31 December 2003

The Year in One Minute

(or 1 minute and 15 seconds)

I had the honour of getting the Video Renegades' film shown at Zouk yesterday. On the whole, I think the audience liked it. Then again, it's rare to see a non-abstract, non-experimental short film. I can't remember the last local short film that had an overt commentary on current affairs. The mainstream attitude is "We're Singaporeans, no politics, please."

A One Minute Review for a One Minute Film

The agenda was simple: the Video Renegades are a recently-formed association of underground filmmakers who have taken to refine their skills at producing short films on shoestring budgets.

"The Graduate" was shot in one day (4 hours, in fact), the props cost less than $5, and the humour in it is probably priceless.

When we made this film in February as a tribute to the tenacity of Singaporeans in this annus horribilus, we didn't expect the film to get more and more relevant as the months went by.

For one, the $1.99 Shop line announced its closure a month after we shot the film at its Far East branch (and with it, went our hopes of getting that shop to bless our film). Then, more and more grads remained unemployed... and our leaders said we should be more price-competitive with the workers in China. Of course, they never managed to get our wages cut to $1.88 an hour, but I suspect they're still plotting.

And yet, no matter how lousy this year was, we must agree that excessive misfortune becomes, all too easily, the blackest and funniest of comedies, especially if all this misfortune takes place in everday life, around us.

27 December 2003

Great Classics II

I had an interesting ICQ chat with a friend. Life is treating him well relatively well, you could say. Even as an overworked and underpaid management trainee with a bank, he still has one more job than me, and that's where it counts the most.

We exchanged employment histories for the past 2 years (I had the longer story, in and out of temp jobs and freelancing), and he concluded: "You know, you're not stupid. If you just stopped being a critic, the civil service would be an easy job to get. If you're not from the cookie-cutter, and you are not, you'll never get employment from them, not with that kind of attitude... Challenging ideas should be done in academia. The civil service doesn't hire dissenters or mavericks..."

The civil service is a kind of Holy Grail for Singapore graduates. Like the imperial examination system in old China - which gave us the word "Mandarin" to denote any civil servant - the best products of our education system move on to a job with the bureaucracy. Or at least, that was the way life was supposed to have worked till not so long ago.

Because of the lasting strength of the civil service, and the fact that it IS the pillar of society (You can throw away the leaders, but you can't throw away the cookie-cutter!), thousands of grads still aspire to a cushy job. It helps that with the new year, a grad's starting pay as Mandarin has been adjusted to the more 'reasonable' rate of $2100. A very modest adjustment of 20% downwards in light of the economic realities, given that the starting pay of grads in the private sector is $1500 (if you're very lucky).

Eventually, as my friend hinted, even the mavericks and dissenters have to feed themselves or secure a fatter wallet, and join the Mandarins. We should resist the urge to deny the interviewers, just give them the answers that they want in their essay questions. You're smart enough to get the job, if you just say the right stuff.

Indeed, one of the "great classics" of Chinese literature, the Outlaws of the Marsh (水浒传), depicts a band of rebels, dissenters and mavericks during the waning years of the Song Dynasty. 108 bandit chiefs led a wider resistance centred around Mount Liang against the corrupt and inept administration of a weak emperor, and believed that their dissent - robbing the rich to give to the poor, killing corrupt officials - was justified.

The 'civil service' had failed the system, producing either scholars who said the right things in the exams (but were incapable of fixing the real problems), or officials who were content to receive their guaranteed salaries, pensions, and bribes.

Much is remembered from the Outlaws of the Marsh, especially the exploits of the 108 Heroes: Wu Song killing the Tiger, the Golden Lotus, the Cannibal Inn... But the least-mentioned story is the most important, and it comes at the end of the great novel: the Dissolution of the Outlaws.

The leader of the outlaws, 宋江, used to be a low-ranking civil servant who couldn't get promoted because he wasn't corrupt enough, who believed in some principles, until his desertion. For 100 chapters in the book, Song Jiang frustrates the venal and incompetent administrators and paper generals who come to destroy the bandits. Yet, in the end, the bandit king himself was bought off with an amnesty, a high rank in the civil service, praise for his "patriotic duties", and his bandit army recognised and given official military titles.

Join the civil service. You can't go wrong.

The comeuppance for the Song Jiang was swift. In return for his amnesty, his title, his recognition, the weak Emperor orders his army to combat the Golden Horde of the Mongols in the north. A quarter of the 108 Heroes (and their soldiers) are sacrificed.

Then, on the urging of the same venal, corrupt, and incompetent civil servants, the bandit army is sent south, to quell a rebellion from another group of bandits. The civil servants were farsighted: the capable Song Jiang won the war for them. And his bandit army was exterminated in the battles, eliminating any challenge to their control.

A great bandit leader, a gracious robber is lured by promises of Respectability and a position as a Mandarin, and crosses over. Nothing in Western Lit prepares us for a noble hero "selling off" his principles for a position in the Establishment.

It would be as though Robin Hood, another righteous bandit leader, gave up his fortress in Sherwood Forest, disbanded his Merry Men... for a position as a general. And then, getting sent off to fight a bunch of rebels in some other forest, and having his own army exterminated.

I'd like to prove my friend wrong, of course. I hope... not everyone wants to sell their soul to the civil service, not everyone will say the "right things" just to get the job. But seriously, how many of you here would?

24 December 2003

The Gift of the Gab

or, Why the Great Library of Alexandra Burned Down

LIBRARIAN of the Great Library: ...

MOTHER of the Librarian of the Great Library: Look, this place is in a mess! The scrolls are everywhere!!! Look at this shelf! It's full of SCROLLS!

Librarian: ...

Mother: There are scrolls dating from a few hundred years ago! Are you inviting the bookworms to eat this place up?

Librarian: ...

Mother: Look, are you listening to me or not? I'm going to start spring cleaning in an hour, and I won't be able to clean this place with all these scrolls here!

Librarian: I never asked you to clean the Great Library.

Mother: Look, this chest of useless pamphlets! "Aristotle's Poetics: The Tragedy and the Comedy"??? These lecture notes are worthless, and you're still keeping them?
(hauls chest into the incinerator)

Librarian: !!!

Mother: Now, you listen to me. I'll not have this MESS! These scrolls have been lying here for a few hundred years, and you're collecting them, piling them on the shelves, on the tables, on the floor...

Librarian: Well, I told you we needed more shelves, but you just prefer to throw things out.

Mother: I'm not going to do that this year, oh no... Why should I do the job and SUFFER? It's such a thankless task. You lazy, worthless, pathetic fool who can't even keep things in order...

Librarian: ...

Mother: Blahblahblah yakettyyakyak nagnagnagnagnag just throw the damn scrolls away, idiot blahblahblah don't understand why you're keeping all this trash yakettyakyak oh, you're torturing me to death on purpose aren't you, you're putting all this mess to annoy me aren't you nagnagnagnagnag

Librarian: ...
(Burns down the Great Library in a state of madness)
There, you happy? Next time you EVER mention about 'a mess' again, or throw stuff out without asking me, I'll knock out every tooth in your mouth.

Mother: WHAT DID I EVER SAY? You're the unreasonable one here! That's it, I don't want to see you for the rest of today, I'm going shopping.

(picks up phone): Yo, Euphygenia, you can't believe what my AUNT said yesterday. She's the most insufferable woman I've ever met... Any sequence of words from her mouth would drive the listener stark raving mad! I don't understand why people like her exist in the world! And why I'm related to her! Blahblahblah yaketyakyak, oh poor me, nagnagnag...

And this is how today, more than $500 worth of CDs, manga, books (notably: Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival - bought TWO DAYS AGO, Hillary Clinton's Living History, Roland Barthe's S/Z, an English translation of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms) were thrown down the chute by my mum and me. I'm not counting the board games in my cupboard that I threw away so that I could move all my "piles of worthless thrash" in. Risk, Monopoly, Scrabble (and not the cheapo mini "travel version"), a full-sized Chess set, 2 photo albums...

21 December 2003

Review for Stray

So you’ve written a sardonic, anti-establishment play that pokes fun of, even punctures straitjacketed Singaporean society. Knowing smiles broke out in the audience each time Stray highlighted the insanity of a nanny state that produces conservative, play-it-safe clones. Silent laughter, the most dangerous kind, erupted each time the play held its mirror to a citizenry which has been so disempowered, deprived of most liberties (especially creative ones) that it is only free to participate as vacuous actors in the futile and fashionable pursuit of consumerism and the sham social charades that include televised charity drives, National Day parties, celebrity-watching, economic restructuring exercises... And of course, the obligatory, but oh-so-stinging deconstruction of sound bites from our leaders and typical Singaporeans by the chorus, never failed to bring the house down with genuine laughter.

Yet, to the credit of its playwright Emeric Lau, director Aaron Tan, and talented cast of Stage Pals, Stray never comes across as heavy-handed or polemical when it expresses the rage, alienation, and irreverent, iconoclastic humour of the 20-somethings, its ideal audience. It helps that the humour is always at the expense of the powers-that-be - and the 20-somethings are the first generation in Singapore to openly and savagely mock their leaders in everyday speech - but more importantly, this play is the honest collaboration of people who know and love Singapore too much to want to present the topic in any other way, and in such damning detail.

In his preamble, Lau writes of his struggle against the “dearth of well-written, well-performed original material in the local theatre scene in recent years”. It is a fact that most ‘big’ Singaporean productions are either adaptations of acknowledged Great Plays of the civilised West (modern or classic); huge musicals (any of the interchangeable Dick Lee productions); or “seem to pander to niche audiences” - a code for the Gay Play, which can be dissected into the Gay Martyr Play where every gay person emotes existential angst (the recent stage adaptation of Cyril Wong’s poetry), or the Gay Camp Play that merely celebrates the spending power of its niche community (the vulgarly shallow and consumerist Asian Boys Vol. 1, Shopping and F***ing, among others); or the multi-disciplinary, multilingual, multinational “Pan-Asian” play that has no real message aside from its own salad-bar conception of an ersatz, exotic, and auto-erotic Asian identity. Lau and Tan are right in lamenting that the tradition begun by Kuo Pao Kun seems to have been forgotten.

