The Oedipal Fantasy of Father Figures (A Slice of Satire)

Kuan Yew is so powerful that he can be right when he claims to be wrong.

Kuan Yew is language.

But for the record, Kuan Yew has never quite said that bilingualism was wrong. He thinks that Mandarin has been taught in the wrong manner, but this is in no way an admission that bilingualism was, at its core, wrong. What a great chance to aggrandize the legendary status of Kuan Yew though! He is now such a great leader that he is not afraid to say that he is wrong.

Kuan Yew, so full of wisdom as always, has denied Singapore of its unborn/undead Conrads and Nabokovs. “Nobody can master two languages at the same level,” he claims, citing his daughter. Perhaps not the same level, if it was ever really about mastering them at the same level, but how about mastering two languages nevertheless?

“It doesn’t matter what level [students] reach, they will like the language [if the lessons are engaging], it’s fun and later on in life they’ll use it,” Kuan Yew says about the teaching of Mandarin.

Why bilingualism, still? But let’s first ask ourselves, what bilingualism? For it is not simply a matter of learning two languages. Even if English as the first language is a given, there have always been only limited choices for one’s second language.

What is the state’s definition of a language learned? We have English as the first language, and we have Mandarin as one of the second languages. “Mother tongue,” they call it, with unabashed intimacy even if most mothers at one point in the past merely spoke dialects. But the supposed tongues of our mothers seem to come from a world so different that we have difficulty making them our own while the tongues that really belonged to our mothers were cut and banned from pubic broadcast. A seconded language rather than a second language. And yet, we have to submit to a stepmother tongue while gazing towards China, perhaps an ex-motherland. We are told we need to have a Stepmother Tongue for a disowned motherland. And despite all these familial but unfamiliar posturing, it is for the sake of business, we are also told. Speak the language of the Hans. Little Hans fearful of severance, embracing surrogate mothers, pleasing fathers.

And the first language is, for those who are brought up by people who speak no English, not the first language they speak; and for many others, it is in fact a second English to the Singlish that they have picked up. But Singlish is wrong, we are told. We have to learn Standard English, when there is no single standard for English. And it is the language of business too.

It would seem then that there we are handicaps when it comes to languages of persons. We only have languages of functions. Language is always reducible to a function, a prosthesis of bankrupt selves instead of being integral to these selves and enriching them. And languages are always borrowed, like the toolbox one might borrow from one’s neighbor. We can master English without being a master of English—in other words, without taking ownership of it, not to mention being one with it. Perhaps our bilingualism is nonlingualism. I have suspected for some time already, that I am semi-illiterate, if not fully so.

All for the greater good, surely. The state only needs businesmachines, not businessmen and certainly, certainly not people of language, people who can decide to be who they are. Except perhaps for the few who can be held up as evidence that Singapore has a really vibrant literary scene.

Was the state wrong in the implementation of how Mandarin was/is taught (and it is a banal point Kuan Yew is making since everyone knows that interesting lessons are better than boring ones) or is it still wrong (willfully?) in its primary approach to language?

Pure Laine in Singapore [Auteur’s Cut*]

“Singapore, you are not my country.” (Alfian Sa’at, once upon a fierce hour)

*****

Pardon me for so audaciously trying to speak of us, almost like Goh Chok Tong claiming to know how Singaporeans feel about having their lives affected by immigrants. But I do not speak with the implicit condescension of presumed knowledge wearing the mask of empathy. I shall not partake in the violence of sticking incompatible splinters into a collective stump. I can only speak of the unspoken and unspeak that which has been overspoken into common epistemology.

*****

What if Singapore is not even mine to renounce?

It is odd that there is yet to be a Singaporean version of the Got Talent franchise. It would surely outshine all others. China’s Got Talent? India’s Got TalentUkraine’s Got Talent? We have bought them all, and more! The only talents we lack are Singaporeans. (But they can apply to work backstage on a meritocratic basis, subject, still, to competition from their international counterparts.)

Is this funny or is it laughable?

Laughter is not always subversive, but for making such a narrow-minded joke, perhaps it is tempting to sentence me to life imsingaporent for political xenophobic sedition, an act quite aberrant to the beings (rationalized into rationality) in this glorious age of globalization. Indeed, one area of public discourse that leaves a lingering, if consistently kept subtle, bitterness is the debate about the place of the Singaporean when the country is increasing populated by locals who may be foreigners and foreigners who may not be foreign in terms of their government-granted status. Perhaps not quite a debate. And not quite the Singaporean. Not a debate as much as a pool of ever-recurring discursive artifacts with no real arguments being developed, a trembling stasis of rhetoric blinking alluringly. Not quite the Singaporean for who is a/the Singaporean? (And I might as well drop the articles.)

