28 June 2014

Never again, PinkDot

I'm not attending PinkDot this year. This is coming from someone who has attended every Pinkdot except the one where Broadway Beng was engaged to provide the entertainment. This is coming from someone who has their fair share of gay and lesbian friends.

I made the decision last year after reading Alfian's criticism of the pinkwashing at Pinkdot, after hearing from various friends of the Pinkdot organisers' heavyhanded censorship of community booths and disrespect of the LGBTQI community's diversity and needs.

Which is the real PinkDot mascot? 
Why is PinkDot promoting fear and ignorance?

Why bother attending PinkDot if this is the day where instead of being safe and free, LGBTQI activists suffer the most censorship and oppression, and at the hands of PinkDot organisers?

My activist friends reported the organisers lecturing that this event is not for them, not for the benefit of the LGBTQI community, but for the benefit of appearing safe and unthreatening to mainstream Singapore and their straight allies. And so: a complete gag on safe sex. Straight people will freak out if you give out condoms and safe sex brochures and talk about safe sex! Please say as little about activism on this day itself. It's too confrontational! No one really needs to hear the plight of transsexual sex workers, much less their rights. It's too alternative! And please give us all your brochures to vet. We demand it.

Why bother attending PinkDot if, instead of encouraging diversity and non-judgemental attitudes, PinkDot organisers are the ones who promote the fear and ignorance of real LGBTQIs, and their issues, concerns, needs, diversity?

If Lawrence Khong and the Wear White campaign didn't exist, PinkDot would have to invent them from scratch

We're under attack! Shut up and stop criticising us!

This year, I wonder if PinkDot organisers and the LGBTQI community at large are just papering over issues that need to be addressed and allowing attacks from the religious right to band the community together in the absence of an authentic, living vision.

If not for the wear white campaign and the attacks by conservative Christian pastors, my activist friends would be making more criticisms of pinkdot, inspiring their brethren to actually promote diversity and tolerance within the LGBTQI community, and to question their motives for turning up, wearing pink, or feeling happy that PinkDot has now got corporate banking sponsors.

If not for these attacks, someone would've risen up by now to condemn the hiring of security personnel by PinkDot organisers and exposed it for a fascist, if not a cynical PR move that it is.

Whoever would have thought that a pride event would need to hire its own thugs and goons, who will either harass people who look different or out of place today, or rough up a vocal protestor criticising PinkDot either from the left, or from the right?

No one in their right mind would think for one moment that the "Wear White" or "LoveSingapore" campaigns would be interested to crash Hong Lim Park today. "Wear White" wants to send a signal in the mosques. Lawrence Khong applied to have his event at the Padang. None of them wanted a confrontation, none of them wanted to be in the same space as PinkDot.

And yet PinkDot plays up the so-called attacks, fosters a siege mentality, all to justify the wasteful, immodest, and immoral hiring of mercenary thugs at today's event. Because in their bizarro universe, PinkDot's cheerful and peaceful picnic atmosphere either doesn't exist or is so fragile (despite a turnout of 3000 people on average) that a few protestors would create a riot. What does this say about the PinkDot organisers' perception of the LGBTQI community? That they can be prodded into violence? That they could never react to opposition in a Gandhian manner? What does this say about PinkDot's liberal credentials?

Most of my LGBTQI activist friends have said no to PinkDot's invitations to set up community booths this year. I guess they must be very tired of censorship and oppression. And maybe disappointed that the organisers of the most successful LGBTQI event are themselves the biggest homophobes in Singapore.

Most of them will still be attending the picnic. I will be boycotting PinkDot completely because their KPI is the turnout for the event. Until such time that PinkDot is run by a committee of intellectually honest people whose put the interests of LGBTQI people first, I will not attend any future PinkDot.

26 May 2014

"Daddy where is your car & who are all these poor people?"

From a realist point of view, public policy is never really about discovering via best methods, optimal outcomes for the public at large, but what fits the planner's ideology.

