Stories on the Horizon

I am pleased to announce that I’ve completed the first draft of my next novel. Titled No Gods, Only Daimons, it is a science fantasy thriller set in a world reminiscent of our own. In the novel, an atheist government agent encounters the archangel of the faith of the world’s deadliest terrorist group, and must work with an assassin superempowered by another deity to dismantle a terrorist network, and in doing so fire the first shots of a war between divinities for the liberties and future of humanity.

No Gods, Only Daimons is the first book of a projected nine (!) book series, which ideally would be broken up into three trilogies. Unlike my previous works, I do not intend to self-publish this one at this time. The secret to self-publishing success is publicity. That means developing and building a reputation, online and offline. I do not have the level of brand awareness needed for self-published stories alone to take off, and while I’ve read plenty of marketing guides for self-published authors every last one of them assumes that the reader is a Westerner targeting a Western audience — and both of them will have access to Amazon, which I do not. When the initial edits are complete, I’ll be sending in the novel to a publisher; more details on that at a later date. I am hoping for a late 2015/early 2016 release date; I’m hoping that my optimism has at least some basis in reality.

Concurrent to editing the novel, I’m also working up another story. It is a radical departure from literally everything I have done so far. I cannot say anything about it at this time (it’s still being planned), but it draws a great deal of inspiration from The Fountainhead and The Speed of Dark. I also strongly suspect that it will straddle the very uncomfortable line between literary and genre fiction, but the plot and the characters demand as such. I am approaching it as a literary experiment, and I cannot guarantee how it will turn out. All I know for certain is that, like my other works, I feel compelled to bring it to life. And that the title of the story is The Sculptor of Light.

What Singapore can really do for refugees

Kirsten Han’s article about what Singapore can do for Rohingya refugees is a powerful example of sentimentality overriding policy considerations. Certainly the refugees have been handed a bad lot in life: driven from the homes in the wake of sectarian violence, they now find themselves at the severe mercies of the ocean and global politics. While it is only human to sympathise with the refugees, allowing sympathy and idealism to dictate policy cannot lead to acceptable outcomes.

During the Vietnam War, refugees fled the war-torn land for greener pastures. Many of them made their way to south by sea, including Singapore. The Singapore Armed Forces swung into action, boarding ships, inspecting passengers, and providing humanitarian aid. Singapore did not allow the refugees to resettle here; eventually the majority of the refugees would make their way westward, resettling in America, Australia and Canada.

The Rohingya crisis mirrors the problems of the Vietnamese boat people, except that refugees have not yet turned to Singapore. History, wearing a different cloak, is repeating itself, and the issues Singapore faced then are the same ones Singapore faces today.

Han said, “I believe that Singapore can, and should, be able to resettle refugees in need of sanctuary. I believe we do have the space, and the resources, to help them make a better life for themselves; all we need is the will to do so.”

Belief is a powerful word, made all the more powerful with actual evidence and reason. But of evidence and reason, Han provides none.

Resettling refugees is a tricky proposition for large countries. For small ones like Singapore it becomes a minefield. Assuming the government develops the political will to resettle refugees, then where should they go?

One solution is to settle refugees in an offshore island. But this physical separation from Singapore will naturally reduce opportunities for them to integrate with the rest of the country, and indeed the mainland would have little reason to go to that island to begin with — why else would that island be available to begin with? That means that Singapore would, in effect, allow the formation of a de facto foreign colony within Singapore’s shores.

The Rohingya are ethnically, culturally, and linguistically different people from Singaporeans; one cannot simply slot them into Singapore and expect them to assimilate just like that. Singaporeans are already experiencing friction with new citizens from China, the Philippines and elsewhere; a flood of new Rohingya citizens will only exacerbate matters.  Singapore was a colony once, and I don’t think the people will stand for Singapore to be colonised again.

