February 18, 2011
Anyone driving across Benjamin Sheares Bridge today cannot help but marvel at the changing skyline. Marina Bay, the Esplanade, the Singapore Flyer and Marina Bay Sands are architectural and urban distinctions that emboss themselves into your mind. These are the big things that Singapore has done right. We do the broad strokes of city-building well. We are good with the big picture stuff like boosting the arts, bringing F1, creating a financial hub, inventing NEWater, or wooing the multinationals.
But big things alone are not enough to make this city tick. Doing the little things well count too – and we’re not so hot in that area anymore. Take for example the public gym that I frequent, one of the many run by the Singapore Sports Council. In there is a chin-up bar that has been broken for about 2 months. There is a crack in the joint, and over it a flapping piece of paper has been pasted which reads “Bar not in service. Sorry for the inconvenience”. I took a close look at the bar several times and realised that all that was needed was a simple wielding. I spoke to the instructors there and they agreed. So why the long delay? Well, they need to file in the report, get officers to assess the cost, put out the tender, wait for response, and so on…. all for a simple wielding job that most ITE students can do in 15 minutes. In the meantime, the bar hangs broken with an obscene piece of flapping paper stuck to it.
And I have noticed many other smaller things we can’t get handle anymore. We can’t handle floods, we can’t handle YOG certificates, we can’t handle MRT depot security, the list goes on. Lee Kuan Yew wrote that one of the reasons why he laid the island with greenery was that the mundane care that went into pruning, fertilizing and watering our trees, shrubs and bushes would show investors and visitors that we were a meticulous and fastidious people. This set us apart from the rest, and that was something to be genuinely proud of.
Today, one gets the sense that we can’t do the small things well anymore. Our famed efficiency and decisiveness is more evident in clamping down on political blogs, illegalising public assemblies, catching opposition members giving out pamphlets, and much less so in the lives of ordinary Singaporeans. One gets the sense that we are losing our priorities. One gets the sense that we’re seeing more “Sorry for the inconvenience” signs in our daily lives.
Is it a symptom of a decline in public and civil service standards? Or the side-effect of out-sourcing and privatisation? I really don’t know – perhaps both. But I do know that unless we begin to do the small things well again, even the big things will eventually fall apart.
January 26, 2011
The Catholic Church must now come with a health warning. Like those gruesome pictures of cancers on cigarette packets, the Catholic Church must have a picture of a young couple with genital warts and herpes, with five babies crawling around them. It’s only fair.
The Straits Times today reported that Catholic school principals have met MOE officials to discuss how the ministry’s sexuality education programme can be “tweaked”. “Among other things, they had asked for a segment on the use of condoms to be modified so that it better matches Catholic beliefs. The segment includes a video on the use of condoms.”
It’s not known exactly what they wanted “tweaked” (I hope no child’s bum was within a 100 metre radius), but given the Church’s stance on contraceptives, it’s safe to say that any mention of condoms will be suppressed. One only has to re-visit Pope Benedict’s remarks on condoms in Africa to understand the deep aversion the Church has to them. And the crux of the problem is what the Church has always done – confuse sex education with moral education. In fact, it goes further to conflate morality with a faith or set of religious teachings. Archbishop Nicholas Chia was quoted as saying:
What is at stake is not the method used or whether this method is natural or artificial. What is at stake is the moral act of contraception.
The good clergyman is wrong. There is a clear conceptual difference between method and morality. The former is taught in sex education, the latter should not. Sex education is about the biological and mechanical aspects of the sexual body. It deals with bodily changes, sex organs, sexual intercourse and sexuality. It should be taught responsibly in classrooms by mature teachers with teaching aids. A faith-based moral education, on the other hand, can be taught in churches, temples, mosques and other private places. To conflate the two and, as a result, omit valuable information that may save a teen from sexually transmitted disease or an unwanted pregnancy is plain irresponsible. Teaching abstinence is important. But it must be taught alongside contraceptives.
But there is nothing new in this. The Church has always adopted a ‘morality first, reality second’ approach when it comes to sexuality. More interesting is how the Christian right in Singapore are pushing the boundaries of secularism back. At the heart of the AWARE saga was a faith-based morality seeking to suppress alternative lifestyles. In this case it is seeking to suppress educational information that does not conform to its worldview.
