Archive for the 'society and culture' Category

Rich but feeling empty, exhausted and alienated

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Wealth does not buy happiness. The state of Singapore society today is perhaps proof of this adage.

A newly-released joint study by Gallup and Healthways is a wake-up call to anyone who still thinks that prioritising economic growth is the master key to happiness. Especially coming, as it does in Singapore’s case, with a widening income gap and a shrinking space for self-actualisation (rights and freedoms) such prioritisation only increases tension, stress and conflict. Quality of life diminishes.

Out of 145 countries surveyed, Singapore ranked a miserable 97th. Continue reading ‘Rich but feeling empty, exhausted and alienated’

US Supreme Court demonstrates the vitality of America, shows up the weak DNA of Singapore

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As news spread of the momentous decision by the US Supreme Court, ruling that marriage equality is a constitutional right, all over social media my friends made an unflattering comparison between the US and Singapore. I think it was Kirsten Han who pointed out that just weeks ago, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong displayed his total lack of awareness about a fast-developing court case by relying on the argument that gay marriage in America was a patchwork of Stop and Go, “state by state”. Continue reading ‘US Supreme Court demonstrates the vitality of America, shows up the weak DNA of Singapore’

Behind the brat looms an oppressor still

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It’s a terrible pity that Amos Yee’s thoughtless, groundless and hurtful accusation against Vincent Law has taken centre-stage. Vincent had extended a magnanimous gesture of support when Amos needed a bailor. For the boy to make false accusations against him is completely inexcusable.

It’s a terrible pity because it distracts us from examining the political implications of the state laying charges against Amos in the first place. However, even though he has soiled whatever sympathy he deserved (from being a victim of the government’s panicked rush to slay him), we should still be able to put it aside and focus on what happened at the beginning.  Continue reading ‘Behind the brat looms an oppressor still’

Don’t smile at me: Culture conflict from immigration

A few doors away from my flat lives a family that hails from Tamil Nadu, India. There’s a man, his wife and two young daughters. He goes to work each day in industrial overalls, and my guess is that he is either an S-Pass or Employment Pass holder working for a process company in the Jurong area. The Mrs is a homemaker.

Their flat faces a common corridor shared by two others, both of which have Chinese-speaking locals staying in them. So from the first month this Indian family moved in, I felt I should go out of my way to be friendly. I never see the Chinese neighbours speak to them, or even greet them; language may be the barrier.

The man — he speaks English — returns my greeting. I can’t say I’ve gotten to know him, we just exchange hellos whenever we pass each other. But over the past year or so, I think I have made enough of an impression that should he ever need some assistance from a neighbour I believe he would feel that he could ask me.

With two young children and a husband coming home with soiled workclothes, the wife has a lot of laundry, and she uses the common corridor to dry them since the hot afternoon sun comes in that way.  I started off doing exactly the same as I practised with her husband: a smile, a hello, as I walk past, but I’m afraid, it has been a ‘culture shock’, perhaps both ways.

More than a year now, and she has never returned my greeting. At first I thought I was wrong to presume she knew any English, so I soon reduced it to a smile, and no words. Surely, that’s universal enough, no? But still she never smiled back. It wasn’t long before I realised that she doesn’t even make eye contact with me. Sometimes she just looks away and pretends to be busy. But more often than not, she scurries back into her flat when she sees me approaching from a distance. Her laundry would be half hung. More wet clothes would still be in the tub. Yet she would interrupt her work and duck quickly into her own doorway on sight of me. At first, I gave her the benefit of doubt: Oh, she needs to get more clothes pegs or that sort of thing, but after several such instances, I tell myself there has to be another reason.

Perhaps my body odour is intolerable, perhaps my smile just looks sick and predatory.

It gradually dawned on me that she was just uncomfortable, for cultural reasons, to be interacting in any way, however innocent, with a male stranger. To exchange greetings would be akin to speaking, and that was a great big no-no.

I was stressing her out by my insistence on being friendly.

Lately, I also began to notice how cultural habits are being passed down. At the beginning, the daughters were too young to play outside the flat, but now they’re a little older, they have tricycles and similar toys that require space and mobility. Occasionally I see them play in the corridor. But now I find that the girls are called in by their mother when I am within sight. The only times when they’re not called in are probably when the mother isn’t aware that I am passing through.

* * * * *

Earlier this year, friends and I (all Singaporeans) spent a weekend in a condo apartment in Kuala Lumpur. It being Chinese New Year, the kitchen was soon full to overflowing with food. As we were not staying for more than a few days and the apartment would be empty when we left, we just had to get rid of all the food, and fast.

One member of our group suggested we give it to the condo security guards.

“No, don’t,” I advised.

“Why not?”

“What we have is not halal,” I reminded him. “The guards look Malay to me. This is Malaysia and the sensitivity threshold is probably lower than in Singapore. We should not risk causing offence.”

