Saturday, October 30, 2010

Chasing the hearse

I was about to be fetched home by my mum and wife from camp after serving the first of a two-week in-camp reservist training, when I heard that my uncle had passed away.

I felt puzzled at the news for a couple of minutes (and am now puzzled as to why I felt puzzled), but later began to realise that my uncle has indeed passed. My mum told me he died on Thursday.

People talk about the "sinking in" of news and I am reminded of the experience once again. I cried.

As we followed the hearse for a short yet agonising distance, I thought to myself as my eyes welled up with tears, "This is ironic."

At the end of our regular family visits to the Koh's at Namly in the 1980s and early 1990s, my brother and I, upon having seated at the back of the car, would be alerted by our father, "Look behind you! There is a monster!"

And there was Uncle Koh, who raised both hands, opened his mouth to bear his teeth and began chasing our car. And my dad would not help us either, moving the car off pretty slowly.

"Ahhh!!!" Uncle Koh shouted.

"Yahhh!!!" I went, each time with a mix of fear, excitement and laughter.

Every farewell would be the same. I would always turn my head to see Uncle Koh following us. Chasing us would be his way of saying "Goodbye and see you again."

As the years went by, our visits were less frequent. And even though I was no longer a child, I still turned around every time I got seated at the back of my parents' car. There was an expectation that Uncle Koh would be the car-chasing monster. But a wave goodbye had by then already sufficed.

Perhaps, we knew we were older. But I still expected him to chase our car.

Fast-forward to Saturday October 30, 4.45pm. I play the role of the monster now, chasing Uncle Koh as he is leaving in his vehicle.

However, it was not an exciting, or fearful, or joyous farewell like the ones we used to share in the 1980s and 1990s. It was a sombre one.

It was all the more heart-wrenching when I was reminded of the car-chasing farewells by Uncle Koh as I slowly chased the hearse today.

It is a tragedy that 20 years later, the laughter and "Ahhhh!!"s would be replaced by the sound of the engine of the hearse.

Uncle Koh would chase us for a few metres before slowly down, laughing, waving us goodbye and returning to his home.

Today, along with many others, I chased Uncle Koh for the first time to say goodbye. And he has got to a speed and distance with which I can no longer keep up. I can only slow down, wave him goodbye and return to my home.

I regret that for the past couple of years, I didn't stop by Namly when I was Bukit Timah/Holland Road, to say hello to Uncle Koh and family. I knew for a long time he always had interesting news and gossip about politics, but was too young to understand what he was talking about.

I thought it would have been a good time to hear what he has to say now that I have the fortune and privilege of higher education. It is painfully ironic that I only seized the one chance to say goodbye when I had so many opportunities to say hello.

My brother has more memories than I have of the Koh's, but I know both our families have a bond that extends beyond just that of my mum and her half-sister (Uncle Koh's wife). My dad enjoyed the company of Uncle Koh. My brother enjoyed the company of my cousin. I was the youngest and most playful, but I still have these memories.

Booking out should be a happy occasion for any reservist soldier, and I had looked forward to dinner with my wife and my parents. I had wanted my mum to hang out at my place for a while, as it would be most ideal to be in the company of two very important women in my life, before we picked up my dad for dinner.

But plans had to change. And now I still haven't any appetite.

As we got to Mount Vernon. I met my aunties, uncles and cousins. I even met the caretaker (distant relative) auntie who adopted my rabbit when we had to give her away. My rabbit, Furry, is another story altogether, and when my mum mentioned that this was the auntie who looked after Furry until Furry died of old age, I went, "Wow, hello auntie. So you looked after my rabbit Fur... thank you thank you" but couldn't bring myself to saying my rabbit's name.

In 1998, while having dinner after coming back from school, my mum walked towards me hesitantly and told me, "You know, I don't know how to tell you, but Furry died today." I couldn't taste my food. Perhaps my penchant for big huggable plush toys might be related to my fondness for Furry. It sucks to be my mum who has to tell her son such bad news.

Today, my mum has another responsibility. I guess that is part of "growing up". You hear of deaths, you experience deaths of loved ones and you have to break the news to other loved ones. No one deserves this.

As we walked around Uncle Koh who was resting in his coffin, my mum said to me the same thing she has always said at every funeral we have been to. "He looks like he is sleeping."

