A Deeper Look at LGBT Discrimination in Singapore

Pink Dot.jpg

Is there discrimination against LGBT persons in Singapore? Activists and bloggers insist there is. Janelle Faye, a transgender Singaporean, arguesthere isn’t.

I think the truth is somewhere down the middle. In recent history, the authorities have not launched sweeps targeting LGBT people. There are no laws punishing people for the crime of being non-heteronormative. Sex change operations are freely available here, and LGBT-friendly bars, saunas and non-government organisations operate openly. Discriminatory attitudes and practices against LGBT people occurs at the level of individuals, families and organisations; not at the level of society. There are no formalised mechanisms of oppression aimed at LGBT people in the same fashion as, say, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria or the Islamic State.

At the same time, there still exists laws and policies that, for better or ill, sweep up LGBT people in their wake.

Section 377A and its Consequences

Section 377A of the Penal Code states:

Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with >imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.

Singapore inherited its laws from the British, and the Penal Code is based off India’s. Since Independence, other legislation that criminalises “unnatural sex”, such as non-vaginal sex or lesbian sexual intercourse, have been struck down. Section 377A still remains on the books, but the government insists that it will not prosecute gays under the law.

In practice, this is mostly true. As far as I know, in the past two decades Section 377A has only been trotted out to handle cases of public nuisance, rape and statutory rape. It has never been used to prosecute men who have consensual sex with men in private.

Singapore’s government needs to balance the needs of multiple groups in society, including religious conservatives. Keeping Section 377A can be seen as a peace offering to keep them happy while the government does away with less controversial legislation on other kinds of sex. Unfortunately, retaining Section 377A has knock-on effects.

In the military, gay soldiers are assigned a special deployment status, kept away from sensitive information, and confined to day duties for the rest of their careers. This essentially means that openly gay soldiers will never be placed in career-enhancing positions within the military. I don’t think this is institutional discrimination, rather an operational security measure. If a spy learns that a gay soldier has access to classified information, the spy can deploy a honey trap and take compromising photographs of the soldier, blackmailing him to reveal this information on pain of being arrested and charged under Section 377A.

The criminalisation of homosexual male acts also has wide-ranging impacts on civilian life: marriage, housing, insurance, legal aid, medical services. Since same-sex relationships are not officially recognised by the government, such couples are not eligible for the same benefits as heterosexual couples, and homoseuals cannot make legal decisions for their partners. This situation will likely remain so until and unless there are no longer any laws on the books criminalising consensual sex acts between adults. Perhaps longer.

While Section 377A has not led to institutionalised discrimination, this is only due to the policy of the current government. With the People’s Action Party enjoying a supermajority in Parliament (82 out of 84 seats), if the government decides at a future date that it will benefit from cracking down on gay men, there is nothing to stop it. Likewise, if a future government decrees that it shall henceforth prosecute all gay men in Singapore, Section 377A empowers it to do so.

Section 377A hangs like a sword of Damocles over the gay community. Its existence automatically criminalises men who have sex with men, even if they have done nothing to harm others. No citizen can count on the eternal benevolence of the state. Section 377A must be abolished. In its place, Parliament must revise existing law to cover cases of public nuisance, rape, statutory rape and other crimes that were previously prosecuted under Section 377A, with an eye towards deterring and punishing harm as opposed to consensual acts.

LGBT People in the Media

There are no laws forbidding the portrayal of LGBT people in the mass media. Instead, the Media Development Authority — which develops the media by censoring it — issued guidelines forbidding the “promotion or glamorization of the homosexual lifestyle”.

This policy has claimed a long list of victims of censorship. Barack Obama’s pro-LGBT comments. A same-sex kiss from a theatrical production of Les MiserablesMass Effect, for its femShep/Liara relationship, for a while. A number of local films and plays. A full list of censored media can be found here.

This isn’t to say that the MDA demanded the media to hide LGBT characters. Indeed, there is no bar against having such characters, so long as they aren’t portrayed positively. A local Mandarin-language police procedural featured a male-to-female transsexual as a killer. Another drama had an episode where the cast convinced a transvestite to give up his cross-dressing ways.

This is discrimination by regulatory fiat. The MDA does not answer to Parliament or the people. If the government believes more restrictions should be placed on the media, the MDA can do it without having to go through the formalities of a Parliamentary debate or try to convince the people through the press.

But this should also be seen in context. The government has long held the position that Singapore’s media should be a ‘nation-building media’. The media takes its cues from the government, delivering the messages and creating the narratives that the government wants it to deliver. When controversies erupted over en bloc sales of real estate in Singapore, MediaCorp suddenly produced a drama about a family caught up in an en bloc sale. Press coverage of national events tend to be slanted to favour the government, emphasising Singapore’s ‘traditional values’, including religious harmony, efficient government, and de-politicisation of racial and religious matters. This is part of the government’s overall strategy of justifying its rule through ‘Asian values’, which is really a hodgepodge of Confucian and Victorian moral norms. It creates a narrative of ‘Asian values’ through the media, then uses it to claim the moral high ground.

The problem here isn’t just discrimination per se. It’s that the government uses the media as its mouthpiece to spread its version of public ethics, politics and news, and LGBT issues is just one of them. Singaporeans cannot count on the mainstream media to explore alternative stories and narratives that contradict the party line, and there is little profit in petitioning the MDA to change its policies if the government won’t. A more realistic approach would be to engage the government itself on portrayals of LGBT people, and why LGBT people should be given fair portrayal in the media.

But I won’t hold my breath. Creators who want to have LGBT characters in their works would find better luck in spaces the MDA can’t touch. In the age of the Internet, creators can upload works on YouTube, use Patreon or Kickstarter for funding, write and narrate digital stories, and more. Instead of butting heads with the MDA on legacy media platforms, seek places where the MDA cannot reach and build your audience there. This will pull receptive audiences to your platforms, allow you to render any and all discriminatory media portrayals in Singapore irrelevant.

