It's political to be apolitical

Issue 68

Hello from Sydney! I was at the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre’s ASEAN Forum today, talking about—what else—POFMA and civil liberties in Singapore. (I’ll be sending out a written version of my presentation to Milo Peng Funders a little later this week as a “thank you” for your Milo Peng Funding!)

What is politics?

I’m starting off this issue with a link to a New Naratif comic that isn’t specific to Singapore, but very relevant and important for Singaporeans to read in any case. We’ve published the first of a series of comic political explainers: this one explains what politics is, and why being “apolitical” is also a very political choice. Please share this comic widely—it’s political education we all need.

(Pssst… if you use the coupon code “NNRocks10” you can get US$10 off a New Naratif membership!)

Election rumours

By this point you may have received WhatsApp messages claiming that the elections are going to be in September. I’ve certainly heard them from a few quarters, all of whom insist their sources are legit. Of course none of us have been able to verify this, and The Online Citizen says the Elections Department has said that the elections are not on 21 September as some rumours have claimed.

This is an infuriating time, because it gives me anxiety over whether or not to cancel any special travel/work plans. I find it unlikely that there will be any elections this year, but who knows? AAAAAARRRRRGHHHHH.

Talking about racism in Singapore

Preetipls and Subhas Nair have been given 24-month conditional warnings over their parody rap video. This means that they aren’t to “reoffend” in the next 24 months, or they’ll get charged. No such conditional warning for the team behind the brownface E-Pay ad, though, since the authorities say there’s no criminal offence there.

Speaking of Preetipls, take a look at this analysis of her work and her smart deployment of Chinese language skills.

HOME has come out with a statement on racism and how it affects migrant workers: “Often, we find that South Asian migrant workers are devalued because of their skin colour. Racial stereotypes, which are perpetuated by some employment agencies are also used to promote domestic workers to their prospective employers.”

Balli Kaur Jaswal also takes a look at how race riots are used as a bogeyman in Singapore, even though it’s high time we talked about prejudice. This makes it a brilliant time to listen to this old episode of PJ Thum’s History of Singapore podcast, where he argues that the roots of the riots in 1964 were political, not racial.

Time to do something about climate change

Some young activists are putting together a Singapore Climate Rally on 21 September, inspired by the work of Greta Thunberg. We don’t have big, visible, nation-wide discussions of climate change enough, so I look forward to seeing this come together!

Support the Love Kuching Project!

🇸🇬 Happy National Day (weekend) 🇸🇬

Issue 67

I’m writing this issue on National Day itself—it’s the 54th anniversary of the day Singapore left the Federation of Malaysia. Today, Popula also published an essay that I wrote for them, entitled “A ‘Traitor’ To My Country”, where I reflect upon the bizarre experience of being accused of treachery against Singapore, and why such accusations aren’t good for our society in the long run.

I also live-tweeted the National Day Parade for New Naratif, if anyone wants to catch up and watch me fail miserably at spelling “colonialism” in a hurry.

Ooh, and one more thing: I’m really sorry I had to cancel the democracy classroom on the 8th because I had stomach flu (ugh), but the one later today is still on!

The Citizens’ Agenda!

I’m going to be extra cheeky this week and kick off this issue with a plug: last week, New Naratif launched our first edition of The Citizens’ Agenda, a new initiative to double down on our engagement with members and readers, and make sure our community has a voice in our process.

We’re starting The Citizens’ Agenda with just Singapore for now, since it’s our first time, with a focus on the upcoming general election (whenever that is). We’re inviting people to fill in this survey to tell us what issues are important to them; we’ll then categorise these responses and then ask Singaporeans to rank them in order of importance. The top five issues will help shape our coverage, and we’ll also be approaching candidates to ask them about their position on these issues. But don’t just take it from me, here’s New Naratif’s Managing Director PJ Thum explaining how it works:

Please fill out the survey, and share this page far and wide—we want as many Singaporeans as possible to be involved! (And of course, if you’d like to support our work at New Naratif, become a member.)

Election chatter (you can read this if you’re 18)

Last Saturday, the Progress Singapore Party had its official public launch (not to be confused with the press conference launch I wrote about in a previous issue). I wasn’t at the morning session, but went to the afternoon one, which was pretty well-attended—all the seats were taken up, with people standing in the back half of the room.

There still wasn’t a whole lot of detail about policies and proposals, but the PSP did mention that they plan to champion lowering the voting age to 18 years old. Malaysia lowered its voting age earlier this year, leaving Singapore the only country in ASEAN where the voting age is still 21.

But the PAP government has no intention of lowering the voting age, says Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing. “Voting in elections involves making serious choices, which requires experience and maturity,” he said in response to a question in Parliament.

This seems weird, though, because the state certainly treats many 18-year-olds like adults; 18-year-old young men are conscripted into the armed forces and trained to use guns. Some young people are also charged as adults for particular crimes (remember Amos Yee?) So if the state can treat you as an adult, and have you take on adult burdens, it seems only fair that you should have a vote, no?

The PSP isn’t the only party getting an early start. The Singapore Democratic Party has also come out to say that it’ll be contesting the same five constituencies that it did during the last election. The SDP is also still calling for an opposition coalition—something that the PSP also hasn’t ruled out.

Education and the taxpayers’ dime

There’s been talk of education recently: more specifically, who’s paying for what. Some are unhappy that the PAP government spends quite a tidy sum each year on scholarships and tuition grants for international students, but the government says that no Singaporean has been displaced from university because of foreign students. The publicly-funded cohort participation rate in Singapore is around 30% (although this Ministry of Education webpage doesn’t seem to be very updated…?)

Podcast alert!

Singapore’s very own Jolovan Wham is interviewed by Amanda Tattersall in this episode of the ChangeMakers podcast. He talks about his work and his motivations, and the lessons he’s learnt being involved in activism in a difficult environment like Singapore.

An interview with Liyana Dhamirah

I met Liyana Dhamirah at a McDonald’s by an MRT station in late June. She’d just come from a book showcase at Epigram Books’ office—she told me she hadn’t expected the high turn-out at that event. It was her first time attending something like this, for the first book she’s ever published.

“[This] event not only showcased the book that I'm publishing […] there's also the other authors as well, right? So I'm hearing they sold like 20,000 copies, 50,000 copies, I was like, ‘Oh, can we even make it to 1000 copies, at least?’” she said, giggling. “So that is [something] that makes me have, you know, this mixed feeling. It's kind of like nervous, but happy at the same time.”

Homeless: The Untold Story of a Mother’s Struggle in ‘Crazy Rich’ Singapore, is Liyana’s account of her experience with homelessness, when she was only 22 years old and heavily pregnant.

That was around the time we got to know each other. Back then, I was a volunteer with The Online Citizen had been involved with some of their coverage on the issue of homelessness (at a time when the PAP government was still reluctant to acknowledge that there was homelessness in Singapore).

Since then, I’ve seen Liyana work her butt off to pull her family out of poverty and provide a stable and loving home for her kids. I feel it’s fair to say that Liyana is one of the most unstoppable and hardest workers I know, so when Epigram asked me if I would read her manuscript and provide a blurb for the book, it was a no-brainer.

Now that the book is out, I’m publishing this short interview with Liyana—really, just a short conversation between friends. (I’ve edited it for language, clarity, and brevity.)


This isn't the first time you tried to publish your book, right? You’d tried crowdfunding to publish your memoirs before…

In 2013, when we first set out to publish it, we went through the crowdfunding campaign, and it flopped. It failed. And after that I was chucking this whole thing to the side, just keeping the manuscript, then [my friend] was like, "You gotta start working on it again, don't stash it away."

After the last crowdfunding campaign failure... I have to be honest, it took really quite some time for me to gather the courage and the confidence to attempt this second round. So we sent [the manuscript] to about 20, both literary agents and publishers, local and overseas as well. Only three of the local publishers got back to us. And then only one actually had the guts to take it on. And it was Epigram. So I'm really thankful that they are brave enough to actually take this particular project.

So the other publishers told you that their concern was with the topic?

Yeah, correct. Their concern was the topic. And they also mentioned that it’s pretty sensitive. So they’re not sure if they were suitable to promote it on their end.

