Friday, September 29, 2006

Disloyal Tourist

There is a typhoon coming and I am in a city that somehow, intuitively, I always associate with 70s Singapore though I have only quarter-formed memories of 70s Singapore. I step out of a noisy 70s restaurant where there are ash-trays on the tables, take out some tattered notes for a pack of cigs from an old lady peddling them out of a 70s style box, with Wrigleys and some other assortments. Including match-boxes. If this is 70s Singapore, is it like this? Perhaps along Boat Quay?

There is lots of rain, sometimes a fine drizzle, other times, tree-bending storms in the day and in the night. I am staring at this quaint hotel and it reminds me of quite a few Wong Kar Wai movies. It strikes me, perhaps my memories of 70s Singapore, memories I don't possess, is mediated by the 70s noir of WKW's movies. where does this 70s feel come from? In Mee Pok Man, Singapore Dreaming, 15, 4.30, the movie-makers search for this 70s feel; almost invariably at Tiong Bahru with those first generation low HDB flats and their circular stair-wells.

When you search the history books for 1970s, you are told its a period of movements, resettlements and displacements. In Hokkien, they term this period of displacement as "Chu Keok Lai Kuar Chu", which literally means authorities are chasing people out of their houses. In history books, it reads as demolishing squatter settlements and re-settling inhabitants in brand new housing estates. The National Housing Programme.

There is not much more of the 1970s I can remember except perhaps the National Theatre and the National Aquarium inside. It was dark and cold and had very colorful aquariums.

Tonight, I am standing on this little balcony of a Hainanese hotel looking into a drizzling street where there are many motor-cycles, taxis, tricycles and bicycles. Smoking and thinking that this is 70s Singapore when I have no recollection of the 70s. It is really odd. How does it feel in 70s Singapore? Was there greater anticipation, more hope, more belief in opportunities, in the possibility of change? It had to be more noisy, less efficient, less stream-lined, less neat ... but the atmosphere? Is it like this? A slight buzz, something more charged.

It could have been the conversation I had in the afternoon with an old friend. Over a bowl of steaming rice noodles, looking out into a charming wet courtyard. He is a Singaporean and has been here for 15 years. He used to run a very profitable medium sized company in Singapore. Until a GLC squeezed him out of the market. Since then, he has not looked back; he tells me simply : "there are more possibilities here". Singapore is only a place to park money. That’s all. A massive parking lot for money.

He is not even looking for probability. Just possibility. And it drives him, makes him happy, keeps him satisfied. You don't really have to ask him about going back. Its just an unnecessary question.

Wanted to write about LKY and the banning of FEER. But they are old news really in new Singapore. The myth-making of racial marginalisation and the relative merits of Singapore's meritocratic system was systematically addressed and articulately critiqued in Dr Lily Zubaidah's seminal book, The Singapore Dilemma, years back. Publications, whether foreign or local, in Singapore are banned, restricted whenever OB markers are crossed. What is really new in new Singapore? If you are not in the ruling party, anything racial is construed as time-bombs and the racial riot specter is invoked. If you are not in the ruling party, any critical political commentary is deemed interference and treasonous.

Over here in a this city that is not Singapore, where I recall memories of 70s Singapore which I do not possess, I feel a bit elated somehow. Strangely distant from the events in new Singapore. In this constructed and imagined remembrance of old Singapore. A feeling more personal and stirring of things possible and thinking possible. Maybe its the reason why writers used to go to Singapore, downing a few Slings at the Long Bar and start writing their novels. Wonder what has happened now; where do writers go for inspiration, for possibilities.

Why go back and write about old news when there is something intangibly more promising in this imagined Singapore of the 70s where change seems so much more possible even though its a bit noisy, a bit chaotic. Except that I am betraying this city. A disloyal tourist, a disloyal visitor. Recalling the name of a lover you never had, in front of her.

Rain is getting heavier now. The last time they had a typhoon here, over two hundred people died. Preparations seem much better this time round. Most people are fairly sanguine, unpredictability is part of their lives. And it is quite fine.

Quote of the Day --

"I am she who asks what walks upon four legs at sunrise, upon two at noon and upon three at evening. And all who cannot answer me, at evening die ... In the morning of life, a young man goes forth as though mounted, because he is carried on the shoulders of his parents. By midday, their support has vanished, and he must walk by himself. In the evening of life, he can hold up his head only because he is supported by the memory of what once he was." -- Latro in the Mist, Gene Wolfe

Monday, September 25, 2006

Our Differences

"They must, instead, stay and make a difference."

To make a difference. To make a difference. Must make a difference. Must. Stay. Difference.

I am brought back to one of my earlier entries. Very early entry. About making a difference. "What do you want to do when you go back? Why ... to make a difference, of course." To make a difference.

Define difference. How can difference surface in Singapore?

"What was important, he said, was not so much the medium used." "What you really need is also not just the medium but to be on the same wavelength as the young people, to know what the young people are concerned about and to be able to talk to them so that they connect, their concerns, their issues"

The medium is everything. The medium is the newspapers. The medium is in civil society. The medium is in music. The medium is in art. The medium is in film. The medium is everything; for difference to be made, to be noticed, to be effective. To signal, to hope, to dream. But when all the mediums are licensed and all have invisible and shifting OB markers and all operate in an environment of imminent censorship ... how can difference be born? How can difference prosper? How can difference be heard. And ultimately, how can difference be made?

If these mediums are tuned only to reflect concerns and issues deemed acceptable, than how can these mediums enable connection? How will difference be known? How can difference surface? How can difference be made? The truth is this. In Singapore, is there space to accept difference or only acceptable difference?