Marriage and Housing

In Singapore, it is usually joked that the most common way to propose marriage is to ask your would-be spouse to buy a flat with you. That’s because public housing in Singapore is strictly limited, favouring family units (including newly-weds). LGBT couples must either purchase flats on the private/resale markets or wait until they are 35 years old and purchase a flat under the joint singles scheme. Is this discrimination?

Singapore, it must be remembered, is a tiny, land-scarce country. Land use must be carefully planned, and a flat may be retained in the same family for two or even three generations out of necessity. The government must prioritise the needs of families with children and newlyweds who will produce children, for they will ensure the continued survival of the nation and the people. Lesbians, gays and transsexuals who will not or cannot produce children will not contribute to the next generation or the generation after, so their needs must be placed last.

Unfortunately, since bureaucracies must operate with a broad brush, there will be unintended victims. This year, a couple lost their marriage to the mechanisms of state. They registered their marriage as a heterosexual couple, but the male declared that he intended to transition to female. The marriage was nonetheless allowed to continue, and was registered as a heterosexual marriage. After the former husband transitioned, the marriage became a same-sex marriage — which is illegal here. After months of hemming and hawing, the state forcibly dissolved the marriage and the couple had to move to a smaller home.

I understand where the government is coming from and recognise the necessity of prioritizing heterosexual couples (and, by extension, the long-term survival of the country), but this is most unfortunate for the couple mentioned above, and other edge cases that the bureaucracy isn’t equipped to resolve. On the other hand, I don’t think Western-style civil unions can resolve the matter either. If non-heterosexual couples in civil unions are accorded the same rights as heterosexual couples in recognised weddings, it could have a significant impact on the availability of public housing in Singapore. It is not fair for a tiny non-fertile percent of the population to have such an outsized impact on the rest of the population that will ensure the nation’s continued existence.

Should we build more public housing? Singapore is the very definition of a concrete jungle: where can more land be found? What about letting LGBT people rent flats? Rent prices are sky-high in Singapore: rental flats cater to PMETs with astronomical salaries or groups of people, leaving rented rooms the only viable option for most people.

I don’t have any easy answers. What I do know is that this issue isn’t discussed in public at all. LGBT people are left to fend for themselves while the government will not accommodate them. Instead of harping on such abstract matters as the ‘freedom to love’, LGBT activists should focus on everyday matters that affect the lives of people, and the government should in turn engage these activists to hopefully reach a win-win solution.

Roll Up Your Sleeves and Get to Work

Having attended the original Pink Dot, I can confirm Faye’s remarks on its essential vacuity. Yes, it celebrates the freedom of love. Yes, it trots out speakers affirming non-heteronormative relationships and the virtues of tolerance and diversity. Yes, there is music and live performances and balloons. For one day a year it makes people feel good. But what about the other 364 days of the year?

I don’t care about feeling good. I care about doing good.

There isn’t widespread systemic discrimination against LGBT people in Singapore on the scale of the Middle East or elsewhere. However, Section 377A allows potential tyrants to oppress the LGBT community. Media portrayals of LGBT people in Singapore are a facet of the government’s control over the media. Housing for LGBT people remain a thorny but underdiscussed issue.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. LGBT people face a number of unique challenges that aren’t aired openly. Half of lesbian relationships involve domestic violence. Last year, there were 408 new reported cases of HIV transmission, and 52% of them originated from homosexual transmission. Advertisements about HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention targeting the LGBT community cannot be aired here.

It’s easy to jump on bandwagons, chant slogans and repeat the tired rhetoric of power, privilege and discrimination. It makes people feel good, but it doesn’t do anything to resolve these issues. If you’re truly interested in helping LGBT people, then roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Gatekeepers Make Creators Fragile

Creators and artists of all persuasions cannot count on gatekeepers. Many publishers and corporate sponsors do not have the creators’ interests in mind, only their own. That gives social justice warriors a vulnerability to exploit.

Earlier this week, political interest groups used deceptively edited footage to assassinate Milo Yiannopoulis’ character. The edited clip showed Yiannopoulis apparently defending paedophilia, leaving out the entirety of his argument: the law on age of consent is proper; in some rare cases a sexually mature teenager older than a child but younger than the age of consent may give consent; intergenerational relationships between younger and older gay men, both of them above the age of consent, are beneficial; and that paedophilia is an unforgiveable crime. The lie caught like wildfire across the Internet, prompting Simon & Schuster to cancel Yiannopoulis’ book publication. Yiannopoulis himself opted to resign from Breitbart to draw fire away from his colleagues.

Yiannopoulis is not a one-off event either. Disney-owned Maker Studies and YouTube severed ties with YouTube sensation PewDiePie after he was accused of making anti-Semitic content. Bestseller author Nick Cole’s former publisher dropped him after objecting to a chapter in his work Ctrl-Alt-Revolt that likened the antagonists’ motivations to abortion.

Social Justice Warriors and progressives of the Ctrl-Left know that gatekeepers are fragile. Stir up enough of a controversy and the gatekeepers will fold – if the gatekeepers are not themselves already converged by SJWs to suit the ends of SocJus. This trend can only continue into the future: now that authors and publishers are hiring ‘sensitivity readers’, one can expect Big Publishing to weed out and reject every doubleplusungood thoughtcrime book and author.

From Crisis, Opportunity

Cleaving to fragile gatekeepers makes creators fragile. The fickle whims of the crowd will inevitably turn against anyone SJWs do not approve of, even their own allies. SJWs will always eat their own.

Creators must seek to be antifragile. Every crisis becomes an opportunity for growth.

After Nick Cole wrote about his being dropped, he signed on with Castalia House to release his novels. When Roosh V was attacked by feminists and slandered by the media, he went on the offensive and increased his own popularity. Milo Yiannopoulis is now setting up his own independent media network.

