Go with a smile!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Happy Period

I look back upon the time when I joined the GEP with some mixed feelings. There were many ways in which those days were the best of my life. My father was doing well at work, and we lived in comfortable homes. (Mansions in Singapore are outrageously expensive, and I didn’t live in one. But our homes were nice enough.) I had just joined the GEP, and rather inexplicably did quite well. I was in the middle of my class in primary 3, (because I was scoring 95 when everybody else was scoring 97, 98). In my first 2 years there, I was able to get on by being more clever than others. After that, other people started to beat me by being more hardworking. During my first years in the GEP, I did 2 class projects that were well received.

So it was a charmed life for those 2-3 years. I had impressed my teachers, my classmates. After that, I would have a couple of years when I would crash and become a mediocre student again. Then after that I would recover and become average to good again.

I was quite a hell-raiser back in the day. For those 3 years I would always be the class clown, and throw in smart aleck comments on a regular basis. Maybe life was too easy for me. Maybe I got things done too easily. Maybe teachers were too indulgent with me and allowed me to get away with less than my best. Maybe I didn’t make more of an effort to understand people better or widen my circle.

In sum, good things happened to me during those years. I was finally amongst people who were similar to me. In my previous school, I didn’t exactly fit in, and the previous school was more Chinese-y and more conformist. Now, there were things to do and explore, rather than being somebody on 95 marks and training yourself to avoid simple mistakes so you can get up to 97 or 98. I was stretched inside of class. But I can hardly remember doing anything very much outside of it. It was a lot of cartoons, a lot of mindless entertainment, computer games. Maybe there was a lack of structure.

For clarity, I should state that I would roughly divide my time in the GEP into 3 periods. The first was the happy period, primary 4-6. Second was the unhappy period, sec 1 and 2. Third would be the romantic period, sec 3 and 4. In sum I would say that 5 out of 7 of those years were happy ones, which is a pretty good record.

During the unhappy phase, I would be punished for all that. After I got to secondary school, it was hellish. I took a little too long to adjust, but I did learn some responsibility and grow up somewhat. But well you know, people like me who are a little unusual will suffer the fate of bumping into somebody who doesn’t understand, and who will screw up your life by mismanaging you. Things became better (romantic phase) after I distanced myself from my mother. I stopped talking to her, stopped caring what she thought, stopped obeying her. And she started distancing herself and restricting her role. It was not ideal but heck of a lot better than fighting every day and probably a good way to disengage from a chaotic situation. Won’t elaborate much on the romantic years, but they were somewhat bittersweet and probably the most idealistic of all.

So it was funny. There were 3 years there, and after that was PSLE. And there was a trip to the United States, which was in some ways some kind of a magic dreamland, and in other ways a weird dystopic disappointment. Then was secondary school where the first couple of years were hellish. I had turned from a situation where I could do nothing wrong to a situation where I could do nothing right.

So sometimes I think to myself that today, living in Mexico, this part of my life feels the most similar to that happy phase in my life. The unit number of my office is the same as the postal code of the school during that time, so that did make me think, "Am I back in that phase?" 1. I overcame a great obstacle in order to get to where I was.

Back then, that obstacle was the entrance exam of the GEP. This time, it was getting admitted into a masters program for computer science, then passing it, then obtaining a job. There were 3 obstacles involved. I never fully expected myself to cross those borders. Maybe my biggest weakness is that I don’t have that much optimism. I never really expected myself to get into the GEP, and I never fully expected myself to be working in the USA as a coder.

2. I was going from a more Asian environment to a more Western environment

I was going from a traditionally Chinese school to a traditionally English school back then. This time around, I was going from Singapore to the USA.

3. Life was easy enough without me getting stretched (see above)

4. I was living a life some might call a dream.

And so long as it lasted, I was fine. I’m in a beautiful place, I don’t have to pay as much as I do in Singapore, and I earn more than what I’d make in IT in Singapore.

5. I was in an environment where people were well taken care of, and nerds were allowed to be themselves.

But sometimes I wonder if it will all disappear suddenly. I wonder if I’m being spoilt, or life is too carefree, or too spoilt. Then again, I will look at the terrible years after that, and wonder if there was a lot of drama for nothing.

6. I was probably living in a world of my own.

I think I was obsessed with cartoons and toys. There were MASK toys and Transformers. I didn't own more than 3 or 4 but those were things I dreamt of a lot of the time. That was the first or the last time that I was such a fanboy. Over here, I’m collecting recorded music at a rather alarming rate.

Sometimes I wonder what would happen when the bubble pops, or how it would pop. Perhaps what I'm feeling is also similar to my adult life after 29. Maybe life after 29 is supposed to be more stressful because you have kids and all that, but that didn't happen to me. Maybe what's happening to me is what people call "getting too comfortable".


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Role and impact of social media on politics in Singapore

The 2006 and 2011 elections were different from the previous ones. The 2006 election was the election of the blog. The 2011 elections was the one of the social media. In fact, one of the major developments was that it was now possible to find out which of your friends is like-minded, whether you are in the pro-PAP or pro-opposition camp. People who are pro-opposition views known in public, so you know that a few people you've known all your life are sold on the idea and not merely some weird cracko. There were a lot of people writing lengthy Facebook notes about how exciting it was that we're having a real democratic election at last, instead of just a showpiece.

So this round of elections is also about the social media, and that perennial question: to what extent is social media an agent of political change? 2011 was the year that the optimism about this was at its zenith. There was Occupy Wall Street. There was Arab Spring and also GE 2011.

But very soon the backlash began. Occupy Wall Street could not go on forever, even if it did permanently make an impression that wealth inequality was a real issue. Arab Spring failed to take off in Egypt. There were big Muslim countries like Indonesia which managed to modernise, but Egypt - well too bad they only have either the army or the Muslim Brotherhood. And we didn't have a real democracy sprouting up immediately. Then again, the revolution in France was only the beginning of a long and complex road to nationhood, so why should we expect instant results in Egypt?

Very soon, the dark side of social media made itself known. First there were the Snowden revelations, which made it clear that the US was collecting data and intruding the privacy of their own citizens. Then the ISIS became one of the most powerful forces in the Middle East. Islamist terrorism was starting to disrupt nascent governments in Libya and Algeria And the recruiting campaigns on the internet,were brutal and effective. Most disturbingly, governments in China and Russia and to a smaller extent Singapore were starting to understand how internet and the social media can be used to shape the public opinion. In sum, there are some real and tangible effects of social media. The gay rights civil movement happened, although this has been seized upon by Russia as a symbol of western decadence. There is growing awareness of climate change and this has been in part the internet creating growing awareness, and in part the business community being effectively mobilised to create a new wave of green technologies.

Most recently, the camera phones has highlighted the brutal treatment of black people at the hands of the police. America being a police state is the third injustice being committed against the blacks ( the first two are slavery and Jim Crow) When you put the pieces together the system is rigged against blacks. you can't take away the legal rights of black people, but you can put many of them in jail and make life hell for them.

I want to give credit where credit is due. The PAP have improved a lot from 2011. Their social media management is much better. They appear to have a more plausible claim to be a party of the people, not a couple of elitist fuckers going from point to point in their bulletproof limousines and hiding behind their minders. They have learnt to talk the language of the common people. Most likely the most successful candidates of the opposition party in 2011 have shown us how to tell the world that you are Singaporean, and how to come across as a genuine person, and a genuine Singaporean. But the problem with this is that maybe more than a few of them are truly believing that it is really an issue of communicating their policies better, and not that their policies are fucked up. Well many of their policies are fucked up, otherwise you won't have so many people voting against them.

The irony of it all is this: Singaporeans know that their lives are not going to get better. The opposition getting 7 seats in parliament is not tangibly going to make their lives better in a short amount of time. Fucked up policies take a long time to reverse (ironically it was the PAP themselves who were always harping on this.) If the cost of living spirals out of control, then there's not that much you can do to unfuck the situation. Because of that, I think they will still be punished at the polls. My projection is that the best that the PAP can hope for is to match the results of GE2011.


Thursday, August 06, 2015

Plan B for Singapore

This was shared on Facebook. It’s a little strange for Nicole Seah. But in many ways it made sense. Nicole Seah was not merely a pretty face when she turned out during the 2011 elections. I think many of us saw that she was the real thing. She was an articulate, thoughtful person, and her heart was in the right place. Perhaps she still had a little bit of growing up to do, like anybody else under the age of 30.

She might have seen herself as a moderate. That’s the issue with all the new faces which come in during the 2011 elections. You had the younger generation being more idealistic. As opposed to the older counterparts, it was a more attractive proposition to be a member of the opposition party for the more educated people of my generation. 2011 was unusual because of the number of highly qualified people who showed up in opposition colours. Nicole Seah showed up wearing opposition colours but I would rather she showed up wearing nothing.

So that’s a problem for the opposition: not only are they going to expand quickly, they’re going to have to disappoint a lot of the people who had stuck with them through thick and thin, and who may not have the capacity for the leadership that’s required. This is something that the PAP had to face, as anybody who’s ever read the book “Men in White” would know. Corruption takes place not because of what happens at the top. Corruption takes place because of what happens one or two levels removed from the top: your barons and your lords, who have their fiefdom. How does the king keep them in line? If you are Lee Kuan Yew, you break their heads and twist their melons. For everybody else, it’s hard. That’s why the eradication of corruption in Singapore during the early days of our nationhood was such a singular and unique occurance.

But she had only been around for barely a few months before she got shot into her limelight. She had everything you could ask for in a politician – good looks, idealistic, intelligent. Maybe she would be the Lim Chin Siong of our generation. But perhaps she didn’t have a few other qualities. She wasn’t hard headed enough. She wasn’t political enough.

So somebody had a screen capture of something she put up on Facebook (and I think, for very good reasons, she had put up pretty aggressive privacy settings). This is what she said:

Don’t we have a roof over our heads? Three meals a day? We can improve many things around here, but enough is enough? Really? Then what? Vote the government out? Are you going to run the country? Do you have the alternative proposals needed to run the country? Can we even promise that we have a critical mass of the right people to run the country? It’s a responsibility that’s easier said than done.

There are a few people who would call her a traitor, and I can understand why they would think like that. I would interpret that as she’s not necessarily against the idea of there being an opposition. But she’s buying the idea that there won’t be an opposition ready enough to take over, and it would seem that she’s done with the opposition. Her horizons have been very much broadened in the post 2011 years. She’d have seen so much, talked to so many people, thought about how things work.

And one of the things that I’ve come to realize is this: the opposition can’t solve our problems. Only the PAP can. And where the opposition comes in, is that the opposition forces the PAP to take a good hard look at our problems. And even if the PAP wants to solve our problems, they are so deep and pressing that they won’t do much. They’ll talk about 6.9 million people. It’s totally ridiculous. They haven’t changed on a level fundamental enough to make a difference. There’s a lot of papering over cracks, but nothing substantive. Mainly the propaganda has improved, not much else.

But regarding Nicole Seah being a part of the opposition, this is what you have to reckon with: in any properly functioning organization, she would have risen very quickly. She would not have been a figurehead, she would not have been put down. To the extent that she was subject to very personal attacks, the NSP would have marshalled some support system to help her deal with it. Maybe set up an IB to handle some of the bullshit. But there’s none of that. People may call themselves “parties” but it’s every man for himself. If Jeanette Chong Aruldoss likes it, she leaves NSP and joins SPP. If Benjamin Pwee likes it, he leaves SPP and sets up his own thing. Tan Jee Say spends a grand total of 2-3 months in the SDP. Where is the growth in the opposition parties?

To a certain extent, we could say that things are always going to be pretty fluid and in a flux until there is some form of political success. Only when there are bums on seats in parliament, will there be any form of growth in the parties. But this is a very slow process. And the reason why it’s not good for the opposition to grow slowly is the way that our political system works. Everything is bundled up together. 4 or 5 seats are bundled up together. Vote in 4 of my guys, you people, otherwise we will lose a cabinet minister. But this also means that when the opposition gains ground, they will do so fairly quickly. The Worker’s Party used to have 1 person in parliament. Now, in the last term, they had 7, and if you add in the 2 NCMPs, they have 2 more. They’ve had to grow big very quickly and it would be completely surprising if they didn’t cock up at some point or another.

One of the most important forms of control in Singapore is the hoarding of information. The powers that be in Singapore make it sound like it's a really great thing, this defamation law against free speech. But the main idea is to place an onerous burden on people who want to go up against the system, to get their facts right when there is no information freely made available. So you have this twin strategy of defamation lawsuits and withholding of information, and that makes it basically impossible for anybody to oppose the PAP, much less provide an articulate alternative to the running of government. So far, the government, after having relaxed free speech for a while, changed course and clamped down on Yawning Bread, Han Hui Hui and Roy Ngerng. They also clamped down on Amos Yee but that was either a completely idiotic move or they got so used to wielding the stick and are so morally degenerate that they just can't help being brutal and cruel. Tellingly, none of their moves so far were against people in opposition parties. Except maybe Alex Tan from the Reform Party. Maybe it was that opposition parties are run by cautious people. Maybe it was that the PAP doesn't want to provoke an international outcry, because - this is pretty different from the situation in the 90s, but these days, the foreign press, far from being the fearless curmudgeons of yore, have written hagiography after hagiography about our economic miracle. It seems that they have developed the Stockholm Syndrome after having been sued way too much by the Gahment back in the day.

Then Lee Hsien Loong would say something like I would have to spend far too much time fixing the opposition and that detracts from running of the show. Although on this point I can't say he's completely wrong. (He was called out for using the word "fix" and I think that's hilarious). But here's the thing: some of the most visible resistance to the PAP has been people like Roy Ngerng, who have been caught out making unsubstantiable statements on the way that the CPF is being run. And he gets rewarded for his civic duty by being sued. Then as he gets strung out to dry, he becomes the poster boy for the anti-establishment, and Singaporeans are just going to talk more about him because somebody getting sued his ass off and being made to lose his job is more sensational than a more circumspect and well-reasoned critique of policy. The PAP has learnt that, and that's why they're going back to old tactics.

Suppose there’s another swing against the PAP and after this round of elections, the opposition has 20 seats. How are they going to manage 4 town councils between them? Suppose they captured more than 1/3, and they got to sit on all sorts of committees in parliament, and got to run enough town councils between them, how are they going to manage? That’s the problem with Singaporeans. We love our Samsui women, we love our hawkers, we love our opposition politicians. We all love our homegrown heroes, but nobody EVER wants to be one of them.

So what does it mean, when you have a system which is creaking, and suddenly, the PAP’s ability to fix these problems also starts creaking as well? What happens when we have a situation where both the PAP and the Opposition have to on one hand join forces to solve Singapore’s problems and at the same time engage in the customary mudwrestling that makes up the bastion of democratic politics? Things are going to be very very interesting.