A Deeper Look at LGBT Discrimination in Singapore

Pink Dot.jpg

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

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

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

Section 377A and its Consequences

Section 377A of the Penal Code states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LGBT People in the Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marriage and Housing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roll Up Your Sleeves and Get to Work

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

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

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

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

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

Marital Rape Laws Expose Men to Abuse

 

image-8

Two days ago, the Straits Times reported an impending review of Singapore’s law on marital rape to “ensure that married women have the same protection against violence as unmarried women”. Singapore’s legal code is built on English Common Law, which includes immunity from prosecution for men who have sex with their wives.

Removal of this immunity would expose the other half of humanity to legal jeopardy and manipulation.

Marriage is the recognition and legitimisation of a relationship between two parties. Marriage is a public, binding and lasting declaration of consent to sexual intercourse. Rape within marriage cannot exist.

The Other Half of the Sky

This review of marital rape is framed as ‘women’s rights’. In other words, it codifies the myth that men are the sole perpetrators of rape and women the sole victims—a myth that Singapore continues to perpetuate by defining rape as a crime committed only by men on women. It sweeps aside men who were coerced to penetrate someone else with their body parts. It exposes married men to false rape accusations and place undue legal burden on them.

The report says:

The Government may be wary that abolishing immunity may lead to false allegations of rape, or open up criminal proceedings that are overly intrusive to families.
But these are issues that can be worked out through consulting various stakeholders.

I am not convinced. Abolishing immunity will lead to false allegations. If a woman feels her husband offended her and wants to spite him, all she has to do is to have sex with him one night and accuse him of marital rape in the morning.

Since the ‘evidence’ states there was sexual contact, the onus is now on the husband to prove that he didn’t rape her or threaten to use violence unless she has sex with him. This is compounded by the fact that Singapore does not have Miranda rights. Suspects only have access to lawyers after the initial interview—and if the police and the public prosecutor decide to press charges, an innocent man is out of luck. It will be tempting for irresponsible police officers to pressure the husband into confessing for a crime he didn’t commit to speedily clear cases and to ‘protect women’. Regardless of what happens, the man will be dragged through the mud.

And if the woman were the manipulative sort, the criminal investigation is all the evidence she needs to file for divorce and a rich alimony.

If a system makes it easy for unscrupulous women to cry rape, it will happen. In America, between 6 to 8% of rape accusations are false. In India, it is 53%. Even if an allegation is proven false, the investigation would have caused great deal of emotional, financial and psychological harm to the accused.

‘Consulting various stakeholders’ is meaningless. The government did not consult stakeholders when formulating the White Paper on Population, its policies on new media, or, indeed, anything it have already made up their mind to achieve. The government may claim it will solicit feedback, but whether it will listen is something else. With the People’s Action Party retaining absolute dominance in Parliament, if the PAP believes something should be law, it will be law, regardless of stakeholders think—and nothing will stop them.

The Question No One Asks

Why do you want to be married to someone you don’t want to have sex with?

This is the question no one is asking about marital rape. Marriage is a partnership involving sexual rights and responsibilities, and holds both parties to uphold their duties of fulfilling the other’s sexual needs and desires. If either party consistently demonstrates an unwillingness to accommodate the other, the partnership is broken. In such a state, there are three legitimate responses: acceptance and adaptation, therapy and reconciliation, or divorce.

If you want the benefits of marriage, you must also fulfil the duties of marriage. If you do not want to fulfil the duties of marriage, then the marriage is over.

Marriage is a lasting declaration of consent. Defining marital rape as a crime opens the possibility of the wife unilaterally deciding to withdraw consent at any time without necessarily informing the husband and exposing him to criminal investigation. This isn’t just irresponsible and unfair; it opens the possibility for abuse.

