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.

Banning Julien Blanc: NIMBYism on a global scale

I feel Julien Blanc is a loathsome, repulsive person. I feel that the tactics he employs are designed to subtly dominate people by invading their personal boundaries and psychologically overwhelming them to prevent a decisive rejection, treating people as commodities instead of humans. I feel the world would be better off without men like him who interact with women primarily to obtain sexual favours.

My feelings are also utterly irrelevant, because banning Julien Blanc undermines freedom of speech and movement.

Activists and social justice warriors are accusing Blanc of promoting violence against women. Assuming this is true, why ban him from travelling to different countries? A person of his dubious stature would still be able to travel to countries whose governments care more about tourist dollars than women’s rights, and the prevalence of information communications technology means that Blanc and his fellow travellers can still continue to propagate their doctrine. The techniques and technology available to Blanc and his ilk are no different from those employed by international lecturers and thinkers, SJWs, local celebrities breaking out into the world stage, and terrorists.

Banning Blanc does not only send the message that he is not welcome in a country, it also signals that the people of that country do not want to have to deal with him — they want someone else to do it. This is Not In My Backyard syndrome.

The court of public opinion has charged Blanc with misogyny, and produced as evidence his infamous choke opener. The photograph shows Blanc placing his hand on a woman’s throat, which he calls ‘choking’.

I have seen Blanc’s lectures and I have heard him speak. I noticed he used techniques commonly employed by public speakers and debaters. He promotes repeating memorised phrases at high speed, deluging the listener in a barrage of words to shut off rational thought and resistance while promising fun and pleasure. The choke opener is an extension of this: he begins a conversation with a woman, then places his hand on her throat to physically dominate her and force her to pay attention to what he is saying. The use of hand gestures, like a finger over his lips or a hand covering her mouth, is an extension of this.

Blanc calls it a choke opener, and activists call it choking. I am a martial artist, and I study combatives. I train in Pekiti Tirsia Kali, I have undergone some training in Krav Maga, and I am in contact with karateka, boxers, judoka, grapplers, and force professionals. Going by that picture alone, I sense Blanc isn’t actually choking her.

Let’s break it down, starting with Blanc’s motivations. I think it’s safe to say the following: Blanc wants interaction. He wants to elicit consent from the woman. He wants her to feel she can’t say no. He does not want her to start screaming for help or to attract unwanted attention. He does not want to be arrested and sent to jail. He does not want to be branded a sex offender, both for professional and personal reasons. The choke opener lies in that murky ground between assertiveness and violence, creating psychological dominance without actually harming the target.

A real choke, on the other hand, does two things: it closes off the airway and it defends the choker from a counterattack. The choke opener superficially resembles a front choke — only, it likely doesn’t actually do damage.

Place one hand on your throat and squeeze. It should feel uncomfortable. Sink into the moment, and imagine that a complete stranger was doing that to you. Feel the pulse in your neck, the pressure against your veins and windpipe. This produces a heightened state of awareness, and enhances a feeling of vulnerability. Now, maintaining that pressure, talk. Say something, anything, just talk.

If you can talk, you can breathe, and if you can breathe, you are not being choked.

Blanc wants the woman to be able to say ‘Yes’. This is domination, not violence. Violence harms the mark, dominance simply attempts to manipulate the target into surrender. Dominance can be countered with assertiveness or violence; the only answer to imminent violence is escape or even greater violence.

real front choke is completely different. Both arms and hands would be locked up straight and tight to provide maximum stability and biomechanical strength. The choker would be pressing the intended victim up against a wall or hard surface, arching the back to break the balance and prevent a counterattack. The choker would be leaning into the victim, applying his body weight and borrowing gravity. A real front choke will close off the airway, induce a panic response, and can leave bruises on the throat. The last can be used against Blanc in court, which he probably does not want, so it is not likely he is actually choking the woman.

Blanc calls this technique a ‘choke opener’ because he needs a dramatic, memorable name for that particular technique. It is linked to the idea of a can opener, comparing the act of opening up a can to opening up a woman. In this sense he is no different from a salesman-entrepeneur naming a product by metaphorically linking it to a commonplace item. Activists have seized on the very unfortunate name to turn it against him, using it to springboard their narrative of violence and generate outrage. Blanc’s propensity for aggrandisation got him into trouble — not actual or intended violence.

