Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Politically Incorrect Singaporean Life

Maybe if we slowed down our cars near an accident scene to enjoy a longer gaze, the traffic might clear up a lot quickly and the cars might be fixed.

Maybe if we stared harder and longer at people quarreling, crying and stuff, they might get better.

Maybe if we all crowded round a fainted person and stared hard enough, he might regain consciousness.

Maybe if I punched the cushioned seat of the bus repeatedly and with great strength, it will provide my butt with more comfort and cleanliness.

Maybe the cigarette tastes better if I smoked in the lift or at the bus-stop.

Maybe if I sounded my horn more often or tailgate, I would get to my destination a lot more quickly.

Maybe if I learned Mandarin, I could do business in China, just like what everyone else is being told!

Maybe if I voted for the ruling party, my job will be more secure and my lift will be upgraded.

Maybe if I left a tissue packet at the gate of that primary school, my son will be first in line to get into that school.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Thesis on Sexual Minority Media Representation

This is an excerpt from my thesis on sexual minority representation in the Straits Times. In part of an analysis of 478 articles from 2001 to 2007, I attempt to gather news and views in the Straits Times and try to profile GLBTQ people accordingly. This is what I call a non-traditional means of anthropology of media, where the medium is the field, and the text is the subject of observation.

At the same time, I am almost very relieved to say that I am about 500 words away from completing the 12,000-word paper. Unfortunately, that is only the beginning as I have to start editing and proofreading it. I may not be very happy about the quality of writing, but I am still proud of my efforts.

I am also preparing for interviews, which means, I have finally got the go-ahead from the ethics review board, at the time when 90% of the thesis was already completed. It is interesting, yet vexing, to think that research methodology is actually affected by institutions that want to ensure they wear a clean name. Of course, I do not advocate unethical (whatever it means) research; I just intensely dislike the idea that some rules have to be mechanically enforced so that it's a whole "wayang"/performance/ritual to prove that the necessary measures are explicitly taken. This is what I call the bureaucratic ritual - rigid and unquestionable.

I had initially come to the point, when the whole administrative process was taking too long, of considering ditching the whole interview research. That's all thanks to the institution. Science is not objective. Researchers work in/for/with organisations/institutions with political and commercial interests, with obligations to their image and the powers that be. Therefore, the knowledge they produce, which will be fed into the minds of others, is moulded and tainted by these processes and forces.

Research is about finding out the truth. It is about asking questions and getting all the answers, from which more questions will be asked. Some people and organisations refuse to answer questions directly or truthfully. This world will be a lot more simple if questions are answered truthfully. This world needs a little bit more honesty. Of course, the communication of honesty should be done without violence, but with speech and listening ears. People are not only dishonest, but are generally poor listeners - a nasty concoction for disputes and violence.

Any way, here is the excerpt of my thesis:

Gay Men

A glance at the data reveals the impression that gay men in Singapore are mostly ethnic Chinese, English-educated, middle-to-upper class and income and more than keen to have sex with strangers. The gay identity is profiled are a lifestyle choice, a subcultural practice involving high-risk, reckless, promiscuous behaviour and extravagant spending habits; hence the occasional emphasis of its reversibility, revealing gay-ness as an illness.

In crime, the gay man is either a paedophile, or a consumer or trafficker of illegal drugs. The association of gay men with crimes against morality and the innocence of children is a regular feature in court news and the case for news in the 21st Century is not very different from Leong’s (2005) observations towards the end of the 20th Century. Given society’s relatively limited overall understanding of homosexuality, the association of sex crimes with deviant sexual identity may be inevitable.

The call to socially integrate sexual minorities is commonly criticised in the newspapers by moral conservatives, labeling it as the “gay agenda” which is deemed to mainstream and glorify alternative lifestyles, and be the harbinger of moral decadence.

Lesbian Women

With news media representation of sexual minorities as predominantly gay men, lesbian women are relatively invisible in the news. “Lesbian” is often mentioned as the second word after “gay” when the Straits Times reports on homosexuality in general, analogous to the phrase “man and woman”, where both subjects form equal half of the community. In this case, the “woman” and the “lesbian” are always in second place.

Leong (2005) observes that lesbian women are often engaged in stormy relationships, and are depicted as “catty, vengeful and treacherous” lovers. Arson and suicides have reportedly been the final chapter of such stormy relationships.

A handful of articles have discussed lesbian mothering and marriage, while some have regarded lesbianism as an unnatural, breast-binding subculture. Lesbian sex and sexuality have not been discussed at all, which is in stark contrast to gay man sex and sexuality. Lesbian sex, invisible in the Straits Times, continues to be not just a taboo topic for film censors but also an alien and mysterious entity in Singaporean society – an accurate reflection of the male-oriented Penal Code which criminalises sex between two men and not two women.

