Sunday, December 30, 2007

My Small Skinny Singaporean Wedding, co-starring the ethics review board

I thought I had to update.

My examination results exceeded my expectations, and I am en route to graduating with a 2nd Upper Honours degree. They no longer call it "upper", because you will have a "lower" and no one wants a "lower" on their resume. They call it "2A" and "2B", but I think that doesn't help much. It is as good as saying you are a "A student" or a "B student". But that is how society judges your worth and decides what kind of rice you will be eating.

I seldom relate much about my life on this blog, but I guess putting down thoughts alone is nothing new or unique. Thoughts shouldn't be divorced from one's identity.

Any how, in 2008, I am going to tie the knot, not on the necks of gay-haters and the ethics review board, but as in doing an "Aaron Ng". Aaron, a senior in the communications and new media department, and probably the best/top student in his batch, got married after graduation. So, in the eyes of some, I am walking that treaded path. Hopefully, I can even be a part of the department either as a graduate student or a staff like him. Maybe the department, having the benefit of the presence of his mental sharpness, can also benefit from my insanity (they have enough normal people; what they need are wackos).

The lure and challenge of independence are one strong motivator, other than being married to someone you can consider a good buddy, best friend. Why can't Singaporeans marry early? Is early Singaporean marriage so disincentivised, institutionally and socially?

Times are good/bad now. Resale flats are being sold way above valuation. As a couple, we do not have riches in our pockets. It has been suggested that we go on "Deal or No Deal" to get the money for the downpayment and the cash upfront.

As for the wedding, we just want it small and simple, an accurate reflection of our personalities. In our minds, we are married. But no human being exists outside his/her body, which happens to inhabit a cultural space with cultural forces and expectations. Meanings and symbols have been ascribed to the companionship they call a matrimonial union, and it is an obgliation to follow them - a rites of passage expected of and for a wedded couple that exists in a social space. To me, being together is just a small piece of meat. In the eyes of society, it is a hamburger, because there's a sesame seed bun, lettuce, onions, cheese, ketchup, pickles and other what-nots. Our piece of meat is turned into a hamburger. So whose wedding is it supposed to be any way, ours or society's?

Any way, I have been really busy with my thesis. Writing. And also getting exasperated with the ethics review board.

It is because of "research ethics" concerns that my interviews cannot begin. In fact, they are pushed back by 5 weeks. I think it is going to be 6 weeks.

I just wished the board just told me what to do and what to write and how to conduct the interviews. They have kept it open-ended and asked me to fill the form myself, since it was my research. But the form was bounced back to me for updating. Why not cut the email exchanges and just tell me what you want to be filled in and how you want it to be done?

I asked how should I fill in the part about data storage (i.e. interview tapes and transcripts) and was told to keep it in a safe place. When I quizzed further, I was told to make sure it is secure. Hell, I don't never know what is the expected security protocol for interview material! So I wrote that it would be kept in the cupboard in my residence, if that is safe enough. The application bounced back and I was advised to keep it under lock and key in the NUS.

Some like their coffee black. Some like to have brown sugar. For me, I like my form-filling to have no frills.

The ethics review board probably consists of poor communicators, whose primary focus is some form of backside-covering exercise. Form-filling should be fuss-free and foolproof.

If the board requires a certain type of answer, a certain type of procedure and a certain type of protocol, they should clearly and firstly articulate it. I have spent about 2-3 weeks filling the form and spent the entire Decemeber waiting for the approval, and I am still waiting for it.

The organisation that employs the logic of the "reasonable man on the street" to determine sensitive issues in research foci, obvious lacks the qualities of the mythical and vague model they so subscribe to.

My honours thesis topic is "Sexual minorities in the Straits Times". Wow! Did you say gay or lesbian? That is sensitive! Unfortunately, my research is on news media representation.

My proposed Masters thesis is "Information Communication Technologies in Socio-religious spaces". I guess that is sensitive too, cause it has religion in it. Maybe the "reasonable man on the street" may deem it risky and dangerous, as the research might undermine social harmony and public peace.

If studying people and society is going to be moderated by the unclear demands and expectations of the ethics review board, I am serious wondering what will happen to such research in Singapore.

Imagine you're a barber. Your client sits down and says, "Just cut it short". You say, "How short?". He says, "Anything, as long as it is short". You the barber will wonder how to best cut your client's hair. You snip a bit, he will get impatient and tell you, "Shorter!". You cut too much, he may snap, "That's not what I wanted!"

Researchers have to contend with the ethics review board, for without the latter's approval, you cannot do any research. But do researchers deserve this?

If I am doing participant observation in the field (field as in fieldwork), must I throw ethics board approved consent forms in the air like it is the hungry ghost month? What about covert research and observation, such as observing certain peoples in their "natural habitat" doing their rituals? Will the researcher have to take out a 4-8 page protocol and read out the rights of his subjects (of observation) and other protocols?

Research ethics is as important consideration. But its mechanical implementation and application by the institution make it a lot less sensible. Moreover, it's implementation in the Arts and Social Sciences faculty seems to be rather oriented towards the hard sciences.

My interview research, which consists of mainly 6 questions, is in my opinion now being treated as if I am drawing blood and tissue samples from my subjects. We seem to be on equal (un)ethical footing. The waiting time has gone beyond my own personal datelines. I actually made a decision that by Christmas, I shall forgo the interview part of my research if I didn't get any approval.

Research should not revolve around an institution, its working style and its agenda. I personally cannot tolerate my time and efforts being extorted, and my research focus being bullied by the unclear demands of the organisation.

Yes, I feel bullied and I feel victimised. I was supposed to get all my interviews done by mid-December and write 75% of my thesis by New Year. I am only at the 50% mark now, without interview data. This is the reality of research. Research is shaped by funding, the powers and agenda behind the funding, and other organisations with other concerns, such as the ethics review board.

Maybe I should do a study on the presence of ethics review boards in educational institutions. I wonder if my research will be approved by the ethics review board.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Faithfully faithless

What do you call someone who doesn’t believe in any religion or any god(s)? What do you call someone who does not write “god” with a capital G?

Atheist? Faithless? Non-religious?

Irreligious? Ignorant? Misguided?

I believe that the faithless, just to label this group this once, are lesser privileged than the ones with faiths, belonging to state-recognised religious organisations.

The constitution protects some aspects of your identity, such as your skin colour, your culture and your religion. Is being faithless or having no religion considered a legitimate belief that will be protected by the constitution and law?

What happens when a faithless person is being labelled ignorant and misguided, and also have insinuations made about him/her not knowing the “truth”? To what extent is his/her esteem, psychological and emotional well-being taken care of? What if he/she feels lowly or guilty about his/her present condition?

If you said Christians/Muslims/Buddhists/Hindus are ignorant, you are promoting ill will against the particular group. If you do the same for faithless people, things are different. Firstly, the faithless are not seen as people, but as persons who are incapable of being organised or forming communities that the state will recognise.

Secondly, there are probably a lot less visible and a lot less processes and rituals that define the faithless person’s way of life.

Thirdly, faith itself appears not be play an integral part of a faithless person’s psyche and way of life. A person with subscriptions to a religion/faith is willing to die for his/her religion/faith. How likely is a person with no faith willing to die for his/her faithlessness? And how can this difference, if it exists, ever be articulated on the same playing field, in a system which protects faiths and not the faithless?

Does the willingness to die for a belief, or to organise a riot a community which subscribes to the belief, dictate the definition and degree of sensitivity for a particular faith community? Are we trying to say that the faithless are less sensitive and have lesser sensitive issues at hand, such that when hate speech is directed towards them, it is less likely to be considered a sensitive issue?

Do the faithless have lesser protection, hence lesser rights?

There are religious groups that are out to “save” people from their “ignorance”. That is not illegal.

What about active atheism, which seeks to “unconvert” the religious? That might be illegal, because it can cause social upheaval. When you talk about upheaval, I think of the analogy of the tree. On a piece of land they call Singapore, religious people are like trees that form rather deep roots into the ground, because the gardener gave these trees an abundance of fertiliser. The non-religious, or the faithless, are trees too, but are provided with lesser amounts of fertiliser, and will not develop roots as deep as the former trees. When the strong wind blows, the “faithless” trees will uproot and topple, but the soil isn’t messed up to a great extent. If the “religious” trees were to be uprooted, the soil will be all over the place and gaping holes will be left. The very privileges accorded to religious organisations in Singapore are the very source of oppression they exert on the social fabric, which is represented by the piece of land in the analogy. The “topple” of the faithless, on the other hand, does not qualify anywhere near “social upheaval”.

What about representation of faithless people? Are they properly and fairly represented?

Are the beliefs of faithless people being culturally and structurally impinged upon by the religious? Moreover, there are spaces for the rituals and practices for the religious. What about spaces for the faithless? Are there spaces for the faithless to articulate their beliefs and perhaps even do the equivalent of proselytisation?

