Monday, November 29, 2010

Rationalising our problems

The reaction towards MOE scholar Jonathan Wong’s arrest for child pornography possession is as equally interesting as Wong’s arrest itself.

It would take something really serious in the form of a child pornography crime to alter the rationalisations of many a Singaporean.

From Wong’s case, we are exposed to the schizophrenia that has plagued many a Singaporean whenever they are confronted with different problems and issues. This is however a story compelling enough to flip that switch in the Singaporean psyche, alternating between two forms of rationalisations – the internalisation versus the externalisation of the problem.

When the news of his arrest broke, Singaporeans had a field day rationalising Jonathan Wong.

Some sought to internalise Wong’s problem, associating and reducing it to psychological traits. This is reinforced with news of him having been punished for being a peeping tom.

In reducing and atomising a problem (i.e. psychologically reducing it) to Wong, most we are able to distance ourselves from the “pervert” and “deviant”, as we continue to insist on being normal ourselves.

The internalisation of problems impedes any possible suspicion that problems could have a social nature.

It is a habit well-cultivated in a meritocratic society. With every resource, infrastructure and opportunity created, so too is the illusion that everyone has the same platform to succeed.

Any failure in terms of health, employment and well-being, would be readily rationalised and internalised as an individual failure – laziness, lack of diligence and other traits believed to be confined to the individual. Factors such as policy and society are ignored.

However, it is not that bleak after all. From their assessment and questions, Singaporeans appear to have developed the externalisation aspect of rationalisation.

They are asking questions about policy and the processes that have allowed Wong to slip through the system.

Singaporeans are able to see that Wong is but a unit or a member of socio-political and economic context. He is where and what he is – partly – due to his membership of the processes that also shape us.

It is because we are also involved in the same processes and inhabit the same contexts, we begin to question the institutions and processes with which he has engaged.

These discussions by Singaporeans are an indication that we can see that Wong – the person and the circumstance – is a function of the institution, as much as his behaviour is a function of his personality and psychological well-being.

In raising questions about the scholarship selection processes and whatnot, Singaporeans no longer stifle discussion on and rob attention from the social and political dimensions of the issue. It is just a tragedy that we have to wait for such a crime to be uncovered for us to develop newer perspectives.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mas Selamat saga: Communications management by the government and media

In the wake of the Parliamentary revelations concerning Mas Selamat and his seeking refuge with relatives following his escape from Whitley Road Detention Centre, we see a textbook public relations management executed by the government and the media.

I believe Minister of Law and recently appointed Minister of Home Affairs K Shanmugam handled the situation well and firmly. He also provided the necessary reassurances concerning national security, homeland security and religious and ethnic relations.

It is often rare for this government to act in anticipation, and be proactive rather than reactive. Unless there are serious issues concerning race, religion and political opposition, the approach would often be reactionary.

This time, closely tagged to the accounts of Mas Selamat's relatives harbouring him in a HDB flat in Tampines is the continual reassurance that the actions of his relatives are not representative and cannot be projected onto the Malay-Muslim community.

The mainstream media is also diligent (or careful) enough to report the facts revealed and discussed in Parliament along with the remarks, reassurances and soundbites of prominent religious/faith leaders in the country.

The challenges faced by the government, in this instance, are highly complex and I infer can include the following:

1) Some Non-Malay/Muslim Singaporeans may possibly become suspicious, fearing that there could be Malay-Muslim Singaporeans who "do not know better" and could have the moral capacity to harbour individuals who could pose security threat.

2) Some Malay-Muslim Singaporeans may be thrown into the spotlight again in view of national interest/security versus kinship ties.

3) Some Malay-Muslim Singaporeans may see the act of harbouring a relative in a different moral light.

4) Singaporeans in general might fear being racially profiled.

The last thing the Singaporean government needs is suspicion between the communities, as well as doubt within the Malay-Muslim community concerning their negotiation of their status as citizens of the country and as kin to their respective relatives.

These are very sensitive issues and the state, in the form of K Shanmugam and the Members of Parliament who asked him questions, has not only shared the facts, but also their word of caution and assurance.

The mainstream media too, long charged by Lee Kuan Yew to be integral to "nation-building" however he defined it, did a fairly good job to report in a way that anticipated what a misinformed readership might probably have misread. They had a duty to define the boundaries for "inference", "interpretation" and "imagination" of the escape and refuge.

This concerted communications management by the state and media are aimed at preventing (or minimising) any wild inter-ethnic/religious imaginings communities might have of one another. They do what they can in their control, and the rest is left to society to decide for themselves.

