Sunday, July 09, 2006

Singapore Central

A comment in my previous entry gave me pause for thought. It was an articulate comment, undoubtedly penned by an intelligent person. the comment was replicated across several blogs, most notably at mr brown's blog as well. The comment calls for a reconsideration of the hero-ship status accorded to mb, given that his form of resistance was edged by degrees of self-interest, by degrees of profit. Calling on History, the commenter suggests that mb is nowhere near icons such as Chia Thye Poh, who suffered worst and who suffered more "purely".

It is a compelling argument. It raises a broader question of what really is resistance in Singapore? What constitutes resistance in the context of Singapore? Is resistance akin to having Rockson's "dulan in the heart"? Is it a "silent" gathering of thirty over brown-clad individuals in a busy MRT station? Is it the act of etching words on a surface? Is it time spent in detention?

There is a book I read recently. William T Vollman's "Europe Central" of which I took a quote from. The book explores the lives of several anti-heroes, individuals who lived in Stalinist Russia and Hitler's Germany as well as post WWII East Germany. It is about individuals who resist, who try to resist. But they do not resist one hundred percent of their lives. More often than not, they nurse resistance in their hearts while making compromises to the totalitarian regimes they suffer under. There are individual acts of resistance across their lives but more often, more tragically, their compromises tip the scales. Sometimes their acts of resistance remain so deeply disguised that it becomes co-opted into the state.

These people try to resist but they cannot do it all the time, all their lives. Throughout their lives, these individuals face a menace. A hidden menace. An implied menace. An invisible axe hovering inches above their necks. They live such lives, not knowing what the ringing phone means. A summons into oblivion? A call from their lover? They lived lives where their starving children must be fed, where their imprisoned sons have to be freed.

Its a book about cowards in the face of death, of threatened oblivion. Its a book about compromises for survival. Its a very sad book about lives of people who resist but not all the time under totalitarian regimes. It a book which explores resistance at its core. Individual choices, ethics and morality. But always under the impending sound of a whistling ax. In the end, the book asks me whether these people were cowards as History has deemed them.

It is only through the book's psychological intepretation of the lives of these people that we can perhaps construct the gravity of what the State has done to mb. And perhaps again, understand that the wounding inflicted upon mb and Chia is not very different.

Imagine the thoughts in mb before he pens his next entry, produces his next podcast. Try to feel what goes through his mind when he receives a letter stamped "On Government Service". Try not to flinch if you are mentioned with disapproval by the powers that define Singapore in a national broadcast. The wounding is precisely this. The psychological tension of that invisble ax hovering near.

This is exactly what Chia went through for many long years before he won his freedom and left Singapore.

Suffering like this is suffering. There are no purer or less pure forms.

Back to the main question then. What is resistance in Singapore? Where it is not totalitarian but totalistic control. Where the State embraces you seductively and comforts you physically. The trick is really that Singapore is merely totalistic in its control. It cannot keep each of us in a box separated from one another, though it tries, especially now with the Internet coursing through our lives.

And so, I would rather see four million acts of "cowardly" resistance than one grand act of resistance in the context that is Singapore. White elephants and hanging mannequins last year, carnivalesque political rallies and silent brown shirts this year. Less fluttering flags. More brown than red t-shirts. A petition here. A protest e-mail there. A play, a drama, a story. Poems, art and dance. All the hidden symbols of resistance in these activities, while we lead the majority of our lives in compromise to the State, can percolate across the Singapore consciousness, bringing forth a new generation of young Singaporeans. Getting the "dulan" out of our hearts. Resistance from thought to action, however small, however individual. Than maybe, than perhaps, we see change across Singapore.

Quote of the Day --

"In this world are the strong and the weak. The strong never yield to torture, and they go to Paradise' but what about those like myself who are born weak, those who when tortured and ordered to trample on the sacred image ... "There are neither the strong nor the weak. Can anyone say that the weak do not suffer more than the strong?" -- Shusaku Endo, Silence


Blogger Elia Diodati said...


2:09 PM  
Blogger The Screwy Skeptic said...

lovely writing.

4:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was always under the impression ( Or maybe I was brainwashed by the 140th media to believe so :P ) that blogs and the Internet was only becoming more prominent and better known in the recent 1~2 years although the Internet had been available for many years. Not to mention that Internet access have become much cheaper and accessible over the recent years as compare to the 90s and early 2000.

Another factor is that during the GE period, a lot of people, in fact a lot who before never bother about reading blogs especially those involving politic, turn to the net for alternate source of information when they finally realized that the local media are still being too ‘partisan’ toward one party. I could recall quite a few real life examples of people around me who only began checking on and reading such ‘partisan’ blogs after reading the reports and seeing the pictures of the WP rally.

And with the new gadget such as HP technology becoming more available to the masses, it also help to spread so-called ‘partisan’ podcasts like the popular MB’s Tur Kwa man satire plus many others; and all this I assumed does eventually help raise the political awareness of Singaporeans somewhat especially to free speech and freedom of expression. After all, information is a very powerful tool, especially when information could be delivered in speed and masses. This is also the main reason why all autocratic powers want to control and censor means of information.

I presume all these factors are why MB tends to get more sympathy and attention as compare to the more ‘pioneer’ resistance yeas ago. As Singaporeans living in yesterday were generally being ‘less informed’ of the political happening around them since most of them only have access to one and only source of information = our local media which was awarded 140th by international press freedom body for very good reason.

5:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

seminal stuff

9:29 PM  
Anonymous Molly said...

Lovely, XenoBoy. You have articulated what I have always wanted to say but had never been able to say.


mb is no hero and that's what makes his silencing all the more abominable. Chia Thye Poh was prepared to make certain sacrifices. mb probably didn't even know that the state was going to respond so vehemently. That's probably why many more people feel indignant about the mb saga than, say, about Chee Soon Juan being sued. It's the indignation of the non-matyrs, or what the state likes to term as "complainers."

9:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thank you for the enlightening piece.

I was pretty baffled with those comments! Who the hell was this chia guy???!

A bit like comparing who has gotten more world-class suffering.

That, I have no disillusions. Singaporeans, now and before, are all recipients of world-class suppression, willing or otherwise.

1:10 AM  
Blogger Cobalt Paladin said...

Mr. Brown is no hero but he was getting populr both online and offline. We may have also given too much importance to our voice in the Internet. I've re-read Bhavani's letter and realised that it was targetted at the offline media. I posted my entry "The Current State" in my blog.

3:15 AM  
Blogger at82 said...

Chia Thye Poh was the longest-serving political prisoner in Singapore. Detained under the Internal Security Act of Singapore, he was imprisoned for 23 years without trial and subsequently placed under house arrest for another 9 years when he was confined to the island of Sentosa.

Chia Thye Poh is the second longest serving political prisoner in the world, after Nelson Mandela.

2:30 AM  
Blogger locky2ky said...

mb saga generated much reaction probably cos:

1) what he said was what we were feeling.
2) the official reaction was too heavy-handed and could be an attempt to pre-empt Singaporeans from speaking the truth

"wounding inflicted upon mb and Chia is not very different."
oh no, it is a world of difference. what mb got was a slap on the wrist but chia got a life sentence.
mb still gets to see his family and friends while chia got separated from his family and the world for 23 years!

6:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Brown is no Chia Tye Poh, and undeserving of such martyr status. But it is a different time we live in now. Relative to present circumstances, one should expect much better treatment and tolerance of the likes of Mr Brown, as the now infamous and much repeated quote from Lee Hsien Loong (in his brief “let a hundred flowers bloom” phase), "Our people should feel free to express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas or simply be different.", would seem to indicate.

Mr Brown is seen as a kind of Catherine Lim-lite by those who wonder at the out-pouring of sympathy and offers of support. Does he deserve all that? One must separate what has befallen Mr Brown, the person, from what the Government action signifies more generally. Is this the ‘softer touch’ we were promised?

First, note that action was taken against his print column but not (yet) his blog or online activities. If action is taken in that direction, it will be a watershed.

At present, Government appears to be still figuring out what to do about the Internet. Although, figuring out what the Government is actually thinking is a thankless task. Its obscure and humourless deliberations bring to mind and image from of the opening passage of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, of “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic”.

