Sunday, October 21, 2007

Democracy for Thee, But Not for Me

About forty to fifty years ago, if we were to take an average Singaporean and send him back to the Singapore of the 1960s, he would have witnessed a very different Singapore from the one he knows now. The obvious sights that would greet him will be the signs of poverty, old small shophouses, the deprivation from basic human welfare, and the dirty roads and rivers. But among all of these, he would also have realised something that has not been spoken about in the history books. For one, he would notice small and large scale protests and movements against the British colony. Perhaps, he might come across the ethnic riots that he has been constantly reminded about. That might trigger his rusty knowledge of Singapore history. But he would also witness, to his surprise, a different kind of protest and movement. He will not only be privy to the protest against the British colonists, but also the protest against local parties, such as the PAP. Perhaps, even to his shock, he would notice protests against the leader highly regarded to be responsible for Singapore's success, Lee Kuan Yew. In other words, there were protests of the kind he is familiar with, and there were also counter-protests of the kind he has no knowledge about.

Fast-forward to contemporary 21st century Singapore, our time-traveller, upon his return, will have to face a deeply problematic question: what has changed throughout these years of development that, by now, protests are not only extremely rare but also illegal? What or who has also been responsible for the drastic change of the socio-political system? And, if he has concern and interests for his peers and community, what has been the net effect on the general population?

These questions are fit for a few PhD theses, hence I won't cover the extensive history here. But, without ignoring these questions and putting them in context, let us review the current situation that exists today.

A shameful atrocity has recently been the catalyst for recent developments in Singapore, which illustrate a similarly shameful record of human rights and freedom here. The Burma crisis, of which is a poor label for what could be close to a massacre or mass killing, deserving of legal prosecution of a state, has sparked the sentiments of decent-minded and humane Singaporeans. Among the various events were a single-man protest by Dr Chee Soon Juan, a gathering of (seemingly dominant Western) expatriates, a protest leading to a petition by Burmese nationals residing in SIngapore and a multi-school campus coordinated protest. These efforts have been met with state police resistance, all of which have been documented parsimoniously by Alex of Yawning Bread.

Despite the improbable likelihood of having any effect on the plight in Burma, and even more unlikelihood of changing the Singapore's state generous treatment of Burmese officials, these efforts should be encouraged and applauded. Instead, the repressive measures taken against these groups have been justified with the excuse that it has a "higher potential to stir emotions and controversy" and "law and order concerns". One can contrast the irony between both countries with laughter if the Burmese government justified their brutal and ruthless crackdown on the Buddhist monks for reasons of "stirring emotions", "law and order concerns". Unfortunately, somehow in Singapore, that hypocritical line is taken seriously.

The hypocrisy becomes more unbearable when we then examine intra-state policies towards dissent. As documented by Martyn See, history has been strangely fortunate to provide contrasting examples. A protest for consumer rights has been approved and allowed to proceed without any hiccups. Apparently, the government or police has not been reading the outpour of "stirring emotions" from the newspapers or forum newsletters about unethical consumer practices or rising transport and basic utilities costs. And in its bid to woo over foreigner talent, expatriates have been given the liberty, a priceless freedom that can't even be afforded by its own locals, to hold their own entirely legal gathering while locals have to bitterly suffer the repressive state measures against them.

Returning back to our time-traveler, were he to be so enlightened and interested to review the history of repression against local movements (whether for poverty, gay rights and women rights), he would only come to the conclusion that the entire democratic system in Singapore has been reversed on its head. Whereas years ago, contesting political parties, ordinary citizens, and members of the community from all sectors would have the liberty to hold gatherings and protests, by now, everything has been subverted for the contemporary interests of the day. Namely, the duties of citizens are to consume, perhaps fighting for their rights to consume more! In terms of their social status, they don't even hold the same amount of rights and privilege as someone from a different country, as long as they don't serve the over-riding burden placed on them: make more money than everyone else in the world. Everything else is secondary, especially people who suffer from severe crackdown by gun-wielding soldiers. One almost wonders if these kind of ruthless and atrocious actions are tacitly endorsed from a state leader who gave his thumbs up to the Tienanmen Square massacre and also ruled in favor of Burma's leading democratic activist to stay in house arrest.

