Archive for the 'society and culture' Category

Cantonese speech and food in Kuala Lumpur: culture shock

The photo above is of Kuala Lumpur all dressed up to celebrate Merdeka Day. The Federation of Malaya gained its independence on 31 August 1957. That was also the time when Singapore aspired to merge with it, which it did for a short while from 1963 to 1965.

In that era, almost everyone felt that Singapore and the peninsula formed a natural nation. Many people had friends and family across the causeway. Hardly any distinction, in culture and beliefs, could be made between the Chinese in Singapore and the Chinese in Malaya, and likewise for the Indians and Malays. Each felt their community spanned both geographic areas.  Continue reading ‘Cantonese speech and food in Kuala Lumpur: culture shock’

Spoons speak of political Islam

The photo above is of a cutlery tray at an ordinary food court. Those of us familiar with Singapore’s food courts will be able to read significance into the fact that there are two kinds of spoons mixed together. Spoons and forks with flowery handles are usually reserved for halal use; those with plain handles are non-halal. They are supposed to be kept apart and mixing them together even after washing is seen as causing contamination.

So what was going on in this food court?  Continue reading ‘Spoons speak of political Islam’

Tolerant societies and immunity to data leaks

As much as we try to tighten data security, no one imagines that absolute safety is ever possible. The recent leak of records from the HIV registry will surely be followed by further breaches, some maybe even more extensive. Is laying on ever more layers of security the only possible response?

On 28 January 2019, the Health Ministry revealed that over 14,200 records of HIV-positive persons had been stolen and leaked online. They included details of 5,400 Singaporeans diagnosed with HIV up to January 2013 and 8,800 foreigners diagnosed up to December 2011. Continue reading ‘Tolerant societies and immunity to data leaks’

Covington Catholic incident: no need for police or censorship

Covington Catholic dominated the news cycle in American media for several days through last weekend and beyond. The incident, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, may not seem relevant to Singapore, but I think there is one take-away we can draw from it — and an important one too. It is that despite the wildly differing accounts of what happened and the extremely provocative spins applied to the most isolated-from-context of moments, despite the racial antipathy displayed within the incident and augmented by the media storm that followed, there was neither government nor police in sight.

There were no calls to arrest people on account of “fake news” or “hate speech”. Continue reading ‘Covington Catholic incident: no need for police or censorship’

How cheap food is a national embarrassment

Recently, there have been a spate of news stories extolling cheap hawker meals. Each time I read them, I asked myself, “Why are we doing this? When we celebrate low prices, are we not whitewashing low purchasing power, and by extension, low wages and zero pensions?”

For my first example, let me point to the 6 Jan 2019 story in the Straits Times: Foodcourts in Singapore: Secret to Foodfare’s low prices. Ignore the fact that it was a kind of hagiography to parry criticism of NTUC Foodfare’s take-over of the Kopitiam chain of foodcourts. Embedded in the story was the message: We help Singaporeans because we sell cheap meals.

My second example is drawn from the Mothership website.  On 11 January, its story about a $1 nasi lemak stall sang praises about the woman who held her price steady for 32 years in the name of “customer satisfaction”. Continue reading ‘How cheap food is a national embarrassment’

Singapore bicentennial: Revising history, as it happens

These two sentences almost made me cough out my coffee:

“The journey towards prosperity and a First World status began only in 1959, when the People’s Action Party took over the government. Clearly, then, Sir Stamford could not have been the founder of modern Singapore.”

These assertions were contained in a letter to the Straits Times Forum, published 5 January 2019. Written by Anthony Oei, it was in response to an earlier letter by Loke Hoe Kit published on 31 December 2018.

Loke had been critical of the way the bicentennial narrative was focussing

“more on the island’s 700-year history with greater emphasis placed on the 500 years of history preceding 1819, instead of primarily focusing on modern Singapore’s 200-year existence.”

Anthony Oei’s response letter was full of poorly-founded statements, and I wondered how it made it past the editor’s eye.  Continue reading ‘Singapore bicentennial: Revising history, as it happens’

Of China and India: wandering thoughts from streets, boats and trains

Boats in Chongqing (L) and Kochi (R)

[2,900 words]. Ever since China began to be a major part of the global economy in the early 1990s, one of the most enduring themes in American media is the country’s rise and its future challenge to US dominance. A subsidiary theme is whether India may be on the same path to parity, with this subtheme often coming across as prayer and hope: that India, as a fellow democracy, could help the US contain superpower China.

Much Indian discourse about China in recent years has adopted this lens too. Discussion about China in Indian media (at least the English-language media that is accessible to me) tends to take on a comparative and competitive tone. A good example is this online discussion at Which country will be next superpower: India or China?  It is rare to see discussion about China as itself. Continue reading ‘Of China and India: wandering thoughts from streets, boats and trains’

The general case: why Singapore’s security obsession is incompatible with meritocracy

For several years a decade or two ago, tiny Singapore was reckoned by defence analysts such as at Jane’s, to have one of Southeast Asia’s most powerful militaries. I don’t know if this is still true, but given this chart below which I took from this site, I won’t be surprised if it is. The bar graph shows that Singapore topped all our Asean neighbours save Laos, which isn’t included in the graph, in military expenditure in 2014. Continue reading ‘The general case: why Singapore’s security obsession is incompatible with meritocracy’

Patches, grit, and the sorry state of things

There used to be benches on both sides. They were recently removed — most likely as part of SMRT’s “service improvement”, which is Orwellian-speak for “squeeze more people in”. The parts under the erstwhile benches are darker grey, but the outline of the benches isn’t of straight lines. Instead the wavy boundary between the darker and lighter grey is almost surely caused by abrasion from feet over the years. Continue reading ‘Patches, grit, and the sorry state of things’

Avoiding vengeance: Why teaching religion is the wrong thing to do

“Not if but when” says the poster. Indeed, an attack of some sort will happen in Singapore. But let’s not be ahistorical about it. Throughout history, highly aggrieved individuals have lashed out at society or authority with violence. Sometimes they act as loners, other times as part of an organised network. We’ve had bombs going off in Singapore within living memory — for example on 10 March 1965 at MacDonald House in which three persons died. We’ve had the Sepoy mutiny in 1915 in which over 100 people lost their lives, including 56 mutineers.  Continue reading ‘Avoiding vengeance: Why teaching religion is the wrong thing to do’