If a woman no longer consents to have sex with her husband, she should revoke consent through divorce. If a woman believes that her husband is so violent that he will use force to coerce her into sex, then she should either divorce him and seek help, or better yet, not marry him at all. If a woman’s husband insists on having sex with her when she doesn’t feel up to it and she feels it is not right, she should either discuss it with him to resolve the issue, or file for divorce. Instead of abdicating all responsibility to the state, she should exercise it for herself.

Law is Not the Answer

The law is not a first resort. It is the last. Before entering a marriage, the parties involved must be certain that they are both willing to fulfil the other’s sexual needs. If either partner is not, rushing into marriage is a set-up for disaster. If either or both parties no longer wish to meet these obligations within a marriage, and do not wish to compromise or work around it, the responsible thing to do is to file for divorce.

A law that places undue burden on men is a law that will be abused. The law is not a hammer with which to beat the other party into psychological submission, nor to extract benefits from a former husband, nor to spite him. It is reserved for punishing and deterring actual criminals, not to take sides in a domestic dispute.

The answer to the problem of a person coercing his spouse into sex is not more law. It is teaching men and women the responsibilities of marriage and imparting life and relationship skills. It is educating people to recognise abusers and dissuading them from marrying such people. It is reaching out to abuse victims and getting them to leave abusers as quickly as possible.

In other words, it is teaching men and women to be responsible adults.

Amos Yee and the Freedom to Offend

15318024_1301228709923730_5741203103658620692_n

Yesterday 18-year-old Singaporean Amos Yee was granted asylum in the United States, throwing a spotlight on freedom of speech in Singapore. Judge Samuel Cole called him a “young political dissident”, and the ruling claimed that Yee has a “suffered past persecution” and has a “well-founded fear of future persecution”. Yee has been jailed twice, once in July 2015 and again in September 2016.

A victory for freedom of speech?

Maybe, but it’s a hollow victory indeed.

Yee has spoken no hard truths, fomented no revolutions and started no grassroots movements. He has created no groundbreaking works of art or philosophy or politics, nor has he revealed any government or corporate malfeasance. He has run for no political party and has contributed not one iota to the development of Singapore’s civil society.

Yee is merely a shock jock.

In 2015, Yee released an expletive-filled video praising the death of Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, calling him a ‘totalitarian’ and comparing him unfavourably to Jesus and Mao Zedong.

The government opened investigations into Yee and detained him for 53 days. A family and youth counsellor, Vincent Law, bailed Yee. On May 13 Yee demonstrated his gratitude by falsely accusing Law of molest on Facebook. Yee then claimed he would be present at Bukit Panjang MRT station to speak to the media. The media swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker, and Yee didn’t show up. The following day, he posted another expletive-laden Facebook post laughing at the media, boasting about how he had trolled them.

In 2016, Yee produced and uploaded a picture and two profanity-filled videos insulting Muslims and Christians. Once again, he was arrested, this time for ‘wounding religious feelings’. He was further fined $2000 for failing to show up at a police station twice to give his statement.

Amos Yee is no hero. He has not furthered the cause of democracy and freedom, nor has he contributed meaningfully to society. He is no free thinker or dissident, only an attention-seeking teenager whose only talent lies in offensive speech.

But freedom of speech means the freedom to offend. Wounding ‘feelings’ is no reason to arrest and jail people; down that path lies ritualised self-criticism, the gulags and the killing fields. People like Yee are canaries in the coal mine: when the government squashes the canary it’s a sign that freedom of speech is under fire. If people approve of shock jocks being arrested for spurious reasons, the government will be encouraged to crack down on people with legitimate arguments and different points of view. Free speech must be for everyone, or it applies to no one.

With that said, I don’t see Yee making the most of his second chance.

Yee claims he is now an ‘anarchist communist’ who believes in feminism. He has a known history of turning on people who want to help him, displaying callous disregard for anyone whom he hurts, employing vulgarities in place of cogent argument, and generating content that rely on offensiveness instead of rational thought. When the going gets tough and he’s in trouble, he has no qualms about compromising his principles to save his skin. Anarchist communism calls for abolition of private property, capitalism and the state; but he relied on a state organ to grant him safety, and when he was held in America, he asked for people to give him money to cover his costs instead of doing stuff for him like a proper anarcho-communist. He also claims that he supports free speech but like all good social justice warriors he has no problem with media platforms taking down ‘anti-feminist’ speech.

Yee is an arch-SJW who has doubled down and continues to double down. If Yee won’t change his ways — and I don’t see that happening anytime soon — he’s not going to amount to much.

What about the impact on Singapore?

Singaporean politician Kenneth Jeyaratnam claims that the ruling “may create waves in Singapore. It may show Singaporeans that there’s nothing to be afraid about. The Singapore government is a paper tiger. We don’t have to swallow the brainwashing that is constantly put out.”

Jeyaratnam sure is optimistic. The government has not softened its stance on Yee or hate speech. The police has not signaled any shift in policy, overtly or otherwise. Opposition politicians have not argued for liberalisation of Singapore’s laws on hate speech nor proposed new free speech laws in Parliament. Political bloggers are still free to say what they want, within the blurry boundaries of the law. Citizens still won’t know what are the limits of the law until someone like Yee tests it and is slapped down. Nothing has changed.

Save for one thing.

Amos Yee is America’s problem now.

Image from Yee’s Facebook page

Why Singapore Literature Turns Me Off

Once again, the arts community is promoting Singapore literature through social media and the mainstream media. The latest initiative is #BuySingLit, billed as “an industry-led movement to celebrate stories from Singapore”.

Once again, the news turns me off SingLit.

A History of Disappointment

As a child I was a voracious reader. I read every book I got my hands on, no matter the subject. I inhaled encyclopedias, fairy tales, the Norse epics, Greek and Roman mythology, world folklore, comics, and so many more stories. In the mornings I would read about hobgoblins and dragons, in the afternoons I studied atomic theory and photography, in the evenings I followed the exploits of supersoldiers and scientists.

At the age of 12 I grew conscious of Singapore literature and the classics, and began to seek them out. Catherine Lim, Gopal Baratham, Goh Poh Seng, Russell Lee, Wena Poon, Joanne Hon and other less-famous writers. Always I compared them to the other stories I’ve read, and found them wanting.

My synesthesia won’t allow me to read books. Instead, I experience them.

Ernest Hemingway’s prose is lean and taut and muscular, demanding a hundred percent of your attention. Michael Connelly’s stories are as black as a murderer’s heart and as slick as ice. Tom Clancy alternates ponderous white slabs with blazing crimson streaks. J. K. Rowling began as smooth caramel, but her later works transformed into dark coffee shot through with green and gold. J. R. R. Tolkien seminal work, The Lord of the Rings, stretches out into lush green vistas and soaring grey mountains. John C. Wright ignites fireworks with his words, blending them together into gold and bronze and violet and emerald on every page.

Compared to all that, every Singaporean writer produces thin mist of pale shades. Some are white, some are yellow, some are brown. Occasionally the mist parts to reveal black-on-white shapes as shallow as the ink that produce them. Other writers make the mist so thick and sticky and dry it feels like wading through a hail of glue drops frozen in the air. These stories are plain, staid, prosaic, illogical, shallow, boring, unreadable — and nearly interchangeable.

Singaporean genre fiction consistently ranks the lowest among the books I have read. Star Sapphire by Joan Hon is a romance story thinly veiled as science fiction, and not a particularly memorable one at that. The Singapore Noir anthology is bleakly bland while Best of Singapore Erotica fails to titillate. Douglas Chua and Barry Chen claim to write thrillers, but I have found their stories more useful as reusable sleeping aids. Only two writers caught my eye: Johann S. Lee, whose writing is competent but unremarkable (and I don’t swing towards gay male romance stories), and Neil Humphreys (who was born in England), specifically his thrillers.