Bisexual People

A more obscure group, with minimal press coverage, is bisexual people. A footnote in discussions on homosexuality in the press, the word “bisexual” although always mentioned third in line after “gay” and “lesbian”, is often conflated into homosexuality itself.

A large portion of articles with the word “bisexual” concerns HIV and AIDS wherein “bisexual” is mentioned with “gay” and connected by the conjunction “and”, saved for a couple of reports dealing with paedophelic crime and a sex scandal involving an English footballer.

There is also no mention of bisexual women in the news, signifying that bisexuality in Singaporean context is exclusively male. Bisexual men are identified as a high risk group that can spread sexually transmitted diseases to both men and women.

Transsexual People

Transgenderism and transsexuality are often presented in soft news in the Straits Times Life! section, if they are not available in health and medical-related pull-outs. Topics of transgenderism and transsexuality also present the journalists with an opportunity to trivialise and sensationalise. Most related articles employ puns and humour, which creates an impression transgenderism and transsexuality are a freak show that cannot be divorced from humour.

Their representation is a sign of tokenism, often manifesting in health, medical, surgical articles, autobiographies and interviews and the occasional association with humour and self-deprecation. Stories and reports of transgenderism and transsexualism all do not represent this section of sexual minorities as a community, but as individuals and isolated anomalies. A sense of community and rights is absent in the midst of seemingly autobiographic stories of struggle and dissonance.

Moreover, a majority of transsexual and transgendered persons are male-to-female, highlighting a relative lack of visibility of female-to-male transsexual persons. The sexuality of transsexual and transgendered people is also not discussed, resulting in a representation of transexuality as being mainly aesthetic and superficial.

Their relative lack of representation and visibility in terms of citizenship and mainstream professions, is a form of symbolic annihilation of many aspects of transgenderism and transsexuality.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Preference towards one type of family structure inappropriate for gracious society

Preference towards one type of family structure inappropriate for gracious society

(unpublished - Jan 17, 2008)

I refer to Bennie Cheok’s letter “Show depicting married gay couple with adopted child inappropriate for screening on telly” (ST, Jan 17).

The depicting of alternative families in media ultimately aims to provide a larger perspective on society. Furthermore, good and bad parenting, along with happy or broken families, is colour blind.

Cheok’s concerns about such experiences that may “leave young viewers bewildered” are legitimate, but we cannot discount that fact that the upbringing and socialisation of children involves the communication of often unchallenged prejudices and predisposed notions on the superiority of ‘standard’ family model.

At the same time, we should not dehumanise, pathologise or even treat homosexuality and gay marriage as exclusive to Western culture. Limiting homosexuality and gay marriage to Western society, not only reveals a xenophobic binary “us versus the West” mindset, but also informs of a degree of social irresponsibility and historical negligence. We cannot conveniently and uncritically link the conceived ills of our ‘Asian’ society to that of Western society. It is time as Singaporeans become generally more literate that we demystify the notion of “Asian values”, and understand how dominant contemporary ideologies on morality by powerful articulate groups have impregnated this term.

The purposeful censorship of other realities in the world and society will only lead to the symbolic annihilation of certain cultures and communities, if they are not already wrongfully depicted, misrepresented or stereotyped.

We want our children to be well-adjusted and make decisions based on as much available information and experiences as possible, and not on the prejudices and irrational fears that cause the occasional “moral panic”. To remove certain realities and exclude specific issues is to only reinforce the taken-for-grantedness that is so dominant in our society today.

The championing of the “traditional” family nucleus, involving father, mother and child(ren) also sidelines single-parent families, putting added pressure and expectations on them. Society and the occasional vigilante moral police and crusaders should refrain from drawing lines that empower the privileged majority to exclude, discriminate and disincentivise. There should instead be a greater focus on the substance of the family and parents, rather than its form.

If there are media depictions of alternative families and lifestyles, we should not blame the media, but should instead be ready to field questions from our inquisitive children. Only then will we know if we are informing them, or inculcating prejudicial dispositions into them.

Ho Chi Sam

Sunday, January 13, 2008

I am Legend: The Last Maid on Earth/Singapore

While looking at (and for) HDB flats, my girlfriend and I were quite intrigued by the presence of bomb shelters in the newer flats, both by HDB, private and HDB-private (a CHIMERA apartment! *gasp*).

