A Deeper Look at LGBT Discrimination in Singapore

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

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

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

Section 377A and its Consequences

Section 377A of the Penal Code states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LGBT People in the Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marriage and Housing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roll Up Your Sleeves and Get to Work

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

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

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

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

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

Can Blockchains Revolutionise Social Welfare Programmes?

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Governments contemplating social welfare programmes have to wrestle with two seemingly irreconcilable problems. On one hand, voters demand social welfare programmes to take care of the poor, sick, elderly and marginalized. On the other, governments need to prevent welfare spending from ballooning extravagantly and ensure that recipients spend the money wisely. In this article, I will examine the use of blockchain technology to develop next-generation food assistance programmes.

Blockchain technology is a step up above existing schemes such as Electronic Benefits Transfer cards. Properly designed, it offers the ability to significantly reduce instances of fraud and abuse, enable quick and accurate accounting, creates the opportunity to positively shape recipients’ diets for the better, and the technology is easily transferable to other benefits schemes.

And it can do this within the next five years.

Enter NutriCoin

Today’s technology can replace EBT cards and their equivalents with a blockchain-based platform that uses internal tokens and smart contracts. For this article, let’s call this token NutriCoin.

NutriCoin requires three distinct accounts: consumer, merchant and government. Consumer accounts may only receive tokens from the government account and spend them at merchant accounts. Merchant accounts may only receive tokens from consumer accounts and trade them with the government account for fiat. The government account sends tokens to consumer accounts and receives them from merchant accounts. No other types of transactions are allowed; thus, a merchant cannot use NutriCoin to buy fresh foods, and a consumer cannot transfer his tokens to another.

Every day, a recipient uses NutriCoin to purchase groceries, meals and other essentials from authorized merchants. This transaction takes the form of a smart contract, which states that the merchant will provide goods in exchange for so many tokens. The merchant then trades the tokens with the government for fiat. This second transaction is another contract, which states the government will pay so much in fiat for so many tokens. At the end of the day (or some other block of time), the government tops off every consumer account with a fresh batch of tokens.

NutriCoin isn’t simply a next-generation food stamp. Key to its existence is restriction: it can only be used to purchase specific types of goods from licensed and vetted merchants. A drug dealer won’t be able to get a license to sell narcotics, so he won’t be able to set up a merchant account. A legitimate merchant, such as a supermarket, can only accept NutriCoin for sales of certain kinds of pre-registered food. Further, as all transactions are recorded on the blockchain, fraud can be quickly detected.

In EBT fraud, an EBT cardholder sells his card to an unscrupulous merchant (say a clerk or cashier) for a fraction of its dollar value. The clerk then uses the card to buy food items to restock the store’s shelves or key in false entries to transfer EBT funds into the store’s account. The cardholder gets free money, while the store enjoys lower operating costs or increased profit margins.

NutriCoin eliminates this by making the transaction visible. If someone suddenly splurges his entire allowance at a store, the transaction will be recorded on the blockchain, including the smart contract that details the goods he bought. Discrepancies in the store inventory will prove fraud. The only way to hide this is to throw out the goods allegedly sold to the customer. Since these goods must now be replaced at market price using fiat instead of NutriCoin—as opposed using an EBT card to make tax-free purchases on the government dime—there would be reduced incentive to engage in fraud and would-be fraudsters would have to invest greater time and energy to develop ways to defraud the system. The government should also conduct snap inspections of NutriCoin merchants to ensure their honesty.

What about customer-to-customer fraud? In this case, a NutriCoin recipient sells his account and PIN to someone else for cash, allowing the buyer to commit NutriCoin fraud. To combat this scenario, the use of NutriCoin could be paired with identification documents, such as a driver’s license, passport or identification card.

As technology advances, NutriCoin wallets may incorporate biometric testing to verify the user’s identity, such as fingerprints or voice samples. After the user keys in his biometric password, the wallet is locked and cannot accept other users or new passwords. The act of keying in a fresh password (but not the password itself) will be recorded on the blockchain, and attempts to change that password without approval will also be noted and recorded. In addition to combating fraud, this also creates increased security for recipients in case their wallets are stolen.