I may be 27 years old, but my response was the same as when I was 6 or 7. "Ya."

Uncle Koh's ashes will be collected either on Sunday or Monday. I am not sure about the arrangements but I think he will eventually be scattered into the sea.

It is very sad that our series of happy farewells had to end with a tearful one.

I will miss you Uncle Koh. I will remember you with great fondness.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The right side of correct; the correct side of right

I'm quite perplexed with the letter "Stay lean, SIA girl" (Oct 9) by Teo Yee Chee, and rather astounded by review of the letter by Barnyard Chorus.

Here's the blog article:

How to tell the world you're an asshole

Oooh, who likes getting all het up and furious first thing in the morning? You had better if you, like me, get the Straits Times on subscription. In today's Life! section, a letter from Asshole Alpha:

Stay lean, SIA girl

I refer to the report, I Don't Mind A Fatter Singapore Girl by Jeremy Au Yong (Life!, Oct 9).

I do not mean to be disrespectful or discriminate but I honestly do not want to sit beside an overweight person during a long flight, especially when flying home.

Singapore Airlines did not become a leading airline just because the SIA Girl looks slim, clean and pretty.

She is just one of the building blocks that fit very well into the whole operations. When there is a lapse or drop in service quality, SIA has to correct and improve. In every successful business, there are certain identities and standards associated with it. These form its culture and infuse its soul.

It is easy to say you do not mind having a fatter Singapore Girl but it will be a problem for many.

Teo Yee Chee

Fatphobia: check. Equation of service staff's physical features with 'service quality': check. Commodification of service staff as mere 'building blocks': check. Cluelessly trumpeting the opinion that the other people should be in service to the pleasure of your unpleasant, privileged ass: check. (The one grain of truth in this letter: that many will share the same retrograde views that you hold.)

Hey, Teo, next time you might want to lighten up on the disingenuity, and just declare that you think fat people don't deserve to be treated like fellow humans. I have a lot of things to do and it would save everyone's time if I didn't have to point out the contemptible ridiculousness of your opinions before I told you to fuck off.


ETA: I haven't read the original Jeremy Au Yong article that this letter refers to, but I don't have high hopes for it.


For Teo to publicly voice his discomfort with fat people, I feel it is a little insensitive.

But for the rest of his letter, I read it to be merely pointing out a phenomenon shaped and influenced by an oppressive order/cultural logic.

In this cultural logic, slim women are considered desirable and fat women are considered less desirable.

Because of the way society is organised according to this cultural logic, businesses follow suit and capitalise on it. We end up commodifying bodies because there is a preference and a demand for desirable types.

Teo makes this more salient by saying the business that is SIA is built on this cultural logic. At least that is my reading.

He goes on to comment that "It is easy to say you do not mind having a fatter Singapore Girl but it will be a problem for many", which I read to be a comment on the cultural logic of gender.

As an observer (not helped by his opening statement), Teo finds himself flamed. It's nothing new when the right to express your opinions is accompanied by the responsibility to accept a multitude of (mis)readings, criticisms, character attacks and flaming from a variety of folks. Perhaps even my reading of Teo's letter might be read as undesirable and wrong.

So in this case, Teo is portrayed as one who engaging in the process of reproducing the cultural logic of gender - Teo is read as complicit (no thanks to his open fatphobia).

Perhaps Teo, presumably a heterosexual man, you know, those types way below the pecking order of the Oppression Olympics, is already prejudged in the eyes of feminist detractors.

Thus, all his observations are readily read to be approval, indicative of his complicity in the cultural logic of gender (or the gendered logic of culture, whichever).

Yes, let's go a little poststructural on this (and explore the inherent contradictions):

1) Man observes and comments about a social phenomenon, e.g. society desires slim women.
2) Critiques of man say he is approving of the order and complicit in it.
3) His observations and comments about the social phenomenon are read to be social processes that reinforce the prevailing order.
4) Then again, how can we be certain that the structuring of critique of the man is not within the prevailing order? Are we assuming that the subversive questioning of the complicit and approving man is independent of the cultural logic and prevailing discourse?

If neutrality (assuming Teo was "neutrally" trying to explain the phenomena by speaking on behalf of SIA) is seen as a position and a process tantamount to complicity, what about the critique of neutrality?