How about stopping the political victimisation of residents in Hougang and Potong Pasir for a start? How about giving these Singaporeans parity in a National programme? That is difference. Palpable difference.

To make difference, you need to be free from fear. Not only the citizens. But more importantly, the government, the ruling party, the authorities. It is these institutions which need to be free from fear. To stop fearing that Singaporeans are on the brink of revolt, that Singaporeans are plotting riots at every opportunity. When these institutions should be fearing that Singaporeans just do not care. Provide the housing, provide the infrastructure and thats enough. They do not care beyond the infrastructures. There is no Singapore in their minds, only infrastructures.

While those who care, leave. Those who imagine, leave. Finding more space elsewhere to make a difference. Space, space, space. Thats what you need to make a difference. To create difference.

Where are we? Back to the same unfulfilled promises.

How can a young Singaporean, with access to the world via a click, be obliged, to stay, to make a difference when she knows that difference is not there for the making? How much more courage does the State demand when the young can see for themselves what happens when difference is made in Singapore? Its not even Chee, just look at Seelan of the 400 Frowns. Just look at Mr Brown. How much more courage is demanded to stay, to make a difference?

No. There is no obligation for the young to stay and make a difference when there is no space to accept difference but only acceptable difference. There is no obligation to stay and make a difference when difference has no medium to flourish. There is no obligation to stay and make a difference when fear cripples difference. There is no obligation when difference is not free.

For some its better to just run. As if they had a choice. They hear another voice. Its louder and they are running for their lives. To a place where there are lights, lights and not only empty spaces, empty vassals.

They are running to make a difference.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Manufracturing Consent

You wake up in the middle of a coup and the first thing that hits you is that its so quiet. Hushed. Tense. A voice on the phone which seems more distant, telling you "today not same yesterday, more better if you go north, you go tomorrow". You peer through the window onto streets which are empty. Straining to make out the tanks in the intersection a distance away. Everyone is like you, waiting, watching, wondering and wary in the beginning.

Perhaps it is what Bakunin terms as the "instinct to freedom", but people cannot stay cooped for long. Its always the children isn't it? They venture first. Tentatively onto the streets, Staring at the tanks and the guns and the yellow scarved soldiers. When the child walks, the mothers will follow. And a mother walks up to the soldier. A flower in hand, an offer of peace, perhaps hope. The soldier smiles, accepts the flower and partakes in this moment of peace, perhaps hope.

With this gesture, the empty street fills slowly. People step out from their hiding places. Its less quiet, less tense and some semblance of life is restored.

The people are happy. The bigger evil, Thaksin is gone. A little bit uneasy perhaps of the way he went, but still happy nonetheless. For there is the King still, the revered personification of Grace, who allowed this. The people are happy because the King is with Them, and they are with the King.

In my previous entry, there was some distaste at the notion of Singaporeans, in the shadows. Waiting. Commenters' fear its for Godot, we wait. And while we wait and tarry, people are leaving, one after another. There was some frustration, helplessness, resignation and well-placed anger even. And I agree with these sentiments. We can only wait because we have no King, no Messiah, no Saviour. And it may be some time for we could have possibly used up our quota of great leaders for a while yet.

I once made my way, in one of those freezing winters of NYC to attend a talk by Noam Chomsky in Greenwich. He is one of the few great living thinkers left in our crazy world today. It was in a small auditorium, crowded with leftists, anarchists, conservatives, liberals, intellectuals, intelligentsia, even hacktivists. Everyone rooted to Chomsky, a MIT professor emeritus in linguistics, rambling in his monotone. He was talking about Hume's Paradox in which, any society, the population always submits to the rulers, even though force is always in the hands of the governed. Be it democratic or not. He explained that submission is gained not through a social contract, but through a manufacture of consent. Manufactured.

Chomsky was talking about and critiquing the US sytem of governance, especially in its foreign policy.

In an entry, Singapore Central, I talked about resistance, what it means, what it can be, in the Singapore context. Its about accretion, accreting resistance into the Singapore consciousness until the moment of possiblities arrive. It could be an election period. It could be at other junctions in Time when change and disjunctures present themselves. No matter. But it is only though this accretion, that we can recognise the moment or monad in Time when "change is in the air", when History is in the making. To be able to recognise the moment is important because we lost that when the Government dulled our creative spirit and de-politicised us. We retain Bakunin's "instinct to freedom" but we have no way to act upon it.

But to accrete is slow. At times, the system will crush you. I too have said previously : it is okay to go. To run. To leave. Especially in today's world. As the visitors to this blog attests, even those who left, remain somehow for those left. We are frustrated, angry even, only when we think we are fighting alone. We have to nurture the instinct to freedom, with each other, for one another.

Remember this : force is always in the hands of the governed.

And our role is to accrete this. Then we will know when to manufracture our consent. When to refuse to buy what they manufacture. Because these moments do not come by every day.

Remember too : the coup was bloodless only when the soldier accepted the flower from the mother.

Quote of the Day --

"Whether the instinct for freedom is real or not, we do not know. If it is, history teaches that it can be dulled, but has yet to be killed. The courage and dedication of people struggling for freedom, their willingness to confront extreme state terror and violence, is often remarkable. There has been a slow growth of consciousness over many years and goals have been achieved that were considered utopian or scarcely contemplated in earlier eras. An inveterate optimist can point to this record and express the hope that with a new decade, and soon a new century, humanity may be able to overcome some of its social maladies; others might draw a different lesson from recent history. It is hard to see rational grounds for affirming one or the other perspective. As in the case of many of the natural beliefs that guide our lives, we can do no better than to choose according to our intuition and hopes.