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Going beyond restrictions, NutriCoin can nudge people towards healthier living. Welfare recipients are on a tight budget, and so choose the cheapest and longest-lasting foods available. These are inevitably highly-processed and/or junk foods. A steady diet of such so-called food will inevitably lead to obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses, compounding the recipient’s woes. NutriCoin can prevent this.

The government can pre-designate a whitelist of healthy foods that can be bought with NutriCoin; no other types of food may be purchased with NutriCoin. The smart contract in every consumer-to-merchant transaction will record the type of food the merchant sold, and the merchant-to-government contract will consolidate these transactions for inspection. If there are any discrepancies, the police can again quickly track down the parties involved and examine the merchant’s stock.

While this whitelist should not include high-end luxury foods like organic quinoa or Wagyu beef imported from Japan, it would allow the poor to readily afford fruits and vegetables without worrying about whether they can afford it. By enabling NutriCoin recipients to afford healthy diets, this approach would reduce the incidence of chronic diseases in the long run.

To be clear, the government itself does not set the price for these foods. The merchants are free to decide what price they will set for them and whether to offer discounts for NutriCoin recipients. The government simply ensures that NutriCoin is used for buying affordable, healthy food. More restrictive states will also prevent the use of NutriCoin for buying junk food—which may or may not be desirable, depending on your political preferences.

The beauty of NutriCoin is its adaptability. Once the infrastructure is in place, the basic concepts can quickly be expanded to incorporate other services. This includes public transportation allowances for soldiers, subsidies for utility bills, tokens to pay for higher education or medical fees, NutriCoin POS systems for street vendors and hawkers, subsidised or free meals at food courts and hawker centres, and more. The sky is literally the limit.

There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

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The technology described above either exists today or are evolutions of today’s technology. It may even be possible to have a testbed for the system within the next five years. But NutriCoin is not a be-all and end-all solution. It has a few costs which must be overcome or accepted.

The most obvious one is infrastructure. NutriCoin can only exist in a country with a high penetration of smartphones (with an app-based solution), commonplace use of the Internet to deliver services, and a robust information communication technology network. This presently limits its potential to the First World. Fortunately, countries that can contemplate the development of such a comprehensive welfare programme tend to be First World nations themselves.

However, there are still significant implementation costs. Recipients may only need to download an app on a smartphone or carry a hardware wallet. However, merchants will need to integrate this technology into their inventory and point of sales systems, and their bank accounts, requiring new hardware and training. Governments will need to drive development of the blockchain technology, enforce transactions, punish fraud and abuse, assess, approve and monitor recipients, and ensure system uptime. Such costs may well be considerable, especially for small independent mom-and-pop stores in neighbourhoods not served by supermarket chains. While development costs might be reduced through adaptation of existing blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies such as Ethereum, it will not eliminate it.

The next problem is privacy. This blockchain set-up means that the buying patterns of recipients can be monitored, and so can the activities of merchants. Anybody with access to the blockchains and user account databases can quickly and easily identify specific individuals and their patterns of behaviour.

However, since the recipients are beneficiaries of taxpayer money, shouldn’t the taxpayer know how his money will be spent? Perhaps privacy is not such a high price to pay to ensure that NutriCoin is not spent on narcotics or black market guns. One way to safeguard user privacy is to ensure that the records and blockchains are kept and administrated by an independent party, such as a non-profit government-linked organisation or a separate government agency. The police may not access these records without a warrant. Coupled with proper IT security planning, it may enable a reasonable expectation of user security and privacy.

The third issue is cost. Someone has to pay for the programme, and that someone is you, me and every other taxpayer. NutriCoin will be costly. It requires people to manage and administer the blockchain, hardware to keep the system going, police to enforce the law, and a whole new layer of government bureaucracy to ensure proper disbursements of tokens and money and to keep everything running. And that’s not even accounting for the costs of paying merchants when they trade in their NutriCoin.

