31 December 2017

Why funny things happen in the National Archives

Pay attention to state press releases during the holidays and long weekends. It is an ideal period to release embarrassing or inconvenient news that must be released, in the hopes that it will escape the public eye, if not the eye of journalists. This Christmas, the UK National Archives announced that thousands of declassified government papers had gone missing. To be more precise, "misplaced while being on loan to government department."

Was this incompetence on the part of the archives, or a pattern of mendacity and obfuscation on the part of the government?

13 December 2017

What should Singapore do about Operation Spectrum?

We at Illusio disagree with Jolovan Wham's train protest, on the grounds that even activists and protesters in the liberal West know better than to stage a protest inside a train.

Assuming Wham had staged the protest to highlight the issue of Singapore's Internal Security Act and the infamy of 1987's Operation Spectrum, it is disappointing that after getting the book thrown at him, the coordinated response from his circle of activists has been to highlight his "veteran advocacy" for domestic workers and put him up as a poster boy for free speech and assembly.

You know, do everything but highlight the issue of Singapore's Internal Security Act and the infamy of Operation Spectrum? As though it was a useful pretext that once raised, is never mentioned again?

29 November 2017

Should Jolovan Wham have held a protest in a train?

On 3 June 2017, Kirsten Han announced that her fellow activist Jolovan Wham had organised a protest in a Singapore Mass Rapid Transit train. Han reposted on her Facebook a series of photographs from Wham's personal page, showing Wham and eight others sitting blindfolded in a train carriage, holding up the recently published 1987: Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On, with homemade posters stuck on the walls behind them. While Wham was tagged by Han, his collaborators and co-conspirators are instantly recognisable as activists of a certain bent in Singapore. Everyone knows who they are, but their names will not be mentioned here.

On the morning of 3 June 2017 while Kirsten Han was likely involved in the coordination of the dissemination of the news of the protest, if not the protest itself, I was attending in my personal capacity, as I note were some other members of the Community Action Network, the Singapore Heritage Society 30th anniversary lecture by Prof Kwok Kian-woon at the Singapore Management University.

I had no prior knowledge of the protest. I was not involved in its conception, deliberation, or execution. I was not invited to be part of it. If invited, I would have told them it was a stupid idea that would get them thrown in jail, whether they did it in Singapore, New York, or London.

08 November 2017

Singapore transport failure clown show: The Parliament edition

Singapore's train system has been suffering from one public embarrassment to another, breaking its own record for breakdowns every year while the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and the Ministry of Transportation double down by releasing questionable statistics to show that in some metrics they cherry-pick, Singapore's train system is doing better than ever.

You would think when senior management staff get caught falsifying systems management records for at least the past year, that the parliament sitting the next week would be a time of reckoning for the ministry, its regulatory body, their too-big-to-fail train operator Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT), and its line of incompetent bosses.

But then, this is the same august body that harboured the delusion of thinking it could proclaim the prime minister guiltless in open parliament, based solely on his testimony of events and not an independent investigation by a special counsel. Minister Khaw Boon Wan's performance yesterday is par for the course, in other words, for the national transport clown show.

03 November 2017

The realities of Singapore's online landscape

Bertha Henson and Daniel Yap have announced the impending closure of The Middle Ground (TMG), revealing that the news website had failed to meet the challenges of sustainability. Earlier last month, the trio of Dr Thum Pin Tjin, Kirsten Han, and Sonny Liew announced the setting up of "New Naratif" and rolled out their vision, accountability, and subscription model.

Bertha Henson has done a great job with TMG and will be back with Bertha Harian
These developments may fit the establishment's Wild West model of Singapore's online news media, where newcomers can rise out of nowhere to carve an empire of their own, then fall just as fast or settle into also-ran status. On a less simplistic level, the online media landscape is dominated and controlled by Singapore's regulatory framework to such an extent that no full-fledged news site can be economically viable. Where the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act empowers the government to shutter presses as it pleases and more insidiously and demand presses award shares to entities it chooses, recent Media Development Authority regulations empower the government to demand any news site it chooses to cough up hefty monetary guarantees, and to demand forfeiture of that guarantee at its discretion.

Singapore's regulatory framework is a deterrence against the setting up of online news sites, and indirectly incentivises bloggers to stay small and stay within the government's OB markers.

13 October 2017

Endgame for the 2017 presidential election

Who won the 2017 presidential election?

The big winner of the 2017 presidential election is not the PAP nor its proxy candidate, Halimah Yacob. This honour goes to the outgoing president, Dr Tony Tan.

09 October 2017

Decoding the social media narratives of the 2017 presidential election

It is significant that during the 2017 presidential campaign, the issues that the social media saw as significant to the election had very little congruence with what the candidates themselves, the People's Action Party government, and even we saw as significant and wanted to talk about. It is significant that instead of lulling the electorate to general apathy, this disconnect has served to galvanise them and stoke up their anger at the PAP.

