Monday, October 23, 2006

Turning Away

My parents are in their seventies. Three days ago, they sent a cheque to the family of the man who committed suicide. Like most Singaporeans, they were shocked and saddened by his death, the circumstances of his death. Their only reflex action was to send a cheque as a form of condolence. To make things right, to right a wrong. Something was wrong, something troubled them. And they could only right this wrong by this small token action. As a fellow human or fellow citizen, this was the only thing they could do.

From Kitana, she mentions an excerpt of the media coverage which riled her. A particular phrase from the MP of the GRC where the deceased was a constituent. "Family stopped asking for help". Embedded in this five words is a culture, an attitude, a leaning, towards social welfare which is utterly wrong. Utterly wrong. In many ways, this entry re-states Kitana's highly eloquent entry. So bear with me. It is an issue that needs stating. Needs framing. Before we are inundated by media articles explaining how this case is an aberration. That the social safety nets in Singapore are secure. And we are told of numerous successful case studies.

In Singapore, where competition and meritocracy are held as paragons of our economic success, poverty is treated with extreme delicacy. We are schooled against social welfare. We are told there are no free lunches. We are told to be the best that we can be. We are told to aim for excellence. We breed a form of self-determination which is the survival of the fittest. Exclusive self determination. We are told to win. Win. Win. No room for losers. No room for the downtrodden. Values which are revealed in rant by a JC student. Values which are the subject of abhorrece in the David Marshall interview. In such a system, the dominant perception on social welfare is that once controls on financial aid for the needy are lifted, there will be a floodgate of social demise associated with European countries which practice social welfarism. Images of uneployed and destitute youths lining up with hand-outs flash across the collective Singapore psyche. A mass of leeches. Waiting to suck our coffers dry. Leeches, an anathema in singapore. Set apart. Exiled. Accursed. Denounced.

This trepidation in dealing with social welfare, this aversion and distaste even for the term "social welfare" permeates across the entire structural construction of Singapore's social safety nets. The entire process to receiving financial aid reeks of this aversion against social welfare. The fundamental disposition to disbursement of financial aid is one of extreme prudence. It is a process that is littered with innuendoes and stigma. It is a process designed almost to discourage people from seeking financial aid. This is done to sieve out those "undeserving" of financial aid. To prevent abuse. To prevent images of people lining up for hand-outs. To prevent people from surviving comfortably in umeployment. So it is a deterring structure. Not caring. And while it succeeds in turning people away, at the same time, it can over-succeed. There could be those who simply stop asking for help. Because help is given like this. Like a fucking crime. While we disburse magical Progress Packages like Santa Claus. Images of people lining ATM machines, lining outside CPF building for hand-outs. Happy hand-outs. This is fine. This is an easy process. Money gets sent to your account, quick and efficient.

"Family stopped asking for help" -- these five words magically absolve the politicians, those who act as the custodians of social welfare, from blame. Once someone stops asking for help, the problem has disappeared. Its no longer the State's business. The logical flow of the statement is this : "They stopped asking for help ... so how can we help them? ... they should have asked for help, there are so many schemes to help the needy."

This is wrong. This is wrong logic. This is wrong.

There is a distance between those who act as custodians of all these financial schemes for the needy and those who really need these schemes. It is a distance that is vast. It is a distance that is guarded with a ferocity which is uncalled for. It is a distance justified by the official attitude towards social welfare in Singapore.

It is a distance which the needy must bridge. Again and again. Thats why some stop asking for help. Thats why they borrow money.

Thats why they fucking kill themselves.

This must change. And Kitana is right. An MP and his grassroots machinery should have the resources available to find these people who slipped through the safety nets. To activate this machinery requires a re-understanding of social welfare and stop this turning away.

Quote of the Day --

On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say
Which we won't understand
Dont accept that what's happening
Is just a case of others suffering
Or youll find that youre joining in
The turning away

Its a sin that somehow
Light is changing to shadow
And casting its shroud
Over all we have known
Unaware how the ranks have grown
Driven on by a heart of stone
We could find that we're all alone
In the dream of the proud -- Pink Floyd, On the Turning Away

Thursday, October 19, 2006

On Exactitude in Science,

In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point. Less attentive to the Study of Cartography, succeeding Generations came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome, and, not without Irreverence, they abandoned it to the Rigours of sun and Rain. In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography.

From Travels of Praiseworthy Men (1658) by J. A. Suarez Miranda

Written by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. English translation quoted from J. L. Borges, A Universal History of Infamy, Penguin Books, London, 1975.


