Friday, October 28, 2011

Making change in Singapore

Wow it's been some time now.

Let's see. New job and fatherhood. Same old problems with the world.

I fielded questions on the Singapore Queer-Straight Alliance yesterday, from final year university students writing a paper on activism.

It got me thinking a little more about not why I am in this in the first place, but rather how am I going to remain committed to what I believe in.

Essentially, belief is commitment, or at least that's what I would tell myself.

What continue to irk me the most are people going around telling others that, among many other things, homosexuality is bad, transsexuals are bad, wrong, unnatural, sinful, yada yada - I get the point.

That doesn't make the hatemonger is any better, but not that they know it any way. There will be people who think they know enough, or better, to speak for everyone else.

They'll want to lay claim to education, media, legislation, social norms and other mechanisms of control, to effect changes in our society that will eventually be ideologically aligned with what they are predisposed to, or already comfortable with.

That is destructive to the spirit of pluralism even our state is half-assedly committed too. (Well, I think our brand of pluralism essentially tilts in favour of the ethnic Chinese business elite, but that is just an opinion)

The curse of pluralism is the drawing of boundaries and battle lines, and when communities of uncompromising bigotry clash, and when the government fails to take leadership in social governance, it gets real nasty - we end up pretty polarised.

I still see myself as an ordinary anti-homophobe. I'm like "fuck your homophobia la" when I'm confronted with illogical arguments against LGB folks. It's a selfish thing, but I prefer to have a live-and-let-live approach to things, provided it doesn't impinge on the liberties of others.

A lot of "haters", -phobes, and fundies (religious fundamentalists) have an "us and them" complex. So too do most advocates and activists. So do I.

If people in the business of change (i.e. activists, advocates, etc.) adopt an "us and them" approach to advocacy, draw the bold lines and say stuff such as "you're wrong" and start prescribing to other communities what is the "right" way to think, feel and act, are they no better than the ignorant, the -phobic, the "haters" and all?

Different message, same kungfu.

I feel it is apt to leverage the (Singaporean) nationalist discourse (it is not entirely innocent any way) to focus on how different people and communities can co-exist. It requires the hard work of different stakeholders - an odd bunch of heterogeneous and/or overlapping communities able to agree to coexist and help one another; plus an active and supportive government willing to create and sustain more platforms for dialogue and all.

It doesn't work if the success of a collective is determined by the discrediting or invisibilisation of some communities.

Invoking more nationalist rhetoric - why must the Singapore story be written with omissions any way?

Coming back to the "us and them" mentality - between communities, between people and government - I feel some of the time and resources used to fortify the borders of indoctrination within a community, can be allocated to reaching out to others, or allocated to co-building platforms for stronger, constructive dialogue (NOT CONVERSION).

Speaking of conversion, if you still think homosexual people can convert your children, or that homosexuality is something you can learn and thus "unlearn" and discard, fuck you la.

Why give sexuality the same status as religious ideology? Well, I see it as the construction of an enemy or "devil" - it needs to have animalistic tendencies and a long penis, culturally recognised traits associated with all things evil.

To make people in your community recognise an "enemy", you have to 'zeng' the "enemy", like how Ah Bengs will add random accessories to their cars to make them look sporty and impressive and to show they don't have short penises, even though it is, in some cases, an extension of their masculinity.

Homosexuality, along with many other "ills", is something you have to make up as the antithesis of everything good that you believe in, every set of values you subscribe to. It doesn't cause it, but does exacerbates harmful mistruths and stereotypes of homosexuality being associated with sin, (un)nature, disease and other stuff you never want your children to be (which may include being unable to ascend the socio-economic ladder).

I personally think that good values, virtues and all the moral "rights/corrects" are not good enough to maintain ideological membership. Fear, hate and demonisation are necessary mechanisms to ensure the naturally permeable membrane that is the ideological boundary (if it even exists) is transformed into solid iron.

To use the government's globalisation rhetoric, we are living in constant change. Communities are not only characterised solely by strong bonds and fixed networks, but loose networks of mobile nodes. There is no place for "us and them". Bunkering in will only prove you are a hindrance to the collective. People with strong social prejudices will find it difficult to survive, without playing to themselves the same broken records of fear and hate (or tunes which sow such seeds).