Does the critique of neutrality exist as an entity, a position and a process that is non-complicit?

I think we are often too preoccupied with the critique of neutrality and framing it as a position or a process complicit in some prevailing discourse or oppressive framework, that we pay little attention to the political process and motivations behind the critique of neutrality itself.

It appears that some of us expect a little too much from others when they are making observations of society. They might not be in the position to articulate their observations with a sociological imagination or any feminist thought. They simply just explain the conditions we are in.

But amidst the multitude of readings, some will read Teo's letter to be indicative of his approval of such a cultural logic.

Perhaps, even within the domain of reading itself, there appears to be a "charmed circle" of readings.

At the top of the hierarchy of "correct" readings would be the reading that Teo is complicit, and that his neutrality and attempt to speak on behalf of SIA to comment on the cultural logic of gender, constitute his approval - still complicit.

And at this stratum, enemies are well-established, such as businesses (that obviously exist within the oppressive cultural order). Explaining on behalf of businesses would mean the "explainer" is read to be sympathetic and hence approving of the business.

Rather than reading an observation as a commentary on a social phenomenon, some of us readily make accusations that the observer is "guilty" or complicit.

But parts of our resistance, subversion and critique of the observer and the structures that shape him (male noun!) and whatever he observes, are constructed on the very same plane on which the observer and phenomena exist - the same cultural logic.

In the "charmed circle" of readings, there also exist a "charmed circle" of readers, stratified by gender, sexuality, physiology, race and so on. And we find ourselves in a battle for who's right and more "authentic".

Teo, at the end of his letter, gives us, or rather me (and how I read it), a reality check. There is a gulf between political correctness and actual feelings and opinions (which can hurt and divide people).

Who rules the domain of political correctness, and is there a hierarchy of opinions and within the hierarchy of opinions, is there a hierarchy of identities for the expression of opinion?

There will always be people who are uncomfortable with other people, and it's important to continually point this out. That is what I read Teo to have done.

And again, his vocalising of discomfort with fat people is also in itself a commentary about how there will be people who are uncomfortable with others. It is a phenomena we are all part of.

I believe it's time for us now to look at his observations and do something about ourselves first.

Perhaps my reading of Teo's letter is on the wrong side of correct, or the wrong side of wrong in the eyes of another reader.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

It is ok to exoticise

I must admit that gender, sex and sexuality are few of the topics of discussion that interest me the most.

I don't deny indulging in exoticising the perennial social taboo/outsider. This can only constitute a fascination within a social, political and moral domain whose bodies of norms have made these topics rather mysterious and elusive.

In this case, to be fascinated is to be curious about what we have been socialised into believing not worthy of curiosity. The defence mechanisms of a dominant moral discourse, aimed at protecting specific structures and logic that order our society and way of life, do not allow us to be curious.

Even those whose identities and lives are far from the norm have sought to question this curiosity. This charge of exoticisation parallels the defence mechanisms of a wary and unstable cis/heteronormative society. A curiosity is always susceptible to being read as an interest of the exotic.

I am curious with the particular reading of people who appear fascinated with studying the "nuts, sluts and p(re)verts". These fascinated bunch are read to be interested in the exotic, and some critics have suggested we focused on the mundane to study and appreciate the less visible and taken-for-granted phenomena and structures that order our social lives.

But it is in the "exotic" that we also understand the various processes and nuances of social ordering, and through these understandings, we appreciate why the label "exotic" and why the (academic) habits of exoticisation exist.

For the "normal", "sane" and "moral" world, gender, sex and sexuality are conflated, and articulated in binarism. (Traditional) Medical, legal, religious and (Western) cultural norms all the more reinforce the validity of this articulation.

But we have to have the presence of "not normal", "not sane" and "not moral" beings to trouble this articulation. When we ask ourselves, "Why is this person not normal, not sane and/or not moral?" we begin to refer to the norms that shape and regulate our behaviours.

The "not normal", "not sane" and "not moral" (and other labels) folks reflect something about our culture and its limitations. The construction of "them" says something about "us" and our presuppositions, predispositions, socialisation and prejudices.

"Them" reflects a society of "us", characterised by the norms of different domains, interwoven and overlapping. These different sets of norms engage one another and at times reinforce one another.