The consequences of such a choice are not obscure. By denying the instinct for freedom, we will only prove that humans are a lethal mutation, an evolutionary dead end; by nurturing it, if it is real, we may find ways to deal with dreadful human tragedies and problems that are awesome in scale." -- Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

In the End,

In the end, the sunflowers did not really die, the Cenotaph is still enclosed and many groups of people are unhappy over this event hosted in Singapore. The guests are not happy, the hosts are also less than pleased, local activists remain immobilised and the foreign activists keep their heads high and their beliefs intact.

So the 4 million smiles did not really materialise and ironically, the 400 frowns became the more honest campaign, a more prophetic campaign.

The Prime Minister makes his grand speech of embracing globalisation in front of the world and the foreign media is at a sidewalk giving air-time to a bankrupted politician who has not taken a bath for three days.

No one's really happy isn't it?

The pre-hype surrounding the IMF/WB meeting suggested such a flurry of people, a host of activities, a sense of humanity and color and celebration. All we see is really a dominant motif of empty spaces. Empty fleets of Mercedes cabs. Empty meeting rooms filled with elegant white-draped chairs. Empty demonstration site. Emptiness except for barricades, sunflowers and policemen.

With due respect to Dr Chee and his SDP coterie, the Empower Singaporeans Rally also became an empty event really. No arrests (yet), trickling groups of sympathetic Singaporeans, lots of foreign media hungry for some action, any action. But so too, like the hyped Meetings, this event also emptied of significance eventually; to such an extent that what was previously a restricted act of handing out flyers by the group became now suddenly, permissible.

In the end really, the question to be asked is really, where are the people? The humanity for these empty spaces, to fill this spaces with meaning, with relevance?

While cinemas are filled with Singaporeans watching Singapore Dreaming, there is no one watching this movie, Singapore Reality. Perhaps it is because in Dreaming, Singaporeans are closer to the truth in their existence than in Reality. Perhaps they have watched Reality so many times, they are just tired, jaded from watching the same script, the same story, the same technical glitches occur again and again. Its not even a bad sequel. Its a repeat telecast.

And so all these empty spaces flourish in their protected and enclosed environment and this spatial emptiness leeches away the significance of the Event(s), to the extent that they become empty events too. Devoid of meaning. This is perhaps the reason why everyone is not really happy. From HDTV, to colour TV, to black and white and ultimately just white noise to an empty cinema hall, empty living room. No one is watching, no one is here. They are elsewhere.

Two SingaporeAngle entries provide contrasting viewpoints on whether or not there is a "crisis" to singapore's reputation from hosting this WB/IMF event. Both entries miss the point somewhat. The crisis is not really about "reputations" or our "image". The crisis is really about the empty spaces and all their attendant associations. The strong and the powerful will and can always play their games, spin their songs, tell their stories, lay their laws. Its whether there is anyone really listening, who really care. People who will fill up these empty spaces and give meaning.

Empty spaces are an absence. And that is the danger. That is the crisis. And maybe, if through this fiasco of hosting the WB/IMF, that this absence comes into the glaring light, it is not such an abject failure after all. Because, I do know, all of you silent readers, as you absorb, as you think, you can only envision something different, something less absent.

I originally wanted to end this entry with the question : where are you, Singaporean? Then I saw that everyone is there. Just waiting. In the shadows. In little groups, searching for the sunflowers. Encircling the cenotaph. Hovering at the edges of Hong Lim. Waiting to fill the absence.

Quote of the Day --

"In one poem, an old woman paces the hollow, thumping the floorboards of her house late at night, unable to sleep. then she hears the laughter of a child. She opens the door and sees only darkness, and calls out "Dodo?" ... outside her door is a town ... Creeping out of the darkness towards her and into the electric light come the tired faces of those long gone, men and women in plain dress, standing amid the new, not surprised, not confused or outraged. Simply standing." -- Geoff Ryman, Was

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Hydra Wolf

"It's a multi-headed Hydra with Paul Wolfowitz's face on every head." -- The Guardian

"there are some serious issues between us and the Red Cross about Guantanamo...[but] they have nothing to do with the kinds of abuses that we've been hearing about in Iraq." -- wolfowitz to the Red Cross

There was once a protest march in NYC. It remains the most amazing protest march for sheer numbers and the lack of violence. Hundreds of thousands filling the avenues of Manhattan, jammed on the Brooklyn Bridge, despite the cold winter, to register their protest against the war on Iraq. It was a protest against unilateral US-led action, in defiance of the UN, to invade Iraq. Popular sentiment against what was seen as an unjustified war. A fact clearly exposed when no WMDs were found in Iraq. It cost Tony Blair his last ounce of credibility. Bush Jr? Well, he is on his way out anyway.

Bush and Blair are the most obvious targets of ridicule. But for the ignominious War on Terrorism to fully crank, they need soldiers. Good soldiers like Mr Paul Wolfowitz, who is currently in Singapore as World Bank President, and the de facto Champion of civil society. It is ironic to the extreme how a wolf can change his skin into a sheep so quickly. Fortunately, for most of the civil society groups against the IMF/WB, they know the Wolf for who he is. They know that his Championing for them against the authoritarian Singaporean government is but a sham. Thats why the calls persist to boycott the IMF/WB by the CSOs. They know a hypocrite when they see one.

