Singapore’s So-Called Moral Majority

Call it what you will — if there are some among us in Singapore who fashion ourselves the conservative majority, the silent majority, the moral majority — that line, and its consequent political implementation, is bound to fail. It is not enough to view what we are currently witnessing as a ‘culture war’, as ‘us vs them’, or even as a fundamentalist Christian vs secularism issue within a solely Singaporean prism. We need to view this as an extension of a larger, global struggle for rights on the one hand, and for bigotry masque ring as ‘religious liberty’ on the other, then be appropriately alarmed by what the future holds if this so-called faith-based oppression of minorities goes unchecked.

On Singapore’s theocrats.

Call it what you will — if there are some among us in Singapore who fashion ourselves the conservative majority, the silent majority, the moral majority — that line, and its consequent political implementation, is bound to fail. It is not enough to view what we are currently witnessing as a ‘culture war’, as ‘us vs them’, or even as a fundamentalist Christian vs secularism issue within a solely Singaporean prism. We need to view this as an extension of a larger, global struggle for rights on the one hand, and for bigotry masquerading as ‘religious liberty’ on the other, then be appropriately alarmed by what the future holds if this so-called faith-based oppression of minorities goes unchecked.

Like its theological counterparts in other parts of the world, namely the United States’ very own ‘pro-family’ Moral Majority lobby, our evangelicals’ are on a march to frantically reclaim the “family” from the “majority” and the “morality” from the “society” they claim to represent. Unfortunately, our very own culture warriors have neither the numbers to form the majority, nor the authenticity of ‘morality’ whichever way they swing it. On top of Christians forming no more than 18% of the population, the number of Christians of the fundamentalist stripe is even smaller, making them the minority within the minority. These numbers would not be a question at all if they didn’t also try to style themselves as the so-called majority whose ‘norms’ must be accepted as gospel.

To their minds, the imagined enemies are the “LGBT activists” who apparently have “militant agendas”. There are calls across the land by their activist pastors to alternately wage “spiritual warfare“, or to wear shirts of a certain colour on one specific weekend each year. Their defence, they claim, lies in how “if the minority fights them, they have to fight back, to defend God / home / family / their children / the future / the moral fabric of society”.

It is not necessary to establish who started it (even though there is plenty of evidence contrary to their claims). It is sufficient to merely look at some of the ‘demands’ by the so-called moral police. What do they want?

  • to protect their children — and everyone else’s children — from the corrupting influence of books with themes they are uncomfortable with (today: gay penguins and alternative families, tomorrow… anything they feel opposed to as well?)
  • to pushback the perceived invasion of ‘community norms’ by a perceived minority (today: LGBT issues, tomorrow… what minority rights will they oppose?)
  • to establish faith-based alternatives to ‘controversial topics’, such as sex education, often at the expense of scientific proof — look at our abstinence-only sex education, for one
  • to reinforce the superiority of the ‘majority’ and its ’norms’. To date I have not yet heard a definition of what either term refers to. Is it a racial majority? Religious majority? Some conflation thereof of a minority within the racial majority which has the majority of socio-economic-political privileges? A reinforcement of the importance of ‘family’, hetero-normativity, compulsory heterosexuality, and the necessary rejection of all other narratives which do not fit the One Man One Woman Two and a Half Children and a HDB Flat Grand Singapore Plan?
  • above all, they want the State to affirm their special status as heterosexuals whose ‘majority’ opinion matters; they have always wanted no less than a theocratic state

It is the last demand which is the most worrisome.

Have Dominionists Hijacked the Christian Conversation in Singapore?

Throughout the entire saga the truly terrifying thing has been to hear again and again, the chest-thumping of the so-called majority. I do not know what they stand for, and ‘pro-family’ is just highly politicised polemics borrowed whole from the American Right, and we all know how well that’s gone. They’ve run the whole gamut from political action (LoveSingapore’s ‘write to your MP!’ circular) to political hijacking (Lawrence Khong’s cornering of former Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong); to the steeplejacking of secular organisations, to religious outfits masquerading as secular organisations providing scientifically dangerous sex education (Liberty League), the concerted effort to remove books from the National Library —as the hypothetical ground is ceded and Singaporeans, they sense, are becoming more secular and liberal, the louder the chest-thumping gets.

Some well-informed and extremely educated detractors of the LGBT movement (including the downright homophobic and bigoted), justify their oppression and discrimination by saying the more rights the LGBT community receives, the fewer rights the people of faith are going to have. Just as the ‘pro-family’ lobby here imitates their American counterparts as if by mimicry (no surprise, their theology and world view is exactly the same, and imported whole), what we are witnessing here in Singapore is the leap from outright anti-gay lobbying to the sort of political action which tries to define their bigotry as “religious liberty” (just as it happened here). As the cogs of progress turn, there is bound to be widespread panic among the fundamentalists — Jonathan Rauch describes this group in the United States to be gradually turning towards some form of Social Secession, and I think we see some form of this behaviour here in Singapore as well. This frantic pushback arrives in the form of political action to ’take back’ these lost rights of theirs, ostensibly by denying others access to any of their own; as well as in the start of an ideological pontification on what it truly means to be religious and to live in the developed world. We can’t take lightly the threat that these fundamentalists pose to our secular society: from withdrawing their children from the school system in order to shield them from the evils of the world, now apparently popular among certain types of evangelicals in Singapore, to actual political action in the form of what we have seen Lawrence Khong try to do — the main struggle Singapore faces today, is who gets to decide, especially in a multi-cultural, multi-religious society such as ours?

