Brave Old World: The Return of the Normal in Singapore Politics

The majority of Singaporeans should be glad. Things are back to normal in Singapore. Was it not frightening when, a couple of months back, bizarre events started taking place? There was an outbreak of irrationality when people started talking about voting against the PAP and, for a couple of weeks, it seemed as though the PAP felt the same fear that it inspires in the people with its power. In a classic attempt at charisma-building, the Prime Minister even apologized to Singaporeans, though not for anything in particular. PAP MPs started appearing in overcrowded trains and bus stops as though the idea had never previously occurred in the mind of these top local talents. It must have been a worrying time for all level-headed Singaporeans to see the establishment trying to be nice even to the poor cats it has been inexplicably murdering over the years despite protests from cat lovers. It was as though snakes were growing ears in front of our very eyes while we stand wary of their venom.

But things finally feel normal again and at least 60% of the dense population—densely populated nation, I mean—can heave a collective sigh of relief. It is good to see the PAP getting back to the driver’s seat of its good old bulldozer. Kuan Yew is finally speaking freely again and the mainstream media no longer has to resist their constant itch to portray him as a political superhero-prophet. As a nation that has always staunchly believed in free expression and free press, this is wonderful news.

Singaporeans need to be reminded of the paramount importance of bringing in foreigners to Singapore by a parasitic, apparently semi-retired politician. We see again that there is a space for such reminders.  Once again, Singaporeans are proven without a doubt to be the worst xenophobes in the planet; they are conspiratorially advocating a destructive zero-foreigner policy in the name of protecting Singaporeans’ rights even though foreigners have brought immense wealth to Singapore. These Singaporeans are simply jealous bigots who turn into green limes the moment they see that they have no share of the wealth Singapore has been reaping over the years. It is thus always a good thing to have someone reprimanding these shameless and myopic plebeians for failing to remember that even the oxygen they breathe is a product of Kuan Yew’s laborious photosynthesis over the last five decades.

The public transport operators are applying for fare hikes again and members of the establishment are taking turns to tell us that the status quo that they have created must be perpetuated because it is the best. There are few better indications than this that we are back to the good old days before General Election 2011. One after another, they are enlightening us on the evils of the Workers’ Party suggestion to nationalize public transport. How could the efficiency of cash grabbing in a competition-free industry be undermined by nationalization that will cause the profit motive to buckle under to the weight of political accountability. We see, in fact, that the normal state of affairs in Singapore has improved itself. In the past, it was: the Government knows best, Period. Now it is: the Government knows best, and will tell you in 1001 times in 101 ways why it knows best, Period. And in parenthesis: Don’t say the Government is not engaging the people. This fits in very well with the national upgrading fever—we always get something new without getting rid of the old at the core.

Now that things are back to normal, Singaporeans can be reminded not to politicize the political because politics must not be political in Singapore. It must always remain a dictatorial miracle. It is not clear who planted the ingenious idea in our heads Inception-style, but we suddenly realize that our President is supposed to be a figure that unifies Singaporeans. His role is clear, but Singaporeans are confused as usual. Thankfully, the state machinery is always there to help us out. Many Singaporeans make the mistake of categorically saying that the Elected President must support or must check the political party in power. This is not true. The Elected President unifies Singaporeans by not going against the party in power when it is the PAP. But he unifies Singaporeans by checking the political party in power when it is not the PAP. We have to remind ourselves that according to the renowned Singapore English Dictionary, disunity is defined as anything that goes against the PAP and its perpetual dominance. Unity, on the other hand, is defined as a semblance of zero difference brought about by craftily cultured mass deception. Certainly, a President whose independence from the PAP is met with scepticism can unify the people.

So we know we must vote for the PAP-endorsed candidate who will unify Singaporeans by sitting on every Singaporean face as we line his rear trouser pockets with four million dollars of cash every year if we do not want to end up with a constitution-violating criminal instead. Never mind that Singaporeans can be quite united in the drive to have a force that would check the PAP, however ineffectively. The Elected Presidency is a creation of the PAP government to protect Singapore by protecting the reserves from the PAP’s opponents in the event of a freak General Election result. When a non-PAP government is crippled from implementing policy changes that distinguishes it from the PAP’s anti-welfarism, the chances of it losing power is greatly enhanced. The PAP government did not create the position of the Elected President to counter itself. It would be unreasonable to expect the PAP to do so. If the PAP’s opponents want a political position whose holder’s role is to check the PAP, they should jolly well create the position themselves. Their failure to do so shows how incompetent they are.