In this respect, Stray has managed to avoid the pitfalls its creator identifies as endemic to current Singapore theatre. The play is unapologetically original and Singaporean - its themes and issues, sensibility and psyche are undeniably “20something Singaporean”, and most importantly, the play has a real heart and soul; it grapples with real issues. In other words, an attempt to resurrect the tradition of Kuo Pao Kun, a tradition of writing and performing original Singaporean plays while maintaining the intercultural and eclectic osmosis of creativity.

16 December 2003

A New Dream

Kill the 30somethings, they ruined Singapore with their naive borrow/spend/re-sell/upgrade cycle, their economic bubble that burst on us. And while we're reaping their bitter fruits, they're cosily planning on the next upgrade, the next job, the next baby.

No matter. I have an alternative dream to their 6Cs dream that's easily achievable, and has lower expectations fit for the dire straits of our generation.

30something Dream:
Club membership

20something Dream

The new economy for the 20somethings is a contracting economy, in both senses of the word. Gone are the days of the Singapore salaryman, and the Career. Companies are only interested in giving out contracts, so that you, the 20something worker, will never get any medical, leave, and seniority benefits that the 30somethings have managed to cling on to.

Credit is out, as most 20somethings are temp workers in this economy, with no guaranteed income to qualify for a Credit Card. Debit is in, and the cheapest debit card that doesn't require a bank charge is the Cashcard.

2nd-hand HDB flat
While those evil 30somethings upgrade their old flats for condos, we will get their cheap castaways, instead of buying direct and incurring a 30-year debt from the HDB. Besides, the worst thing that can happen to an old flat is leaky pipes. I prefer that to the new flats that show signs of premature aging even before 5 years have passed, like: exploding bathroom screens, popping marble tiles, falling windows, leaking walls....

Friendster membership
Here's a social club that allows people to do heavy-duty networking, for free. Members gain social recognition with each additional testimonial they receive from other members.

With the new economy, everyone's realised that the higher your certificate, the less help it gives in your job hunting. The diploma is now the in thing for this, and the next generation. For once, 30somethings can rest assured that they will be more educated than future Singaporeans.

It's not a case of sour grapes. 30somethings can go on upgrading their cars every few years... but I'm banking on the Northeast MRT line. At the staggering pricetag of One Billion Dollars, it far outranks their cheap cars. And in two years' time, I'll upgrade to the Circle Line, which will probably cost even more. Now, for this kind of expensive transport, shouldn't the social prestige be correspondingly high?

15 December 2003

Rivalries and Competitions

Recently, Annhell made mention of a certain Asian Blog Awards where he was nominated. The good writer was not impressed by the competition itself, or by the very personal attacks between some of the Singaporean nominees.

Perhaps we Singaporeans do have some unique national trait that enable those few to behave very badly in their blogs, but then again, I believe some sniping is inescapable in literary contests. Unlike other contests or competitions where talent or accomplishment can be gauged objectively on say, the Guiness Book of Records or its TV show ("Biggest Eater", "Most Pierced", "Fastest X"), the literary is entirely a field of strategic positioning, or as some might more pointedly put it, strategic posturing. Hence, it does make sense for any interested literary participant or observer to stake out their own position, to articulate their view on what makes a good blog, play, poem, film, novel, etc...

Ten centuries ago, Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon were the leading diarists, poets, and novelists of their time (and I believe they still count in the all-time top 5 of Asian writers), in the Japanese court. Yet, from the diary of Murasaki, we find her writing:

"Sei Shonagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction. Yet, if we stop to examine those Chinese writings of hers that she so pretentiously scatters about the place, we find that they are full of imperfections..."

What Sei Shonagon would've said in response is not known to historians, but we might have a clear idea. Literary critics and historians dub Shonagon as "the witty diarist": frank, sarcastic, witty, and young. In other words, someone who would get away with her sharp comments, as long as they were tastefully done.

In comparison, Murasaki would've been the dignified "Elder Stateswoman". Widowed at 30, she enters the Japanese court at a ripe old age, schooled in Chinese and writing more like a sensitive scholar. One must wonder if the "dull people" in Sei Shonagon's diary entry of "Things I hate in people" might've been a dig at her rival...

Such sniping... even 10 centuries ago! And they didn't even have a competition or award for diary-writing. Then, as with the modern "invention" of the blog, the great Japanese diarists never wrote for themselves, but for a public audience, who waited impatiently for a new entry in anyone's diary.

Then, as now, literary competitions were an exercise in posturing and poseurship for their contestants and nominees, and perhaps much more significantly so for the organiser. The ability to confer "greatness" is greater than the gift itself, and organisers and judges are not unaware of this fact, when they set up or adjudicate at awards... even when that ability is mostly dependant on the social illusion on the part of a number of people, who by their participation, comments, and other behaviour, give "credibility" to the organiser, the judges, and the competition itself.

It is here that I disagree with Annhell on what makes a credible competition: it doesn't matter whether the awards are handed out by a panel of judges, or by a "democratic" vote from the public. There is zero credibility in literary competitions; it all boils down to posturing again. A panel of judges will make annoint a contestant that best represents the political negotiation of their literary agendas and positions on what is "suitably literary", and which judges are the more influential. Pure audience voting will boil down to how well-connected the nominees are to their voters, and how well they marshall these people. Hence, the best blogger might not even be in the XYZ polls, if his/her readers don't tend to read the site where that poll is from. In addition, how the categories for prizes/awards are constituted will also signal clearly the agendas and biases of the organiser.

In real life, it's pretty easy to find horrendous and comic examples of all that. The Asian TV Awards, for example, consists of 140 entries from 15 countries in Asia. Now, how many countries are there in Asia? How many entries did each TV station enter in this competition? (Which is a really sneaky way of asking how few stations dominated the entire "competition").

The Singapore A Cappella Awards decided to go for the online voting system, starting from 2 years ago. As I recall, in 2001, a certain group won the Audience Favourite Award without appearing for any performance on the public showcase dates at Suntec.

For the Asia Star Search award... the organisers must really hope that audiences don't not get too deep into questioning why "ASIA" is represented solely by Singapore, Hongkong, China, and Taiwan. Or, for some other Asian awards, why the first few categories are always from these few countries, then some other technical categories, and then followed by a few other Asian countries, as if they are an afterthought. Or why "Miss UNIVERSE" doesn't have any extraterrestrial contestants.

I don't believe in any credibility of competitions. But a literary competition I'd give two hoots about would rather have

1. Consistent and coherent, meaningful poseurship and strategic posturing from judges, organisers and participants.
2. Not too much of inbreeding, such that the winner is the one with more friends, or a blog circle that marshalls voting from members.

As thebeastz has pointed out, it is unlikely that the Asian Blog Awards would be repeated next year. For the sake of serious bloggers everywhere, I hope that it will never be repeated in its current state/concept.

14 December 2003


A haunting line from a short film. Listening to it articulate my innermost.


12 December 2003


Q: Where does the Minster Without Portfolio work?
A: In the Ministry At Large.

09 December 2003

Long post on cutting things short

As old as the human urge to create art is the equally human urge to creatively truncate art. Call it what you will - editing, expurgating, censorship, summarising, adaptation - this urge has remained with us ever since the First Reader yawned on the umpteenth sentence of the First Writer's manuscript. Today, we bring you on a magical mystery tour across the ages on the fascinating and underappreciated human will to cut things short, to simplify, to reduce.

The Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, whom Harold Bloom credits with "The Invention of the Human", is regarded by most of the English-speaking world as the greatest dramatist in history. Whole forests are sacrificed for scholarly criticisms of Shakespeare's plays.

Yet, there is precious little in these criticisms concerning the bawdy language, crude jokes, and blasphemies that the Bard used. Perhaps the most inventive Shakespearean line that combines all three elements comes from Ophelia, in Hamlet: "Young men will do't, if they come to't; By cock, they are to blame." Act 1, scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet begins with two Capulets making the infamous "maidenhead" joke...

There is no surprise then, that for every William Shakespeare, there is a Thomas Bowdler. The easily-offended prude decided in 1807, that in the interests of family values and politeness, the legacy of Shakespeare should be preserved in an edition where "nothing is added to the original text, but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family." Enter well-meaning censorship. And the world has never quite been the same ever since Bowdler's The Family Shakespeare.

Not that Shakespeare was terribly prolific with blush-inducing phrases and jokes; most of his contemporaries like Ben Jonson had the more inventive phrases like "whoreson base fellow" and "I fart at thee" (not to be confused with Monty Python's "I fart in your general direction"!).

Ever since performance art was unbanned here and with WWE showing at prime-time, our censors have precious little to protect Singapore's morals from. Perhaps they should take a leaf from Bowdler, and produce The Family Diablo: "Re-introducing a popular computer game in a palatable form to the God-fearing Christian family"...

Shakespeare still has fans even in this modern, post-colonial age. The Reduced Shakespeare Company puts on very concise plays (or comedy skits?) that summarise all of Shakespeare's plays AND sonnets in just 97 minutes. And that's just one of their takes on the Bard. There's another offering that claims to present Hamlet backwards and forwards in just 30 seconds flat... In contrast, Kenneth Brannagh's Hamlet runs for an amazing 4 hours.

I'm hoping someone would produce a Complete LOTR (abridged). Doesn't matter whether it's on film or text... but a very abridged version of the book should be top priority.

Or, since the RSC has proven that Shakespeare's plays are so similar to each other that they can be hilariously summarised together as a single play, I'm hoping some guerilla filmmaker will produce a Reduced Wong Kar Wai. Many people point out that the characters from different WKW movies like In the Mood for Love, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, are all similar right down to their personality traits and quirks, as well as what happens to them in the movies.

Speaking of adaptations, do any of you still remember The Illustrated Bible? It had most of the books intact, except for Psalms, Proverbs, and some of the Epistles, which couldn't really be illustrated. What could be achieved was still spectacular: the Bible as a brilliant, visually-captivating story. Of course, sans graphic nudity (I don't recall many panels with Adam and Eve in Eden, the entire sequence was very abstract and subtly handled) and violence, although graphic, realistic depictions of leprosy and plague were okay.

As a lesson from the inspired creators of the Illustrated Bible, our tax department should put in more effort to release The Illustrated Guide to Filling In Tax Forms.