Take for example, the norm of binary dimorphic (heterosexual) sex. It is emphasised in Judaeo-Christian-Islamic norms. It is also emphasised in medical science. At the same time, society found it fit to ascribe moral meanings and a status of naturality to protect this order, as the norms of religion, the norms of medicine and basically everything people observed, confirmed this. Put it altogether over time, we have something that is natural and right - just like how the Earth is flat and the sun rotates around it.

Whatever that challenges and contradicts the taken-for-granted "natural" and "right" order, for example, homosexuality, is deemed as unnatural and immoral. I looked at the Church of Our Saviour's 12-page document (written by Dr Thio Su Mein) on the "myths of homosexuality". It says "Homosexuality is learned behaviour and it is therefore possible to overcome homosexual identity and leave the homosexual lifestyle. Change is possible and desirable."

Within the frames of religion, the accepted human identity is one that parallels scripture. (some) Religion enforces order in society, and the stories, fables and rules in scripture and teachings demand congruity and conformity in the mortal world. The human world ideally has to be microcosmic of the heavens (and its fables), as however interpreted by the individuals higher up the human-made socio-religious hierarchy. We are expected to replicate the love, benevolence and compassion, and also the structures of power and obedience. These are but political processes built on human interpretations of holy material, deemed by human beings not to be questioned.

In the event of non-conformity, individuality is focused upon and questioned. The problem becomes reduced to the individual, and articulated within the frames of morality, as prescribed by socio-religious authority.

Given the complicity of various sets of norms in determining what constitutes conformity, these offer avenues for validating the belief that non-conformity is the result of wayward individualism. We can see it any way - insanity, sin, wrong influence.

What these do is draw attention away from the structures and logic that result in such an approach. We end up never challenging our continual and uncritical insistence on, among many other things, binary dimorphic (heterosexual) sex. We don't question the motivations, history and circumstances concerning the conference/ascription of "natural" and "right" to certain kinds of behaviours and attitudes.

The "natural" and "right" are but symptoms of political processes and action. How we label the "not normal", "not sane" and "not moral" are symptoms of our social conditioning, and the process of labelling is furthermore a political process.

I believe, to be fascinated with the "not normal", "not sane" and "not moral" is indicative of a curiosity (of varying consciousness') of the ways of the "normal", "sane" and "moral". The identification of the exotic via the process of exoticisation, is a site for questioning the grounds on which the process of exoticisation occurs.

It can go both ways. Some of "us" of study "them", want to know how this study can tell us about "them". But there are those of "us" who study "them" to know how this study can tell us about "us".

Exoticisation is still necessary to not only create sites for counter-discourses, but also to critique the conditions that allow for exoticisation.

Minorities are often guarded and angry at the glares of exoticisation, but these constitute one platform for dialogue, the language of which only understandable to the privileged.

To speak in the language of privileged is in no way indicative of being subjected to the discourse of the privileged. There are sites for negotiation and resistance even within the narratives of the privileged.

Too many doors are closed when different individuals and groups begin rejecting labels, collectives and platforms for discussions deemed only favourable to the privileged. But we forget that the business of change includes not only the identification of and engagement on new sites for negotiation and resistance, but also existing ones inhabited by the privileged majority.

Any way... Back to exoticisation. I feel that if we are in a culture that has lots of fascination with the non-mundane (or exotic), it says something about our diversity and how we construct the mundane. The exotic is a way to looking at the mundane.

So, next time, every time you observe or experience something, and are about to say "That's not right, not natural, not moral!", you can ask the question "What is it about me, my socialisation, culture and sets of beliefs that makes me say such things?"

Same goes for the folks who say, "That's not funny!"

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Society needs education, not the ACJC girls

(Unpublished - Oct 9, 2010)

I refer to the report concerning the toilet-sex video in ACJC.

This throws up many issues in need of addressing.

Firstly, we have to continually emphasise the importance of cyber wellness and warn against abuses of technology. This is a challenge we are already well acquainted with.

Secondly, we need to address two separate but occasionally overlapping issues – teenage affection and same-sex affection. We have to address them with respect to ourselves as we exert influence on them too.

We cannot remain blind to teenage affection. Discouraging or condemning it does not help.

