29 November 2012

Listening in to SMRT's station announcements

Xenophobia, creeping sinicisation, misplaced political correctness, or pure sedition?

The uproar following SMRT's recent move to begin train station announcements in Mandarin seems to be overshadowed by the mishandling by SMRT and NTUC of the recent bus driver strike.

In inimitable Illusio fashion, we of course are more fascinated by last week's news - not just because we have something to say that hasn't already been said by other commentators, but because we believe this issue is more important and urgent to Singapore society than a straightforward industrial action.

Several explanations have been volunteered by commentators to explain how an innocuous decision would lead to widespread condemnation. We examine these explanations in their discursive context of Singapore as an ideological community whose cohesion and coherence can only be maintained through a struggle of positions and positions-taking by different interest groups in a struggle over the right to define what is legitimately Singaporean.

Xenophobia or creeping sinicisation?

The theory goes that the Singapore government under Papalee, Goh Chok Tong, and Minilee have been biased towards encouraging migration of Chinese nationals from the PRC in order to maintain its racial quota for Chinese Singaporeans to form not less than 70% of the total population of the island.

Culturally though, Singaporean Chinese haven't been the ones to demand Singapore be covered in signs and announcements in Mandarin. The popular suspicion is this scheme is an attempt to pander to monolingual migrant workers and immigrants from China.

Since on one hand, they are not eager or willing to participate in public life in any other language than Mandarin (and are perceived to be more exclusive in their interactions with ethnic Chinese than Chinese Singaporeans), and on the other, the Singapore government values their presence, it would rather bend over backwards to accommodate them - whatever other races in Singapore might say about the obvious and indefensible favouritism shown by SMRT.

This line of reasoning ends with the charge of creeping sinicisation, and the corresponding counter-charge of xenophobia. The issue is not about the language used but a resentment against the perceived blatant race-based favouritism of the PAP government's immigration policies from the past decades, and the knee-jerk reaction of some Singaporeans to slander any criticisms of PAP's immigration policies as xenophobia.

We at Illusio believe it would be far more productive to argue the pros and cons of Singapore's immigration policy and its perceived policy failures on their own merit, rather than to pick on any issue as an allegory or proxy for a debate over immigration.

Misplaced political correctness or pure sedition?

It's no wonder then the eventual responses by Gerard Ee (the LTA chairman) and SMRT's essentially pleaded misplaced political correctness. It's evident from their long silence and eventual choice of defense that the LTA and SMRT were unprepared for the uproar, with the implication that these decisionmakers are out of touch with a significant proportion of Singaporeans.

But let's take a look. Gerard Ee and SMRT claims that the new station announcements were offered in Mandarin in good faith. There was commuter feedback, a desire to offer 'service improvements', and seriously, there are "quite a number of Chinese who do not speak English well and refer to places by their Chinese names." SMRT does not intend in the near future to provide train station announcements in Malay or Tamil - Singapore's other 2 official languages - because "most station names, when pronounced in English, sound similar to that in Malay and Tamil." But hey, they're sorry if their best intentions were seen as racist when all they wanted to do was to be politically correct!

We'd like to pause to point out the ridiculous stupidity or cunning mendaciousness of this defense.

Take for example Lynette Sng, the customer relations officer from SMRT.

In her PR release, she spouts gems like "During our review, it was clear to us that most station names, when pronounced in English, sound similar to that in Malay and Tamil" and "Stations names in Mandarin, however, sound different [like] Somerset, 索美塞 (Suo Mei Sai)"

Pre-existing station names are not in English. They are in a multiplicity of languages - some of which aren't even Singapore's official languages! The reason why "most station names in English sound similar to that in Malay and Tamil" is because we have adopted the Malay and Tamil (and Hindi) names for these stations. Not because they're in English, you know.

I may forgive a bear of little brain for mistaking 'verandah', 'bungalow', 'shampoo', or 'jungle' for English words. I find it beyond belief that the aggregate collective intelligence of an organisation like the SMRT can come to the conclusion that Dhoby Ghaut is an English name that happens to sound like its Tamil name. And by the way, it's HINDI. NOT TAMIL. And just so we know that the collective aggregate of the intelligence of SMRT is a flatlined zero, Lynette Sng and her esteemed colleagues miss the point that "索美塞 (Suo Mei Sai)" is a Mandarin transliteration of Somerset. To Mandarin ears, SUO MEI SAI sounds exactly the same as Somerset. That's why it's called a transliteration.

