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Author’s note: Elsa Xu is fictitious. She, and the concepts behind 2sides, is the brainchild of a group of Nanyang Technological University students working on their Final Year Project.

*End Spoiler*

We don't know the truth

TODAY: ‘The Truth About the Mossad’. This piece covers about the history of the aMossad leModi’in uleTafkidim Meyuchadim (full name of the Mossad, translated as Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations) and the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. The only truth is that mere mortals don’t know the whole truth. Here are the possibilities.

1. The Mossad did not carry out the hit, but is allowing the world to think so. The Mossad’s reputation is enhanced (or tarnished) with someone else’s labour. This is the least likely possibility; the Mossad would then have to deal with the organisation that did pull off the hit, either through agreements or…other means. Both of these paths tend to be rather inconvenient, unless worked out well in advance.

2. The Mossad carried out the hit. Due to various reasons (timeline, operational security, political exigencies, carelessness), the mission was probably rushed (killing a man within 24 hours tends to be a rush job, and you don’t kill a man in a hotel unless you have to), the surveillance cameras not detected and accounted for (there are ways to hide yourself from CCTV so effectively you appear to be someone else), and now Israel needs to deal with an international incident. Translation: some mistakes sabotaged the mission. This could be quite likely; intelligence and assassination missions are rather complex and can be disrupted simply by not paying enough attention to the environment. The fact that six of the assassins allegedly used passports cloned from people living in Israel suggests that several mistakes were made along the line — if you don’t want to leave a fingerprint, why clone the passports of someone living in your country?

3. The Mossad carried out the hit. Senior management deliberately ordered the assassins to delay, but not deny, detection and recognition by local counterintelligence. The idea is to fool counterintelligence long enough to do the job and get out before the authorities swoop down on the team. That way, Israel is seen as sending a not-too-subtle message to the leaders of terrorist organisations. This is a bit unlikely, because no shooter in his right mind would want to expose himself to an enemy, real or imagined, longer than necessary. This is especially since Director Meir Dagan of the Mossad was a former undercover soldier himself, and thus knows the physical and political risks of deliberately exposing yourself. If nothing else, it could be part of a high-risk, moderate-payoff psychological warfare campaign.

3A. In addition, news of the hit is sending a message to Israel’s actual targets, such as Iran and Hezbollah. It could be as simple as ‘watch your back, because we can kill you anywhere in the world’. It could also be a feint, letting them think the Mossad is more concerned with Hamas and other Palestinian organisations. I can’t say how probable this is, because I have neither the raw data nor analytical skills to allow me to predict the behaviour of Israel’s enemies following the hit. But I think it’s rather unlikely: Mossad is at the head of their threat list anyway, so it wouldn’t really matter in the long run.

(3) and (3A) may explain the limited Mossad footprint, namely the detection of the assassins and the cloned passports. But this assumes that these were part of the plan, and not mistakes. I would think the cost of an international incident, leading to strained relations with erstwhile friendly countries and intelligence services, outweighs the benefits of killing a senior Hamas operative and the psychological and political advantages derived from the killing. Or maybe something is missing from this picture. Maybe there is a lot that the public is not allowed to see. I don’t know the big picture. There may even be possibilities I haven’t seen yet, and won’t. We don’t know the whole truth.

All I can say for sure, is that the Mossad is in for interesting times.

One final thought: doesn’t anyone read Barry Eisler? In ‘Killing Rain’ his protagonist John Rain explains the problems of surreptitiously killing someone in his hotel room, amongst which are surveillance cameras, lack of multiple escape options, and police response. Apparently the hit team, deliberately or otherwise, failed to surmount these problems. One would think that fiction that depicts assassinations more-or-less realistically should be on the reading lists of real assassins…

Post script: TODAY, most unfortunately, made a mistake in terminology. A ‘double agent’ is an agent who is pretending to gather intelligence on a target organisation on behalf of a controlling organisation, but is in fact working for the target against the controller. This means that ‘double agent’ tends to be used exclusively for intelligence officers working for formal intelligence agencies. The term was erroneously used to describe the informants employed by Mossad in the 1970s, and a pair of Palestinians believed to be part of Hamas who were extradited from Jordan to Dubai after the assassination of al-Mabhouh.

