11 June 2007

The campaign to confer the martyrdom award to Alfian Saat

An incident, a talking point, a concerted campaign

Dear readers, we've known for almost a full month that Alfian Sa'at has been sacked from his relief teaching post at East View Secondary School. Word travels fast, especially since the playwright took it upon himself to tell his friends, fans, and acquaintances about it. We are not unsympathetic to Alfian's loss of the beginnings of a meaningful vocation, but since he has made it a public matter and since it appears that there is an ongoing campaign involving various bloggers to turn this into an issue to bash the MOE, the civil service, and maybe even the PAP with, it falls unto me to urge caution - and more importantly, common sense.

The talking points seem to go like this:

1. Draw issue to Alfian Sa'at, prize-winning, decorated playright having lost his job
2. Draw attention to MOE's refusal to provide an explanation for his sacking
3. Hint heavily at an unofficial campaign of persecution
a. He was sacked because he is a politically troublesome creature: a liberal, radical, and a critical Malay
b. He was sacked because he is an openly gay person who has written gay-themed plays
4. Ergo, Alfian Sa'at is a martyr for the cause - whichever cause it is. All hail his staggering genius and mourn his unjust persecution!
5. Storm the Bastille, lads!

My dear friend, the Blogger Samurai, has an important dictum that I wish whoever is participating in the campaign to award the martyrdom award to Alfian Sa'at could drill into their memory: Never attack in anger. I, too, have another dictum that I wish could have guided the leaders of this coordinated web campaign: Never sacrifice intellectual honesty for political ends.

Is there an unofficial campaign of persecution? No one knows, and by definition it can't be proven, which means it plays up to the very angry and radicalised hordes on the blogs right now. But the campaign does itself and the blogosphere an injustice when its proponents pointedly miss out the most obvious and probable cause of Alfian's sacking - one that could be backed with more tangible evidence than 3a or b.

The case against Alfian Sa'at

It is always a good practice to go back to the source material when unsure of the facts. In this case, it would be a good idea to pay a visit to the playwright's blog. This act alone could have saved the ongoing campaign from guaranteed embarrassment, and its participants from any fallout of credibility, really.

We note the following 2 entries on 24 April and 11 May.

Both are entries where Alfian Sa'at blogs about his teaching experience.

excerpt from the first entry:

The din from the classroom was overwhelming; a tidal wave of restless yelps, red-faced bully laughter, the wailing of the freshly-smacked...a boy at the back gripped the sides of his table and screamed, 'I hate History!' A girl at the side of the class stared at me as if she was putting a hex on me; how in the world did she leave her house in the morning with eyeliner on? A boy ran out of one of the classroom doors and re-entered through the other, as if he was an actor rushing to make an entrance from the opposite wing. A girl was putting some green dye in her mouth, probably Art Class leftovers, and spitting foul green liquid at her classmates. A rosette of lurid green sputum bubbled on her desk. She was like Linda Blair in the Exorcist, but ten times worse, because I couldn't wave a crucifix at her and make her hair evaporate.

Now, I wouldn't know, but that sounds like extremely bad form for a teacher to blog about his students in a demeaning manner. This isn't so bad until you realise that we know who the teacher is, where the school is, and we can thus identify the students...

But it's more than just that, of course. Alfian Sa'at is a master playwright, and we admire his narrative abilities that are shown off here. But not quite - why is Alfian Sa'at adopting this passive-agressive love-hate tone towards his students? Like some colonial anthropologist studying a native tribe, he exclaims how much they drive him up the wall, and in the next breath tearfully admits how charming they are, in their impish innocence. Like some arrogant, patronising colonial anthropologist:

It is an illusion to think that the classroom is a homogenous neighbourhood. There are overlapping ghettoes.

Impossible how a member of an oppressed ethnic minority ends up conferring the word ghetto on the students of a neighbourhood school. But there we have it - an exoticisation, a romanticisation of the neighbourhood school students. Who are of course tamed by the redeeming quality of Art:

I have to constantly strain my throat to get them to quieten down, but I realised that when I draw on the whiteboard they are rapt, respectful. And thus I would sketch the faces of Brahmins and Shudras, the four Ministers of the Melakan Sultanate, the Shang dynasty Emperor. I would draw four-clawed dragons, cavemen, even the faces of some of the students, who would blush at the attention. I have had so many requests for drawings: Stamford Raffles, a character called Lady Xin, exhumed from her tomb, from their textbook, and even a hamster.

Alfian Sa'at teaches racial harmony, of the exoticised mythical peoples category.

And if that weren't enough, the second entry takes the cake:

12:40 pm - red river
I'm a relief teacher.

You see where I'm getting at, hopefully? Anyone would be fired for blogging about their work and workplace in such a manner.

And if that weren't enough, remember this is a blog where Alfian Sa'at posts updates on his gay plays, his coterie of hangers-on, his adventures in New York - meeting up with self-exiled dissidents and telling the MDA "Fuck you".