Everything is back to normal again and we should be glad. Let us stand as united as ever and remain patient while the PAP tries hard to solve the problems it has created if it ever does. We know nothing is perfect and thus we should never ask for anything better.

A Vision of a Future We Don’t Know

Minister for Education, Heng Swee Keat, appeared at a parents’ seminar at Gongshan Primary School and the news is reported by SingaporeScene. Here are some responses since PAP ministers seem so earnest about “working the ground”/grinding the ground nowadays.

Parents listened attentively when the new Minister spoke about his vision for a Singapore education system that can prepare “our children to be ready to face the future”.

That’s a vision? So people in the workforce now are not ready for the present because they went through an education system that did not prepare them for the future. And people who are studying in Singapore now are not prepared for what is to come? (Please don’t get angry. I’m only trying to think analytically, which is something you emphasize later. No doubt, I probably can’t think analytically because I haven’t been through this education system of the future. But you have to forgive me for that!)

Actually I would be glad enough to have the education system allow students to come to terms with the macabre present of the Singaporean condition.

Minister Heng highlighted three core areas his ministry will focus on — to provide a good value system; to teach social and emotional competencies; and to foster creative thinking skills.

Sounds like a mixture of new nonsense and old buzzwords. What’s a good value system?? One that is able to rationalize and compartmentalize life into “competencies” like “social and emotional competencies”?

Speaking to the parents, he said, “Look at the children entering Primary 1 next year. By the time they start work in 15 or 20 years’ time, what would the world be like? We wouldn’t know but we must equip them to face the future.”

Eh . . . how do you equip anyone to face the future which you “wouldn’t know”?

[T]he minister clarified that values are “the foundation of all that we do”. He added that the young need to understand the country’s history and how it got to where it is now.

Read: the same old propaganda education must continue. It is our belief that kids can be totally brainwashed and absolutely creative and critical.

Minister Heng noted that many parents in the audience would appreciate working with those “who can work as a team”.

Oh yeah? But since you don’t know the future, maybe the future is about people who can work as an individual?

“I think for us to be able to continue to grow the economy, it’s very important that Singaporeans can work together as a team and can work with people all over the world,” he said.

Er… Have you got anything new to say? OK, never mind…. Have you got anything remotely important to tell us other than trying a little too hard to show that you, as a part of the all-new post-apocalyptic post-apologetic PAP, are now engaging the people?

He added that the future is “not going to be a world where there are set solutions”. In a globalised world, the ability to think analytically and creatively is important, he said.

The future? I thought you are describing the present and the past. In any case, how could any educated person not be able to think analytically? If such a person exists, the education system he went through must have been a terrible failure…

“Understanding the world, with a global awareness, will be very important,” said the former managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

The one thing interesting about this statement is the idea that it’s actually possible to understand the world without a global awareness.

“I try to spend a lot of time on the ground interacting with our school principals, with our teachers and with our students because this is where the teaching and learning take place.”

I’m wondering what feedback you have gathered. But what’s the use of feedback if the same old absurd bureaucratic-technocratic system of generating more SOPs, processes and KPIs remain in place to ensure that everything improves on paper and rots further at its core? (And yes, this is feedback too. How about coming up with some bureaucratic measure to undermine bureaucratic obsessions?)

He added that there will be key changes in the way the school curriculum is being taught, which will be announced in due time.

Unreported: Teachers present went: “Oh shit! More nonsensical KPIs coming our way!”

Minister for Education, Heng Swee Keat, appeared at a parents’ seminar at Gongshan Primary School and the news is reported by SingaporeScene. Here are some responses since PAP ministers seem so earnest about “working the ground”/grinding the ground nowadays.

 

Parents listened attentively when the new Minister spoke about his vision for a Singapore education system that can prepare “our children to be ready to face the future”.

That’s a vision? So people in the workforce now are not ready for the present because they went through an education system that did not prepare them for the future. And people who are studying in Singapore now are not prepared for what is to come? (Please don’t get angry. I’m only trying to think analytically, which is something you emphasize later. No doubt, I probably can’t think analytically because I haven’t been through this education system of the future. But you have to forgive me for that!)

