naif's journal

> recent entries
> calendar
> friends
> Alfian's Secret Wank Shed
> profile
> previous 20 entries

Monday, September 28th, 2009
12:33 am - chiam see tong on malays in the saf (1987)
In February 1987, then Second Minister for Defence, BG Lee Hsien Loong, was asked why there weren't Malays in some key positions in the SAF. This was his reply:

"If there is a conflict, if the SAF is called upon to defend the homeland, we don’t want to put any of our soldiers in a difficult position where his emotions for the nation may come in conflict with his emotion for his religion, because these are two very strong fundamentals, and if they are not compatible, then they will be two very strong destructive forces in opposite directions"

Weeks later, during Parliament, Chiam See Tong rose to speak on this issue. Predictably, the subject that was first raised was about Singapore's sovereignty, and how countries like Malaysia should not comment on 'domestic issues' (Lee Jr's remarks caused quite a controversy in Malaysia).

I think Chiam's speech deserve to be reproduced here, in full. Let there be no doubt, once and for all, that the only ones who can credibly speak on behalf of minorities are the Opposition MP's.


Chiam See Tong: There is much talk of the interference of Singapore’s internal affairs by foreign politicians. We have to ask ourselves the question. Why? Unless there is a reason, they do not react that way. The statement made on the 23rd of February by the Second Minister for Defence has the effect that if the Malays were put in key positions on the SAF they would have a conflict of interest. Their emotions would be tested—whether to side the country or to be on the side of their religion. So this is the issue.

This has got strong implications when the Second Minister of Defence said that. This would imply that our enemies are not from Vietnam or China or from some distant countries where they have got no Muslim religion there. This implies that our enemies are of a Muslim religion. I see it as quite an obvious implication of what is said. This is the reason why our neighbours, the Muslim politicians, are so angry.

This is the implication—that we do not want Malays in key positions in the SAF. Why? Because it is a question of religion that is involved. If the question of religion is involved, that means our enemies whom we are fighting are also Muslims. So I think this is one of the reasons why they are so annoyed.

This is a very sensitive issue and for a long time it was never put that way, and now after 26 years it has come out. I do not know what is the reason. Perhaps there might have been some other good reasons for it. Is this true, the question we want to ask, whether or not this conflict of religion comes into play? We look at the war that is raging in Iran and Iraq. Probably they will say they come from different schools of the Muslim religion. Yes, I was anticipating that. But nevertheless they are Muslims.

We have seen in other countries where the people are deeply religious and yet they go to war against another country which has the same religion, like in Europe where many of them are Christians and not only Christians but they are of one particular sect, Catholics. So I do not think this argument holds about the conflict of religion really holds.

We import a lot of foreigners into key positions. We have just heard the other day that we have got a Gurkhas [sic] battalion here taking charge of key positions. We trust all kinds of foreigners but we do not trust our own Malay citizens. This is surely something I think the Malays are going to find hard to stomach. In our Constitution we have got an Article which gives a special position to our Malays. What special position is there as far as the SAF is concerned? They are our step-children. Where is the special position?

Perhaps one of the Malay MP’s here should take this up in our court and challenge what the AF is practicing is unconstitutional. As far as I know, the only special position the Malays enjoy today is only in regard to education, and I believe nothing else.

What we are actually hurting out Malay brethren in Singapore is not material. Material things can be corrected fairly quickly. So when the Second Defence Minister quotes a Malay saying that a grain of sand at a time can build a mountain or something, that is in regard of material things.

But we are talking of emotions. Just like a child, when his emotion is hurt it is going to be there for a long, long time. I do not know whether it can even be healed. In some cases it is not healed and the child grows up into a man who cannot fit in, socially. I hope this is not the case in regard to our Malay community.

Of course, when they join the army they are expected to fight. It is an operational role. They do not join the army and march up and down on National Day Parade. That is quite understandable. So the best way to build a nation is in fact to show trust in everybody. If you show trust to somebody, that trust will be reciprocated.

There is no doubt about that and I am sure many of the Malay MP’s here would want a commitment from the Government as to the time frame In fact, I think this policy of putting Malays into key positions should be corrected and implemented immediately. That is the only way we can have nation building. There is no other way.

BG Lee Hsien Loong: Mr Chairman, Sir, may I seek clarification from the member for Potong Pasir. He has made many points. I just want one basic issue resolved before we enter into details. Does he fundamentally agree with our policy of caution and gradual, steady progress? Or is he recommending that we abandon our present cautious policy?

Mr Chiam See Tong: This, Mr Chairman, Sir, certainly depends on how you look at it, whether you are a Malay or a non-Malay. If you are a Malay, of course, you would see it as a discrimination against them, and there is no two-way about it. If course, if you are a Chinese, you look at it as caution.

An. Hon. Member: We are Singaporeans.

Mr Chiam See Tong: We are all Singaporeans. We should not discriminate against the Malays. Put them in key positions immediately.

BG Lee Hsien Loong: May I ask the Minister to confirm that, were he the Minister of Defence, would be abandon our existing policy immediately?

An Hon. Member: If he were in charge.

BG Lee Hsien Loong: Let us assume he were in charge. Perhaps the Minister of Defence does not have this authrotiy; the Prime Minister does. Were you the Prime Minister, would you abandon this policy immediately?

Mr Chiam See Tong: Mr Chairman, I have on my own accord voluntarily gone over to Malaysia to work in the East Coast there for two years amongst the Malays. And I am proud of that. I went there on my own. So I have full trust in the Malays, Singaporean Malays as well.

BG Lee Hsien Loong: Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, I am not asking this question to humiliate the Opposition Member. I merely wish to know what a potential Prime Minister of Singapore wants to do.

Mr Chiam See Tong: Mr Chairman, are you saying that I am a potential Prime Minister? Well, I never had that ambition.

An. Hon. member: Your last election speech.

Mr Chiam See Tong: What last election speech? Please tell me what last election speech?

Mr Dhanabalan: Please answer the question put to you.

An Hon. Member: head of a political party and you don’t want to be Prime Minister?

Mr Chiam See Tong: First of all, let me make it clear. I have got no ambitions of being the Prime Minister of Singapore. What we want to see is democracy. What we want to see is nation-building. What we want to see is a Singapore that can prosper. But what we are seeing here is discrimination. I feel very unhappy about it and I would speak out. You were saying, ‘What should I do?’ What is wrong with including the Malays who can qualify for key positions to put them there? What is wrong with that? You just tell me.

BG Lee Hsien Loong: Sir, I am not saying that there is anything wrong. I am merely requesting a clear statement from the Opposition Member that the day after he is elected as Prime Minister of Singapore, should it ever happen, he will issue an instruction to rescind this policy. That is all.

Mr Chiam See Tong: Certainly. I think if our Malay Singapore citizens, our fellow brethren, our fellow countrymen are suited for the job, put them there. You advocate meritocracy. On the one hand, meritocracy is only for certain people. Meritocracy is not for the Malay community, and they are our very substantial minority, and I think it is important for regional cooperation, and for regional harmony we should be seen to allow our Malay community here, if any one of them should qualify for SAF posts, they should be put there, by all means.

I think it is a short-sighted policy, for the sake of regional harmony, not to do that. I am sure all the Malay MP’s here agree with me. Let them say no.

The Minister for the Environment (Dr Ahmad Mattar): Mr Chairman, Sir, I would like to ask the Member for Potong Pasir what authority has he to speak on behalf of the Malays? Is he politicking? We have just been telling the Malaysians to lay off. This is a Singapore problem and I am telling the Member for Potong Pasir that this is a Malay problem. The Malay MP’s will solve them.

(38 comments | comment on this)

Thursday, September 24th, 2009
5:13 am - on tolerance, sedition and forgiveness
On Tolerance, Sedition and Forgiveness

To many Muslims, Hari Raya Aidilfitri, a day of celebration after a month of fasting, represents a moment of renewal. When I was a child, I had always assumed that it falls on the first day of the Muslim New Year, when in fact it is the first day of Syawal, the tenth month. In the morning, prayers are performed at the mosques, where God’s clemency is sought for the sins of the past year. Continuing in this vein, families conduct a ritual where the young will kneel and kiss the hands of their elders, seeking forgiveness.

The spiritual purification one experiences during fasting finds its zenith during this annual re-setting of accounts, where moral debts are cleared. What bogs down the soul are the grudges that people hold against us. As such, I have always associated Hari Raya with lightness, a certain freedom of the spirit—never mind that the physical body itself is stuffed full with specially made delicacies like ketupat and rendang.

On 19 October 2007, Irwan Bin Ariffin was checking his letterbox, having just returned from his Aidlifitri prayers. He found an envelope with his name and address written on it. It could have been a Hari Raya card for all he knew, if not for the bulk of its contents. Opening the envelope, Irwan found a little book with the title ‘Who is Allah?’

Fresh from his prayers, this seemed to be a serendipitous find. When Irwan flipped the pages, however, he was shocked to discover that he was holding on to a tract, illustrated like a comic, which denigrated Islam. It was filled with drawings of sinister-looking Arabs, and alleged that Allah was a pagan moon god. The tract was published by Chick Publications, a company based in America.

Irwan made a police report, as he believed that a publication of such nature might ‘incite religious tension between Muslims and Christians’. Investigations eventually led to the arrest of Ong Tian Cheong and Dorothy Chan, a Protestant Christian couple who had been sending evangelical tracts for the past 20 years.

In August this year, both of them were charged under the Sedition Act, as well as the Undesirable Publications Act, and sentenced to 8 weeks in jail.
In passing a custodial sentence, District Judge Roy Granville Neighbour noted that the couple’s actions were deemed “to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore.” He also remarked that “the offences upon which they are found guilty and convicted are serious ones in that they have the capacity to undermine and erode the delicate fabric of racial and religious harmony in Singapore”.