Among academic circles, a popular topic has been the prospects of democratic change among Southeast Asian countries. In reference to Singapore, it was hoped that the middle-class (given their overwhelmingly majority) would rise up to the cause and champion for their rights. A prominent political expert on Singapore was, however, dismayed and found that they were only willingly to fight for their consumer rights, instead of the fundamental rights that have been the foundation of citizenship under the nation-state system. Though Alex's article ends on a more optimistic note that these prospects still exist, and they certainly do, it is still open to speculation if most other Singaporeans will be offended by the hypocrisy that lies in front of them. And if they will be offended enough to campaign for democratic change.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Vacuous Evidence & Emotional Heart-Pulling

In the midst of the current debate, one that is clearly one-sided in its presentation of evidence and showing, there has been a serious lack of intellectual and logical analysis from those who would esprout and support the fictitious notion that wealthy political leaders can only perform better when they receive huge generous salary increases. Yes, there are particular members of our class-stratified society who deserve pay increases (i.e. social workers, teachers, and the more "unglamorous" positions of the civil and social service sector), but what has transpired is pure robbery from the rich political elites of those who truly serve and contribute to society. There have been some who have been bought by this seductive line of absurd reasoning, which is not only disturbing but also requires a strong and indisputable counter-response. Unfortunately, in the current socio-political climate, the consistency and strength of well-constructed arguments do not guarantee the right outcomes, but nevertheless we all have our part to demolish this sad artifice of implementing policies backed by vacuous evidence and emotional heart-pulling.

The latter is directly easy to answer. As typical of the ruling elite, their weapon to opposition voices and dissent is through personal attacks and just as similar, their defence is to position themselves as personal saints. The key warning here to all is that one should not be deceived into believing that it is ok to support ridiculous salary increases simply by virtue of the Prime Minister's flowery display of charity. By that same rationale, the poorer-income families, who have been shown (through years of research) to donate a more disproportionate amount of their household income to charity organisations, deserve to have enormous salary increases as well. These are the games of a politician pulling on his supporter's heart-strings, to convey an image of innocence and benevolence, but at the same time refusing to acknowledge that he is also the benefactor of a huge government corporation from his family members. The moral ground is not on the same platform for if he is allowed to plead for recognition of his virtuous character, then he is also entitled to be personally attacked for a false show of hypocrisy (e.g. why donate your surplus salary now in this political situation, rather than before? Why don't you donate more? Which independent organisation is going to ensure that you adhere to your promise?) and more than likely, false promises.

Even if it were to be true that these ministers live up to their words, it wouldn't in the least bit prove that increasing their salaries over 30% is justifiable. Charitable acts are only praised when performed in the risk of personal deprivation, and not when someone is trying to gain social approval for an unacceptable proposal.

That's where we get to the central argument which echoes like this: Unless political leaders receive this pay rise, which is competitive with the private sector, we will lose talented politicians of all kinds and the entire government will crumble in the face of civilisation. Or as a concrete example as expressed by an interlocutor, nobody will work in the civil sector if there are more monetary benefits in the private sector, e.g. banker, lawyer, corporate manager.

Of course, the whole obvious question about why people work in occupations that are not the best-paying, but provides other satisfiable personal goals (e.g. job satisfaction, passion and interest) get thrown out the window, and we are led to assume that people simply go where the money is. If that's true, then fine, one can be led to accept the argument that the best teachers, police officers, road sweeper, hawker food store man, admin assistant and whathave you are those who receive the most pay. What is the objective? To ensure that we have an educational, health, retail and administrative service that works for the people of Singapore. But somehow this argument fails unless the lines are changed to Ministers and Public Service.

But even before accepting this poorly concocted sense of reality, there is a really simple hypothesis being adduced here; Namely, provide conclusive evidence, whether through causation or corrlelation, that higher pay salaries will lead to improved social benefits. And obviously, this is a gigantic task to prove, because by increasing the salaries of the entire government, by direct effect, the public should expect better healthcare, more efficient transport costs, a booming job market or economy (that is more than just an increase in contract retail jobs) and higher (but easier) standard of living. But more importantly, all of these performance indicators have to be measured by the people independently.