A clear inability to apply common sense, to keep professional and personal matters separate, to behave professionally.

The moral of the story: Never blog about work in a negative manner

Beware if your blog is related to work
Microsoft fires worker over weblog
Looming pitfalls of work blogs
Blogging on the Job

12 June update: The Blogger Samurai has spoken on the issue. Listen to him.


Andrew said...

Hi Akikonomu,

You said:

"it appears that there is a carefully coordinated campaign by prominent bloggers to turn this into an issue to bash the MOE, the civil service, and maybe even the PAP with"

Clicking on the "prominent bloggers" link, it leads to theonlinecitizen.com.

I would like to clarify that as far as theonlinecitizen is concerned, we are not part of any "concerted campaign" - if indeed there is one to begin with.

Neither have we been involved in any "secret" or "covert" discussions about the subject/topic or how to go about conducting this so-called "concerted campaign".

I am not sure where you get the idea that theonlinecitizen is involved in such a campaign.


Andrew said...

Hi again,

My apologies. It should be "carefully coordinated campaign" and not "concerted campaign".


akikonomu said...

Hi Andrew,

Noted, hit refresh on browser to see corrections.

Anthony said...

The problem here is this.

How difficult can it be to say to Alfian that he was wholly unprofessional in his conduct as a relief teacher?

Instead, MOE gives an extremely fluffy reply, devoid of content - how else are we supposed to interpret this, apart from there being more insidious reasons for his dismissal.

akikonomu said...

Hi Anthony,

Indeed, I am a little puzzled at why MOE would retroactively reject the provisional acceptance instead of just stating the reasons - because the ministry would be entirely justified in removing him on grounds of his blogging about work.

Re the fluffy reply - I see it as a dismissive reply. If Alfian were a permanent teacher on payroll, I would assume they'd officially counsel him on the matter. But since he's expendable, temp staff, the MOE flunky who issued the notice probably decided no niceties were required.

It's not at all difficult to provide reasons - but MOE may have refrained, either from an obnoxious attitude towards expendable manpower or from a wish to keep things cordial between fellow members of the elite.

7-8 said...

As I noted on samurai's blog, it's a little difficult to see what's the problem with the postings. Either you have got to stretch your imagination a lot, or you're one of those culture marxists who think that every time an elite opens his mouth to talk about members of another class, it's automatically condescending.

Teachers have blogged about their work without getting fired. Unless you think that mentioning somebody has vomitted in class without naming names, or narrating prankish behaviour is going to be part of their permanent record, or otherwise cause psychological scars that will linger for the rest of their lives, I don't see what the problem is.

If it's his blog, it's an acceptable reason, and MOE would have mentioned that as the reason in order to cover their ass. The fact that they have not means you can safely discount it.

No doubt he's a playwright, and therefore good at playing the public opinion, but I don't think this hoo hah is unjustified.

hotbod said...

I do not understand this whole hoo-haa that Mr Sa'at is making here. He is someone who writes political plays, satires and had even taken a photo with a certain Francis Seow, a political exile. If you had written all these plays and poems to mock Bill Gates and taken a photo with Steve Jobs to tell everyone that you guys go a long way back, do you actually believe that Bill Gates will be benevolent enough to employ you in a role that will impact the growth of Microsoft greatly?

Anthony said...


If MOE was truly callous about relief teachers in general, then I submit that the fact that they responded at all means they aren't quite callous enough.

I'm puzzled. On one hand MOE felt they HAD to respond for some reason. On the other hand, they felt that they could not respond -honestly-. The former goes some way to show that MOE isn't just being callous and unconcerned - they are in fact aware of the potential repercussions of their actions. The latter goes to show that they cannot, for some reason, explain their actions.

Be that as it may, I understand the spirit of what you are trying to propose sounds a little far-fetched. The problem with dismissing someone like Alfian - even if it is for legitimate reasons, is that the first, automatic response would be for Alfian to cry foul. Citing a real legitimate reason will likely bring about even more accusations of cover-up.

In short, if a person cries loudly enough against someone seen to be unsympathetic, they will eventually win.

akikonomu said...

Hi Anthony, welcome back!

I agree about the shouting loudly part. It helps that apparently Alfian Sa'at is now the poster boy of an increasingly loud and shrill movement to get MOE to account.

Being callous and caring - it's possible for MOE to be outraged by his description of the students and the school (caring) enough to summarily dismiss him (callous). But one presumes that the necessary paperwork and proper investigative procedures would actually make the honest option a less desired course of action - hence the retroactive rejection of the application.

Honestly, from a civil service perspective, I wouldn't want the public to use this case to set a precedence for any ministry to explain to the public even the hiring decisions of *temp workers*. The everyday machinery of the state would grind to a full stop if we actually let the public know every single thing they think they have a right to know.

akikonomu said...