Furthermore, If NutriCoin were restricted only to healthier foods, the government may have pay out more per recipient than SNAP. Healthy food tends to be more expensive than junk food. This is an especially tricky problem in countries like Singapore, which must import virtually all their foodstuffs from overseas.

Such food costs can be mitigated somewhat with ugly foods. These are irregularly shaped fruits and vegetables that are otherwise perfectly edible. Such foods are usually discarded because they do not meet a merchant’s standards for presentation. They can instead be sold to NutriCoin recipients at a discount, simultaneously reducing costs and food waste. It would not, however, eliminate the issue of cost altogether; it would simply make it less onerous.

A related issue is food deserts. It may be fine in principle to restrict NutriCoin to only healthy foods, but in food deserts, junk food may well be the only kind of food available. This may not be a concern in small countries and city-states like Singapore, but it is a pressing urban issue in America and elsewhere. While the ideal response is to figure out how to push healthy foods into food deserts, this is not a problem NutriCoin alone can solve.

NutriCoin is also not immune to other issues associated with welfare programmes. These include determining eligibility and means testing, how many tokens to dispense to recipients, how the entire programme can be funded and sustained, and so on. It becomes easy—indeed, it may even become necessary—for the government to pass tax hikes to continue funding NutriCoin and other such programmes, which opens a whole new can of worms altogether.

In my opinion, should there be a call for it, Singapore offers the ideal testbed for such a program. Singapore does not have a significant percentage of the poor and homeless people, but it does have a growing number of elderly people who will require assistance. As a First World nation, Singapore has the technology base to implement NutriCoin, and indeed is a regional hub for Ethereum development.

Food deserts are practically unheard of over here, as there is ready access to abundant amounts of nutritious food. Most the population is served not by mom-and-pop grocery stores or corner shops with limited selections, but by major supermarkets—including the Fairprice chain run by the National Trades Union Congress. As the sole trade union in Singapore, NTUC works hand-in-hand with the government. Fairprice enjoys the economies of scale to implement NutriCoin on a national level, its ties with the government would smoothen possible political friction. The major question is whether Singapore can afford to implement this programme, and, of course, whether the government wants to. After all, like with every social welfare programme, the government must pay for everything, and the cost will be passed on to taxpayers.

Blockchain technology offers an opportunity to develop enhanced welfare programmes for the poor and marginalised. The NutriCoin proposal laid out above allows the poor access to healthy foods and merchants to retain their profit margins. However, like all government welfare programmes, NutriCoin carries costs and risks of its own. The question is not simply how blockchains can overhaul food aid programmes and other welfare measures, but also whether such programmes are desirable. Before jumping on the blockchain bandwagon and overhauling welfare programmes, countries would do well to study the technologies and weigh the pros and cons of such initiatives.

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.

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.

The National Arts Council betrays the purpose of Art

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

Art vs bureaucracies

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

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

‘Sensitive content’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Implications for Singaporean artists

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

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

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

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

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

What Singapore can really do for refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Light Touch' or Rule by Bureaucrat?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GIMF is also hosted in Singapore.

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

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

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.

The End of an Era

Today Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew passed at the age of 91.

Lee stands among the finest statesmen in history. He turned a tiny resource-free island into a global financial hub. He dedicated his life to Singapore, to his vision of Singapore, participating in the affairs of state up until his final days. No doubt the press and pundits will do a far finer job of eulogizing him than I ever could.

When I think of Lee Kuan Yew I think of the father of modern Singapore. The lawyer who stood with the early nationalists and fought for the people. The politician who founded a party and a movement that won independence from the British and support from the people. The statesman who defied all expectations to transform Singapore into the pearl of Southeast Asia, emphasising transparent and efficient governance. I think of Malaysian Malaysia, Merdeka, economic transformation, and the shining city around me.

When I think of Lee Kuan Yew I also think of an Asian Machiavelli. The leader who latched on to the left-wingers’ popularity base, split with them over the issue of merger with Malaya, and purged the Barisan Sosialis in the wake of the Brunei Revolt. The pragmatist who sought friendly ties with East and West without falling firmly into either camp during and after the Cold War. The autocrat who brooked no dissent and used every means at his disposal to hammer his political opponents, real or imagined, into subservience. I think of Operations Coldstore and Spectrum, the Internal Security Act, lawsuits for defamation, and Group Representative Constituencies.