What makes this communications management exercise potentially effective and successful (unless the media becomes oversaturated with "national education" again), is not only how well the message and the medium are well-calibrated and controlled, but appointment of the messenger is crucial.

I cannot imagine Wong Kan Seng saying what K Shanmugam had said. He lived through the fiasco and security failure, and is obviously still disgraced by it. No amount of externalising the problem (saying Singaporeans are "complacent" and bestowing upon us that favourable adjective in the process) can remove the taint.

K Shanmugam, new and also more importantly, non-Chinese, had to very difficult task to deliver the news. The same message carried by an ethnic Chinese man, and all the more a Chinese man who has lost a little bit of respect from some Singaporeans (and most netizens), will be taken differently from that carried by a non-ethnic Chinese man.

Apparently, identity plays a huge role. I believe it would be a little more convincing if an ethnic minority could tell us possibly implications (or not) on ethnic minority communities, rather than a member of the (ethnic) majority saying the same thing. Perhaps, K Shanmugam's ascension to the role of Minister of Home Affairs has been very timely, and highly beneficial to maintaining good and peaceful relations between communities in the country.

Well, we should give credit where it's due. The government and media have done a decent job framing and fencing discussions pertaining to the latest episode of Mas Selamat. It has always been their primary responsibility to ensure peace and security, and they have done the necessary, in my opinion.


It is quite interesting that the latest installment of the Mas Selamat saga has occurred at the same time as the discussions on the "maintenance of parents" bill/act.

We see how issues of the family are being dictated by the state.

The state wants you to take care of your elders.

At the same time, the state expects you to cease when it comes to national security/issues.

Our sense of familial belonging is determined and articulated in terms of the interests of the nation. The state tries to inculcate in us that sense of belonging, telling us how we should love and care for our elders and relatives, telling us that the family is the bedrock/building block of society, yet at the same time tell us these values are secondary to national affairs.

Another paradoxical gem sociologically unearthed...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Furry the rabbit: My first pet

You know, one of the most emotionally draining things you can do is to dig up snapshots of the past. You not only see the younger versions of yourself, your brother and your parents, but also everyone else who have played a role, small and big, in their lives.

As I trudge through 20-plus photo albums, and flipped through those moments as they were in the 80s and 90s, I see the people I know today as they were yesterday, as well as the places that have served as the backdrop for the captured memories.

The photographs also tell me a few things about my parents, not merely as parents, but as individuals living out respective chapters in their lives, of which I was probably too young to understand.

Some of the people in the photographs have now gained weight. Some of them have lost weight.

Almost all of them have gone grey and grown more lines in their faces.

Some of them are no longer living, people and animals.

I dedicate this post to Furry, a wonderful white rabbit we got from the animal farm (in Jalan Kayu) in 1991. We fed her well and she grew pretty big, and probably had to endure the ongoing "rabbit stew" jokes thrown at her.

My mum loved Furry a lot and carried her like a baby. She listened to my mum too and could obey simple instructions like sitting on the stool when my mum had to wash the floor. Furry would follow her wherever she went and stand on her hind legs, begging my mum to pick her up, carry her like a baby and rock her to sleep.

I guess my mum is not only a mother to me and my brother, but also to the animals she has cared for for most of her life.

In 1995, we had to move and could not keep Furry. We had to care it off with my uncle's sisters. We visited her only twice.

In 1997 (or 1998), Furry died of old age.

But Furry lives on. Here she is:

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Of Knives and Child Pornography

It is indeed a frightening scenario when we have individuals and groups – not only youths – carrying knives with them and are not afraid to use them to resolve any differences.

The Singaporean media has done a good job to bring greater awareness to gang-related violence (just like they are actually doing a decent job raising the profile of local athletes for the past 18 months [see Youth Olympic Games]).

A very recent case of a slashing at Ang Mo Kio central, where my friends and I used to occasionally hang out and have dinner, has stoked debate as to whether the sale of knives has to be regulated.

In another case that has contested for our attention, other than the forever-impending General Elections, Jonathan Wong has put Singapore in the limelight for the wrong reasons – possession of child pornography. And suddenly the opinions of psychiatrists and psychologists are emphasised to be really really important (and helpful).

Child pornography is generally socially unacceptable, outright legally wrong, and in most discourses, morally wrong. The media will be milking Jonathan's story for all its worth – bright scholar with dark side *insert puns and wisecracks*. It is a horrible mistake to make, and highly condemnable considering he's playing a role in the problem that is the child pornography trade - driving demand and driving supply for it.

Child pornography is deemed a serious crime (and cybercrime) and we have governments and international agencies (like Interpol) working really hard, spending time and resources to put an end to it.