Actually I would be glad enough to have the education system allow students to come to terms with the macabre present of the Singaporean condition.

Minister Heng highlighted three core areas his ministry will focus on — to provide a good value system; to teach social and emotional competencies; and to foster creative thinking skills.

Sounds like a mixture of new nonsense and old buzzwords. What’s a good value system?? One that is able to rationalize and compartmentalize life into “competencies” like “social and emotional competencies”?

Speaking to the parents, he said, “Look at the children entering Primary 1 next year. By the time they start work in 15 or 20 years’ time, what would the world be like? We wouldn’t know but we must equip them to face the future.”

Eh . . . how do you equip anyone to face the future which you “wouldn’t know”?

[T]he minister clarified that values are “the foundation of all that we do”. He added that the young need to understand the country’s history and how it got to where it is now.

Read: the same old propaganda education must continue. It is our belief that kids can be totally brainwashed and absolutely creative and critical.

Minister Heng noted that many parents in the audience would appreciate working with those “who can work as a team”.

Oh yeah? But since you don’t know the future, maybe the future is about people who can work as an individual?

“I think for us to be able to continue to grow the economy, it’s very important that Singaporeans can work together as a team and can work with people all over the world,” he said.

Er… Have you got anything new to say? OK, never mind…. Have you got anything remotely important to tell us other than trying a little too hard to show that you, as a part of the all-new post-apocalyptic post-apologetic PAP, are now engaging the people?

He added that the future is “not going to be a world where there are set solutions”. In a globalised world, the ability to think analytically and creatively is important, he said.

The future? I thought you are describing the present and the past. In any case, how could any educated person not be able to think analytically? If such a person exists, the education system he went through must have been a terrible failure…

“Understanding the world, with a global awareness, will be very important,” said the former managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

The one thing interesting about this statement is the idea that it’s actually possible to understand the world without a global awareness.

“I try to spend a lot of time on the ground interacting with our school principals, with our teachers and with our students because this is where the teaching and learning take place.”

I’m wondering what feedback you have gathered. But what’s the use of feedback if the same old absurd bureaucratic-technocratic system of generating more SOPs, processes and KPIs remain in place to ensure that everything improves on paper and rots further at its core. (And yes, this is feedback too. How about coming up with some bureaucratic measure to undermine bureaucratic obsessions?)

He added that there will be key changes in the way the school curriculum is being taught, which will be announced in due time.

Unreported: Teachers present went: “Oh shit! More nonsensical KPIs coming our way!”

Irresistible Defense: Out of Tekong into the tragicomedy of Singapore

The report that an SAF recruit had tried to swim out of Pulau Tekong has stirred some interest and much amusement even though there is something decidedly macabre about the whole episode and something truly disturbing in the way few people are disturbed by the state’s power in conscript which too many Singaporeans have come to respect as natural, normal and thoroughly acceptable.

If we were to simply look at the situation a little more closely and see what the main concerns the authorities have, we would see that the key individual, the human person involved, is sidelined in place of the power of the system. The absolute power of the state is what matters to the authorities (and for all likelihood, most people under the control of the authorities). It has been said that the young person (perhaps we should refrain from calling him a recruit—surely there’s more to him than an empty identity foisted upon him by the repressive state apparatus of conscription) may have problems coping. Perhaps he was not adjusting well to dehumanization renamed as regimentation and military discipline. Perhaps he was simply not able to cope with the physical demands. But he does not matter.

All matters to the state is that its power must not be compromised even in the symbolic terms of a soldier attempting to run away (or, more literally, swim away). In the article, “Recruit tried to swim out of Tekong camp,” The Straits Times  (July 13 2011) reports that “Colonel Tan [the Mindef spokesperson] would only say that the recruit has been ‘disciplinarily dealt with’.” We must be aware of at least two problems.

The first problem that comes to mind is how the immediate concern of Mindef (and I dare say it is the sole concern, in the short- or long-term) is discipline. Not only is Mindef concerned about punishing the soldier, discipline is the only issue Mindef is willing to address in public. It is presumptuous in telling the public that disciplinary action has been taken. It is shaping the mindset of the public by imposing discipline as a concern they should have when it could well have addressed the public by saying that measures have been taken to help the soldier adjust (especially given that he is a very new recruit).

