18 February 2014

Religion in the public square: 2014 edition

"Churchmen, lay preachers, priests, monks, Muslim theologians, all those who claim divine sanction or holy insights, take off your clerical robes before you take on anything economic or political. Take it off. Come out as a citizen or join a political party and it is your right to belabor the government, but use a church or a religion and your pulpit for these purposes and there will be serious repercussions."
-- Lee Kuan Yew, 1986

And then we have Lim Biow Chuan, MP since 2006, active lay preacher and worship leader at Ang Mo Kio Methodist Church since 1993

Why is Lin Piao allowed to be a PAP MP when he has refused to take off his clerical robes?

13 February 2014

Imperial overreach: Singapore Health Promotion Board edition

or: How not to write a FAQ on sexual health

Singapore's Health Promotion Board released an advisory on sexuality and sexual health last year. Perhaps due to the design of the website, no one (not even LGBT activists or the self-appointed moral guardians of Singapore) took notice. Till recently. Then all hell broke loose.

Like so many, I did not think the ensuing fracas to be important, interesting, or worth investigating. The usual suspects either accused the FAQ to be a promotion of the gay lifestyle or defended the FAQ as fact based, evidence based writing. It sounded like another episode in the ongoing culture war between vocal liberals and conservatives suddenly finding their voice in a post-Papalee, internet-enabled Singapore.

Yes, having the national health body write up an entire FAQ on homosexuality is a milestone for conservative Singapore. Just that this is the wrong milestone.

Imperial overreach explained

"Trust me, I'm a doctor"

A cursory examination of the controversy and outcry against the Health Promotion Board's FAQ reveals three sets of interrelated questions or accusations, which I summarise here:

Does the FAQ highlight LGBT health issues or is it promote an LGBT social reformist agenda?
Is the HPB reaching out to LGBTs as a health board or is the HPB reaching out to mainstream society on behalf of the gay agenda?
Should the HPB be an advocate for health, an advocate for LGBTs, or an advocate for the moral majority?

We identify the public disquiet as a backlash against the HPB's imperial overreach. That is, the HPB appears to have exceeded its mandate as a health advisory board and ventured beyond their core competency in health and medicine in their advisory. This is no small matter: a public organ that is seen to promote the agenda of any one faction of the populace (liberal, conservative, or radical) will lose the trust of the entire populace, and lose its credibility and effective ability to serve the public.

The HPB seems to have forgotten the sordid history of the Family Planning and Promotion Board, a public organ that instead of offering sound advice on family planning, embarked on a crusade to sterilise women at a young age, especially targeting the poor. The HPB should note that the FPPB no longer exists, and is not remembered with fondness for its zealous social engineering.

But you can't trust a health promotion board if it's less interested in promoting health,
and more interested in social crusading

HPB vs NHS: a tale of 2 LGBT health advisories

In its defense, the Health Promotion Board claims the brochure was meant as “a one-stop resource to provide factual information on sexuality and sexually transmitted infections/HIV prevention from a public health perspective.”

In the absence of actual health practitioners and experts wading into the discussing, we therefore accept HPB's challenge to a trial by combat, and name as our champion the UK National Health Service (NHS). The choice is fair; the NHS is the direct analogue of Singapore's Health Promotion Board, and it has also published in English an advisory on LGBT issues, easily accessible online. The weapon of choice shall be their respective FAQs on LGBT health. The contest shall be determined by the accuracy and factualness of their FAQs, and whether their FAQs have been written purely from a public health perspective.

And for your reference, It's NHS's Gay health: the issues vs HPB's FAQs on sexuality. Go, open them side by side in separate browser windows. Read them, and we can discuss more.

A thorough reading of both NHS and HPB advisories shows up stark differences in their approach towards "LGBT health". The NHS tells you right from the start
If you’re gay, lesbian or bisexual, by being aware of your health risks and having relevant health checks, you can stay healthy and reduce your risk of illness... Research shows that people with same-sex partners may have a higher risk of contracting certain conditions, for instance lesbians may have a higher risk of breast cancer and gay men are at higher risk of HIV.
Unlike the HPB, the NHS doesn't tell you what homosexuality is, who's a homosexual, whether it is an identity or a behaviour, whether it can be cured, whether it's normal or not, whether it's a phase, to what extent sexuality can be fluid. That's not important from a public health point of view and that's not what the NHS as a health advisory body is interested in.