Granted, the Catholic principals were speaking only for Catholic schools, and not proposing that the “tweaks” be reflected across the board. But the last I heard, these Catholic schools also received public funds. Furthermore it would be a sad indictment of the education system if a faith-based morality is allowed to influence the science of sexuality. What next, creationism in classrooms? Well I guess if you can believe that the world was created in 6 days, you can also believe you can teach Catholic girls to say no.
January 20, 2011
Singaporeans are on the decline. And it’s time we roll up our sleeves and do something about it. No more dicking around. It’s time we look to the experts. And I don’t mean cheap dating agencies or waste-of-money Singapore Dating Network. I’m talking about the real experts – the zoos!
The best zoos around the world have good animal breeding programmes with high return rates. Exotic and endangered animals are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity but, hey, if they can raise the number of American Condors, there may be hope yet for Singaporeans.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources there are several levels of animal endangerment.
Levels of Animal Endangerment
|A||Least Concerned||Low risk of extinction||Rats, hare, PRCs, Indian nationals|
|B||Near Threatened||Likely to be threatened||Manta Ray, Maned wolf, The Online Citizen, Muarah, Think Centre|
|C||Vulnerable||High risk of extinction||Columbian Spider Monkey, Alligator Gar, all opposition party members in Singapore|
|D||Endangered||Very high risk of extinction||Leatherback turtle, the Green Turtle, Singaporean nurses and top local PSLE and O Level students|
|E||Critically Endangered||Extremely high risk of extinction||Amur Leopard, Saiga Antelope, ordinary Singaporeans|
|F||Extinct in Wild||Alive only in captivity||Tasmanian wolf, Caspian tiger, Mas Selamat|
|G||Extinct||Last individual died||Dodo bird, local politicians with compassion|
According to the late zoologist Dr Devra G. Kleiman there are several conditions that zoos and animal sanctuaries need for successful animal breeding. I propose the Singapore government studies them closely.
Condition #1: You need a self-sustaining captive population
Zoos need enough breeding stock to provide a surplus. For big animals, this requires a lot of space and also good genetic management.
What Singapore must do: Make sure only good-looking Singaporeans copulate. Issue COFs (Certificate for Fornication) to couples approved by Dick Lee, Florence Lian and Ken Lim. Couples who breed without COFs will shoulder big tax burdens and have their off-springs ‘volunteered’ as future YOG food-tasters.
Condition #2: You require a suitable amount of protected habitat.
Zoos need to conduct field studies to determine the amount and type of habitat required by new population. A “wild” model is necessary to establish suitable conditions for release and population must be protected from whatever caused its previous decline
What Singapore must do: A suitable Singaporean habitat would be to convert the whole island into Takashimaya. Under such conditions, Singaporeans may be observed in their natural habitat as they graze and roam. To prevent future decline of animal stock, we have to create a stress-free environment. No mention of PSLE, COE, NS, HDB, MRT, ERP, PAP is allowed.
Condition #3: Have effective techniques to prepare animals for reintroduction
Zoos have to train re-introductees prior to release into predator environments. They have to teach animals how to find and interact properly with potential mates, and to find/construct shelter.
What Singapore must do: Make it compulsory for Singaporeans to laminate and wear their university degrees around their necks. This will help attract the right mates. To find shelter, learn how to say “first time buyer”.
January 13, 2011
With some of the 2010 Census results released, the data on religion confirms what many observers have long suspected – Christianity is on the rise in Singapore. In 2000, the percentage of Christian Singaporeans was 14.6%. This group has risen to 18.3% in 2010. If you speak to some pastors and church-goers, they believe that the true figure probably hovers over the 20% mark given the weekly congregation attendances and anecdotal evidence. There are several other figures that, when put together, weave a broad trend within the local Christian community.
The rise and popularity of Christianity among young, well-educated English-speaking Singaporeans has generally been explained as the attraction to rationality. Christianity is considered by better educated converts as a more rational, systematic and intellectual alternative to the mysticism of local folk religions like, say, Taoism. Such an explanation was useful in understanding why young graduates in the past were more likely to be Christians. However, new data forces us to reconsider this. According to the 2010 Census, the portion of Christians among graduates dipped (the Straits Times does not mention by how much, neither does the Advance Census Release), while ‘irrational’ religions like Taoism and Hinduism saw an increase among the same group (again sources do not mention by how much).
