The Raw and the Cooked (2): Feeding Arts and Culture to the People

Lesson 1: Man shall not live by bread alone. We must bring arts and culture to the people.

Lesson 2: One man’s meat is another’s poison. Your culture may not be my culture. (Figure it out.)

Lesson 3: You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Unless, of course, it’s your grandfather’s shop. (As in, you are the government?)

“For my money, a hundred eye-popping Broadway plays cannot compare to a single poignant local production in terms of what it means to belong in and to Singapore today.” NMP Janice Koh was capturing the hearts of local arts lover with her maiden speech, even before the government’s announcement that it is pumping $274 million to promote arts and culture over the next five years (almost a quarter of the $1.1 billion injection for the private bus company SBS!).

But not everyone seems excited by the latest vision of the ACSR (Arts and Culture Strategic Review) report, for every Singaporean to “integrate arts and culture as an essential part of life” by 2025. A ‘concerned’ netizen has written on the REACH website saying that the arts are only for the rich and the elite and will only lead into ‘immoral’ values such as homosexuality. “Say yes to practical activities like food and say YES to Family Values!”

Art – Value for Money?

To people with such negative perceptions, one may give assurance that arts and culture under the ACSR ‘definition’ includes not only plays, ballets, paintings, traditional arts but also very grassroots or safe activities like getai, community singing, film and photography. One may even add that all this is really an industry in itself (the report cites 500 new jobs in arts and culture envisaged per year from demand of the two Integrated Resorts, the upcoming National Art Gallery and the need for arts teachers by MOE).

But I’m afraid that won’t be my line here, for I got my own issues and mixed emotions with this whole thing. Don’t get me wrong, for unlike that other anonymous but concerned netizen, I do declare myself to be an unabashed arts lover, one who would gladly spend my monthly salary on arts performances rather than on HDB housing loans, if given a choice. I don’t like to think of ‘culture’ as a luxury good. And I would like to see friends who are arts practitioners striving in their practice, not struggling and suffering for their art, as if being outcasts in society is their mark of distinction, or as if recognition for visionary artistes should always come late, as it did for Van Gogh. The question is: Where should they get support and recognition from? Should it be from the state? And if not, then where?

Art for Pleasure, or Art for Education?

Let’s leave the question about artists for now and think about the audience. Why do we need to bring arts and culture to the people? For their own good, to make them more ‘cultured and gracious’? Is this a bit like national service? OK, if that’s the case, we can start at the CCs, teach residents how to dress properly for a performance, don’t wear slippers, don’t munch food when people are performing, don’t talk, don’t flip newspapers, just behave properly, be civilised. But how about if one goes to a world music festival? There, people may eat their buffet and drink their beer while listening to some spiritual music from Africa or India and imitating some belly dance. Now that is OK, because you don’t need etiquettes when you are outdoors, or because Europeans also appreciate other cultures that way?

Oh, but the arts have to be enjoyable too, you say? So is this how we define the arts, something that gives pleasure, something commercially viable? Is that why we should also support getai shows in Orchard Road? We have to be a cosmopolitan and inclusive society? We want to be a place where there’s no escape from music and dance, where “there’s no hiding” from contemporary art (like what an MRT advert now says)? Well in case anybody misunderstands, contemporary performance artists are not people who paint themselves in silver colour and stand like statues in the streets with a donation box in front of them. Neither is performance art something that makes people “cringe with embarrassment when watched”, like how one Pek Li Sng wrote in a letter to ST last month, arguing that one should not allow the re-enactment of Brother Cane, which was performed 20 years ago by Josef Ng – the artist who has since been in long exile, and remembered only for the cutting of pubic hair, thanks to a sensational tabloid cover story.

As fellow performance artist Lee Wen then wrote in defence of the re-enactment by Loo Zihan, performance art is “valid in Asia, not merely a borrowed or imitation of Western opulence or outlandish individualism”. Individualism is part of history everywhere and deviation in cultural behaviour is just seen as anti-social disruptions in the beginning, he said. Well indeed, is art just meant to be enjoyed? Should art not be a way for us to reflect on our social norms, or to understand the pain and sufferings of fellow human beings in society?

So, if ever Singaporeans need to be educated about the arts, they should just be taught this, that arts can mean a lot of things, it’s often more than just a form of beauty, it’s more than a fat sculpture outside a commercial building to symbolise prosperity, and it’s not just big panels of murals in a MRT station, or flowery decorations on a Chingay float.