But assuming Blanc actually escalated to violence, front chokes are also very easy to break out of. Going back to the picture, Blanc only has one hand on the victim. Assuming some aggressor tries something similar, the defender need merely grab his thumb with both hands and peel back. Normally the technique requires bending the aggressor’s arm for leverage, but he has very thoughtfully done so already. This technique would break the choke and expose him to follow-up strikes.

Against a true double-handed choke, the defender should step back to stabilise herself, then circle her arms under the aggressor’s and shoot her palms through the empty space between his arms, going for his face. This has a high chance of breaking the choke. Even if it doesn’t, the attacker is likely to step back, weakening the choke, or release his hands to defend his face. If he does neither, the palms will strike, causing damage. If the attack rakes the eyes, this induces pain and blindness, encouraging him to let go. If the attack misses or he still insists on holding on, the defender can bring her hands back to his thumbs and peel them off. Or grab the back of his skull and introduce his face to a sharply rising knee.

For armed defenders, the counter is even simpler. Draw a knife and cut the biceps and inner forearms. If he holds on, back cut at the eye to force him to step back, bring his hands back and diminish his vision; stab through the armpits and ribs to collapse the lungs; and/or cut his throat to force blood down the windpipe and air into his heart. Or just draw a gun and shoot him until he drops. This is a lethal force situation, and crippling or killing an attacker is justifiable here.

If Blanc were promoting violence against women, he’s pretty inept about it, relying on his targets to be untrained and unarmed, and unwilling to defend themselves. On the other hand, I don’t see very many SJWs and feminists teaching women how to protect themselves against monsters in human skin. It seems to me that modern-day activists aren’t interested in actually dealing with threats or empowering people to handle them; they just want someone else to do it.

Even if I’m wrong and Blanc actually advocated physically harming women and has sexually assaulted them, banning him from various countries still won’t do any good. He is still free and still able to hurt people in his home country and wherever else would have him. To protect society from such a menace, the best approach is to arrest him and try him in a court of law, and if found guilty, punish him to the fullest extent of the law. This removes a threat from society and sends a message to other would-be predators that society does not tolerate such villainy.

Conversely, if he were found innocent, it means that he is guilty of nothing more than hurting feelings.

I know people who have lived in places where there is no law and no police presence. For people like them, a sexual assault is met with violence: either the woman will kill the attacker during the act (see what I wrote above?), or her friends and family will find and lynch the attacker after the assault. This serves the same purpose of destroying a threat and sending a message to other monsters. The main difference is that they step up and take responsibility of the problem, instead of delegating it to someone else like most civilised people.

The people who want to ban Blanc are not interested in actually dealing with the problem. They just do not want him in their backyard. This is NIMBYism on a global scale, sparked by little more than hurt feelings.

Blanc’s speech may be offensive, but the solution to offensive speech is more speech. His ideas have roundly criticised by people around the world, which means people are less likely to believe him. Or else just ignore him, denying him the fame he needs to continue his lifestyle. To curtail his ability to travel on the basis of offensive speech is to seize the tools of oppression on the basis of hurt feelings, punishing someone for saying the wrong things as opposed to actually harming someone. This sets a powerful precedent: if an international network of people can degrade someone’s freedoms for nothing more than saying politically incorrect words and hurting their feelings, who will they target next?

The answer: anybody else who disagrees with them and hurts their feelings.

People who use their freedom of speech to accuse someone of oppressing a designated victim group and take away his rights are not interested in freedom or protecting people. They just want to be the ones holding the whip.

A Bundle of Wrongs at Hong Lim Park

Self defence expert Marc MacYoung describes rights as a bundle. “Rights come in bundles. Often these rub up against each other. That is where we must compromise and come up with a working solution.” MacYoung could have been describing what happened at Hong Lim Park on Saturday, when protesters from #ReturnMyCPF rubbed up against the YMCA and the state.

People have the right to freedom of speech. People also have the right to not be disturbed by others exercising free speech. People have the right to assemble peacefully for civil purposes. People also have the right to not participate in or be disturbed by such assemblies. When rights collide, the rational response is to compromise and find a working solution. Unfortunately, this did not happen at Speakers’ Corner.