Consumers of child pornography are heavily punished as a deterrent. The suppliers of child pornography – film-makers, producers, distributors etc. – are also being hunted down to put an end to the exploitation of children. Governments are doing what they can to reevaluate (not change, because “change” is a scary thing for any incumbent) their policies that concern age of consent, and protection of children and minors – however they are defined. At the same time, there are campaigns to educate and empower the relevant stakeholders possibly affected by child pornography.

What the suggested regulation of the sale of knives and the ongoing concerted efforts to tackle child pornography have in common is that while they are aimed at solving an identifiable set of problems we have at hand, they do not spend an equal amount of time and resources (or more) into making changes to the contexts from which these problems derive.

For the suggested regulation of the sale of knives in Singapore, coupled with the stepping up of police patrols, it is indicative of the effort, money and resources being spent into putting an end of gang violence, and possibly gangs (or assemblies) with the capacity for crime and violence.

But is the same amount of effort, money and resources being spent on policies and education to prevent youths from being in the “wrong” company?

An individual would eventually find himself/herself in a gang capable of crime and violence, because of a host of socio-economic issues – lack of or poor parenting, “negative” peer influence, lack of job opportunities, “negative” reinforcement from school environments and authority figures, lack of the presence of or access to “positive” role-models, boredom, disenfranchisement, disillusionment (nothing to live for), etc.

These items exist in the same socio-political and economic realm we inhabit. The privileged have more choices; the not-so-privileged (you don’t have to be financially poor to be one) have fewer choices. Because of certain social circumstances, individuals are coerced into stepping beyond the boundaries of what is legally right.

In view of the abovementioned host of possible reasons for youth criminality/delinquency, it appears that the idea of regulating the sale of knives does not really solve the problem and might be the easy way out for the government to appear to take responsibility to make society a better place.

Singaporeans, after all, do enjoy the occasional “symbolic” gesture, but these moves do not in any way address the socio-economic issues that spawned the problem that is youth delinquency and crime. These moves do not address the policies that have created these the socio-economic issues and allowed them to fester.

If you want to put an end to gangs and gang violence in Singapore, you must do something for the youths (and their families) who would probably find their way into these gangs and into situations of violence.

The same argument goes for child pornography. So much effort is made to track down producers and consumers of child pornography. But is there anything done to improve the socio-economic conditions of children (and their families) such that child pornography will never ever be a consideration for income? For lesser developed countries, I believe the attention and money spent on building schools and infrastructure to improve the lives of children (and their families) should match or exceed the amount invested in enforcement against child pornography.

Child pornography is a problem also related to human trafficking. We may one day put an end to human trafficking and child pornography, but what about the people who would have been affected by or involved in these activities? Will we be spending any money and resources to make sure these people have an opportunity to earn a decent living (free of crime)?

We have to question our perpetual insistence on crime-fighting and open our eyes to the socio-political and economic conditions that have coerced individuals, families and groups into “crime” itself. Crime, more than just a pathological implication in most cases, should also be seriously considered a symptom, in Singapore’s case, of rapid ubranisation/modernisation, policy, turbulent economy, higher cost of living, faster pace of life, you get the drift.

Standing and fighting against a symptom is much easier than fighting to change the conditions from which the symptom manifests.

People are in situations they are in not solely because they are just lazy or crazy, but because they also find themselves coerced by the social, political and economic conditions they inhabit to do what they do. There are a host of reasons worthy of attention, and we cannot take the easy way out and solve just one problem.

Enforcement is often not in tandem with policy and the law, which is forgivable, given that we are in a situation in which policy and law appear to be inadequate, ill-informed and misdirected. An equal amount of effort and resources should be invested in tackling violence and child pornography, as well as helping the affected parties who would have found their way into these.


I recently read an interesting story in The New Paper about a cinemagoer (it’s recognised as ONE WORD, can you believe it?) who got punched. The police have classified this as a non-seizable offence, and the victim of the punch had wasted a lot of time pursuing the matter, filing a magistrate’s complaint and so on. This is not a new problem. Singaporeans have been discussing this for years, but nothing is being done about it. Perhaps we can vote in individuals and parties that would actually do something about it?

The law is just, but there are far too many impediments to justice – time, money for lawyers and the many processes to seeking justice.

Vandals get arrested and possibly fined, jailed and caned even though they have caused no harm to any human being.

A person who verbally threatens someone else can end up in jail. You say things to insult the modesty of a woman, you could be fined and/or jailed.

But when a woman slaps you, you have to file a magistrate’s complaint and there might be no justice done for the assaulted.

