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"?