The next significant problem is the media. The de facto state newspaper cum PAP newsletter appears to be consciously aligning its report to downplaying of maladjusted soldiers. From the article, one realizes that the attempt to swim out of Tekong took place in December 2010. It is not July 2011. It is unclear how such a matter goes unreported for more than half a year and why it is suddenly reported. But the length of time is significant to us—clearly, Mindef and Colonel Tan could have said more about the issue after seven months—for the sake of accountability if nothing else. But the paper is not interested in pursuing this. If it did pose Colonel Tan questions about how Mindef treats enlistees who cannot take the ridiculous oppression of enlistment which he declined to answer, these are not mentioned in its report.

Are Singaporeans not disturbed by the possibility that a forcibly conscripted soldier (I find the tautology here necessary in order to emphasize the point to a Singaporean readership) has to take the rather drastic measure of swimming out of Tekong because he is unable to cope but ends up being disciplined? Are Singaporeans, instead, disturbed by how military discipline and control could possibly be compromised? Have we gotten our priorities totally wrong or is the state-controlled media deliberately portraying and shaping our focus in a way that would facilitate the forgetting of the fact that we are dealing with a human being, only eighteen years old, who has no choice but to be enlisted? (Of course I may be holding certain flawed assumptions. Perhaps he holds a foreign citizenship and enlisted so that he can be a Singapore citizen. But the same concerns about conscription should remain.)

What The Straits Times would rather do, though, is to end on an odious note, quoting former military psychologist, Stanley Chua. First, it reports that Chua “said he hoped this incident would not spark talk that today’s enlistees are softer or that national service (NS) is easier than before.” I am inclined to agree with this simply because I do not believe anyone should expect eighteen-year-old teenagers to be “tough” (whatever it might mean) simply because there is NS for them. Neither do I think that anyone should say that NS is easier simply because that is not the issue anyone should raise when a recruit tries to escape. (It is totally illogical to go, “A recruit can’t take anymore and swims out of Tekong! NS must be so much easier now!”) However the final paragraph is to me tantamount to manslaughter:

He [Stanley]added that it is not the Singapore Armed Forces’ job to prepare young men for NS: ‘The BMT commanders and buddies will only know the recruit for a few weeks… The onus is on parents, who have brought up their sons and should know better how they cope with difficulties or stress.’

No, Stanley (or ST?). If I have a son and I know how he copes with stress, what can I possibly do if I know that he is unable to cope with the sort of stress that NS comes with? You may say that it is not the SAF’s job to prepare young men for NS and help the organization disavow any responsibility or obligation. But, from another perspective, why should it be anyone’s responsibility to prepare their children or themselves for NS? It is as good as telling people, “I’m going to throw shit on your face. You had better prepared to lick the shit. It’s not my job to do anything to prepare you. And no, you are not allowed to run away.” The problem? No one should be throwing shit on anyone’s face. And it is perfectly understandable if the victim does not accept shit being dumped on his face; to “prepare” for the terrible act is to accept it indirectly. Should a person not have the right to resist when someone wants to treat him as a toilet bowl?

Of course, the analogy above would be shitty to most Singaporeans, always charmed by the seductive rhetoric of defense as a masculinity-endowing necessity, who will definitely say that NS is not shit and how it is important and necessary.

Is basic human freedom not equally or more important and necessary?

We want defense to protect a nation. And nations are made of human beings. If in the process of national defense, human beings are dehumanized, is defense itself not anti-human and anti-defense? But we would rather indulge in self-defeating militarism, turning defending subjects into objects of defense.

True inescapability is when people no longer recognize their entrapment. This is the epitome of the debilitating Singaporean condition that goes beyond NS to the heart of post-independence Singaporean milieu.

A Curious Case For the Fun Pack Song

Written by someone as old as Singapore itself, the Fun Pack Song is the latest curious absurdity from Singapore that has gone viral. I haven’t heard anything good about it, but perhaps it’s an exquisite little piece of stupidity. What better way is there to represent the bizarre—the feverish, false patriotism and the socio-cultural space of Singapore in general—than with pure bizarreness?

