Noisy Singaporeans & Japanese Nation-Building Techniques

We are getting more and more tips on how to be a real nation from ministers post their prime (by which I mean they have job titles post-Prime Ministership). Kuan Yew had already told us that Singaporeans had to be willing to die for one another before it could be a nation. Now Goh Chok Tong tells us that nation building involves being stoic in the face of adversities. No, actually that’s Molly’s way of beautifying it for him. He was simply rehasing old rhetoric about Singaporeans being too whiny for the PAP to love. Like most other PAP politicians, he seems to think that when the government gives Singaporeans lemons, Singaporeans ought to swallow them whole instead of asking for water with which to dilute the juice. Probably because it’s unreasonable.

Very cleverly, Goh says:

How many of you followed the latest tragic events in Japan with the tsunami…and then put into context our floods in Singapore against that kind of disaster.

I am not saying we shouldn’t do anything about the flood [sic]. But the amount of noise you made with just sporadic flood [sic] compared to the Japanese. [sic] I saw them on TV. Very stoic looking. You don’t see them crying. This has happened, just get on, that’s the kind of spirit you want to have and you call it nation building. (ChannelNewasia)

It is very clever because few other politicians can get away with his rhetorical maneuver of taking something out of context and putting it in a different context but claiming that he is putting things in context. And the few politicians in the world who can get away with it usually do not even bother to do it. I wish he had pulled off the same trick last year after the passing of Kwa Geok Choo, the wife of Kuan Yew. Imagine how interesting it would have been for him to tell Kuan Yew that he should not be grieving over the death of his wife because politicians elsewhere in the world remain calm even when thousands of people have died in naturaldisasters. Like how George Bush supposedly continued with his classroom visit after learning about the September 11 attacks. So what’s the big deal with one person’s death?

Nevertheless, let’s put things into context by comparison with the Japanese. Perhaps we should remember how Shoichi Nakagawa, who was once the Japanese Finance Minister, resigned in 2009 after he was said to be drunk during the G7 meeting even though he had maintained that he had merely overdosed on cold medication. We should remember also how Yukio Hatoyama, one-time Prime Minister of Japan, resigned last year for not being able to fulfill a campaign promise. As a comparison (since Goh likes to compare), Singaporeans may recall how Wong Kan Seng did not see it fitting to resign after the Mas Selamat escape. Singaporeans will also do well to recall all the promises of political openness that politicians have made or how they have pledged to improve the lives of Singaporeans—and see if every single promise has been fulfilled. If not, has any minister resigned as a result? Perhaps I’m delusional, but I’m under the impression that someone said something about acheiving the Swiss standard of living for Singaporeans but ended up giving us a top-in-the-world cost of living instead. Someone must have promised to let a hundred flowers bloom only to fertilize the soil with the Public Order Act and absurd amendments to the Films Act amongst other acts. Even post-World War II Hiroshima was more conducive for flowers to bloom.

I should not not say too much about ghoulish rhetorical moves lest I get maligned of contributing to noise pollution. But since Goh wants us to learn from the Japanese and how they react to the less pleasant things in life, I hope to help Singaporeans find ways please him. After some Internet research, I found a few pictures of Japanese people that Singaporeans might learn valuable lessons from.


How inspiring.

Now, don’t arrest me for inciting actions that displease authoritarian governments. I’m not. I’m just putting things in context and trying to imagine how Singaporeans could follow Goh Chok Tong’s call to learn from the Japanese. Perhaps when would have successfully built a nation when I no longer need to look beyond Singapore for such pictures.

Goh’s remarks about noisy Singaporeans was really made to show why Singaporeans need to be less dependent on the government. In other words, it is one of those silly balancing acts that Singaporean government officials execute whenver they announce some benefit for Singaporeans. When any one-time benefit is given, Singaporeans will reminded not to develop the mythical “crutch mentality” and to rely on themselves. The PAP wants our votes and decides to give us some one-time spare change instead of implmenting permanent policies that would free us from praying for governmental generosity all the time. We are always reminded by the PAP to be self-reliant lest the wretched yearning for assistance morphs into  a grostesquely unreasonable demand for the government to take care of the people.

On the other hand, we can always remind ourselves that the PAP will never implement any permanent measures to truly benefit under-privileged Singaporeans because such measures are likely to stay even if other political parties are given the majority vote during the General Election. It is in the PAP government’s interest to have Singaporeans constantly needing the spare change that it dispenses as and when it deigns to do so. Election goodies, whether their existence is acknowledged or not, can show Singaporeans precisely what baddies they are subject to. If the PAP government has done its job well, they would not be left wondering and hoping every year that someone would try to buy their votes or show their generosity. The only way to modify the PAP’s behavior is by voting for opposition parties.

