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.
September 2, 2008
The romanticisation of the working class is a universal past-time. It begins when specific everyday actions of the working class are interpreted as acts of resistance, heroic struggle, or tragedy; actions that are framed with linear time and unfolding towards self-realisation. Such actions are taken to characterise the sentiments of an entire, often diverse, group; turning the romanticisation process into an erasure of complexity and the expression of homogeneity.
Jack Neo has emerged as Singapore’s most popular and populist film-maker whose work has become synonymous with the Singaporean heartland. His stories about the plight of the Chinese Singaporean working class in the fast-paced global city are often soaked in socio-political critique and cultural moralism, and presented straightforwardly in a conventional style. His protagonists are predominantly Chinese males who are poorly educated and dialect- or Mandarin-speaking, and are often portrayed as victims of global capitalism and/or the PAP state’s education, bilingualism and foreign talent policies. While his production values are considerably lower than his contemporaries like Eric Khoo or Royston Tan, they exude an economical aesthetic that coats his films with a patina of no-frills authenticity. Meanwhile, his success at the box office has not only established his commercial viability but also shows that his stories about heartland life have struck a chord with the average Singaporean. A large chunk of Neo’s charm and box-office success has come from his romanticisation of the Singapore working class.
All of Neo’s Chinese working class protagonists are essentially well meaning, even if sometimes morally misguided, but nevertheless always redeemable and thus able to achieve absolution or reprieve through self-realisation by the end of each film. Hence, whatever struggles, hardships and luckless escapades they go through, his protagonists are guaranteed of a happy ending. In Money No Enough (1998), Ong (played by Mark Lee) is a happy-go-lucky renovation contractor who borrows a large sum of money from illegal money-lenders. He is confident he can repay the money-lenders because his friend is supposed to return him some money borrowed earlier. However, when Ong’s friend absconds, Ong is unable to pay the money-lenders and gets a beating from them. These money-lenders later interrupt a funeral but are conveniently arrested by the police. Having avoided the nasty consequences of illegal money-borrowing, Ong goes on to set up a car-polishing business with his friends, and the film ends with the business achieving some degree of success.
Another example of Neo’s luckless-working-man-trying-to-make-good narrative is found in The Best Bet (2004), a cautionary tale on the evils of gambling. Tan (Mark Lee), a hawker and incorrigible gambler, dreams of striking it rich. After several attempts at lottery and gambling, Tan starts a business with his two friends, Yong Shun (Christopher Lee) and Richard (Richard Low), which very quickly folds up, landing all of them in debt. Tan is arrested for trying to borrow money from illegal money-lenders but eventually and facilely strikes it rich with a winning lottery number. The film closes with Tan partnering Yong Shun and Richard in a bak kut teh (herbal pork rib tea) business which prospers. In One More Chance (2005), a story about convicts and second chances in life, Zhou (Henry Thia) is a factory supervisor cum burglar. Though a criminal, Zhou is also a filial and devoted son who cares for his senile mother. After a spell in prison, Zhou decides to turn over a new leaf but finds that he is not accepted by society. To top it all, his romantic overtures to a warden officer is rejected. Driven to desperation and fuelled by the desire to fulfill one of his mother’s wishes, Zhou gathers a couple of his ex-prison mates to plan for a burglary. Nevertheless, everything works out for the better in the end and the film closes with a heavy dose of moralising.
Neo’s Chinese working class protagonists in all three films fall into the cycle of misdemeanour and redemption. It is a formulaic account of human failing, self-realisation, struggle and finally the endowment of material largess as signifier of success. This is not surprising given that economic status is one of the most recognisable and respected signs of legitimacy in capitalist Singapore. Neo’s Chinese male heartlander is vulnerable to hardship yet resilient, crude yet kind, materialistic yet sentimental, able to overcome his socio-cultural disadvantages through hard work or sheer luck. In their everyday struggle against state institutions and structures, they offer themselves as heroic figures who can overcome socio-economic adversity, serving as metaphors for rebirth, self-awakening and self-purification for a nation of consumers devoid of a ‘golden past’. Hero-making, Anthony Smith informs us, is necessary for the transmission of values, culture and customs from generation to generation.
Neo also laces his heartlanders with authenticity by contrasting them against middle class English-educated and English-speaking characters. In Singapore theatre, television and film, several stereotypes have emerged as literary devices to encapsulate different cultural groups and socio-political interests. One of the most persistent and recognisable stereotype is the English-speaking middle class character, typically as the epitome of political and bureaucratic power (civil servants), or Western values (proponents of liberal democracy and freedom issues), and economic success (well educated professionals and beneficiaries of global capital). Neo may lionize the heartlander by highlighting “Western values” as foreign and alienating.
Take for example a scene in I Not Stupid (2002), where a young precocious female Chinese student stands up in class to declare that she wishes she was a Caucasian because “if I am a Caucasian, I won’t have to learn Chinese anymore”. This prompts the Mandarin teacher to launch into an impromptu lecture on how Mandarin is the key to personal and national identity, and without mastery over the language, the young anglophile would not understand who she is or where she comes from. Explicit in the teacher’s discourse is that ethnic Chinese who are better versed in English and the ‘West’, like the young student, are likely to be rootless and unauthentic.
Lastly, Neo is fond of illustrating heartlander authenticity by setting up clashes between Chinese- or dialect-speaking protagonists and English-speaking middle class characters in order to accentuate the contrast between the beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries of globalisation and PAP state policies. In Money No Enough (1998), Keong (Jack Neo), a Mandarin-speaking, senior and more deserving worker, is passed over for promotion in favour of his new colleague, Jeremiah Adolpher Lee, who has an overseas (read: Western) education. As the film unfolds, it is revealed that Lee’s command of English and overseas education triumph over Keong’s qualities such as industriousness and sincerity in the corporate world. This perhaps echoes the sentiments of the Chinese-speaking majority who may feel that their nation-building sacrifices have been glossed over by the English-speaking elite who have made the Singapore Story one that celebrates only the achievements and successes of the English-proficient Singaporean. Neo hints at this in the film by having the overseas educated Lee deploy his command of English to embarrass and put down his Chinese-speaking colleagues.
Neo’s celebration of the Chinese-speaking working class must be framed with the cultural politics of globalisation. Individuals, groups and communities who claim authenticity are, in effect, positioning themselves as an embedded quality against deterritorialising and delocalising forces. The local-global and heartlander-cosmopolitan binaries not only draws attention to the spectre of loss and transience in the global city, thus reaffirming the human need for a sense of the real, but also highlights the vacuum in the Singapore national identity that has not yet been filled.
[This is an excerpt from a longer paper. Footnotes and references have been removed.]