24 May 2007

The vile and malevolent Ng Eng Hen

Khaw Boon Wan may be the stupidest man in the Singapore Cabinet, but his sheer destructive capability is dwarfed by the sheer mendacity and malevolence of his colleague Ng Eng Hen.

The illustrious Mr Ng is, after all, the labour minister who wanted to reclaim jobs for Singaporeans - in the marine, nursing, and cleaning industries. He is the same man who runs a ministry that won't let anyone know the real unemployment rate in Singapore. And yes, he's also the man who chairs the PAP's covert blogger operation.

However, Ng Eng Hen has just about outdone himself this time, in a rare application of massive stupidity in wrong-headed public policy that can only bring about the apocalypse - witness his "new initiatives to lure talented professionals".

Q: How on earth does he want to lure talented professionals (read "foreign talents")?
A: By luring them even before they are talented professionals!

The Work Holiday Pass scheme of Singapore is aimed at young students and graduates from overseas, according to the Channelnewsasia report. It is open to those aged 17 to 30. There will be 2000 places available a year. "A positive experience of living and working in Singapore under the Programme would encourage some of them to work here when they graduate, or at a later stage in their careers", says Ng Eng Hen.

There are, to put it mildly, some problems with this scheme. How on earth are we luring foreign professionals by extending visas to college students? Apparently, the phrase "talented professional" has become so debased that anyone could qualify, even before they enter the workforce, or gain the experience that sets them apart of elite professionals - i.e. the type of foreign talents that Singapore should really be going after.

Unlike the Work Holiday visas offered by the US, Canada, UK, or any other country, Singapore's WHP has virtually no conditions and restrictions on what sort of jobs the applicants can apply for, or how much they are allowed to earn. One non-obvious implication of this uniquely singaporean Work Holiday scheme is this: in effect, it introduces 2000 foreign undergrads into the short term labour market. Given that fresh local graduates in recent years tend to spend about a year working in contract or temp jobs - a sign of a shift in the labour market to contract work - it means that these 2000 young students will compete directly for the same jobs as local grads.

How should we put this into context? According to Singapore's Department of Statistics, in 2005 there were 3,500 graduates from local universities. So... picture dumping in 2,000 foreign students and fresh grads into the labour market right now. Is there any wonder that I consider Ng Eng Hen to be the most destructive and malevolent man in the Cabinet?

I've always wondered about how sincere our leaders are about their love for foreign talent - ooops, "talented foreign professionals" - and whether Singapore really needs so many of them. Stephen Appold has wondered the same thing, and actually bothered to find out. The final report is gruesome in its details, and even horrifying in its conclusions, written 2 years ago:
Arguably, university-educated migrants are not needed in Singapore at all. Less controversially, they are not needed in the large number in which they are found... Despite the high employment growth, an expanding surplus of university graduates has been chasing the available jobs with predictable effects: slower salary increases, the downward filtering of graduates into less-desirable jobs, the erosion of the relative income advantage of educated labour.
And the 2,000 visas for young students and graduates will just make it even worse. Ng Eng Hen aims to further depress wages and destroy local graduates!

Update (12 noon)

So the University of South Wales has shut down operations barely 3 months after its new buildings opened to students here. It's not economical, its dean says, to run the place given the drastically lower-than-projected student rate - and there's the matter of MOE and the Singapore government not allowing UNSW to reduce its operations and retool plans for a lower student intake. WTH. IMPEACH Ng Eng Hen! Impeach Ng Eng Hen now!

Of course, the moral of the story is still the same.
Despite the high employment growth, an expanding surplus of university graduates has been chasing the available jobs with predictable effects: slower salary increases, the downward filtering of graduates into less-desirable jobs, the erosion of the relative income advantage of educated labour.
It's a lesson that might actually explain the reason for UNSW's failure to attract students. Greater implications - if potential university applicants are aware of their drastically reduced rewards, the downward filtering into less-desirable jobs... then Singapore is just about finished as an education hub - no uni can attract a sustainable amount of local or even foreign grads. The domestic economy and labour market just simply don't have the space.

References: Appold, Stephen J. "The weakening position of university graduates in Singapore's labour market: Causes and consequences", in Population and Development Journal, 31, no. 1 (Mar 05): 85–112.

21 May 2007

Woody Allen spoof

"At first, we didn't know exactly what this was, but we've developed a theory. We feel that when citizens of your society were guilty of a crime against the state, they were forced to watch this."

Mary Douglas is dead

I found out on Friday, but didn't get around blogging about this. At least we'll have the cold comfort of commemorating her and other anthropologists here.

The Guardian has a thoughtful obituary:

Dame Mary Douglas, who has died aged 86, was the most widely read British social anthropologist of her generation. If she had to be recalled for a single achievement, it would be as the anthropologist who took the techniques of a particularly vibrant period of research into non-western societies and applied them to her own, western milieu. Within her lifetime, this was so far accepted within British anthropology as to become almost lost to view. Posterity should restore most of the credit to her, and remember her as an innovative social theorist and for her contributions particularly to the anthropological analysis of cosmology, consumption and the analysis of risk perception.

In 1966, Douglas published her most celebrated work, Purity and Danger: an Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. This book is best remembered for its stylish demonstration of the ways in which all schemes of classification produce anomalies: whether the pangolin for the Lele, or the God incarnate of Catholic theology. Some of this classificatory "matter out of place" - from humble house dust in her Highgate house to the abominations of Leviticus for the Hebrews - was polluting, but other breaches of routine classification had the capacity to renew the world symbolically.

The Times duly notes her passing:

Dame Mary Douglas was one of the outstanding British social anthropologists of the latter half of the 20th century. Her books, Purity and Danger (1966) and Natural Symbols (1970), were seminal for anthropologists and were widely appreciated in other disciplines.

Starting as an Africanist, she branched out to cover contemporary Western society, addressing such topics as risk analysis and environmentalism, and food and consumption. Old Testament religion was another interest, first in her famous discussion of the "abominations of Leviticus", in Purity and Danger, and latterly in studies of Numbers and Leviticus.

Daniel Miller remembers her as an intellectual giant on whose shoulders we stand:

Even when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge it seemed almost impossible not to devote at least one essay to the application of Purity and Danger to almost any genre of objects that one chose. When you told people you were hoping to become an anthropologist it was the most common point of recognition. 'Oh an anthropologist, you mean like Purity and Danger.'

For good reason; this was a book that simply changed the way people saw their world and made sense of every day distinctions that we observed but failed to understand. In my case the most important impact came with The World of Goods. Along with Bourdieu’s Distinction these were the two books that ensured that it was in some ways astonishingly anthropology, the discipline least associated with modern industrial society, that actually invented the modern study of consumption which was the path I took into material culture studies. Furthermore she established the essential grounds for those studies of consumption - the critique of economic assumptions as to why we desire goods and the critique of the consequences of those economic assumptions, for such fundamental issues as to what we mean by poverty.

Mary Douglas is still taught even now at undergraduate level. I haven't really made that Bourdieu connection before, but now I know why her essays never bored me. It is, in the end, a way of seeing the world and all its apparent arbitrariness as a bounded text that comes with its symbolic code: sense, purpose, and message to communicate.

And that's why I treat IS as a literary text - there's no other way.

13 May 2007

The Great Firewall of Singapore, episode 2

Duly noted: Singnet users have problems displaying their blogs.

Affected blogger users, all logging in from Singnet accounts, experience decreased functionality with blogger.

1. Missing Blogger bar on front page of all blogs

Singnet users get this page. Note the cropped Blogger 404 banner where the blogger bar should be.

Hello, blogger bar!

2. Logging into blogger, the Dashboard looks funny...

Singnet users get this page. Note the dashboard table just seems... broken.

Ah, this is the real deal! Note how uncluttered this dashboard appears.

3. Singnet users may no longer edit their templates.

Note that Singnet claims the entire page does not exist, leading users to think the problem lies with blogger.

Of course, that's just a bloody lie.

4. If you just want to blog... things still look funny.

I'm told that in actual fact, clicking on the buttons produce nothing. No bold text, italics, etc.

It seems that the wonky appearance of the create posts page just drives affected users cranky.


Under the internet settings for your browser of choice (Firefox/Mozilla/Seamonkey, IE6/7, Safari/Camino), switch from Direct connection to Internet to force a manual proxy of your choice, either the standard proxy.singnet.com.sg:8080 or anything on this page or that one.


Transparent Singnet proxy has hiccuped once more. Strangely enough, instead of transparently sending to the user what the server is sending, the transparent proxy implementation of Singnet is doing some sort of interpretation AND rearrangement of what the server is sending, instead of being transparent.

This isn't the first time, though, that Singnet's transparent proxy has created problems for its users on blogger, livejournal, and other services.

12 May 2007


Not a good week for wankers, apparently. On one hand, the gang of wise old men are called out by Elia Diodati and twashers.

On the other... The Void Deck has pronounced Wankerdämmerung on the Brotherhood, while Mr Wang Says "Wankerdämmerung!" to the Brotherhood as they invade his blog.

Agagooga has looked into the eyes of the Brotherhood, and he says Wankerdämmerung to them.

It is now twilight for these wankers as more and more people decode their self-referential prose, their space opera stories, their posing as some kind of sg Illuminati.

As a satire of anonymous commentors, the Brotherhood illustrates the principles of strength in anonymity (no one knows who you are, that you're just the same person posting), strength in numbers (always intimidates people if you seem to be a huge movement), strength in incoherence (very easy to dismiss arguments if you have a dozen anonymouses posting non sequitur replies).

As a satire of local parliamentary debates and online discussions, the Brotherhood's "Great Hall Debates" and discussion style elsewhere illustrate the tendency for discussions to dissolve into brinksmanship, namecalling, thinly veiled threats, obfuscation, and fallacious and illogical arguments by the second reply.

As a satire of aggregators, the Intelligent Singapore illustrates the principle that for a political blogosphere that's as populous as the number of digits in two human hands, people should just use their own blogroll or rss feeds because it'll be the same blogs featured over and over again.

