Monday, February 26, 2007

i hate i love tell me why

Watched two movies recently. Both dealt with the issue of drugs. One Asian, the other Western. One dealt with crack, the other with heroin.

Protege is a fairly archetypal HK movie. It is a slick look at the entire economy of heroin trafficking from the poppy fields in Mae Sai to the streets of HK. Seen through the eyes of an undercover narc who is being groomed as the successor of the ailing drug boss. Moral complexity is thrown in as the narc gets involved with a single mother heroin junkie who lives next door. As typical of most such slick HK movies, it suffers from insufficient characterisation. While we dealt a look at the mechanics of the entire economy of drug trafficking, motivations remain occluded. The drug boss character suggests the usual understanding, if there is demand, he supplies. A detachment from the junkies. Highly unlike a typical HK movie however, there is a uncustomary lack of moral ambivalence in this film. Instead, the message is as clear as the silhouette of a Raintree standing proud on an empty field : Drugs are bad. They kill. And if you traffic drugs into Singapore, you are dead. Dead. Dead.

The other movie is "Half Nelson". It is not exactly an archetypal Hollywood movie. The lead actor, Ryan Gosling has made a name of himself starring in such indie flicks with fairly complex premises. His first success was "The Believer", which has him starring as a Jewish Neo-Nazi. If you thought Edward Norton rocked in American History X, than you should watch Gosling in Believer. In Half Nelson, Gosling reprises a role of conflicted identity. He is a fascinating History teacher in an inner city Brooklyn junior high school by day and a spiraling coke addict at night. His separate lifes meet when one of his students catch him high and sprawled with a coke pipe in the gym toilet after a tough basketball game.

The student, played by Shareeka Epps, is herself a "victim" of the hood. With a brother serving time for drug-related offenses, a single mother and her brother's chums who are "looking out" for her and tempting her into the world of crack dealing. A crack runner. Gosling battles a crumbling life, crumbling ideals, forgotten students. Seeking life through the crutch of cocaine. There is a bar scene when one of his former student's father walks up to him and thanks him for inspiring her daughter to History majors in Georgetown. He tries hard but cannot remember who the student is. It is a poignant and perhaps, most haunting scene. The film builds towards that pivotal climax when student deals crack to teacher in a motel. It is a scene worthy of any movie made in recent memory.

There is a quiet bleakness and subtlety to this film. It is compellingly genre-twisting; there is none of the stirring Dead Poet Society or Coach Carter motivation of the teacher-student movie dynamic. There is no big play on the white teacher and colored students inspiration narrative. It is very much a simple and truthful movie. Which despite its hard look at life, offers some hope. Not much. But still some. There is an exercise of choice in the end. And this exercise of choice gives that faint glint of hope.

Running in parallel in Half Nelson is a narrative of Gosling in class as he tries to teach dialectics, historical agency and change to his students. The principal wants him to follow the curriculum and teach the civil rights movement. He, on the other hand, is more interested in getting across Hegelian dialectics to the children. To get them to see the movement underlying the CRM. Why change happened. And more importantly, why change can happen and must happen.

There is none of the moral loud-hailing as in Protege. Morality in Half Nelson is nuanced, approximating a reality, a truth rarely seen in fiction. In one movie, you stand as a detached audience, learning a lesson. In the other, the distance between screen and you is as fine as a knife's edge.

Despite our weaknesses, despite our failings and our imperfections, there is a possibility of change. Why change happens, why it can happen and why sometimes it must happen. It begins with choice and the exercise of choice.

Quotes of the Day --

"I hate and I love and who can tell me why?" -- Catullus. Opening lines from The Believer

"There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop." -- Mario Savio, UC Berkeley student and leader of Free Speech Movement. Excerpt shown in Half Nelson

Friday, February 23, 2007

Wurk Wurk

During the days before WarCraft became MMORPG, you played God, built a fortress, built an economy, raised an army and basically then crush the opposition, the enemy. The most basic unit then was the peon, the peon who automatically collects gold from the mine, chops the trees for wood, construct the buildings and repair stuff. When you clicked on these peons, they had this range of very cute auto replies "yes master?", "wurk wurk".

Peons were very important even though they were infinitely less sexy than an ogre mage or a death knight which had replies like "who u wanna kill?". These wurk wurks collected the stuff that made it possible for God to achieve his final objective of territorial domination. If you played LAN multiplayer WarCraft then, one strategy to strangle your opponent was simply to ghost some mages near the enemy's gold-mine and cast some tornadoes or hexes around the area where the endless stream of peons enter and exit from. The peons died fairly quickly. They did not really have much life-points. So, kill the peons, gain a strategic advantage in resource building. No one can wurk wurk. And you win the game.