Shared space

It is easy to point the finger at the National Parks Board. Hong Lim Park is not a large park. It seems unreasonable to hold two events in the same space, demarcating areas for both. This is especially since a charity carnival and a public protest will need as much space as they can get, as the success of such events are judged and marketed primarily by public attendance. Plus, Minister of State for the Ministry of Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck was the guest of honour at the event, and #ReturnMyCPF is led by Han Hui Hui and Roy Ngerng, both of whom have axes to grind against the Establishment. This is a recipe for conflict.

However, as civil society grows, an increasing number of organisations will want to book slots at Speakers’ Corner to hold events. It is inevitable that there will be more events organised simultaneously at the park, whether accidentally or otherwise. Plus, as some events are time-sensitive, it may not be possible for organisers to shift the date of a planned event. Further, as I will argue later, this conflict occurred primarily because of the personalities involved, not because of the friction generated from sharing space. Simply laying down a rule that no more than one event may be held at Hong Lim Park is using a sledgehammer when a scalpel would be more appropriate.

Should NParks take a more proactive role in events management? Certainly a bit of research would unearth the people responsible for #ReturnMyCPF and the guest of honour for the charity carnival. A bit more imagination would reveal that the activists would focus on the minister’s presence, potentially sparking a conflict. This approach, however, would arm the state with excuses to reject applications for protests and political events, on the grounds of potential conflicts with other events. It also means adding another layer of bureaucracy to the state.

The ideal solution is for NParks to contact all parties involved should multiple parties attempt to book Hong Lim Park on the same day and time, and discuss ways to deconflict the events. Arguably, this was what should have been done well before the event to begin with. Thirty minutes before the protest, NParks’ Director of the parks division Chia Siang Jiang approached Han to request that she move her event. This is very bad form by NParks, and NParks has to review its communication mechanisms to ensure that organisers and stakeholders receive adequate notice beforehand.

That said, people can register an event at Hong Lim Park on very short notice. Han, for instance, submitted an application to hold the protest on 22 September, and the application was approved on the same day. Short of requiring a minimum of one week’s advance notice prior to an event — not always desirable for time-sensitive political activities — it may not be possible to organise a session for every simultaneous event.

The most cost-effective method the government has to prevent conflict is to make information about events at Hong Lim Park readily available. Instead of (or in addition to) lumping events at Hong Lim Park on the NParks’ website event calendar, NParks could have a dedicated calendar just for Speakers’ Corner, right under the hyperlink for registration. This would allow event organisers to pick a time and date that would not clash with other events, or at least to work out a compromise with each other.

Harpies and Hecklers…?

The crux of the issue is that the #ReturnMyCPF movement was reported and perceived to be heckling the YMCA charity carnival to gain media and political attention while a group of special needs children were about to perform a dance number on the park’s stage. AsiaOne called it ‘chaos’, while. Mothership.sg framed it as a ‘drama’.

The Online Citizen tells another story:

The activists led a march around the park, stopping in front of the stage for a few moments. When the children came up, the procession moved on.

‘Heckling’, according to the Marriam-Webster dictionary, is ‘to harass and try to disconcert with questions, challenges, or gibes’. As far as I could tell nobody who participated in the march attempted to directly harass anybody attending the YMCA charity event.

But they were disruptive. And the difference is semantics.

The procession marched around and in front of the YMCA’s tent, and right up to the edge of the YMCA performance. In doing so the participants had effectively encroached upon the YMCA’s space. They were shouting so loudly it is difficult to tell what the YMCA’s MC was saying over the mic. This may not be heckling, but it is disrespectful of the people who chose to attend the charity event. Had the march occurred in the middle of a performance, it could have thrown the performers off-kilter, and indeed some of the children in the video appeared discomfited by the noise. That the procession halted in front of the stage instead of moving past it, for whatever reason, aggravated the situation by making it seem as if they were there specifically to target YMCA.

To heckle them, in other words.

‘Heckle’ may not be accurate, but perception is at least as important as action. Compounding matters was that the police claimed the protesters did not have a permit to hold a public procession to begin with. If true, this creates the impression that the organisers of #ReturnMyCPF are lawbreakers and hotheads more interested in making noise than helping people.

