Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Pink Dot for Singapore

What was I thinking? The Straits Times will NEVER published something like this.

(Unpublished - May 16, 2010)

Saturday evening saw the second Pink Dot held at Hong Lim Park.

Over 4000 participants decked in pink, gathered together in formation to make a large human dot.

The purpose of the event is to celebrate the freedom to love regardless of sexual orientation.

While this is a deemed a successful event, I personally look forward to the day when the expression of our acceptance of people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity is more than just symbolic or abstract.

Most Singaporeans take for granted that gender identity, biological sex and sexual orientation are monolithic and should correspond to each other in binary terms.

As a result of this thinking, we lack the information and open-minded understanding that are required to make our land safe and accommodating of people of diverse orientations and persuasions.

In fact, there are those among us who will go the distance to create guilt, fear and hatred for those who identity as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Surely no one deserves to be at the brunt of intolerant moralising, fear-mongering and spread of misinformation, or at the same time regarded as diseased or trivialised as misguided.

I have close friends and loved ones who identify as queer, and I love them all the same. I want them to enjoy the same freedom from discrimination and harassment that I enjoy.

When society takes the lead in cultivating an appreciation for diversity, other institutions will follow suit, and Singapore will become a better place for one and all despite our differences.

On the one hand, we may have an annual event in Pink Dot that is symbolic. But on the other, all of us could do our part to make it a reality that our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender friends and loved ones are free from discrimination.

This is something our government cannot do, but Singaporeans as a whole can take the social initiative to make this place safe and livable for one and all.

I look forward to the day when Singaporeans can be accommodating and respectful of one another regardless of orientation and persuasion.

Ho Chi Sam

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Singapore Mother-Tongue-Tied

Language policies in Singapore play a role in the grand scheme of social engineering by the political leadership, deemed fit and important by them of course for the nation’s (economic) progress.

As Singapore continues to celebrate its idea and definition of diversity, we citizens are pelted with certain desired versions of what it takes to be multicultural and bilingual.

For instance, there is a strong administrative and social pressure to have a synchronisation of bilingualism and ethnicity, or rather, race. This means, it has somewhat been normalised that ethnic Chinese Singaporeans ought to (be able to) speak Mandarin, a dialect commonly mistaken and cannonised as “Chinese”. Same goes for Malays who should speak Malay, which is actually Bahasa Melayu, and the Indians who should speak, in the words of most culturally relativist ethnic Chinese Singaporean, Indian. That would normally be Tamil, but we have Hindi and Punjabi.

The Indian Singaporean case runs against the grain of the totalising language policy of Singapore. But when you are of the 10% of Singapore, you probably would not have much say in anything at all (unless you’re part of some higher –educated socio-economically privileged ethnic Chinese Christian community with considerable political influence).

Our ethnic Indian friends are as diverse as the ethnic Chinese. As mentioned in earlier posts, not all ethnic Indians speak Tamil. It is the generalisation on the part of the government that might have led to most of us believing that Tamil equals Indian, and therefore Indian is a language, but is in fact actually the Tamil language.

For non-ethnic Indians, most of us would probably not/understand that swept under the carpet are the real mother tongues of some ethnic Indians, or in this case, Singaporeans of South Asian descent. But for the typical Singaporean, all Indians are Indians, whether they come from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan (happiness index any one?) and the Maldives.

You can tell that there is a gulf between social attitudes and policy here. Here we are with the government and its ideals (that appear to be its ideals for society to us), attempting to create a harmonious diverse society, but not too heterogeneously diverse that it threatens their political control of the population, and on the other hand, we still have people who are ignorant of other cultures, a condition not the most conducive for harmony.

Interestingly, I believe the colonisation of the Indians continues to persist in Singapore. You do not have the British doing the job now, but the government. Singaporean Indians are streamlined into adopting new “Mother Tongues” through the school system, simply because state education does not have the resources to accommodate this diversity. For example, I know some Malayalese who have adopted Tamil or Hindi as their “Mother Tongue”.

The streamlining of categorical ethnicity/race and official race-affiliated language has streamlined the population, creating a more distinct and distinguishable set of divisions. This makes the job of policing and policy-making easier for the government. It makes political representation easier too, as well as communication.

Please do note I am not writing as a cultural supremacist or romantic, because I assign no value judgement to the perceived “loss” of culture. The problem I feel here is the calibration and engineering of Singapore society to harbour a kind of diversity that is politically manageable.

Yes, political manageability. It is somewhat entwined with the economic imperative, stereotypically associated with the Chinese merchant-businessman ethos that the island of Singapore has come to be acquainted with for the past 3 to 4 centuries. Yes, the Chinese were already hanging out and trading in Singapore before Raffles arrived and we began celebrating his whiteness in our secondary schools.

