Trust

Well, after a long absence I finally have something to say. Might be because there’s been some interesting discussion in the news. I’ve put some thought into what might be causing this.

Image result for trust in me

The PAP has a bit of an image problem that also affects recruiting. Ultimately it is known that you only really make a difference if you enter the inner circle, and you generally only enter the inner circle if you are:

  • privately successsful (increasingly rare);
  • have a uniformed services background (increasingly common);
  • or have significant public sector experience.

Whichever pathway you choose, you probably need a degree (or several) from top universities outside the financial reach of most Singaporeans.

This excludes a lot of people, and arguably the people it excludes the MOST are those that it most NEEDS.

I don’t think there’s much complaint (or understanding) about the PAP’s “high level” operations, in the sense of providing for the essentials of economic stability, military defence, a sound foreign policy, etc. It’s more the ground level stuff that kicks them in the gut.

The PAP’s problems may be broadly summed up as follows:

1) perceived lack of sympathy and/or elitism

2) an overabundance of faith in bureaucracy/procedural rules

3) an increasingly problematic moral platform, and

4) a culture of patronage.

I will explain.

1: perceived lack of sympathy and/or elitism

There are a number of reasons for this. You have the fact that they select only for one kind of success (financial/economic success).

Image result for mediocre immortan joe

While some of them have come from humble beginnings, this is easy to forget when they’re now millionaires.

In some cases, it’s just bad PR. People remember Koh Poh Koon saying that he and his wife each need a car, which is jarringly out of touch with the government’s apparent interest in pushing for a car-lite Singapore. People remember Tan Chuan-jin saying that the elderly collect cardboard not for subsistence but for exercise, and they remember Khaw Boon Wan telling them to send their aged parents off to die in JB.

Part of why they remember this ties in with elitism: nobody ever says sorry for putting their foot in their mouth. Nobody demonstrates any awareness that they may have ruffled feathers or said something horribly insensitive and/or offensive. At the same time, MPs are generally quick to demand apologies from everyone else.

This feeds the overall perception that different rules apply to different people.

Part of this negative PR is also probably because a lot of MPs don’t really go that public with what they DO do for people. If the only thing you hear about people is bad, you can’t help forming a bad impression. I know it’s part of the PAP/traditional Asian ethos to do good works quietly and let your actions speak for themselves, but it’s very difficult for the party to attract people with the proposition of: “I want you to work super hard for people, and I’ll make you rich, but everyone will hate you”.

2: an overabundance of faith in bureaucracy/procedural rules

This ties in with the “never say sorry” attitude. Everything boils down to SOP and policy. Did so and so followed protocol? Then nobody did anything wrong, there’s nothing to discuss, there’s no apology or palliative measure for the public.

In a sense, this is a good thing. You don’t want to pander to public bloodlust all the time. As someone who used to work for the government, I’m glad that I had leaders willing to shield me in case I followed protocol and something bad happened anyway. You DON’T want a defensive civil service/public service that refuses to take chances for fear of public backlash.

I’m sure people want heads to roll whenever the MRT breaks down/there’s a security leak/an NS Man dies, but anyone with a lick of literacy will recall that Mme Guillotine is ALWAYS thirsty and we have a finite stock of capable leaders.

That being said, there has to be a middle ground between public seppuku and being completely blase in the face of a glaring error.

I suspect that part of this problem has to do with the difficulty of separating public from private concerns. As long as the public perceives that something is a public service, it’s the government’s fault whether the service provider is directly within the government’s (or the party’s) control or not. SMRT etc are ostensibly private companies, but because these entities tend to have close ties with the party (see “Patronage”, below), every imaginable fault eventually redounds to the PAP.

Still, it is possible to lean too heavily on procedural safeguards, especially when you do so PUBLICLY. “People followed procedure” is cold comfort to someone whose son died during a training incident.

This is probably also a PR issue.

3: an increasingly problematic moral platform

This is a political and philosophical problem more than merely a PR one. Like it or not, the PAP is the party for the moral conservatives, where “moral conservatism” can easily mean “whatever is popular”.

Firstly, the claim to conservatism isn’t consistent. The PAP’s attempts to invoke conservatism to justify things like criminalising homosexuality fall flat when seen in the context of its past willingness to throw conservative morality to the winds and allow abortion and gambling. “We’re conservative until we aren’t” is a difficult position for anyone who intends to join the party with principles and values in mind, because who knows what the party will demand of you.

Secondly, its conservatism tends to rest on issues which alienate the young the most. Younger people are more likely to be politically liberal, and to favour free speech/equal rights/social welfare platforms, and to have a positive attitude towards LGBTQ issues, and this tends to make it difficult for the young to consider joining the party in a meaningful way (if they even can; see “Patronage”). Young people think of political change in broad, bold strokes, which makes the PAP a non-choice.

Thirdly, it hasn’t shed its troublesome history. Greater awareness has pushed issues like Operation Spectrum to greater prominence. There has been no unsealing of records to prove that such repressive measures were just or reasonable, and there has been no public apology. Perhaps more importantly, there has been no repudiation of such methods. The party that says it wants to protect you is also the party that wants you to believe it needs extraordinarily repressive powers to do so, and while the history of the use of those powers yields some positive examples (preventing the Yishun MRT attack), but also black spots like Spectrum. 

Perhaps an attempt to address the problematic past, with transparency and sincerity, would help people feel better about the future.

As a matter of principle, if you tell someone that “I want you to join me in making Singapore great, and also maybe I will require you to jail people for decades without trials or evidence”, I don’t think anyone who says “OK” is going to be anyone’s idea of a moral exemplar.

4: a culture of patronage

There is a perception that connections and loyalty are more important than ability, which is why loyalists get rewarded with appointments for which they seem woefully underqualified (will the real SMRT CEO please stand up). This doesn’t sit well with the broader Singaporean ethos which shuns nepotism. It probably doesn’t help that the private sector may also appear to be run by a shadowy cadre of loyalists, with appointees in Temasek Holdings, SPH, etc.

Now, one may argue that talent tends to attract talent, and the reason the national sovereign wealth fund is run by the PM’s wife is entirely because she’s the most qualified person for the job, but I’m not sure this is terribly convincing to the man on the street. Firstly, this appears to happen far too often, since the revolving door of public appointments admits military personnel quicker than a BMT change parade. Secondly, it may be that organisations play their cards too close to their chest: the appointment of such persons is surely a matter of public interest, so why not be more transparent about the candidature and the selection process?

A case in point would be the failed leadership transition at Temasek Holdings, with some troubling intel on what happened behind the scenes.

Ultimately all of this suggests a great reluctance to share power. You want to join politics, it’s because you want the power to change things, but they’re not giving it to you unless you become one of them, at which point you either can’t or won’t want to make the changes you set out to do.

Arguably, that’s not sinister. When you get the experience and put in the hours, you’ll see things their way. All you need to do is trust the system, keep your head down, and sooner or later you’ll see things their way, and then you’ll be rewarded for your loyalty!

That’s the sort of thing leaders like to hear, right?

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A House Divided

Welp. So it looks like the tussle over prime real estate in Singapore has gotten POLITICAL.

On the one hand the younger Lee siblings are now saying something that people have been saying for ages: the Lee family dynasty is an aristocratic establishment that cuts against the Singaporean principle of merit-based status/privilege. That state organs have been used oppressively against opponents of the elite. They’re saying it from a position of some authority and credibility. If anyone knows whether something is rotten in the state of Singapore, it ought to be the prince and princess.

On the other hand, I don’t think it lies in their mouths to say such things. They’ve faced some setbacks and some nastiness, I’m sure, but it’s not like people haven’t suffered worse. They haven’t been bankrupted (yet) or sent into exile, or detained without trial, or subjected to intense ‘questioning’. They and their families have benefitted for years from, if not collusion in, then at least tacit, silent acceptance of the oppressive status quo. Lee the Younger was a grown-ass man of thirty during Operation Spectrum. Didn’t hear him using his exalted position to call out abuses of state power.

They’re not scoring a lot of points with me for apparently ‘taking a stand’ against the Prime Minister. They’ve had much better causes to stand for, and much more noble opportunities. There’s very little truth to be spoken to power when all you’re ultimately saying is, “Hands off, that’s mine!”

The Land Acquisition Act is a thing. The lack of any personal right to property enshrined in the Constitution is a thing. It’s a bit late to wring your hands and moan about how the lack of proper protections/checks and balances can be used to deprive ordinary citizens of what’s theirs.

On the actual house-thing, I’m sure the house itself is a canard. But Singapore’s political elite have sunk the roots of their legitimacy deep in a somewhat pruned form of certain Asian beliefs, including filial piety and authoritarianism (conveniently omitting other things like being gracious and cultured). A challenge to the house, and to the old patriarch’s last will and wish, is a challenge to the establishment’s moral authority.

Frankly, I think both sides have lost something. The younger siblings, even if they have their way, have burned a lot of bridges. The Prime Minister is in a bit of a bind: if he continues demolishing the house, he’ll do so under a cloud; if he doesn’t demolish the house, then he’ll be seen to capitulate to pressure, and lead to speculation that perhaps there’s truth to the other accusations, as well.

I do think that the Singaporean people have gained something. The political dynasties in Singapore have rested their weight on clay feet for a long time. It’s good for everyone that people are noticing the cracks.

I Cannot Tahan Any More Resilience

or, “One of These Days I Will Write About Something Other Than Education”

First, consider this:

Students need to learn from their mistakes and be self-reliant, Ng Chee Meng tells educators

aka, The Elderly Need to Perfect Their Egg-Sucking Techniques

I mentioned elsewhere, in response to my somewhat tepid reception of this clearly very inspired statement, which is so forward-looking that it has, in true Terry Pratchett fashion, come out the other side and become retrospective, that the honourable Minister doesn’t have to be wrong for this to be a poor showing. This doesn’t have to be wrong. It just has to be inadequate, and that’s what I think it is. It lacks something as a mission statement in terms of actual perspicacity and galvanising potential, and worse than that, perhaps, it is hackeneyed, outdated, and potentially dangerous.