Sure, we kind of appreciate the satire that the Brotherhood is performing, a triple satire on the state of the blogosphere. But it's done in a style that very few people get the joke; that those who do get the joke won't find it in good taste; that the space for reasoned discourse is cut off each time the Brotherhood brings their discussions onto other blogs.

So, I also say Wankerdämmerung!

10 May 2007

An academic debate

Duly noted: Ellia Diodati and twasher have set into motion what I call the Wankerdämmerung.

Elia calls out the current Singaporeangle as "trapped in its self-pleasing, obsessive groupthink over academic rigor as applied to things that really don’t deserve such standards", while twasher notes that a recent article on the Angle is marked by confused thinking, doubtful operationalisation, and ultimately empty academic rigour masking an irrelevant argument.

Also duly noted: the dignified, overpolite but "We are not amused" response on SA, the exaggeratedly polite Victorian era Botanist Society meeting manners masking a definitive stonewall to the problem pointed out by the barbarians outside the gate, an academic invocation of the right to end a discussion by saying I am not arguing on that context... (however you want to interpret and however you induced that context), by declaring "I am not going to indulge in arguing this further" as a unilateral end of discussion announcement.

I will not repeat my commentary on the gang of wise men (see footnote in cited article). Instead, I am content to refer to a previous post which was made more than half a year before the institution of the Angle groupblog.

Academic and critical writing

...from the National Library, Critical intellectuals on writing (Olsen G, Worsham L, eds; 2003). The anthology consists of interviews of leading scholars by the editors, on being intellectuals.

Wei notes their introduction attempts to delineate the difference between academic and intellectual writing:

"Simply stated, the distinction is this: academic work is inherently conservative inasmuch as it seeks, first to fulfill the relatively narrow and policed goals and interests of a given discipline or profession and second, to fulfill the increasingly corporatised mission of higher education; intellectual work, in contrast, is relentless critical, self-critical, and potentially revolutionary, for it aims to critique, change, and even destroy institutions, disciplines and professions that rationalise exploitation, inequality and injustice."

The pseudo-academic language (posts beginning with "I refer to X's article, which was a response to Y's article on...", "In this post, I shall attempt to argue that...", the use of the word treatise, the careless word-dropping - longue duree as applied to the life-span of intellectuals!), the exaggerated politeness masking a mutual agreement not to show up, call on, or embarrass the authors, not to critically examine and reflexively interrogate academic arguments, the rigorous analysis over issues of non-importance...

Now I see why Olsen and Worsham really believe it is possible for academics to work against their own duties as public intellectuals.

01 May 2007

Post mortem for a political blogosphere

1. Technological essentialism

The argument comes back in vogue every few decades: new inventions will fundamentally change human behaviour, reconfigure power structures, show us new ways to think and see the world.

Fireworks. The moveable type. Ocean-sailing ships. The telegraph. These are inventions that changed the world the second time round. Or perhaps you could say they intensified patterns of behaviour that were already there, like how the steam engine merely made global colonialism easier.

2. Relative autonomy

The illusion that the internet, the political blogosphere, seems to operate under different rules, with a different culture and mindset, ties in neatly with the technological essentialism argument. Yet technological essentialism provides no explantatory value when the political blogosphere goes the way of Sammyboy, soc.culture.singapore, singabloodypore...

That the blogosphere could, for a while, be seen to operate under unique internal rules, can be explained by sole virtue of the miniscule population of political bloggers and commentors on their blogs, hence its relative autonomy with regards to institutional politics, the market.

What destroyed the blogosphere's power to create an idealised platform to comment and collaborate on measured criticisms of the larger polity, was simply the loss of its relative autonomy. The elections of 2006 provided the onslaught of commentors, who had their own ideas of discourse (one liners, mudslinging, ranting), and the attention of the institutional political players (both parties supplying their own anonymouses, setting up groupblogs, helping party members to set up their own blogs, creating and coordinating their own stables of bloggers).

3. Exit and silence

The exit of various bloggers is a deliberate resignation, not forced, and certainly not all that dire. The proxies of various political parties may now find conquering the blogosphere far easier, as is swamping readers with more pliant bloggers who can always be counted to rouse the troops. They will find, in time, that the blogosphere's credibility and respectability a halo created by the practices and discursive rigour and ethics of the ex-bloggers, and that this credibility and respectability will never be in their hands, ever, by the black ops virtue of their operations.

A fair warning: yes, some of us may be disillusioned or weary. There will be some of us, who are like the Magician.

We have read deeply into the rules that govern our blogging enterprise, the changing relations that govern us in the current situation created by the entrance of the anonymouses and the functionaries of the Whiteshirts and Redshirts. And we see one, and only one true exit, only one path of action that is morally and spiritually satisfying.

And then, we leave.

And yet, our magic (the halo of credibility!) was never in the microchips, the fibre optics, the blogging software that lie on the internet. Some of us may be silent. Others will simply do what we've always done, and start talking and convincing people around us, in this flesh-and-blood world, of our arguments, to invite them into our analytical projects. While you play your game of turning the blogosphere into your echo chamber.

The magic lies with the Magician's ability to understand and read the game, it is an inalienable part of the Magician. The magician remains the magician, even without the staff.