There are three possible hypotheses for this. Firstly, younger well-educated Singaporeans may now be less likely to see Christianity as ‘rational’. The rise of Pentecostalism from the 1990s has seen greater manifestations of ‘spiritual’ phenomena like speaking in tongues, casting out demons, and healing. As these Christian spiritual phenomena increase, there appears to be fewer differences between the ‘spirituality’ of Christianity and that of a temple medium dancing in a trance while in the possession of spirits. (After all, there appears to be little phenomenological difference between believing that God will bless you with material wealth if you’re a good Christian and going to the temple to pray for a winning 4D number). Secondly, the increase in graduates who subscribe to Taoism and Hinduism suggest that ethnic identity and folk heritage are becoming more important to self-aware young Singaporeans. It is too early to say for sure but the colonial mindset that believes Christianity is superior to folk religions may be increasingly questioned by the educated young. Thirdly, the recent controversies over the AWARE saga, Pastor Rony Tan and Pastor Mark Ng put Christianity in a poor light, perhaps turning younger Singaporeans from it.
How then do we account for the surge of almost 4 percentage points in Christianity? There are no studies on this but anecdotal evidence suggests that many conversions take place among older non-graduates. Children who go to church are likely to try to convert their parents to Christianity or, at least, bring them to church. This is especially so among Pentecostal mega churches. There is also the suggestion that older people, when faced with their impending mortality, are more likely to be open to religion and the promise of an afterlife.
Another crucial factor is the religious affiliation of PRs. With an 88.8 percentage increase from 2000, PRs now make up 541,000 of the total population. It is a sizable number that can sway statistics. Given that the vast majority of PRs continue to be Malaysian Chinese, it is likely that they have contributed to the percentage of Christians. If Malaysian Chinese continue to be our primary source of PRs for the purpose of retaining our national ethnic composition and because of their cultural similarities, a couple of questions arise: What happens when their incoming numbers jack up the percentage of Christians further? What is the tipping point before other religions become wary?
Nevertheless, the general trends continue to hold. Christianity continues to be a middle class religion. It continues to be the preferred choice among better educated professionals. And it is on the rise.
January 6, 2011
Moral panic and the middle class go together like Gurmit Singh and the desire for euthanasia. There is nothing quite like the fear over society’s declining morality to kick-start the morning. And this morning we were treated to a double dose of dunce in TODAY.
Letter #1: Air adult trailers on TV after 10pm
Could television content providers please screen movie trailers with adult content only after 10pm? I would be watching a football game on SingTel mio TV with my grandson. And along would come a trailer for an on-demand movie during the commercial break that is not appropriate for children. Will the operators do this voluntarily or should we consider a law to enforce this?
Letter #2: Retailers, mind your music
I was with my wife and three children at Zara VivoCity last Monday, in the children’s section. Over the usual loud thumping music in the store, crude lyrics containing swear words were heard repeatedly. I was shocked and quickly ushered my children out of the store. I then went back to complain to the store manager. While she apologised and changed the music, it was too late as many children in the store had been exposed to the offensive language from that song. I hope retailers know how to draw the line when it comes to the kind of music played in their stores.
First of all, all this moral outrage isn’t new. Back in the 1960s and 1970s we had the “anti-yellow culture” fever where jukeboxes, rock music, girlie mags and long hair were extinguished faster than you could say “Beatles”. Every generation disapproves of the entertainment tastes of its succeeding one – it’s a natural law; just like if the PAP holds a procession, it’s a celebration, if the Opposition holds one, it’s foreplay to bloodshed – it just is. My grandfather hated my dad’s Rolling Stones albums, and my dad hated my Guns N Roses swagger, and I’m sure I’ll hate my son’s Lady GaGa-meets-Justin Bieber-whatever-the-hell-next-incarnation-Hollywood-produces.
But this isn’t the 60s or 70s anymore. The people who dreamt up the “anti-yellow culture” campaign – namely the PAP – were in the minority then. And they did it primarily to win the votes of the Chinese-educated majority who were seriously wooed by the Communists who were, surprise surprise, morality freaks. So what the PAP did was to out-moral the moral folks to get into power.
Today, we have a baby boomer middle class generation weaned on the “cultural desert” years (also known as the good ole days). They sincerely believe that listening to Black Sabbath will send your soul straight to hell, while touching yourself there will make you blind. But beyond the moral panic and changing tastes, there are two crucial points here.
