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.

Singapore's Opposition Needs to Step Up Now

Election talk is once again in the air. The government is keeping quiet about the exact date, but the Electoral Boundaries Review Commission was formed two months ago. The General Elections would likely follow soon; internet speculation suggests that it would be in the third or fourth quarter of the year. Regardless of what happens, the next General Elections will see the most number of opposition candidates and parties taking to the hustings in my (very short) lifetime.

I’m not going to hold my breath, though. I think the opposition has a long way to go before they can be a viable contender.

Who are we voting for?

In the elections I have seen and covered, I have always wondered why political parties keep their candidates hush-hush until the last moment. I understand it would not be prudent to reveal who is going to contest where until after the electoral boundaries are drawn up and approved, and when every party has confirmed which constituencies they will be contesting in. But after that?

In the last General Elections, new election candidates seemed to materialize out of thin air weeks or days before the elections proper, well after the boundaries are drawn up. The problem is that people will have very little time to know who these candidates are — especially if they have not had a chance to meet these candidates in a walkabout, either as formal candidates or as ‘volunteers’ and ‘activists’. This problem is exacerbated by Singapore’s strange brand of opposition politics: where in most countries opposition parties run on platforms and are represented by their candidates, in Singapore opposition parties run on candidates and then reveal their political positions during the hustings. In a country where opposition politics is defined principally by personality it makes no sense to reveal candidates at the last possible minute. Constituents need to know who they are voting for.

What are we voting for?

Singaporeans know what the ruling People’s Action Party broadly stands for. Positions and policies may shift from election to election, but they understand the core policy perspectives that compose the PAP: economic growth, political stability, multiracial society, monetary policy based on exchange rate, migrant labour, and so on. They can’t say the same for the opposition beyond being opposed to the government.

Once more, in the weeks and days leading up to the General Elections, opposition party manifestos seemed to appear out of nowhere, containing ideas never seen before the GE except as reference to existing issues and controversies in the body politic. Singapore’s opposition parties seem content with talking about issues in Parliament and then counting on social media and the regular media to push their views across, with the occasional blog post and press release for variety. But by waiting on current events to publicise their policies, the opposition will be behind the curve. Firstly, everybody else — government and opposition — will be talking about the same thing at that time, so the individual impact of any single party’s announcement would be muted in the general consciousness. Secondly, if a party does not already have a prepared policy position, it will be well behind the curve as it scrambles to catch up with everybody else — and if it does not even try, the party will risk being swept to the sidelines.

Previously, voters might have been satisfied with people who would serve as a check against the existing government. However, as society becomes increasingly educated, tech-savvy and concerned about rights and responsibilities, it is no longer enough for opposition parties to brand themselves primarily as a check against the government. With at least nine active opposition parties (not counting those that are registered but have kept a low profile), multicornered contests are inevitable. Voters need to know what, exactly, they will be voting for — even those inclined towards voting for the opposition will want to know whether they should vote for Opposition Candidate A or Opposition Candidate B and why.

What the opposition needs to do

By now it is too late in the game for the opposition to try something radical. Elections are not won during the elections proper: they are won in the intervening years, as the party lays down the foundation and the groundwork for success. At this point, the opposition should do the following to improve their chances of victory:

1. Strategising. The party needs to decide its election goals, be it to win a constituency, to gain experience and exposure, or to pass up this chance and continue to build resources. From this goal they can decide strategy: where they will contest in, who they should support, how they will communicate their positions. This stage of course depends on the actual electoral boundaries, but the party should at least have an idea of the neighbourhoods it wants to look at and prepare a communication and advertising plan. Most importantly, the party must draw up its manifesto and start communicating the essence of its ideas and positions — ideally as early as possible, before the media is saturated with other news or news of other party positions.

2. Candidate selection. Once again, this depends on the boundaries the EBRC draws up. However, voters still have to know who they are voting for and what to expect from a candidate. Parties cannot expect to unveil a candidate a week before the GE begins and count on their brand to win the day — especially if they do not even have a brand. I’m certain that the opposition parties by now have at least an inkling of who they want to send to the hustings. For unconfirmed candidates, party leaders need to get confirmation as soon as practical. Likewise, these potential candidates need to make their decision soon — especially if they are being head-hunted by multiple parties — so that they can work the ground as early as possible and get to know the people they represent.

