Saturday, June 28, 2008

Chicken rice without the chicken

This coming Monday will be my fourth reservist. And there would be six more to go after that.

As usual, they will tell us not to blog about it. But of course, why would I? I'm only very worried about getting any injury. That's all.

There are other fears too, not only the with National Service.

I ordered chicken rice at $2.50 (the minimum price) today and when I went home and opened the packet, it was full of rice and a few pieces of chicken. It finally hit me that times are bad.

I am not shy of the fact that I lead a rather sheltered life, that I also see myself as a frog in the well. I'm probably the stereotypical Singaporean guy, not the most world-savvy and I still get culture shocks once in a while.

Reading about something in the news is nothing compared to experiencing that something in reality. My parents talk about inflation, and newspapers talk about food and all that. The media is playing it really well, so as not to cause panics and hatred for the government. "Cheap" food are featured, providing publicity for the few lucky hawker stores.

The sociological imagination creates a link between individual private problems to the larger social structure. In this case, this is, to a large extent, economic. This incident got me thinking about the notion of "bad times". I guess I never really understood what are "bad times" till now; now that I am working and earning something, and have the opportunity to be genuinely shocked at the amount of chicken in my chicken rice. (I have sandwiches for lunch everyday at work by the way, because I need to save for housing renovations).

The rectangular styrofoam box was filled with rice, and in the middle was 6-7 thinly sliced pieces of chicken meat. Maybe I did not look hungry enough to the stall owner.

Times are indeed bad and the first people who suffer are those who do not have the luxury to choose meals that go beyond $2-$3. I have observed foreign workers going to the economy rice stalls and paying under $2 for rice with 2 vegetables. I don't think I will ever want to be in that position, and I am sure there are Singaporeans out there who could/need to eat more, but are only able to buy less.

The poorer will definitely be threatened by the lack of nutrition, which brings along with it other health issues. While I believe Singapore is a place where no one starves, we should do better to make sure people are sufficiently nourished and are able to afford to get the relevant nutrition. Everyone deserves to have a minimal standard in the quality of life here.

I think my quest for materials (which isn't really ambitious) is driven by the fear of living a less than standard quality of life, rather than the enticement of living a luxurious life of riches. I want to have enough money to be debt-free, where I owe no one (but family) a living; that the government and capitalistic corporations will not be able to guilt-trap me and tell me what I should be doing with my life.

To me, happiness is not about money (although sadness and anxiety have their correlation with the lack of it), but about the freedom to express oneself. The attainment of a debt-free existence would pave the way for any other pursuits.

But unfortunately, most of us live a lifetime of debt, so the want to express is lesser prioritised, shelved or suppressed. The path to economic survival is conformity. One way to conform is to eat the rice, eat the few pieces of chicken and shut the hell up.

Have a good week ahead. I'll be back in a week because of my compulsory obligation to the organisation that prides itself in unquestionable conformity.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Valuable Values

(Unpublished - June 26, 2008)

Stella Tan Peck Kheng's values could be more valuable than mine

I read with interest Stella Tan Peck Kheng's letter 'Programmes convey wrong values' (ST Jun 26).

Tan pointed out a Mandarin drama depicting a female character moving out of her home to cohabit with her boyfriend, and thus conveying the wrong values.

It is important to note that whatever that is enacted, depicted or represented in the mass media should not be at once construed to be a conveyance or promotion of a set of values.

In most cases, depictions of otherwise non-mainstream or socially-labelled deviant acts and phenomena often get scrutinised and criticised for the pushing and promotion of “wrong values”; while mainstream depictions and representations that seek to sustain certain dominant prejudices, predispositions and ideologies go undetected and unquestioned.

Another issue worth noting is the tunnel-vision subscription to early Twentieth Century mass media theories which posit a causal relationship between viewership and behaviour.

Such a belief will only cause one to hold the media solely responsible for perceived negative social phenomena, turning the attention away from the larger social, economic and political issues that could have played a role in defining the perceived changes or decay in morality.

The term “values” is also highly subjective. Focus should not be on the continual transmission and conservation of “values”, but on the questioning as to whose cause and benefit such conservation serves.

The portrayal of perceived alternative social phenomenon, rather than threatens, actually provides the dominant social institutions, for example the “normal” family, with the opportunity to discuss the relevant issues with their young as part of their socialisation.