The difference between privilege and rights is sometimes a tough one to navigate. When those with a lack of rights, such as the LGBT community (or any other less privileged community in the world), asks for more of what they did not have before, it is said that we are infringing upon the rights of the Majority, the Faithful, or some conflation of the two. The erosion of privilege is not the same as the gaining of rights. The latter arrives at some indeterminate point in each developed society’s lifespan, eventually, and this is going to be an interesting ‘battle’ to watch. Some people like to call it the culture wars. That would indicate there are clearly demarcated camps, but there aren’t. There are issues we fight over: abortion, sex education, homosexuality, ‘alternative parenting’. But who forms either side of the camps?

It is interesting to note that here in Singapore just as it is in the United States, the clear flag-bearers of the culture wars who take it upon themselves to ‘sound the trumpet for spiritual warfare’ come from very similar religious backgrounds: they are a minority even within their faith. By and large they come from a group of Dominionists who have around the world emerged among mainline Protestantism as a force to be reckoned with — and one with actionable political aspirations. To summarise present day American-influenced evangelical Protestantism, these Dominionists represented by the likes of Lawrence Khong, Derek Hong and every pastor who has ever ‘sounded the trumpet’, are Biblical literalists with the sort of theological training which might make raise the eyebrows of some classical theologists and Bible scholars and clergymen. There are also those who belong to the “C3” school of thought, yet those groups seem less interested in the struggles of ideology and more keen to see to the financial development of their congregation (and their own coffers). Lawrence Khong’s entire crusade — no, his entire ministry — appears to be based on C Peter Wagner’s apostolic movement which has severe theocratic overtones. Like his mentor, he believes the faithful are called to ‘retake’ seven domains, or the Seven Cultural Mountains, with frightening prospects: Arts/Entertainment, Business, Education, Family, Government, Media, Religion. His wife also seems to believe that God sends HIV as punishment because, gays (screenshot here), though Nina Khong has since deleted her post).

What drives the Dominionists to wage crusades in Singapore, of all places, against perceived slights in a supposed Culture War? The Seven Cultural Mountains are supposed to be moved by Dominionist Christians, everywhere they go. Before the arrival of the end times, they are supposed to exert the Church’s influence in all of the above-mentioned fields. A cursory glance at some of the key members of the anti-gay Facebook pages suggests affiliations to churches and groups which preach this line of thought. This is important because whenever their assumptions are challenged, they are quick to claim their opponents are anti-God and anti-Christian and otherwise unfaithful heathens, yet nothing can be further from the truth. There is a difference between opposing an entire faith and theology — and opposing a specific cult-like subset of that faith with demonstrably questionable ethics in political arenas. Today their battle is about homosexuality and ‘alternative sexuality’. What will it be tomorrow?

It is important for all other types of Christians to be bold in criticising the political overtures of these cultists with political aspirations. Holding your tongue from politeness, reserving your judgement until it affects you — all of those approaches only serve to distrust your religious moderation, and play into the camps of those who would claim your faith. Even if it does not affect you on a personal level — think about what this means for your faith. Even if you are unsure of where you stand theologically on homosexuality, think about what you feel about using the name of your God to justify the propagation of hatred. You can call that out, at the least.

The Myth of the Rich Gay
Underneath all of this, I suspect there is a strain of homophobia and ignorance entwined with class envy.

A quick scan of the ‘debates’ people are currently having on the actively anti-gay Facebook pages and groups set up to fight against Pink Dot / propagate the wearing of the shirts of the colour white / establish solidarity against penguin- themed library books, shows a train of thought arise time and again: gays have it good. Gays are rich. Gays go to the gym. Gays are promiscuous. Gays drink. Gays don’t have the responsibility of a wife and two kids and family to look after. Gays can do anything they want (because they have money, education and are affluent).

Not only is that line of thinking untrue, it’s also dangerous (and somewhat patriarchal). I’ve also heard some politicians remark, privately, that they don’t have to do anything to ‘fix housing for gay people because they are rich enough to buy condominiums so they’re OK’. Caricatures cannot and should not affect policy-making,

No doubt these people have barely met any real LGBT people, and have believed that the only group that is visible to them — caricatures of limp-wristed and/or well-toned gym-going gay men — are the only ones they are waving their flags against. Not the overweight butch with an over-sized shirt who was beaten up by a group of men for just walking down a street and offending their masculinity by holding her girlfriend’s hand. Not the trans-man who lives in fear of being ‘found out’ when he uses the men’s toilet, no matter how long it’s been since surgery. Not the straight-acting gay man who hides a part of his identity from a large number of his social contacts and family, because they will never understand and coming out takes just too much courage, something he doesn’t have at the moment but may have in the near future. Not the twenty-something year old young man who secretly wants to become a woman, but doesn’t fit the bill of someone you would think wants to become a woman (he loves playing football, barbecues and makeup — at the same time). Not the majority of everyone on the LGBTQ spectrum — lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, and un-categorizable — who are really just regular people living in Singapore who have to fight to get ahead at work and in life, find someone incredible to spend their lives with, make decisions on whether they should live ‘at home’ or ‘move out’ and struggle to make rent if it’s the latter. Sometimes, they even go to the church (or the mosque). And they love your God every bit as much as you do.

Discrimination vs ‘Religious Liberty’

I keep coming back to this.

Whenever I read a stupid internet comment saying, ‘but gay people are not discriminated against’, what am I supposed to feel?