What follows is my usual rant, in response to being asked, very politely and in good faith, what’s so outdated and dangerous about this.

It’s outdated because the resilience slogan first caught fire (as far as I can tell) and has been with us ever since the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. I dislike how the education system always seems eager to batten on new faddish keywords, but at the same time always manages to pick up on keywords that have already started showing signs of age.

When I was a student, the killer keyword was creativity. There was a brief biotech buzz, during which the word “hub” became trendy, and suddenly Singapore had to become an everything hub. Arts Hub. Sports Hub. Biotech Hub. Shipping Hub. Scandal Hub. Charity Scam In Order to Send Wife Overseas to Live Delusional Lifestyle Lavishly Hub. Gambling Hub. Then when I was in late JC/about to enter uni, it was entrepreneurism. Then, in the middle of my uni days, 2008 happened, and then after that the world turned to resilience. In the context of the 2008 disaster, resilience was good. It was what was needed. As the world ground to a halt, it became very clear which systems were too fragile (like the banking sector), and the watchword resilience became applied to them. Well and good.

Then suddenly everything became about resilience. Got terrorism? Resilience. Got cybersecurity problem? Resilience. OK. Still fine. A little bit overused, but the situation really very unstable. Resilience.

Now, you’ve got imminent slowdown looming. Technical recession. Job market bad. Retraining and productivity initiatives not looking good. People looking to supersede us as a shipping hub: New Silk Road, Kra Isthmus canal, losing shipping business to Tanjong Pelapas. The future of Singapore and Singaporeans looks bleak — or at least, not as bright as it used to.

The context is different. Demands are different. You’re singing yesterday’s song today. If the best you can do to meet the pressing demands of the future is to cling to the watchwords of the past… that’s not very encouraging or inspiring, and I think I would expect a person in charge of people in charge of inspiring people to also be inspiring. Please, a little brain work can? Look at what other places are doing: Finland is abolishing the entire concept of school subjects for crying out loud. That may honestly be a bridge too far, but while people are eyeing a rising tide and discussing bridges and boats, we’re being told about the merits of swimming. It’s silly. It’s not what we need! Or at least, not all we need.

I’m not saying resilience isn’t needed, by the way. I’m just saying it’s not ENOUGH. And if someone in charge of setting goals is not aiming high but instead is aiming low… Er, jialat lor. This is why it’s outdated.

As to why it’s potentially dangerous, I invite you to consider two possibilities: one, that resilience is used too BROADLY, and the other, that resilience is relied upon too HEAVILY. The two things are distinct, in that one is a fault of scope and the other is a fault of intensity.

“Resilience” as a term has become muddied. It’s a great word, but it can mean a number of things. As I understand it, the ‘resilience’ that’s so hot these days is about recovery, not resistance.  But why do I get the nagging feeling that, in ‘resilience’ becoming a policy objective, it will be excitedly misinterpreted by poor managers and bad leaders to mean “tahan”? Oh, Singaporean workers sleeping too little and working too hard is it? What’s the problem? Resilience not enough ah? This is a fault of scope.

Mr Ng’s own definition unhelp in resolving the elastic scope of the word. Learning from mistakes? Resilience. Being self-reliant? Are you serious? Being self-directed/motivated and being self-reliant are totally different things. The world NOW is about leveraging interconnectivity and making interdependence work for you. Self-reliance is a dinosaur problem, and especially hypocritical considering that Singapore is super reliant on the external world (see also: foreign country can anyhow impound our military equipment and there’s nothing we can do about it). So is he telling us that young people need to bounce back (which, in this day and age, necessarily means smartly leveraging on available resources, communities, etc.?) or to suck it up and tahan? I can’t tell, and I bet he couldn’t tell you either.

We need our kids to be resourceful.

The self-reliance narrative seems more political than pedagogical to me. It’s all part of the meritocratic bootstrappism that makes Singapore so very, very tough on the very people whom Mr Ng is saying need to be more resilient. It’s code for “I’m not going to help you so suck it up”. Resilience! It’s magical!

Say this becomes policy. Good and bad. Good: it means something’s happening. Bad: Singapore has a tendency to do nothing and then wait for policy change and then suddenly overcompensate. See also: public transport. For so many years nothing doing, then everything starts falling apart and the government goes rail crazy.

Build high-speed railway with Malaysia! Let’s close one eye to the fact that Malaysia is also building a separate high-speed rail with China that is totally not going to make Singapore even more redundant and give China something else to poke us with! BUILD BUILD BUILD

This is a problem of intensity. Suddenly every policy is going to be about resilience.

2020’s Pre-U Seminar Theme: Resiliently Building a More Resilient Citizenry for a More Resiliently Singapore Resilient Future

Then, liddat other things no need care ah? How about opportunity? Innovation? Courage? Boldness?

Resilience is the government’s favourite toy at the moment because unlike creativity etc, resilience is a fundamentally conservative attitude. It is reactionary. Resilience is something that succours you in response to adverse pressure from outside. Well, okay, that’s all well and good, and I would even say necessary, but is it sufficient? Rocky says that it’s not about how hard you can hit, but it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep on getting up.Well… yeah, kinda, but relying on my iron chin to gas my opponent out is not my idea of an ideal strategy.

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I know everybody can change, but I’d like to change before I get a face that even Deadpool’s girlfriend will struggle to love… and sit on.

Looking at the world today, more conservative attitudes are the last thing we need. This is what I mean by dangerous.

So basically the Minister is telling us today what we needed ten years ago and now we’re going to overcompensate and reward a lot of obedient reactionaries, and now we also have a convenient keyword to yell at people who complain when things go haywire in future. For someone whose Ministry is paradigmatically about future-readiness, it is inadequate, and this is what I mean by he’s unqualified. I simply don’t think that this statement, or anything else I’ve heard (and more importantly, not heard) suggests that he’s got the qualities we need.

A friend of mine suggests that all this ranting is just me expressing my disgruntlement at the next-gen Singaporean Cabinet having much in the way of visionary leadership. Well… maybe, I guess. I’m sure it’s competent. I’m not sure it’s inspiring. And, as always, in Singapore “good enough” isn’t good enough.

Non Erudiam

DISCLAIMER: What follows are the opinions, assumptions, and experiences of a former teacher. At no point do I claim that these experiences are absolutely representative of the totality of what teaching is, or can be. Any individual teacher’s experience will depend very heavily on their school/school leaders/colleagues/personal choices.

empty-classroom

I was both thrilled and concerned to see this article in the papers today: 5000 teachers leave service over five years.

So, because legal writing is apparently habit-forming, let’s look at some of the facts/claims before doing any analysis.

Facts, Figures, Claims

  1. about 3% of the total teaching force resigns every year
    • with 33k or so teachers, that’s about 1000 teachers a year
    • MOE claims that the teaching force is ‘stable’
  2. two-thirds of the teachers interviewed said that they left because of excessive administrative workloads
    • MOE claims that the top three reasons for leaving were: childcare, family considerations, desire for another job
  3. The reasons canvassed in the report include: administrative workload, long hours, huge class sizes, overly demanding parents
    • the response of the government (MP Denise Phua, MOE itself) was to look into reducing marking load and increasing pay

Some discussion points

In relation to (1):
Let’s think about who the 1000 teachers a year are, and what MOE means by ‘stable’.

Who: teachers have to go through NIE, and are usually bonded for a period from 3 to 6 years depending on what sort of funding MOE provided them. Assuming that most people would wait out their bond before quitting, this means that most of the 1000 or so are teachers with a certain degree of experience. In my experience, a teacher of 5-6 years’ experience is generally within consideration for various middle-management/leadership positions.

What: I’m assuming that when MOE says the numbers are ‘stable’, they mean that on a purely numerical basis, we’re hiring as many teachers as leave, within certain margins of error. So if 1000 teachers leave, 1000 are hired. Is that true, though? In 2015, only 800 were hired. Which is a far cry from the huge hiring drive that saw 2000-3000 teachers a year being hired back in the day. If this downward trend of hiring continues, paired with the rising trend of people leaving the service, how long are the numbers going to be stable?

Granted, we should also factor in the falling birthrate, which has seen the closing/collapsing of schools, which presumably also means that fewer teachers are going to be required to meet demand. But is that also true? Parents and teachers alike have been calling for reducing the class-size for a long time, but the closure of schools etc seems to suggest that MOE would rather maintain class-sizes and shrink the teaching force, instead of maintaining the same number of teachers which would allow for a better teacher-student ratio.

Why: And on top of all this, we have to consider that comparing 1000 experienced teachers resigning to 800+ freshly-hired teachers is an exercise of comparing apples to oranges. Or at least, apples to cider. Losing X experienced staff and gaining X inexperienced staff maintains parity only in terms of warm bodies in classrooms: it doesn’t account for the loss of experience/skill, nor the loss in terms of training and developing those experienced staffers throughout their time with MOE.

I think MOE should be closely scrutinised on this because even if it manages to calibrate exactly the right number of teachers to hire each  year to make up for losses, it will nonetheless be bleeding talent/experience. It needs to focus not just on being attractive to school-leavers, but to continue being attractive to in-service staff.


In relation to (2):
Most teachers interviewed by Straits Times claim they left because of excessive admin; MOE has a counterclaim that most teachers leave because of family concerns and “desire for another job”.

What is the problem here: Either ST coincidentally interviewed a batch of former teachers whose reasons for leaving fall outside MOE’s “top three reasons”, or there’s a problem with MOE’s internal reporting mechanism that makes people say one thing to MOE and another thing to interviewers.

The latter isn’t all that bad. People are complicated and often have complicated reasons for doing significant things, such as leaving careers. It isn’t entirely inconsistent for someone to have multiple reasons for leaving the service, and to cite different ones depending on who he’s talking to.

Still, it begs the question why MOE’s apparent data on why teachers leave doesn’t seem to square with ST’s. From personal experience, I know that teachers have to go through a fairly rigorous exit-interview process before they leave, and there is a good-faith attempt by MOE to find out why you’re leaving.

Why the data might not square:  I think implementation has a big role to play. Principals/management who do exit-interviews may be doing so using a standard form, but how the interview turns out really depends on the past relationship between the resigning teacher and the manager in question. I had a very good relationship (or at least, I’d like to think so) with the principal who interviewed me, and so I felt able to provide a fair and honest account of why I was leaving. I could be very open about my reasons, without concealing anything to avoid hurting her feelings, or hurting my own chances of being re-employed.

BTW, do you think that using an exit-interview to assess whether someone is suitable for re-employment might affect the quality of feedback provided at the exit-interview?

Miscellaneous: MOE actually does administer school climate surveys and so on to gauge the mood of teachers in schools. So there’s that at least. But having done my share of those surveys, here are some things I think are lacking:

  • transparency: I don’t think I had access to the full accounting of the surveys for my school, nor did I have access to the national data. I would have liked it, simply to see if my responses matched those of my colleagues, and whether our responses were in line (and if not, in what way?) with the national sentiment.
  • accountability: I’ve served in more than one school, and at least one of those principals was very open about what she was doing on our behalf, and I really appreciated that. That being said, it doesn’t seem to be a standard thing required of all school leaders to be seen to respond directly to the feedback provided in climate surveys, which tends to create a feeling of futility.
    • ideally, what should happen is this: The school staff have collectively provided Feedback A. School leaders will openly disclose this to staff, and announce a plan for further data-collection, and then reform. “Many of you have said X. I will now commit to finding out from all of you more about X, and how X can be improved. And in Y time-frame, having collected all this information, I commit to embarking on Z in direct response to your feedback.”
      • eg. “Many of you have said that you spend too much time doing admin. I will now commit to finding out more from all of you on what sort of admin you do, and how we can reduce the workload… And now, 6 months’ later, having done my research, I commit to reducing everyone’s admin workload by 20% by hiring 5 new staff to take charge of (whatever).”
    • instead, what has happened in my experience is that staff get harangued for not being happy with what they have, get provided with vague assurances, and then get fed policies/practices that they didn’t ask for in response to problems they never raised.
      • maybe what MOE really needs is a “response to climate survey” survey. “After the last climate survey, was your feedback disclosed? Was it properly researched? Was it properly acted-upon? How do you think your principal/HOD/cluster sup etc. could have better acted-upon your feedback?”
        • Of course, we might very well iterate this to the point of absurdity.

I think MOE should be closely scrutinised on this because a teacher’s experience differs vastly based on where they teach and who they work with. Improving outcomes for teachers for the sake of improving teacher-retention means that MOE needs to take into account all possible factors for teacher-fatigue/discontent, and be able to provide alternatives. The current system is very heavily dependent on a very strict chain of command (“Your performance is evaluated by your Reporting Officer. Got any problems? Tell your Reporting Officer. What if your Reporting Officer, or HIS Reporting Officer, is the problem? Er, dunno lor. Suck thumb.”) without much alternatives. To make things worse, MOE seems to outsource a lot of its HR (at least, I assume so. I am very glad to be corrected on this issue), which seems to create additional obfuscation.

Personally, I think teachers need access to an independent third-party who can evaluate comments/criticism, like an ombudsman or a union rep. I mean, technically speaking there is a Teacher’s Union, but I’m not sure what they’ve ever done for me except organise SDU-style “meet more singles!” events that I never attended.

If such a system is already in place, I’ve never encountered it. This could very well be because my organisational awareness was super-bad (at least, that’s what my work review always said), but perhaps also because such channels weren’t advertised, or didn’t appear credible.

On a side-note, and a somewhat personal note, I’ve also observed that teachers tend to be happier when they’re teaching the subjects they signed on to teach. What’s awful is that some of them don’t. It sounds crazy that sometimes we hire teachers who’re skilled in A and then force them to devote their time to B, but it happens way more than is conscionable.

The organisation often claims expedience and exigency: essentially, that something desperately needs doing and so people get crammed into the role.

It seems odd that an organisation which often justifies its decisions to its own staff on exigent grounds seems rather publicly indifferent to the number of staff who are leaving, since one would assume that thousands of experienced teachers leaving the service would only make shortages more acute.


In relation to (3):
Resigning teachers listed their grievance as being: excessive admin workload, long hours, huge class-sizes, and unreasonable parents. MOE listed its responses as basically a whole bunch of things that had nothing to do with the grievances. Imagine you’re drowning and shouting for help, and someone throws you a fire-extinguisher.

What appears to be the problem: MOE’s announced policies to improve staff retention have nothing to do with why they’re losing staff. This is a very basic problem. It may be related to what I mentioned above about feedback not being collected in a useful/reliable manner, or it may be due to the “throw money at the problem” ethos that seems so endemic to Singapore.

Meritocracy and pay: The general assumption seems to be that talented individuals are willing to overlook any amount if dissatisfaction if you throw enough money at them. This general assumption may very well break down when applied to an industry that nobody joins for the sake of profit. When was the last time you heard anyone wanted to become a teacher to get rich? Yeah. I thought so.

Granted, some people leave teaching to become private tutors, and yes, the money is a lot better. If MOE paid me a private tutor’s rate, I would have earned something like $20,000++ a month. But what’s the causal relationship here? Do teachers become tutors because the money is better, or do they become tutors because first and foremost of better hours/job-scope/workload/satisfaction, with the higher pay being a bonus? I would wager that the latter tends to ring more true: even if I had left teaching to pursue full-time tuition, I wouldn’t have kept the same hours and earned more: instead, I would have tried to reduce my workload/improve my focus on teaching, while at the same time seeking to maintain (instead of radically increase) my income.

I’m not saying the money is bad. In fact, quite the opposite. Money was one of the least of my problems as a teacher. It was decent and reasonable. I didn’t become a teacher because I wanted to be rich. I became a teacher because I wanted to teach. What actually happened is that people kept coming to me to say, “Put some of this teaching-related stuff aside, and do this non-teaching stuff instead.”

The “admin workload problem”: In some ways, it’s real. Now, MOE tends to tell teachers that “not everything you hate is admin”, which is kinda true. If I want to bring students on a learning journey, there’s a lot of paperwork associated with it that I might hate, but at the end of the day it’s still in service of the students, and with some maturity and perspective, I grew to resent that sort of thing less. Still, what about work in service of something that you don’t believe in at all, or even worse, violently object-to?

Still, it’s a problem. I spent far more time on organisation-related tasks than student-related ones, and at around the midpoint of my teaching career, I realised (not only on my own; this message was quite strongly pushed by fellow teachers/seniors/school leaders) that my real duty wasn’t to the students as I saw it, but rather to the organisation. Ultimately, the organisation, not the students, decided how much of my work was valued. And this is a very real problem.

Teachers are fed two messages on a fairly consistent basis:
1) teaching is a vocation, and you should be doing it because it’s meaningful, and satisfying
2) the organisation decides on how much your contribution is worth.

Now, if you assume that values-alignment between organisation and staff is 1 for 1, then there’s no problem, but that much alignment in an organisation numbering 30k ++ is basically impossible. So what happens? The two messages become incoherent and mutually incompatible.

In my experience, eventually most teachers face this challenge: do I go with my gut, my heart, and my ethics, and pursue entirely intrinsic rewards? Or do I go with what my organisation tells me, and get that promotion/good performance grade/high bonus (extrinsic rewards)?

Now, those teachers who have the good fortune to be well-aligned with their schools may very well be able to either resolve this easily or skip it entirely, but I think quite a large number of us struggle with it on a daily basis.

Now, you may very well say that this is a reality of working life. If I became a banker, I would also face the choice of whether to pursue the intrinsic satisfaction of a fulfilling family life, or the extrinsic satisfaction of high pay in exchange for basically living in the office. But it’s different for teachers because we didn’t sign up for this. People who become bankers or salesman or whatever accept the profit-first self-second nature of private sector work. People become teachers because they don’t want to experience this conflict.

But yet they do anyway. Why?

“Admin workload” complaints are a symptom of the real problem — teaching as a skill isn’t given sufficient value

It has a lot to do with the message that’s sent. When someone tells you to do admin instead of working on teaching, what they’re really saying (or at least, what you subconsciously hear) is that they value your admin work more than your teaching work. I remember having to resign myself to delivering “merely OK” levels of pedagogy because I had to focus on things that I didn’t want to do, that I was bad at doing, but which the organisation said was more important than doing a good job.

This is not to say MOE says that bad teaching is OK. Instead, I got the sense that it was very important to be a decent teacher, but that beyond that, there was very little incentive to be a great teacher, as opposed to be a decent teacher + a stellar administrator. Which is kind of harsh for someone who wants to be a great teacher.

Obviously, this isn’t 100% representative of the entire service. Some schools have the student profile, the resources, and the overall mission that support teacher-excellence; some others have a genuine need for teachers to do more than teach. And of course, some people are eager to teach a broader spectrum of content, such as life-lessons and ethics, while others become teachers out of a pure love for their discipline. Perhaps what’s really lacking is an open recognition of this, and a better system for matching teacher-expectations with school-needs.

What I’d really love is to have teacher-tasks weighed on a credits system, sort of like university modules, and teachers can assemble their workloads based on what they find meaningful. Let’s say if you want to earn a basic pay of $3000, you need to sign up for 30 units worth of work. You could sign up for 20 units worth of academic teaching, and 10 units worth of CCA support, for example. Or 30 units worth of pure academic teaching. Or 15 units of PE and 15 units of community service, or whatever. And then teachers would be able to move from facility to facility. It makes very little sense to have Teacher A in School A who hates doing 6 hours of choir CCA when you have Teacher B in School B who can’t enough of it. Of course, this is all pipe-dreaming: I’m sure there are other higher-level considerations like security clearances, esprit de corps/school culture/identity and so on. But it’s a nice dream nonetheless.

All that aside, I return to my theme. Teaching — mastery of a subject, and then subsequently the ability to inspire and support students in emulating that mastery-process — is a skill that ironically seems underrated in the teaching service. On an anecdotal level, I know teachers of English who’ve had to resign from the service altogether to pursue studies in writing, or even MAs in Education. It seems inconceivable that a teacher would be forced to quit the teaching service to get better at teaching, but for many of the thousands of teachers who leave, this seems to be the case.

One of the reasons why tuition is alluring is not just because of the pay, but what the pay represents. Someone paying you $X an hour for Y hours to do nothing but teach is telling you that what you do, matters. Nobody is ever going to ask a tuition-teacher to divert his time to filling out forms or overseeing tenders for services. Nobody is going to stop a tuition-teacher in the middle of his lesson to ask him to go supervise a tennis match. That’s because his time is too valuable. The message that goes to a tutor is that “we employ and value you for this skill“. Whereas the message that many teachers receive is that “we employ and value you for your ability to teach minimally well, while also juggling an ever-changing portfolio of tasks that you may or may not have interest in”.

All this makes one of MOE’s reported fixes especially insulting. Teachers say that they wish they could focus on teaching, and MOE says that they want to reduce the marking-load. While marking isn’t fun, it’s part of teaching. I didn’t necessarily enjoy marking hundreds of essays at one shot, but I never felt that it didn’t have value. In fact, if I didn’t mark as much, how could I claim to understand my students’ competencies and weaknesses? What made marking really awful was having to mark before the holidays came, and at the same time have to plan/organise non-academic holiday activities. Why not provide teachers with a better marking environment/timeline by removing the superfluous activities?

But no, instead MOE’s response to teachers not doing enough teacher-stuff, is to remove some of the teacher-stuff they don’t mind doing. Presumably so that they can give them even more non-teaching stuff that they will hate doing.

I think MOE should be closely scrutinised on this because until teaching — pure teaching (lecturing/lesson-planning/delivering lessons/marking work/providing remedial assistance) activities — is given the pride of place it deserves, teachers who sign up to be teachers (instead of teachers-cum-counsellors-cum-paramedics-cum-sports-coaches-cum-accountants-cum-administrators-cum-saigang-party (coughelectionsdepartmentcough)) are going to feel undervalued and undercompensated for doing what they love, while at the same time being overloaded and overexploited in service of things that they didn’t (at least, not ostensibly) sign up for.


I used to be a teacher. To this day, the things I remember the most fondly, and the things I miss most about it, are the things that had to do with the students: lecturing, teaching, even marking and going over the marked work. I’m very proud of what my students have accomplished, and I feel honoured that they allowed me to be a part of their lives. Some of them still remember me, and keep in touch, and that’s a rare privilege.

To all the students I’ve ever encountered, my only regret in leaving the service was not having done more for you.

Empathy and antipathy

Another year, another industrial accident in supposedly-safe, universally-Utopian Singapore. And another hard-hearted by-the-book response by the Powers That Be: standard-operating-procedures being used to deflect attention to protocols; and then a recitation of statistics and KPI’s achieved.

smrt-train1

If the Singapore government can be said to have unequivocally failed in any area, it’s in PR, surely. Government communication with the public seems to be an unending and unmitigated disaster only exacerbated by the national press. Yes, our parliamentariotrons are now programmed to say things like “we are sad” when bad things happened, but you don’t really get the sense that it really touches them. We’re living in a world where machines have started passing the Turing test. If a computer can convince us that it’s human, why do our leaders so frequently fail to do the same?

What’s with the allergy to saying sorry, anyway? C’mon, the chairs in Parliament House are really new — they’re not the Seat of Peter, and nobody expects their occupants to conduct themselves infallibly. But they seem to feel obliged to conduct themselves as if executive inerrancy was settled dogma.

Just say sorry once in a while, guys. We can deal with it. Focus on the families and their loss. Sympathise, reach out, connect. Here, let me show you: “The tragic deaths of the two workers are a great loss to SMRT and to the nation, but none feel their loss more keenly than their families. As (officeholder) of the (organisation), I would like to extend my condolences to the families in their grief, and to assure them that SMRT, LTA, and the nation mourn with you. You have our sympathy and our support in this difficult period. In the days ahead, we will with renewed determination discover the errors and accidents that led to this tragedy, and strive to ensure that such a grave mishap will never again occur. Continued progress in developing and maintaining infrastructure must be balanced against the need to ensure the safety of all our staff, and we want to assure them and the public that we will do our utmost to keep our transport system safe for staff as well as commuters.”

IT’S NOT THAT HARD. But no, instead, apparently the Powers That Be believe that the best course of action to wash the blood off their hands is to adopt a posture of total bloodlessness.

Why?

 

EDIT: Minor changes to remove some flippancy. The deaths of the two workers are a real tragedy, and I did not intend to poke fun at their families’ loss.

For making the study of comparative religion compulsory in schools

I’m referring mostly to the line of articles and letters in the local press such as this one (Youth in Singapore shunning religion) and this one (Leave religious studies out of secular schools). There seems to be a certain anxiety about the ‘moral fibre of Singapore’ in these uncertain times, and the finger is being pointed in all sorts of directions, including the erosion of religious conviction and the rise of alternative lifestyles. In thinking about these issues, I’ve tried to crystallise my thoughts into three main questions:

  1. What’s the problem?
  2. Why should we care?
  3. What do we need?

I believe that a more critical and formal look at how we’ve come to be the way we are and why we think and feel the way we do, will help Singaporeans analyse our behaviour and our customs in a manner that will let them improve, and more importantly, make them want to improve. And I think that comparative religion provides an excellent look at the first principles that go into behaviour and belief — areas that are very much neglected by our otherwise excellent education system.

To clarify: the study of comparative religion, as I understand it, is not the persuasive promulgation of the values of any particular religion, or set of religions. It is the study of the way in which religion influences behaviour. I believe it should be taught because it holds a mirror up to students and to society, and invites them to consider why they do what they do and why they think what they think.

Contrary to the argument that comparative religion might promulgate ‘good values’ (Religious studies can help foster good values), I think the study of comparative religion might actually foster constructive iconoclasm. Instead of promoting a set of values that a particular person or group might regard as ‘good’, it equips students with the ability and tools to ask if the values foisted on them really are good. And to argue against them if they aren’t. Which is what Singapore really needs more of, as opposed to more blind compliance.

1. What’s the problem?

Singapore’s a bit of an odd place, really. Although we tend not to think of the moral landscape of Singapore as a particularly happening place, it’s actually the front lines of a clash of ideologies that’s centuries old. We were ruled by Hindus, we paid tribute to the Chinese (with their syncretic mishmash of Legalist philosophy, various Eastern religions), and our last king converted to Islam. We were occupied by the British during their heyday, and they imported their Victorian, Indian-Raj-era laws and moral standards which, in many ways, still form the background of our values system. We were occupied by the Japanese, and while we didn’t imbibe much of their philosophy or culture of that time, the Occupation certainly did infect us with a self-interested, pragmatic survivalist mentality that seemed to dominate the thought of our early leaders and many of our current governors.

Those last two things (a kind of idealised neo-Victorian conservatism, and ruthless utilitarianism) are of particular note. They not only affect the way we think of social policy (monogamous heteronormativity being enforced; bootstrappism and self-sufficiency being extolled as virtues) but also how we legislate and do business. For example, it’s been observed that Singaporean customer service is awful. CNN, for example, characterised the customer service industry and its workers here as having no initiative, no product knowledge, and being lazy. This can be explained by looking at how certain values affect our behaviour: the virtue of self-sufficiency, a very English kind of class-consciousness, and perhaps a certain hangover that prescribes against appearing subservient, all affect the morale and motivation of service workers. Why should I tell you about this product — you’re perfectly capable of looking it up yourself. I’m already poorly-paid and lowly-ranked — what’s my motivation in doing a bad job well? We confuse courtesy with subservience, and the gold standard of politeness in Singapore is often a sullen silence that offers no insult but also invites no warmth.

And most of all, we respond to correction with hostility. Why should I change? Singapore is secular: doesn’t that mean my beliefs and attitude are above question, as long as I do my mechanical professional duty?

No.

2. Why should we care?

The majority of Singaporeans are religious (about 80% identify themselves as an adherent of a religion). It’s not really important for the purposes of my little writeup what particular faith they identify with or the extent to which they do so: what’s important is that they choose, when asked, to identify as being religious, and thus “being seen as religious” is clearly a component of their self-image. Obviously, a detached bystander might look at their behaviour and go think, “This person isn’t religious at all”, in no small part due to some self-identifying religious people being frothing-at-the-mouth whackjobs who practice what they preach only selectively if at all.

We should care about what and how Singaporeans think about religion because it’s a very powerful force. Someone who identifies as religious will react in a certain way if his self-image is threatened. He may not be motivated to be charitable, but he might very well react violently if told, “If you don’t hate gays you’re not a good Christian/Muslim/whatever”, or “this new law threatens your ability to identify yourself as you wish”. The uncritical layman is quite vulnerable to ‘no true Scotsman’ logic.

And this isn’t idle speculation. Even as local NGOs have gained support and become more vocal, the local religious community has responded by becoming more active and prominent. Local pastors have taken potshots not only at alternative beliefs (Wear White Campaign) but also at other religions (Lighthouse Evangelism) and even feminism (the AWARE attempted takeover fiasco). Let’s leave aside for now the distressing observation that conservative Evangelical Christians frequently seem to be involved, and that this particular group seems to be one of the fastest-growing religions in a gradually-secularising society. Religious leaders in Singapore command huge followings, great influence, and also obscene wealth. It would be naïve to suggest that religion is a private thing into which society and the average Singaporean should not inquire — religion in Singapore is clearly far from private, in the sense of not interfering with the public sphere.

It’s merely poorly-understood.

3. What do we need?

Obviously I’m in favour of increasing religious literacy and implementing compulsory comparative religion studies. But that’s just a means to an end, really.

We should be critical of religions and religious leaders — especially our own. Perhaps not fully sceptical, but certainly critical. Why is this important?

