Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ker-Yu's "Common Decency"

The Straits Times, faced with decreasing readership (don't worry, I'm still a subscriber), can always bank on a few things to ensure a glimmer of hope for survival in changing media landscape.

Other than it being almost a monopoly of the English daily market (hence the boast of being the most widely read English daily. Hey, one out of one is still one), it has the propensity to publish flame baits of letters from members of the public.

I refer to latest letter by Ong Ker-Yu. She writes:

I am writing to request the removal of an indecent, giant poster plastered across the new Knightsbridge mall building along Orchard Road.

It not only makes no sense as an advertisement for a clothing brand (the man in it has virtually no clothes on), but it is also plain lewd.

A girl gets berated for letting slip the F-word in a speech ('NTU regrets use of expletive during speech'; Aug 1), but it is all right to plaster the giant picture highlighting a part of the male anatomy that should remain private, on the busiest shopping stretch on the island!

I have stood at the crossing between Ngee Ann City and Paragon watching passers-by as they catch sight of it, and every single person I have noticed has either looked away quickly, in what can only be embarrassment, or pointed it out to a friend for a quick giggle.

And let me pre-empt the usual counter eagerly dismissing Singaporeans for being so 'sexually repressed' as to tear it down.

This is a matter of common decency, plain and simple.

I will categorically and unequivocally state that Ong Ker-Yu is a jerk, plain and simple, and I am fine if there isn't any consensus on that.

I only respect her statement that she feels the advertisement is "plain lewd". That is her opinion, and that is fair enough. She further provides an assessment derived from her non-participant observation qualitative research to justify her statement. Fair enough, as she was in fact sharing her opinion.

But the statement that pisses me off the most is the last one "This is a matter of common decency, plain and simple".

Maybe the editors might have done some corrections, but I will assume with such a flame bait oozing utter selfishness and self-righteousness, its pristine form would not have been desecrated by the Straits Times.

There are people who fear their opinion alone cannot change things (to change the world and shape it in a way that's in line with their subscribed ideology would be the "common" scenario because it's rather rational to live comfortably without much opposition, right? Ask Lee Kuan Yew). And they eventually resort to the atomisation and simplification of diverse society, stuff their imperialist supremacist ideological catchphrases into every orifice of its, make the eventual proclamation of universality (it's good to show that your beliefs and views are aligned with yours idea of universalism).

It is a fair approach to discuss the limitations and implications of an issue, but Ker-Yu's sweeping statement is "plainly and simply" contrary to that. At least moral crusaders will hide behind their fragile idea of what the institution of children and family should be, and terrorise us with their "think about the children" rhetoric.

It is not about sexual repression, a point well and critically thought through by a possibly well-educated Ker-Yu, but about what I read to be the selfishness and arrogance in her concluding statement.

It is universalist claims like hers that further divide society, privileging those who happen to fall under the same ideological specifications as the claims, and marginalising the rest who may happen to have, in the case of the advertisement, a different opinion, morally and aesthetically.

The male form is often observed to be more offensive than the female form (historically too, due to physicality and sexual violence), hence (and ironically) the greater attention on how male bodies are to be presented, while gratuitous sexualisation of female bodies remain the default in our society. Even renowned self-righteous George Lim Heng Chye looked at boys and penises and wrote about them in his famous letters to the Straits Times. I'm probably more conservative than him and wouldn't do such a thing in my forum letters.

Coming back to Ker-Yu. I believe she probably represents a segment of Singaporean society, ready to assume and embrace the role of the moral police, because any one can safely assume she would be the among the "good guys" (sorry, can't find a gender neutral term.. "folks"?).

This is where educated people become divided. Some abuse their privileges to further their ideological cause or, often times, the cause of the socio-religious groups of which they are members, at the expense of people who have other beliefs. It is all about creating a bigger space for comfort, and arming yourself with people who think like you, so you can conquer and colonise the minds of others who don't.

