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 Kuan Yew, in “retracting” his statement, implies that he is out of date, which is different from being categorically wrong.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 However, he is not quite saying that he was wrong for he is in fact wrong only insofar as he was “out of date.” To make a claim that is out of date is to make a claim that was once valid. It is more ambiguous when the claim supposedly became out of date if one were to examine Kuan Yew’s words more carefully: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Malays have indeed made special efforts to integrate with other communities, especially since 9/11, and that my call is out of date.”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It is not clear whether Kuan Yew currently thinks that the comment is out of date now (but valid when he made it) or if he believes that it was already out of date at the point he made the comment.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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Dare to be Daft

Kuan Yew has single-handedly popularized many words. Despot is one of them. Complacency another. The most recent word: daft.

While I do not agree with Kuan Yew that voters who vote for the opposition in order to spite the PAP are daft, I have no idea why it is getting so much attention. It is, after all, merely a piece of lowdown rhetoric which I suspect even Kuan Yew himself is not particularly proud of.  Unfortunately, even when Kuan Yew calls people daft, many daft Singaporeans seem to be daft about him. (Such as certain vacuum-heads who compulsively write to The Straits Times hoping to win the chance to do weights training with political testicles.)

What is truly insulting though is Kuan Yew’s other claim about himself and his government:

No country in the world has given its citizens an asset as valuable as what we’ve given every family here. And if you say that policy is at fault, you must be daft.

Give. In the Straits Times article on 28 January 2010, “Don’t cast protest vote over rising flat prices: MM,” the word “give” appears in one form or another no less than eight times to refer to the government giving the people something. No, Kuan Yew. You did not give us our flats. We worked, we earned our money to buy our flats. You sell them to us. And they are getting more and more expensive. Kuan Yew, stop seeing yourself as The Emperor-God of Singaporeans. Singaporeans work, often harder than you ever have, for what they own although you think they are lazy compared to the new immigrants from China.

Policy is not at fault indeed. It is the sense of self-importance that plagues you and the government you have made. You believe that Singaporeans owe their lives to you and you are freely claiming whatever you want from them as and when you deem fit. You claim credit for every good in Singapore and disavow responsibility from every bad that results from what you have done. When you feel like it, you try to show off your humility such as by admitting that you are wrong about how bilingualism is practiced while simultaneously reinforcing the policy and projecting an image of enlightenment.

Cast a protest vote. Why not. At least, if I infer from Kuan Yew’s logic correctly, housing would be free if you cast a protest vote and a minister gets voted out. If the reader is not convinced, please refer to the following fascinating snippets of absurdity reported by Kuan Yew’s propaganda machine, The Straits Times:

1) As Singaporeans lament rising flat prices, he [Kuan Yew] said they ought to understand that the Government sells them at a subsidised price, below market rate, so that they can own an asset that will appreciate in value over the years.

This is brilliant. Worry not when you have a hell of a mess to deal with. It is not really a mess for you have, in fact, intended it to happen all along.

You see, Kuan Yew and his colleagues are gods. Flats are becoming more and more expensive not because of market forces but because the government has planned for it to happen so that you can sell your flat for a higher price. Minor God of National Development Mah Bow Tan must have been really humble when he said: “Nobody, no matter how prescient, no matter how clever, would have been able to predict that this is what is going to happen this year. All of us were caught off-guard… I did not expect the prices to go up.” (CNA)

I would like to know, though, what the use of owning a flat that appreciates in value over the years is. I can sell it, be homeless and keep the profits. Or I can sell it, refuse to be homeless, and use the money I get to buy another flat. But given that this new flat I buy must also have “appreciated” in value (it may even have appreciated more in value than my flat), so whatever profit I gain will be spent on this new flat. To really profit from appreciation, I need to buy more than one flat or at least have a place to live in other than the flat I buy. The only sense I make of this is that the gods are helping the rich become richer. But Kuan Yew is right since the rich are Singaporeans too. (Cut and paste this paragraph under Point 4 below.)

2) But if Mr Mah loses to the opposition, he warned that Singaporeans better sell their flats fast as they would no longer be of any value.

Listen up, all those who do not have enough money to buy flats! Vote Mah Bow Tan out and flats will have no value. I think this means that you would not even have to pay a single cent for them. I have no idea what how voting for/against Mah affects the value of flats, but if you believe Kuan Yew and you want a flat for free, you know what to do if you get to vote. Meanwhile, women out there can apply to be maids in other countries. Finally, a chance to escape this bizarre hell!

Now I understand what Kuan Yew is giving us. He’s giving us hope and certainly is not fear-mongering as some cyber-terrorists are claiming.