We should not presume our ‘heartlanders’ will never appreciate performance art or be engaged in forum theatre; there can always be facilitation and talkback sessions. We should not segregate and divide Singapore between a liberal world of the expat and cosmopolitan crowds, and a protected world of our ‘traditional’ Asian citizens. All we need is a rating system, we have no need for any special ‘no smoking’ *oops, I mean ‘no censorship’ zones. (Isn’t it confusing when National Environment Agency stepped in to make that exception for Tsai Ming-Liang’s play, as if they are in charge of censorship?)

The ACSR report aims for Singapore to be a “nation of cultured and gracious people” in 2025, and it cites Aristotle in saying: “The animals other than man live by appearances and memories, and have but little of connected experiences; but the human race lives also by art and reasonings.” Well Aristotle’s philosophy and rules on what constitute good theatre all sound Greek to me, so I would like to cite a more recent thinker, who said that a theory of art founded on beauty will only please a certain class of people. Art, according to him, is a human activity where one man consciously hands on to others the feelings he has lived through, so that others may also experience them; and art, as a means of communication, is therefore a means of progress. That, by the way, was Tolstoy.

Art as Branding?

I guess one must agree with the second half of it though, when the ACSR report says it aims for Singapore to be a “nation of cultured and gracious people, at home with our heritage, proud of our Singaporean identity”. Certainly, if we live by appearances alone, and without memories, then we are worse than animals, we are just robots. (By the way, how much of our physical heritage will be left by 2025? Let’s leave that topic for another day.)

It seems there is quite a lot of budget in the coming years for NAC scholarship, which is good news for the upcoming pretty young talents. And it seems the buzzword now at the parliamentary budget debate when it comes to MICA, is our homegrown music, how we should consider having a broadcast quota system to support our local musicians. Well I think it would be nice for a start to have retrospectives of our local music from past decades. But I can also imagine politicians getting all excited over it another way, if they have heard that South Korea’s cultural ministry actually has a department dedicated to promoting K-pop. Well in theory, it is not impossible, given the money in training, marketing and other infrastructure, to even emulate the Korean model and produce loads of attractive pop stars, all plastic-looking but well-polished as finished products.

But first of all, maybe sociologists here would need to submit some comprehensive studies on the ‘ecosystems’ of the music scene here. For example: How is it that some local English singers gave up after some years and switched to Mandarin instead? Is there any way to promote local rock bands other than featuring them on NDP? Is Singapore also a fertile soil for Malay music that can produce people in the footsteps of P. Ramlee and M. Nasir? And how should one balance between training of talents in Indian classical music and cinematic music?

For sure, Singapore has accumulated a wealth of talents from the 50s to the 90s and recent years, in music as in other fields like dance, theatre, visual arts, literature, that can be counted as its heritage. The question is how much research has been done and collated for them to be recognised, appreciated and reflected upon. Do we rather connect with fellow Singaporeans through a collective amnesia, and keep churning out ‘arts and culture’ as commercial products to be consumed one night and forgotten the next morning? If we just think of Singapore as a convention centre or hotel for people to come and party, and we want the Singapore identity only as a brand name, something to carry around with us like a branded handbag, well people, I don’t know what to say.


A lot of times, the problem with the arts industry in Singapore is this: We are managing our traditional arts like commercial arts, measuring them by KPIs, and we are managing our contemporary arts like traditional arts, scrutinising them for censorship. If there is one reason our centralised system of arts funding is not working, this is it.

(First published as Facebook note on 4 Mar 2012)


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The Raw and the Cooked (1): Finding Balance in a Battle of Heritage

How many of us followed that recent discussion on yusheng as Singapore’s intangible heritage? Raise your hands? Maybe not many. Let’s try another question: How many of us think Singapore should survive another 500 years? Now we should see more hands. But let’s try this: How many of us remember the Curry Day last year and feel very emotional about it? Kee chiu? Now we see many, many hands. The point is this: Cultural heritage is not merely a domain of archaeologists and antiquarians, it is also about living traditions that provide bonding in our society.