So, next time we hear about great artists, let's not forget their even greater editors, censors, summarisors, and adaptors.

04 December 2003

With Apologies...

Because our national arts council chairman recently gave a speech denouncing "avant garde art", and any art that was too deep for the public and the market, this is my reply to him.

High art isn't inaccessible, you moron.

Today, I will take a break with the politics. Instead I will take three very difficult artistic texts - a very surreal tale from a Czech writer, a very postmodern collection of interconnected short stories from an Italian novelist, and a campy, sardonic stage remake of an old Hollywood movie - and re-interpret them, make them understandable, and speak out to any Singaporean reader.

I. "This is Not Kafka"

How would we tell Metamorphosis without turning K. into a cockroach? I don't believe we've seen a version of the story that's stripped away of its fantastical elements. Can audiences connect with a socially realist and bleak drama?

This phenomenon happens frequently in Japan: a young man, bothered by either work, depression, or even lack of work, will lock himself in the bedroom for years, sometimes more than a decade. Hikikomori is the name given to this affliction of self-isolation.

That's K. Passive, unwilling to become a burden to his family, he enters seclusion in his bedroom one morning. Because he has lost his job, he considerately removes himself from life in the family. He will not be a burden to them as he searches for a job from his room...

After all, Kafka wrote and set Metamorphosis in a turn-of-century Prague, where an earlier economic miracle had turned into a distant dream very suddenly. And instead of a bright future, a bleak desolation lies ahead for everyone. A bleak desolation that will drive young men to despair, seclusion, and self-negation.

II. "This is not Italo Calvino"

This is not "If on a Winter's Night A Traveler..." But something of conspiratorial proportions has been stifling the development of art in this small city for the past 30 years. An art historian, a student, takes up a research project on "the great unfinished works" of a small circle of artists, now dead and forgotten.

In the forest of images, where a painting tells the story of a book about a film documentary on musicians, can the student find the key to the mystery of the disappearance of artists in the city?

III. This is not Sunset Boulevard

Lydia is an aging comedian. An old pal who got invited to take over a TV station in a foreign land gives her a chance to resurrect a career on its last legs.

Reality-TV style, an expose on the disaster follows. The megalomaniacal diva who doesn't realise her star has faded. The lame jokes from the uninspired scriptwriters who would rather work on something else, except they're TV station employees. A series that is watched by very few, yet qualifies as a "hit" only because Lydia has sufficient clout to demand/bargain for more seasons.

And the final insult? When the scriptwriters finally walk off the set, a completely unknown bunch of maverick writers going by the name of "The Video Renegades", with a secret plan to take over the world beginning with the TV station, con themselves into the job. And perhaps, just perhaps... their offbeat humour might work.

30 November 2003

The Power of Three

Recently, an ancient incantation popped up after years of disuse, when first our Minister of Labour and then the heir apparent to the throne threatened, not subtly, to close down the union for the national airlines.

The heir apparent, Mini-Lee, specifically plagiarised his father's 1980 confrontation with the same trade union, threatening that "I don't want to do you in, but I won't let anyone do Singapore in".

"Tripartite Relations"

Attention, shoppers: the magical phrase is Tripartite Relations. Following a venerated tradition, the "leadership" of Singapore plagiarises and then bastardises key political, economic, and social theories from academics, and then attempt to pass off the product as "uniquely Singaporean", thus excusing themselves from the usual obligations of democracy and accountability.

But let's not get sidetracked here... the issue is "tripartite relations" between the State - which in Singapore, always means the Party, Capital, and Labour. To understand what this magical phrase means, it is necessary to take a magical journey back in time for 150 years... to October 1847.

Like all good stories, this one begins "in media res", in the middle of the plot, so as to speak. The Industrial Revolution had been under way for almost a century in Western Europe. Poor William Wordsworth had much to lament in the 19th century about the despoiling of nature, so much that his muadlin verses on flowers and clouds gradually became nostalgic in his countrymen's eyes within his lifetime, due to the ravages of industrialisation, urbanisation, and rural migration in England. For that eventual rapproachment with his initially unreceptive readers, Wordsworth became the poet laurette.

Too bad then, that the poet never pointed to the real ravages of industrialisation on the human soul. The industrial revolution created a new class of people, the Capitalists, who owned the factories where hundreds of thousands toiled, in very abysmal conditions and very low pay.

By 1799, one year before Wordsworth's famous "Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey", the capitalists got smart enough to bribe the very corrupt government of William Pitt, to ban the formation of trade unions. The unions would've had sufficient bargaining clout to negotiate for higher pay and more humane conditions.

Back to 1847, fifty years on. By that time, unions are banned in most of Western Europe, and the exploitation of workers boiled to crisis proportions. Enter Marx, with the Communist Manifesto. The rest, they say, is history.

Marx might have been a poor Communist philosopher (and he expressedly insisted that he was never a Communist), but he was a brilliant economist who saw the problems of early capitalism, which probably would have "did capitalism in" if Marx didn't publish his analysis.

It did however take almost a century before economists began to take Marx seriously, and only because of the great crisis of industrial capitalism, which we know as the Great Depression. The great arch-Capitalist Henry T. Ford eventually gave in and reversed his opposition to labour unions within his factories, and hence started the ball rolling on modern trade unions.

And tripartite relations? Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programme echoed most economic-political reforms in capitalist countries across the Atlantic Ocean.

The "welfare state", maligned as it is in today's discourse, is a valid description for every modern capitalist country.

The state's policy basically guarantees the near full-employment conditions in the economy for the capitalists.

For Labour, the state guarantees basic working conditions, such as instituting minimum wage laws, and safegauarding work conditions.

Since the state's aim is for an economy operating near full-capacity, it takes out "unemployment insurance" for workers caught in the wrong part fo the economic cycle, hence the dole.

To provide a decent workforce for the factories, the state heavily subsidises education, as modern industrial economies require a workforce schooled with a foundation in Math, Science, or Engineering.

In general, this agenda sounds like most of the modern "capitalist" countries. What we practise then, is a reformed capitalism, reformed by Marx's analysis of the flaws of the early system.

23 November 2003

PAP Governance from the 1984 Operations Manual

"How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?"
"And if the Party says that it is not four but five - then how many?"

The powers-that-be probably had enough of the popular heckling of its failed PR-exercise on White Horses, and went back to the issue of the Great Leader's London Trip to cover it up - an irony, since the White Horse affair was probably leaked in order to relieve tension on the Great Leader.

The national newspaper duly reported that contrary to what the Great Leader and his medical team announced almost 3 weeks ago, the missus had suffered a cataclysmic stroke with internal bleeding, the kind that kills 8 out of 10 such stroke victims. And contrary to rumour, the missus flew back on a commercial SIA plane, where none of the passengers had a clue about who was in the first-class front cabin.

"How many fingers, Winston ?"
The needle went up to sixty.
"How many fingers, Winston?"
"Four! Four! What else can I say? Four!"

It's all very nice, case resolved with the proper explanations from all involved. The Great Leader is not an unfair man who abuses his status.

But questions remain:
1. You mean to say the entire medical team and the Great Leader lied about the condition of the missus from the beginning? In their original words, it was a "mild stroke".

2. The entire medical team originally claimed that the missus' condition wasn't life-threatening or serious. They felt she could survive a 18-hour flight three days after her stroke. Such high-altitude flights would normally induce massive bleeding in the cataclysmic stroke patients! Now, their heads should roll for putting her into such danger, and she should've stayed in London at a private hospital for a month.

3. You mean to say the Great Leader lied when he said our national airline spent 2 days retrofitting a plane so it would be, in his own words during the initial press conference, "a flying hospital"? How modest that we are now told her flying hospital consisted of just the front cabin on the plane, in the first class section.

4. Let me ask: if you spend 2 days retrofitting a plane on short notice, surely it means it screws up the entire flight schedule of the commercial passengers?

And surely, given the status of the Great Leader, his missus, and family on the plane... standard security procedures would've been taken, like body checks, more scans before boarding, lots of security personnel with earphones. Surely it'd be impossible for the passengers to notice that someone big was on the plane?

Incidentally, we are never given the flight number of the "commercial plane" that Great Leader and missus took home.

"How many fingers, Winston?"
"Four! Stop it, stop it! How can you go on? Four! Four!"
"How many fingers, Winston?"
"Five! Five! Five!"
"No, Winston, that is no use. You are lying. You still think there are four. How many fingers, please?"
"Four! Five! Four! Anything you like. Only stop it, stop the pain!"

Incidentally, I think both operations Great London Escapade and White Horse were brilliant sucesses of the Government, and should be acknowledged as such. In the end, the public is told what it needs to know, and has absolutely no way of refuting what it is told.

My previous post about the White Docket scheme was a spoof of the news reports on the White Horse revelations by the Minister of Defense, Cedric Foo. And yes, White Dockets really do exist, as pointed out by one of my readers. But it does illustrate the principles of information management that qualifies his actions as a success.

There is nothing secret about White Horses, the state of POW training in commando camps, the waste of time and money - to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars - by bureaucrats on WITS projects, and even White Dockets, which, as a reader points out, really exist. These secrets are "open secrets", some as old as modern Singapore itself.

The recent disclosures of the first 3 issues in open Parliament is a fantastic and brilliant move. If they never raised these issues in open Parliament, it would be impossible for us to discuss White horses, commando training, and WITS projects in any open forum (open = public, can be logged down).

The only venue to speak about these issues in the past was always in secret, and always as an act of very discreet "indiscretion", as a private matter transmitted from one individual to another. These indiscretions would be largely subversive, underlying connotation "Singapore is not a clean country".

That these topics are now able to be discussed in Singapore shows how much we owe to Mr. Foo, and how much permission was actually needed before Singaporeans feel they can talk about this openly.

Not only are they allowed to talk freely, now everyone is incited to debate the issue of favouritism in a context that is socially favourable. The connotations are now socially engineered in a single stroke, and changed to "standards of fairness". Such discourse is not subversive, but conservative and reactionary, re-affirming the values of justice, equality, clean government and efficient administration. The dissent of public discourse is subverted, tamed and domesticated.