Discussion and dialogue are more meaningful in cultivating well-adjusted, responsible and reasonable individuals and citizens. They also serve to prevent moral panics and witch-hunts.

Ho Chi Sam

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Mortal combating

I feel really awful learning that Lee Kuan Yew's wife, Kwa Geok Choo, is critically ill, as reported.

First and foremost, I would like to say what is more touching and lovely than longevity of an individual, is the longevity of a friendship between individuals. In this respect, I look at Lee and Kwa's marriage.

I had briefly glanced over the "official" Singapore history textbooks, the Lee Kuan Yew Memoirs, when I was young, but did not quite understand most of the content. On top of that, I was then not really interested in reading at all. But of course, this entry is not about the top-selling book.

They married in 1950 after a few years of courtship. There are quite a number of privileged individuals who have had the opportunity to spend half a century in the company of their partners and companions. It is truly amazing.

What makes it as tragic as it is amazing, is the mortality of such a friendship. Illness and age have to rob us. But if it weren't for mortality, illness and age, will we have as strong a friendship as we could have had?

Physiological and biological limitations and weaknesses shape our worldview, and how we treat one another and our loved ones. These attitudes and behaviours in turn affects mass culture. Our concept of "anxiety" and "grief" revolved around it.

It is in biological difference that effects changes in cultural attitudes and norms. How cultural meaning is ascribed to the child-bearing person with respect to the impregnator defines the norms of the group/society. Stelarc (now) speaks of a post-human, and I share the positing if birthing were to be externalised, our whole concept of the woman will change, leading to a chain effect in the form of paradigmatic and ideological changes in the domains of culture and politics.

If our mums and dads did not grey or be shrunken by osteoporosis, would we have loved them differently? If all mums and dads today never grew old, what kind of effect will that have on the transmission of social and cultural norms? More interestingly, how will norms change?

Although I have been over-indulgent in structuralist and post-structuralist social theories (maybe a bit of culturalism/symbolic interactionism now and then), I believe we also need to appreciate biological determinism, for biology, although culturally shaped with cultural interpretations (there I go again), has an effect on culture.

Death gives us inspiration, and not only grief. Death gives society inspiration to create rituals, which are cultural in nature since they require practices that have to be taught, reinforced and conserved. Social and cultural mechanisms in the form of norms seek to facilitate the teaching and conservation.

(Physical) Suffering, because of our physiological and biological limitations and weaknesses, also serve as instigator and catalyst for ritualistic behaviours and the formation of group and cultural norms. We respond to suffering with rituals and a concoction of symbolic activities, such as congregating or lighting candles.

I personally see ageing as a weakness and a totally uncalled-for phenomenon, for it brings with it suffering thanks to the body's deterioration. Of course, countries with gerontocratic governments/rulers will beg to differ and in fact, put the "age" in "political leverage". Most of us are socialised into linking age with wisdom, but what if the variable of age was infinite, would that not render the long-term concept of wisdom arbitrary? I'm sure it will at least affect how CPF is conceived.

Going back to Lee and Kwa's marriage. What makes an individual like myself admire the 58 years of their union is a composite of factors, including the reality of physiological and biological weaknesses and limitations. These make the social construct-cum-institution that is marriage all the more mystical, sacred and "special", despite it being an economic means to a political end, i.e. reproduction for exploitation.

Of course, and sidetracking, although it is not part of the dominant mode of production nor do they directly contribute to that particular political goal, why should we deprive sexual minorities the same feelings and reactions associated with marriage by depriving them the right to marry? Ok, end of digression, but you get the drift.

What we have done is to create our own concept of longevity, in the form of books, music montages, legacies and truckloads of symbolism and rituals. All these compensate for the deteriorating physiological domain of the self. For example, though I never expressed any "I love you"s to my dad, I will always remember the two days in 1999 and 2008 when Manchester United won that European Cup and we hugged. He may be mortal and ageing, but his well-socialised (or perhaps over-socialised, after thinking too much) son will continue to conserve the memories with the ritual of recollection. I guess that is how things work in our society.

On an ending note, I guess I can only say "all the best" to an elderly woman who is suffering. No one deserves to suffer (or make others suffer, for that matter). But it is the imbalance, differential and uneven timing of suffering that affects how culture and power relations are structured in society. Suffering may serve the function to unite us for a cause. And in this respect, I feel I am among those who will personally give their well wishes.