It disturbed me that Judge Neighbour had described this ‘fabric’ as ‘delicate’. What this suggests is that the bonds between the different ethnic and religious communities in Singapore are still fragile. That mutual respect exists outwardly, but slips back into mutual suspicion behind closed doors. That ‘tolerance’ as a governing principle of dealing with the ethnic other has failed us.

On the surface, ‘tolerance’ does seem like an alluring formula for maintaining ‘multiracial harmony’. We ‘endure’ the calls of prayer from Sultan Mosque in the vicinity of Arab Street, or flecks of charred paper flitting in through our windows during the Hungry Ghost month. We grin and bear it as we pick up an evangelical flyer slotted under our door, or crawl along a traffic snarl caused by a Thaipusam procession. In justifying our forbearance, many of us will tend to cite the virtues of diversity, but often in facile and clichéd ways. Having such plurality in our society means having a variety of food at hawker centres, more public holidays, more ‘local colour’.

But any discussion of tolerance must also take into account its limits. What happens when we have reached the end of our patience, when we feel as if another person, out of mischief or malice, has caused us unacceptable offence? Then, a desire for justice—retaliatory, retributive—rises to the surface. In some extreme cases, this might even take the form of violence.

This is where the state is often expected to intervene. Positioning itself as a secular, impartial entity, the state exercises its powers in deciding who it should punish and who it should protect. In other words, it is the umpire presiding over an arena of constant low-intensity warfare, of perpetual irreconcilable differences.

But is this desire for justice the only response when the limit of tolerance is breached? It might very well be our first instinct. But there is another response available to us, though often a belated one—forgiveness. In Singapore, the Sedition Act has been used on three occasions. In each case (PP vs Benjamin Koh & Another, PP vs Gan Huai Shi, PP vs Ong Kian Cheong & Another), it involved speech that denigrated Malays and Islam.

On one hand, we can say that these are sobering examples of how certain members of a majority can be so blind to the sensitivities of minorities. On the other, the image of the local Muslim community is also affected. Some might form the impression that Muslims are especially quick to take offence, would not hesitate to seek redress through legalistic means (by filing police reports), and are generally unforgiving and implacable.

But what if we were to introduce an ethics of forgiveness into our concept of inter-ethnic relations? What if we temper our natural demands for justice with the possibility that even those who have hurt us the most still deserve our pardon?

In my view, instead of prison sentences, the offenders should instead be allowed to perform community work and undergo counseling. This already has a precedent in the case of 17-year-old Guan Hai Shi, who had created a blog called ‘The Second Holocaust’, advocating the genocide of Malays. In 2005, on account of his age. he was sentenced to 24 months of supervised probation.

I consider a supervised probation to be a more effective means of rehabilitation than an 8-week prison stay. This is because the offenders—especially if they are prone to overzealous delusion—might perceive their prison sentence as unfair persecution by one of their enemies: a secular, godless state. Instead of reflecting on how they might have erred, they might find themselves resentfully nurturing a martyrdom complex.

Civil society groups such as the Inter-Religious Organisation of Singapore (IRO) should be consulted on the exact nature of the ‘community work’ to be performed by the offenders. This is a delicate matter, because simply coercing the offenders to conduct visits to mosques, or to participate in activities organized by Muslim organisations, might prove counter-productive. The presence of Christian representatives on the IRO might mollify the offenders’ unease that they are being forced to ‘deal with the devil’.

As for counseling, a useful model would be the Religious Rehabilitation Group, a body of volunteer Islamic scholars set up under the aegis of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) to deal with the detained members of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). Christian clergy could be tapped to advise offenders on the mainstream practice of Christianity in a multi-religious society.

The participation of the Christian community is also an important dimension that has been missing from the picture. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no public statement from Christian religious authorities condemning the actions of Ong and Chan. Contrast this with the response by MUIS in the aftermath of both the September 11 attacks and the JI arrests, where press releases were circulated to restore an image of Islam distorted by extremists.

One assumes that non-Christians are rational enough to note that both Ong and Chan are not representative of the majority of Christians in Singapore. Nevertheless, I do think that the Christian community and leadership should take ownership of the issue. If Ong and Chan had defended their actions as a Christian duty to spread the Gospel, then surely some housekeeping is in order. Taking ownership, however, is not equivalent to taking blame.

It would have been a gesture of reassurance if the Christian community had issued its own internal guidelines on the practice of proselytisation. For starters, I would like to suggest the following: firstly, proselytisation should not involve any form of insult to other religions. Secondly, it has to be a dialogic, instead of a monologic, process—the person you are trying to convert is entitled to a right of reply, which includes saying ‘no, thanks’. Thirdly, one should not target vulnerable parties, such as children, or those on their deathbeds. Ong’s and Chan’s methods—the unidirectional mailbombing of offensive tracts that appeal to the young due to their pictorial nature—violates all three points.

A common greeting you might hear on Hari Raya is ‘maaf zahir dan batin’. The phrase means ‘I seek your forgiveness for wrongs both obvious and concealed’. Incidentally, Az-Zahir (the Manifest) is one of the 99 revealed names of God, as is Al-Batin (the Hidden). There is something quite absolute about this request—to be forgiven even of the unconscious wrongdoings—which serves as a reminder of how our actions may affect others in ways we might not fully appreciate.

On Hari Raya, I asked my mother, ‘If someone asks for our forgiveness, what happens if we don’t give it to them?’ She frowned at me disapprovingly, and said, ‘What right do we have to withhold forgiveness from those who are sincere in asking for it, and who have acknowledged their wrongs? If God can forgive them, why not us mere humans?’

The Sedition Act, ostensibly, aims to protect those of certain races and religions (especially minorities) from hate speech. In exercising such a paternalistic function, however, it robs the aggrieved party of the power to forgive, and the right to decide the ways in which one can heal a damaged relationship.

The Muslim community also has to take ownership of this issue of sedition: should we continually seek protection from the courts, thus legitimizing a national security nanny-state? Instead of casting ourselves as passive victims, can we exercise forgiveness, seeking creative and flexible ways to deal with those who have wronged us, and thus finding a position as active moral agents?

To the question of ‘Who is Allah?’, it would be prudent to remember that one of His 99 names is Al-Ghaffar—the Ever Forgiving. To my Muslim readers, Selamat Hari Raya. And also, maaf zahir dan batin—to both Muslim and non-Muslim readers alike.

(18 comments | comment on this)

Thursday, September 10th, 2009
3:06 am - is hokkien my mother tongue?
Is Hokkien My 'Mother Tongue'?

A long time ago, a Chinese man saw some Malays eating a fruit. It had a spiky shell, but its insides were filled with large seeds covered by yellow, buttery flesh. He had never seen (nor smelt!) a fruit like it before, in his native village in Fujian. He asked them what the fruit was called.

‘Durian’, they replied. This was from the Malay word for duri, which means ‘thorn’. And so the Chinese man went back and told his friends about this new fruit. As the word spread, it became incorporated into the Hokkien vocabulary as loo lian.

Then one day, a new fruit made its appearance, native to South America, possibly brought in by colonial travelers. It was also green, with a spiky exterior. In English, it was known as ‘soursop’.

The Malays had a tendency to append the word belanda (meaning ‘Dutch’) to anything foreign that they had never seen before. Examples include the Dutch goat (kambing belanda, or sheep), the Dutch chicken (ayam belanda, or turkey) and the Dutch cat (kucing belanda, or rabbit). So they called the fruit durian belanda.

The Hokkiens, on the other hand, called it ang mo loo lian. Ang mo (roughly meaning ‘Western’) was also used for other edibles, like ang mo kio (tomato) and ang mo chai thou (carrot). Thus the word ang mo loo lian now carries traces of Hokkien contact with both Malays and Westerners.

The study of loan words has always fascinated me, because they give clues to the kinds of social interactions which occurred in the past. At the beginning of this article, I sketched a scenario of how a single word from one language entered another. But the process is definitely much more complex, and would involve long-term, sustained contact. The chain of transmission might even involve an intermediary, such as the Straits Chinese (or Peranakans), whose Baba patois contains both Malay and Hokkien words.

I have often felt a sense of loss at the fact that the lingua franca among Singaporean Chinese is no longer the Southern Chinese languages (such as Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese), but Mandarin. A little bit of research revealed to me the words that were borrowed from Hokkien into Malay. These include: (note that 'c' in Malay has the 'ch' sound): beca (trishaw), bihun (vermicelli), cat (paint), cincai (anyhow), gua (I/me), guli (marbles), kentang (potato), kamceng (close), kuih (cake), kongsi (share), kuaci (melon seeds), teko (teapot), taugeh (bean sprout), tahu (beancurd) and tauke (boss).

This process of linguistic exchange was two-way, as demonstrated by these Malay words that have penetrated Hokkien: agak (guess or moderate), botak (bald), champur (mix), gadoh (fight), gaji (wages), jamban (toilet), kachiau (disturb), longkau (drain), loti (bread), otang (owe/debt), pumchet (puncture), pantang (superstitious/taboo), pakat (conspire), pasar (market), pitchia (break), salah (wrong), sapbun (soap), sinang (easy), senget (crooked), sukak (like), timun (cucumber), tiam (quiet) and torlong (help).

There are even some Cantonese words that are now part of Malay parlance, such as pokai (broke or penniless), as well as samseng (gangster). Interestingly, it has been postulated that the word sam seng (three star) was derived from the fact that recruits from the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) used to wear caps emblazoned with three stars, each one representing one of the main races in Malaya: the Malays, Chinese and Indians.