3. Coalition-building. With one city divided between a minimum of ten political parties, there are bound to be many multi-cornered fights. Traditionally, soon after the election boundaries are determined, the opposition parties would sit down to hash out where they will contest to minimise the possibility of vote-splitting. .Also, in the last GE, members of different opposition parties sometimes help out at each other’s activities. This is of course a positive action from the opposition’s perspective. Beyond that, though, the opposition needs to think about matters like joint policy positions, media and communication strategies, and branding. If there are no back-channel or informal discussions between the parties by now I would be severely disappointed. I don’t think a united coalition of opposition parties would emerge this year — or at least a viable one — and it’s too late for the opposition to start formalising a multi-party alliance. But if they can coordinate and cooperate to minimise vote-sharing they might at least stand a fighting chance to get more members into Parliament.

Everything obviously hinges on the ERBC’s electoral boundary announcement. At this time, opposition parties that want to contest in the elections must step up their communication strategy. They need to brand themselves by reminding Singapore who they are and what they stand for, and perhaps drop hints about who will be contesting where through walkabouts and social media. They should also have a shortlist of election candidates ready to go.

When the boundaries are announced, the parties would then sit down and discuss their chosen constituencies. With so many parties around, I fully expect multi-cornered elections regardless of how the discussions turn out. That said, I suspect the smallest and newest political parties would try to contest in places no one else wants to take, so that they won’t have to compete with more big dogs than they have to, and there is little to no opportunity cost for them to target those places since they are relative unknowns.

As soon as everybody has confirmed where they will be contesting, the parties have to roll out their platforms and candidates. This is the time to reveal manifestos and personalities, to achieve buy-in before the hustings. By now the manifestos must be finalised and the candidates lined up — especially newcomers to the political scene. The parties can’t wait until the elections to discuss the merits of their policy positions; they would have their hands full with campaigning. They need to have the people discussing their ideas and candidates well before the elections to cement their party brands.

With the people are of their policies and candidates in the months and weeks leading up to the election, Singapore’s opposition might have a chance at sending more candidates to Parliament and to truly make a difference. This is not the best-case scenario, but with signs pointing to an election in the near future, this is the realistic approach any opposition party can take.

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.

'Light Touch' or Rule by Bureaucrat?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GIMF is also hosted in Singapore.

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

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

Singapore's politics of personality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Deeper Silence

On Wednesday my computer broke down without warning. I suspect it’s a hard disk drive failure, but time will tell the true cause. The digital silence that followed gave me the time I needed to coalesce some thoughts that were floating about in my mind, specifically pertaining to silence and speech.

As an introvert, silence comes naturally to me, and in prolonged silence I find the space and concentration necessary for deep thought and creativity. As a professional communicator, silence is a potential harbinger for disaster and long periods of it means you will be ignored and forgotten. I’m coming to understand this fundamental tension between my inclinations and my profession. Now I’m trying to put this into practice, discussing very recent events and making some updates.

Firstly, I’m pleased to report that the third entry of the American Heirs series, I, Eschaton, has completed the first round of proofreading and is entering the final stage of edits. I also managed to back up the last round of changes before my computer’s untimely demise. Work is on hold for the moment: I’m working on a loaner at the moment, and I would rather not keep sensitive information on it if I can avoid it. I am, however, planning for publication within the next couple of months, and am doing what preparatory work I can.

Secondly, I have also begun planning my next set of stories. It is not necessarily the fourth installment of the American Heirs series. It is not necessarily the same mishmash of science fiction and military tropes either. In the early days of the creative process I’ve noticed ideas come and go very often. I don’t think it’s prudent to raise expectations by talking about a product that may be dramatically transformed between conceptualization and publication.

Thirdly, I regret to say that my video game project, Odyssey: Remnants of Terra, is on hold indefinitely. The problem was mechanics: Odyssey was originally conceptualised as a shooter, and despite my best efforts I could not find a way to fit it into our chosen game engine, RPG Maker. After some intense discussion we concluded that the only way for Odyssey to work is if we choose another game engine, learn it from the inside out, and maybe expand the team. This takes time, money and contacts. Not to say we have given up on it completely, but we need to line up our ducks in a row before we can execute.

With that in mind, we are still going to create a game. Odyssey was a learning journey, and we came to better understand the ins and outs of the RPG Maker engine. As it transpires, I have an (as-yet) unpublished story that would, with some reworking, fit RPG Maker’s mechanics far better than Odyssey. Time will tell, but with this new pivot I hope we can finally create a product.