As an ethnic Chinese Singaporean, I feel that the bilingualism impressed upon me is a euphemism for the overarching economic imperative. The narratives of “the need to survive, adapt and be pragmatic” do not belong to the working class or the economic elite, but somehow run parallel to the immigrant entrepreneurial or wealth-seeking-and-accumulating Chinese populous, most of whom are our forefathers.

The “other” language in the bilingualism, for me, is Mandarin. The ethnic Chinese Singaporeans are often told that Mandarin is important and part of culture (yes, nothing new), which has resulted in Mandarin not only being officialised as the second language of the yellow-skinned population, but as adopted as the “Mother Tongue”. This has displaced other “Mother Tongues”, that were in fact the “tongues” of our mothers – Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainan and others.

Now put this language policy in a global arena that is experiencing the economic ascension of the country that has recently ended more than five millennia of power-struggling in-fighting (now THAT is Chinese culture). The importance of the Chinese language (a term conveniently used to represent the Mandarin dialect) is sung to Singaporeans with a bass line of economic survival and pragmatism.

The articulation of second language (or “Mother Tongue”) policies to the non-Chinese population is of a different tune altogether, as culture and heritage are invoked. Sure, tell that to the non-Tamil-speaking folks who have to pick up Tamil and whose families do not speak one word of Tamil – tell them their “Mother Tongue” is Tamil. And you have these non-Tamil-speaking kids performing well in subjects other than this second language, and end up slipping through the crevasses of our educational system.

Whenever I see the nationalist rhetoric being spitted from high above down at Singaporeans, I see “progress and prosperity” for Chinese, “happiness, peace and harmony” for the rest.

It is reflected in the private sector when they advertise for bilingual proficiency, they in fact want proficient Mandarin speakers. This is the economic situation, to which our language policy is trying to adapt.

We may be relatively harmonious and peaceful, but this cultural diversity rests on the pillars of the logicality, mentality and economic rationality of the cultural majority. The values of survivability, and later sustainability, and now productivity are all coincidentally relevant immigrant-industrial discourses, which have been absorbed into the national discourse and political framework.

The sense of cultural pride that accompanies “Mother Tongue” proficiency and a bilingualism that matches the colour of skin, is merely an accomplice in the economic imperative. This sense, derived from cultural bigotry of course, has been hijacked and usurped by the economic discourse, that spawns the current mentality that has come to characterise our political and economic leadership.

We do not have the similar style of communication in the promotion of non-Chinese second languages. We do not see the promotion of Tamil in tandem with the economic rhetoric and references to the South Asian economy (because Hindi would have been the slightly better choice even though English still remains dominant). And we do not see the communication of the Malay language proficiency as something that pertains to the economy of the Malay archipaelago, but primarily centres on culture and heritage instead.

We may have a multicultural social environment, but the economic, professional and political opportunities are coloured by the biases of the cultural majority and politico-economic elite (whose demography somewhat has the cultural/ethnic majority), and the rules, terms and conditions of which are pre-determined by and pre-disposed towards this majority.

To break it down, let me give you a couple of examples. This is what happens when you have a government of a country whose racial majority is X race, telling everyone what multiculturalism is. However, what is this particular definition of multiculturalism? What does it include and exclude? What causes does it serve? Who benefits more and who is disadvantaged in the process and outcome?

This is also similar to a government in which there is an overrepresentation of a religion, Y, telling everyone what secularism is. However, what is this particular definition of secularism? What does this secularism include and exclude? What causes does it serve? Who benefits more and who is disadvantaged in the process and outcome?

Or what about gender in Parliament? That would be an interesting one. How else could we ever have been acquainted with the idea that pregnancy = national service, right? Absolute rubbish.

You see, policy, terms and catchphrases are often coloured in a way that befits the description and outcome deemed most desirable by a person or a group of a particular set of identities.

While there can never be true equality, there can be pluralism. But skeptics will also be eager to point out that the ground on which pluralism sits slopes in favour of the majority. All the apparatuses and institutions of the state (also adopted by society) reek of the same kind of ethos associated with particular peoples, who see it as neutral and perhaps universal, hence worthy of being taken for granted to be natural and normal.

But there is always an ethos most of us Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion, can relate to when faced with policies that make little sense (to some/most of us), with government agendas that appear not to help the citizenry, with anything that seems to disadvantage (some/most) of us in terms of culture, professional life, social security, etc., and that is the LAN LAN SUCK THUMB ethos. Whip out those thumbs for now (but once every 4/5 years, that thumb will join forces with the rest of the fingers to mark that X on that ballot paper).

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What's the problem? Cat got your Mother Tongue?

(Unpublished - May 8, 2010)

I follow with interest the recent discussions on the Primary School Leaving Examination Mother Tongue weightage and related issues.