Speaking of well wishes, my MP has given me a card, congratulating me on my marriage. Thank you for the card and your wishes, although I think my neighbourhood smells like piss and has the highest "litter index" (welcome to Aljunied GRC baby!). I was like "Awwww, so sweet of him! Waaaiiiitt a minute, how did he know?", then my mum said, "They're the government. They know everything!". Talk about the panopticon for newly-weds.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Singapore needs tuition lessons

I am proud to say that I had tuition for the most parts of my schooling life, from when I was 9 to 17 years of age. However, I was only tutored for 2 subjects.

Being from an English-speaking home, Mandarin was (and still is) rather alien. Never mind my dad's occasional effort to engage us with conversations in Mandarin (even though it was never a natural language for him), my mother felt it was best I had Mandarin tuition.

The private Mandarin tutoring sessions probably started when I was in Primary Three. It was just practice practice and more practice. Comprehension and cloze passages, essays and oral/conversational skills. I got an A grade in Chinese for my PSLE.

The tuition lessons continued, with different tutors, because there would have always been suspicion and doubt whenever (a series of) grades seemed dismal. I had, on two occasions for both my 'O' Levels and 'A' Levels, requested my Chinese school teachers to stay back with me after lessons in school for me to ask questions and so on. A different level of difficulty required a different approach, and of course a different set of expectations, because all I wanted was to pass my Mandarin and not ace it.

On the occasions I did well, it was with the school teachers who stayed back after school with me. On the occasions I did not do well, I had private and group tuition sessions. I was very fortunate to have those Chinese school teachers (from Ang Mo Kio Secondary and Nanyang Junior College) who were actually more than happy to stay back after school with me to entertain my requests.

Having experienced having tuition, I have come to realise that having tuition lessons could be both useful or useless. Before I delve into that, I have yet to disclose my other subject for which I had tuition lessons.

It was English. It was my mother, again, who felt I had a poor command of English in Primary 4. And so, I had tuition, although with only 2 tutors. I learned more than just the English language.

The first tutor taught me in a way that made me inquisitive and ask a lot of questions, but the stint lasted only a year because grades are often and sadly the measure of a tutor.

The second tutor, who has taught and mentored me from Primary 5 to Secondary 4, was an elderly ex-principal/teacher who has perhaps tons of experience in education. Although very stern and disciplined, she probably single-handedly changed my life.

One-hour session, once a week, 50-60 dollars a month. I doubt anyone could beat that, but she was never in it for the money. I learned more than English, but also Geography, History, Literature and Social Studies, which was then an arbitrary subject. English was only just about doing comprehension passages and writing essays (which I had to do every week), but also about grammar. I can safely say it was her who has inspired my style of writing - the way in which I structure my clauses, position my prepositions, you get the picture.

What was also a defining moment in time was the day (first day) she told me to forget about writing stories for my essays, and forced me to write expository and argumentative essays. Thus, I had "training" for a good 6 years, writing essays every week and subjecting them to her criticisms and suggestions for improvement.

I could not say that it bore immediate fruit, although it culminated in an A2 grade for my 'O' Level English. She decided I was ready and felt she need not tutor me beyond secondary school. I only realised how her efforts and our sessions have paid off when I started writing in Junior College.

Even till today, after finishing my degree, I see the value in her tutoring/teaching/mentoring. When my thesis supervisor praised my writing style and (written) command of the English language (I cannot say that I speak the language well and fluently), I immediately think of the elderly woman who taught me for those 6 years.

Singapore is the "tuition nation". I see this as a combination and culmination of factors. There are expectations and the need to excel and achieve. There is also the fear, shame and stigma of being in a worse class, stream or school. There is the belief that education is the only ticket to success and happiness in life, and maybe rightly so, because society is structured in a way where the quality and property of education are primed, prioritised and incentivised. Formal education has become naturalised as the rites of passage for any and every Singaporean youth.

If having healthy and muscular bodies is the ultimate means to being socially accepted and incentivised, every one will be exercising and investing in muscle-gain and protein supplements. Now that having good grades is of a certain priority, we indulge in the belief that having tuition will be a means to helping us and our children to attaining "success".

Of course, it does not help that we are a society that is obsessively result-oriented. We are result-oriented because of the way in which society and the economy are structured. Unfortunately, we turn on one another with criticisms for being individualistic, kiasu and having lost sight on the "finer things in life".