In the time before the British came to SEA, wars between different kingdoms, for example the Thai and the Burmese, were interesting conflicts. Forget for a moment the romanticised image of thunderous charging elephant armies and wild carnage. Whenever an army succeeded in conquering a city, they sacked it. They took the treasures (an example is the famous Emerald Buddha residing now in Bangkok) and then they took the people. In those pre nation-state days, there was no point really in holding on to land. Boundaries were non existent. Forest and jungles lay between jewel cities. Land was abundant. But people were not. Each conflict, whatever the lofty justifications, was an exercise in mass kidnapping. Exodus wars.


Came into Changi last week amidst the glow of the Budget. It was quaint, flipping through an actual copy of the Straits Times. Speed reading through a book of Hallmark cards labeled Hope and Inspiring. Info-graphics, numbers, choice quotes in an almost surreal holographic presentation. The paper glowed. The poor are saved. No more leaping on the MRT tracks. The paper was heavy with happiness. Heavy with glow. Walking towards immigration, a huge embracing sign "workcome home" beckons. Workcome to Singapore.

Two percent GST increase. To save the poor. It almost makes sense now.

Two percent corporate tax cut. Its an actual tax cut in a climate of a major consumption tax increase and hand-outs to the deserving poor. Two percent. Corporate tax. You see rising transport costs, rising cost of living and there is a God-given two percent corporate tax cut. Happiness.

Corporate tax decrease Goods Services Tax increase the Deserving Poor are Saved.

Workcome to Singapore. wurk wurk.


In the taxi, the driver is not very happy. In Hokkien, hor li kway tui, gia doe deng kway. Gives you a drumstick but takes back a chicken. Followed by that same old same old chuckle. Anger? Resignation? Frustration? lies dormant. Or is this hollow chuckle just dormant lies? This same old chuckle, hapless happiness perhaps.


Recently received a snail mail that was not from a bank. It was an aerogramme. A piece of paper that you can write something on, fold it into an envelope and send to wherever in the world. When having pen-pals was in. The aerogramme contained CNY greetings and this line "... remember water pump we build down hill? It broken now. :-) but ok, we know to make pump ok next month. Now we pump water with leg haha ..." This aerogramme glowed too. Made it much lighter than a gramme.


When you play WoW or DOTA now, peons no longer feature. They did away with this unit. Re-ordered the game economy. Made it faster and more real. No more wurk wurk. In DOTA and WoW just jazz up your heroes. Hurl the sacrifice troops. Keep the heroes alive and all will be fine. You win.


It was a relatively quiet CNY this time round. Same questions about wurk wurk from the retired parents. The inevitable slant towards Singapore, but even then, the anger, once expressed with countless classical Chinese analogies, seemed to have become slightly more empty, more hollow. Anger remains but despair has perhaps set in. Helplessness probably.


Happy Belated New Year and hope all of you will fare well in the coming year.

Quote of the Day --

"The chief's possessions were few: an arrangement of artfully woven floor mats, a couple of spears, a tall blowgun leaning in the corner ... and, incredibly, hanging at eye level on the otherwise bare wall, a trio of framed pictures, the official government photograph of President Suharto, the standard lithograph of a thorn-crowned and teary Jesus, and, in the elevated place of honor in between, a black and white glossy of a smirking Jack Nicholson ... 'My God, this damn photo is actually signed ..." -- Stephen Wright, Going Native

Monday, February 05, 2007

Mambo Jambo & A'Tuin the Turtle

This post set me thinking. This issue of anonymity or the use of pseudonyms in cyber-space is a recurring motif. Whenever I encounter this motif, the movie Dead Man instantly springs into my mind. I have mentioned this Jarmusch flick before, its an anti-genre Western movie. The protagonist is about a gunslinger (Johnny Depp) who goes by the name William Blake and his encounter with an Indian, named Nobody or No Name (Gary Farmer), who believes that the gunslinger is the White Man slayer, the poet William Blake. Its a movie about identity, the power of identity and the power of words. Associative power. In my mind, was the formative beginning of a perhaps, eloquent entry on anonymity.

But I read the post again and realized that its structure, its placement of argument, ideas would render anything I write inconsequential.

I read the post again the third time and realized that in the end, the larger point the author is making needs no response. It is a good and well-intentioned post.