Firstly, if we don’t like what we see in a public space do we demand they stop what they are doing or do we exercise our rights as individuals and just move on? And if we choose the former, what about those who like a little adult entertainment? The problem with the moral police is that they appoint themselves moral judges as well. They believe that what offends them offends everyone. I mean is it really that hard to tell your child: “Yes, I know the music has some bad words. Some people think its cool to use them but I don’t. And if I ever hear you say them, there’ll be a rotan with your name on it”? Or if you prefer the snobbish approach: “People who use naughty words have a poor vocabulary”. And is the arduous task of changing the channel on your remote too difficult?
Secondly – and this is the real source of the panic – the protection of the innocent child. Both letters depict children as objects for insulation. They are not subjects for education or enlightenment, but objects who happen to have ears that need covering. Nothing mobilises the moral conservatives more than the “vulnerable child” syndrome. And from pedestals of sterility children are supposed to grow up wise, mature and street-smart? For these moral conservatives, the more you bubble wrap the kid, the better – that’s why home-schooling is such a big hit here.
December 20, 2010
As far as propaganda goes, this was pretty straight forward. The Special Report in Saturday’s (18 Dec 2010) issue of The Straits Times lined up some foreign workers – labourers and domestic workers – in fine treads and stiff poses with the tag-line “Model Migrants”. The subtext was practically leaping out: Today is International Migrants Day – foreign workers can look good too, just like you, so treat them nice.
How strange considering that the Singapore Police denied local NGOs (HOME and TWC2) from distributing flyers to the public in a vehicle procession to commemorate migrants day on that very Saturday. Instead, they were told by the police to stick to Speakers Corner. These two events kick home a couple broad truths about our country. Firstly, we prefer style to substance – the image of a vehicle procession of volunteers talking about human rights and workers’ dignity is just too nightmarish to contemplate. Secondly, we prefer our foreign workers in controlled quarters like, say, the bomb shelter or The Straits Times, where their pearly whites are captured for posterity instead of the great urban outdoors where, godforbid, they start to speak for themselves.
But what about the Straits Times feature itself? The very subheading – Model Migrants – is inherently problematic. It recalls the US debate over “model minority” – a label tagged on to Asian-Americans who have been lauded by conservatives as ideal minority groups (read: ethnic groups that don’t cause trouble). These model minorities are, of course, contrasted with other minorities like African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans. It is a tag that more progressive Asian-Americans are rejecting because it makes them vulnerable to the burden of conservative values as well as a wedge between other ethnic minorities.
Of course here in Singapore we are all supposed to get the tired pun – ‘model’-as-in-vacuous-body-in-front-of-camera, not ‘model’-as-in-standard-to-aspire-to. But how does one know the difference when the two male labourers and two domestic workers have been scrubbed, mascara-ed, trimmed, groomed and plucked beyond reality? They are happy, healthy and trendy – just like all our labourers, coffeeshop cleaners, maids and sweepers are. And if you disagree, well, you just don’t get it. This is the establishment’s fantasy of what a foreign worker ought to be – smiley but silent. We sanitise everything, streets, politics, now foreign workers.
It speaks of our society’s deepseated inability (or refusal) to understand foreign workers on their own terms. The reality is just too political. A story of a maid slaving away in Singapore to feed her three children back home in Indonesia? Too guilt-inducing – its Christmas time for christsake. A labourer who has to work a year just to pay off his unscrupulous agent back home? Surely you can’t blame us for the corruption elsewhere? How about an 18 year old maid who is mandated to live life like a nun, work like a slave, cook like a chef, wash like a machine, and speak like a maiden – isn’t she the true model migrant for most Singaporeans?
No we need more than that. We need to plunk them in the clothes of the nouveau riche. We need to dress up the women like tasteless JC girls on their prom night. We need to match the guys up in ill-fitting blazers that only housing agents revel in. We need to clothe them in a Singaporean imagination before we can even begin to see them. Foreign workers need to be translated to us in the language of cheap consumerism and off-the-rack fashion because we are too middle class to comprehend a world beyond.
And of course we feel all the better for it. We have done our bit to ‘glam’ them up a little. Like angels from above we have granted them a brief respite from their otherwise mundane lives. But in the process we have mocked them. We have put them in clothes they could never possibly afford, in make-up they could never possibly have occasion to wear. We have said to them – suck in a taste of how the other side lives and remember it for this is the closest you’ll ever get. And we want a pat on our back for it.
November 30, 2010
I believe that the challenges that I had to face would not have been easier or harder if I were a male. Frankly I do not think there are different sets of challenges for males and females in the business world.