Another solution is to build homes for them in Singapore and resettle them there. Two stick problems will arise: where will these homes be built, and why are these homes being given to foreigners who likely cannot pay for them? The government may somehow develop the will to resettle people, but governments have to answer to the people, and the people likely will not stand for this. Singapore already faces a housing crunch which is only beginning to alleviate: accepting mass influx of refugees can only add to the problem. And since these refugees are not seen as having earned their place in Singapore (yet), their presence will be a source of tensions and conflict wherever they may be settled.

The compromise will be to employ the SIngaporean social engineering strategy of spreading them out among neighbourhoods according to a set ethnic quota. This merely spreads out the social cost to everywhere and everybody in Singapore. It also isolates the refugees-turned-migrants from the people and culture they have known, placing them in alien surroundings and forcing them to rapidly adapt to a new way of life. They may respond by forming a large Rohingya-only community the way migrant workers do on weekends. However, unlike migrant workers who work in Singapore for a while before going home, these Rohingya will be staying permanently. They will use the weight of numbers to organise and lobby for their interests, and as they come from a different background their interests are not necessarily aligned with Singapore’s. Alternatively, the newcomers will find themselves shunned and isolated by everyone around them, and will be forced to turn to crime to support themselves. Either scenario is not acceptable to Singapore.

These solutions also gloss over the reality of accepting refugees. It is not merely a question of throwing money at the problem. When word gets out that a country is accepting refugees, they will flock to that country, first in hundreds, then in thousands. These refugees need to undergo medical examinations en masse and be quarantined if they carry exotic diseases — and Singapore faces a dearth of hospital beds and nurses. Refugees need to be searched for contraband and screened for criminal and terrorist connections — which means standing up the SAF and the police. Refugees need to undergo cultural assimilation — and Singapore does not have the best of track records in encouraging immigrants to assimilate. Water, food and electricity needs to be made available to these refugees — and as Singapore has to import most of our food and oil, the result would be a sudden spike in prices and the growth of a black market among the Rohingya. Land needs to be parcelled out for housing refugees, which could have gone towards housing or industry for Singaporeans. Large numbers of people will need to learn the Rohingya language to interface with the migrants — and the latter in turn will have to learn English in a short period of time, without having ever been exposed to the Singaporean education system. These issues pose immense logistical, personnel, and financial challenges, even on countries larger and richer than Singapore.

Most importantly, over generations, the host nation needs to be able to assimilate the next generation of refugees into the native population as opposed to letting them remain foreigners, to ensure national coherence.  The French failed to do that, leading to Muslim-dominated poverty traps in the banlieues. The Swedes failed to do that, leading to spikes of migrant-driven crime. The Americans failed to do that, leading to Latin American narco gangs pushing into the South and beyond. How can Singapore do any better?

The Rohingya people are predominantly Muslim with Indo-Aryan roots. They have very close ties with neighbouring Bangladesh. They also have more in common with the people of Malaysia, south Thailand, Indonesia and Brunei than the people of secular Chinese-majority Singapore. It will be much, much harder for Singapore to accept these refugees, and that’s before considering other factors.

“But there is plenty else that we can do short of permanent resettlement, too,” Han argues. “Offering a temporary shelter, with food and other basic necessities, is not beyond the realm of our capabilities as one of the wealthiest nations in the region.”

I wish it were so simple. Temporary shelters have a nasty habit of becoming permanent shelters. The Palestinian refugee camps outside Israel have been temporary shelters since the Israeli War of Independence. It is one thing to set up temporary camps for internally displaced people in the wake of a natural disaster, as these people have homes to return to. It is another to set up a refugee camp for externally displaced people who have nowhere to turn to and will seek every means possible to start a new home somewhere.

Sure, offering temporary shelter may not be outside the realm of our capabilities — for now. It is not inconceivable for Singapore to open up a small island as a temporary refugee camp. But word will get out and more refugees will come running. If the refugees are not resettled quickly the camp will soon face severe overcrowding, or we will be forced to turn the refugees away — and earn the ire of their countrymen inside the allegedly temporary camp.  And if the refugees will be resettled in Singapore, and we get to experience the problems described above.

