27 March 2006

Tired Election Strategies

A party desperately clutching at straws.
An election gimmick that didn't quite work the first time round.
The same election gimmick used yet again this year.

Gentle readers, I refer not to the "by-election" strategy in this post, but the Whiteshirt "lifting of the whip" strategy.

This year, Mr Peanut Goh has promised to allow Messrs Eric Low and Seetoh Yih Pin, the challengers in the opposition-held Hougang and Potong Pasir ridings, freedom from the party whip in the next Parliament if voters deliver these two long-time oppo wards to the Whiteshirts.

Never mind that some political experts in the Channelnewsasia article see Peanut Goh's move as inconsistent, unprincipled, and damaging Whiteshirt credibility and party discipline - we've been here before. Cue to the previous general election, where Mr Peanut Goh promised to select new MPs to form a Shadow Cabinet to keep policymakers on their toes.
When criticised during the recent General Elections of a lack of checks and balances on the Government, PM Goh Chok Tong had this response - the People's Action Forum. The group, described by the PM as a Shadow Cabinet, is to ensure more debate in parliament. However, unlike other countries where the Shadow Cabinet is formed by the Opposition, Singapore's Shadow Cabinet will be drawn from the ruling party, with 20 PAP MPs and Ministers serving a 2-year run. The Party whip will be lifted so they don't have to toe the party line and can even vote against party decisions.

Whither Peanut Goh's Shadow Cabinet today?

21 March 2006

The ST's latest brickbat

My tuition kid and I love to read the Straits Times. So far we've learnt that:

1. Forum letters all seem to say "I so angry/stupid at X, will the relevant authorities please comment."

2. Straits Times photographers in the Home crimes page assign varying degrees of guilt depending on how closely cropped the mug of the suspect is. Clearest sign of guilt: when ST crops off the top part of the hair, takes away the neck and collar, and squishes just the face into a small box.

3. Most nonpolitical articles in the Home section seem to be written to provoke an immediate response by the reader: "What a stupid/evil/lame/unfortunate/boh liao etc. person". I call this the Incitement to Kneejerk JudgeMentality.

11 March 2006

The Smoking Gun

And a BG is Born!

Minilee's son recently passed out from basic military training at Tekong with a marksmanship medal. Chibilee's achievement? Getting 42 out of a possible 36 points at the rifle range. This kid is going places. Today, marksman... Tomorrow, BG? (And 20 years later, the THIRD member of the Lee emperors?)

No Links Between Grassroots and PAP

Branch and local chairmen of assorted grassroots committees and the Citizens Consultative Committee (CCC) have been writing furious letters to the ST forums this week, after the paper reported allegations/complaints at a NUS politics forum on the links between grassroots organisations and the Whiteshirts.

Their denials are pretty fun to read. It's almost as though no one remembers a certain article, published in page 26 of the 5 June 2005 edition of the Straits Times, on the retirement of one Mr S Phyaindran, top grassroots activist from the CCC.

The caption of the photo says: Mr S Phyaindran (left), describing a time drug addicts loitered in Marine Parade void decks. If you look at the photo, you'll realise that Mr S Phyaindran is supposedly posing outside the entrance of the Marine Parade CCC. Its signboard displays the PAP lightning bolt in circle logo and slogans in 4 languages. The chinese one is clearly visible, and reads: 全民一心

So will the grassroots leaders and members of the CCC still be able to say honestly that their organisations are not linked to the Whiteshirts?

10 March 2006

Lessons on Constructive Criticism

Singapore's leaders are a bunch of creative people who repackage every possible concept in Democracy 101 into Orwell 1984.

Civil society is now civic society.
Bourdieu's cultural capital is now a show-me-your-money concept, thanks to Khaw Boon Wan's very short stint at the Ministry of Culture.
Welfare is now workfare (despite the fact that our workfare has nothing in common with how the rest of the world understands it).
In order to deny that 4 straight years of economic doldrums could create a Generation X, then-PM Goh popularised the term Generation M in his speeches.

And now constructive criticism is rebranded as "constructive suggestions", according to the Feedback Unit's "Feedback Pursuit" online game to teach Singaporeans how to engage with the System. This, of course, is another move to defang the increasingly bold mentality that's sprung up lately in the populace since the NKF debacle broke.

Agagooga has stronger nerves of steel than me, which explains why he's visited the site already. Great findings from him on the hidden messages of the Feedback Pursuit game:
...instead of using Critical Thinking skills so important to the New Economy in writing their Op-Eds, Catherine Lim and Cherian George should have gone to more tea sessions and participated in more feedback dialogues and written more letters to the Straits Times Forum with suggestions to the relevant authorities.