And besides, according to the officials, all these activites belong to the past, and no longer take place. There is no more biased treatment of certain soldiers, no more White Horse classfications, no more deaths in the army, no more illegal and questionable army training, no more wastefulness in the civil service. Hence, it is impossible for future discourse to be subversive, or continue to bear any connotations that "Singapore is not a clean society."

Can we disagree? And where would we find the proof to back our dissent? We will neither find out just how bad the abuses and mistakes were, and whether they still exist.

In fact, our leaders have just decisively shown who's in charge here. At the end of the day, they control the information, how much Singaporeans are allowed to know, and what Singaporeans are allowed to talk about, and in what context.

And this is why the Civil Service is still the ideal job of every graduate here. It pays to stick with the winners.

"How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?"
"I don't know. I don't know. You will kill me if you do that again. Four, five, six - in all honesty I don't know."
"Better", said O'Brien.

20 November 2003

Minister Reveals More Mindef Secrets

The Singapore Minister of Information and the Arts, Mr. Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, has announced in Parliament today another Mindef bombshell: since 1965, the Ministry of Information has been tracking all Singaporeans with secret dossiers, which track them from birth till death.

This unveiling is the third this month, after the recent disclosures about the illegal POW training in a Commando school and the "White Horse" policy where sons of prominent and rich Singaporeans were earmarked for ordinary treatment in the army.

Announcing the secret dossier policy, Mr. al-Sahaf assured MPs in the House that the "White Docket" scheme has been discontinued since 2000.

"It was for valid security reasons and for the sake of nurturing a capable and law-abiding population that the White Dockets were instituted. When any Singaporean child is born, a White Docket is opened - we need to keep track of all Singaporeans' family backgrounds, to see who is safe, and who may put the State and society in danger. When you enter school, all your form teachers were required to make annual personality assessments on trustworthiness, obedience, and conformity, among other moral criteria.

"The secret dossiers follow Singaporeans wherever they go, from primary school to junior college, and even to the army. It is also used for employment, security clearance, employment, and risk evaluation in both the civil service and the GLCs, which of course employ more than half of all Singaporeans."

The Minister claimed that the policy has been terminated since 2000, because of changes in official perceptions. "The Ministry decided it is, in the long run, not cost-effective to have the system keep track of all Singaporeans."

Nominated MP Steve Chia had begun to ask questions designed to probe more information about how the secret dossier policy functioned, what "criteria of judging morality" were exercised, and who authorised this scheme when the time ran out for discussion. Parliament will move on to other topics tomorrow, when it adjourns.

Reactions from the public have been muted so far. Social commentor Prof. Kao Beh Simi suggested that the public may have reached "saturation point" with the recent spate of shocking disclosures of abuses of power, about-turns in policy, and inefficiencies in the government. "Of course, it is an open secret that actual army training violates the safety regulations of the army; that the army treats sons of influential Singaporeans with kid gloves; that Singaporeans are tracked with secret dossiers; and that Ministers don't need to queue at hospitals. Since everyone knows about it, it doesn't have much of an impact as a real revelation since people have just decided to close an eye to it, and I predict they will continue to close an eye to this too."

19 November 2003

Bush arrives in London, faces protests

George W. Bush has arrived in the UK on a state visit, a first for any US president. He will also be the first US president to sleep over at Buckingham Palace since 1918, when Woodrow Wilson was accorded the honour. Unlike Wilson, Bush will be greeted with a 21-gun salute.

Central London will be cordoned off to all traffic, and 5000 police will be deployed on the streets as part of extraordinary security measures, a historical first for the city. The move, however, is widely unpopular with the British public, which is split in the middle on the Bush visit. Tens of thousands of protestors are expected to march near the Palace to heckle the US President on Thursday.

A grandmother, Ms. Lindis Percy, 61, was the first demonstrator yesterday to climb over the gates of the Palce to plant a yellow banner declaring "Bush is not welcome".

Protests in Singapore

An unexpected protest came from the highest office in Singapore, when the Senior Minister called a press conference to express his displeasure with the Bush visit. Speaking to a packed newsroom, Mr. Lee complained that the visit showed favoritism towards Bush and a lack of regard for his own status during his previous visit to the UK.

Visibly bristling with controlled anger, the great leader jabbed the air with his left finger as he said, "Look, I went to the UK two weeks ago. Did they close down central London for me? They didn't even close down the hospital I had to visit when my wife had a stroke! I spent the night sitting on the hospital waiting room, while this Bush fellow gets to sleep in the Palace! I am the founding father of Singapore, and obviously rank higher than GW Bush!"

Lessons for Singapore

Mr. Lee declared that the incidents showed lessons for Singapore's survival.

"We must obviously not follow the United Kingdom's slide into mediocre service. I am at least happy that in Singapore, the traffic police will definitely close off the roads to the Istana or any part of Singapore at my command. Our police and army are always ready to mobilise whenever I get bad dreams about terrorist attacks. This shows that Singapore has a bright future and excellent hopes for beating this recession."

The Press Secretary for Tony Blair has issued a statement reaffirming its cordial ties with Singapore, and has explained that "the UK has special relations with the United States, which means to say, GW Bush is more important to us than the Senior Minister."

17 November 2003

Job Market Roundup 2003

A friend just finished his final paper for the BA in music and flew back home shortly after. It's a little funny how he'd spent the past three days packing his luggage, and still managed to leave two haversacks back in Melbourne. Then again, I suspect that was because of the weight limit, rather than a slip of the mind.

I accepted my friend's invitation to "walkabout town", and so I ended up at Bugis Junction, shopping with my very zombiefied friend. Despite his stupor, he managed to come to a quick decision after looking at the tonnes of unemployed people hanging about Singapore: he'll accept the invitation to do his Masters of Music.

Then again, it was rather scary seeing too many taxicabs on the road; the fabled "eternal taxi queue of death" was nowhere in sight at the Bugis taxi stand. The refugees of the economic recession, helping to make our transport system less painful.

In our amazingly short queue for the taxi, my friend and I came up with a comic item that probably annoyed any listeners, but greatly entertained ourselves.

Top Jobs in Today's Economy - where do our recently unemployed or recently graduated Singaporeans go?

~Taxi driver for Comfort cabs~
Remember all the reports of 30something former execs and 40something degree-holders driving cabs? If you thought the 1998 boom in the taxi industry was scary, think again.

~Sales Executive~
There must be some secret to getting people spend money when they haven't got any. 80% of job listings in Classifieds are for sales.

~Financial Planner~
Investment and Taxes. See "Sales" and "Recession". And the entry above.

~Insurance Agent~
Can someone tell me why all the insurance companies are calling up the NUS/NTU database of all graduates from 2001 onwards?

~Data-entry worker~
Ever wonder why everyone and his dog is allowed to ask for your I/C number, home address, email, age, and probably income and education level, for just about any old reason? My dears, that's to keep the data-entry grunts busy!

~Tuition Teacher~
Yes, let's do our part to make sure today's students end up as overeducated and unemployable as their tuition teachers/recent graduates.

Our PM says, the Hotel/FNB industry needs you!

Distributing flyers pays, and some companies have armies of pamphleteers every corner of a street, underground tunnel, MRT station... all waiting to pounce on you.

~Donation Solicitor~
That's right. Our charity organisations have a shady deal with the companies that run the pamphleteer business. All operatives get paid a 20% commission on amount of money raised for the charity. Now, I'd rather give my money to a conman pretending to be a deaf-mute than donate a single cent to the thieves running our charities.

~Yasumi (休暇) ~
If all else fails, do what the Japanese do: say you're on vacation.

15 November 2003

Sesame Street begins broadcast to Middle East

From yesterday onwards, little children everywhere in the Middle East will enjoy an educational television program aimed at fostering peace and mutual acceptance amongst Arabs and Israelis. The project is funded by the European Union, thank goodness... so there won't be any bias.

I'm sure if the US of A funded it, the show would largely be a PR stunt for "the spread of democracy in the Middle East, beginning with Liberated Iraq". Top US generals would probably appear on some episodes, saying the reason for their country's supremacy is "My God is bigger than his". Grouchy Oscar would probably be replaced with a look-alike of the evil Kim Jong Il, with his trash can doubling as a nuclear processing plant/hidden weapon of mass destruction!

One thing I'm sure of, today's episode will be proudly brought to you by the number 400, which is the death toll of American soldiers killed since their illegal invasion and occuption of Iraq began.

05 November 2003

A Plan to Revive the Economy

Watching Singapore telly is worse than stabbing your eyes out, especially when it comes to locally-produced telly. Mediacorp proudly proclaims that it has more than 40 years of experience in public tv broadcasting, but surely much more can be desired from the producers of such gems like Living with Lydia, Brothers 4, The Ways of the Matriarch?

It's time, we feel, for the Media Development Authority to end the ridiculous monopoly of Mediawhore - a monopoly, because the said company still receives 80% of total funding. For once, MDA should encourage really independent production houses to produce their own stuff. Having mediacorp or mediaworks (Twiddledumb and Twiddledumber?) do in-house production or commission third-parties to bring to life their half-baked ideas... basically leads to awful television, bad accounting, and the closure of the market to independent competitors.

Here is a list of what locally-produced shows might actually succeed in Singapore:

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Why the hell should we watch some really boring travel shows where you get to see the landscape, the culture, the foreign people? The tourist is the real star of a travel program, and the biggest star in Singapore is our Great Leader, Mr. "It's fair that I got a discount for my luxury condo in 1989 because I'm a star, like Madonna"!

Follow our Great Leader and his family as they tour around the world and make devastating comments on the food, service, economy of the foreign country!

See how the rich and famous of Singapore push, cajole, drop names, and threaten ignorant foreigners, to get ahead in a queue! See the rich and famous travel round the world in specially chartered private planes from the national airline!

Proudly sponsored by: Chan Brothers Travel and Singapore Airlines.

Exchanging Lives

Who on earth would give a hoot to see pampered celebrity Kumar exchange places for a day with celebrity adventurer Pierre Png? Or to see a pampered middle-class Singapore exchange lives with an African family for a week?

Each week on Exchanging Lives, a minister will exchange places with an unemployed Singaporean. That will teach the minister just how easy it is to follow their own advice to "settle for any job", don't you think?


Every week, this reality tv/game show will focus on the travails of different unemployed Singaporeans. Cheer them on, as they work hard to land a job, any job! Afterall, it's time we prepared Singaporeans' mindsets for the New Economy.