Am I supposed to feel like we’ve taken one step forward and two steps back, that when companies like Goldman Sachs and Barclays have openly affirmative policies, bigots perceive it to be discrimination against… them?

Am I supposed to feel that as a tax-paying citizen of this country, my value is not worth quite as much as a heterosexual version of myself?

Am I supposed to feel sorry that when I have children in the near future, I don’t know what kinds of books people want to keep my own children from — and I don’t know what these people would do to them? (Will my children be bullied by intolerant classmates bred by intolerant parents, the kind that tell their kids it is okay to laugh at their classmates who have no fathers?)

There is an underlying rhetoric among the anti-gay lobby: do not rub your sexuality in our faces, and we will not hate you.

On paper, that sounds like a reasonable request. In practice, not only is it not practical, it is also unfair. It is this line of thinking which leads to uproar over openly gay football players kissing their boyfriends (like in the case of NFL player, Michael Sam). Apparently, kissing our partners in a public manner is just too much ‘rubbing in your faces’, even if heterosexual sporting stars do that all the time. We’re also supposed to not host picnics like Pink Dot, because when 26 000 people of varying sexual orientations show up, it means we are being disrespectful to society’s norms. As a woman, all of these requests for ‘civility’ and ‘respect’ make me nauseous — it is these same requests which dictate that women should never be heard unless she is being respectful, womanly and ‘nice enough’. Nobody would ever make that request of someone in a position of any privilege.

Every single day I read the newspapers, the Internet comments, the commentary on all of these topics, and I sigh a little.

The Media Development Authority of Singapore would rather reject a comic book because its eponymous character has a gay best friend who had a gay wedding; ignoring completely that said character had performed a valiant act also to save his best friend from assassination.

The National Library Board, in its flip-flop over gay penguins, sends the message that stories about love take the backseat to the sexualities and identities of who exactly is doing the loving — be it adopted families or gay families.

You can defend your homophobia as much as you like, even pulling the “but I have a gay friend / sibling / relative” card, but at the end of the day know this: your gay friend / sibling / relative has to withhold an important part of who he or she is from you, and you will never truly know him or her — not until you demonstrate a willingness to accept their whole identities (which isn’t necessarily the same thing as accepting their sexual expression, though that ought to be a natural progression in any form of acceptance).

According to Singapore mainstream media, we’re never just gay, we are “The Gays” and “A Gay”. We lead a “gay lifestyle”. Today, my gay lifestyle involved waking up too early, kissing my gay girlfriend (thankfully she’s gay) goodbye, and boarding my gay plane to go do my gay work to eke out a gay living just like everyone else, gay or not.

I was brought up within a Dominionist church environment, which is why I think I speak out so harshly against it. I refuse to let both my faith and my person be usurped; and most of all I refuse to stand idly by while my secular country is being assaulted by people who claim to speak for the majority.

Sometimes, I ask myself why I live here. I think of all the times I have met gay and lesbian Singaporean couples who have said their farewells to Singapore, not because they wanted to leave, but because they are never going to be able to lead a life they want for themselves. In a way, the bigots are right — we can lead a mostly unrestricted life, which can be comfortable, even meaningful. Yet think about this for a second: what kind of life is it if all you can aspire towards is some form of co-habitation, and a life full of legal grey areas in everything from property to taxes to children? Whenever I speak to these gay Singaporeans abroad, who had tried so hard to make a life for themselves in New York or Stockholm or anywhere the liberal winds blow, there is always a tinge of sadness. If only.

As I get closer to the age where the thoughts of joint ownership of pets and property invade your mind, I too am worried. My gay lifestyle surely does not fit in here; it goes contrary to the ‘community norms’. I am worried that we will never take a strong stand against those who wish to impose their values on the rest of us. I am worried that my children will never get to read a book about themselves in their national library. I am worried that the trumpets sounded by those who are quick to claim ‘religious liberty’ and trample upon the downtrodden, without ever once ceding any of their privileges, will sound louder than the trumpets that sound for justice and equality, as our pledge says.

That as we reinvent ourselves a nation at 50, we will all have planks in our eyes while decrying the splinters in others’ shortcomings — yet what room is there for debate when one camp sees itself as the divinely appointed?

As the country turns 50 next year, I turn 30 — significant milestones for country and individual. Everyday I try to do my part in the struggle for justice, in the way I know how — through technology and social activism. Everyday I ask myself why I live here.

I have to remind myself that I am here because this is home, and that if we don’t stand up to the theocrats, they will be pose a greater threat than any threats of the militant variety. In the struggle for Singapore’s next fifty years, it is time to draw a line in the sand and to stand up for secularism, now more than ever. As the global debate on social issues shifts and fundamentalists, of any religion, attempt to shape their concerns as issues of ‘religious liberty’, it is important to note this: when minorities, whether sexual, racial, ethnic or otherwise, receive more rights, it does not in any way take away from the rights of the so-called ‘majority’ — those are privileges.  If spirited arguments are going to be had on these topics, at least have the gumption to call it what it is: a privilege you are trying to defend, by the majority, for the majority. Then substitute “LGBT” for anything else — women, Muslims, migrant workers — and see how much water that holds.

It’s often said that Singapore’s next fifty years is going to be an interesting battle, and I agree. Bring out the knuckle-dusters, as the old man would say.

An Open Letter

On February 21, I wrote an open letter to the Health Minister, CC-ing the Prime Minister and the Law Minister. This was prompted by the Feminist Mentor’s own open letter. I found LoveSingapore’s pro-377A guide very helpful for this purpose — it gave me everyone’s email addresses in a single page!