So far, the Government has only taken action against a few mildly seditious bloggers. One can only criticise the handling of these cases (heavy handedness, no discretion) but not the principle (unless one argues that the anti-sedition law itself is wrong, goes too far or just was not applicable to those cases). By and large, it is generally noted, the Government is leaving the online community alone. Why?

Mr Wang argues that online discussion is far from being main stream, so it is not yet a serious threat to the Government. Tan Tarn How reckons the Government's tactic is to make examples of prominent dissenters in order to keep the rest in check.

Still, the Government does not seem to know yet how to keep the many-headed Hydra under control. Sedition, libel, defamation - these are mainly tools to control transmission of dangerous ideas in the pre-digital era, when the key to censorship was to lock up or smash the printing presses. That is now 'so last century' (actually, it's so last half-millennium, and a bit, from Gutenberg's time). How do you smash the virtual presses of the Internet?

Obviously, oppressive regimes have a lot of catching up to do. China and others are pioneering filtering technologies but if the problem can truly be cracked, one can bet it will be done by Singapore first. (In the event, the solution(s) will probably emerge elsewhere, but Singapore will be the earliest adopter).

The Internet seems likely to be a significant historical agent for change for another reason besides allowing easy and widespread transmission of dissenting views. Ever since government became too complicated to be done via the village square meeting, open to every member of the community – ever since when farmers, tradesmen, merchants had neither the time nor wit to ponder and rule on every matter collectively - societies have contracted out decision-making for the well-being and prosperity of the whole community to a special class of citizen: rulers - monarchs and emperors at first, then oligarchs and councils of state, then limited-franchise democratic bodies and ultimately governments elected by (more or less) universal suffrage.

A part of the compact between the people and their government is to allow the latter to keep the former in the dark about certain matters - military secrets, interest rate decisions and the like that would harm the national interest if broadcast either at all or prematurely. In return, governments promise to ensure the well-being and prosperity of the greatest number of people. Sometimes - often - this contract goes wrong and there is either weak, unstable government or totalitarian states where prosperity is the preserve primarily of the rulers. Often it comes to the same thing: weak regimes follow in quick succession until the stability of totalitarianism arrives.

Now, this covenant (in its balanced form) between the people and those privileged with power is far from threatened by the Internet, but there is underway an assault on one component of the power structure - the Mainstream Media. ('Assault' is the wrong word as it suggests some organisation is involved. The assault as such is haphazard and undirected.)

But wait a minute. Traditional Media, or MSM, in a democracy play the role of keeping the government honest by telling the people what is going on, right? So that we can make informed decisions about who to vote into power next time, right? Nope. The Media are beholden only to their owners (be they corporations or governments). The Media are given previleged access to those in power but on the understanding that they do not reveal too much. This is so even in the freest, most democratic of societies. On the most basic level, at the coal face as it were, journalists protect their sources and keep mum about some things in order to maintain their access.

With the Internet, there is huge potential for outspokenness, diversity and non-mainstream views. Bloggers, by and large, are not beholden to Big Business. Even if some are, in the market of ideas online, there can be no hegemony and the best will merely win a larger audience. Mass media is no longer the only player in the provision of information flows ('the masses' will probably become meaningless or a term of no use - belonging to the era of Marx and Ford).

Of course, people can only express views based on what they know, and at present, by and large, non-mainstream commentators know only what the MSM tell them. Although, much to the surprise of both MSM and governments, bloggers have produced scoops and wrong-footed the Establishment.

One has to be cautious, however, and remember that the Internet is just another medium, albeit one interactively accessible to all. MSM has and will continue to try to dominate it, to swamp the signal to noise ratio of Internet chatter with their push technologies. They will also bring members of online communities into their own fold - offer the poisoned apple of access - and also try to blur the difference between themselves and the blogosphere. These tactics are aimed at the least savvy of Internet users (i.e. most of us at present). But one could predict that just as Gutenberg did for literacy in the middle ages, so Tim Berners-Lee will have done for online literacy, and governments using MSM will ultimately fail even to fool most of the people most of the time.