The story above is written by Jorge Luis Borges. In it, he narrates this empire where map-making attained such sublime levels that the cartographers were able to evolve a map of the Empire which was on the scale of 1 : 1. A full sized map representing or replicating the entire Empire. Of course, the map was eventually seen as fairly useless and left to decay. And fragments of this map remain in the fringes of the Empire, providing the occasional shelter for beasts and beggars.

It is a fascinating tale. Entire theories of representation and simulacra are packed into this brief paragraph which is a fiction but made to look like a true historical source by Borges. He even cites a non existent book and a non existent author. It is a rich paragraph for critical theory. But as always, the map leads me to Singapore.

There are many maps of Singapore. Perhaps the most common are tourist maps which one picks up at the arrival hall of Changi Airport. They depict the locations of tourist attractions and places of interest. Done in a neo-classical style with icons and symbols representative of the locality.

And then, there are other types of maps. Maps charting the path to Singapore's future. These are the national level campaigns which our Government is very prone toward. Courtesy Campaign and Singa. Productivity Campaign and the "good better best, never let it rest" Bee. Stop at Two birth control. Recently, there was a Frog for the Environment. A few years back, to herald the global world, there was the HeartBeat Singapore campaign. In technology, we have the Wired Nation. Its most recent incarnation , iN2015 and Wireless@Sg. In industry, we have that grand and ambitious map of Singapore as the life sciences hub.

To sell these maps, the national media exercises its role of responsible nation-building. They hype these maps. Front page screaming headlines. Story after story of pioneering successes which act like guarantees of eventual success. The media helps to build these maps. Make them bigger. More realistic. More attainable.

And we are left with a massive map of Singapore. A map that is even bigger than the actual territorial size of Singapore. Its bigger because we are building maps which draw on future time. Projected futures.

With such a map beckoning, many Singaporeans follow the path that has been so boldly charted. In Life Sciences for example, many a young Singaporean decides to make their career choice at the age of 16. Opting for a diploma in biomedical engineering, in life sciences. Others make that decision at 18, going for an undergraduate degree in life sciences. They follow this particular map of Singapore.

Except that many of these maps lead into indefinitely deferred futurities. In life sciences, we have a pool of trained personnel ready to populate the hub. But is the hub ready? Are we now a life sciences hub? Or is this map fraying at the edges?

There is a tendency for cartographers to forget that these maps into Singapore's future are massive social programs. That citizen's lives are at stake. Cartographers build these maps, fill the maps with beautiful embellishments, achieve a scale beyond even 1 : 1. But this has always been the template of Singapore map-building. The founding father, MM Lee, was the foremost cartographer. He mapped Singapore from Third World to First, involving first and foremost a massive social program to create a population able to fulfil the needs of the simultaneous industrialisation program.

Subsequent mappings have been less spectacular in visible success. From Elia Diodati, there is a pessimistic paper by Paul Krugman; suggesting that Singapore's success is perhaps one-off and cannot be replicated again. We achieved almost universal literacy, its not possible to train the entire population to be PhD holders. In many aspects, Krugman's paper illuminates various social maps in Singapore today. chief of which is the foreign talent program. It is a form of social engineering and programming. In regime thinking, it is a requisite for the map of Singapore to be realised. For the map to work, to be successful.

There is a funny thing about maps. Most times, you never see people drawn into maps. The cartographers usually pay more attention on aspects of territorial accuracy, legend-ising structures, detail of relief. People are usually not part of maps. The problem is of course, when the cartographers lose themselves in the exactitudes of crafting that map. Lost in the measuring of longitudes and latitudes. Lost in the intricacies of detailing the relief and beautifying the map. They create a perfect representation. A perfect map. But it is useless, cumbersome and left to decay.

Now do you understand? Why the need to connect with the people?

But time and again, we fall into that rote template established by our founding father, the pre-eminent cartographer. and when we build this new map, will we again forget to draw people into these maps? You do not need people to be cartographers. But you need a radical and creative deconstruction of cartography. Can we have a map of singapore with people in it?

Borges ultimately has the answer. and so as this entry began with him, it ends with too with this dead and blind writer, half a world away :

"Dictatorships foster oppression, dictatorships foster servitude, dictatorships foster cruelty; more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy"


PS : For those interested in my earlier entry on HWZ, bloggers Cobalt Paladin and Tan Gowing have their views on the valuation of HWZ and perhaps, the un-soundness of the deal. They are of course, more accurate than me.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Since there is so much hoopla over hip-hop and what it means to be hip-hop in the context of Singapore blogging, lets put up three stories of hip hop and see where it goes.

