Guest essay by Au-Chen ToShan
I have a passing acquaintance with an award winning foreign correspondent who has a reputation for being a thorn in the side of our PAP government. Recently, he wrote an article in a major Australian newspaper about the proposed SGX-ASX deal that may provide an additional reason for some to heap coals upon his head.
Now, I don’t exactly agree with everything that he says. We do however, have a lot in common, including our interest in books and traveling off the beaten track. In addition, he owns a vacation house in Andalusia not too far from where I spend my annual Christmas holidays.
Yesterday, we were chatting about travels in Tajikistan and Mongolia. This journalist wondered out loud whether there were any parallels in terms of the state-initiated propaganda capabilities of Singapore on one hand, and North Korea and China on the other. Aha, says I, now that you mention it, I’ve got a fun anecdote to share with you.
Picture this, my friend. The autumn of 2009, towards the end of a two-month holiday in Mongolia. I had traveled by horse and jeep from the capital Ulan Bator to the far west bordering Kazakhstan. Mongolia is a fantastic adventure holiday destination (together with Pakistan, the best amongst the 60 or so I’ve visited). The one drawback is the mutton-and-old-cheese diet.
It had been a great trip. But I was dirty, tired and sick of mutton. While waiting in Ulan Bator for my flight home, I meet this South Korean businessman, Han. Han swore that the best Korean food in town could be found in a restaurant affiliated with the North Korean embassy in Ulan Bator. He was convinced the staff at this North Korean restaurant were spies, but thought they were a harmless and comically unmotivated lot.
There was me, two Aussies, a Frenchman and Han for this dinner. During the 2 hour meal (fantastic), the North Korean staff played a continuous loop of North Korean propaganda videos on the telly. The videos all had the same themes. The god-kissed greatness of the Kims, the noble North Korean people, brave soldiers helping peasants, cadres selflessly giving and common folk gratefully receiving. All played to a surprisingly tuneful soundtrack (I tried to buy a copy but it was not for sale).
As you would expect, the Australian girls and the Frenchman found it very amusing. They shook their heads in wonder that in 2009, there still existed brainwashing on such a scale. That a state would actively desire to retard the ability of their own citizens to think was beyond belief.
Han, who was in his late 40s, also shook his head. He said sorrowfully that this was a bad state of affairs but it reminded him of the South Korean propaganda films. State-sponsored propaganda was a staple in South Korea during the 1960s and 1970s, defending first the totalitarian ruling party and later on the military dictatorship. Only with political liberalization towards the end of the 1980s did this type of brainwashing cease in South Korea.
The Singaporean, me, felt a familiar connection to the Koreans. I remembered the TV programming from my childhood days, the National Day rallies, the articles and editorials in the Straits Times, even my teachers and social elders. After a prolonged discussion with the South Korean, we decided that the main differences between the Singaporean experience and that of the Koreas were:
1. Korean propaganda, North and South, had much better music. I would have better enjoyed Singaporean propaganda if our tunes were as catchy as the Koreans.
2. Propaganda in South Korea and Singapore in the 1970s were much less calcified, less colossal, due to the existing commercial and cultural footprint of the West.
3. State propaganda has effectively ended in South Korea, but still goes on to varying degrees in Singapore and North Korea. Of course, nobody suggests that state-sponsored propaganda in Singapore occurs at the same intensity as in North Korea. Similarly, nobody would mistake Singapore for propaganda-free states such as Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan or South Korea.
The internet and slow political liberalisation in Singapore has changed many things, mostly for the better. But now and then, one still sees little propaganda exercises and I think…aww, how sweet, how very nostalgic.
Recently, these exercises have come about in the form of a curious sort of state orchestrated outpouring of grief following the death of Lee Kuan Yew’s wife. Even over the past weekend, I watched a PAP member of parliament on television describing how he saw a man come up to our 87-year-old ex-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in their Tanjong Pagar constituency.
Said this man on the street to our ruling politicans, ‘Minister Mentor, if you would ever be in need a new heart, I will give you mine.’ The MP then went on to explain how this proved that that the Singapore nation appreciated and understood how much Mr Lee has done for Singapore and what he means to all of us.
I can already see it now. Mr Lee’s funeral. A mobilisation of the state propaganda machine that will overshadow anything we have seen in a long time. I hope I am wrong, as Mr Lee himself did not appear to be a big fan of the personality cult even in his most hard-line years in the 1970s. But if it does happen, I am sure the little North Korean embedded in the psyche of every Singaporean over 30 or 40 years of age will be suitably moved and entertained. And at the very least, the funeral organizers can improve the show by hiring a Korean composer or two.