I’m a Catholic. My religious leaders wield two kinds of authority: the divinely-conferred, internally-coherent authority of the Church, and the moral authority that they exert via their own personal charisma. As a good Catholic who participates in full communion with the Church, I’m obliged to be alive to the interaction of reason, my conscience, the scriptural tradition, and the direction of the Church authorities. I can’t do that without some level of critical analysis. After all, consistency isn’t one of the great virtues of any particular faith, and resolving inconsistencies requires a lively mind. Obedience to God and obedience to Man, are, obviously very different things.

I’d like to believe that everyone who self-identifies as religious faces the same struggle and would resort to the same process. We’re all told things that are difficult to swallow, to accept, to believe. Switching off our brains and listening to the loudest and most strident voice leads to unjust and potentially profane outcomes — we have leaders who tell us to be sexually pure but who violate the youth, who tell us that charity is a virtue and yet who grow fat and grotesquely wealthy by exploiting the gullibility of others, who tell us that divine law promotes order and justice and yet who go out of their way to sow discord and conflict. Navigating this maze, with its multitude of appeals not only to conscience and reason but also to emotion, to self-interest, to prejudice and the worst parts of our human nature, requires not only critical acuity, but also courage.

And that’s what comparative religion, taught right, should help equip students with. Sure, there are other ways of doing it, but the popular perception of critical thinking as a matter of ‘skill’ and not ‘knowledge’ (a particularly uncritical and unenlightened dichotomy. Thanks, MOE) is a false one. Yes, everyone with a critical inclination can gnash their teeth at anything they don’t like, but for arguments to bite deep and take hold, we need eyes to see too, and that comes from awareness and from understanding. Aggressive iconoclasm without knowledge and understanding is wanton destruction, of the sort that ISIS is perpetuating against the cultural history of the lands it occupies.

So if we want our kids to be able to deal with religion well, not only as religious adherents or as atheists or agnostics in their own right, but also as doctors, lawyers, policy-makers, service-providers, businessmen and so on, they need to know something about what people believe in, and why they do so, and what it makes them do and want. And that requires teaching, requires patience.

And courage. Some hearts will quail at the thought of introducing young minds to anythig to do with religion, simply because of how taboo and scary religion is to many people in Singapore. Disregard them.

Should Singapore retain or stop using its Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others framework?

This is a re-post of a comment I’m making on Dialectic.sg as part of the above discussion. I’m putting it up here because regardless of whether or not the comment passes moderation on Dialectic.sg, I think it has enough merit that I’m comfortable standing by the statement under my own name, on my own platform.


Mascots (Racial Harmony)
Introduction
I object to racialism in general and most strenuously to the CMIO classification in particular. An emphasis on race (as opposed to ethnicity, nationality, or a range of other factors that could be used to provide the broad categories so useful to policy-making that other commentators are arguing for) is benighted, being both historically and scientifically bankrupt and devoid of value; the persistence of a race-aware mindset in Singapore is regrettable and is an impediment to progress. After discussing the inherent problems in race theory and the potential harms its promulgation may cause, I’d like to volunteer some alternatives.
Part of the problem is that there’s no real common understanding, or even official definition, of what constitutes race. In Singapore, we use ‘race’ as a catchall term to refer to ethnicity, language, culture, and geographic extraction; we also attribute moral, intellectual, physical, and behavioural qualities to each category. It lacks coherence, and inter-racial marriages are not the only manner in which this lack of coherence is beginning to cause a strain on our social fabric: we force ourselves to fit people into these artificial frameworks that we’ve built for ourselves.
No Historical or Scientific Value
The term is a legacy of the colonial period; concepts of a ‘Malay race’, for example, can be traced to the 18th century. Discussions of race that rely on some romanticised view of antiquity often forget how modern the theory of race, and indeed, of nationhood, are. The colonial Europeans were hardly romantic about race: race-profiling provided a shorthand for keeping a massive and diverse empire in check. Examples of implementation include the preferential conscription of specific ‘martial races’, from which we in Singapore derive our traditions of Punjabi doormen and Gurkha contingents. The blindness of the British to other factors of identity besides race and skin colour have led to such historic catastrophes as the Sepoy Mutiny of the 19th century; there’s little reason to suspect that the theory that failed them so badly should serve us any better two hundred years on.
Ironically, today’s definition of ‘race’ is probably even more simplistic and reductive than the definitions in use during the period where Singapore was a colonial power. The British were alive to the differences between Chinese from Shanghai and Swatow; ‘Malays’ from Boyan and Indonesia; Indians from Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. The consolidation of these rich cultures into our current broad CMIO categories of ‘race’ was more a political expedient, perhaps in aid of nation-building, than any sort of distinction that can be supported by history or by science. Such consolidation has been disastrous to the texture and complexity of Singapore’s cultural landscape, already beleaguered by such policies as the Speak Mandarin Campaign, which has by and large rendered the ability to speak non-Mandarin Chinese dialects something of a rarity among the current generation of young Singaporeans. To speak of ‘race’ is already to demonstrate a lamentable backwardness; to promulgate a belief in Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Other races is laughable.
The theory of race is rooted in the idea of Western (and white) supremacy and imperialism; to propound it today is to compound the mistakes of the past.
Race theory further fails to stand up to scientific scrutiny. Phenotypical differences in humans, such as skin and hair colour, are factors arising from the way geography has ‘hothoused’ particular adaptive traits to particular regions. As these traits are purely physiological ones for adaptation to specific climates, there’s little reason to believe that the behavioural qualities popularly attributed to races aren’t instead caused by more complex, socio-cultural factors. The notion that most Malays, or most Chinese, or most Indians, may behave in certain ways if ungoverned (form enclaves, say, out of pure racial co-feeling) is simplistic to the point of absurdity: ghettoisation or the formation of enclaves is much more sensibly-explained by examination of religious affiliation, language, and wealth, among other factors.
Geneticists Kenneth Weiss and Jeffrey Long have called the boundaries between ‘racial’ groups “multilayered, porous, ephemeral, and difficult to identify”; this porousness and lack of coherence make categorising people according to their race at worst dangerous, at best pointless. Promoting the concept of race theory in schools is also disastrous, because it sanctifies as fact what is merely theory, and creates a thoroughly-false ideal of antique racial purity — in essence, it creates a belief in a yardstick of ideal ‘Chineseness’ or ‘Malayness’ by which everyone in those groups are measured, when there is no anthropological or genetic or indeed any other scientific evidence to suggest that such a pure, “isolated, homogeneous… population” ever existed. Not only does a ‘Chinese race’ or ‘Malay race’ not exist, but they have never existed.
Harm
Placing race at the heart of our politics makes racialisation of issues unavoidable. The Ministry of Education, for example, tracks educational attainment by ethnic group. The Prime Minister, during his National Day Rally, tends to refer specifically to the educational attainment of Malays. Why? Is this helpful? Shouldn’t policies intended to improve educational attainment be targeted at the causes of poor performance (say, poverty, lack of access to secondary and tertiary education services such as tuition and enrichment) instead of race? Does a Chinese student who’s performing poorly in his studies require a Chinese-specific strategy that would be less effective with a Malay or Indian or ‘Other’ student? The only thing that comes to mind is that social aid is disbursed through racially-aligned organisations (SINDA et al); besides the government’s abhorrence for distributing aid directly, I can’t think of a good reason why we ought to continue disbursing aid through charitable organisations aligned with race instead of, say, specific needs. It’s backward, and probably quite unfair. My partner for example once qualified for academic awards from SINDA but not from CDAC. Why? Should aid not be disbursed according to need and not racial affiliation?
The issue only gets worse with the HDB quota, which is an area of discussion that has its own Dialectic.sg entry and hence, which I shall avoid going into here.
By aligning policies with race, we force classifications of identity onto people that they might not actually want, for no good reason. Ultimately, I’m as Chinese as I choose to be: it is very possible that I could choose to eschew all behavioural markers of Chinese identity altogether and adopt those of another culture entirely, or I could choose to wear a queue and eat rice all day every day and practice kung fu in public, and everything in between, and well it should be. If someone can choose the extent to which he participates in an identity, to the extent of complete immersion or complete rejection, why then should he be forced to still bear a label that doesn’t accuracy describe him in any conceivable way save for acting as a reminder of parentage? This inflexibility renders the idea of using race-profiling as a guideline for policymaking nonsensical: effectively, any policy based on race (the selection of ‘mother tongues’ in schools, for example) is going to be unresponsive and rigid, which is the absolute opposite of what policies need to be in order to remain effective and meaningful.
The specific categories of CMIO also enshrine the majority races at the point of Singapore’s formation, and if it continues to remain a sacred cow, would mean that these races would continue to enjoy (or suffer) permanent classification in a manner unresponsive to any actual demographic change. What if, for example, the number of Indians become overtaken by Filipinos? Will we update to CMFO? Will we remove Tamil signage and replace it with Tagalog?
Perhaps most pernicious is the way in which the CMIO classification is sanctified and passed-on: it’s not only affixed to your identity documentation, but it’s engraved upon your heart through years of public schooling. Students are taught race theory as fact rather than theory, in a manner that’s both intellectually-dishonest and dangerous, in the way that teaching Creationism as fact instead of theory is dangerous: it creates a fixed idea of the world at a very early age. Other commentators have remarked that Singapore may transition to more enlightened ways of viewing itself, but it requires CMIO in the interim; I reject this argument, because the way in which CMIO is taught ensures that Singapore will likely never be able to marshall the popular support for change necessary to make the transition to a more enlightened state. We are effectively promulgating a benighted theory, and then using the backwardness of the resulting population to justify political inertia, creating a comfort-zone of circular logic from which we need never depart. It’s stifling and it’s toxic.
CMIO-as-taught is also done in a manner that is, like everything else to do with CMIO, insultingly and laughably simplistic. The Mother Tongue of all Chinese people is Mandarin, even though it is properly a northern Chinese dialect, while the vast majority of Straits Chinese in Singapore and the region are of southern Chinese extraction! All Indians speak Tamil and are Hindus! Except those who aren’t! Malay identity and Islam are conflated! There’s no mention of the tenuous relationship between ethnicity and language and extraction; of the history of the region; of the salient and defining dogmas of various religions. Islam becomes all about not eating pork and not touching dogs; don’t expect a non-Muslim student to ever hear about the Five Pillars of Islam, of the centrality of zakat to Muslim religious practice. I mean, he might, but it’s more than likely that he never will.
Racial harmony, especially in schools which may be less-than-diverse in their enrolment and staffing, may become an exercise in promoting stereotypes instead of tolerance and understanding. Teachers may make a very real and very important difference here, by going above and beyond the call of duty in clarifying ambiguities and promoting real learning and understanding, but the day we require teachers to defy the syllabus to do their job is the day we ask ourselves if we really know what we’re doing.
I still remember, back in my teaching days, being asked by a 17-year-old, top-performing student in a great school, who Prophet Muhammad was, and resisting the impulse to throw myself out the nearest window in sheer horror. The student then defended her ignorance by asserting that she was Chinese, and therefore wasn’t required to know these things. The rest of the class just nodded sagely in support of her point.
This can’t continue.
 