We have become obsessed with the prestige that accompanies having good grades - good school, "better" friends and social environment, good scholarship, good professional opportunities, and of course, good relationship prospects (I may be pushing that a little bit too far). Who doesn't want that?

My question is: Why do we want it? Is our self-worth measured by how others see us? Why is our esteem intertwined with socio-economic structure? This structure has predefined the markers of success and happiness for us to the point if it told us wearing expensive hats was a marker of success and happiness, our aspirations and anxieties would revolve around it.

I believe the sole purpose of having tuition is so that one would eventually not require it. Many will point the finger at unreasonable parents who indulge in such beliefs and practices, who make the final decision as to whether their child would require tuition or not. I say society is the problem, not parents.

If our education system was not competitive, would there be a need to "up the ante"? Would there be a greater fear of failure?

There is another perspective here (less sociological one). Students themselves are not wanting to have accountability and responsibility for what they learn. I have heard of students complaining about how bad or poor a certain teacher is, or how useless a tutor is. They blame bad grades on these mentors. "I failed my science because my teacher isn't good enough!"

Society has a decent level of sociological imagination, and diagnoses this problem as poor parenting. Of course, being a patriarchal and Confucian society, it is almost natural to view the family as the seeds of socialisation. There is actually more beyond that, for we have to be equally critical of the larger socio-political and economic pressures that have come to shape the way the family socialises its children.

Back to the less sociological perspective, or rather psychologico-moral (a view technocrats and conservatives would often adopt, as other views will expose their abusive powers), children/students become the ones who are to be blamed. Even I on occasion believe this way. The lack of motivation and accountability for one's education is a problem. If there is a subject children should be tutored on, it should be on responsibility and accountability.

Countering this perspective with another socialisation (and pseudo-evolutionary) theory, it is believed that children have to be socialised into conformity, and the apparent lack of motivation and responsibility indicates an inadequate socialisation. In that sense, all babies and children have by default transcended the norms and institutional expectations that have so imprisoned the most of us. We label the children and teens who hold no accountability for their education as deviant and in need of help.

We are born outside the herd. But it is the warmth and protection of the herd that draws us back to it, so we conform and follow the rules of the herd.

Having tuition lessons is not conformity, but having good grades is. It is society and usually those in power, that decide what are the "subjects" for our "examination". In the Singaporean syllabus, the most important subject is "education", and not to mention "monetary and material success". Sports and the arts are just extra-curricular activities that hold no weightage. As one can see, our education system is a microcosm of the structure and ideology that run it.

We thus see having tuition lessons as a necessity. It has become an accessory that few have come to question its true purpose. Many believe having tuition lessons will translate to good grades. We are a society of flawed logic and methodology - believing in cause-and-effects. For example, more ERP gantries will lead to lesser traffic congestions, and a harsher penal code will reduce the rates of incarcerations, and not to mention, the more we pay a politician, the less corrupt he/she would be.

I would like to ask the question, "What is this like that?"

Why have society come to think this way? Why is this conventional knowledge, never mind a large subscriber base?

The whole "tuition nation" thing is just a symptom of modern Singaporean society, but we see it as an isolated phenomenon/problem. Our politicisation of it is limited, in focus, to the family. Society's (and ideology's) involvement is depoliticised and invisibilised.

Society has made it so that the acquisition and embodiment of labels have come to form an integral part of one's socio-economic stature and psychological well-being and esteem. We want the labels of "rich", "smart", "attractive", "success", "healthy", believing these to be absolute in property and definition. Rightly so, society has provided us with the means and tools to achieving these labels. The large-scale rejection of these means and tools often comes in the form of a revolution, but of course, there is too much at stake for the most of us, as our survival is based on these very means and tools.

In having the belief that tuition lessons are integral to one's development (and schooling success), we have become a mechanism of discipline ourselves. We effect a certain kind of behaviour, a certain kind of thinking/mindset, all aimed towards a specific and desired outcome. Our over-dependence on tuition lessons is not a problem on its own, but a manifestation of societal norms and expectations.

I believe we should seek help for any expectation we have. At the same time, we should at least try to regulate our expectations. I have seen children with tuition for all subjects, have 2 extra/co-curricular activities in school, have piano lessons and some other sporting lessons/courses outside school. It seems to be society and families are trying to engineer an all-rounded child.