Paul Wolfowitz was the Deputy Secretary of Defence in the crucial aftermath of Sep 11 2001. He was the man brought in for the War on Terror. He headed a special intelligence unit known as the Office Special Plans which has been accused of cherry picking intelligence to justify the war on Iraq. He is acknowledged as the most hawkish of Bush soldiers for the war on Iraq. He has admitted that plans to invade Iraq were already discussed just two days after Sep 11. He was the one who sanctioned and built Guantanamo, a modern day gulag, perhaps even more brutal than those of the Soviets. He was heading the oxymoron Military Intelligence. He probably supplied the C-130s which ferried Islamic militants to East European farmsteads for summary trials and imprisonment in Guantanamo. In his governance of the Pentagon, he was as authoritarian as his policies. He was the good soldier. When he was sent into the Pentagon, he knew what role he had to assume. So long civil liberties, say yes to militarism. Invasion of Afghanistan? Approved. Operation Infinite Justice. War against Iraq? Lets go. Operation Enduring Freedom. Sending his precision lasers across the deserts hunting for Osama. Innocent casualties? Its war baby. We call them collaterals. Infinite Justice and Enduring Freedom, because of good soldiers like Wolfowitz, war is now a norm and a routine.

So Wolfowitz calls Singapore authoritarian? Putting this distance between himself and these authoritarian Singaporeans. Its bullshit. Mr Wolfowitz is as authoritarian as the Singapore Government. Make no mistake about that. If he is told to head the CIA tomorrow, he would lease Singapore for Guantanamo II, the unseen resort. That is his mien.

And now Wolfowitz is World Bank head? To lend money, a helping hand to countries which he personally OK-ed the razing of? You destroy a country and now you come in as banker to develop them? To create the next Osama? That is hypocrisy too.

But Wolfowitz has better spin sense. He is an American after all. He has mildly but surely pushed the Singapore Government into a corner. He has placed himself in the corner of the CSOs. Helping them. Facilitating them. Fighting for those who were banned. Claiming the moral victory when he is as guilty as the host country. As guilty, but he has manouevred himself well. Shows that he is a bigger hawk. A smarter hawk, a more deceptive hawk. He is teaching the Singaporean authoritarians how to be smiling tigers.

This is what the paralysed Singapore government cannot say now. Because it has effectively gagged itself with its vow of welcome. Come on Ms Bhavani, why not have a Commandment Release now? To tick this wolfowitz off? Or is your perogative merely to crush little Singaporeans at the behest of your Minister? Where is the Government's spin? Wolfowitz is dancing now, beyond the abilities of the Singapore Government to follow. Any pre-arranged dance with regard the CSOs is now slightly skewed. Wolfowitz is blowing the pipes and we are following in the hood. The Government is outspun because Wolfowitz is siding with the CSOs, something the Government totally did not expect as evinced in its paralytic handling of the CSO issue. Wolfowitz has saved his face and outplayed Singapore in the face game. Perhaps the Government should have let the 400 Frowns Campaign persist. But the Government's inaction is to be expected. He is the master authoritarian after all.

Quotes of the Day --

"The first thing that strikes the lay student of military commissions is the enormous power vested in the US deputy secretary of defence, Paul Wolfowitz, who is the commissions' 'appointing authority'. The judges - seven in a capital case - are appointed by Wolfowitz. Any judge can be substituted up to the moment of verdict, by Wolfowitz. The military prosecutors are chosen by Wolfowitz. The suspects they charge, and the charges they make, are determined by Wolfowitz. All defendants are entitled to a military defence lawyer, from a pool chosen by Wolfowitz. The defendants are entitled to hire a civilian lawyer, but they have to pay out of their own funds, and by revealing where the funds are, they risk having them seized on suspicion of their being used for terrorist purposes, on the order of Wolfowitz. Defendants need not lose heart completely if convicted. They can appeal, to a panel of three people, appointed by Wolfowitz. When it has made its recommendation, the panel sends it for a final decision to Wolfowitz ... And Wolfowitz's role? 'It's right out of the Mikado, isn't it... the government has created something as close to being hermetically sealed as the human mind is capable of creating." The Guardian, Dec 3 2003

The wolf, seeing her come in, said to her, hiding himself under the bedclothes, "Put the cake and the little pot of butter upon the stool, and come get into bed with me." Little Red Riding Hood took off her clothes and got into bed. She was greatly amazed to see how her grandmother looked in her nightclothes, and said to her, "Grandmother, what big arms you have!". "All the better to hug you with, my dear." "Grandmother, what big legs you have!" "All the better to run with, my child." "Grandmother, what big ears you have!" "All the better to hear with, my child." "Grandmother, what big eyes you have!" "All the better to see with, my child." "Grandmother, what big teeth you have got!" "All the better to eat you up with." And, saying these words, this wicked wolf fell upon Little Red Riding Hood, and ate her all up. -- Little Red Riding Hood, Charles Perrault

Thursday, September 14, 2006


For one of my favourite bloggers Mr Wang, I will write about flowers today. It appears that the flowers that were forcibly planted into the soil around Suntec City are dying. They are not acclimatised to Singapore weather. They droop and wilt under the intense gaze of the sun in our little tropical paradise. The flowers had a noble role; they were supposed to be the beautiful backdrop to our collaged smiles. To welcome those important delegates into Suntec City. Its a pity. Probably with alittle more time, a little more water, these flowers could have taken root and thrived in Suntec City. Become permanent denizens of the place. Instead, these imported flowers have fulfilled their duties, blazed their beauty and left to die.