It is not that the PAP doesn’t want Singaporeans to be reliant. It just doesn’t want Singaporeans to insist on a government that can be relied on.

Sure, Singaporeans can be less reliant on the government. When it floods, Singaporeans should take the initiative to investigate the causes, clear the drainage system and enhance it. Since the Japanese do not blame their government for natural phenomena like earthquakes and tsunamis over which it has no control, we can outdo them by not blaming our PAP leaders for anything even if it is within their powers to control. This is nation building. Even if the dignity of the citizens is the price to pay, so what?

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Race: When Valorization is Vilification

Almost suddenly, Kuan Yew sings a different tune about Muslims in Singapore. The move is executed in a patently Kuan Yewish fashion—what he has to say appear more dramatic than it really is and the media assists in the mystification of Kuan Yew as a sage who is an inch away from infallibility but whose apparent imperfections only serve to accentuate his perfection. He is divine because he is human. Many Singaporeans who read reports that he has retracted his statement about Muslims in Singapore (as recorded in Hard Truths) might be surprised especially when Kuan Yew seems to have admitted to being wrong. The truth is unfortunately less dramatic. Kuan Yew, in “retracting” his statement, implies that he is out of date, which is different from being categorically wrong. In other words, he is reiterating his point while appearing to concede, perhaps with the hope of appeasing Singaporeans who, as far as he is concerned, are rather daft and would be complacent enough to readily make do with a retraction that is not quite one.

No doubt, “I stand corrected” were the exact words Kuan Yew used. However, he is not quite saying that he was wrong for he is in fact wrong only insofar as he was “out of date.” To make a claim that is out of date is to make a claim that was once valid. It is more ambiguous when the claim supposedly became out of date if one were to examine Kuan Yew’s words more carefully:

“I made this one comment on the Muslims integrating with other communities probably two or three years ago. Ministers and MPs, both Malay and non-Malay, have since told me that Singapore Malays have indeed made special efforts to integrate with other communities, especially since 9/11, and that my call is out of date.” (Kuan Yew as quoted by The Malayasian Insider, italics mine)

It is not clear whether Kuan Yew currently thinks that the comment is out of date now (but valid when he made it) or if he believes that it was already out of date at the point he made the comment. Nevertheless, in both cases, he is implying that his claim about Muslims was at one point in time valid. Kuan Yew had said that “Muslims socially do not cause any trouble, but they are distinct and separate.” We may never understand why he would have a problem with a group being “distinct and separate” when it does not create trouble for the society they inhabit, but Kuan Yew takes issue with it and blames Muslims for it as he advises them: “Be less strict on Islamic observances and say, ‘Okay, I’ll eat with you.’” It is also not clear when Kuan Yew came to the realization that he was out of date. If he had realized this before Hard Truths was published, could an editorial note not have been added to clarify matters?

To put the comment into perspective, one could very well replace the Muslims in Kuan Yew’s comment with the Singaporean political elite, make the observation that they are “distinct and separate” and then advise them to take peak-hour train rides with lesser mortals every day. Admittedly, we may not be able to say that they do not cause any trouble, but it remains that there is no good reason to single out Muslims as a group and insinuate that it is their fault that they are “distinct and separate.” Kuan Yew, the very person who singles them out, is guilty of making them distinct and separate at least at the level of public discourse. If we take into consideration how Kuan Yew and the PAP’s policies could have shaped public imagination and discourse about Muslims, the irony becomes even stronger.

Back in 1987 when our current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was the Second Minister of Defense, he was asked about the lack of Malay pilots in the SAF. His answer: “If there is a conflict, if the SAF is called to defend the homeland, we do not want to put any of our soldiers in a difficult position where his emotions for the nation may be in conflict with his religion.” (Wikipedia)

In 1999, Kuan Yew himself said, “If, for instance, you put in a Malay officer who’s very religious and who has family ties in Malaysia in charge of a machine gun unit, that’s a very tricky business. We’ve got to know his background… I’m saying these things because they are real, and if I don’t think that, and I think even if today the Prime Minister doesn’t think carefully about this, we could have a tragedy. (Wikiquote)