If you believe Gerard Ee and Lynette Sng, up to this month, for the entire existence of Singapore's MRT system, Singaporeans have been content to think of and refer to places in their original names, whether it be in Hindi (Dhoby Ghaut), Malay (Bedok, Kembangan, Kallang, Aljunied, Eunos, Tampines, Pasir Ris, Potong Pasir, Serangoon, Tanah Merah, Rochor, Bukit Batok, Kranji, Marsiling, Paya Lebar, Bugis), Teochew and Hokkien (Hougang which everyone pronounces as "Aw Gang" anyway, Lim Chu Kang, Toa Payoh, Choa Chu Kang, Yew Tee, Boon Keng, Joo Koon, Sengkang), Cantonese (Bishan), Mandarin (Simei) or a happy, neutral compromise of English (Redhill, City Hall, Raffles Place, Marina Bay), or an even happier compromise of a foreign language (French for Esplanade, Arabic for Khatib, Kurdish for Kovan, Spanish for Buona Vista). And now, they've made up their minds and want to hear EVERYTHING in Mandarin.

If you believe Gerard Ee and Lynette Sng, it would seem that Singaporeans who have been content to live with a geography that's multiracial, multicultural, and multilingual, who have no problems referring to and thinking of places in languages other than their own, who celebrate Singapore's diversity in the most everyday act of their lives, have suddenly decided not to do so. And that SMRT and LTA are either fine with that or want to encourage this further.

In a wider context, it has taken decades for a Singapore prone to deadly racial riots to develop a sizable proportion of citizens who are multicultural enough to accept, respect, and use place names in their original languages instead of insisting that every place be imposed a name in their own preferred language, who refer to places in their original names even talking with people of their own race.

To this evidently uninfluential group of happy, multicultural Singaporeans, the LTA and SMRT's decision to force station announcements in Mandarin doesn't come across as an honest mistake erring on the side of political correctness. On the contrary, it sounds like an attempt to harm the racial harmony of the Singapore they imagine themselves living in -- pure sedition, in other words.

To an even smaller group, it might even sound like a regression to the bad old days of the early 1980s, where Singapore chafed under a resurgent tide of Chinese chauvinism. Those days, zealots went around insisting that if you're Chinese, any word coming out of your mouth had better be Mandarin unless you're speaking to a Malay or Indian. There's a reason they were dealt with. That may well be the reason for the seething rage of many young Singaporeans in response to SMRT's ill-advised stunt.

LTA and SMRT had better rethink their train station announcement policy. It's not only misguided and wrong; it may well destroy the harmony between the races in Singapore.

28 November 2012

Minilee's keyboard kommandos - exposed!

In 2007, ministers in the PAP government were tasked to set up a 'counter-insurgency' against their online critics. No one paid them attention. No one bothered to read them. If anyone knew which websites they were operating, no one bothered to publicise their writings.

An Aside: What we've learnt from our 2 years on Facebook

That's all changed in the past few years thanks to a more social media and in particular, the rise of Facebook. I'll admit here that like a few other, better-known bloggers, I made the decision to move my commentary online.

Over the months, I discovered that there is a price for giving up anonymity, of having your multiple online personalities and networks all collapse into one. But more importantly, I discovered that Facebook just isn't a natural space for writing long analyses and getting a true public to read them and participate in commentary.

You could write a long, thoughtful post exposing a policy failure. But for reasons of privacy, you're not going to place your profile on public mode. Yet you wrote this precisely so the public could read it, right? You could count on your friends to share your note, so slowly it goes out into the Facebook public. Great. Now there will be some discussion. Most of which will be one-liner comments thanks to Facebook's social engineering constraints. How many of your friends shared that post? There will be that many fragmented discussions to your piece. And how many of their friends in turn bother to share it? Well.

When it comes down to the line, we're not exactly sure if we have that much of a wider reach by moving to Facebook. We're not even sure if moving to Facebook actually promotes greater discussion than posting direct to blogs. We certainly don't believe that Facebook is a medium that encourages deep and sustained discussion in one consolidated place that blogging does. So we're back.