The proper term, as used by Western intelligence agencies and if recalled correctly, is ‘asset’. An asset is someone you recruit, subvert, or compromise within a target organisation in order to gather intelligence, materials, or otherwise accomplish your mission with regards to that organisation. As not all of the informants employed by Mossad were from their targets’ intelligence departments, especially the two mentioned above, the term ‘double agent’ is erroneous.

Going beyond faith and harmony

Religion is belief, and belief is the mental acceptance that something is true. However, it does not necessarily mean that that something is definitely true, as verified by objective standards. The existence of the Christian God, for instance, has not been conclusively proven by science as of the time of writing — and neither has science definitively proven that God does not exist. In the absence of scientific proof, religion is and must be a question of personal choice. That is, only you can choose to believe and/or disbelieve in something, and nobody else can make that decision. Only you can choose whether to continue believing in that something, or to believe in something else, or disbelieve something — and nobody else can make that decision for you. All people can do is influence you towards a particular choice they believe you should take, be it joining a church, leaving a religion, or indeed anything at all.

The case of Pastor Rony Tan and his derogatory comments towards Taoists and Buddhists (and now homosexuals) throws the question of criticising faith into perspective. The Government’s stance is very clear: thou shalt not trivialise nor ridicule nor insult the religion of someone else, or thou shall face the full weight of the law. General opinion says that insulting someone’s religion goes against the principles of religious harmony. It is quite easy to end the debate here by concluding that it is a Bad Thing to insult someone else’s religion — if only because one may be invited for a discreet chat with certain nameless officials.

But I’m not content with that. It does not explain why it is a Bad Thing to insult someone else’s religion. It does not show a clear if any demarcation between insult and criticism of religion. It does not say why religious harmony is so important, and why criticising someone else’s religion is bad. Bringing up the spectre of religious riots in the 1960s, the default argument I was raised on, is no longer a good enough explanation: there were no riots after the discovery of and complaints against Tan’s remarks.

In the absence of other answers, I shall investigate this. Bear in mind this article covers insults only; it does not deal with the topic of hate crime, where actual physical harm is caused. Neither does this article cover criticism of religious practices, the stance of certain religions on issues like homosexuality and abortion, or indeed of the precepts of a religion. An ‘insult’ is a rude remark designed to be offensive; that is focus of this essay.

Going back to the first paragraph, religion is belief. People believe in their respective religions to varying degrees: some are lapsed, some only go through the pro forma rituals and little more, some volunteer at the church/mosque/temple, some are true believers. The greater the strength of belief, the more intertwined that religion is with a person’s identity. The Dalai Lama, for example, is seen and defined as the head religious teacher of the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism. A lapsed Catholic may see himself as something other than a Catholic. When one crosses a threshold of strength of belief, a person’s religion is seen by him as a fundamental aspect of what and who he or she is. At this point, the person’s faith is now a part of his identity, or how he chooses to define himself. If you insult that person’s religion, he sees it as an attack on himself.

But that is not just it. Religion may be a personal choice, but many people prescribe to that same belief and practice it in roughly the same ways. There are approximately 2 billion Christians, about 1.57 billion Muslims, and maybe 364 million Buddhists. By insulting a person’s faith, you are attacking him — and he sees it as an attack on the rest of his fellow believers. By heaping insults upon the teachings of the Koran, you will be seen as attempting to anger every fifth person in the world. Believers will see it as their duty to rise up and condemn the attacks, press for jail sentences and harsh punishment, and perhaps even lead counterattacks on non-believers and perceived threats. The world has seen this during the events proceeding the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

One question: can you insult a belief until it dies?