* * * * *

I would situate at least the first tale, if not the second, within the larger issue of neighbourliness and integration of new migrants. Much is made of how we should make extra efforts at getting to know our neighbours and making new arrivals feel welcome. There is certainly undeniable value in not being total strangers to people who are next door, though on this topic too, the government’s propaganda machine has made a social good into another toxic commandment, just begging for resistance. But, leaving aside this propaganda contamination, the point that might be worth considering is how even “neighbourliness” comes with cultural assumptions.

What is friendly behaviour in one cultural context is imposition and intrusion in another. The sharing of food, so often used to cement social bonds in certain cultures, not least the Chinese, and so regularly celebrated by American television and films — new arrivals in a neighbourhood are welcomed by showing up at their door, quite often with a pie in hand — can be explosive.

Integration, despite the best of intentions, can be minefield. And a moment’s thought will tell us why: it calls for a modulation of one’s cultural norms in order to accommodate the outsider. There are very few behaviours that have exactly the same meaning in different cultures. If we use our usual behaviour unthinkingly, what may to us be a welcoming gesture may be awfully misinterpreted.

But then it raises the question: If we want to integrate new arrivals in our midst, should it be the new arrivals who should re-organise their cultural habits to “fit in”, or should Singaporeans too change our cultural habits to accommodate them?

Should I persist in greeting and smiling at the wife? Or should I go easy on her and ignore her, the way her culture expects me to behave? It seems to me that the latter would probably be her preferred solution, but would you then accuse me of surrendering Singapore to the foreign hordes?

 

 

A second republic

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Right up to the last moment, I wasn’t sure if I should use the preamble I had prepared. The point I wanted to make in the preamble was that I believed Singaporeans were going to be instinctively resistant to the idea of constitutional redrafting. Our aversion to taking risks, our long indoctrination in the idea that political experimentation would be extremely dangerous for a small, vulnerable city-state with no natural resources or strategic depth to rely on (yes, a habit of mind formulated by the ruling People’s Action Party, but today espoused by many as almost biblical truth), would likely mean that the idea I was about to float would be dismissed as a foolish, hazardous pipe-dream. Continue reading ‘A second republic’

Ourselves through Istanbul

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Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn

This spot on planet Earth has been inhabited for well over two thousand years — as Byzantium, Constantinople, then Istanbul — and was a great cosmopolitan capital city for 1,500 of those. Merchants and scholars from all over the then-known world flocked to it.

I can’t say, however, that it is cosmopolitan any more, certainly not by the standards of London, New York, Paris or Sydney today. Or even Singapore. Istanbul has a cultural homogeneity that our more nostalgic romantics might wish we had. Continue reading ‘Ourselves through Istanbul’

Oysters and diamonds

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Income and wealth inequality has become an albatross around many governments’ necks  — Singapore’s included — provoking distrust and resistance to policies.

Meanwhile, readership of the Straits Times is falling. Media academics have pointed out that the Straits Times, in blindly following the direction set by the People’s Action Party government, does the government no favours. Sheepishly echoing government edicts alienates people.  Continue reading ‘Oysters and diamonds’

Culture, lifestyle diseases and the commandant’s room

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Three hours I sat in a police station breathing second-hand smoke. As a small mercy, the officers would slide the windows open by 5 to 10 centimetres every now and then, and the stiff breeze from outside would cut in and dilute the carcinogens somewhat. Better yet was the whoosh of clean bracing air each time the door opened, but unfortunately it wasn’t often enough. There wasn’t much coming and going. Continue reading ‘Culture, lifestyle diseases and the commandant’s room’

Haram to speak of ham

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In a rare smackdown of a reader, the Straits Times dismissed a reader’s demand (link) that it tailor its editorial content to suit his sensibilities. The incident flashed across social media for a day or two, with approving comments, then disappeared.

This is what the reader, Idris, wrote:

I think it’s worthy to note that there are many Muslims who are readers of The Sunday Times. I was quite disturbed by the fact that the paper’s edition on Oct 5 which falls on Hari Raya Haji featured a distasteful article in the Sunday Life! section (“Cheat Sheet: Ham”). The Sunday Life! food critics could have been more sensitive to the events that unfolded for some Muslims on this religiously auspicious occasion such as the sacrifice of cows or sheep. They could have chosen a food-related theme and perhaps discussed lamb cuts. At the very least, avoid discussing non-halal food (food that Islam sanctions against consumption such as ham). Local journalists should practise more sensitivity and respect local cultures, at least for the most important races in Singapore.

Continue reading ‘Haram to speak of ham’

Flats are not houses, think hospital beds instead

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Where we go wrong is in our use of words. I have always cringed when Singaporeans use the word “house” to mean their flat. I may be old-fashioned in this respect, but I would only use the word “house” when I refer to a dwelling that sits directly on a plot of land; I would not use it for a pigeon coop in the sky. If one looks at international usage, that’s probably the norm.

The wrong choice of words affects how we think of something. Words come with associations and values. I’d argue that our careless choice of words warp how we think of Housing and Development Board flats — public housing in which 85% of Singaporeans live. Continue reading ‘Flats are not houses, think hospital beds instead’


For an update of the case against me, please see AGC versus me, the 2013 round.

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