Thursday, June 24, 2010

MCYS' video on Filial Piety: A euphemism for soft authoritarianism and total subordination

The Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) has been featuring a 3-minute film on Filial Piety, in cyberspace and on free-to-air television.

This has garnered responses from various Singaporeans, most of whom seem to be in favour of what the film, or “advertisement” for others, portrays.

The film presents a story of a man’s mother moving in with his family, comprising his wife and teenage son, following the loss of her husband. The elderly woman is portrayed as grumpy, bordering on belligerent, exemplified in one scene in which she criticises her daughter-in-law’s cooking.

Her antagonistic ways are being silently tolerated by her daughter-in-law, as her son tries to mediate and make her feel welcomed. The teenage grandson is just fed up with her behaviour.

When she falls very ill, the man takes care of her and his son asks him why he does so. The man explains that his mother once took care of him.

The teenage grandson on the other hand, represents the ageist chauvinism prevalent in most paternalistic societies: That the young generation is ungrateful, irresponsible, morally confused and knowledge-less, thus justifying more control.

This is a video to tug on heart strings and get Singaporeans to care for their elders/elderly parents. However, it is highly ironic that its themes seem to coincidentally align themselves with sociological observations and political narratives in Singapore.

The video encourages us to love and care for our elderly parents (unconditionally). There is nothing wrong with unconditional love. More pertinently, Singapore is facing an ageing population. There is a confluence of factors, other than the unconditional love for the elderly, that compels the integration of three generations under one working-to-middle class roof.

The cost of living is increasing in Singapore. At the same time, material expectations, the average marriage age, and life expectancy all increase too. What does this mean? We will have dual-income households comprising fathers and mothers of rather young children, also having to take care of their rather old parents/parents-in-law. Well, Singaporeans cannot marry early and have more children not solely because of growing materialism (informed by materialist virtues imparted onto us by goal-oriented educational policies) but also because of policies that compel sons and daughters to live with their parents because they do not have the financial means to live independently. Hiring help would be ideal but that comes at a cost. Households seek to maximise the utility of their homes by doing what SMRT and SBS Transit do to train commuters, optimise with a view to reduce operational costs.

In a society saturated with rhetoric of meritocracy, it is thus the family’s responsibility to make things work out. The problem with meritocracy is its disregard for context. As with the aforementioned social phenomena and economic climate, we need to consider the minimal role the government plays in this.

Any democratic government is chosen by the people to represent and take care of its people, but what how can you account for a government that privatises charities, imposes definitive markers and strict criteria for social welfare, and of course present its perceivably financially illiterate citizenry with convoluted CPF schemes and policies? Dusted beneath the thick carpet of moral and familial rhetoric are the real issues of that a democratic government has forgotten its primary duty.

Old people face a series of issues such as hormonal imbalances, physiological problems, mental health problems, loneliness, grief owing to death of elderly peers and loved ones, communication breakdown, being tasked to take care of grandchildren (they become parents all over again).

These problems have a social, economic and political dimension, and are caused and exacerbated by the very realities of socialisation, policy and money. Substandard, inefficient and expensive hospital elder-related health care may compel the elderly to lose faith in the system and not seek the health they probably need. The negative externalities spill into the domains of their families.

At the same time, it is more economically viable for dual-income families to exist, because they face almost a lifetime of debt oweing to living in what the government determines to be “affordable” public housing. The mindset that coerces the emergence of dual-income households is partly informed by the goal-oriented, paper-chasing, industrial-spirited ethos of our education system. Remember the values of “pragmatism”, “survivability”, “sustainability”? They are baa-aack AND THEY ARE COMIN’ TO GET ‘CHA!

There are social and political factors that make Singaporeans develop high expectations and material cravings, and some of these factors are influenced by governmental policy, yet the government rationalises it in a way that the problem is individualised, absolving the state and its policies of any responsibility. Of course, when it comes to the success and happy stories of peace and achievement in the community, the rationalisation process is reversed, externalised rather than individualised.