Unfortunately, ‘intangible heritage’ has been a most misunderstood concept of our time, often lending itself to exploitation by political interests. When Malaysians accused Singapore of appropriating yusheng as its own heritage recently, they were apparently under the impression, like many other countries, that the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Heritage could grant a country exclusive rights for a cultural property, when in fact the legal instrument was only designed to raise awareness in safeguarding traditional expressions, of social or spiritual practices, against tides of globalisation.

Going beyond the ‘Chinese’ identity in Singapore

An issue of cultural affiliation was similarly at play when the idea of a ‘food museum’ was mooted in Singapore’s Parliament two years ago (incidentally by MP Baey Yam Keng, who has not been much appreciated by netizens last week for his defending of a PRC scholar that described certain Singaporeans as behaving like ‘dogs’). When one talks about ‘why our Hainanese chicken rice is different from that found in Hainan Island’, it might be interpreted as the usual rhetoric propagated in the last decade on how Singapore’s citizens are descendants of immigrants and therefore can be at home in two worlds of an essentially same culture, or how immigration is the norm. Highlighting such ancestral links is very different from, say, highlighting unique creations of a nation as a melting pot.

Hence one needs to be careful with the representation of heritage. When French gastronomy was inscribed in 2010 as an item of intangible heritage in the global representative list of UNESCO, it also implied the privileging of a particular living culture and the suppressing of local identities or minority ethnic identities in France. This is something that can also become a sore point in Singapore, considering the issue of how people of different ethnic groups should ‘eat together’. (If I have to make a personal choice for the national dish, I would probably pick mee goreng – it is nothing fancy, but a form of truly syncretic culture. Then again I wouldn’t like so much tourist attention that it may soon come with a higher price tag like satay; let the tourists go for their chilli crab or fishhead curry instead.)

Cultural landscape as new trend in heritage protection

Singapore has little urgency for looking into intangible heritage anyway. The very creation of the Intangible Heritage Convention was motivated by the need for heritage lists to be ‘balanced’, considering that heritage of countries in Africa for instance is embodied in its performing arts, rituals and oral literature rather than in monumental architecture like in Europe. In Singapore, the urgent task now, considering the dominance of architecture and urban landscape in heritage protection, would be to take a cue from the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972), which has recognised and protected cultural landscapes since 1992, with artistic and religious aspects included in consideration. Hence sites like the Bukit Brown Cemetery can also be considered as a special form of ‘cultural landscape’, exemplifying the idea of culture and nature being in harmony and not in opposition to each other.

In terms of historical and aesthetic interest, the site is also significant as a balance against Western monumental architecture of the British colonial period which dominates Singapore’s historic urban districts. In that sense, the site has universal values in cultural significance not only for Singapore but the world as a whole. It is the biggest Chinese cemetery in the world as such outside China, it is material evidence of itself, its authenticity makes it worth more than all the museums on history or heritage that may be created on a whim.

Balance between local and universal values of heritage

Whereas a site like Sun Yat Sen Villa may represent the history of modern China or the universal values of democracy, Bukit Brown Cemetery should be seen as reflecting the spread of the Chinese diaspora in this region in terms of cultural and aesthetic significance, and from a historical perspective, as representing the blood, sweat and tears of the local community and local personalities that helped to build Singapore, not to mention it being a site of spiritual values. We must be meticulous in identifying such local and universal values, not let the values of the site be equated with a vague ‘Chineseness’.

Bureaucrats often think they know what heritage is worth, but they also lack foresight. Places like Boat Quay were almost demolished in the name of modernisation, but look how much tourist money such quaint architecture and abandoned warehouses along the Singapore River have brought. For the longest time, the island of Sentosa has been developed as a paradise for tourists, but it is really the tropical charms of places like the Botanic Gardens or Pulau Ubin that make Singapore worth a longer stay or repeated visits. Of course, tourism is not the basic premise in heritage protection. Kreta Ayer (‘Niu Che Shui’) or ‘Chinatown’ is now good for tourists who are not bothered with whether the food they are eating is northern or southern Chinese, but it has completely lost its cultural character which used to be identified with the Cantonese community there.


Why do we need cultural heritage at all? Moralists would say it is a duty to our forefathers or to humanity. Social scientists would say it helps us to maintain our sense of identity and affirm our cultural values. Historians and conservators look at artefacts and monuments and they see historical and aesthetic values. Tour operators and government officials look at it and see economic values. Politicians may decide to see its value in winning trust of the people or in claiming affiliations. Educationists would see its importance in engaging the senses through material forms and natural settings, and in teaching respect for cultural diversity. Human rights activists may even argue that heritage tangible or intangible is also a form of cultural rights.