In the army, one of the things that we were told by a sergeant was that ‘over here, Hokkien is your mother tongue’. But this was based on stereotypes: that Hokkien was a gendered, macho language (with the most pungent swear words) and the primal expression of working-class angst (as exemplified by the tattooed Hokkien-peng squatting and glowering in the yellow smoking box).

But considering how Hokkien words have entered the Malay language, I have realized that there is a larger truth to that statement. It’s like tracing a family tree and then discovering that I had a Hokkien great-great-great-great grandmother. As a matter of fact, since almost two-thirds of the Malay lexicon consists of borrowings, I definitely had Arabic and Indian (linguistic) ancestors too.

Malays have a saying, bahasa jiwa bangsa, which means, ‘language is the soul of a race’. But I’ve always noted a tension in the phrase. We tend to think of ‘race’ as something that is often bounded and rigid, defining it in terms of bloodline descents. But ‘language’ does not have such impermeable borders. Words of various origins pass through open checkpoints, undergo shifts in meaning, and become naturalized over time.

Thus, as much as we’d like to be essentialist about our ‘race’, we cannot escape from the hybridities already extant in our language. There is humility in the idea that no language is perfect on its own, and will borrow words to make up for its lack. If I’m feeling schmaltzy I’d even imagine this as a scene from the movie Jerry Maguire, where Tom Cruise utters to Renée Zellwegger the words, ‘You complete me.’ I also imagine her replying, ‘Shut up…just shut up. You had me at hoh boh.’ (link:

In Royston Tan’s getai musical, ‘881’, the main song started with ‘jit lang jit pua, kamcheng buay sua’ (one half for each [friend], relationships will not dissipate). The following line was ‘jit lang jit su ku, kamcheng jia eh ku’ (a quarter for each, relationships will endure). I had always wondered why Hokkien often resonated with me much more than Mandarin. And my guess is that this has to do with my recognition of some words, like kamcheng and su ku (which means ‘quarter’ in Malay).

Similarly, the well-loved comedians Wang Sa and Ye Fong not only switched among the different languages with ease, they expected audiences to do so as well. Malay idioms and phrases were common. Their trademark remark, whenever a situation was deemed to have gone out of hand, was: ‘Ah di ah, aga aga jiu hor ar’: ‘Hey [brother], you would do well to act in moderation (aga aga)’.

My Hokkien friends who travel overseas would often relate to me the sense of dislocation they feel when speaking to other Hokkien-speakers. A friend who went to Taiwan, for example, was surprised to note that they did not understand what loti meant. Another friend shared a story about the nuances of the word pokai in Hong Kong. At the end of the month, he moaned out loud at the office kam chi pokai le (‘I'm broke this time’) and all eyes turned on him. Pokai meant ‘broke’ in Singapore, but the reason why his colleagues reacted was because pokai (literally, ‘cast out on the streets’) in Hong Kong meant something worse, like being destitute on the streets, or being beaten up.

Because we are inundated by messages that often emphasise cultural purism, it is easy to interpret these instances as cases where the Chinese from this part of the world have been ‘contaminated’ by other cultures. I happen to take the opposite view: the Nanyang Chinese have evolved an identity of their own, incorporating elements of the other cultures that surround them. That this has been possible is a testament to their openness, curiosity and lack of insularity—a far cry from the global stereotype of cliquish and ethnocentric Chinese immigrants.

Much ink (and tears) has been spilled on how the Speak Mandarin Campaign has resulted in what some have called the ‘cultural lobotomy’ of the Chinese community. In many ways, I find great sympathy with the late Kuo Pao Kun’s observation that Chinese Singaporeans are ‘cultural orphans’. After all, they were forcibly snatched from their biological Southern Chinese bosoms and placed in the laps of Mandarin-speaking foster mothers.

A familiar lament is that the declining use of the Southern Chinese languages has resulted in the estrangement between generations of Chinese Singaporeans. But I’d also argue that it has also led to some kind of estrangement among the various races. I don’t know if I should worry about the fact that these days, the traffic of loan words has almost ceased between Malay and Mandarin. It is perhaps premature to theorise that this is a symptom of lesser interaction between these races, as compared to the past—after all, there is English to mediate our communication with one another.

But the fact remains that I don’t know of a single Malay word that has Mandarin origins. Which is why I feel it’s all the more urgent to preserve the variety of Southern Chinese languages spoken here (I refuse to call them ‘dialects’). They are reminders of the mingling and blending that has occurred here in Singapore; the very metabolism of what we understand not simply as ‘multiracialism’ but a deeper, more engaged ‘interculturalism’.

Somehow, our forefathers, of various races, knew how to pakat against common enemies, were able to kongsi their resources, and in the process of all that champur became kamcheng with one another. The product of their alliances, friendships and inter-marriages is reflected in the language they have passed on to us. To lose this legacy is to sever a vital connection not only to the historical origins of the Nanyang Chinese, but also to Singapore’s dynamic multicultural past.

(My profuse thanks to Lai Chee Kien for input into this article)

(14 comments | comment on this)

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009
10:08 am - proud malay singaporean?
Why The Need To Be ‘Proud’ of being Malay Singaporean?

There’s an article in the Straits Times on the 3rd of September, with the headline, ‘Proud To Be Malay Singaporean’. Written by Khartini Khalid, an educator and former journalist, the article addresses, among other things, a statement made by former Malaysian Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin in the newspaper Utusan Malaysia.

In his column, the venerable Datuk made references to Singapore while discussing Malaysia’s current racial controversies. According to him, ‘The main reason Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman decided to kick Singapore out of Malaysia was the speech made by its then Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, in the Malaysian Parliament in May 1965 questioning the Malay government in Malaysia.’

Now, this statement isn’t really about Singapore. It’s a variation of that spooky ethno-nationalist warning against minorities not to question the notion of Malay supremacy (as enshrined in Article 153 of the Federal Constitution). Someone like Home Affairs Minister Hishamuddin Hussein might wave a keris to make this point. Another politician might raise the spectre of May 13, 1969, when the country was rocked by the worst racial clashes in its history.

Zainuddin had chosen to invoke the expulsion of Singapore. His message: ‘Don’t you dare challenge Article 153, or we’ll find a way to kick you out, just like what we did to that thorny little island down south.’
Nevertheless, Khartini Khalid has seen it as her patriotic duty to defend Singapore from a perceived attack.

And thus she begins her column with the line: ‘I am a Malay Singaporean and proud of it.’
It’s one thing to say, ‘I am a Singaporean and proud of it.’ It’s another to bring attention to the fact that you’re Malay. It’s quite obvious that what the writer really means is, ‘Boy, am I glad I’m not a Malay Malaysian! I can hold my head up high knowing that I never relied on crutches and handouts. As the Whitney Houston song goes, I tried it “on my own”!’

The writer goes on to say that she first ‘realised how different I am from Malay Malaysians when I stayed in a kampung in Negeri Sembilan for a week.’ After the first four days, she felt that something was amiss. And what was that? The fact that she ‘had not seen a single non-Malay person for four whole days!’ (Exclamation hers).

I can’t speculate on her daily roaming radius, but I suspect that she was trying to say that she was staying in a village that was ethnically homogenous. According to her, there was a Chinese village ‘across the street’, while the Indians lived in ‘yet another village near some plantations’.

She goes on to compare this with Singapore, where a trip out of her house allows her to behold a melanin rainbow: ‘every day now, when we step out of our flats, we see our Chinese, Indian and perhaps Eurasian neighbours.’ I found myself sniggering. It was as if she was saying, ‘if we’re lucky, we’ll be able to spot a Eurasian too, and we’ll fulfill our multiracial sighting quota for the day.’

There are a few things seriously wrong with extrapolating the writer’s experiences in a remote village in Negeri Sembilan to the multicultural reality of Malaysia. First of all, I’m pretty confident that if she were to stay in a block of apartments in urban Kuala Lumpur, she would be able to visually feast on ‘Truly Asia’.

Secondly, what separated the Malay and Chinese villages was a street, not a wall. These villages were not garrisoned ghettoes. Just because they were spatially segregated does not mean that there was no interaction at all between their respective communities. Conversely, just because I have neighbours of various races along a common corridor does not mean that any meaningful interaction occurs among us. One should not confuse the façade of multiculturalism with its substance.

I wonder if the Straits Times would have run an article written by someone after a trip to China, with the headline ‘Proud To Be Chinese Singaporean’: ‘Thank god I can have more than one child, am surrounded by breathable air and can access Facebook and Youtube!’ Or one that says, ‘Proud to be Indian Singaporean’: ‘Hindu-Muslim tensions, a nasty caste system, and movie stars-turned-politicians—how wonderful that Singapore is spared from all this!’

It’s unwise to make such judgments without understanding the real complexities in the society that one is so eager to denigrate. This is the kind of attitude that has earned Singaporeans a reputation for arrogance. Wave our flag by all means, but make sure that we don’t hit other people’s faces with it.

The generalization that Khartini makes is that Singapore’s multiculturalism is somewhat superior to that of Malaysia’s. To her, the Malaysian ‘model’ practises ‘discriminatory policies favouring one group over others’, while Singapore has ‘a system of equity based on merit’.

Thus we’re back to comparing Singapore’s ‘meritocracy’ versus Malaysia’s ‘affirmative action’ (although it is more correct to call this ‘ameliorative action’). I am not a big fan of Malaysia’s National Economic Policy (NEP), which was instituted in 1971 as a means to allow Malays a greater economic stake in the country (at that time, they held around 4% of the economy—the rest of it was controlled by Chinese and foreign interests). This discrepancy was due to a colonial divide-and-rule policy: political power for the Malays, economic power for the Chinese.

