From rule by fear to ruled by fear

There’s a connection between cooking curry, advertising Abercrombie and Fitch and the People’s Action Party’s (PAP’s) gradual loss of nerve.

With Singapore’s increasing complexity and heterogeneity, the Singapore government has been in retreat on the social regulation front. Where once it tried to prescribe morals and social behaviour, imposed with a big stick if necessary (e.g. passing laws/regulations about flushing after urinating, males having to keep hair short — some readers may be old enough to remember this) , it is now realising that there are social forces greater than itself. Society will change regardless, and heavy-handed attempts by the government to impose its will must surely exact a political price.

Yet retreat, gradual and tentative as it is, is not easy. In its wake comes all manner of disagreements among different sections of society, and people continue to expect the government not only to police morals and social behaviour, but also to impose on the rest of society the norms they think should prevail. Naturally other sections of society will contest those so-called norms.

In the face of such conflicting demands, political leaders have been trying to disengage, to avoid being shot by multiple sides of the conflict if nothing else. More and more, regulation is left to bureaucrats. Sometimes, the brief given to the bureaucrats is to “consult”, an exercise that usually means to divine some kind of happy mean that people can compromise upon.

Bureaucrats, however, are more than able to read between the lines. They know that the real commandment is to do whatever is necessary to protect ministers from being forced to pay a political price. Whatever consultation exercise they embark on, the aim is clear: find a solution that produces as little controversy as possible, so that ministers are not forced to take sides. If controversy is unavoidable, make sure the more powerful side is pleased; if it is the weak side that remains displeased, at least you would have minimised the political price the minister has to pay.

For his own self-preservation, it’s also what the bureaucrat would do. Second-guess what the minister might want and find a solution least likely to make him angry.

Where once the Singapore government ruled by instilling fear, it is a little ironic that they are increasingly fearful of powerful segments in society.

But when everything boils down to self-preservation and the need to avoid stepping on the wrong toes, what results is a bureaucracy that essentially operates in a moral vacuum. Any sense of right and wrong is superfluous, if not downright inconvenient. There are no fundamental principles to go by.

* * * * *

A few weeks ago, one such controversy was reported. It was a case handled by the Community Mediation Centre:

The recent ‘curry controversy’ broke when it was reported that a family who had moved here from China objected to the smell of curry-cooking from their Indian neighbour, which escalated into a feud. It was reported that mediation resulted in the Indian family agreeing to cook curry only when the Chinese family were not home.

— AsiaOne, 16 August 2011, Families settle curry dispute, not mediators

As thousands of Singaporeans knew in their bones, this was an absurd outcome. There was such an uproar, Law minister K Shanmugam was forced to comment.

However, Mr Shanmugam clarified that the outcome of the dispute, which happened over six to seven years ago, was the result of an agreement between the two families and was voluntary. The outcome was neither imposed nor enforced.

It is also not the Community Mediation Centre’s (CMC) role to point out whether an agreement is reasonable or not. The solution must also be provided by the disputing parties themselves.

— ibid.

It’s still wrong. Now we see that not only did the Mediation Centre not get the point, neither does the law minister. The point is, the Indian family had a right to cook curry or whatever anytime they wanted. There was nothing to mediate. The Chinese family should have been told to get lost and learn to respect the liberty of others.

You see in the above report the minister trying to avoid responsibility for the result by saying the solution was arrived at by the parties themselves — if we are to believe the report.

Here was an example of how government agencies have no more anchor points. They have no sense of right and wrong. Everything is reduced to a calculation about how to avoid being hammered by the stronger side — in this case, the ethnic majority. Never mind if it tramples on the rights on others. The problem? The problem is that the whole government does not understand the concept of rights.

* * * * *

Readers will know that I have long blasted our censorship policies, the origins of which are very much like how the “curry solution” was arrived at.  The government may hail the policies as reflecting “mainstream” views — which is code for a disgraceful mishmash of compromises, leavened with much kowtowing to powerful segments, with no regard for the fundamental rights of others.

Rewarded once, the powerful segments will continue to push for more. And without the backbone of rights, bureaucrats will bend. In fact, they have bent so often, sometimes they don’t even wait for any member of the public to complain. Thus Simon Fujiwara’s installation piece at the Singapore Biennale 2011 was vandalised by the curators themselves before it even opened to the public. And celebrity photographer Leslie Kee’s book Super Stars, meant to raise money for the Aceh tsunami 2004, was banned before importation.

Talk to any artist, and each of them has a litany of complaints about the regulators.

We continue to have film censorship, even though the process has evolved to one where filmmakers and distributors are pushed through licensing and funding pressures to censor themselves. The whole process of drawing up censorship guidelines replicates what I said above. The officials go through a “consultation” process, but end up making decisions that pay great heed to the religious conservatives, totally ignoring others’ right to freedom of expression. The minister then refuses to take responsibility, relying on the pretence that he had nothing to do with the censorship guidelines so developed.

Which is crap. He is still responsible, because he created the occult process of “consultation”and transferred the political pressures to the bureaucrats.

Despite bureaucrats internalising their fears and acting pre-emptively on them,  once in a while, conservatives still bark.  Here’s a letter that appeared recently:

Is this ad too indecent for Orchard Road?

I am am writing to request the removal of an indecent, giant poster plastered across the new Knightsbridge mall building along Orchard Road.

It not only makes no sense as an advertisement for a clothing brand (the man in it has virtually no clothes on), but it is also plain lewd.

A girl gets berated for letting slip the F-word in a speech (‘NTU regrets use of expletive during speech’; Aug 1), but it is all right to plaster the giant picture highlighting a part of the male anatomy that should remain private, on the busiest shopping stretch on the island!

I have stood at the crossing between Ngee Ann City and Paragon watching passers-by as they catch sight of it, and every single person I have noticed has either looked away quickly, in what can only be embarrassment, or pointed it out to a friend for a quick giggle.

And let me pre-empt the usual counter eagerly dismissing Singaporeans for being so ‘sexually repressed’ as to tear it down.

This is a matter of common decency, plain and simple.

Ong Ker-Yu (Ms)

— Straits Times Forum, 27 August 2011.

You will notice that the letter writer protests she is just asking for common decency, not sexual repression. But the point is she feels it is sexual (“lewd”, “the male anatomy should remain private”), and wants it suppressed. Maybe she’s right, it is not sexual repression, but it sure is sexual suppression.

Sexual expression is a valid form of expression. It deserves protection as a human right. The only way you can argue against it is if you first posit that anything sexual is morally problematic. But many people do not accept that kind of framing, and once it is not seen as morally problematic, it is no different from any other kind of legitimate expression.

The human body is a beautiful thing. Great art has been created around it, sexualised or not.

In an earlier article, I wrote about how homophobia is traceable to the conservative compulsion to preserve male dominance and the subjugation of females. Much of people’s aversion to nudity too springs from the same subconscious well. You see it in the way they are far more sensitive to the display of male flesh than to female flesh. It is fine to use females as objects of desire, but not the male form. The male should be the gazer, not the gazed upon. To be gazed upon is to lower his status and that is extremely upsetting to people who have ingrained in them the idea that males should dominate females.

Ong Ker-Yu wants the authorities to ban the Abercombie and Fitch advertisement, but she and others like her seem to have no problem at all with this illuminated poster at right, which can be seen at many bus stops. Similar pictures and displays can be found in various magazines and store windows.

Still, I have a bad feeling that the bureaucrats, fearful of conservative “backlash”, will hurry to tell Abercrombie and Fitch to remove their ad, never mind if once again, Singapore makes world headlines for shooting itself in the foot, despite our dreams of being modern and cosmopolitan.

To the bureaucrats I say: Stop quivering. Stand firm. We have a right to the freedom of expression, and it is the constitutional duty of any government to protect citizens’ rights, from curry to art.


Addendum 1 Sept 2011:

From a friend’s Facebook posting, I see a fascinating video about Sam Steward, a professor of English in the US, who in the 1950s and 1960s wrote, drew and photographed the underground sex lives around him, and through his work, was part of the gradual change in social consciousness that was occurring at the same time. Many would class his work as pornographic, and yet one would have to be particularly closed-minded to deny that his work was not art, was not a legitimate form of expression.

59 Responses to “From rule by fear to ruled by fear”

  1. 1 yinbin 30 August 2011 at 03:39

    I feel that it is not sound logic to conclude from the curry incident that the Singapore government is pandering to the interest of the majority at the expense of the right of the minority.

    This, as we have learned is just one of the many cooking disputes between neighbors that are handled by the mediation center every year. It just so happened that the party who is *perceived* to benefit from the solution is ethnically Chinese and the party who is *perceived* to be short-changed is ethnically Indian. There is no reason to think that race had anything to do with the solution that came out of the mediation.

    Most importantly, as has been repeated stated and clarified by the mediation center and the law minister, the solution was entirely consensual and the mediation center played no role in coming up with the solution, or imposing it. Mediation, unlike arbitration, is not binding, as I understand. It only provided a neutral framework for the disputing parties to resolve their problem.

    If the two families themselves came up with the solution, and were happy with it, for the sake of peaceful co-existence, what are others to say that it was “wrong”?

    And while it is true that the Indian family has the right to cook anything they want, is it not equally true to say that the family from China has their right not to be disturbed by the smell, *if* the smell is particularly strong and long-lasting? Of course, as the particulars are not known, it is hard to determine if the complaint was legitimate or not.

    My neighbors are in the habit of having loud parties till 2 am in the morning, which disturbs my sleep. They may argue that they have the liberty to enjoy themselves, but do I not have the right to peace and quiet? Do I not have the right to call the police on them (as I have been doing)?

    I would think that anyone would have the right of “freedom of expression” as long as it does not intrude on the right of *other reasonable* human beings.

    • 2 Lukov 30 August 2011 at 13:20

      In this Currygate incident, I would see it more of the authorities effectively pandering to the interests of foreigners over locals by responding in such a non-committal manner.

      What Alex termed as the ‘moral vacuum’ mentality is increasingly adopted in an all too convenient way & to think that we look to these same leaders to stand up to societal injustice.

      As for the China immigrant family having a right to not be disturbed by the smell – try applying that same argument in say, Europe & see how far that will fly.

      I have personally observed how Chinese immigrants make more efforts to integrate in say, Italy compared to those we find here.
      Perhaps the ultra-liberal entry requirements have boosted their numbers in our small island to such that they have little incentive to learn about our local culture – Think the peripheral provinces of China where Han Chinese literally parachute in & the displacement issues that the province natives are grappling with now.

    • 3 JH 30 August 2011 at 18:16

      I feel that the curry incident has been overly simplified into a matter of ‘Singaporeans versus Foreigners’. Will there be such an uproar if both parties are Singaporeans? What if it is the Indian family who are foreigners and the Chinese family who are Singaporeans? What is the correct decision in this case then?

      In case you are only arguing that this is a case of civil liberties being infringed on, let us for argument’s sake, remove the issue of nationality. In the face of lack of sufficient information, how is one that certain that the Chinese family is at fault? What if the Indian family is cooking it everyday, with lots of spices? Surely, the Chinese family has the right to clean air?

      In addition, I’ve read in other news articles that in addition to the Indian family agreeing to cook curry only when the Chinese family is not in, they also agreed to share in the curry which the Indian family cooked. This seems to neglected. Isn’t this important as it seems like the basis for a long-term solution, as the Chinese family should learn to appreciate the taste of curry? A decision to either ask to Indian family not to cook curry at all (as what is overly-emphasised in the media) or for the Chinese family to get lost (as what you suggested) is clearly insufficient and will only lead to further tensions.

      Furthermore, the agreement not to cook curry when the Chinese family, in my opinion, shouldn’t be a strict rule. To me, in the spirit of neighbourliness, the Indian family can simply pop by and check if the Chinese family is in and invite them to share in the curry, or they can cook the curry first and consume it later. I don’t believe the agreement is an antagonistic as what is perceived.

      Of course, I am only assuming the best case scenario but surely it is just as valid as the worst case scenario being bandied around?

      • 4 Lukov 30 August 2011 at 19:32

        Of course the Indian family would be consuming curry almost every day – it’s an integral part of their cuisine.

        What if members of the Chinese family stay put at home for most of the day – the Indian family is expected to head outside for a meal, essentially at the mercy of someone else’s schedule?

        In my opinion, seeking permission from your neighbor everything single time you cook a meal in your own kitchen is simply not a sustainable solution, no matter how the mediators congratulate themselves on the job supposedly well-done.

        Like it or not, the immigrant factor is relevant as most Singaporeans are willing to have some give & take in the context of the multi-cultural environment that they have grown up in.

      • 5 twasher 30 August 2011 at 20:08

        Uhh, I think the point is that air with chemical from curry spices is still ‘clean air’. This is not like smoking.

    • 6 twasher 30 August 2011 at 20:12

      By agreeing to mediate the center is acknowledging that the complaint is legitimate and that there should be a compromise. It is taking a stand on the matter. Surely the center cannot be agreeing to mediate every single complaint about anything whatsoever. (If I complain that my neighbor has an ugly car, should it agree to mediate?) So before even agreeing to mediate, it has to make a choice about whether it is a legitimate complaint. It is the fact that the center apparently thought this should be mediated that is alarming.

      • 7 Anonymous 31 August 2011 at 23:08

        Except that it is not the center who decides to mediate, but parties who agree to bring the matter to mediation.

  2. 8 PatricNoNSTan 30 August 2011 at 07:38

    It’s funny how the ruling class is now a victim of a medicine it has long dished out to commoners like us. Now, perched right there at the top, they are beginning, not very slowly but surely, to show how their power has no clothes.

    They are the ones that should rule by common sense, something they don’t seem to possess.

  3. 9 Vane 30 August 2011 at 09:50

    Singapore. A truly modern looking cosmoplitan city, sprinkled with a heavy dose of right-winged Christian fundamentalism where outdated fuedalistic moral viewpoints still dominate.

  4. 10 Alfred Dodwell 30 August 2011 at 10:27

    Singapore: Freedom of Expression Challenged?

  5. 11 ThePasserby 30 August 2011 at 11:05

    These examples serve to pose a question on the role of the government, or perhaps, what roles we as a society want our government to take on.

    Should the government act in a way that reflects the values of the majority of the people? Or should it guide our society in a direction it thinks is good, or good for us?

    On the one hand, a democratically-elected government has to act in accordance with the people it is chosen to represent. It pays a political price and risks losing its mandate by going against the values of the people who put it in power. After all, the government should be the servant of the people.

    On the other hand, a government that never nudges the nation towards a nobler path and political leaders who do not bring out the best in the people they represent aren’t really leaders. If all the leaders do is put into law the pettiness, close-mindedness and intolerance of the people, or allow their expressions to take place, then ours would be one in which the majority tyrannizes the minority (perhaps we already are).

    I’m not sure I would want the government to take a pro-active role in imposing or social-engineering a particular creed or moral code. Back to the examples given in the blog post: while the mediator did allow a moral travesty to take place through its inaction in the face of such outright bigotry and intolerance, the average man has done the right thing by expressing outrage. The government will see this and use this as a reference point for future dispute mediation as well as readjusting its estimation of the nation’s moral pulse.

    In the case of the ad, what we should do, if we care enough about this issue, is to also signal our objection to the letter-writer’s prejudices. I’d much rather have the moral leadership of a nation to be undertaken by a groundswell of support from the people, and social mores and moral codes arrived at through mutual understanding and consensus, than one that is led by a government that thinks it knows best. I know I would not want the authorities to go back to the days of prescribing what length of hair is acceptable for its male citizens.

    I understand that many would like our political leaders to be more pro-active in bringing about a more liberal society, which happens to be one that I would like too, but even if it were to be the case, it will not last, because such a government will lose a lot of its mandate in the next General Elections and the people will just vote in another equally conservative opposition party and we would be back to square one.

    While social engagement should be the key in molding the kind of society we want, the tough restrictions on civil society here, especially on LGBT groups, makes it a tall order. But even so, a government that takes on the task of shaping society towards a more liberal one will fail, as attitudes take longer to change than the 5-year election cycle.

    • 12 yawningbread 30 August 2011 at 11:46

      You’re missing the point by framing the debate as a left-right one as to what position the government should take. The argument that I make — and it is one that is considered sacrosanct in many countries — is that the government is there to protect a single great consensus of society: that human rights are inviolable. The framing should be whether a government’s role is to protect or violate human rights.

      In Singapore we seem accept that the role of government is to violate human rights.

      By any measure this is shocking. All I ask is that our rights be protected, and such rights include the freedom of expression.

      • 13 ThePasserby 30 August 2011 at 13:22

        “You’re missing the point by framing the debate as a left-right one as to what position the government should take. ”

        Not quite; as I said in my second paragraph, should our government lead us in formulating our moral code, or should we lead the government? For example, since our electorate essentially tells the government that we value material security and prosperity over equal rights and freedom of expression, so should the government,

        a) tell the people that their values are wrong and that the rights of all should be protected, along with freedom of expression, because such values are universal, even if they (the people who put the government in power) disagree;


        b) do as the people desire, because the government is the people’s elected representative, even if the people desire economic prosperity and social harmony through suppression of the rights of some minorities.

        In the most basic terms, should the government tell us what is right/ethical or should we tell the government?

      • 14 yawningbread 30 August 2011 at 18:17

        You wrote: “should our government lead us in formulating our moral code, or should we lead the government?”

        Neither. Morality (as commonly understood by the term) is not the state’s business. Government should not regulate morality, therefore government does not have have to decide what is moral or not. Morality is for each person to decide for himself.

        You wrote: “since our electorate essentially tells the government that we value material security and prosperity over equal rights and freedom of expression”

        False polarity. It is entirely possible for material security and prosperity to exist alongside equal rights and fundamental liberties. In fact, many would argue that without rights and liberties, no prosperity and property is secure.


        You may no doubt pick on my phrase: “a bureaucracy that essentially operates in a moral vacuum”. Do I not by that imply that bureaucrats should apply moral reasoning in their decisions? Yes, except that the morality I refer to in that is constitutional or human rights morality, not Christian, Muslim or Confucianist morality. Constitutional morality is the morality of governance, and revolves around principles like fairness, transparency, providing recourse where reasonable, defending liberties and rights. It certainly should have nothing to do with sex.

      • 15 Huss 30 August 2011 at 22:00

        Freedom of expression ( i take freedom of speech as a subset of this) comes with great responsibility. If 1 were to be given absolute Freedom of Expression does that mean that hardcore pornography be deemed acceptable? Does it mean we can have sexually explicit posters and billboards in public areas in the name of Freedom of Expression.

        I am merely taking this concept to it’s logical extreme. I am not sure if my examples are valid. Pardon my ignorance. If it were the case, then for myself and many other citizens, we believe that there should be responsible limits to freedom of expression.

        I think then the religiously (or socially?) conservative might have a case in being able to place responsible limits to freedom of expression.

        What do you think?

  6. 16 Daniel 30 August 2011 at 11:51

    We need to make clear the difference between fundamental rights and fundamental liberties. While “fundamental liberties” are spelled out in the constitution ( – albeit with all the caveats and limitations imposed on it – there is no reference to “rights”.

    Two issues then emerge: are rights inherent in individuals (in the same way that hair colour or the state of being alive are inherent properties of individuals), or are they conferred on individuals by law (in the way that the Singapore constitution confers on individuals the freedom to speak and gather, subject to restrictions)? And, in the absence of any legal instrument enshrining rights of individuals (like the US “Bill of Rights”) in Singapore, can we argue that Singaporean individuals “have” rights on other bases (especially by referring to the inherence of rights, if rights are really inherent, or by referring to international law, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)?

    • 17 yawningbread 30 August 2011 at 18:28

      “Rights” tend to refer to a broader basket than liberties. Fundamental liberties — freedom of movement, freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, freedom of expression, freedom to choose one’s religion, freedom to enjoy a family life with others of one’s own choosing, freedom of association, etc — lie at the core of human rights. They inhere to us because we are human, not because some state or emperor granted them like privileges. “Rights” nowadays also include certain positive rights, e.g. right to education, right to fair and transparent justice, right to basic healthcare. These again are considered human rights, not state- or emperor-granted privileges. The extent of such rights however is unclear and subject to debate. How far up the education ladder for example does the right extend? What degree of healthcare is basic? How many appeals is one entitled to in a judicial process?

      For the purposes of this article, where I speak of the freedom to cook/eat food of one’s choosing and the freedom to express oneself, these are both liberties and rights, and thus in this area the two terms are in practice interchangeable.

  7. 18 Agnes Chia 30 August 2011 at 12:16

    The scary and worrying thing is the government does not see human rights as universal. Our government does not sign in to all the articles in the UDHR and the UNCRC.

    So do our citizens. Our citizens see it our right to subjugate foreign workers and domestic workers, citing it a societal norms that these workers should not be talking on the phone, should not sms, should not make friends, should not sleep for more hours than their employers, should not be provided with equal access to healtcare and and proper shelter.

    Since ancient times, we see male dominance and subjugation of the female, which of course is still happening now in all parts of the world including Singapore, albeit blatantly or subtlely, consciously or sub-consciously. Yet in today’s modern world, we see subjugation of the same kind. The more powerful subjugating the powerless and less powerful, seen in employers trampling on the rights of their foreign employees or local low wage workers (irregardless of gender now! female to female, female to male, male to male). The powerful has no incentive to believe in universal human rights, they will want to preserve rights in such a way that only they the ones in power can have rights while those without power and are poor have no rights to have rights. (of course we then argue that this is an oxymoron here but the ones who abuse and subjugates can’t be bothered).

    Our ruling government who is the rich and powerful will just keep it this way to preserve their “rights to subjugate”, no incentives for them to share power and wealth and to speak up for those who are not “lablled as mainstream”. The citizens learn it this way too. We see Singapore as a society subtlely subscribing to the notion of social classes, the lower classes have no rights and that is something our government do not disagree openly. Social exclusion is in the air, the so called majorities and so called mainstream groups will want to stay in power and exclude those who are labelled as in the margins (see the word marginalised?) and non-mainstream.

    All in all, perhaps our government then truly thinks that there isn’t any violation to human rights at all in the so many examples and incidences which are happening day-in-day-out right on our island.

    Mainsteam ideas and non-mainsteam ideas are coined because people want to see the former as a higher class and the latter as a lower class. We as humans have no rights to label any other human into any class. Fundamentally, there is no class, there shouldn’t be such a thing as mainstream or non-mainstream.

  8. 19 Ken 30 August 2011 at 12:29

    I have nothing against public displays of nudity, just bad taste and tackiness. And I feel that the A&F ad reeks of both. To be subject to it every time I wait to cross that stretch of Orchard Road – and you can’t deny that it’s a visual bombardment, given its size and scale – is painful.

    • 20 Lukov 30 August 2011 at 18:17

      Sure, to each his own.
      I would never dream, however, of insisting for the ad’s removal on the grounds of ‘visual bombardment’.
      It’s Orchard Road, a shopping district – not the Vatican.

      • 21 yawningbread 30 August 2011 at 18:43

        I agree with Lukov. At many places in Singapore, I am visually bombarded by ugliness. Parliament House is a helluva ugly building, no character at all. The faux-chinoise Tangs/Marriott Hotel assaults my senses with its fakery. Ion Orchard — a temple to conspicuous comsumption if ever there was one — violates my moral principles. Should I write letters demanding that the owners tear them down?

  9. 22 Simon 30 August 2011 at 13:25

    Thank you YB / Alex. Keep them coming. We need articles like these to awaken sleeping Singaporeans. Often you find people people walking around, brainwashed and in such stupor that they don’t realize the real world from the make-belief. Many citizens can’t tell the difference being herded into the sheep pen, manipulated, dehumanize and eventually sacrificed – and then told, it is for the greater good of Singapore. Does that sounded like an over the top expression? The message I wanted to convey was one where our government’s continued efforts at social engineering and eugenics is getting out of hand. Using fear as an instrument of policy is now beginning to backfire, and now wherever they go they are now afraid of their own shadows.

    • 23 PatricNoNSTan 31 August 2011 at 01:37

      The unfortunate thing is those “sleeping Singaporeans” are still “sleeping” – they are probably snoring, as far as the recent support for Tony Tan shows.

      The funny thing about ideological success is it makes people know now what they do – and from the more than 30% hard core support for FAP’s Tony old fart, we can be sure that no amount of scandals or ineptitude would shake them from their slumber. They simply do not want to know any alternative, because they have been taught not to question, not to explore, simply sit still and wait for instructions from the top.

      The funny thing is, the ‘top’ is actually shaking…

      • 24 yawningbread 31 August 2011 at 01:54

        I don’t think it is fair to say that those who voted for Tony Tan are slumbering, etc. There are valid reasons for preferring Tony Tan, just as there are valid reasons for voting PAP.

      • 25 David 31 August 2011 at 13:51

        There are valid reasons for voting TT but I imagine he got more that 7000 votes due to other factors as well. ST had a good live blog on election day, one interesting quote which I can only paraphrase was attributed to a sixty-something year old lady “Of course I voted for Tony Tan I know him very well. He’s been on TV for the last 30 years.” ST added the byline that “She has never met Tony Tan”.
        Not sure if you can say she is sleeping, but … do you think TT would be president if Singapore had a free press?

  10. 26 Alan Tang 30 August 2011 at 16:55

    Superb piece of analysis. Well said. How can our Minister of Law – supposed to be aspecial top locak talent be so dumb? Simple basic understanding of the issue also cant differentiate? WTF? Thks for the incisive analaysis!

  11. 27 Yuchenski 30 August 2011 at 18:07

    Ahhh! i really like this post, keep it up. yours is an analytical blog that stirs and more importantly is clear with your methodology and intentions, allowing us to judge by ourselves the issue at hand. Off hand, I had difficulty trying to read this at work owing to all the uh, human sculptures at pasted throughout the post. Earned a few stares from colleagues walking by, who i had to grin ruefully at explaining what it was. Brilliant to put it all in though, drives the point across. Personally I dont see a problem with the Knightsbridge poster (although i would have preferred it to be a lady!), but I guess its just social norms ingrained into us that makes us react that way – much of which i think are just (powerful) remnant influences from the Victorian era – I don’t think we were ever that shy with our bodies back before then. With more exposure issues like this may eventually become moot. Then again, I’m not too sure if this is a good or bad thing.

  12. 28 RAR 30 August 2011 at 19:39

    Alex, on one had you say that the government is “there to protect a single great consensus of society: that human rights are inviolable” but also that the government “should not regulate morality.” But there is a moral code implicit in the protection of human rights. Choosing the rights of the invidivual over the stability of the group is a moral one. Whatever they do they are opting for one moral framework over another.

    It seems that the government’s brand of “Asian values” (which they tout out quite selectively) has much overlap with the Christian right and places higher value on authority, respect, loyalty, purity and society cohesiveness than on protection of individual freedoms, fairness and protection from harm. It may not be a choice I agree (nor does the UN) with but it does have its own internal logic.

    So to say that we “seem to accept that the role of government is to violate human rights” is not untrue but that’s not exactly how people see it. Few actually accept they are lemmings. Instead most rationalize (and many support the idea) that the government is there to ensure no individual or group behaviour threatens our “fragile stability.”

    BTW, TED has a great talk by Jonathan Haidt on the the moral framework differentiating liberals and conservatives.

    PS: that is an excellent video. thanks for sharing it.

  13. 29 Gayathri 30 August 2011 at 20:19

    To the people who think the result of the mediation was perfectly fine probably do not understand the fact that the staple in an Indian family, Singaporean or not, is curry. 90% of the meals involve curry. It is tantamount to rice. I think the Indian family involved lacked, simply put, the balls to challenge this. Their agreement is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. I am Singaporean Indian and I would have not taken this sitting down. I don’t care if the offended party is Singaporean or not because that is irrelevant. So if I don’t like the smell of my neighbour’s porridge or even their toast….then I should go see a mediator right?

    What if Malay neighbours’ ask their Chinese neighbours’ not to cook pork because the smell enters their house? Will you still argue that, yes, Malays deserve ‘clean air’ and so the Chinese family should only cook their pork when their neighbours are not at home. Isn’t that the epitome of intolerance? This is food we are talking about. Food is a necessity, unlike music and parties and what not.

    Having lived in HDB flats my whole life, I have smelt all kinds of things. Whenever 6pm rolls around, I smell curry, blachan, anchovies, noodles being fried…all kinds of things. This is part and parcel of life in Singapore. Telling someone when they can and cannot cook certain foods spits in the face of our freedom and racial harmony.

    Besides, if you are offended by the smell of spices, then Singapore is the wrong place to call home.

    • 30 yawningbread 31 August 2011 at 00:05

      You beat me to it. I too was about to turn the example around and ask what if it was an Indian or Malay family complaining about a Chinese family’s cooking with smells of pork coming from their kitchen.

      • 31 Han 31 August 2011 at 01:15

        The miracle about the “Curry incident” is that it has whitewashed the sins of our past.

        For the longest time, Singaporean Chinese have been discriminating against Singaporean Indians on so many levels, including the issue of cooking curry. How many of us have grown up hearing people telling their children “if you are naughty the apunehneh will come catch you arh”; or Singaporean Chinese using the word “kelingkia” (and they STILL do); or that Singaporean Chinese landlords specifically exclude Indians as tenants (re: the linked blog post), or employees?