OPEN LETTER TO

Mr Gan Kim Yong,
Minister of Health
Singapore

Dear Minister Gan,

A few days ago you made a step which many of my peers and I applauded. You let it be known, in a written reply to Mr Lim Biow Chuan’s question about the Health Promotion Board Sexuality FAQ, that you would reaffirm the Government’s commitment to the nucleus family but also stand firm on your belief that the FAQs did not do more than affirm certain scientific facts about human sexuality as well as disseminate much-needed information about STIs.

In the ensuing turmoil which followed after the FAQs first came into public spotlight leading up to the point where you have probably received countless letters from concerned Singaporeans about your ministry ostensibly leading the way in normalising homosexuality, to where we are at the moment: receiving a letter unlike the others, one which will express in no unclear terms that young, secular Singaporeans like myself will always make our voices heard in continuing to champion for our Republic’s secular values, even if we have not often given enough credit or praise to your government and to your party in recent times.

Cultural “wars” have been waged and fought in many developed democracies across the world; secular values that impart equal weight to all of the important freedoms we hold dear — the freedom of speech, love, action as well as of thought and of belief, the freedom to live a life of love across racial, religious, geographical as well as gender barriers — have always triumphed. Those who have let their cultural “wars” wage on unchecked have, as the United States is testament to, seen their societies grow increasingly polarised.

As a young lesbian Singaporean who has returned home after many years abroad despite the odds: despite knowing that I may never be able to have a family recognised by my State, despite knowing that as a “single” person of a “minority” our public housing laws unfairly discriminate against me, despite knowing that I may never see significant institutional change in my lifetime, I refuse to leave.

I refuse to leave as I refuse to let the country I hold dear be held hostage by a group of religious bigots who take it upon themselves to proclaim my sexual orientation, if normalised, necessarily leads to a “regression” of Singapore society especially when they base their beliefs on Judeo-Christian beliefs which, I must remind you, a majority of Singaporeans do not prescribe to.

HPB in its FAQ provides timely, factual information to parents as well as to questioning younger Singaporeans. In its current form, our existing sexual education programmes do not provide much by way of actual useful information outside of “abstinence”, which is a conversation which has already been hijacked by a militant group in our society that has demonstrated its continued ability to organise and to politicise their pet topics. Should ground be ceded once again, we risk being completely unable to reach out to young Singaporeans who need information on sex education, STIs and other important subjects because we would have failed them and lost our credibility — it seems only rational to worry that they would look elsewhere for information, as I did as a young lesbian woman when the schools I attended uniformly pretended that my needs did not and should not exist.

These groups also ask for civility and tolerance accusing other groups who disagree with their interpretation of Judeo-Christian history and family law of demonizing their right to their beliefs. By purporting to speak for a “silent majority” of Singaporeans and by building upon their network of religious organisations in order to advance a political cause, as a young Singaporean I am concerned about what this means from a sedition perspective. As a Christian, I do not condone a fringe Protestant grouping taking it upon themselves to speak for all Christians — nor for all Singaporeans.

The public needs to see prompt action demonstrating that the State will not stand for potentially seditious and religiously divisive viewpoints which tolerate vitriolic, daily verbal abuse as evidenced by the posts of Senior Pastor Lawrence Khong on his public Facebook page — directed towards tax-paying secular Singaporeans who just happen to form a minority.

I understand this divisive topic is not one our society can come to immediate consensus upon, and am open to a variety of differing viewpoints and debate. Yet as a politically concerned young secular Singaporean who also happens to be lesbian, I cannot sit idly while I witness religiously-affiliated groups wage a cultural “war”, one which no one else is interested to fight.

I urge the HPB, the Health Ministry, and the Government of Singapore to remain steadfast in its affirmation of its commitment to the family as a nucleus of society, while also continuing to make progress in areas such as making available scientific facts on human sexuality which can save lives as well as inform parents and young Singaporeans in need.

I am not a member of the Pioneer Generation, but I am a member of the Millennial Generation who desires to see small steps in social progressiveness so that the Singapore I call home will grow into becoming the inclusive society we want to be. This does not have to begin with an immediate consensus on sexual minorities, but we must make a stand that we will not tolerate religiously-affiliated hatred that a majority of Singaporeans do not belong to nor agree with.

Yours Sincerely,
Adrianna Tan
Millennial Generation (Tech)

Culture Kitchen 2: Little Myanmar

If you are anything like me, you’ve walked by Peninsula Plaza all the time and perhaps even entered it when you’ve needed to buy cameras and stuff. You’ve probably also wondered about all the wondrous things there. What is the paste they are mixing, what is this delicious-looking food and how can I have some of it, if only I knew what to order?

I’ve had the luck to spend more time in Myanmar in recent times, and I absolutely adore the country. I figured it would be only fitting to feature the community in Singapore for the next Culture Kitchen, seeing as that there’s an entire building in downtown Singapore that caters to that community.

With a bunch of intrepid volunteers’ help, I’m happy to announce Culture Kitchen 2: Little Myanmar. We’ll have lunch featuring the best-of Burmese cuisine, you’ll get to meet and mingle with the Burmese community, we’ll also screen “The City Where They Live”, a documentary about Meiktila’s community and youth leaders and how they worked to heal the city after the horrific communal violence of 2013. We’ll then do a Q&A with the filmmakers live from Yangon before kicking off a walking tour of Little Myanmar.

Sound good? Get your tickets here, there are just 19 seats left.