As befitting the advice of our Prime Minister, see each unemployed bloke and gal settle, plead, and even offer to work for free in the service industry, which of course boils down to 1. waitering, 2. sales, 3. making ramen.

The Great Reformation

Why watch the crap that is Mohlmein High?

This year-long reality series will follow the ups and downs, the hope and uncertainty that follow the pioneer batch of Singapore kids, the "guinea pigs" of education reforms, in their final year of JC/secondary school. And their teachers, who got into NIE for job security... now blunder about from the lack of 10-year series guides to rely on, and are forced to actually teach their students. There's the REAL angst that kids are facing: the incomprehensibility and senility of a system that refuses to die.

Yes, Prime Minister

This comedy is all about a clueless, newly appointed PM, who struggles to carve his own political identity in face of mounting doubt and derision from the skeptical public. He also must face the bureaucrats, who think they run the country; his father, the Senior Minister, who drops in every episode to 'give advice'; and the Other Senior Minister, i.e. the previous PM, who feels he is now entitled to a say in the running of the country. What's worse is, his political opponent Dr Suan Jee Choon keeps taunting him with the line "You think your father own the country issit?"

Poor PM!

03 November 2003

The Ugly Singaporean Tourist

The strangest thing happened last night when I turned on the telly. Our Great Leader, after nearly one week since his missus contracted a stroke while touring in the UK, finally came back to Singapore, and the first thing he did was to give a press conference slamming the foreign country as a place with poor service, lousy healthcare, and nothing compared to our great, efficient nation. The Ugly Singaporean Tourist rears his head, in a personage no one scarcely expected. The details of the sordid tale is here.

The charge? Mrs. Great Leader had a stroke and was admitted to a London hospital. The doctors took 8 hours before they handled her, prefering instead to tend to 3 heart attack patients. Mr. Great Leader was so annoyed at not getting prompt service that he demanded to fly back to Singapore. So, Singapore Airlines mobilised an aircraft, get a team from SGH to retrofit the plane with the necessary equipment, and flew Mr and Mrs Great Leader home on that plane.

What did Mr. Great Leader complain was 'wrong' in how the london hospital staff treated his missus?

Lee said he and his wife had earlier waited 45 minutes for an ambulance to take them to the hospital for what was only a 10-minute drive. "If she was in Singapore, within... one and a half hours flat, we'd know exactly what went wrong," he said. Lee reportedly said the incident highlighed the problems of Britain's free health care system compared with Singapore's part user-pays method. "We run a system where you have to co-pay... but you get the attention. There, no attention, just join the queue."

Er, like. Let's give this guy a slap on the back of his head, shall we? If an average Singaporean had a stroke....

1. The ambulance may come in a few hours. Or it may not even come, as previous horror stories in the papers have reported.
2. After arrival at the A&E department of a Singapore hospital, you'll have to wait anything from 12 to more than 24 hours to see the doctor.
3. Mr. Lee, have you ever tried queueing when you visit a Singapore hospital?

According to some Ministry of Health guidelines, and from what I remember from my brief period as a volunteer, a Catscan needs to be done on a stroke patient from between 8 to 24 hours of a stroke. Stroke patients are indeed ranked on lower priority than heart attack patients, because a stroke tends to lead to a stabilised (but weak) condition and is usually not life-threatening. A heart attack can lead to death, and the patient health do not self-stabilise. Mrs. Great Leader's stroke was actually handled according to proper guidelines and procedures by the UK hospital.

What we can learn from Mr. Great Leader's experience... and let's just ignore whatever patriotic propaganda he's trying to spin out of this, is:
1. Being a big star entitles you to special treatment from Singapore Airlines. If you're big enough, they'll even prepare a private plane for you in 2 days.
2. Please, when you visit another country, try not to complain about how slow everything is, and expect everything to be run as "fast" and "efficiently" as Singapore.
3. If you're the Great Leader, everywhere you go in Singapore, you get special treatment. But not if you're overseas. Don't get too cocky and expect the United Kingdom to revolve around you, when you already have Singapore for that.

02 November 2003

Disenchantment, Re-enchantment, Re-disenchantment

Today's topic is on the venerable Luohan fish that Singaporeans used to keep as a wildly popular hobby in the past 3 years. It's a good time to pontificate on this utterly serious matter, after today's reports that people are dumping the hobby fish into the sewers, flushing them down the toilets, releasing them into reservoirs and ponds, and even dumping them in front of aquariums.

As we all know, Singapore is a modern, capitalist society full of hardheaded, pragmatic people who believe in meritocracy and social mobility. This means, no ridiculous superstitious and unscientific beliefs like "the rich will get richer, and the poor, poorer", or "if I arrange my furniture thus and thus...", or "he is a son of so-and-so, of course he's rich". For most part, Singaporeans are proud to believe that no one owes them a living, that the good life can be attained by anyone if they tried hard enough. Social scientists call this demystification a "disenchantment of the world" that is a feature of modern society.

After 1999, when it became apparent that the country would not recover from the 1997 economic crisis, Singaporeans remained honourably disenchanted with the world, prefering to pick up the pieces of shattered financial portfolios by becoming entrepeneurs; we still believed then, that social mobility and sucess could be attained. So, everyone and their dog started a tuition business. Then, everyone and their mum opened a bubble tea shop in every third store of a street. And when that failed, everyone and their cat opened a handphone accessories shop.

Gradually though, the forces of science and technology took a step back from the rise of magick, when people started buying luohan fishes, those scarily mutated looking giant fish that seem to have lottery numbers showing on their bodies. We became a nation of superstitious gamblers; everyone either had, or knew a relative who had these ugly but lucky fish.

Yet today, the ridiculous fish fad has sunk. Luohan fish that used to fetch as much as $4000 now sell for $20 or less in aquariums. Our migrant construction workers collect them from ponds and reservoirs to EAT. We have become, full-circle, disenchanted again.

You can tell the difference from the original state of naive disenchantment from today's version. No one believes that "it is glorious to be rich!", since it is impossible to get rich anymore. There will be no real recovery, only a jobless recovery. Hope has disappeared, and we are truly disenchanted.

23 October 2003

Not Wordsworth

Only those people who have been to Little India, or lived in the Northeast in late 1999, would know what's going on... But I'm interested to know what others might think when they read this too.

Notes: final revision.

Lines composed on a bus in Little India, during a traffic jam on my way home, October 1999

Is the city an architectural space
or an afterimage of our constant motion?
We recognise urbanity only in a traffic jam.

We dragged Little India into modernity.
Its settlements hastily torn down,
the residents labelled squatters and redistributed.
Today, a commercial space of ethnic products
for the Indian community.

The traffic jam is a totally random
yet regular feature.
A persistent epiphenomenon.

Little India is a one-way street.
Migrant workers alight at Jalan Besar
whose Chinese-run motor parts and home decor stores
neither invite or entice.
The visitor crosses the road
into the no-man's land of the red-light district
and magically appears in Little India.

Once, being a pedestrian was a subversive act.
Migrant workers disregard the 'do nots' of walking:
They jaywalk, creep into the bus lane, ignore traffic signals;
stop at road junctions, on the pavements, in the open fields.
Little India is a true pedestrian mall. Unlike Orchard Road.

Because they loiter, or maybe because they wander,
migrant workers are dangerous and vaguely criminal:
Bright fluorescent lights and security cameras
shall drive them away from the jewellery shops.

No matter, we will curb them:
fences to keep them off the road
hired coaches to keep them out of public buses.

This is all history erased.
There are no migrant workers in Little India.
They are transported safely, 20 to a truck
from their quarters to work and back again.
Nevermind it violates their basic safety,
we now have a world-class traffic system.

20 October 2003

Organisational Culture

Last Friday, a ridiculous scene played out in Parliament, when it was revealed by the Minister for Defense, that a commando died in a routine exercise in camp. The farcial elements seem to outshine the tragedy of the situation; I do not use the word "ridiculous" lightly here.

To humanise the situation, let us call this commando a mere boy, since he was 19 years when he died. That was, of course, two months ago. The wheels of justice must turn exceedingly slow in Singapore, since he died almost two months ago. That's Ridiculous Fact no. 1.

How did he die? Well, the commandoes are a very different sub-species in the army. They apparently have very interesting exercises, such as: "simulating a POW experience" as part of the training needed for this elite branch of the Singapore Army to properly defend the country. To put strip that phrase of its clinical and self-serving rhetoric, we'll call it "simulating conditions of torture", because that's what it boils down to. This includes dunking the victim (or "Trainee", in the military parlance of this "simluation exercise"), head-first, into cold water. It is not known how long the head is submerged in water, or whether this constitutes only a part of a much larger regime of similar simulations. Hence, Ridiculous Fact no. 2: the kid died in peacetime, in an exercise that served no positive purpose. It was, of course, a realistic simulation: people do die from torture, or die from exhaustion and minor injuries from the torture. The Minister has denounced the practice and ordered a halt to all simulation exercises of this sort.

Of course, just about everyone who's been to National Service in this country would know, or have heard of such practices, mostly through second-hand knowledge: someone's bound to have a classmate or a friend who served time with the Commandoes. Even if one didn't step into an army camp, one would already know from second-hand knowledge of what goes on in military training in Elite army schools. I'll try not to mention Demi Moore's G.I. Jane here, but it's such a taken-for-granted 'fact' that everyone 'knows' even without needing to see the truth for themselves. Ridiculous Fact no. 3: Our Minister of Defense, a Brigadier-General, was unaware of this practice, which had been going on and on for years. Ever since Singapore's army was started in the 50s. And of course, so was Mini-Lee, another Brigadier-General, and Teo Chee Hean, a Rear-Admiral of the navy (and some say, the NEXT PM, after Mini-Lee!). All 3 figures are, of course, Ministers in the cabinet.

I would give them the benefit of the doubt, and insist that the 2 BGs and the RAdm should be taken at their word (I mean to say this without cracking up in laughter of course). They really are unaware of what's going on in the army. Which brings us to Ridiculous Fact no. 4: Our army is administered by scholar-generals who are not involved in daily operations and training, who have worked in the confines of an office for 90% of their period of service to the armed forces. The elite managers and stewards of the army... are glorified bean counters and office bugs. This isn't peculiar to Singapore, and I'm disappointed at not being able to gloat at our claims to be the weirdest nation on Earth. Most of the elite generals at the Pentagon are office bugs too.

