Monday, March 26, 2007

The Queer Sensibilities of Singapore's Wordscape

The media is in overdrive. Spinning and spinning. Telling us the reasons why we have to pay 55% more to the Ministers and the top civil servants, of that stream known as the Administrative Service. No one expects an objection from the media. But not even a "concern" has been raised this time.

Instead, its a monopolistic narrative that calls upon the hallowed traditions of the Singapore Wordscape. The sense of crisis, of siege that will soon befall the Government if they are not paid more. That there will be a vacuum in Government. That the talent will leave or will not come. And without the talent, the Government suffers. And if the Government suffers, Singapore suffers. And if Singapore suffers, the Singaporeans suffer most of all.

This sense of impending doom, of competitiveness, that forces the Government to review salaries, forces them to accept the ignonimity of accepting 55% more money. It almost makes this salary review become noble. A form of noble-ness that is almost surreal. It is a review that becomes a ceremonial sacrifice by these talents to accept this necessary money. It is for the sake of Singapore that they make this sacrifice. Ultimately. It is for the good of Singapore. They take this 55% not because they need it, $290 is enough after all, but because the survival of Singapore needs them to accept this. So the narrative rolls across the Singapore Wordscape.

And the citizens look on, listening to and watching as this narrative embraces the Singapore Wordscape. Formulating their indignations, their counter-narratives, mostly in silence. Forming words, mostly in silence. Only in new media does dissonance surface. That this narrative, flattening the Singapore Wordscape with its moral loud-hailing, is perhaps only one side of the picture, one side of the fence, one level above in the hierarchy of political meanings in Singapore. But it is new media after all, where lies and truths are enmeshed in an adulterous embrace. Let this dissonance dissipate, as it always does, into the digital slipstream. This Cyberscape never ripples over-much into the Singapore Wordscape, never causes so much dissonance as to the tear the fabric of meanings in the Singapore Wordscape.

Many years ago, a counter-narrative was put forth by a writer of Singapore literature. A concern was raised. An affective divide was postulated. It happened in the old media. The traditional media. And Hell was unleashed. The OB dogs were born. These invisible OB hounds patrolling the Singapore Wordscape, sniffing for objections, sniffing for "concerns", sniffing for contrarianism. Since then, any counter-narrative cannot fail to escape the shadow of these hounds of Obaskerville, and it has come to be that the shadow of these mythical hounds overshadows subsequent attempts at counter-narrative. It is no longer worth the risk. And so a new sensibility is set in Singapore's Wordscape, and we forget how to articulate our "concerns". The illusion of chains weighs much heavier than the chains themselves.

When the hallowed traditions of the Singapore Wordscape are invoked : crisis, siege and most of all, Emergency, there is very little space to argue. The space for the articulation of "concerns" is diminished into font one. In an emergency, when survival is at stake, something drastic needs to be undertaken. Something painful. Something sacrificial. In this case, the salaries of the top talents of Singapore, those who define Singapore, have to be "reviewed" upwards. It is an emergency. Just like the emergency predicating the raise of GST and the cut in corporate tax.

When the hallowed traditions of the Singapore Wordscape are invoked, the invisible hounds are patrolling, sniffing and for that moment in Singapore Time, anomalies become normal. Right is right. Wrong is lost. Action does not lead to reaction. It leads to further affirmative action. Reality becomes skewed. Contradiction is logical and Time is suspended like a Trauerspiel. Only a futurity is in sight. A certain uncertainty of doom imminent if we do not accept the narrative, or buy into the constructed surrealism. And the citizens look on, mostly silent.

In an emergency, the Singapore Wordscape gives birth to contradictions and conundrums. They become exigent norms. And the citizens are supposed to understand that. They are supposed to be angry. But like the top talent, they sacrifice too. For the good of Singapore, they sacrifice their anger. A ceremonial sacrifice just like the top talent who sacrifice themselves to accept that 55%.

When the hallowed traditions of the Singapore Wordscape are invoked, a comforting silence envelopes the land. Soothing the seething, smothering the smoldering. The hounds of Obaskerville perform their perpetual vigil on Singapore's Wordscape while their fork-tongued* masters devise the meanings of crisis, siege, emergency, sacrifice, review for the good of Singapore.