Lee has earned his place as hero and villain in the annals of history. I suppose it is the curse of every man who has reached such august heights. Yet for all his accomplishments he did not single-handedly build Singapore. The task of building a nation is too great for any one man. When I think of the founders of Singapore I think of Lim Yew Hock, David Marshall, Devan Nair, Toh Chin Chye, Goh Keng Swee, Albert Wisemius, the ones who set in motion the policies that have served Singapore so well. Lee is a man, not a myth, and even as his era ends I hope the generations to come will remember him as he was: the father of Singapore, a man who wielded the levers of power to execute his will in service to his nation, but a man nonetheless.

I think Lee’s greatest legacy is that Singapore will outlive him. Where many lesser leaders have created cults of personality or dictatorships around themselves, Lee created institutions that will keep running long after this passing. Today is a day of mourning, but it is not a shock to the organs of state. Singapore will grieve, but I am confident Singapore will adapt and carry on. I cannot say for certain that the present generation of leaders are up to the task, but compared to Lee nearly every politician will fall short. In that regard, Lee’s crowning achievement is the creation of a place where a man like him is no longer needed, a state that no longer requires the services of a personality as forceful and divisive as he is, a nation that can thrive without him. We will be all the poorer for his death, but we will endure.

I don’t think the majority of my generation will fully comprehend the impact of his passing. We have not lived through the tumultuous years of Singapore’s birth, nor the uncertainty of the early post-independence era. We who have lived through unprecedented prosperity will remember only a glittering city-state that is the envy of the world, and with that baseline judge Lee by his deeds and words. This is our curse, but also our blessing, for we who are so distant from those troubled years have the benefit of hindsight and history, a clearer lens with which to examine the man and his legacy. And, armed with the lessons of the past, building upon the foundation Lee has laid, we can forge into uncharted tomorrows and usher in a new era.

We have every tool and every resource at our disposal to build a brighter tomorrow, needing only knowledge, planning and willpower. That, I think, is my generation’s greatest inheritance from the father of the nation. Now it is up to us not to squander it.

Singapore's hybrid warfare strategy is lacking

The media reported that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is adapting to new threats posed by hybrid warfare, defending against conventional and unconventional threats from state and non-state actors. Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Han described hybrid warfare as the “exact antagonist” of Singapore’s total defence strategy, seeking to undermine the target’s defences in civil, economic, social, psychological and military spheres.  To meet this threat, the Navy will replace its Patrol Vessels with Littoral Mission Vessels, while the Army will phase out its fleet of V-200 armoured cars with new Protected Response Vehicles. The SAF will also raise new units for cyber defence, and explore other technologies.

This round of upgrades would likely enable the SAF to keep pace with military developments. It is also unlikely to matter in the event of hybrid warfare.

Dr Ng’s description of hybrid warfare is not wrong. He was framing it in terms relevant to Singapore’s Total Defence strategy. However, hybrid warfare isn’t solely, or even predominantly, military. Hybrid warfare is fought predominantly in non-military spheres.

The terrorists of the world have pointed the way. Palestinian terrorist groups made their mark by choosing strategies to provoke Israel into repeated overreaction, making the latter appear to be the oppressor in the conflict. Insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan fight from villages and cities, forcing Western forces to choose between mass collateral damage or dramatically reduced fire support. Islamist propaganda consistently paints the West as the Dar al-Harb, the House of War, by playing up immoral Western activities and portraying them as aggressors. Terrorists and their sympathisers use social media to amplify these actions, portraying their cause as just.

And yet, what is clear is that state actors have consistently been playing to the tune of non-state actors. Islamist terrorist groups want Israel to engage in widespread destruction; the Israelis obliged through collective punishments, bombing terrorists in dense urban areas, and further isolating Palestine. The Americans continue their policy of launching Hellfires at terrorists from UAVs, blowing up more civilians than combatants in the process. They have done everything to make themselves look like the bad guys, and every little to correct that perception.