I am always reminded of PM Lee's maiden National Day Rally speech. This was the portion that so caught the fascination of Singaporeans, that actually instilled a sense of belief that change was in the air :

"We also need, as a government, to encourage participation and debate. We have opened up over the years, we've got a Speakers' Corner, we've allowed a lot more discussion, if you read the newspapers, what the newspapers write, the columnists and the Forum page writers. The degree of debate is much more than we used to have, or in Parliament. But I think we can go further ... Once in a while, Think Centre says they want to go to the Speakers' Corner and they want to plant 100 flowers there, let the hundred flowers bloom.

Well, I think go ahead. They want to water the flowers, go ahead. They want to turn the flowers down, go ahead. I mean, free expression as long as you don't get into race and religion and don't start a riot. It's a signal that speak, speak your voice, be heard, take responsibility for your views and opinions.

As a society also, we have to be forward-looking. I ask some young people what they would like me to say tonight. And one of them said this: Be forward-looking. Don't let elders deter you by saying it cannot be done or scare you with war stories. Maybe I was telling him war stories because I know him. I agree that you shouldn't be scared by your elders but I think you should listen to them, think carefully what their lessons mean in this new day and age and then use those lessons to avoid unnecessary mistakes and solve problems our way today.

But we have to be prepared to accept the diversity of views and to listen to the debate and to have this discussion always with a view to moving Singapore forward." -- ND Rally 2004

And when the flowers are blooming, as the flowers are of a different color, a different slant, they are wilted under the gaze of the sun. Apparently, Mr 400 Frowns has been arrested. Recently, Mr Brown was removed of his job as a columnist. As the flowers wilt and die around Suntec City, there is always the solution of bringing in more flowers to displace these failed ones. To make Suntec City sunny again. Beautiful as always.

And sometimes, I can only think. Think why, when we are so close to that moment, that hinge, that glimpse of possibility of promises realised, that opportunity of change, for change, the hopes are unhinged. Nothing ever really changes. The song remains the same. The promises remain as relics of hope-possible. The promises are deferred.

"This dream never ends" you said
"This feeling never goes
The time will never come to slip away"
"This wave never breaks" you said
"This sun never sets again
These flowers will never fade"
"This world never stops" you said
"This wonder never leaves
The time will never come to say goodbye"
"This tide never turns" you said
"This night never falls again
These flowers will never die"

Perhaps only Mr Wang noticed that the poor flowers are dying, he does have a poetic soul. Or it could be that others also do see the sorry state of the flowers but they just keep the sadness in their hearts. Telling themselves that one day, they will go to a place where the flowers will really bloom eternal. Because they cannot really wait for the promises to be realised any more. Because they have seen and experienced too many broken promises. Too many close "what ifs". Because they have been disappointed again.

"This dream always ends" I said
"This feeling always goes
The time always comes to slip away"
"This wave always breaks" I said
"This sun always sets again
And these flowers will always fade"
"This world always stops" I said
"This wonder always leaves
The time always comes to say goodbye"
"This tide always turns" I said
"This night always falls again
And these flowers will always die"

And so the greatest show for Singapore begins now. S2006. Welcome IMF. Welcome WB. Welcome to singapore. Silence reigns, all is peaceful and secure. From the physical to the cultural, the Singapore landscape has been sculpted back to its paradise form again. again. and again. And for Singapore's happy citizens, it is back to their customary relationship with the Government :

Between you and me
It's hard to ever really know
Who to trust
How to think
What to believe
Between me and you
It's hard to ever really know
Who to choose
How to feel
What to do

Night has fallen again. The dying flowers will be replaced. They always will. Because Singapore must always be beautiful, is always beautiful. For we have to be beautiful so that Singapore can survive, so that Singapore can bloom. There is no other way and so You say. And so You gave me flowers of hope and I let fall flowers of blood.

Song of the Day : "Bloodflowers", The Cure

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

For the Cenotaph

The Singapore Zoological Gardens is lauded as one of the most enlightened zoos in the world. Its denizens are housed in enclosures which replicate their natural habitats. The entire layout of the zoo is modelled like nature. Its a giant enclosure with little or no cages. Its a giant enclosure, but yet, its very layout allows visitors to course through its lovely winding paths in relative safety. To see, to observe, to marvel to judge the wild creatures languishing in their little homes. The conceptual nature of the zoo itself, the notion of enclosure, has been masked. Rendered into a more benign, softer layout. Soothing and tranquil. Natural nature. The zoo usually posits that its enclosures are a form of protection. To keep the animals in. But enclosures are not so simple. As they keep the animals in, they keep people out as well. As they protect the people outside, so too the enclosure protects the animals within.

We have to understand enclosures. The power to enact enclosures. And the rationale of enclosures.

Its like concentration camps. Little is known of the juriprudence that underlies Hitler's enactment of the camps. Enclosures to house and kill the Jews. But there was juriprudence and there were official legal decrees which justified the enactment of the camps. The Nazi state enacted its sovereign right to the body of the Jews and in the name of protection, brought them into the camps. It was a State of Emergency which laid the legal mandate for 12 years of Night.

Near and around Suntec City, there is a Cenotaph. it is a monument for the war dead. It too has been enclosed. Made into an enclosure. The rationale is that the Cenotaph and the area around it must be protected. Danger must be kept out of the Cenotaph and its environs. This is a funny enclosure. Because it is not the Cenotaph that is endangered, but the danger the Cenotaph and its environs represent by its proximity to Suntec City. It represents a danger, in the sense that it is a "natural" gathering point for would-be IMF protesters, and hence, it is enclosed. Made into an enclosure. Caged for the danger that the space of the Cenotaph represents during this time.