Moving Forward
This isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a coherent policy or a manifesto. I’m ultimately in favour of becoming race-blind entirely, and having that entire section of one’s birth-cert and IC struck out forever, but I recognise, as other commentators have, the need for some kind of transitional state to prevent total culture shock to the more clannish and insular sections of the population. I’ve seen another commentator recommend a ‘Singaporean’ ethnicity that one can always opt-into, and I approve of that measure.
I think having race and ethnicity be expressed as matters of choice rather than ancestry is a step in the right direction. Perhaps we need to have a ‘transition generation’, where kids have the ethnicity and racial groups of their parents recorded, but have none of their own apart from ‘Singaporean’. That way, should we really need to do some profiling, we could always do it with reference to the races of their parents, but not attach those racial labels indelibly to that generation. And once they move on, and have kids of their own, hopefully even the question of race will become obsolete.
As a more concrete and feasible option, I suggest we decouple ‘Mother Tongue’ from ancestry (I’m aware that it is possible to apply for exemption, but the process is case-specific and the criteria unclear, except that it advantages children who’ve been away from Singapore). Bilingualism is good; multilingualism is even better, but the incentives for it decrease dramatically once children are told that there’s some kind of moral prerogative to learn and cherish one language over all others. Let kids learn Malay or Arabic or Italian or whatever. Let kids learn Cantonese or Teochew. Or better yet, let them do all of the above. If a parent wants to align his kid with Latin America and have him learn Spanish or Portuguese instead of Mandarin or Malay, he should be allowed to. After all, PM Lee has complained about how our reluctance to work abroad limits us; I believe this to be a direct result of how narrowly and parochially we’ve shaped people’s ideas of identity and society.
A positive side-effect from decoupling language from race would hopefully be the abolition of schools with single-language specialisations (I’m looking at you, SAP schools). I can’t think of a just reason why Chinese kids who go to schools specialising in Chinese should benefit from preferential funding and special budgets and additional opportunities, but there aren’t any equivalents for other races and languages.
The roots and wings metaphor often used in education is appropriate, I think. Once a people are fledged, roots are where we return to roost, from which we draw comfort and shelter, and not something restrictive and discriminatory that restrains us from spreading our wings to the fullest. The point of roots is to give us a place to come back to, not to anchor us to a place that we can never leave.
As currently-practiced, the only avian metaphor appropriate to the CMIO system is that of an albatross around our necks.

Looking Forward

It sure took me long enough to put fingers to keyboard over the local election. Maybe it’s a sign I’m slowing down. I’d like to think it’s a sign of me wisening up: certainly, I’ve been told before I could afford to think a bit more about what I said before I said it. I know I only have it in me to do the one pre-General Election post, so I want as much as possible to make it a good one. I’m also timing it thus because I’m not really writing to try to change anyone’s point of view or to influence their choices: what I’m trying to do is to tap on the issues everyone’s already thought about to lead into a different discussion.

When I first started contemplating this post, at first I was wondering which candidate I should endorse or which party to excoriate, etc etc. But given the tenor of discourse that has been flying thick and fast the last week, I hardly think my contribution on that score would be necessary or even noticeable.

Unlike my friend Casimir Kang, who has a way of transmuting even the most unpalatable of things into something graceful, like some kind of rhetorical Sammo Hung, I’m instead capable of the opposite, apparently, and am currently competing for the world record for the number of feet fitted into mouths in a fixed time award. So I won’t even try to sugar-glaze some of this. Well then, here we go.


  1. Tricky Metrics
    By which I refer to how we measure our status. You see, some days I wonder if there aren’t two completely different Singapores, because I find it difficult to reconcile the conflicting and contradictory claims with which the average person is being bombarded.On the one hand, we’re the most expensive city in the world, and the least happy. Our CPF is the best retirement scheme in Asia, except it’s inadequate (which is, I suppose, understandable; just sad). We’ve got really low taxes, except we don’t. We’ve got record levels of home ownership, except we don’t, because the vast majority of home owners have just paid for 99 years worth of rental. Our leaders are compassionate, except they aren’t. We want to be a vibrant home for the arts, except we really super don’t. We want our young children to be creative, except we don’t because creativity is risky and risk is scary.

    It’s a little hard to swallow since the information keeps coming at you from both ends. It’s less like choking down a difficult meal and more like getting spitroasted.

    Yeah, you know what I mean.

    The only way to really reconcile all these things is to realise that ‘one Singapore’ doesn’t actually exist. There are at least two, if not two million. There’s a Singapore for the wealthy, for the successful, for the affluent, for the meritocrats; and then there’s a Singapore for everyone else, who’re told to look around at the region and feel grateful they’re not in Malaysia or Indonesia. There’s a Singapore in which we’re told to be glad that families earning less than $1000 can have a roof over their heads and in which we should ship our senior citizens off to die in a foreign country because the land there is cheap, and another one in which our most exclusive and swankiest properties are mostly occupied by foreigners (and unscrupulous clerics).

    And this is a problem, because it seems we’re becoming acclimatised to accepting this new normal of gross inequality. During his Party Political Broadcast, PM Lee talked about all the handouts that they’ve given out, and how plans for the future include the transformation of the Tanjong Pagar area into a seafront city three times the size of Marina Bay. Like the latter is something we ought to be proud of.

    Except how many of us can afford to live in/near Marina Bay? Or even eat or drink there regularly? It’s a pretty place for walks, I suppose, but then again, it was plenty pretty even before the Supertrees reared their heads over the area.

    We’re building more and more monuments, things the world tells us we ought to be proud of, except fewer and fewer of us are actually going to be able to do anything with or in those monuments, except gawk from a distance. Want to go to an award-winning zoo? $30! Museum? $30! Want to go see those Supertrees up close? $30! Hey, why not check out our pride and joy, the sky-dominating surfboard of our casino? $100!

    Singapore’s getting prettier and prettier, but also further and further away, somehow. One day we’ll be a shining city all of crystal and gold, hovering amidst the clouds themselves in glory, packed to the brim with science and progress and all that good stuff.

    All the plebs of the Earth, including all our senior citizens and poor people and minorities who can’t afford to live amidst theclouds, will look up at us in wonder, and we’ll fling them scraps and shower them in our excrement, should they be so lucky.

    Laputa was never more aptly named.

  2. Singapore’s Future Isn’t Local
    Of course, given that future I’ve described, we’re all justifiably terrified. We have millions of fingers of blame to point, and millions of easy targets to point them at. Let’s hate on foreigners, everyone! Some parties have managed to do this with more tact than others, although ironically the party that has made the foreigners issue their main platform has also done absolutely the worst job of discussing it in a non-hate-provoking manner.

    stinkfirst

    We’re not racists, but~

    not-racist-butNow, I’m not a fan of anyone who can’t assimilate culturally, or worse, thinks they shouldn’t be obliged to. That being said, Singaporeans can be surprisingly close-minded about ‘the outside world’. It’s very easy, I think, with how convenient Singapore is, to forget that the rest of the world exists at all, and that’s a dangerous thing.

    I’m not sure how to put this, so I’ll just come right out and say it: if you’re worried about some foreigner coming to Singapore and stealing your job, you need to up your game, go overseas, and steal some foreigner’s job instead. We need to prepare our kids, not to lure the world here, but to get out there and do some hunting, to come back red-tongued and bloody-mouthed with their latest kill. Heck, I’m not even sure we have time to prepare our kids — we really ought to be preparing ourselves for that.

    Singapore is too small for Singaporeans. This is a truth that all of us have grown up with. But we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that the wild and wonderful world beyond our shores is only for the rich, because only the rich can afford to go anywhere in comfort and safety. It’s too bad we’re not willing to put comfort and safety aside, because that’s exactly what other people are doing in order to come to Singapore, and really, if you’re not willing to go the distance the way they are, I don’t see why you ought to be entitled to anything purely on the basis of birthright.

    I’ve heard all kinds of lame excuses as to why people aren’t willing to venture further afield. This is about as much sympathy as I can manage:

    1. “I can’t speak English/Chinese/Portuguese/Dutch very well.”
      Well, tough titties, ain’t it? The foreigners who’re coming in don’t speak English or Mandarin or whatever very well either, but the ones who really succeed seem to be willing to learn. There are angmohs in Singapore who’ve lived in China and speak better Mandarin than our locals do. They send their kids to our local schools or to ones which prioritise Chinese language education. They adapt. They change. They’re willing to bite the bullet because the sweet just desserts are worth it. They don’t whinge and wring their hands about how learning languages is difficult.I blame the mother tongue policy, really. Not because bilingualism is bad per se, but because by tagging our choice (or rather, non-choice) of language to our ethnicity, we’ve attached some kind of sacred significance to the link between language and ethnicity. “You can’t be Chinese if you don’t speak Mandarin,” I’ve been told by everyone from my Chinese teacher to my Chinese students.

      Well. Shit. I guess those 400 million people in China who don’t speak an artificially-imposed hegemonic tongue aren’t real Chinamen after all, right? I guess all those Englishmen who don’t speak Danish/German/Norman French aren’t real Englishmen either.