As for tuition, I think we should have it so that we would need to have it. The purpose of tuition is to fill gaps, instill confidence and achieve realistic goals (within the current ability of the child). Tuition lessons do not singularly turn a child into a world-beater.

Moreover, most tuition lessons reproduce a top-down mode of communications between mentor and student. I believe they should be geared towards creating an interest in the student in asking questions and developing that passion and responsibility for learning. Tuition lessons should teach one how to fish, not only just give you the fish.

It is very sad that society has a monopoly on the definition of "deficiency". It tells you what you are missing, so you will seek help, e.g. tuition lessons. It seems like Singapore is in need of some tuition lesson herself. Snap!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Singaporean Depoliticisation

For once, I did not feel compelled to write to the Straits Times Forum, even though I felt pretty strongly about the following issue.

Tan Hau Teck, wrote on June 17, 2008:
Rules Are Not The Problem

"Deaths in National Service (NS) should not occur. But don't be too quick to point the finger at the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) after every death. The Training Safety Regulations are already four volumes thick. How much more can we add and still ensure they are readable?

Instead, look at our youths. NS has been in place for more than 40 years. Singapore youths know they must serve when they reach 18, yet many don't make the slightest effort to train.

The Government has cut NS to two years. The SAF should implement a scheme where anyone who does not meet its physical standards has to do 2-1/2 years instead of two. "

Tan Hau Teck appears to be a firm believer in the human property of "toughness". Toughness here is seen as being both intrinsic (self-motivated) and extrinsic (associated with nurturing, but confined to a smaller social group and not extended to the level of society, policy and ideology).

In recommending that young men train to physically prepare themselves for National Service, Tan has effectively depoliticised the tragic deaths of two Singaporean sons recently, along with the many other training-related deaths in the history of the military organisation.

When we depoliticise something, we shift the focus away from the current socio-political and economic situation of the society we live in. We end up ignore the power inequalities and social injustices that were meant to be addressed and discussed. We forget about the socialisation processes, each and every one of them shaped by ideology, policy and economy, that come to shape the "un-tough" young Singaporean man. By depoliticising it, we come to conveniently see the "un-tough" young Singaporean man as lazy.

This mentality is fitting in a society that bathes itself with the rhetoric of meritocracy and patriarchy. It would thus seem permissible to hold the belief that poor people are poor because they are lazy, and that the ill are ill because they are poor (and lazy of course). You will not be rewarded at all for thinking further, and questioning the social conditions that cause poverty/poor-ness, or the socialisation processes that perpetuates the concept and label of "lazy".

Our attention to society, the state and dominant discourses and ideologies is blurred and diverted away. There are structural mechanisms and agents that strive to conserve this status quo.

It is a decent recommendation that young Singaporean men should prepare themselves physically for National Service. Unfortunately, these young men are part of the Singaporean education system. There are many expectations heaped upon them and internalised by them. Physical toughness is obviously not the top priority, where mental resilience (on top of academic ability) would be logically more sought after. This does not help further if the young man came from a less privileged household, where physical exercise would have been a luxury for a choice.

I took some time to train before I went for National Service, and I still felt emotionally stressed out, and had many horrible ankle sprains over the course of serving my country. If you adopted a "Tan Hau Teck" lens to assess myself, you would say that I am feeble-minded, un-tough and still not physically conditioned for National Service, all while avoiding discussing the stressful and competitive education systems I have been through, the assortment of policies that have affected the social, economic and psychological domains of my life, and not to mention, the way things are run in the army. Too easy, too convenient, to individualise problems.

We should refrain from easily individualising every problem we see. Not all problems can be traced or reduced to some psychological trait/symptom. In depoliticising and individualising problems, we let ideology and those in power stay in power. These are the very entities that perpetuate the inequalities that so plagues our society. The individual victim, owing to this convenient form of reasoning, becomes the individual villain. Society becomes invisible, with its villainy never in question. We never for once will ever think that society could be the villain and we individuals could be victims. (By the way, this society sees individualism as villainous, as contrary to the strategic and limited communitarian values it tries to espouse.)