Were these narratives part of an unofficial, yet highly coordinated campaign? Were these narratives more spin, conspiracy theory, and fake news than a reflection of the legitimate issue, that the PAP had compromised Singapore's national principles of multiracialism and meritocracy? Why does it matter if they were? Did we, the people goof up the presidential election as much as the PAP, the elections department, and the candidates themselves?

04 October 2017

Decoding the narratives of the 2017 presidential election campaign

We have established that Singapore's People's Action Party government and its proxy campaign for candidate Halimah failed to craft a winning narrative for the election that was credible. Big picture concepts like meritocracy and multiracialism were thrown up in order to manufacture a consensus around Halimah, yet the effect was to convince the populace that the PAP had become deluded, self-serving, or completely Orwellian.

But what about the semi-campaigns of the three candidates?

28 September 2017

Breaking the presidency and Singapore, straw by straw

The radical changes to the presidency that the People's Action Party mooted and enacted in 2016 have angered a public originally resigned to seeing the office incrementally remade at the whims of the PAP, for the convenience of the PAP. The old changes fooled no one into thinking they were designed to fix the problems of the presidency; the new changes fool very few as well.

In 2016 when the changes were mooted, it was expected that candidate Halimah, whose hat was thrown into the ring by class clown Chan Chun Seng, would have an easy walkover in the reserved election for a Malay president.

But it was the PAP's proxy campaign for candidate Halimah and its off-kilter messaging that convinced a large section of Singaporeans that the ruling party was intent on endangering the social fabric of Singapore itself, just to ensure a win for its candidate.

The PAP succeeded in wrecking the presidency far better than Wreck-it Ralph

25 September 2017

Before the reservation: The internal contradictions of Singapore's elected presidency

Lee Hsien Loong's People's Action Party (PAP) government began in 2016 its radical reforms to the elected presidency, a rush job of the highest order.

A case was made out for the necessity of the changes at the beginning of the year, a thoroughly respectable constitutional commission was convened, public and expert feedback was canvassed through the commission, the commission's report and recommendations pored through and discussed in cabinet, the cabinet's proposed Bill drafted as a response and debated, the Bill read twice and passed in parliament, the expected constitutional challenges and their respective appeals heard and fended off—all in an attempt to ensure the 2017 election would be run under new order rules. (Note: the exercise still ended missing a crucial deadline: Dr Tony Tan's presidency lapsed before his successor was elected.)

In justifying its shifting of the goalposts to engineer its win, Lee has forgotten what was really wrong with the office of the elected presidency to begin with, and has failed to fix it.

Bob the Builder would've done a better job fixing the elected presidency

23 September 2017

Understanding Singapore's 2017 reserved presidential election: an introduction

Image courtesy of Shawn Byron Danker
We extend our thanks to Dr Tony Tan for his service to the nation, and to Mdm Halimah Yacob for making history as the first female president of Singapore.

Mdm Halimah is a legitimate president, however compromised her mandate may be, however her office has been tainted by the PAP's management of the presidency and the election.

More than a week after her inauguration, the Minilee government continues to fight a PR battle to claw back the trust and public goodwill it squandered and to salvage the credibility of the presidency, while public anger at the PAP and incredulity at its error of judgement remain unabated.

The issue will not go away, nor will the public anger be truly abated or assuaged. The appropriation of #notmypresident and continued attacks on Halimah's Yishtana House are just the beginning, and not the fading scream of some sore losers. This PR battle will last beyond the tenure of Mdm Halimah, or indeed that of prime minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Because you see, the problems with the post of the elected president are written in its DNA and made worse by the PAP's continued tinkering with the office.

15 September 2017

No kiss and make-up: Sonny Liew and Singapore's National Arts Council

After Sonny Liew won several Eisner awards for the graphic novel which the National Arts Council (NAC) of Singapore has previously denounced as "potentially undermines the authority and legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions", the government agency (despite its reluctance to spell out its direct affiliation to the ministry of culture on its own website) and self-declared champion of the arts in Singapore released a congratulatory statement whose mixture of embarrassment and halfhearted conciliation did not escape notice.

It appears that this would not be the end of the matter, and it was wrong to expect a kiss and make-up between award-winning artist and the nation's arts administrators.

So we decided to interview Sonny Liew ourselves.

28 August 2017

Au revoir, Auf wiedersehen, Goodbye Huang Jing

Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) recently accused Prof. Huang Jing, an American IR academic and lobbyist at its Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, of conniving with foreign intelligence, on behalf of foreign powers, to subvert the state and interfere with domestic politics, with the help of prominent and influential Singaporeans he enlisted.

To be fair, the MHA gave the good doctor a chance to appeal, and that appeal was eventually rejected.

Huang Jing must leave on a jet plane and never return... after an undefined grace period
But that doesn't mean that the expulsion of the professor, the accusations against him, and the prosecution of his case are credible. We've previously explained why the accusations against him are pure nonsense; we now explain how the MHA's prosecution of Huang's case completely undermines its own security narrative.

19 August 2017

Sonny Liew's Eisner win and the future of arts censorship in Singapore

When we wrote a mini-review of Sonny Liew's presentation of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye almost 2 years ago, we remarked that the graphic novel telling an alternate history of Singapore appeared to be "a pastiche of various periods and styles of comic art that were popular during the 1940s to 1970s".

In the intervening year, we bought a copy of the graphic novel and were amazed at how vastly Liew had undersold himself. Sure, Liew didn't research actually existing comics made by artists in pre-independence Singapore. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye isn't just a pastiche of various periods and styles of comic art; it is a love letter to giants such as Osamu Tezuka, Steve Ditko, Walt Kelly, and Jack Kirby, who have influenced Liew as an artist.

But his book isn't at all an alternate or secret history of Singapore; it is a self-critiquing narrative informed by a historian's understanding that official history is enhanced when it is tempered and even interrogated by the inclusion of multiple viewpoints and the appreciation of paths not taken. It is a masterful love letter to Singapore, warts and all, and a tribute to Singapore's big men and smallfolk alike, and all their dreams.

A post shared by Red Dot Diva (@reddotdiva) on

Photograph of Sonny Liew, reproduced with kind permission from Red Dot Diva

But let's talk about how the clown show at the National Arts Council has to deal with Liew's multiple Eisner wins.

07 August 2017

Is Track II Diplomacy Dead in Singapore?

According to industry analysts, Singapore is the worst place to be a property developer, the worst place to be a tech start-up, and the worst place to be a software programmer. Add to that growing list, the worst place to be a Track II diplomat or lobbyist.

Singapore has proscribed Dr Huang Jing, a US citizen and top professor at its Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP). He will be summarily expelled, his permanent resident status torn up, and his directorships in several state-linked companies dissolved if he doesn't resign from them voluntarily. The communique from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) adopts a security narrative: the professor was "an agent of influence of a foreign country", engaged in subversion and interference in Singapore's domestic politics.

Now let us tell you why this narrative is a giant fail and colossal joke, and what could be actually happening.

27 July 2017

The Apothesosis of Lee Kuan Yew VI

Can we remember Lee Kuan Yew without creating a cult?

A statue of Turkmenbashi, not a statue of Lee Kuan Yew

14 July 2017

Singapore's Speak Mandarin Campaign clown show moment

A funny thing happened on the launch of the 2017 edition of the Speak Mandarin Campaign. The poster, unveiled at the official launch by a minister on 12 July, promotes the 2017 slogan for the campaign, which should translate as "Listen, speak, read, write". Except that the third character 渎 isn't the one for "read" 读. The character 渎 actually means "diss" or "disrespect".

This is what COVFEFE looks like in Chinese. This is what sheer incompetence looks like in Singapore.

23 June 2017

Why the National Archives was no Friend of the Court

Earlier last year, we commented on the case of Lee Wei Ling and Lee Hsien Yang vs Attorney-General that due to their specialist knowledge and unique mandates, the National Archives of Singapore, its fellow SARBICA member associations, or even the International Council of Archives should have submitted an amicae curiae brief to the court if they were not approached by either side to testify.

We argued that a community of archival experts could have provided their perspective on how archival institutions are mandated, given authority and institutional independence, and governed via a clear set of legal frameworks and strict operational and ethical guidelines to handle "secrets", "copyright", and "ownership".

At that time, we were confident that had the NAS or its fellow international archival bodies raised their voices on archival procedure and copyright, the case could've been settled differently, and we were perplexed on their no-show. That is, until today.

30 May 2017

Racism in Singapore comedy? Goodness gracious me!

Youtube influencer Shrey Bhargava attended an audition for the next installment in Hack Neo's "Ah Boys to Men" NSploitation comedy series. It went badly because the casting director requested Shrey to put on a funny Indian accent, and Shrey refused because it was insulting and racist.

Blogger influencer Xiaxue hit back hard, twice, at Shrey. So did his potential cast mates. All hell has broken loose.

Take it from us: This entire thing is a clown show. One that demands your attention.

And why should you listen to us? We actually have writing credits for The Noose. Made our own short films that were screened at The Substation when it was a cultural hub, as well as at the National Museum. And we've even written stand-up routines for local comedians. So let's begin, shall we?

15 May 2017

Date with High Court, Cha-cha with Cheng Bock

Dr Tan Cheng Bock, ready for makan!
Photo by Shawn Byron Danker
It was clear from Dr Tan Cheng Bock's press conference on 31 March 2017 that the good doctor would mount a challenge to the reserved presidential election to be held in Singapore before September 2017. It has been a week since Dr Tan broke the news that he had applied for "a clarification" from the High Court - an application which was accepted.