PAP's Facebook Counter-insurgency

What we did notice straight away was how the counter-insurgency on Facebook as its battlefield of choice. As identified by Singapore Hall of Shame, groups like Fabrications Against the PAP are prominent in disseminating their propaganda against public accusations of the PAP's policy failures.

As much as I'd like to protect their rights to free speech, I am not impressed by how often they would resort to going on the offensive against opposition politicians using the odious tools of misinformation, misdirection, and non sequitur. And since this was a feature of Facebook that when you 'subscribe' to your favourite politicians' pages, you can see every post where they're tagged, you could see how often FAAP tagged Chee Soon Juan, Kenneth Jeyaratnam, Low Thia Kiang, Tan Jee Say, and others in posts that had nothing to do with them, just so FAPP could spam your Facebook feed. It's frankly obnoxious and borderline passive-aggressive.

They seem to be doing very well. In 2007, the Straits Times reported that this online counter-insurgency numbered around 20. Reports by Singapore Hall of Shame and Littlespeck put the current count in October 2012 at over 260.

I suppose we should expect that kind of low-down behaviour from a PAP counter-insurgency. But did any of us predict that these Keyboard Kommandos would be so brazen as to offer to buy Internet user IDs from account holders?

Questions for PAP's counter-insurgency ministers and MPs

TO: Messrs. Dr Ng Eng Hen (Minister for Defence, MP-Bishan Toa Payoh), Lui Tuck Yew (Minister for Transport, MP-Jalan Besar), Zaqy Mohamad (PAP-Choa Chu Kang), Baey Yam Kam (MP-Tampines), and Ms Josephine Teo (MP-Bishan Toa Payoh).

1. Please clarify if you are still chairing the PAP New Media committee, and its media strategies and new media capabilities subgroups.

2. Please clarify if your New Media committee has had any hand in organising, funding, briefing, training, advising, or otherwise providing material support to the groups on Facebook identified as New Compass and Fabrications Against the PAP or persons who are its members.

3. In light of their clearly partisan, well-organised activities and a burgeoning membership that suggests strong funding and professional organisation, would you recommend to Minilee to gazette these groups as political associations?

4. In light of their scheme to solicit Facebook accounts for the purpose of identity impersonation, we appreciate if you offer to condemn this scheme as criminal and unethical in light of your own party's sincere efforts to engage in a real Singapore Conversation with all citizens.

5. In light of an actually existing Singapore Conversation as started by your own government, we appreciate if you additionally disband your "quiet online counterinsurgency". Its raison d'etre and modus operandi are incompatible with the goals of your Singapore Conversation.

I love quoting myself from 2007

"But there's only one meaning of insurgent that is implied when you use "counter-insurgent", really. The member of an irregular armed force one... And how one takes action against insurgents (i.e. guerrillas) is simple: you dispense with all rules of war and adopt a black ops manual. Adopting unconventional warfare is a must. Against the Vietcong, napalm their forests. Execute them. Against local bloggers, take on anonymous identities and destroy the blogosphere through disinformation and ghostwritten propaganda."

25 November 2012

Book Review: Freedom From the Press by Cherian George II

(Read Part I here)

The curious rhetorical device of Cherian George

Some time back, Cherian George published a book called "Freedom From the Press", where a cursory reading reveals that the good professor doesn't want you to take him seriously as an academic. In fact, we argue that he doesn't even take himself seriously as an academic.

We've made hay of a few instances where he resorts to misrepresentation and strawman arguments by summoning faceless, nameless critics out of thin air. But why is this important to us as an indicator of how Cherian George is unfit to be a respected academic, or even an academic at all?

Citations are important. When we read a non-fiction book by an author or academic who wants to be taken seriously, we want to know WHO said WHAT exactly WHERE and WHEN. That's so that we know the author didn't just make things up, or invent people out of thin air and put into their anonymous mouths lame arguments in order to discredit or divert attention from actually existing, stronger arguments.

Now, here's an experiment: try writing an assignment in first year university without proper citations. I'll bet every single dollar I have the professors will fail your assignment. But if you're "Professor" Cherian George, you'd get the entire embarrassment of a book published by the National University Press. And no, you wouldn't be stripped of your teaching post for doing shit like this - which amounts to technical plagiarism.