Little India Urban Renewal Plan

I believe an urban renewal and community reorganization of the Little India precinct can achieve the following: (a) the creation of public spaces to be shared by Singaporeans, residents, tourists and transient workers alike (b) the improvement of law and order without the draconian hand of law (c) lead to an increase in utility and happiness among the residents and voters who live there and the workers who make it their home every Sunday.

An 8-point urban renewal and community reorganization program:

1. Two small bus bays on either ends of Little India with staggered time slots for arrivals and departures for the Sunday visitors; special EZ-link style cards to be issued just to workers to expedite boarding and remove sources of conflict between drivers, conductors and workers

2. Two drop-in centres on either ends of Little India staffed by grassroots volunteers in the Moulmein-Kallang GRC who have the power to escalate issues of grave concern (such as the non-payment of salaries and other labour abuses) to the relevant personnel at the ministries; and the empathy to refer smaller problems to the relevant non-profits who can help

3. Prepaid SIM cards targeted at Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani workers should come with pre-programmed hotline numbers to the drop-in centres. The universities can provide a source of volunteers for their community service requirements. Students who speak or are learning Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and Tamil should be given preference.

4. An amateur cricket tournament or league can be held at the fields in Little India or even at the stadium.

5. Participating F&B outlets can be part of an association of Friends of Little India. Singaporeans and residents who are part of the program can pledge to give an additional $1 each time they visit, which goes into a giant pot for Sunday food. Workers can buy a nourishing meal at a discounted rate of $1 or $2, subsidized by the consumers in the program

6. Free monthly walks around Little India run by volunteers. Community centres around Singapore should be encouraged to book walks so their residents are able to experience a different culture and become familiar with Little India.

7. A mobile library with books and magazines from Bangladesh and Tamil Nadu to start with. Later on, an expansion of library program could mean short certificate-granting courses that can be supported by govt agencies interested in productivity and labour skills.

8. A monthly outdoor movie screening which shows Tamil, Bengali and Hindi movies, programming to be determined.

Idealistic? Yes. How to find the money? Dunno also. I don’t think being cynical or apathetic to this is going to do very much good either.

For now I will continue to work on whatever I can do, in very very tiny steps.

The Real Singapore Conversations

I posted this on Facebook the night of the incident. Re-posting this here for posterity.

Projects like Culture Kitchen — and a few more up my sleeve — began with the uneasy realisation that something was amiss in Singapore as I knew it. Was it that it was crowded? Bursting at the seams? Was it that amongst that crowd we now no longer knew each other’s names? That our old ways — of easy categorisation, institutionalized racial profiling swept under a veneer of “open, meritocratic Singapore where anybody and everybody can succeed” — no longer held true? That our old social contracts: shut up, take the money, no longer applied when the money ran out?

The truth was we were blind to our shortcomings. We are the nerd that made it to the top of the class and is somewhat cool now but won’t ever discuss the things we’re not good at, like, brooking dissent. Or criticism. Or opinion.

When the immigration floodgates were cast wide open for nearly a decade, we were told: “We got it.”

When our planners believed demography to be a function of race and ethnicity instead — when we believed for a second there that as long as we brought in the *correct* type of people, social cohesion would follow — we did not have a voice.

When our infrastructure creaked under the weight of all of the people we did not expect, we realised that train lines not only do not build themselves quite quickly enough: people also do not build ties with each other quite enough.

When popular and political opinion turned, the same people who told us they got this told us they still got this, and now chased the people who came to build a home away.

And we the people failed to reach out to each other to learn that despite what we felt about our government, that should not really matter: oppose the policy, not the people who came here.

The last time in our history there were overturned vehicles and fires was at the very start of our journey as a Republic.

Tonight the vehicles burn for different reasons: the episodes are incomparable.

Yet it will, mark my words, point to yet another turning point — the start of a real national soul-searching, this time as a Republic in a mid-life crisis.

Earlier today the ruling party attempted to search its soul. I personally believe it is struggling to define its continued leadership role in a Singapore that is evolving faster than it is.

When shit hit the fan and (anecdotally) my friends of minority races and nationalities faced open hostility in my country, both physical and verbal, we were told: “we got this.”

But tonight I urge all of you — Singaporeans, Singapore residents, foreign workers, anybody who cares about Singapore in any shape or form no matter where you live or what colour your passport and identity card is — to help us rise above racism and blame and xenophobia because as we have seen tonight, the first riot in decades is taking hours to wind down even in the most controlled city in the world. But when it is all over, I think we need to have an honest conversation with ourselves — the real Singapore Conversation. Not the sanitised version.

Don’t let them say they got this. Whether or not they’ve got this is of no great import. It’s that we can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines while someone else puts out the flames, in every sense, that is.

Summary

I posted this on Facebook. Cross-posting it here for posterity.