Given that most Muslims in Singapore are Malays and most Malays here are Muslims, the blurred distinction between Malays and Muslims is perhaps understandable. But Kuan Yew and the government that he has shaped may be observed as being consistently guilty of either genuine (if unfounded) racial paranoia or of the politically strategic use of racial categories as an instrument of social control. Or both, to make matters worse. The statements made in 1987 and 1999 cannot be dismissed as personal opinions. When politicians as influential as Kuan Yew make such statements, they shape public imagination; so if Malays are seen as a distinct group, the people behind this perspective are the politicians who have been in control of Singapore since its independence. The obsessive emphasis on racial “harmony” itself reflects how racial categories are maintained and reiterated constantly in public discourse. While the ostensible message is harmony, the effect of the emphasis may be distinguishable from the message. When it is made to seem as though riots would not take place if everyone in Singapore were of the same race, when race is repeatedly (if indirectly) discussed as a cause of conflict, when Singapore society is sliced into neat categories of Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians (or is it Others?), the population cannot help but be highly conscious of racial categories no matter how they resist it. Under such circumstances, is not just Muslims (who are mostly Malays) who are distinct. The major races have all been made distinct. To single out one race as being distinct is to add discrimination to discrimination.

Thanks to Kuan Yew’s supposed retraction of his comment in Hard Truths, Malays are suddenly said to have actively put in effort to integrate. The headline of a report in The Straits Times goes “Malays get ‘A’ for efforts to integrate” as though integration could be graded. In the report, MP Seah Kian Peng is quoted as saying, “My Malay friends eat with me, shake hands with me and we speak in the same mix of Malay, Hokkien and Singlish that we do with all races.” Is Seah saying that before Malays put in effort to integrate, they refused to eat with others, never shook hands with people of other races and did not speak Singlish? One cannot imagine how much more banal PAP politicians can get. My Malay friends have never refused to eat with me, though, of course, we would need to find a halal eatery before dining together. I have no idea if Seah’s statement would be endorsed by the state that has always tried to eradicate Singlish, but I have never encountered a single Malay refusing to speak English/Singlish if s/he knows the language. I have never hand problems with handshaking either. Even if there are Malays who have refused to eat or shake hands with me, there is no reason to attribute it to their race. If their religious practices prevent them from doing these things, perhaps others have a responsibility to make a distinction between an antagonistic and poorly adjusted individual and one who is simply constrained by his/her beliefs.

The problem created by the accusation that Malays do not integrate well cannot be solved by making the opposite claim to praise them with banal supporting evidence. The problem not whether they are well-integrated or not. It is whether anyone has the right to make sweeping statements about a particular race. It is whether anyone has the right to decide for a particular racial group the terms of integration. It is whether Malays should have been imagined as a distinct group, regardless of the comments made based on such an imagination. The problem is also that valorization is another form of vilification. Malays are not for politicians to praise when it is deemed necessary for a coming election or for any other reason. Malays are not for Kuan Yew to use to show how he is able to admit that he had been “wrong” and show how open-minded he is by saying “I hope that this trend [of correcting his mistakes] will continue in the future.” A sincere retraction of a statement should have no other agenda. By twisting the issue to one of how well Malays have integrated since September 11 2001 (or any other date), the spotlight is again blindingly directed on Malays, making it seem as though they are unique in needing to put in effort to integrate, as though they were delinquents who have turned over a new leaf and scored As.

We might as well be telling Buddhist vegetarians to eat chicken with Malays except that most of us do not have immunity against sedition charges. Or since integration seems to be of paramount importance, perhaps we should single out a particular government to integrate with the rest of the democratic world and adopt truly democratic practices despite the fact that they are devout authoritarians.

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Gender Inequalities: The Problems with Alexis Ong

I have no right to take issue with what some random woman out there wants in a man as a matter of personal choice, but no woman should speak as though she has the right to tell men how they should behave in order to be considered real men; nor should anyone tell women what they ought to like in men. But a “Singapore journalist” called Alexis Ong appears to have a divine prerogative to do so, as indicated by an article written a few months ago that caught my attention when it was recently featured in the main page of Yahoo! Singapore. Not only does she think she has the right to define masculinity for the rest of the world, she is doing so to show why Singaporean men do not make good dates for her—and for all other normal women.

But let’s first look at her as a journalist. It is not unreasonable to expect journalists to be able to construct grammatical sentences that make sense semantically even if not logically. As such, I wish someone could explain what the following means:

Even after all my bitching, it’s not actually hard for a guy to be a “man” in Singapore by current standards; if you are a girl who likes being in committed relationship with someone safe, ready, willing and able to play house with you.