There was once a white rapper named Vanilla Ice. He had a monster hit called Ice Ice Baby which is widely acclaimed as the biggest selling rap single in history. Ice Ice Baby made Vanilla Ice phenomenally big and ultimately, it was also the reason that led to his fall. In the world of rap and hip-hop, a genre of music inextricably associated with Black culture and which prides itself on being real and from the streets, credibility is always a big aspect of the music. Vanilla's spectacular success with Ice Ice Baby naturally created a backlash since he was white and pretty. The Black community accused Vanilla of exploiting hip hop to make money. Purists accused him of turning mean, hard-edged rap into candy floss music with weak-ass lyrics. Vanilla's spectacular success meant that some form of image branding was necessary. To enhance his cred, an "authorized" Vanilla biography had him growing up in the mean streets of Miami where he earned his legit status as a rapper. This were all lies of course. The fabrications were exposed when a group of high school students from Miami researched Vanilla's background and found that he actually grew up in Dallas, Texas. His real name, Robert Matthew Van Winkle, was also exposed. Paradoxically, as part of his image branding, Vanilla was draped in amazingly ridiculous outfits and even acted in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the sequel. How these balanced the cred-building fabrications is beyond comprehension. What followed was the downfall of Vanilla. Flopped albums, drug abuse, failed suicide. Eventually, he retired from the industry, went into motor-racing, found God and resurfaced as an emo rock-rapper in the mold of RATM or Korn. He enjoyed limited success and seemed unable to shed off the baggage of Ice Ice Baby.

If one googles Vanilla Ice, the story is not as simple, according to Vanilla himself. Vanilla claims that he was dazzled by his initial success and eventually got into everything for the money. Including $850,000 just to put the word "authorized" on his biography which was written by his manager. He claims to have been manipulated like a puppet by his manager and his label. And his re-invention into rock rap is mostly therapeutic. Something that is the "real" him. Money is not the motivation since he had made such a ridiculously large amount off his Ice Ice Baby days. He remains in the wastelands of the music industry, performing small medium-sized gigs, cutting and selling records in modest numbers. Any headlines he makes is perpetually shadowed by his days as Vanilla Ice of Ice Ice Baby.

There were once two German models who were spotted by a record producer and hired to become the band Milli Vanilli. Their first single, Girl You Know Its True, achieved phenomenal success and created this new genre of dance-rap, much like what you hear from the Black Eyed Peas today. Their album was so successful that they actually won the Grammy awards for Best New Act. Except that the two models were actually lip-syncing all the songs. Not only were they lip-syncing in live performances, they did not sing anything in their album. They were just fronting for the real singers who were deemed to be insufficiently eye candy. The scam was exposed when Milli Vanilli's producer, exasperated by the models' increasingly wild behavior and clamour to be the real singers, revealed the truth. Their Grammy was stripped, their careers plunged and of the two, one committed suicide while the other is a broken man, not even in the wastelands, but in the dumps.

There was once a rapper called Curtis Jackson. Born in the mean streets of Queen's Jamaica, he peddled cocaine and heroin as a kid, got busted for a litany of minor offences and eventually found fame as a mean-ass rapper, 50 cent. Along the way, he was beaten and stabbed by the producers of a rival record company, Murder Inc, and a few months later, shot nine times. He survived and went on to record Get rich or Die Tryin which sealed his status as The Rapper as we know it in the hip hop scene today. He maintains the feud, or beef, with another rapper, Ja Rule, who was from the same hood. Indeed, the violence in his life, the stabbing and shooting, is mainly attributed to this beef between him and Ja Rule. Entangled between them is a real gangsta, a drug lord of Jamaica Queens, Kenneth 'Supreme' McGriff. Critics of this hip hop violence voice their concern that both rap artists are trying to bank record sales on this blood feud. Songs in their albums are laced with threat rhymes targeted against each other. That real blood is spilled adds to the drama and perhaps marketing appeal of their albums. Except of course that real gangstas, when they get rich and famous, to the heady levels of 50 Cent or Ja Rule, actually try to go legit. Try to distance themselves from the hood. While these two try to get more cred, more street in them.

In most specialised musical genres like goth, indie, metal or hip hop, there is always this question of cred and whether you are a poser. A poser is akin to wearing a black Bon Jovi t-shirt and claiming yourself as a metal fan. In essence, its the music and whether you believe in or grew up in the entire sub-culture of the music that makes you a fan of these music genres. So the problem of the P65s is really this : you cannot connect by pretending or posing to be into hip hop. There is no cred and it is simply uncool. The fact that you are trying and putting effort to dance to a form of music which you do not like and know nothing about is not a plus point. It just shows that you are posers, wankstas. Thats all.