One thing for sure, authentic heritage once gone is lost forever. If one may be allowed to conclude on a moralistic note here, I would say: Don’t destroy heritage, don’t let our humanity go to the dogs. So far, I have not yet touched on the environmental issue of sustainability: Reckless urban development and removal of the soil in our natural landscape will only invite more flooding in our island when the rain pours.

(First published in Facebook on 26 Feb 2012)

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Our Democracy in Crisis? – Legitimacy of a Good Hougang Wife who can cook

The current political game in Singapore is not exactly rocket science. When Worker’s Party sacked MP Yaw Shin Leong following news of his love affairs, in a move to demonstrate that the party takes transparency and accountability seriously, PM Lee Hsien Loong of PAP made a speech saying that WP had let the voters of Hougang down. Well, when the father of a friend of mine heard this over the news, he retorted: And the PAP has let the voters in the rest of Singapore down!

See, anybody can bitch, just like the roles in a game of Police Catch Thieves can always be switched (by the way, investigation on the scandals of top CNB and SCDF officers has taken a really long time). The question is who may be influencing the mainstream media pertaining to such stories (there should be no need here to repeat the story about Law Minister K. Shanmugam who sent a lawyer’s letter to blogger Alex Au for citing rumours propagated on the net by a certain mysterious Scroobal).

While others may be busy analysing now as to whether WP is facing a crisis of credibility, I think more importantly, we should discuss whether democracy in the minds of the people of Singapore is now in a crisis. Maybe some would say Singapore is in a constant state of emergency in that sense, but what lesson should we draw from this incident? Now that the government has announced some goodies in its Budget in perfect timing, do we banish from our minds any idea of a First Class Parliament as representative of the people? Or do we resign to the idea of Desmond Choo, Yaw’s opponent during GE, who said that all we need is a wife who can cook?

This analogy of a ‘good wife’ and ‘good cook’ may be used to great advantage of the PAP especially in light of the Yaw incident now, for it appeals to a vague idea in our society that a good government should be made up of men of good ‘moral’ character and therefore will act in the national interest for all. It also appeals to a pragmatic attitude that a good wife knows how to cook and will place food on your table. Hence our ‘wife’ now should be considered a good conservative choice, even though we may say it is not a case of love marriage but more like a kind of arranged marriage, given the system of GRC and the gerrymandering which more or less predetermine everything – here, we may have a question of legitimacy if you argue on procedures of democratic elections.

Now this ‘good wife’ does not come cheap either, she is really the high maintenance kind (consider the ministers’ salaries), her selling point is that she comes from an elite family background and has high qualifications, if you didn’t choose her (actually, 40% of us didn’t, but nonetheless), she could have sold herself to the private sector. Anyway now that she is your homemaker and is keeping your house in order, you need to hand a fraction of your pay to her, and as long as you have your meals on the table, you should just be happy and keep quiet, not question her as to whether she is gambling with your money outside and busy flirting with men from foreign companies, even forgetting about the welfare of your aged parents or the education of the children – here, we may have a question of legitimacy with regards to our belief in moral obligations towards the nation as home.

Considering these questions of legitimacy, it is clearly to the necessary political advantage of the ruling party that the Yaw incident be blown up in the media. It is not as if the people of Hougang or any constituency elected an MP based on the consensus that he should be an ideal family man, as an overriding factor of legitimising his appointment as MP. But one fears that whereas the legitimacy of a government is too abstract as an issue to most people, the legitimacy of a politician’s love affairs is something that touches on the raw nerves of many logical or illogical minds in a traditional Asian society. WP clearly sees the need of extending its principle of transparency and accountability to such personal affairs, in order to win trust of the people.

Now what the opposition parties must also be mindful of is that most people may still have a naïve attitude, that whoever hands out money should therefore be respected like a father or a sugardaddy. Most people would interpret a more favourable Budget simply as a kind gesture from the ruling party, rather than as a result of competition from opposition parties. But it would only be the way backwards if people despair the very moment the image of the opposition seems less than perfect, and give up on any progress towards democracy just like that.