        And yet when the “discriminator” is a foreigner, the public is up in arms.

        Pardon my cynicism if I think this whole outrage is but a show, a convenient excuse for Singaporeans to vent their anger against the foreigners. If the families in the incident were both native Singaporeans, no one would bat an eyelid.

  14. 32 Observer 30 August 2011 at 20:34

    I think it is more of a case of ruled by fear, hence to rule by fear… It’s beginning to look like Third World to First World to Failing Democracy…

  15. 33 Elaine 30 August 2011 at 21:24

    Interesting question about how Sporeans would’ve reacted differently had the Chinese family been local and the curry-loving Indians NRIs … You’re right that the reaction would’ve been a lot different. And probably quite anti-foreigner too, possibly lumping our local Indians as well.

    But I think you may have over-read some of the govt’s actions through the moral prism. I think that the govt (PAP and civil service) are just trying to avoid getting involved in any sticky situation involving a clash of values and competing needs. One perfect example is that of contingents of cyclists hogging major arterial roads during peak hours. Car drivers are mad as hell at these two-wheelers who arrogate an entire lane to themselves in their deliberate strategy of gaining strength and courage in numbers. The extra dimension is that many of these cyclists are Caucasians, whom the police, rightly or wrongly assume, will be more vociferous and argumentative about their right to cycle. Their sheer numbers and organisation suggest that they feel they have a right to congregate, regardless of their slowing down motorised traffic.

    Car owners have repeatedly written into the newspapers to beg the Traffic Police to enforce the law on road hogging etc but the cops aren’t biting. They know better than to wade into a lose-lose situation.

    And so the authorities simply pick their battles, as you have pointed out, based on who’ll shout the loudest or has the most power.

    I don’t envy them.

    • 34 twasher 31 August 2011 at 04:14

      Uhh. This is not about Caucasians. It’s not a situation unique to Singapore. They aren’t going to punish ‘road-hogging’ because cyclists take the lane for safety reasons. To force them to disperse would be to force the cyclists to put themselves in danger, and no traffic police wants to do that. Also, it’s almost impossible to enforce. You can’t just ‘fine’ the whole group because there might be people who were just innocently riding along when others behind them joined in, or people who were cycling behind and were just happened to catch up with a large group in front of them.. It’s almost impossible to determine ‘intention to cycle in a group’. For these reasons, I haven’t heard of any city actually penalising cyclists for taking the lane.

    • 35 Rider & Motorist 31 August 2011 at 12:45

      Cyclists are not trying to bully motorists! They ride in groups for safety. It is a small inconvenience to drivers who are notoriously bad at keeping a safe distance from them. So you have to wait an extra minute. Big deal. Cyclists are killed on Singapore roads all the time. If delaying traffic is the cost of saving some lives, so be it. When the police do not intervene on behalf of impatient motorists, it is hardly and example of pandering to the loudest. The motorists are doing all the complaining.

      • 36 yawningbread 31 August 2011 at 17:11

        I’ve not paid much attention to the cyclist issue though am vaguely aware that it is an issue, but what I want to say is this: From the few comments so far here on this topic, there seems to be a tacit assumption by motorists that the road belongs to them and cyclists are somehow interlopers. Surely cyclists have as much right to the roads as motorists. So what if they take up one whole lane?

      • 37 twasher 31 August 2011 at 18:55


        I agree that cyclists have just as much right to the roads, but that’s a larger argument that I didn’t want to get into. It’s easier to point out just how absurd it would be to fine cyclists for taking up lanes, when traffic law says that they have to ride on the roads (and not on the sidewalks).

  16. 38 Han 30 August 2011 at 23:51

    The the funny thing about democracy is that all voices get a say, even the repugnant ones. The problem with your argument is that you are arguing on the grounds of human rights, but the social conservatives will counter that there is no human right to indecency or obscenity.

    Worse still, there seems to be this delusion amongst social liberals here that by getting rid of the PAP Singapore will somehow become more accepting and accommodating of liberal views. My own perception is that the existence of the PAP actually moderates and holds in check the truly conservative sections of Singapore society. Even if the PAP is gone, these people will still be there.

    As a case in point, Gerald Giam of the WP took a clear stand against the repeal of s377a while he was still writing for TOC on religious grounds. And yet now that he is an NCMP for the WP, why has no one questioned his position? Or is there a double standard with regards to the opposition, that they do not deserve the kind of scrutiny that we impose on the PAP?

    In my view, the vast majority of anti-PAP voters don’t care much about social liberals. They would just as quickly abandon us the moment they do not need us against the PAP.

    • 39 Poker Player 31 August 2011 at 17:35

      “My own perception is that the existence of the PAP actually moderates and holds in check the truly conservative sections of Singapore society.”

      If you substituted “evangelicals” for “truly conservative sections” – I would agree with you. The constituency of the PAP *is* the plain vanilla sort of “truly conservative sections”. For them gayness just causes discomfort, not moral and metaphysical (and to crazier ones, natural) disasters.

      • 40 Han 31 August 2011 at 18:41

        I disagree. I think the “plain vanilla” conservatives are the middle undecideds who would be open to convincing that gays deserve equal rights. Discomfort can be dispelled with evidence.

        The “truly conservative sections” I referred to was indeed the “evangelicals” you speak of. It is this group of persons for which no amount of evidence would change their minds. What makes you think they don’t exist in Singapore? And that term need not be limited to any specific religion: there are plenty of evangelical types from a few religions.

  17. 41 bensonsim49 31 August 2011 at 00:13

    Personally I think it’s an excellent piece of art as well as an advertisement. Passer-by cannot help but at lease steal a glance … The manly manifestation for a piece of jean. Great Ad!

  18. 42 z 31 August 2011 at 02:09

    Don’t even get me started on how gays are bearing the brunt of this sytem.