Instead, we should empower our young to be responsible, respectful and body-confident. This is regardless of the nature of affection, opposite or same sex.

As a Singaporean, I am increasingly exasperated when public officials, specialists and experts are quoted to be saying that Singaporeans “are not ready”, or in this case referring to teenage same-sex affection as “something society may not accept yet.”

This rhetoric is an excuse for inactivity, as we let our prejudices and ignorance fester.

This particularly does not help address same-sex affection.

Some of us are held ransom by archaic norms, and duped into believing that affection exclusively belongs to the domain of heterosexual adults.

Some of us are too preoccupied with judging the morality and “naturalness” of others’ actions, that we bankrupt ourselves of the empathy and the opportunity to help the concerned individuals be responsible, safe and confident as they are.

There is thus a disregard for teenage affection and same-sex affection. These domains are trivialised and condemned. Information for wellness and empowerment does not reach the individuals involved.

We cannot ignore, trivialise or condemn teenage relationships and affection.

I believe that education for the young is only a fraction of the problem.

If the rampant ignorance and prejudicial attitudes concerning the young is anything to go by, the rest that is adult Singapore is in dire need of education.

We are too preoccupied with our respective self-righteous plans for ideological domination and homogeneity, that we become blind to and also fearful of changes and challenges to our prejudices.

Psychologists have been reigned in to explain changing phenomena, but I believe it is high time political scientists and sociologists are brought into the picture to reflect on the attitudes and insecurities of an adult population that believes it knows better.

Ho Chi Sam

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Two deaths

I thought I would take a hiatus from blogging, despite the urge to talk about the latest developments in the censorship review committee 2010 report and the government's reaction.

But before I do so. There are more important things to talk about.

Today, I learned about how mortality manifests itself.

In Mrs Lee Kuan Yew, she led a long and I believe fulfilling life, fighting very ill health towards the end of it, and fought no more. She passed away early this evening.

In Mingwei, a stranger to me, but daughter of a man whom I recently got to know, we have an example of how a life can be cruelly and unfairly robbed.

For a non-religious person like myself, there is no further rationalisation. Death means cessation of life.

But what makes death difficult is the emotional bonds and investments we have in one another, forged through relations and interactions. Along the way, sometimes, we empathise.

For me, death is the cessation of suffering. But it is death itself that causes the suffering of others, as each begin his/her respective journey of "dealing with it".

It is our awareness of mortality and the occasional unexpected death(s) that shape our social world. And we rationalise and ritualise accordingly.

Mortality holds ransom the meaning-seeking and meaning-creating human world, but it does not stop most people from being selfish, self-serving, fighting and killing - acts that render an already unequal world even more meaningless.

There is no actually no need to rationalise and ascribe more meanings to connect the dots. But meaning-seeking humans that we all are, cannot help but see dots that require connection - maybe that is how we deal with mortality.

It's times like these that makes me wonder what life is all about. Then again, "life" is the rationalised incarnation of a fact that is mortality and transience.

The problem with life is that it is often defined by its function (e.g. "life goes on") because it is void of form. Even if it did have a form, it would have been saturated with ascriptions of human sense and meaning-making, which in turn serve their humanly functions. But somehow, we feel strongly about defending this.

We fear the eventuality of death and also its unpredictability. All meaning-making gravitate towards these known certainties (eventuality and unpredictability).

It is the certainty of death that we make sense of our mortality. Some of us feel worthless, some of us feel we are holier than others. But what is the point?

I think there is a no point. There is no bottomline. Just a series of priorities we have created for ourselves, from which rules are created for "appropriate" sets of behaviour, sensitivities and opinions.

Isn't it ironic when I speak of rationalising and prioritising for the sake of sense and meaning-making, when I believe that "there are more important things in life" - it constituting the process of prioritisation?

Isn't it ironic when I speak of human beings seeing the world in dots in need of connecting, when I myself rationalise mortality as a common denominator of human beings?

What is real to me, is the emotional investment we have. There is some trust. There is some love. Or a little bit of friendship.

I do not know how you feel as a father. But I feel sad to learn of the tragic news. I hope you and your family will be strong.

As for the Lee family, they are perhaps more prepared for Mrs Lee's passing (but I might be wrong). I feel sad for her husband's and children's loss.