In fact it is high time that we stop thinking of democracy as a beauty pageant to choose a wife as a cook, and try to think of democracy instead as a system of active participation in matters of public policy, whereby every man should express a little say on what is going on in the kitchen, not just sit in front of the television and leave everything to the wife. Some say too many cooks would spoil the soup, but we are far from there, our issue now is a cook who faces no criticism or competition will never improve. Real men should not be hen-pecked, and should not be afraid of stepping into the kitchen either.

(First published in Facebook on 19 Feb 2012)

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The Roots of a Nation and the Question of Value (It’s not only about Bukit Brown!)

For too long a time, our idea of ‘heritage’ has been devalued, removed from our lives and entrusted instead to the market forces, commodified for tourist consumption – a case in point being the displacement of residents and traditional trades from Chinatown, or the substitution of real kampungs with a replica called Malay Village. Where economic or use value lies in future housing development, a multi-religious site like Bidadari Cemetery is simply cleared away despite historical values being identified.

For too long a time, the public may have presumed that heritage for preservation needs to be of national importance and initiative has to come from the authorities. But any such impression clearly has to change this time with the case of Bukit Brown, as there are not only initiatives by groups like the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS), Nature Society (Singapore) and Asia Paranormal Investigators to preserve the site, but also other visible efforts by individuals and independent groups researching, networking and information-sharing on the social media, without depending on the National Heritage Board for interest and directions.

Social Value of the Communities in Heritage Protection

The principles of a people-focused approach to heritage protection are certainly not new in the world. Dating back to 1979, the Burra Charter (the Australia ICOMOS Guidelines for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Significance) has referred to ‘social value’ as part of the cultural significance at the heart of decision-making for heritage. The 1999 version of the charter refers to cultural significance as “aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual value for past, present or future generations”. The 2005 UK Strategy for Sustainable Development not only discusses the importance of protecting natural heritage but also emphasises on the power of community action in shaping the environment against threats of climate change.

Incidentally, there is a practice in the UK, across 50 per cent of its region, of making ‘local lists’ of heritage sites which are not on the existing statutory lists, and this has drawn much community involvement and interest. Perhaps the time is ripe for such practice to be adapted as a model for truly ground-up and pre-emptive initiatives towards protection of heritage reflecting the history and identity of different ethnic communities in Singapore. One needs not always be fixated on the idea of gazetting monuments of ‘national importance’, which may unnecessarily drag us down with contestations of how to measure individuals’ contributions to a nationalist history.

I would like to argue here for the value of a cemetery like Bukit Brown as heritage site from a combination of different angles, beyond the aesthetic or historic values of individual tombs which many have already elaborated on. It has to be emphasised that preservation of such a place of memory or sacred space cannot be replaced by mere documentation. Since there are some people who would suggest that building highways and houses are more important in Singapore than preserving heritage, it is also important that we weigh different considerations against one another. They would try to convince us that such course of action will indeed be necessary for our common good in the long run, while we need to argue why heritage is important for our society, and why we may need ‘standard operating procedure’ in studying any heritage as ‘public good’, like what Singapore Heritage Society is advocating in its position paper.

Intrinsic Value versus Instrumental Value

There comes a time when we as individuals or even an entire nation may need to do some soul-searching on our value system, and one useful way to start would be to make a distinction between what we see as intrinsic value and what we see as instrumental value in our daily life. An example of intrinsic value is the aesthetic value of a good piece of music we enjoy as listeners or musicians, whereas instrumental value may be what a rock singer sees in the music when he is concerned with the fame and fortune that it can bring. Environmentalists who want to protect the biodiversity of plants and animals in the world would be looking at their intrinsic value as life forms, whereas some scientists may be more interested in the knowledge they may provide for technological advances.

To cite something closer to home, intrinsic value is what we see in human life itself, or in our relationship with our families and friends, whereas money is what we should rightly see in terms of instrumental value only, for unless you have a terrible fetish for the texture of dollar bills and coins, its value is only manifested, say, when you buy food to feed yourself and your family. Similarly, we should by right think of instrumental value of cars and iphones in terms of using them for the convenience and joy in spending time with our loved ones, rather than value in the material of these objects themselves. So there may be something fundamentally warped in our society, if let’s say we as a nation are all thinking like salesmen of cars and iphones: if, instead of thinking of how to produce such goods to improve the quality of human life, we are thinking of how the country should produce human population in order to feed the economy of cars and iphones!

