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Notes from the Lazarus pits

In the Batman comics, there is a mystical spring which has the power to revive the dead and rejuvenate those on the verge of death. Its power, however, comes at a cost: every successive use drives the person further from himself till he finally is driven from himself. This has become what each revival of this blog feels like. Each time I revive the blog, I am a different person from the last time I let it die, and throughout the years, the blog has become a collection of snapshots of me at different points of my life.

It is not a collection of self-portraits at my best. Looking through some of these posts, I can see myself as an angry ineffectual person, obsessed with failure and hatred. In one period, I found a dozen drafts of posts on my hatred of politicians. I suppose that looking back now, I don’t really know why I was so angry at politicians. I still do not like them. I wouldn’t have any of them round for coffee, but I also wouldn’t write angry blog posts denigrating them and publish them on the internet.

Perhaps in a way, this is a step backward. I still dislike most of the things I have on this list over three years ago (except cats; I suppose I have become a cat person of late). I just no longer care enough to be intolerant about them, and I suppose this live and let live attitude is more a sign of apathy than a sign of mellowness. I have developed an interest in theoretical things (like logic and economic theory) that have no need for real people and their little quirks, and this allows me to be more or less an emotional tourist in the real world. I mean this in the sense that I do not need to feel anything when something happens, for example, when there is another scandal in Singapore or when there is some horrible tragedy in the middle east. I am interested and most definitely concerned, but I no longer really feel upset or angry. I think this makes me unhappy less often.

Anyway, when I was thinking of reviving this blog, I had in mind picture posts of my trip to Thailand and maybe a review of this cute little indie game I am playing (Limbo, in case anyone is wondering). But reading my archives have put me in a thoughtful and retrospective mood. Not a melancholy one though; half-working on a set of notes on microeconomics and half typing this post, emotion is the furthest thing on my mind. I do not feel the roil of anything. I think I feel content.


Government correspondence

On 3 February, I sent this inquiry to the National Population and Talent Division:


I am writing to inquire if the division has done any work evaluating the effectiveness and possible shortcomings of the measures recently proposed to arrest the plummeting TFR. Although the measures have been well-documented and relentlessly advertised to the public, the division has not released any serious analysis of these measures.

What are the chances that the M&P package will succeed in reversing the downward TFR trend? What are some of its potential shortcomings? Has the division considered any alternative policies to those ultimately implemented?

Thank you for your time,

Hou Shihang

They finally replied on 29 April. You can determine for yourself if their response was helpful in any way.

Dear Mr Hou,

Thank you for your email.

2.            The Government is committed to providing a pro-family environment that will support Singaporeans in getting married and having children.  In January 2013, we announced enhancements to our Marriage and Parenthood (M&P) Package, which seeks to strengthen the pro-family environment, and address some of the practical concerns Singaporeans face.  In developing our marriage and parenthood measures, we have drawn on suggestions made by Singaporeans during the consultation period from 28 Jun to 31 Oct 2012.  In total, we received more than 800 pieces of feedback on marriage and parenthood issues.  We also engaged various stakeholders such as community organisations and employers as well as the members of the public.  These feedback have helped to shape our policy enhancements.

3.            Besides public feedback, we have also looked at the experiences of various countries, and studied their approaches in improving birth rates.  In June 2012, we published an Occasional Paper titled Marriage & Parenthood Trends in Singapore which highlighted some of the key learning points we had garnered.  In addition, in January 2013, we released findings from the Marriage and Parenthood Study 2012.  This study surveyed a total of 4,646 respondents aged 21 to 45 years old, to understand the attitudes and motivations behind Singapore residents’ marriage and parenthood trends.  In reviewing our measures, we have taken into account some of the learning points highlighted in the Occasional Paper and the Marriage and Parenthood Study. (These can be found at the NPTD website

4.            The M&P Package has provided significant support to many families in their marriage and parenthood journeys.  Since the introduction of the M&P Package in 2001, the measures have benefitted the families of about 350,000 children.  Moreover, the measures within the M&P package have been well-received and appreciated by parents.  For example, the Marriage and Parenthood Study 2012 found that maternity leave and the Baby Bonus cash gift were the top two policies that would most likely persuade married respondents to have children or to have more children.  Also, in the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Perception of Policies Survey on the 2008 M&P package conducted in 2010, 53% of the married couples surveyed said that the M&P Package has made it conducive for them to have children.  69% said that the Baby Bonus scheme would influence couples like themselves to have children.

5.            Beyond Government measures to help raise our TFR, we recognise the need to shape mindsets and foster a pro-family culture.  In this area, society at large has a role to play in shaping positive mindsets towards marriage and parenthood and to encourage Singaporeans to put families first and celebrate family life.  We will continue to work with our partners in this regard, including employers, people sector organisations and other community groups, to promote the importance of family, and to encourage Singaporeans to consider family as central to our life choices and sense of fulfilment.

6.            As with all other policies, we will review the measures in the Marriage and Parenthood Package from time to time, and we will continue to study ideas and suggestions from the public.

7.            Thank you and have a good week ahead.

Yours sincerely,

Kiang Kai Lun (Mr)

Executive (Marriage & Parenthood Policy Directorate)

National Population and Talent Division

Prime Minister’s Office

Misogynistic Confessions

The spate of confessions pages popping up everywhere has given me an interesting opportunity to confirm something I’ve been thinking for some time, that perhaps the feminists are right and Singaporeans are really quite misogynistic.

When I was about 7 or 8 months into my NS term, I started talking again to Robyn again, and, how I cannot remember, we started talking about feminism, which turned out to be a great cause of hers. I confess that at that time, my interest in it was somewhat academic, a little akin to my interest in talking about theology. So things like male privilege, rape culture and intersectionality made sense as analyses of society, but they were not things I noticed or experienced in my life. Rape culture was something that existed on college campuses, male privilege referred to WASPs in New York and intersectionality was the struggle of the black single mother living in London’s East End.

But talking about such things made me notice these things more. Rape jokes (see 1st postscript). Objectification of women. Double standards. You know, the standard feminist oeuvre. I mean, I really plead that I did not know of this before. Guys who really hate women. Who really think they are contemptible money-sucking creatures to be appeased with handbags and money. Heartless faithless worthless trash. And for some reason, stupid.

sexist comments

But it was always possible that my observations were uncharacteristic of the population. Perhaps the people I went to work with were particularly sexist. So I was glad SAF Confessions, a popular page with over 12,000 ‘likes’, is on hand to confirm my suspicions.

There are a few common tropes here. There is the evergreen treating women as sex objects/with blatant tastelessness:

yay more sexism

This sort of comment, as well as complaints by women against men creepily checking them out (see NUS Confessions page) often draw comments along the lines of “guys will be guys”, or “what do you expect”. Well, it still does not make it a desirable sort of action in any way.

Another favourite is the army break-up story.

Immortalised in the terrible Jack Neo films Ah Boys to Men parts 1 and 2, the faithless woman who breaks up with you when you’re in BMT is a familiar and widely hated SAF villain. For example, the page gives us this rather despairing young lady:

“As the GF of a new recruit who has just completed PTP, I feel that the Army is retarding my boyfriend into a childish being whose spoiled traits are getting stronger everyday. Opposed to maturing into a man, he’s regressing into a negative little boy who feels he’s entitled to so many things and that everything is worthless and a waste of time. I’m starting to understand why most girls would break up with their recruit boyfriends if this is what they are like. That said, it’s only PTP, hopefully things get better soon.”

A fair enough complaint surely, but one which was not well-received. Some tried to defend the boy, but others resorted to naked hostility:

sexist comments 2

In contrast, there are a few posts by women who express sympathy for the travails of the NSF and these woman are widely lauded.

[No picture because I cherry-pick. Too bad.]

At the heart of these attitudes perhaps is the notion that women are not entitled to break up with men because they no longer like them, but must cling to them with loyalty and adoration. “If you love him enough” is a common refrain, and there is such anger that women can possibly not love their boyfriends! That they can change their minds!

Or perhaps, and this strain is independent of the other one, the complaint is against the woman’s lack of sympathy for the person’s struggles. Fault cannot be found with the BMT recruit, because hey, he’s having it tough.

All these attitudes are reflected in possibly the most hostile thread on the whole page. So much hate that this is going to take four pictures.

more sexism

moar moar sexism

moar moar moar sexismsigh this is getting oldsighsighsigh

I hope you didn’t bother reading all that because it is depressing. As one comment pointed out, these people do not know the context, nor anything about the relationship WHATSOEVER. They did not know the extent of the commitment in the prior relationship or how it ended. And based on what little they have, they are happy to call her all sorts of names, generalise her to be typical of women, threaten her with death and the seduction of her future child.

The problem with this is that the SAF is really a cross-section of the Singaporean male population. Do so many Singaporeans really have such misogynistic attitudes? What is causing them? What can we do to stop all this abuse?

PS1: Rape jokes are something that I’ve talked about before, and I stand by it. I don’t believe all rape jokes are acceptable, but perhaps I was unclear about “depending on sexist attitudes”. The “joke” here is a clear example.

sexist rape joke

Here, name-redacted-in-white is making a “joke” which depends on the reader finding the notion of gang-raping a servicewoman every morning in the toilet funny. So this, and more sophisticated versions of this, are rape jokes that I find unacceptable.

(And how horrible is name-redacted-in-white? “Drag her into the toilet”? “Mass ritual daily event for everyone”? “Tuning”? This is just disgusting stuff.)

Marvel NOW Reviews [Some Spoilers]

Marvel NOW started a while ago, but I’ve only just caught up with nine of its titles, so I thought I might write a brief review for those wondering if it’s still worth it or not. There will be some spoilers going down.

1. Brilliant

I think only the New Avengers title has really impressed so far. Not a surprise for those who have followed the Hickman/Epting pairing through their excellent Fantastic Four/FF run, and this continues in a similar cosmic-epic vein. The Illuminati reforms, this time with Black Panther (who refused the last time), Captain America (who is now no longer on the roster) and Beast (in place of the dead Xavier). While the story is gripping, the really well-done part is the careful character shading: for example, Beast remaining in his seat after Strange mind-wipes Captain America, Reed’s strange chemistry with the Black Swan and Captain America’s principled but hopeful stance pit against everyone else’s prioritisation of survival. If there’s one title to pull in this bunch, the New Avengers is a prime choice.

New Avengers

2. Good

All-New X-Men is a pretty good X-men comic, partly because of the strength of the status quo AvX left us, and because of the rather insane idea of the original five being time-shifted into the present. That said, the writing and art is nothing to write home about, and I’d rather it hurry up with the Cyclops Rebellion storyline (or perhaps give them another book).


The other three X-men books (Cable and X-Force, Uncanny X-Force, and X-men Legacy) are all the sort of team book that Marvel churns out regularly. They’re not bad at all (although Uncanny X-Force is still at #1), and they centre on interesting characters (Legion in X-Men Legacy, and the whole team in Cable and X-Force, Hope, Cable, Doctor Nemesis, Domino, Colossus and Forge, are pretty fun characters). Get them if you’re a big enough fan of the X-Men like I am.

The two Fantastic Four titles are a toss-up. They’re less ambitious than the Hickman titles, which is great for those who just want the sort of sci-fi adventure story that the Fantastic Four does so well. The FF is much slower (too slow in my opinion), but the art is good and the story is starting to get interesting, so I’ll recommend staying on it for now.


3. Meh

Hickman’s Avengers is him at his worst in my opinion. He comes up with a distinctly unimpressive concept (an expandable Avengers roster), wraps it with a fancy graphic chart, and sends cosmic villains at them with no real purpose. It’s a book that is going nowhere, and it relies too much on some sort of mystical Avengers worship to work (I mean it is just some superhero team. Rogers needs to stop making it sound like some unbeatable bastion of humanity because it isn’t.) #5 that came out just this week is a rather run of the mill origin story, and next week Captain Universe gets her issue in the spotlight. Not worth the 4 dollars a fortnight.

4. Avoid

The Uncanny Avengers title is apparently the flagship title of Marvel NOW!, which I suppose explains why it is so terrible. Three X-Men and three Avengers are randomly tossed into a team, and then set to fight a ridiculous villain: Red Skull who becomes the world’s most potent telepath by having Xavier’s brain implanted into his. Lame. Thor especially. They need to stop randomly tossing Thor into titles just to have him beaten up by random villains.

The National Conversation [Review]

The Singapore Conversation
26 January 2013, 9 am-12.30 pm, SMU Administration Building

Try as people might in flowing articles of wit and passion, it is difficult to truly sustain a belief in the notion that one’s voice or vote has any substantive impact on anything at all. This is the case here. 3 and 1/2 hours, lots of frothy discussion, but ultimately a sense of emptiness, much like the feeling after finishing a game of Minesweeper. It is the feeling of achievement without weight.

This is not, I think, a criticism of how the conversation was conducted, which was by and large well thought-out. About 40 participants were split into 6 groups of 6-7 each, with two dozen or so facilitators. After an introductory brief, we split into these small groups and

The session I attended was split into two parts, one in a small group of about 6 participants and 4 facilitators (not ominous enforcer-types, but rather bored people interested in people talking), and the other in a large group of about 50 people. First, we spent an hour and a half in these small groups, making our way through whatever the people in the group brings up, and then in half an hour or so, the groups were combined, and the dialogue was conducted in this larger setting. I did not experience any significant trouble with the usual pitfalls: an unequal conversation dominated by a few strong players, hostile disagreement, or inept facilitators.