But to return to the village square, could the Internet (or its successors) become so enabling as to allow the masses (ok lah) to participate directly in government? All the time and not just once every electoral cycle? Government is too specialised for most of us to even grasp the basis for decision; we must simply take the Government's word for it (the contract, remember?). But no one person in government, not even the head of the executive, knows enough to make every decision, so there is no reason in principle to rule out anyone's participation if the right mechanisms can be established. Referenda are a traditional means of direct participation in specific decisions, but only if the issue is important enough, due to the resources required to stage them. But leaving aside practical difficulty, wouldn't it be total chaos if referenda became the rule rather than the exception?

Well, all one can say now is that it is technologically feasible. And as to the potential for chaos, once Internet literacy is both widespread and at the same level of sophistication as traditional literacy - literacy that enabled modern democracies to come into being - then maybe there will be a case for continuous online polling to at least influence and inform the process of policy making, or other forms of participation.

With traditional technologies and top down communications, there has to be an us-or-them divide between governments and the governed. In democracies, anyone can move between these two realms, but at a cumbersome pace (at least in the governing direction). Why must there be only two political states: in or out; on or off? Why cannot there be a continuous spectrum of participation with people moving easily and often between levels? With a multi-level system, if a person has even a little time and ability, he or she can participate. Indeed, if government is viewed as information flows, people need not even physically move (to the seat of power etc.)

And such a scenario need not be limited to just one set of levels. Just as governments are traditionally comprised of executive, judicial and house-of-review arms, technology makes feasible any number of virtual arms, or indeed, as many heads as a Hydra, all designed to not only provide checks and balances but to ensure there is no one entrenched source of power. We have open-source software; could not the online community develop open-source governments?

It can't work; it's too unwieldy; too potentially unstable; it ignores the complexity of government. Well, at the start of the 17thC no one could have predicted the changes in government that would develop over the next century, or early in the 19thC, even, that one day women would have the vote. If anyone had, they would have been told it is wrong or just wouldn't work. The masses will continue to be content with their cake (or peanuts). There might well be instability in any transitional stage in a society’s development, but that is just the way complex systems evolve. New technologies resist attempts to shoehorn them into existing models and often must wait for the new model to develop. World War 1 began with opposing armies lined up on the battle field in the traditional way and swiftly degenerated into trench warfare in the face of machine guns and mustard gas. This failure gave rise to Blitzkrieg in WW2. Technology is usually ahead of its time.

And the corollary is that one cannot predict the future use of a new technology. Perhaps a digitally driven world will change the way societies govern themselves, or maybe it will change nothing in that respect. Regular rotations of fixed-term governments is perhaps all we will ever need. Perhaps democracy had already climaxed in the US in the 18thC and will under go no major new transformations. But then predictions of History's demise are usually premature. What relatively minor flaws there still exist in democratic systems, therefore, may resolve themselves through traditional means - by legislation and referenda. Perhaps free speech will naturally win out over oppression and the Internet will simply be its servant, not its champion. On the other hand, perhaps the Internet's long term consequences will be negative; a tool for oppressors. Who knows? The only thing one can say against the latter is that the Internet was invented as an aid to disseminating knowledge, and as we know, knowledge is power.

This is not intended as a consolation for what has happened to the online community of late. Nor is it a vision of a far distant utopia that will see these times as a Dark Ages precursor to a new renaissance. It is simply to point out, in the longer term scheme of things, the Mr Brown affair is a small matter. Yet we have to face its consequences or meaning in the here and now.

So what does it mean? His dismissal at least shows he is not a part of an establishment conspiracy (even if he was toyed with as such), so he is no government patsy. He was not privy to state secrets (just about everything the Government thinks or does is a state secret). Yet he got under their skin. And yet his criticisms are so mild. Imagine if he had really gone for the jugular. All that anyone can do right now is comment on what little is in the public domain. Once in a while, a careful examination of known facts will reveal some insight the Government hadn't intended to be known. The control freaks will drop their guard. Mr Brown was brought down for merely highlighting known facts and making us think about them in a way that the Government does not like (or rather, simply reporting what we think anyway). But mainly, he was exampled to keep others from becoming too uppity. Yes, he is no Chia Tye Poh, but nurture enough Mr Browns and genuine opposition leaders with true mass appeal and real bite may emerge. It is doubtful the response will then come from a mere press secretary.

1:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

anon at 1.27 am:

Great read, but doubt it will happen anytime soon (not least 2011). - IrCTP

7:00 AM  

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