I see religion and religious institutions as a function of the authoritarian government. Central authority with obedience centred about it. The development of these institutions is analogous to the development of central governance at state level, hence serving the central needs. In governance, there is power and hierarchy, and systems of reward, discipline and punishment to ensure the “status quo” is being maintained. The status quo itself consists the very central system that defines it. Therefore, some degree of protection is required for the domains and sub-domains that seek to upkeep the central system. There is thus the creation of an illusion of “shared” and “common values”.

This is also why I believe the Singapore government fears those with religion, more so than those without religion. There are great efforts to integrating the religious into the social fabric and efforts to integrate the faithless, if any, are a lot non-comparable.

Will a belief that rejects religion ever be recognised and respected as a belief, on equal footing as a religious belief in Singapore?

If we are a country that wants to talk about tolerance of beliefs and ideologies that may form integral aspects of our identity, can faithlessness be as equally incentivised as religiosity? After all, the faithless pose a great a threat to the social fabric as the religious, if not lesser. You do not see atheists gathering around some public domain or the internet calling for the heads of religious people who claim the existence of a supreme being, or crying foul that there are active campaigns to marketing religion, in the process impinging on the rights and spaces of the faithless.

I think it is very damaging to social cohesion when you have groups implying and accusing each other of worshipping false gods, being ignorant and unreceptive of the “truth”. And caught in the crossfire are the faithless, who probably have less of a voice to articulate their concerns, nevermind if society is ever interested in hearing them in the first place.

Since Singapore is a place where criticism is not tolerated, but solutions are welcomed, I believe religious organisations here should keep an open-door policy. You leave your doors open without sending out your salesmen. You make your materials available. Those who choose to have a faith or a religion, will do so voluntarily and with consent.

It is never a battle for space and supremacy. If it is so, just declare it.

Moreover, don’t give the faithless more respect; just give them equal respect.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

There is "I" in Patriarchy

One factor of homophobia is patriarchy.

Patriarchy is also the reason why women are seen to be less important as men.

The man is always the man. The woman is never the woman. She is a wife, mother, daughter (feel free to add “in-law”), but never woman. The woman is defined by her role, her function. Does she really have an identity?

The man is always defined as more active, while the woman is passive. The active sperm and the passive egg. The penetrator is the perpetrator and instigator, while the penetrated is the passive receiver. Orgasm seems to be mostly understood with respect to the male anatomy, shrouding the female orgasm in mystery and some degree of invisibility. That’s sex education for you. This causes some to believe that women are less sexual than men, or perhaps even asexual.

Even in discourses on homosexuality, there is male dominance. Gay sex takes precedence. Lesbian sex becomes shrouded in mystery, and perhaps invisibilised. Perhaps lesbian sex is just a myth, not a reality that society is willing to accept.

Is the real woman a myth?

Patriarchy may be the heaps of mud piled upon the people and things we observe and experience, adding layers of meaning framed accordingly to how it sees it.

Then again, patriarchy may be the reason why the mud is there is the first place to be piled upon the people and things we were about to observe and experience.

Then again, what if people and things didn’t exist at all, but we believe them to exist, no thanks to the mud.

Patriarchy is so ingrained into our consciousness that attempts to subvert it often lead to a reliance on its binary opposite. What if its binary opposite is a mere creation of patriarchy itself?

Patriarchy has its own logic and based on its logic, decisions are made; and based on decisions made, lives are affected.

Patriarchy paves the way for hetero/sexism (both sexism and heterosexism). There is no negotiating with the hetero/sexist mind and logic, even if one exploited its inherent limitations, ironies and paradoxes. Even language is patriarchal.

You try to subvert it. People will think you are crazy and attempt to reinstitutionalise you.

If we are prisoners, who tells us we are prisoners and who keeps us in prison? I believe it’s our minds, which are programmed with the patriarchal inscriptions and ascriptions provided by the social and institutional mechanisms and domains we have long interacted with. How do you beat that?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Singapore Dreamers Anonymous

Do you believe in the Singapore Dream?

Getting 5 or 6 C’s. Hardworking in early life. Letting your money work for you towards the end of your career. Retire at 60 or preferably earlier. Having children (2, 3, 4 or more if you could afford it) who will probably achieve more than you. Putting them in “good” primary schools.

The Singapore Dream is also about being carefree, apolitical and safe (because it’s apolitical).

In discourse, we are often wary of the dominance of and orientation towards the mostly Caucasian, mostly male, mostly middle-to-upper income, mostly middle-aged, entirely heterosexual model.