When a guy gets punched in the cinema, nothing happens, because it is a non-seizable offence. The police cannot protect the victim as they cannot arrest the assailant. In most cases, the aggrieved have to file a magistrate’s complaint or seek civil action – and it is not guaranteed that there will be justice.

So why are we spending money and resources to protect property and not human beings?

Another issue I have with acts of violence that end up labelled as non-seizable offences, is that it coerces people to take matters into their own hands. For instance, retaliation (whether it constitutes self-defence or not).

What about victims of violence (no broken bones = non-seizable offence) who are too poor to afford a lawyer, or not savvy enough to pursue justice? Will the police help them?

It is a double whammy if a victim of violence is left alone to seek redress. Anyway, most victims (as reported in papers) have been men.

When victims of violence act in self-defence, both the assailant and victim can be arrested for a variety of reasons, including rioting. What the fuck is going on?

We are only too reactive. We need to wait for broken bones, serious injuries and death to take action. It will be too late.

This is all the more why Singaporeans should stay out of trouble and never get involved with anything. We just accept our fates like the guy who got punched in the cinema – helpless and resigned to our fates.

If I were to ever find myself in a situation where I am being or would be assaulted (without weapons), I would also consider retaliating because I know there might not be justice. Eye gouge, fishhook, finger breaks, groin kicks, rib stomps (if assailant is down but trying to escape, but don’t break any bones because that would be a seizable offence!), chokes, etc. Sometimes, you have to be a hero for yourself.

What if your loved ones are being assaulted or threatened? Call the police first. And then do the necessary – subdue the assailant or fight. Because you will never know if the police would rub salt into your wounds when they classify the case as non-seizable and tell you to file a magistrate’s report.

Don’t blame the layperson for having insufficient knowledge of the law. Do something about the law itself.

Until something is done to lower the legal tolerance for violence and assault in Singapore, justice for you is the pain you should be inflicting on your assailant because you yourself are going to get hurt any way. We’re all symptoms of imperfect economies and political systems.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Intellectual Property Trolling?

I hate to quote the website Temasek Review but once in a while, they do raise certain issues worth debating.

I refer to a case in which local website, a site that provides information and support for unemployed Singaporeans, received a notice from Singapore Press Holdings demanding payment for what the latter alleged to be copyright infringement.

The same thing happened to another party, an online forum for cyclists, the JoyRiders forum (

The and Singapore Press Holdings story may be accessed here: (see? I linked to Temasek Review, something they had not done for the two blog articles they took from me without permission and backlinking, but that's another tale of copyright infringement altogether because my concern was more of proper attribution and acknowledgement).

Before we all get heated under the collar with respect to a story of a big fish eating a small fish, we need to understand what on earth intellectual property is all about.

Not many Singaporeans know what intellectual property is, let alone intellectual property rights and defences against intellectual property infringement. I'm one of them. I AM NOT AN EXPERT! PLEASE CORRECT ME IF I AM WRONG. Thanks!

Layperson users (or unwitting "reproducers") of intellectual property know very little, and so too do some businesses, who appear to leverage on intellectual property laws and our lack of knowledge of it to demand payment for what are perceived as acts of infringement.

Intellectual property rights and law are a symptom of capitalism, and emerged with a view to ensure the exclusivity (often commercial in nature) of original creations, expressions and works.

Intellectual property education is often a romanticised articulation of the need to protect the artist/creator and his/her livelihood, but in actual fact, serves a bigger purpose for the distributors and other exclusive licensees who bought the work/property and want to milk it for its commercial worth. My two cents.

It should be noted (and with reasonable suspicion) that our government, among many other governments, has been investing a lot of time and resources in protecting intellectual property rights and enforcing intellectual property laws. That is public money we are talking about. But there is always this pressure on governments who sign free trade agreements with the United States, or join some international organisation like WTO and World Bank, and are pressured to comply with prevailing intellectual property norms (obviously informed by the standards determined by the United States - big brother or bully?)

What sickens me is that businesses now are looking to intellectual property as a source for revenue. Two cases come to mind - and ODEX.

Streetdirectory has served letters to individuals and companies that reproduce screenshots or copied-and-pasted maps on their websites. This is because these parties have been alleged to have infringed the copyright of Streetdirectory. When many folks get that letter of accusation and demand for payment, they quake in their boots and do the Singaporean thing - stay out of trouble and pay the man.

ODEX served letters too, to individuals whose IP addresses have been detected by their own private investigator (privacy breach, any one?). ODEX then wrote to various Internet Service Providers in SingNet, Starhub and Pacific Net, demanding them to dishonour the privacy agreement with their subscribers and surrender user information to them in view of "intellectual property infringement". The ISPs that were the most "cooperative" complied without questioning the legality of ODEX's demands as well as the legal context of ODEX's business and intellectual property infringement claims.