But it’s a topic that everyone is talking about now, isn’t it? Especially with Teo You Yenn’s book This Is What Inequality Looks Like doing so well…

It's very current, I will say, for people to start embracing it, that there is such a reality going on. Previously, it's more of a denial that, you know, homelessness is like… neither here nor there, it's like [saying] “displaced families” instead of using the real word, which is like, yeah, they're homeless. “Displaced” means what?!

So yeah, I think currently, [people] are much more open to accepting the fact that this exists. And yeah, hopefully this will be another topic to talk about.

I remember, back in 2010 when TOC was covering the issue, it wasn’t really acknowledged that there was even such a thing as homelessness… so now we’ve finally admitted it.

Yes, I know, right! Which is only quite recent. It’s not like when we talked about it in 2010, when they started talking about homelessness, it was only in what… 2017? From that year? Yeah.

Because of the Homeless Street Survey that was done then.

Correct. And more organisations are coming forward to do more case studies on the homeless in Singapore.

But just admitting that there’s homelessness is a very small step, right? Have you seen any other progress?

I would say little steps. Because I can see that, apart from embracing or accepting the fact that there are homeless people in Singapore, there are people who have come forward to help.

Back then, when we were first discovered on Sembawang beach… One night, we had a raid at Sembawang Park—I’m not sure if you were there? (I wasn’t.)—during that raid itself it was only the TOC people, the volunteers, and us, the families on the beach, helping each other to get the help we needed. Other than that, there were no other organisations that came forward back then.

But now, looking from year 2015 onwards, I can see that, you know, Homeless Hearts, that organisation, they are helping, especially those individuals who are sleeping at night on the streets and all that, apart from those who are living in tents by the beach. There are different kinds of people who are homeless, according to different situations.

How about policy? Have you seen changes there?

What I've discovered when I was writing the book, right… one of the pages that we put in was the resources list, so that it can help readers who are in need. The thing I discovered was, starting in 2017 or 2018, the government is deploying more charity organisations to open up shelters for the homeless. So there are two more shelters that have popped up… it’s quite recent. So I think there are baby steps there, but there's still more that needs to be done.

How do you think the Singapore public sees homelessness? Are there misconceptions? Do you think people understand the issue?

To be honest, I don't think so. I don't think they understand that homelessness really exists in Singapore. Because they're still struggling to accept the fact that there are homeless people. Because to them, Singapore is so prosperous, right? And they don’t see the people who are homeless, unless they venture to the beach or stay at the beach for one week, then they can see the difference, right? But other than that, they're still struggling to have this image that there are homeless people.

There are often comments or arguments that people are poor because they don’t work hard or make bad choices. But when I read your book, I could find no evidence in your book that anyone was slacking off and being lazy. Everyone you mentioned in the book was working. How does it feel, then to see so many Singaporeans have the perception that homeless people aren’t working hard?

The misperception will be like that lah, “these people, they get into such predicaments because they are lazy, they don't plan well, they make a lot of mistakes in their decisions” and all that.

But to be honest, just reflecting on my own personal journey, it can just purely be… luck. It's just your so-called—what are you going to call it—bad luck, where you just stumble into that particular phase... Nobody wants to be in that situation in the first place. But it just happens, no matter whether you’re hardworking or not, or you have savings or not.

How hard is it in Singapore, if you fall into that bad situation, to pull yourself back out?

Believe me, it's quite hard! It took me months, and... okay, it took me six months to get the correct aid that I was looking for, the actual aid that I need. And it took me two years to finally get the exact solution that I need, which is to have a proper home. And that’s when I got the rental flat. Two years after that whole fiasco. So if you're talking about time, the length, the duration itself? Hard lah!

We’ve known each other for almost 10 years. From the time I met you, seeing you and your family going from the beach to actually being able to own your own HDB flat… it’s been years!

Yes, it's almost a decade! I could say it’s a struggle, but it’s a hidden struggle, it’s not really showcased. It’s not really portrayed much in public because people only want to share the good side of things that happens here in Singapore. But the process that someone needs to go through, it’s rarely been shared. And from my personal experience, when we go through all this assistance and all that, they make you sign forms that say, you know, no disclosure of some sort, that kind of thing.

What is that process like, then?

