Saturday, April 14, 2007

A Song for Kitana, for Ben

When I read Ben's brief farewell post last week, I wondered whether Kitana would go too. Its pretty sad to read her farewell post. There is always this question why young Singaporeans are so unhappy, ungrateful to their country; why they want to leave, why they quit. Its not that at all, most of time. It is disillusionment. Helplessness mostly. Its tiring to keep resisting a reality that makes little sense. And in the end, you let go, you cannot live with the make believe anymore. Its like breaking up with your country.

It doesn't matter what you say
i just can't stay here every yesterday
keep on acting out the same
the way we act out
every way to smile
forgetand make-believe we never needed
any more than this
any more than this

Sometimes, you try hard to fight. You fight because you "fucking make more sense", to borrow a phrase from another good blog run by young Singapreans, TSFT. Borrowing from the blog's tagline, you enter this contest between the relentless march of ignorance and the unworthy timid intelligence obstructing progress. But, for some, this contest overwhelms their sensibilities and leaves them hollowed out,

It doesn't matter what you do
i know i'll never really get inside of you
to make your eyes catch fire
the way they should
the way the blue could pull me in
if they only would
if they only would
at least i'd lose this sense of sensing something else
that hides away

We are surrounded by this place called Singapore. We are told many things, many stories. But the stories themselves are hollow most of the time. we are promised many promises but they remain deferred. They remain there in that fictitious ending of that story of promises, always out of reach. And slowly, as you grow up, as you mature, you realise that this place called Singapore becomes alien to you. A strange land out of your reach,

From me and you
there're worlds to part
with aching looks and breaking hearts
and all the prayers your hands can make
i just take as much as you can throw
and then throw it all away
i throw it all away
like throwing faces at the sky
like throwing arms round


i stood and stared
wide-eyed in front of you
and the face i saw looked back
the way i wanted to
but i just can't hold my tears away
the way you do

It is not idealism. It is not wrong to think of that something in Singapore that is always hidden away and try to will it into existence. This need is part of politics, the political life of any society, whether totalitarian, authoritarian or democratic. But like all political struggles against the odious system, the odious machine, it grinds you down, tears your sensibilities to pieces, wears you out, leaves you dry and you give up. It is not wrong to give up, it is infinitely better than giving in and living in this lie called the Singapore political life,

Believe i never wanted this
i thought this time i'd keep all of my promises
i thought you were the one i always dreamed about
but i let the dream go
and the promises broke
and the make-believe ran out...

I have said it before. When you are left helpless and without choice, it is okay to run, it is better than running from the darkness in the night. Because it is better than giving in. When you know it is not right, when it is wrong. Because it is better than smiling and forgetting in this make-believe that you do not need any more than this, because you know there's nothing else you can really do.

It doesn't matter what you say
i just can't stay here every yesterday
like keep on acting out the same
the way we act out
every way to smile,


and make-believe we never needed
any more than this
any more than this

and every time i try to pick it up
like falling sand
as fast as i pick it up
it runs away through my clutching hands
but there's nothing else i can really do
there's nothing else i can really do
there's nothing else i can really do
at all...

So a song for Kitana, for Ben. Thanks for the great writing. Hope you will resurrect soon. All the best as you both find your lives to live.


Words adapted from The Cure, A Letter to Elise

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

On Abstraction

In representative Governments, citizens elect their representatives to articulate their voices, their grievances, their accolades in the halls of government. These representatives are elected to represent the citizens. Because in the halls of government important decisions are made to distribute finite resources and also enact laws and regulations governing this distribution of resources. When such important decisions are made, the representatives of the citizens debate this distribution. Hoping to secure a favourable distribution for those they represent.

This is the basis of a debate. These representatives seek to influence the decisions for the citizens they represent. The different representatives are articulating for their citizens, conveying their voice into the halls of government. Even if the representatives of their citizens fail, the voice of his citizens are recorded in the annals of government. A record which states clearly that a dissenting voice was made in the event that some time in the future, the debated policy fails and accountability is sought. The representative has fought for his citizens even if he lost. Articulated their views, their voice. The representative of the citizens is precisely this, he represents his citizens. He is their conduit to channel their voice into the halls of government.

