Doing the small things well

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.

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A tweak for morality

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.

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

  Level Condition Animals
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”.

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.

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?

Edward Heng

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.

Maxie Tay

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.

Our Model Migrants

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.

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.