To understand why the space of the Cenotaph represents danger by its proximity to Suntec City, we trace the source of this danger. The Cenotaph becomes a danger only because Suntec City itself is now an enclosure. It too has been enclosed by tall reinforced steel fences. And its enclosure is to protect those inside it and to keep out those who should not be inside Suntec City. Those who are kept out are the Danger. Because they are kept out from the Suntec City enclosure, they then endanger the Cenotaph and the space around it. Thats why the Cenotaph has become an enclosure too.

There is another enclosure within Suntec City. A smaller enclosure within the large enclosure meant to keep people out of Suntec city. Its the 18 by 4 enclosure to house accredited protesters. This enclosure is like an exhibit. To house those of different opinion. To cage difference from those who are caged within the larger enclosure that is Suntec City. Unlike the Cenotaph enclosure which is to cage a space, this enclosure is meant to cage difference and the danger that difference represents.

And around all these enclosures, enacted for various diverse reasons under vague signifiers like terrorism, security, danger, safety, are the wardens. The coppice-men. Patrolling the enclosures. Ensuring those which are in are in, those which are out are out and those which are empty spaces stay empty. Patrols who are supposed to understand the rationale of the different enclosures around Suntec City. Patrols who surveill and judge. Deciding your right of existing on that space, which has been enclosed and protected.

It is a slippery slope. Even though we do not consciously feel the implications the presence such enclosures bring. Yet.

All these enclosures enacted almost overnight. Enacted by Police authority. Enacted in the name of a Security Operation. Enacted by the powers invested into the Singapore Sovereign. The Government. The enclosures are enacted as a security routine.

And we carry on with our lives because we know these enclosures are really only temporary. A temporary inconvenience.

But what of the Cenotaph? Enclosed not because it is dangerous, not because it is different? It is enclosed, imprisoned merely for existing in a space which has an inferred danger, of which stems from another enclosure close by. It is enclosed for its association by space. Simple.

But it is a merely a Cenotaph after all. Devoid of feeling, without rights. The Cenotaph cannot be angry. Perhaps it enjoys this period of being caged. Because it has possibly become a master. The patrols outside its enclosure surveill it constantly. Slaves who protect it with their Gaze of authority.

There is a short story by Kafka titled "der Bau" which narrates the story of a nameless creature. The creature is building a burrow. It is paranoid about the secruity of its burrow. It is to be a perfect burrow. Safe and secure from all. In the end, the burrow is perfected into an inescapable enclosure. There is no entry. And no escape.

We really do have to understand enclosures. The right to enact enclosures. The legalities behind it. The implications to you, to me, as citizens, when enclosures are built. Or we could be like the Cenotaph, just retreating into its dreams of a glorious memories it is supposed to consecrate.

Quote of the Day --

"Today we face extreme and most dangerous developments in the thought of security. In the course of a gradual neutralization of politics and the progressive surrender of traditional tasks of the state, security becomes the basic principle of state activity. What used to be one among several definitive measures of public administration until the first half of the twentieth century, now becomes the sole criterium of political legitimation ... The thought of security bears within it an essential risk. A state which has security as its sole task and source of legitimacy is a fragile organism; it can always be provoked by terrorism to become itself terroristic." -- Agamben, G (2001) “Heimliche Komplizen. Über Sicherheit und Terrer”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, No 219, 20. September 2001

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Schizophrenic Smilies

It is amusing to observe all the shennanigans leading up to the IMF/WB meetings. We have had PETA actvists dramatically tracked down by their cellphone signals and deported. We have had activists invited by the IMF/WB who are turned away under the vague banner of terrorism. While the world press and media have been reporting on the "rebuke" issued by IMF/WB to the host country Singapore over the barring of the accredited activists, local press have reported on the praise levelled by the IMF/WB for Singapore's role in planning the seminar programme for the meeting.

Schizophrenic signals bouncing around the world.

Lets get a few things straight. Singapore has always been a blind spot to international organisations whether deliberate or not.
On the one hand, in the world of civil society activism, Singapore's track record has been poor indeed. whether it pertains to media freedom or individual rights, Singapore has never quite escaped the tag "authoritarian".

On the other hand however, Singapore is held up as paragon of successful economic development. Pro-business and forward looking in its appreciation of Capitalism's necessity. These conflicting signals jostle for space when someone tries to understand Singapore. The essential paradox which many Westerners cannot really understand, because in their minds, a successful political state cannot be divorced from a free society. It has been ingrained into their psyches and philosophies.

This is the fundamental mistake committed by the IMF/WB. They looked the other way despite all the signals pointing to them that their meeting in Singapore will not enjoy freedom for the part of their entourage which are the CSOs. The CSO entourage are, in the eyes of the Singapore Government, a ship of fools, meant to be kept as far as possible from exciting Singaporeans in Singapore.

The IMF/WB chose to ignore Singapore's poor track record with regard to civil society activism. This is why the "rebuke" issued by the IMF/WB to Singapore for barring its accredited activists must be taken with a large dose of salt. The WB has an office here. It has paid employees residing in Singapore. That these employees did not see that Singapore will never budge on issues of political expression is simply hard to believe. The WB representative's claim that he was blind-sided at the last minute by the government's tough stance against activists, suggests an utter failure to appreciate the ground that is Singapore. Such expatriates should really read more widely on what other more enlightened expatriates see and witness that is Singapore's political track record.

