December 16, 2008
As 2008 draws to a close, nothing says “I’ve run out of writing ideas” more than the inevitable round-up of the year’s events. And nothing says “but I hope you haven’t noticed it” more than a weak attempt to rank these events as though they’re measurable by some arbitrary yardstick. It’s been an eventful year. But that’s like saying lots of “stuff’ happens in life. The question is how have the years events affected Singaporeans and which ones are likely to have an echoing effect in the realms of politics, culture and economics?
Top 10 Most Important Events of 2008 (in ascending order)
#10 Serangoon Garden Estate
A true-blue bourgeois tantrum. Oh, we have nothing against migrant workers, mind you. Of course we know they build our roads, clean our tables, and construct our buildings. Of course we know they do the jobs Singaporeans don’t want to do. Of course we know they are just ordinary people out to make a living. It’s just that they’re so, so…dangerous. Sigh, if only they were white. It’s hard to decide if class snobbery or racism was the determining factor in the gentry’s hissy fit over plans to build worker dorms in their neighbourhood; perhaps both given how the two are intertwined. And assuming the majority of the petitioners were Chinese, it suggests that all this talk about multiculturalism is really skin-deep, and that the dorms were just the right vehicle for traditional fault lines to surface.
#9 F1 Night Race
The F1 was not about injecting “buzz” into Singapore. It was not about making night scene exciting or vibrant. It was about ego. It was ego on a national scale. All global cities need to have big egos. They need to believe that they are important enough for all the globally important events to want to come to. If London, Paris, New York, Shanghai were put in the same room, there would be a knife-fight and inevitable bloodshed. And that’s the way it has to be. Global cities are all about bravado, balls and chutzpah. F1 was our ego moment. It was our moment to give KL, Sydney, Hong Kong and Bangkok the good old birdie.
#8 Death of JBJ
Death is deeply political. JBJ’s gave the local media a chance to wax lyrical about the man. Accolades included “fighter”, “spirited”, “passionate” and so on. And if you were a visitor to Singapore you would have thought he was a high ranking PAP minister. But what the local media did was to sanitise and rehabilitate him. It described him as a fighter but kept silent on what he fought against (PAP dominance and press compliance). It described him as a man who stood for what he believed in but kept silent on what these beliefs were (liberal democracy and freedom of speech). And so we got mindless epitaphs from hacks in the media who were only too happy to accuse him of political idealism when he was alive only to praise it when he was dead. If this doesn’t make you angry, then nothing else will.
#7 Outdoor Protests at Speakers Corner
It’s like getting a particularly slow child to complete a simple sentence – it may not be much but its progress. If we cast our minds back to the 1950s when demonstrations and protests were part of the local political landscape, and then hear PAP ministers tell us that it’s not in our culture to protest, you begin to wonder if they have been washing down their Codeine with too much national education. It’s time Singaporeans get use to the idea that demonstrations and protests are part of the political vocabulary in any democracy. Any mature and legitimate democracy must accept this. Two people should be mentioned here – Simon Tay for mooting the idea of Speakers Corner way back in the late 1990s and Chee Soon Juan who has done more than most to demystify public demonstrations. 20-30 years from now, they’ll be seen as one of many agents of change. The next move is to venture from the green turf and beyond.
#6 Population Growth of 5.5 per cent to 4.84million
The biggest increase ever in the island’s history. A 19 per cent explosion of non-residents. 34,800 PR statuses handed out in only the first half of 2008. 9,600 citizenships given out in the same period. The National Population Secretariat, which released the figures, said that integration would be a key challenge. I beg to differ. Integration is no challenge because integration is not the aim. It’s about enlarging the economy, getting in the right skills needed by the market, and filling up low-wage positions. And when the economy turns sour, it’s bye-bye Mr Volvo-driving-expat-who-shops-at-Marketplace! Come back when things get better, ya hear! All this talk about “integration” is extremely disingenuous. The white expats don’t want to integrate with locals, the NRIs don’t want to integrate with local Indians, the local Chinese don’t want to integrate with PRCs, and the whole of Singapore doesn’t want to integrate with Bangladeshi workers. People of the same national culture and language tend to converge. Convergence means excluding others. Go to any global city and you’ll see the same phenomenon. It’s time the government gets real with Singaporeans. The record population growth is so that we can make use of these expats and foreign workers for our benefit. It’s certainly not for us to integrate into one big happy Angelina Jolie family. Perhaps if the government stops harping about “integration” people will not be so turned off and do what people naturally do – interact.