Ridiculous Fact no. 5: the people who really run the army on a daily basis, who make the real decisions that affect the people they command, are the middle managers - the Commanding Officers of the camps. These are the most corrupt elements of the army. They're "on ground zero" of all military operations. Every infringement of rules that take place, occur with their approval. It is the commanding officers who insist on subverting 'rules' guaranteeing the safety of their charges. It's common knowledge that there are certain managers who prevent their soldiers from reporting sick before any exercise or test, as it would jeapordise the RANKING of the camp or unit or formation. That's how the Commandoes managed to clinch the "Best Formation" award almost every year, until a few years ago, when its luck ran out.

Ridiculous Fact no. 6: The army is required to brief all soldiers of safety procedures before every exercise. According to a fellow writer who had just came back from reservist training just before the announcement of the death of the boy, "During my recent stint, officers were smirking about how safety videos had to be shown and re-shown just for everyone to cover their own backsides, and had no relation to training whatsoever; and all those with various back/leg/arm problems were still made to go to field camp, dig trenches, lift heavy loads, etc." You can read the rest of his testimony at http://www.qlrs.com/issues/oct2003/editorial/ev3n1.html.

I suppose, in any other country, the Minister of Defense would've been forced by popular pressure, to step down, and the Commanding Officer to be saked. Ridiculous Fact no. 7: The minister, as well as Mini-Lee and the Rear Admiral... stress that the army, as an institution, is not diseased. It's just an unfortunate and unpardonable mistake. Which does not warrant the sacking of the CO of the Commando camp, who was merely transferred to another post.

Ridiculous Fact no. 8: Some Singaporeans defend the idea that casualties in the army should be tolerated. What, if people stopped dying, if the flagrant abuses in the system stop... does it mean we're becoming a soft people?

Ridiculous Fact no. 9: just as it happened with an earlier case of a psycho teacher abusing her student... the ex-students and graduates of the camp commander came to his rescue and insisted to the press that he's an upright guy.

Ridiculous Fact no. 10: The camp commander makes some lame announcement that he's sorry. And that, as a good soldier, "I'll go down with my men." Right. The kid is dead, you just got transferred to a different post in the army.

15 October 2003

White Uniforms

The leaders of this country have a fascination with wearing an all-white "uniform" in every public, official or national appearance. Some say this all-white apparel symbolises - or tries to give an impression of - the value of "purity", "incorruptibility", and "trustworthiness".

Others say, it's just the secondary school uniform that most of our leaders used to wear (Raffles Institution uniform...), and it is really a mark of how elitist Singapore society has become, for 80% of the nation's leaders to have studied in a pool of 5 top schools.

I say, the only thing an all-white uniform shows clearly, is the colour of the underwear beneath the white pants... Next time you RI boys feel a pair of female eyes behind you, you'll know why

04 October 2003

Great Classics

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义) counts as one of the 3 great Chinese literary epics, the others being Journey to the West (西游记) and Outlaws of the Marsh (水浒传), all written in the Ming era. I term these epics and not novels. Strictly speaking, the first (or first great) modern Chinese novel was the Qing dynasty Dream of the Red Mansions (红楼梦).

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is of unknown authorship, and the earliest surviving print copy dates from 1522. The great sequence of stories in Romance detail the interregnum between the Han dynasty and the Jin dynasty, in a brief period where China was divided into 3 warring nations, each bent on reunifying the old empire under its own banner.

In this period of strife, the Romance sequence focusses on the "Great Actors" of history, the relationships between leaders and their loyal (or treacherous) followers, and their claims to legitimate power and sole rulership of China.

Yet, it troubles me, this Romance. Through all its 120 chapters, much is made of the brilliant military strategies, the shifting alliances, the heroic battles, the little crises of self-doubt that leaders occasionally fall to. War is brutal, yet the novel's heroes and villians (poor, misunderstood Cao Cao!) must soldier on towards that manifest destiny of reuniting their sundered nation. The phrase "blood flowed like running rivers", figures in every alternate battle sequence. Which is just about every chapter. 3 nations fought a 60-year war that probably killed millions. More than half the "peacetime" chapters describe the devastating famines and poverty that the war brought on.

And yet... the novel's heroes, Liu Bei and his 2 sworn brothers, soldier on to fight their battles, and to lead more men to fight. In the novel, the trio lose their wives and families in more than one occasion, when their cities fell to maurading armies of Cao Cao, Lu Bu and Yuan Shao. And yet... the trio proclaim several times that these wives and family... are of less importance to them then their brotherly ties. And presumably, the war.

How would the Romance look like, if it was written from the view of the random slain soldiers whose blood often stain the battlefield "like a river", instead of from the view of the Hero-generals? How would the Romance look like, if it was written from the view of the peasants who were either forcibly conscripted, had their food produce "taxed for the war effort", aside from the famine and droughts? How would the Romance of the long war look like, written by the women? Would it be just as "Romantic"?

29 September 2003

Have you killed your father today?

Regardless of the amount of siblings one has, the first and more primordial conflict within the family is always with the Father. One rebels against authority in the maturing process. It is inevitable, as one attempts to establish an independent personality in their teenage years, away from the Self that had been coccooned and nurtured previously within the confines of the family. And who better to rebel, to kill, than the father figure?

Mythology is a kind of truth-telling; it is timeless and ahistorical, precisely because it expresses a general or eternal truth about human society and behaviour.

The Greeks had several myths to express the dynamics within the family. We've all heard of Oedipus Rex and how he (unwittingly) killed his father and usurped the king's authority. More fundamental than the Oedipus mythos, is the entire mythology of the creation of the universe...

Zeus (in Roman, Jupiter), the self-proclaimed father of gods", ascended to his current supremacy when he rebelled against his father, Cronos. Cronos (or Saturn), was an elder God who, out of fear of losing his power and authority, ate his own offspring. Fortunately for Zeus, his mother and grandmother tricked Cronos into eating a large stone, while allowing the child to survive and slay the father later.

Cronos himself had come to power as an elder god through slaying his father, Uranus, who had similarly sought to prevent rebellion by eating his children.

Inherent to this pattern of father-killing, is the idea that change and progress can only come about by questioning authority, even to the extent of disagreeing with our greatest authority figures. Time - meaningful time - comes about because there is change and revolution. Creativity and Creation can only come about when we stop eating our children, and allow them to flourish, and question us.

Otherwise, the world stagnates in a timeless limbo, an "End of History", where the age of oratory, spectacle, and challenge, is declared over, and there only remains the task of preserving the legacy of the Senior Minister, and occasionally Remaking Singapore (there, you didn't think I'd write a purely academic piece, did you?).

Coming back to Greek mythology, Zeus the father of the Olympian gods, sucessfully repels all challenges to his authority. Why is he sucessful? Well... he doesn't eat his children, unlike Cronus and Uranus. He allows them to grow, to rebel, and question his authority without punishment, or pre-emptive action. In a strange coda to Greek mythology, their bards and poets write about the grave of Zeus in Crete, and about the death of the Olympian gods, who become mortal after the passing of Zeus. Even the current rulers must make way for the next generation... Only to ensure that the world doesn't stagnate.

Consider this: have you ever heard of any Chinese myth or folklore about sons killing off or rebelling against their fathers?

There's an old story, set during the Warring Nations era, of a man who went off to fight for his country, leaving behind his wife and young son. A decade later, the warrior returns to his village, and behold: outside his hut are the sandals of his wife, and those of a grown man. The sounds of laughter wafts out of the hut. Enraged at his wife's betrayal, the warrior steps in, chops off the head of the stranger. Who is, of course, his now adult son.

Or take the various legends of Nezha or Nataku, who didn't exactly have a great relationship with his father either. The Ming dynasty account of "The Creation of the Gods" sets the family feud in the mythical Shang dynasty of China. The magical son Nezha tests his growing powers by killing off or offending some powerful dieties like the Dragon Kings... who bear upon his father to punish him. By death. Since magical sons always have the power of resurrection (see Osiris, the Fisher King, Odin, Jesus), Nezha returns to life and pursues his father in revenge. Of course the son is suitably punished and imprisoned, and all is well when he repents, and joins forces with the father in the war against the Shang dynasty.

The moral?

From the first myth: No matter how grown up you are, it is guaranteed that your father will come right up and smack your head if you do something wrong. You can't see him now, perhaps... but like the Senior Minister, your father can rise up from the grave or come back from a faraway place to set things right.

From the second myth? Do not rebel against authority. You always lose.

26 September 2003

Minister Says Sorry But Denies Mistake

Only in Singapore, folks! The team of experts from the World Health Organisation came to the conclusion on 24 Sept, after a week of exhaustive investigation, that the Singapore SARS Man contracted the disease directly from the Environmental Health Institute (EHI) in NUS, where he was working.

Among the damning details of the report:

The postgraduate student was studying the West Nile virus in the lab. Somehow, all the samples of the virus were contaminated with the SARS virus. The hell no one noticed it till now.

The postgraduate student, as well as his supervisor, did not wear the protective suit on the last visit to the lab before the student came down with SARS.

The student last worked at the lab 3 days before he fell sick, and NOT the 6 days as the EHI had originally claimed in their efforts to shift the blame away from themselves.

Lab personnel often did not follow safety procedures, and record-keeping was poor.

The WHO panel visited other local biological laboratories and concluded that Singapore does not have a national safety standard for labs.

The EHI lab was originally built and designed for Biological Safety Level 2 research, and was converted to BSL-3 to combat SARS. However the infrastructure and safety procedures have not been modified to ensure the higher safety standards required.

Our SGH laboratories mix BSL-2 and BSL-3 research in the same labs, and "prejudice good safety practices".

The NUS labs are overcrowded and have limited space, and there is no "practical culture of safety".

A while back, a nasty Straits Times reporter wrote an editorial damning Canadian authorities and suggesting a cover-up regarding the "false alarm SARS cases". Immediately after the WHO report on Singapore, this same reporter advised everyone to move on, that no heads should roll at the EHI, that there was no cover-up. Amazing double standards.