In this sense then, the "rebuke" by the IMF/WB is unfair to the host country Singapore. By and large, this failure by international organisations like the IMF/WB to truly appreciate the depth of the Government's totalistic political control is symptomatic of the world's perception of Singapore. The country has perfected totalistic control to an art form that is unparalleled. For any percentage of nay-sayers to Singapore, you can find an equal percentage of yes-men to the political systme that is Singapore. For all its niggling failures, there are dramatic success stories to smooth over the cracks of the system. For all the simmering unhappiness there is still enough smiles to tide the country into the future. Singapore can be seen as paradise and hell at the same time. But most times, international organisations like the IMF/WB tend to see Singapore only as a paradise. They see its economic success. They see its stability and security. They see its pro-West stance. They get lulled into the belief that the Singapore smile is truly genuine. They are tricked by Singapore's prettier Twin.

Convenient facades. Behind the pretty smile is a schizophrenic political nature. When issues like drug trafficking or political expression slip to the surface, the other ruthless side of Singapore's political system comes into the limelight. The Ugly Twin rears its head. The country will never budge when such "political" issues are surfaced. Ask the Australians. The smile turns into a sneer. Paradise turns into hell. Transparency gets clouded over. Mules get hanged.

The Singapore Government, since being awarded hosting status for the IMF/WB meetings, has stated clearly and unequivocally that it will take a hardline stance against IMF/WB protesters. In numerous "signals" sent out via the press, it has refused to accept the IMF/WB's stance that civil society is part of the entourage, part of the guests. And the IMF/WB did not heed these signals. they were still lulled by that other "softer and prettier" Twin of Singapore. The Twin that seduces all the foreign investments, all the foreign businesses.

There was no fait accompli by the Singapore Government as the IMF/WB is trying to suggest now to appease its CSOs. It was just a failure by the IMF/WB to open it eyes and see that Singapore is a modern day perfection of the Foucaldian system of political control. To look beyond that beguiling schizophrenic smile.

Quote of the Day --

" If he is disobeyed, punishment must immediately ensure ... The physician could exercise his absolute authority in the world of the asylum only insofar as, from the beginning, he was Father and Judge, Family and Law." -- Foucault, Madness & Civilization

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Entangled Contracts

There is a very convenient way of analysing politics in Singapore. It is what most 101 undergraduates studying political science will be exposed to. It is a seductive way of intellectualising political discourse vis-a-vis Singapore. I am talking about the fabled "Social Contract". That between governance and the governed, there is an implicit social contract where rights of freedom are willingly given over by the governed to governance in exchange for security and stability.

Social contract theory draws its roots from democracy theory founders like Hobbes, Locke and Rosseau and to a certain extent, JS Mill. It has been used to explain and justify the evolution and establishment of liberal democratic systems of governance. At its base, social contract pre-supposes certain assumptions of human morality, or more accurately, human excesses which require limits in the form of governance; albeit an enlightened form of governance under democracy. There are lengthy theoretical disputes regarding social contract theory, this entry skirts them all. Let focus instead and place the Singapore Social Contract under scrutiny.

What is the Singapore Social Contract? Since young, we have been drummed with explanations that Singapore is what it is today because of the economic miracle. For this economic miracle to be achieved, the Singaporean gives up some of his liberties such that Singapore can be rendered stable and secure for its Economy to continue growing. But it is not one-way, the Government guarantees that you will have an education, affordable housing and adequate social services. So that is the Social Contract much simplified. If conditions are met, the Contract and its terms are renewed every four years when Singaporeans go to the polls to decide. The election is a manifestation of Contract renewal. Extending the lease.

Underlying this Social Contract are the assumptions. The assumptions of what will happen if the contract fails. If people do not honour this Contract. Quite simply, the social fabric of Singapore will tear apart. What we know of as Singapore will cease to exist. Our small size, our fragile social harmony will all disappear once the Contract ceases. The Hobbesian spectre of war of All Against All will prevail in Singapore. At the same time, the economic miracle of Singapore will burst. No more growth. No more money. In the Singapore context, only the PAP has exclusive rights to the Social Contract. This has been reiterated time and again. Any other Contract offered to Singaporeans are time-bombs. Scary indeed. Hence, the Contract, manifested as that piece of paper which Constitutes Singapore, the Constitution, has to be treasured. Held sacrosanct for our survival. And us Singaporeans as signatories based on that plactic card, identifying our citizenship, which we call an NRIC, give our acquiescence to take away some of our liberties so that there will be no time-bombs, no wars of All Against All.

But what if the social contract is just a figment of the imagination? What if social contract theory is just a very attractive theoretical grounding to justify systems of dominance? What if the social contrat is an over-determined term? What if, there is no such thing as a social contract in Singapore? That the two words are but empty signifiers devoid of contextual association to time and space? Do we dare think beyond this.

Its only a thought experiment. Lets suppose that there is no such thing as a social contract. Lets consider this possibility : social contract theory was especially attractive during the early years of Singapore's existence, because then, the threats were much closer than now. There were the racial riots. The Cold War was on. Wars in vietnam, in Afghanistan were realities close by. So based on social contract theory, Singaporeans then should have most willingly gave up their liberties in exchange for the security provided by dynamic PAP. But something is not right here. Singaporeans then did fight for their liberties. Singaporeans fought against the imposition of language policies. Singaporeans fought against forced closures of newspapers. Singaporeans fought against forced resettlement. They fought against conscription into National Service. They all lost. But the Government was proved right. Their policies were indeed successes, at a social cost surely, but still successes.