  19. 43 z 31 August 2011 at 02:18

    The Police are certainly picking their battles not only with caucasians but with mainland Chinese and recent Indian immigrants as well.

    The net is abuzz with how natives are getting the short end of the stick.

    What became of the racist PRC delivery driver, vis a vis our local bloggers?

    We all remember the PRC family who held up a public bus for 5 hours by arguing with the Police and got a free cab ride home courtesy of SBS Transit, who is also in on the act.

    Look at it, this one’s a classic.

  20. 44 yawningbread 31 August 2011 at 12:31

    To Huss, 30 August 2011, 22:00 —

    Let’s not confuse the issue here. The A&F poster is not porn. As I pointed out in my article the degree of undress is no different from plenty of other posters (often females) all over the city, in magazines, newstands, etc…

    Secondly, porn and sexually explicit presentation is also protected by freedom of expression rights.There may be case for zoning, but that is a separate debate. It does not impact this discussion because, as I said earlier, the A&F poster is not porn.

  21. 45 Reservist_Cpl 31 August 2011 at 13:45

    Huh? It is lowering a male’s social status to be gazed upon?

    I’m sure you’ve gotten it the wrong way round – females are the ones who find males unworthy of being gazed upon. They’re the higher social class. They get to be appreciated, and men only get to be arrested.

    • 46 yawningbread 31 August 2011 at 17:15

      You wrote: “Huh? It is lowering a male’s social status to be gazed upon?”

      Yes. Do I really need to say more?

      OK, here’s another example. When beng boys get into starting incidents, it is partly the same psychological dynamics at work. The gazed upon (or stared upon in such cases) feels he is being subjugated, and responds accordingly to the perceived threat to his status.

  22. 47 walkie talkie 31 August 2011 at 14:18

    Hi Huss,

    You wrote: “If 1 were to be given absolute Freedom of Expression does that mean that hardcore pornography be deemed acceptable? Does it mean we can have sexually explicit posters and billboards in public areas in the name of Freedom of Expression”

    I suspect sometimes our “moral” position on some things may be more of the result of non-rational conditioning rather than the position being supported from rational analysis.

    What are the secular rational reasons (i.e. not counting non-rational conditioning), for hardcore pornography per se or sexually explicit images per se to be unacceptable (assuming we are not talking about displaying such images on public billboards or posters but just to display in indoor galleries where kids are not allowed to enter)?

    • 48 walkie talkie 31 August 2011 at 14:21

      As a clarification to my question to Huss above, I am not saying that the Abecrombie & Fitch poster is hardcore porn for it is not. I am asking Huss about hardcore porn and sexually explicit images per se.

    • 49 Han 31 August 2011 at 18:38

      Well some feminists argue that pornography is inherently degrading to women. Some psychologists argue that pornography is a “gateway drug”, so to speak, to more harmful sexual behaviours that including the harm of non-consensual third parties.

      Need any more?

      • 50 walkie talkie 1 September 2011 at 13:18

        Two responses to the feminists’ argument that porn is inherently degrading:

        1. Porn per se is gender neutral. There are many male porn-stars/porn-models so porn per se is not about female porn models. The consumers of porn comprises women too (i.e. not just men only) and that number I suspect is growing base on anecdotal observations at certain strip bars overseas.

        2. Why is porn inherently degrading in those many cases where the porn-models (male & female) are happy to earn a quick quick buck by showing their sexual act? In willing buyers and willing sellers situation, what is so degrading about it? Porn per se is not about coercing one party to perform sex-shows for another. Related question: Is sexual intercourse inherently degrading? If not, then why is showing off sexual intercourse to others in exchange for money is degrading?

        Regarding the argument that porn is a gateway drug, my question is is porn per se inherently or NECESSARILY a gateway drug? (compare: is drinking alcohol at bars a gateway drug to alcoholic addiction?) I suspect majority of people who have enjoyed watching porn one time or another went go to lead a very normal life without the porn causing any harm to their ability to lead a normal life. Do these psychologist have carefully researched data to show that majority of people who enjoyed porn ended up destroying or causing major problems to their lives or their family lives? (btw base on anecdotal evidence, it seems that many couples, both homosexual and heterosexual couples, do enjoy porn together)

      • 51 RAR 1 September 2011 at 17:33

        Sorry to pursue this tangent, but just on the point of “gateway” drug… I believe the stats now show that the proliferation of porn has been inversely correlated to incidence of rape (which has trended down over the past 30 years – at least in the US). Although some 2nd wave feminists may still cling to the idea that porn breeds rapist, it is largely considered an antiquated idea by the next generation. The larger concert these days is that porn in fact does the opposite: it discourages men from leading normal, fulfilling sex lives.

  23. 52 Hazeymoxy 1 September 2011 at 12:01

    I enjoyed this piece very much. Thanks for writing it. I won’t be able to eloquently stitch my thoughts together but here goes:

    My take is that SG has been a nanny state for too long, which has led to two things. 1) citizens stop thinking, analysing, searching, deciding on their own truths, which also has an impact on parenting. 2) over zealous governance as a result of the ruling party’s belief that they know better reinforced by citizens who stop thinking, seeking and participating.

    I think there is no mistaking that the government has a stand – it’s deeply conservative with the opinion that without strict measures, rules and regulations society would descend into debauchery, immoral behaviour and all kinds of uncivilised behaviour. (Aside: sitting where they are, reading about litter in residential estates, dirty public toilets, ungracious Singaporeans, how is one supposed to view the majority?) However, they’re now facing an internal battle of their values ‘cos they want to attract and retain foreigners, they want SG to be a global city, which requires opening up, not being so conservative; they want to change the ‘boring’ image.

    The curry incident shouldn’t have been mediated at all; but the government, ever so fearful of uncivilised behaviour, stepped in. The A&F ad is a show that they’re opening up ‘cos anyone who knows the brand knows this is typical of their advertising, and this is foreign investment – another tick on their list to tout the number of global brands, another PR story to tell. The woman’s response to the ad is classical response of someone whose good sense has long left her. It’d be interesting to see if authorities will step in and ask for the ad to be taken down.