Indeed there may be something fundamentally wrong with our value system, if some of us treasure the value of our housing property more than the lives of old folks who need a shelter, like what the controversial news from Woodlands suggested last week. What will be left of our humanity then? In fact, if we want to talk about the ‘function’ of heritage, we can say that it is not about the aesthetic pleasures that a painting or a calligraphy may give us per se, but rather about the social and cultural values that it represents to us, such as family bonding, kindness and filial piety, as traditions passed down from generation to generation. Coming back to the example of Bukit Brown Cemetery, we can say it is not just the intrinsic value of exquisite carvings and decorations per se that we have to preserve, but also the cultural tradition that is embodied in them, and the entire setting of rituals in paying respect to one’s ancestor, in a landscape set apart from the bustle of daily life, that one hopes the next generation can continue to experience. This is not to forget the belief of a tomb as a final resting place, in a setting that is one with nature – a belief which is respected universally, and hence transcends all communities.

Cemeteries therefore can serve as heritage sites to provide a sense of history and humanity that is educational for the younger generation, as they represent our shared values as citizens of the nation and of the world. One can still further elaborate on this point, but for now it would do good to remind ourselves that the cars that are shining on the highway today will soon depreciate into scrap metal while new cars are pushed into the market, and money generated from property investments will keep changing hands from one stranger to the next, but cultural and natural heritage mishandled in our generation will be forever lost and irreplaceable.

(First published on Facebook, 6 Feb 2012)

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Dummies’ Guide to the Singapore Pledge (2012 Version)

We, the citizens (*and new immigrants and other shareholders) of Singapore,

pledge ourselves as one united people (*economy),

regardless of race (*please check your population quota under the Ethnic Integration Policy, and check whether your neighbour likes curry),

language (*your mother tongue as spoken by your father; please note Singlish is discouraged, but broken English acceptable)

or religion (*distinct and separate from one another; code of conduct may be needed so that one can be ‘less strict’),

(*regarding queries on sexual identity, please refer to 377A and the latest MOE Breaking Down Bridges programme;

regarding queries on local identity, please check your GRC boundaries every 5 years)

to build a democratic (*Asian-style, not western-style like a world-class parliament; as agreed upon by the majority of 60%)

society (*based on shared values of Confucian ethics for pragmatism; please refer to the 1991 White Paper, or any book on ‘hard truths’ that may be banned in Malaysia)

based on justice (*ISA to be invoked whenever applicable)

and equality (*a ‘multiracial meritocracy’, ie. some may have more equality than others)

so as to achieve happiness (*Singapore standard, not Bhutan standard),

prosperity (*as measured by GDP and inflation rate, not salary increment or welfare spending for the less fortunate;

as measured by property prices and height of condominiums, not HDB floor area;

as measured by the number of highways created by bulldozers, not the MRT train frequency or reliability;

as measured by the volume of subterranean shopping space in Orchard Road, and also amount of water storage, otherwise known as ‘ponding’)

and progress for our nation (*our neoliberal globalised economy under Temasek).

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SMRT Saga: The Racism Episode

It could all be so simple, if we just focused on the question of social responsibility and related ethics in our public transport system. But instead of addressing issues of accountability in the upkeep of the MRT system to ensure safety and reliability, our attention has been sidetracked by the emergence of one villain after another in the ongoing SMRT saga. And in a most dramatic twist, on the pertinent question of hiring train officers to cater to commuters of diverse language groups, the onus suddenly rests on netizens to gag themselves on any racial issue? Singapore is indeed a strange place and running down with too much negative energy.

Just when you thought the angry flaming by netizens had reached its heights with the widely circulated image of CEO Saw Phaik Hwa on a sedan-chair aspiring to Cleopatra-style grandeur, MP Seng Han Thong stole our attention with an episode all his own, in broken English no less, claiming that Malay and Indian staff have problems with conversing in English. And just when an apology for the racialist remark might have appeased the public, Law Minister Shanmugam is throwing his weight to turn a witch-hunting game around on The Online Citizen, saying its report on Seng’s remarks was ‘false’. One can be forgiven indeed for losing the plot here, but let’s rewind back a little for a clearer picture.