Ok. "Bomb shelter" isn't exactly the right term here. Since I cannot recall what was the original name, let's call it "bomb shelter". Maybe someone can enlighten me. Much appreciated.

What was interesting is that this safety room, to be occupied in times of emergency, has a bed and cabinets in it, at least most of them. "This room can be converted into a room for your maid," said the sales agent.

So imagine if there was one night a biochemical attack on Singapore. All Singaporeans will probably be wiped out instantly and the maids who live in these shelters (with doors closed of course) will have a higher chance of survival. They will wake up to a ghost town and find they're the only inhabitants of this once bustling nation. Just like Will Smith, but no zombies here, just lots of dead Singaporean employers.

What's scarier than this apocalyptic scenario is that there are Singaporeans who put their maids up in bomb shelters. No windows, just a vent. It reminds me of a prison cell (not that I have been to prison, but I have "travelled" into one thanks to the media).

The maid is an integral part of the middle-to-upper family. Maids are to an extent family, for they do some degree of parenting and some degree of household and property maintenance. It is a bit odd to me to think of maids living and sleeping in the shelters. Maybe a room is better than no room. I'll never know.

What's more important is that employers and their children treat maids with respect and dignity. I have seen children talking back and scolding their maids, who carry their bags for them, and probably do a lot of other "picking up after"s. Maids don't get paid to be scolded, nor do they exchange their dignity for wages. They are, like you and me, human.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Goodness Gracious Singapore! - The adventures of Su the Gracious Rat

Lee Kuan Yew said Singapore isn't going to be a gracious society, at least not for the time being.

Maybe being ungracious is an inherent thing, inborn, in the genes.

Some will argue that this is being ungracious is a choice, a lifestyle some people determine for themselves. And perhaps the presence of ungracious people affects and influences our impressionable children.

Maybe some champion of public graciousness like say, in the mould of a person like George Lim Heng Chye, will probably say, "I am a gracious man, married to a gracious woman and we have four gracious children. We believe that the right upbringing by parents will prevent improper and deviant future behaviours... Graciousness is absolute." (to know more, see the classic forum letter written by the man of the same name, published on July 15, 2003)

Apart from Singa the Courtesy Lion, maybe we should have Su the Gracious Rat. I name him/her Su because it is mouse/rat in Mandarin, I think. Moreover it is the year of the rat in the Chinese Lunar Calendar. And furthermore, Mandarin, as part of an encouraged bilingual culture, has been the in-thing for some people and institutions.

Su the Gracious Rat, will be light brown in colour, an aggregate/mix of all the skin colours that reside in Singapore. Su also speaks four languages, English, Mandarin, Bahasa Melayu (or Bahasa Malaysia to our neighbours) and Tamil (a language some Singaporeans unfortunately associate with all ethnic Indians in Singapore. There are a huge variety of Indian dialects, by the way.).

In line with children-friendly pop culture (see Ratatouille), Su the Gracious Rat is able to cook all the popular dishes from all ethnicities. Probably the talents of Su the Gracious Rat is a distraction from his/her/its sexuality, which may come in handy in the future when sexual minorities are properly integrated in our society.

Su the Gracious Rat will be the new face of the Singapore Graciousness Movement. To appeal to the heartlanders, Su the Gracious Rat will be flanked by celebrity auntie-killers, as well as a bevy of ladies, called the Singapore Graciousness Girls, or SG Girls. As a cuddly, androgynous, recognisable icon, Su the Gracious Rat will eradicate the plague (pun intended) of ungraciousness in Singapore.

"Be gracious or I will give you RBF!"

To reach out to the youth, Su the Gracious Rat will join forces with the young Members of Parliament and do a hip-hop routine.

One day, Su the Gracious Rat and Singa the Courtesy Lion will join forces, a marriage of graciousness and courtesy. In light of the declining birth rates, both mascots will kill two birds with one stone by producing children from their marriage, maybe two, or three, or four if they could afford it. But they CAN afford it since they are gracious and courteous, and they would like to project a good impression that being gracious and courteous will bring you better rewards.

Of coures, the idea of Su and Singa producing children may not appeal to some, so we might anticipate more speeches in Parliament to liken that occurrence to shoving a straw up one's nose to drink.

Su the Gracious Rat will definitely be as omnipresent as Singa the Courtesy Lion, or Lee Kuan Yew, owing to the well-oiled publicity machine the government has developed itself into. Su the Gracious Rat will also be decked in army fatigue to teach graciousness in the army. A simple "Please don't dunk the guy's head in the water for too long" from the cute furry creature will touch and possibly melt the hearts of most of the officers in the force.