In Streetdirectory's case, their license from Singapore Land Authority (was that the correct public organisation? Please correct me if I'm wrong) had already expired. Being a licensee does not make you the owner of the copyright, but they acted like one, and it was not as if they created original work or did anything with the maps that would fall under "compilation" (a defence against copyright infringement).

Same case for ODEX. Being a licensee - heck they weren't even the exclusive licensee - for anime did not grant them the full copyright of the anime that have been shared among various users without legitimate purchase.

But ODEX had an edge over the users it tried to demand compensation from. The people at ODEX knew just a little more about intellectual property rights than the people they (pur)sued. Being Singaporean and not wanting trouble, some of the users gave in and paid in the thousands to ODEX.

To be fair to ODEX, it was due to illegal sharing and downloads, that it adversely affected their business (i.e. business of selling and distribution). So this is one condition for an act to constitute copyright infringement. But, again, ODEX was not the owner nor exclusive licensee of the anime they distribute, even though they acted like one and got away with it. The creators/authors of the anime should be the ones pursuing the parties who have illegally distributed the anime.

According to my interpretation of the intellectual property law in Singapore, an act will constitute copyright infringement if it fulfills the following conditions, among others:

1) The act was committed without the permission of the copyright owner
2) Improper attribution in which there was little or nor acknowledge, or that the work has been passed off as the work of another party
3) The act has to affect the commerciality of the work (i.e. an act causing the owner of the work to lose business)
4) The act was committed for the purpose of commercial gain

These are my layperson understanding of the law. I am in the belief that the lack of permission alone cannot constitute infringement, but judging by the actions of different organisations over the years (and them getting away with it), it is not the case.

There are also defences, 3 of which has come to mind:
1) Fair comment (i.e. the reproduction is for research, criticism, commentary)
2) Fair dealing
3) Public interest

Well, more can be accessed here

I fear the worst when a news organisation starts investing time and resources in a competency deviating from its core business objective, just to look for websites that are allegedly infringing their copyright, such that in the case of and JoyRiders, they had demanded payment of "licensing fees" and "investigation fees".

In the case of, a non-profit portal aimed at helping unemployed Singaporeans, I believe the reproduction of one Straits Times article was made with commentary, and in public interest. However, the news organisation, based on a single condition for copyright infringement (i.e. acting without permission), believed it had a case against the website and thus sent the site a letter demanding payment.

The law says one thing. But big organisations are doing another, or are they not? How do we know?

In allowing a large news organisation to make demands and claim payment for alleged copyright infringements, are we sending a signal that, in spite of the law, only one condition is needed to be fulfilled (i.e. acting without owner's permission) for an act to constitute copyright infringement?

Is this permissible? If so, what's the point of listing defences, limitations, fair use, fair dealing articles in the law? What purpose, if at all, do they serve, if large organisations continue to make demands and claim payment from parties that have only "acted without permission" but have not fulfilled the other conditions necessary for an act to wholly constitute a copyright infringement.

Seriously, what is the point of putting in exceptions and defences if the law allows private organisations to determine that an act constitutes copyright infringement based solely on the fact that no permission was sought (amidst all other necessary conditions)?

Is the action of accusing another party of copyright infringement (even though not all the conditions are met) and concurrently demanding payment, a legal action?

Are the terms and conditions (pertaining to copyright) designed by the news organisation legal and in harmony with Singapore's intellectual property laws?

The act of reproduction on, cannot logically and reasonable cause a substantial drop in newspaper subscription. Moreover, reproduction often occurs at least a day after the publication and distribution of the newspaper. And in the age of new media, that is a long time, and hence a reproduction can never be in a position to undermine subscription of a newspaper, because people have access to newspapers first (just like the reproducer of the article) before actually accessing the reproduction. A reproduction logically cannot precede publication!

Moreover, declining subscriptions cannot be solely attributed to even a website that reproduces a couple of articles on an irregular basis. These exist in a context of changing media usage habits and consumption/demand for news. The condition for copyright infringement that requires the act to affect the commerciality of the work is not and cannot be fulfilled in this case. also provides commentary and allows for visitors to share their views and criticisms. Can the act of reproduction of a news article then constitute copyright infringement? I think not.

In the case of JoyRiders, they faced the biggest slap in the face. A reporter interviewed them and published an article featuring them. The article was reproduced on the forum and Singapore Press Holdings subsequently sent them a letter demanding payment for alleged copyright infringement.