We are perpetually trying to find words for ourselves, only to find our words and ourselves sinking into the mud, betraying words, betrayed by words, doomed to fail, damned to try, again and again.

We may call ourselves Singaporeans and define ourselves against foreigners as a response to the PAP’s foreign talent policy: we, the disadvantaged; they, the privileged. Only we are told not to be xenophobic. We should not have an inflated sense of entitlement when jobs should be given to the best people, not to citizens who are not good enough or are so unreasonably asking for first-world salaries to keep up with the escalating cost of living exacerbated by, again, the policies of the same people who have been engineering our lives according to their (or one man’s) vision.

Nonetheless, we persist. We say, “Bestow National Service only on the international best too instead of conscripting Singaporeans who are chronic fitness test failures. Those Singaporeans are obviously ineligible in the spirit of meritocracy.” But we will be accused of being irrational for NS is exclusive to Singaporeans; it is a privilege to serve to which Singaporean men are obligated. (Singaporean women must be underprivileged, but I believe most would probably rather be so.) We are still dealing with relatively clear borders though, even if they are painted on a canvas of absurdity. Yet, some of us might, in feeble frustration at being maligned, speak, instead, of locals versus others who have come to be known as locals by the authorities—citizens versus permanent residents. Why is it so easy for a foreigner to become officially local via permanent residency and enjoy privileges, some of which we have no access? Nonsense, comes the retort, the government puts Singaporeans first, and even second-generation permanent residents have to serve in the military. How true. And they can even become citizens like us. When that happens, would it mean that even citizens-who-were-once-foreigners can, like us, claim to be disadvantaged, strangled by the tender embrace of the state?

Singapore, in your arms, how do I become myself?

There are those who speak of true blue Singaporeans, but we can never say who qualifies to be one. Must a true blue Singaporean be born in a certain era or have undergone specific experiences? We need a definition of the true blue Singaporean that goes beyond myopic considerations of what is immediate to us.  The true blue Singaporean is not a dying breed. If it were, Singapore would be well on its way to being a utopian space even if it is at our expense. But we will soon die and yet, for a long time after we are gone, there will be those in the margins of Singapore who consider themselves unfairly disadvantaged.

Nevertheless, if we have to speak of the true Singaporean with a focus on disadvantage, there is the challenge of accounting for those who are apparently not disadvantaged. There is a risk of merely coming up with another name for the marginalized as a collective, another misnomer of a label. Given that the figure of the true blue Singaporean is often invoked to show how certain Singaporeans are being threatened, in their own country, by the presence of foreigners or new Singaporeans, many would find it unimaginable citing PAP ministers as examples of true blue Singaporeans. Yet, it is equally difficult to claim that PAP ministers are not true blue Singaporeans as though we are selecting members for a club exclusive to disadvantaged individuals. Perhaps we are ultimately just some people, not true blue anything.

And yet, I try. In paralysis, I try. Whoever else there are out there, we struggle, always, to wriggle out under the feet of unreasonable, rhetorical retorts. Perhaps we ought to be more inclusive before we speak. Offer foreigners the true blue Singapore citizenship. In a political space where the conventional understanding of citizenship has been contaminated and made absurd, it only makes marginal sense to even speak of foreigners. Like us, foreigners (and the distinction merely serves a linguistic purpose here) are expected to sacrifice selfhood for Singapore does not want the best foreigners. They want foreigners who help the continuation of Singapore as Singapore. Singapore wants them because they make Singapore more diverse and vibrant. Singapore is confident that “new immigrants to Singapore can become Singaporeans in outlook and loyalty within a generation” (SM Goh). In short, Singapore’s logic goes that foreigners can become exactly like Singaporeans and contribute to Singapore’s diversity. Let me contribute to Singapore’s diversity then. I am anything but Singaporean.

Like us, foreigners might want to move on to another country. Like us, they may even buy into nonsensical ideologies persuading them to trade what matters most for humanity for some securities to which they ought to be entitled at no cost. Foreigners can probably be taught to pay good money for air to breathe. Like us, they are merely functions of the utilitarian practices—we are all wanted because we help produce economic statistics in different ways; they are wanted because they make Singapore more vibrant, we are wanted because we can serve NS and loyally vote for the PAP. (A change of status allows them to vote too, so it really does not make a difference).