If we are capable of friendship and be "colour-blind" at the same time - blind to physical differences, blind to religious differences, blind to racial differences - I think it is a good starting point for harmonious diversity. The same goes for sexual orientation and gender identity.

Who cares if that random girl is kissing another girl? Why can't your community address issues like 70, 80-year-old men and women scavenging our rubbish bins for recyclables? You want to create new enemies and problems? Try solve the existing ones first. Our very own prejudices and preconceived notions are existing problems to us and others who may be affected by them.

I am not an activist. I am not even half an advocate. I am just a digit, making an honest living, doing the best in different aspects of my life - familial, professional and recreational.

I somehow find myself in and out of the business of change. Got some battle scars - "freakiest gay in Singapore", "not neutral", "ignorant", "obnoxious", "not an activist", "patronising", "all brains no soul", "advocate of the cat holocaust" (that's a keeper), but that's okay.

Why in and out? I can never find a way to balance advocacy with my personal life. There are priorities and responsibilities I value more.

For me, activism, and more specifically, advocacy are embodied. When people within you circle make a needless and irrational transphobic statement, you could say "don't be a dick la" and that statement already indicates a stand for something, and against something else.

I also learned one thing along way, and that it is important to never take myself too seriously. Have a good laugh instead. I always feel that if people in the business of change take themselves too seriously, they end up, again, no different from those they try to change.

There has also emerged refreshing forms of advocacy which are characterised by the co-creation of platforms for different parties to come together to share ideas related, and even unrelated, to very issues that divide them.

Not all of us have the ability to lead, petition the government, mobilise people (illegal in Singapore), stage a march (illegal in Singapore), protest (possibly illegal in Singapore, demonstrate (illegal), picket (illegal), speak before the masses (illegal unless approved), and so on. But we have it in our own selves to embody the change we personally want to see.

We have the ability to make friends with those we disagree with. That is change too.

Personally, I was never inclined to mobilising or leading. I don't even fancy moving around, meeting strangers and all. But I do my best where I can

Balancing personal life and advocacy, I rationalised a little bit and tell myself, maybe I could commit 1-3 hours a week doing a little something - work on independent proposals to the government (they do listen, because the PAP wants to improve their vote share next election), read up or listen to talks, write to the newspapers, etc.

When people ask me about the Singapore Queer-Straight Alliance or talk about it, talk about membership and all, I normally say what I always feel, that any one who stands up against the nonsense that is homophobia, in any capacity, or any one who is "colour-blind" enough to co-exist with others regardless of orientation and persuasion, is already a member of their own queer-straight alliance.

There are many groups and individuals already working very hard to push for substantive equality for all in Singapore regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, and they can do with the commitment of ordinary individuals, who live their daily lives being the change (hopefully not to abrasively or antagonistically).

If a substantial number of Singaporeans can come to terms with their prejudices, change at the collective level will probably be less difficult.

Now back to parenting.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Are Singaporeans who are easily offended more equal than others?

(unpublished - Oct 1, 2011)

I follow with concern the recent hoo-hah surrounding the Abercrombie and Fitch advertisement.

I am concerned about our private and public governance pertaining to censorship and selective interpretations of what constitutes moral, decent or vulgar.

Does this episode, along with many other similar issues we have witnessed, mean that individuals and communities that are more sensitive and easily offended exert a stronger influence over government policy and industry governance?

I also observe that when it comes to issues of allegedly contentious morality or objectionable content, many of us are quick to incite accusations against corruptive western influence. This is ironic considering the wave of puritanism that has empowered some of us as prudish self-righteous trigger-happy censors did in fact originate from the West.

I plead for a more moderate coexistence of views and ideologies, populated by diverse and well-adjusted Singaporean communities.

It is vulgar in its own right that some have taken it upon themselves to determine what is good for everyone else, thus threatening the plurality many of us fight so hard to upkeep.

Coexistence and open dialogue beats complaining and having a bunker mentality that our society is headed for damnation.

There should be spaces for creative advertising and art in Singapore, as well as education and awareness of the intangible value these bring to our society.

If we can teach the values of plurality and coexistence, we are capable of raising our children as information-literate and world-savvy citizens.