I would say that... okay, not a lot of forms to fill, but more of reliving the story again and again, because you need to keep on telling the story to the social worker. Even if it’s already on file, they’ll still ask you the same thing, like, “What happened? Why are you here?” All of that.

And almost every visit, you need to retell the story again, and it's emotionally draining, because you’ve already mentioned it once. It’s already taking a toll on you, you know, to recall it all and to tell the story. And at every visit, you have to do that. So it's really emotionally draining.

Homeless: The Untold Story of a Mother’s Struggle in ‘Crazy Rich’ Singapore is now out and in stories. You can order it online, or find it in bookstores like the Huggs Epigram Coffee Bookshop!

How Not To Foster Racial Harmony

Issue 66

I was going to do a regular round-up of a bunch of issues this week but I‘m actually going to just focus on the one now, since it’s been such a saga.

We’re all just f*cking it up

So much of the online chatter this week (that I’ve seen, anyway) has been about racism in Singapore. On the one hand, it’s great that this subject has come up because we are so overdue for a serious, honest, soul-searching conversation about racism. But let’s be honest: it’s become a giant shitshow that has simply served to display how very very bad we are at understanding racism and power—and how the government itself perpetuates this ignorance and insensitivity.

It all starts with this ad:

It’s an ad for E-Pay, a unified e-payment system run by NETS, who was in turn appointed by Enterprise Singapore, the National Environment Agency, the Housing Development Board, and JTC Corporation. NETS then hired creative agency Havas to create a promotional campaign, and Havas in turn hired Chinese Singaporean actor Dennis Chew through MediaCorp’s The Celebrity Agency. And the result was, well, that ☝🏼😱😱😱

Also, this:

Unsurprisingly, and completely justifiably, this ad came under fire on social media. For God’s sake, it’s 2019, and it’s not the first time brownface has been called out in Singapore. You think we’d just learn. But no. (Read Ruby Thiagarajan’s piece on why brownface punches down and is not funny.)

Havas and MediaCorp apologised for the ad, and took the photos down, but their apology demonstrated no understanding of why brownface was racist. It was basically a “we’re sorry if you felt offended, we didn’t mean to” type of apology.

Minority Singaporeans were especially fed-up, for obvious reasons—they’ve been dealing with this crap for years now. So when YouTube star Preetipls and her brother, the rapper Subhas Nair, came out with a parody rap video in which they rapped about how “(racist) Chinese Singaporeans keep fucking it up”, I thought their anger was both entirely understandable, and the video incredibly on point. But—surprise surprise—someone goes running to the police, and the cops open an investigation, not into the nationwide brownface ad, but the rap video.

The fact that people actually lodged police reports against minorities calling out racism was bad enough, but then the government dove in as well. Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said the E-Pay ad was distasteful, but most of his ammunition was directed at the Nair siblings. Other PAP politicians also lined up to denounce the rap video, although (as far as I know) they were nowhere to be seen when the brownface ad was first brought to public attention.

IMDA also swung into action, issuing orders demanding that the rap video be removed from Preetipls’ social media platforms. Singaporeans who re-uploaded the video were issued orders to take them down within six hours. It also seems as if Twitter and Facebook are geo-blocking the video, although the police investigations are still ongoing.

Subhas Nair was unceremoniously dropped from a Channel NewsAsia (i.e. MediaCorp) documentary about local musicians, which means the song he wrote based on a collaboration with Migrant Band Singapore (a band made up of migrant workers) will not air.

The siblings then released an apology that was really an act of defiance, by borrowing the wording of the weak Havas/MediaCorp apology to shine a light on how woefully inadequate it had been. In response, the Ministry of Home Affairs released a statement that not only attacked the apology as “a mock, insincere apology” (duh, it was an act of resistance), but upped the ante in vindictiveness by branding Preetipls a racist who mocked the Chinese community, and insisting that Subhas’ song for the CNA documentary was “blatantly false” for saying that Singapore condones systemic discrimination. (But hey, if not for this rap video saga, MediaCorp was going to air the song, which it had vetted!)

And while all this is going on, the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore—whose council appears to be overwhelmingly Chinese—announced that the brownface ad was “in poor taste” but did not breach its standards, and that no further action needed to be taken.