Unfortunately, for our misguided ministers, asides from self-produced propaganda or lazy research and analysis, they will not find any study that demonstrates the stated hypothesis. No country or society has yet to experience a 50% increase in their health well-being, personal and household income, or a easier standard of living by stuffing in more money into the pockets of politicians. In fact, ironically, in other parts of the world, I believe they call it another word. I leave it to you to think for yourself what it is.

Further, not barring the excellent criticism and analysis produced by Alex from Yawning Bread, in regards to the bench mark system, there remains the simple question: why should the Ministers' pay be tallied against the private sector? Certainly, the production of their labour is different; for the corporation, it is profits, and for the public sector, it is the well-being of the public. There is no basis as to how or why Ministers deserve the same credit reward from the results of the private sector. The reverse logic certainly doesn't apply: the corporate sector don't attempt to set their salary figures according to the public sector range, and if they did, they wouldn't be able to produce any deducible reason for it.

The cry for talent is also a tool of deceit and dishonesty that ought to be teared down. The problematic feature in this argument is that somehow, there is a recognizable set of traits, skills, intellect and expertise when it comes to politics and governance. But when one is invited to have a closer look at the real picture, the citizen will start to realise a few things: 1) as far as any talent is displayed, it is not from the sole mentor-and workman-ship of the Minister but the collaboration of many social workers, research analysts, and other concerned members of the public, including voluntary workers, who reach out to these high men and women in high chairs for their political will and action; 2) the system of governing a country involves not any special set of skills and leadership but simply the bestowment of political and economic power; 3) that even if these are the most untalented, incompetent and ungifted Ministers, there wouldn't be any democratic and accountable way to ensure they suffer the consequences of their policies.

Let's make it crystal clear. One does not need an argument against increasing the wallets of big fat (lying) cats, you only need an argument in favor of this policy shift, of which is not only ludricious but is void of any sound logical reasoning and empirical evidence. The analogy is perfectly plain: If a member of the family (for sake of example), the father were to proclaim that he deserves to own and utilize a higher disproportionate amount of the household savings, because he has crafted a safe and harmomious stable family through his brilliant intellect and talent, we would simply laugh, because the truth is so clear: Not only is there no basis on such a judgment, but his performance as a caring member of the family is not determined by how much resources he owns. We certainly would think there will be far better men equipped for the role of fatherhood in the case. On a microlevel, the picture is not so significant but when you move up to the socio-political realm, where there is curbing of freedom of speech, where there is no independent verification of the performance and results, when people are not enpowered to hold these powerful men to account, then you know it is a lot more serious than just stuffing some priviledged elities with more money.

The principle of democracy, one that is barely upheld here, rears its head once again. For if a majority segment of the population can't even organise, design and propose their own countries' policies with transparency and accountability, then talk is cheap. Unfortunately, the citizens of Singapore are paying outrageous prices for it.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Critical Reading of 'Just Follow Law'

Before I proceed to criticise social commentator Jack Neo's latest film "Just Follow Law", let me preface my argument with a few comments. As a movie-viewer, I did find certain scenes humourous, but I nevertheless think this is one of the poorest film Jack Neo has made. Although it is intended to be a comedic take on Singapore and the government (or more specifically, civil servants), it is well-understood that Jack Neo attempts to covertly (or not, depending on the scene) communicate a social message through his films. Lastly, as I have been away on such a long hiatus, I wish to "take "baby steps" by writing this critical piece, considering that I may have lost my "edge" after so long. For reasons of work and confidentiality, I will have to blog more carefully. Nevertheless, I hope this entry will be of entertainment and educational value to you.

Obviously, there will be some spoilers, since this is a critical reading from a movie review.

"Just Follow Law" is basically a movie that attempts to capture the life of civil servants in the Singapore government. It's basic premise is the lives of two civil servants, one played by Gurmit Singh, a working class electrician, and the other is played by Fann Wong, a high-flying career-woman in the Events and Promoting Department. Their workplace is a pseudo-workfare agency set up by the government. Throughout the film, the two will learn more about each other's lives, and as typical of all Jack Neo's films, they learn the value of family, children and though not as emphasized, marriage.