One expects the clause after the semi-colon to explain why it is not difficult for a Singaporean guy to be a “man.” But we get nothing of this sort. Instead, we get an incomplete conditional (“if you are a girl…”). If you are a girl what? The content of entire paragraph transcends criticism because no one other than Alexis knows what it means. I can’t decide whether it all boils down to linguistic deficiency or logical lapses. (I’m kind enough to assume that it isn’t both at work here.)

For better or for worse though, we can generally tell what she is talking about and for the reader who does not wish to visit the webpage where the odious article is published, here is a list of her claims and why I think she’s being nonsensical.

1) Singaporean men are all effeminate

Her claim: Singaporean men are effeminate because they are “androgynous-looking” or are excessively groomed (in her opinion). An example she uses: two men (she refuses to call them “men” and deliberately uses the word “guys” instead) giggling as they looked at something on a phone.

The further claim: The effeminate men are “the rule” rather than the exceptions.

Why she’s being nonsensical: It’s not her business whether someone looks androgynous (just as it’s not my business that she looks like the Loch Ness Monster in a human wig), if they wear tight jeans, look prettier than her (who doesn’t?) or giggle.

It would be fine if she is simply not attracted to the men she is describing since it is her personal preference, but she has to say: “For healthy, straight girls, I’m going ahead and say [sic] this kind of sucks.” We see Alexis passing judgment on men she deems insufficiently masculine by her standards and discriminating against women who might be attracted to the men she finds unappealing. If you are a straight female who are attracted to one of the men she has described, you are unhealthy.

There also seems to be a homophobic insinuation that lesbians are not quite “healthy” and she seems to think that lesbians might be attracted to effeminate men (instead of women). What interesting insights into the workings of the world Alexis has.

If you are not convinced that she is being nonsensical, have a look at how she contradicts herself in Claim 4.

2) Singaporean men can’t chat (with Alexis)

Her claim: Singaporean men cannot make conversation but men elsewhere can. (What a surprise. I would have thought that no living being within our solar system would be able to make a conversation with her.)

Her idea of a conversation, for those who are unaware, includes engaging in debates. (By just reading her article, I suspect that a debate with her is likely to result in a bout of hair-plucking exasperation and lifelong trauma especially if it is one related to gender issues.)

The further claim: Singaporean men don’t like girls who can make conversation (i.e. debate?).

Why she’s being nonsensical: Good and bad conversationalists exist everywhere in the world. Some people may like good conversationalists and others might not judge people by how well they make conversations with strangers. Whatever it is, I am of the belief that cannot make this judgment based on personal experience because of the possibility that too few Singaporean men want to make conversation with her, causing her to mistake reluctance for inability. If personal experience counts so much, what if Molly always has Singaporean men chatting her up? Does it mean that all Singaporean men are good conversationalists?

But what really makes Alexis nonsensical is how she cites a study that claims that people in Singapore “are afraid to say what they think and are afraid to disagree.” And it becomes a problem with Singaporean men, not Singaporeans in general. If there’s any male reader who is eager to prove his manhood to Alexis, please visit her page, tell her what you think and disagree with her. Indulge in a heated debate with her—it might become a steamy game of seduction.


3. Singaporean men can’t accept independent, assertive women

Her Claim: Not many Singaporean couples are happy in their relationships and (Singaporean) men are at fault. “There are plenty of traditional old Chinese men in my family who just can’t compute when it comes to dealing with a modern career-minded woman, much less a woman who speaks her mind.”

Why she’s being nonsensical: Compute?!?!

Previously, all Singaporean men were said to be like girls. Now they are men who can’t accept women who speak their mind. So they are perhaps like girls who can’t take it when women speak their mind.

Perhaps the problem isn’t so much that men can’t accept outspoken women as it is that they can’t accept certain logic-deficient minds particularly when they are accompanied by exhibitionistic self-assertion. (If you are en empty vessel, you should at least have the decency to keep as quiet as possible. Molly maintains that she is an exception.)

No doubt, there are probably Singaporean men who can’t take it when women are independent and outspoken. But there are probably men in Singapore, New York and Boston who are like that. There are also men in everywhere who are not like that.

For years, Molly has been speaking her mind through blogging and most Singaporean men don’t seem to have a problem with it—certainly not the hordes of men who have asked for her hand in marriage online.

4) Singaporean Men are alpha males (or the opposite)

Her claim: “Guys here are either alpha-male dominant and aggressive (hello, CBD business crowd) or totally whipped — there’s hardly a visible demographic in between.”

Why she’s being nonsensical: Self-contradiction. Look at Claim 1 above that effeminate men are the “rule” and not the exception in Singapore. Now she claims that Singaporean men are either alpha males or, for lack of a better term, omega males. Alexis probably prefers the gammas and she’s upset that men are not being gamma for her pleasure.