Than we look at today. Where we are still asked to compromise some of our liberties for continued economic stability and security. But surely, the pre-suppositions of an all out war of All Against All can no longer be held up as a justification in today's context? It cannot be held up as resolutely as in the past. but then what of dissent, how do we challenge this pre-supposition? This leads us to the ultimate clincher of the fabled Singapore Social Contract if we look at this logically. By giving up the liberties at the outset, when we "signed" the Contract, we have become toothless to resist each new Social Contract presented every four years. We gave up our liberties remember? thats too simplistic an argument. More accurately, from that starting point of a Social Contract, we signed away the institutions to challenge the Social Contract effectively. There is no break contract clause in the Social Contract. It is illegal and unlawful. It is commonly termed as Revolution. So we are at a point of the Contract where if governance is doing well, we reward them with another contract. If Governance is not doing well, than the assumed Chaos predicates that we sign the same Contract. Chichken and egg? Not even that. There is only the Contract.

The Social Contract in Singapore is a myth. There has never been a social contract. It is but a theory, albeit an attractive one, to justify perpetual political dominance. Until we understand and get it ingrained in us, that there is no social contract in Singapore, it will be impossible to imagine fundamental changes in Singapore. Even foreign observers like the Financial Times slips into this conundrum too as seen in its latest report on Social Contract in Singapore under strain. There is no social contract in Singapore. There is only a political party, a Government machinery and social institutions which have become utterly and incestuously entangled in the governance of Singapore. So entangled that each cannot see a means of survival as independent entities which they rightly are.

Quote of the Day

"The more visonary the idea, the more people it leaves behind. this is what the protest is all about. Visions of technology and wealth. The force of cyber-captial that will send people into the gutter to retch and die. What is the flaw of human rationality? It pretends not to see the horror and death at the end of the schemes it builds. This is a protest against the future. They want to hold off the future. They want to normalize it, keep it from overwhelming the present. The future is always a wholeness, a sameness. We're all tall and happy there. This is why the future fails. It always fails. It can never be the cruel happy place we want to make it." -- Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Battle of Toy

Some imaginative reader over at Mr Wang imagines that Xenoboy, the Political Savant, is the alter ego of PAP youth Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. Minister Vivian is a good man. You can see it, he is a good man masquerading as a politician for a political party which is far too "pragmatic" and political for him. You can tell when he tried to reason that MM's dismissal of young Singaporeans after that torrid young Singaporean and MM interview session was not exactly correct.

But since we are diverted to Minister Vivian, I would like to talk about his recent call to the Young PAP to place recruitment on the top of the agenda. If I recall correctly, Minister Vivian himself was never part of the Young PAP. In fact, he was on the "other side", exploring alternative visions for Singapore until he was co-opted into the senior PAP and made a Minister in quick time. Now he heads the Young PAP and he wants to recruit. In his message to YP, he suggests that YP must accept those "like him", those "who had different ideas" just like how the senior PAP had accepted him despite his differing visions. This is the way to re-invent the YP. Let it stay young and hip and vibrant.

Let me offer my views. First, it is condescending to welcome those with differing visions into the YP if the intentions of YP is just to project the image that it is tolerant and willing to embrace "rebels". It is disgraceful and dishonest. While older people can use their world-weariness as justification to close half an eye to their co-optation, for any self-respecting young person, such a form of co-optation is commonly referred as selling out. Condescension to young Singaporeans is an insult. It fits exactly into MM Lee's cynical eyes that young Singaporeans will grow out of the phase. They will grow up wiser. They will end up like Vivians.

Second, for self-respecting young Singaporeans who are politically aware, who have fire and imagination, who are the creative forces which the Government desires so much, will never see the YP as an organisation that will challenge them. They would rather strike on their own, form their own young turk groups, even join the opposition parties. There will be more and more such young Singaporeans. This is happening, will happen more, given the way the world has turned today. They want their destinies in their own hands. Because they continually see that the PAP will never change its fundamentals and so they know that any attempt to cajole them into the YP ranks will lead to little if no change. These young Singaporeans have fires to burn and they will burn even if they hurt themselves, even if they end up jaded, even if they end up disillusioned. They do not want to burn in a safe and controlled environment within the confines of the YP. After this, then maybe, maybe some of these battle-hardened, grown-up Singaporeans may just throw in their lot with the senior PAP as Minister Vivian has done.

In line with XenoBoy consorting with exalted company is an entry by MercerMachine where Xenoboy shares a paragraph with Frederick the Great. (Note : Now that Neil Humphreys is gone, MercerMachine is the other ang moh dude you see hanging out in the HDB heartlands). While George Yeo is slumming it in cyberspace with tales of riding the MRT and visitng malls un-escorted, I find greater resonance reading entries/cartoons by this ang moh slumming it in the heartlands. There is a story to be made known about. Its a story of creative resistance, rhizomatic resistance. I once wrote a paper on it. I called it the Battle of Toy. When a movement was born in the Net. And the world played a game. A game with an army of toy soldiers to bring down a big bad bully who sold toys on the Internet. There are possibilities in interruptions, possibilities in counter-movements, possibilities in interstitial resistance. It requires, a belief, imagination and a fearlessness. All which the young have more than the average adult. Keywords are "etoy" "eToys".

And finally, in line with the theme of exalted company, XenoBoy finds himself with some very good blogs in some award thing. Vote for Mr Wang, Molly, Yawning Bread followed by ScrewySceptic and Popagandhi. For me, I would be most willing to give up this blog to Minister Vivian so that he can become a real alter-ego. He is a good man. He just needs to remember the fire, that fire.

Quote of the Day

"Out of sorrow entire worlds have been built
Out of longing great wonders have been willed
They're only little tears, darling, let them spill
And lay your head upon my shoulder
Outside my window the world has gone to war
Are you the one that I've been waiting for?" -- Nick Cave