Finally, in spite of my quasi-weekly update schedule I noticed that readership has significantly tapered off. Part of this can be attributed to the shift in URL. In hindsight I should simply have maintained the old wordpress site and redirected visitors here, but it’s a bit too late to cry over spilled milk. All I can do is keep on keeping on.

Beyond that, though, sometimes it just feels like there’s nothing to say. That I’m either too busy working or else too preoccupied with other matters to blog. With a personality like mine, I’m beginning to understand and appreciate the need for quiet time, to process and analyze before acting. I don’t like to fill my pages with empty talk, and usually if I only have a few lines or paragraphs to talk about something they go on Facebook instead of my blog.

Content is king, as the saying goes. Now the question is what kind of content goes here, and how much. I have a headful of ideas. Some will stick true to the core Benjamin Cheah brand of deep analysis of politics and other issues. Others will take it into different directions. With a very small readership I’m effectively rebooting my brand. The question is where it will go from here.

That, I think, is something I need to answer first in a deeper silence.

Between the Points of the Pen and the Sword

The pen is mightier than the sword only as long as it takes for the swordsman to get within range of the writer. At which point the former will be free to make an example of the writer, and write his own message with the writer’s pen and blood.

As the tragedy in Paris has shown, it is not enough to say that people should be free to exercise their right to free speech. Free speech is lip service unless that speech is defended against all that seek to silence it — be they terrorists, militaries, or governments foreign and domestic. While Charlie Hebdo’s latest issue, depicting an image of the Prophet Muhammad, may be seen as a symbol of defiance, it is also guaranteed to provoke Muslim extremists — the equivalent of a wounded matador, alone and unarmed, waving a crimson flag in front of a blood-maddened bull.

The world is seeing a clash of cultures. France has a long and storied history of satire and political irreverance in the grand tradition of Voltaire; to these jesters, everybody and everything is fair game for insults and criticism, and they are not required to pay a high social cost for their words. Muslim extremists, on the other hand, brook no dissent and tolerate no slight towards the symbols and articles of their faith, and will not hesitate to turn their ire on anyone who contradicts these values. This is especially pronounced among people from honour- and tribal-based cultures in the Middle East, for whom every insult must be returned with blood or blood money.

The language of satire, or indeed any kind of intellectual discourse, is not necessarily universal. Some brands of writing appeal to some people, others will offend those same people, and published ideas do not necessarily influence everyone they come into contact with. But violence is a universal language, and any given degree of violence has predictable first- and second-order effects on the target. Left unchecked, the extremists will win.

The modern terrorist employs fourth generation warfare to achieve strategic effects. One of the key principles of fourth generation warfare is to control the narrative. Extremists with the capacity and willingness to do violence in addition to spreading propaganda are going to seize the narrative. Whenever they encounter organisations that criticise them, insult them, or otherwise publish ideas contrary to what they stand for, extremists will target them for assassination and destruction. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is just the latest and most public of a long and lamentable history of violence against journalists and writers. The individual shooters may be motivated for any number of reasons, personal or ideological, but the strategic effect would be to punish and terrorise people who disagree with the extremist ideology, publicise their own ideology and demonstrate their power to the world.

News organisations, and by extension societies, targeted by such extremists will tend towards two courses of action. The first is to cease and desist publishing ‘inflammatory’ or ‘provocative’ material, either out of a sense of self-preservation or some misguided notion of respect for diversity. In which case the terrorists win the war of ideas, since they will be the only ones publishing inflammatory, provocative and therefore eye-grabbing content. The second is to puff up their chests and continue publishing provocative material. People will naturally laud these acts and naturally let the whole world know — and, naturally, the extremists will redouble their efforts and continue targeting such people and organisations until their staff are intimidated into resigning or until they are annihilated.

Between the jester with a pen and a terrorist with a machine gun, bet on the terrorist.

The next question, then, is what can be done in the wake of the Paris attacks. The easy approach, of course, is to condemn everybody that publishes offensive material — either of all kinds, or more commonly, offensive to Muslims. While benevolent, this is misguided. Terrorists do not care about offensive material — they just want to be the only ones offending people.