#5 Global Financial Crisis
The crisis did not just wrecked financial havoc on local retirees. As painful as this was, the crisis will also be remembered for 2 important things: the emergence of Tan Kin Lian to fill the gap that the government could not, or wouldn’t fill, and the use of Speakers Corner for those burnt by the crisis to network and seek recourse. If you are one of those who believe that leaders are made, not born, then Tan is your argument-winner. At a time when no government leader stepped forward to make any substantial or helpful inroads to reach out to those effected, Tan got himself a soap box and started helping. Of course there are plenty of cynics who question his motive but none of them can be found in the crowds of retirees who he advises. The hope here is that more and more Singaporeans will step forth to help fellow citizens when the government does not. Meanwhile, the utilisation of Speakers Corner as a space to help and organize those affected has also questioned the way many conservatives saw the location as merely a place for wide liberal types to spout nonsensical stuff like human rights and democracy. This use of Speakers Corner is a testimony to a social truth – people will use spaces innovatively – and an indictment of political conservatives and their utter lack of imagination.
#4 Use of the Sedition Act
The Sedition Act was enacted twice this year. First Ong Kian Cheong and his wife Dorothy Chan were charged under the Sedition Act and the Undesirable Publications Act for allegedly distributing Christian evangelical publications that put the Prophet Mohammed in a bad light. The Sedition Act was also enacted against a local Chinese blogger who ranted about a commuter’s behaviour on an MRT train. According to reports, the blogger reacted to a man from an ethnic minority group sitting on the floor of an MRT train. The blogger, an undergraduate, allegedly wrote: “There he sat, unaffected by his surroundings, smelling like he didn’t showered (sic) in years and wore some really scary dirty clothes…”. In both cases, the alleged offenders are Chinese and middle class. Chauvinism is never so far away that it can be ignored.
#3 Mas Selamat’s Escape
I used to jog with my dad when I was a kid. We would always make a race out of the final stretch and he would always win. Then one day, when I was fifteen I finally beat him. I still remember the day like it was yesterday. It was my “moment of realisation” when it dawned on me that my father was not invincible and that I would surpass him, like all children do. Mas Selamat’s escape was the nation’s “moment of realisation”. The PAP government nurtured generations by building itself to be infallible and society believed it. That was the order of things. Then one day on 27 Feb, our collective “moment of realisation” came. On the surface of things, it is embarrassingly simple – a man escaped from prison. But what it signifies is so much more – that the state is neither panoptic nor wholly competent. Take away these two and we struggle to recognise the PAP state. The question is, are we ready to be more skeptical and critical of the Nanny state? Or will leaving Nanny behind be too hard for us? It would be foolish to believe that the state has been rendered incompetent because of this incident. However, its sheen of authority is gone and this is the best chance for us to review the way we think about it.
#2 AIMS Report
Otherwise known as the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society (AIMS), the report has the potential to change the way the internet is utilized in Singapore. The report had several recommendations, including relaxing laws on Internet election advertising; the repeal of legislation outlawing so-called “party political films”; establishing an “independent advisory panel” to determine which films can be banned because they contravene the “public interest”; and to lift a ban on 100 “undesirable” websites. The report also recommended “limited immunity” for “civil and criminal liability” for defamation in online media. How many of the recommendations the government, which is currently studying the report, will take in is open to question. It’s unlikely all recommendations will be accepted but many are optimistic given the fact that former head of Straits Times, Cheong Yip Seng, was commissioned for the task.
2008 opened rather rudely when it was announced that Singapore’s annual inflation rate hit a 25-year high of 6.6 per cent in January. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) was the highest since March 1982 when it soared to 7.5 per cent. Food prices, which carry the highest weighting in the CPI, rose 5.8 per cent while transport and communication costs rose 6.9 per cent. And as with all inflations, the lower-income households were the hardest hit. And to make matters worse, the bottom 20 per cent of households had seen their incomes shrink in the last few years. The number of hard-luck cases has risen dramatically over the years, and while homelessness needs a multi-factorial explanation, it is increasingly clear that Singapore is not the happy utopia where hard work will automatically usher in just rewards. Inflation may not be a solvable problem but the way we handle its social ramifications as a nation will tell us what kind of people we are.