If you've watched this film, you would be familiar with the ridiculous plot twist that provides the catalyst for the two to learn of each other's lives. Never mind that I personally found it poorly executed and a copy technique (many other Hollywood movies have executed the same "soul-switching" plot device), but what little resemblance of reality that continues from there is absent. What the viewers are treated to is a farcial view of the civil sector and a poor representation of politics and the law in Singapore. Further, Jack Neo, who represents himself as a "voice" for the heart-landers or working class, only performs a severely bad dis-service in helping his constitutencies.

The single and largest misconception or myth that the film has perpetuated in its portrayal of civil sector is that it is made up of a bunch of old and dirty crooks all out to swipe and backstab each other, with flying daggers (or arrows in the film) shooting all over the place, and incompetent bosses who have no control over their subordinates' cunning and mischevious actions to undermine each other. While there is no denial that there are politics and possibly the "covering of backsides" (as the film calls it) in every work place, the reality of working in the civil sector hardly matches up to its celluloid counterpart. For one, the civil servants themselves are very aware of the ideological apparatus that operates within the government sector, and that is a given for there is extensive training (and indoctrination) to ensure they perform their roles. Even if the civil servants themselves wish to resist the ideological grip, they can't fail to escape it as there is daily feedback and discussions back-and-forth regarding their work. And that is the second biggest myth the film perpetuates, that civil servants are going to undermine and risk the retrenchment of an entire work department, much less one person, in the workplace. Sorry Jack, but whatever place you are working at or got that idea from, this is far from your wildest dreams. If anything, the civil sector has to be kept under such a tight and strict work culture that anybody daring to undermine a person of authority or an entire department will be out of their minds. Even if someone were to harbour such intentions, the constant flowing back-and-forth bureaucratic work process would have released such a "cat in the bag".

There are also some nit-picks to address. An electrician working in a government agency is not a civil servant, in the strict sense of the term (though there are admin and support staff). Senior authorities can not cancel bonuses without prior justification (not to mention, the paperwork involved). Neo's caricarture and generalization of career-women as cold and heartless with no compassion for family values is extremely one-dimensional and silly. Further, his innocent and saintly picture of the Minister really doesn't do anything but perpetuate the myth of the "baby-carrying" and "luck-giving" happy-going Minister. I won't comment any further than to say that it is a major distortion of the fact that politicians are not just mindless happy-go-doers but have certain interests in mind and follow a consistent set of ideology that will raise hairs on the backs of most ordinary people.

But even more important is the shameful portrayal of the working class by someone who claims to speak up for them. The character portrayed by Gurmit Singh is too blantantly a bum and a fool who is narrow and self-centred. With such a character, it doesn't matter how handsome or rich or charming the individual is, there will be very little reason to sympathize with such a off-putting character. On the other hand, to indirectly insinulate that working-class individuals who can't afford to pay for expensive hospital bills for their own children as "useless fools" is not only deeply insulting but illustrates what a poor understanding Jack has of his fan-base's needs and hardship. Many working class individuals, even despite being re-educated and working nonstandard work hours, contract work schedules, OT hours, or slave day and night picking up bottles and working in McDonalds (just like his "lao ze bao" in the film) survive day and night on their measly earnings and wouldn't be able to afford such medical costs anyway.

What is Neo's solution to this whole national mess? Entrepreunership. To show off his antidote, he has the same clumsy working class individual absent-mindedly and mistakenly conceptualize a "device" that eventually wins him an award in creativity. I truly fail to see how such a ad hoc and risky venture can possibly be the cure-all for structural poverty and further, it's based on such an unrealistic solution for working-class families to get out of poverty. Just invent something, you dumb and useless ass, and you will get rich. Interestingly, this has been a constant theme in all of Jack Neo's films (such as the car washing finale in Money No Enough!).

Is there anything to savage from this carcass of lies and propaganda? Well, namely two scenes could have been its saving grace. The first is that scene where the old lady mishandles some documents and places them into her bag, which is an obvious reference to a political fiasco in the last elections. The second, which really should have been expanded on and awoken people's consciousness, is the finale, where one of the workers seeks employment in an ex-civil servant's company. How did this government worker eventually own a private corporation since it is against the law? Through his wife, the ex-civil servant speaks. If that obvious reference escapes being undetected without irony and laughter, then it is really a sad case of how much the general populace in Singapore accepts such propaganda being shoved down their throats. If anything, that reference should have sparked off a national debate.