Welcome, 7-8, to the Blogger Stadium!

As I noted on samurai's blog, it's a little difficult to see what's the problem with the postings. Either you have got to stretch your imagination a lot, or you're one of those culture marxists who think that every time an elite opens his mouth to talk about members of another class, it's automatically condescending.

It certainly isn't my or the Blogger Samurai's argument that every time an elite opens his mouth... In fact, we take great care to cite the passages, to analyse the language used, the tones conveyed, and compare them to existing literature of colonial anthropologists.

I see this mode of analysis more in line with the close reading of New Criticism than of the economic base-cultural superstructure methods of Marxist or Critical Theory.

As to whether we would have to stretch our imaginations a lot to come up with this criticism of Alfian's writing being colonialist in tone and project... Well, we're adopting a critical reading method that Alfian himself, as a liberal postmodernist deconstructivist and critic of continuing colonialist attitudes in post-independent society, would most certainly employ himself.

7-8 said...

I can only talk about my own point of view, which is that reading his blog entries as being condescending is an excessively harsh verdict. To say that about somebody who volunteers to teach in a neighbourhood school at all, when most relief teachers from elite schools would go for the easier option, it doesn't make sense to me at all .

Now even Edward Said is careful not to paint Orientalism as something wholly negative, because he also thinks the it can teach the occident something about himself through analysing how he views the orient.

You see, in order to pursue this line of argument that Alfian could have been fired for comments made on his blog, you have to show that:

1. The comments that are made are negative. By negative, I don't mean colonialist. I mean negative. Also that his comments would damage the psyche of the students, the reputation of the students, the reputation of the school, etc etc what not.

2. Anybody else who blogs in this manner would be summarily fired.

3. That his infraction is so bad that even given the presumably laxer standards that would be applied to relief teachers, he would still be fired.

As for points 2 and 3, I could point you to at least one other full time teacher who blogs about work (with arguably a more negative attitude than Alfian's) and still gets away with it.

There are other comments that you could make about his blog, such as how he might bring attention to how the MOE treats neighbourhood schools shabbily. How he might be a future threat by blogging, or evern worse, by writing a play about it.

But if you read the MOE reply carefully, they didn't say he did something wrong, they were basically saying he was the wrong sort of person, which is to say they reject him on the grounds of a background check. So even when you take them at their word, it comes down to the predominant interpretation that he's a dissident playwright and not somebody they'd want as a teacher, not even a relief teacher.

7-8 said...


firstly nobody disputes that Alfian was fired, and that he writes a lot of plays that criticise government. (But that should be taken in context: his plays criticise society, and government is only a part of society.)

That these 2 things are related, most people would agree, although maybe akikonomu is not one of them, but you are.

What we are talking about is this: should it be the case that once you have criticised the government, you are not entitled to a teaching job, even a relief teaching job? That seems to be the norm, what with all permanent teachers needing to go for mandatory brainwashing at the NIE before they start work. I don't agree with that.

If you've read books on Microsoft, you'd know that a lot of their staff criticise Microsoft from within. There are plenty of debates. Bill Gates almost completely ignored the internet, and could have made the terrible mistake of going down that road, if it wasn't for some of his subordinates who kicked his ass. If there are opposing factions within Microsoft, would you purge them or would you keep them on to counterbalance the currently dominant faction, and keep them on their toes?

The thing is, Microsoft has enemies. Who are the enemies of the government? The government is supposed to be for everyone. Only if we wage war on Malaysia then we can say, they are the enemy.

As for Francis Seow, I wonder if you mean Francis Seow the political dissident or Francis Seow the former top civil servant.

rench00 said...

such fertile imagination bloggers have. i am sure that between us, we can write a damn good conspiracy story that has hamsters hatching a plot to take over the world, Aedes mosquitoes using us to spread Dengue to Mars and dogs allying with cats to wipe out humanity and thus foiling the plans of hamsters and Aedes mosquitoes, therefore starting a massive three-way war with Humans as pawns.

thing is, if you look at the supposed teacher who blogs about work negatively and got away with it. i don't see anything in that blog that comes across as negatively as what Alfin Sa'at has blogged about. she just says how tired and exasperated she is. besides, she is anonymous. doesn't name names, etc.

MOE, being Civil Service, is lousy at giving responses. they think that they ought to, but no one knows how to (or can be bothered to) give an adequate response, so they give templatised, computer generated responses that don't mean anything. that is one flaw of not just MOE, but the entire Civil Service which i think they should changed. i've done what i can to change this, and am still slogging on. will it work? i don't know. i hope so.

akikonomu said...

Dear all,

I am pleased to announce that Alfian Sa'at has begun posting comments on this issue on the blog of my friend, the Blogger Samurai.

As such, I am closing off the discussion here, and urging all commentators to redirect the discussion there instead.

Anonymous said...

I would be interested in hearing your commentary on this: