The Imaginary West (i.e. Cultural Appropriation Is Not Just a White People Sin)

I just saw a post on Facebook about a little white girl in a kimono who faced heavy criticism for hosting a Japanese-themed tea party. I don’t know for sure if it’s a global trend because I don’t have clairvoyant vision of every monitor on earth, but Buzzfeed’s #woke posts and Xiaxue’s recent tirade against “libtards” seem to be indications that the topic of cultural appropriation is picking up speed among the internet savvy.

This post is going to be about said cultural appropriation. I know, the horse has already been beaten to death, but today I’m going to bring another horse out of the stable to beat. No one else knew there was another horse in there (and incidentally, no one could have expected such a long-winded and poorly constructed analogy right at the beginning of a blog post either.)

Okay enough with the beatings and the misplaced equestrian references. Here is my point.

Cultural appropriation isn’t a sin exclusive to the hegemonic West because other cultural spheres have appropriated and misrepresented Western imagery in their own capacities, contributing to the growing cloud of an imaginary West. I’m not familiar with the political or social landscape of South America or Africa and so I have to, regrettably, leave them out of the equation for now. But I am very familiar with Asia, being an Asian myself, and I know this hypothesis isn’t entirely bonkers.

Let me break it down for you:

Cultural appropriation tends to happen when a powerful cultural entity dwarves a less powerful entity. What is power? Power can be drawn from various extensions of influence. For example, an entity is more powerful if its language is more pervasive, its philosophies are believed by the majority, it has greater stores of financial and natural resources, etc. As of right now, academia and journalism are still pre-occupied with investigating and revealing the ramifications of Western colonialism (rightfully so, because these things do need to be discussed if we want to move on from such horrors in a civil manner). But this also means that nobody is freed up to write about cultural appropriation from a different point on the globe. Ironically, the conceptualisation of Western cultural appropriation took place on the sacred grounds of Western academic writing. It was almost as if individual white people (shout out to Linda Nochlin) were atoning for years of European pillaging and plundering. Sociological terms were developed and set against the West, and so it continued.

largerJean-Léon Gérôme, The Snake-charmer, (1870). Cropped image of it appeared as the cover for the Edward Said’s seminal piece on Orientalism. Now the incriminating poster for Western pillaging in the Near East.

This drew our attention away from the fact that Asia is amassing power in the present. To begin with, thanks to India and China, there are more Asians on earth than any other race. According to this infographic, the Chinese family of languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, etc) is more widely spoken than any other language. Seven out of ten of the top spots on the Pisa education ranking went to Asian states (Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and three Chinese states). China and Japan clinch the second and third spot on the global GDP ranking. Somehow, against the backdrop of WWII and recent political strife, Asia is prospering. There exists a world that’s entirely written in Chinese/Japanese/Vietnamese etc., and in that world, the soil is fertile for cultural appropriation of the West.

I’m not suggesting that things in the East neatly mirror the happenings in the West. This is not an essay about equivalence, nor is it a manifesto to instigate the Asian takeover of the world. Memories of a colonial past/Western superiority still exist in the psyche of Asia. The cultural appropriation of Western imagery in Asia doesn’t ignore or counter those memories. Instead, it processes and transforms conceptions of Western superiority to suit the needs/benefit of Asia, and this process could be damaging to the West.

How does it suit the needs of Asia?

Cultural appropriation goes hand in hand with consumerism, because perceptions of certain cultures spread primarily through consumer products. Consumer products are available even to the lowest common denominators in society. You don’t need an education or a noble upbringing to have access to advertisements and plain ol’ everyday objects. Everyone is a viewer because images are everywhere thanks to consumerism. Asian companies benefit when their branding espouses Western ideals and transforms them to appeal to consumers. This influences Asian perceptions of the West. From here on I’m going to use the specific example of the image of Marie Antoinette and its re-imagination in Japan’s romanticised/glamourised France.

swjKpEFan wallpaper of the 1972–1973 The Rose of Versailles manga series

The Rose of Versailles (or Berusaiyu no Bara) was a popular manga series that started its run in 1972. To the best of my knowledge, the series’ narrative didn’t really rose tint Antoinette’s fate. She ended up guillotined all the same, no head and all. The aesthetic legacy that this manga left behind, however, is arguably more influential towards contemporary perceptions of France.

To the uninitiated, Marie Antoinette was an icon of French excess in the years leading up to the French Revolution. She married into the French monarchy when she was 15, was portrayed in elaborate Rococo paintings in flowing satin and lace, and is most remembered for telling commoners to “eat cake” when the economy was crashing and the commoners were starving. For the record, I don’t think she actually said the cake line, but it is a useful distillation of what she represented to the French public. Wealth, a detachment from the common folk, ignorance, idleness. It’s an ugly facet of French history, and a story that inspires present-day French nationalism.

Today, her portraits are historical documentations of the monarchy’s lavish spending. Rococo paintings are seen as kitschy ghosts of the pre-Revolution past and seem only to be celebrated in cutesy “French-themed” cafes.

vlbmarose3Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette with a Rose, (1783). She won’t be smiling like this any longer. A bit hard to smile without a head.

In The Rose of Versailles, Antoinette’s bouffant hair and equally bouffant bows were resurrected to convey glamour. The new manga Antoinette is adorable, pretty, unabashedly elaborate, romantic and pink. She now sports curly blonde hair instead of the historically accurate powdered white wig. This image of a romantic and rose-scented France pervades East Asian advertising, especially for products marketed toward women.

The manga image of Antoinette lives on in the branding of Isehan’s Heroine Make line of cosmetics. Antoinette’s historical significance is left completely out the picture and she appears as a dismembered aesthetic, a figure that only serves superficial decorative purpose. She has the same 1700s court attire on, but decked out in pink, and it looks like she has gotten a white kitty cat with luscious eyelashes. Note that there is no mention of where this image came from. If we take The Rose of Versailles‘ portrayal to be an intermediary, then the Heroine Make advertisement is the finished product.

10294968_510138862465204_2952821205769443809_oAn advertisement for an Isehan Heroine Make gift set of eye makeup. I don’t know what year this is from but I bought mascara from this brand a few days ago and the packaging looks pretty similar.
laduree-makeup-lm-harajuku-store-blushA delectable assortment of makeup products from Les Merveilleuses de Ladurée. Took this pic from Universal Doll.

Such a transmutation of pre-Revolution French imagery isn’t isolated to manga and Heroine Make cosmetics. It persists insidiously in other companies as well. It’s a pretty widespread phenomenon all over East and Southeast Asia. The above image shows a collection of cosmetics from the brand Les Merveilleuses de Ladurée. Ladurée is itself a macaron brand that originates in France, but these Merveilleuses are a sister brand that only markets itself in Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It profits from the appeal of the fictional romantic France.

The Antoinette Café in Singapore adopts the same imagery for its branding. According to its website:

Antoinette invites you to share our joie de vivre in our beautiful surroundings reminiscent of an elegant boudoir with an excess of meticulously crafted cakes, pastries and fine food as the Queen descends on Singapore’s shores. Marie-Antoinette, the last Queen of France who was so often revered for her extravagance and fine taste opens her humble abode and presents a tantalizing treat for the senses both savoury and sweet.

This quintessential Parisian pâtisserie and salon de thé will set the benchmark for the pastry and dessert scene not only in Singapore, but also in the region with her takes on time-honoured French classic desserts. While our restaurant promises a savoury celebration of Chef Pang’s culinary prowess with an excellent selection of classical regional French fare.

Incontestably, L’élégance â la Française at it’s best!

Doesn’t this sound like cultural appropriation to you? It sells the Antoinette lifestyle to an Asian audience. Pink, powdered, perfect.

How on earth could this be detrimental to the West? Doesn’t this reinforce Wester superiority?

Well, a fantasy is a fantasy. It does encourage tourism from East and Southeast Asia. I don’t think Paris would be as popular a tourist destination if we didn’t believe in its supposed inherent romance (their public transport is really shitty and there’s dog poo everywhere). But at the same time, it erases actual struggles in France from the East and Southeast Asian consciousness. When we think France is beautiful and scattered with rose petals, we don’t hear about the centuries old racism against Romani people, we don’t hear that France also has a large black and Arab population, we don’t hear that the current unemployment rate rests at 9.5%, and we don’t care about the Syrian refugee crisis hitting Europe. An airbrushed, culturally appropriative image of Antoinette might indirectly benefit the upper echelons of French society (especially if they are young blonde women with a penchant for pink bows), but it directs our attention away from the real problems. What happens when an excitable Chinese tourist goes to Paris and sees a homeless family? Are they stains on her perfect holiday? France is a complex country. A homeless beggar in Paris is as French as the quaint little cafe next door.

So? Now what?

I’m not proposing that we persecute everyone equally and that we impose some sort of tariff on cultural exchange. It’s inevitable that ideas mix and meld together to produce a new melange of values. That’s how cultures evolve in the first place, and that’s how populations communicate across borders.

What I do propose, however, is that we read a little more, ask a few more questions, and try our best to glean a more accurate picture of any culture we are considering. Humanity is complex and nothing is as simple as an image.

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Surrendering Your Cards in the Patriarchy Game

The Women’s March on January 21 followed defiantly after Trump’s inauguration. What began as a nationwide grassroots movement for women’s rights grew into an international protest for a hodgepodge of liberal/leftist values; people paraded signs to call an end to police brutality, to champion equal rights for racial minorities, and to recognise the urgency of using sustainable energy sources. It was called the Women’s March and the name suggests a pretty straightforward fight for gender equality, but as usual, things got kinda messy because they involved diverse collectives of people. A woman wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat was reportedly kicked out of the protest. The Women’s March clearly happened on Democrat terrain, and was hostile towards the participation of Conservative-leaning women. (I think the bipartisan system in America has the tendency to polarise people and create pools for extremism on either end, but that’s a story for another day.)

According to the exit polls from the presidential election, 53% of all white women who voted placed their vote for Donald Trump. This lays in stark contrast with the 94% of black women who voted for Hillary Clinton. That’s nearly all of them.

Here’s a photograph from the Women’s March that illustrates that perfectly.

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In the picture, Angela Peoples is holding the sign “Don’t forget: White Women Voted for Trump” and nonchalantly sucking on a lollipop. Behind her, almost as if composed and spray-painted by Banksy, stand three oblivious white women. Conveniently enough one of them looks like she’s taking a selfie, and we all know that’s the gestural cue for solipsism, don’t we. Also, it really doesn’t help that, taken out of context, the pink pussy hats make them look like ridiculous caricatures. Feminism is messy. Women disagree amongst themselves about what feminism should do, and some outrightly reject feminism.

Feminism is defined as the movement for the social, economic and political equality of the sexes, and the women at the Women’s march were protesting for different types of feminisms. After all, equality is not something you can qualify on certain terms. Does equality mean we are treated identically? Does it mean we earn the same amount of money? What about equal happiness, and how do we measure that?

And what is this blog post about exactly?

It’s about why feminism is contentious even amongst the supposed beneficiaries of the movement (women). If we’re all individuals with unique vantage points within a complex hierarchy and we’re all acting in self-interest to a significant extent, then life is like a card game where the stakes are high. We don’t want to play the most obvious hand, we don’t want to show anyone what we’ve been dealt, and some of us play beneath the table.

Let’s take another look at the definition for feminism:

Feminism is defined as the movement for the social, economic and political equality of the sexes.

Because feminism is a movement, it is inherently political. Maybe it shouldn’t be politicised because that rubs people the wrong way, but it already has been, because it’s an outward declaration of resistance, an active step in a defiant direction. When you support and subscribe to the values of feminism, it necessitates that you lay down your cards and surrender your weapons in the power play of social hierarchy. You have to bring everyone’s attention to the rules of the game, you have to admit that you’re losing and could be easily finished, or sometimes, you’re winning and you have to admit that you cheated.

Because I’m an erudite individual and I go to a fancy schmancy liberal arts college, this is the opportune moment for me to quote from a revered film classic. You know that film Django Unchained? Leonardo DiCaprio played the racist slave-owner who made his captives fight each other to their violent deaths. In reference to the slaves he controlled, DiCaprio was like “Why don’t they kill us?” He’s been owning slaves for decades and the slaves never acted against their cruel masters. If they really wanted to kill him one of them could just slit DiCaprio’s throat with a razor while shaving him. DiCaprio explained this all away with white supremacist ideas about the anatomy of the human brain, but the real answer is that sometimes, a movement that may benefit a collective of people may severely disadvantage an individual. If one brave slave slits the throat of his owner, it’s not enough to overturn the whole system of slavery. This one slave would probably be beaten to death as punishment, his story will be remembered as one of insolence from a lesser breed of human, and the American landscape remains largely unchanged.

Ok back to feminism. How exactly would outwardly supporting feminism disadvantage a woman? What does it look like when you surrender your cards?

Here are a few specific examples:

  1. You have to admit that you don’t look attractive naturally and you need a whole arsenal of beauty products to look beautiful. Nope, women aren’t beautiful creatures, we’re not mysterious seductresses. There’s no “something” about women. It’s all been a masquerade (read: “Film and the Masquerade” by Mary Ann Doane), and one to the tune of a 95-billion-dollar cosmetics industry. We’re not pristine princesses; sometimes we get explosive diarrhoea from cheap barbecues, sometimes we pick out our wedgies when no one’s looking, we get in-grown hairs on our armpits and we get yeast infections. When we shed our chicken cutlets, our spanx, our eyelash extensions and our Benefit Porefessional Primer, what’s left? If you’ve been depending on your looks to get you what you want, then what will happen to you once the secret’s out?
  2. You have to admit that you’ve been smart all along, but you’ve elected not to use your brain. You’ve been silently observing everyone and taking in information, and you’re a legitimate threat to the people around you. If you’ve settled with a wealthy husband, people will grow suspicious of you. You’ll look like a gold-digger, and in comparison to the other women who toughed it out in their careers, you’ll look lazy and unimportant. You’ve been intelligent all along, but you chose to do nothing with your smarts. This is a long-standing argument against the sort of values that emerged during Second Wave feminism. To many, it really doesn’t seem like feminism liberates women because women no longer feel like they can choose domestic work without judgment.
  3. If you’re middle-aged and married, it would be terrifying to look back on your life and realise that it’s been a series of unreciprocated sacrifices. Your brothers went to school but you didn’t, you settled down with the first man who could conjure a diamond ring, and you spent the rest of your life being someone’s wife and someone’s mother, never your own person. You put food out on the table and someone says it’s too salty, and after dinner, you clear the table alone. You’re already 50, what are you going to do now? Is it too late?
  4. Ladies get let into clubs for free because we’re not the customers, we’re the product. Men go to clubs for the holy trinity: booze, good music and sexy women. How are you going to rationalise your decisions to yourself now that you’ve found out? How many drinks will you let guys buy you, how many kisses are they going to steal, before you feel like you’ve betrayed yourself?
  5. And finally, my personal favourite: when you show your feminist streak, you’ll be a public loser. You’re admitting that you don’t like the way you’ve been treated, you’re a victim, and you’re broadcasting your insecurities. You don’t like your body, you are deathly afraid of ageing, you didn’t do anything when a man groped you on the bus. These things are deeply personal, and we don’t even want to speak about these things in regular conversations, let alone on blazing banners.

When you’re a feminist, you’re unattractive. You’re whiny and loud and your appearance is mere artifice. The patriarchal rules that bind women in an unspoken oath to their attractiveness, are the same rules that are broken when one identifies as a feminist.

Sexism is not absolute. It’s not a simple polarity, it’s not a lopsided black-and-white ying-yang. It’s a tangly mess of social conventions and restrictions that we learn to navigate from a  young age. Women have learnt to keep their mouths shut and to sit pretty. We check our partners’ phones when they’re not looking, we let the men get drunk first, we go to the toilet to adjust our bras and clean up our eyeliner. Some women are getting ahead in the game, and I understand why they don’t want to quit.

If you’re waiting for the paragraph where I steer the debate in a different direction and convince you all to be feminists anyway, it’s not going to happen. Don’t be mistaken, I still think that feminism is important and I’m going to fight very hard for it, but I also understand why so many women are intimidated. This a blog post for them, and a post for everyone else to understand why this issue is so complex. When it comes down to it, it really is a man’s world out there, and the sane and smart thing for women to do is to stay out of the fight but reap its benefits afterwards.

What do we do now? 

I don’t know, I don’t have all the answers. And to be very honest, it’s been very tempting to give up. Speaking so openly about social issues has earned me a reputation for being “so angry” or “agitated” all the time. It’s a paradox isn’t it? It’s smart to keep silent, but we can’t all be silent either, then no change will every happen. I guess I’ll just keep writing.

 

A Singaporean Feminist’s Opinion on NS

19337609Photo unapologetically take from TODAY.

Feminist writer Natalie Tan gives her 2 cents on national conscription and on its social implications, in the process reaping frustrations which were sown since the regiment’s implementation, and annoying everyone with the deliberate overuse of the word “feminist”.

So how’d you like the title? Was gunning for the most aggravating/abrasive title possible. Other candidates included:

  1. Chinese Singaporeans and NS
  2. Young Asian Female Looking for Trouble, click to find out more
  3. Should girls be enlisted in the Singaporean army?
  4. Amos Yee Opens Up About NS: The Interview

I also learnt to change my opening lines so that they show up in the link description on Facebook shares and provide a nice summary. Hopefully that does the trick to draw more eyeballs, because otherwise my opening lines have always been non-social media friendly.

Ok your time as an internet reader is valuable. Now that you’re here, are you ready for what I’m about to say? Are you really ready?

Ok here goes.

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I empathise.

No really I do. I decided to write this because I came across the non-news that some Singaporean girl posted a video berating men who complain about NS, and she even compared their physical exertion to that of illegal immigrants. I didn’t watch the video because I didn’t quite feel like spending my data charges on this crap, but it did remind me that I have a lot of thoughts on the topic, and I don’t think there’s a lot going around the internet on the topic from the point of view of anyone in a similar social position to me. In fact, my intuition tells me that people skirt the topic because it’s so difficult to write about it without stepping on anyone’s steel-toed combat boots.

Ok, so I’ve organised the rest of this article to address central, pressing questions. They’re not really classy academic questions, but these are the ones that consistently pop up on discussion forums and are usually met with some Jack_Boi87 comment like “idk lah sua :/”. Not very informative.

Ok first question. Why do you empathise?

I understand why Singapore needs a military defence force. It doesn’t just function on a practical level in the event of war, but it’s also symbolic and a semiotic requirement for any entity claiming to be a sovereign nation. It’s part of the impression. A country will only seem legitimate if it has a government, its own currency and an army. I, however, acknowledge the artificiality of nationhood. Nations are relatively new and their conception coincided with the invention of the novel. Yesteryear’s ideas of colonial empires seep into our present understanding of what it’s like to be a strong polity.

That being said, I think it’s unfortunate and symptomatic of larger social problems that we prioritise the preservation of a nation over the lives of individuals. People with their own lives and concerns and ambitions are reduced to a mere statistic in news reports and budget proposals. The bodies of young men have been objectified and are assessed based on their utility. The army functions like a well-oiled fighting machine and each soldier constitutes a tiny cog. Here I’m going to echo a bit of Foucault (bear with me): the state apparatus depends on the docility-utility of bodies.

A lot of movies and novels make the idea of fighting seem more palatable and even honourable because sacrifice is something that is compatible with the male ego. If you spend a lifetime hearing warmongering messages about how men should prove their worth by showing that they can fight, and then you live in a social environment where it’s difficult to show vulnerability to your male peers, then of course you’re going to need some sort of outlet to earn some dignity. A boy becomes a man when he blows up trying to evacuate his team. After that he is very much a Real Man when his body is encased in mahogany with a flag draped over it. The reality of war is very different though. I reckon most soldiers die very anti-climactic deaths (they forgot something, the weather conditions weren’t favourable, they starved in the cold, they fell sick from bacteria in rivers, they spend 1 month travelling and then die after 10 seconds of gunfire etc). And when you’re on the field, your humanity still exists in you. Of course it’s beneficial for the army as a whole for soldiers to march fearless into battle, but are they really fearless? Will you be if you were activated in war?

These things were more apparent when the British colonisers imposed conscription on Singaporean youths in 1954. Protests broke out because Chinese high school students did not want to serve a state that they did not identify with, and their petition was met with violent action from the colonial government. After the dissolution of colonial rule, military conscription could be rationalised along nationalistic lines, and that’s where all the Singapore is a small country, if not me then who, if not now then when rhetoric comes in.

I know another grievance is that men feel like they have lost 2 years of their lives and they’re not competing well career-wise. I have the suspicion that this is exacerbated by the fact that women are 2 years ahead. It doesn’t sit well with a lot of men to have women as their seniors, especially if they’re younger. That perception is itself a problem, and to be quite frank I don’t think this is a real issue that will stretch well into your adult life, because 1) statistically, women tend to be in different industries anyway, and 2) the camaraderie built from the shared experience of NS will help you in male-dominated industries. Real deals are struck on the golf course, not in the office. Admittedly, it’s different when you’re looking to work overseas. I think it becomes an issue then, because people won’t have the knowledge that you’re 2 years behind because of compulsory military service. I can’t really comment on this aspect because I’ve never spoken to anyone old enough to form an informed opinion on the long term effects of NS on an overseas career.

What do you think of guys who chao geng?

Full on empathy because if I were a guy and I did NS I would definitely chao geng too lol (but then again maybe if I were a guy I would be more encouraged to play sports, then I would be fitter and it won’t be so daunting, idk). Some men will flourish in the army, and some men won’t. I don’t want to discredit those who do well in the army because it does take backbreaking work to get far. It’s not something people are just born with. What I’m saying is that so many men are uninterested, and some are even scared away from “manly” activities because “manly” men have been mean to them in school. I personally know many boys like that because they tend to gravitate towards female friends (we’re less intimidating and know not to make fun of them). They are more interested in things like drawing, gardening, knitting, childcare, writing etc, and some of them are really excellent in those areas. I can see why they would be lazy in the army. If I didn’t care about something then I wouldn’t do it. Simple.

I guess the controversy arises because Singaporeans see NS as a responsibility, a duty. If you are lazy then you’re just shirking your due responsibility and jeopardising national security. And on top of all this, it’s a test to prove that you’re a good man, and no accolades in fashion design or nature photography will ever bring you the same adulation. I think it’s hideous that we think that way, and in an ironic roundabout way, it might even promote belligerent behaviour and make living less safe for everyone. When people see the term “gender role”, they think about women and house chores, but serving in NS is also a gender role, one imposed on men.

I want to clarify that I think it’s a great thing that some men are so dedicated to serving and that they’ve defied so many odds to rise up through the ranks, but I also think it’s fine if men don’t do that, and that they contribute to society by excelling in other areas.

Do you think girls should serve NS?

I don’t know how to answer this question because my real answer is that, ideally, I don’t want anybody in the world to be in the military. No soldiers at all. But obviously that’s not going to happen, so I will try to answer again with that grim fact in mind. Let’s work this out together.

Hmm. Yes, but a transition towards that will have to carefully address and manage social differences so that it benefits our country and doesn’t damage other sectors of living. For example, I know a lot of girls want to get a university degree and be married first before having their first child, and considering that the risks of pregnancy increase after 30, we would like to have all this done before then. Two years of NS will zap so much time from that little window. Maybe NS can be introduced later, once the woman has already given birth? But then she’ll be more sluggish then right? Then again not all women want to have children, but it’s very difficult to make a definite decision about all this when you’re only 18 and you haven’t even met your first boyfriend. It’s also not very conducive to assume that women would give birth because if they don’t then they’ll be treated like selfish spinsters. I really don’t know. Maybe there can be a half-serve half-study scheme for everyone? But that won’t be vigorous enough right, how can anyone be operationally ready like that?

I guess social expectations of what a woman should be like will also have to change before girls are enlisted. I’m sure boys would be happier knowing that girls are enlisted and that seems more fair, but after they ORD, are they going to accept the tanned and muscular women in their social circles? Are men going to respect that a woman will have as much knowledge and experience in the army (assuming that in this hypothetical universe, we do indeed do exactly the same things)?

Maybe women can serve as nurses. That is compatible with current sexist standards of what women should do and how they should behave – caring, nurturing, attending to the needs of other people before themselves, domestic, docile. It’s useful anyway to have a large proportion of the Singaporean population trained in first aid. But if we go along these lines then it sort of defeats the purpose of enlisting girls for fairness’ sake, because serving as a nurse is not as physically demanding and they don’t have to put their lives on the line in the event of a war. I really have no idea how all this can work out.

Before we move on to the next question, it’s really important to point out that I think many women are more capable/suited than men to serve in NS. I had this friend who was the head of the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade and she was 1) very fit, more so than a lot of boys, 2) was always in leadership positions in sports, 3) very smart, one of the top students, 4) in admiration of military positions. I always thought she would have made an excellent soldier. I had another friend who was super interested in military planes and she knew all about them. She also had a really hardy personality. She also would have made a good soldier. I think we’re missing out on a lot when we gloss over people like them by virtue of their gender.

Are Singaporean girls pampered?

No, not anymore than your average developed country citizen. Singapore is a very wealthy nation, and the middle class here are expected to be able to afford treats like matcha tiramisus and S.E.A. Aquarium tickets. I think Singapore is a pretty pampered country in general, and the government is exceptionally paternalistic.

The answer changes if you switch the yardstick for measuring someone’s level of “pamperedness”. If you’re assessing a girl based on sexist ideas of what a girl should be like, then the millennial Singaporean girl would fall short on a lot. Here are a list of things that we are supposed to do:

  1. Cook and/or bake.
  2. Do all the house chores.
  3. Like and take care of children.
  4. Be loyal and faithful at the side of a boyfriend/husband who is a “man in the making” i.e. he has no money.
  5. Stay slim.
  6. Somehow look very pretty but don’t ask anyone for money to buy makeup and look pretty.
  7. Don’t talk so much, even if you obviously know more about something.
  8. Give birth.
  9. Be attracted to men who are not physically attractive/don’t have good grades/don’t have a job/have the courage to ask us out, because otherwise we’ll be shallow.
  10. Be attracted to Singaporean men otherwise we’re race traitors.
  11. Not go out so much, especially at night.
  12. Study hard and do well in school but then don’t do anything with your degree beyond a regular office job.
  13. Not hold any leadership positions, especially above men.
  14. Be virginal, the best case scenario being that you’ve never dated before.

Tell me, would you be able to obey ALL these rules? It’s difficult, and for a lot of us, it’s not even in our interest, so why would we? I guess if you hold these standards, Singaporean girls will be mighty pampered to you, but the news I have for you is that so are all other women in developed countries, and it’s not going to change your dating prospects, which we all know is the main point of the question. If you choose to stick by these standards, I suggest you work on your own personality, not because it will guarantee you a date, but because in general I think your personality needs work. You’re not entitled to a cooking and cleaning machine because you served NS.

Ok that’s about all I have for today, hope this was useful and interesting in one way or another.

Why Terrorists Can Only Be Muslim

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The shooting at the Orlando nightclub Pulse occurred on June 2, and between that time and now, a series of terror attacks have erupted across Central Asia—there was a suicide bombing in Medina near the burial place of the Prophet Muhammad, three other bombings in Qatif and Jeddah, yet another suicide bombing on June 28 at the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, a bombing with a skyrocketing death toll in Baghdad on July 3, and finally, there was a siege on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka last Friday. These nightmares have now been placidly reduced to “events”, and we’ve come to a point where they read more like the droning of the world’s engine—brown people just bomb things, that’s just how the world works. News of bombings trickle into our Facebook feeds and Twitter streams, we go through the internet’s profile picture phase of mourning, and then we move on with our lives.

It’s no coincidence that these attacks struck right when families were preparing for Eid al-Fitr (the day which marks the end of Ramadan fasting, and for my Chinese friends yes, it’s the same as Aidilfitri). One source (which escapes my mind right now, fill me in if you know) wrote that the day before the attack in Baghdad was “full of life” but that now the “smell of death” rips through the air. Terrorists, so aptly named, know exactly when to strike to hurt the Muslim community where it hurts the most. They are also experts at creating rifts in cosmopolitan societies with middle-eastern diasporas, and sending ripples of those threats worldwide.