But no, perhaps the film-goer will quietly laugh and accept the "common sense" being portrayed and communicated to him/her. S/he will then be brought along for a ride, yes, a funny and humourous entertaining ride, but sadly one where the person will confuse the difference between reality and fiction. Deep down, Jack Neo is nothing but pro-PAP, and also a staunch supporter of consumerism, elitism and commercialism (Want to count how many corporations are behind sponsoring his film? Watch the end credits) and a member of the (famous Marxist term) bourgeoise. Yes, he does point to some contradictory and ironic positions the government has taken, and perhaps there are a few initiatives the government should take to reform itself, but to give advice to a totally fictional simply bad medicine and a trick of the hypnotist.

The problem isn't that people follow the law. The problem is that some people are more equal than others when it comes to the law.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

45 people...a country do not make

If you really want to learn about media propaganda, next time when you see a report that says "(Insert country's citizens label, e.g. Singaporeans) Split on Decision to... (Allow Barred Activists to Enter)", I highly recommend you check how many people were interviewed about their decision.


Unless of course, we are talking about a very privileged and wealthy minority. Then, we are really shown in crystal clarity which subgroup of the population they are catering to....

NB: Yes, this is a reactionary post. I will hopefully post something more substantial in the near future.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Two Important C's

I had intended to write this piece a long time before the General Elections (GE) was to be announced, but an overseas trip had prevented me from doing so. Now that the GE is coming closer, my message is more poignant, but not entirely complete given the short period of time. Nevertheless, the issue being addressed is of a basic fundamental nature that all should be concerned about, least of all not only during election times.

In the Straits Times' introductory article on the new PAP candiates, it was promoted that these 'fresh' people were following a very important C-criteria: Non-conformity. This was seen to be an impressive and brilliant move by the ruling leaders, who wanted to stay in touch with the new generation of Singaporeans and to address issues of social concern. In a poll taken by the Straits Times (let's leave aside the objectivity of the poll, for now), it was emphasised that ordinary young Singaporeans have no concern for political ideals, and that 'bread-and-butter' issues are most important in their decision about the elections. In other words, the other five C's still matter: car, cash, condo, credit card and country card membership.

In this entire debate, there are yet two very important C's that have deliberately been left out: Citizen or Consumer? For too long, people have failed to ask the question if they should wish to participate in social and political life as mere Consumers with only materialistic needs, or as Citizens who are able to have their own voice in the societies they labour and live in and depend on for their social needs. As a Consumer, the neccessity to question, debate and take part in social policies becomes frivolous and a chore. In such a scenario, the Consumer has no place in learning more about the social problems their fellow Citizens might face; the Consumer has no interest in political, legal and social systems that might oppress and steal his most basic fundamental rights (asides to consume); the Consumer need not apply the basic faculties of critical thinking and introspection on crucial social issues, rather he is happy to comply and serve the hands of those who feed him.

I would like to think that the Citizen, in so far as he/she is sincerely interested in who his neighbours are, how they are faring, and concerned for their welfare, no matter what social, racial, ethnic, gender or sexual category they belong to, and further knows that he/she deserves to participate in decision-making for his own community, would revile with disgust at policies which are designed for him to be a more efficient Consumer (and Labourer) and keep him away from disrupting the status quo. The Citizen would ask why are the current social and political systems of decision-making fiercely concentrated in the circle of one elite technocratic-meritocratic circle (a term that can be debated);why is every Citizen of this nation not allowed to vote (also why others are allowed the double of votes),; why is every Citizen not even allowed a voice as well?

One shouldn't be deceived about the various defences from the ruling government that people are 'allowed to speak freely' or that the government is 'listening'. They are always listening, but that doesn't address the issue if they are ready to give the people a chance to manage their own lives. Neither should we even think that people can exercise freedom of speech, which would entail the freedom to call the elections 'unfree', or criticising the government for their complicity in mismanaging the NKF scandal, or giving marginalised social groups (be it homosexuals, ethnic minorities and even opposition groups) the opportunity to counter the type of propaganda that shapes the dominant impressions of their attributes.