Working Compromises and Communications Management

Activists want to build a better world. But having a noble cause is not a license to disturb people, disrupt events, break the law and generally behave distastefully. The eyes of the world are on them. They have to hold themselves to higher standards, to demonstrate and communicate that they are fundamentally reasonable people who truly intend to help society.

This means compromises. NParks tried to reach out to #ReturnMyCPF, asking them to relocate–as opposed to calling off their event. While NParks could have communicated this earlier, instead of fighting the decision like Han did, the better move would have been to agree or to bring in a YMCA representative and discuss how to best share space between the organisers. By framing the relocation as a way of respecting the YMCA’s right to hold their event, #ReturnMyCPF could have presented themselves as respectable people.

When informed by the police that they did not have a permit to hold a procession, the better move would be to modify the event on the fly. The activists could simply have informed the crowd that they did not receive a police permit in time, and instead gathered for a mass photograph or rally. They would still have made their point — and it would not have been blunted by the YMCA’s presence in the background.

If the activists insist on proceeding with the procession anyway, then they could have at least avoided going into the YMCA’s space. While it is tempting to reach out to Teo Ser Luck and the media presence at the carnival, by respecting the YMCA’s space the activists would have demonstrated their respect for other people.

Politics is a long game of perception and communication. It may feel good to argue with the government and to hold a march anyway, but by disregarding the law and disrespecting others’ space #ReturnMyCPF has shot itself in the foot. They have made themselves vulnerable to narratives that spin them as unruly denizens of the lunatic fringe, giving the government and other political parties a reason to write them off. Activists need to act in ways that respect the rights of others, and frame these actions in ways that communicate this respect to the wider world. This would win public respect, and with that the inroads activists need to achieve their goals.

Compromise is not a dirty word. Compromise is how everybody gets what they want. Activists should do well to remember that.

Hashtags Won't Stop Barbarians

In the wake of Boko Haram’s mass abduction of girls in mid-April, activists have responded with a social media campaign. With the hashtags #saveourgirls and #bringbackourgirls, photos and short videos are circulating across the Internet to…

…Well, do what, exactly?

Raise awareness of the issue? It’s already a crisis of international proportions. The world is outraged. Nigeria is already locked in a bitter conflict with Boko Haram, and while this campaign might spur them on to redouble their efforts, they — being the primary victims — are painfully aware of what Boko Haram has done. The objective has long ago been achieved.

Call to action? I would almost believe that, but what action? The Nigerians are mobilising the military against the terrorists, but they’ve been at war with Boko Haram since 2009. The United States has pledged to assist Nigeria and has dispatched advisers — since 2011. #saveourgirls is not calling for greater international intervention, nor indeed is there any kind of call to action inherent in the campaign. What else is #bringbackourgirls doing?

Asking, nay demanding, Boko Haram to return the girls they have kidnapped?

Scientists would sooner find proof of a Christian Hell.

The echo chamber of slacktivism

Slacktivism is simple. Identify an issue, do up a signboard with a marker and a convenient piece of cardboard, take a photo of yourself with your sign, post it on social media with a witty hashtag, and watch the likes come rolling in.

Slactivism is also rewarding. Do it right, get your friends to get their friends to jump in on the movement, and soon enough you’ll be rolling in likes, shares and retweets. Bloggers and fellow travelers will jump on the bandwagon and create more content supporting you. With enough public attention, the playbook of democracy virtually ensures that local political leaders, and later international media and politicians, will give air time to your campaign. These are signifiers of social acceptance. Or societal approval. In people who desire such approval, this sort of attention would trigger cascades of hormones that stimulate the reward centre of the brain. It makes them feel good. And to keep on feeling good, all they have to do is propagate the campaign.

Feeling good is not the same as doing good. But man is not a rational animal; man is a rationalising one. If a set of activities makes an airhead feel good, she is more likely to believe she is actually doing good — regardless of the outcome of her actions. This creates a self-reinforcing loop of behaviour, publicly meant to drum up attention for a cause, privately — even subconsciously — designed for emotional self-gratification.

I wouldn’t necessarily have any objections if, in the process of this campaign, actual, tangible objectives are achieved. Or, at the very least, the aforementioned campaign also works towards accomplishing objectives alongside the social marketing effort. Yet slacktivism makes social marketing, a means to an end, and turns it into an end into itself.

Funny thing about marketing: different audiences need different marketing techniques.

The real target audience

Who is #bringbackourgirls aimed at? The primary demographic will be English-educated people fluent with social media, most likely Western liberals, largely because they tend to be the primary inhabitants of social media activism spaces and will jump on a bandwagon like this. The secondary demographic is the international media, which wishes to grab and propagate the news of the day. #bringbackourgirls is crafted to appeal to these audiences, with emotive pictures, social media language, images portrayals of female disapproval and suffering, and a simple message.

But what will bring the girls back?

In military terms, Boko Haram has seized over 200 hostages, threatening to sell them into slavery. If the objective is to bring the girls back home, then legitimate authorities would need to identify the location of the hostages, and rescue them. In the medium term, to avenge previous atrocities and to neutralise a growing regional threat, Boko Haram needs to be eliminated. This means infiltrating their networks and sanctuaries, isolating them from their bases of support, discrediting their ideology and capturing or killing key personnel to disrupt the organisation’s operational capabilities. In the long term, to prevent groups like Boko Haram from emerging, the local inhabitants would have to identify the systemic causes that enable and empower the emergence of similar threats, and address them through holistic means.

Nothing I have seen of #saveourgirls will achieve this.

There is the forlorn hope that maybe #bringbackourgirls pressure Boko Haram into returning their hostages. But see above, scientists proving existence of Christian Hell.

Modern Western civilisation relies heavily on what is essentially structured peer pressure. Democracy is an exercise in mass approval or disapproval. Social media functions the same way, and so does slacktivism. If you approve or disapprove of something, create content to generate mass approval. And your right and ability to do this without being killed is guaranteed by the armed forces and the police.

But groups like Boko Haram come from a different perspective. Their name means ‘Western education is sinful’, and the cornerstone of their ideology is that interaction with the Western world is forbidden. Western cultural norms and expectations would not work on people who have closed their hearts and minds to them. This might yet have worked when Boko Haram was still working through peaceful means in the early days of its existence (2001-2008), but since the uprising in 2009, Boko Haram has transitioned into an armed terrorist group. They want to establish a country ruled by Sharia law, and do this by attacking Christians, bombing schools and police stations, assassinating government and prominent figures, and kidnapping Western tourists.

They have placed themselves outside the reach of Western cultural norms and memes. Slacktivism won’t speak to them. Neither will social media marketing aimed at generating Western disapproval against them. Quite simply, they don’t care about #saveougirls, and are not affected by it — except maybe in the twisted minds of their recruiters and propagandists, who will do what they can to portray it as a moral victory for the cause. (“See, our operation has agitated the West! We can reach across the seas and touch the minds of our enemies! Join us and you, too, will be strong enough to strike at the government and the far enemy!”)

Hashtags won’t stop barbarians. Analysis will. Planning will. Action will. If people are truly interested in stopping Boko Haram, then they have to step up and do actual work. It is hard, it will be difficult, and is nowhere near as immediately rewarding to the monkey brain as a constant stream of likes and retweets. Yet there is just one way to truly save the girls and bring them home — and slacktivism like this is not it.

Romance v. Reality

On the 19th of November, lawyer M Ravi released this press release announcing his attempt to mount a constitutional challenge against Section 377A of the Penal Code. This law criminalises ‘gross indecency’ between men, effectively outlawing male homosexuality in Singapore. In response, Alex Au published this post detailing what he thought of Ravi’s proposal. On Saturday, Ravi held a forum to explain his position on 377A, and invited several speakers to talk about the effects of sexual discrimination in their lives. Having read Au’s article and attended Ravi’s forum, I find myself able to compare both men’s approach to the issue.

Both men agree that Section 377A has to go. Both men make the case that this law leads to insitutionalised discrimination and societal prejudice, even if not actively enforced. This case is two-fold. Firstly, this law allows the State, or prejudiced agents of the State, to lay down and enforce policies that discriminate against citizens on the basis of sexual orientation. Secondly, by keeping the law, the Government is creating and continues to create the impression that there is something deplorable about homosexuality; people who base their morality on existing laws are then led to believe that there must be something wrong with homosexuality. Both men can make this argument far more eloquently than I can; going into this is not the scope of this article.

Where both men diverge is their approach. Au gives the impression that he is approaching the issue from a strategic perspective. He is concerned with what works and what doesn’t work, and will concentrate his energies on what he believes will work. I don’t think he lets his emotions get in the way of his analysis much, if at all, when he sets his mind to it. Ravi, however, seems to be a man of conviction and emotion. When he finds a cause that fires him up, he would pick the most dramatic and high-profile way to fight it – everything else seems secondary. It’s like he’s picking ways and means that make him feel good, and make others feel like something is worth fighting for.

Both men have different ideas about a constitutional challenge. In Au’s post, he covers the strategy behind a constitutional challenge. He writes about the standards of proof required by the courts, how the judges’ attitudes influence such a challenge, and the strategy applied by activists in India and the United States to strike down discriminatory laws through constitutional challenges.

On the other hand, Ravi’s forum concentrated on the lives of people affected by sexual discrimination – on the human element, so to speak. The first speaker, Vincent Wijeysingha, spoke about the history of Section 377A, how it affects people, and why it must be abolished. Amy Tachiana, Sabrina, Hedrick Kwan and Mathia Lee spoke about the discrimination they faced from the government and society. Ravi’s concluding speech was about why he is mounting the challenge, questioning why Singapore’s male gay community does not appear to be standing up for men charged under Section 377A, highlighting his perception that women and transgendered people are stepping forward to help these men, and why it is absurd to discriminate against people on the grounds of sexual orientation. Ravi’s client, Tan Eng Hong, made a speech of his own, largely about how he felt about being charged under Section 377A, how he felt after the charges were reduced, and how he intends to move on.

Au focuses on the hows of a constitutional challenge. Ravi emphasises the whys behind his constitutional challenge. In an ideal world, there shouldn’t be any conflict between the hows and the whys. But in this case, there is.

As Au said, the courts demand a high standard of evidence and verification. The judiciary wants to see links between the Constitution, Section 377A, the policies that this section enable, and the discrimination faced by people on the ground. Ravi needs to be able to draw these links and prove why Section 377A is unconstitutional before the judges will decide whether to strike it down. In a constitutional challenge, the courts are more interested in the hows than the whys – you may have plenty of reasons to strike down a law, but if you cannot prove that it is unconstitutional, the challenge will fail.

In the forum, Ravi claimed that he has a strong legal case, backed by his team of researchers. This may even be true. The impression he gave me, however, painted a different story.

In his press release, Ravi said that the “forum will try to disentangle the issues surrounding this contentious question [presumably about section 377A and a constitutional challenge mounted against it], and examine what can and need to be done if the ongoing discrimination against gay and bisexual men is not to continue so late into the modern age.” I did not feel that had happened.

It seemed that most of the forum was simply about the discrimination people face under the law – indeed, most of the speakers gave testimonials about their lives and the prejudice they faced, and little more. Just two out of the seven speakers would be directly affected by Section 377A – that is, the discrimination they faced or may face can be linked directly to that law. The other speakers, despite having faced discrimination of one kind of another, have not drawn any direct links between what they have faced to Section 377A. By legal standards, it is difficult to accept the latter as evidence that Section 377A must go.

Apart from a general agreement that Section 377A needed to be abolished, there was very little spoken about the hows beyond possibly forming a group to decide what to do next. Of the technicalities behind a constitutional challenge, just about nothing of note was said – nothing about strategy, points to consider, the legal environment, the attitudes of the judges who may be called upon to consider the case. Of his own case, Ravi said nearly nothing beyond the whys and a few lines about his research team. As Au implies in his post, a constitutional challenge needs more than this to succeed.

What I have seen does not inspire confidence. I don’t sense that Ravi is in fact concerned about the strategy behind a constitutional challenge. Instead of talking strategy, his forum is almost entirely dedicated to talking about people and their issues. This is not unimportant, but in strategy, it is only relevant as a component of arguments and only effective if backed by proof. Ravi’s case, what he does say about it, seems focused on effects on people, and relies on the courts to draw all the links he is required to make in a constitutional challenge. I don’t think the courts are going to do that; he’ll have to figure out how to do it when the time comes.

I believe Ravi’s heart is in the right place. But without demonstrating a grasp of strategy, I highly doubt his chances of winning the challenge. So, good luck to you, Ravi – you’ll need as much of it as you can get.

Beyond words

Excellent speeches by Sylvia Lim from the Workers’ Party on the cooling off period and the NCMP issue. She has said everything I wanted to say, and then some.

That being said, I don’t think her speeches will amount to much in the long run if that is the be-all and end-all of the WP’s stance  — or anybody else’s. Politicians and bloggers in Singapore have long criticised Singapore’s Group Representative Constituency (GRC) and Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) schemes. Criticism alone cannot achieve much; the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) can simply dismiss them all. Its dominance in the local political and traditional information spaces guarantee that the PAP can dismiss the such criticism, no matter how stinging, indefinitely. For real change, change makers must go beyond words.

The key to policy change lies with the people. The people must see proposed changes to the local political structure as beneficial, necessary, and relevant to their lives — and be convinced that they can press the government successfully for this change. This is especially pertinent in Singapore, where Parliament has 82 PAP MPs and 2 opposition MPs. This dominance means that meaningful political changes in the short term (read: foreseeable future) must be approved by the government — and if the government has the luxury of ignoring the opposition, then the people need to make their voices heard…if the people care.

I do not think that the people of Singapore actually see the issues Lim raised as particularly important. I think most of them do not see a direct connection between debates in Parliament and their daily lives — their jobs, their families, their income, taxes, healthcare, and safety. Or if they do, they either do not feel a pressing need to push the State to act, or feel powerless to act. As an experiment, ask some people you know how they see the recent changes in Parliament — the cooling off period, additional NCMPS — as relevant to their lives, and how their lives will be affected. For most of them (unless they happen to be politically charged or otherwise exceptional), they will say they see little to no effect at all.

And if they see no problems with these new changes, why should they oppose it?

If the people see no problems with any government policy, why would they want to change it?

For change to occur, the people must first see the connection between decisions made by Parliament and their lives, and then see options for future political actions. These ideas, the idea that there is a direct connection between parliamentary decisions and long-term impact on livelihoods and the idea that there is a way to change things, should be articulated and propagated as widely as possible, using language, media, and terminology that people can understand and connect to.

The key, I believe, lies in creative use of all forms of media. There is currently any number of speeches and essays criticising all manner of government policies.  But politics can be particularly dense and dry to the layman, especially if a writer or speaker decides to dive into various theories. While essays and speeches do have a place, such as communication between theorists and government officials, local politicians and activists should consider and utilise other venues of communication. For example:

1. A short story/novella/novel, set in a Singapore where the government lords over the people using oppressive laws, paying particular attention to the suffering of the people, its causes, and options for change.

2. An animated video on YouTube that presents ideas in understandable and memorable terms.

3. A song or songs about politics in Singapore, released and distributed under Creative Commons licences.

The only limits on human creativity are self-imposed. There are many other ways to get a message across. The best form would be to coordinate a campaign to present a single, coherent idea through multiple media. This means plays, stories, songs, essays, videos, and speeches about the same ideas, reaching out to as many people as possible, with as few contradictions and inconsistencies (preferably none) as possible.

But propagating ideas alone is not enough. To fully effect change, the government must be convinced to change. Only then will Parliament under PAP dominance pass the necessary legislation to effect change. This means letter-writing campaigns, unconferences, petitions, speeches, informal chats, fora, any and every form of public and private communication aimed at key members of the government to carry this message: the people want change for the better, and this is how we think it should be done.

Politicians, by virtue of their standing, have other options to play. One such option is to create a multiparty group to press for a particular policy. Suppose, for example, the Workers’ Party forms a unified front with other Opposition groups and even some PAP MPs, and this group states that it is opposed to the GRC and NCMP schemes and will pressure the incumbent to scrap them. At the very least, Parliament will have to listen to this group, and the media cannot be directed to ignore its existence.  As nominal representatives of the people, MPs and prominent politicians have a louder and stronger voice than individual citizens; they should not hesitate to use their position in society to effect policy changes.

I don’t see this happening yet, unfortunately. It seems that activists and politicians in Singapore are still trying to develop ways and means to use New Media, and are hamstrung by various constraints. Individual activists, for instance, may lack the necessary know-how or money, while politicians may have to develop a party-wide policy before they can act. Or maybe the idea hasn’t occurred to them yet. I don’t really know. All I do know is that for change to happen, change agents — activists, politicians, citizens — must go beyond scathing words and act.