The lessons are clear. Build your own brands and platforms. Never count on gatekeepers to protect you; always go indie if you can. Never give in to the howling mobs of never-to-be-placated Social Justice Warriors. When mobbed, always counterattack at the earliest possibility. Study Vox Day’s seminal work, SJWs Always Lie, and be prepared for the inevitable wave of shrieking harpies. If you must work with publishers, select those that will not bow to the whims of SocJus, like Baen or Castalia House.

To be famous in the modern age is to attract the jealousies and intrigues of lesser people whose only talent is to lie and shriek and denounce. But as these men have demonstrated, the skilful creator can turn the situation around for his own profit. Antifragility is no longer an intellectual curiosity; for creators, it is a critical life skill.

Image: SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police by Vox Day

Reclaiming the Centre Through Word and Deed

In an op-ed for today’s Straits Times, Bilahari Kausikan intuits that European liberalism is failing, but I sense he jumps to the wrong conclusions. He says:

In West Europe, for instance, the political arrangements that we now call liberal democracy were arrived at only after several centuries of an often violent process of accommodation between different varieties of Christianity, each of which claimed a monopoly of divine revelation. These accommodations are now subject to the political, economic and cultural pressures generated by immigration – legal and illegal – from North Africa and the Middle East as well as from other parts of Europe. That large numbers of these new arrivals are ethnically distinct and Muslim are additional complications.

European liberalism, indeed all varieties of Western liberalism, have proved inadequate to deal with contemporary challenges. This is because liberalism prioritises one system of values and places it at the head of a hierarchy of value systems. But it is precisely this hierarchy that is now being contested – and contested not only by the new arrivals.

The liberal democratic value systems that formed the basis of late 20th century Europe’s political accommodations are now under pressure from European electorates. Hence, the rise of extreme right-wing – sometimes neo-fascist – movements across Europe. Their emergence points to a gap between the values of European elites and substantial numbers of their peoples that needs to be bridged if is not to metastasise into something darker and more malignant.

Across Europe, multiculturalism – an ideology derived from liberalism – is giving way to pressure for assimilation or integration. But assimilation or integration to what? What is, or ought to be, the core and what is the periphery? These are not abstract questions.

Since Kausikan will not mention what this ‘system of values’ and ‘hierarchy of value systems’ are, let me spell it out.

European culture is indeed based on democracy and Christianity: one man one vote, separation of Church and state, freedom of speech and expression, respect for minorities, human rights, and peaceful coexistence.

These immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East carry a different set of values based on Islam and Arabic norms: tribe above all, the majlis is the state, do and say nothing that will bring dishonour upon the tribe, minorities must submit to the majority through tax and slavery in exchange for ‘protection’, women are far less important than men, and the House of Islam and the House of War.

These aren’t simply a ‘hierarchy of value systems’ — these values are incompatible. They were developed in different lands, over different time periods, with a different set of historical baggage. Many immigrants entering Europe, especially the illegal immigrants, do not wish to integrate and become Europeans; instead, they are bringing their cultures into their new homelands, living by the old ways in the ghettoes and no-go zones instead of co-existing with their new neighbours.

Barely a century ago, humans used to call this ‘colonisation’.

Multiculturalism is indeed giving way — but not to assimilation. Assimilation is a symptom. Liberalism is giving way to nationalism: the outright rejection of immigrant culture and values, especially those from Africa, in favour of local cultures and values. The ‘centre’ of this loose ideological movement probably would have little objection to immigration, so long as the immigrants assimilate into the culture of their new homes and adopt their norms.

Specifically comparing the staff of Charlie Hebdo and their murderers, Kausikan says:

Both were equally wrong. I am not arguing that there is a moral equivalency between the terrorists and the cartoonists; clearly there is none. Nothing justifies murder. But is it right to constantly lampoon a religion?

I pointed out that even from the point of view of freedom of expression, a double standard was at play. France, like many other European countries, has laws against the denial of the Holocaust. When the law was challenged on the grounds that it infringed freedom of expression, the United Nations Human Rights Committee held that it was justifiable as necessary to counter anti-Semitism. Even the United States prohibits hate speech.

The central argument of Western political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, is that there is not only one Good, but that there are multiple Goods and these often contradict each other and so cannot be simultaneously realised.

If this idea is accepted, the goal of a movement of moderates cannot be agreement or even consensus, only peaceful co-existence; a modus vivendi that allows for peaceful co-existence between ultimately irreconcilable systems of values. Such a modus vivendi is necessarily always tentative and constantly needs to be renegotiated. To seek a still, unchanging point of eternal nirvana is not only futile but to court an extremist response.

So how do we get to where we all want to go? The Langkawi Declaration on the GMM (adopted by Asean leaders in April this year) prescribes certain approaches, among them outreach programmes, interfaith and cross-cultural dialogues, sharing of best practices and information and academic exchanges.

What is only partly and indirectly stressed is the role of the state. There is no country that is today homogenous. Attempts to homogenise a country are today frowned upon: It is called genocide.

Notwithstanding education and the promotion of understanding, conflicts of values, including values that define core identities, will therefore inevitably arise. When this occurs, it is the role of the state to act as neutral arbiter, to hold the ring between different conceptions of the Good and to maintain whatever modus vivendi pertains at that point, if necessary by exercise of the coercive powers that are the legitimate monopoly of the state, including the pre-emptive or prophylactic exercise of such powers.

When conflicts of values lead to violence, it is usually due to state failure: Because the state or government was caught by surprise; because the state or government was too weak or too timid to take decisive action; because the state or government was unable to resist the temptation to seek political advantage by privileging one group over another; because the state or government was hamstrung by its own ideology.

Of course the West does not practice freedom of speech fully. I recall reading an observation that Greeks of 7th century BC Athens enjoyed more freedom of speech than a modern-day American. This is due to the West’s obsession with liberalism. Holocaust denial offends Jews — therefore, it must be censored. Hate speech aimed at blacks offends blacks — therefore it must be censored. Hate speech aimed at Islam offends Muslims — therefore it must be censored.  The key word here is ‘offend’, as in, ‘hurts the feelings of’. Not speech that incites to violence, merely speech that someone can interpret as insulting.

But if you look at how hate speech is actually defined and prosecuted, one would see roots in liberalism’s respect for minorities. Hate speech against whites, men, and Christians goes unpunished and uncommented.

This points to two things: the West is weak, and states cannot be trusted. The latter is not a Western notion either. In Malaysia, the government punished Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee for posting a photo of themselves eating pork during Ramadan, but did nothing about a group of Muslim protesters who demanded that a Christian church take down its cross. In Uganda, the government passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014, condemning all convicted homosexuals to lifetime imprisonment.

The state cannot play the role of a neutral arbiter because it is not neutral. The government running the state will have to pander to its support base, the people that confer legitimacy upon it, to remain in power. If the support base do not believe in unlimited freedom of speech then the government will not respect that freedom either. And if that support base screams that it is offended, then of course Big Government will step in to save the day.

It means more Kill the Gays bills — and any attempt to criticise it will be slammed as anti-Christian. It means more Alvin Tans being jailed while Muslim mobs walk free — and any attempt to criticise this will be slammed as anti-Muslim. It means more people being enslaved, tortured, and enslaved by Daish, the Lord’s Resistance Army, drug cartels that worship Santa Muerte, and other such groups — and attempts to criticise them will be slammed as anti-religious. And from these criticisms come punishments, to tell everybody else to keep in line – or else.

Unlike Kausikan’s thoughts, people cannot have it all. Rights and values need to be measured against each other. If you want freedom of speech and protection of human rights, you cannot have protection of  religion. If you want protection of religion, you cannot have freedom of speech. If you want the state to intervene, it will act in the interests of the government and then the interests of the people. Freedom is not freedom only for the ideas you find palatable — that would lead to tyranny. Freedom must be freedom for all.

So, what can be done to reclaim the centre?

The centre is representative of society as a whole. The values the centre embraces must in some way represent the values that bind society, so the first thing to do is to determine what values guide society. And different peoples must decide what societies they want to live in.

I believe in a society that seeks to maximise the rights of the individual while balancing that against obligations to the state. The society would respect the rights of groups while ensuring protection for the individual. It grants every individual the potential to influence the direction society is going, while preventing any interest group from hijacking the rest of society and undermining its core values.

By necessity, this is a society that respects rights over feelings, freedom over censorship. No religion should be protected from blasphemy, and equally representatives of every religion are free to respond to criticism in the marketplace of ideas. The state will plays a role as an arbiter, but it does not police all speech. it monitors instead speech that incites to violence — religious or not, racist or not, the motivation is unimportant — and takes appropriate measures to defuse the situation: counselling wayward attention-seekers, ignoring harmless moonbats, and in the gravest extreme prosecuting terrorist ideologues. The state must serve all people, not the group that keeps it in power, and the best to do that is to limit its role to words and deeds that would harm people, no matter the source. And by ‘harm’ I mean violence against people — not the temporary heartscrapes caused by hearing people express different opinions. Within the state, there must be checks and balances to ensure that it will uphold its duty: ombudsmen, a Supreme Court actually interested in justice, a body that consults with the people to ensure that the government is in touch with the citizens.

The state will probably fail in its duty as protector. It would likely be prejudiced in favour of the group that put it into power, overreact, or fail to act at all. It is inevitable: the mechanisms of state are run by people and people are imperfect. But in such a society, the media and the people would be free to point out the failings of the government in a bid to rectify it — and in this society, the government cannot crack down on such people on the grounds of alleged hate speech without consequences.

The National Arts Council betrays the purpose of Art

The National Arts Council has proven its irrelevance to the development of the Singapore arts scene. By revoking the publication grant it had extended to Epigram Books to publish Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan due to the graphic novel’s ‘sensitive content’, the NAC has shown that it is a bureaucracy, and bureaucrats are the antithesis of art.

Art vs bureaucracies

I approach art as the celebration, ennoblement and marriage of human technical and imaginative skills. It is the alchemisation of truth, beauty and human ingenuity. It points to greater and wider truths beyond a limited individual frame of perception, illustrating the door to that truth through the artist’s craft, and trusting the audience to exercise their intellect and find the key to walk through the open door and see what the artist saw. From this perspective, the artist’s first duty is to the truth: the truth of the world, the truth that stretches across time and space, the truth of his inner vision. From this duty comes the obligation, and hopefully the skill, to create beauty, a means of touching a wider audience through their shared humanity and communicating what the artist saw. The method can take on many forms: a combination of colour and lines, creation of depth and perspective through chipping away raw material, exquisite arrangement of words and phrases.  To do this, the artist must not give a care about pre-established norms and traditions; if anything, it is the prerogative of the artist to create new norms, to ignore the trends of the day, to understand his vision and to communicate it regardless of what others think is right and proper.

Bureaucracies, on the other hand, are interested in maintaining and expanding their levels of influence. Bureaucracies exist to execute policies of their government, and in doing so they lay down and enforce what the government believes to be acceptable norms. If it is the policy of the government to uphold its power by quashing anything that appears to be a threat to its legitimacy, as the current government seems wont to do, the bureaucrats will follow suit. To justify their budgets and positions, they will steadily expand their influence over society, becoming unelected lawmakers and invisible judges, such as the Media Development Authority and its attempts to prevent homosexual content from airing in Singapore. Consequently, a bureaucracy and an artist will always clash as long as the government’s policies towards art encompasses everything but the unhindered development of the arts.

‘Sensitive content’?

In its papers and guidelines, the National Arts Council has clearly stated where it stands along the bureaucracy/artist divide. Quoting from its Production Grant Guidelines:

While we celebrate diversity of expression and open, balanced dialogue in the arts, as a statutory body
disbursing public funds in line with Government policies, NAC has to prioritise funding to proposals which
do not:
•Advocate or lobby for lifestyles seen as objectionable by the general public;
•Denigrate or debase a person, group or class of individuals on the basis of race or religion, or serve
to create conflict or misunderstanding in our multicultural and multi-religious society;
•Undermine the authority or legitimacy of the government and public institutions, or threaten the
nation’s security or stability.

Left unwritten is its newfound ability to withdraw grants after funding projects, but that is the nature of bureaucracies. They will only reveal their power when it comes time to exercise it, backed by the authority of the state. In the case of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, today’s Straits Times describes the ‘sensitive content’ as:

In the first chapter, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his political rival Lim Chin Siong face off in cartoon form. Later in the book, the 1987 Operation Spectrum, in which 16 people were detained allegedly over a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the Government, is turned into a plot to replace all music in Singapore with the melodies of American singer Richard Marx.

The NAC’s senior director of its literary arts sector, Khor Kok Wah, claims, “The retelling of Singapore’s history in the work potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the government and its public institutions, and thus breaches our funding guidelines.”

The graphic novel tells Singapore’s 60-odd years of history through satirical comics. It is plain to see that Khor does not comprehend the shape or purpose of satire. It is equally plain to see that the NAC’s screening process is incapable of identifying works that would allegedly undermine the authority of the government. But where art is concerned, this is the nature of bureaucracies: indecisive, incapable of comprehending nuance, and if pressed will favour the government.

Also, like bureaucracies, the NAC cannot comprehend that all publicity is good publicity: by withdrawing the grant, the NAC has given Epigram Books and Liew a ringing endorsement. All copies (as of time of writing) of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye have been sold out, barely a week after printing, and there is no sign that demand is slowing. Through the withdrawal of monies, the NAC has done more to spread allegedly subversive messages than Epigram or Liew could have on their own. But that, again, is bureaucracy for you: as blunt instruments to uphold state policy, bureaucracies are incapable of understanding and exercising subtlety.

Implications for Singaporean artists

Art is incompatible with conformity. Truth is not truth if held down or muzzled by the chains of the state. For Singaporean artists whose works even dance towards the edge of controversy, it is safe to assume that the NAC will, at best, refuse to support the art. I am almost certain that the NAC will not support my next work.

In the world of the Covenanters, the major conceit is the existence of two special elements with magical properties; one is an industrial material par excellence; the other can be used to summon supernatural beings. The Greeks were the first culture to study them, and consequently they dominated much the world the way Rome did in ours. This had major repercussions on global history and the way conflicts are fought. When the story begins, Western civilisation is split into secular native societies and immigrant communities composed of highly religious Arabs. The Singapore of that world is, like this one, a major financial hub, and consequently is highly attractive to one of the main antagonist factions. The organisation uses its power and influence to build a base in Singapore and avoid criminal prosecution, forcing the protagonist to engage in illegal operations to root out and destroy a threat to humanity.

This series follows terrorists and spies, who live lifestyles seen as objectionable by the general public. Many characters in the series seek to create conflict and misunderstanding in multireligious multiethnic societies on the basis of race and religion. The Singapore arc would be seen as an attempt to undermine the legitimacy and authority of the government and public institutions, and threaten the nation’s stability and security.  It is safe to say that the NAC will not stand for this, and neither would the Media Development Authority.

Artists at the cutting edge must find new ways and means to develop and propagate their art, independent of gatekeepers and authority figures. They will need to be fluent with new trends and technologies. In the case of writers, self- and indie publishing allows me to produce my stories without having to worry about censorship or red tape. For people who need money to see their projects through, crowdfunding campaigns and social media may prove a viable alternative to fickle bureaucrats.

The NAC and related organisations are bureaucracies, and as bureaucracies their mandate is to uphold the interests of the government. They cannot be counted on to represent the interests of artists to the state, especially if the proposed art is not in line with the ideological or policy positions of the government. For artists at the cutting edge, they must break free of the gatekeepers and blaze their own path. If the state will not support art, then the artists need not support the state.

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.

'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.

Lawrence Khong's performance is not Lawrence Khong

The recent brouhaha about IKEA’s continued promotion of Lawrence Khong’s magic show is focused entirely on Khong’s identity as a pastor. He has made no secret that his interpretation of the faith has no room for acceptance of LGBT people so long as they remain non-heterosexual. LGBT groups, individuals and allies have pressured IKEA to drop their promotion of the show; with IKEA’s refusal to bend, outrage is once again sweeping the Internet.

IKEA’s rationale for continuing to promote Khong’s work is that it offers “high family entertainment value”. Khong himself has acknowledged that he uses his magic shows to evangelise to the audience. The natural assumption is that the performance is somehow tainted by his beliefs.

But to mangle the Bible, shall the clay say to the potter, “Am I thou?”

A person does not have to agree with the ideology of an artist to enjoy a work of art. A person does not have to buy into the underlying ideas that inform a work of art to appreciate it on its own merits. The created is not the creator, and what a person does in one capacity need not spill over into another.

John C Wright is a Catholic and his religion informs his latest stories, but I don’t have to be a Catholic to be in awe of the breadth and depth of his imagination and his ability to ignite literary fireworks as casually and naturally as breathing. Orson Scott Card is a Mormon who has spoken out against gay marriage in the context of his faith, yet his work Ender’s Game is at heart a treatise on leadership and military innovation with nothing about his faith or politics. Larry Correia and Michael Z Williamson inject libertarian ideas into the Grimnoir and Freehold series respectively, but for them the story came before the message. I care not a whit about John Scalzi or his ideology, but I felt his Old Man’s War series and Fuzzy Nation were pretty good stories in their own right (being derivatives notwithstanding). I thought L Ron Hubbard founded a religion of nutjobs, but his novel Battlefield Earth set me on the path to writing science fiction. I don’t have to like Tom Clancy’s politics to study and adapt his craft.

It is one thing to slam a show because the show in itself promotes anti-LGTQ messages. It is quite another to slam it because the creator holds those same ideologies. The idea is not the man, the art is not the artist, the clay is not the potter. A person does not have to agree with someone to appreciate his work, and similarly does not have to like that person’s work to have a profound relationship with that person. A person who believes that he can only enjoy a work of art so long as he agrees with the artist’s ideology is not interested in art; he is only interested in keeping his mind closed.

I’m of the opinion that if you disagree with a person’s stated ideology the best approach is honest open debate. Attacking a person’s livelihood or art just because that person does not hold the same beliefs you do is not productive. The former approach opens up everybody’s ideas and assumptions for examination, and ideally all sides understand where they are coming from and open the door to reconciliation or changing beliefs. The latter is simple punishment, and it does not one thing about pre-existing beliefs. It merely says, “We do not like you because you do not think like us, and if you want to be accepted you must be like us”, It is bullying, plain and simple. It punishes someone simply for committing thoughtcrime, or holding doubleplusungood ideas. This approach only works on the weak and those who cannot defend themselves.

Against people so strong-willed that they rise and retain positions of prominence amidst controversy, it merely confirms their beliefs that everyone is out to get them. They and their supporters will circle the wagons and redouble their efforts, cling ever so strongly to their ideas and redouble their efforts to broadcast them. This strategy cannot work on those as strong-willed, connected, and rich as Lawrence Khong. They simply do not respond to such tactics.

IKEA values tolerance, and so does Singapore. Tolerance must include tolerating works of art whose creators may hold intolerant views, and indeed to treat such people fairly regardless of what beliefs they may hold. Tolerance, it must be remembered, is about being fair and objective, to hold a permissive attitude and to be free from bigotry. In this context, it means judging Khong’s performance on its own merits, and him as a performer in the context of the show. His identity as a pastor is relevant only so far as his ideas permeate his show and no further. For instance, his show may hold elements of Christianity, but it is unfair to say that the show promotes anti-LGBT messages if there is nothing in the show that does that.

By using pressure tactics against a work or art because the artist holds ideologies a group disagrees with, the organisers signal approval of those same methods. In so doing, the means become the end. It means that it becomes socially acceptable to coerce people into conformance by targeting their creations. Which means that Christian groups may urge organisations to boycott a play by a gay playwright simply because he is gay, the government may order additional red tape to strangle a website just because the owner happens to disagree with the ruling party, that corporations are free to turn down sponsorship and advertising deals from a local entrepreneur because she is also a political activist. And the ones who approve of pressuring IKEA to cease promoting Khong’s show have no moral right to decry any of the above scenarios.

By using pressure, the nags and the bullies say that they don’t mind it; they just want to be the ones wielding it. On that road lies the way to civil intolerance, and for the dominance of larger and more powerful groups. Judge Khong’s works by its merit, not by who he is: the clay is not the potter, the art is not the artist.

More Islamic than thou in Malaysia

Muslim protesters demonstrated outside a small church in Kuala Lumpur on 21st April, claiming that the cross on the church would challenge Islam and sway the faith of young people. The church responded by taking down the cross. Now the authorities are ordering a probe into the incident.

Yet the government itself laid down the foundations that made this incident possible.

Kuala Lumpur has made no secret of favouring Malay Muslims through its bumiputera policies, It is a form of affirmative action for the Malay Muslim majority, granting them advantages in education, the economy, entrenching Malay Muslim dominance,  During Valentine’s Day, the morality police conduct sweeps to detain unmarried Muslims in the same room, upholding the principle of khalwat — an Islamic law that forbids unmarried Muslims being alone and in close proximity with someone of the opposite sex. And there was the case of Alvin Tan, whom the police arrested after he had the audacity to post on social media a picture of him enjoying pork during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The Malaysian has consistently enforced Malay Muslim norms and culture through its policies. This signals tacit approval for citizen action that would further advance Malay Muslim supremacy. That the authorities ordered the probe suggests one of two things. Either the probe is merely a perfunctory action to soothe ruffled feathers and nothing will come of it, or else the government sees itself as the only entity allowed to pursue racialist agendas and will crack down on non-state actors who try to do the same.

Both outcomes will chip away at the notion of a democratic multicultural multiracial Malaysia. So long as the Malaysian government continues to lay down and enforce race- and religion-based policies it has no moral grounds with which to suppress non-state actions that advance the supremacy of their favoured race.

If the probe leads to no charges being filed or a slap on the wrist, it is another signal that the Malaysian government treats non-Malay Muslims as second-class citizens as best. In an era of increasing globalisation, it is another signal that everybody else is not welcome in Malaysia, even if they were born-and-bred Malaysians. If the Malaysian government tacitly favours non-state actions that support bumiputera, there will be citizen backlash. The most benign form will be increased emigration from Malaysia. But if these policies continue, expect protests, counterprotests, more vibrant online debates, and electoral losses or lack of voter turnout. It can only get worse if the state cracks down on non-bumiputera backlash with a heavy hand, by proving once and for all that there is no such thing as a Malaysian Malaysia, only bumiputera and everybody else.

Conversely, should the state clamp down on these Muslim protesters, more astute observers will point out that the state is not interested in the interests of Malay Muslims, only in populism and in entrenching their political positions. This will chip away at the moral underpinnings of the UMNO party, the predominant party of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, as its stated mission is to protect Malay culture.

The latter scenario is more insidious. The Islamic State, Daesh, brands itself as the only viable political entity that practices a literal interpretation of the Koran, and in so doing claims to have the purest strain of Islam. Other terrorist groups offer similar ideologies. Malay Muslims, raised to honour their faith and culture, will see a hypocritical government that claims to protect the Malay culture — and with it Islam — but will only do so to preserve its power. Disillusioned, they will turn to more radical causes that promise true Islam, including Daesh. And from there it’s a short step for Daesh recruiters to tell their new recruits to bring holy war back to their home countries.

This isn’t a Malaysian problem. It is the problem of every Muslim-majority state that pursues racialist and religious policies to entrench the power of the Establishment. So long as states like Malaysia are caught between secular power and religiosity, they are vulnerable to being undermined by extremists, radicals, fundamentalists and dissidents. In a world dominated by information communication technologies, the state can no longer discount the ability of ordinary people and non-state actors to rapidly communicate, organise and pursue their own agendas.

The solution is simple. Either move Malaysia towards an explicit Islamic state, or transform into a strictly secular one. Either option clears up the state’s brand identity, eliminating the perceived hypocrisy that provides hooks with which extremists can enter and weaknesses that dissidents can exploit.

These choices all carry costs. An explicitly Islamic state would drive out or oppress everyone who is not Muslim. An avowed secular state will alienate the traditional religious power base BN has relied on for so long. But by doing nothing and retaining its mixed identity, by using cultural and religious norms to shore up secular power, the government, and by extension the state, opens itself up to being undermined by everyone.

The Malaysian government has to make a choice. I am not optimistic enough to believe that it has as much time as most observers would like.

After Lee Kuan Yew: Where is Singapore going from here?

Lee Kuan Yew’s death has inevitably polarised Singapore. One camp eulogises him as the founder of modern Singapore; this group dominates the airwaves and the papers, singing his praises as long and loud as they can. Another camp points to his history of authoritarianism and Machiavellian approach to handling dissent, and criticises Lee across the Internet. The choice of media points not just to a generation divide, but an ideological split between hierarchical/conformist and egalitarian/liberal.

The fact of the matter is that Lee is neither the father of the nation nor an implacable authoritarian. He is both. The democratically-elected head of government who wielded the powers of an absolute monarch to build a country. The Asian Machiavelli who hammered his opponents and systematically disadvantaged the political opposition to usher in a brighter world. The hatchet man with virtually no tolerance for dissent or corruption, opposition or inefficiency, who built one of the most stable and prosperous states in the world. The political system he built for Singapore is fairly unique by Western standards, at once delivering prosperity while clamping down on Western notions of human rights. But it is not uniquely Singaporean: it is uniquely Lee Kuan Yew.

First, some definitions. A leader is a person who takes charge of a group, gives it direction and ensures execution of tasks. A government is the organisation that sets policy direction and is the sovereign of a country. A state is the body that supports the government through executing policy and ensuring the smooth delivery of essential goods and services.

Lee’s crowning achievement is the subordination of the government and the state to his will. By concentrating power in the hands of a very small group of individuals, with himself as the primus, Lee had the power to rapidly transform the island to match his will. By eliminating, deterring and hindering opposition to his rule, Lee removed all the obstacles in his path. Even after formally stepping down from affairs of state, the government continued this approach, steadily concentrating power in its hands and working through the organs of state to tamp down on opposition and continue Lee’s vision of Singapore.

This method of governance was no doubt highly effective. It would have been very difficult for Lee to accomplish what he did had he felt himself restrained by the niceties, procedures, contentiousness and debates that define the Western model of government.

Lee’s government reminds me of a modernised Roman dictator.  A Roman dictator was an extraordinary magistrate, appointed to office, charged by the Senate to fulfil a mandate, and granted supreme authority for that purpose. As the supreme leader he was not legally liable for his actions, both during his six-month term of office and after. Lee was elected to power by the people, driven by a mandate to gain independence and turn Singapore into a viable country, then seized and exercised absolute authority over the organs of state to achieve his goals.

Roman dictators were, by definition, extraordinary people who embodied a combination of outstanding competence and exceptional civic virtue. Usually dictators were appointed to resolve a national emergency, such as foreign invasion or internal rebellion, and their terms usually lasted no longer than a year. Cincinnatus was the model dictator. He was called to the office to put down a rebellion; after a mere 15 days he defeated the rebels and resigned. He was again nominated as dictator to defeat a conspiracy against the Roman Republic; the day after the chief conspirator was killed, Cincinnatus resigned.

Our system still seeks people of outstanding competence and virtue, and at the highest levels entrusts them with absolute power. But unlike the Romans there are no term limits, and unlike modern Republics no built-in checks and balances.

Singapore’s system is also fragile: it assumes that only the most patriotic and qualified individuals will take office. While the People’s Action Party certainly does its best to recruit Singapore’s finest, the fact remains that Singapore’s government is set up to support supremely capable leaders like Lee Kuan Yew — and there will not be another Lee Kuan Yew.

When it comes to matters of government and policy, one cannot assume that the government will be perpetually benevolent. If anything, one to ask what will happen if one’s worst enemies are able to take power.  When it comes to matters of state, a country cannot simply optimise a system to concentrate power in the hands of the benevolent sovereign; it must also be able to deny power to the malicious ruler.

The PAP’s model of government benefits a certain kind of person. He is someone who values prosperity and stability, who embodies traditional values of respect for the authorities and trust in the sovereign, who seeks a comfortable job and a comfortable standard of living, who does not care about policies beyond what affects him, and is interested in affairs of state only insofar as it concerns him and his loved ones, and will always support the establishment insofar as the establishment continues to support his lifestyle.

I am not that kind of person. And today, more and more people are not that kind of person. These are the artists, the entrepreneurs, the innovators, the poets, the directors, the creators, the kind of people who cannot live any other way but theirs. And currently, the system tolerates people like these at best; at worst, the state can always call upon the Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act, the media, and high-powered law firms.

Singapore calls itself a Republic. That means power resides in the will of the people, and the people elect leaders to represent their will. Should the leaders fail, the people have every power to take it back. In Singapore, all power rests in the hands of a government that attains and retains legitimacy through the ballot box, and should a future government abuse its power there is nothing to stop it.

Lee Kuan Yew is dead. We cannot hold out for his spiritual successor and we cannot assume we will forever be blessed with leaders who are just as capable and patriotic. Systems outlive people, and Singapore needs to move away from a system predicated on being fortunate enough to always pick the right kind of people. We need to create a system that will also prevent the abuse of power and create a space where citizens who do not agree with the government of the day can continue to live as legitimate citizens without fear of a knock on their doors at midnight.

This should the final legacy of Lee Kuan Yew: the creation of a system and a country that no longer needs a man like him.

Singapore's politics of personality

Another half-year and another round of resignations among Singapore’s opposition parties. This time, four ex-Central Executive Council members of the National Solidarity Party resigned in the hopes of joining the Singapore People’s Party. This mass resignations recall the mass defection of Benjamin Pwee and several SPP members to the Democratic People’s Party, Nicole Seah leaving the NSP to focus on her work in Bangkok, and Vincent Wijeysingha returning to the civil sphere after a stint in the Singapore Democratic Party.

Whenever I see events like these in the news, I can’t hep but wonder if the reasons for resignations lie less in the political field and more in personality conflicts. 

Quoting from the article, Ms Jeanette Chong-Aruldoss said, “I wanted to introduce some innovative ways of reaching out to people, but the comfort level was not there… The opposition parties are all closely connected and it is easy to talk to one another. There are no major ideological differences among the various parties…but Mrs Chiam is someone I respect a lot. And I would like to help her in whatever areas she needs help with.”

Chong-Aruldoss’ comments are telling. Singapore’s opposition political parties are defined less by politics than they are by their personalities.

Consider: when people hear Workers’ Party they think Low Thia Khiang, the Singapore People’s Party is intricately linked with Chiam See Tong, the Singapore Democratic Party is linked to Chee Soon Juan, and so on and so forth. What they do not think of is politics.

Where does the Workers’ Party stand on LGBTQ issues? They have famously remained silent. Does the Reform Party have a concrete plan for balancing migration with the economy? How does the SDP propose to reduce National Service to one year and still maintain a sufficiently large number of well-trained soldiers beyond simply ‘expanding the professional army’ AND be able to afford it?

For the past decade I’ve been following Singapore’s politics, it seems to me that most of the time the majority of Singapore’s opposition parties either produce policy positions in response to the government after the latter has announced its position, or not at all. These alternative policy positions only come to the forefront during Parliamentary debates, periods of controversy, or the elections. In quiet periods, they sink into obscurity.

This is a shame. Elsewhere, major political parties defined by policies, not personality, are remembered even in low-key political periods. The Scottish National Party stands for secession from the United Kingdom, the Republican Party in America claims to stand for smaller government and free trade, the Liberal Democratic Party pursues a platform of free trade and cooperation with the United States, the People’s Action Party consistently stands for a strong government and economic growth.

But in Singapore? Personalities aside, there seems to be no political difference between, say, the National Solidarity Party and the Singapore People’s Party.

Chong-Aruldoss’ statement that ‘there are no major ideological differences among the various parties’ is a telling one. Singapore’s opposition parties are defined not by politics, but by personalities. Given the sheer number of political parties in Singapore, multi-cornered contests will soon the norm. In such a situation, just why will the people vote for a given opposition party over another — especially when they already know what the PAP stands for? Sure, a sparkling character with force of personality may be able to sway some votes her way, but as Hazel Poa, Vincent Wijeysingha, Chiam See Tong, Kenneth Jeyaratnam, and other politicians have learned, it is nowhere near enough to challenge the Establishment.  

These resignations seem to be the natural outcome of political parties defined by personalities. At some point different people will come to loggerheads over their visions and aspirations for the party. Without a policy framework to define a party, disputes are resolved through popularity contests instead of whether someone better fits the party’s policies and overall vision for the country. Similarly, without a policy framework, parties will have lax entry and exit guidelines, setting the stage for more such resignations and defections in the future. The People’s Action Party is famous for interviewing potential candidates before acceding them to political roles; it is also equally noteworthy that very few of its members have resigned due to personal or internal conflicts, and a PAP member defecting to the opposition is unheard of. The PAP presents a united front because it has an identity and is defined by policies; the opposition remains fragmented and is prone to resignations and defections due to their lack of policies. Perhaps the sole exception to the rule is the Workers’ Party, but the WP is still not large enough to effectively challenge the PAP all by itself.

Singapore’s opposition parties need to go beyond personalities and start thinking about policies. That, after all, is the purpose of a political party: to guide and to pass national policies. If the opposition touches politics only when Parliament is in session or when a newsworthy event occurs, they are not much better than bloggers — and have to compete with those same bloggers to get their message out. I think the opposition parties, collectively and individually, need to figure out what they really stand for and work on policies that they can hammer home at every possible moment. Including the political off-periods between each session of Parliament. 

The closest the opposition parties have come to this is conducting regular walkabouts and meet-the-people sessions. While listening to residents and understanding their needs is important, and so is taking action to take care of them, elsewhere this is the work of social workers, volunteers and advocates. While Singaporeans do tend to focus more on personal and municipal issues instead of national ones at the ground level, for a political party that aspires to compete at the national level it has to be able to address national issues as effectively as local ones. The SPP, for instance, banked on Chiam See Tong’s persona to compete in the 2011 General Elections, but personality was not enough to allow the SPP to break out of its traditional stronghold of Potong Pasir; in fact, this strategy backfired, as his wife Lina Chiam could not win enough ground support to retain the SPP’s seat. Competing on the basis of personality tends to be effective only in areas in which the party had had a long-time presence and a history of success — otherwise, the party has to focus on issues that appeal to Singaporeans across the board.

Rumour has it that the next General Elections are fast approaching. If the opposition wants to establish a greater footprint in Parliament, they need to act now. They have to start by establishing a broad policy framework and promoting the members they want to send to the hustings. They need to study the art of marketing communications and apply them now, before the campaigning begins, to spread desired memes and prepare the ground. They need to find a way to stand out, not just from the PAP, but also from potential competitors in the event of a three-way election.

In short: they need to start being political parties, not personality parties.