Again, please do not cast the gaze/blame on our youths like Tan Hau Teck did. If we were to criticise youth, we only have to see the conditions in which we have created for them for we are complicit in "making" these youths. Do not be too myopic and blame their parents either, for these folks belong to the same society we are in. We should instead look at the people and structures that are actually perpetuating and maintaining the dominant discourses I have criticised. You don't have to politicise everything, but that doesn't mean you can depoliticise everything.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Does Singapore love me?

How many more sons must die before something is done?

I feel sad and angry every time I read about a death in the Singapore Armed Forces. Among the deceased are both Full-time National Servicemen and regular National Servicemen. I have yet to know about any deaths of Operationally Ready National Servicemen.

Among those that have been reported, there lies many other deaths, accidents and mishaps that remained unreported, unexplained and not unearthed.

We have all been sucked and suckered into believing in the honour to die for a larger cause, the courage and nobility and all, the whole macho sacrifice for a symbol that is a flag and for a people consisting many persons whom one may have never met before.

We are steeped into believing that life consisted of rigid phases, every one of which marking a rites of passage to the next phase. We see national service as a transition to manhood, a very much coveted masculine position. If the boy complains, it would not be considered manly. The overall message delivered to and internalised by us Singaporean sons is "Be a man!", and this message effectively legitimises every decision, position, action and atrocity of the establishment.

The internalised message is not an intrinsic motivation for us Singaporean sons to serve the nation, but an intrinsic fear most of us harbour. Our mind and consciousness have filled and threatened us with the fear of ridicule, social disapproval and stigmatism. And this effectively disciplines our behaviour; a discipline that is oriented towards the needs of a group of elites acting on behalf of the construct they call a nation. We do not need legal sanctions if we had these mechanisms of control which target the minds and souls of people in society.

In this time of age, the Singapore Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defence are faced with many challenges, challenges they can do without. Thanks to our improved educational standards and the prevalence of media technologies, people are a little bit smarter. The hunger to know is greater now than before. Moreover, people know they have some rights they could exercise when aggrieved. Training-related deaths or deaths in camps and training grounds can now no longer be covered up so long as the deceased is loved by a parent(s) or a family.

At the most, the authorities could impose legal sanctions and gag orders, implement more comprehensive indemnity clauses, to do what it does probably most of the time: Covering one's behind.

The culture of "covering one's behind" is omnipresent in our society, nevermind others. This is borne out of a culture of negative and destructive individualism, arising from and shaped by economic and socio-political forces (but I shall not elaborate on them now. I suggest reading a book by Dr Chee Soon Juan, "Dare to Change").

There is no incentive in this society to do good, or "better than enough". There are only punishments and negative sanctions for doing less than enough. This is a punishment-punishment system, and not a reward-punishment system, wherein one is punished for doing something "wrong", but not rewarded for doing something "right". Perhaps, one logical yet unconvincing argument would be that a reward for doing something "right" or "normal" would result in one not being harassed and punished.

Singaporean life is defined by and revolves around the notion of punishment. Do "bad" = punishment. Do "good" = no punishment. This algorithm is programmed in our minds. It is like a Pes C1 (combat fitness classification) Operationally Ready National Serviceman being called to do his fitness test (IPPT), whereby his absence would result in a fine or jail, his failure would result in remedial training, his pass with silver or gold would yield no monetary reward, unlike the rewards granted to servicemen of Pes A and Pes B status. This is as far as I know. Please correct/update me if this policy has changed. Thanks.

Singaporean policy is reaction-based rather than pro-active. When it comes to protecting the status quo and those in power, policies are of course anticipatory. When it comes to protecting the ordinary Singaporean or the person with relatively little political capital, policies are otherwise reaction-based.

In order to effect changes, the occasional unfortunate son/daughter has to be a martyr for his/her fellow people. I am grossly ashamed to say that in Singapore, death, or rather publicised death, is the ultimate form of feedback one can provide to the state, to effect changes that could otherwise have never been effected. The state initiatives of WITS and SSS, obviously inspired by management practices of the private sector, are authoritatively implemented, with quotas imposed by bosses, supervisors and so on, just to make one's superior, and his/her superior's superior, look good. Looking good means not looking bad. Looking bad means one has one covered one's behind.

The reason why Singaporeans are inclined to feel this way, covering one's behind and all, rather than feel a strong sense of belonging is because he/she has very little say in how things are to be run in this tiny island-state. The growing apathy is both a welcome and at the same time a concern for our leaders. On the one hand, ordinary apathetic Singaporeans will not give two hoots and stand in the way of the initiatives and atrocities of our leaders, the inequalities and possible injustices they may have established and perpetuated. On the other hand, the same ordinary apathetic Singaporeans have to be bribed and threatened into conformity and action.