Textually, the MCYS video is strangely aligned with the political rhetoric and strategies of the PAP government. Like the old woman who once unconditionally cared for her son, loved him in a way a son’s love for his mother can never match a mother’s love for her son, the PAP government often invokes history to put its citizenry in its place.

Credit has to be given to the first generations of PAP leaders. They laid the foundations for what Singapore is today (good and bad). They have brought peace and economic progress/stability. But does this justify, 30 to 40 years down the road, the high-hand, I-know-better-than-you, me-is-holiest-of-all-including-thou paternalism today? According to the moral of the video, yes.

This is always one strategy employed by the elderly to render subordinate the young. They maximise the utility of “wisdom” to tell us stories of “if it weren’t of them…” and “without them…” to galvanise total obedience and subservience to them. This is one of the characteristics of soft authoritarianism, but leaders would prefer to call it “Asian democracy”, and since we are in the retitling mood, high-handed paternalism and interventionism would be renamed “Asian values”.

The man in the video is not portrayed to be standing up for his wife amidst the inconvenience caused by his mother. In the cosmos of “Asian democracy” and “Asian values”, the Oedipus complex is apparently quickly resolved because your mother is more important than your wife. Your teenage son can just know his role and shut his mouth. Everyone else can sing the campfire song of “Put up and shut up”, or “LPPL” is you are Hokkien.

Total obedience is not wholly justified by past actions and achievements. There are social and political ramifications presented by the ideological alignment of the video with the political discourse of the PAP government. There will be a stronger focus on history (as it is selectively invoked to make citizens feel grateful) and this will take attention away from the atrocities, injustices and oversights of the government and governance today. The political will (if it existed) and social consciousness (if it existed) of Singaporeans are shackled by political rhetoric that saturate the citizenry with distracting narratives of past achievements that we fear change and value continuity.

Moreover, with the ascension of monotheism in Singapore, nevermind its various financial scandals, all the more is this approach to governance justified and valued. Total submission to authority. Do this simple IQ logic test: Son is to mother; citizen is to state; devotee of monotheism is to single all-mighty diety of multiple portfolios and jurisdictions. What do these indicate for social control and choice?

This is why, apart from education (which it can actually influence), states rely on sanctioned religions and the “family” to reinforce its authority and ensure its political longevity. Filial piety will always belong to the private domain of the family and its unique set of values, but the government has appropriated it for its own political agenda. Metaphorically speaking, it is justified that citizens feel like that poor daughter-in-law in the scene when her mother-in-law criticises her. She puts up and shuts up and remains submissive. Her husband does the same too. This is love, but given its strange alignment with the political ideology and paternalism of an authoritarian state, it is repulsive and evil.

We have become sheep into believing all the adapted versions of political and moral rhetoric the government throws us. For example, “Asian values” was once invoked to account for the ascension of the East Asian economy and its brand of political and economic governance, different from the “West”. Yes, we are talking about the vagueness of these “Asian values” that justified state political paternalism, interventionism, and varying degrees of protectionism and socialism in the emerging era of Western free trade.

Along the way, with the rationalisation of religiosity in Singapore, which involves the confluence of English education, imposition of one Chinese (Mandarin) language, and the conversions to Christianity at the expense of Chinese religion, the term “Asian values” adopted a moral dimension reflective of the emerging middle-class ethnic Chinese Christians. They continue the ideological colonialism of themselves by spreading Judaeo-Christian values and represent them as Asian, while at the same time blame the West for its moral corruption. This is what happens when you do not read history, and I do not refer to the Lee Kuan Yew memoirs.

The MCYS video also came about as a reaction to Singaporean society. We cannot deal with subtlety, given our orientation towards goals, reward-and-punishment logic, material and pragmatism. They have to show it explicitly, and in the process, present 3 minutes of what they think is filial piety. As I have said, this coincides with state paternalism and soft authoritarianism.

I would like to point out, that while we have the sarky and snarky, anti-government, Lee regime haters on the internet, some to the extent of trolling and sedition, they do engage in a little sociological project to point out the relevance, connection and implications of policy and politics. Perhaps it could be a bit of paranoid over-reading, but they couch their observations in the social and reveal that things are not what they always seem to be. But given the ideological control we are under, most of us would dismiss these people as sore and “ungrateful”. Familiar?