At this point, read Ruby Thiagarajan’s piece (again) on the challenges of doing anti-racist work in a context where people don’t want to acknowledge power imbalances. Read Faris Joraimi’s Facebook posts. And Alfian Sa’at’s.

It’s so disappointing that we have an opportunity to really tackle racism and systemic discrimination (hey MHA, it does exist in Singapore) head-on, but fucked it up. We keep fucking it up. Instead, this has become yet another exercise of power to deny minority experiences and assert a reality as dictated by the majority and the authorities. If anything was going to cause ill-will and unhappiness in Singaporean society, it’s not the siblings’ rap video—it’s this silencing and policing.

That said, all this branding of people as racists and online trolling accused people (including myself, see below) of wanting to incite race riots is conveniently laying the groundwork for the introduction of hate speech laws and updating of the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act that the government wants to do.

And all this as we head towards National Day. Time to be one people, one nation, one Singapore, everyone. Or else.

Time for another democracy classroom!

I’m hosting another two democracy classrooms. This time, it’s on drugs and the death penalty. I figured this would be a good time to discuss this topic, with so many inmates on death row having been issued clemency rejections and at risk of imminent execution, and Pannir Selvam still in the process of fighting for his life through the courts once more. All views—pro-death penalty, anti-death penalty, never really thought about it before, etc.—are welcome, as long as you’re willing to engage in good faith and with patience. See you there!

About the neighbours…

This week, I’d like to share a podcast that colleagues at New Naratif worked really hard on. Part One of Road to Raqqa follows the story of Febri, who chose to leave Indonesia when he was 22 years old and move to Syria to reunite with his mother and the rest of his family. But things in Raqqa were not as advertised in ISIS propaganda, and he managed to make his way back to Indonesia again.

A lot of effort was put into making sure this story was told responsibly, with adequate background and context. As the founder of Ruang Obrol (link in Bahasa Indonesia)—a platform for former combatants and people who have been radicalised—says in the podcast, it’s important to tell the story of such ISIS returnees so that they can share the lessons they’ve learnt from leaving radicalised groups, and warn others of the dangers of radicalisation.

The Progress Singapore Party launches itself into the political fray

Issue 65

It’s a bit of a long one this week so I don’t have much to add here—let’s just dive straight in.

The launch of the Progress Singapore Party

I was at the launch of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) on Friday morning. You can see my live-tweet thread below 👇🏼, so I’ll focus on analysis and my own response in this bit of the newsletter.

Is PSP’s entry into the fray significant? Yes. Dr Tan Cheng Bock was a PAP MP for a long time, so he brings with him long years of experience not only of campaigning in elections, but also being in Parliament, being involved in town council work, etc. A common PAP argument against their opponents in elections is to point out their lack of a track record—this tactic isn’t going to fly here, as TCB knows, given how much he emphasised his long years of service and promised to impart his knowledge and experience to younger members of PSP.

TCB also can’t be dismissed as an irrational, hot-headed opposition politician who doesn’t really know what’s good for Singapore, given that his track record was with the PAP. In the fight for the “middle ground” swing voter, TCB has credibility; he’s seen as experienced, reliable, solid. I can see passive PAP supporters (i.e. people who have some unhappiness, but generally think the PAP has done all right) getting swayed. As TCB claims, he hasn’t changed since his PAP days—it’s the PAP that’s changed. I think many people will see it as a pretty stark indictment: if even an old PAP stalwart is coming out to say that there’s something wrong with the party as it is today, people are going to pay at least some attention.

That said, if I were the PAP I wouldn’t be worried of being kicked out of power this election (and TCB himself said as much). But knowing how the PAP obsesses over overwhelming mandates—60% of the voteshare in 2011 was seen as a disaster for them—I think the ruling party will still be a little worried about whatever traction TCB might be able to build. And he was clear during the presser that the opposition parties need to work together (details still unclear beyond a general commitment to not getting into three-cornered fights) to break the PAP’s two-thirds majority in Parliament.

Overall, my personal impression of the presser was that it was interesting, but not that exciting or impressive: TCB is known for playing his cards very close to his chest, and wasn’t ready to reveal anything about the sorts of policies that PSP will be proposing. Instead, he said that we have to wait until their event on 3 August—but even then the PSP won’t be revealing everything, because it’s their strategy to keep things zipped up until closer to the election.