It’s all over folks. Here’s what we do know for sure. (I stayed up for the press conference)

– A fatal accident involving a Singaporean bus driver and an Indian national sparked off a riot (about 400 people)
– The call was made at 9.23pm. It was resolved within an hour.
– 27 suspects from South Asian countries (did not say where: good call) were arrested
– No Singaporeans were involved in the rioting
– The deceased is a 33 year old Indian national. Condolences to his family.f
– 300 police officers responded
– Gurkhas and special ops were involved
– This was a case of ‘rioting with dangerous weapons’
– They didn’t say what. But mentioned glass bottles being thrown.
– This was not premeditated
– Bus driver not arrested. Further arrests to be made.
– No weapons were fired. Maximum restraint was used. (Good job Home Team)
– Explosions were caused by burning vehicles
– Projectiles were thrown at rescuers who were trying to extricate body from under bus
– Riot sparked after the bus was pelted following the accident
– Police will investigate all aspects, including the accident
– DPM Teo says those involved will be dealt with fairly, firmly, strictly, in accordance with the law
– Police will step up in areas where ‘foreigners congregate’ (I’m sure they don’t mean Marina Bay Sands)

Stats:
– Stats: 10 police, 4 SCDF officers injured; bus driver and conductor in hospital, 2 “unaccounted for” (waiting to hear what this means).
– 9 SCDF vehicles damaged, 5 vehicles burned
– Private vehicles were also damaged. Unclear if this count is included in the above, or separate

Please keep the families of the deceased and injured in your prayers. When we wake up tomorrow we should ask ourselves some hard questions, and if you think that’s just something that happens with “foreigners” and “those people”, I implore you to think harder.

A New Way Forward, Fists Forward?

Update: About 20 minutes after posting this, news erupted that this had happened. I will be posting a second part to this piece shortly.

The nation waited with bated breath to see what our ruling party would emerge with after the much-anticipated party convention this Sunday. Titled “Our New Way Forward, A Call to Action”, the People’s Action Party was set to define among its cadres how it would tackle the challenges it — the PAP, not Singapore — faces.

They emerged with 8 points (link).

  1. Dedicate themselves to serving the nation and advancing the well-being and interests of Singaporeans.
  2. Strengthen the Singaporean identity, where people of different races, religions and backgrounds live harmoniously together for a better Singapore.
  3. Create opportunities for all Singaporeans to build a better life.
  4. Called for sustaining a vibrant economy, enabling quality jobs and improving living standards for all.
  5. Uphold an open and meritocratic system, so that everyone has opportunities to fulfil his or her potential.
  6. Strive to preserve social mobility so that all Singaporeans, regardless of social backgrounds, can achieve success in diverse fields through their efforts.
  7. Build a fair and just society, where the benefits of progress are shared with all Singaporean
  8. Resolved to be a responsive and responsible government — responsive to tackle immediate challenges, and responsible to look beyond the immediate and create long term, sustained success for Singapore.

In short, the party resolved to do everything exactly what it has resolved to do since 1959 (give or take a few communists here and there).

Given that it’s a party convention and it is not election season, this was not a time to create a manifesto or debate policy, I get that. It was a time to affirm its core values, which it has. It was also a time to acknowledge its challenges and internally decide how it can evolve to meet them. It appears they chose the path of taking on those challenges — head on.

It’s a little puzzling that the mouthpiece chosen to address exactly this should be that shining light of the PAP’s fourth-generation politician, Chan Chun Sing.

Our political process is addicted to our military men turned Prime Ministers and top leaders, which is all well and good (well, not really but that’s another story for another day), until you realise that military men never lose their uniforms.

Chan Chun Sing wants to do battle. On every street corner. Every cyberspace corner. In mass media. Social media. And so forth (link). With you. What’s more, he will not concede the space — physical or cyber. At all. Just before that he was saying the PAP had to improve its communications…

What’s wrong with this picture here?

Vocabulary is everything. Thus far our leaders have demonstrated an outsized inability to understand just how they don’t understand the media. Used to owning the message right through to the last soundbite through old forms of media control, that ship has long sailed and they do not understand they are no longer even on the boat. Their ministers struggle to explain themselves, even with well-meaning messages. Politicians of all people should understand the importance of the soundbite. The difference that vocabulary makes. Instead we parade the lack of charisma and military style buffoonery to be hallmarks of Singapore governance: is it because if someone isn’t slick and sophisticated, we should believe him more?

I don’t need Mr Chan to be sleek. I just don’t want to have to do battle with him. I’m not going to win. All he has to do is feed me army food and I will concede defeat.

I’m just a concerned young citizen of this great nation who wants to know if they have any ideas about how they are going to evolve as a party which is quite frankly losing its sheen. Perhaps even its ideas. I want them to concede the space. Move over somewhere and let the other guy talk. Maybe not even the other guy, that may be too much to ask of them for the time being — let some other guy talk. Like the guy who doesn’t want to fight me on the street corner.

I’m not yet convinced that they are completely irrelevant. But I am alarmed by where they are going. For a start I would like them to wean themselves off their addiction to legal action against private citizens who have something to say. That’s not a fight they’re spoiling for; that’s a long-range missile against people who only have fruit to throw at you.

I was hoping to hear more introspection rather than more of the same. The one thing they got right: they must improve their communications.

Because quite frankly I am tired of being told that I read it all wrong*, they didn’t really mean it that way, their words were taken out of context — I sometimes wish they went back to the good old days when they actually knew how to control the media. Now they just look like bumbling idiots.

* Someone, somewhere, is going to say that ‘battle’ was just a figure of speech, probably after the ‘netizens’ howl about it. I stand my ground. Say what you mean, pick neutral words, try not to put down anyone while you’re doing it, and if you’re getting it wrong again just read a dictionary.

Life Is Short. Have A Kit Kat.

As Ashley Madison, the world’s leading extramarital dating website, announced its plans to expand to Singapore, our minister for social and family development Chan Chun Sing was roused into making the following proclamation on Facebook:

“I do not welcome such a website into Singapore. I’m against any company or website that harms marriage. Promoting infidelity undermines trust and commitment between a husband and wife, which are core to marriage.”

The Minister’s personal views on marriage and infidelity are his prerogative.