Singapore, I am not your citizen.

Foreigners come here, we are already here. Perhaps there is a difference after all. For the rest of the world, there’s Singapore to go to as foreign talent. For us, there is no the-rest-of-the-world to treat us the way Singapore treats its foreign talents.

There is a difference, even if it is not between locals and foreigners. We may state the difference, but we often fail to coherently articulate who we are comparing. Our terms of comparison cannot be locals, citizens, permanent residents, expatriates, and foreigners. Subjects of the government’s policies, perhaps. Privileged, disadvantaged. There are privileged foreigners, victimized locals, privileged locals, victimized foreigners and a multitude of different permutations. Yet, if this sounds close to lucidity, we realize also that privilege is relative. Is the son favored by his father only because he contributes more to the family business privileged compared to his siblings? It is impossible to claim that one sibling is in a worse position than another. You can only observe the constant, the father that doles out privilege—the authority that bestows triumph and triggers jealousy.

Have we been banished by the rest of the world to this landfill as sacrifices to the ravenous soil, awaiting the end of decay, the total conquest of subsumption that sets us free?

Singapore, I don’t want to be your citizen.

“Get out if you cannot stand it!”

I would gladly oblige, if I could. I should not continue being an impediment in a singapore’s road to self-actualization, should I? But do I look like I grow wings? Even Gregor Samsa could not get out of his house.

Even if I do get out, would I not be blamed for not foolishly staying to bear the slings and arrows of an outrageous authoritarian regime?

Here I am, being raped and I am told that I ought to stay and attempt fighting the rapist who can effortlessly overpower me (or continue being raped—in silence—not strong enough to fight) instead of trying to run away from the rapist because only losers run away. Ridiculous. But turn it into political rhetoric and it almost works—and certainly makes perfect sense to some of us. Yes, rapists sometimes provide us with a roof over our heads and might even throw some money in our faces to keep us quiet. Never bite the hand that feeds you even if it violates you.

Perhaps being trapped in a mute spot of public discourse, desperately calling out to the deaf is a trait of a true blue Singaporean.

Singapore. I am no citizen.

The General Elections will come soon, as always. They come as quickly as our youth and our lives are depleted. Sirens of our memory decay. Even their echoes vanish. Silent wretchedness lingers, longingly, imploring us not to allow fear to push us, expectant with hope, to a miscarriage. If we cannot crawl out of the landfill, we should at least give reshaping the landscape a shot. Is this not the spirit of survival that we are told to take pride in? No one is obliged to give opposition candidates a chance. But we need to give ourselves one.

 

*A different version (perhaps an interpretation?) of this post, edited by KJ, appears in The Online Citizen as “Deconstructing the Singaporean – foreigner and local alike”.

There is No Singapore Press

After Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) publication of this year’s Press Freedom Index, we hear sniggers of derision from those who are ever on the lookout for proof (as if any is ever needed) to assist them in articulating the extent of oppression in Singapore. At the same time, we hear cries of indignation—though it is not entirely clear if they are caused by RSF’s ranking or by the derision that follow—from the implied oppressors who attempt to discredit the ranking by claiming that it is absurd to place Singapore’s press freedom below that of countries with tyrannical political regimes that seem quite obviously more oppressive than Singapore’s. As though the lack of press freedom were not existent simply because the ranking is flawed. As though the feet-stomping method of defending nothing in particular (no one, perhaps with the exception the usual non-sentient beings contributing to the Straits Times Forum, really dares to claim that there is true freedom in Singapore) could amount to anything more than a puerile political tantrum.

There almost seems to be some debate about press freedom going on in the press itself.

If we would just indulge the defenders-of-nothing-in-particular a little, perhaps we could consider why they are defending (defensive) instead of what they are defending. Perhaps the likes of Shanmugam appear concerned about press freedom rankings not because the results are yielded by a flawed methodology but because of what the methodology (whether or not it is flawed) reveals. Even if the survey reveals nothing about press freedom in Singapore, it reveals what people think of the press in Singapore. Cherian George points out that “[i]nstead of using a common pool of rigorously trained assessors, it asks respondents within each country to rate [the press freedom of] that country on various indicators. Their responses help determine where the country ranks.” The survey should not be mistaken for a confidence index survey, but if Singapore really does not deserve the 133rd position, perhaps it shows how badly people see it. Sure, we are not a country where journalists are killed and silenced. But we are in a country where journalists would not incur anyone’s murderous wrath to begin with. A country where journalists and publications that might put themselves in danger are not even given a chance to be born. The so-called unfairness is simply a phenomenon of Singaporeans having less respect for the local press than many other people have for the press in their own country. To be honest, I would be more inclined to read The Straits Times if a certain Ms Chua (for instance) is putting herself at any remote risk of being arrested by her ex-colleagues in the Internal Security Department (ISD).