So Singaporeans like myself, who are looking for more concrete visions of the political future, were left a little disappointed with more general motherhood statements about wanting serve Singapore and Singaporeans. When asked about PSP’s ideology—for instance, if it’s going to propose more socialist policies—TCB said that he wasn’t “captured” by ideology but wants a “compassionate Singapore”. The problem is that saying you want a “compassionate Singapore” doesn’t really mean anything.

Lastly, TCB’s track record can also work against him. It’s great that he has experience, but given what I saw at the press conference today, there’s a lot more that the PSP to show Singaporeans what they stand for. “Former PAP, but nicer than the current guys,” is not an insignificant sell given Singapore’s current political climate, but it’s not enough to advance our politics and democracy. It’s much more important to have deep, informed discussions about contemporary political issues and the flaws in our democratic institutions, rather than longing for a party that will take us back to some imagined past where the PAP was better (Make PAP Great Again, if you will?)

Confusion over the death penalty

There’s been quite a bit of confusion over executions in Singapore this week, so I’m going to clear it up as best as I can here.

As mentioned last week, up to 10 inmates have been issued clemency rejections. Among these 10 were four Malaysians, on top of Pannir Selvam, who was almost executed but received a stay at the eleventh hour. Lawyers for Liberty, a legal human rights organisation in Malaysia, has spoken out about these cases, and were also part of a protest outside the Singapore High Commission in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.

These protests and comments from Lawyers for Liberty were then likely misunderstood—a misunderstanding that’d been bolstered by this op-ed by an anonymous writer in the Sydney Morning Herald claiming that Singapore was going to execute about 10 inmates this week.

Now, information about the death penalty is hard to come by and even harder to verify, so I can almost never say anything with 100% confidence, but I’m pretty damn sure that the op-ed’s claim is wrong. 10 people did not get executed this week—in fact, I don’t think anyone was executed this week.

Basically, clemency rejections are not to be conflated with execution notices, nor can we assume that one will automatically follow the other. It’s true that, since 2016, the authorities have issued clemency rejections and execution notices at the same time (or in very quick succession), but the Ministry for Home Affairs has said that this process is under review. So we can’t assume anything right now, which on the one hand is a relief because the many clemency rejections that have been issued recently don’t necessarily mean that there’s going to be a bloodbath in the near future, but on the other hand is also very much not a relief because it means that all these inmates and their families are now stuck in this very painful limbo of knowing that they could be hanged any time, but not knowing when that’s going to be.

Also related to the death penalty in Singapore: for those who want some background on the death penalty for drugs, I wrote an op-ed for New Naratif this past week (it’s also been translated into Malay, so please share widely).

Human rights lawyers M Ravi (from Singapore) and N Surendran (from Kuala Lumpur) have also highlighted the case of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, who is on death row in Singapore even though he was found to have an IQ of only 69 and was evaluated by an independent psychiatrist as having a mental disability. The Singapore courts had found that his borderline intellectual functioning did not qualify as “abnormality of the mind” that would have allowed him to escape the death penalty.

Hope for the future

Things are not as dire on the activism front as we might think (maybe)! According to Blackbox Research, 50% of Singaporeans surveyed say they have participated in some form of activism over the past 12 months. I can’t tell what they mean by “some form of activism”, though—there’s an asterisk in the graphic but I can’t find what that corresponds to. I guess it might perhaps refer to the activities in the second graphic in that link, which would mean that the bar is low: contacting the government or town council about an issue, posting a comment online, etc. But I’m going to look on the bright side and take the upwards trend as a small-but-positive sign anyway!

Young people are also moving beyond volunteering—which is great, but might not be enough to address systemic issues—to push for social change. I’ve seen this myself with university students who are extremely politically aware and engaged in wanting to be part of the conversation and find ways to get involved. So there’s lots of hope for the future yet!

About the neighbours…

When POFMA was passed in Singapore, one of the things critics (including myself) worried about was copycat legislation. And now that’s come to pass: the Philippines is now trying to introduce a “fake news” law that looks remarkably like POFMA.

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