It is clearly an unfair policy, but it has to be examined in terms of what it aims to achieve: an equality of outcome. The idea is for Malays to be given extra state support such that they will feel as if they have an equal share in the country. However, the initial socialist goals of the NEP were gradually abused over time, taking on a communalist character. Eventually, it ended up narrowly benefiting an elite class known as ‘Umnoputras’ more concerned with feathering their own nests than the alleviation of the Malay poor.

On the other hand, meritocracy is premised on equality of opportunity. But it can sometimes lead to consequences which might be argued as unfair. It is no secret that the majority of government scholarship awardees come from affluent, middle-class backgrounds. This is because of the ‘unfair’ advantages they enjoy, often referred to as social capital; these include an English-speaking home environment and the means to afford private tuition. We tend to overlook that meritocracy, while based on egalitarian ideals, often produces elitist results.

The debate over ‘meritocracy’ and ‘Malay special rights’ is therefore not one that can be reduced to which system is better. They have to be understood within the context of the societies which practice them, as well as contesting notions of what constitutes ‘equality’.

Similarly, we have to be careful about the indices that we use to judge the ‘standard’ of multiculturalism in a country. There are many Malays in Malaysia who are against the NEP because it violates their notions of social justice. Malay politicians like Anwar Ibrahim have campaigned on a platform of abolishing the NEP and replacing it with a more equitable system. The lawyer who defended the right of Lina Joy to convert out of Islam is himself a Muslim—Malik Imtiaz Sarwar. In Malaysia, we have members of the majority speaking up for disenfranchised minorities—something unheard of in today’s Singapore.

The watershed Malaysian election of 2008 revealed that many voters were actually crossing racial lines. In Singapore, the entrenched idea that voters will only for their own race has led to the formation of the Group Representative Constituency scheme, where minority candidates apparently piggyback on the appeal of a Chinese candidate in a Chinese-majority ward (meaning all wards in Singapore) to get into Parliament.

The work of cultural producers also provide a glimpse into the active conversations on race in Malaysia. The advertisements by the visionary director Yasmin Ahmad are a case in point. Watching Tan Hong Ming, Dinosaur and Homecoming not only convinced me that Malaysia wasn’t a scary country ripped asunder by NEP-apartheid, but also made me wonder why we don’t make such vignettes celebrating our racial plurality in Singapore.

In his National Day Rally address to the Malay community, the Prime Minister said, ‘Malay/Muslim Singaporeans have developed your own distinct identity. You have become different from Malays in Malaysia, Indonesia or Brunei. When abroad, you want to be identified as Singaporeans first.’

This is a mystifying statement. I wonder if the PM said something similar to the Chinese community: “You have become different from Chinese in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Indonesia, Thailand or Malaysia.” But the subtext is of course the issue of Malay loyalty to the state. 44 years after Independence, the Malay community still finds that it has to demonstrate its willingness to defend the country in the event of armed conflict with neighboring countries.

Seen in this light, I shouldn’t be too hard on Khartini. There is something strategic in her renunciation of Malay Malaysians. One detects a hidden oath of allegiance in her exaggeration of differences: ‘Malay Malaysians and Singaporeans live in different political and social realities’. One could forgive the shoddy sociology, the simplistic us-vs-them posturing in her article. Ultimately, the fact that Malays in Singapore need to constantly defend their nationalist credentials says a lot more about Singapore’s multiculturalism than a corridor of neighbours who are Chinese, Malay, Indian—and perhaps Eurasian.

(8 comments | comment on this)

Monday, September 7th, 2009
4:30 am - on section 152
Should Section 152 Be Scrapped From The Singapore Constitution?

The event was a screening of Singapore short films. During the Question & Answer session at the end, a member of the audience, a Korean man, offered an observation: ‘Despite the fact that Singapore is a multiracial country, why are the films shown tonight all in Chinese?’

His query provoked an immediate response from a lady in the audience. Before the microphone could be passed to her, she had shouted out, almost defensively, ‘Majority, what!’

There is of course a certain undeniable logic to the woman’s outburst. The Chinese are an overwhelming 75% of Singapore’s population. If there were more media representations of the Chinese than the other races in Singapore, it was a matter of simple arithmetic.

But what was the woman actually saying with that phrase? Was she peeved that this ‘foreigner’ dared to suggest that Singapore’s ‘multi-racial’ ethos was superficial, even fraudulent? At the same time, I couldn’t help but be struck by a glib sense of entitlement that accompanied her response.


Recently, the Straits Times ran a feature article asking whether minorities in Singapore deserve a ‘special position’. What the article failed to recognize, however, was the ‘special position’ enjoyed by Chinese Singaporeans.

Simply put, these are the privileges that come from being members of the majority race.

When I was younger, I used to question why local advertisements rarely featured non-Chinese faces (bank and credit card companies were notorious for projecting images of well-heeled Chinese yuppies). I wondered why TVMobile showed Chinese programmes, which only served to marginalize those of us sitting in the bus who didn’t understand the language. But I came to realize that equal representation was simply not possible in a country where one particular ethnic community formed the bulk of the target market.

It’s not simply economic supremacy that the majority enjoys, but also political hegemony. Singapore practices a form of electoral democracy, which by its definition establishes rule by a majority. Because of the HDB quota system, which mandates that the ethnic composition in each estate should mirror that of the nation as a whole, minority communities do not form any significant electoral bloc.

While areas such as Kampong Kembangan, Geylang Serai and the Southern Islands used to be Malay-dominated strongholds, this has been diluted over time. We can contrast this, for example, with the state of Pulau Pinang in Malaysia, where the Chinese actually form the majority. Ironically, the attempt to prevent certain neighborhoods from becoming Malay or Indian enclaves has actually resulted in each ward becoming a Chinese enclave.

However, it is the privilege of the majority to be exempted from accusations of forming ‘enclaves’ (or for that matter, ‘ghettoes’) in areas where they are concentrated, simply because those words are inextricably linked with minorities.


Thus it was with a sense of bewilderment that I read Minister Mentor’s agitated rebuttal to NMP Viswa Sadasivan’s speech in Parliament, where the latter spoke of the ideal of racial equality enshrined in our National Pledge. According to Lee, “Our Constitution states expressly that it is a duty of the Government not to treat everybody as equal.” He made particular reference to Section 152 of the Singapore Constitution, which reads as such:

‘Minorities and special position of Malays
152. —(1) It shall be the responsibility of the Government constantly to care for the interests of the racial and religious minorities in Singapore.

(2) The Government shall exercise its functions in such manner as to recognise the special position of the Malays, who are the indigenous people of Singapore, and accordingly it shall be the responsibility of the Government to protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language.’

The implication is that the ‘special position’ accorded to Malays in Singapore is an obstacle to true racial equality. This was Lee’s argument to supposedly bring the house ‘back to earth’ and demolish Viswa’s ‘highfalutin’ ideals. But it seems as if Lee has got the whole thing backwards.

The fact is that inequalities already exist in any society where there is a dominant ethnic majority. In other words, instead of sabotaging the idea of racial equality, this remedial clause actually tries to promote it—by recognizing that minorities do not enjoy the economic and political clout of the majority, and would require special attention and assistance. Lee has labeled Viswa’s speech as ‘false and flawed’. The same should actually be said for his rebuttal.


A concrete example of this ‘remedial clause’ can be found in the television industry. In Singapore, there are dedicated channels for ethnic minorities, namely the Suria channel for Malays and Vasantham channel for Indians. It would be extremely difficult for these channels to survive on revenue from advertising alone. Not only do they suffer from lower viewership than say, Channel 8 and Channel U (the dedicated Mandarin channels), but advertisers would also recognize that the demographic profile of their viewers is hardly appealing.

Thus, much of the budget for programming on Suria and Vasantham is derived from television licensing fees. This is a practice commonly known as public service broadcasting, acknowledged on the website of the Media Development Authority: “These (licensing) fees are essential in helping with the production of public service programmes as they are less commercially viable and require funding support.”

Without constitutional safeguards for minorities, a multiracial country like Singapore risks sliding into majoritarianism. Sri Lanka is a prime example of a country whose tragic history is a direct result of majoritarian trends. In 1956, 8 years after Independence, the Sinhalese majority (74%) passed an act to recognize Sinhala as the only official language, effectively sidelining the Tamil minority. A new constitution enshrined Buddhism as the state religion, and pro-Sinhalese preferential policies in education and employment were instituted. The result was a protracted civil war that has claimed thousands of lives.


It is enlightening to revisit the part in Viswa’s speech which addressed the tenet in the pledge which reads as “a united people, regardless of race, language or religion”:

“…We, as a society, need to address apparent contradictions and mixed signals. Examples are the issue of Malay-Muslims in the SAF, SAP schools and cultural elitism, the need for ethnic based self help groups, the need for us to maintain the current racial distribution in society, and whether Singapore is ready for an ethnic minority Prime Minister.”

With the exception of ‘ethnic based self-help groups’, all the examples he listed represented the dangers of majoritarian impulses in Singapore. And out of this entire list, the Minister Mentor, in his rebuttal, chose only to respond to the issue of—ethnic based self-help groups.

Lee’s explication of the second part of Section 152 is similarly notable for its selective omissions. Lily Zubaidah’s ‘The Singapore Dilemma’ provides an excellent analysis on the Singapore government’s ‘minimalist’, rather than ‘interventionist’ approach to Section 152. While the section calls for the government to exercise pro-active measures with regards to the Malay community, it does not detail what these measures should be.

Thus the government has elected to interpret the clause in narrow terms, restricting this to providing free tertiary education for the Malay minority. In some instances, one can even argue that the government has acted in violation of Section 152. In the year 2000, the expropriation of Istana Kampong Glam, a symbol of Malay sovereignty on the island, surely did not demonstrate the political will to ‘safeguard (Malay) cultural interests’. The banning of the tudung in national schools in 2002 cannot be considered an act that ‘fosters (Malay) religious interests’. And the fact that the madrasahs in Singapore do not receive adequate funding from the Ministry of Education contravenes an obligation to ‘support (Malay) educational interests’.

As such, one wonders about the actual constitutional force of Section 152. Lee has raised Section 152 as some kind of stumbling block to equality. Yet the section itself has been subjected to unequal and arbitrary application in state policies.


I often find myself wondering why it is so difficult for someone in the majority to appreciate his or her privileged status in Singapore. How is it possible for someone to yell out ‘Majority, what!’, in the same breath unapologetically disclaiming any responsibilities towards fellow citizens who are minorities?

I believe there are two factors that can explain this lack of majority-consciousness among Chinese Singaporeans. The first is the fact that the Chinese did not come to the region as colonial settlers. Their arrival was facilitated by colonial capitalism, which often relied on indentured labour. Thus the Chinese do not see themselves as responsible for dispossessing native populations of their status and territories, and exploiting indigenous resources. As such, they do not carry the baggage of what has often been referred to as post-colonial guilt.

Secondly, there are some who believe that the Chinese-educated community has itself been marginalized, a phenomenon that has led sociologist Chua Beng Huat to coin the term ‘the minoritisation of the Chinese community’. I do have sympathy for such sentiments, although sometimes I wonder if a distinction needs to be made between government subjugation of communist activities (which tended to be associated with the Chinese-educated) and an actual repression of Chinese culture. Nevertheless, this sense of ‘minoritisation’ has led to a certain attitude in majority-minority relations: ‘how can the Chinese, who are themselves oppressed, be seen as the oppressors?’

No matter what the Chinese here feel about their status as the majority, the fact remains that this is a status that is not likely to change. Lee Kuan Yew himself has hinted at the need to maintain this ‘racial balance’ in a speech given in mid-August: “By race, the fertility rate is 1.91 for Malays, 1.19 for Indians and 1.14 for Chinese. If we continue this way without the new immigrants and PRs and their children doing national service, the composition of our SAF will change. So please remember that”.

The tendency of any majority, if left unchecked, is towards tyranny. The tendency of any minority, if left unattended, is towards alienation. The presence of Section 152, a constitutional guarantee of minority protection, goes a long way towards alleviating the damaging forces of such vectors in our society. Far from undermining equality, Section 152 is an attempt to rectify asymmetries of power, to achieve parity, among those who are not born equal. It takes a particular form of genius to observe the reverse.

(14 comments | comment on this)

Friday, July 31st, 2009
12:37 am - why yasmin ahmad was so important to me
Yasmin Ahmad had many Singaporean fans. During one of our meetings, she confided how she had found such a warm reception for her films in Singapore, as compared to her native Malaysia. By 'warm', one of the things she meant was a marked absence of hostility that greeted her work, which ranged from interrogations of her Islamic credentials to accusations of manipulative sentimentality.

The Singaporean reception to her work can only be meaningfully analysed if we consider how it is constituted. From my personal observations, there are two separate strands of spectatorship involved. To non-Malay Singaporeans, her work represented a corrective to the oppressive elements of Bumiputra privilege up north--here was a Malay-Muslim filmmaker who created a space for multiracial plurality in Malaysian cinema, and who was not afraid to criticise the very policies of which she herself was a potential beneficiary. There was much to admire about this kind of humanism, even as it seemed at times to veer precariously into escapist utopianism.

And then there was a group of people for whom Yasmin Ahmad became the voice we'd been waiting for. It was a voice that spoke to, and for, a generation of young Malay Singaporeans underserved by a Sinocentric local media, who found very little we could relate to in the country of our birth. Turning our gaze towards the Peninsula was not the most viable of options; firstly, there was always the nagging guilt that to be considered truly Singaporean, we had to excise our connections with Malaysia. The strange rite of citizenship in Singapore consisted of claiming a status as an immigrant detached from one's 'motherland', such that we could place ourselves on an equal platform with the Chinese and Indians. But this was complicated by the paranoia that our northern neighbour was a 'potential hostile force', much more so than distant China and India, so Malays had to put in extra effort at this disavowal of our origins.

Secondly, there were certain aspects of Malaysian society that seemed perplexing to us: an Islamist party in the far north organising a 'lullaby-singing competition for children and spouse' as a way of reconciling music and religion, henna-haired Datins and pipe-smoking Datuks hinting at the traces of low corruption among high society, and that very puzzling riddle: the casual pairing of a tudung with a short-sleeved T-shirt.

But who were we, and why did Yasmin's films resonate so much with us? I can only speak of the circle of Malay friends that I have, although I suspect that our numbers are growing. We're a product of Singapore's bilingual education system, and many of us come from lower-middle-to-middle-class backgrounds. We all received decent grades for our Malay in school, even though in Malay class, we'd probably put our hands up and ask, 'Cikgu, 'imagination' cakap Melayu apa?' (How do you say 'imagination' in Malay?)

Our mothers are prone to melodramatic meltdowns and our fathers watch too much Malaysian news on TV. We think a 'lepak' (idling) place like Simpang Bedok possesses its charms because they have Malaysian stall assistants who hand you money with their right hand, their left hand respectfully clasping their right wrist. We like hanging out at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station because it's on Malaysian land and we can smoke to our hearts' content--although we'll also admit that the whole idea of being in a place where the railway is called Keretapi Tanah Melayu (literally 'Train Running On Malay Soil') does warm and fuzzy things to our self-worth.

We've had our individual encounters with service staff from China who spoke to us in Mandarin, and our coping strategies included advice from religion: 'kesabaran itu sebahagian daripada iman' (patience is part of faith), our mothers' sayings: 'biar orang buat kita, jangan kita yang buat orang' (let others do unto us, but never should we do unto others), and of course the wisdom of P. Ramlee movies: the 'cubaan...' (this is just a trial) lament from the movie 'Pendekar Bujang Lapok'.

We think the Chinese can't sing or dance as well as us because they all 'takde soul'. Indians, on the other hand, have both soul and rhythm. We have at least one friend who jams in a band.

We love our slang, much of which consists of distorted English loan-words: 'over' (excessive), 'potong steam' (to interrupt something abruptly, causing one to lose momentum) and 'tangkap feel' (to be inspired). Once in a while, we'll invent our own: the affectionate 'Mintod' (Minah + Tudung) and 'sentimentel' (sentimental + mentel, or 'coy'), although we know that when it comes to neologistic invention we're way behind the good people of Jakarta.

We think Malay MP's are handsomely paid mouthpieces for the State, a sentiment we sometimes share with our parents, who'd instead use the phrase 'Pak Turut' (Mr Yes-man). We think the 'drug problem' shouldn't be handled on a community level, like how nobody insists that the Chinese Development Assistance Council should be tackling the 'gambling problem' or that the Singapore Indian Development Association should be dealing with the 'alcoholism problem'. We know how difficult it is to talk about Malay marginality in Singapore--the Malays who do it are accused of a 'victim mentality', and the non-Malays who do it tend to be opposition politicians (like Chiam See Tong who spoke about Malays and the army in Parliament, or Chee Soon Juan who spoke about the tudung issue at Speaker's Corner), and they get accused of 'politicking'.

We think Berita Harian gets carried away with their 'Anak Melayu' stories, of the 'Anak Melayu Mengharumkan Nama Bangsa' (literally—‘Malay Child Adds Fragrance to the Community's Name') variety. We think that images of a Malay graduate wearing his or her convocation gown belongs to the category of images on laminated motivational posters--inspirational, but in the cheesiest way possible (caption: 'if they can do it, you can do it too!'). We're sick and tired of watching English TV shows where a Malay lead (Aaron Aziz, Suhaimi Yusof) plays a policeman. We watch Singapore films like '12 Storeys', where a Malay man asks a lead character for free tuition for his son (which means his son's not good at is studies, and also, that he's cheap) and 'Money No Enough', where a Malay man plays a TV salesman (a pushover who gets bullied by Jack Neo and Mark Lee into giving them free gifts) and wonder when the parade of humiliating stereotypes will end.

We think honorific terms like 'kak' (sister) and 'abang' (brother) are so 'kampung' (village) but we end up using them with both endearment and irony, on those people whose ideas and works we felt close to ('mesra'). We'll have conversations where we'll go, "have you read this article our Kak Lily (Zubaidah Rahim) wrote where she whacked Singapore's super-kiasu foreign policy?", or "there's this interesting Facebook post by our Abang Farish (Noor) on the uses and abuses of history". And then, of course, there was 'Kak Yasmin', or 'Kak Min'.

Most Malaysian Malay films made in the 80's and 90's were terrible: implausible plots, hammy acting, and too many people sporting moustaches. Then Yasmin Ahmad's films came along. When they were showing on Singapore screens, the audience consisted of both Malays and non-Malays, a crossover phenomenon rarely observed since Cathay Keris unleashed the Maria Menado-starrer 'Pontianak'—and that was in 1957. The fact that there was a multiracial Singaporean audience which appreciated Yasmin's films helped to mitigate our anxieties about orientating our identities northwards.

Orked, the character played by Sharifah Amani in 'Sepet' and 'Gubra', became our poster girl: she was spunky, opinionated, watched Wong Kar Wai movies, read Franz Fanon, and code-switched with ease between English and Malay. See, we wanted to tell the non-Malays in the audience, we're not all lazy, cliquish, parochial working-class folks. We saw the rapport between Orked's parents (played by Ida Nerina and Harith Iskandar), and felt that we were sharing with the audience the importance of the family in Malay life—and not in a 'let's-have-as-many-kids-as-possible' sense.

On an MRT train ride a few days ago, I scrolled through my phone and stumbled across an SMS from Yasmin, sent to me in September last year. It read: 'Long before you stood up for Sepet in Kakiseni, a Singaporean friend gave me a book of poems written by you. Even then I wished to meet the writer of those beautiful poems, just to chat about ways of, and reasons for, expressing oneself. We should do that some time, kan?'

We never managed to have that conversation. But if it had indeed transpired, I know one of the things I would have told her is this: sometimes we don’t need to know the reasons why we express ourselves. Sometimes what we create might have effects we would never have anticipated. As Yasmin would often modestly state, all she wanted to do was ‘tell a story’--and one might add, 'Malaysian stories'. Little did she know how important those stories were to a whole generation of alienated Malay Singaporeans. Watching her works allowed us to recognize ourselves and restored to us a sense of racial dignity. Her films made us less lonely. While we mourn Yasmin’s passing, there is at least one consolation. We still have her films for company.

(21 comments | comment on this)

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009
12:21 pm - the 'i'm on page 73' game
One of the most hilarious things I saw on Twitter was this: Thio Su Mien went up to tell the crowd at the AWARE EOGM why she considered herself a feminist mentor. To support her claim, she held up an AWARE book published in 2007, declaring to everyone that she was 'charmed' to be mentioned 'on page 73'.

This is how you play the game.

1) Pick up a book/s you're currently reading.

2) Go to page 73.

3) Look for a sentence/s, and replace a word/s with 'Thio Su Mien'. The more random the better.

4) Pass your TSM love around to your friends.

Here are a dozen of my finds:

1) "Right here, on our property, we have great horned owls, pheasants, quail, wood ducks and a pasture big enough for Thio Su Mien."

'Collapse' by Jared Diamond, pg. 73

2) "Thio Su Mien soon came back with a small wooden bowl and started mashing lard in it."

'The Steppe', by Anton Chekhov, in 'Anton Chekov: The Complete Short Novels', pg. 73

3) "It's easy for you to say. You don't have Thio Su Mien."

'Lions in Winter' by Wena Poon, pg. 73

4) "Problems consistently highlighted include both the methodology of religious instruction and Thio Su Mien."

'Secularism and Spirituality: Seeking Integrated Knowledge and Success in Madrasah Education in Singapore', by Noor Aisha Abdul Rahman and Lai Ah Eng, pg. 73

5) "Thio Su Mien doesn't seem to know for a minute what she is talking about."

'The Love of a Good Woman,' by Alice Munro, pg. 73

6) "The scenario was about a guy finding out that his girlfriend was going to leave him for Thio Su Mien."

'SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century' by Ng Yi-Sheng, pg. 73

7) "It was precisely this thematization of time which allowed Thio Su Mien to be excluded from the aesthetic domain and which permitted the artist to inject into the work of art at least the appearance of timelessness."

'The Culture Industry', by Theodor Adorno, pg. 73

8) "There comes a point when Thio Su Mien's many declarations of women's rights become less of a battle cry and more an acute pain, and you begin to wonder how any man can put up with her, let alone live with her."

'Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema', by Noel Vera, pg. 73

9) "If Thio Su Mien harms living beings
She cannot be considered noble
Only by exercising harmlessness towards living beings
Can one be called noble."

'The Dhammapada', translated by The Venerable Balangoda Ananda Maitreya, pg. 73

10) "Assimilated by Thio Su Mien to pure passivity (what is more inert and more dispossessed than an object expelled in jet-form?), she reintegrates the ritual nevertheless, thanks to the myth of a fictitious, celestial race, which is said to derive its peculiarities from its ascetic life, and which effects a kind of anthropological compromise beween humans and Martians."

'The Jet Man' in 'Mythologies', by Roland Barthes, pg. 73

11) LANCE: Don't bring her here! I'm not even fucking joking with you, don't you be bringing some Thio Su Mien pooh-butt to my house!

'Pulp Fiction', by Quentin Tarantino, pg. 73

12) ""Thanks," Thio Su Mien says gratefully, before downing about half of the drink."

'Quiet Time,' by Johann S Lee, pg. 73


(13 comments | comment on this)

Monday, April 20th, 2009
1:37 pm - playwriting workshops at NTU
In the first week, we were introduced to the structure of the workshops. To my surprise, for the first session, we were supposed to write a Children’s Book.

My group came up with one involving a girl who wanted to be a cloud. Its moral was: be careful what you wish for. The girl realized that being a cloud did not promise the life of predictability and constancy that she had fantasized about. As a matter of fact, it was one where, as the cliché goes, the only constant was change. This is due to the fact that clouds are part of this process of renewal and disintegration called: THE HYDROLOGICAL CYCLE.

Our short little children’s book, unbeknownst to us, was a parable on karma and dharma.

Anyway, on the journey home, I thought about how I’d first heard of that phrase: THE HYDROLOGICAL CYCLE. I vaguely remember a daytime TV series that was produced by what was then known as CDIS: the Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore. There was a Eurasian man who appeared on screen, demonstrating useful science concepts such as photosynthesis, combustion experiments and THE HYDROLOGICAL CYCLE. I forgot his name, but I think his first name was Hamish. He wore spectacles and tried to make science sound like a lot of fun. Condensation. Evaporation. He had his work cut out for him.

Then I started thinking about the 80s. I was in Primary School at that time. It was a time of earnestness and innocence. Actually I’m sure everyone looks back at their childhood years as a time of earnestness and innocence. People tried to teach science on TV and make it look like a lot of fun. In 1987, the Miss Universe contest came to Singapore and for the very first time, a Singaporean was admitted into the finals. Was I too young and earnest and innocent to entertain the idea that this was because the contest was rigged and that the host country could always be assured of a free ticket into the finals?

Anyway, the contestant, I forgot her name now, was Eurasian. Was the 80s a Eurasian decade?

Anyway, going back to children’s books, I had an idea of writing a series based on the campaign mascots of the 80s, 70s etc that we had in Singapore. But tweaked with a contemporary perspective. With great hindsight comes great parody.

What were the campaign mascots that Singapore had produced over the years? They were almost invariably animals, and they were always smiling. Some of them wore pants and some didn’t. There was a squirrel invented by the Post Office Savings Bank, to exhort little ones to start saving early. There was also Teamy the Productivity Bee, who wore a yellow hard hat—oh the innocence of it all—Singapore was geared to become a manufacturing hub, and for some reason people had no quarrel with being compared to de-personalised, de-individualised automatons whose sole function in life is to serve The Queen Bee. And then there was the ubiquitous Singa the Courtesy Lion. He’s still around, pants-less, in MRT signs, telling people not to cross the yellow MRT line, because committing suicide is discourteous.

Anyway, the one mascot that appealed to me at that time was this enormous, pink, slightly effeminate creature called the Sharity Elephant (he was very nasal as well, because naturally those with trunks have major sinus problems). Sharity, as we were informed, was a cute word combining the words ‘share’ and ‘charity’ (how clever!). I think it was the Community Chest that propelled this animal into the national limelight. Anyway, Sharity’s message to Singaporeans was that it was fun to be a sharing and charitable person. Sharity had a heart emblazoned on his chest, a congenital malformation that would have made him an object of charity were it not for the fact that he was himself a greatly charitable manimal. Whenever Sharity has performed a kind turn, his heart would actually expand and miraculously lift him up into the stratosphere. Like a hot-air balloon, buoyed by the undying flame of altruistic action. There was, however, something so hyperbolic about this particular reaction that I vaguely recall wondering if this was some code for an orgasm that Sharity was experiencing.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

My version of the children’s story will be like this:

1) Sharity Elephant sees an old lady trying to cross the road. He helps her across and then feels that familiar swell in his heart.

2) Sharity is ready for lift-off! His feet (are they called that?) start disengaging from the ground. The old woman faints. It’s a miracle!

3) Sharity is high, high up in the clouds. He’s on top of the world! People look like ants from up above. Singapore looks like a dot—not necessarily red, but a dot nonetheless.

4) Sharity says hi to the clouds, who are familiar with the sight of this pink elephant floating in their midst. Sharity waves hello at a rainbow, who doesn’t wave back because he doesn’t have hands.

5) The air is becoming quite thin. Science tells us that the higher layers of the atmosphere have low oxygen content. Sharity gets breathless.

6) Sharity is now the pink elephant with a blue head. He is showing signs of hypoxia. How can he get down? He tries squeezing his heart. It doesn’t work. He squeezes harder. It doesn’t deflate. In fact it’s growing even larger, propelling Sharity towards outer space!

7) Sharity meets the wise old owl in mid-flight. He asks for help. The owl tells him that there’s a simple solution to his gravitational problem. All Sharity needs to do to make his heart shrink back to normal size is to perform actions opposite to the ones he had done to make the heart inflate in the first place.

8) But that means performing evil deeds! But does Sharity have a choice? It’s his own survival that’s at stake.

9) Sharity meets a few pigeons, mid-flight. He breaks their necks and tosses their carcasses downwards. He manages to descend a few metres.

10) Sharity punches a hole though an aeroplane’s windscreen. The plane crashes. Sharity’s heart shrinks a bit more.

11) What else can he do now? He doesn’t see anymore victims around. He starts crying. Will he ever touch the Earth’s surface again?

12) Oh! The clouds! He pees into them, and they turn yellow. He ushers them over reservoirs. Ammonia rain contaminates Singapore’s water sources.

13) He’s approaching the ground now, our dear Sharity. One last thing to do. He takes a dump, and it lands splat on the old woman whom he had helped cross the road.

14) Sharity has now landed. Phew! For his relief, and the odious pong coming from the woman. The woman asks if he might be so kind as to use his trunk to suck up some water from the reservoir and bathe her clean.

15) Sharity has doubts. If he performs yet another good dead, he’ll be flung into the atmosphere again!

16) But he remembers that the reservoir is polluted with his pee. It’s golden shower time for the old woman!

17) That’s one last evil deed. Sharity’s heart shrivels up and peels off from his chest.

18) Sharity is sad to see his heart detach itself. But just as well, he thinks. Elephants were not made to fly.


(17 comments | comment on this)

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009
12:22 pm - eat your words
Blast from the past (1994):

In the 1991 General Election, the Prime Minister campaigned and made an issue of his consultative style of Government. He was disappointed and puzzled by the loss of four seats and a 1.5 per cent drop in popular support. He came to the conclusion that most Singaporeans are not particularly interested in his style, whether it is "gentler" or "kinder". What they want is a good government which produces results.

They want the government to concentrate on the basics, like better pay and lower cost of living, better neighbourhood schools for their children and better jobs. They want a safe, stable society, one good for their children to grow up in. They support detention without trial, the death penalty, caning, and film censorship. They support banning art groups which tout the cutting of pubic hair as an artistic performance. However, this does not mean that the Government will not make room for minority intellectual groups to pursue their interests, provided majority sentiments are not offended.

But to be effective, he cannot be kindness and gentleness all the time.

Singapore will expand its political and artistic space pragmatically and gradually, and not in accordance with any formula urged upon Singapore by the Western media, which had pushed for and praised American-style democratisation in Taiwan and South Korea.

In 10-20 years, the results in Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore will speak for themselves.

CHAN HENG WING Press Secretary to the Prime Minister Prime Minister's Office , There are limits to openness
29 December 1994
Straits Times
(c) 1994 Singapore Press Holdings Limited


Korea has its dynamic chaebols, Taiwan its high-tech industries and SME's, and Singapore's still prostituting itself for MNC's. And let's not even talk about soft power: Taiwanese TV formats are relentlessly copied in Singapore, and Korea's sent its hallyu shockwaves round the region. Not just TV, though, look at their cinema and their music industry.

(comment on this)

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009
2:56 pm - come come talk talk
NTU Explorations in the Arts Series

Cannot Make It One:

A Dialogue on CMIO

Racial Politics and Singapore Theatre

with Chong Tze Chien, Alfian Saat and Kok Heng Leun

Date: Friday, 27th Mar 2009

Time: 1.00 – 2.30 pm

Venue: The Nanyang Playhouse, NIE

The politics of difference is an area of interest for all global citizens, particularly those who live and engage with urban environments. Being one of the busiest crossroads between East and West, South and North, Singapore provides a fascinating point of intersection between several cultures and multiple identities. Many streams run into the same river, but do they ever become one?

Theatre provides a site for exploring this phenomenon and performing the conflicts and challenges that emerge in plural societies. Whilst theatre continues to have several language based streams such as English Language, Chinese Language and Malay Language theatre, they are all part of the Singapore theatre scene. Multilingual productions are still rare, albeit not as uncommon as they once were. So will the streams ever converge and do they need to?

Theatre practitioners Alfian Saat, Chong Tze Chien and Kok Heng Leun talk about their experience and vision for Singapore theatre. As writers and directors whose involvement in theatre has criss-crossed between one company and another, one stream and another, they consider the bridges and the riverbanks of making theatre and thinking theatre in Singapore. For now and for the future. Will they deal with rising sea-levels as well?

(comment on this)

Thursday, January 29th, 2009
3:28 am - another resolution
I will recognise that some things are beyond my control.

(2 comments | comment on this)

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009
6:59 pm - resolution
Just one, a modest one, for the new year: Reply emails promptly.

By the way, anybody has a copy of Tash Aw's 'The Harmony Silk Factory'?

(3 comments | comment on this)

Thursday, December 11th, 2008
5:22 pm - queen of diamonds (posted for joe)

The hardest substance in the world
Is forged through heat and stress
A hidden lump of common coal
In the earth’s red-hot caress

It takes so much to look like this
The people don’t know
They think it must be an angel’s kiss
That gives my face this glow

The thousands I have spent on creams
And lotions that restore
The lengths I go to, the extremes
For exterior décor

‘Cos I don’t need your garlands
Or crowds when I depart
I’d rather be the Queen of Diamonds
Than the Queen of People’s Hearts

‘Cos I don’t need your garlands
Or crowds when I depart
I’d rather be the Queen of Diamonds
Than the Queen of People’s Hearts

I start my day with Botox jabs
With liposuction at noon
And then it’s off to the doctor’s labs
To make plums out of prunes

I sleep in a chamber of oxygen
And bathe with mineral water
I’ll gladly trade a plastic surgeon
For my own stepdaughter

My teeth are porcelain veneer
And Lasik for my eye
If you delay each looming year
Then death you can defy

‘Cos I don’t need your garlands
Or crowds when I depart
I’d rather be the Queen of Diamonds
Than the Queen of People’s Hearts.

‘Cos I don’t need your garlands
Or crowds when I depart
I’d rather be the Queen of Diamonds
Than the Queen of People’s Hearts.

(2 comments | comment on this)

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008
12:09 pm - singalong


Ordinary girl

Ordinary girl


You can’t afford my diamonds
Or these exquisite pearls
But even though I am your queen
I’m just one of the girls

This bracelet costs an atom bomb
This ring will ruin you
But apart from these accessories
I’m down to earth, it’s true

I’m just an ordinary girl
I could be living just next door
My handsome Gurkha bodyguards
I’ll have to ask you to ignore

Of course I’m always driven round
In big expensive cars
And I have weekly dinners with
Tycoons and superstars

But take away all that
And we’re all just the same
A rich girl with expensive taste
Is not someone you’d blame

I’ll go to hawker centres
And sit with drunks and bums
I’ll even drink some kopi-O
And eat mee Siam mai hum
Mai hum mai hum
Mai hum mai hum mai hum

I’m just an ordinary girl
I could be living just next door
My multi-million salary
I’ll have to ask you to ignore

Ordinary girl

Ordinary girl!

(4 comments | comment on this)

Thursday, December 4th, 2008
3:14 pm - gala snaps
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

The divine Miss Tan. Who channels Shirley Bassey, Liza Minelli, Imelda Marcos, LKY and Margaret Chan.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

And the cast. Sometimes when I see the bunnies dancing I also feel like slipping into a bunny costume myself.

(5 comments | comment on this)

3:03 am - snow white reviews
Life! - Life People
Smart, with plenty of heart
adeline chia
1 December 2008
Straits Times
(c) 2008 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

Wild Rice Drama Centre, Last Saturday

You know it is Christmas all right, when Wild Rice rolls out its annual pantomime. Turning the Snow White fairy tale on its head is playwright Alfian Sa'at, known for his R-18 plays, in his virgin foray into musical-theatre.

His script is smart, sassy and satirical, but comes with enough good, clean fun for the whole family. The result is an enjoyable show with plenty of heart and some inspired musical touches.

The play is set in the Eternal Kingdom, a squeaky-clean country covered with a dome and pumped with air-conditioning. It is ruled by a control- freak Queen who wins the beauty pageant every year despite grumblings from the ground.

Sounds familiar? The parallels between this fairy-tale land and Singapore are obvious and the panto piles it on thick. The adults, clearly, are the ones picking up on the jibes and there are some funny lines. Cinderella packs a picnic to feed wild animals and where has she chosen? 'The most secluded area in the kingdom' - The Speaker's Corner.

In a way, this is a watered-down version of Alfian's political plays, with enough political edge for the grown- ups to feel naughty, but not enough to cause discomfort.

But Alfian also has his eye on the children. In terms of sexual innuendo, it is very kid-friendly. Other than a terrible pun on the word 'petting' and a transsexual dwarf called Jesse/Jessie, the play is surprisingly chaste.

But what I liked about the play was its surprising heart beyond the swipes and how it probes the fatal obsession with beauty and perfection.

In the Eternal Kingdom, all citizens have to undergo an operation called Enhancement to get rid of flaws and Snow White opts out of it. Later in the Outer Limits, where she finds a Barbie Doll, she holds it and says, 'You stop playing with dolls, but they don't stop playing with you'.

Sebastian Tan stole the show in drag as the wicked witch, whose crisp English and penchant for elaborate headpieces brought the house down.

His cool autocratic air and manic cackle was classic pantomime villain material, but his performance allowed for nuance and even a sense of tragedy, especially in the Queen's apparent disregard for love and affection.

The statuesque Tan worked in fine contrast to the petite Snow White, played by a bright-eyed, clear-voiced Elena Wong, who was a likeable and spunky heroine.

The musical component, composed by Elaine Chan, was a mixed affair, ranging from forgettable pop songs and power ballads to rap songs and flamenco-inspired tunes.

In general, the Queen had the best songs, such as the power-ballad Queen Of Diamonds, where Tan sings: 'I don't need your garlands, or crowns when I depart/I'd rather be the queen of diamonds, than the queen of people's hearts.'

Other tunes, such as the Magic Mirror's I Cannot Tell A Lie, could have been cut to shorten the pantomime's running time of 2 1/2 hours.

But director Hossan Leong keeps things moving by steering the panto through its comedic and tender moments, so that the production's rhythm never sags for a long time. Just take the whole family.

Hi-ho, not ho-hum
Mayo Martin 

2 December 2008
(c) 2008. MediaCorp Press Ltd.

WITH a wave of his wand (his pen), playwright Alfian Sa’at has successfully transformed a harmless fairy tale into a tongue-in-cheek modern day Singaporean allegory — while giving adults the perfect excuse to wave hand clappers and toot horns along with the children in the audience.