  24. 53 J. 1 September 2011 at 17:35

    Isn’t it ironical that both persons who have written to Straits Times Forum (Ong Ker-Yu and Carrie Chiang) are females? They seem to be defending the notion that they as females should retain the status quo to be objectified. I guess it is all sub-conscious but nonetheless, it really says that they didn’t put in much thought and challenge their own biased views in the first place.

  25. 54 mos 1 September 2011 at 19:12

    Advertising is going to the dogs. The images from some of these designer houses compete to be lewder and more offensive that their rivals, just as models vie to be the skinniest and most deathlike. It is a race to the bottom. This is not art – this is advertising and money is at the root, – the shock element is the goal. As the lady in the letter pointed out, the ad is supposed to be about clothes… but there are hardly any clothes in sight, so it was designed simply to shock.

    You make a distinction between the male and female sexual image. There is a huge difference and how the sexes view them. Women like to look at other women – as role models, not sexually . Women buy magazines full of images of sexy women, women do not buy magazines peopled with erotic-looking men. Men like to look at sexy women too, and homosexual men like to buy magazines with lewd and nude male figures (like the image in the ad).

    Blood is another shocking image – but you don’t see that being used by Gucci, Calvin Klein etc.

    So, ads cannot be defended in the name of ‘rights’, that’s giving it way too much respect. Ads are a purely commercial, money making ploy and to call them ‘art’ or a ‘right’ is just plain overstating their importance.

    • 55 yawningbread 2 September 2011 at 07:39

      “lewd”? I think they said that of DH Lawrence, and any number of pop singers. I’d be very careful about using one’s taste as a measure of good and bad.

      I’d also be careful that we know where the line is between ads and art, and apply different standards. Blood as a shock device is in fact very often used in cinema.

      As for the difference in male and female images, consider this: In Singapore one hears jokes about Indians and Malays far more often than jokes about Chinese. We sometimes even come across Indians making self-deprecating jokes about their indianness. By your logic it is perfectly legit to make jokes about Indians and Malays but we should ban jokes about Chinese.

    • 56 walkie talkie 6 September 2011 at 16:52

      Hi mos,

      YOu wrote: “As the lady in the letter pointed out, the ad is supposed to be about clothes… but there are hardly any clothes in sight, so it was designed simply to shock.”

      That only shows the ignorance/stupidity of that lady who wrote the letter. She is seemingly ignorant of advertisement and ignorant of the fashion line Abecrombie & Fitch.

      Not all advertisement are meant for selling products. Sometimes advertisement are meant for the building and reinforcement of a brand-image. In such instances, the logic of a branding advertisement is not to feature any product that a business sells, but to feature something that builds the brand. A & F in recent years has consistently portrayed sensuality in their branding, and around their other outlets, topless and sexy models have consistently, commonly and frequently used in their advert materials. So the poster makes good advertising sense as a brand-reinforcement advertisement.

      You also wrote: “Women like to look at other women – as role models, not sexually . Women buy magazines full of images of sexy women, women do not buy magazines peopled with erotic-looking men. Men like to look at sexy women too, and homosexual men like to buy magazines with lewd and nude male figures (like the image in the ad).”

      More women nowadays are doing more to openly enjoy male nudity – I witnessed a growing number of women watching live strip shows and sex shows performed by naked men. I came across more incidents of women trying to pick up men in bars and clubs. I was one such target. Recently a male friend was also actively pursued by a female in a local dance club. So not just men, but there seems to be a growing number of women who do buy magazines or visit places to oogle and sexy naked men. And we should not forget some lesbians who do enjoy oogling at naked women too.

      About your description of the A & F being “lewd”. Now, many of us find nothing lewd about that poster. Here we have the issue of subjective taste. Why is your subjective taste superior to those of us who have a different taste and judgment?

      Regarding your objection to calling that photo-advertisement as art by pointing out it is an advertisement for commercial purpose, my response is: It is no doubt an advertisement used for commercial reasons, but that a piece of well taken photographs remains as an art even though it is being used for commercial reasons. An advertisement can make use of photography-art for commercial reasons. Commercial use and artistic photography are not mutually exclusive.

  26. 57 tweeds (@_tweeds) 3 September 2011 at 20:27

    Alex, I agree with a good deal of this post, especially with the observations regarding the postponing of questions to bureaucrats, as well as the seeming tendency for decision-making to be governed by fear of political repercussions. Interestingly, your point about self-censorship and prophetic, pre-emptive actions (particularly the Biennale graffiti example) has a somewhat Lacanian aspect.

    But I take issue with your frame of protection/violation in respect of human rights (as expressed in your reply to ThePasserby’s comment). Many questions of fundamental rights and civil liberties in modern liberal democracies involve a balancing exercise, a compromise between competing rights. Your article suggests that there is “a sense of right and wrong” that the Government lacks, a moral backbone that is insufficiently firm. JH quite fairly points out that the Chinese family in the Currygate episode had a right to the enjoyment of their own home, including clean air and water, minimal noise pollution, etc. Although the result of the mediation process was absurd, and the Law Minister’s response facile, the element of discussion and compromise is fundamental to any exercise of rights. The balance has to be drawn between one family’s right to family life in the privacy of their own home, say, in the form of preparing curry for the household, and the other family’s equally strong right to the same enjoyment of life within their home.

  27. 58 tk 5 September 2011 at 15:47

    Surely the “push” to remove the A+F ad is a joke, perpetrated by someone who’s been watching too many Simpsons episodes…

    Lighten UP!

  28. 59 walkie talkie 6 September 2011 at 17:02

    Let me share this joke I read somewhere (a response to that lady who wrote that letter):

    What do you expect?
    It is Abecrombie & Fitch,
    not Abecrombie & Bitch.
    You bitch!

    [this joke goes along with what I just said in my above comment, that if one were to have a little knowledge of the way A & F brands itself in recent years, one would have more or less expected such advertisements and not those typical clothing adverts showing models fully covered with clothing products]

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