Go with a smile!

Monday, October 01, 2012

The Revolutionary and the Community Organiser

There was this conversation I had online with somebody. Basically NYC was awarded the LKY award for managing their city or something like that. Then somebody came online and spat out at Singapore for a bunch of petty minded, fascist people. I argued with him that he was being a pretty narrow minded twat himself, and I thought he was just an insular NYC dweller who thought the world of himself, just because he came from NYC and looked down on Singapore. I was a little surprised when I found out the truth. A mutual friend put a comment of his up on the wall. This is what he wrote (he was talking about the newly opened Yale-NUS venture):
Yale's Singapore venture reminds me of the way I came to Singapore. The Humanities Programme was, and I guess still is, an set of "A: level courses offered to a small elite of students in the 'top five' Junior Colleges. It was started in the mid 1980's at the initiative of Goh Keng Swee and LKY as a way of luring top students away from the double-maths/science students track most of them had been programmed to follow. The idea was to expose them to humanities and social science subjects and then send them off to elite universities abroad. They would then return to an eight-year bond working for the government. Top secondary school students were admitted to the program based on their 'O' level results. The Humanities students were sequestered into their own "school within a school" where they were taught by mostly expatriate teachers recruited mostly from the UK. I was one of a very few Americans. We were kind of a "little public school" encased in the larger JC machine. We Humanities Tutors were paid an amazingly high salary -- much better than the locals and even the other expats -- and it was all tax free with large lovely bonuses!. The students that I taught were superb, for the most part. Many did go on to Oxbridge and the Ivies. Many went to NUS. Quite few have gone on to do great things. We tutors were given a great deal of freedom to teach as we saw fit. My classroom work was never interfered with. But Big Brother was watching. When I wrote something online the PAP found offensive, my contract was terminated with no explanation and I found myself unable to get another job anywhere else on the island. I had to leave the Republic despite my unquestioned success in the classroom. Later, I found out that my phone had been tapped and my mail opened. They have a very thick file. So, first of all, Yale is not "bringing the liberal arts to Singapore". Others have gone before -- and not just Humanities Tutors, but numberless dedicated local and expat teachers who educated according to humanist values and produced students who could think critically and express themselves. Second, Yale faculty will be subjected to the same restrictions and surveillance as we were in the 80's and 90's. Of that I have no doubt. I look back on my Singapore years with powerfully mixed feelings. I loved the teaching and the students -- and feel I made a difference in many of their lives. But i also came away bitter, because that had to end -- suddenly and arbitrarily. I think Yale-NUS better be prepared for much of the same.
Now, whenever I defend “Yale-NUS”, it is with pretty mixed feelings. I feel that you can’t really endorse all of it. I’d like to think of the detractors as people from Yale who are too snobbish to mix it with “mere” NUS. But it’s not that simple, because people who are teaching in Yale-NUS aren’t really free to say just anything they say. And what the detractors of that enterprise fear most – that the values of Yale will be corrupted, that it might lend legitimacy to Singapore’s dictatorial way of stifling dissent, that it makes Singapore look more “liberal” and open-minded than it really is – all these things are well and truly in danger of coming true. If I had to write to him, I’d probably say something of the following:
I’m sorry about the little skirmish, because I had always thought of him as somebody who only saw the downside of Singapore from the point of view of the New York academic, wanting to impose upon Singapore values that weren’t always compatible with how it operates. But of course now I see him as somebody who has done some work in our own trenches, so it makes things very different. My instinct is to defend Yale-NUS, not for the half empty cup of water, but the half full. I think that they won’t have very much freedom. But they can always make things a little different. It is not pre-destined that the educators in Yale-NUS are mindless automatons who endlessly parrot the party line. Some of us have our ideas about freedom as well. I’m moderately liberal. I’d criticize whenever I think I have to criticize. And I know that people like us have to keep on doing it. I’m sure that by now, my cover is blown, and whoever is out there would have a file on me. Except maybe I am not important enough for them to care about. But still you have to speak out, because you have to be part of the chorus. We are ants. We are snipers who hide ourselves and shoot from concealed locations. We do this because discretion is the better part of valour, that we also have a duty to keep ourselves alive and fight another day. People think of anonymous bloggers as cowards who keep their heads low. I also understand the story of the bear: there were two hunters who were chased by the bear. One of them puts on his running shoes. The other one says, “why do you even bother trying to run? You will never outrun the bear.” The one with the shoes says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I only have to outrun you.” So what’s the moral? Even when you are criticizing the government, try to be one of the more moderate voices. The government will crack down on the most extremist voices, but you know that they will leave you alone. Therefore your voice creates the space in which a large army of dissenters can operate. The chorus is important. It is important to make sure that the main dissenters never feel like they are operating alone, or operating in a void, or that their concerns are not reflected by the majority of the people. And I know that I have a few Facebook friends in high places. I won’t be shy to let them read some of the things I have to say. I know how social psychology works – just one person speaking up, being skeptical of always having to toe the party line will have an effect on people. They’re out there, and they have to reckon with disapproval whenever they go out and do things that go against the interests of the people of Singapore. I take the standpoint that as of now, things are not completely broken. It will be more about nudging the government to do the right thing, and respecting the incumbent’s right to carry out their duties, even as I’m on the other hand perhaps trying to foster the growth of alternative parties, so that one day they will be strong enough to take over the reins. It is a pragmatic double act – after all I am a Singaporean. I will never know what he wrote online to get himself into trouble. It may have been moderate. It may be too strong. It may be that people usually expect him to an exemplary mouthpiece of the ruling party and its interests. This Wee Shu Min, I don’t know if you’ve heard of her. Is she a humans scholar? I shudder to think that she was actually a product of a humans system which produced other people like her. I was from one of the top five and a science student, but I have quite a few humans friends. Things have to move in a new direction. But the revolutionaries are not Moses, and they are not leading the chosen people to the promised land. There is no promised land to speak of. There is only moving in the right direction or not moving in the right direction. Things can be wonderful for a few years, and then they can slide back. Or the other way around. That’s why I have this modus operandi – keep on pushing, nudge a little every day. Occasionally storm the barricades when a barrier is breached but most of the time, steady, tedious effort. We are not here to destroy. We are here to build. Nothing more to be said. Thank you for your contribution to Singapore.
For myself, I have chosen to be an engineer. I have chosen work where my political beliefs do not really matter. I could have decided to become a political science scholar if I wanted. But it would have been hard. I’d be a loose cannon, and people would just shoot me left right and centre for saying out loud what I really believe in. I could be a teacher, but once I allow people to see my real political values, I will be tied up no end. My role was something I played as an ordinary member of a particularly rowdy and rebellious class I once belonged to. Keep your head down. Incite your classmates to do crazy things. Pat them on the back for effort. Disseminate information and advice. Don’t get caught. Do this every day and keep up the pressure.


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