The temporary shelter is unlikely to work unless it is a waystation. Should one of our neighbours decide to accept refugees, Singapore could ostensibly open a temporary camp to allow refugees to refuel, resupply and receive medical aid before moving on to their final destination. In such a scenario, we will still be able to offer humanitarian aid without having to accept the problems of refugee resettlement. But this waystation can only work if or when a country chooses to accept refugees and is within reasonable range of Singapore, lest we face the above-mentioned problem. While Gambia has generously offered to resettle all Rohingyan refugees, Gambia is on the other side of the world and we cannot guarantee that the refugees who come to a Singaporean waystation will get to Gambia, so a temporary shelter will inevitably evolve in a permanent one.

Idealism is nice but it cannot override reality. Singapore is a small country that faces land limitations, with a fraction of its native population that is starting to show discontent at the number of foreigners in their midst. It is well and good for large countries to promise to offer permanent shelter to refugees if they can accept the cost, but Singapore cannot accept the burden.

Instead of accepting refugees, should Singapore wish to do something about the crisis, we need to play to our strengths. Singapore’s long-standing policy of overt neutrality means that Singapore can serve as a go-between for different nations seeking to resolve the crisis. We can also take steps to address the problems that forced the Rohingya out to begin with — that is, the ongoing dirty war in Myanmar that is promising to turn into a genocide — through diplomatic efforts. Singapore can work with overseas partners to coordinate an international response, providing monetary or other aid as needed.  We may also be able to send teams of subject matter experts as needed. Such help would be well within Singapore’s capabilities without imposing impossible burdens on the population.

While it is only human to rush to aid people in need, emotions cannot bend reality to suit one’s desires. In matters of public policy, small countries like Singapore need to recognise their limitations and act within their capabilities to prevent unforeseen disasters in coming generations.

The Bedrock of a Nation

Two days ago Alex Au wrote a post about cultural conflict stemming from immigration. In it, he recounts the story of a neighbour from India whose wife steadfastly refuses to return his greetings. Au believes that this may be due to cultural considerations, and asks:

But then it raises the question: If we want to integrate new arrivals in our midst, should it be the new arrivals who should re-organise their cultural habits to “fit in”, or should Singaporeans too change our cultural habits to accommodate them?

Should I persist in greeting and smiling at the wife? Or should I go easy on her and ignore her, the way her culture expects me to behave? It seems to me that the latter would probably be her preferred solution, but would you then accuse me of surrendering Singapore to the foreign hordes?

I think the answer to this lies in asking what makes a nation a nation. I don’t mean the geographical area over which a political entity exercises authority and retains a monopoly on the legitimate use of force — that is a country. By nation I mean a given community with a shared history, aware of its coherence, unity and interests. From this shared history the community derives its approach to politics and culture; from this flows the concept of a nation.

Politics and culture is like a fast-flowing current of deceptively dark water. On the surface, culture can be seen in many things: preferred food and beverages, local slang and humour, fashion. Yet these factors have little to no meaningful impact on society, or otherwise have limited impact on everyday life. At this level, nations can give and take from each other with little negative outcome. Consider that the British adopted curry following their colonisation of India and later Southeast Asia. Curry remains a favourite British dish, yet it does not necessarily represent Britishness. If one takes away curry from Britain, Britain still remains Britain. At this level, culture is simply a question of aesthetics.

Conversely, consider Singlish. Singlish is a churning stew of English, Mandarin, Malay, Hindi and related dialects, the result of immigrants from different lands living side by side for decades. People who speak Singlish properly are assumed to be Singaporean or at least well-versed in Singaporean culture. Removing Singlish from Singapore would detract from the overall experience of Singaporeanness.