However, the experience is largely dependent on the quality of the group. Mine was largely comprised of rather high-flying career types: 3 had jobs with an international focus, and hence were quite vocal on Singapore’s need to stay competitive vis-a-vis the world, another was a high school teacher of Chinese who largely looked quite sleepy, and lastly, we had a rather bubbly student from a polytechnic who has a place at UCL this fall (and in a dramatic twist, who turns out to be one of the members of the Singapore Conversation committee). It turns out that we were pretty much in agreement: we believed in the need to be economically competitive, that a Singapore identity cannot be force-shaped in a theoretical test tube, and that there are elements of the system that could be better designed, such as including more educational through routes. It might have been more interesting if we had a strong proponent of the popular welfare-Singapore alternative view.

We did have that in the big group of course, but in such a big setting, the facilitator did not attempt any synthesis of views, merely the noting of them. This of course made the whole thing seem shallow, but the committee was clear about their limited aim in this “first phase” of the conversation. Policy problem-solvers, hence, would do well to only go for a conversation in a later phase. The facilitator was quite clear that the committee was in no hurry to rush the process.

In summary, it was agreeable enough, and a decent way to spend the morning in an argument clinic, but ultimately, those who have a mind for concrete solutions or well-set conclusions would be disappointed. But in a way, the very impossibility of the notion of a common Singaporean vision should have been apparent from the start. In the same way nobody talks of a London direction or a Tokyo dream, a Singapore vision suggests a sort of journey for the country that all citizens agree to embark on, and a common endpoint that satisfies all parties. An absurd utopian dream! And in a way, the very notion of a common goal for a place presupposes a commitment to the collective that may be quite offensive for some.

I think we are past the point where more introspection about direction and goals will be fruitful. We need to get past and finally discard the metaphor of the collective journey, and instead think about what we are actually doing, that is, designing public policies that will be acceptable to the majority of people. Of course this requires us to talk about the sort of country that we want Singapore to be, but only as the end-point of policy. For example, I think it is strange to talk about growth-oriented policies; instead we should examine the policies behind them and evaluate them as a whole, treating the promotion of growth as a factor in the consideration. By considering what we CAN do instead of what we WANT to do will give us a more rigorous understanding of what will actually happen.

All this means that the Conversation is likely to be of little practical use to the government. Which is fine by them, I suppose: hardly their fault if the public does not have a unified or strong voice in any direction.

Oops?Photo credit: Our SG Conversation

Photo credit: Our SG Conversation

People [Review]

People, by USP Productions
Written by Joel Tan, Directed by Ng Yin Ling
26 January 2013, 2pm, Arts House Play Den

People is an impressionistic piece that weaves through the lives of 14 characters to explore a central theme, people’s relations with each other. Played by six cast members, the idea is well-executed and pleasurable to watch, but it suffers from a lack of ambition. Although the playwright largely succeeds in making us empathise with a wide range of characters, the stories in themselves are not very strong and too shallow to throw any new insight on the subject.

That is not necessarily in itself a flaw. The play is stylistically excellent, confidently zipping back and forth in time, to and fro from New York to Tokyo to Singapore, and between nine different segments. The danger to this sort of arrangement is that (1) it will feel too weightless, being too disparate, (2) it will be too confusing with so many characters, and (3) it will be paced wrongly, spending too much time on certain segments to the underdevelopment of others. By and large, the play evades all these pitfalls. This is to the credit of the director who cannily intersperses humour with tragedy, and ensures no story overstays its welcome.

A major reason why this is so is the strength of the cast, who each are stretched with at least two roles each. The script uses 14 different characters to develop many different kinds of relationships, and it is crucial to its success that they are sufficiently differentiated and convincing. Some efforts are not successes, being unconvincing and underdeveloped. For example, the segment with the priest who loses God because of the death of his sister evokes a lot of generic pain and grief, and his calling of a number on a toilet wall is simply too ridiculous and hyperbolic to be convincing. Neither is the weepy story of Hock, who spends his money on a ticket to New York to seek his lover, Chris, and decides to commit suicide after learning that he is at a pub. But others are touching and convincing portrayals. Abigail Thio does well impersonating a bar hostess who is repulsed by the false, gilded affection of lonely men with money and finds love in a caring male prostitute. Both the characters of Susan and Lily benefit from a lightness of touch not present in the male monologues.

All this is to say that the play was successful in its impressionistic evocation of the joy, pain, and necessity of relationships in all shapes and forms. However, it is not without its flaws. Although the characters are written and acted well, the stories they tell are often thin and unremarkable.

This is a qualified criticism. Perhaps it is not its purpose to really push the boundaries of the nature of human relationships. Perhaps the point is precisely the prevalence of the many relatively mundane situations that can build up so many different kinds of emotions in us. But I think I have seen this all before. For example, Lily, Qing, and Nicholas all suffer from that vaguely defined longing to escape loneliness familiar to us all; presenting it in another skin is entertaining enough but not memorable. There could also have been more exploration of the nature and source of the feelings expressed. For example, in the story of the estranged sisters, Valerie and Natalie, Natalie is merely constantly expressing a longing to make up with her sister, a convincing emotion that is nevertheless dumb about what else it is but a feeling.

Ultimately, People brings us to many emotions that arise out of the complexity of relationships, but does not really give us much insight to any of these.

Not out of ideas 1: Civil servants on hamster wheels

Wow. I got an email today from someone commenting on a couple of suggestions I wrote up a little less than 2 years ago. I think they hold up pretty well, I mean. It was written in the wake of the 2011 general election, so some of the more topical suggestions may not be so biting, but given that the government has not implemented ANY of my suggestions (come on, people), I think it’s far to reiterate my call for a better Singapore.



A Manifesto for a Better Singapore

Or the only way left is up.

“Truffles steamed and served in diluted Milo taste like shit”. – Yeap Choon How

Anybody with half a brain can see that our government is delivering us to hell in a hand basket, knocking on the gates of Pandemonium, and personally hand-delivering a message to Satan asking him to bugger us repeatedly with a pitchfork. Sometimes they try to convince us that we are not actually headed to hell; we are actually on a trip to Disneyland, or a Justin Bieber concert! Sometimes, they don’t even bother and just tell us that we’re going to see the Satan and if we complain, we’re terrible terrible people. Either way, we generally tend to obediently nod, bend over and take off our trousers.
Not anymore. This manifesto outlines a suite of policies that offers a real alternative that promises equal opportunities for all by sharing the fruit (not fruits, dullard) of our prosperity in this period of uncertainty.

Welfare: Transforming the civil service
One thing the PAP says over and over again is that Singaporeans are self-reliant. The second thing the PAP says is that in this period of uncertainty, Singaporeans definitely need strong government to weather the storm. The third thing the PAP says is that we should stop slouching, remember to wee-wee if we really need to and take breaths at regular intervals.
This party avoids this contradiction: we do not believe that Singaporeans are self-reliant at all. A truly democratic government listens to its people, and our people are saying that they want money. Hence, we propose that we give a lot of money to a lot of people, as (1) they need it, and (2) we want to be re-elected. We promise to be responsible about this money, and propose that we pay for this hand-out by eliminating all civil servant and MP pay, reducing carbon-dependent energy by 20%, and buying a lot of hamster wheels connected to electric generators. About as many hamster wheels as there are civil servants and MPs in the country. We finally have a use for the party whip.
We are all in this together. Civil servants, the dedicated servants of the country they are, are happy to sacrifice some of the benefits they have enjoyed in the past to power the country through these uncertain times. The reason we choose our beloved and well-respected civil servants for this task is comparative advantage. After all, they do have company gyms and fruit vouchers. We reassure our civil servants that their beloved hierarchy of power will be preserved in this new arrangement: the hamster wheels will differ in size and build.
Our party is committed to developing local talent for careers in the civil service, but we are arguably more committed to giving people money in exchange for votes. We justify this using a utilitarian ethic: giving a lot people a lot of money generates more net happiness than giving some students too much money. The civil service must not be afraid of change. It must develop capabilities, foster mindshare and maximise value-add. Hamster wheels are an indispensable part of the civil service of the future.

2013: Predictions for the Year Ahead

Happy new year everybody! It has been a long time since I have been excited about a year, but 2013 is different. This is the year I pass out of the Singaporean system, I go to college and fly the coop, so to speak. It is a year to look forward to.

It also promises to be an exciting year for the world. 2012 will take some topping, but I believe 2013 is up to the task. In fact, I’ll put my neck on the line and make the following predictions about how things will go hilariously wrong this year.

1. Washington becomes ungovernable, President resorts to a nuclear deadline for ongoing debt deficit negotiations

After Congress failed to pass Mitch McConnell and Vice President Biden’s “small deal” and triggered the deflationary fiscal cliff, President Obama, evidently frustrated and running short of options, has proposed a so-called “nuclear deadline” for the continuing talks.

“America needs a solution and she needs it fast,” the President said in a speech delivered in Washington today, “which is why I have ordered the movement of 500 of our nuclear warheads to the basement of Capitol Hill. If we pass February without an agreement, the nuclear deadline will trigger and explode in a massive atomic blast, laying waste to the congressmen, their aides and much of the nation’s capital. I hope this will spur Democrats and Republicans to an agreement.”

The Speaker of the House John Boehner has criticised the President’s plan as irresponsible brinksmanship, and resorting to mass murder to achieve the Democrats’ agenda. “Some Representatives have made their position clear to the government,” he continues, “no deal can be made that does not involve massive tax cuts for selected billionaires and cuts to all programmes that do not benefit the wealth-creating citizens of this country, giant fiery conflagration of doom or not.”

On the other hand, economist Paul Krugman has come down in favour of the President’s plan for finally coming down hard on recalcitrant Republicans. “Further more, the rebuilding necessary after an apocalyptic explosion will surely have stimulative effects on the economy,” he added.

2. Years of secret research pays off; North Korea becomes world superpower after developing Gundam robots

The reclusive communist state has experienced a startling reversal of fortunes recently after its scientists successfully developed a series of robotics technologies that bear a startling resemblance to the robots from the hit anime, Gundam. Over night, the robots have taken over all productive functions in the economy, boosting GDP a hundred times over and allowing all citizens to enjoy a life of leisure after communist redistribution of the gargantuan returns to capital.

“It wasn’t always easy putting our future in the hands of scientists who may or may not have developed groundbreaking robots that resemble well-known anime characters,” Kim Jong-Un, former Supreme Leader (the country is now post-political), said tearfully. “But I’m glad I persisted in my father’s and grandfather’s madness and belief in juche.”

The sudden enrichment of the hermit kingdom has led to a cultural flowering as well, with North Korea’s Department for Communication scoring a surprising hit single in the US charts with their adaptation of a 2012 song. Their single “Gundam style” is accompanied by a spectacular video featuring Gundam robots dancing in the Himalayan mountains and in space.

3. Palestinian scientist’s invention of pocket dimensions leads to an anti-climatic end to Arab-Israeli tensions

In another scientific triumph, a Palestinian scientific team announced the discovery of pocket dimensions, an achievement that quickly led to the relocation of the Palestinian state to the dimension.

The science behind the move is still unclear at this point, although one prevalent hypothesis has to do with the vibration of strings in string theory. “There could be over hundreds of such dimensions,” one researcher, who declined to be named, said, “the potential for the development of the human race is immense.” Palestine has laid claim to all these dimensions and all natural resources found within them.

In a surprising side-effect, Palestinian have agreed to cede disputed territories completely to Israel. In a statement, Mahmoud Abbas said, “with all these natural resources and vast swathes of land that our scientists have found, quarreling with Israel over an eggshell seems a little childish. They can have it; our people’s migration to our new holdings will commence immediately.”

When asked for comment at the sudden resolution of a centuries old conflict, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared dazed by the reversal. “Well to be honest, it was a massive shock for us all,” he mumbled, “I mean, the boys were all set to go. We have been prepping for this push for years.” When asked if he was pleased by this unconventional two-state solution, he expressed uncertainty. “Well, in a way, we did win, and we still have Jerusalem, which is good,” he said,” but at the same time, I am a little bummed out that Abbas got such a good deal. Isn’t there some way to claim that this move on their part is some sort of unilateral aggression?”

4. European leaders propose divisive solution to Eurozone woes, raising spectres of the past

European leaders continue to grapple with economic uncertainties, as the latest set of currency runs occurred on East European economies. A faction in Brussels proposing a division solution has reportedly gained traction.

“The idea is simple,” MEP Milos Janik, one of the architects of the proposal, tells us,” Europe has a two-speed economy: the well-developed economies of France, Germany and the Scandinavian states on one hand, less developed economies of the East and the Mediterranean region on the other. An administrative division into two Eurozones with separate Central Banks and monetary policies will be better able to cope with the crisis in weaker countries without affecting healthier Western economies.”

The plan has been greeted with some alarm, with some accusing Mr. Janik’s faction of retrogressing to a pre-1989 division. Mr. Janik denies the similarity. “Well it can, for convenience, be called East and West Europe, although I can see why historically speaking that might be confusing,” he admits. He however notes that the split between the two regions is not ideological. “Prudent fiscal governance and economic-friendly policy is not exactly an ideology,” he says, a little scoffingly.

But even supporters of Mr. Janik admit that there are kinks to be worked out. Particularly divisive is the matter of the Common Market, one of the key attractions of the European Union. “There is a lot of debate about the trade relations between the two blocs if the plan goes through. There is a vocal minority that calls for continued free trade but practically, there will be some barriers to trade,” a Brussels insider says. “Enforcement will be an issue as well. The borders between East and West Europe are particularly porous, so I have heard proposals for some sort of physical barrier, a fence of some sort, perhaps a wall.”

The Singaporean Conversation

As an immigrant, I have been rather taken aback from the viciousness and anger expressed against foreign workers in the aftermath of the bus drivers’ strike. In the comments left under the Straits Times article reporting the incident, some netizens turned to full-blooded attack, calling the drivers cockroaches, dogs, and demanding that they be sacked so the next batch of cheap labour can continue running their city’s transport system.

It was a terrible thing. The recent turn towards xenophobia is just another example of a strange trend in Singapore: the rhetoric is getting more heated, the debate more vociferous and the “vocal minority” more clamorous. Sometimes it just looks like bullying to me. But this, I am told by reliable sources, is the result of a political awakening, an unfortunate side-effect of the realisation that Singaporeans don’t really like the smelly foreigners and their strange ways, and more importantly, the government and their foreigner-importing ways. Whereas in the past they might just make a private joke about how all Indians have dark skin or how the Chinese have silly accents, now they are making it very clear that they don’t like it very much and the foreigners should lump it. In an essay by my friend Yoong Ren Yan titled “Against reform: a call to arms“, he refers to the intensifying of the debate as Singaporeans “[dusting] off their collective docility”.

To be fair, the xenophobia is not my main point here (my thoughts about it here). Rather it is the strange way public discourse in Singapore has developed. Ren Yan is by no means a fire-breathing revolutionary. His position is simply that a mildly repressive and at times explicitly aggressive regime cannot be taken to be the chief authority in its own reform. Shaking his spear and donning his armour, he declares “We are not feedback-bots at the service of a benign arbiter-government. We are millions of independent minds making considered judgements about what our nation should stand for.” He calls for a public space independent of the government.

To this end, the emergence of the internet has been an immeasurable boon to dissenters (or grumblers) everywhere. Instead of complaining to a few friends in a coffee shop, the chronically angry can now express their distress on TR Emeritus or the Online Citizen. Critical bloggers and satirists like Yawning Bread and Mr. Brown are reaching more people than ever. Even those who cannot be arsed to construct a coherent argument can express their prejudices in a poorly spelt comment left under a news article or on their preferred social network.

It is fair to say that the internet has been a great boon to the opposition in Singapore (in this case, not only the political parties but the coalition of voters standing against the PAP), in part because it is not a medium that can be shut down by Lee Kuan Yew delivering a thinly veiled threat that he will break the writer’s neck. Whether it is a good reflection of what the people really think is another. (Like all opposition parties, Singapore’s are happy to pretend to be speaking for the common man when in fact there is no proof that this is true.) In an (unremarkable) article (I cannot seem to find it online yet) in the Straits Times (Online voices equals vox populi?, December 22 2012), Leslie Koh makes this point by calling the rigorous opposition community “a small but vocal group” that is set against “a silent majority”.

Here is the thing. I do not think Leslie Koh knows what the silent majority thinks. Neither does the opposition. Mr. Koh’s article is not backed up by any evidence at all, and in the absence of it, we can discount what he says. As for the claims made by the dissenters (for an example, see Yawning Bread’s “Singapore has changed; will the PAP change too“), explicit evidence, the 2011 GE results seem to suggest that at any rate over 60% of Singaporeans prefer the government’s beliefs to theirs. It is obviously fair to suggest that Singapore has its fair share of unfair election rules but to suggest they lead to majorities where the PAP has beat out their nearest rivals, WP, by almost a million votes is an astounding claim that requires more than speculation.

It seems to me that the crux of the problem is that no one really knows anything about what Singaporeans think. Or more precisely, we know what they think, but we do not how to respond because we do not know who thinks it, whether many think it and how the opinion was formed. This is a shame, because undoubtedly this information is necessary for a national “conversation”. For both sides, it will be good to know how the public stands and where the divides between the positions are. It will also give us a way to move beyond the state of the debate, which has mostly consisted of declaring one’s point with force and claiming that the other side does not know where it is at.

However, the people that should be most interested in telling people what they think is the public themselves, for it gives them voice like they never have had. This is a problem that is relatively unique to the Singaporean political scene: a lingering wariness of entering public discourse (preferring instead to make sharp remarks in the company of friends), a monopolistic press that is seen to serve as a mouthpiece for the government and a vocal online presence that is often discounted as a boisterous minority.

This is why I believe that it is time to introduce the practice of political polling into Singapore. It is a practice that is common in many countries, most prominently in the USA where politicians, who really need to be responsive to the changes in the electorate, and the press, hungry for more points of interest to report, have led to the flourishing of an independent polling industry.

It is hence not very inexplicable that there is no similar industry here; rather the surveys that are conducted are the work of local academics and statistics organisations. For one, it is unclear whether the market in Singapore is deep enough to support a natural polling organisation, given its small population. But more importantly, polls largely do not reflect anything very crucial. The PAP has such a comfortable lead that it really does not need to be very sensitive to feedback. In such a position, knowing more about what people think may simply be embarrassing rather than illuminating, which is why the PAP was happy enough to grade itself and submit its own scorecard. Similarly, I believe that polling will give the opposition similar uncomfortable truths about the popularity of its positions.

Given the way our Singapore Conversation is going, I think it is a good time to bring in the awareness of the greater picture and the attention to specifics a well-conducted poll can bring. For example, on the Singapore Conversation webpage, Ace Kay shares this sentiment: “bring back the Kampong spirit where people from all races and religions congregate and share their joy”. While it is a nice sentiment, I doubt this is the sort of feedback that will lead to effective change and a greater understanding of the policy preferences of Singaporeans. It is further unclear whether bringing back the Kampong spirit is something many people want. I for one am not too keen. We have no way of telling if it is simply the wish of the village idiot or the wishes of the greater part of the population.

In conclusion, the lack of an authoritative understanding of the thinking of Singaporeans on the whole and in context is one reason why to date we have been finding our political awakening loud, sometimes frankly offensive, and largely confused. The establishment of the practice of polling in Singapore can help to solve these issues, and if done consistenty can become a good reflection of the political views of Singaporeans. But for these firms to survive, they need patronage, and it is difficult to see what can support it at the present. Ultimately, the information will be of greatest value to the politicians themselves (if they have anything on the line at all), but also to websites that are interested in Singapore politics (The Online Citizen) and a competitive press that can use the data to editorialise and lead discussion more effectively. Until an effective ecosystem grows, it is difficult to see how polling can be supported (and supported it must be, as it must constantly pass judgment on the goings-on of government, not only when the government sees fit to listen to it), but this does not mean that it is not necessary and helpful to the country’s growing self-awareness.

The conservative dream

Krugman has published an article titled “The GOP’s Existential Crisis“, in which he theorises that the Republican leadership’s inability to make a counter-offer to President Obama is a sign of a lack of direction after the disintegration of the conservative dream of dismantling the welfare state:

“Since the 1970s, the Republican Party has fallen increasingly under the influence of radical ideologues, whose goal is nothing less than the elimination of the welfare state — that is, the whole legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society… [Conservatives thought that] the G.O.P. could exploit other sources of strength — white resentment, working-class dislike of social change, tough talk on national security — to build overwhelming political dominance, at which point the dismantling of the welfare state could proceed freely. Just eight years ago, Grover Norquist, the antitax activist, looked forward cheerfully to the days when Democrats would be politically neutered: “Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant, but when they’ve been fixed, then they are happy and sedate.”

O.K., you see the problem: Democrats didn’t go along with the program, and refused to give up…And look at where we are now in terms of the welfare state: far from killing it, Republicans now have to watch as Mr. Obama implements the biggest expansion of social insurance since the creation of Medicare.

So Republicans have suffered more than an election defeat, they’ve seen the collapse of a decades-long project. And with their grandiose goals now out of reach, they literally have no idea what they want — hence their inability to make specific demands.

It’s a dangerous situation. The G.O.P. is lost and rudderless, bitter and angry, but it still controls the House and, therefore, retains the ability to do a lot of harm, as it lashes out in the death throes of the conservative dream.”

Undoubtedly this is an interesting theory, but it will be more interesting to see how it can be justified. Krugman is sounding conspiratorial (as he occasionally does when talking about Republicans) in mentioning a “conservative dream”. Who holds this dream? How was it organised and just how close were they to succeeding? For the way Krugman puts it, it is a plot every bit as subversive as the Russian revolution  but seemingly far more cunning. If it is actually a thing that exists, I’d like to see books in the future about the failed conservative putsch of the late 20th century.