The Christian Church tried this during the Early Middle Ages. This culminated in the witch-hunts of the 14th to 17th centuries. Witches and sorcerers were painted as fearful, dangerous criminals who sold their souls to the devil for profit and power, and routinely engaged in Satanic ritual parties that included orgies, cannibalism, naked dancing, and cavorting with the devil. Convicted witches were burned to death.

Today, neopagan movements, most notably Wicca, are emerging from obscurity. These religions are the spiritual, if not direct, descendants of the folk religions the Church painted as ‘heresy’, ‘Satanism’, and ‘withcraft’. These religions were constantly derided and insulted and trivialised by the Church, and their believers prosecuted to the full extent of the law, in the days when the Church had power to hold trials, torture suspects legally, and the rights of the accused were next to nil. Yet the pagan religions refused to die. Their practitioners merely went underground until the era it was safe to practice their faith in the open. Even today, fundamentalist Christians and other moralists still insult and deny Wicca and neopagan religions, calling them witchcraft and Satanism — even though they are now recognised religions. Unlike practitioners of mainstream faiths in the modern era, they had no rights and had no notion of people’s power. They did not fight for the right to practice their faith openly, either with arms or words. They did press for the right to be recognised, but only after the concept of freedom of religion was commonplace. They simply went with the flow and practiced in secret — and survived.

That is the first example of an organised attempt to wipe out a religion — not just by insulting it, but by rounding up and executing its followers. It failed. The Soviet Union attempted to enforce atheism and later secularism, decrying religion as the ‘opium of the masses, but the official policy on religion varied over the years, eventually watering down into official freedom of religion in the Constitution. China tried to do the same, most notably during the Cultural Revolution, before relenting and allowing freedom of religion — if and only if one subscribes to acceptable behaviour. Religions in those country may be restricted, but they exist.

So you cannot harm a religion by insulting it. You cannot destroy a religion even if you systematically prosecute its believers, even in a time and place where a particular religion was painted as the embodiment of evil on Earth. In the same way, you cannot kill an idea no matter how many insults you lay on it.

Insulting a religion attacks the body of believers and the individual believer. To the group, you are denying the essence of the group identity, the tenants of the group’s belief, and declare that the group’s strength of belief is unjustified and worthless. To the individual, you deny the person’s character, deny that he is an equal human being, and deny his emotional investment in his faith. This is the essential harm caused by insulting that religion.

Now, replace the word ‘religion’ with ‘political affiliation’, ‘sexual identity’, ‘culture’, ‘sex’, ‘age’, ‘income’, ‘social status’, and ‘hobby’.

What is the essential difference?

Sure, there are plenty of answers. Number of believers, social status of concept, government policy, international opinion, etc. But no matter the target, an insult is an attack on an identity. Your identity, and the group identity of fellow believers.

Really, the only essential difference between a personal insult and an insult aimed at a religion is the number of targets.

The objective of an insult, no matter the target (religion, sexual orientation, person, etc.), is to attack a person’s identity, to make the insulter feel better or superior to the target. That is all.

How do you handle someone insulting your religion, then? The same way you handle someone insulting your weight, height, choice of friends, family members, etc. You handle that person with assertiveness.

Let the person know that that kind of behaviour is neither encouraged nor tolerated. If the person is deliberately spreading misinformation, correct that misinformation and invite that person for a discussion on the topic at hand, be it religion or whatever. If that person continues to insult you, call out his behaviour to everybody else. Ignore him until he realises the error of his ways, or goes away. You do not let his comments affect you, you do not get upset, you do not insult him back. You do not forget that he, like you, is human.

This is also called ‘community moderation’.