This example points to what lies beneath the surface of culture and politics. Culture and politics can be thought of as implicit and explicit rules governing human behaviour and outlining their priorities in a given area. Taking the example of Singlish, Singlish is a bridging language that nearly everyone in Singapore can speak or at least comprehend; speaking it sends a signal that you are, indeed, Singaporean. The preferential use of Singlish signals a desire to be part of the community of Singaporeans, as opposed to the community of Chinese living in Singapore, Malays living in Singapore and so on. Going beyond language and talking about culture specifically, the culture of a place indicates what the nation believes people in that given area should act towards each other: how they talk to each other, appropriate greetings, displays of affection and worship, treatment of superiors and subordinates, treatment of in-group versus out-group, and so on. Framed against the context of a nation, culture can be thought of as the oil that lubricates social interactions between people.

When people from different cultures meet, the result is a difference of cultures that could lead to cultural conflict.

Here’s a minor anecdotal example: speaking voice. The Singaporeans I have observed tend towards speaking just loud enough for their intended recipient to hear. This minimises irritation to everybody around them, especially if they are in a crowded place, and I daresay this may be the inevitable result of growing up in one of the most crowded cities in the world. Conversely, the Chinese nationals I have observed tend to speak with much louder indoor voices. This can be particularly jarring inside buses and trains, when most people assume that everybody else would keep to themselves as quietly as possible. Furthermore, mainland Chinese have markedly different accents than Singaporean Chinese, especially when both are speaking in Mandarin.

Cultural differences can be seen in different ideas of acceptable speaking volume, and these differences are aggravated through accents. The accent is a signal of difference, and by speaking in a way that irritates the locals, the foreigner is showcasing his obvious difference to everyone — and equally obvious indifference to local preferences.

This is a minor thing. Unfortunately, history is replete with more serious examples. When the Americans invaded Afghanistan they hoped to build a modern democratic state aligned with Western norms and values. The problem was that Afghanistan was never like that. The Americans, and most of the Coalition of the Willing, believe that a modern nation-state should be governed by democratic values, that people swear political allegiance to their countries first, and citizens should help each other regardless of ethnic origin. The Afghans, on the other hand, are a tribal-based society for whom the tribe is the primary social group, and their collective political history has been one of a weak central government surrounded by powerful local warlords. Little wonder that the experiment in Afghan democracy has yet to bear fruit.

Obviously, and fortunately, things aren’t that serious in Singapore. Nevertheless, as Singapore’s immigrant population increases, points of friction can only grow. In 2011, when a family of Chinese immigrants took issue with their Indian neighbours cooking curry, the result was a mediation that attracted international attention, with the Indians agreeing not to cook curry when the neighbours were home, and some 40,000 people protesting the decision by cooking curry. Last year, when a Filipino group tried to organise Filipino Independence Day celebrations, they drew fire almost immediately all across the Internet, and eventually the group was forced to cancel the event after they could not secure permits and alternative locations.

Going back to Au’s point, the question is: how much give and take should there be? How much should immigrants accommodate locals and vice versa?

The bedrock of a nation is its cultural and political norms. These values, ideas and beliefs are the glue that hold people together and the oil that keeps them from rubbing each other the wrong way. At the surface level, the level of aesthetics, I don’t see much of an issue with people accommodating each other’s cultural heritage. Trivial matters like that should not have escalated to the level the backlash against the Filipino Independence Day did.

But at the level of personal interactions, the immigrants need to integrate into their new society. Through the act of immigration, immigrants signal that they wish to live in a new country. To become a part of their new homeland, they need to become the people of that land, and that means taking on the cultural norms and traditions of the nation. Immigrants who come to a new country but refuse to integrate cannot properly be called immigrants, because they don’t want to behave like citizens. They are carrying their cultural practices into a foreign nation instead of assuming its practices.

History has long recorded times when people from a foreign nation came to different lands, settled down, and wished for everyone else to accommodate their practices. They were Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Vikings, Spanish, British, Europeans. History remembers them as imperialists and colonisers. While that stretch of history was written in blood, it should be remembered that the colonialists used violence because the locals resisted. If the locals refused to resist, as in the case of the Moriori, the conquerors did not need to wage war. And the Moriori were almost completely exterminated.