There is a breakdown when the representatives, start to represent the party they belong to. Rather than act as the conduit to represent the citizens, they end up representing the party. When this happens, there is little need for debate in the halls of Government. The representatives are not debating. They are representing their party. And the party is made to represent the concept, for example, the concept of Singapore. Than the chain of representation is lost when citizens becomes subsumed into the concept "Singapore" or the other favourite concept "little red dot".

Excerpts from the various CNA reports on the Parliamentary debates :

"Most of the over 20 MPs who spoke on the issue on Tuesday supported the salary rise." -- CNA report

Those who opposed the pay rise unequivocally were the two Opposition MPs, Low Thia Khiang and Chiam See Tong. The only MPs from the ruling party who gave qualified objection to the pay increase were Inderjit Singh and Lim Biow Chuan. Their comments are below :

"How do we answer the man-in-the-street when we're told that about one-quarter to one-third of the expected revenue increase this year from the GST is going to be for the proposed ministerial and civil service salary increases, about $240 million, I was told?" -- Ang Mo Kio MP Inderjit Singh

"I struggle to understand what a top Admin Officer aged 32 at grade SR9 has to worry about that will justify him receiving $363,000 a year … From many people's perspectives, they take no personal risk and are at best, paid employees." -- Marine Parade MP Lim Biow Chuan

Both Inderjit and Lim are raising in Parliament their citizens' unhappiness and concern over this pay increase. Both in their speeches, actually mentions the man-in-the-street and their perspectives. These two MPs are acting as a representative of their citizens, putting their questions, their Voice, into the halls of Government. They make qualified objections to the pay increase. They want to know how can they as representatives, go back and face their citizens. How do they answer to the people they represent? There is clear unhappiness from the people they represent.

We have other MPs from the ruling party, who are also representatives of the citizens, saying the following :

"MPs like Bishan-Toa Payoh's Mrs Josephine Teo, however, pointed out that ministers in other countries may make more money after their term in office ends, such as through public speaking." -- CNA report

As Molly points out, this argument is used by other MPs besides Josephine. And finally, we have the Minister in the thick of the action saying :

"This little red dot is very special because all of us have taken the trouble to take care of it very very well. All Singaporeans have worked hard to make Singapore special. The government is a special government - carefully constructed, bringing in the best people so that it can move Singapore forward, even with all the disadvantages that we have - the lack of resources, the position that we are in the region and in the world. And, Singapore is helped along by a first-class, excellent, efficient, uncorrupted public service that helps it to achieve Singaporeans' dreams." -- Minister Teo Chee Hean

The few excerpts demonstrate the process how "people" or the "man-in-the-street" often gets lost in Singapore governance. Perhaps "lost" is too strong a word, and to be more accurate, it is abstraction. How "people" becomes more and more abstracted in this process of Parliamentary debate. All the unhappiness and concerns of the "people" has become abstracted in that imaginary spiel by Minister Teo. Singapore, Singaporeans, little red dot, us, best people. In that little spiel, the people becomes an imagined concept.

Quote of the Day --

"Simple-minded ones like me can never realize eternal truths without constantly blundering and failing. Pray, forgive my errors and my rude speech. Instead of treating me as a mere monkey by birth, as I myself was content to think, you have elevated my status, and honoured me. After piercing my body with your arrow, and when I am about to die -- you are touching my understanding with a supreme illumination ..." -- The Ramayana as narrated by R.K. Narayan

Friday, April 06, 2007

On Fiction, History, Talent & Remembrance

In History, tyranny and oppression exist side by side with honour and valour. It is a necessary juxtaposition. The former warns while the latter inspires. the juxtaposition is what makes History mostly fascinating. A reader has asked how many noble men can we unearth if we excavate the tomes of Chinese history in light of the imaginings of the previous entry. The answer is many. But so too, in excavating the past, Chinese or otherwise, History is replete with examples which can support the reasoning behind the impending salary increase for civil servants and the Ministers.

What matters is really who owns the power to determine narrative, who owns the power to tell the Story. Who dominates the Wordscape, setting the frames of reference for discourse, setting the conduits into which citizens' arguments are channeled. And more often than not, History is made to escort the helpless concentration camp refugees into the gas chambers without lifting a finger in protest. Because History is mute and History is just words waiting for deliverance.