Terrorism is, intrinsically, a Muslim problem. Only Muslims can be terrorists, much in the same way that only women can be sluts, only non-whites can be immigrants, and only black people can be thugs. Before you chug a beer and applaud me for shedding my “political correctness” and crossing over to the Conservative side, understand that I am not talking about how some people are genetically predisposed to being evil. Not at all, because that’s a load of Mein Kampf horse baloney. I am talking about how we invent words to simplify complex problems and play into the hands of tyrants who want to disenfranchise entire groups of people.

I got this idea from my art history over-education—Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971). Nochlin says that we don’t call women Great Artists because women are entering a system that’s already rigged against them. We don’t use the term “great artist” to impartially refer to great art-makers. The term has a certain look and feel to it. A “great artist” is necessarily someone who is a brooding white man and is simultaneously haunted by his own aesthetic genius and the ghosts of his past. A woman will never be a “great artist”.

Similarly, the term “terrorist” has a particular look and feel to it. The term was only popularised in 2001 when the then U.S. president George Bush declared the War on Terror. We don’t rationalise a term as sensational as “terrorist”; we have impressions of the term. When we think terrorists we think bombs, planes, white people dying, brown people wearing cloths on their heads, Arabic, Allah, and American Sniper. A trigger-happy white person can waltz into an elementary school with a semiautomatic rifle and execute children, but he’s never a terrorist, just a lone wolf. When we combine a term as vivid and divisive as “terrorist” with the rise of the internet, we get mass hysteria and a whole lot of islamophobia.

Okay so we get it, there’s irrational racism and xenophobia behind all this, as always. But why is terrorism a Muslim problem then?

It is a Muslim problem not because it’s a problem they caused, but because it’s a problem they suffer the most from. The whole situation is deliberately set up against Muslim and Middle-Eastern civilians. Muslims are the primary victims of terrorism. For the rest of this blog post I will refer to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as The Delusional, 1) because that’s what they are and 2) because to acknowledge them as representatives of Islam is to support their cause.

The Delusional are banking in on existing xenophobia in cosmopolitan cities in North America and Europe to turn everyone else against Muslim civilians, so that they are unprotected and unwelcome even in their own homes. When there’s enough islamophobia going around, there are two possibilities: 1) Muslim civilians become distraught and defenceless in a country that wants them to leave and thus become easier to oppress, 2) violent Muslim individuals feel compelled to act against that hatred and are ironically drawn to the very terrorist organisations which have caused the problem in the first place. As for the terror attacks in Muslim countries, non-Muslim countries are unwilling to get their hands tied up in the violence, because as of right now, the Middle-East looks like an Acme minefield and nobody wants to meddle with a Muslim problem. Brown countries just bomb each other all the time, that’s what they do. Meanwhile, The Delusional are getting Twitter mentions and Facebook posts which bolster their claim to the Islamic iron throne. We legitimise their Delusional organisation when we say they represent the fundamentals of Islam, and every time we do, they’re closer to becoming the Caliphate they set out to be. They hate the “West”, yes, but their main goal is to gain control over all Muslim people. The mechanism of the term “terrorist” works so flawlessly from so many directions, and in the most macabre way, this is a good example of what an effective brand name can do for a terrible cause. 

So yes, in this sickening roundabout way only Muslims can be terrorists and terrorists can only be Muslim, but it’s about time we break away from our islamophobia and stop making it so goddamn easy for The Delusional to become the face of Islam.

Educated, so what?

Brexit just happened a few days ago on 23 June, and Donald Trump is still going strong in the race to become the USA President. Some people, depending on their background and the kind of friends they keep on social media, have posts all over their Facebook accounts that put down Brexit and Donald Trump supporters. They say that Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and Trump’s popularity signal the end of the world. People say that it is a bad year for politics. Although there are a lot of people who agree with these views, these people are not everyone.

There are still a lot of Trump supporters and Brexit leavers who are not heard online. I think this is because people only add other people who think like them on social media, because that’s how people make friends right? But in the end, that means that when it comes to politics, we are only surrounded by like-minded friends. For highly educated people, we are mostly very angry at the Brexit result and at Trump’s ideas and speeches. We share these posts and we make fun of people who disagree. We don’t hear the other side of the story, and I think this is very dangerous for everyone. This is why I am writing today, even though Britain and USA are so far away. I am writing because I think society is becoming more and more divided. We are dividing into two groups – the educated and the uneducated. I can see that this is happening in developed countries, like USA and Singapore, because developed countries are where some people have the chance to be educated. It is important for us to understand that there is this problem, and it can be harmful to Singapore if we continue to be divided.

I understand the point of view of the educated because I am one of them. I am fortunate enough to be a university student. On one hand I really did work very hard to get into university, but on the other hand, so many things in life are not in our control. For example, I was born into a family that gave me a nice table and the time to study. Some people are not so lucky, and sometimes they don’t make it so far in school because of that. When we are educated in university (unless you do only science classes), we learn about politics, the economy, and society. I know that personal experience is a good teacher, but a lot of the books we read are based on many people’s personal experiences, so we tend to know more. We know more, so we think we must be right. We graduate, get our certificates and become experts. We are very sure that in order to succeed as a country, we must be harmonious with other races and nationalities (including PRCs and maids and construction workers). We are very sure that we must welcome foreigners into Singapore because they spend money here and it helps the economy. This way, Singapore is an international city, and we think that is a good thing. This is the same for Britain and USA. Most educated people think it is a good thing for them to welcome foreigners.

But we don’t see what uneducated people see. First of all, people who don’t get very far in school already feel left behind by society. I don’t believe that we live in a perfect world where everyone gets the life they deserve. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, that some people who work very hard in school just can’t make it. (Of course there are some people who don’t work hard and they end up not doing well, but I am just saying that things are not so simple all the time. Life is not black and white.) We see in movies that only the educated and the rich have fun and are respected. We end up living lives that don’t seem as important as the ones the higher-class people have. But nobody likes to feel unimportant and left behind. Nowadays there’s a lot of movements to help women, or minority races, or the very poor. But it seems like the government, or whoever that’s in charge, is not doing anything for the lower-middle class and the uneducated. You don’t seem to hear any news about that. When you look at the government, it is full of educated people. They know more things, but it doesn’t feel like they really understand how it feels to be you. How can they, if their own background is so different from yours?