The nationality of Su the Gracious Rat will be "non-Singaporean born Singaporean PR", so as to drive the message home that Singapore welcomes foreign talents. "Don't be mean to foreign talents. You hurt Su's feelings. Su feeling saaaad..." Su will say each time one Singaporean Chinese refers to a mainland Chinese person as "that PRC fella" or the construction worker from Bangledash "that bangla!".

Su the Gracious Rat reasons, "Don't hate us foreigners and PRs! We share the same place. Be gracious. I am here to improve your economy, because as a foreigner, I am more creative."

Singaporeans will learn to graciously tolerate and accept Su the Gracious Rat, who is androgynous, possibly bisexual, and his/her/its "alternative lifestyle", because his/her/its creative talents are integral to our economic survival.

Su the Gracious Rat, given its high profile and lovable-ness/lovability (is there such a word?), may join forces with Goh Chok Tong and aid the PAP candidates to contest for opposition wards, Potong Pasir and Hougang, during the General Elections. "Su will give all of you $500 million dollars worth of upgrades and we will begin by building a $499 million clock tower so you all will know it's time to be a gracious society! Su loves you...".

Su the Gracious Rat, will probably hammer the final nail in the coffin of all political opposition with sound-bytes such as, "Singapore rebels are not gracious. They don't want to give Su a huuuug..." and "Don't take sexy photos of your maid. That breaks Su's heart."

Su the Gracious Rat will be eternally engraved in the hearts of Singaporeans, and rise to power. In disputes with Malaysia, involving water supply and lighthouses, Su the Gracious Rat will intervene and speak on behalf of the Singapore, "Let's not fight. You make Su saaad. Singapore wants to be your friend. We are gracious." If that is met with a less than favourable response from the other side, Su the Gracious Rat, being the naturalised Singaporean, and also not one to be messed with, says "You make Su mad. Su give you the finger (*shows finger). Let's go home boys."

Don't you just love Su the Gracious Rat? Sure to be a hit, bigger than Singa the Courtesy Lion.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Chimera research for chimeras by chimeras

I read in the papers about the bioethics review board in Singapore wants opinions on something called chimera research.

Such a research involves transplanting human tissue/DNA into that of an animal, namely a rat/mouse, so how is “ethics” defined here and what does it encompass?

Singapore has this habit of benchmarking practices with that of other nations. If country X is doing this, Singapore shall follow. Hence, we can proudly say that our trains are not as packed nor as infrequent as that of Japan, and there is no need to do anything about it (insert sarcastic tone and smirk). So since “some countries” are already doing chimera research, Singapore can follow too.

The board wants to seek opinions from Singaporeans, because Singaporeans are a diverse and divided bunch. A diversity of ethnicities, languages, religions, classes (yes, there are class divides) will bring you a variety, a spectrum of views. Just look at the debate on sexual minority rights in Singapore, or the Casino in 2004 and 2005.

So what if we are the “open society” that Lee Hsien Loong said we should, will, are going to, or even be? Articulate (and some non-articulate) members of this “open society” will flock to various platforms (Straits Times for example) to voice their views and also received rebuttals and responses. At the end of the circus, the government will still decide. But are these two processes linked at all? What if the government has already decided and the illusion of a civil discourse and participatory democracy is just merely created to placate most critics of the authoritarian (and possibly despotic according to Mr Han) regime?

People often talk about whether something is ethical or not, but what do they mean by being ethical and not? Is the system of ethics they believe in based on deontic principles, guided by utilitarian values, moulded by consequentialist approaches or other concepts? Or is the Singaporean concept of ethics based on the philosophy of “get the approval and cover the backside”?

A chimera (or chimaera) refers to an organism composed of two or more distinct tissues, or an artificially produced individual having tissues of different species (dictionary.com). Some people are fundamentally (pun intended) uncomfortable with the blinding/blurring of lines and boundaries. When something defies being categorised, a new category is created for it to be understood (and feared or hated), and one such category is “unnatural”.

I believe we are all chimeras. We are composed of the hopes, fears and expectations of our social surroundings. These entities are carved, ingrained, forced into our minds and bodies. We cannot be who or what we are comfortable with, because dominant ideologies have controlled our very own definition of comfort. We created a monetary system and we believe that money is a necessity for comfort and stability. How “natural” is that? Did we consent to this?

Our sons are born and being told that they will one day be obligated to this concept called the nation. Our daughters are born and will have to accept that they will accept relatively lower pay in the civil service compared to their male counterparts. Did they consent to this? If there is no consent, is it an ethical issue?

