25 August 2014

Living with Myths II: Silent spaces of history

Being a review of the second in a year-long series of seminars

As a counterhegemonic project to the PAP's master narrative of Singapore history, the first Living with Myths seminar needed—and failed to establish—the strong case against the establishment's accusation of "revisionist history"; that is, the state itself is always reinventing and reinterpreting history, rehabilitating historical villains and excluding inconvenient heroes, re-imagining its core and boundary in response to changing political and policy environments.

It is only through a demonstration of the varied historiography of an assumed 'stable subject' like a nation that an audience is sensitised to the link between history as a narrative (or historical narratives) and ideology, as well as the various myths (history as grand narrative, history from above and below, history by academics, politicians, or people), and more importantly, all good history (hegemonic, counterhegemonic, naive, or otherwise) is based on a vigorous, evidence-based questioning and testing of what is currently known.

Imperium: Myths and the Nature of Governance in Singapore

Thum Pin Tjin's opening presentation in Myths II redressed the problem we identified in Myths I. Instead of presenting a paper or a piece of research, Thum embarks on a thought experiment (or what we might call a brief thesis proposal) to compare the self-historiography of the final days of the Roman Republic, the final decades of British administration in Singapore, and the early decades of the PAP administration in Singapore.

It is a thought experiment in the sense that Thum does not delve into or even quote the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, the Colonial Office archives, documentary reels, or newspaper reports of speeches. Neither does Thum compare policies or policies or even histories (official, authorised, popular, and suppressed) between these eras.

But given what is broadly known, Thum makes the case for a historiography of Empire based on the myths of exceptionalism and vulnerability (of the polity, which justifies unprecedented legal oppression), and meritocracy (legitimising the party as "fit to rule").

There are three pitfalls to this approach, none of which are the fault of the thought experiment approach. It is one thing to identify Rome, the British Empire, and Singapore as grounded in Thum calls imperialistic myths, quite another to identify or prove they resorted to employing imperialistic narratives of history. Thum suggests how the 3 groups of  "illiberal imperialists" and their narrative of the polity created and controlled the historiography of the polity, both enabling and circumscribing citizens and subjects to experience the polity-as-written, but evidence is presented for legislative control of public discourse of the polity, not for the analysis of this public discourse. Most importantly, the chance is missed again to point out that grand narratives are anything but; beneath the veneer of mastery lies an anxiety of influence, a conscious revisionism of previous narratives, a defensive reaction against contemporaneous competing narratives.

Social welfare in Singapore

Ho Chi Tim's presentation examines the gap between the PAP government's rhetoric on social welfare (it is invariably a very bad thing, being financially unsustainable and encouraging indolence and discouraging self-sufficiency in the people) with the very real social welfare programmes it runs.

A former social worker turned historian, Ho sets up an ironic dichotomy between the PAP ideology on welfare and the very concrete policies, ministries, semi-government bodies and social organisations that make up the social welfare ecosystem in Singapore—and identifies the ecosystem as a largely intact inheritance from the Labour colonial administration from the 1950s, and its laissez faire "administration" of Singapore's varied populations.

What Ho leaves unexamined is most interesting: Where does the PAP's anti-welfare ideology originate? How are the originating societies faring now in terms of the "dangers" of social welfare? Does the PAP's anti-welfare rhetoric affect the extent and implementation of social welfare? How well does the colonial era structure of social welfare serve the needs of an independent and modern Singapore?

Heritage in Singapore

Freshly minted with a PhD, Wong Chee Meng attempted to summarise his thesis paper in the space of 20 minutes for a lay audience.

Had Wong possessed better time management or the audacity of Thum, he would have reworked his presentation on the heritage sector to focus on its role in the invention of tradition, to apply Hobsbawn's concept of how national tradition and culture is always a modern (re)invention to the "Singapore story".

The varied case studies which Wong had insufficient time to expound on would show how Singapore as a very recently independent polity has had to invent and repurpose its colonial history (as part of the Straits Settlements, as a Crown Colony, as an administrative idea called Malaya, or even part of an intended Dominion of Malaya), its subjects and heroes (who as naturalised citizens of the British Empire and dual citizens of two empires by right of Manchu, KMT, and early communist China's jus sanguinis law never actually belonged to it) to give a "national" perspective to an era where Singapore was not a nation and not thought of as a nation, and to create Singaporean citizens and subjects where none actually existed.

It is Wong and his research which attest that history in Singapore, as elsewhere, involves constant, if not periodic revision and often by state actors as a political process of rehabilitation, exclusion, and boundary maintenance. He and Thum should have answered the existential question of 'revisionist history' in Myths I more directly.

29 July 2014

Living with myths I: The Singapore Story

Being a review of the opening act of a year-long project

New Singapore History, its challenges, and its reply

It would be interesting to consider Living with Myths as a counterhegemonic programme to preempt the PAP's self-celebratory propaganda on the eve of Singapore's 50th anniversary as an independent state.