Olivia Lum, Hyflux CEO, TODAY 4 Nov 2004
In one fell swoop Ms Lum succeeded in doing what public universities around the world have failed to do – render feminist studies completely useless. When we’ve finished cheering, we’re left with a couple of thoughts – is the glass ceiling a myth? Are salary differences between men and women doing the same job mere ‘social constructions’ (read: fancy way of saying it exists only because we think it exists)? Are there so few women in corporate leadership positions because they’re inherently inept? According to 2009 figures from the Ministry of Manpower, men comprise 57% of the domestic workforce, while women make up the rest of the 43%. If Ms Lum is right, then we should see at least 43% of top corporate positions taken up by women.
One of the hazards of being a successful minority is the afterglow of cognitive dissonance. When a minority – be it gender, ethnic, religious or sexual – achieves success and recognition in a chosen field, he or she experiences the “Cosby effect”. Some years ago millionaire entertainer Bill Cosby publicly criticised African-Americans for not doing enough to elevate themselves from their socio-economic position. In return sociologist Michael Dyson accused him of not taking into account larger social factors that reinforce African-American poverty and crime like sub-standard schools, decreasing wages, structural unemployment and capital flight.
In the cases of Cosby and Lum, success stories are re-told as stories of hard work, personal intelligence and sheer perseverance, often leaving out other non-personal elements such as lucky breaks, good networks, fortuitous economic conditions, or even the failure of fellow competitors. Success is individualised and accorded a singular embodied source – me, myself and I. I did it on my own merit, and not with any structural leverage. The myth of the alpha males (or women) must, after all, necessarily rest on that which is inaccessible to others – that mysterious unquantifiable thing called talent.
And we see it all around. Malay MPs tell their fellow Malays to buck up. Australian Aborigine leaders exhort their communities to succeed like they have. Working class businessmen bask in tales of how they lifted themselves up with their own bootstraps. The Cosby effect has a pathological fear for the crutch mentality. The over-reliance on institutional prejudices and the uneven playing field as excuses for personal inertia is, of course, a real issue. However, instead of striking a balance between encouraging underprivileged individuals and calling out existing structural biases, it erases the latter and elevates the Self as example, not with a simple “if I can do it, so can you” message, but a slightly more self-centred twang – “If I can do it, I am different”.
After all, in many instances, the Cosby effect is not about an individual pointing to the pathway she has blazed for others to follow, but rather, it is an implicit drawing of attention to her exclusivity. That someone from a minority community has risen transforms her into yet another minority. But this time, it is a minority of distinction and honour. That person has, from her marginal status and against all odds, redeemed herself. And such state-friendly narratives of redemption and personal triumph are so much more inspiring and convenient to talk about than nasty old societal prejudices.
May 19, 2010
For a young nation, the passing of any founding father is a delicate affair. Heartfelt desires for collective mourning must resist temptations to slide into unchecked veneration, made all the more seductive given that founding fathers are never mere mortals but embodied ideals of what the nation believes it stands for. When we cry for great leaders we do so with tears of sadness for their demise and also with tears of joy for what they have bequeathed to us.
Indeed, the public outpouring of affection since the passing of Dr Goh Keng Swee on 14 May attests to the immeasurable contributions and sacrifices he had made for the country during his stints as Defence, Finance, Education and Deputy Prime Minister. The now often-repeated remark that there is hardly a public policy today that has not been influenced by Dr Goh is both a testimony to his stature as a policy renaissance man as to the generations of Singaporeans whose lives he has unquestionably improved.
But mourning a founding father is never simple. It is also an opportunity for nation-building. And when orchestrated by state apparatuses like the mainstream media, sensitive portrayals of the man and his ideas have a tendency to give way to easy caricature. Though it is true that greatness is necessarily itself a caricature, it is precisely because we are a young nation that such caricatures are unhelpful. Take for example Dr Goh’s decision to establish the Singapore Symphony Orchestra – a worthy initiative. Even though this initiative alone was enough for the mainstream media to declare him a lover of the arts, deeper analysis would show that Dr Goh was a lover of a particular type of art, specifically of the classical variety. His culturally conservative taste was limited to ‘high culture’ such as western operas and symphonies while showing clear distaste for more experimental or progressive forms of art. At a Peoples’ Action Party sponsored event at the Victoria Theatre on 7 April 1967, Dr Goh gave the following instructions for the creation of plays.
