Monday, April 28, 2008

Of Angry Journalists, Anger & the Evil Internet Again

I remember playing the board game Monopoly once with a group of children comprising my nieces and nephews. Being the only adult and the only person most familar with the game amongst a group of DOTA and Maple Story veterans, wily me started slowly, cornered some utilities and very soon owned the essential parts of Monopoly which squeezed the liquidity from the children. Then, one of my nephews, the youngest, who enjoyed the initial luck of the dice, pushed all the little green houses and little red hotels away from the board and whined that it was not fair. He did not want to play anymore.

Board games like Monopoly live through the ages because it make-believes very human emotions like greed, ability to handle failure, the embarrassment of failure, the fear of defeat/failure and of course, the thrill of winning, the satisfaction of monopoly.

Reading Chua Lee Hoong's latest ST article on the Internet reactions to the Mas Selamat debacle strikes an immediate sense of deja vu. If I am not wrong, not that many years back, her fellow journalist, Sumiko Tan, opened her diatribe against the Internet with exactly the same angry descriptive barrage of the evils in cyberspace, crawling with bad people, filled with nasty brutish demons and poisonous commentaries. Years later, another fellow journalist repeats the same diatribe on this lawless space known as cyberspace.

We have to engage Lee Hoong's article precisely. She has dissected and isolated this Mas Selamat debacle and ends wondering why the reactions of the Net and of the mob are so incommensurate to the issue at hand? Why are Singaporeans over-reacting? Why this much anger? This much hate, this much scorn, this much disdain? To be fair to Lee Hoong, this is not so bad a form of analysis. Isolate the issue, study it, than assess the implications and measure the reaction/response. Incidentally, this is a method of journalism which ST excels in. Isolate, measure, assess and respond. Indeed, the entire article by Lee Hoong has a narrative structure not unlike how PM Lee dissected the Mas Selamat debacle in Parliament. Clinical, efficient, laying bare the facts, laying bare the skeleton with skeletal facts. When Lee Hoong removes her surgical mask, she cries out in boiling anger: What for this anger? Why this anger?

The answer is simple. This anger is not only about Mas Selamat. This anger is inextricably entwined with how the Ministers gave themselves a huge pay rise on the reasoning that they have to benchmark themselves to the private sector. This anger is intertwined with how the Government pursues accountability in every action, every utterance, every behavior of an Opposition politician. This anger is tied deeply with how the Government removed a columnist from his job at the newspaper because of his accountability for one column mocking the rising costs of living. This anger is about the unfairness of political accountability in Singapore. This anger is about the shifting meaning of accountability in the political landscape of Singapore. So Lee Hoong, the answer is simple, this anger, this “hysterical” mob manifesting in the Internet, is precisely the product of the actions of this Government.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the angriest of them all?

Perhaps, to be fair, we also have to measure, assess the reasons why Lee Hoong’s blood is boiling. Why her anger? Is it a commensurate anger? Somewhere along the commentary, she assures Singaporeans that her past articles have shown she has been critical of Government if it warrants. This is her licence to ask the thinking Singaporean why we are behaving irrationally, disproportionately. Perhaps she has to ask herself why, even if she has “rebelled”, inserted subliminal messages of protest, why does it never find resonance with Singaporeans? Perhaps, she and other journalists should reflect whether their exercises in this measured dissent are more to salve, satiate their own egos, soothe that little hidden rebel deep in their consciousness rather than real, sopisticated messages with true resonance among their readers?

Lee Hoong’s anger is ultimately an incommensurate anger. The Net moves on. The world moves on. The people whom Lee Hoong is trying desperately to connect with have moved on. Perhaps, this is the reason for her anger. No one cares what she writes anymore. No one bothers. It is incommensurate anger because the thinking Singaporean now has choice, has the ability to choose, to respond, to voice. Look at Catherine Lim's blog, old school writer, new media advocate. Whereas for Lee Hoong, what recourse is there but incommensurate anger if her choice is staying in an institution like the Straits Times whose excellence is only in its ability to isolate incidents/issues rather than extrapolate from incidents/issues. Her subliminal messages of “protest”, of “change from within” will ultimately remain at best as exercises in intellectual self-gratification, disconnected from the pulse and reflexes of the real world, the connected world as the Mas Selamat episode clearly shows.