If you want to connect, work on your strengths. Parliament is to be convened soon. Thats where your mettle will be displayed. Thats where your cred can be built. Thats where you can really connect. Will you do it?

For a start, we can even discourse the banning of FEER. Go to the FEER website now and you will see three articles systematically dismantling Singapore and its foundational myths. Ripping the sham of meritocracy. Exposing the fragility of our financial system. Three articles which can still find their way easily into Singaporean homes in spite of the ban on FEER. Three articles which symbolise that Singapore's control systems are archaic at best and enbarassing at worst. Try to figure that out and forget about all this lip-syncing to hip hop business. This is where your mettle can be tested, where your cred can be built. But only if you dare to talk about it.

Quote of the Day --

You say you a gangsta but you never pop nothin'
We said you were a wanksta and you need to stop frontin'
You ain't a friend of mine,
You ain't no kin of mine,
What makes you think that I'ma run up on you with the nine
We do this all the time, right now we on the grind
So hurry up and copy go selling nicks and dimes

Damn homie, in highschool you was the man, homie
What the fuck happened you?
I got the sickest vendetta, when it come to the chedda
Nigga you play with my paper, you gonna meet my berretta

Wanksta, 50 Cent

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Twilight Idols

I recently finished a book, Was, by Geoff Ryman. Picked up the book for five dollars at one of those mega warehouse book sales they hold in Expo occasionally. What clinched the book for me was its nomination for the World Fantasy Award. Into the first third of the book, I realised that it was fascinatingly anti-fantasy, an anti-genre fantasy story.

The book tells the fictional tale of Dorothy Gael who inspired the fictional character Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. For someone who never read the Wizard of Oz and often confused it with the other classic, Alice in Wonderland, reading this book brings the pleasurable feeling of being lost in the instertices between history, fiction and fantasy. But this is a hard book about life's realities, a hard book which has a child hanging himself within the first few chapters, child abuse, homosexuality in an age of puritanism, dysfunctional families, madness, AIDS, survival and ultimately hope. There is of course, a fantasy element to the book after all. In three pages and fairly ambivalent.

The story pivots around Dorothy Gael, a small city girl, who is orphaned, her parents and brother are victims of diphteria, and moved to stay with her aunt in 1890s Kansas. Away from the glitter of the big city, Dorothy moves into a farmhouse, sharing the living space with a puritanical, God-fearing, frontier aunt and a farmer husband, Uncle Henry. On the first night, she is scrubbed clean, to rid her of the taint of diph. Her golden locks are shorn. Her dog Toto is denied home and left in the open. Ultimately Toto dies in the wilderness; the revelation of his death woven with utter skill and power by the author. Her only friend, a neighbour, runs away and hangs himself by the railway. More realities follow as she grows up into a young woman. The narrative intersects with other characters in other times, living other realities, hard realities; but all involved or related somehow to the fictional story, Wizard of Oz.

The book employs a fantasy narrative to strip away the fantasy narrative of Wizard of Oz. Re-telling this child fairy tale with very different lens. It is a relentlessly bleak book most of the time. Committed to an asylum in old age, Dorothy Gael watches the film version of Wizard of Oz by Judy Garland in a brand new television donated to the asylum. "It was not like that" and she goes hysterical. Soon after, Dorothy dies, after sneaking out of the asylum and reliving a child game of making angel impressions in snow. A game she remembers playing with her only childhood friend; the boy who hanged himself.

I am still not too sure how this book came to be shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award. In one aspect, the book explores the fantasy genre, tracing its antecedents to darker realities, decadent roots. It is a fictional piece which unravels fiction, it seems much closer to reality. To life as we know it.

Closer to home, I am reminded of the movie 15 by Royston Tan. Other than the at times jarring cinematographic rips of Wong Kar Wai, that movie hit home because it reflected a reality which I believe we are all aware of but which we consciously try not tot hink it about. It is inherently an ugly film about Singapore. Abusive parents, the brutal monologue of Hokkien expletives by the father remains etched formly in my mind. Images of despondent youths, aimless lives. Any hope remaining in the film is in the bond of friendship despite life's realities; but even then, this bond is ambiguified by the film's glancing treatment of homosexuality.

I like Singapore Dreaming. Its one of the better made local movies. Technically, it is smoother than 15. But the narrative, in some sense which I cannot fully describe, further fictionalises the fiction of Singapore. Perhaps its the characters, perhaps its the ending, its hard to really pin it down.

The Latin root of fiction is "fingere" -- to form or create. In Italian, "fingere" is to feign or pretend. Fiction then, is an act of creating something which is feigned. Is fiction untrue then? It is hard to say. Because in its etymology, fiction really does not address the question of Truth. We know that it is an act of creation, to create a pretense. I can construct a fiction from facts?

More importantly, if fiction is a creation, than it can be de-created, un-created, counter-created. This is perhaps what I mean on further fictionalising the fiction of Singapore when there could be avenues to explore counter-fictionalisations of Singapore. This counter-movement, after many semantic translations, distils into difference. Real difference in Singapore. And not the simulacra of difference, that Nietzschean fear of the twilight of the Idols, when the absence of a basic reality is masked, and worst when there is no relation to reality, but pure simulacrum. This is the problem of Singapore.

Quote of the Day --

"... Then the whole system becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum: not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference." -- Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Cheating in Monopoly

Just read the news that SPH has acquired the portal, HardwareZone (HWZ) for a cool $7 million. The HWZ conglomerate of web entities is one of those pioneers of Sg cyberspace which translated a simple idea into virtual form very successfully. The idea was to bring Sim Lim Square into cyberspace. Initially through word of mouth coupled with a loyal group of forummers, gamers, techies, HWZ just grew and grew. There is a romantic story embedded somehow in this sale of HWZ to SPH. One of the occasional guests here, Cobalt Paladin and his distinctive avatar, is, if I remember correctly, some supremacy member in the HWZ forums.

HWZ is one of those places in local cyberspace where there is a real community, and a vibrant community as well. Other than the other favourite cyber-ghetto, Sammyboy's Kopitiam, it is not an exaggeration to say HWZ discussion forums' are the most well participated and have the most eyeballs. It makes sense for SPH to wish to corner HWZ. By the acquisition of HWZ, SPH has just leapfrogged its Digital Life capabilities by a few notches. For $7 million, one cannot fault the founders of HWZ; as reported, HWZ was really just a hobby which grew into this highly valuable asset, with a highly valuable community.

Just a few months back, SPH launched STOMP, which was meant to engage the young in cyberspace. Now, they have dealt some relatively small change to acquire HWZ which has a much longer history, ready-made community and captive eyeballs. Some of the HWZ forummers are unsettled; they wonder what will happen to the relatively free-wheeling forums once SPH steps in. The specter of being part of the responsible Bhavani bandwagon, or that cheeky nick, "the 140th" (which has become inextricably associated with the Straits Times), hangs uncomfortably behind this take-over of HWZ. The worry is somewhat misplaced; for $7 million, SPH could have built a HWZ clone and have enough change to build another Softwarezone. Just like STOMP. But they did not do this. So the value of HWZ is really in its community, its ready network of advertisers, its already hyper-links in your 'favourites' tab. The management model of HWZ under SPH will be interesting; especially for the discussion forums which are essentially run by volunteer mods. How will this spirit of voluntarism pan out? Will we see GE rally video clips like those we saw from the HWZ discussion forums? These are questions which cannot be answered yet.

But there is one feeling from this takeover of HWZ. For want of a better word, it is just "sian". This is Singlish lingo for helpless frustration or just apathy. The analogy is probably inaccurate but SPH taking over HWZ is like NTUC buying over Zouk. One cannot help but have this feeling that another medium, another place in cyberspace is lost with this sale of HWZ. If it was Creative which bought HWZ, there would probably be much less of this "sian" feeling. Its like having won the game Monopoly, SPH is now playing the online version, both as banker and player. And there is definitely no player, foreign or local, to stop SPH from buying at its will. Monopoly is depressing. Monopoly faking competition is utterly depressing.

Do you fault the HWZ owners for taking the $7 million? No, you do not. But you can fault an economic system which has created a situation where only SPH can offer $7 million. Or worse, a situation that any other competitor to SPH is MediaCorp, Temasek Holdings, Sembcorp, Singapore Technologies, NTUC or GIC. Imagine that there is a ceiling, an invisible ceiling to your entrepeneurial spirit. And this is not good at all.
Quote of the Day --

"Keep in mind that the ultimate goal is to have the most money and assets at the end of the game ... Win the game by snapping up all of the property on the board, ruining the other players and acquiring more money and assets than anyone else.", How to Play Monopoly
Note : To TOC984, yes you can re-publish any of the articles here. I practice a no rights reserved policy.