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.

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Further Censoring of Art for Obscene Nudity

The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has decreed on Friday, Nov 25 that two shows under the upcoming M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, Naked Ladies and Undressing Room, exceed the R18 rating under the Arts Entertainment Classification Code (AECC). According to a spokesperson from IMDA and subsequent Straits Times reporting, the IMDA has the responsibility to protect young viewers from unsuitable content. I applaud the IMDA for stepping up to the plate and ensuring that the impressionable in society do not get exposed to obscene “celebrations” of naked bodies. And in fact, I say, why stop there? We have lost sight of our moral values and our sanity as civil members of society in our pursuit of pointless art. What is artistic integrity after all, if we are unable to prevent our children’s eyeballs from being scorched by the photons bouncing off naked skin? Surely we owe the children in society that much.

I have several suggestions for extending the ban on nudity to other platforms. The visual arts are so accessible nowadays, it’s important for us to be thorough in protecting the innocence of the doe-eyed young.

Let’s start with the Italian Renaissance.

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I am so ashamed of this piece that I feel like I’ve compromised on my values by putting this up on my blog. It’s a small price to pay for the good of Singapore, though. This is the Vitruvian Man, a diagram of sin drawn by “genius” Leonardo Da Vinci, who we all know is a renowned homosexualist. Just imagine if your child saw this, legs splayed out in all its glory. How are you going to explain to you child that a naked man in a starfish position can roughly touch the circumference of an imagined circle? You know what else has five points and occupies a circle? A PENTAGRAM. This is unacceptable, and any visual citation of this piece should at least produce a warning message so parents can avert their young ones’ eyes.

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The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. First of all, Venus is not real, so how can they give us the impression that she exists? Second of all, I can see that Venus is still interested in maintaining her modesty because a floaty forest nymph is hurrying to cover her with a flowing scarf, but in the first place, what self-respecting woman would emerge NAKED out of a giant clam shell like that? And did you know that giant clams are endangered!? DISGUSTING. What kind of environment-hating nipple-freeing society are we trying to encourage here? I say we exercise our best judgment and censor pictures of this piece. Or, we can create a new version where she is already wearing the red silk scarf. It doesn’t have to be boring, we’re not trying to stifle creativity here. I’m guessing maybe we can drape it like in this Hermes demo here:

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This bustier asymétrique looks quite chic, no? Very fashion forward.

Anyway, this atrocity of nudity continues even in baroque works and in pieces following the French Revolution. You’d think we would know better, but it only goes to show that the arts is a hotbed for debauchery to fester. Boorish oil paintings have been flourishing under the guise of fine art for so long, like the underground rat population at Bukit Batok. Abhorrent.

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This is Lady Liberty Leading the People. Leading them where you ask?

INTO SIN.

Is there a need for her chest to be exposed? Who is that small boy next to her? Does his mother know he’s been frolicking around with firearms and Ms Bare-It-All? What kind of agenda is this promoting? Why does the man on the left look like Abraham Lincoln? The artist got one thing right. Notice all the dead bodies piling up in the foreground of the work? This work is prophetic. It’s announcing the arrival of society’s decay, which we will no doubt come to with the leadership of naked people.

It’s tempting to cast blanket statements about the aggressive and radical liberisation of Western powers, and to say that the hegemony and hypervisibility of their images have infiltrated even the most Confucian of our Asian hearts. We, however, owe this topic a little more nuance in thought. Our own art pieces have been obscene and masquerading as cultural treasures, even in trusted institutions like the National Gallery Singapore.

 

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Tell me, if you were sitting around forlornly looking at your rattan baskets of radishes, will you be topless? What sort of degenerate society was Cheong Soo Pieng seeking to depict? Our Southeast Asian civilisation is one that is dignified and we know where our morals stand. This is unacceptable, and it’s a shame that even now, with the benefit of postmodern rationality, we are unable to shed images of nakedness. Nakedness is a carnal sin. It’s a violation of nature. Don’t ask me how but I just know it’s unnatural and I bet even Adam and Eve at least had leaves or something.

These harmful images aren’t just confined within the walls of museums. They’ve invaded public spaces. They have the audacity to display genitals, loud and proud, in full view of passers-by who did nothing to consent to such violations.

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Absurd. There’s not one but FIVE naked boys, and all of them seem to be delighting in their obscenity. There’s no bronze pile of clothes lying near the river, so I doubt that the boys were even going to put on clothes after their debaucherous swim. They might have even walked naked to the river. Who lives near the river? They’re either rich (and should know better, they should guard their reputations) or they live in a neighbourhood estate and came all the way out just to display their dingdongs near the river, an icon of national identity. This has gone too far.

There are so many other pieces that should be pointed out, but alas, I am only one diligent citizen. Fellow Singaporeans, I urge you all to be on the look out for any flashes of skin, and to report them. We cannot be complacent in our fight against lawless genitalia regalia. Let’s all do our part to protect our young ones.

“Don’t put Yip in the same league as Schooling”

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Hello everyone, it’s me again, sorry-not-sorry that I haven’t written in a while, I was too busy playing doge 2048 and listening to other fledgling 20-somethings talk about consulting/start-ups/how amazing the chinos at Uniqlo are. I had so many precocious ideas to write about, including the rise of anti-intellectualism in Singapore, but I figured I wasn’t intellectual enough to actually have valuable insight. It’s not easy for me to write because I require the beautiful blend of sun-dried anger and the kiss of an organic external event, and then I have to leave this concoction to brew for until I can form a coherent post. These elements finally came together earlier today when I saw this Godfrey person essentially write his resignation letter “Honor Yip, but don’t put her in the same league as Schooling”.

Here’s a summary of the article:

  1. Don’t give Yip Pin Xiu and Joseph Schooling the same recognition or same monetary award because
  2. The Paralympics is for disabled people and hence there were fewer competitors so the playing fields (pools?) are not the same, the implication being that Schooling’s game was tougher
  3. Yip should get $200,000-ish, but not $1m like Schooling

For the uninitiated, Yip Pin Xiu was the Singaporean representative for the 2016 Rio Paralympics where she won two gold medals (for the 100m and 50m backstroke). And this Godfrey Robert, the writer of this article, is the Protector of the Realm and Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and he has galloped valiantly forth to shield Joseph Schooling from having his thunder stolen by Yip Pin Xiu. Because very obviously the world is full of injustices, and one cannot simply stand idly by while people even insinuate that a Paralympian is as victorious as an Olympian.

Not.

I must admit that I was floored when Joseph Schooling beat Olympic darling Michael Phelps, and that adorable picture of Phelps and pre-pubescent Schooling was the cherry on top of the AWWWWWW cake. I didn’t get sick of the Joseph Schooling shenanigans at all after his big win. When I saw that some buses had congratulatory messages scrolling in the display I was like “YEAH MAN THAT’S OUR SCHOOLING!” I might even have made a few “looks like Phelps got schooled” puns. It was amazing, and we were all proud. This post is in no way an attempt to belittle his achievement, because 1) that’s not in my interest 2) it’s impossible to belittle. But most importantly, this post isn’t about Joseph Schooling. He’s only a peripheral character in this story.

This is about Yip Pin Xiu, and about how we better recognise how huge an achievement hers is. We should be damn proud of her. Godfrey got one thing right—she shouldn’t be in the same league as Schooling. Their achievements are incomparable. Her gold medals aren’t just metal tokens won from 2 swimming competitions. They are symbols of the obstacles she has surmounted from the day of her diagnosis. It’s not as simple as a clean subtraction of her ability to walk. This is a world that’s literally constructed for the able-bodied. She’s inconvenienced at every turn and curb, every dressing room, every bus, every toilet. And on top of all these physical inconveniences, she has the weight of medical bills and has to endure condescension from the likes of people like Godfrey. I can’t believe this has to be said. This is some primary school 好公民 level of moral discernment. How could you negate all this because she had fewer competitors at the Paralympic games? Maybe there were fewer competitors because it’s so unimaginably difficult to break free from society’s patronising expectations of the disabled? How dare you reduce all of this into one hurried line (“her handicap, tough training regimen and rigours of the battle of mind over matter”).

I don’t really care about the whole prize money thing because I understand that some people are unsatisfied about the government taking some of it, and when the government is involved it’s a guaranteed can of worms. But I care that Godfrey is implying that her achievement wasn’t as big as Schooling’s, and he’s demonstrating his bias along monetary lines. We live in a world where disabled people are systematically disadvantaged in almost every way, and someone decided that it was his imperative to fight for the acknowledgement of an able-bodied swimmer WHO IS ALREADY VERY CELEBRATED. This is not only mean and stupid but also NEEDLESS. Good lord have you ever seen something more redundant?

In conclusion, Godfrey is irrelevant as hell and he’s probably a writer because his own playing field for smug, condescending fibrous-husk-brained jackasses is really narrow. I hope Yip Pin Xiu never learns of his article, and if she did then let our cheers be louder than his bs.

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.

 

 

A Little Something for NSKs

Baking matcha cakes with lavender sauce is not the same as learning how to cook with Campbell soup and frozen peas in your uniform. When we’re done we don’t instagram the plates. You can pout about your meringue cracking on the wrong side but if our canned tuna pasta sauce is lumpy we eat it all the same.

Throwing an emphatic lah or leh in your English and laughing about being ahlian is not the same as struggling to keep up in class because your parents only speak in dialect.

Finding a good bargain in your Thailand holiday is not the same as rummaging the sales bin for spectacle frames that look like the Ray Bans the cool kids wear.

Going on an immersive overseas trip for “personal growth” will not impart the same independence that working at a supermarket counter will. It will not give you the same strength of character as a 15-year-old who has had to bow their head to a raging customer.

Wearing your “ratchet” (Havaianas, no less) flip flops to the mall is not as embarrassing as the teacher pointing out in class that there are holes in your school shoes, and that the sole is separating from its base.

I have no doubts that you really think riding in the back of a cargo van is “liberating”/”interesting”, but some people do that every day to get to school, and they always smell like the musty upholstery.

You can go up the stairs in your semi-d at night and think about how you’re so down-to-earth, and so one with the people, and so neighbourhood. But at the same time a neighbourhood school kid will go to bed at night wondering how much harder they have to try.

 

About Being Racist and Being Human

There has been a lot of dialogue recently about the many shades of racism in Singapore. I’d like to think that Munah and Hirzi started the ball rolling because it makes for an almost romantic story arc – comedic duo launches an incendiary music video parody and trail blazes a discussion on race, but unfortunately the rational part of me (which is like probably 2% of me) says that the voices have always been around. They just haven’t been given due attention, and maybe the public majority only entertains uncomfortable issues on race when the issues are, well, entertaining.

We don’t like to talk about race because it’s immediately personal and accusatory. We all have a race, and by extension we all are implicated in the downward-spiraling privilege bingo game. There’s Chinese privilege and white privilege and able-bodied privilege and male privilege and cis-gendered privilege and straight privilege and privilege privilege, and before you know it, you’ve won some lousy travel Scrabble set you never asked for. This is a shit game nobody wants to play. That’s the thing:

Nobody thinks of themselves as racist. Nobody thinks they are an asshole.

How could I possibly be racist? How could I be privileged? My life has been so difficult.

Well, as always, the truth resists simplicity. Racism is more than a few off-colour remarks between two individuals, it’s not just hatred between people who happen to be of a different race. It’s most certainly not something inherent in the word “black”. It’s also not a card a minority can play when they get in trouble, neither is it a fun online debate that one engages in on the weekends. It’s an entrenched social problem, built on thousands of years of conflict, and for many people, it’s their lives.

 

Racism is systemic.

Let’s look at an example that’s close to home (Singapore). If you’re a Chinese person and someone from a minority race says you’re being racist, it would be tempting to conclude that all is fair in love, war and in racism, because everyone has equal footing to be nasty about skin colour. It’s an inconvenience and sometimes a necessary evil in a dog-eat-dog world. If someone points out that they’ve been mislabeled and degraded as a  dark-skinned Ah Neh their whole lives, you could point out that sometimes Indian people would say things about Chinese people being money-obsessed con men. Aiyah, life is like that one. Live with it lor. What to do. 

But we’re not just isolated individuals making mean comments from time to time – we all belong in a society and we are wired into the corresponding set of sociopolitical circumstances. Take for example the job market in Singapore. It is often a requirement for job-seekers to be fluent in Mandarin Chinese to apply for positions, and these range from menial positions to high-skilled professions. On the lower end, with an influx of Chinese nationals doing the lower-paying jobs that Singaporean Chinese people don’t want to do, it would be more productive for everyone in the team to speak Mandarin. It’s difficult for people to pick up functional English in a work environment, and it’s socially disorienting for the Chinese nationals to be placed in a foreign place and made to speak another language. On the higher end, the powers that be have prophesied that China would be an economic powerhouse, and businesses are scrambling to get a foot through the China door. We need Chinese speakers, grunts the middle-aged Senior whatever Director. He furrows his brows. All this isn’t too much of a deal to Singaporean Chinese people because we all pass the Mandarin-speaking requirements (or so we think, but that’s another issue for another day). But what happens to the people who don’t speak Mandarin?

I don’t know about you, but it’s incredibly difficult, and almost impossible to pick up a language if you don’t grow up around people who speak it, i.e. your family isn’t Chinese. And also, suspiciously and conveniently so, the burgeoning Indian economy doesn’t seem to have the same effect on Singaporean businesses. India follows closely behind China in terms of population size, and sometimes overtakes China as the fastest growing economy. Where is the mad scramble to learn Hindi and Tamil and other Indian languages? What about the neighbouring Malaysian and Indonesian markets? Wouldn’t Malay speakers be a huge untapped resource?

Perhaps (and by perhaps I mean I’m pretty damn sure), Singaporean Chinese people get to be comfortable in Singapore, and we’re not required to go out of our way to learn new languages, because we’re the majority. Simply put, a Malay person could hold a grudge against a Chinese person, but a Malay person’s grudge can only go so far. They will still have to bow their heads to the rules Chinese people set up in this country if they want to get by, but a Chinese person will never have to do that. There are so many doors open for us to leave if we feel racially alienated. If you’re a Chinese person reading this, when was the last time you had to learn Malay or Tamil to fit in?  

Maybe a minority gang of kids made fun of you in school, but chances are that the teacher was Chinese, most of your classmates are Chinese, the Discipline Master would be Chinese, the principal would be Chinese. You have people who will identify with you and support you everywhere you go. Here’s a personal story: A really quiet Indian girl joined my secondary school’s drama club and I couldn’t pronounce her name, and I gave her a nickname that she did not have a hand in choosing, and everyone just went with it because almost everyone else was Chinese too. There was nothing she could do or say about it, because in this racist society, the convenience of the majority outweighs the personhood of the minority. We were bratty Chinese children who got away with it because she couldn’t fight back. If she reported this, it would have been met with the usual “Aiyah life is like that what.”

We all have the capacity to be mean, but we’re not the same size. A minority person’s snarky comment can hurt a Chinese person’s feelings, but a Chinese person’s comment can effortlessly cost someone their job. Which brings me to the next point.

 

Cumulative Disadvantage

It seems trivial to be arguing about things like pronouncing someone’s name correctly or not having a wide enough range of BB creams for your skin tone. It’s something that a person should be able to stomach, right? Individually yes, but these things are not random mishaps. These things are events in a long chain of disturbances based on race, and compounded, these disturbances can have an adverse effect on someone’s life.

Let’s say a Malay kid starts out in life. The Malay kid goes through school hearing how she’s not supposed to be very smart, and that her people are lazy and unreasonable. The teacher doesn’t give her as much attention. She’s disheartened and she can’t concentrate very well, she slips a bit in her PSLE and ends up in a lower-ranking school. She’s interested in writing but there aren’t as many programmes for writing in Malay, so she doesn’t get very far with it. There’s only three other Malay kids in her class and those people become her friends because she doesn’t feel right with the Chinese people. They keep cracking jokes in Mandarin and she can’t understand them. She graduates from secondary school and goes to the prom but she feels out of place because everyone dresses differently, and she overhears someone making a comment about her headdress. Meanwhile her mum tries to find a job but the bakery won’t hire a Malay person. She needs a recommendation letter, but her teacher seems to like her Chinese classmates better – he laughs at their Mandarin jokes. She gets financial aid for her tertiary education but her classmates make comments about how it must be because her parents are lazy and have too many children. She goes online to shop for work clothes but the models are all Chinese girls and she doesn’t know if the clothes would look nice on a darker-skinned person. She has a crush on someone but he laughs, he won’t date a non-Chinese. She goes downstairs to order food but the lady at the counter insists on taking the order in Mandarin. She goes to work and her colleagues go for lunch and don’t invite her because they don’t want to go to a Halal place. Her boss doesn’t consider her for a promotion because she doesn’t seem to have a good rapport with the rest of the team, and besides, don’t Malays settle easily in lower-paying jobs? On and on.