When state actors embrace the tools of subversion, their access to greater resources and population bases leave them more tools. The Russians in the Ukraine began their campaign by infiltrating large numbers of masked, deniable gunmen into the Crimea, paving the way for the main forces. In the early days of the conflict, the Ukrainian military failed to respond decisively to the militia in their midst, and the Western European powers had no strategic impetus to intervene. This made it extremely difficult to eject the Russians when they came in force.

But the principal tool here is not military power. The first wave of irregulars were largely unopposed. That was because the Russians had succeeded in swaying the Russian-ethnic majority of the Crimea to their side. Moscow painted the Ukrainian government as Western puppets, and appealed to their shared cultural history to win their support. The people of the Crimea elected their own pro-Russian government, repudiated the state of Ukraine and acceded to the Russians. Because of this popular support, the Russians secured their campaign objectives with minimal bloodshed and without triggering World War III.

The Chinese Assassin’s Mace concept took hybrid warfare several steps further, discussing the use of economic warfare, propaganda, and asymmetric warfare. For instance, suppose the Chinese decide to invade Taiwan. The United States threatens to intervene. In response, Chinese hackers black out the West Coast and inserts a virus that knocks out the New York Stock Exchange. If the US makes a move, the Chinese promise to cut power to the rest of the nation. A blackout is not, strictly speaking, an act of war, nor is crashing a stock exchange, but these moves would undercut any appetite for intervention without firing a shot. If the Chinese wish to fight at the moral level, they would precede the invasion by engineering a crisis in Taiwan, perhaps a false flag operation that paints the mainland Chinese community at risk of deportation or oppression by an aggressively nationalist government.

Singapore’s hybrid warfare strategy focuses on countering military threats, and in the future cyberwarfare threats. While periodic modernisation upgrades are almost always useful, Singapore’s obsession with technology mirrors that of the Americans — and despite American technological supremacy they have not won the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Military strategist William S. Lind repeatedly pointed out that fourth generation warfare, the open source warfare embraced by non-state actors, is fought principally on the moral level. The opening moves are designed to secure the moral high ground, and follow-up moves to keep the target from wresting that position away. In doing so, the target loses the support of the people and the world, and eventually loses the will to fight. This is seen in the battlefields of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. Hybrid warfare, as embodied by the Russians, began and continued the same way, with the Russians communicating the same consistent message undermining the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government and affirming their common ground with the Crimea. While there will nevertheless be military operations at the physical level, these operations are subordinate to, and superceded by, combat at the moral level. Case in point, the US military won nearly every battle in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, but by failing to win the hearts and minds of the people they failed to win the wars.

With hybrid warfare fought at the moral level, what is the SAF’s response?

Trick question. The SAF is optimised for military conflicts. Hybrid warfare is a moral confrontation. The SAF does not have much of a role to play in fields that do not concern external aggression, disaster/terrorist response, foreign aid, or incidents that require military deployment.

The real question is: what is the government’s response?

Hybrid warfare attacks the foundations of the state. The state’s first move must be to shore up its foundations and occupy the moral high ground before the threat approaches. The state must show that it represents the will of the people, that has the good of the people at heart, that its power is legitimate and non-state actors simply wish to destroy everything the state stands for.

Now consider this: Alex Au was fined $8000 for contempt of court. Lawyer M Ravi, famous for being of the few (or only) lawyers who will take on political and human rights cases, was suspended from the bar while he was representing politically-charged cases in court. The government continues to sue people for defamation, with Roy Ngerng the latest. The PAP Internet Brigade is still active. The White Paper on Population became policy even in the face of mass opposition. Thaipusam celebrations were slammed for being “too noisy”, and Parliament recently passed a bill prohibiting alcohol consumption in public without public consultation. As for the mainstream media, regardless of its failings it is safe to say that it will always publish the government’s point of view.

With its penchant for dropping the hammer on dissidents and bloggers, passing laws without warning or public consultation, and a sympathetic ‘nation-building’ press, can the government say it has the moral high ground?