NHS simply says: if you're LGBT, here are the top issues concerning your health. If you're a sexually active gay woman, these are STDs you should screen for. If you're a sexually active gay man, here are the STDs you should screen for. Aside from HIV/AIDS. At the final 15% of its FAQ, the HPB tells you about AIDS. Nothing else about other STDs that gay people may more prone to pick up, compared to mainstream people. Nothing about the higher breast cancer risks of gay women.

Now tell me, if you were LGBT, whether you'd prefer to get your health advisory from the NHS or the HPB?

NHS tells you that depression affects LGBT people more than mainstream people, some of which is caused by bullying or homophobia, but some of it is self-inflicted because gay people can be their worst enemies. Then it tells you where to seek counselling. HPB tells you it's wrong to label people as gay and best let homosexuals come out of the closet on their own. Aside from this not being a public health issue, it's not a medical fact either. Labelling, as social scientists will tell you, occurs all the time in everyday interactions and is an integral part of social construction. You can tell people not to label others, but really... (and let's not get into the phenomenon of how people label themselves actively)

Do we need to know what homophobia is? Perhaps. Is homophobia a fact? Is it a medical fact? Is it the business of the Health Promotion Board to tell us? No.

When put side by side with the NHS advisory, the deficiencies of the HPB advisory become very apparent. As written, this is more a LGBT advocacy and education FAQ than a LGBT health advisory. As written, the HPB seems more interested in changing social opinions on LGBTs than offering a "one stop resource" of the health education and needs of LGBTs.

In contrast, the NHS advisory manages to provide timely, relevant, and appropriate health resources and advice regarding LGBT health without being contentious, controversial, or venturing out of its core competency. In contrast, the approach taken by the NHS advisory is more suited to Singapore.

Where the Health Promotion Board should provide timely, concise, and relevant health information for LGBTs, it seems to have written an advisory for the mainstream public and occasionally, parents with LGBT children, with the goal of changing public attitudes towards homosexuality. It's a good cause but one that HPB is not mandated to champion. And since it has, the public organ now reeks of institutional overreach.

As written, the HPB has let down LGBT people in Singapore, whose health needs and education are far better served by reading the NHS advisory and portal. I suspect the same for Singapore's mainstream society as well. I offer these criticisms in the hope that the HPB may take the NHS LGBT advisory portal as a working model so that it may offer what the LGBT community needs (in terms of health advice) instead of what it wants (in terms of social change).

03 December 2013

Reason #65665872 why Roy Tan is the next worst thing for the gay rights movement in Singapore

Back in 2005, Roy Tan, a gay activist in Singapore, made a suggestion which has not gone unnoticed on our blog. He said with some glee: "We should consider making use of the Sedition Act to stop any local online homophobia dead in its tracks."

Now in 2013, Roy Tan is one of the signatories to the citizens' petition to the AGC, affirming Alex Au's right to free speech or something like that. Sure didn't take too long for the gay rights movement's most ardent supporter of repressive sedition laws to turn into its most ardent supporter of the right to free speech.

But wait, there's more. Back in 2005 after Roy Tan made a statement that, if taken seriously, would set back free speech, it turns out that Alex Au's reply was:

"Would the same Sedition Act be applicable in cases of hate speech targeting gay people? I think yes. Clause 3(1)(e), after all says, "feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore."

He goes in for the kill, and suggests that the White Elephant guerrilla installation piece at Buangkok MRT be investigated under the Sedition Act. And if Alex Au's statements were taken seriously, there would be no opening of the Buangkok MRT station -- and no Samantha Lo today because certain types of art. according to Alex Au, are SEDITIOUS.

Meet Alex Au, the worst thing to happen to the gay rights movement in Singapore, a man who has never been a friend of free speech and artistic expression.

And one more thing: Roy Tan is parsimonious with the truth. Since 2011, he has been banned from Wikipedia for a whole host of rules violations including lack of citations, lack of permissions for images, non-neutral point of view writing, conflicts of interest, using wikipedia for promotion, and treating his created pages as a personal website.