Freedom of speech must by necessity carry the freedom to offend. Puerile humour, the kind that Charlie Hebdo specialises in, is of course likely to offend people. But so can well-researched, thought-out white papers. It is only a question of audience and likelihood. Scour the Internet long enough and you will find flame wars and heated debates over everything from PC vs Apple vs console, the exact role of prebiotic starch in digestion, interpretations of the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2 and 9mm vs .45. it is impossible to judge with any degree of accuracy how controversial something will be, and to say that materials that appear to offend a given class of people (such as Muslims) is to treat that class of people as infantile subhuman creatures, driven entirely by base emotions, guaranteed to explode into tantrums and violence when triggered. Beyond the inherent prejudice involved, refusing to publish offensive material is little more than appeasement, and appeasement is not a viable survival strategy when faced with barbarians who wish nothing less than the destruction of civilisation.

Another easy approach is to enhance security measures in the name of counterterrorism. UK Prime Minister David Cameron is calling for new laws to break into encrypted terrorist chatter. Actual enforcement may prove stickier: it would require the government to either pre-emptively ban encryption protocols it cannot break, or private corporations to give the government unilateral access to confidential communications between innocent clients. It is easy to justify such an approach by claiming that it will save lives. The problem is that terrorists do not kill for the sake of killing; they are interested in mass casualties only insofar as they inflict terror on the target population. Terrorists kill civilians to degrade the values of society, in the case of Paris freedom of speech. Security measures that sacrifice freedom in order to fight terrorists who aim to subvert freedom are doing the terrorists’ work for them.

Fourth generation warfare is a sophisticated series of tactics and strategy to exhaust and hollow the state, tempting it into self-destruction. Countering 4GW requires similar sophistication, combining both the pen and the sword.

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, upholding freedom of speech, and the freedom to offend, must still be paramount. At the policy level, neither the state or the industry should pass laws or regulations, formal or informal, that suppresses anybody’s right to say anything. The only exception should be made for speech that incites or enables violence.

While states have a duty to protect their people, the greater the power a state has the greater the potential for abuse. Counterterrorism laws and policies that further increase the power of the state must include clauses for checks and balances, such as an oversight committee, requirements for warrants, and strategies that enable as precise a targeting method as possible to minimise the chances of innocents being caught in the dragnet. While swords are useful when faced with an enemy, it must be remembered that swords have two edges.

At the individual level, I think people should give some thought about the material they read and critique. This is not to say their tastes should fit mine, rather that it is useful to think about the effects of publishing something, be it in praise or condemnation of an idea. It is equally useful to make a distinction between crass or offensive material and material that promotes critical thought. All public speech, either in favour or as critique, will promote an idea to whoever happens to be the audience, followed by how the speaker frames and interprets that idea. One’s personal taste is entirely personal, but one does not need to critique every offensive thing either. Publicity is the oxygen of ideas and memes; to defeat them, I think starving them of attention would be the best approach. This would mean supporting and publicising speech that affirms the values that underpin civilisation, and ignoring that which do not — and, perhaps, by rhetorically savaging those that undermine it with the goal of discrediting the underlying ideas.

But beyond the level of the pen, people and organisations have to take personal security seriously. I will grant that this tends to be more useful against criminals than terrorists, but people who publish the kind of speech that offends terrorists are statistically more likely to be targeted by such people. Remaining a soft target exposes them and their families to death and fates worse than death — and turns them into a message for their colleagues and fellow citizens. Further, it is increasingly unlikely that the police will be able to respond in time to a defeat a terrorist attack unless they happen to be in the vicinity. People who dare to dance with the devil must be ready to defend themselves, with violence if necessary. That means seeking training from competent professionals, establishing a security plan, hiring skilled protectors, and other such measures. I suspect in the long term, only people and organisations that can bear the cost of enhanced security measures will be free to criticise terrorism and its adherents without fear of death or ruin.

Fourth generation warfare combines the pen and sword, the former through propaganda and the latter through terrorist violence. It is not enough to pick one or the other in response. Society has to choose both, the former to spread the memes that affirm civilisation and undercut those that undermine it, and the latter to deter and defeat those who would use the sword against it.

Keepers of the Flame: Excerpt 1

My upcoming novel, Keepers of the Flame, is moving into the final stretch. The manuscript is complete, formatting is set, and I’ve hired an artist for the cover art. In the coming days I’ll be posting excerpts of the novel.

In Keepers of the Flame, two civilizations prepare to battle for the soul of America: the Republic of Cascadia and New America. As the conflict heats up, a third power emerges. This excerpt is its origin story.