First of all, it can easily be argued that TOC was right in highlighting the incident, for any singling out of ethnic groups on employment issues by a politician of any party, in direct or indirect speech, would constitute news of public interest, especially when the man is also advisor to the National Transport Workers’ Union. It is common news sense and no expert in journalism can dispute that. In fact it is when you have a group of broadcast journalists nodding their heads without questioning the man, that it reflects a serious lack of critical thinking in our media. The question for TOC (which is run by volunteers) is how soon it should follow up its newsflash with a more balanced report in order to maintain its image as a credible news source.

There are MPs defending Seng, saying he is not a racist. But what is a ‘racist’? Any one of us may have a friend or even a family member who may make some racialist remarks sometimes. Do they need to be exposed in public and reported to the police? Apparently not. In fact in the three cases involving racist remarks or postings on the net recently, none has been charged, instead the ‘consensus’ according to Minister in charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim was that there should just be some code of conduct on the internet. By the same token the public can also expect that a similar code of conduct be applied to any public figure speaking on television. It does not augur well for the credibility of the government when license for an anti-racism demonstration is not granted while racialist comments seem liberated now with a new-found leeway.

The point is not to be so uptight about any comment related to race, language or religion that, to use a football analogy, we must raise a red card every time somebody makes a clumsy tackle, and throw the person out of the game altogether. But if we do not even blow the whistle on any racialist comment and question the message behind, the game may becoming more unruly and rougher at the expense of the docile, until some breaking point when all hell breaks loose, we have seen things like that before. And if we do not take a strong stand, what message are we giving to the Singapore society, especially to the younger generation who take after their elders? Racism is not dangerous only when somebody is physically attacked and venomously insulted, it often takes the form of casual remarks and ‘innocuous’ stereotyping among people around us. If we just let it go in the public media, we are allowing people to be mentally programmed into thinking that members of certain minorities are indeed inferior or less ‘normal’.

The point in highlighting racialist comments is not to engage in a ritual of witch-hunting, whereby you set your enemy on fire out of anger and then go home feeling balance in the world is restored. Even more importantly, it is not to take the opportunity to emote your own stereotyping of any ethnic or cultural group that you think the person represents. The fact that Seng used to be deputy editor of Lianhe Zaobao just means that he of all people should have been more sensitive in re-interpreting any ethnic-related issue, it should not mean that any Chinese Singaporean with a Chinese or bilingual education background is therefore bigoted against others.

It is an interesting coincidence that Seng’s incident took place just a couple of days after news that Chia Thye Poh, a political prisoner detained for 32 years, made his first public speech in decades, as he received the Lim Lian Geok Spirit Award in Malaysia. In his speech, Chia, an early graduate of the Nanyang University which was eventually closed down in 1980, stated that the purpose of establishing Nantah “was to serve the society of Southeast Asia, irrespective of races”, that the university had departments for Chinese language, modern languages and Malay language, and it promoted intercultural exchanges. Clearly any past branding of Chinese Singaporean according to race, language or education background is over-generalising if not outright prejudiced. Our history should not be seen as an endless cycle of people from different ethnic or language backgrounds taking turns to oppress one another.

It is also disturbing to hear the way PAP MPs and ministers vehemently emphasise that Seng is not a ‘racist’, for we need to be wary if the underlying implication is that there would be some other ‘genuine’ cases of racists or Chinese chauvinists out there, waiting to be hunted down. We do not really want politicians of any party politicising the issue of racism and identifying any individual as the bogeyman for their own political gains, what we want is just to make sure there is no racial discrimination or stereotyping becoming the norm in Singapore.

It is high time for all sides to take a step back. Politicians and public intellectuals in Singapore on their parts need to stop thinking of netizens as a mob that is prone to being manipulated, stop characterising them as anti-PAP, anti-establishment and so on, for any such branding of people as being emotional and irrational is also dehumanising and not helpful.

Train officers of SMRT are clearly all working very hard during this holiday season, regardless of their language background, and surely speakers of all official languages are just as important in helping the young and old. All the assurance we need is that nobody be placed at a disadvantage due to his or her ethnic origin, among workers as with commuters.

From A Christmas Sermon on Peace by Martin Luther King, December 1967:

Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

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On Liberty in the Social Media and a Practice Target for Dialogue

With the chain of cases involving racist or Islamophobic remarks within the space of a week this month, one could already sense a nagging voice coming our way (even before Minister Yaacob Ibrahim’s pat-on-the-back statement) that spells this for the net: ‘code of conduct’. But unlike MP Zaqy Mohamad who appeared to be advocating self-censorship in response to the YPAP case, many a netizen had held that the point is not to gag any bigoted view by invoking the Sedition Act, which is simply isolating the symptoms, but to get to the roots of the bigotry.

