Asian Correspondent » Tng Ying Hui Asian Correspondent Fri, 03 Jul 2015 10:16:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Singapore: Why Occupy Raffles failed Tue, 25 Oct 2011 07:22:34 +0000

Throughout the world, ‘Occupy’ protesters continue to take to the streets. London, Greece, and even Tokyo have had seen their fair share of demonstrators. In Singapore, Occupy Raffles, however, was a failure.

Despite the event’s Facebook page having 3,000 likes and 75 indicating their attendance, only a handful of people and a few pigeons graced Occupy Raffles Place.

Why did it fail?

The finger-pointing fell mostly upon the organizers for their lack of audacity, and netizens discarded the event as a “joke.”

According to The Online Citizen:

Kirsten Han commented on their FB page, “Please, if you want to lead an action you have to be the first to stand up and be counted. I was there. The press was there. As far as we could tell you weren’t there. If you can’t even stand up first then please don’t snark.

In their defense the organizers said:

Just because we didn’t talk to the media doesn’t mean we weren’t there. We are obviously very disappointed with the lack of ground support, We take the blame for lack of logistics and planning, and we apologize for any inconvenience caused.

But perhaps there are other reasons that contributed to the no-show.

First, the police’s statement had served as a useful deterrent.

They said:

Police received reports that a netizen is instigating the public to stage a protest gathering at Raffles Place on Saturday, 15 October 2011 in support of a similar protest action in New York. Police urge members of the public not to be misled and participate in an unlawful activity.

Memories of the heavy-handed actions taken against previous public protests in Singapore stirred some fear within those who initially had intended to go. In 2008, Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Singapore Democrat Party, and a few protestors were arrested for staging a rally walk from the parliament.

Second, what are the Occupy protests about? The Occupy Wall Street protest that sparked off a chain reaction round the world was fueled by a deep sense of discontentment – but with what exactly?

As part of the Occupy Wall Street’s statement of purpose:

We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.

Though it sounds vague, some such as the Business Insider, argued there are legitimate reasons for the Occupy Wall Street Protest:

The problem in a nutshell is this: Inequality in this country has hit a level that has been seen only once in the nation’s history, and unemployment has reached a level that has been seen only once since the Great Depression. And, at the same time, corporate profits are at a record high.

So could the failure to Occupy Raffles Place be attributed to a countenance of malcontent: that majority of Singaporeans are not so disenchanted with the corporate “greed”? In other words, those that had been most vocal and vituperative in their attacks are just a tiny fraction of the population. Or perhaps, the majority disagrees fundamentally with the method of showing their discontent?

Third, the opening up of Singapore. As the country is going through a transition, it becomes harder to assess what lines can be overstepped. No longer can people with certainty say the government will clamp down relentlessly, but the converse is true, too. This murky delineation creates ambivalence that on one hand incites more vocal denouncement of the government on the internet, but on the other, perpetuates a culturally entrenched inertness in reality.

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Singapore: Encouraging immigration to solve population woes? Sat, 10 Sep 2011 01:06:56 +0000

At a dialogue held at the Nanyang Technology University (NTU) earlier this week, Singapore’s former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew told a crowd of 1,800 students that Singapore’s liberal immigration policy is necessary, as the country is facing an ageing population, coupled with decreasing birth rates.

Mr Lee had responded to a question posed by Joan Sim, a PhD student at NTU’s School of Biological Sciences.

According to the report on Channel NewsAsia:

Miss Sim asked: “Given the big influx of immigrants here in a short time, and a dilution of the national identity, what can we do to create a sense of belonging and foster social cohesiveness?”

By pointing to the fast ageing population, Mr Lee answered the question in a roundabout way.

“The birth rate today, the fertility rate, is 1.01. In other words, for every couple, you have 1.01 babies.

“The Institute of Policy Studies has the grim statistics of 60,000 migrants a year to keep our economy young. We can’t digest that. 20,000 maybe, 25,000 – that’s a stretch – but certainly not 60,000.”

Mr Lee said, for the population to replace itself, couples must have a fertility rate of 1.8 babies or better still, 2.1 babies.

Pic: AP

Mr Lee Kuan Yew has always patently stood by his idea of a liberal immigration policy. In 2003 at a similar dialogue, he had expressed the same ideas.

“If we do not attract, welcome and make foreign talent feel comfortable in Singapore, we will not be a global city and if we are not a global city, it doesn’t count for much.”

In 2005, he wrote an article published in Foreign Policy magazine urging for government intervention in resolving demographics issue.

“Without immigration that often exceeds the natural yearly growth, Singapore’s economic growth rate would be as sluggish as Japan’s.”