Perhaps it is far too deep a reading into Ker-Yu's letter, but it has made me angry enough. I feel misrepresented and insulted every time someone publicly expresses a point of view and passes it off as universal or as part of the "majority".

In short, if you have a problem with something, say it in a personal capacity first and foremost. When you respect your boundaries, and the boundaries that separate you from people who may think differently from you, people will respect you for that.

You can have the right to be sexually repressed (if so), but your self-righteousness is more in my face than the advertisement is in your face. Not cool.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ivan Lau's Agend(er): Transphobia

As expected, a George Lim Heng Chye-ish self-righteous moral imperialist has to invoke his politically privileged position as the good responsible parent, in the form of Ivan Lau has a letter on cross-dressing bit at the National Day Parade 2011 published.

Here's his letter, titled "Drag wrong, guys", at the sensationalist inspiration of the editor (but I won't go any further on that or he'll boycott my letters, if they already haven't).

Watching the National Day Parade is a family affair for many Singaporeans. This year was no different for my family.

There was an impressive display from our national defence troops. Children from different schools as well as volunteers from various organisations put up a great performance, as was the fireworks display.

However, as a parent of three young children, I question the appropriateness of cross-dressing in the segment on racial harmony and nation building.

Prominent male comedian Gurmit Singh, known to young audiences in his role as a male alien in the television series Cosmo & George that airs on Okto, was sari-clad as an Indian woman.

Talented male actor Chua Enlai, known to children as a male host of many programmes on Okto, was dressed as a young, modern woman.

Was such casting necessary in the context of portraying racial harmony and nation building on national television? Or was it the organising committee's intention to portray harmony of another kind, namely that of transgender or transsexuality? It that was the intent, then the show should had been more aptly rated NC-16.

Ivan Lau

Transgender/transsexual harmony? Seriously? Just because Gurmit and Enlai cross-dressed? ...

Oh wait, we are talking about self-professed morally upright folks who are probably both transphobic and ignorant, hence the conflation of transgender, transsexuality and cross-dressing.

The fact the Straits Times and Singapore Press Holdings published this, further casts in stone this erroneous mix-up.

There are people who are trying very hard to educate Singaporeans about the differences and the implications of holding such ignorant beliefs/myths about transgendered persons.

Just because some guy who wears the hat and invokes the imagery of a concerned parent who wants to make a stand and be responsible, and shares his insecurities and transphobia (or rather hide them behind his children) with the dwindling readership of the Straits Times does not mean falsities like that can be perpetuated without a proper dialogue.

When Ivan Lau writes like that and goes unchallenged in a public domain that already does not treat transgendered and transsexual Singaporeans with equal dignity and respect as their cisgendered counterparts, it creates the impression that cross-dressing (itself a thing not to be taken seriously thanks to its presence in the domains of entertainment) can be conflated with transgender and transsexuality.

If we follow the parenting of Ivan Lau, I guess we all should close our minds, be stubborn, bigoted and tell our kids to impose their own ideas of right and wrong onto others. Don't only stop there, just associate bad things, things we don't really know much about with people who we feel and label are different from us.

I wrote a letter in response to the Straits Times Forum, but unfortunately was not published. Thankfully Leona Lo's letter was, even though it was rather short. Not sure if the editor had done some editing (it was indeed short, according to Leona). By the looks of the title "Crossfire over cross-dressing", it seems he has.

Here's Leona's response to Ivan:

Mr Ivan Lau suggested MediaCorp should have given the National Day Parade segment on racial harmony and nation building an NC-16 rating as it featured cross-dressing actors Gurmit Singh and Chua Enlai ("Drag wrong, guys"; Thursday).

Transgender and transsexual women are not cross-dressers. Neither do we enjoy being spoofed on national television. Rather than give us an NC-16 rating so as to keep us out of his children's sight, we would advise the writer to give them a lesson in respect and tolerance instead.

Leona Lo (Ms)

There are different views on transgender, held by different persons.

To use the term "transgender" loosely, cross-dressing is a form of transgender identity and behaviour (not behaviour alone). It is an identity that exists in a certain context.