3) ‘It will always be an issue,’ noted Mr Lee. ‘They always want it cheaper and better.’

This is conventional Kuan Yew wisdom. When people ask for welfare, they are asking to be fed all their lives without working. When people ask for freedom, they are asking to be able to kill people and not be held responsible. When people want HDB flats to remain affordable, they are just being greedy and want better flats at lower and lower prices. And that is a good reason to punish them with smaller, worse flats that are more and more expensive.

4) ‘[T]he moment you buy a flat, you can sell it to make a profit,’ he said. ‘We are giving you something more valuable than you’re paying for. So we say you cannot sell it for five years.’

If I buy something that is more valuable than what I am paying for, there is really no need for the price of that item to go up beyond the inflation rate. I will still be able to profit from it. So why are flats so expensive?

5) ‘We decided from the very beginning, everybody must have a home, every family will have something to defend. And that home, we developed over the years into the most valuable asset.’

Kuan Yew has probably confused having a home with having a flat. Having a flat is not a prerequisite for having a home. Neither does it ensure that one has a home. But one gets his drift. He wants every family to have something to defend. In other words, he wants every family to have something that can be held hostage. In yet other words, he wants every family to have a liability. An appreciating, growing liability. So that he can tell you, “Vote my my party, otherwise your flat will become worthless” even if he makes zero sense.

Daft? Kuan Yew insults Singaporeans’ intelligence not by his choice of words but by how he assumes that the nonsense he spouts will be believed. Unfortunately, he may be right about the intelligence of many Singaporeans. But he has made people that way. Some of the others who have more intelligence might be the beneficiaries of his policies and will not do anything he considers to be daft. It is up to the rest, however small this group is, to dare to be daft whilst they still have the chance to be daft.

Kuan Yew’s Confession

“Over time, our political leaders have become less hard-driving and hard-striving, winning elections through GRC walkovers. That’s why it would be a good thing for the people to welcome more opposition in the Parliament. If the incumbent party is falling behind because of its own complacency, that is its problem.”


(We should always learn from the Great Mentor himself, should we not?)

When Kuan Yew merely said that the approach to teaching Mandarin was wrong and sounded as though he was confessing that he was wrong, people took him too seriously and started saying that he has admitted that bilingualism was wrong. Unfortunately, he was merely insisting that bilingualism was right but certain practices pertaining to it were not. When Kuan Yew confessed that the relentless (and some say ridiculous) import of foreigners serves a social engineering purpose without making it sound like a confession, people do not pay attention to what a great confession he has made even if it was not deliberate. The following lines from The National Geographic have caused people to (justifiably) lambaste Kuan Yew for accusing them of an inferior work ethic and blaming them for being unable to keep up with imported competition:

Over time, the MM says, Singaporeans have become “less hard-driving and hard-striving.” This is why it is a good thing, the MM says, that the nation has welcomed so many Chinese immigrants (25 percent of the population is now foreign-born). He is aware that many Singaporeans are unhappy with the influx of immigrants, especially those educated newcomers prepared to fight for higher paying jobs. But taking a typically Darwinian stance, the MM describes the country’s new subjects as “hungry,” with parents who “pushed the children very hard.” If native Singaporeans are falling behind because “the spurs are not stuck into the hide,” that is their problem. (Emphasis Molly’s)


Yet, it should be more important to us that Kuan Yew’s remarks reveal that in the minds of our policymakers, the import of foreigners does not merely serve a practical economic purpose, as the most common justification goes. Neither is it really to add to the vibrance of the society through the introduction of different cultures. Rather, one conscious objective of Singapore’s policymakers is to shape Singapore though foreigners—by molding the social make-up with the sort of foreigners they desire, and thereby pressuring Singaporeans to match up in terms of these desired (even if not necessarily desirable) traits. In other words, upon finding that Singaporeans are beginning to demand too much, those that have the power for formulate policies are attempting to tame them by importing people who are willing to suffer what Singaporeans refuse to suffer. Hazy as the notion of “demanding too much” seems, it is essentially a political issue—people might be demanding for the pay workers in the developed world deserve (after all the cost of living has been getting higher and higher), or they might be expecting the rights that they deserve (such as the right to unionize and go on strike without a bogus national union). Needless to say, the likes of Kuan Yew would prefer to say that people are getting lazy and the country needs an impetus for them to become the way he wants them to be. It is a fact neither scientifically proven nor universally acknwoledged (and probably not politically correct either), but many new immigrants China (and perhaps elsewhere as well) are like ready-made successful socially-engineered Singaporeans par excellence. They are Kuan Yew’s ideal citizens (except when they do things like protesting to the Ministry of Manpower, but we are not talking about that class of Chinese citizens here) and he is holding them up as model citizens.

Kuan Yew has more than once expressed his dissatisfaction with local Singaporeans (I know “local Singaporeans” sounds tautological, but, believe me, it is not), saying that the newer generations of local Singaporeans are not rugged enough. Perhaps the best sort of Singaporeans are the ones who take millions of dollars from tax-payers every year for making remarks that offend them occasionally while oppressing them constantly. Clearly, most Singaporeans are not capable of achieving this feat, but we can at least expect Singaporeans to be willing to suffer needlessly and endlessly without complaining—or be “hard-driving” and “hard-striving” if euphemisms are preferable. In the current world, hard work may gain one’s exploiters more mileage with every bit of investment but it may not get one anywhere and that is why it can be said to be explotative. The law of diminishing returns sets in quickly for the exploited but the latter is expected to work increasingly harder, with job scopes stretched and working hours lenghened. But I suspect the National Geographic is slightly inaccurate in saying that Kuan Yew was being Darwinian. When I think of Darwin, I think of what happens in nature. Some call it the survival of the fittest— a species evolve over time because those individuals with traits that result in them being unable to survive well die out and those with trains that enhance their survival become representative of their species. (Do pardon me if I am over-simplifying Darwin or if I am technically incorrect.) But what is happening in Singapore is more akin to the disruption of ecological systems through the introduction of a foreign species. It is like human interference with nature, such as the introduction of rabbits to Australia, which has led to the extinction of native species. It is important, of course, to see that such an analogy has its limits lest it is mistaken that I am saying that there should be no foreigners in Singapore at all. Nevertheless, when the introduction of foreigners into a country is a means of manipulating the local population, sinister politics seem to be at work. Politically, introducing many foreigners to Singapore dilutes the already few voices of dissent that are present. Given that almost everyone in the world believes that the PAP is going to maintain its political hegemony for a long time to come, migrants to Singapore may be different from migrants to countries such as America. Or they simply have the financial means to get away any time they feel that it no longer benefits them. If new immigrants do not find the PAP’s policies and its hegemony acceptable, they may not choose to take up Singapore citizenship to begin with given that the hegemony is going to be quite permanent. As such, what we have are more and more citizens who favor or are at least not against the continued dominance of the PAP. Opposing voices will to some extent be drowned especially when new immigrants take it upon themselves to defend the status quo, and it is already happening if the examples of people like Frederic Fanthome who writes for the P65 blog and new citizens who write to the ST Forum are anything to go by.

To make matters worse, what Kuan Yew values in Singaporeans may not benefit Singaporeans although it might boost the country’s economy in terms of statistics.

“You gotta love how I push my children.”


What Kuan Yew wants is perhaps simply an intensified version of Kiasuism. He says that parents who are new immigrants push their children hard. And perhaps he is right. There was once when I saw a man from China (I am guessing from his accent) severely lecturing his son for not properly making use of the time to read when he (the father) went to the washroom. And perhaps Kuan Yew is right in implying that Singaporean parents do not push their as maniacally even though this by no means suggest that Singaporean parents are not pushing their children hard enough, if people should be “pushed” in the first place. Even if it is true that (some) Singaporean parents are not pushing their children hard enough, matters have to be clarified. Parents cannot push their children with just brute force. I am not taking an ethical stance here. Rather, one needs to have sufficient financial means to push their children. What good would it do for a parent to constantly scold his child and tell him to do good when the parent cannot even afford school fees? When there is solid ground in front of you, a gentle nudge would propel you forward.
If you are at the edge of a cliff, a hard push does no good and you are better off not being pushed at all. Do not blame Kuan Yew for forgetting this fact, however. I doubt he has ever seen his children at the edge of a cliff. He is just speaking from decades of inexperience.


“Don’t you wish you could be like me?”


There is no need to prove Kuan Yew wrong when he compares immigrants from China with local-born Singaporeans. His observations may not be totally wrong. We do see that many immigrants are “hard-driving” and “hard-striving”. We may disagree with the prescribed ethos of Hyper-Kiasuism and we may disgree that Singaporeans are not “hard-driving”, but Kuan Yew is entitled to his views. What we have to remember, though, is his failure to acknowledge that not everyone has the capital to participate in such an ethos and the fact that perhaps being silently hard-striving is not necesarily good for people or even for the country. This, in my opinion, is worse for an elected leader than being wrong about Singaporeans or disparaging them.

“I’m not hard-striving enough?” (Photo Stolen from TOC)

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