And so, in line with the mood of Wednesday mambo jambo nights at Zouk, in line with the imagery of honour in feudal Japan, I re-publish this little koan from an earlier entry. Its by Yukio Mishima, a writer with a checkered life history, titled "Nansen Kills the Cat":

There was a cute kitten that became an object of contention between the Eastern and Western wings of the great temple. The chief priest, Nansen, catches hold of the kitten and asks the contenders, "Why should I not kill the kitten?" No one speaks. Nansen decapitates the kitten. When the chief disciple, Joshu returns from his errand and realises what has transpired. He removes his muddied shoes and places them on his head. Nansen laments that if Joshu had been present, the kitten's life would have been spared. Nansen's action is the Murdering Sword. Insensibility begets a practice where the violent cutting away removes all contradiction and discord between Self and Other. Joshu's action represents the Life-Giving Sword. He cuts himself with such a humiliating gesture that he demonstrates the way of Buddha.

In the Discworld of Terry Pratchett, people and cities exist on the huge shell of a Turtle, A’Tuin, while it slowly swims through space. In DiscWorld, logic and physics do not hold much sway. It is belief that matters. If something is believed strongly in DiscWorld, it is true.

Quote of the Day --

“A’Tuin is the only turtle ever to feature on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram …” – Terry Pratchett

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Deep Throats

Note : do read a fellow treacherous idiot, dearest Molly.
The news that PAP activists on anonymous surfing duties, to blend propaganda into discourse does not really surprise me. What did raise my eyebrows is the fact that the ST actually reported a leak. A leak of ruling party Internet discourse strategies from no less an anonymous source. Perhaps next week, we will have DeepThroat on BlogTV, suitably shadowed, pixellated and deep-throated.

Is this DeepThroat a hero then? Someone working behind the lines. Someone who feels that this is not right. Someone who thinks that this is something that the public should know and to react to. Someone who believes that the integrity of the PAP should guarantee that its tactics remain above the board. That it should fight its narrative wars above board, without recourse to subterfuge, without recourse to penetrating the underground. Against this resort to fighting terror with terror? The choice of words in the report is revealing. Its a counter-insurgency. This means that there is an insurgency in cyber-space. An insurgency? What is this insurgency that merits a counter insurgency?

This is perhaps the most indicative implication of the report. There is an insurgency in Singapore cyberspace. An insurgency no less. An insurgency of words? Of literature? An insurgency of Art? Personally, its all the preceding and more. Much more. Much more to the extent that the PAP has reneged on its long-held belief that the Net is just a space to vent. They are seeing the existence of an insurgency of action. An insurgency of sharing. An insurgency that causes hearts and minds to waver. An insurgency that represents the embryonic ferment of a consciousness of what Singapore can be, what is its meaning apart from the state-sanctioned narratives. And its source is the Internet and its structure.

That this counter-insurgency action is the direct result of GE 2006 means only one thing. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, the influence of the Net on elections is significant. It is significant that in GE 2006, there was so much action, so much belief, so much passion as Singaporeans basically ignored the threat of regulations. This is what numbers can do. It renders regulations useless. Numbers overwhelm the State instruments of power. Numbers cause the enforcers themselves to waver in their self-belief. Its the same numbers arising from the NKF scandal.

And the objective of the counter-insurgency unit is to stop this coalescing of numbers. Its to plant seeds of doubt. Its to divide. Not overtly. Not overt propaganda at all. It will be a clever manipulation of words. Manipulation of reason. It will be the gentle and subtle prising apart of collective action. To keep Singaporeans separate. Alienated from one another. So that misery is a personal affair. Compartmentalised, misery becomes, in the psyche of the Singaporean, a personal failure. Compartmentalised, misery makes the Singaporean blame only himself. He is just not good enough to compete. Its his own fault that he is in such dire straits. If misery is allowed to become a collective, Singaporeans will realise that the problem is not them but the system. That there is a structural reason for their misery. If misery becomes a collective, insurgencies are born.

This is the objective of the counter-insurgents then. It is not to sell the Government message. That is the superficial level. It is to keep everyone separated. It is to introduce suspicion and mistrust into discourse. It is to divide ultimately.

It is inevitable that this counter-insurgency unit will happen. That it took so long is the surprise. That it is leaked to the ST and reported is another surprise. The motives of DeepThroat can only remain in the realm of speculation. Is he a hero? Or is this a deliberate leak. A deliberate leak to tell those in the sidelines to remain in the sidelines. A signal that there are anonymous agents around. Ready to report on you. A signal that They are in cyberspace too. Breeding mistrust and fear. Selling the party line? That is the superficial line. If you have a counter-insurgency unit, its not to do sales. Its much more than that.

There is one fatal weakness in this strategy. Its that they fail to see that the Net, or cyber-space is only the medium. The insurgency is happening because it is reflective of reality. Of the sentiments of the many. And they are using the Net only as a medium to mediate their feelings. No matter how sophisticated the counter-insurgency unit, this will be its singular failing.

The memory of numbers, of collective action will not fade so easily. Because it was through this medium that a sense of empowerment was born. A belief that there is a possibility of action. An act of uploading a rally video as a symbol of collective resistance. A belief that other Singaporeans will do it too. This memory will not fade. These feelings will remain.

when the time comes, this collective action will sweep the counter-insurgents aside. As it has already been done before in Singapore.

Quote of the Day --

"Wherever there is discontented, hungry or ill-treated peasants or craftsman, there is a potential heretic. That is why I shall not cease to collect information and to follow as closely as possible the fates of these unbelievers, to supply Your Lordship with new material to evaluate. I have nothing further to say except that I kiss Your Lordship's hands, imploring one to whom I owe such unbounded respect, to let me continue to lend these poor eyes to the cause of God. Your Lordship's loyal servant, Q" -- Luther Blissett, Q

Friday, February 02, 2007

Proposed Free Speech Curbs Helps Speechless & Grows Economy

There are two things happening today. First, there will be a seminar on free speech at NUS. One of my favourite bloggers, Mr Wang, will be at the seminar. Second, it looks like the fall-out from the racist podcast will get wider. There is an inevitability that free speech will come under scrutiny again, specifically free speech in the Internet, in the coming weeks. And most, if not all, attention will gravitate toward the more delicious and controversial podcast. It is probable that the podcast, as an event, will overshadow the seminar, and more importantly, perceptions and important Government policies, will be shaped more by the podcast than the seminar. At a cost to free speech.

When the NKF scandal broke into the public domain, by dint of the lawsuit between Durai and SPH, there was a massive outcry. And most people forgot, or the media did not really highlight the truth that talk of NKF excesses were already circulating widely in the Internet a year before. A year before the scandal broke, people were talking freely about the abuses of Durai and his NKF. It was this stirring in cyberspace which got the reporters sniffing. From that came the ST article that incensed Durai. While the SPH lawsuit was pending, Durai took to court two Singaporeans who made claims of NKF excess in the web. Durai won both cases. In fact, both cases were not contested. Both Singaporeans threw in the towel. They paid the price for their free speech. When Durai faced SPH next, "Free Speech" won. "Free Speech" of the ST. "Free Speech" which was no different from the free speech of the two Singaporeans. "Free Speech" won because it had money, it had power to contest the case in the courts. To fight the defamation charge against "Free Speech".

The point is simple. The Government is correct. There is indeed free speech in Singapore. But free speech around the world and particularly in Singapore, is essentially an expensive commodity. This is a point articulated most eloquently by Chomsky. In Singapore, there is free speech, but it is relatively more expensive than in the US, for example. Free speech is a commodity which is so expensive that only some can afford this in Singapore. Most Singaporeans cannot. Free speech in Singapore is most expensive when it is co-located in space which has high visibility. Parliament space. Rally space. Newspaper space. Broadcast media space. In these spaces, free speech in Singapore has an astronomical price. The Mr Brown saga attests to this.

So where is free speech cheap in Singapore? It is cheap when there are less than three humans within earshot of you. It is very cheap in your bedroom. It is cheap in cocktail party sniggers. It is cheap in coffeeshops. In these spaces, free speech is relatively cheap. As a matter of fact, it could be really free. So long as you whisper. Keep your volume low. Its very cheap free speech.

For a very brief moment in time, free speech was cheap in Singapore cyberspace, ridiculously cheap as compared to the other spaces in Singapore where free speech is located. The regime perception then, most manifested by MM Lee when he once dismissed a NUS undergrad to "go set up a website", was that this was junk space. Useless space. They could not see that this cyber-space has potentially the same impact as the other astronomically expensive spaces in Singapore with regard to free speech.

It was a brief moment. The case of the two Singaporeans against NKF was probably the beginning of rising costs of free speech in this cyber-space. The beginning of a legal-juridical awareness of this space that was anomalous to all the other spaces where free speech was expensive. A space that made a mockery of those expensive spaces. Defamation makes its appearance, but this case is a poor example for the law-makers, especially in light of Durai's subsequent capitulation. Then, the AcidFlask case happened and defamation reared its head again, this time with greater prominence and confidence. A hike in the price of free speech.

Soon after, the racist blogs case, the Holocaust blog case happen in quick succession. And we are introduced to Sedition. Defamation's ugly little twin. The cost of free speech in cyber-space rises another notch.

As GE 2006 neared, regulations were publicised expressly to make free speech expensive. But the regulations flopped. Too many "websites" and not enough authority to stem the tide. The regulations were like ticketing-gates except that the gates were ignored. People just walked around, above, under the gates. The numbers made it impossible to manage.

For a while, after this regulatory fiasco, the price of free speech in cyber-space stabilised. There was and is still now a flourishing of free speech in cyber-space. The number of sites, blogs talking freely about Government, about policies (as evinced in the ongoing death penalty discourse) has increased dramatically since GE 2006. Its still early days. But its important days. To foster the art of discourse, the art of thinking, the art of speaking. The age of wonder. To experience relatively cheap free speech in Singapore. And from such experience, build a generation confident of a stepping over of spaces. From cyber to physical. Into a space like a seminar. Like this seminar on free speech in NUS. And this stepping over, can only occur when there is a cyber-space where free speech is still relatively cheap.

For the next week or so, listen carefully to the narratives that will surface when the story of this racist podcast is spun. Overcome the fear that these narratives will seek to invoke. Stay firm against the moral equivalence of these narratives. See through the narratives and understand that they seek to negotiate the price of free speech upwards another notch in this cyber-space. Less speech. Speech Less.

Remember this narrative?

Proposed GST rise helps lower-income group and grows economy

Don't let the racist podcast overshadow the free speech seminar at NUS. Its about the potentialities for a different Singapore, limited as they are already.

Quotes of the Day --

"Our strategy should be not only to confront Empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness -- and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we're being brainwashed to believe."

"There can never be a single story. There are only ways of seeing. So when I tell a story, I tell it not as an ideologue who wants to pit one absolutist ideology against another, but as storyteller who wants to share her way of seeing. Though it might appear otherwise, my writing is not really about nations and histories, its about power. About the paranoia and ruthlessness of power. About the physics of power."

-- Arundhati Roy, The Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Anybody Wanna Drink Before the War?

It is war. A war against drugs. In war, everthing goes baby. It is us against the monsters. This de-humanised enemy. It is war, in war we kill. In war, we hurt. In war, we destroy. It is war baby. So that we secure a future. It is war, so that we can be safe soon. It is war baby, so that our children will be saved, can be safe. It is war baby, we have to kill them. Its us or them. Us or them. It is war. And pray to God that only us will remain. Can remain. Remain standing. Justice. Infinite justice. Infinite war.

A recent book by Giogio Agamben "The State of Exception" explains this age of war. The book is the second segment of a tetralogy of the world we see today. This age of war, ofsiege. This world of war. infinite wars. It explains the theory and juriprudence of states of exception. It explains how law and war rhymes. It explains how moderns can wage wars of right, wars of righteousness. It is a lineage of exception. There is no war that is unjust. If law fails, there is always God. There are always exceptions.

War is ugly. But war is necessary. Its us dying or them dying baby. Think of the future. Our children. Our lives. Think of the future when there will be no wars. Imagine that. That utopia. When only we are left. Think of that baby. Think of that as we drink before the war. Think of that as we kill with heavy hearts. It is war baby. Those we kill are not humans. Collaterals.

It is war baby. Those monsters should know. Should know that it is war. Should know that we will kill them. Should know not to come into our kill zone. Should know about us. Should know. Should know. They should fucking know that this is a war. And in war, there is an exception. An exception that suspends these bastards as life. As human. An exception that strips them of humanity. An exception that justifies killing these vermin.

Ask the ghosts of Auschwitz. Ask the ghosts in the killing fields. Ask the ghosts in Rwanda. They should know. Should know that its war baby. Its always war. Us or them. Us or them. You want a drink? A drink before the war?

Go to bed baby. Take the children with you. Tell them its war baby. Its war for you, its war for them. For all of us. Tell them we are killing vermin. Make them understand. Its war baby. Go to sleep baby. Its war. Its right. Its just. Its us. Never them.

I'll come along soon baby. I'll come to bed soon. I'll come home soon. The war will end soon baby. It will end when all of the vermin are dead. Soon baby soon. Dead. Then it'll end baby. When They are all dead. I'll be home soon baby. Just need a drink. A little drink. Its war baby. Its war.

Quote of the Day --

"And you live in a shell
You create your own hell
You live in the past
And talk about war" -- Sinead O'Connor, Drink Before the War