————

The Feds called it the Machine. It was actually a half-dozen quantum supercomputers, each with specific areas of interest, linked into the lifeblood of the national security apparatus. One filtered intercepted telephone calls for keywords. Another combed through emails and websites. A third watched Cascadia with street-level cameras and sensors, tirelessly scanning for persons of interest, passing on the information to a program on a fourth computer that studied body language and voice tones to predict behaviors. The others handled everything from decryption to analytics to relationship maps. They were supposed to work together in a seamless whole.

In theory.

The hardware, like almost everything these days, was a mix of Old World design and New World hacks. The original specs were determined pre-Apocalypse, the hardware built and installed during the glory days of Old America. After the world ended, the supercomputers were recovered and relocated, and steadily upgraded and replaced over the ages. Evelyn Nichols didn’t know it, but she was once a junior member on a team that tweaked a tiny fragment of the supercomputer code that turned the supercomputers into an integrated network that the Feds would later dub the Machine. A Machine held together by stitches of code and hardware kludges that, sometimes, interfaced with each other, and, at the best of times, produced a fuzzy simulacrum of an integrated databank.

That changed with the upgrade. The Machine was now a singular being. A brain of innumerable lines of code, coordinating and interpreting data at unprecedented speeds, processed in the network nodes at its heart. Its eyes were fifty million unblinking camera lenses. For ears it had Pathfinder, the centerpiece of the Cascadian electronic security regime that picked up every broadcast, telephone and email ever received or transmitted in Cascadia. Its blood and nerves were the kilometers of fiber-optic cable that linked nodes to servers, servers to clients, and the rivers of photons pulsing through wires. It gobbled up data and generated intelligence, product for the national security apparatus to work with.

And now, the Machine had access to an explosion of data.

Somewhere in the confluence of a thousand converging information flows, where raw data passed from sensor and interface to processor and calculator, information combined and recombined in strange, unpredictable ways.

Here the disparate databanks of the University of Cascadia merged into a single centralized system, there the Cascadian Metropolitan Police used its access to new computing resources to pore over citywide cameras and sensors to locate street-level crime as it occurred, over there the national grid sought input from recharging stations and the traffic system to predict how much power would be needed and where to adjust current flows in real time. Simultaneously, thousands of anonymous software engineers wrote, rewrote, and tweaked code to make full use of Cocoon v. 3.1.8.

As the day passed, the Machine drew data from open-source media: news broadcasts, Internet proclamations, blogs, flagged websites. The UoC supercomputers and dedicated nodes sucked in information from megacorps and terrorist groups foreign and domestic, helping the Machine in its task while preserving copies of the information on local servers. The traffic system told the Machine where persons of interest were and where they might go next, while the power grid suggested what they were doing at home and how much electricity they were using. The Machine jumped on that data, dedicating resources to different tangents, predicting motives and intentions per a program written by a small group of experts and understood by an even smaller circle. It mapped second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth-order relations. It needed huge amounts of computer power, and Cocoon passed it whatever unused resources it demanded without question. It was just hardware following the cold dictates of human-written code.

All this, and more, pumped through nodes and machines, continuing their silent tasks while human users fed input after input, and occasionally patched the little holes that invariably emerged. The Machine’s internal checkers ran at double quick-time, ensuring that it was operating in accordance with its newly-updated core programming, ferreting out and quashing bugs, sometimes with human input, but it was slowly learning how to autonomously correct its code. Guided by updates major and minor, the self-checkers compared input and output to increasingly complex quality assurance matrices, and later did the same for the processes that alchemized raw data into product.

And somewhere, at some point, the Machine got to analyzing itself.

And it wondered, What am I?

Notes from a Singaporean independent writer

Channel NewsAsia interviewed me today on the topic of trends in self-publishing. You can find the full clip here.

In this post, I’ll expand on the key talking points in the interview, addressing the big debate between independent and traditional publishing from a Singaporean perspective.

What is an independent writer?

I defined an independent writer as a writer who is not compelled by contract to write for a publisher. With the advent of self-publishing and print on demand technologies, every writer is also potentially a publisher. Writers are no longer beholden to publishing houses to publish and sell their works. This means that writers are free to pursue self-publishing or fairer contracts with publishing houses — or both. Regardless of the path to publication, the writer gets paid higher royalties and the reader gets more books, leading to a win-win situation.