The majority of Singapore’s prose output is high-brow literature, and even that fails the test. Baratham’s A Candle or the Sun promises a spy story focusing on a radical Christian sect, but all that stands out is that the protagonist seemed very concerned over whether he (and his manager) was gay — and that the secret police seemed pointlessly sadistic and otherwise inefficient. Lions in Winter by Wena Poon has multiple scenes that possessed neither a story arc nor relatable characters, yet claimed to be stories. Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore by Catherine Lim is little more than dry sepia. Held against the starkness of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the hidden depths of Road Dahl or the dark absurdity of Jean-Paul Sartre, these stories were limp and colourless.

Even so, I tried to participate in Singapore’s literary circles. I joined writers’ groups — and left soon after. I paid to attend workshops and classes — and learned nothing. I joined writers’ events and seminars — and all I found was navel-gazing, bloviating and boredom.

Everything But Writing

The chief problem as I see it is that the Singapore writing scene is about everything but writing.

Every writers’ group I have joined were for hobbyists. They brought together like-minded people to talk about their own writing, encourage them to write and participate in writing activities. This isn’t wrong per se, but I am not a hobbyist. I aim to be a professional. Professionals delve deep into craft and examine the state of the industry. These groups did not.

Programmes at writers’ events do not build up writers. #BuySingLit‘s events have art displays, treasure hunts and book tours. Only a handful of workshops are geared towards writing — and even those workshops are foundation-level courses. The same holds true for Singapore’s premier writing event, the Singapore Writers Festival. SWF has film screenings, music, history, panel discussions — anything and everything about the writers’ craft, or, indeed, writing. Contrast this to events like Dragoncon or Thrillfest, which teach more about the art, craft and business of writing in three days than SWF does in a month. The instructors at Dragoncon and Thrillfest go into the kind of detail that is sorely lacking in Singapore. I don’t have anything against the non-writing oriented events in local writing events, but one would think that the events, being about writing, would at least focus on the core audience and try to do more than teach beginner-level writing craft.

Singaporean publishers are only interested in a specific type of literature: stories about Singapore culture set in Singapore aimed at a Singaporean audience and foreigners who enjoy reading about Singapore. Writers who do not fit the mold will not find much support from the industry. While publishers are free to pursue whatever business model they like, people like me, a Hugo Award nominated science fiction and fantasy writer who will not limit his stories to Singapore, will have to look elsewhere. Likewise, Singapore’s mainstream media tends to focus on Singaporean writers who have either published through the usual publishing houses, or who are too big and controversial to ignore.

Add them all up, and what you have is a culture that encourages newbies to write and people to feel good. Not a culture that encourages people to sustain their writing or to further hone their craft. The only goal is producing a novel, anthology, poetry collection or whatever, not about living journey about pursuing a career at writing or the art of the written word. When someone publishes a work, the usual cry of “Support local talent!” echoes in the usual circles, without anyone paying heed to the actual quality of the content. Indeed, a couple of the stories and writers I mentioned above were award winners — and the award-winners of today aren’t better.

No Country for Writers?

Sturgeon’s Law states that ninety percent of anything is crud. In Singapore’s case, there aren’t enough writers to have a statistically significant ten percent of non-crud stories.

I intend to change that.

I’ve been writing fiction since I was 12 years old. My published fiction writing career spans 4 years. Later this year, I will publish at least one novel through Castalia House and one short story through Silver Empire’s [Lyonesse] (http://lyonesse.silverempire.org/) programme. I am already working on a bunch of other stories, which will be revealed in due course. If Singapore is no country for writers like me, then I will find other avenues to publish my works.

I will also be passing on the tricks of the trade. It’s been a long time coming, and now I feel ready to give back to the wider community of writers. Expect more posts zooming in on the way of the pen.

Fundamentally, I don’t care whether stories, especially mine, can be labelled SingLit or not. I care about good writing, wherever they may come from. Since my country continues to disappoint me, I will reach out to a wider audience.