Earlier scientists saw cross-dressing in the medical and psychiatric context, as pathological. Hence the term transvestism. Some believed that cross-dressing is fetishistic, and that transvestites derived pleasure.

In this view, to be break it down scientifically (and to dangerously simplify it), the form is cross-dressing, but it is medicalised as transvestism, and its function is to personally derive pleasure from it. Therefore, it is pathological, and it is believed to be curable, or can be rehabilitated to normalcy, whatever the institution of medicine decides to be "normal".

Here's another perspective, cross-dressing does not only exist in the medical domain, but also in the domain of entertainment. Here, we have drag. In the domain of the theatre or performance platform, we get people who imitate and mimic the manerisms and dressings of a gender that do not correspond with their physical sex, for the sake of entertainment. Same form, but different function.

This is also considered by some as an art form, which attempts to incite one to see the imitative nature of gender. Art does question. Again, same transgenderal form, but different function.

See the myriad of perspectives?

In other more damning perspectives, there are people (HELLO Ivan Lau!!!) who label pre-operative and non-operative transsexuals as transvestites (crazy, fetishistic, obsessive masturbatory ones at least) and/or cross-dressers because their mannerisms and dressing do not correspond with their physical sex (anatomical sex, normally) as how the tyrannical majority would have want.

A non-correspondence and "misalignment" of gender (mannerisms, dressing) and sex (penis/vagina, breast, etc.) is thus either wrong, unnatural, sinful, crazy or any of the combinations.

In the minds of ignorant self-righteous bigots, what is eternalised as wrong can be righted, what is unnatural can be punished and destroyed, what is sinful can be rehabilitated, what is crazy can be reinstitutionalised. Because these assholes hold very close and dear to their hearts the very flimsy fragile idea that gender and sex are the same thing and are essentialised. It does not help that socio-religious institutions and mechanisms are in place, and continually and uncritically defended by the state, that subscribers to this hegemonic and imperialist ideology think they will also be in the "right".

As written, I have shown only a few of the many different perspectives on transgender and in particular cross-dressing. Do note there are further positions on these, some viewing these positions as mutually exclusive heterogeneous entities, some don't. (If I had to put myself into one, I belong to the latter).

I disagree with the way transgender has been shown to Singaporeans. One common form is drag on mainstream television. It implies we can never take transgender people seriously, and we can laugh at them.

At the same time, transgender visibility has to start somewhere. For instance, heterosexual male-to-female post-operative transsexual women have attained visibility before their female-to-male counterparts, or their homosexual or bisexual male-to-female post-operative counterparts.

Their visibility is also steeped in a history of "Ah Kua" shows and the sex trade, and associated with drag and entertainment. To me, the visibility is a blessing as well as a curse.

On the other hand, I feel it is necessary to have cross-dressing as an art form, to continually remind us (above entertainment), that gender is imitative. This, according to some transgender studies scholars, is a dangerous position as the position appears to make us of transgender individuals and their lived daily realities as a selfish academic pursuit to prove the arbitrariness of gender, an outcome that does not help to improve the well-being of transgender people.

Still, I believe that these two positions, while at tension, do not in any way aim to belittle or atomise transgender realities, in the way Ivan Lau has done.

We may associate with or distance ourselves from particular types (to assume there are salient categorisable groups) of transgender, because we do so in a country that is full of ignorance and transphobia, which in turn hurt the livelihood, well-being and lives of individuals whom we have the audacity to label as "different".

Since the Straits Times has made the choice to publish Ivan Lau's letter, I hope they will have the social consciousness and journalistic diligence to continually educate Singaporeans on transgender issues and address the hurtful myths and transphobia. I thought the newspapers are to play a role in nation-building? The publishing of such a letter belittles and ostracises our transgendered citizens!

Well, here's my unpublished letter:

I refer to Mr Ivan Lau's letter "Drag wrong, guys" (11 Aug 2011).

In an effort to be a responsible parent, Mr Lau has questioned the use of drag at the recent National Day Parade. I disagree with him and do not condone his views.