I believe JoyRiders and have not earned a single cent while making these "reproductions", and moreover, "reproduced" these articles for the sake of debate amongst a closed and familiar group of people.

The Intellectual Property Office of Singapore is unfortunately merely an administrator that feels no obligation to educate Singaporeans against intellectual property trolling and similarly related issues, as we have seen the instances I have mentioned. I also wonder if the Media Development Authority and Infocomm Development Authority have materials to educate Singaporeans on intellectual property trolling.

I believe even the enforcers of the law that is the police, might prefer to leave such cases to the copyright owners and alleged "infringers" and settle their differences in the civil court.

The law is there. But enforcement isn't really there, because the state believes intellectual property issues are best left to private organisations and the civil court. I believe we need the involvement of the state to ensure that private/business practices are in harmony with intellectual property laws of the land.

I feel there is a need for the administrators and enforcers of intellectual property rights to continually examine the practices of large organisations that border on suspicion of intellectual property trolling, or thuggery, or anything along those lines.

Who can the small fish turn to if no authority wants to help or intervene? And because of this, intellectual property is left to the better lawyers and the big players will always get the better lawyers.

This is obviously a matter of public interest, as many people and businesses are already featuring reproductions of news articles by the Singapore Press Holdings. From websites to hawker stalls, they proudly display to others what the press has covered about them.

In addition, what makes something a legal wrong, does not mean it is ethically wrong too. The act of reproduction exists in a context in which Singapore Press Holdings enjoys substantial market control (almost a monopoly). People still rely on their newspapers for news. It is not as if the laminated reproduction of a quarter page article of a hawker stall, pasted on the stalls window, can threaten or injure the commerciality of the organisation. In fact, the act of reproducing articles as a badge of mainstream media endorsement is indicative that people hold the newspaper in high regard and treat it as a credible source for information.

There are whispers in the wind the news organisation has affiliations and informal relations with people in power, but that does not make it holier or saintlier.

Netizens should be concerned about this matter too, because news articles from Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp are regularly reproduced, but for the sake of commentary, criticism and invitation for discussion (defences against intellectual property infringement).

If this continues without state intervention, and considering the advent of new media, social media and word-of-mouth marketing, businesses, merchants and interest groups may decide someday that certain news organisations are no longer worth their time.

If there are instances of intellectual property trolling (or activities that hint at that), what can the government do to protect Singaporeans?


In the end, I still know nothing about intellectual property law. Sad la.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Teen's murder sickening and deplorable

(Unpublished - Nov 3, 2010)

I learn with disgust Darren Ng Wei Jie's tragic death following an attack by a group of youths at Downtown East.

What was done to Darren is sickening and deplorable.

Several issues have gained greater scrutiny in the wake of the fatal attack. These include, among others, gang violence, youth delinquency and the lack of proper parenting.

Confrontations and altercations stemming from staring incidents are nothing new here. These often escalate when there are more individuals involved.

We need to address these issues in the context of a rapidly changing Singapore. We have to understand the context in which gang aggression and youth aggression are manifested, rather than looking at these items in isolation.

We require more than just education and healthy attention for youths, but also policies and initiatives to ensure they live and grow in environments that foster a healthy sense of social consciousness.

There has to be greater effort from various stakeholders to create positive and nurturing environments for our youths, such that they learn that violence is never a solution to anything.

The law may exercise zero tolerance on gang violence, but it is also up to policy-makers and the public to address the social and economic issues and conditions in which gang violence takes place.

There are worth addressing social and economic dimensions to the reality that some youths appear to have nothing to live for and are thus emboldened in groups and in resolve when committing an act of violence. Why and how are they disconnected and disenfranchised?

Be it the issue of youth violence, juvenile delinquency, gang violence, among others, we have to address these issues in the contexts they exist.

Darren's case is most tragic and unfortunate.

Given the nature of an armed attack, the public could do nothing but alert the authorities, or risk being harmed themselves.

Prevention is key, and this does not merely involve stepping up law enforcement; we need education, policies and initiatives to foster a peaceful society.

We can no longer take a reactive approach to gang violence or violence of any other kind because we do not deserve another unnecessary death after Darren's.

I wish to express my condolences to Darren's family and friends.

Ho Chi Sam

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Defending what's (y)ours: Alice in SAF Wonderland

I can't quite recall if I have already written such a post about masculinity in the army, but figured it would be nice to talk about the masculinist eco-system that is the SAF.

I am more than half-way through my 10-year reservist cycle with the Singapore Armed Forces. My enthusiastic "can do" spirit in camp betrays my great reluctance to serve. I am a "best soldier" award winner in reservist (and also during my full-time nation service stint), but everyone knows I don't believe in conscription and reservist, plus all the mindlessness and inefficiencies that have come to characterise my personal experiences in the organisation.