All of us are chimeras. Aren’t we all mixed? We are uncategorisable monsters, injected with political, social and economic agendas and ideologies. We have systems and structures to tell us how to think, feel and communicate.

Disallowing chimera research is thus an irony, because a chimera is actually disallowing chimera research. Those who disapprove have a want to preserve what they personally hold dear, and would want to impose that value on others who think different. The same goes for those who approve. It is basically a political battle of wills, with each side wanting more say, which means more power. So is it in our “nature” to crave for more power? Or is the craving for power part of our chimera nature?

The relationship/tension between science and religion goes a long way back. Homophobia and chimera research are just footnotes in this long drawn story. Science knows no boundaries, in my opinion. (organised) Religion sets boundaries and draws lines, just like what it did for women, people of other ethnicities and sexual minorities. Sometimes I wonder what will actually bring the end of society and the world – science or religion?

My view on this: Go ahead with the research. Do so with the aim of reaching specific targets and goals for health and wellness of human beings. If resources are there, do the research.

It seems that moving on is a pragmatic approach. The word pragmatism is pretty strange. In the 1970s, it was pragmatic to let the government lead and everyone follow. Now, it is pragmatic to listen to different opinions before we can move on. It is also pragmatic for the government to finally step in and tell everyone “we must move on now” after everyone has shouted their throats hoarse in the process of airing their opinions.

-end-

I have a couple of thoughts at the back of my head and decided to put them down before I forget them:
1) Singapore is more likely to have for the position of Prime Minister a Chinese woman, a closeted Chinese man, than a man of other ethnicities, at least in the next 50 years.
2) I wonder what will the job market be like when the Dragon batch girls and boys graduate from university. That would be 2010-2015, won't it? What about them wanting to get married and get a HDB flat? That would be 2016-2025? What would Singapore be like? What will the PAP government do to win their vote?
3) Read about cabbies offering discounts during peak hours? Why not? People need to make a living, don't they? A service is offered, a fee is agreed between cabbie and commuter. Why not? This is a sign that there are people who need money, and who are affected by certain costs that they are not in control of.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

You are what society puts in your mouth

They say that homosexual, bisexual, pansexual and most prefixes that end with –sexual persons are self-identified. Self-identification requires some consciousness and reflexivity. On the other hand, a baby is born into a name, a culture, a certain form of normality, a colour, a language, and sometimes a religion.

When a gay person calls himself/herself a gay person, it is self-identification. On a heterocentric, heterosexist, heterosexual-dominated plane, society expects the person to think hetero and be hetero. Black is black. White is white. Nothing exists in between or that would be classified as unnatural. At the same time, people in this society (basically the world) share and subscribe to a common, sometimes too convenient, notion of stability – stability as defined in heterosexist language.

Is there a language with which we can use to define, label and categorise non-heterosexual people? If we were to create a language, won’t we be creating it with ingredients grown on the soils of heteronormality?

When you say “I am *insert non-heterosexual adjective*”, you are claiming that you do not personally subscribe to heterocentrism and its expectations on your mind and body (and spirit, for some). Heteronormality determines what is happiness, stability, right and wrong, how the lines are to be drawn. Homosexuality, among many other non-heterosexual identities, exists as a choice, a lifestyle, an aberration of a concept called nature, because it is outside the realms of heteronormality and it does not coincide with the goals and expectations of “straightness”.

Homosexuality as an identity or a feeling, does not exists in the heterosexist dictionary, vocabulary, mind and realm. When you say, “Let’s accept sexual minorities for who they are,” others will say, “This is a slippery slope”, “the gay agenda”, “they will be pushing for more and more”, and of course “think about the children!”.

Straight people define straight people; straight people also define gay people. It is just like men define men; men also define women. But when the gay person, or the woman, starts to define himself/herself, people will think, “This is really odd, please get back in line.”

Stability for many does not involve one questioning the setting and domain within which one lives. If so, there is no ideological stability and grounding for one who seeks it. A meaning-seeking creature that is the human being does not merely ascribe, prescribe and subscribe (to) meanings, he/she does so with a template, a particular worldview and belief, informed, cultivated, brainwashed, institutionalised by his/her social and political environment.

There is no such thing as the “straight agenda” because it is not an entity but a reality that is being lived. It has many mechanisms to deal with the ideological threat that are deviant sexual identities. It raises its children to develop prejudices and predispositions, and lay in place impediments to create a sense of belonging, a sense of guilt and a sense of right and wrong to keep its children within the boundaries of control. When you identify yourself as a non-heterosexual, you are crossing that boundary.