Occasionally I still play Monopoly with the children. The nephew who threw the tantrum is fine now because he understands that throwing tantrums is poor behavior indeed because then, no one will play with him anymore. And this is his greatest fear.

Quote of the Day –

“Dr Judson, you were against the Super Collider, were you not?”
“Oh, absolutely”
“And you testified in favor of cutting off its funds?”
“I did indeed”
“Please tell this committee why you did it.”
“Quite simple. I made an idiotic mistake.” …
“Dr Judson, I’m afraid you have to explain that”
“No problem, There’s only so much money for science in the Federal budget. Back in 1993, I thought the Collider was soaking up far too much money … I never anticipated the Chinese would come up with the Higgsie”
“The Higgsie? Do you mean the Higgs boson?”
“Sorry, around the institute we call it the Higgsie and regard it as fairly trivial … Nevertheless, there was a world race on to find the Higgsie … I mean by 1993, the Higgs boson has become a sort of Holy Grail of physics, hadn’t it? So it was politically important. We’re all here today because the Chinese have aced us, aren’t we? …”
– A Hole in Texas, Herman Wouk

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Politics, Gladiator, Praetorians and a Missing Fugitive

While many viewers were enthralled by the epic battle scenes in the Gladiator, hardly any noticed that the plot of the film turned on a single focal point. When the Emperor Commodus was un-sworded by General Maximus in the final fight scene, he turned to his Praetorian Guards and demanded another sword. As the Guard unsheathed their swords to offer their beleaguered Emperor, the Guard Commander, Quintus, overruled the Emperor, ordering the Guard to stay their swords. General Maximus subsequently killed Commodus with the latter's own dagger in front of a shocked Coliseum. It was not the first time that the Praetorian Guards played a pivotal role in the film. In this sense, the film was unerring in historical accuracy, the praetorians were more often than not, the true Caesar-makers of Pax Romana.

The Prime Minister's explanation of the Mas Selamat escape fiasco is a lesson in politics. He perhaps more than any other recognises that the ISD is an intelligence agency, staffed by intelligence officers, whose primary job is the gathering of information of leverage, of value. Running a prison is a routine task beneath such intelligence officers, such tasks delegated to the lowly Gurkha mules. It is precisely this mindset that allowed the Mas Selamat escape to occur and this was probably what the PM meant when he singled out the mindset issue. The element of complacency.

Interestingly, the PM made one slip of tongue which did not really come out in the COI report findings, he uttered something about the unclear lines of command on the security responsibility in the detention centre. This is the nub of the issue. It is apparent that ISD intelligence officers are not prison wardens. More likely, intelligence officers are egotistical bastards who like to kick down toilet doors rather than perform lowly prison escort duties. Hence, the security of Mas Selamat was delegated by these intelligence officers to the two Gurkha mules. They made the critical mistake in thinking that two Gurkhas on one prisoner should be adequate security. But alas, the Gurkhas are good only for parades and are basically gentle savage mules with less initiative than your average Filipino maid. This was the critical failure, window or no window, fence or no fence.

If a cock-up of this scale occurs in a ministry like MICA, the PM will have much less of a headache. Essentially, ministries like MICA are politically dispensable. They have no value to the politicians. But when a cock-up happens in a intelligence agency, in Mindef or even in an elite military unit like the Commandos, especially in a regime like Singapore where institutional checks and balances are only of face value, the political ramifications are much more complex. When a cock-up happens in ISD, which has an organisational history that is promiscously intertwined with the political history of Singapore, think Coldstore, think Marxist conspiracy, it creates a hugely delicate problem for the politicians.

The Prime Minister is sharp and recognises this fact, this conundrum he is faced with. He explains to us citizens that a demoralised ISD will be detrimental to Singapore's security. That is an equivocal statement. It is not the mob reflexively baying for the blood of Ministers and politicians he is wary of. Handling the mob is simple politics, especially the Singaporean mob which has always been fairly one-dimensional.

It is evident from this Mas Selamat escape that political savvy in Singapore remains a rare commodity. Grasping and exploiting political nuances appears to be a lost art or perhaps the monopoly of the cloistered group in the ruling regime. Rather than exploiting the interstices of this ISD cock-up, the Opposition wastes the political opportunity pursuing dead hypotheses or demanding accountability knowing that accountability will always be provided for that group of conservative stoic Singaporeans who are the electoral bedrock of the regime's survival.