But still, all is not lost. Culture and belief systems in human society are products as much from stories which escape the rigors of History. And sometimes, these stories live through Time achieving a pseudo historical significance much greater than those real Heroes and Villains from the recorded past. Epics like the Illiad and the Ramayana live in spite of Time, constantly finding rebirth and new representations in modernity as comics, as movies, as art, as dance, as plays, as computer and arcade games.

In this spirit, lets explore the Chinese epic novel telling the remarkable story of the Three Kingdoms. In many ways, this novel continues to live in culture and to inform modern values and belief systems. It is an apt story for Singapore because the novel, in one aspect, deals with the importance of political talent. Throughout the story, the rise and fall of kingdoms are determined by people of sublime talent. There is the coterie of great Generals recruited by Cao Cao, the ostensible villain in this epic. Generals, like the great Lu Bu or Zhang Liao, are not killed when defeated but co-opted into service in recognition of their talent. Then there are the talented strategists. Foremost being the famous Zhuge Liang. But peppered across the novel are other great talents like Pan Tong, who is the unsung hero of the Battle of Red Cliff. Lu Xun, the Wu strategist who perhaps starts the tragedy for the Shu kingdom of Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang. And Sima Yi, the Wei strategist who eventually united China under one kingdom.

Amidst the numerous colorful characters in the novel, Guan Yu is a mammoth. His prowess are such that when trapped and at the mercy of Cao Cao, the latter offers him amnesty. Guan Yu responds with three conditions : that he will yield only if his lord's two wives are guaranteed safety, that he swear fealty only to the Han Emperor not Cao Cao and that he will be discharged from service if he finds the whereabouts of his lord, Liu Bei. Despite these terms, Cao Cao gladly takes Guan Yu into service. What follows is a period where Cao Cao tries his best to fete Guan Yu with riches to win his loyalty. The latter does not budge.

Throughout this period when Guan Yu is in Cao Cao's service, he bows to Cao Cao only once, when the latter presented Guan Yu with the most prized steed in the Kingdom, Red Hare. Cao Cao asks "I have sent you beautiful women, gold, rolls of silk ... and never did you condescend to bow. Now for this horse, you keep bowing. Do you value a beast above humans?". In reply, Guan Yu says "I admire this horse for it travels a thousand li in one day ... it will allow me to reach my brother (Liu Bei) in a single day if his whereabouts are known." True enough, when Guan Yu finds out that Li Bei is alive, he seeks discharge from Cao Cao's service. Despite the latter's entreaties, promise of wealth, of power, implicit threats of harm, Guan Yu leaves, escorting Liu Bei's wives, with his honor intact.

Across the novel then, there is a fierce competition for political talent. The story of how Liu Bei making three trips and beseeching Zhuge Liang to be his adviser is one indication. The delight of men of power in the novel when generals or strategists defect or are removed is another.

For Liu Bei, the ostensible Hero of the novel, he is blessed with the best General and the best strategist : Guan Yu and Zhuge Liang. They stay loyal to him even when the cause is dying or to all effect, dead. For Zhuge Liang, he could have taken Liu Bei's throne upon his death but he does not do so. He stays loyal to the Shu-Han House and tries but fails to fulfill Liu Bei's dream of restoring the Han Dynasty.

The novel, Three Kingdoms, if interpreted by the rational, self-seeking individual, the cynic and the political realist will tell you: virtue and merit does not win the political struggle. But these same people forget that in the epic, none of the monarchs of the Three Kingdoms won. The epic ends with the family of Sima Yi, usurping the power of the Cao family, and finally re-uniting China. More importantly, these people will ignore the fact that what endures from Three Kingdoms is not Sima Yi, he is always forgotten. What endures is the character like Guan Yu. He is so venerated that he has become a Deity, a God who is prayed to still by the Police and the Chinese underworld, the triads. In the novel, all the characters including Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang and also Guan Yu have failings. But in folk understanding, they are remembered for the values they represent in totality. And these are the "talent" that are remembered across Time. The values they represent in pursuit of their political goals.