As for legal involvement, I am hesitant to argue for judicial punishment. A person who insults someone’s religion has the same objective (not method) as someone who insults some else’s friends: to feel better. The harm done may be different — but by how much? Insulting Anglicanism would mean less to a lapsed Anglican than to an Anglican priest, and their individual reactions might be different. When you insult a religion, you are insulting a group of persons: how do you objectively judge the harm done to over a billion individuals? This is important because the amount of harm done directly influences the punishment; this is the principle of proportionality, which is a pillar of modern day justice. It is far easier to pass a sentence on a terrorist who has killed hundreds of innocents than a man who insulted the group identity of a third of the whole world. A modern-day judiciary will be hard-pressed to interview so many people to determine the impact of a billion bruised egos. And even if harm were done, this harm done tends to be little more than sore egos, and unlike an arm or heart, egos can grow back, with the right support, environment, and time.

Because of a lack of standards to determine harm done, and a relative lack of physical harm done by insult, I think the law is ill-equipped to handle people who insult others. Let the police handle the rapists, the robbers, the murderers — the people can handle someone with a misused tongue.

Let’s look beyond the narrative of religious harmony and protection of faith. An insult is designed to attack his identity and provoke an emotional reaction to make the insulter feel better. Its target, be it religion or sexuality, differs only in the number and type of people caught up in the insult. Insults aimed at religion do not harm the religion. The best way to handle an insult is assertiveness and community moderation, without forgetting that the insulter, too, is human. The courts do not have the ability to accurately assess the harm done by insult, making it difficult for judicial punishment to be fairly meted out. What we need, in the end, is a human response to a human failing whose harm is felt only when interpreted by humans.

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Show me the policy

Let it never again be said that the opposition only knows how to complain and throw stones at the PAP without coming up with proposals to better Singapore.

Singapore Democratic Party

There’s a quiet political undercurrent in the news. The Opposition is eying the Tampines Group Representative Constituency.  The Reform Party is gaining new members. Prominent blogger joins the Workers’ Party. There’s talk of elections in mid-to-late 2010. Political parties are forming their election strategy.

Pardon me if I’m not excited.

Politics: the art of making decisions in a group. Policy: A plan of action. All politics must have policies at their heart. When it comes to government and national politics, these policies must be comprehensive enough to encompass the country, its trading partners, and quite possibly the world. Before the elections, people want and need to know what you intend to do, how you intend to accomplish them, who you are going to appoint to take charge of various affairs of state, when you intend to achieve your goals, where you intend to pay particular attention to, and why you want to implement these policies.

What are the policies of the ruling People’s Action Party? Conscription, primacy on economic growth, high-tech military, mandatory death penalty for certain criminal offenses, partnership with as many countries as possible, tight control of the media — and these are just the ones coming out the top of my head. How does the PAP intend to accomplish this? Rule and enforcement of law, attracting foreign investment, investing in local technology companies, warm foreign policy, establishment of agency to oversee media. Who does the PAP want to carry them out? You need only look at the Cabinet and heads of the Civil Service. When does the PAP intend to accomplish them? Look at the white papers and speeches the Government produces; you’ll find timelines there. Why does the PAP intend to execute these policies? Improve national security, increase quality of life, punish and deter criminals, reduce tension and improve cooperation in the region, prevent rumours and nonsense from eroding the reputation of the PAP and the Government.

How do we know all this? The Government and the Party have repeated these policies through the media, speeches, press conferences, and most lately in blogs and on the Internet. We all know what the PAP stand for; we need merely read a month’s worth of newspapers.

But what about the Opposition?

Not one Opposition party to date can provide an updated, comprehensive political manifesto. Not one Opposition party has published anything on any media that lets a citizen know, at a glance, what the party stands for on any given subject. Not one Opposition party seems keen on rectifying this. What is published on the Internet does not come close. The most comprehensive one out there is by the Workers’ Party — for 2006.

And even that is flawed. Here is one example, regarding the controversial Internal Security Act: “The Internal Security Act, which provides for detention without trial in cases of alleged subversion, should be abolished…In cases of alleged terrorism, the government should be enabled by a dedicated anti-terrorism law to make swift arrests and detain suspects without trial.”

So what is the difference between the ISA and the WP’s proposed dedicated anti-terrorism law? One can argue that the ISA is used against spies, traitors and ‘subversives’ while this new law is aimed squarely at terrorists. Fine — so how are you going to define ‘terrorist’? What are the mechanics of this new law? What are the checks and balances? Who can authorise these detentions? How do I know that the party won’t define ‘terrorist’ as someone it disagree with, that these arrests can occur without a warrant, that these detentions are indefinite, that I will not be tortured if I were arrested? Without specifics, there are doubts.  The government has taken steps to remove doubts where practical to its politics: the ISA contains all the necessary provisos to answer these questions on first glance. When the average citizen weighs his doubts of an unproven Opposition versus what he knows of the ruling party, there is little doubt whom he will vote for.

Nor is it very difficult to come up with a law. When I was 17 years old, I participated in an impromptu debate on the topic of detention without trial against 17- and 18-year-olds. In an impromptu debate, you have exactly one hour to prepare your speech. That means one hour to work out the policy, draw up your arguments, make sure everyone is on the same page, anticipate and pre-empt your opponents’ arguments, and prepare your speech. In that one hour, the opposition team produced a policy on preventive detention that included checks and balances, mechanisms, limits of authority, and other such considerations — in addition to everything else it had to do as a team. Three 18-year-olds could do that in less than an hour; a political party with months, if not years, to work could surely come up with something equal , or superior, to the work of teenagers.

Apparently not. Says much about the Opposition, doesn’t it?

Statements of principle are not policies. The former merely says what you believe in. The latter tells people what you want to do. Take this paragraph from the 2006 WP manifesto:

Ministers’ remuneration should be benchmarked internationally against the political office of developed countries. Their remuneration should also take into account all associated benefits (e.g. benefits-in-kind) under the total remuneration or total employment costs (“TEC”).

What does that mean? Are we going to benchmark against Britain? Maybe the Vatican?  Without explanation, elaboration, or facts and figures, it is very easy to twist, misinterpret or outright ignore statements in a manifesto. No specifics, no policy. Period.

The other Opposition parties are no better. Here are some examples.

Singapore Democratic Party:

  • Establishing a free and democratic political system.
  • Building a free market economy driven by the people, not the Government.
  • Developing a more equitable distribution of income and wealth.
  • Ensuring that the CPF system returns the savings to the people.
  • Freeing the media.
  • Reforming the education system.
  • Fostering a caring and pluralistic society.

This is the entirety of its policies. No elaboration, just statements. So, questions: What do you intend to do to build a ‘free and democratic political system’? Does it mean abolishing every other political party and restricting politics to candidates from the Party like the Soviet Union? What does ‘reforming the education system’ mean? Replacing Social Studies with a subject that lionises the SDP’s struggle and condemns the PAP to the ash heap of history? And just what is a ‘caring and pluralistic society’? We will have an extensive social security network for you — you just need to be rich, Christian, conservative, and Chinese? I don’t know. And if I don’t know, why should I vote for you? People tend towards certainty, and they are certain of what the PAP stands for. But not necessarily the SDP.

Reform Party:

The current model of economic growth founded on cheap labour is obsolete and has not benefited the vast mass of our people.

Proof? No proof, then it is only an assertion.

Examine the introduction of a genuine national health insurance system and basic state pension.

Just what does this mean? Table a motion in Parliament to do this? If so, then the Reform Party is expected to take the lead by articulating this system — before it enters Parliament, or else spend time and energy doing this instead of other matters. Articulating such a system means defining the system of payouts, laying out the organisations responsible for carrying this out, understanding and explaining the economic burden and implications…for starters.The RP cannot reasonably expect the Government to do this when it rejects all forms of social security out of hand. Therefore, the party needs to do most of the work by laying out such a system before it is proposed in Parliament. And the RP needs to win popular support for this for it to have a chance of passing in Parliament. I have yet to see this in the local media, and I didn’t even know this existed until I looked at the RP website. Expecting people to look up what you stand for is ludicrous; you have to tell people what you believe in, or risk misinterpretation and ignorance.

Singapore People’s Party:

There shall be at least 8 years schooling for every child and when the economy is further strengthen 10 years schooling shall be made compulsory for every child. There shall be no IQ tests, tests for streaming at the third year and the sixth year of a pupil’s schooling. Our view is that IQ tests are subjective and do not serve any useful purpose and should not be used. Streaming of a child at an early age is educationally unsound and socially wrong. A child’s mental development at that tender age is not fully developed and he must not be subjected to such humiliating tests. Such tests can do irreparable damage to a child. The harm done will manifest itself in later years by his anti-social behavior. Therefore we condemn the PAP education policy of persisting in streaming a pupil in his third and sixth year of schooling.

This is the most elaborated policy provided by the SPP.  Note this:

Streaming of a child at an early age is educationally unsound and socially wrong. A child’s mental development at that tender age is not fully developed and he must not be subjected to such humiliating tests. Such tests can do irreparable damage to a child. The harm done will manifest itself in later years by his anti-social behavior.

Are there any studies that link perceived poor performance in streaming examinations to ‘irreparable damage’ and ‘anti-social behaviour’? If yes, quote and hammer home at every opportunity. If no, then this is assertion and will be ignored in the long run.

How one frames the manifesto is also very important. For example:

The pupil shall also be aware of production techniques in the factories and plants and to learn to work with his hands and respect the dignity of labor.

Take note of the phrase ‘the dignity of labor’. I don’t know about the SPP, but this evokes the specter of Marxist labour value theory and raises the ghost of communism. Try selling this to people who have been indoctrinated against communism from birth through education, media and life experiences…which, by the way, is the majority of the electorate.

All of the above do not even consider the silence of the Opposition. Take the hue and cry over Section 377a. Where was the Opposition? What did the Opposition have to say about it? The Workers’ Party kept very conspicuously quiet on this affair.

What is the Opposition’s stance on India, China, Europe and the United States? How about arts and culture? Maybe its views on counselling and rehabilitating most or all criminals? Should the police continue to carry Tasers? What about autism tests for children, and support for confirmed autistic people? Perhaps the integration of the military, police, and intelligence services to combat terrorism domestic and foreign — the latter meaning deploying Singaporean soldiers, police officers and intelligence agents overseas on counterterrorist missions?


Show me your policy — and I mean real policy, not general statements and condemnations. Tell me what you stand for. Give me time to think about your policy, compare it to other politicians, discuss it, and think about it. Allow me to debate you on politics, and be prepared to change your mind if I can prove you wrong. This is politics 101 in a democratic society. And the Opposition has failed.

Right now, the Opposition parties needs to figure out what they stand for. This means fleshing out policies, instead of statements of principle. This means facts and figures, implications of policies, mechanisms to execute policies, and costs. If any Opposition party has a manifesto — and by that I mean something that could theoretically be passed into law the next day — then it needs to release the manifesto now. After that, it needs to gather feedback, discuss with people, revise the manifesto, and release it again. This means holding press conferences, posting policies on a single page on the official website, spreading the word through social media and media events, holding forums to discuss policies, inviting the public to write in, debating them with the people and the Government and rival parties, thinking about what to discard and what to keep and what to insert, and integrating the manifesto with the overall political strategy. This process takes months to work out, if not years. The WP’s biggest mistake in 2006 was releasing the manifesto when the GE campaign begun — there was just too little time for the entire country to digest such a weighty document.Had the WP released the manifesto earlier, the outcome could well have been different — but we will never know.

The Opposition parties need to sell people on their ideas, their strategies, their manifestos — and listen, and adapt. Otherwise, the Opposition can never hope to win an election, or even reduce the PAP’s stranglehold in Parliament. Instead, the Opposition will collectively be remembered as the aristocrats of Singapore’s complainers and PAP criticisers, and nothing more.