Get Up and Ruck

Life is not lived sitting down behind a screen. Life is lived outside at the edge of your comfort zone, at the borders of your day-to-day experience. When everyday life grinds down your soul, when you weary of staying indoors and experiencing the same routine over and over again, there is a simple solution.

Get up and ruck.

Rucking is simple. Carry weight on your back and go out for a walk. Go solo or go with friends. Go as far and as fast as you can. The important thing is to get moving and keep moving.

To go rucking, you just need two things: a ruck and a destination. When preparing for a ruck, you need to manage your weight and bulk. Pack everything you will need first, followed by everything you may have to use in an emergency, and lastly things that are nice to have but not necessary. In the above photograph, my ruck was packed with the following:

  1. 40 oz / 1.18 litre Hydroflask
  2. Necessities pouch containing flashlight, spare batteries, medicine, stationery, packets of tissue and band-aids
  3. Umbrella
  4. 2 granola bars
  5. Coin pouch
  6. Kindle

These were packed in order of importance. Water is critical, followed by medicine and hygiene. Should an emergency strike, you need to be able to deal with it there and then with the tools you have on hand. While illumination, shelter and food are also important, in urban environments they can be found nearly everywhere. The coin pouch and the Kindle are the nice-to-haves, so light and small they go with me wherever I go.

There’s so little packed in the ruck that it makes the bag look floppy. That’s deliberate. Pack light, go fast. The less you carry, the more agile and mobile you are, and the more things you can do when you get to wherever you are going.

The point of rucking isn’t just to go from point A to point B. It’s to experience life. Keep your head up, your phone down and your legs moving. If you see something interesting, go explore. See someone interesting, go talk. Going light lets you do all this without losing your breath or acting awkward around strangers. And if you find yourself picking up or buying stuff, you have plenty of empty space inside your ruck to keep them, leaving your hands free.

This is not to say you shouldn’t carry heavy stuff. If I have to get work done on my computer, I bring it with me. If you want to challenge yourself by carrying more weight, go right ahead. But everything you carry in your ruck should serve a purpose. The heavier something is, the more the weight has to be justified. If that weight is not used somehow, it has to go.

Once you have your ruck, you need somewhere to go. Both a starting point and an endpoint. There are many areas of attraction everywhere in the world. The trick is to find them.

Many locals consider Singapore to be the most boring place in the world. In a sense, that is true. Everywhere you go you see the same thing: high-rise flats (apartment blocks to Americans) clustered next to private estates, a shopping centre at every major train station, offices and industrial buildings at designated business zones.

But life is lived outside day-to-day experience.

Rucking in the big city is simple. Pick a neighbourhood, preferably someplace you haven’t been before. Study a map of the area. Plot your route if you want, or not at all if you prefer to go rambling. Call up friends if they’re interested, or go solo.

That’s it. Head up, phone down, go ruck.

Here are some photos from my latest ruck:

Shophouses from the colonial era.

This side of the Singapore River, you’ll find fancy restaurants, pubs and massage parlours.

It’s quiet now, but come nightfall, this place will be packed.

Skyscrapers by the water. The building in the distance is the Fullerton Hotel.

The most important bar in Singapore’s modern history. Here, sociopolitical activists, bloggers, lawyers and politicians used to meet, discuss their latest plans, and carry out events.

Hotel Park Royal at Upper Pickering Street.

Lime restaurant inside the Hotel Park Royal.

The signature red truck of the Police Special Operations Command.

East and West: Green tea chiffon cake, paired with warm kaya dip.

Rucking is simple, yet challenging. It’s an opportunity for exploration and adventure. It’s a chance to go see what is in your patch of Earth. Immerse yourself in what you find, and share them with the world.

The next time you feel that you need to do something new, the prescription is simple.

Get up and ruck.

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 Appeal of the Islamic State

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

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

And

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

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

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

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

Violent Non-State Actors in Transition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civilisation, the State and the Islamic State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.