“Firstly, the themes of the plays should be in keeping with the realistic life in Singapore and its multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious spirit. Secondly, they must discard the crazy, sensual, ridiculous, boisterous and over materialistic style of the West. In the same way, the feudalistic, superstitious, ignorant and pessimistic ideas of the East are also undesirable. Thirdly, they must emphasise the spirit of patriotism, love for the people and for sciences, and cultivate diligence, courage, sense of responsibility and a positive philosophy of life. Fourthly, they must be free from crudeness in production, opportunism, monotony, vulgarity, copying and backwardness. Fifthly, they should provide noble, healthy and proper cultural entertainment for the people”.
His formula for art summons the spirit of Soviet Socialist Realism, demanding that the artist produce ‘truthful’ and ‘realistic’ representations of life as a vehicle for the ideological transformation of society. Indeed, it is easy to imagine that Dr Goh would not demure much from Lenin’s exhortation of artists to be “engineers of human souls”.
Why is it important that we point out Dr Goh’s specific taste in arts? Because art is inherently political, and to declare Dr Goh a lover and patron of the arts is to declare the art forms that he did not care for non-art. The death of any founding father demands greater introspection from the mainstream media. Instead we are often left with an unproblematic portrayal of a man who never harboured any biases or idiosyncrasies, thus underlining the truism that blandness is the side-effect of hagiography. Whether driven by the false assumption that to critique is to criticise, or that to point out contradictions in a man is to somehow make him less great, the mainstream media needs to be more self-aware especially in a digital age where Dr Goh’s speeches are but a few clicks away. Another such example was his take on education and examinations.
“I think there has been far too much emphasis on academic performance…The preoccupation in Singapore with examination results is unnatural and unhealthy, and we should bring it to an end as early as possible. After all, good performance in examinations only proves one thing – ability to answer examination questions” (The Straits Times, 6 March 1967).
And yet it was Dr Goh himself who introduced academic streaming in primary schools where examinations at the age of 10 had the potential to determine your life chances. Chronic exam fever, anxious parents, the rise of tuition culture, sleepless children, all of which turned into well-known signifiers of Singapore life by the early streaming policy under Dr Goh. Pointing all this out does not make Dr Goh’s contributions less significant or worthy of praise. As thinking citizens we would then ask: what made him change his mind? What national challenges compelled him to make such compromises? A thinking media would seek answers to these questions and, in the process, make him more human, more worthy of affection. The end result would be a more profound understanding of our nation’s trajectory and the trade-offs it has had to make in order to enjoy the fruits of success.
Recently published hagiographies of S Rajaratnam and Lim Kim San have gone some way towards cementing the legacies of Singapore’s founding fathers. They are an institutional response to a young nation’s yearning for heroes. Personalities like Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, S Rajaratnam, Toh Chin Chye, and Eddie Barker have been carved into hallowed statues in the great hall of our collective memory. For a nation so bereft of legends, we have transformed our first generation leaders from mere mortals into the embodiment of virtues, such that the mere mention of their names conjures up Old World values like “sacrifice” and “selflessness” believed to have been lost along the way as we forge ahead mindlessly in the name of Singapore Inc.
May 12, 2010
If it’s true that art imitates life, then the artistic framing of life’s sordid little misdemeanours has the power to romanticise all that is bad and wrong in this world. Iron Man 2 may not be a nominee for MOMA anytime soon but its unmistakeable ode to the wisdom of corporatism and the demonising of nosey grubby governments is especially jarring in light of the trail of destruction left behind by Lehman Brothers, Bear Sterns, Goldman Sachs and the rest of the other Wall Street league of superheroes.
In a particularly repulsive scene, Tony Stark, head of Stark Industries, is subpoenaed before a Senate Committee, headed by a lazy caricature of a dim-witted senator, a barely disguised nod to the Committee hearings that Wall Street bankers faced a few months ago. This time the Committee demands from Stark his iron-man suit in the interest of the American people, no less. With convenient celluloid timing and insouciant charm, Stark fobs off the senator with some throw-away line about the sanctity of private property and perils of prostitution- the latter a clichéd wink at the failings of modern day American politicians. And of course, Stark goes on to stick his oversized boot in the bad guys’ ass – of Russian origin this time round – saves the day, the world, Stark Industries and the grubby little senator has to kiss his ass (pin a medal on him – no, seriously) just before ACDC kicks off the credits roll.