And yet his Ministry has been sorely lacking in leadership on the following aspects:

  • Wherein the real gross monthly income of our lowest 20th percentile of employed residents rose only 0.1% each year from 2002 to 2012 (link)
  • Where an estimated one-quarter of Singapore households would be under the poverty line, if we indeed had one (link)
  • Where his Ministry’s professed pro-family policies have arguably led to myopic national policies in housing, marriage and fertility — through their inability to include or even consider more socially progressive definitions of family
  • Wherein he still oversees the archaic institution that is the Social Development Network whose sole aim to ‘promote marriages and nurture a culture where singles view marriage as one of their top life goals’ has no role to play in 21st century Singapore’s marital or fertility choices, leading one to conclude that even if we cannot fix our present day fertility shortfall, our stubborn efforts to continue to search for solutions with 1980s blinkers (fertility measures which failed back then, by any measure), can only signify acceptance of failure or a complete lack of gumption or courage or innovation or all of the above
  • Not to mention our anecdotal problems with problem gambling among the lower income classes (see first point about dismal rise in income for these groups) — but such stats are not available — yet going by the anecdotal number of anti-loan sharking signs in the heartlands these days it isn’t hard to make an educated guess;

With all of these in the bag, I would rather this Minister focused on actually fixing our social problems than pre-empting one through empty Facebook-moralizing — especially when the would-be adulterers have avenues other than Ashley Madison to carry out their own personal choices.

And in the periphery, we apparently now also live in a Singapore where Christian fundamentalists are still allowed to hijack the national agenda for sex education and even the employment act these days, leading one to conclude that if the shining stars of the PAP’s fourth generation are such, and our current crop of opposition leaders are what they are, perhaps I would much rather live in a country full of adulterers with conviction who know how to get what they want (at least we can maybe have more babies!), than one led by moralising leaders with no ideas nor even the ability to get things done.

Stop talking, stop moralizing — the institution of marriage isn’t going to collapse, the internet isn’t going to break, our children aren’t going to go out and have affairs in droves, MILFs aren’t going to pop up around every street corner (if only they did!) — just go fix the problems we elected you to fix, please.

Why I’m Hosting Culture Kitchen

This is a project which has been on my mind for some time now. We’ve been planning it for a while. A part of this is a response to a worrying trend of anti-foreigner sentiment (c.f. the responses to a drive to raise funds for victims of last year’s Downtown Line accident: here and here).

The other part — which I believe to be more important — is the need for us as a nation and as a society to come around to the idea that we are not alone in this. Immigration is a touchy issue everywhere. How we choose to deal with this now will be something which has repercussions in the future. Evidently there are many schools of thought on this.

Personally, I believe the day people stop wanting to come here to live or work will be the day we should worry. That would only happen when we become verifiably a land with no opportunities whatsoever, which cannot afford our people, and our guests and newcomers, a better life.

When I was in university, my closest friends were in the Indian/ Nepali/ Pakistani (i.e. desi) contingent. Homesick, they sought out food which reminded them of home. Usman Restaurant at 238 Serangoon Road, near Mustafa/Desker Road, was one such place. It opened late, and most nights we would walk there from school or from the SMU hostel to tuck into comforting, always hot naan, roti, dal fry, haleem and other delicious Pakistani/North Indian dishes.

Anil, my university buddy from Kathmandu, and I were big fans: pretty soon, we got to that point of patronage where we had our own tab, and the workers and owner of the restaurant were on our speed dial and Facebook. We made friends.

When I went abroad for about five years, every time I returned I had to come back here. I started bringing other people there: my parents, other family members, family friends. One incident which stood out for me was in how I had brought a younger friend from China to Usman. She had barely eaten Indian food in her life, and now she was in Singapore, about to start at another local university. I saw her go from trepidation (from not knowing anything about the food nor what to order), to familiarity. It turned out that while I was away, she would return religiously with other friends from China, and also from Singapore, and she would order the food that I had ordered for her because she loved it. Eventually she began to have friends from India, too, and this was something that she now had in common with them: she really loved the cheese naan and the chicken kadai there.

Something struck me, and has stayed there ever since. When I read about Conflict Kitchen, something clicked. I realized we could synthesize — and borrow — some of the food and art as dialogue aspects, and localize it for our own context.

There were plenty of challenges. What came up often was: how do you know you’re not already preaching to the choir? The bleeding heart liberal wing, the English-speaking, the people like us, already believe in migrant rights and all of those things. What good would it do to tell these people again about diversity and inclusivity, when they already believe in them too?

The second challenge was place. We wanted to do it in a public place, and Little India was top on my list. But this is Singapore, and there are a thousand permits… so that was off the table.

Eventually we came up with a first Culture Kitchen which is, I think, simple in its objectives and easy to understand. The main premise is, quite simply, come have dinner with our migrant workers. We sold out tickets in two and a half days. We went to Little India last Sunday, and distributed free dinner invitations. (Singaporeans/expats/residents pay $5.)


Dinner invitations for migrant workers.

The response was enthusiastic, and we were fully subscribed. I am delighted to announce that we have an pretty balanced mix of Singaporeans/expats/residents and migrant workers.

What’s the objective?

I’m doing this because I’d like to help facilitate more of those moments. Moments like when a Singaporean-Chinese and a Nepali student like myself and Anil, are able to make great, lasting friendships with people from various parts of Pakistan who have chosen to make this place their home, and with each other. Moments like when the mainland Chinese friend is able to glean a closer understanding of a completely foreign culture, only by way of her time here in Singapore. All of us have just this in common: we live here. Some of us, like me, were born and brought up here. Others come for a short while for study or work. Others will do that and choose to make this place home, when the time comes. I don’t think we need to split any hairs over who is a ‘true blue Singaporean’ and who isn’t: I truly believe that.