Unfortunately, as a Singaporean void of certain rights and liberties, I have no other choice but to serve. Sanctions and imprisonment await those who choose not to serve. So I serve out of fear of punishment, rather than the perceived primary reasons that are love and loyalty for country (of which 60-70% are Singaporeans, and that's what we're fighting for?).

However, it is in the deepest and darkest recesses of oppression that we sometimes locate some potential for negotiation (or resistance). Hence, my giving my all in camp during reservist training is perhaps itself an articulation of my disagreement with MINDEF and the SAF.

On a personal note, I am extremely saddened that while I could sacrifice 2 weeks of my time as a full-time student (and part-time teaching assistant) to serve the nation last year, MINDEF is unwilling to commit to paying 2 weeks of my school fees in the event I could not finish my course in time and have to extend my study without scholarship. Hard to say it's water under the bridge, but I feel MINDEF and SAF are less than genuine when it comes to a number like myself.

All MINDEF can say is that it "appreciates" an NSman like myself pursuing higher education. When asked to substantiate their "appreciation" by chipping in for my course (in the event I could not finish it on time), my value as a Singaporean soldier is made known. $0. It is a struggle to respectfully disagree with somebody or some body that does not respect you, but I have found a way to do so (and it involves accepting one's "fate").

I have always ensured I carried out orders given to me, be punctual if not early for every appointment, and even given suggestions to my higher-ups so that processes in the unit can be improved. In fact, I even volunteered for most if not every assignment, even if it was beyond my jobscope. These still betray my true feelings for the organisation and its compassionless policies. This is my way to respectfully disagreeing with the organisation.

On a lighter note, I always saw myself as Alice in the Wonderland that is the Singapore Armed Forces. The SAF will always deploy that peculiar rabbit (which is the notice to serve) every once in a while to all the Alice's in Singapore, and lead them into the hole in the ground. After getting into this hole, in which mobile phones with cameras are banned, Alice is taken into a weird universe where things are not what they seem. That is the SAF - an alternate universe with its own laws.

Speaking of mobile phone with cameras, I have always believed that the ban on these devices are more of a public relations management strategy rather than a security control. Perhaps the organisation cannot deal with potential embarrassments of their image. And we all know that uniform organisations are very obsessed with image. Moreover, we have "Asian" roots in which image and face are quite important entities too. Throw in a bit of unstable (hyper)masculinity issues, we have a highly insecure organisation obsessed with looking good.

I guess looking good wins half the battle. You wouldn't want embarrassing situations, or instances of abuse in the army to be caught on camera/video, would you? You would not want the celebration of poor English and the generous displays of from-da-'hood hypermasculinity to be known everyone else, would you?

In this Wonderland, people seem to be perpetually stuck in their routines, entrenched in a certain way of thinking that has come to characterise this nature of this universe. They get about their lives unperturbed by and unreflective of their idosyncracies.

Wonderland is another dimension altogether, where carts pull the horses and when water flows from low to high grounds.

With the fears of punishment looming over everyone's head, there is a special strong sense of responsibility imbued in each individual, a sense of responsibility to cover one's backside. To be honest, we all have a backside-covering side to us in most jobs we do.

Thus, generosity and compassion are values not well embraced in this Wonderland, because they involve initiative. Taking the initiative requires taking on more responsibility, and that is not a favourable position to be in for many individuals in this Wonderland.

It makes Alice wonder if it is in the nature of all inhabitants and tourists in Wonderland, or that Wonderland itself nurtures such derriere-covering behaviour and attitude.

Similar to observations of masculinist Western Enlightenment philosophy in planet Earth, Wonderland also displays philosophical symptoms of the attempt to separate mind from body. In fact, Wonderland achieves this dualistic separation. The mind is totally flushed out of the body. Who needs a mind when you just need a compliant body?

Wonderland is also all "male". And the men in Wonderland are very eager to reinforce their masculinity too. Sissy is out, butch is in - it is as if being butch makes processes quicker. To look the part, you have to act the part.

On donning the green, men become more uncouth, their walk becomes a swagger with freely swinging arms, their English more broken, their Hokkien louder, their sexism, misogyny and homophobia a lot more pungent - these are the beacons of hypermasculine performativity. To convince others of your point, you use not reason but the volume of your voice. You mangle your pronunciation of most English words because you would want to portray yourself as a tough guy who has paid his dues.