In the Singapore Dream, is it the same, minus the White Man?

Is the Singapore Dream meant for the person who’s mostly Chinese, mostly male, mostly middle-to-upper income, mostly middle-aged, entirely heterosexual, mostly English-educated (and bilingual), mostly apolitical and mostly a supporter of the ruling party? Well, these factors all contribute to a very healthy level of financial and emotional stability.

Is the Singapore Dream an opium, an addictive aspiration, a clever distraction for all of us?

Is it entirely material? Does material make us happy? What about rights and the wellbeing of others? Are rights and wellbeing part of the Singapore Dream? Maybe wellbeing, but what about rights? Some say if you have wellbeing, who cares about having rights?

Does the longevity of a particular brand of ruling which calls itself a democracy lead to a fulfillment of the Singapore Dream of the citizen? Is there a relationship in the first place?

What are the economic, cultural and political factors, mechanisms and conditions that motivate us to conceive of the Singapore Dream?

The presence of mechanisms that empower, with their positive results, may serve to invisibilise and disempower certain aspects of us, our identities and other aspirations; in order words, to oppress.

We have good and subsidised education to empower us with, among other things, social responsibility and civic consciousness (see obedience to the state). We chase the papers and certificates because the mechanisms have been in place for us to do so. Other talents, in the area of music and sport, are not emphasized.

If we failed in this system, we are compelled to be personally responsible because the infrastructure has long been established to help us. I see the same thing for health in Singapore. There are mechanisms (campaigns, subsidees) in place for healthy living and if you fall ill, it’s your fault. If you cannot find a job, it’s your fault too, because everything has been provided for you.

The Singapore Dream exists in a setting mostly often described as meritocratic. Provide the same mechanisms for everyone and let them thrive on their own. It is perhaps the very same system that results in and exacerbates the inequalities we are facing in our society.

Is compassion and graciousness part of the Singapore Dream? Do they precede the material aspirations that so dominantly define the dream? Or are they, along with other intangibles, only considered after the Singapore Dream is fulfilled? How can the “values” of meritocracy be reconciled with the notions of compassion and graciousness?

I think the Singapore Dream is the middle-income curse. The middle-income person may not harbour the Singapore Dream, but may be judged by others who subscribed to it. You are deemed “successful” and “happy” not because you believe it and live it, but because others have labelled you so.

The lower income group wishes to be more stable. The middle-income is too busy chasing the Singapore Dream. The upper-income is either contented or desire higher positions of power and comfort. So is there space for rights, charity, and wellbeing for all in our society?

You do not merely “unsubscribe” the thing called the Singapore Dream. It is more than just a dream or an aspiration. It’s a structure that affects you in every possible way. It tells you who you are and allows others to judge you.

The Singapore Dream reveals more. It makes us believe, among many other myths, that financial stability comes at the expense of rights and it is incompatible to desire for both. The Singapore Dream obscures certain realities, some we take for granted and others we were not even aware existed. For one, the Singapore Dream doesn’t deal with the free and fearless articulation or expression of opinion.

Ultimately, Singaporeans want to be happy, but their happiness is framed by the Singapore Dream. What can we do about it?

Monday, December 10, 2007

What the cluck?!

Is a Singaporean capable of transcending his/her reality?

I read in the New Paper today about the law undergraduate who decided to wear red and walk to the Shangri-La hotel to support some democratic cause for Myanmar. Yes, I read the New Paper, mainly for sports and the occasional celebrity gossip.

It seems that we have developed a culture where it is deemed hazardous, risky and dangerous to hold a political belief and stand up for it, or even articulate it. We risk losing our comforts and privileges, or so we fear.

If this undergraduate was jailed for disobeying the officer-on-duty, what would become of his education and employability? On the other hand, what harm could he have caused any way?

I think most of us lucky bunch are well-fed like chickens in a farm. We are fed so fat that we feel comfortable with the food, but the obesity-inducing comfort itself prevents us from understanding what the farm is all about or looking beyond the farm itself.

You have a job. You have children or parents to take care of. Will you be crazy enough to hold a political belief that is not expected of you to hold? Will you be crazy enough to fight for a cause like human rights?

You have your flat. You have your steady income. You have a healthy number of friends and relatives who care about you. So why fight for rights?

You have a computer you bought with your money. Why do things that may result in it being confiscated by the secret police? Any way, who does the secret police protect? The citizen or the state?

There’s another set of questions in another domain. Why should these comforts be compromised when you fight for rights? Who is compromising them for you?