There is the old saying that when in Rome, do as Romans do. Similarly, to become a Roman, do as Romans do and be accepted by other Romans. One cannot call oneself a Roman but act like a Visigoth. The former is merely words; actions tell the world who and what you really believe in, and through one’s action one sees the culture, and the nation, one really belongs to.

I, ESCHATON is live!

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I, ESCHATON is live and ready for sale! The third entry of the American Heirs series, this story picks up where KEEPERS OF THE FLAME left off, taking Master Sergeant Christopher Miller into a new battlefield. To quote the blurb:

Master Sergeant Christopher Miller has returned home from war, but war has come to find him.
The Sons of America are targeting the Wilshaw Foundation, and Miller’s lover, Sarah Grey, is at the top of their hit list. To survive, Miller must go underground with Sarah. But to prevail, they must ally themselves with the enigmatic artificial intelligence that calls itself Eschaton.
An extension of the smart networks that underpin the Republic of Cascadia, the AI offers contacts, resources and the full power of the national security apparatus. But at what price?

I, ESCHATON can be found on Amazon, Smashwords and Payhip.

Observant customers might have noticed the prices. That’s right: I’ve slashed the prices of my stories. Previously, novels were USD$5.99 and novellas at USD$3.99. Now, they are priced at USD$3.99 and USD$2.99 respectively. Plus. if you share my ebooks on Facebook and Twitter via Payhip , you’ll also get a 30% discount. These among are the most affordable military science fiction ebooks on the market; get them while you can.

In other publishing news: I’m about two-thirds of the way through my next novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS. It is a science fantasy novel set in a world populated by daimons and jinn, where specially-trained psions can use divine or infernal materials to reshape reality or themselves. It has cybernetics, reality manipulation, daimonic summoning, high intensity close quarter combat, hacking, and rumours of a coming apocalypse. It’s the first book of an exciting new series, and I hope I can share it with you soon.

I have also begun work on another short story. This one is a military science fiction action story with horror elements, with the setting organically allowing for magic. I can’t say anything else about this, only that just thinking about it makes me break out into giggles. In a good way.

'Light Touch' or Rule by Bureaucrat?

Controversial blog The Real Singapore was shut down yesterday following a demand by the Media Development Authority. Its owners have been arrested for sedition, and if they had not shut down TRS they would have to face heavier charges. Media experts say that this is still in line with the government’s ‘light touch’ approach, calling TRS an ‘extreme case‘.

On the one hand, TRS represented the worst the Singaporean blogosphere had to offer. Tales of foreigner-bashing, plagiarisation and outright fiction regularly populated its pages. I’m not sorry to see it go. On the other hand, the fact the government shut down TRS spells out a troubling future ahead.

The heart of the problem is the state’s definition of ‘light touch’. It is a term as nebulous as ‘Out of Bounds markers’. The latter term represents the government’s approach to freedom of speech: you are free to say anything you like, until you cross the OB markers, at which point you will face the full weight of the law. To date there are no proper definitions of OB markers, only that to date I cannot recall anyone affiliated with the government or the People’s Action Party running afoul of these guidelines, only political activists.

‘Light touch’ is not a standard determined by Parliament or the judiciary. The standards have not been debated, the consequences never explicitly spelt out. Without transparent guidelines people can point to for comparison, these two innocent-sounding words can be used to justify anything.

It was used to get sociopolitical websites gazetted as political organisations, requiring them to take on extra burdens to meet red tape. It was used to force websites with monthly views of over 50 thousand readers to obtain special broadcasting licenses — which, coincidentally, cover sociopolitical issues. Now it has been used to shut down an ‘extreme’ website.

The case of TRS also brings to light the terms of Amos Yee’s bail. After being arrested for posting an allegedly seditious video on YouTube that insulted Lee Kwan Yew and Christianity, the teenager was granted bail on the condition that he would not post any online content. He also had to take down the video. Yee broke the terms of the bail and was subsequently re-arrested. Such a bail condition is virtually unprecedented in Singapore, but I suspect that if left unchallenged and uncommented upon it will quickly become the norm for people arrested for sedition in the future.