The fact of the matter is that even if every opposition member is voted in, this would only marginally change the systems of power currently in place. There's a good reason to call them "incompetent" (another C word); they are too 'incompetent' because they cannot get their own media channels to challenge the state-owned media; they cannot get themselves a first-class PR company to market their image; they are not conceding to the capitalistic demands of major corporations; they aren't trying to shape everyone's view that we have to fear the 'scourge' of AIDS from homosexuals and rescue ourselves from lax 'moral' values derived from teenagers recording themselves having sex on mobile phones. Instead, they are wasting their time criticising the government, for the "sake of opposing", that the regulatory systems were not in place when it came to the NKF fiasco; that people don't have freedom of speech; that to curb the rising costs of transport costs, a public federalized system should be in place; that people should have an independent union force to defend their work rights; and that people should even have a right to elect for their own President. Those are the issues Citizens shouldn't be facing; rather, let the current incumbent government handle it as they have the "right answers". All of this is supposed to be intuitively true with no evidence in place.

As I mentioned, this election will pass by without so much of a hiccup to the overall political system, and that's even if every opposition member miracuously gets voted in. For that reason, opposition figures have never been the answer. While many blogs are advising their readers to vote with "conscience", the underlying statement should be made: If you want to be a Citizen, act like one 24/7 everyday. There is no reason to succumb to the 'priviledges' of a Consumer; as difficult and challenging as it is to be a Citizen, there are far more rewards compared to having the latest Wide-screen TV.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Danger of Discourse

It's not a matter of "dangerous discourse", as Senior Minister of State Balaji Sadasivan says, but a matter of danger that discourse itself should ever show itself in the political climate, where ruling elites may have to escape from academic rhetoric and fancy language, but have to contend with serious debate.

An authentic discussion on serious issues of the day is not a laboratory experiment; that is, there are no such things as a controlled environment, or the removal of certain factors nor would we even expect a higher imposing authority figure dictating how the rules should follow. But that's how intimidating dialogues and debates are supposed to be for us. That is, we shouldn't be engaging with the voices of the many, rather it is much easier to follow the 'rules of discourse' dictated by the few.

Politically-conscious citizens, actually normal decent human beings who want to participate in society without eternally wearing the lens of any one ruling group, will need to be persistent in seeking, questioning, debating, answering and challenging fundamental assumptions that arises in social issues. Only a figure who has either distaste of democratic participation or wish to create conditions of minimal opposition to his/her power would chase after those who "persistently propagate, promote or circulate political issues". The end goals are quite obvious: rhetoric about promoting active citizenry and facilitating open dialogue is quite meaningless if people are not allowed to take part in the social, economic and political realms of their own society.

Furthermore, it is particularly striking that this issue arises at a crucial period where their power is at risk, even if only marginally. Given the arbitrary nature of what constitutes out-of-bounds dialogue, not to mention the many issues that Singaporeans need to educate themselves about, such as trade agreements, labor conditions and human rights, it would come as no doubt that these political issues are bound to apply pressure, which is extremely unneccessary, for the governing class to surrender their power to. To be worried about the spreading of propaganda on the internet is correct, but it is not propaganda about racial and religious extrememism, or Marxist conspiracies or class discrimination. For those things, you can either choose to apply grossly extreme legal coercion such as Sedition Acts or choose to call them entertaining, such as when pop blogger XiaXue justifies outright racial discrimination. Rather, the type of "propaganda" that warrants serious regulation are those that are critical about the fundamental premises behind corporate or governmental policies, values and ideologies.

Remember, the few individual blogs, such as those outlined in the article, such as Singabloodypore or YawningBread or Talkingcock, pose only minimal danger to the powers that be. There is some critical analysis, some newsworthy articles and good writings, but these blogs can't "propagate, promote or circulate political issues" as strongly nor widely as grassroots organizations. But those who could stir up public support, that could undermine the credibility of those they criticize, are quickly subjugated to the bureaucratic and sanitizing effects of "registing at the MDA", police monitoring such as Martyr See and other surveillance mechanisms.