It’s tiring, it’s everywhere. Everything is slower, everything is harder. A Chinese and Malay/Indian person could start out on the same foot but end up in very different places because Chinese people don’t have to jump through hoops to get by.

 

Visibility is power.

You might think that we’re not stupid enough to confuse reality with the images we see in advertising and on TV, but you’d be wrong. Humans are precisely that stupid. We started dreaming in colour only after colour was introduced to television in the 60s – it didn’t matter what our lives actually looked like, the TV scape took over to form what we thought of the world. What we see on billboards and posters are representations of ideals which are influenced by consumer decisions. It’s a cycle where the market responds to what people are buying and people respond by absorbing the images of perfection. Condominium ads, magazine covers, blogshop models etc constitute this phenomenon. When we see something, we want to buy it, and when we buy it, we support it. And what do we see?

(Apologies for the pixelated pictures, I didn’t care enough to find high-res shots.) These are the past covers for Her World in the last year or so. Bonus points for you folks if you google the covers for Female magazine. Her World Singapore only circulates in Singapore by the way, it’s not “international” or whatever.

Is it proportionate to the demographic spread in Singapore? Hardly. If it were there would be at least one Malay or Indian person. And I know for a fact that the fashion industry is very explicit about excluding certain races from modelling jobs. The casting calls state plainly and matter-of-factly that they only want Eurasian or Chinese models. Their prerogative is to craft a lifestyle for people to covet, and the Eurasian Chinese look is part of that lifestyle. We think lighter-skinned people are prettier, and the magazines put them on covers, and we think that we must be right because the magazine placement confirms it. It’s all arbitrary, but it has such debilitating effects on the real life individuals in our society.

I don’t think there’s a real objective standard to measuring beauty, especially on the grounds of race. If you want to go all Darwinian on me, people with darker skin and eyes (greater amounts of melanin) would do better in the sun. Logically, they should be viewed as healthier ergo more beautiful when we’re right smack on the equator. (So sorry boys, the survival-of-fittest theory doesn’t apply here, you’re going to have to admit that you just don’t like girls with darker skin, and you’ve been influenced by the media and the people around you to think that way.)

 

Empathy (and the Lack Thereof)

The title for this post is precocious, but I really think the issue needs to be somewhat addressed. It’s what makes the topic of racism so tricky, because it grips at problems like what it means to be human and to see humanness in another person.

Ok, so I’ve explained just a little about what racism is, and the question that remains is,

So?

Maybe any given set of people would abuse their power and exploit their position if they’re in the majority seat. This could happen with any combination of population numbers or historical incidents. We will never know because it’s something we can never test. And what’s the point of ruling a nation unless you can extract benefits from it for people like you right?

When a minority has something to say about racism, it’s hard to listen because we aren’t used to caring about something that doesn’t benefit us. There’s almost nothing in it for Chinese people to do something about the racism in Singapore, and maybe general society would be better off and general society includes Chinese people, but that’s just a maybe, and besides, I don’t think that should be our incentive. It’s selfish. We only want to intervene when we get something too. But that’s the thing isn’t it, the world is so huge. There are 7 billion people on this earth, and there are so many stories and lives that don’t involve you at all. You have to get used to the idea that not everything is about yourself or your experiences, and start genuinely caring about other people, because we’re all human. We all have childhoods and aspirations and memories. And we are all just trying to live. I don’t know, I just think it’s basic human decency to help someone out when they’re not doing so well.

So if you’re Singaporean Chinese, do us a favour and try to act against racism k? Maybe you can start by spelling your colleague’s name correctly, and it wouldn’t kill you to hire an Indian Gongcha cashier.