The message is clear, even through the film’s orgy of colours, explosions and white teeth – corporations should be beyond the reach of greedy governments, politicians are sleazy and over-tanned, the government cannot be trusted to act in the people’s interest (but good corporations can), and if you let companies fight it out ala Stark Industries and Hammer Enterprise, good old market competition will prevail and present you with a shiny worthy winner. Everyone’s happy, kar ching! Capitalism rules!
And this corporate conservative wet dream permeates all the cool superheroes. Bruce Wayne is head of Wayne Enterprise which is a supplier of arms and technology to governments and, like Stark, Wayne is the celebration of individual genius. Wayne, as is Stark, the epitome of human prowess, a bona fide master of the universe who, through futuristic technology and sheer intellect overcomes evil where it may lurk. This heady recipe of technology, the glorification of man’s genius (white male, of course), financial wealth and corporate know-how is the grand narrative of capitalism and modernity. And it’s no surprise that working class heroes – Superman and Spiderman – are as bland as they are wimpy. Clark Kent and Peter Parker, bumbling misfits in the world of $5000 tuxedos and cocktail parties (the real centre of power), are as sexual and attractive as lice are to dogs.
It is no coincidence that the popularity of these superhero cum corporate masters of the universe has risen in tandem with the entrenchment of late capitalism and the industrial-military complex. After all, pop culture has always taken its cues from economy and politics. But while the best pop culture injects itself with parody and satire, it is hard to see Iron Man 2 as anything but a corporate mission statement mimicking pop culture. And it does it so well too. Nevertheless, it opens up the ideological portal to the potential triumph of fascism. And this is where it is most dangerous – a conservative corporatist call in the voice of pop culture celebrating freedom from democratically elected governments.
May 10, 2010
“You save one life here, but 10 other lives will be gone. What will your choice be?” That was Law Minister Shanmugam’s response to a question over the death penalty for drug trafficking. I have always maintained that one of the side effects of the PAP’s unshakeable belief that they are the brightest of the brightest is, ironically, the inability to hear how they sound when they present arguments to the public. Its as though the religion of meritocracy causes selective deafness.
In a dialogue session in Joo Chiat, someone brought up the case of 22 year old Malaysian Yong Vui Kong currently on death row for bringing in 47grams of heroine. Shanmugam defended the death penalty in Singapore, particularly with regards to drug trafficking, by making two points:
- The death penalty is a “trade off” for saving more lives which could potentially be ruined by drugs;
- Abolishment of the death penalty will send a signal to drug barons to use “young and vulnerable” drug mules because they may be spared.
Point 1: Right off the bat we are presented with two logical fallacies. First is the ‘false dilemma’ fallacy– abolish the death penalty and lives will be ruined! Second is the ‘appeal to fear’ – we need the death penalty or society will suffer. Beyond these two fallacies, Shanmugam’s argument lacks empirical evidence. We need to ask – are our current low levels of drug abuse in Singapore due to vigilant police work, stringent border inspections, and the pro-active following of police tip-offs? Or is it down solely to the glorification of the death penalty?
Until one can empirically isolate the causal factor for our low levels of drug abuse, one cannot state with any confidence, as Shanmugam does, that it is down to the death penalty. And if one wants to argue that it’s a package – a combination of good police work and death penalty – then we enter the realms of speculation, and this should be pointed out by the mainstream press. As it stands, the relationship between the death penalty and our low levels of drug abuse is but a mere correlation, nothing more.
Point 2: Drug barons already are using the “young and the vulnerable” as drug mules. The fact that there are drug mules entering Singapore despite the well publicised death penalty demonstrates its limits as deterrent! Drug mules are often people mired in poverty, debt, driven by blackmail or are drug users themselves. The death penalty punishes victims and not the real criminals – the drug barons themselves.
Shanmugan’s arguments just do not stand up to logical scrutiny but, as usual, the mainstream press does not point this out. Who dares tell the Emperor he’s not wearing any clothes? But just to show I’m not completely unconstructive, let me suggest how Shanmugan should have played it.
He should have gone with the ‘values’ argument. Oh, the death penalty is a practice found in many cultures and civilisations (blah blah blah) and most Singaporeans are used to it and want it (blah blah blah). Appeal to so-called conservative values and no one would have batted an eyelid. Unfortunately, he chose to appeal to our sense of reason and logic, and that is when things began to seriously unfold.