We are all mercenaries. That is why some of us are "quitters" as Goh Chok Tong has so described. We go where the money and incentives blow. We are highly rationalised shells. When a woman gets assaulted in the coffeeshop, no one helped her, because it is no one's business and there is no incentive to do "more than enough".

As for me, I have sprained my left ankle so many times during my active days of national service, to the point the ligament was torn and that I suffer till today on occasion rheumatic pains that travel from my left ankle all the way to my left hip. There has been verbal abuse and ridicules from different people in the army who believed this injury is "part of the mind", "chao keng" (skiving) and I have had one medical officer who exclaimed "you again" when I had to see him after hurting my knee carrying heavy loads (during the time when my ankle was healing). The very same medical officer sat me down a couple of months later and discuss what possible legal advice he could consult after he discovered I have previously written an account of our meeting in an old blog entry, something that would have portrayed him as something he would not like to have been portrayed as.

The Singapore Armed Forces may impose gag orders and threaten its servicemen, so as to preserve its image. It may use the mechanisms and rhetoric of protecting national security to justify these blanket imposition of rules. I believe it would be very rare for one to publicly reveal training secrets (and for what gains?), but rather the human-to-human and inhuman interactions and treatment that can be potentially embarrassing and contradictory to the organisation. It is in public interest to know if our Singaporean sons are treated well or badly in an organisation which they are forced to serve, for these sons are more likely to be loved by their families, more so than the organisation.

I badly sprained the very same ankle again in the middle of April this year and I am very terrified at what awaits me in my reservist towards the end of this month. I hope I am not greeted with an attitude that reeks of "well, people have died, so an ankle is nothing" when I go for my training. I serve my nation out of fear, rather than love. I serve my nation, giving my best in each stint, because I know that time will quickly pass, and I can be soon reunited with the ones I truly love (i.e. family).

There is only one true family that appreciates me and it is not this country (this country is no family), for this is a country of punishment and irrational rules, lacking the necessary compassion to make its citizens love it back. This country rides on the sowed seeds of its very own ideology which it has planted into the consciousness of its citizens. We have been brainwashed and hypnotised into loving it, convincingly and reasonably threatened into serving it.

Imagine the paradox: We are using irrational rules and ideology to govern highly rational people (e.g. kiasuism).

And for those who really love the country and serve as its soldiers, what have you done to them? There is no war, yet our soldiers have died. There is no uprising or promotion of violence, yet our internal security department is often mobilised and tasked to track potential troublemakers, however defined by its paymasters. Can peace be obtained if training-related deaths and suicides have reached a significant level?

It is time Singapore invested more in love than in instilling fear. Even I am scared of our leaders and the elite, and what they could do should I ever speak up against them. And every time my leg hurts, I wonder if Singapore loves me.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Qu(e)erying Singapore

It all started out of, what I would say, almost nothing. Now I find myself part of a small team of individuals forming a queer-straight alliance. In truth, I had always wanted such an organisation/alliance to be formed, but never have I foreseen my involvement.

It is a small step, and only natural that words and beliefs get put to action.

I have spent a little time researching on gay-straight alliances last year and have been writing on sexual minority issues in Singapore, in the process establishing a symbol of alliance between straight people and queer and questioning people. Among the few straight folks who have written to the mainstream media advocating equal opportunity, equal treatment and equal rights for sexual minorities, we have implicitly created a queer-straight alliance - its manifestation merely a belief and a few paragraphs.

Now that a queer-straight alliance is slowly being materialised, I look forward to doing my part and apply a little bit of what I have learnt in school.

I have already been pressed with questions. Among those quizzes, one stands out, "Why do you do it?"

Firstly, it is important to state my motivations are not altruistic, but that does not mean I am an attention-seeker. I believe there are many forms of injustice, inequalities, marginalisations and violence in our society, most of which are often perceived to be normal or justified. It is I too who have been at the receiving end, but before any one makes any atomistic psychological reductionist conclusion that reduces my motivations to a singular traumatic experience (a rather appealing form of rationalisation assumed to be universal), it is equally important to say the unpleasant experiences combine with my education (pleasant experience I might add) to shape my worldview and ideals.