Three Kingdoms is a story that makes sense even if it is fictional. We are living in a political moment now that makes no sense even if it is reality.

Quote of the Day –

“Bold in arms by dint of godlike might
He knew his letters in a scholar’s right.
Like glare of day, his heart reflected true,
His Spring and Autumn honor touched the clouds –
A shining spirit to live through History,
Not just the crowning glory of a world in three.” – Ode to Guan Yu, anonymous Chinese poet, cited in Three Kingdoms, Luo Guan Zhong

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Singapore Dreaming

This blogger has often been associated as bleak, cynical and dark. Perhaps even somewhat fundamentalist. So today lets take a journey in political imagi-nation. Lets imagine political possibilities for Singapore. We can even say lets dream. In a city of sadness and unhappiness, over the inevitability of the Government pay rise, perhaps dreaming is the only recourse for possible happiness. A possible smile. Of course, we all know that only fools dream. But in a moment now in which there is only right and no wrong, surreal is real, illogical and contradictory is fundamental and logical, then maybe to be a dreaming fool is to be normal.

There is a groundswell of unhappiness over the inevitable pay increase. The media overdrive, the discomfort of the neutrals, the increasingly hapless justifications for its necessity, for its need by the politicians, all point to this unhappiness. At the same time, as how public policy is often decided in Singapore, when a problem is cited as threatening the fundamentals of Singapore, there is also a disillusionment that the pay increase will happen. That it is inevitable.

There is a political, or realist answer to why this is so. The ruling regime is at the zenith of its political power. If we were to dissect the physics of power in Singapore, the ruling regime presently, in the immediate post election year, has the maximum raw naked political power. And this allows them to push two major unpopular policies in quick succession.

But lets imagine. Lets see on what the ruling regime calculated its political risks.

First. There is a confidence in the ruling regime that people will forget. Come a time when its political power is on the waning cycle, the ruling regime will aid in this forgetting. They believe that the repercussions of their two unpouplar policies will not affect them negatively five years down. This is based on their belief, that like the past, Singaporeans will simply forget and accept the reality as time passes by.

Second. And more critically, the ruling regime believes that no one from within their core group will break ranks. The ruling regime takes this political risk. So long as they maintain a united front, the policies, however unpopular, will be implemented and forgotten. The policies are legitimate and justified. The policies maintain their sanctity only if those who ostensibly back these policies remain united.

It is from the second assumption where we embark on our journey of imagi-nation. Lets imagine, that there is one Minister, someone among that group who has been identified as a talent supreme, who does not believe in this pay increase policy. Lets imagine he is a noble person and that his choice of occupation is driven not by the salary but a desire to foster change from within.

In this imagi-nation, the current political moment represents an enormous political opportunity. Imagine that this "talent" resigns from office as a form of personal protest over the pay increase. Imagine the immediate political aura that will attach to this person. Imagine how much political power he can accrue by this act of noble rejection. He becomes an instant Singaporean. Someone who represents Singapore. Represents Singaporeans. Someone descended from the towers of ivory.

There will of course be accusations by his former colleagues. That he has embarked on populism. That his actions threaten the fundamentals of Singapore, and the usual routine of character assassination. But yet, as someone already identified as a talent supreme, the accusations have much less gravitas than the usual thrown at the Opposition politicians. So maybe, this one rebel politician maintains his integrity. Maintains his aura of political significance.

And then we imagine this Singaporean, who has in one simple act of protest, gained the symbolic authority of a million. Imagine then, this Singaporean, who will be a living symbol of remembrance, to ensure that forgetting does not come easy over this policy of the pay increase.

Imagine that he possibly allies with an existing Party or he forms his own Party. And then perhaps, just perhaps, this journey of imagi-nation ends with him mounting a political challenge that the ruling regime has never seen since the days of the founding fathers of Singapore. Since those days when the founding fathers fought their political battles on simple acts of protest as well. Since those days when the founding fathers fought not for money in their pockets but for dreams and ideals.

Imagine or dream. Our fool's dream.

Quote of the Day --

""It is a fool's prerogative to utter truths that no one else will speak." -- Neil Gaiman, Sandman #19 "A Midsummer Night's Dream"