How well-adjusted we are is displayed through our reactions towards what we may believe to be provocative. There is a difference between making a swift moral judgement and appreciating how content invokes one's imagination.

So do Singaporeans who are not very well-adjusted have a bigger say in things around here? When they make suggestions or protestations, are they more equal than others?

Ho Chi Sam

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Me, myself and my Chinese-ness

Forever enshrined as an OB marker here in Singapore, race (or rather, ethnicity) is a topic that always appealed to me. It's probably because far too many people take it far too seriously, and we are all happen to share the same (lack of) understanding of it.

I mean, we should be free to talk about race and ethnicity and how interaction on various levels of society have come to mould the lived daily realities of every Singaporean.

I am particularly interested in how something that is socially ascribed with a purpose to differentiate one person from another by one's physicality and cultural practices, as if we are indeed categorisable by an agreed set of seemingly heterogeneous parameters.

While these parameters have throughout history been often arbitrarily (re)arranged and (re)assigned to create a desirable authentic group of individuals who appear to be the "same", these herds have come to believe that the parameters are what determine racial difference.

With race, or at least our common understanding of what we think it should be, we have one more reason to feel defensive, to feel offended and perhaps one more reason to band together with those who we think are the "same" as us and incite violence against those we think are "different" from us.

We believe in race's authenticity just because we currently share, thereabouts, the same physicality and practice, thereabouts, the same cultural practices. As we believe it to be authentic, we feel it is something worth protecting, something meaningful.

When there is a symbol people collectively hold dear, take very seriously and observe it to be an essential (essence is punny) part of their identity and daily life, it becomes both a means for solidarity and an instrument of control and manipulation.

When people are confronted with the reality of differences, we some how feel compelled to create boundaries, as if there is some inherent need to do so or there is some value in doing it.

As an ethnic Chinese Singaporean (my given race and nationality - 2 more reasons to feel offended or die for a collective cause), I feel, in my experiences, that race has been used as a disciplinary mechanism to regulate my behaviour. I observe the same for other ethnic Chinese Singaporeans too.

Perhaps it is the immigrant Southern Chinese roots our community and our ethnic Chinese elite government continually want to remind us of. Along with it comes the immigrant and survivalist ethos of pragmatism, which has come to underpin many of our policies.

I am constantly reminded by my Chinese-ness on a daily basis. Maybe it is not unique to ethnic Chinese Singaporeans, but I think we have a very strong "us and them" tendency towards everyone else.

We strain at drawing the line between ethnic Chinese Singaporeans and those from mainland China. As ethnic Chinese Singaporean, we have reclaimed and conveniently labelled ourselves as "Chinese" and used "China" as an adjective to describe the citizens of mainland China. Surely citizens in China are ethnic Chinese and nationally Chinese. Nope, for the sake of distinction, we know them as China men, China women, China children, China students, etc.

Skin colour and ancestry are agreed-upon fixed indicators and parameters of "race", and they are ritualised with common behaviours, which include language and a common set of cultural practices.

I've often been lectured and reminded of my Chinese-ness with the phrase "Chinese ought to speak Chinese", or "Hua ren ying gai jiang hua yu".

The government has also reinforced my Chinese-ness by bombarding social and education policies with terms such as "mother tongue" and "bilingualism". Well, "mother tongue" does not in any way refer to the tongue (speak) of your mother, but to the tongue of your race as classified by the state, which is the Mandarin language as determined by the state to be the unifying language for all ethnic Chinese in Singapore. This is also a pragmatic approach to prepare Singaporeans, ethnic Chinese in particular (of course), for a future global economy dominated by the Chinese, a.k.a. China.

"Second language" does not possess the same manipulatively emotional appeal as "mother tongue" for a culture that has been historically predisposed to Confucianism and patriarchy.

Social sanctions also continue to exist, in order to police ethnic and cultural boundaries. Those who appear to be less able or less inclined to speaking Chinese or behaving in a way that is typically Chinese (however it is defined by a majority), will be teased/judged to be "losing their roots" as if that equally mattered to the "jiak kantangs" as it does to the purists.

Social policing is often done with the belief that differences in behaviour and in mindset indicates rejection of what is believed to be inherent or authentic, and rejection is a huge taboo. But hello, being different does not in any way equate to rejection.