We put a spotlight on Singapore's transport policy to identify the ideologya set of commonsensical assumptions so commonsensical their existence is not denied but unacknowledged—through which the Public Transport Council's (PTC) modelling of the transport system and its pricing and funding calculations are mediated.

In his Straits Times op-ed of 25 May 2014, PTC chairman (2005-2014) Gerard Ee defends the PAP government's current orthodoxy regarding transport fares: i.e. it is right that PTC-approved annual transport fare increases have nothing to do with service standards, and if the public wants better service standards, it ought to pay a premium over the annual fare increases.

That the chairman of the PTC thinks this way is not cause for consternation. He is after all no economist or a transport analyst or expert. He heads a council that is mandated to approve fare hikes by Singapore's bus and train monopolist, and not a research institute for transport policy studies.

But look: the chairman of the PTC lives in a bizarro universe where it is unrealistic for commuters to expect actual quality of service improvements in the face of state-guaranteed transport fare increases. In the reality where we live, it is unrealistic for monopolistic transport operators to enjoy state-guaranteed transport fare increases while failing to prevent near-guaranteed service deterioration every year.

This tells you something about the world-view, the ideology, the ontology of the crafters of Singapore's transport policy and the messenger they've tasked to convey their views to the public via an op-ed piece in yesterday's Straits Times.

And if you read his op-ed piece, it turns out Gerard Ee insists that the annual fare increases have been all about the bus and train monopolies investing in infrastructure. Clearly, Gerard Ee lives in a bizarro universe where the monumental series of train breakdowns of 2012-2014 weren't caused by the train monopolist failing to invest in infrastructure and maintenance for a decade.

Still, that's not a cause for consternation.

What's a real cause for consternation is Gerard Ee's vision of public transport:
"If you treasure your time and comfort, you pay a premium
—there are premium services. If you value your time and comfort even more, buy a car. And then ultimately, get a chauffeur."


In just 2 sentences, Gerard Ee's words betray the ideology lurking behind the dry, values-free tables and numbers that prop up current transport policy implementation. In just 2 sentences, Gerard Ee talks about public transport in terms of personal wealth. In just 2 sentences, Gerard Ee ties transport service—the idea of getting there in time and in comfortwith personal wealth.

In just 2 sentences, Gerard Ee whitewashes the very public failures of Singapore's transport policy: the inability of highly profitable monopolists to get people anywhere on time, and the chronic overcrowding and overloading of public transport infrastructure.

In just 2 sentences, one may infer that in the minds of Singapore's policy planners, public transport is a program for the poor, and a poor program because the poor can't afford better service and shouldn't be spoiled by good programs.

This patronising, elitist mindset is not too different from that of one Anton Casey, who riled half of Singapore with his allegedly offensive joke about public transport being for poor people.

And this narrative of the undeserving poor, the paths which cannot be taken for reasons too esoteric for the public to appreciate, is an ongoing habit of Gerard Ee. He has in the past publicly rejected outright lower transport fares for the elderly (while wearing his other hat as chairman for an active aging body), and concessions for polytechnic students (while wearing his PTC hat).

His successor, former judge Richard Magnus, is no better. Like Ee, he is no transport expert. For 2014, Magnus has excluded the poorest 20% from the PTC's transport fare calculations because they should be able to pay for public transport after taking into account the subsidies and handouts they get elsewhere. It is our opinion that this methodology necessarily makes transport more expensive than it would be if fare increases had to take into account the ability of the poorest 20% to pay for it.

Once you identify the ideological root of Singapore's public transport policies, you may begin to also understand the ideological blinkers behind the PTC's blanket refusal to consider several suggestions for fare subsidies and the government's automatic dismissal of several transport reform suggestions.

This is a pity, not only for Gerard Ee's credibility—public transport policy is beginning to turn, and his public pronouncements of "thou shalt not go there" will be forever remembered and measured against these reversals—but also for the fact that the son of Ee Peng Liang, the "father of charity in Singapore", seems to see public transport as a program for the poor, and a poor program.

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.]