First, drag for entertainment and comedic purposes, is not new to Singaporeans as artiste Jack Neo has endeared us to his Liang Po Po and Liang Si Mei characters on prime time television. Perhaps Mr Lau may want to consider reserving his slithery mixture of praise and criticism for Jack Neo too. What about Robin William's Mrs Doubtfire or Martin Lawrence's Big Mama's House, movies that have made many families laugh?

Second, I take issue with Mr Lau's transphobia and ignorance. Is he suggesting that transgender persons have no role to play in Singapore? As far as I know, Gurmit Singh and Chua Enlai do not have sexual reassignment surgery, thus rendering Mr Lau's insinuation of "transsexual" harmony a ludicrous overreaction. The fact that these two have made people laugh is a testament of their talents.

Third, as the context in which cross-dressing takes place in Singapore is often in the domain of entertainment, many like Mr Lau fail to see that it is an art form. Art serves different purposes to society, not only providing us with entertainment, but also social commentary and an opportunity to reflect on our lived daily realities.

Fourth, it is a common strategy to identity oneself as a parent to lend more weight to one's criticisms and demands. As a result, certain kinds of people exert a greater influence on governance and policy, even though items such as drag will probably have little or no bearing on their lives or future. I do not believe parenting can and should be used as a front for ideological domination and the suppression of other identities and viewpoints.

Fifth, while drag performances often create the impression that transgender people cannot be taken seriously, Mr Lau's letter further condemns transgender minorities to invisibility. This is something any human being with good sense cannot stand up for. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Even if the portrayal of the sari-clad Indian woman was done by a male-to-female post-op transsexual Singaporean, I as a family man would have no issue.

We cannot define "harmony" with conditions and exceptions, and it extends beyond race, religion, culture, encompassing gender and sexual identity.

Drag or cross-dressing, or any form of transgender depictions, certainly do not affect our respective personal alignment of sex, gender and sexuality, nor do the creation and support for different people threaten our individual brands of "good" parenting.

I certainly do not want my children to be ill-adjusted and intolerant.

Ho Chi Sam

Let me ask you a question, Ivan. What are YOU going to do for the improvement of the well-being and lives of transgender and transsexual Singaporeans?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Erected Plesidency: Tony and others

The media coverage of the Elected Presidency has brought to the fore several interesting observations.

1. The President of Singapore is actually an important person!
Blighted by a history in which the recently much emphasised "highest office" is actually decided via appointment by Parliament, we have been served the suggestion that while he (no she) has remained an important figure, the President has appeared to be a function of the political puppetry of the ruling party. That is not true on paper, but there are people who can believe what they want to believe. In the end, some of us do not see the President as important, powerful or relevant.

The President is the head of state, but when it comes to law-making and changes in the Constitution, he dispenses his duties in consultation with cabinet. Again, people don't see the importance of having an elected President.

Current President Sellapan Ramanathan, now 87, was the second elected President of Singapore (apologies for error when I wrote he was the "first". The late Mr Ong Teng Cheong was the first elected President, beating Mr Chua Kim Yeow in 1993). Mr S.R. Nathan was elected unopposed in 1999, and re-elected unopposed again in 2005 after the other Presidential candidates were deemed ineligible by the Presidential Elections Committee. After years of conditioning in a PAP-dominant political climate, we have grown accustomed to political contests (or at least what appears to be) on the national level, and probably see no difference in the Elected Presidency.

Now with four Presidential candidates, and in the aftermath of the General Elections 2011, I somehow see a change in tone of the Presidency - the kind of tone that the PAP uses to justify why they should be re-elected, why they should be in power again. We are now reminded that the President is a very important person.

The candidates have also spoken about representation and that they will be listening to the people, etc. etc. These approaches to the Presidential Elections have made the Elected Presidency relevant.