30 November 2013

Alex Au's Cell Block Tango: "He had it coming"

As you may know, the Attorney-General's Chambers has initiated contempt of court proceedings against the blogger Alex Au. In addition, there is a statement calling the AGC to drop its case against the author of Yawning Bread, signed by prominent activists, online news journalists, academics, artists -- and other assorted poseurs.

Fair disclosure: I was approached to sign this. On a strictly professional level, I offered my services to edit an early draft of the text. On a personal level, I have not signed this statement and do not intend to.

I do not believe Alex Au's case warrants a campaign against the AGC. Nor should it galvanise Au's supporters to make hysterical, unseemly, and unhelpful comments about an "Operation Coldweb" that are sure to damage the integrity of the judicial process in the eyes of the public.

Simply put, Alex Au had it coming.

I have been blogging since 2003. Alex Au has been been writing online since 1996, back when Yawning Bread was a website and not quite a blog. Over these 10 years (and 10 years is a long time to get to know someone just from their writings alone), we know Alex Au to be, on occasion, an irresponsible, intemperate writer itching for a fight with the authorities over real or imagined slights, whipping up campaigns of manufactured outrage. And we have called him out on that time after time, over the years.

There was that time when Alex Au incited readers in a mailing list not to bother with civility or respect when dealing with the Christian Right in Singapore, and pretended he said the complete opposite when asked by the press. There was that time when Alex Au organised a Facebook campaign to boycott DBS for donating to the Focus on the Family charity. And another time when Alex Au organised a hate campaign against the National Volunteer and Philanthropic Centre (you know, the one where the good Mr Gilbert Goh's Transitioning.org has its offices!), claiming the NGO was either led by Christian fundamentalists, actually not independent at all, or financially suspect.

We could go on but I hope you get the idea. Alex Au is the sort of blogger who is reasonable and responsible on the whole, and then on occasion transforms into the poster child of the Nasty Internet that the ministers keep trotting out whenever they urge for more online regulation.

How a simple, commonplace judicial procedure that happens all the time in every other country, rescheduling court hearing dates so cases and judgements don't contradict each other, gets turned into a conspiracy theory ascribing ulterior motives to the sitting judge -- you have to really hand it to Alex Au.

So of course there is now a legal test: the case is now before the supreme court to decide whether, in this day and age, the judiciary can be scandalised, given the exact words Alex Au used in his article.

Alex Au had it coming. And I have no doubt he wanted it this way. And if the petitioners really believe that Singaporeans are mature enough to discuss judicial procedures without scandalising the court, they ought to give the court credit for being mature enough to decide that. Shouldn't they?

[Addendum, 2 December 2013: It is important to note that the Supreme court has granted the AGC leave to initiate a contempt of court suit against Alex Au. To date, the AGC has not filed the suit against Alex Au, although the proceedings began with their application for leave to the Supreme Court.

Hopefully the several people whom Alex Au claims are "keen on raising funds to help defray my costs" have not actually begun to raise funds. To do so would be most improper. For Alex Au to mention all those details about raising funds while neglecting to admit that the AGC has not yet taken action against him (and may never) despite being granted permission by the Supreme Court is typical of Alex's failings.]

14 October 2013

Tharman, oh Tharman, a clown minister art thou

I kid you not.

13 August 2013

Time to ditch the NDP

First ever parade at the Padang Red Square

We bring to your attention Channelnewsasia's report on the 2013 Singapore National Day Parade, and its figure of 27,000 celebrants.

Figures on attendance and participation in previous years' NDPs have not been officially collated; nonetheless a rough gauge can be gleaned from the headlines and reports from The Straits Times. In 1966, the participant figure was 23,000. In 1969, 30,000. In 1986, it swelled to 70,000 at the National Stadium. In 1997, ST decided to report only on the spectators (as opposed to everyone at the NDP, including the contingent and performers), which they pegged at 60,000.

From these numbers, a few statistical observations emerge.

Singapore's population has increased from 1.65 million in 1966 to over 5 million in 2012. Yet the attendance at its National Day Parade appears to have plateaued on the eve of the Asian Financial Crisis and declined steadily since, and shrinking to early independence era numbers. As a percentage of total population, attendance figures haven't just returned to early independence era figures; they have plummeted far below that.