Given that the Feedback Unit is part of the Civil Service, it is exceedingly odd for the people to engage with it, rather than with the political process proper by voicing their opinions to their elected representatives; the Civil Service deals with implementation of policies, while the political process formulates them - thus, working through the civil service would presumably only tweak the implementation of said policies, rather than resulting in substantive change.

Our leaders prefer that there is no politics in Singapore; hence their happy subjects are only allowed administrative participation and not political participation, tweaking policies rather than questioning policies.

Well-meaning persons will do well to understand this next time they insist that critics of the Whiteshirts should take bigger part in the feedback process. There is no substitute for political participation, no substitute for open and free questioning of policies, no substitute for accountability of politicians to their electorates. The feedback process provides none of that.

08 March 2006

Arab-American Lays the Smackdown on Radical Clerics

Via Edward,

This 5'27" video capture from Al Jazeera's news programme on 21 Feb shows an Arab-American psychologist berating her fellow studio guests, a group of radical imams, and the rightwing presentors, on the state of Muslim society and the Danish cartoon affair.

I, for one, am impressed at how she manages to stare down and plow through the furious cleric who kept shouting "Heretic!" at her during her presentation.

You can view the video, or read the transcript here. Her sheer force of personality comes through more in the video, though.


Wafa Sultan: The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions, or a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century...

Host: I understand from your words that what is happening today is a clash between the culture of the West, and the backwardness and ignorance of the Muslims?

Wafa Sultan: Yes, that is what I mean.


Host: Who came up with the concept of a clash of civilizations? Was it not Samuel Huntington? It was not Bin Laden. I would like to discuss this issue, if you don't mind...

Wafa Sultan: The Muslims are the ones who began using this expression. The Muslims are the ones who began the clash of civilizations... When the Muslims divided the people into Muslims and non-Muslims, and called to fight the others until they believe in what they themselves believe, they started this clash, and began this war.

07 March 2006

The Substation Loves White Elephants

It has been 4 months since the Substation launched its monthly online magazine ("The Substation Magazine"). While it does mostly performance and visual arts reviews, the magazine editor Cyril Wong seems to be steering it towards some social commentary as well as metacriticism of Singapore's art and artists.

Hopefully the Substation Magazine will shape up to be a more assessable and frequent counterpart to Focas.

(Disclosure: I wrote the top feature article for the March issue of the Substation Magazine.)
Updated 5 Sep 2007: Full text of article released here as the archives of the Substation Magazine is down, perhaps for good)

White Elephants in Singapore Art

The artist, unfettered?

Singapore’s artists have deep-set beliefs of themselves and their work. They often find it necessary to defend the value of art in a technocratic state like Singapore, especially at public forums, seminars, or even Q&A sessions at arts events. As if artists are somehow emotionally alien and distinct from the rest of humanity and completely incomprehensible:

“Why (or how) do you struggle with making art, instead of just following the rat race?”
“Is it worth it, being a round peg in a universe of square holes?”
And occasionally, even: How do artists here operate, given the restrictions of the state?

These are predictable questions that are perennially raised in almost every public forum. Of interest to us is the artist’s reply to the final question: There is freedom of speech, and we have to be very creative in putting certain politically-sensitive points across, and we occasionally have to exercise some self-censorship. So as an artist, I do not feel the heavy hand of the state.

The artist’s answer is, of course, as predictable and obligatory as the questions of of the public audience. An obligatory question meets with an obligatory reply: such is the nature of the social ritual, a liturgy of art, that establishes a kind of truth. Through each re-enactment, that truth is restated and reaffirmed as a timeless fact in itself. The coolness of the answer drowns out the doubts raised in the initial question, and re-establishes the primal state of innocence of the uncompromised artist ? a state of innocence natural, undisputed, commonsensical, and eternally so.

For all the qualities of a 10-year series answer, I hope audiences at the next public forum or Q&A session with an artist ask this question: Why was last year’s most important public art installation not done by an artist?

White elephants as art

Instead, the white elephants installation piece was created by a local businessman and minor grassroots activist from the Punggol South constituency. One August morning, eight white cardboard elephants stood outside the expensive, unopened Buangkok train station, a stunning reminder of the contest between the residents of the estate and the mandarins at the Land Transport Authority that may have shamed vacillating authorities, intent on postponing the opening of the train station in the due ripeness of time, into actually opening the station.