I believe that our educational policy should be accommodative and reflective of not only our cultural diversity, but also our cultural heterogeneity.

This is because, among the ethnic Chinese Singaporean population for instance, there are those whose “Mother Tongue” may not be Mandarin. We cannot assume that the everyone within the same ethnic category have the same “Mother Tongue” or the same degree of proficiency.

It is perhaps due to its definitional vagueness that people take the liberty to assume, judge and impose.

This also brings up another issue, whether “Mother Tongue” is a misnomer and should be treated as a second language, which readers have recently pointed out.

While I doubt the Ministry of Education can come up with a solution that pleases everyone, I believe we on our part can start cultivating the mindset befitting a multicultural society.

I believe we Singaporeans should refrain from assuming ethnic, cultural and linguistic homogeneity, and not impose this cultural ideology on others. A mature diverse society should be moving beyond this conflation.

It can otherwise be detrimental to the esteem of our young, as they are either faced with cultural bigotry or sheer ignorance, and made to feel ashamed that their “Mother Tongue” language proficiency does not appear to match their ethnic category.

The government should revise the “Mother Tongue” language to be a “second language”, which infers a more neutral standpoint. This way, whichever cultural, traditional or prideful ideological inscriptions can be left to the family of the young.

At the same time, it does not help that the notion of “bilingualism” is often couched in the economic imperative and the ascension of the Chinese economy. The greater the overemphasis the more we risk alienating, or creating a system that alienates, those who may not be in the position to be proficiently bilingual, or in this case, proficient in English and Mandarin.

Then again, may we continue to ask why we are using bilingual proficiency as an academic benchmark for our young?

I advise the government to, apart from looking at statistics, numbers and the majority vote, also approach the issue sociologically.

A one-stop cure-all solution in a singular set of policies may not be suitable for a diverse society, and we need a multi-prong approach to the issue. This involves the state coming up with choices and alternatives, and the population maturing to be truly multicultural.

Ho Chi Sam

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Quoted: Sex education reintroduced in schools

(Quoted - The Sunday Times, May 9, 2010)


Sex education reintroduced in schools

"In the end, a delicate balance needs to be made between recognizing the inherent sexual curiosity of teenagers and providing boundaries to this curiosity.
Lines need to be drawn, but where to draw them, that is the question. Fortunately, the silver lining here is that while the Ministry of Education’s stance is pro-abstinence, it however not only teaches this but also provides information about contraception."

"Instead of providing material that morally judges an act to be right or wrong, the material can identify the religions and cultures that deem the act to be right or wrong.
This way, the young not only learn about sexuality but also the diversity of opinions of sexuality. Any way, should Singaporeans not be well acquainted with the concept diversity?"

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sexuality Education for Multi-valued Singapore

(Unpublished - April 29, 2010)

I refer to the report on the Education Ministry’s selection of groups to teach sexuality education (April 29).

I feel it is ironic that four out of the six appointed organizations have Christian affiliations, despite conscientious attempts by MOE to have sexuality education in a “multi-cultural and multi-religious” Singapore.

I wonder how fair it is when organisations pass their syllabi off as universal when they already have ideological affiliations and moral prejudices.

In my view, sexuality education should have a polycentric approach, with different perspectives and solutions provided, and not only one set, which is often taken for granted as the only way.

This way, while children get exposed to different perspectives and values in a multi-valued Singapore, organisations of different ideological affiliations and persuasions may have more equal contributions and participation in sexuality education.

More importantly, “sexuality education” should live up to its name sake and engage the topic of sexuality.

Besides providing information and viewpoints on sexually transmitted diseases, pre-marital sex, contraception, strategies of abstinence and negotiation, and other traditional sexuality education syllabi, I feel more should be taught.

These include body confidence, an understanding of erogenous zones of the body, sexual orientation and gender identity.

At the same time, while we may promote the heterosexual married family as the basic unit of society, we should not do this at the expense of families that do not fit the mould.

The obsession with this form of the family overlooks the function of what a family should have – love and safety. Families do their part in cultivating values that befit their own, which in turn lead to contributions to society, economic and political processes.

I hope the six organisations tasked to provide the education do not use guilt or fear to transmit their messages.

Furthermore, I remain appalled at the criticism leveled at Aware’s programme, which was believed to be promoting homosexuality and implying approval of pre-marital sex, positions unfavourable to many monotheistic religions.

The neutral discussion or portrayal of homosexuality does not equate its promotion, neither does the discussion of safe sex equate to approval of pre-marital sex.

Our heterosexist status quo will not be threatened even if we accepted and respected other sexual orientations.

The continual discourse on sexuality education in Singapore simply reveals our maturity to deal with sex. In a multi-valued Singapore, we appear to be less tolerant of views other than our own.

Ho Chi Sam