      There’s a word for feeling like you deserve something that you haven’t earned.

      While I’m a firm believer that a decent living is a right that everyone ought to enjoy, being able to do so without stirring foot from your doorstep is a huge, huge privilege. One I think Singaporeans, for the sake of the future, need to wean themselves off of.

    2. “I don’t want to leave my parents behind.”
      Well, who’s asking you to? Go somewhere your parents will enjoy free healthcare, or an old-age pension; alternatively, go somewhere you can afford to put your deserving parents up like lords and ladies at a fraction of the cost of a decent lifestyle in Singapore.
    3. “No, I mean, my parents won’t leave. And I can’t leave them here.”
      I’m sorry, dear reader, but I think you can and you should. If my grandfather had thought that way, if most of our forefathers had thought that way, none of us would be here.Singapore is a migrant nation. Even the indigenous Malays are only sorta-indigenous, for the most part, since ‘Malay’ is a catch-all kind of classification that embraces groups like the Bugis and the Boyanese/Baweanese. They’re certainly indigenous to the region, but to Singapore? Even our earliest settlements from the 13th century accepted refugees from the Srivijayan and Majapahit empires. How many of our Malays wouldn’t be here today if Parameswara/Sang Nila Utama/whoever had gotten cold feet about setting sail? Even the late Mr Lee traced his descent to China, and his success to an enterprising ancestor.

      Abandoning the familiar for the foreign is an essential part of the enterprising spirit that made us great, and, it could be argued, an essential part of the spirit of the region. Southeast Asia grew great on trade, commerce, and cultural exchange. The Malaccan Sultanate flourished under Imperial Chinese patronage, and indeed, if their ancestors hadn’t been receptive to the Islamising influence of Arab traders, today’s Malays would have a very different character to their culture. Before the Dutch came, the Bugis were unrivalled in their mastery of the seas and famed for their wide-ranging expeditions. Even in the early days of our independence, in a tradition that carries on till today, we send our best and brightest overseas in the hope that they’ll amass treasures of wisdom and knowledge to bring back.

      Singapore will always be home to many of us, but home’s a place to which one returns, not a place from which one cannot stir.

      That’s not a home.

      That’s a cell.

  3. Unity is Overrated
    Unity has long been the rallying-cry of just about everything to do with Singaporean government and administration. I’ve lost track of the gallons of bile I’ve vomited after being told to do something “… as one!” Seriously, it’s like the catch-all conversation-ender for your run-of-the-mill middle-manager who’s run out of ideas. Can’t think of a way to get someone to do what you want? Tell him that if he doesn’t he’s not showing ‘team spirit’ or ‘working as one’.This has affected (for the worse, I’d argue) our attitude towards just about everything. The only things that are fit to inhabit the ‘shared space’ of public life are things that are universally inoffensive. No drums for Thaipusam (but lion dance is OK)! Gay male buttsex makes you a criminal, but every other kind of buttsex is OK!
    ob markersThe Arts are dangerous! The Internet is dangerous!

    The fact is, PM Lee admitted in his broadcast that Singapore is getting more diverse, but I’m not sure he knows what to do about it. What sort of concessions are we likely to see towards that diversity? The Sedition Act, the ISA, the use of defamation suits, the Broadcasting Act, the heavy-handed use of the Party Whip in the name of ‘party discipline’… these things are all still on the table, and none of the parties have tabled anything that might take them off the table. Instead, they’ve all argued, to a man, that more representation yields more debate.

    Yeah, OK, suppose it does? There’s a difference between more debate and effective debate. Even if I parachute the world’s most persuasive man (ie. myself) into Parliament, what does it matter if I can persuade even an opposing party to see things my way, if any break in party discipline is grounds for dismissal not only from the party but from Parliament itself?

    Singapore needs its diversity now more than ever. As the world gets weirder and the future more fearsome, we need to cover all our bases. We can’t afford to have blind spots caused by the planks that all our national bigots have got in their eyes. We need to be more inclusive and accepting. We need to start thinking of foreigners as people. We need to start thinking of children, even the inconveniently-illegitimate ones, as children. We need to stop institutionalised racialism, but we can’t unless we dismantle the apparatus that prevents us from speaking openly about race. We need to extend support to single mothers, unwed mothers, fathers who want to be more involved in bringing up their kids. Singapore needs you and it needs me, and it can’t afford to keep pretending that if we don’t help the undesirables that those groups will die natural deaths.

    Also, anyone who uses ‘family values’ as part of an exclusionary argument has no idea what family is, or means. Saying that you can pick and choose and discard undesirables, that only people who fit your norms deserve love, and that conformity is more important than well-being and happiness… That’s not family, that’s NS.

    I don’t want one Singapore. I want a multifarious, multifaceted Singapore. I have mine, you have yours, and we’re both strong and resilient enough to survive the collision of the two.

    Using unity as doublespeak for conformity just isn’t going to cut it.

    In the past, Singapore was like a galley, primitive and oar-powered. In that sort of situation, everyone has to be shackled to the oars and pulling in time with the drum. Consistency, conformity, and grit were the primary virtues.

    Ben_Hur_ship-galley

    Left, your left, your left right!

    Today, Singapore’s like a sloop, trim and fast, sailing into a strong headwind. We’ve got a hundred and one moving parts and a gajillion sails. More than one person pulling on one rope at a time is a waste of bloody time. We need to give people the space to do their own thing. ‘Chase rainbows’, PM Lee says.

    ymca

    Let’s just assume this is what he meant

  4. Value, Not Wealth
    Oooh, but at the same time, Singapore can’t afford to be unexceptional! We have to keep our noses to the grindstone! We need to be exceptional! Well, not necessarily exceptionally creative (see above: creativity is scary and dangerous), but exceptionally hard-working! We’ve already got the longest working hours in the world. We coincidentally have pretty low productivity levels, which is totally unrelated to the other thing I said. Surely the solution to the problem is more work! Harder better faster stronger! Working hours go up and the retirement age gets pushed back and so on with no end in sight.Literally no end in sight. There’s no change in paradigm, no alteration of tone or message, nothing to suggest that any party has any idea what to do when we run out of people to employ or hours in a day. No shift in the endless rhetoric of more more more.

    zug zug

    If you heard “zug-zug” in your head, you’re in the right generation

    So, basically only chase rainbows if there’s a pot of gold at the end. That’s not a real improvement, sir.

    The thing is, we’re going to hit the limits of wealth sooner or later. At some point, we’re going to run out of men and hours and man-hours to grease the wheels of the Mammon-machine. What will we do then?

    I guess I shouldn’t fault any party for focusing on bread-and-butter issues when so much of the population still has trouble with that, but I can’t shake the feeling that the reason there’s so much inequality is precisely because we’ve never gotten out of a bread-and-butter mindset.

    Even rich people feel threatened, feel insecure, feel that they need to safeguard their golden ricebowls. The scare-mongering and the rhetoric of fear that’s lashed across our backs whenever we show signs of slackening also makes it difficult, if not entirely impossible, for Singapore to move away from considerations of survival.

    “Work hard, because all of this can go away in the blink of an eye,” we hear on a regular basis, with the actual outcome of everyone hoarding like a possible catastrophe has now become imminent.

    If only we could see work, labour, wages, and welfare as more than just work-to-live/live-to-work arrangements. We need to start looking at value, not just wealth. The up-and-coming generation has gotten bored with wealth. They know everything has its price but have yet to discover their real value. The calculus is beginning to swing in the other direction: people are now willing to pass up promotions, even steady work, in order to spend more time with family or to pursue unconventional interests. There’s a new market in social enterprise, in making a sustainable living helping others get by.

    Sadly, I haven’t heard anything from any party about this. Perhaps the electorate doesn’t want to hear about this sort of thing. Still, it’s ironic and alarming to hear especially from the PAP that they have long-term plans, but that their long-term plans are just more of the same. None of the parties has yet proposed what we can or should do to promote not just wealthiness but well-being.

    This sort of imbalance is especially prevalent in all the anti-minimum-wage, anti-national-income rhetoric that’s been going around. Unemployment will go up! goes the cry. People won’t want to work because their lives will be too easy! Taxes will have to go up!

    A few months ago I was sitting in on a panel moderated by Donald Low involving the ambassadors of the various Nordic countries to Singapore. A question was raised about whether these countries, with their comprehensive welfare systems and free healthcare, had a problem with welfare queens.

    The memorable reply came in two parts.

    “People go to work even if they’d make almost the same money just collecting benefits, because their work is meaningful to them.”

    and

    “The population is committed to paying the price of higher taxation to support the national welfare and healthcare initiatives, because we take great pride in how we care for everyone in our society.”

    I wonder when, if ever, we can expect to hear such sentiments expressed here.

1L Teething

So, today was my first day as a law student. I’m older, slower, goutier, and more cantankerous (only partly due to the gout) than my counterparts, but it’s been an interesting day.

Especially the bit where they covered how, in tort law, it’s generally a lot easier for the plaintiff to get their way, because the standard for burden of proof is lowered. A criminal conviction requires proof “beyond reasonable doubt”, which is the standard I guess most of us are familiar with; apparently to be awarded damages for a tort, evidence merely has to suggest that the defendant offended “on a balance of probabilities”.

I couldn’t help but wonder if this explains the popularity of the defamation suit as a tool for political repression in Singapore. I mean, if you want to consistently jail your opponents or have them branded criminals, you’re either going to need to use emergency powers (a la Operation Coldstore), or lower your standards of evidence to the point where the entire justice system becomes a farce.

“Not harassing people who did nothing wrong” is obviously not part of the equation.

So it’s a lot easier to prove that people who say you’ve done bad things have hurt your reputation, since they have; I guess it’s up to the defendant to then prove that he’s done so deservedly. It’s not defamation if it’s true, after all.

I’m not sure if the failure of anyone to defend himself from a defamation suit brought by the Powers That Be is a sign that said powers are truly above reproach, or that they’ve made information inaccessible to the point where proving a claim becomes impossible. I know, usually when someone claims that the lack of information is in itself a form of evidence is when everyone realises he’s a crackpot conspiracy theorist, but in Singapore you can’t help but wonder.