In our land, skinny chickens are the least visible. For the fat ones that hop up and down to see beyond the farm’s fences, they are either taken away to be fed more, so they wouldn’t be able to hop as high, or their food privileges are taken away, so they are too weak to hop at all. For those chickens that cluck too loudly, they are either taken good care of with more food so they would be contented enough to shut up, or they’ll probably be slaughtered and never to be seen again.

What makes me wonder is the real purpose of having the farm of chickens and the need to feed the chickens so fat that they see no incentive to do something “funny”.

If there really is a farm with its seemingly flawless feeding mechanism, is there any way to transcend the farm?

The skinniest chickens, plus the not so healthy ones, will be more concerned with having more feed. They will never bite the hand that feeds, nor question the feeder.

There also seems to be some efforts to feeding the decent ones to the point of obesity such that there is no incentive for this particular bunch of chickens to do anything else. Higher levels of comforts are achieved through such feeding that the removal or a dip in standard will be considered a huge sacrifice and loss on the part of the chicken.

As for the fatter ones, they’re just continually being fed. This way, they, like the skinny ones, do not only not question the feeder, but also continue to praise it, contributing to the sustenance of the farm.

Can the chicken ever look beyond its feeder, and its farm? Will it ever be able to question the source of its feed? Can the chicken be less fearful of the farm? Can the chicken hold some beliefs that are different from that of the farm? Is the chicken farm being run for the chickens (by the chickens)?

Is it wrong for a group of chickens to gather together and hop around? Why should the chicken ask the farm for permission to hop and look beyond the fence?

Okay. Let's not stretch the logic. It's time for dinner.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Law reform to balance rights and obligations

(Unpublished - Dec 6, 2007)

Law reform to balance rights and obligations

Dear Editor,

I refer to Kumaralingam Amirthalingam’s article ‘Balancing evidence and rhetoric in law reform’ (ST, Nov 5).

Kumaralingam has pointed out the rhetoric, distractions and digressions that hinder law-making. Perhaps some solutions could be proposed in light of his critique.

There should not only be greater public education on myths surrounding homosexuality and combating the taken-for-grantedness and intolerance confronting sexual minorities, but also meaningful efforts to confront the inertia towards a better understanding of sexual identity and sexually transmitted diseases.

This inertia is galvanised by religious and moral rhetoric, which may neither be representative of the beliefs of the entire population, nor a proper reflection of, and in truthful correspondence with existing information and discourses.

We should also arrest the problem in which some people would utilise any available means of justification to disincentivise and discriminate against fellow Singaporeans, such as the moral rhetoric of universal morality and that laws are a reflection of societal values, apparatuses which threaten the diversity that defines our society.

The law should continue to uphold the balance of rights accord to citizens and the obligations expected of them fairly across the entire population, regardless of differences in identity.

Ho Chi Sam

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Let's celebrate diversity

(unpublished - Nov 29, 2007)

Let's celebrate diversity

Dear Editor,

I read with interest Yeo Chow Khoon's letter 'No one aspect of a person's identity should be allowed to overshadow all the others" (ST, Nov 29).

I agree with Yeo that there are many aspects and types of identities that have to be appreciated.

It is however still common and habitual that us human beings tend to simplify our experiences, to achieve a comfortable level of sense-making and congruency with whatever political, religious, cultural and class ideologies and predispositions we subscribe to. In the process, we take for granted diversity and existing differences, whether of the subtle or the obvious.

When we label, classify and pigeonhole certain peoples, we are engaging in a struggle for power. By labelling people, some will fall in minority groups, some will be less visible and some will even be treated with animosity. This in turn influences how society views and treats certain groups.

One example is the continual criminalisation of consensual private homosexual sexual activity, which sustains the privilege of heterosexual peoples over homosexual peoples. This is complicit in the rarely addressed stigmitisation of homosexuality, the often misunderstandable and over-estimated notion of the "gay lifestyle", as well as the perpetuation of homophobia in Singapore. What is worse is that many do not regard homosexuality as an aspect of a homosexual person's identity, but think of it as wrong, sinful, immoral or harmful.

Hate and intolerance are thus legitimised by such social and institutional systems and mechanisms.

We may meaningfully celebrate and dutifully maintain our differences with the establishment and sustenance of socio-religious and cultural boundaries, but these need not constitute burning bridges and alienating other communities.

In fact, we should be encouraged and empowered by our social, cultural and religious circles and communities to embrace diversity. Is the embracement of diversity in a society like Singapore constructive or destructive?

Let us start thinking about integration, not ostracism and discrimination.

Ho Chi Sam