Looking at TRS and Amos Yee, I think Singaporeans, especially those involved in sociopolitical affairs and are not affiliated with the PAP, can no longer take the words ‘light touch’ at face value. Without explicit standards these words can mean anything the bureaucrats want them to mean: in effect, where online media is concerned, the government prefers to rule by bureaucrat, who are unaccountable to anyone but their paymasters — who coincidentally also work for the government. What the people want to think of as a ‘light touch’ is not how the bureaucrats will interpret it, in the same way the ‘Media Development Authority’ highest-profile means of developing Singapore’s media scene is to censor it.

To survive in this new atmosphere, Singaporean bloggers have to learn the rules of the game. It seems that anything that can be interpreted as sedition will lead to criminal charges, followed by content censorship. If something can be interpreted as racist, prejudiced, or otherwise able to stir up hatred against people of certain races and religious, it will lead to criminal charges and censorship. If something can be interpreted as a threat or as defamation against a member of Parliament, the government or the state — and not necessarily everybody else — it will lead to criminal charges and censorship. If a piece of online content is so controversial that it leads to petitions, police complaints, media attention and general public outcry, it will lead to a police investigation with the possibility of criminal charges and/or censorship.

In short: if something stirs up doubleplusungood feelings, it will be regulated.

The government has promised a ‘light touch’ when regulating online media, and it has delivered on its promise. A government as legalistic and bureaucratic as Singapore’s would likely have internal procedures, standards, benchmarks and other protocols to determine whether a piece of online content needs to be censored. The only trouble is that the government has yet to share with the people what, exactly, constitutes a ‘light touch’ and what standards it uses.

If the government thinks it can shut down TRS on the basis of sedition, then it should shut down every other website that does the same. So here is a litmus test:

The Global Islamic Media Front is a keystone in the international terrorist network. It produces and distributes terrorist propaganda, acting as al-Qarda’s de facto media arm. It also distributes cryptographic tools that enable terrorists and sympathisers to communicate securely. GIMF encourages terrorism by praising terrorists who have completed operations, disseminating the sayings of terrorist leaders, and celebrating dead terrorists as ‘martyrs’.

GIMF is also hosted in Singapore.

If the Media Development Authority will shut down TRS, which merely stirs up ill feelings, will it then shut down GIMF, which actively incites violence towards nonbelievers?

PS: I can think of several reasons not to shut down GIMF, all of which have to do with national and international security. The thrust of this hypothetical question is to point out the lack of open standards, how it erodes trust in the government, and why the MDA needs to define ‘light touch’ beyond pretty press statements.

I, ESCHATON ready for preorder!

It is my unalloyed pleasure to announce that the third entry in the American Heirs series, I, Eschaton, is now available for preorder. I meant to make the announcement earlier this week, but I had to sort out no end of formatting issues until today. Here’s a shot of the cover and the blurb:

Master Sergeant Christopher Miller has returned home from war, but war has come home to find him.
The Sons of America are targeting the Wilshaw Foundation, and Miller’s lover, Sarah Grey, is at the top of their hit list. To survive, Miller must go underground with Sarah. But to prevail, they must ally themselves with the enigmatic artificial intelligence that calls itself Eschaton.

An extension of the smart networks that underpin the Republic of Cascadia, the AI offers contacts, resources and the full power of the national security apparatus. But at what price?

I, Eschaton will go live on 4th May 2015 on the wrong side of the International Date LineYou can make pre-orders now on Smashwords and Amazon. When the manuscripts go live, I’ll be uploading a copy on my ebook store.

I, Eschaton marks the halfway point of American Heirs. There are three more stories to go, two novels and a novella. For the time being, though, I’m working on a different story with a different series concept. It’s nothing like what I’ve ever done before, and I’m keeping the details to myself until everything’s ready.

I can, however, reveal the working title: No Gods, Only Daimons