Maybe we need fewer political pundits and more satirists. It’s one thing to accuse someone of something that you can’t prove; it’s another to bring up something someone’s done that’s true beyond a doubt, which you also represent as being funny at their expense.

Anyway, this also signals a change in my general approach to blogging and content. I guess I’ll be posting more frequently, because I really do want to chronicle my journey through law school, especially as someone who’s way older than his classmates. I also hope to do more candidly retrospective stuff, since I’m no longer tethered to good behaviour by a paycheck.

Hope you guys’ll join me. All this is new territory to me, too. Let’s explore it together.

Contagious crackpottery

I know I’ve been quiet for a while. I’ve been incubating big news. I wasn’t even intending on posting anything today, but this just came to my attention, and wow, I had to say something about it. Because I’m legitimately scared.

So, this actually happened in Singapore.

It’s from a sermon called The Ultimate Deception, preached by Lawrence Khong of Faith Community Baptist Church, more famously affiliated with the anti-gay ‘Wear White’ movement. In its entirety, the thing can be found here. Although I wouldn’t recommend it.

Disclaimer: I am in no way anti-religious or anti-Christian, and in writing this, I seek to offer not a criticism of Christianity but rather to question one man’s interpretation and practice of it under that name. While Mr Khong has full freedom under the laws of Singapore to practice whatever religion he likes and preach whatever religion people will pay him to, I question whether his teachings are at their heart any sort of Christianity at all. He claims that his sermon is an extension of the Gospel, but my olfactory sensors are detecting a very familiar whiff of bovine excrement.
So, in short, while I thoroughly endorse Mr Khong’s right to practice whatever religion he likes (he may even one day choose to practice the one he preaches), I’m critical of his inclusion of teachings, purported to be Christian, which are clearly founded in conspiracy theory and moral-hysteria campaigns.


First: points of contention, sourced and attributed
I’m going to be listing his points of argument, and then linking them to several articles I think that everyone encountering this could read. If you’re up-to-date on your crackpot conspiracy theory, you might be able to give them a miss, but otherwise, interesting reading otherwise. You may notice some parentheses indicating “protocols”; more on that later.

This first part is going to be messy. I’m basically taking points in the order in which he mentions them. It’s tough going but I promise parts Second, Third, and Fourth will be easier.

  • the New World Order (Protocol #11)
    • which the American-evangelical-trained pastor claims not to be America or Europe (because of course not), but nominates “Russia”, or “even China” — while at the same time claiming that nobody could predict which world power would be responsible for the NWO
      • I can’t believe Cold War hysteria is being preached from the pulpit in 21st century Singapore
  • the Red Scare (Protocol #3: “we support communism”)
    • blames “Cultural Marxism” for everything, because it will destroy the Western world. Why the West is so pivotal to God’s plan is never explained.
      • putting a fresh twist on the tired old “cleric of a Middle Eastern religion promoting Caucasian supremacy” model by being an Asian doing it in Southeast Asia
      • I’m quite glad that he doesn’t misrepresent his erudition on this matter, claiming that he’s done “some research” and “a little reading”. Caveat auditor if I’ve ever heard it, folks.
  • finance is a lie! (Protocol #6: “… establish… reservoirs of colossal riches, upon which… large fortunes… will depend to such an extent that they will go to the bottom together with the credit of the States on the day after the political smash …” and Protocol #21: “loans and credit”)
    • because anything I don’t understand is bad!
    • I’m just waiting for the point when he calls for a return to the gold standard before checking off all the “Amerocentric conspiracy theory crackpot” items on our list
  • the Mark of the Beast is an extension of oppressive government policy” theory (Protocol #15: “The principal guarantee of stability of rule is… the aureole of power… as shall carry on its face the emblems of inviolability… from the choice of God“)
    • although here he rails against not implantable RFID chips, but rather, ‘socialism’, as the Mark of the Beast without which one cannot transact stuff. Huh. So… is this an abstract kind of mark, or just an easily-erasable one?

      Not as catchy as '666', but obviously that's because I'm not an expert on spiritual warfare

      Not as catchy as ‘666’, but obviously that’s because I’m not an expert on spiritual warfare

  • equivocates opposition to capitalism with opposition to “Judo-Christianity (sic)”, and implies that this is the same thing as evil
    • toppling Judo-Christianity ain’t gonna work, I hear Jesus has a wicked ne-waza game
  • refers to a book in which certain methods are set down purporting to be a handbook to overthrowing the West
    • I’m disappointing that Khong’s erudition fails him at this point and he doesn’t recognise the nth iteration of the Protocols of the Elders of Zionexcept flipped-turn upside-down in a refreshing display of creativity
      • for everyone who’s not as big an Eco fan as I am, the Protocols (linked here, for your reference) are an oft-fabricated pseudohistorical document used as part of a larger false-flag operation intended to discredit a particular group. Want to eradicate Group X? Draft an odious manifesto and attribute it to them. Medieval Facebook-hacking Timeline-spamming, basically.
      • you may notice that some of his points I have labelled (Protocol #). I invite you to refer to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and compare Khong’s claims to the methods attributed to the shadowy cabal
  • homophobia, sexual irrectitude, moral decay! (Protocol #5: “To multiply…passions… that it will be impossible for anyone to know where he is in the resulting chaos“)
  • disillusionment with religion is a sign of the end times! (Protocol #4; #14)
  • weakening of family values is a sign of the end times! (from Protocols: “we shall destroy… the importance of the family“)

In the uncropped sermon, he also makes oblique reference to Gnostic mythology, including framing the Devil as a demiurge (of course, he never uses the actual terminology, probably ignorant either of its existence or, more likely, its pronunciation) “the second heaven that he (presumably, the Devil) operates on”. Which demonstrates more literacy than I’d been previously willing to accord Khong, surprisingly.


Second: let me break it down for you
So… basically, Khong indiscriminately tosses into the cauldron

  • American exceptionalism,
  • Evangelical conspiracy theory,
  • Cold War scares, and
  • 19th century anti-Semitic false-flag fanfiction,

in order to distil from this thick and glutinous mash a sort of eau de la folie, the pestilent vapours of which he waves under the noses of his audience, and exhorts them to lap up his Kool-Aid. By doing so, he hopes to invoke:

  1. moral hysteria and panic
  2. self-righteousness and indignation
  3. a well-meaning but ill-informed determination to fight evil and reform society, via
  4. vehement social activism, and presumably
  5. a loosening of purse-strings.

Third: commentary, criticism
This scares me for several reasons. I mean, the scare-mongering itself is hardly new, and, while a cause for concern, not intrinsically frightening. Pandering to the base passions of the mob are a tried-and-tested way to achieve influence and relevance, and you don’t get much baser passions than fear and tribalism.

I’m scared because he has a platform. I’m scared because he has an audience. I’m scared because his teachings, as long as they are styled ‘religious’ in nature, can easily slip beneath the notice of others.

What’s really scary is how so many of his teachings tie-in with a conservative right-wing American political message, which appears to be gaining traction in Singapore due to its built-in appeal to moral panic, fear of change, and intolerance. I’m particularly concerned about the extent to which this message imports and imbibes parochial American concerns and seeks to import them wholesale into a different cultural context.

I’m reminded of stuff like how, when the controversial Jesus Camp was conducted in Singapore, children were exhorted to pray that God would “use the children of America to change the United States” (paraphrase mine), which is a very odd thing to ask Singaporean children to pray for specifically.

I don’t want to go all Samuel Huntingdon on everyone, but it looks like neo-fundamentalism of all stripes (Christian, Muslim, Hindu, even Buddhist) is shaping up to be one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Perhaps this is a wide-scale backlash against globalisation, or something; conservative communities reacting against liberalisation and civil rights, perhaps.

Singapore, in its incipiently-volatile state, needs an injection of foreign parochialism and conspiracy theory like a Korean on a 72-hour Starcraft bender needs another can of Red Bull. Dominionism (the belief that all forms of authority must be under Christian control) is bad enough as part of the American political landscape, but it’s becoming part of the local colour here as well. City Harvest Church’s happily ill-fated Crossover Project and Mr Khong’s peculiar magic shows are all attempts in this vein to “reclaim” for Christianity parts of secular society.

just as the razor reclaims the recesses of the armpit from the harrowing of hoary hirsuteness


Four: What’s to be done?

It’s a tough question to answer, especially for another Christian. I don’t deny the Great Commission: I do believe that Christians are called to bring to others the Good News. Though there must be a better way of doing it than taking over the radio and turning every station into Pastor Dour’s Power Hour, or chanting about CHINAWINECHINAWINECHINAWINE. Or branding yourself a crusader for family values and railing exclusively against homosexuality, while neglecting that it’s in fact easier to get an abortion in Singapore than in many places in “the progressive West”, or in fact neglecting how stagnating wages and some of the most punishing work hours in the world represent a much greater threat to family cohesion than homosexuality ever could.

The Good News seems to me to consist of a varied and complex moral message that requires one to take the entirety of both revealed scripture and thousands of years of philosophy and apply all that to everyday living in a manner that cleaves to first principles.

Christ laid down those principles when asked which the greatest commandment was, responding not only “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind”, but also “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

And all the while we struggle with this we ought to also struggle against people who interpret this message on our behalf, especially if they appear to be doing so in a manner inconsistent with Christlike attitudes but consistent with their own personal prejudices, keeping in mind  the admonitions against false prophets, and also the words of 1 John 4:20: “ If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?”

For it is said of false prophets that by their fruit you shall know them. How does it come to be that a Gospel of love becomes an instrument of fear and hatred? The embolism after the Lord’s prayer reminds us to pray for protection from anxiety; how does fear-mongering at the pulpit serve this goal?

The Good News ought to consist of more than “God hates fags” or Mr Khong’s acid-flashback to Red Dawn. I suppose it’s unforgivably bourgeois of me to insist that evangelism should be tasteful, consistent, and erudite. It’s a failing, I’ll admit.

Not as big a failing as this, though.