Everyone wants to let everyone else know they are a man, world-savvy, street-smart, the been-there-done-that kind. This is part of the series of transformations Alice undergoes as she descends into the madness that is Wonderland. In the same egotistical vein of comparing penis lengths, men grunt about how they have seen the "world" or the "real world", and try to make the other person(s) feel a need to actually listen to them by showing them their boy scout badges of life's experience.

It is however a great paradox that in cutting the image of a world-savvy, street-smart, been-there-done-that kind of man, Alice has a homophobic side to contend with. "Ee-yur, dowan to get to close to the Ah Kwa. Sekali get molested." Such a paradox for a solider who is prepared to die for his country, yet harbours the irrational fear and hatred of issues of which he is not well-informed. Being "man" and masculine has its paradoxes and limitations.

Wonderland is full of sexual wonders too. As all the Alice's often talk about their girlfriends and wives (to emphasise their heterosexuality at the same time), some with fondness, others with lust and objectification that would make even the least serious feminist go "Wah lau! Not funny!"

It is as if Wonderland has its own native language when all its inhabitants plus Alice centre their communications on the phallus - the cock/lanjiao being the central logogram of the native language of wonderland.

"Lan jiao!!!"
"Die cock standing"
"Kum lan"
"Very cock"

etc. You probably have seen it all.

This is very much similar to adding a "la" or "lor" just to sound Singaporean. You just have to add in allegories of penises in order to be understood in Wonderland. Do remove articles such as "a", "an" and "the" from your speech too. Communication in Wonderland is short, and often grunted rather than spoken. It's all about getting to the cock of the situation, I mean crux.

In Wonderland, obsessively centering the phallus in one's communication is crucial to being recognised as a heterosexual masculine man. However, on planet Earth, doing the same would yield substantial suspicion of one's sexuality, a situation any Wonderlander will be quick to avoid. There is also a celebration of muscle and a kind of homosociality that would otherwise been suspiciously homosexual in Planet Earth.

I guess Alice will never be the same when he returns to Planet Earth, carrying with him shades of the habits and idiosyncracies of Wonderland. And when Alice returns to Wonderland every now and then, he will still see the same characters, set about in their respective routines.

In entering Wonderland, Alice comes of age as he learns to come to terms with the mindlessness of Wonderland. In a way, Wonderland is an escape from an equally cruel and mindless Planet Earth, providing lessons and skills, other than numbing one's mind.

Wonderland teaches you to be selfish, dishonest, cover your butt and also kiss the butts of others - valuable skills to surviving Planet Earth. And sometimes one wonders if Wonderland is a function of Singapore and how it functions, or the other way around.

All of us Alices will never understand Wonderland. Our stay is temporary. We only learn to blend in, but never really partake in the madness of this realm.

This Alice will not return to Wonderland any time soon, but that is not until the rabbit calls him into the hole again.

Sometimes, there's no doubt Wonderland is still an interesting place.


With regards to the recent egg on the government face, in which one guy at a Ministerial Forum (was it?) said he did not know what he was fighting for, I feel the same way.

But I know what we are fighting for.

We are fighting to ensure Singapore is safe from international threats (because we can be quite a prick sometimes to our neighbours) and substate/nonstate threats (in view of our buddy-buddy relations with the United States even though we often denounce Western values to justify our political ways - +1 on the prick meter).

We are fighting to allow this government to perpetuate greater social inequalities with policies that are primarily oriented towards fulfilling economic KPIs, never mind their social ramifications.

We are fighting to ensure security in Singapore, so that Ministers can earn their millions.

We are fighting to sustain a kind of economic stability which would allow for rising cost of living.

We are fighting to protect those who do not have a sense of belonging here, as well as their families. But they are necessary for our economic growth, any way. Who cares about the social ramifications any way? There's no such thing about KPIs for the social development (discounting the numericising of babies).

We are fighting to protect the constitution, even though most of us do not know its contents, and even though some of our statutory laws are questionable on constitutional grounds but nothing is being done about them.

We are fighting to preserve the artificial symbols of "share values" and other items we are made to believe we have in common when we do not.

We are fighting so that we do not get punished for not fighting, and lose our jobs, and be in a position in which we are unable to pay for our loans and bills.

That explains why we are fighting to "protect" our "home", because "home" is really costly. We have to follow orders and fight, so that we would be in a safer position to spend the rest of our able-bodied lives paying for our "home". Being blacklisted or going to jail will rock that rice bowl of yours any way, and it is best to just do what the government wants you to do, or rather, not do what they don't want you to do.

See, there are many things we are fighting for. So I don't know what this student is talking about.


Any way, it is highly ironic that we live in a world in which peace is articulated in terms of arms and defence. Peace has to be defended with ideologies and technologies of violence. Sad la.