I guess, as an ethnic Chinese, and perhaps a member of the ethnic majority, we can abuse our privilege position and make everyone else an outsider.

The idea of "roots" and "heritage" is actually the product of a cultural imagining of the power elite. They draw the lines and boundaries, shaping and defining what roots, culture and heritage should be, and these are defined based on the whatever political advantage the elite can gain. Our roots and heritage are not myths, but the manner in which they have been adapted and manipulated is indicative of their mythologisation.

Depending on the economic, political or social situation, the "once upon time..." rhetoric will change, as it sets about recruit and regroup the "right" members to be mobilised for any political cause.

The beauty of the state's reminding me of and reinforcing my Chinese-ness lies in its invisibility. We don't sense it at all, because it appears to be seamlessly integrated into our lives.

What I understand as meritocracy and multiculturalism are through my ethnic Chinese eyes and mindset. It is a meritocracy and a multiculturalism that is defined and shaped by a Chinese elite, that somehow does not create much disruption or dissonance to me as an ethnic Chinese - this is my privilege as a majority. No dissonance means no need to think about my reality with respect to that of others. It's a system that works for me and my family, and I am in fact grateful to the PAP government and the Chinese elite, if these two could be disentangled.

I am also constantly reminded of my Chinese-ness whenever there are population reports. Chinese Singaporeans are marrying late, not having enough babies and so on. There is a sense of urgency to top up "our" numbers. "Us" and "them" again, no?

Many of us ethnic Chinese Singaporeans are also subjects of a practice when our names have to carry both the dialect name and parenthesised hanyu pinyin name. If there would ever be an overkill in reminding ethnic Chinese Singaporeans of their Chinese-ness, this would be it. For instance, Tan Boonhuat John (Chen Wen Fa) - that's the full name. There's both the dialect name and hanyu pinyin name, unless in the most unlikely scenario, your dialect happens to be Mandarin.

One important contribution our ethnic Chinese herding and boundary-policing brings is that it creates a relatively safe environment to make assumptions - a function of taken-for-grantedness. In a tightly policed ethnic Chinese community, it will be safe to assume that any one of a particular appearance and physicality will speak the same language. If not, it is natural to feel curious, surprised or even offended that there could be difference within a presumably homogeneous circle.

I encounter many individuals who seem to tell me that they know more than me what it takes to be Chinese. It is as though there are a fixed set of characteristics to possess, internalise or exhibit that determines true Chinese-ness, when these are in fact romanticised cultural imaginings selectively put together by random opinion leaders throughout time based on what they agree to be essentially Chinese, and it just happens that there is a significant number of people of people who take this whole idea pretty seriously.

The worst thing about people taking things seriously is that they expect everyone else to take the same things as seriously as they do. In order to do that, you need a healthy dose of socialisation and indoctrination. One strong mechanism is to shame and use self-esteem to discipline the errant "Chinese" into being "more Chinese", in this case, you are expected to feel ashamed if you speak sub-par Mandarin, because you are less Chinese, a situation you should thus be ashamed of but need not to question why that is the case.

You know what happens when people take things too seriously? It can cause violence.

The communication of values and morals is also often couched in race, ethnicity and "roots", what not, as if the former are unique and inherent to the latter entities. Values and morals are selectively collated and attached to race and ethnicity because race and ethnicity are in serious need of distinguishable parameters before any one can start policing them in the first place.

I wonder any way, what does it say about our country, our leaders and our policies when we have to be reminded of and divided by our racial categories?

As for racial pride, or to be proud of something (an identity), we have to assume it to be true and to be real, that the traits that make up (racial) identity are unique, distinct, unchanging, unshakable, authentic and essential when they are in fact products of mythologisation.

The concept of "race", for me, captures the aspirations of an elite, as it remains supported and celebrated by many.

As a Singaporean, I don't exactly feel proud to be ethnic Chinese, but feel very lucky (and grateful) I am categorised as such. Being in such a category in this system comes with privileges and with a general sense of comfort in my daily life. There are many policies and social norms which benefit me directly, enough for me to take many things for granted. It is a multiculturalism, pragmatism and meritocracy that benefits the group I have from birth been told and expected to be part of. And that is enough to remind me of what I am.