter, as if no one should care about a Chinese heritage site unless one is Chinese, and one would also need a Malay minister to protect the oldest Malay cemetery in Singapore, the royal cemetery in Kampong Glam which has also been marked by URA for development. If the Malay minister has no time to deal with it, then other ministers do not need to care either?

As a nation, we need monuments and sites to be protected by law and by reason of historical significance as well as cultural rights, and not just depending on exceptions made by politicians. As a nation, it does not augur well when the Lim Bo Seng Memorial was gazetted as a national monument only in 2010, after so many years of holding him up as a war hero in our National Education, and his tomb is still not protected, which suggests there is little precedence for any burial ground or shrine to be protected. Is there nothing sacred in Singapore, other than our national reserves? No wonder then, that we see the camouflage uniform compared to a clown outfit in a commercial on total defence. A lot of us see no pride as we watch those recent ads, we only feel the pain: Every soldier is a leader? “Sure or not?”


Virtual heritage is a poor ersatz for the historical, aesthetic and spiritual values of a heritage site. Many Singaporeans may choose to be the silent majority as our heritage is being destroyed, because they do not feel any personal affinity, they do not understand the historical significance, or they just feel powerless. But we must walk out of the shadows of a ‘divide and rule’ colonial past, and not walk into a new dark era, where Singaporeans see one another as alien cultures in a mutant world of neo-colonialism, where we are no longer a country, but a place of transit in a network of endless highways.

(Facebook note on 11 March 2012)

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