The moral of the story - competition is good, as it makes the contest a little more legitimate. (although I can't say the same for the liberalisation of the job market and lax immigration laws)

The idea of how serious and important the Elected Presidency is, is further reinforced by the slanted mainstream media coverage of candidate Dr Tony Tan. Not only has he media coverage, but also the endorsement from the clans (well, one clan) and unions. This brings me to the next point.

2. Unions and clans actually exist in Singapore!
Physically and in paper, they exist, but unions and clans do not really get the exposure and awareness today like they did in the mid 20th Century.

For clans in Singapore, they were steeped in Chinese nationalism and riddled with gang activity, so the early government did what they needed to do.

For unions, well, they lost their relevance a long time ago. We do have one of the better systems of tripartism in the world, but this means the unions are somewhat subjected to some degree of control by the state. It does not help one bit when you have a Minister without portfolio (or Minister in the Prime Ministers Office) as the labour chief. If we were to play word association, the first word that comes to my mind when I hear "union" is "supermarket".

So when the clan(s) and the unions come forward to support candidate Dr Tony Tan, it felt like a non-event and non-issue to me. Despite their large member numbers and the peoples they represent - an indication of their important roles - I feel no connection to these entities.

In a kiasu (scared to lose) bid to support Dr Tony Tan, seemingly heavyweight support from various segments of society is orchestrated for us, but it feels to me very much similar to the Singapore Kite Association endorsing any other candidate.

Yes, the Singapore Kite Association exists.

I cannot measure how much more relevant Dr Tony Tan will be as a Presidential hopeful, but I can sure tell from the recent media feature and profiling of the Federation of Tan Clan Associations in Singapore and the various unions that have endorsed him, these entities benefit a lot more from the exposure.

I mean they are no newsworthy demigods in the mould of Lee Kuan Yew, but the clans and the unions now seem a little more important. With the media descriptions of their form (membership, address) and functions (purpose, motto) in light of the highly newsworthy Presidential Elections (itself rendered very newsworthy thanks to an actual contest!), they somehow come into existence in the mainstream.

3. Do people really care about the Presidential Elections?
Hard to say. If change is what people want, they won't get it here.

Looking at the media, the free and the muzzled, there is a considerable degree of interest. Perhaps we are still reeling in the aftershocks of the General Elections 2011, which saw the PAP losing more of the popular vote. So an election on the national level, especially in an increasingly (economically) uncertain climate, will be good activity and distraction for the masses.

Everyday when we are served news of Dr Tony Tan and his many endorsements, some of us feel the "FFS!!" feeling. For Fuck's Sake!! It's that mainstream media trying to tell us what they want us to know and think!

Yes, he is a capable man and was a Deputy Prime Minister and his comb-back makes him a lot newsworthier than he already is, but this has come at the expense of the coverage of other candidates. He is qualified and we do not need to be constantly reminded that he is.

It is worth noting that in the process of the over-exposure and the subsequent over-rating of a nevertheless highly rated man, netizens and coffeeshop uncles (or those who occupy both categories) are fed up with the mainstream media, if they already are not. But when it comes to the democratic vote, the media campaign will still work for Dr Tony Tan, because those netizens and coffeeshop uncles are the numerical minority. There are many people who believe in the universe created by the mainstream media, and the universe created for us comprises "Dr Tony Tan" and "others".


In my opinion, the President should play a role not only in unifying Singaporeans, but also to maintain a confidence in the people during the economic uncertainty (we're talking about jobs here).

Then again, what's up with the "unifying Singaporeans" bit? During S.R. Nathan's presidential reign, we have had people who have been charged under the Sedition Act for making racial and religiously insensitive remarks, we had the AWARE saga, which is an indication of a mature fundamentalist Christian agenda (planted in our English-educated ethnic Chinese society in the late 70s to early 90s) to influence policy and governance, and we have lax immigration laws that lead to xenophobia and a dilution of national identity and sense of belonging. And someone "tried to do my best" and the Presidential candidates of 2011 have to take a jibe at him, huh?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

NDP 2011 - a brief review

The National Day Parade 2011 was a good effort, as are all NDPs over the years. The Parade has never fell short of disappointment when it comes to providing us with a good text for us to analyse. It's something you can jiggle your fun packs to.