The way the song recasts the all too familiar  Lady Gaga song, “Bad Romance,” says a lot. Is the compulsion/compulsiveness of Singaporean love for the “nation” not a case of bad romance in the way love and loyalty is elicited (solicited?) from citizens caught in a state of bondage to an ideological artifact so hollow that it has to pack itself with orchestrated acts of love in an annual orgiastic ritual? The sheer recognizability of the tune makes “Bad Romance” too prominent to be considered an allusion—it is very much a part of the text itself. Love for Singapore as bad romance. The subversive energy of the song, re-interpreted, is seductive.

It may be obvious why the organizers allowed Bad Romance into the NDP. There is no better song that represents current popular culture. And of course, in the fervor to show that there is a force reaching out to the masses, it would seem like a good decision to have Bad Romance in the NDP. Just as it must have seemed like a good move for the MDA to come up with what it thought was a rap. Just as it must have seemed like a master stroke for MPs to attempt a hip-hop dance to show that they were engaging the people.

The irony of tapping into Gaga as a resource is of course that, despite the fact that there can hardly be anything more mainstream, there can also be hardly anything mainstream that purports to represent the marginal more vociferously. Gaga is a signifier, if a rather empty one, of a voice for the marginal, often marketing herself as a spokesperson against such evils as homophobia. The presence of Gaga in an event like the NDP begs to be taken as irony. The NDP represents sanctioned Singapore culture, emphasizing the importance of the nation (over the individual). It is an event utopic and euphoric in the way it turns itself into an installation piece showcasing Singaporean unity and happiness while relegating the less comfortable aspects of Singapore—such as caning, capital punishment and 377A—to virtual non-existence. Gaga, deservedly or not, represents, on the other hand, a sort of posturing against that which is sanctioned by dominant culture. While Gaga herself has no part to play in the NDP, her presence as a symbol has the potential to undermine what the NDP stands for.

The Fun Pack Song can be taken as a mockery of the NDP because of the way it blatantly foregrounds the goodie bag (which, some suspect, is the reason people attend the NDP). The complimentary goodie bag becomes the center of all focus. Instead of attempting to arouse and indulge in sentiments of nationalism or patriotism, the song indulges in the bag and its goods:

Let’s start with the bag
That’s right, grab your bag
It’s the fun pack bag
Attack the fun pack

There seems to be an adaptation and extension of an idea in the original song: “I want your everything as long as it’s free.” As reflected by words like “grab” and “attack,” there is an inherent violence in the relentless quest for commodities and economic benefits. This is a more accurate representation of Singapore culture than feel-good national day songs as how united Singaporeans are as a people or how Singapore is a home for us all no matter how cosmopolitan we are. The unavoidable show of patriotism that is expected during the NDP does make an appearance, but rather uncannily:

Hold up your flag, don’t you forget
You can wave it if you feel like it

The show of patriotism here seems rather half-harted. Wave your flag “if you feel like it.” (And if I don’t?) On top of that, the line “Hold up your flag, don’t you forget” is both ominous and ironic. It is phrased like an injunction, and there is a warning tone as one is reminded not to forget. At the same time, implicit in the line is the idea that it is altogether possible to forget about the nation, as represented by the flag, on National Day itself. And of course we can. What nation is there? Singapore is so indulgent in its pursuit of commodities that it is an economic entity, not a nation. National Day, then, is not just meaningless, but a lavish attempt to display absent meanings which become goods themselves.

The song gets increasingly absurd as it starts telling the audience to take out their light sticks and “pretend . . . it’s a disco.” Why would anyone have to or want to pretend that it’s a disco? Perhaps the NDP can only be something by being a semblance of something else. The same goes for the entity that the event is supposed to celebrate—we have to pretend that it is a home, we have to pretend to be one united people (not many united or disunited individuals), we have to pretend that there is justice and equality just so that “Singapore” can seem to make sense as a nation. Of course it doesn’t. But the show has to go on.

One wonders if the self-referential line that is repeated throughout the song, “We like the fun pack song,” is actually written with an ironic sense of anticipation that people are not going to like it. In any case, it is a reminder that the song itself is one of the commodities meant to be consumed in the name of the nation (or so that the nation has a name?), a lamentation, perhaps, that this is something it cannot transcend.

You and me could write a bad romance. But we can’t traverse the boundaries of the grand narrative that that we are made to tell regardless of what we say.

%d bloggers like this: