Racism Is Not Hurt Feelings

If Social Justice Warriors are to be believed, we live in the most racist period of human history. Racists are everywhere: in school, in church, in government. The only way to deal with them is to point your fingers and shriek. And to an SJW, there is a simple test for racism: if you are offended, it is racist.

Mothership.sg ran an article detailing the ‘everyday racism’ an Indian girl, Chandralekha, described in her blog. She is a student at the Business School of the National University of Singapore, and claimed that she she experienced so much racism she broke down into tears. I went to her blog expecting stories of discrimination, bullying and violence.

What I got was the usual litany of SocJus complaints.

Racism is Everywhere!

Her first complaint came from orientation:

We had a lot of games and for some reason, it required everyone to say some “phrases” in Mandarin. I can’t speak Mandarin >because I have never learnt it. I struggled to remember the phrases and say it properly. But I tried my best. Having noticed >this, my group’s leader came up to me and asked me how come I didn’t know Chinese? I was taken aback because no one has >asked me that before. Like it was an expectation. Everyone in Singapore is supposed to know. I told him that I didn’t take >Chinese in school. He got very confused. If the question that he had already asked wasn’t bad enough, he then asked me if I >was a Singaporean and if I was born in Singapore. That was a slap on my face. My nationality was questioned because I didn’t >speak Chinese. Wow. It was just plain ignorance. I can’t remember what I said after that or if I even said anything at all. I was >just stunned. Since primary school, I have been on the receiving end of Appunehneh jokes and jokes on my skin colour. It >doesn’t help that you’re a girl and that too a fat one. I had foolishly hoped that when I go to university, it would all stop >because people would be less ignorant. I realized that it had just taken another form.”

I’ve been asked similar questions my entire life. I have been asked if I were American, Australian, British, Taiwanese, a Chinese national, a Hong Konger, Korean, a New Zealander, a Eurasian or half-Indian half-Chinese. (The answer is no.) I don’t speak with a Singaporean accent and I don’t speak Singlish. My voice and appearance throws off a lot of people. It is annoying to field the same questions over and over and over again, but these questions indicate that the questioner wants to know more about you.

The alternative is that they don’t care about you and don’t want to learn more about you. Or are too afraid to be called racists for asking.

Yes, the group leader in question was insensitive and ignorant. But these are not sins equivalent to racism. He did not insult her, attack her, exclude her from activities, or shun her. All he did was say something stupid. It was an opportunity for Chandralekha to correct his misconceptions, but she chose to feel offended and justify it by calling him racist.

Her next complaint goes:

During breaks, I would sometimes join my classmates but they would often speak in Mandarin and I would just not >understand. I gave them the benefit of the doubt that they did not know that I did not understand Mandarin. One day, during >a class on cross cultural communication, I shared my experience in NUS Business School where sometimes people leave me >out in conversations by speaking in Mandarin. Following that public confession, it just never happened to me again. Maybe it >was my fault that I did not tell them the first time they did it. Wait, I think I did. They probably thought that I was just joking. >But this is what makes it difficult. You would have to forever be explaining and earning your rights. It would just never come >easy.

I’ve been in groups where I’m in the linguistic minority. I’ve been in groups where Malays speak Malays to each other, Indians interacting in Tamil, Chinese speaking in dialects. It doesn’t bother me because I am not the subject of the conversation. They’re not speaking to exclude anyone; they’re just using a language both parties are familiar with. It is the height of selfishness to assume that you must be part of every conversation whenever you’re in a group, even if it’s about topics that aren’t relevant to you. Singaporean etiquette is to always use English when talking to someone who doesn’t speak your mother tongue, unless you know the other party shares the same language as you. Since everyone around the writer spoke English after she made her preferences known, they aren’t being deliberately racist.

Racism is only involved if people are deliberately shunning minorities using language, and even then, they wouldn’t just insist on a different tongue: they would turn away from the person, close the circle, look only at each other and never engage the person being excluded. People don’t exclude others simply by using a different language. They will demonstrate a cluster of behaviours, from subtle body language to outright requests for the ostracised person to leave. The writer has provided no descriptions of their body language. If these groups did not do any of this, then they aren’t being racist — the people are likely just having separate conversations while she is in the vicinity.

If you want people to know where you are coming from, you have to tell them. Humans are not telepaths. They won’t know what you are thinking or your preferences unless you tell them. Expecting people to always know your preferences without telling them is being immature. If you want to be part of a conversation, you have to let people know. It’s basic human behaviour, evidently lost on people like Chandralekha.

Her last complaint was this:

To commemorate NUS Business School’s 50th Anniversary, there was a Special notebook giveaway at the BBA office. There >were limited number of books and being the Kiasu Singaporean who loves freebies, I went to the NUS BBA office to collect it. >While the people before me were allowed to just take it and leave, when it came to my turn, the staff told me that they were >only for NUS BBA students. I said that I am one. He asked me to show my matriculation card but seeing that I was going to >take it out, he said nevermind and giggled. I stared at him. In a vain attempt of lightening up the situation, he said that he’s a >racist and giggled again. I just took the book and left immediately. I was disgusted by the entire event. That was just another >reminder that I would have to forever be explaining and earning my rights.”

There will always be idiots. How you handle idiots tells the world what kind of person you are. This is a minor matter. He did not attack her, insult her, deny her the freebie, or otherwise inflict any kind of harm against her. Her response is to get offended and complain about the inconvenience of having to assert herself.

Society runs by unspoken codes of conduct, but in the First World, the assumption is that these codes are sacrosanct. There is no formal education in assertive communication, and conversely, no explicit expectation that you have to stand up for yourself. When some jerk violates this code of behaviour, many modern youths like Chandralekha have no idea how to handle them. If they swing towards SJW and progressive tendencies, inevitably they will screech about how they have to keep explaining themselves.

It is incredibly selfish and immature to assume that the world must bend to your whims just because you don’t feel comfortable asserting your boundaries. Throughout my life, I have experienced constant taunting, insults, bullying and swarms of SJWs. I’ve been called a race traitor by members of my own race, and had people of other races insinuate I’m a fraud because of my name. Whining about how they were behaving didn’t do any good. People like that don’t care about how you feel. You can’t change those people, but you can change how you perceive and handle them.

Throughout her post, we have seen exactly zero incidences of racism. There is plenty of insensitivity on display, but not actual racism. She has not suffered physical violence, unfair marking, deprivation of resources, or any other such actions. She simply felt offended over and over again about trivial matters.

The Age of the Crybully

Babies and children have no frame of reference for life. When they experience an emotion, it is so huge and overwhelming they don’t know how to respond appropriately. When they want something, they whine and cry until their parents tend to them. If something doesn’t go their way, they continue to cry and throw tantrums. As they grow older, they learn how society works, pick up communication skills, and learn how to self-soothe when hurt and how to calibrate their responses and actions to suit the audience and situation.

SJWs are the exception. They still act like babies, screeching and crying and raging whenever they feel hurt. ‘Everyday racism’ is an excuse to find offense in everything to maintain the two minute hate. Instead of dealing with the situation, they want to guilt-trip or intimidate everybody around them into obeying their whims. They don’t want to grow up and enter adulthood; they want everyone else to coddle them. They are crybullies.

It’s clear Chandralekha has no idea what racism looks like. It is corrupt cops pulling over people of the wrong skin colour and cooking up excuses to levy punishing fines, teachers marking down minorities, governments restricting minorities from taking public office or exercising their rights, allegedly neutral organisations casting out people for being of the wrong race. It is violence and deprivation and exclusion from mainstream society. She has experienced none of these. Instead, she blew up her hurt feelings way out of proportion.

Chandralekha has not exposed racism to the world. She has merely exposed the smallness of her heart.

Crybullies prevent people like Chandralekha from growing up. They encourage and reward people for acting like babies by showering them with soothing words and SocJus dogma. Organisations further incentivise these crybullies by publicly supporting them or bowing to their every demand. By painting themselves as victims, crybullies manipulate society to meet their demands. They are overgrown children whining to adults.

Childhood is over. It is time to grow up.

Photo credits:

Everyone I don’t like is Hitler: KnowYourMeme
Racism everywhere: Memegenerator
Weaponised victimhood: Firebreathing Christian

Same-same but different. That’s the impression I get when I think of Singapore in 1965 and Singapore in 2015. Singapore has gone a long way in the past 50 years. From colony to nation, harbour town to global trade hub, the city-state has reached a level of prosperity and progress many are envious of and few will ever attain. But as Singapore celebrates her 50th birthday today, I’m stepping back and wondering, where is Singapore going from here?

I’m not an optimist. I’m not going to wax lyrical about life in Singapore. I’m confident many other bloggers can write far more eloquently about this than me — and, more importantly, I’m not an optimist. Instead, I see challenges on the horizon, challenges that Singapore needs to face if we are to survive for the next fifty years.

Civic Participation

Singaporeans of the 1950s and 1960s were not Singaporeans. They were colonial subjects or immigrants who happened to share the same geographical location. They were Chinese, Indians, Malays and other people brought together in a small space, all of whom did not identify as Singaporean. The Singapore nationalist movement only really kicked off after WWII; outside of the intellectual elite, there was no coherent sense of a Singaporean nation among the people noticed by history.

The riots and turmoil of this era can be understood in context. People did not see themselves as Singaporeans. They saw themselves as Hokkien, Malay, Cantonese, Javanese, Bangladeshi, Taiwanese — as people of specific ethnic or national groups. Diversity of cultures plus competition for limited resources in close proximity equals conflict.

While the People’s Action Party took over from the British in 1965, they did not fundamentally change the way the British did things. They simply placed themselves in charge. They adopted British laws and Parliamentary customs, then altered laws and politics to solidify their grasp on power. The state grew and grew, becoming the all-present ‘Gahment’ that looms over Singaporeans and benevolently guides the country to greater heights. Like the British, the PAP placed itself itself in charge by becoming a powerful government that can ram through social engineering policies to enforce assimilation and diversity, stifle political opposition through laws and lawsuits, and crush all threats (terrorist and otherwise) with an iron fist.

For good or ill, this method of maximum government created an entity people from different identity groups could fear and respect, allowing them to put aside their differences and work towards a greater good. Given Singapore’s ethnic diversity and the conflict that stemmed from it, it could even be argued that such measures were necessary to ensure civil peace.

But 2015 is not 1965. My generation are born-and-bred Singaporeans. They have known no homeland but Singapore, no identity but Singaporean. They live alongside people of different races and religions, and for the most part do so peaceably. They have grown up in a time of prosperity, and generally do not need to worry about making ends meet. Further, many Singaporeans with higher education levels would be able to write their own check elsewhere, instead of staying in Singapore.

So why will Singaporeans want to continue to be part of Singapore? What will make them stay? The PAP’s traditional answer is that they have friends, family and homes here. But with public housing remaining expensive (the supply crunch is only beginning to ease), and technology allowing people to remain connected halfway around the world, why else should people stay here?

The only answer I can think of is that they feel they are part of Singapore, and for them to feel they are part of Singapore they want to get involved in running their country. That means participating in the civic process, to exercise the rights of citizenship. The government would not object to young Singaporeans joining the PAP, civil service or volunteer groups. But what about those who refuse to join in? What about those with different views, people who prefer to join an opposition group or run as independent candidates, people who want to take more action to be heard in Singapore?

This means freeing up the civic space for discourse. This means the government has to put away the velvet glove and unclench the iron fist. It means the government will have to talk to people and treat them as citizens. Not just people who don’t know any better, but citizens with legitimate perspectives. It also means the government needs to share information: instead of having private chat sessions to share confidential information with influential bloggers, they need to be as transparent as possible, making all the data available so Singaporeans can understand what is going on in their country, and help make Singapore a better place.

Diversity and Demographics

On the flip side of participation is diversity. The world is becoming an increasingly diverse place, and that is not necessarily a good thing. Singapore saw what happened when a country has diversity but no overarching identity. This has echoed throughout history: the fall of Western Rome to the Visigoths, when too few Romans would defend the empire; the breakup of the USSR after the collapse of communist rule, with the nations of Eastern Europe going their own way; the genocides of Africa, where tribe-on-tribe violence and massacres are a way of life.

I’m concerned the events of the 50s and 60s might one day happen again. Maybe not in as large a scale, but any such eruption would be devastating to our way of life. Singapore’s birth rate is falling, and the government’s answer is to encourage immigration from elsewhere.

The problem with immigration is that a country can only absorb so many immigrants at once before points of friction set in. If immigrants do not fully assimilate into a country, they remain outsiders. When people with different values, norms and customs interact in close proximity, friction tends to occur. A lot of angst aimed at immigrants tends to be rooted in the perception that these new immigrants do not think, behave, speak or act like Singaporeans.

And perhaps a measure of this is objectively true. Singapore’s bridging language is English, but there is no requirement for English fluency to become a Singapore citizen. There is also no requirement for immigrants to attend extensive courses to learn to become Singaporeans, and male immigrants not not need to serve National Service. Contrast this to places like the United States, which administers citizenship tests, and the road to citizenship usually takes years — or else requires service in the US military. When a Singaporean man looks upon a male new citizen, he does not see a fellow Singaporean; he sees a man who enjoys the rights of citizenship without having earned it. And service in the Singapore Volunteer Corps is nowhere near the same as National Service.

Exacerbating matters is the coming of the ASEAN Economic Community. Slated to come online in 2015, it remains a very low-profile matter in local media. Public discussion is almost nil, and the only people interested in it seem to be high-powered businessmen and governments. I think we will not see the AEC come to fruition this year, but I can’t say it won’t happen at all. One of the key components of the AEC is the ASEAN single market. Like the European Union, the single market aims to induce the free flow of goods, investment, capital and skilled labour.

The last is a problem. As the case of the EU has shown, the implementation of the ASEAN single market would allow workers from low-income countries to break into the Singapore market. They will undercut locals through demanding lower wages, knowing that it is still a small fortune when converted to their home currency. Or else they may choose to stay on as immigrants and bring their families over, faster than Singapore can assimilate them.

On the reverse side, there is also nothing stopping Singapore’s professionals from moving overseas. Singapore has one of the best education systems in the world, and that means an educated Singaporean professional can move to a country with a lower standard of living and write his own check. He won’t see a need to come home either, and may choose to bring his family overseas and settle down there.

Compounding matters, the rest of the world is fracturing along civilisational lines. Globalisation has erased national borders and reduced government control over their own countries; this means people will revert to smaller and older identity circles. This increases diversity and decreases proximity, but on the micro scale, at the level of neighbourhoods and cities as opposed to provinces and countries. This means that an increasingly diverse Singapore without an overarching identity, which equals greater potential for internal conflict.

What can be done about this? We can’t increase proximity. What we can do is decrease diversity, by enforcing greater controls on immigration and migrant labour, to ensure that Singapore can absorb the immigrants we do take in — and that these immigrants do indeed want to contribute to Singapore. Instead of classifying Singaporeans along the CIMO model, Singapore needs to start talking about a greater Singaporean identity. Instead of handing out new citizenships, the government has to ensure that would-be new Singaporeans have earned their place — and, in the long run, move away from encouraging immigration and towards boosting birth rates.

The Vicious Cycle

What Singapore faces is a vicious cycle. Without the ability to meaningfully participate in civil affairs, Singaporeans will see that they cannot avert the demographic bomb. They will switch off and revert to smaller identity circles, and maybe even move out of Singapore. People from elsewhere will move into Singapore and enjoy citizenship without being seen to have earned it, and would not necessarily be assimilated into Singapore. These people will likely vote for politicians who will benefit the people they identify with — not necessarily Singaporeans — further alienating local Singaporeans. The cycle continues until conflict breaks out, and something changes.

Going forward, I think Singapore needs to do three things. It needs to develop an overarching sense of identity, one that unites people regardless of race, language or religion. It needs to allow citizens to actually be citizens and participate in the creation of the country. It needs to lay out the responsibilities and rights of citizens, and ensure that only people who live up to the former get to enjoy the latter — regardless of where they come from.

I hope Singapore will get to celebrate her 100th birthday in continued peace and prosperity. And for that to happen, Singapore needs to start thinking about what it really means to be Singaporean: not just an inhabitant of this island, but a citizen of this nation, distinct from others.

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.

Acceptable Targets: A Tale of Two Terrorist Attacks

In the past month, the world witnessed two headline-grabbing terrorist attacks. The first was a mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston by a lone white male, killing 9. The second is a trio of simultaneous strikes in France, Tunisia and Kuwait, each perpetuated by one or two individuals, killing at least 54. The Charleston shooter claimed he was motivated by a desire to start a race war. The Islamic State (Daish) claimed responsibility for the attack in Tunisia, and have produced propaganda calling for terrorist attacks during Ramadan; the other two attacks may have a connection to the Tunisian strike too.

One attack generated lasting international controversy. The other has faded from social media. The latter was inspired by the world’s foremost threat to international security, whose ideology continues to inspire people to mass atrocities and whose religion is practised by over a billion people worldwide. The former was done by a mentally unbalanced individual who sought refuge in an ideology shunned by the world, even in its place of origin.

One would think the larger, deadlier attack would generate more controversy. Incredibly enough, this is not so.

The disparity is even more stunning when you look at the consequences of the attack.

The Charleston shooter generated a media firestorm concerning racism in America, with people calling for the removal of the Confederate Battle Jack. The controversy had people swarming in to defend or suppress freedom of speech, condemn the former Confederate States of America — an unrecognised country that lasted for all of four years — and tear down the Battle Jack, and creating memes expressing extreme disapproval of the flag and the South. On the political front, politicians and celebrities jumped all over themselves to push for even greater gun control measures, and to press the state government of South Carolina to take down the Battle Jack flying over the State House. Apple has removed every American Civil War game from its app store because these games have an image of the Battle Jack, while Amazon and Walmart have de-listed the flags of the Confederate States.

The latest attacks generated all of…nothing. No fiery speeches or articles about Arabic or Muslim prejudice. No calls for gun control — but then, the attacks took place in countries where guns are highly restricted or outright illegal. The flags of the Nation of Islam, Palestine, the Ottoman Empire, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, Oman, and other Islamic organisations and nations that supported the slave trade for centuries and international jihad for decades are still sold openly. Never mind that the majority of the slave trade from 8th to the 19th century has facilitated and institutionalised by black Muslim empires in Africa and the Middle East. Games that let the player take on the role as the ruler of Islamic states which supported slavery and conquest, such as the Civilization series, Age of Empires, Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis III and IV, are still on the shelves. No calls to ban Islam or demolish mosques.

From a political perspective, it’s almost as if the second attack never happened. But then, the first attack is an acceptable target.

Politics and Narratives

These two examples are illustrative of a wider principle: that of the narrative. The ideologies of gun control, white guilt, hatred for the American South and other related ideas predominate in the Western-influenced world. When a terrorist attack happens to fall into the narrative generated by these ideas, the power brokers, politicians, influencers and supporters will hustle to dance on the future graves of the unburied dead to push their agenda. They’ve become so powerful that corporations will either bow to pressure or take pre-emptive moves to avoid offending them. The ideologues jumped on a tragedy and turned it into a political victory, as they have done for every controversial shooting and act of terror that they could twist to their ends. As long as pressure tactics and media saturation work in their favour, they will continue to press for their vision of a better world — not with guns or bombs, but with memes and words and peer pressure.

And if another tragedy occurs that does not fall into their narrative, don’t expect them to do any more than mouth words of condolences.

The deck is stacked in their favour. White on black slavery, proliferation of guns, racial tensions and conflict, these are all acceptable targets to the international media. It creates a narrative of conflict, which drives controversy and therefore eyeballs and advertising revenue. Inconvenient facts — the slave trade being driven by blacks and Muslim empires, the first gun control laws being aimed at blacks, the ties between the KKK and the Democrat Party, Islamist-inspired terrorists killing people and gaining more territory than any other cause since the 21st century — are swept under the carpet. The media will gladly support the ideologues as long as they see profit in doing so; left unchecked, they will dominate the politics of Western-influenced civilisation and turn a blind eye to such inconveniences as reality.

How Daish will Adapt

What really concerns me is what groups like Daish will do next. By now they must have noticed the relative lack of impact the triple attacks had versus the Charleston shootings, never mind that these attacks killed over six times the number of victims across a much larger area. They would adjust their strategies accordingly.

Conflict is no longer monolithic. It is not about Axis versus Allies, communism vs capitalism, it is a patchwork of violent nonstate actors and rogue regimes with shifting allegiances and alliances against literally everybody else. Case in point, America might support Saudi Arabia to guarantee the flow of Saudi oil, but members of the Saudi royal family supported al-Qaeda to attack the United States, and al-Qaeda’s successor, Daish, is now invading Saudi Arabia. In a chaotic and anarchic environment, VNSAs make their mark through propaganda of the deed, establishing legitimacy through conducting spectacular attacks that seize the attention of the world media.

Daish will learn that an attack that can be twisted to serve the narrative of gun control and white guilt will leave a far longer and lasting impression on the West than a mass terrorist attack in their name. Daish will know that their attacks won’t trigger these hot-button issues in Western minds, so they have to compete in three ways.

The first is to amplify their message. Killing over six times the number of victims isn’t enough to drown out the noise of a hot-button strike. In line with their virulent anti-Western brand of viciousness, Daish will likely develop novel ways to gruesomely kill large numbers of people, work with local partners or send infiltrators to access faraway targets, and go for symbolic and infrastructure targets — the former to amplify the brand, the latter to generate greater havoc.

The second is to choose timing. Daish will pay greater attention to the international news cycle. During Ramadan the world media will pay a little more attention to Muslim affairs, but they have learned that hot-button strike will trump this extra media attention. VNSAs have the advantage of choosing when and where to strike. Groups like Daish will step up attacks to coincide with events of major significance that tie into their brand (Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, anniversary of their self-proclaimed caliphate, etc.), or delay attacks to let other messages clear from the news cycle and social media networks.

The third is to exploit the news cycle by dominating the narrative before anyone else. The Charleston shooting generated so much controversy partially because the ideologues jumped all over the event and captured so much media attention, without even waiting for the bodies to cool. Daish and VNSAs will likely study this. In future attacks, I expect terrorists to start claiming responsibility once they have confirmation that the attack is complete, and for their sympathisers to start flooding the airwaves with propaganda and activism. They will use Western notions of freedom of speech against the West, claiming that their messages of hatred is protected speech.

These strategies are not even limited to Daish. Other groups, now and in the future, will do the same thing, to different degrees. Daish simply enjoys primacy of place since it has effectively replaced al-Qaeda as the world’s number one boogeyman for the time being. But at the local level, groups will use such tactics to dominate local political spheres, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria or the cartels in Mexico. Terrorism will become increasingly sophisticated, and will use the technology and norms of the West against it.

What can be done?

The first step is to not reward terrorism. Terrorists, be they lunatic mass shooters or rational VNSAs, want to generate publicity through their operations. Therefore, after every strike, the media should report the facts while giving the perpetrators no attention whatsoever beyond noting which group was responsible for the hit. At the level of the individual, people need to start tuning out when the ideologues crawl out of the woodwork, or else call them out for jumping the gun when the facts are not in yet. It means refusing to play by the rules of the 24/7 news cycle, and instead waiting for days or weeks, waiting until the facts come in.

The second is to pay attention to global trends. It says much about the world when a mentally unbalanced individual who kills nine people in the name of a dead country generated much more attention than a clear and present threat to the world that aims to overthrow the weak states of the Middle East. People need to understand the real problems they are facing, and prioritise their time, attention, energy and resources accordingly. Ideologues will want to paint their pet cause as THE pressing threat to civilisation: ignore them, and look at the real problems the world faces.

The third is to pay attention. It has never been easier for individuals to sow chaos and kill people en masse in the history of mankind. People can no longer count on intelligence services to reliably intercept terrorists before they strike, and the military and police can only respond to an attack in progress. People need to start looking out for lone wolves, terrorism indicators and other threats — and those so inclined need to step up and study the skills needed for a mass casualty event.

War has changed. It is no longer fought on battlefields with clearly-defined combatants. It will be fought on the Internet and in the printing presses, by soldiers and civilians, in streets and homes everywhere in the world. There are no longer non-combatants, just people who can fight back and people who cannot, and people who believe messages and people who do not.

The Appeal of the Islamic State

Yesterday The Middle Ground published an opinion piece titled A Young Muslim on ISIS. While it approaches the Islamic State (henceforth called Daesh here) from the perspective of a Muslim, the writer makes a few generalities that don’t hold up. Crucially, he says:

“My sense is, if you add a dash of ignorance and a sprinkle of mis-education to a person with violent traits, you get a self-radicalised individual. And if you add the zest of youth and thrill to the mixture, you get the most dangerous kind of self-radicalised individuals.”

And

ISIS’ version of Islam offends my senses, just based on the fundamental principles of ethics and morality. It just feels wrong, and I am certain that for many people, that feeling outweighs any other feeling of isolation or marginalisation they may face in their current communities. Religious differences aside, there is something inherently wrong about killing and torture. There is something inherently wrong about raping women and children. There is something inherently wrong about slavery. There is something inherently wrong about stripping someone of their dignity and worth on the account that they don’t share your religious beliefs. Everything about the tenets ISIS preaches goes against the natural order. Contrary to their mission, I don’t think ISIS is more concerned about ‘saving Islam’ than it is about its own political and personal agendas.

I am aware though, that there are many who genuinely believe they are ‘saving Islam’ and to that I would ask “from what exactly?” Islam does not need any more saving than Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism or Buddhism does. If there is anything or anyone that Islam needs saving from, it is ISIS, because I don’t think any group has been more successful at tarnishing the image of the religion in this 21st century.

While the writer’s sentiments are understandable, they are sentiments. They are feelings and they do not necessarily offer any greater insight into Daesh, its appeal, and the phenomenon it embodies. Women have joined Daesh for the express purpose of being wives — not combatants. Yet they are self-radicalised individuals who learned about Daesh over the Internet. Further, while Daesh may feel wrong to the writer and offends his sense of morality, its ideas certainly do not feel wrong to its adherents.

Daesh cannot and must not be seen in isolation. It must be seen in the context of transitional violent non-state actors and civilisations.

Violent Non-State Actors in Transition

This is an invented term I will use to describe violent non-state actors that are in transition to becoming a state or something in between, by taking on the functions of a state in part or in whole. In modern times, there are multiple examples we can look at.

Mexico’s long and bitter drug war have left the federal government weakened and local government nonexistent. Drug cartels have moved in to occupy these territories. Some rule with an iron fist, bribing authority figures and assassinating the incorruptible. Others are more benevolent, establishing welfare programmes and donating regularly to charity. As John Robb argues in Brave New War, the cartels intend to hollow out the government but not to replace it. They are seeking a space where they can conduct their business in peace, using Mexican sovereignty as a shield against foreign (read: American) military intervention.

Since 1996, the Palestinian territories have held elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council. The first election went to Fatah, which was riddled with corruption and caught in a conflict with its archrival Hamas. This led to widespread poverty and chronic underdevelopment. Hamas took on the functions of state, building schools and organising drought relief missions, in the place of Fatah. Hamas won the 2006 elections, transforming from a guerilla organisation into a legitimate political authority.

Even in the West, non-state actors are undermining the authority of the state. The Shariah Project deployed Shariah patrols to East London in 2013, confronting passers-by and demanding that they conform to Shariah law. Swedish police have ceded control of 55 zones to Muslim criminal gangs. Violence from Mexico’s cartel wars are spreading to the American border regions, moving illegal immigrants into America and embedding among these immigrants a network of spies, lieutenants and other facilitators.

Seen in this context, Daesh is no different. During the Syrian civil war, the secular nationalist forces battled the remnants of the loyalist military, while radical Islamic fighters shored up their power. The Americans destroyed the central governments of Iraq and Afghanistan during their invasions, and they have not created adequate replacements, leading to a void filled with insurgent groups. The Islamic radical groups banded together, forming Daesh and its allies. Now Daesh is seeking to expand into Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and are developing the infrastructure of a state: they are minting their own currency, enforcing laws, and building schools. Daesh is becoming a true Islamic State.

As Daesh expands into Kurdish lands, they have triggered a backlash. The Kurds are a people without a nation, but in modern history they have been pushing for a state of their own. Daesh’s invasion of Kurdish lands prompted many people of Kurdish descent to travel to Kurd territory to fight Daesh. Other non-Kurdish volunteers have also volunteered to join the fight. While there is no Kurdistan per se, one outgrowth of the war in Iraq was the creation of Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region of Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan is pressing for independence from Iraq, but is endangered by Daesh, and the Iraqi military seems powerless to stop Daesh. A successful defence of Iraqi Kurdistan could be the impetus for a Kurdish nationalist movement — one that encompasses Kurdish lands in Turkey and Iran.

Common to these phenomenon is the failure or nonexistence of states. By failing to provide core services to the people — security, food and water, infrastructure — they lose the loyalty of their citizens. Disenfranchised, these people turn to different identity circles that would provide a sense of community and necessities.

Civilisation, the State and the Islamic State

Using Samuel Huntington’s definitions, a civilisation is the broadest possible grouping of people along linguistic, cultural, historical, genetic or other markers. A state, by contrast, is a political entity that exercises control over a given geographical region. Therefore, a civilisation can contain multiple states, a civilisation can be a single state, and large states (as in the case of empires) may encompass different civilisations. Daesh is that strange animal of a single-state civilisation, a distinction usually held only by Japan, India and China.

Daesh is based on ultra-fundamentalist views of the Qu’ran, effectively transposing the worldview of Qu’ranic times into the 21st century. Being in the Middle East, it has a heavy Arabic cultural influence, and as it happens many Muslims are either of Arabic descent or else are familiar with Arabic. The last great Islamic civilisation, the Ottoman Empire, dissolved in 1922. Through propaganda and deed, Daesh promises a return of a golden age of Islam and the formation of a new Islamic civilisation. Its numerous military successes give sympathisers and believers hope that this dream would come true, and Daesh’s efforts to build a statea long Qu’ranic lines signal that it is serious about building both a state and a civilisation.

Contrast this promise and hope with modern society. The lynchpins of the modern economy are under fire everywhere: the Euro faces the possibility of Greece exiting the monetary union, capitalism is seen to have led to ever-expanding wealth inequalities, jobs are perceived to go to foreigners who demand lower wages than locals. Police and military personnel face heavy scrutiny, and even the slightest hint of impropriety leads to accusations of racism/sexism/prejudice, which are inevitably followed by outrage, media circuses, apologies and resignations. Identity and gender politics threaten to divide people along arbitrary identity markers, taking states with them.

To impressionable minds, Daesh promises hope and society promises victimisation. China has long suppressed Islam in Xinjiang province, and consequently many Muslims are travelling to support Daesh. Malaysia and Indonesia are nominally Muslim states, but despite their racial and religious politicking they do not promise victory and a golden age like Daesh, leading idealists who seek a ‘true’ Islamic state to the Middle East. In the West, where immigration policies are liberal and integration is optional, entire communities see themselves as Muslims but not necessarily citizens of the state they live in. When they hear of Daesh’s victories, they feel more obliged to support their fellow Muslims than the state they do not feel loyalty to.

Daesh’s appeal lies in portraying themselves as Good People. And Good People can justify any number of atrocities to themselves because they believe they are in the right. This is further compounded by Daesh’s Arabic roots and cultural influence. Being tribal based, Arab societies are sometimes described as amoral familist in nature. In effect, morality is defined by the impact on the tribe: if something supports the tribe it is good, and if it harms the tribe it is evil. Amoral familism treats everybody outside the tribe as strangers at best and enemies at worst, and since terrifying the world will increase the standing of the tribe, atrocities like beheading captives and raping slaves are not only permissible but a moral imperative.

Now the question is: what can we do about Daesh?

Daesh brands itself as an Islamic state and the inheritor of Islamic civilisation. It is therefore incumbent on the Muslims of the world to reject the brand of Islam Daesh represents, and to actively participate in civic affairs. It is not enough to shout down distasteful ideologies; people need also to build societies along their preferred ones. In the First World, this means adopting the norms of racial and religious harmony and tolerance, rejecting prejudice and working in tandem with all peoples to build a society based on common values.

For everybody else, this is a call to unity. Violent non-state actors emerge where the state is weak or nonexistent. Daesh is merely the most high-profile VNSA at this time. As states crumble, other VNSAs and transitional NSAs will emerge. To prevent this, states and civilisations have to remain strong. This means rejecting the politics of division and identity, of isolating the extremists and working together with the reasonable people along the rest of the political spectrum. It means cohering as a nation, a people, a civilisation, and to build a better world.

For people in Singapore, this means rejecting the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Other model. We cannot define ourselves primarily as Buddhist, Indian, Malay-Muslim, Christian, whatever. We must define ourselves as Singaporeans. In effect, to be one people, one Singapore. Most of all, it means participating in the community of nations, rejecting the extremists and the rogue states, and to be ready to defend ourselves against those who would do us violence with as much violence as we can muster.

What Singapore can really do for refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bedrock of a Nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Whither Cohesion and Diversity?

As Singapore enters the post-Lee Kuan Yew era, one of the abiding questions is where we will go from here. Ho Kwon Ping, chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, made a case for maintaining cohesion through diversity by dropping the CMIO model, which classifies Singaporeans as Chinese, Malay, Indian or Other. In a society with increasingly complex identities, the CMIO model would oversimplify Singapore’s diversity; Singaporeans should instead seek to embrace each other as individuals and move away from ‘stereotypical expectations’.

As much as I try to treat people as individuals, I don’t think you can divorce an individual from his experiences and his values, and a good part of that is shaped by his culture — be it a wholehearted embodiment of his heritage, a complete rejection of the same, or some nebulous area between the two. Different people come from different cultures, and different cultures have different values. Herein lies ‘diversity’, and in this diversity sprouts the greatest challenge to cohesion.

But what does ‘diversity’ actually mean?

‘Diversity’, per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is:

1:  the condition of having or being composed of differing elements :  variety;especially :  the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization <programs intended to promote diversity in schools>
2:  an instance of being composed of differing elements or qualities :  an instance of being diverse <a diversity of opinion>

This implies difference. But difference of what? Neither Ho nor the official media offered clarity.

People of diverse races and ethnic origins call Singapore home. But these backgrounds are the by-products of history and genetics, outside of their personal agency. People cannot choose their ethnicity, most certainly not after they are born. Diversity of this sort is literally skin-deep. It is neither beneficial nor changeable; it just is. Why should this be elevated? In this sense, the CMIO model is by and large outdated; I don’t see a need for this outside of certain fields like medical genetics.

What is more interesting is diversity of culture and values. Once upon a time, the CMIO model could be seen as a reliable predictor of the cultural values embraced in Singapore. Especially ideas pertaining to how people should treat each other, and how memes may be passed down in the future. Back when Singapore was an immigrant society, people from different countries carried their cultures to Singapore, and those countries were so different that these migrants could be classified by race and skin colour. This made CMIO an acceptable, albeit blunt, tool to understanding both the demographic and memetic makeup of a country.

This old assumption is no longer true. There are now a large number of local-born Singaporeans. Globalisation has brought in the memes and ideas of other cultures and countries. Now you can’t say for certain that a Chinese person will definitely hold traditional Confucian values (including honouring ones’ parents, which in turn gauges support for policies to support the elderly), that a Malay will definitely be Muslim (which affects policies pertaining to Malays and Muslims), or that you can immediately tell the value system of the child of a Singaporean and an American.

But diversity of values will inevitably lead to conflicting and incompatible value sets. Which includes incompatible ideas about identities.

Ho is right in that people are likely going to take on more complex identities. But I think people are more likely to adopt a primary identity, with multiple secondary identities flowing from that primary sense of self. People may switch between secondary identities depending on the social setting, but it is the core identity they will offer unwavering allegiance to. This core identity offers an unshakeable sense of self in relation to everybody else in a given social group beyond one’s immediate friends and family, with a sense that everybody else in that group can be counted on to help and is worthy of help.

In an increasingly diverse society, this core identity could mean anything: religion, extended family, ethnic origin, nationality. It is not necessarily ‘Singapore’.

William S. Lind, John Robb and other Fourth Generation Warfare theorists argue that the heart of 4GW is a crisis in the legitimacy of the state: people no longer believe in the state, so they transfer their core identity to ever-narrower circles. In a highly diverse society, this is a recipe for conflict and national collapse, leading to increased crime, insurgencies and open warfare.

In Iraq, without the threat of Saddam Hussein to keep everyone in line, different identity groups — Sunni, Shia, Kurd — quickly turned on each other. In Afghanistan, post-Taleban, different warlords jockeyed to control their personal fiefdoms. France’s push for seculiarisation is generating backlash from its immigrant Muslim population, while in the US illegal immigrants from Mexico are taking the drug war and their criminal ties with them.

Fortunately, the situation in Singapore is not (yet) that bad, which means Singapore still has a chance to maintain national cohesiveness. Letting the pendulum swing too far into the realm of ‘diversity’ would simply lead to a large number of social groups, each defined by different notions of identities, jockeying for space and power and prominence in a tiny island. As is, should the government continue to supplement Singapore’s low birth rates through mass immigration, one could expect conflicts between locals and migrants in the very near future.

As much as Singapore would like to celebrate diversity, we need to also celebrate cohesion. Ho brought up the example of New York. New Yorkers celebrate their diversity because they are bound by a shared identity as inhabitants of one of the most powerful and influential cities in the world. Singapore as a nation does not have the sense of shared history the way New York has, nor are Singapore’s values the same as New York. What we can do is to take a leaf out of that city’s book and think about branding and values.

What, exactly, is Singapore? What are our national values? How do we think people should be treated? What priority do we place on arts, money, work? What do we find funny or worth talking about? How do we interact with each other? How do we ensure that people are invested in Singapore, and Singapore is invested in the people, to create and reinforce this core identity? What Singapore needs is common ground from which everybody who lives here can interact with each other, and policies to ensure the growth and propagation of these common values into succeeding generations. From this common ground, diversity can grow and flourish in a secure environment.

Celebrating diversity is fine and well, but it should not come at the expense of cohesion and national identity. In the best case scenario, without developing a sense of loyalty to Singapore, the best this generation and succeeding ones can hope for is a hotel, an office and a kitchen the size of an island.

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.