Many Asia countries, not just Singapore, are facing a chronic decline of birth rates.

China currently has 1.6 births per woman, Singapore has 1.15, and South Korea has slightly less than 1.1. Taiwan has just 1.03 births per woman.

In Japan, more than 20% of its population is above 65, and the fertility rate is only 1.28. Yet, it demurred at encouraging immigration to solve their demographic woes. And its crippling population problem now shadows over a stagnant economy.

However, whether there is indeed a causal relationship between declining birth rates and economic problems is contentious. Surely, a gradual decline will not result in an economic meltdown with investors scurrying out of the doors.

An article uncovering the myths of decreasing population, states:

“If the decline in the number of people is slower than the natural growth in productivity (or output per person), then the economy will still grow.

But casting this ‘problem’ aside, the government’s role far exceeds ensuring only GDP growth.

It has a tough but critical job of attenuating the discontent against the current immigration policy and also ensuring economic prosperity.

The country has now progressed from Mr Lee’s era – its previous lassitude political culture mix with a submissive attitude towards authority is fast disappearing. In an earlier article, I wrote about a Singapore-styled revolution characterized by a participatory younger generation demanding change.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew is but hitting the nail on the head when he suggested a continuation of the present immigration policy. As he and former Senior Minister Goh had written in their May 14 joint letter of resignation:

“The time has come for a younger generation to carry Singapore forward in a more difficult and complex situation.”

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Infrastructural problems hamper India’s economic growth Tue, 30 Aug 2011 08:10:14 +0000

As the West scrambles to resolve their financial woes, it seems the East has it better – perhaps. Last Thursday, India’s central bank issued a trenchant warning: economic growth might fall below 8%. This would diminish its structurally high growth trend of 8-8.5% in recent years.

Morgan Stanley’s leading indicator for growth, M1—the measurement quantifying the amount of money in circulation within an economy —is signaling slower growth. It also revised downwards its India’s economic growth forecast for 2012 to 7.4%.

Corporate investments have been responsible for India’s sustainable growth, but the 2008-2009 global credit crisis eroded its share in GDP. Moreover, the erroneous crisis stimulation that boosted consumption instead of the necessary capital creation was unable to reform the economy. The government loosened monetary policy but did not offer avenues for creating more capacity.

Ever since the 1990s, India has been in dire need of foreign investment in infrastructure. Some pundits point to the skewed investments concentrated in consumer durable sectors as the reason for a slower growth compared to China.

In late 2010, Mr Duvvuri Subbarao, governor of the Reserve Bank of India, said:

“Our infrastructure investment needs are huge,” said Mr Subbarao. “The concern though is that infrastructure, by its very nature, needs long term finance, and volatile flows chasing short-term returns does not meet the need.”

It is hard to see investments coming in when electricity is bereft in the country. A large part of India does not receive electricity. While in sub-Saharan Africa, about 70 percent of the population lack electricity, no country has more citizens living without power than India. And the recent ‘coal rush’ is not mitigating this problem.

The locals protested intensely, culminating to violent repressions and deaths, when the government decided to jump onto the bandwagon.

As Justin Guay, of the US Sierra Club’s International climate programme, blogged:

“The sheer scale of this expansion has left local communities to bear the brunt of an increasingly violent onslaught of land acquisition and displacement, corruption and intimidation, and a toxic legacy of localised pollution.”

Last year, 173 coal-fired power plants were approved, which amounted to one project per day. Recently, the government announced an addition of about 200 new coal-fired power plants over the next five years.

The lack of electricity is only one of the reasons affecting India’s economy, but it is one that does not surface in public debates as frequently as the issue of corruption.

As doubts linger over India’s economy, the same could be felt for a China economy that is pumped up on steroids. The two giant economies could potentially falter like their counterparts in the West – but not just yet.

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What is lacking in Singapore’s society? Tue, 16 Aug 2011 04:08:27 +0000

It was an innocuous and short paragraph in TODAY’s newspaper, yet it became an overnight sensation. It was reported, a family who just moved to Singapore from China could not stand the smell of curry that their Indian neighbours cooked, and took the matter to the Community Mediation Centre (CMC)

The Indian family had already taken measures to reduce the spread of the curry smell by closing windows, but the situation was not resolved.

Quoting what was reported on TODAYonline:

“The [Chinese family] said: ‘Can you please do something? Can you don’t cook curry? Can you don’t eat curry?’,” said Madam Marcellina Giam, a Community Mediation Centre mediator. But the Indian family stood firm.