The keynote presentation by Dr Hong Lysa focused on the recent remarks in public by Hong Lysa, Loh Kah Seng and Thum Ping Tjin on one hand and Weichong Ong, Alex Au, Kumar Ramakrishna, Tan Tai Yong, and Kishore Mahbubani on the other about the role and dangers of a revisionist historiography of Singapore.

Is "revisionist history", pace Au, a futile attempt to resurrect old quarrels that are irrelevant to modern Singapore? Or is it, pace Ramakrishna, either a naive and uncritical oppositional reading of history borne out of a desire to oppose at best, or a persistent "cherry-picking of the historical record" at worst? Can the revisionist project poisoned by political intent, according to Tan, or perhaps by insinuations of political intent? Is the place of revisionist historical research only to supplement and strengthen Singapore's success story by telling of its failures and rejects? Does it exist at the expense of national security and social cohesion, as Ong claims but never quite explains how it might happen here or indeed has happened anywhere at all?

By collating these statements and responding to the implied critique to the historical research just resulted in the debunking the PAP narrative of Operation Coldstore, Hong presents not a triumphal project but one whose legitimacy is questioned by the Singapore establishment and purported institutional gatekeepers who speak on its behalf.

Hong's (and Edgar Liao's as well) defense of this project is equally institutional. However revisionist, the research is still based on verifiable historical facts, archival records, interviews, and memoirs; however revisionist, New Singapore History utilises the processes, analytical tools, and logic of good historical research; however revisionist, the project is not political, the researchers being motivated to do good history, not politics - even if the research may have potential, immediate political consequences.

Forgetting the myths of history

We note the delegitimising charges of 'historical revisionism', writing 'alternate history', and the crude political scaremongering of 'Historical Research can be a Threat to National Security or Social Cohesion' are all accusations that assume certain myths of history.

It is all fine for Hong and Liao to present summaries of papers that have debunked certain myths of Singapore's history; I would go further to situate the two camps in the historical-cultural-academic field playing for the stakes of academic legitimacy and reputation, each side investing their position by promoting different myths of History. I would go as much as to say that myths of history are best identified, explained, and debunked by taking an audience through a history of how history has been written.

These myths of history are evoked in the establishment's challenge to New Singapore History and its response:

1. History is written by the victors. That is, only victors have the right to write right history, and legitimate history concerns itself with victors, explains why things are the way they are.

2. History as a dynastic record. That is, one can only pass judgement on a group of historical, political, or social actors when their time in the sun has passed. Evoked in Hong's anecdote about the professor who stopped his volume of Singapore history at 1957 and didn't continue with a second volume because 1957 was when the PAP came to power.

3. History as a master narrative. That is, the idea of a primary, orthodox history that is supplemented by lesser accounts that serve to give a "fuller picture", but can never overturn established consensus and understanding of the past.

4. History as a stable narrative. Implied by 1-3.

5. History as research by historians. That is, it's only a proper history if it's written or directed by academics, but not by political and social actors themselves. Evoked by Hong's description of certain New Singapore History publications as memoirs that enrich the historical record and can guide the research of a historian, but do not qualify as good history.

Ideally, the seminar series needed to open with a brief survey of the development of History as a discipline (i.e. the history of writing history), to expose the role of writing history with the role of mythmaking and ideological formation. These preliminaries are necessary to understand the contention over "myths of history" as a contest over the mythology of history.

More importantly, these preliminaries illustrate that really-existing history, even in Singapore, involves constant, if not periodic revision and often by state actors as a political process of rehabilitation, exclusion, and boundary maintenance; that really-existing history is both political and social; that modern historical research often fills in deliberate gaps of previous narratives and is thus misconstrued as "revisionist" or "alternative".

Enter the myth-killers

Most importantly, these preliminaries would easily disprove the biggest myth of history that exists in Singapore: that history is a master narrative. Hong identifies passages in Lee's political biographies that appear overdefensive about minor issues, only to make sense in the context of recently declassified Colonial Office reports.

I would have used this (and other instances) to establish that there is no such thing as a master historical narrative arising ex nihilo. In the schema of critical theory, all narration and writing (including history as a narration, and the writing of history) is intertextual. Every "primary" text is already influenced, answering to, denying, being undermined by, or delegitimising previous and parallel narratives and discourses. While politicians are committed to maintaining the primal state of innocence of doxa, historians (and the historical endeavor) are committed to treating all texts as co-equal, if not co-complementary, alerting to readers the existence of competing possibles and the sum total of the alternatives not chosen by the established order.

Given that Singapore history appears to have more than its fair share of omissions, and that much of it has been written by a young group of leaders perhaps too eager to justify their actions and policies, and too willing to tie them with the development of a national identity, it is hardly a surprise that the unearthing and declassification of archives has provided material to fuel New Singapore History, and why it has come under attack from the Singapore establishment and its appointed gatekeepers in academia.

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).