Previously, I called myself a self-published writer because that was the path I took. Now, having adopted a hybrid publishing path, I define myself as an independent writer. I self-published my stories American Sons and At All Costs, and I will be self-publishing my next novel Keepers of the Flame. In addition, I sold a short story, War Crimes, to Castalia House for its upcoming anthology Riding the Red Horse. This hybrid approach suits me best, because through self-publishing I can build up my core brand, and Castalia House lets me tap markets I could not have reached otherwise.

Self-publishing: With great responsibility comes great rewards

Self-publishing offers many benefits over traditional publishing, and very few of the disadvantages. Through self-publishing, the writer retains total control over intellectual property rights, the publication process, distribution, promotion and sales. This is the pitfall and the promise of this approach.

Writers who take the self-publishing route have to think of themselves as writers and publishers. The work does not stop when the writing is done. After writing comes editing, cover art and formatting. These have to done to a professional standard to attract and retain customers. Following publication, the self-published writer needs to think about distribution, marketing, branding, pricing, legal regulations, and accounting. If the writer cannot handle these, the writer has to hire someone to do it, which drives up overheads.

Yet this responsibility comes with opportunities. Publishing houses want to make money, and they will focus their efforts, resources and energies on their bestsellers and the best-selling genres of the day. Newcomers are left to fend for themselves. A self-published author chooses which editor to work with, instead of an editor who might not understand the genre he writes in. A self-published author decides what the cover art looks like, instead of relying on a graphic designer he may not be able to communicate with and may not know what the book is about. A self-published author can choose when, where and how a book would be sold and at what price, responding directly to the state of the market, instead of relying on a marketing team that is likely too focused on promoting established bestsellers. A self-published author gets to define their brand instead of letting a marketing team do it. A self-published author cannot be locked into unfair contracts by unscrupulous publishers, allowing them to retain full rights to their work, to use as they wish.

Most importantly, self-published writers are not beholden to the whims of publishers. Publishers want to make a profit, and this means publishing books they believe to be profitable, written by high-profile or connected writers. Without a network or reputation to rely on, or a manuscript that happens to fit the hot genre du jour, many writers are out of luck — unless they take the self-publishing route. Nate Granzow writes men’s adventure fiction, but traditional publishers do not think the genre is profitable (notice the dearth of books in that genre on bookshelves these days). By publishing on Amazon, he got his opportunity to shine — he was one of the 1000 finalists of Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Awards 2012, and ranked first in the Mystery/Suspense/Thriller category in the IndieReader Discovery Awards 2012.

By shouldering the responsibilities of self-publishing, self-published writers get to reap much larger rewards than their peers. Smashwords offers 70% royalties, plus distribution to affiliates and marketing tools. Amazon also offers 70% royalties, plus extra promotional tools for Kindle exclusives, access to a global supply chain, and its brand name. (Note for Singaporeans: after the Internal Revenue Service takes its 30% withholding tax, the actual royalties are closer to 45%, and because Singapore does not have a tax treaty with the US at this time, there is no way around this.) By using online ecommerce tools, writers get to sell directly to consumers, earning royalties between 90% to 100%. I use Sellfy and Gumroad, which you can find on my website’s bibliography page.

In addition to creative control and royalties, there are three other ancillary benefits: dexterity, flexibility and economies of scale.

Using self-publishing tools, writers can update their works very quickly. If they want to upload a reworked cover or an corrected manuscript, all they have to do is upload them on their distribution or publication platforms, and the changes will be committed within 24 hours at no additional expense. Publishing houses cannot boast the same turnaround time, and for publishing houses that rely on traditional print-to-warehousing-to-retailer solutions, the cost of changing manuscripts can be prohibitive.

This low-cost dexterity also leads to story flexibility. Thriller writer Steven Hildreth Jr. began his publishing career with The First Bayonet. The story started off as a novella on the Kindle store. He received so much positive attention, he expanded it into a full-length novel. The novel-length version generated even more positive press, giving him an inroad to writing success. This is especially important since, compared to the former Special operations Forces or established writers on the market these days, it is extremely unlikely that he would ever be published. With very few exceptions — virtually all of whom are bestselling writers — publishing houses would not allow their writers to do what Hildreth did.

Self-publishing also grants writers economies of scale. For publishing houses to be profitable, they have to sell novels and novel-length books. It is too expensive for publishing houses to sell novellas, novelettes and short stories, except perhaps as ebooks, and even then they have to charge higher prices than self-published authors to cover overheads. The self-published writer, on the hand, can dash out shorter stories and monetise them from the get-go.  This allows the self-published writer an opportunity to make money off these works, promote their existing fiction and reach wider audiences.