So what happens is that uneducated people are more drawn to things that give them hope and meaning. I think this is why Donald Trump is so popular. He doesn’t use big words in his speeches, he sounds just like an ordinary guy who is confident and has dreams of making America great again. If a guy like him, who doesn’t know all the facts and the numbers, can make it so far in his life, then his life story is a hopeful story, and people want to support that. He is a rich man, but he sounds just like other uneducated people, so he must be on your side. It feels like he won’t let the rich elite people bully the lower-classes anymore. He says he wants to build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants, and he also wants to stop Muslims from coming into America. I can see why this sounds like a good idea, because illegal immigrants are bad and terrorists are evil and are killing everyone. When foreigners come into a country, and you are already having a difficult time as a member of lower-middle class society, it feels like they are a threat. The country doesn’t have enough space. So it makes sense to chase away the people who come later, and protect the people who were here first. It is the same thing for Britain. A lot of British people feel that there are too many foreigners. Foreigners don’t act the same way as locals, and it feels like they are invading.

It is not fair for educated people to simply laugh at uneducated people, and say they are not right without explaining or reaching out to them. If both sides don’t talk, then we will never know how other people in the same society feel. 

In Singapore, I often hear people complain: “Educated, so what? Being educated doesn’t mean being smarter than everyone else.” A lot of uneducated people think that educated people only know how to read but are still very stupid, so we cannot believe educated people’s opinions. I remember that in a recent debate competition between prisoners and Harvard students, the prisoners won, and uneducated people on Facebook were saying that it proves that education is useless, and real smarts is the most important.

I have things to say to educated people and uneducated people, and I think it will help society and help us work towards a better future.

To uneducated people,

I agree that being highly educated does not mean being smart. I have seen a lot of people in university who don’t seem to have common sense. However, the kind of smarts that people learn through books and school cannot be learnt anywhere else, because the information we get in school is through years of collecting from thousands of people. Society is unfair because not everyone gets to go to school, but that doesn’t mean school is not important. School is very important. The prisoners won against Harvard students because they were part of a prison school programme, and they wouldn’t have won without the programme. I hope that you give educated people a bit more trust, and that you start to read and learn more about the decisions you are making so you are more informed. When you are more informed, people like Donald Trump cannot trick you and make use of you. (Donald Trump was born into an extremely rich family, and he was always part of the elite social class. He pretends to understand what you are going through, but he has never lived a day like yours. When he becomes elected, the American lower classes are going to suffer more because he will only support rich people like himself.)

 

To educated people,

I hope this sheds some light on an oft-neglected perspective. It’s blatantly obvious to us that we shouldn’t cave in to anti-foreigner sentiment, and many of us are afraid to see right-wing nationalism transform into belligerent fascism. But what isn’t blatantly obvious to us is why the other camp garners so much support. Society is polarising because anti-intellectualism is on the rise, and it’s an indication that we are not doing enough to educate the masses. The UK’s membership in the European Union was largely beneficial for every level of British society because its grants the UK greater trade access etc., but uneducated people don’t know that. And people cannot make decisions based on what they don’t know. Information that’s been gilded in jargon won’t reach all audiences. We shouldn’t dismiss Trump supporters and sit merrily ensconced in our Ivy League/Oxbridge/Liberal Arts bubble. No individual wants to destroy their own country – the dreaded Trump supporters are doing what they genuinely think is best. We should, instead, make a concerted effort to communicate across different demographics. I don’t propose that this is a panacea for the political chaos we are in but I do think it’s a necessary step towards nipping the problem.

 

The Invisible People of Singapore: Racism Yet Again

It’s been quite a while since my last post on racism got passed around on Facebook. I wish I could say that my post made a huge difference in the world and we can all lock elbows and sing the kumbaya around the Merlion but who would have guessed, my one ramble didn’t dissolve structural racism. Who knew.

This week a Nancy Goh-esque figure tattled to the Straits Times in response to the new Indonesian policy on domestic workers. (Another Straits Times piece summarising the policy changes can be found here.) The changes are part of Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s effort to regulate and “professionalise” informal employment.


(This is Nancy Goh btw.)

Here are some of the changes:

  • Domestic workers should live separately from their employers in dormitories, and not in the employers’ homes.
  • They should work regular hours and be compensated for overtime work.
  • They should get rest days and public holidays off.

At this point you must be wondering

Hey I thought this was going to be about racism! Why suddenly talk about maid

Well, my friend, maids also happen to be humans, and they make up a significant proportion of the people currently living in Singapore, along with the men who literally lay the bricks for the foundation of our country. They don’t show up on surveys because we apparently don’t care enough to ask their opinion on anything. We impersonate them in comedy skits but we never hear their actual voices. Maids spend a large portion of their lives here, they raise your children, they cook the meals you come home to, they know the Singaporean neighbourhoods, they have favourite shirts and colours, they crack jokes and have hobbies and interests and friends and dreams and a personality. They’re people, and that should be reason enough for anybody to care. What I am incensed about, is that this statement will genuinely come as a surprise to many Singaporean employers.

Here is the Nancy Goh (real name Francis Cheng but I’m going to call this person Nancy Goh nonetheless) response:

“The Ministry of Manpower must consider the implications on employers of foreign domestic workers if Indonesia’s plan to introduce live-out maids becomes law (“Indonesia plans to stop sending new live-in maids abroad“; Wednesday, and “Live-out maids ‘will lead to more costs, issues’“; yesterday).

If maids live separately from their employers and work regular hours, with rest on public holidays and days off, and also get overtime entitlement, they should be covered under the Employment Act.