It is time for us to examine the principles that may guide the court when it makes that clarification for both Dr Tan and the Attorney-General's Chambers. We make no attempt to weigh the "correctness" of these principles or the likelihood that they will be accepted by the Court in its judgement.

24 April 2017

Beware the FAS scandal offside trap!

FIFA's 2015 reform package to improve transparency and accountability in the sport includes a call to remove government appointees from leadership of its regional and national administrative bodies. The reformation has seen a fallout in various countries, with political appointees exiting most unwillingly the national administration of their sport. In squeaky clean, corruption-free Singapore, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) has to comply with FIFA and hold an unprecedented and contentious election for its leadership.

Following accusations of a "compulsory donation" to the FAS that was funnelled to the ASEAN Football Association (AFF), the FAS and three football clubs have been raided by Singapore's Commercial Affairs Department (CAD), the clubs' chief, the former political appointee president and his right-hand man have been called in for interviews.

Instead of reading sensationalist reportage and hack pieces attacking Bill Ng and questioning how his profitable clubs have so many jackpot machines, we invite you to try our serious analysis on the real issues surrounding this case. Clue: It has nothing to do with legalised, highly regulated, ubiquitous jackpot machines in Singapore's football clubs.

31 March 2017

Tough Questions with Tan Cheng Bock

Image by Shawn Byron Danker
Copyright 2017 by Laevateinn Strategic Enterprises
On the morning of 31 March 2017, Dr Tan Cheng Bock held a press conference on the upcoming presidential election. During this conference, the good doctor read out the text of his media release (which is also helpfully reproduced on facebook and streamed by The Online Citizen).

As usual, we at Illusio will hold your hand and help you read between the lines.

22 March 2017

Playing politics with diasporic communities: Southeast Asia's lessons for the EU

Recep Tayyip Erdogan will make Turkey great again!
Mr Recep Erdogan has been organising, in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria, an unprecedented series of campaign rallies for the upcoming Turkish national referendum to confer unprecedented powers in the presidency.

And even though the European Union has a thing for suicide pacts (yes to unlimited immigration, yes to no checks on refugees, yes to imposing debt bondage on the PIGS, yes to an illogical currency union!), European leaders are mostly not amused. Erdogan's rallies have been completely banned in Austria, cancelled in Germany, and created a victory for the right in the recent Dutch elections (which the media has spun as a loss for the far-right because Geert Wilders didn't win big).

Erdogan is not amused either. So much for EU-Turkey relations (Germany's secret deals notwithstanding), and so much for Turkey's EU membership ambitions? Not quite.

03 March 2017

Hard Talk with the Prime Minister: Singapore loses the plot

HARDTalk interviews are hardly a fireside chat

Did prime minister Lee Hsien Loong "do us proud" yesterday, or did he stutter, freeze, and turn all defensive? It is unlikely that PM Lee thought his BBC HARDTalk interview with Stephen Sackur would be a walk in the park, much less a fireside chat. His father had appeared on the same show several years ago and turned in a feisty performance.

It is far likely that Lee's media team is aware of the performative aspects of an international interview, given the pre-approved trailer showing Lee throw out a combative line: "I would not presume to tell you how your press council should operate, why would you presume to tell me my country should run?"

But if we are to judge if that's a winning line or a defensive cover, we cannot take that line out of context.

24 February 2017

We need to reconsider how Singapore remembers WW2

Yes, the Syonan Gallery has been renamed to the less offensive and traumatising "Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies". But have the professionals behind the formulating, marketing, chronicalising, and critiquing of Singapore history learnt from this episode? Should they seriously reconsider an approach and narrative that is not just stale, not just failed, but poisoning the Singapore identity?

Historical facts are always already mediated.
No historical narrative corresponds to the sum total of historical facts.

17 February 2017

The Syonan Gallery Clown Show

The Omnishambles so far...

On 10 February 2017, Singapore's National Library Board (NLB) unveiled the new name for the Old Ford Factory WW2 history museum. It would be called the Syonan Gallery, in memory of the name Singapore was administered as during the Japanese Occupation.

Tempers flared. According to the rising ire of detractors, the name Syonan (昭南 or "Light of the South") was an affront to survivors of the occupation. It glorified the imperialist project of the Japanese. The minister in charge of culture disagreed. Syonan is the most appropriate name to remind ourselves never again.

Of course there isn't a doubt that Syonan Gallery was a mistake. It's a mistake that hasn't been seen before in the field of cultural and historical production. To my knowledge, there isn't a Sudentenland Museum in the Czech Republic, or a Lebensraum Museum or a Heims in Reich Museum in Poland - because competent historians and curators elsewhere know better than to name a war museum using the frame of reference of the historical villains.