For anybody old enough should know the secret ‘Golden Rule’ in our society – no, not “Do unto others as you would others do unto you”, but “Do as you will but don’t get caught”. It is high time that there be some open and respectful dialogue on racial issues instead of encouraging the malaise of bigotry to infest in private corners away from sight, or inviting a cure that may be worse than the disease (if technology is available, we may all have to be brain-scanned for mind crimes one day!).

There are three messages we can glean from such hate speech or discriminatory remarks, not peculiar to multicultural Singapore per se but perhaps copied from a Eurocentric perspective: 1. Some people mentally associate the Muslim community with terrorism. 2. Some people see the value system in the Muslim faith as being absolutely different from that of the society they themselves like to have. 3. Some people see nothing wrong at all in making fun of anybody’s religion.

If one carries the first two mental attitudes to the point of stereotyping members of the community, you have a kind of essentialising and a discriminatory attitude that is not unlike racism. And if you combine the first and the third, you may produce something like the Danish cartoon controversy, a conflict which was heightened by the European championing of media freedom and the Muslim view on visual images which was not respected.

Some may consider the whole thing then as simple as a matter of moderating between our values for freedom and our values for mutual respect. (Let’s not go down the road now about ‘freedom’ being also an ‘F’ word misused by George W. Bush to wage a ‘war for peace’.) Actually, these should as simple as values we learnt back in kindergarten, about how to play and to be polite, it’s basically the same thing you learn anywhere you go; it is not like only if you went to a PAP kindergarten, then are you a fuller human being who is more likely to fight for justice and equality in Hong Lim Park.

But the world would be a much happier place if only life is as simple as in kindergarten. The game being played now may be more of a trickery. Imagine someone hears your religion preaches turning the other cheek, and comes to test it by slapping your face left and right nonstop. If you resist, he may say what your religion teaches does not hold true; if you simply ignore, he may push you further next time; and if you cry foul to whom you regard as authority, you may also be called names for having the authority side you. Therefore one really has to be careful with any recourse that may begin with a premise of what former Foreign Minister George Yeo phrased as some groups being “less likely to riot” than others, which may end up reinforcing a stereotype of violence, not to mention creating a sense of exceptionalism. The principle should be common: what is considered taboo is always specific to the religious community.

John Stuart Mill, who argued for the principle of absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment for the individual in his classic treatise On Liberty (1859), also stated a second principle on liberty of tastes and pursuits in doing as one likes without impediment from others, with the condition: “so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong”. That one of his biggest fans today is the Norwegian right-wing mass killer Anders Behring Breivik, known for hating Muslims, has to be totally incidental or warped of course. Mill was at least able to point out some maxim in the Koran with regards to governance that is more progressive than what can be found in the New Testament; he also argued ‘diversity’ of character and culture as a key to progress, lamenting that the Europe he saw was “advancing towards the Chinese ideal of making all people alike”.

But what we have to guard ourselves against in Mill’s liberalist ideas is a utilitarianism that justified colonialism and the dismantling of traditional cultures seen as ‘backward’. Mill may be helpful when cited for reforms in human rights, but not helpful when we need to conserve the values of our cultures and communities, for Mill championed individualism. Anyway, there are always possibilities of customs in any religion and culture changing over time, even laws may be reformed, but branding any community as being incapable of progress is not an opinion that is helpful, not to mention that the particular conceptions of ‘progress’ may be problematic in the first place.

Negative or insensitive remarks do not make a pleasant start for a dialogue, but there is a chance for us to make something constructive out of the discord. The worst that we can do is to magnify any isolated cases so much as to disturb societal harmony. Opinions can be judged and debated as to whether they are valid and sound, whether they are constructive, and whether they respect cultural sensitivities. The old model of tolerance among religions as simply “not talking about it”, like what three-quarter of 2800 surveyed secondary school students expressed in 2008, clearly is not working. We need to ask in what way the moral education in our society may have failed us, not expend energy in wondering if any individuals have flunked their lesson in conduct. And for God’s sake, stop racialising top students who have just received their PSLE results as Indian or Malay or Eurasian! Are we comparing report cards among different ethnic groups in their contribution to economic progress, instead of addressing general social mobility?

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