And isn't it particularly shocking? For the past 5 years, Singapore's leaders have attempted to brand the country as an Asian hub for the life-sciences, and bio-sciences industries, pouring in millions of dollars in R&D, as well as attracting superstar researchers to work here. And for 5 years, this deplorable lack of standards has continued, without our knowledge! And yes, the acting Minister for Health, Khaw Boon Wan, and the Minister for the Environment, Lim Swee Say, refused to acknowledge that there was a serious mistake, only saying that "this is a learning experience", and no heads should roll for this unfortunate incident.

Riiiiight. This comes from the same ministry that was very swift to fire an international researcher a few months back for violating patients' privacy rights by conducting gene testing without their approval. But when it comes to a system wide failure to adhere to safety standards, to the extent of threatening lives.... "this is a learning experience, and no one should be fired."

http://www.moh.gov.sg/sars/pdf/Report_SARS_Biosafety.pdf is the link to the official report by the panel, just in case anyone complains that such important information is either withheld or secreted in obscure places out of reach from prying citizens.

21 September 2003

New School of Public Policy Announced

On 16 September, the Prime Minister announced at the Senior Minister's 80th birthday banquet, the opening of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS. The SM "is synonymous with Singapore", and the public policy school is named in recognition of the leader's role in "achieving First World status for Singapore".

I had the chance to speak to the newly appointed Dean of the public policy school yesterday, and Professor T. Sarkar was able to provide more details, which I will share with my readers.

"As Singapore's prime minister for three deacdes, the SM is the architect of the nation, and posesses rich personal expertise on crafting public policy," said the jubilant Prof. Sarkar, who had just been transfered over from his Brigadier-General post in the Singapore Armed Forces. "Of course, this postgraduate school will tie up with the venerable American institution, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, but the SM and I will design the course to reflect and propagate democracy and capitalism with Singaporean characteristics, and draw on his unique political career."

A preliminary course list was shown to me, and it does look like a very well-thought-out syllabus which centres on the Singapore story and the SM's unique contributions to it.

Autumn 2004

LKY 1101 Managing State-Labour Relations I: Rationalising the Unions

"Singapore's early unions were fragmented, chaotic, and infested with Communists. SM will lecture on how to streamline the structure of the unions, including drafting laws to ban the right to form unions, and setting up a single state-approved union."

LKY 1102 Corruption and the State

"SM will personally lecture on how to create a clean, graft-free society. Drawing on the experience of the PAP Old Guard and his more recent experiences, he will also explain how to avoid the temptations of personal corruption."

LKY 1103 The Meritocratic Society

"Guest Lecturers DPM Lee, BG Lee Hsien Yang, and Madam Ho Ching will explain how to create a society where, in addtition to being corruption-free, only the best and the brightest can succeed in a level-playing field."

LKY 1104 Technology and the State

"Guest Lecturer Ronald Reagan, a personal friend of SM, will address the issue of committing the State to technological advances and R&D, using his famous Star Wars Programme and his son's SWII as examples."

Spring 2005

LKY 1201 Managing State-Labour Relations II

"SM will co-chair this course with Lim Boon Heng, continuing the issues of the previous semester. Now that you have a single union, how do you control the workers and ensure their compliance in your nation's economic development?"

LKY 1202 Elections and the State

"In any democratic state, elections are a necessary evil. SM will explain how to get over elections as fast as possible, and get back on track to the real business of managing the State.

LKY 1203 Economic Policy and the State

"Guest Lecturers and personal friends of the SM, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, will expound on Reaganomics (aka Voodoo Economics or Supply-Side Economics) and Thatcherism as a capitalist philosophy, and their implications on making your nation richer, as well as widening the gap between the rich and poor. Greed is good! Only when some people are filthy rich can a nation prosper!"

LKY 1204 Continuing your Legacy

"On his expected retirement in 2005, the current PM Goh Chok Tong will join SM to lecture on protecting political legacies, and handing over power in a meritocratic and open manner."

19 September 2003

Singapore's Qin Shihuang

Merlion turns 80; scribbers, biographers, hired pens mythologise; flags wave, hymns are sung, and there was a voice from the heavens saying, "This is my son, in whom I am well pleased". Well, this might as well be the headlines concerning a minor event that transpired earlier this week.

You might've thought that the mythologising of leaders died out with Stalin, Lenin, Mao, and Kim Il Sung (who can hardly forget the North Korean myth that says the mountains burst out in song during the birth of the Great Leader?). In our little democratic and capitalist island at least, this wonderful tradition of deifying god-kings and philosopher-kings is still very much alive.

To commemorate the eightieth birthday of the abovementioned Merlion, the living person was instantly transmogrified into an icon and a myth by the fawning press and members of the "international business community" - which mostly consisted of Hongkong businessmen who long for a strong leader.

One local journalist even went to the extent of saying that Singapore would be nothing if not for this great Merlion; if we had any other leader as our first post-independence Prime Minister, Singapore would either end up as "a nation of sake drinkers" since Lim Yew Hock would've probably sold Singapore as easily as he sold Christmas Island to a foreign nation, or "a nation of wine-guzzling idealists espousing liberal views" if the liberal David Marshall had been at the helm... i.e. incompetent and drunken and so unlike the Pragmatic Singaporean that we have all learnt to stop fearing, and love. Now, this journalist is lower than a snake's belly, by insulting the memories and denigrating the leadership, capability, and honesty of two of Singapore's pre-independence Chief Ministers. Do we really need to villify and diminish previous leaders so that we can recognise the worth of one leader?

Now, the Merlion has been credited for leaving his mark in history by being 'indispensable' to Singapore's development. Let us take a look at a few of these claims.

1. The Communist Issue. Mostly formulated as "The Merlion slew the Communist Tiger and saved Singapore in the 50s and 60s. Without him, we'd be a Red Nation, and democracy would've been poorer in the region".

Wrong. The British undertook strong, violent, and often dirty Anti-Communist efforts in all their colonies and ex-colonies during the 50s and 60s. In Canada, India, Burma, Hongkong, and Malaya... the British waged a de facto "take no prisoners" war against the Communist threat. In all occasions, the Communists were imprisoned, killed, and their credibility completely destroyed.

Singapore would've ended up beating the Communists without the Merlion, and would've employed the same strong-arm tactics that the Merlion used.

2. Independence as a separate nation. Formulated as "Without the Merlion, Singapore would be either part of the Indian Administration, or the Federation of Malaya".

Wrong. The British had a clear pattern for partitioning their ex-colonies before granting independence. The US and Canada used to be a single British Colony. So were Iraq and Kuwait. Israel and Palestine. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Malaysia and Brunei. Most of the time, the terms of independence set by the British would ensure a speedy split within the original single colonial posession.

3. Industrialisation. "Without the Merlion, Singapore would never have been a truly urban, industrialised, first-world-wannabe nation."


Firstly, Singapore has NEVER been a rural place during its modern history (aka After Raffles). Singapore was a strongly urban area, and was increasingly so with the massive influx of immigrants. As an independent nation, industrialisation would've 1. been the natural fate of a highly urban population, and 2. would've been the only way out.

Secondly, Singapore was granted independence in the 1960s, a period when Asian and African colonial posessions were quickly and ignominously divested by their former European masters. The United Nations, IMF, and the World Bank, were instrumental in the international project to help these new nations industrialise. Singapore received financial assistance from the US, technology transfer from Taiwan and Japan, and teams of UN experts were instrumental in drawing up the first Singapore Urban Plan, of which all future Urban Plans in our country rested on.

Was Singapore the creation of one central, indispensable man? The biographers, mythologisers, and hired pens would have you believe so. Please don't.

16 September 2003

Performance art no longer banned in Singapore

Oh, the enlightened folks at the Censorship Review Committee decided to give everyone a break, so from next month onwards, performance art and forum theatre are no longer banned, and will be considered for arts funding from the National Arts Council. In addition, there will be more film categories so that Singaporeans can watch more films without a trigger-happy censor butchering kissing scenes. Let us all bow down to the Ministry of Information and the Arts, which continues to lead Singapore into its vision of a Renaissance City, and throws little scraps to placate an increasingly liberal population every 10 years!

Now, time for me to sink my daggers into this target =D

Firstly, I lied in my entry title. Forum theatre is not banned in Singapore, it just wasn't eligible for arts funding since 22 February 1994. Performance art, or conceptual art, has indeed been banned from the same day onwards.

The reason? On 31 December 1993, local artist Joseph Ng and other artists were involved in various performance art pieces where they drank their urine, and Joseph snipped his pubic hair in protest against the press' sensationalisation and demonisation of homsexuality. Oooh, what a long time ago it was, since the Singapore media is nowadays very pro-gay, or at least alot more sympathetic to the issue.

Things to note: Joseph Ng's outrageous performance had nothing to do with forum theatre. Unfortunately, it was caught in the cross-fire, probably because it was deemed subversive to our anal-retentive authorities. According to their official statement on 21 January 1994, the Government...

"is concerned that new art forms such as 'performance art' and 'forum theatre' which have no script and encourage spontaneous audience participation pose dangers to public order, security and decency, and much greater difficulty to the licensing authority.

"The performances may be exploited to agitate the audience on volatile social issues, or to propagate the beliefs and messages of deviant social or religious groups, or as a means of subversion"

None of this was apparently acknowleged in the announcement to reinstate Performance Art and Forum Theatre last week. Not a "We Did A Stupid Thing", not a "We're Sorry", and definitely, as most Singaporeans will swear, the Government is still very allergic to admitting any wrongdoing.

Also, note that Joseph Ng and his collaborator Shannon Tham were banned from performing ALL art in Singapore. Ng has since become a successful museum curator/administrator in Thailand, at the forefront of Asian Art. Nonetheless, nothing was ever mentioned last week about rescinding the life-time ban on Ng. Less was even said about how the removal of funding caused the Artists Village and Fifth Passage to close down. The arts cannot survive without funding, so a neat way to destroy art without banning it would be to stop funding it.