Bangladeshi workers in Little India signing up to Culture Kitchen.

I may be idealistic in that respect. Some of the undercurrents of Singapore politics disappoints me greatly. I believe that we can be welcoming of foreigners, and I also believe that we should be able to have mature political dialogue over our immigration policies. It doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. A few days ago I posted that I disliked the term, “Singapore for Singaporeans”. I think that if you were to replace either term with any other race, nationality, religion — it would be unacceptable. It is, to me, fascist, loaded, designed to exclude. This is not the Singapore I want. Immediately I received a torrent of online feedback, wanting to know if I would be happier with being a second class citizen in my own country. Again, this is not a zero sum game.

What would be detrimental is if we were to continue tolerating the racist and xenophobic sentiments and never call them out for fear of being termed a traitor (or an SPG, as I have been called many times in this context). What is already detrimental is agitations of the vocal minority which wants to see no foreigners here at all, or only the ‘right kinds’ of foreigners. What is already detrimental is the unfortunate lack of gumption in the political establishment, which seems too bothered by the vocal minority, in dealing with the push back not by doubling down on better policy, but by apparently taking an iron-fisted approach. Closing the doors every time someone stages a protest is not the way forward.

What is the way forward? I don’t have a specific answer.

I can, however, build communities and movements. This is one of the things I know I can do well, and I want to lend my technological and organisational skills to building a movement which will stand up for a Singapore which includes. The Singapore we want to see. While I will continue to call out the xenophobes every time they emerge from the hills, I will also spend twice as much time on helping to create a counter movement which is positive in nature. I don’t have an ROI, I don’t have an end goal, I just want to bring people together.

The first Culture Kitchen will feature biryani. You will realize from the name itself that the event is titled Biryani/Beriani, for good reason. One dish, many stories, many geographical and cultural interpretations. But still a tasty dish which everybody can get behind. There will be dum biryani from Pakistan, and there will be Malay-style chicken briyani. All of it is halal. There will be peas pulao, for the vegetarians among us. I’m not sure what can happen over biryani, but I think if I don’t try, I’ll never know.

So let’s rock up on Sunday, keep calm and eat a ton of biryani, and make new friends. Thanks for the overwhelming support.

From the Fringe

450 likes on Facebook. This may offend your political sentiments, but I’ll stand by this.

I’ve had more thoughts on the anti-white paper protest since the weekend, I’ll need to write it down into a slightly longer piece. But here’s what I posted on Facebook that got passed around a fair bit.

Point is, Singapore is at an interesting stage in our politics and civil society and it’s going to take a while to smooth out the kinks. Where I stand is, I don’t think, extreme in any way — but the values of race and inclusion are very, very important to me, and sometimes that is perceived to be too pro-immigration.

***

I was told today that I lacked moral courage for not going to the protest; that I was merely a keyboard warrior. I was also told ‘see? no racist or xenophobic speeches!’

Hmm, let’s see…

1. I have volunteered for years with the opposition and I have been on the frontline of elections. What have you done for your country except to happily throw it into the dustbin of nativist trope?

2. The political figures and figures on the political periphery (cannot confuse the two as there were too many political also-rans and wannabes best kept out of Parliament) involved should know what associating with Gilbert Goh means. I am especially heartbroken because some of these figures also purport to be the only party to stand for ‘human rights’; the other because it was inaccurately portrayed to be THE xenophobic party due to the unfortunate former membership and candidacy of said event organizer.

3. There has been a lot of moral relativism around today’s protest. There should be none. Someone said Gilbert’s stance is a lesser boo boo than the PAP’s bigger boo boos. Or something similarly puerile to that effect.

The only boo boo there is is that there should be any moral relativism at all. The racial profiling of the foreigners among us is vile and must be condemned unequivocally. There is no intellectual or high brow anything to this. It is basic human dignity.

Associating with someone like Gilbert Goh, a mere demagogue and an opportunistic one at that, merely cheapens the cause you and I both care very much for: how we can find an alternative to the White Paper which we believe will spell disaster for Singapore.

4. Some of you attended and said you needed to be there to (1) express your disagreement against the White Paper (2) shout down the xenophobes. It is regretful we have an impaired democracy in which a citizen finds he or she cannot sufficiently be heard except by gathering in one sanctioned park. It is even more regretful this democracy is so impaired that bright men and women consider the right to assembly and to be heard more valuable than the demagoguery involved.

5. My allegiance to The Cause has been questioned because I refuse to toe the ‘us vs them’ line of reasoning. I am old enough to remember the extreme political repression of the generation before us, but not old enough or idealistic enough to buy into the ‘anything, anyone but the PAP’ school of thought. I am a patriot first and an opposition supporter second. I am worried by the perception that not buying into the lock stock and barrel of all anti-PAP rhetoric necessarily means one is a traitor, spy, mole or PAP agent (I have been accused of all of the above).

Addendum: the more I do this stuff the more I think we need to grow the opposition not because I hate the ruling party. But because when they stop being the best guys for the job (and they’re starting to seriously show signs of that), I don’t want this country to descend into the mob. It’s capacity and the long game we need to build, not the Tan Jee Say REJECT EVERYTHING model. I will now actively seek out an organization which better fits this worldview.