Secondly, while ideals of the social/political can never be achieved in a Singaporean lifetime, baby steps are every bit an achievement. One small step towards the remedy of injustice, inequality, marginalisation and violence is required. The support/fight for sexual minority rights is only one small step, for it is not an end on its own.

As a passive member of "normal" society for the most part of my short life, I have observed the imperfections, inconsistencies and paradoxes of a society that struts and prides itself in being almost perfect and consistent (I gave up on thinking of an antonym for 'paradox'). One lecturer has told me why sociology is appealing to him, something like "Sociology reveals the hypocrisies and ironies of society."

Not everyone needs to be a sociologist to be aware of the hypocrisy. It is hypocrisy and a rather strong and unequivocal support for hypocrisy (oxymoron! gasp!) that results in the various manifestations of marginalisation and discrimination. They perpetuate and sustain inequalities. Society is stratified, from the obvious that is class-oriented and race-oriented, to the not-very-obvious that is gender-oriented and sexuality-oriented.

Since the Singaporean Constitution (Internal Security Act) empowers the Internal Security Department, our beloved secret police, to identify and detain without trial any Marxist, it is tragically rational not to indulge in class-oriented, or race-oriented for that matter, social issues.

Nevertheless, discrimination is still discrimination when one group of people are more/less privileged than another. There are legal, social, political, cultural and economic privileges and sanctions that determine the shape of social inequality. Sexual minorities, for that matter, are sexually criminalised, socially disadvantaged, politically disempowered, culturally marginalised and economically disincentivised. And that is where we could start.

Essentially, it is not about wholesale change or a complete make-over, although Singapore society is badly in need of one. "Change" is the bogeyman, a dirty word, the nightmare that weakens the bladder muscles of any socio-political establishment, and the economic elite and stakeholders who support it.

When powerful people divert their attention and resources from serving the people they love to serving their needs and desires to remain in power, they become "conservative". They create rules, aphorisms, ideologies, moralities and campaigns to justify and legitimise their stranglehold on the socio-political proceedings and affairs of the land; basically anything to sustain and galvanise their dominance. They write books that teach a form of history, a particular brand of epistemology, all of which that favour their conservative position. A conservative position is a position worth conserving.

It is such a conservative establishment that draws lines and redefines boundaries as and when it deems fit. I am not referring to the regular gerrymandering of our General Elections, but pointing out that definitions such as "natural/unnatural", "right/wrong", and "acceptable/unacceptable" are all defined by an authority that aspires to be an authority forever. This is an authority that threatens when questioned, imprisons when disobeyed, murders when cornered.

Our authority may not create homophobia, but allows it to perpetuate and fester in every portion of our society. I strongly feel that homophobia in Singapore should be addressed.

It is homophobia that perpetuates discrimination, marginalisation, abuse and violence. It is homophobia that deprives another person due respect, equal rights, proportionate recognition, fair representation and equitable redistribution (of opportunities and resources).

I have seen the media make a mockery of the representation of queer and questioning persons and they could very well do the same for any ethnic group or other identities. I have heard ridicules and threats of violence from my straight friends when they are addressing gay people. I have been told of how sinful, immoral, unnatural and "plain wrong" gay people are, judgement made by persons who believe they are ultimately not worthy of judging (someone say "snap!").

It is important we prove/show that society is made up of different peoples/persons, especially so in Singapore where there is inertia towards accepting the possibility that individualism could be constructive. Rather than questioning and debating the origins/causes/roots of differences, we could be devoting time and resources towards social integration.

I have moved on from "why are gay people like that?" to "why does society treat gay people like that?". I used to take for granted that society is always correct, but maybe it could be that society has taken for granted that it is always correct.

Only time will tell. In the mean time, I am just doing a little bit in confronting one little form of inequality. If everybody steps forward and confronts one type of inequality, there will be reason for society to change.

Just when I thought I had just made a concluding paragraph, another thought came to mind. Or a question, rather. Why wouldn't straight men join queer-straight alliances? Is it pride, fear of stigmatism, an irrational matter given no possible gains? I have yet to find a good bunch of reasons to convince straight male support without attacking straight male ego (I think I just did so, if that were to be construed as passive aggression). Or maybe people like myself are plain mad. But as we may know, it is the label of insanity itself that exposes the limitations of what we come to know as social order.