No comments necessary

And now for your entertainment and enlightenment, here are all the instances where Cherian George does his thing in FOTP. 

I will keep the commentary to a minimum because these excerpts speak very well for themselves the kind of academic Cherian George is. Take your time to read through these gems, then decide if Cherian George didn't just make things up, or invent people out of thin air and put into their anonymous mouths lame arguments in order to caricature actual critics and misrepresent their sensible and strong criticisms - none of which you will read about in his "book".

Your moments of Zen, or Cherian George forgets to cite actual (and respectable) people, actual publications!

For example, otherwise authoritative sources refer to the news publishing behemoth Singapore Press Holdings as "government-owned" when it is not. (p. 2)

(Interestingly on p. 10, Cherian George admits that yeah if you want to look at it critically, SPH is government-controlled.)

Most critics assume that SIngapore's system is unsustainable because it is undemocratic. (p. 7)

Equally dogmatic are those at the opposite end of the political spectrum, in whose eyes the PAP and its instruments are corrupt usurpers of the people's freedom and dignity. This group includes foreign critics with a barely concealed contempt for Singapore and its people... In their eyes, any attempt to analyse the press system in anything longer than a single, colourful, expleteive-deleted (or not) sentence is at best a waste of time... (p. 18)

By misidentifying the ways in which the government controls media and politics, analysts have arrived at erroneous conclusions. According to some, Singapore's unfree media system was supposedly incompatible with an open economy and First World standards of living; it would soon crumble beneath the weight of its own contradictions. Most of these predictions have been based on crude misconceptions about how the press is kept in check... (p. 25)

(There's an entire page's worth of this spiel -- all without citations, presumably because if you were serious to read actual critics and academics take apart Singapore's press system, those won't be the arguments they'd use. Search for Michael Barr's writings, for instance.)

Take any random group of Singaporeans and you will find among them those who appreciate life in PAP-run Singapore and who support strong, decisive government as an integral part of the formula that has provided security and high standards of living. (p. 25)

(Fascinating strawmen you have there, "Professor"!)

Unlike those who see Singapore's media system as a giant contradiction, I would go so far as to say that the PAP has been on the right side of history. (p. 26)

Critics of the PAP had predicted that Singapore's ambitions to be a media hub would be thwarted by its lack of respect for press freedom. (p. 42)

Yet, contrary to the cynics' view that the Singapore press is content with reproducing government handouts, Newscom citations encourage journalists to dig for exclusives and overcome barriers, including obstructive government officials. (p. 54)

Conventional wisdom holds that the PAP -- a regime armed to the teeth with the powers of coercion --- completely overwhelms any professional norms and ideals that the Singapore press may once have possessed. Critics view journalists in a state of unconditional surrender to the government. "They are running dogs of the PAP and poor prostitutes," said David Marshall in 1994. (p. 69)

(This one is interesting. "Conventional wisdom" as a strawman, followed by our usual nameless critics with extreme views, then backed up inexplicably by the late David Marshall, obviously taken out of context. The real-world criticism of SPH that Cherian George is caricaturing and hiding: the press may be 'professional' but is ideologically enslaved, that its reporters are consciously, willingly making up excuses to toe the PAP line. Like say, making up shit about OB markers in the press.

Or as Cherian George himself puts it in p. 48: Professional journalist's' love affair with 'objectivity' and their rejection of journalism's more activist past has made it easier for them to be turned into scribes for the status quo.)

Indeed, Gary Rodan observes that Singapore's media policy may have been partly influenced by a conscious desire to avoid Malaysia's mistakes. Admittedly, this is the kind of observation that enrages critical Singaporeans who would never concede that their press has any credibility. (p. 113)

Singaporean critics of the PAP want to believe that this backwardness is due to government repression. Such a claim would be an insult to media activists elsewhere. (p. 172)
(Here, we have not one but TWO groups of strawmen! Bravo, "Professor"!)

Most believers in democracy want and need to believe that Singapore is closer to the unstable end of the spectrum. They find it too disconcerting the idea that a modern state may have found a way to consolidate authoritarianism... (p. 201)

Opposition politicians and their followers are counting on the PAP's inertia to be its undoing, causing Singapore to succumb eventually to the tide of freedom. (p. 225)