Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Mein Kampf: Manifesto of a Minority

Mein Kampf: Manifesto of a Minority

In the later half of 2005, the Communications and New Media Department of the National University of Singapore, of which I am an undergraduate student, brought in one Dr Linda Perry, as part of its plans to expand.

Dr Perry comes from the University of Florida and brings tons of experience in journalism with her. I must say I am not a hands-on kind of person; I like to call it “brains-on”. I only found out my limitations when I took her module on media writing.

In taking the course, we were thrown into the deep end of the pool. We had to find a non-profit organisation for which we will design and write an online newsletter. I did not like the assignment, given it required some travelling and making some contacts with strangers. Furthermore, it was a group assignment and people who know me, know how I detest group work. “Work” is okay, but “group” is not. I was year 2 (sophomore) then. Well, as of now, I’m changing, so give me some time.

Then, after a couple of weeks of deliberation, one teammate decided we cover Focus on the Family Singapore (FOTF). That sort of rang a bell because I heard of FOTF in another concurrent Sociology course I was studying. Dr Laurence Leong was the instructor of this mass media course and mentioned that we should always be critical of media messages and cited FOTF as one of the few examples.

My curiosity led to some simple internet research on FOTF, in the midst of doing the media writing assignment on FOTF, the work of which can be found on http://linda.perry.net/affinity.

The entire team focused (pun intended) on issues directly related to FOTFS (Singapore), dealing with the usual “morally correct” views espoused by the organisation on pre-marital sex, family, marriage and parenting. I decided to find out more about the organisation’s view on homosexuality, kind of a ‘DUH’ statement in retrospect.

Of course we had to write 2 articles, one involving an interview with someone related to FOTFS, but I ended up interviewing someone from MCYS, dealing with welfare. What a sore thumb I am. The other article was of course a feature on the “good things” championed by the organisation, sort of an exercise to improve their communications campaign. I stuck out like a sore thumb again when I decided to focus of the contentious “bad things” the organisation rejected, which did little to contribute to the good image the project was tasked to.

In the process of the work, I interviewed Dr Leong, the vice-president of FOTFS Joanna Koh-Hoe and the guy who replied my email to People Like Us, Miak. I feel embarrassed that I told Miak I would send him my article once I was once with it. But somehow, I lost his email address upon cleaning out my yahoo email. Now that I know that Miak is possibly reading this, he can read the article at http://linda.perry.net/affinity/homosexuality.htm. I am not very proud of my article any way, so even if I had Miak’s email, I would still be embarrassed enough not to send it to him.

I learnt one, of many many many skills, in my time at NUS so far. I learnt not only to hear, but to listen. I learn to listen in the capacity of a person who is an empty vessel (in a good way), unopinionated, and open to the ideas and views given by others. Most of us listen, but we continue to hold onto the rigid and comfortable predispositions we were socialised into. These are the very barriers to listening, and we end up not listening at all, despite believing that we are listening. You need some level of humility, and a large stomach to contain that pride, momentarily.

I soon realised that every lecturer in NUS is actually that damn good, despite some being greatly hated by most students. At the semester-end student review of the course and instructors, wherein most students will often, I heard, write negative reviews, I had always wrote positive reviews. Yes I am being Paula Abdul here, but honestly, when you grow up and develop, you do so based on positive points because you take home the positive points. If you took home the negative points, what can you do with them? Change them to become positive points, turn them into strengths, which ultimately translate back to using positive points.

I see school as a tennis training session. It’s okay to make mistakes and you have the space and time to learn. You make a thousand mistakes in training so that you are prepared not to make any (if possible) when you leave training. You make these mistakes while trying and giving your best. After all, the fees are already paid, and the lecturers are there to be “used”.

Yes. That is how I am able to romanticise my experience at NUS, which will come to an end soon next year, unless I proceed to doing graduate studies.

I learnt some more stuff through my interview with FOTFS. But I learnt a lot more from Dr Leong and Miak, other than their views. I thought Miak, as a “layperson” would know little, but just felt a lot; more heart than head, but was taken aback by the knowledge he possessed from research and reading. Dr Leong, in my exchange with him, told me that to be a “rebel”, one had to work very hard. I would choose to think that this is probably one of the very few experiences in 2005 that perhaps cemented my interest in academia.

Of course, there was this highly abstract course taught by Dr Sreekumar in the Communications and New Media department, regarding theoretical critiques of knowledge management, in which I was completely lost for months before finally understanding what the hell was going on, in time for the exam. From then on, I saw things in concepts and analogies, and enjoyed and appreciated their complexities. Perhaps my dislike for people (not persons) was another motivator.

August 2006, I took a Sociology course on religion, and decided to focus on religion and homophobia in Singapore for my term paper, which I took great pains in writing. I chose the topic for my essay partly because I wanted to prepare for another course I intended to take, taught by Dr Leong the following semester, which was on sexualities. Mind you, the religion/homophobia term paper was meant to be a group effort, either 2 or 3 members in a team. Sore thumb Sam requested to do alone. Maybe the lecturer appreciated some form of deviance, and allowed me to do the assignment alone. I wanted to be the “rebel” and I was prepared to work hard. It was rewarding, the grade of course, and the knowledge and experience gained from reading the literature.

I knew what I wanted to do then, but decided to finish the course of sexualities first. That was when I started writing to the Straits Times a lot more frequently to air my views. It’s really hard work, mind you. Rejections are all too very common, and when they got published, they were edited.

My letters usually deal with human beings. I regretted writing this letter on educating people on feeding stray cats because this might attract crows, and that crows attack people. Somehow it was construed to be anti-cat, and I became “Wee Shu Min” for a couple of days, with the animal-lover internet mob ripping my “fake” reputation to bits. Through the usual profiling of hate-figures, some claim I was an “elite”, but I live in a HDB flat and my dad, at 60, is still working. Others claim that I am all brains, but no soul, in the process mocking NUS. One claimed that his/her younger brother knew me because he is my friend and I think that one hurt me the most, because this “friend” did not clarify with his elder sibling that I am not the person he/she thinks. Furthermore, I do not think I can claim to have friends in school, save for one or two who have graduated; everyone else is an acquaintance and I don’t really hang out with them outside school. Any way, I love animals (prefer dogs to cats actually) and writing badly was my mistake and I hold myself accountable for it. I learnt it the hard way.

My girlfriend said jokingly, “You went through the baptism of fire. Now you are a man!”

I exclaimed, “Yes, I am now a man!”

You see, this is the rites of passage one has to take when one writes to the Straits Times, when one takes a position and lets everyone know his/her position. Like I wrote in my first “Straight Thoughts on 377A”, published in Alex Au’s site and here too, I joined the acting auditions (and later secured a leading role in the English drama) to know what is it like to be an actor. It is not easy, and I have the experience and credibility to say so. Now when I criticise actors and actresses, I believe I have some minimal credibility to do so, in contrast with someone who has never got off his/her couch.

Of course, the first half of 2007 got me acquainted with this Dutch lecturer from the Communications and New Media department, who has done activist work and is an advocate of women’s rights. I had always thought, “What the hell is wrong with these people, all these rights activists, feminists and stuff?” Dr Ingrid Hoofd, who is now my honours thesis supervisor (my paper on sexual minorities in the Straits Times), frequently mentioned “power” and “privilege” in class. I finally understood something.

The sheer presence of Dr Ingrid and Dr Sreekumar in the classroom is already highly inspirational to me. Yes, you get questioned, challenged, and ripped to shreds in the classroom, but it’s all enrichment. In my fourth year now, after taking courses from the sociology and media departments, I found that I love learning (although I hate studying).

Another thing that has got me to empathise with sexual minorities in Singapore is not that I have any gay friends, but how I see myself in my social environment. I do not have any gay friends, maybe I might have, but they are probably not “out” to me. My “gay-dar” sucks.

I feel like a minority in so many ways. As mentioned, I am “Chinese” on my NRIC, but I’ve struggled with Mandarin my entire life. My family speaks English to me all the time. I went to Ang Mo Kio Secondary School and later Nanyang JC, both “neighbourhood” schools. In between, I spent 3 months at Victoria JC, but realised I could not fit in either because of the social environment.

I often get teased, ridiculed and questioned for my inability to speak Mandarin. This did not help in the Army during National Service. Everyone wanted to be “manly” in Army. “Manliness” was associated with working-class grind-it-out aesthetics, broken English, and predominant use of Mandarin with Hokkien as a mode of communication. Those who speak English are seen as middle to upper class, as snooty individuals who knew and cared little about the Chinese-educated folk. They are less “man”, more “sissy”. Most of the English-educated persons in the army as a result adopted this front to become work-class persons with broken English, just to assimilate. Why can’t we all be who we are and accept each other as who we are? We are after all, defending the same country, aren’t we?

In school, I feel like a minority. I sit alone. I sit near the front. I want to ask questions. I want to give my piece of mind. People think I am out to score points, or to prove others wrong, but I am only out to know myself better, know the limitations and strengths.

I felt and still feel like a minority. It’s depressing. And this perhaps reinforces my dislike for people in general. I do not want to mingle with people, although I appreciate the company of close friends or personal interactions with individual acquaintances. But even social recluses have belief systems.

I believe that minorities deserve to be understood better. The only way for minorities to be understood is for those in privileged positions to momentarily leave their positions and attempt to comprehend the realities that minorities confront. For example, our society has done a lot through the Yellow Ribbon project to integrate ex-convicts back into society, but there is still a lingering stereotypification and stigmatism of ex-convicts. Society has structures, no doubt, but structures are not rigid in the long run. Things change, structures remain the same because of people in power having maintained or expanded their power, because of people in privileged positions having maintained or elevated their positions.

Religion is not wrong, neither is it neutral. But what makes religion right is how meaningful it can be to a person or a community. What is morally wrong (see deontology) is when the person or community goes out telling others/outsiders that it is right. Just invert/reverse the situation and you will know what I mean. This is why I dislike people, but am okay with persons. I think people should not go out to hate religion just because some poster-boys and opinion leaders say things that we disagree with.

Thio Li-Ann, I believe, is driving a big truck that would have never been approved by ROV. This truck emits thick smoke. It is uncomfortable to smell. But this truck exists in a space where thick smoke is the norm. Like when I went to Thailand, the air in some streets is unbearable, but the locals are cool with it.

When we try to tell Thio and her supporters and conservative folk that the smoke they emit is harmful, they will say, “What smoke? I don’t see any smoke? No smoke, no harm.” You see, Baey Yam Keng talked about speaking the language of the government at this 377A forum at the National Library in the middle of the year. Here, we need to speak the language of the truck-driver and I do not refer to using analogy of “straws” and “noses” to resolve our issues.

It’s not about the “gay agenda” any way. In history, we had black men fighting for black men. We had women fighting for women. But let’s not forget that we have had white men too fighting for black men. And that we had men also fighting for women.

If men never fought for women, and left the cause for women alone to fight, we will have this reality:

- Women voting? That is so wrong!
- Women working? That is unnatural! They are just daughters, wives and mothers!
- Women in sports? That is immoral! They should be in the home!
- Women being sexual? That is illegal! They have no sexuality!
- Women should not be having this public seminar/forum because it is against public interest. Women should not be organising this mass jogging session or a picnic because they are endorsing the womanly lifestyle.

I am sure women feel more about oppression and discrimination, more so than their male counterparts. But now, women have ascended to a privileged position where they have become the oppressors, along with the men. Together, they oppress sexual minorities. Maybe that is how society evolves. Maybe when sexual minorities ascend to the same position as the “moral majority”, we will find another group to oppress. We’ll never know, but that is why we have history lessons, on the surface, to learn from the past and improve for the future.

We are all minorities in some way or another and it is not our choosing most of the time. Who wants to be a minority any way? To be criticised, ostracised, stigmatised, medicalised, technicised, discriminated, excommunicated, and so on? But on the other hand, since one is a minority, should one equally deserve the right and space to be proud of one’s identity?


Roy said...

seems to me like you're never leaving the "minority report".

on a side note, would you believe in the philosophy of Tao? this just came across my mind. it's like having the bad people around so it's obvious to see the good people.

likewise, when there's majority, the presence of minority cannot be eradicated, regardless on what grounds.

and now, it might be interesting to think, however, on the diversity of grounds in relation with the supposed knowledge we think we have and its relation in political and sociological society. :P

we've somehow always taken for granted (in the past) that only women knew how to cook (an assumption) and men who cooked were regarded as "freaks" and the women, in their glory of subservience assumed to think that the men were right. so when did the women get smarter?

history indeed.

nb: ignore this if this sounds crazy, i happen to think way too much.

Sam Ho said...

interesting thing about tao.

i see people as mirrors, or blackbodies haha. you shoot one photon (your input in the interaction), you may or may not incite them to release their electron (their reaction).

to an extent, we know ourselves better through the interaction with others because they sometimes reflect who we are, literally and metaphorically.

the same knowledge that exists in political space will be in a different form in a social space, in fact, it might not even be considered "knowledge" just by the sheer definition/measures that exist within the other space.

i think i'll leave the minority thing alone soon. i'm on laxatives at the moment. still have a lot of thoughts that are waiting to be materialised. it's like a musician with a tune in his head, but he might be limited by his physiology and motor-coordination to materialise the tune, limited by time and other distractions too.

testtube said...

Very well-written. Good analogy with the truck. People don't see the smoke because there are many assumptions they refuse to question. And when you question them, they label you instead of addressing your criticisms.

Sam Ho said...

thank you.

i was thinking of a tractor ploughing the field, making it easier for everyone to plant their crops. and the side effect is the smoke. but i think that analogy is too broad.

Miak said...

oh dear. i must be getting senile. i do not remember being interviewed by you. ha ha ha.

btw you spelt my name wrong - it's siew meng ee. :p

i am glad that the interview bore fruit, and i think you are better at fighting for sexual minority rights than me now!

and yes, in the midst of all this, i have been bitten by the bug too - i enjoy doing research and studying the bible as well