Even though they were exhibited for less than an hour (the grassroots activist feared reprisals and a genuine embarrassment to the visiting politician), these white elephants provide the wider audience in Singapore the idea of public art.

Good public art is:
1.Site specific art that speaks directly to the public. The work was integrated in the Buangkok MRT locale. At the same time, its installation raised the problematics of locality ? for instance, the residents campaign and the Land Transport Authority contested over the number and location of residents who would have used the station.
2.Relevant to area residents. There wasn’t any need to contemplate too deeply about what the installation meant, at its primary level. Yet, it provided much food for thought and public discussion.
3.Strong, clear social and political commentary. To call into question the judgement of technocratic mandarins, to contrast between the residents, who needed the station for their transport, and the white-collared mandarins, who did not see their need as sufficient for providing public transport. To call train station that cannot be opened a white elephant...
4.Controversial, yet humorous and cheeky. Despite its radical nature, the installation was well-liked and brought smiles to the fortunate spectators who saw it in person. Compared to other legitimate public art installations in Singapore during the same period, the public will have an enduring memory of the white elephants.
5.Safe and almost legal. The police could find no grounds to prosecute the activists involved, as the installations did not cause public annoyance or nuisance (notwithstanding the ire of the patriotic citizen who made the police report), even though the installation had not been approved within the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act.

The question, reprised

Why was the installation not done by an artist? Or, as a typical audience member in a forum might put it: Does the artist wish they had done this instead?

Let us assume first that the mythos of the unfettered artist is true. Then, there is something deficient about the white elephant installation.

Perhaps the idea of using white elephant cut-outs as an installation piece for Buangkok MRT was not creative and subtle enough? Was it too crude, the imagery not polysemic enough? If so, there wouldn’t have been a public debate or controversy over the installation. Or perhaps, was the installation socially relevant, but not art? An installation wouldn’t be real installation art if no reader disputed its status, and to remark that something is more social than artistic betrays the speaker’s ideas of what acceptable art should be...

Or, perhaps, it is time to admit that the artist has become removed, even alienated from entire types of art, through his creativity, prudent sensitivity, good taste, and self-censorship. In the oeuvre of the typical Singaporean artist, there is a lacuna that becomes the more conspicuous each time the artist insists on keeping the image of their self-censorship not affecting their creative work.

Installation art with Singaporean characteristics

Conceptual, aesthetic, avowedly non-confrontational, even to the point of avoiding biting socio-political commentary. Interred in formalised spaces within galleries; if public, curiously uninterrogative of public discourse. Perhaps the public aren’t that naive when they ask: “How do (can) artists here operate, given the restrictions of the state?” The internalisation of legal and political strictures creates a commonsensical second nature of the artist to instinctively reject certain tropes as beyond artistic markers, while maintaining protestations of his unsullied creativity.

What sort of installation art is missing in Singapore? More ephemeral pieces that last less than an hour, and only survive immaterial, in the minds of the public and their popular discourse; pieces which, in an age of mechanical reproduction, can be sold by some enterprising students on T-shirts; whose continued secondary existence point towards the multiplicity of meanings and contestations of meanings between orthodoxy and the public?

Perhaps it is time for someone to wrap the Supreme Court with a kilometre of yellow ribbon. Or plant cut-outs of a politician on a soapbox giving a speech to a large crowd in the Speaker’s Corner. Or cut-outs of picnickers, skateboarders, children flying kites ? at the wide open grass spaces prohibiting any sort of activity (State Land: No trespassing). The aim of public installation art should alert the public to alternative imaginings of public spaces; but first, practitioners should be alerted to alternative imaginings of public art.

05 March 2006

On Workfare

The Curious Incident of the Workfare Budget in Parliament

On 1 March, Minilee announced in Parliament, near the end of the Budget debates, that the much-hyped workfare component is not meant to be a permanent fixture; having it every year will lead to welfarism, which is bad for Singapore. To clarify, the workfare component in this year's Budget should be viewed as a one-off, infrequent, occasional bonus.

Contrary to Straits Times headline of Minilee conclusively refuting opposition criticisms, the declaration that the workfare idea is just a one-off only serves to highlight the fact that since it's not permanent, it's not a shift, then it has to be an election goodie.

I do not begrudge the fact that Singapore's current Parliamentary acts as a rubberstamp for whatever policy directions and final decisions its Prime Minister ("the Princeps") decides upon. Ministers and backbenchers debate the Budget for 2 weeks, then regardless of the criticisms and points raised, vote to pass the same Budget in a ritual vote afterwards. Outwardly, the forms of democratic rule are observed.

Real transparency and open government, however, depends not on the destination that Minilee selects, but the journey and the process by which he arrives at his decisions. On the 17 Feb, on the opening of the Budget debate, Minilee unveiled the workfare component as a major shift in thinking, to focus more on the poor and the elderly in the long term.

Workfare, he declared, is not welfare. It will not lead to welfare. Minilee even made the same declaration during last year's National Day Rally Speech. Throughout the month of January, in the runup to the Budget session of Parliament, Minilee had continually played up the role of workfare and promising a permanent shift in Budget.

Even the Straits Times, on 25 February, after the first week of the Budget session, issued a 6-page feature in its Insight pages, proclaiming that "Budget 06 marks shift in thinking" with its new workfare component. Its top political operative, Chua Mui Hoong (the Maureen Dowd of Singapore), cheered on the creation of a "Kinder, gentler rat race". The efficient press regulatory framework ensures a tight coordination between the state and the news media, especially for major features analysing political events like these Budget reports.

At this moment, for example, in March 2006 (if it is March 2006), workfare will lead to welfare. In no public or private utterance will it ever be admitted that the two concepts had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as everyone well knows, it was only 1 week ago that workfare was not welfare, would never lead to welfare, and had the backing of Minilee, who introduced the idea himself. But this is merely a piece of furtive knowledge which we happen to possess because our memories are not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of relations had never happened. Workfare will lead to welfare: therefore Workfare had always led to Welfare...

That Minilee made the reversal in such short notice that it took the Straits Times in surprise isn't as shocking as the blase acceptance of the new state of events by his 80+ colleagues in Parliament. No one took a minute to address the plothole or request the Princeps to account for the sudden and complete demolition of an ideological point he built up so painstakingly since last year.

Minilee first unveiled the workfare idea last August. His million-dollar ministers and elite backbenchers have had more than 6 months to do their homework on workfare. It appears they didn't, or didn't bother to. At no time during the Budget session did any minister or backbencher actually do a presentation of the implementation and philosophy of workfare as it exists in other countries. Perhaps if they had done so, we would come to the embarrassing realisation that workfare:

1. Is not an original invention of Minilee
The media kept putting quotation marks on workfare last August, to make it seem this was new term coined on the spot by Minilee.

2. Actually exists in other countries
Google is your best friend.

3. Is a full-fledged, theoretically sound (although widely criticised) concept

4. As it exists in Singapore, has completely zero relation to workfare as it exists in other countries, and as it exists as a theoretical concept.

Appropriation and bastardisation of existing concepts has long being the modus operandi of the new crop of ministers; see Khaw Boon Wan's excreable appropriation, reinvention, and bastardisation of Bourdieu's "cultural capital", but surely, one expects better from the Prime Minister of Singapore.

03 March 2006

All of the people, all of the time

In Parliament on Wednesday, Minilee solemnly declares the workfare bonus is a one-off bonus; having it every year will lead to welfarism, which is bad for Singapore!

Any self-respecting journalist would've pointed out immediately that Minilee spent the entire past 2 weeks in Parliament selling workfare as an alternative to welfare, that it is NOT welfare and can never be welfare.

Yet Minilee now does a turnaround and say workfare will lead to welfare.

The Straits Times wrote a feature article over the weekend predicting that the workfare bonus scheme heralded a change in the Budget paradigm . Knowing the cosy partnership between state and media, and the tremendous coordination to get the message out, one wonders how Minilee's flipflop caught the Straits Times unaware.

Minilee keeps claiming that the workfare bonus is not an election sweetener. Now that we know the workfare bonus is neither a permanent reworking of the labour market, nor a shift in the Budget paradigm, and just a one-off event, what else can it be aside from an election sweetener?

How is it that Minilee and his lieutenants have once again appropriated an existing word (the workfare concept has been in existence for a long time), bastardised its meaning, and claimed it as their very own smart idea? (Shades of "cultural capital"!)

Let's not forget the million-dollar ministers and their elite backbenchers paid absolutely no attention, did no homework, and discussed nothing about existing implementations of 'workfare' in other countries during budget debate week.

Minilee also claims that increasing employers' share of CPF contributions cannot be done because that would drive up labour costs, making Singapore uncompetitive. Let's see, didn't he claim when he cut employers' contribution that it was a drastic but necessary, and therefore temporary move?

To top this all off, Minilee has his own Marie Antoinette moment. Rejecting opposition calls for unemployment insurance, Minilee says most Singaporeans have some form of retirement benefits anyway.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is either a fool or a liar. Impeach him, impeach him NOWWWW!