W!ld Rice’s year-end musical pantomime was a hoot. Helmed by director Hossan Leong, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs proved to be engrossing enough for kids even as it dished out naughty allusions on the country’s political climate left and right.

In this version, the clean, orderly kingdom is ruled by a evil queen with an obsession for cosmetic surgery. Instead of a wicked witch, an old karung guni woman bears the poisoned apple.

As for the seven dwarfs, they aren’t exactly your cuddly Disney types but citizens who’ve been exiled to the kingdom’s outskirts, which turns out to be a landfill instead of a forest.

Backed by an able supporting cast, the main actors out delivered fine acting and vocal performances.

Dwayne Tan was more loveable geek-dressed-as-a-hobbit than your run of the mill Prince Charming, and the lovely Elena Wang — with her stunning voice and a surprising aptitude for comic timing as Snow White — is proving to be local theatre’s best new discovery for 2008.

But our hats go off to Broadway Beng Sebastian Tan, whose cross-dressing portrayal of the Queen proved that yes, evil can be glamorous, snazzy and sassy.

And that was more than enough to make us hum “Hi-ho, hi-ho ... ”


1) This pantomime had to be one of the most painful things I'd ever written. I know people are tired of hearing it already, but I had sleepless nights trying to write song lyrics. I would camp overnight in the W!ld Rice office, (my productivity severely compromised by endless hours reading The New Yorker online and, and in the morning I would scare the first person to come into the office.

2) Another problem I had to deal with was form. The pantomime requires an audience-conscious presentational style, but NOT something Brechtian. It was difficult for me, because I had to try to break the fourth wall, without somehow being arch and meta and putting the whole play in quotation marks. I didn't want, for example, to do a Shrek-style iconoclastic take on the very premise of fairy tales. I still wanted pretty dresses, magic to be accompanied by chimes, True Love and Happily Ever After (with no question mark). I wanted innocence. The illusion of the universe created on stage had to be maintained, even if the actors occasionally popped their heads through this tissue of fantasy.

3) Elaine Chan, the music composer, is such a wonder to work with. Only she could have smiled tolerantly when I gave her rhymes like 'nutritiously' and 'judiciously' and 'exaggerate' and 'carbohydrate' and smoothened them out with music. I think lesser composers would have thrown said verses back at me and yelled 'this is a song you CB so many syllables for what?'

4) The reviews don't mention it, but I thought I'd put it on record that Hossan was instrumental in parsing down the musical to its current length. It was about hitting plot points, ushering the action along, and he did an amazing job of underscoring key moments with music. For once I didn't feel as if removing lines had diminished the play.

5) The kinds of ad-libbing liberties the actors have taken with the play are so gratifying. And the children in the audience throw up all kinds of new things each night. I do think they're the unacknowledged stars of the show. Or I'm probably just saying this because I made a few of them cry ('No! Snow White, don't go!'...'Don't eat the apple!' etc) and I feel quite bad.

6) I can't peel my eyes away when: the littlest bunny dances; when the Prince does his solo; when the Queen does her Shirley Bassey number in those magma-red gloves.

7) There is a wishing tree in the lobby. People are invited to 'send their wishes to Snow White'. Some write 'Happy Marriage Snow White!'. I've seen one that said 'I love Santa'. But there's one particular which read 'Please ask God to heal Sarah completely this Thursday.' I don't know if there's going to be a major operation on that day. I would like to believe that Sarah is down with cold and that her family wants her to recover in time to catch the play on Thursday. I don't know Sarah. But please get well soon. You need to find your Prince Charming and have your happily ever after. It is the very least that you deserve.

(31 comments | comment on this)

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008
12:55 am - new singapore!
I get some comments from people who watch Snow White that they're 'surprised' at how I managed to 'get away' with some of the political jibes in the play.

Are we really liberalising? Could this be the New Singapore?

1) First things first, whatever happens in the privileged arena that is the theatre does not necessarily reflect current socio-political reality. It is a fallacy to believe that the theatre is some kind of barometer for social change. The explosions are contained.

2) I don't think I'm pushing any out-of-bound markers. I don't write plays as if they are furtive, guerilla attacks at the establishment. So it's tiring whenever I get called 'edgy' or 'daring'. What is the issue here is the discrepancy between your perception of what is dangerous or permissible, and my own.

3) When people express 'surprise' at 'how far I managed to go', what they are essentially doing is expressing their own internalised fears.

4) I know the paranoia that is so entrenched that one speaks of ISD folders, bugged phones, hacked emails, civil service blacklists, etc. I have wrestled with these issues myself, and it all boils down to: don't they have better things to do? It would be tragic for Singapore if I'm perceived as a threat when there's a supposed terrorist who escaped from our local Guantanamo Bay who's still at large.

(7 comments | comment on this)

Friday, November 28th, 2008
5:04 am - caption this november
Winners of November's Caption This! Contest:

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

3) The lengths some people go to for tongue-descaling.
2) Eve had clearly misheard the serpent's instructions.
1) The deep-throat competition produced a clear winner.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

3) Weekly yoga with the Stepford Wives.
2) Workers at the Emperor's New Clothes sweatshop hold up their handiwork.
1) Members of Young PAP chant 'Long Live Great Leader' in robotic ecstasy.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

3) Melvin (aka Maung Win) celebrates his 5th year of asylum in Singapore with a prayer for peace.
2) "I am NOT going to wish for my crater to disappear! Where is it? I can't even see it."
1) "So at the void deck I opened my mouth like this, and looked up..."

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

3) Perineal exercises can be so FUN! Now, CLENCH!
2) After the umpteenth round of super-enthu cheering at the Superteen Camp, he finally managed to message H-E-L-P M-E to everyone on his phone list.
1) Children at a Special School make New Year's wishes a month early.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

3) Scientists have discovered a link between contact lens-wear and lesbianism.
2) 'Look sultry' meant different things to different people.
1) It was obvious from the beginning who was going to drop out of tranny school.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

3) 3 commercial, 1 couture.
2) "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!"
1) Suan Lake.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

3) The pugilistic manoeuvres of the Pufferfish Sect were unique, to say the least.
2) The ninja explained his unique attire: he carried out his attacks in mangrove swamps only, waist deep in water.
1) Early rejected storyboard for Kung Fu Panda. (They only kept the Panda)

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

This is actually a composite taken from four different sources:

From Left to Right:

1) New Light of Myanmar newspaper byline photo, Agriculture Section
2) Outram Secondary School: Lab Technician photo pasted on Staff Movement Chart
3) National JC Yearbook, Pioneer Batch, 1970
4) S-League Newsletter: Dalien Shide imports new China-born midfielder

If you laughed at any of these, you are as much a CB as I am hahaha.

(24 comments | comment on this)

Thursday, November 27th, 2008
1:12 pm - missing homeland
I need to go to KL. Like, now!

(comment on this)

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008
2:51 pm - absolutely amazing
From the Straits Times, 26 Nov 2008:

IN DECIDING whether contempt of court has been committed, many common law jurisdictions like England and Australia prefer to adopt the test of whether there has been a 'real risk' of undermining public confidence in the justice system.

Justice Tay Yong Kwang, however, rejected this approach for Singapore in his ruling that found the publisher of the Wall Street Journal Asia guilty of contempt of court.

Singapore's unique conditions, such as its small size, made it necessary to deal firmly with attacks on the courts' integrity, he said.

This was why when deciding contempt of court cases, he preferred to go by whether there was an 'inherent tendency' to interfere with the administration of justice instead of whether there was a 'real risk' that public confidence in the judiciary would be undermined.

Dow Jones' lawyer, Senior Counsel Philip Jeyaretnam, had argued in favour of the latter, saying it was clearer and struck a more appropriate balance between protecting an independent judiciary and the right to free expression.

The 'inherent tendency' test was deemed vague and imprecise, he added.

Justice Tay, in explaining why he rejected this approach, defined a statement which has an 'inherent tendency' to interfere with the administration of justice as 'one that conveys to an average reasonable reader allegations of bias, lack of impartiality, impropriety or any wrongdoing concerning a judge in the exercise of his judicial function'.

He cited two advantages to this approach.

It does not call for detailed proof of what in many cases is unprovable - that public confidence in the administration of justice really was impaired.

This test enables the court to step in before the damage actually occurs.


1) OMG! The 'Singapore is unique because it is small' argument rears its head again! A little bit of exceptionalism rhetoric does go a long way, it seems. Someone needs to factcheck and see if other 'small states' go to the same lengths to protect their courts' integrity. There are at least 45 countries whose populations are less than 1.5 million. What are their court systems like?

2) Well, we can't prove anything, but let's proceed with the case anyway and arrive at a verdict. I mean, who really needs proof in a court of a law? Let's just rely on exegesis by this "average reasonable reader". Can he please take the stand? Oh, no such person exists? He's an idealistic abstraction? Then how do we get our testimonies? Oh, whatever.

3) The court stepping in before damage actually occurs. Wow. We're in pre-cog territory here. The court is making decisions based on likelihood, not actual outcomes. Is it possible to prosecute in the near future for 'inherent tendency' towards criminal behaviour, rather than the act of crime itself?

4) Any act of suppressing information carries within it its own contradiction. This has been called the paradox of censorship: it is always the strongest publicity agent for unpopular ideas. So basically, the Court itself exacerbated the 'damage' by proceeding with the case. In an attempt to clamp down on the right of AWSJ to free reporting, it drew attention to these very articles in question, exposing their content to a much wider readership than what they might have attracted in the first place. And it doesn't really matter at the end of the day whether AWSJ wins or loses, the meme has been circulated, people are reading Chee's side of the story as well as other accounts, and they can make up their own minds, even if they can't publicly articulate their contents, one of the few freedoms one has left on this wretched island.

(comment on this)

> previous 20 entries
> top of page