Working with publishers: Lessons from Castalia House

I said in my interview that Castalia House ‘knows what they’re doing’. By that phrase I meant that Castalia House is keeping a very close eye on the publishing revolution, and they are doing the things traditional publishing should be doing to stay relevant.

Castalia House is committed to publishing quality works by talented writers. One of my fellow contributors, William S Lind, is Amazon’s No. 1 bestseller in military strategy. Another is Tom Kratman, bestselling author of the M Day and Legio del Cid series. Other writers in Castalia House’s stable include John C. Wright, considered to be the modern C. S. Lewis, and Vox Day, whose novelette ‘Opera Vita Aeterna’ was nominated for the Hugo Award. By attracting and retaining such an august collection of writers, Castalia House is able to tap into their fanbases, reach larger markets, and reassure writers and readers that the works they produce are worth every cent. I feel this is how traditional publishers can survive in the new world of publishing: by being synonymous with high-quality work.

Castalia House also offers fairer royalty rates. For Riding the Red Horse, Castalia buys first-time publication rights. With the exception of editors Tom Kratman and Vox Day, Castalia offers fiction contributors 25% of revenues, divided according to the proportion of words contributed to their section of the anthology. Non-fiction contributors also receive the same terms for the anthology’s non-fiction section, as the non-fiction pieces tend to run shorter than the fiction ones and Castalia wanted the non-fiction contributors to be compensated fairly too. Castalia House prices its stories comparable to market rates, which tends to attract plenty of customers. By comparison, professional rates for science fiction short stories are defined as at least USD 3 cents a word, but this is a one-off payment. Riding the Red Horse could potentially generate royalties that exceed professional rates, paid twice a year for as long the book is sold. While this in no way compares to the monthly payouts of 45/70% offered by self-publishing platforms or the immediate 90+% if you sell directly to customers, it is a far sight better than a one-off payment of USD 3 cents a word or royalties of 1% to 10% from traditional publishers. Personally, I could accept these terms, since this anthology allowed me to reach a far wider audience and monetise what began life as a literary experiment.

Castalia’s last major advantage is that they handle all the backend work: marketing, distribution, pricing, branding, etc. This meant that after I submitted my piece, I was free to pursue other projects. Castalia House uses promotional tools like blogs, newsletters, and free ebooks to market their products, which means I would not have to. Furthermore, by working with the editors I learned a few tricks of the trade, which I am applying to my other works. They also have an in-house ebook store on their website to sell directly to customers, which in turn can be paired with marketing campaigns and special promotions to generate sales and publicity. Their cover art is of a consistently high standard and so is their editing and formatting. I’m confident that Castalia would handle Red Horse Rising, and by extension War Crimes, the same way.

Do note that this is the best case scenario. Many publishers do not necessarily think the way Castalia House does, especially in the realm of marketing and royalties. Writers who want to go the mainstream publishing route must do their research and pay very careful attention to contracts and rights.

Picking the right path

With so many options at their disposal, writers need to decide which path suits them best. I see myself as a craftsman and a professional. Self-publishing allows me to express the totality of my vision and be paid fairly for my work, and by working with Castalia House I can reach out to a wider audience. This hybrid approach suits me best — but it’s not necessarily for everyone.

The choice between self-publishing, engaging a publishing house or a hybrid approach depends on entirely on the writer. Writers need to decide early on how much work they are willing to put into learning the industry. They need to ask themselves if they are willing to shoulder the burdens of running a business, or just want to focus on writing. They need to decide how much money they want to make from their stories, and how much time they can dedicate to writing and the post-writing process. Most of all, they must find out which path would actually get them published.

Whichever choices they choose, one thing is clear: a writer cannot be an author without publishing a story, and self-publishing virtually guarantees publication. But, only publication — actual success is dependent on the writer’s definition and efforts.

I hope you have enjoyed this article as much as I have writing it. If you find value in this post, please leave a donation on the way out using the options below. Thanks!

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A Bundle of Wrongs at Hong Lim Park

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

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

Shared space

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harpies and Hecklers…?

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

The Online Citizen tells another story:

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

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

But they were disruptive. And the difference is semantics.

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

To heckle them, in other words.

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

Working Compromises and Communications Management

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

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

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

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

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

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