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..."