For the sake of argument, let’s disregard the self-contradiction. After all, even if Claim 1 is untrue, it does not mean that Claim 4 is also untrue. It is not entirely clear what Alexis considers to be an alpha male, but after reading her article, I would think she considers alpha males to be “dominant and aggressive”—possibly the men who pass her basic masculinity test but fails overall because they are chauvinistic. She wants a hybrid of the alpha male and the omega male—a man who exhibits the traits of traditional masculinity as and when it pleases her, and also displays the traits of an alternative masculinity (of the archetypal sensitive new age guy perhaps) as and when it pleases her. She is the center of the universe. Her aversion towards male chauvinism is understandable since chauvinistic behavior may directly affect her position as an equal, but she has no right to insist that men exhibit other traits that are no concern to her.

No one has the right to stop her from wanting a gamma male or an x-man, but it is an entirely different matter when she puts it in such a way that the standards she sets ought to be used as the single, authoritative benchmark of true masculinity. Ultimately, she is ignoring the complexities of human behavior and being superficial. A manipulative smooth operator might win her heart easily though I don’t quite see why any would attempt to do so. But, well, to each his own.

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“Man enough, but don’t be a beast. Get rid of your excess hair, but don’t be a sissy.”

5) Real men need to have the 5 Cs and more.

Her claim: “Women expect a lot of you [Singaporean men] these days … having your own place, preferably with a car and a couple of credit cards thrown in.

“I’m a little hesitant to bring up the 5Cs (condo, career, credit card, car, country club) because I feel like they’re slightly outdated. These days, depending on the circles you travel in, there’s a lot of cultural capital and fashion savvy required, too.” (Emphasis Molly’s)

Why she’s being nonsensical: To be fair, Alexis is acknowledging that it is not easy for men to meet (her) expectations. But it would appear that she considers a “real” man someone who has the 5 Cs plus cultural capital plus fashion acumen. (But good luck to them if they are fashionable in a way that she considers sissy.) Working class men are not real men. They are too poor, do not have the right connections and do not have anything that would let them get ahead. No one cares what sort of men Alexis wants to date, but her message here constitutes outright class discrimination.


6) Singaporean men are unable to accept gender equality

Her claim: “Many guys here still can’t come to terms with gender equality.”

“From experience, they hyper-masculine set still don’t [sic] take a woman’s view seriously. And for the submissive man-wife, the message is: grow a pair.”

Why she’s being nonsensical: The issue is not gender equality. If men are unable to come to terms with anything, it is more likely to be the expectations that may accompany a mindset of equality.

Most people today would not disagree that gender equality is a bad thing, but here is no true gender equality in Singapore and probably elsewhere in the world. In a modern society like Singapore, we only have more complex gender inequalities under a semblance of equality. Women are discriminated against in some ways and under certain circumstances. Women who get pregnant, for instance, may not get to keep their jobs, regardless of whether their employers would admit to discriminatory practices. Men, on the other hand, also face discrimination by virtue of their sex. From being the ones conscripted to the loss of employment opportunities due to NS commitments, men are disadvantaged by being men.

There is also the patriarchy hangover: women may continue to be expected to be the ones who should perform certain roles like household chores or child care whereas men may continue to be expected to play a key role in supporting women financially (even if their wives work). By dictating the standards of true masculinity for everyone, Alexis is contributing to gender inequality while waving the flag of equality.

If the way Alexis is haranguing Singaporean men does not appear to be an act against gender equality, it might be useful to imagine a man doing the same to women and claiming that Singaporean women are either too girlish or too unfeminine. Imagine the same man accusing Singaporean women of being too shy (or too outspoken) for his liking. Imagine him telling women he considers being unfeminine to grow a pair of breasts and him telling women who are too girlish to learn to be more assertive and aggressive. He can easily be labeled a male chauvinist.

No one can and no one should set standards of masculinity and femininity. A man who enjoys spending hours grooming himself deserves as much respect as one who only takes care of the basics of personal hygiene and grooming. If an alpha male is aggressive to the extent of impinging on women’s rights, tell him off personally instead of making sweeping statements about all other men sharing the same citizenship as him. Similarly, if a Singaporean female journalist writes idiotic articles, we should not condemn all Singaporean women.

In any case, I would like to congratulate all Singaporean men. You can’t imagine how lucky you are than someone like Alexis isn’t interested in you. At the very least, your life will not be ruined by the romantic interest of a rabid elephant whose hobbies include cross-country gender rampages.

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