In the end, the Indian family agreed to cook curry only when the Chinese family is not around, while the CMC had said this was proposed by one of the parties, and not Mdm Giam. But the crux of the matter is that the case should not even be brought to the CMC.

As immigrants, they had relinquished privileges from their home country, and should make attempts to assimilate into their new society, beginning with toleration of different cultures.

Or rather, this is a case that the CMC should not have entertained because curry is a local dish, and part and parcel of the Indian culture. The intervention by the CMC suggests its tacit agreement to the sensibility of the issue: that cooking curry is a problem. It is equivalent to asking the Chinese not to burn incense, joss paper, and papier-mâché during Hungry Ghost Festival. Practicing one’s culture should be categorically legitimate, unless, in accordance with J.S Mill’s harm principle, it is detrimental to others.

Analyzing the issue in its entirety, the reason why the media, both alternative and mainstream alike have picked up this issue is the newsworthy-ness of the piece. This reflects, unfortunately, an undercurrent of xenophobia within the society, or perhaps, the rise of it.

It takes two hands to clap – toleration should be a norm adopted within society, and practiced by both immigrants and locals alike. The ethos of restraint will cultivate a climate of sensitivity, where interaction between groups of people takes into consideration their different cultural dispositions. This is in part a way of respecting basic human dignity of members of the community that far surpasses practical concerns for social stability. With an increase in foreigners entering into Singapore’s society it is critical at this juncture to adhere to the value of tolerance.

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Singapore’s own revolution Mon, 01 Aug 2011 17:59:12 +0000

It is a revolution in Singapore style: no protesting and no chaos, at least observable ones. Singapore is going through a transformative phase, one which is for once not imposed upon by the government through its campaigns. Its people, the youth especially, are leading this revolution.

The watershed general election in May had shown that Singaporeans are willing to participate in bringing about the changes they wish to see. Facebook notes of their stand and hopes for a more democratic country were written and circulated. At the election rallies, attendance was the highest in history. No longer can the youth be affronted with criticisms of their apathy.

The shifting ground sentiments for a less regimented society is not without opposition. This is recently manifested through an inconsequential uproar over the use of a four-letter expletive F word by a valedictorian in National Technology University. As the video of her speech went viral, it had almost the entire country talking about it – the appropriateness or denouncing the usage of that single word. Media sensationalization aside, this little episode reveals the underlying clash of values belying a society that has for a big part of its history been tolerating, if not advocating, conformity.


Fun is perhaps the least appropriate word to describe pristine Singapore. It is a place where graffiti can fetch eight strokes of cane and where chewing sweets on the train can possibly result in a fine. Rationality is seen as the only palatable attribute worth upholding, while passions and emotions are inane. Cooling off day, designated as a 24-hour period before election day when campaigning is not allowed, was designed by the government to provide voters the time to reflect “calmly” on their decision.

However, this school of thought fails to recognize the lack of passion disengages one completely from an issue. Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor from the University of Virginia, found that patients deprived of distractive emotions did not make better rational decisions; rather, they failed to make any at all. Emotions and passions are the underlying attributes in keeping people engaged with the issue, empowering them to make choices.

The government can continue to strive for perfection and pour in millions of dollars into constructing itself into a ‘firsts’ for everything. But it should not forget the words of Rupert Emerson, an American scholar: [a nation] is a community of people who feel that they belong together […] and that they have a common destiny for the future.”

Emotions should no longer be castigated or held inferior to rationality. The national frenzy so rarely seen in Singapore emerged briefly during the World Cup Qualifiers. Whether it was a trip down to the Jalan Besar stadium or a gathering in front of the television, the zealous support shown towards the Singapore Lions was evident. The national pride that emanated was not a product of efforts in constructing Singapore as a ‘sports hub’. It was purely an emotion developed out of latent feelings of solidarity.

Changes that have been besetting the society of Singapore have also been manifested in the theater scene. The Man Singapore Theater Festival 2011 organized by W!ld Rice addresses taboos that a couple of years ago would have crossed the threshold of  OB (out-of-bound) markers. The censorship axe does not fall upon these plays as swiftly and brutally as they used to.

The festival includes plays that address ethnic tensions: Alfian Sa’at’s “Nadirah” (2009), about a Muslim daughter coming to terms with her mother’s decision to marry a Christian, and Chong Tze Chien’s “Charged” (2010), a mystery set in an army camp that deals with tensions between ethnic Malays and Chinese. According to the description on the website, the latter is a “refreshing lack of political correctness.”

Theatre’s role is to present a plurality of views that on one hand may be discomforting, but are reflections of the realities within society. The exchange of ideas allows a society, devoid of space and language, to discuss sensitive issues that are close to hearts in order to progress. This is exactly what W!ld Rice does, as it constantly challenges the status quo.

As change is creeping into society, the last thing needed is for a lackluster response from the rest of society and the government, stymieing efforts of the advocators who have taken bold steps to rebel. After all, they are working for a society more fun and passionate.

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Where is the dragon headed? Mon, 18 Jul 2011 06:05:29 +0000

China as a rising force has been etched in our minds for the past decade. Yet there is a strange development that had made some nervous: while its influence spreads more extensively, it heads in a less than assured direction.

China has done little to transit to a democracy. The arbitrary crackdowns on those who are forthrightly and publicly critical of the government are occurrences peppered throughout their history. The Arab revolution that has been occurring the past few months has heightened China’s sense of nationalism, causing Tibet’s political status to be more sensitive. Recently, the authorities arrested eight Tibet monks when they refused to participate in events organized in celebration of the 90th anniversary of the communist party. Their resistance was to make a statement against the repression on Tibet by Beijing.

Like China’s problematic internal politics, its economy that has seen extraordinary growth over the past decade is now in a predicament. Much of China’s GDP is driven by real estate construction and this unprecedented bubble could potentially burst. The large amount of spending on public projects is to prepare the moving of people from the rural areas to urban centers. Yet, cities are already sprouting up even before the relocation is under way. And there is no certainty as to if they ever will be filled. Suffice to say, the cities are becoming ghost towns.

Only around 30,000 people currently resids in Kangbashi, a city in Inner Mongolia. But the government continues to invest $160 billion in the city’s real estate construction in order to provide accommodation for an expected one million people. Twenty other cities in China are similarly facing this situation, Bloomberg TV reports.

With local governments pushing these projects, assuming their provinces have huge potential for urbanization and development, all these investments might be waste, becoming default loans on the bank’s balance sheet. The local debt caused by the central government’s accelerating investments is already problematic. At $540 billion, Lina Song, a professor of economic sociology and social policy at the University of Nottingham, says it is a “time bomb waiting to go off.”

What is certain: China’s cultural protectionism. There is a strict quota of 20 foreign movies imported each year, and they are restricted to a limited number of theaters. While most of the world are watching the finale of Harry Potter, Chinese theaters will be screening the propagandist movie Beginning of the Great Revival. Earlier last year, Avatar was pulled from the screens in favour of a movie on Confucius.

China has long struggled with the contradiction of either learning from the West or following its own course. In the late 1910s to the early 1920s, the New Cultural Revolution arose out of rejection of traditionalism. It was a led by intellectuals who pandered towards Western ideas, albeit to different degrees. However, the revolution culminated in the May Fourth Movement after sentiments of betrayal by the West at the Versailles Peace Treaty rose to the fore.

The parochialism today is different as it is a reaction against Westernization which China has experienced since 1978 when Deng Xiaoping set in train the transformation of the country’s economy with his “open door” policy.

Moreover, with the imminent leadership change, there are more reasons why the world should be on its toes. Bo Xilai, touted as the “Man of the year” by People’s Daily online poll, is running for the presidential elections in 2012. He currently helms the chief position of the Community Party official in Chongqing, the largest city in China. In 2008, he launched a Red Cultural Campaign where he promoted 45 songs that were popular during the country’s revolutionary period in hope to replace the pop songs. The media stations also suspended programs during prime time showing instead classic revolutionary dramas.

The pessimism, however, should not be overstated; China’s is not perceived to be going downhill anytime soon. A recent PEW survey shows that 15 out of 22 nations believe that China will replace or have already replaced the United States as the world’s superpower.

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Using art for social change in China Sun, 26 Jun 2011 16:11:35 +0000

The nature of art as a medium through which ideas are spread means it could either be appropriated or denounced by the government. As a political artist in China, one treads on thin ice.

Artist Ai Wei Wei can only take his art out of his country into the Tate gallery of London. One of his installations composed of a vast spread of handcrafted porcelain sunflower seeds, which sent the message of the Chinese as a homogenous and destitute mass. When he cordoned off the area later during the exhibition, claiming the trampled sunflower seeds were emitting hazardous dust, Mr Ai was perhaps pointing to the volatile ire of the Chinese.

Mr. Ai is publicly attacking the political authority, increasingly, in a no holds barred way. Most notably, he denounced the Beijing Olympics as a “PR Sham”, whose stadium – the Bird Nest – he had designed. His criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party had precedence in the 1990s when he photographed himself making a rude gesture in front of Tiananmen Square.

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei. Pic: AP.

Unsurprisingly he has come under close scrutiny from the political authorities. He was recently released after being detained for two months because of tax evasion, or so the official narrative goes.

But whether this is a cover-up, conjectures can easily be made through a cursory examination of Mr Ai’s interactions with the authorities. In January this year, authorities were given the order to demolish his studio, and in 2009, he was beaten up by the police and underwent surgery for a life-threatening hemorrhage.

Censorship in China is no new news, but it is appalling to see the extent to which a country that is economically progressive continues to clamp down on activists while ignoring the younger population’s demands for change.

China’s mircroblog, Sina Weibo, is banning words with slightest connection to Mr. Ai. According to CNN, they include, “release,” “AWW” and “the fat guy.” Previously, the phrase “love the future,” which looks and sounds like his name in Mandarin, was used as a code to spread their support for him and express their discontent. This has purportedly been banned, as well.

But if the Chinese government seemed to be high handed with its artists in contemporary times, Han Han, the literary ‘pop-star’, said, “their thinking process is a bit old-fashioned and stupid, but not evil. Except towards people who they believe might threaten the government, of course this relates mostly to many political events in the past.”

Mr. Han who is touted as the advocator for youths in China comments on political issues such as freedom of speech on his blog. But understanding his precarious position vis-à-vis the government, he often, with savviness, shrouds his incendiary criticisms in metaphors, humorous anecdotes, and avoids directly confronting the authorities.

Han Han’s alternative literary magazine, “独唱团” (A Chorus solo) had run into problems with the authorities and collapsed about a year after it was first published. He avoided pointing to the propaganda department as responsible for the magazine’s termination and carefully worded his response: “I don’t know what was wrong. I don’t know who I’ve displeased. I’m standing in the light while you are in the dark. If we ever met, I will not hold a grudge, but please could you tell me what happened.”

Both Ai Wei Wei and Han stand on the metaphorical precipice, each to different degrees because of their approach, as they struggle to express the discontentment of the masses they wish to represent while ensuring this expression continues. As they continue to use symbols and rhetoric that are meaningful to the public, they each in turn become a symbol of hope themselves.

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The homeless in Singapore and Berkeley Wed, 15 Jun 2011 04:31:38 +0000

Down the streets of Berkeley, California, homeless people are seen at nearly every corner. Before I arrived, it was almost unimaginable to me the extent of their ubiquity, and the tolerance the community and state could show to them.

They sit on benches and reside along the sidewalks, some of them walking aimlessly while towing their trolley of belongings, and others playing the guitar while singing. The community goes on about their daily business without forgetting to give a penny or a dollar to the homeless, and occasionally stopping by to chat with them. Perhaps it is their pervasiveness that makes it impossible to ignore, or more possibly they are seen as part of the community. It is difficult to imagine Berkeley without its homeless people.

On my second day in Berkeley, I met a homeless woman who asked for a dollar in a curt and gruff manner. Taken aback, I instinctively shook my head, despite it being evident that I did have a dollar, as I was carrying bags of groceries. A passerby turned to me, with a shrug – and a sad smile- said, “She’s just homeless.” This encapsulates society’s tolerance of them and their role as a defender of the downtrodden, which is reflective in the state government’s policies.

The California state government administers short-term housing grants and federal Recovery Act funding that provides priority job training and placements to the homeless. The police do not make incursions into the lives of the homeless people unless they are creating trouble. There are laws against lying down on commercial streets during the day and smoking on sidewalks on main commercial corridors is barred. But the notion of homeless people in itself is not proscribed as a nuisance by the state, unlike in Singapore.

Singapore is a well-manicured city – nothing will seem out of place because deliberate efforts are employed to ensure everything is kept in an orderly manner, even its people. While seeing homeless people around is not a ubiquitous sight, it should not be assumed that there are none. Rather, the government is bent on keeping its image as an efficient institution with the best housing policies in Asia.

Ex-Minister of Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), Vivian Balakrishnan said, “If you were a poor person, anywhere on this planet, Singapore is the one place, where you have a roof over your head, where you will have food on your table.”

Yet in 2010, when the government took wind of Al Jazeera’s arrival, a news station base in Qatar, they raided Changi Beach where most of the homeless temporary encamped. The latter were evicted from their only shelter and some were even fined $200. This was not reported in the news, except by alternative media, The Online Citizen, an online website covering socio-political news in Singapore.

Instead of providing social services, the government’s refusal to accept responsibility while clamping down on the homeless to retain the façade of its efficacy meant that homeless people were marginalized and seen as unworthy of any space. It is a dismal thought on twofold: that one is not given a second chance in life, and the government in its urgency to create a simulacrum of perfection has lost its heart.

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