I fully agree with the Senior Minister's response that "it is better and more responsible to engage in political debates in a factual and objective manner". Indeed, nothing would please me more than to see active debates held by citizen panels, discussing about facts that are not concealed by the subservient obedient media and objective enough that it is not one-sided Q&A monologue.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Struck to the point of not being critical

A significant lengthy period of time has passed since my last posting, and I would imagine that very few readers, or probably none, will continue to patronize my blog. I should say that it's a little more reassuring this way, as I am unfortunately sorting out personal issues in my life that could have an impact on the status of this blog. For now, I just wish to turn briefly to a matter that illustrates how, contrary to the marketing campaign by the Straits Times and other branches of the mainstream media, un-inspiring "dissent" books are.

A new book, titled as "Struck by Lightning: Singaporean Voices Post 1965" has just been released, which captured my attention in Book Kinokuniya. Subsequently, today's (16/03/2006) Life newspaper section reviewed the book as its main feature article, alongside with interviews of the four ST journalists. What this book purports to show is (as quoted) "aims to reflect the moods and mores of a generation raised in a time of peace and plenty and shielded from the nation's birth pangs", and to allow the "[registeration] at one point or another their concerns, even unhappiness, with the system and policies, and lived to tell the tale", "express views and issues that truly reflect the concerns and hopes of our post 65ers" and "debunks the myth that Singaporeans are starved of the freedom to air political views".

All of this would probably have come across as a living embodiment of a joke spread by fascist commissars or well-branded propaganda, if only the underlying assumptions weren't so apparent. A quick brief survey of the columnists behind this book shows that they are barely what you would call a representative sample of post-65ers, all four born in the span of 1969 to 1976. Surely, no self-respecting true blue post-65er would dare to dream that these four national journalists represent the voices of a generation that has to live through economic depression and other social woes. Secondly, for the claims about voicing their "unhappiness" and "lived to tell the tale", how much suppression do you expect from criticisms such as not having a multi-lingual hotline during a dengue fever outbreak or scolding a young teenager for not taking her so-called "rightful" place in society and opting for an elite school? Does the average sensible person expect the standard ST journalist, who has to maintain the official status quo, to be caught and questioned by the ISA or other monitoring police forces for airing these kind of political views?

In one of the articles in the book, one writer reminds the readers that some of our PAP leaders do not come from humble backgrounds and in fact comes from a concentrated social circle of elite power in our class-stratified society. How is this "critical" point dumbed down? The standard answer reveals itself all too clearly, with a simple rapport that they are, nevertheless, "understanding" of our lower working and other class members and "have them in their hearts".

It is quite correct that having a critical eye does not entail to "an exercise in fault-finding, as the writers maintain", but as the title correctly points, these writers have been "struck by lightning" to the point that they can not be accepted as having that critical sharpness and mental courage to write for an entire generation, much less for a Singaporean. It will be an interesting "exercise" in itself, if someone were to approach SNP International Publishing (the publisher of this scandulous book) and inquire about the production of a book that contains political perspectives from a representative sample of post-65ers (meaning including voices that are born after 1980s), people who are NOT involved in the mainstream media, people from all walks of life, including social class, educational levels, ethnicity, etc, and to throw in writers who are NOT strictly supporters of a hegemonic political party and even include voices of those who have left Singapore? Any sensible person will think that's a more authentic piece of work than a book churnished by the powers-that-be, compiled with the rantings of four members of a well-protected and indoctrinated class.

Barring very exceptional cases, one shouldn't expect to find a "dissent" book in an authoritarian state. Furthermore, those "dissent" books that are further promoted on front-page newspapers and glamorised with professional photographs of the authors, are hardly challenging the relations of power and priviledge in that particular society. The rightful treatment that should be accorded to this book is to pile it along with the other propaganda materials by other authoritarian and totalitarian states, and dismiss it for the falsification of a authentic democratic voice of a population, no matter how pretty and fashionable the book looks.

Ed Note: Incidentally, there is another book on my hit list, titled "Thinking allowed?" by the ST journalist Warren Fernadez. Suffice to say, I won't include my editing list of distortions and pompious analysis but to rate this book an "F".