Instead of MCYS, which also oversees social welfare, spending public money on the video and its marketing, I believe those few thousand dollars, tens of thousand dollars could actually help a few families who are faced with the financial and social problems that could or could not ever be reflected in a 3-minute video.

Perhaps we could have the following lines in the story, but they would probably not be aligned with the political discourse:
“Ma, my wife did her best cooking this meal already. You are embarrassing her. Maybe you can share with her some of your recipes and favourite dishes? Since we’re all living together, there is no need to make any one feel bad.”
“Son, don’t pull that long face. I know your grandma is being a prick, but she is adjusting to life here. Make her feel welcome and if you are uncomfortable, just let me know and I’ll do the talking.”

Of course, even if those lines, still rendered invisible are the larger social and political factors that shaped such a scenario. Perhaps, “filial piety” is our opium.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Expectations and reflections

I have been working closely with this lecturer in my department for 4 semesters. And as we sat down in her office on a Monday afternoon, she told me she's a good student, the kind that would bust a lung to reach the lofty goals she has set for herself. But people change, and she learned to manage expectations and have lots of fun in between. She changed because "life" taught her to change.

For me, there will always be a fire somewhere inside me. I can be wholly convinced I am the happiest person I have ever been, and I am at the point in my life where I am contented. Even with lesser expectations, I can't help but feel disappointed and hungry for more despite having met them. Old habits die hard.

I began 2010 with lots of hope and promise. Socialised folks will always and interestingly use recognised and significant temporal marks to make their decisions. I set goals which I believe can be easily accomplished given the person of my ability, creativity, intellect and talent.

They range from the superficial, such as losing weight and getting more visible abdominal muscles as means to encase myself in hegemonic masculinity; to the wishful, to get "somewhere" in songwriting. Nothing came to fruition. Of course, there have been the longdrawn battle with the Master's Thesis, and I have missed every deadline I've set myself. Uncharacteristic.

Small little things like the Singapore Blog Awards, organised by and Singapore Press Holdings, get to me too. Knowing I am the previous of my category, "Most Insightful Blog", I was not even a feature in the top 10 list of nominees, no chance to defend my "crown". It's shocking for me, and I am reminded of my remarks last year that if the exhibitionist won the category, I would retire from blogging forever. No offense to her though, but I really wonder what the organisers are thinking.

This too deals a blow to my integrity, as I seek to leverage on it to spread awareness on not only queer issues, but minority rights, mental health and media literacy. The privilege of being (relatively) known and having that education should always be used to help others. Life is not always a self-service. Sure, that holiday prize would be nice, but that would not stop me from fighting these causes.

I realise I have taken my thesis a little too seriously for my own good and never once considered the journey would be a lot more enriching than the joys of reaching the destination. And given my person, I would probably crawl to the finishing line, stand up, dust my shoulders, and say, "what's next?"

My preoccupation with my thesis has made me a lot more withdrawn, but a lot more closer to my family. One big victim is SinQSA, the Singapore Queer-Straight Alliance. It is my baby, but it has been reprioritised. I would have loved to be more active in my brand of information activism but I would rather get my house in order first before setting my eyes on other issues.

Still related to my Master's programme, I have earlier applied for an extension to my scholarship. I expected a rejection, and got one today, but still felt disappointed about it. I keep convincing myself by repeating the narrative of "it's not the end of the world" but frustration still reigns. It is the kind of feeling I had when I told my supervisor and probably everyone else that I would be happy with a B+ grade for my Honours Thesis, but when I got an A, I felt angry I did not get an A+.

Of course, we get hardened by setbacks or perceived setbacks and integrate that aspect of maturity into our character. Let's just call it character-building.

Somehow, I know that while my disappointment will continue to linger on, life goes on and there is still a thesis to complete. After all, isn't an anticipated set-back half-to-not a setback?

I would love to write about the many socio-political issues and assess them from the lenses of sociology, semiotics, feminism and so on, but they will have to wait. So many issues, so little time.