Employers should not be obliged to pay a security bond or sign a safety agreement because they won’t know and cannot control what the maids do when they leave the house after working hours.

The same argument holds for the purchase of medical and personal accident insurance, and the sending of maids for regular medical checks.

Would the monthly levy still apply and would employers have to bear the cost of sending the maid home?

If maids live elsewhere, the link between employers and maids is broken, without obligation.

If the maid works part time illegally elsewhere or compromises her safety and health after working hours, employers should not be penalised.

We must remember that live-in maids are required to not just take care of various household chores but also take care of children and the old and ailing. They are needed in case of emergencies.

A live-out maid will not serve the same purpose and may become a burden to employers with her other activities.

I have highlighted the parts I have a problem with. The letter started out by voicing reasonable concerns because it seems as if Nancy Goh wants to iron out some kinks in the local employment policies, such that they line up with Indonesia’s prerogative to regulate domestic work. But somewhere in the middle I got really uncomfortable and the ending sentence confirms my suspicions that this Nancy Goh person is whiny and just can’t stand a life without a servant at his/her beck and call. This doesn’t sound like a “since Indonesia is doing this let’s follow through to streamline our employment act” letter but more like a “boohoo where is my kitchen slave waahhh”.

 

In the first place, the usual working conditions are already unjust and maids are treated like they are subhuman.

Here’s a scenario: Let’s say a Singaporean Chinese girl called Hui Min is taking a gap year before she goes to uni. She wants to be a domestic worker for a year to earn money for her university fees. How would you treat this girl? Would you be angry if she went out on the weekends? What if she had access to her own passport and private smartphone? What if you saw her dating someone on her time off? Would you get all riled up and demand you get your money’s worth? NO RIGHT?

Because what she does in her personal life is her own daiji. If she gets pregnant and quits her job then it sucks for you because you expected her to work a full year, but even then you wouldn’t take it upon yourself to police what she does in her free time with her own body. It’s just not your place as an employer. It’s common sense, it’s keeping out of someone’s private business. It’s one of those things where it sucks to be you, the employer, but very clearly you still shouldn’t do anything preposterous or feel entitled to control your employee. Imagine if your own boss got angry at you for having a significant other. “Dammit, you have a fiancé?! Now how are you going to do your excel sheets! I’m paying you good money for this! I will send you back to Serangoon!”

Working conditions were bad to begin with, and Indonesia is now rectifying the problem. It’s not like they had decent arrangements and now Joko Widodo wants to provide every maid with a lounge chair and a servant to fan them with peacock feathers. It’s that they were treated like cattle, and now they will be treated like regular workers.

 

We don’t care about domestic workers or Bangladeshi construction workers because they’re not “Singaporean”.

They’re not only seen as outsiders, but they’re always seen as lowly maids and “bangalahs” and nothing else. In our minds they don’t exist outside of mopping floors and carrying planks. They could be laying in the grass enjoying an al fresco meal but we’ll see them as unruly sexual predators who are a danger to every (Singaporean, mostly Chinese) woman in the vicinity. They could be having a day out with their friends at the mall but we see a stretch of cheap maids and loose women outside Lucky Plaza. It’s the “bangalahs” doing their “bangalah” things and the maids doing their maid things. Everything they do is somehow lower, somehow a bigger disruption in our sterile streets. They do literal back-breaking work and this is the thanks they get? They get shooed out of stores and glared at in public, that is, if they’re lucky enough for their employers to let them have weekends off. (Apparently some poetic geniuses interpret the Sunday rest day rule as letting their maid stay at home without doing strenuous chores.)

No, I don’t think they are any more unruly than we are, and I don’t think our xenophobia is justified. Our country seems to have the propensity of creating parang-wielding ah bengs, and there’s probably one terrorizing your neighbourhood basketball court right now. Also, just recently some crazy Japanese dude slapped three police officers, but we don’t think of Japanese people as hooligans. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be vigilant citizens or whatever, only that now it seems like migrant workers are guilty until proven innocent. We already think lowly of them, even if they’re just sitting in the grass.

 

You can’t treat other people like shit even if you are disadvantaged.

Even if you get the short end of a stick in a deal and your expectations can no longer be met, you cannot compromise on treating someone decently. If I pay a handphone shop ah beng to change my handphone screen protector and he does a shoddy job, I can complain to my friends, and never return to the shop ever again. What I cannot do is hit him on the head until he replaces it again. Ok that’s a bad analogy.

Ok how about if someone is a private tutor, and in a world tailored for you and your son, you would like the tutor to be at your house 24/7 to answer questions. It’s inconvenient for you to not have access to his services around the clock, because your son does homework throughout the day and he might have a lot of questions. But so? If the service is unavailable, it’s unavailable. Don’t exploit people just because it will disadvantage you otherwise. It’ll be good if doctors could stay in your house to care for the elderly in your home, but if you can’t afford this service, and you can’t provide the doctor with comfortable living conditions, then you are not entitled to this treatment. The doctor has his own family or personal interests, he would like time away from work. It’s the same with other people, like domestic workers.

 

“The rich can exploit the poor, because beggars can’t be choosers.”

You might not think yourself particularly wealthy. But if you’re middle-income in Singapore, you’re pretty much a rich ass in most parts of the world. You own a computer, you’re educated, you sleep on a bed at night and you have clean running water. The way society runs in Singapore, is that we get to keep our lifestyles going because we have poorer people from other countries to do the dirty work. The reason why there’s probably no real life Hui Min to do domestic work, is because no Singaporean in their right mind would go into this knowing the conditions. It’s just not worth the money. But for some people, they really need the cash, and we milk as much out of them as possible by seeing how low they can go, and how far they can bend over. If you think you can make people do whatever you want just because you have the money they desperately need, then you’re a bully.

Wake up, and stop treating your maids like they’re your property.