Saturday, 5 December 2009:
This is a picture of quintessential middle America, a leafy suburb of single houses. A perfect blend of community (no front fences) and privacy. Space, quiet, security and goodliness.
And conformity. The first thing I noticed was that all the houses were either of dull brick or painted in similar tones: neutral beiges, off-whites and some pale grey. Why does no one choose red, yellow or pink?
It’s probably written into the Neighbourhood Covenant. Although sold as separate lots, the homes come with an obligation to sign on to a covenant with other owners along the same street. Exactly what’s in the covenant will vary from place to place, but quite commonly it will establish limits for the look of the house and the behaviour of the occupants, e.g. when to put out the trash for the weekly collection.
Even without a covenant, conflicts arise, and sometimes become cause celebres. Apparently, a corner house (shop?) somewhere in Austin had wooden flamingoes of various colours planted in its front garden. The neighbours felt that such flightiness lowered the market value of the surrounding properties and demanded that the owner revert to a staid frontyard. He refused. The neighbours took him to court. Other Austin citizens rallied to his defence. He won.
Some home owners have more than covenants to live up to. When a street has one or two nosey-parkers – people who, in the name of civic togetherness, want others to rally around this or that – they can be a pain. Near where my sister lives, a neighbourhood has two such women who went around making their neighbours feel obliged to put up colourful, twinky Christmas lights on their front lawns. But the street has a non-Christian Korean family and a Muslim one. How did they feel?
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In Singapore, because civil society has been so eviscerated by years of strong government, we tend to speak of civil society in glowing terms. The more of it, the better. It’s good to see private citizens rallying around, organising themselves for a shared cause, we say.
But as with so many things in life, too much can be a bane. Private citizens can be quite oppressive to other private citizens too, either through covenants and such instruments or through manipulative personalities. And that is what the dispassionate, secular state is for: a means of redress and rebalancing. If you want to put flamingoes on your frontyard, or refuse to put up Christmas lights, you may need the justice system to fend off your neighbours.
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Just as, ultimately, the government of Singapore had to act to nudge private employers towards ensuring that their employees can speak some English. It’s a reversal of the earlier position taken by the government that they do not need to intervene. Employers will know that it’s in their best interest to have frontline service workers speak English, they said, and companies can be relied upon to do the right thing by themselves.
Rubbish. Yawning Bread had argued for a long time that the state should require a minimum standard of English before we give out work permits; I never believed that private employers can be relied to do anything.
I haven’t yet grasped the details of the Ministry of Manpower anouncement, but on first reading it seems to be just a financial inducement to employers (a lower foreign worker levy) to have their employees pass an English test. What standard is that test? Even after the employee has passed the test, how will employers motivate their workers to actually use English at work, and not turn surly towards any customer who uses English to them?
In other words, is the measure enough? I think the jury’s out on that.