But what making them so indignant about the ranking?

The worry is perhaps not so much that Singapore has a poor international image in the area of press freedom as much as it is that Singaporeans themselves do not seem to think that the press is free. This would be the real travesty in the eyes of hardcore tyrants. Have we not been taught to believe that we should not have a free press, which would be detrimental to the nation? Yes, but, still, people must have implicit faith in the system and believe that it is free. It is just like how people are supposed to believe that there can be real oppositional voices in the Parliament even with no MPs from opposition parties at all. We should believe that the government is able to control the press so tightly and so well that it is free to criticize the pair of hands strangling it. The purpose of controlling the press might be crumbling at its core, and it could be a self-aggravating phenomenon—because opinions spread. And if Singaporeans stop subscribing to the theory of the free government-controlled press, there would be no point having papers like The Straits Times churning out article after article of propaganda, even if they sprinkle a dash of criticisms here and there for the sake of creating an artificial flavor of press freedom. For there would be no point setting up the stage and dressing up the main actors when the supporting cast has gone on strike. People must believe that they can have democracy via authoritarianism and freedom via oppression. The truth sets you free, as people say. And apparently truth has to be articulated by the PAP.

Rarely do we see Power in a Catch-22 where letting go of its grip would weaken its intensity while continuing the grip risks being increasingly a self-exhausting and futile mission. But before this can even be capitalized upon, there first has to be a recognition that the lack of press freedom is hardly an issue in a country (which is actually not a country, according to Shanmugam) where the press is virtually non-existent. There is but a simulation of the press, just as there is a simulation of democratic processes, nationhood, and cosmopolitanism. Just as the existence of printing facilities in a predominantly Christian village for the sake of publishing and circulating Bibles and religious tracts for evangelical purposes does not quite constitute the press, speaking of the press in Singapore is to impose sense on senselessness (or perhaps to impose senselessness on reality), which is a necessary precondition of discourse that is ultimately inadequate if it is unaccompanied by a questioning of its existence. Of course we have these things that call themselves newspapers, but are they what they claim to be?

With this realization, one should see that the work to do is not to demand for more freedom. What freedom? For whom? The noise generated about the press freedom index hides the fact that there is no press to be freed in the first place while providing opportunities for the state-sanctioned publications masquerading as news to persuade everyone of the relative freedom to report their own unflattering ranking. We must first have subjects that can claim freedom. When government representatives point out that it is ridiculous for Singapore to be ranked lower than certain oppressive countries in terms of press freedom, they are right in that there is some relative freedom in Singapore and this is where the fissures in the system are visible and need to be exploited; it is just that all those eligible to claim the limited freedom available have been hunted to virtual extinction or they have no interest in claiming it. Press freedom: press before freedom. Press in, press forward, press on.

Could the simulated press possibly be exploited to allow for the emergence of a new reality?

If I have a devoted fan club that publishes news about me daily, I might give it all the freedom in the world. I might even request that it provides criticisms, or really tactful feedback on areas I can improve on in order to deflect accusations of bias. Would you accuse me of bullying my fans into putting me on a pedestal when they do so voluntarily? We cannot simply say that there is quite a substantial degree of press freedom or a lack of press freedom in Singapore. It is quite irrelevant, ultimately. It is not a yearly affair where the extent of freedom can be determined by an ahistorical survey. The frightening tale of the press in Singapore is a historical drama involving power exercised, of power (with)held but ever-present, everlasting, drawing its life from your blood. A power that does not need to be exercised on anyone, but one that extorts, like a debt that is its own debtor, boiling with snowballing interest.

What freedom when everyone has learned to demand for their own imprisonment? It works like superstitions, nothing natural or supernatural, but would anyone ever learn to turn colorful beliefs back into plain misguidance?

Or perhaps . . . the Singapore press, if we have to call something by that name, is he freest in the world. Except that it is homogeneous in all its manifestations, even to the point of choreographing a synchronized charade of plurality. Make this is the most damning judgment on the political regime. And work towards comeuppance.