Don't worry, I won't talk about lingums and yonis. Neither will I talk about how the Parade has always mimicked the Fascist ideals of a disciplined country which time and again glorifies its political leaders. Everyone's marching, stomping in step. I don't know what to say.

"The elephant there represents Lee Kuan Yew's impeccable memory when he sues everyone else for defamation." Heck, the helix bridge represents Lee Kuan Yew's unshakable belief in eugenics. Sieg Heil!

Unfortunately, we didn't celebrate Mr Lee Kuan Yew as much as we did in previous NDPs. Why not? You can't deny a large part of today's realities are engineered by him and his team.

A staple in our NDPs is the multiculturalism. The indexical representations of the various cultures are simplistic yet atomising depictions of their complexities and nuances. Ketupats, Pratas and Baos?

How about items which represent our social problems? In no particular order, substances to abuse, alcohol and obscene accumulations of cash...

"The Baos there represent the fruits of our labour, which are enjoyed very thoroughly by foreigners..."

Very cheeky, yet we are constantly reminded of our heterogeneous differences and the need to respect them. The problem with celebrating diversity is that you have to make explicit the differences that underpin this diversity.

The NDP shows us an example of coexistence and cooperation, yet doesn't show us how to get about doing it.

The NDP is all about overcoming adversity and challenges. We are reminded about the huge challenges the country has faced in past decades, and for a good 2 hours or so, we should forget about the lived daily realities and challenges we individually confront. 1% transport fare hike, any one?

Gurmit Singh and Chua Enlai in drag, so where's Suhaimi Yusof? Watch out for complaints from conservative Singaporeans who will probably question the relevance of the segment. Then again, the Shakespearean preference for male actors parallels Mediacorp's grip on the NDP. On another level, I feel pained that the transgenderal depiction of drag has to be in the temporary imaginary context of entertaining humour, furthering the notion that transgenderal depictions and persons need not be taken seriously.

Hip-hop was used to connect with the youth. Speaking of music, kudos to the creative director of this year's parade, as musically speaking, we have been treated to a collage of different musical genres.

The Mother-Son and Father-Son interweaving stories present an interesting insight into how a good disciplined nation should be.

Why is Lee Hsien Loong's nose red? He's in touch with his emotions.

Back to discipline. Discipline is listening to your parents and family, as the NDP has taught us. Listen to authority and don't get lost or distracted in the sea of dreams.

What's up with chasing the dugong? CNB won't like that imagery. Well, as long as we are not too socially or politically aware or involved, the powers that be will not mind us chasing any dugong. Give us liberties and leeway to participate in affairs which will ultimately have no bearing on governance and government - our opiate, but "chasing the dugong" sounds better.

Listen to your government. They know what's best for us. "Vote Tony Tan."

NDP can improve
Honour those who died for the country. Have a minute's silence. There are many ordinary Singaporeans who have made contributions and sacrifices (especially with National Service), but have either not been able to fulfill their dreams or haven't lived to do so.

Maybe it's too much to ask, but where are the segments depicting elderly folks selling tissue packets or picking from rubbish bins, or the homeless, I mean residentially challenged Singaporeans who sleep at void decks or at parks?

We're brave and bold enough to have one female NDP commander, to have Gurmit Singh in drag, yet sweep other things Singaporean under the carpet. Keep it G rating.

I have an idea. Why not scrap the Parade for one year and use the budget donate to charity? After all, from the experiences of many, the middle management of the Singapore Armed Forces (which happens to be an NDP organiser) often "asks" National Servicemen to make donations and targets are set. This is not unfamiliar in some schools too, right?

And can someone write a cheesy singalong NDP song? We've been having too much pop for the longest time. Keep the sentences and syllables shorter, use more conventional chord sequences, narrower ranges for melodies for easier group singalongs.

Well, any way, Happy Birthday Singapore, you fucking did it!