Despite the NDP being telecast on every free-to-air channel ever since its inception, the Media Development Authority and its predecessors do not publish viewership figures. We only have anecdotal reports that people have been tuning in to the NDP far less these days.

Since 2002, the cost of putting up the National Day Parade has increased almost every year. We're not certain if the punchline ought to be this: As fewer people (both absolute and as a percentage of total population) turn up each year to watch the NDP, the cost of the NDP has been going up (both absolute and per audience).

Ditch the NDP now, I say!

Why watch the NDP anyway?

People need to question why NDP has so much military hardware porn
"No need lah. It's the same every year." - anonymous

"My preoccupation wasn't the audience at the parade. They were the converted... It's actually the rest of the Singaporeans who are thinking, 'Ah, another propaganda event.'" - MP Chan Chun Sing

I have neglected to say that lower audience numbers may be due to declining interest -- or they could be the direct result of venue capacity, or due to an interaction between the two.

But to read MP Chan Chun Sing's thoughts on his 2009 parade, one might come to the idea that the SAF possesses statistics which show a steady tapering off in the numbers of "the converted" which predates the New Normal. But why?

It can't be because the NDP is the same every year. The NDP has to be the same every year. You'll agree too if you see it as a secular ritual commemorating nothing less than the State itself. The ritual serves to recreate the social and political order in mystical and symbolic terms, to reify the official narrative(s) (Singapore: from fishing village to cosmopolis and nation, for example) as a spectacle, an assault on the senses, ready to be consumed by awed and numbed citizen-units whose sole contribution is to stand up to sing the year's NDP song (which fails as a patriotic song if it can't be sung in unison by a crowd).

The sequence of each National Day parade follows the logic of military
protocol: a school choir sings; hundreds of provost guards march; ministers
arrive; spectators stand as the prime minister appears; guards salute as the
president arrives with a fanfare; the national anthem is played; the president
inspects the guards; the show begins with gun salutes, military stunts, fly-past, drive-past, and march-past.

- Leong Wai Teng, "Consuming the nation: National Day Parades in Singapore", New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 3, 2 (December, 2001): 5-16.

Well-travelled observers will no doubt seize on the striking similarities between the military pornography, authoritarian fetish, and spectacle addiction of Singapore's NDP to similar displays in Soviet Russia, the DPRK, and other post-communist relics of the world.

If there is a gradual but terminal decline in interest in Singapore's NDP, it can only be a symptom of a far greater malaise; it could very well be that Singapore has come of age, that top-down secular rituals, mass displays, the performance of grand national narratives are no longer effective means of directing a people towards a shared national consciousness. Perhaps, if the NDP planning committee were sharp and farsighted enough, they'd be asking what kind of national consciousness we'd get if they applied a bottom-up approach instead.

I still won't watch an NDP but I'd watch this

Oh look, even the Russians do reenactment spectacles these days

If the priestess of Ise were in charge of the NDP planning committee, I'd scrap the NDP entirely. Its time has come and gone.

Instead, I will give you a non-NDP, an anti-NDP. Imagine from dawn till dusk, several roving camera teams tasked to find out how people are spending their 9 August. As you tune in over the day, you'll see actual people, actual events actually happening right now on national day...

In Singapore, with Singaporeans working (or having a rest), celebrating (or refusing to, or celebrating something else entirely), taking a break from life or having to deal with life. Singaporean citizens and PRs, FTs and tourists. We'd watch Gilbert Goh's Hong Lim Park celebration, fly to the Botanic Gardens for the Pink Picnic...

Outside Singapore: emigres, expats, exiles. Former guest workers now back in their home countries or working elsewhere.

We'll see the aged grandmother who still needs to sell tissue on National Day, the foreign maid who used to work in Singapore on a pittance, a group of ah bengs hanging out at AMK Central spoiling for a fight, a fever-wracked middle class, middle age man desperate to find a clinic open on National Day. We'll hear from the ra-ra patriots, and maybe say hi to Francis Seow and Tan Wah Piow after all these years.

Imagine all this, in 5 minute segments. It'll be quite literally one Singapore, many stories. And it will be truth in advertising. And I'd watch that.