In the film, Gladiator, the Roman mob in the Coliseum was silenced when Emperor Commodus slumped dead at the feet of Maximus. They were further silenced when Maximus died of the earlier dagger wound inflicted by Commodus before the fight scene.

Most viewers forget or fail to recognise that it was the Praetorians that allowed this to happen.

Quote of the Day --

"Is Rome worth one good man's life? We believed it once. Make us believe it again. He was a soldier of Rome. Honor him." -- Lucilla, from the film Gladiator

Friday, April 18, 2008

Let Them Eat Cake

It is not merely the price of rice and it is not nearly so simple a solution as to switch to cheaper rice. Around the world, from Burma, to Nepal and to Haiti, there is a sweeping anger at the ineptitude of the incumbent governments in guaranteeing this simple basic commodity. There is an implicit anger at the governments for failing this most basic convenant of governance, the provision of affordable rice. Nearer to Singapore, our brothers and sisters in Malaysia have exercised also their anger and the incumbents are noticably shaken.

It is not merely the price of rice nor nearly so pat a solution as switching to cheaper rice.

Cheaper rice cannot be the only solution when even cheaper rice have become more expensive. What about the next citizen who has always bought cheaper rice and realises that he cannot buy rice any more because there is no other cheaper rice. When he is at the end of the grain chain? When he is left no longer with any choice, no longer with any options, as perhaps we are all invariably headed? Maybe then, we will have to devise another means test to find which grade of rice we belong to. Rice just like healthcare. Mean tests. And all this while we lower the taxes for the corporate suits as they they milk the rising price of rice and our means to get the rice.

It is a global phenomenon, the Government says, with an unseen wry shrug, its not their fault. Forgetting that their repeated claims of captaincy, of the mandate to lead this nimble ship called Singapore, steering it always away from an imagined danger, is based on their ability protect Singaporeans from these global vissicitudes.

And when they fail, its not their fault. With a pained look, they simply say "switch to cheaper rice". And my aged mother dutifully obeys, taking a feeder bus and another bus to another town and another feeder bus to the nearest Sheng Siong, ten kilometres away. To find the cheaper rice. But public transport hikes will come again soon. Its an annual affair now, they have promised this. To raise bus fares gradually, yearly,to even out the pain of a sudden steep increase. And when you cannot afford the bus, switch to walking then. Its the cheapest, just like cheaper rice. Same logic. Simplistic logic.

What happened to the unbridled optimism and ebullience when we announced the GST hikes last year? When the newspapers were emblazoned with shiny happy headlines proclaiming with such truthful conviction, such persuasive factualisations that raising GST will help the poor, raising GST will help you, raising GST will keep prices down, raising GST will bring us to heaven? What happened to this optimism? Where is the promised outcome? How have we been helped?

Switch to cheaper rice, you say.

Perhaps it has reached a stage where the citizens have to imagine that we can no longer afford this so expensive Government, perhaps the citizens should consider switching to a cheaper Government? That is political naivete, the Government will say. You can switch to cheaper rice, but cheaper Government? Are you crazy? The government has to be paid, to retain the talents, the very same talents that make sweeping proclamations such as to raise GST to help the poor and advise us to switch to cheaper rice when we cannot afford rice.

Marie Antoinette, queen of France, was once attributed with this response when told that Parisians could no longer afford the rising price of bread, she said "Let them eat cake!" Regardless the veracity of this assertion, it resonates through history and time as an indictment of the spectacular schism between ruling and the ruled during the heady days of the French Revolution.

It is not nearly so simple a solution as to switch to cheaper rice nor so nearly a simplistic solution to a simple problem; it is what the solution signifies, what it represents in our political relationship with those who rule us. It is how they think and the convenience with which political logic and language is shifted with an almost flippant, arrogant impunity.

In China, an artisan carved 115 Chinese characters from a famous poem onto a single grain of rice. Perhaps this simple grain of rice will present us the hope, the opporutnity to carve out some fundamental differences in the pages of Singapore's political history.

Quote of the Day --

"Rice must be the best sleeping potion in the world, he sensed, certainly more effective than a woman's body. And it was right there beneath him." -- Su Tong, Rice