So, what's the big deal about Performance/Conceptual Art? It's a freaking big deal, since it is now one of the most profitable, notorious, and critically acclaimed wings of modern art. Last millennium, some artists won both fame, notoriety, awards, and probably money, for exhibiting preserved cow carcasses in museums. And, posing as mannequins in store displays. And so on. Forum theatre? Audience interaction and intervention in plays is still a valid performance practice in avant-garde and modernist theatres around the world. So, Singapore missed its boat at being the forefront of exciting global art just from the banning.

Now, if you attended school in 1994, chances are your wonderful teachers and "guides of future generations of Singaporeans" would have done their patriotic duty, by insisting that "Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad."

Ooops, wrong book. But at least in my junior college, my teachers had the compulsive urge to stress in every lesson, especially to us Unruly, Subversive, and Useless Arts Students that "Performance Art is NOT ART. What Joseph Ng did is NOT ART." And so on.

Of course they were just taking their cue from our great leaders, the National Arts Council, and the Judge presiding over the case to prosecute Ng and Tham for indecent conduct.

Now, the National Arts Council should know better than this. Both Performance Art and Forum Theatre, where the artist integrates the audience into the action, have an honourable history. When the grandparents of the bureaucrats running the NAC were still in diapers, Performance Art was born in the 1920s, inspired by the Dadaists, Absurdists, and the post-WWI modern art movements. Originally conceived as a protest against the apolitical and purely aesthetic ideology of pre-WWI art, performance art and forum theatre aimed to
1. offend aesthetic sensibilities (as in art must be "beautiful" and "pleasing")
2. provoke and involve the audience into thinking, and engaging in debate with the art as it unfolds.
3. engage the audience in social commentary, on social issues that are not often raised, or deemed safe to raise.

Performance Art was already OLD STUFF when Yoko Ono went to New York and became involved in cutting-edge arts groups. Performance Art was when Yoko Ono staged a "Love-In" to protest against the Vietnam War; when Yoko Ono started calling up random numbers from the phone directory as a guest on a talk show, to tell the lucky (?) receipients "I Love you. There can be peace in the world."

So we have a bunch of uninformed, philistine bureaucrats running the National Arts Council, who have nothing on the history of art, and probably can't tell a Warhol from a Lichtenstein. Oh, why am I still mad at them, after the assholes graciously decide to un-ban stuff?

Oh, the devil is always in the details. Artists will be tolerated and scripts do not need to be vetted if they do not raise sensitive issues. Now, if the bureaucrats knew ANYTHING at all about Performance Art and Forum Theatre, they would rather have either retained the ban, or removed the silly controls completely.

12 September 2003

Siamese Twins, a retrospective

Singapore is such a high-tech city, the only types of accidents that happen can never happen elsewhere.

Such as, a researcher in a virological lab contracting a deadly virus. May I say that I'm thankful NUS does not work with Ebola and other more important and deadly viruses? "Outbreak" and "21 Days" are not just far-fetched summer movies, but potentially Singaporean scenarios.

Such as, a woman falling into a gap in the train platform and then run over by a train on one of our driverless, un-manned high-tech train stations.

Such as, a never before done operation that relies on equal parts high technology, pure desperation, and a lust for glory. Online tech magazine Wired News has a 5 page leader article on the twins operation.

The tagline? "Laleh and Ladan Bijani wanted separate lives. Doctors wanted to make history. The inside story of what went wrong." Read the details here at Wired News.

An advice from the magazine to tech-savvy doctors: "Image guidance makes some surgeons better, but it can make others braver."

An advice to everyone else: Technology never guarantees improvement.

10 September 2003

Singapore is SARS-Land once again! Such a lovely place...

Well, it's an interesting situation we've got ourselves in. Someone was tentatively suspected of being a "probable SARS case", since he did not display all the classic symptoms, and did not go abroad in the previous months. Then, we were hoping that the results of the first virus test used to diagnose him would be a false positive. Except, that would mean Singapore's reputation for developing reliable SARS-testing kits would go down the drain. Luckily for our bio-sciences industry, the first test proved to be correct.

We are neither in Hell nor out of it, to quote Milton. Today's announcement revealed that the researcher who contracted SARS is now suspected of getting infected from the virological laboratory he was working in. That means, poor environmental controls and safety measures in our fledgling bio-sciences industry. And so, the waves of bad news keep on coming...

Did I mention that just ONE day before the SARS outbreak occured, our Great Leader GCT and Dear Leader Mini-Lee announced that "Enough help has been done for the middle classes"? Please keep this etched in your minds, gentle readers, together with another recent nugget of wisdom from our Prime Minister that "Cutting the wages of ministers won't help the economy".

Yes, from the most highly paid leader of any country, the man who earns a higher salary than the US President, manages a population and an economy that's a fraction, an iota, of the US giant - this man claims that he is NOT overpaid.

03 September 2003

Emotional blackmail and other bad things nice people do to their close ones

One of the nicer perks of getting into a relationship is the ability to emotionally blackmail your partner; the deeper the relationship, the more abuse is dished out on each other. This is the reason why, although I'm not an anti-social person, I'll never want to get married.

The whole point of 'emotional blackmail' is that the person who is being blackmailed is assumed to be so stuck in the relationship and hence, unable and unwilling to walk away from the abuse - a point that is completely lost on yours truly. The moment I sense a mindfuck coming on, I will terminate the relationship and walk away. Regardless of whether it's a long-time friend, or an acquaintance, or a working partner. It helps to have a built-in BS detector, and read between the lines...

"To be brutally honest...."

An interesting mix of the desire to cause hurt and the desire to help. In all cases, the speaker generally prefers to inflict pain. Whatever 'honesty' is tempered by the need to be brutal.

"I don't enjoy doing/saying this, but..."

The speaker obviously enjoys saying this, and has probably rehearsed this phrase several times in their head beforehand, in order to sound sagely, helpful, and reluctant.

"I thought that as a friend, you should be able to..."

Here, an attempt is made to criticise the errant party for not acting in a manner expected of "friends" (i.e. submit to occasional emotional blackmail). Although of course, the speaker has already excluded the said errant party from the definition of 'friends'.

How do we treat people we consider as friends? Perhaps one needs to reformulate and question current thinking of friends as "people whom you occasionally take advantage of, abuse, throw tantrums at..."

27 August 2003

Flashbacks of the Potato Famine

For those who boycott the Straits Times (and rightly so), today's headline screams out "Wage cost burden heavier than in US: Quoting a Perc global survey, Deputy PM Tony Tan tells why it is urgent that costs are brought down through CPF rate cuts".

Everyone knows that Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, Ltd (PERC, for short), is a respected think-tank whose reports are quoted by governments, Alan Greenspan, the International Monetary Fund, and Transparency International. I will prove that this survey should be dismissed with more than a pinch of salt, together with the ministers' mantra about cutting social security.

About Perc

Perc is more known for its studies on international corruption/graft. The organisation conducts surveys on expatriate businesspeople in East and Southeast Asia, and publishes its findings and rankings of countries every half-yearly.

So it's just a survey, you ask? Well, it always looks very scientific and credible if you display the results in numerical form, such as "We give Singapore a 4.2 grade out of 5 on xx aspect of its economy/corruption, etc". Then, everyone gets the impression that there was some quantitative, fact-based measure of corruption in the study, whereas in reality, the study measures the subjective perceptions of a very specific bunch of people.

The right method for the right measure

A perception-based study, i.e. a survey, is appropriate for some measures and not others. Measuring corruption based on 'hard facts' is notoriously difficult. Reports of corruption that has been unearthed are dependent on the resolve of the state to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials. So, relatively 'clean' countries might have more reported cases of corruption than really corrupt countries where graft is already accepted as part of the landscape, and nothing can be done about it...

Hence, corruption is a measure that is best gauged by surveying perceptions of businessmen, especially expatriates, who are alien to the local 'culture of corruption'.

Let's turn to the issue of wage costs. Singapore ranks as 4th highest in 14 countries, in terms of wage costs. Higher than the US and Australia, and only less expensive than Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong. The nations with the lowest wage cost are India, the Philippines, and China.

Something stinks in the report

It's the appropriateness of using a survey to rank 'wage costs'. Why bother with perceptions when there is concrete, reality-based economic data that is easily available? If we want to ask "Are wage costs too high?", or "Can we rank these countries with respect to wage costs?", the most logical way of finding the answer would be to check the published statistics of each country. What Perc has really found out in their survey, is that Singapore ranks fourth in perception of being a country with high wage costs. NOT that it really has high wage costs.

Let's not get into the issue of whether Perc used expat businessmen from Southeast and East Asia to generate its values for the US and Australia, although it's a legtitimate point to throw at them. If expats in Southeast and East Asia are used to evaluate the region, then the US and Au regions should be evaluated by expats there. Was it done? We have no idea, since unlike other responsible and scholarly think-tanks and journals, Perc does not reveal its methodology or the specifics of its surveys. Hell, even the Straits Times has to reveal some details of its own surveys to look credible!

Getting back on track... While the use of expatriates for a survey on corruption is justiable and logical, we must remember that using them for a survey on wage costs is not reasonable, and it's got to do with the SAME point: being alien to the local culture.

Regardless of the local culture (in the form of the 'culture of corruption), corruption is always wrong. However, the local culture is very important to understanding and properly evaluating wage cost. I suspect Perc has forgotten to take into account the LOCAL cost of living. Wage costs must be adjusted to the cost of living in order to get a true picture of how overpaid a nation's workers are. Not only that, but a respectable cross-national study on wage cost will have to factor in exchange rates and purchasing power parity.

Obviously, Hongkong, Japan, South Korea and Singapore have the highest costs of living in the region. Definitely, the absolute wages will be high. The reverse holds true for China, et al. The question that was NEVER asked was: What is the average wages, expressed in terms of the average cost of living? Yet another question never asked: How do wage costs compare to other costs, like office rent, administration, inventory, investment?

Then, the other question that was NEVER asked was: Is there any currency undervaluation that causes some countries to offer comparatively cheaper wages than others?

Will an expat businessman, an alien, factor all these in, during a simplistic survey? Which, by the way, the question asked was simply "Do you think the wage costs of X country are high?".

Wrong survey, wrong conclusion, wrong remedy

Other economists are starting to complain about the yuan, which they judge to be fixed at 20-40% under its true exchange value.

So, Singapore's ministers want to compete with the low wage costs of China? Adopt an exchange rate devaluation.