* A term taken from Phillip Yeo in Aaron's blog. If anything, at least Phillip Yeo, who this author has termed a nomos empsuchon, is direct, has candour and, in his own way, more engaging than the politicians on display in blogosphere. Perhaps his engagement in its current form, as opposed to his previous method, suggests a newer understanding that the word "defamation" has many meanings, many inflections unique to the Singapore Wordscape, so much so that a win, loses its semantic meaning and becomes a loss instead.


Quote of the Day --

"... as he discovered in the course of his uncountable years that a lie is more comfortable than doubt, more useful than love, more lasting than truth, he had arrived without surprise at the ignominious fiction of commanding without power, of being exalted without glory and of being obeyed without authority when he became convinced in the trail of yellow leaves of his autumn that he had never been master of all his power, that he was condemned not to know life except in reverse, condemned to decipher the seams and straighten the threads of the woof and the warp of the tapestry of illusions of reality without suspecting even too late that the only livable life was one of show ..." -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Autumn of the Patriarch

Friday, March 23, 2007


There is often this refrain when Singapore is levelled with accusations over its poor record in personal liberties and various freedoms of expression. This refrain says that for stability and security, for the continued success and prosperity of the nation, our citizens give up certain rights. They give up these in exchange for security. For safety. For stability. Factors instrumental for Singapore's economic growth, social stability and continued wealth-making.

The nuance of giving up in this refrain is important. In the State narrative, there is an inflection of sacrifice, something noble, something very Spartan in this imagined giving up. It is giving up in return for a more lofty goal. A communitarian sacrifice. It is giving up something for the greater collective good. In this inflection, you give up your personal good, hapiness for a diluted good, diluted happiness which can be spread across the larger community. For the whole. For the best. Noble and pure indeed is this inflection, this nuance. But giving up has other nuances. Other inflections. Some people give up because they no longer have choice. Defeatist, defeated. They give up because there is no other way, no other recourse. They simply give up. In either nuance, when something is given up, can it ever be recovered?

But this is a digression, the point of this entry really is to question fundamentally what exactly it is Singaporeans have given up?

This voluntary giving up, this imagined consent in Singapore's imagined social contract. What exactly is given up? Is it a few scribbled words on a piece of paper popularly referred as a Consititution? Is it tacit assent to a few legal words scribbled onto paper known as legislation? Is it a physical space and what we can do in a physical space that is given up? Did we give up space? Or perhaps we give up some of our time, moments of our life, to be conscripted to the State's cause? Or did we give up some speech, words which cannot be spoken? Or did we give up some form of self-identity, something which defines yourself?

Do we even know what we gave up? When the refrain, of this noble giving up, appears in its various forms, disguises to legitimise policies of difference, regulations of restraint, laws of personal sacrifice. When we encounter this refrain in the name of national defence, future success, societal stability, what triggers in the citizens' minds?

Lets cast the suppositions wider. Perhaps, when you give up "certain rights", what actually happens is that a certain mode of thinking is erased. Imagine, that perhaps, what you really gave up is a certain way of thinking. You gave up thought. In your minds, this avenue of thought is closed off. You do not even think that it is something tangible that has been given up. Because you did not even experience what you supposedly gave up it in the first place.

This is pertinent indeed for Singaporeans who were born into a Singapore that has developed into a stable and secure system. The P65s? There is no basis for giving up when the "certain rights" are non existent in your mind in the first place. It is so much easier then, to give up something isn't it? You give up imagined, illusory, uncertain "certain rights".

You give up nothing actually. Because there is nothing in the first place. Just this message, these words, this refrain, reminding you of something you do not even know. Because the knowing requires thinking, requires experience and this is non existent. It is absent. A total absence across the spaces and times which constitute Singapore.

But yet, we are reminded often enough with the inflected refrain of giving up. Reminded that it is actually something tangible that is given up. Reminded of a presence. But in the citizens' minds, there is nothing. And the refrain passes us by. Like other contradictions which pass us by. And this giving up becomes a ceremonial giving up. And for the citizen, it is easy to give up these "certain rights". Because the erasure, the loss extends completely into your mode of thinking. You do not know what is there.

Quote of the Day --

"... for it was foreseen that the city of mirages would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth." -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude