Saturday, May 13, 2006

Westernised Chinese S'poreans lack comfort in their own ethnicity and heritage - May 12, 2006
by Wong Hoong Hooi

This may well be my last substantive post for quite a while and while the quality of the letter arguably leaves much to be desired, nevertheless, it provides a useful launching pad for general commentary on issues of race, ethnicity, ancestry and culture within Singapore and the frequent erroneous conflation of these issues

And I figure, hey, maybe my blog should start specialising in pointing out logical fallacies and inconsistencies.

I refer to the letter 'Warm up to strangers. That's sign of a mature and cosmopolitan society' by Anthony Lee Mui Yu ( ST Online Forum, May 9 ).

Having witnessed multiple examples of persons of Anglo-Saxon origin exhibiting behaviour suggestive of a racial superiority complex both here and abroad, I am particularly put off by Westernised Singaporeans painting English-speaking Western societies in pristine light or being so quick to explain away poor behaviour by individuals from these societies.

Nothing much to say here except that this may well be a problem of generalisation (trust me, the irony hits you later right in the next paragraph) and unsubstantiated assertion masquerading as some form of self-evident fact etc. etc.

I suppose I could argue that given this letter writer's very clear biases and worldview with regards to this issue (do a quick google search to read his other letters), I would be wise to ignore everything he says on this issue. But then, I would personally be committing the motive fallacy i.e. just because he has a motive of saying so, does not automatically make what he says wrong. BUT where I would be more than free to discount what he says is with regards to his testimony, because I have to trust the veracity of his statement/fact on his sole word and his motive impugns on it. Sort of like a broker with a conflict of interest in a particular firm may well be right to say that the firm is a good buy BUT you would definitely be on guard if you were to know of that conflict than if he had no such conflict to begin with.

This danger is naturally diminished if he could provide for example proof positive of this upward moving firm but even so, one would be wise to scrutinise the data. But that's a rationality issue not a logical one.

I would not make generalisations of Anglo-Saxons from my encounters but I cannot say the same of Westernised Singaporeans and their equally insidious positive stereotyping.

My irony meter blew on this statement.

Mr Lee himself was quick to warn against negative stereotyping of Caucasians and called an East versus West contrast sweeping. Yet his own sweeping generalisation of East Asians and East Europeans as 'cold' pointed to his statement that 'cumulative observations build an image of civility or lack of it' as being nothing but back-door sanctioning of negative stereotyping of the two groups.

No comment. Don't have access to letter. No desire to troll through LexisNexis to pick it up because it's irrelevant for the point I want to make.

Also, when reader Ms Janica Chan called for practising good Chinese values, she was clearly reminding members of the Chinese Singaporean community to uphold the better aspects of their traditions.

Was she clearly doing so? Again, I wouldn't know but clarity is a big big big virtue and you generally shouldn't give others a chance to unintentionally (note the operative word here) misrepresent you.

This allows me to nicely dovetail into something on defamatory imputation that would be useful for this discussion at hand. Assume that for whatever reason you dislike me and you and I happen to go to Geylang (a notorious redlight district in Singapore that has an incredible concentration of Buddhist temples and a Buddhist Library I occasionally visit). Assume again that I was minding my business when I get dragged into a side alley and get knocked unconscious and robbed. When I come to my senses, it's 3 a.m. in the morning and I'm still suffering from the ill effects of the blow to my head. Not knowing where I am, I stagger into one of the brothels for directions and I come out after receiving it. Now, assume again that you (my hateful enemy) see me and gleefully report and publish that you saw me staggering out of a brothel at 3 in the morning. This report may well and truly be technically true, but Justification (Truth) does not provide a full and complete defence in this case BECAUSE THE DEFEMATORY IMPUTATION ("sting" of the defamation) is not my coming out of the brothel per se but that I visit one for the purpose of the purchase of sex.

So similarly, you can variously interpret the statements all you like but the important one is what a reasonable member of the public would think upon reading the letter.

Mr Lee's riposte that Singapore isn't China only underscores the lack of comfort Westernised Chinese Singaporeans have with their ethnicity and heritage.

Massive massive unwarranted assertion here. And it's going to take a bit of work to show why it's logically faulty.

Firstly, it's unsubstantiated.
Secondly, it's a massive non-sequitur. Just because this Lee guy says that Singapore isn't China (which is a point well worth making), it does not necessarily follow that a) he is a westernised Chinese Singaporean who b) has a lack of comfort with their ethnicity and heritage (VERY poor choice of words here as we shall come to see) and c) that such an individual case, even if true, could apply to the rest of "Westernised Chinese Singaporeans".
Three, it's called "begging the question" when you simply assert something as good without explaining why it is necessarily so. So why should association with our culture and a historical China NECESSARILY AND BY CONTIGENCY be a good thing. This is not to say that it is NOT a good thing, but then one simply assert it to be true.
Four, it's an unwarranted extrapolation of ancestry (which is the correct term to use here). One could well and easily argue that since Genetic Adam and Eve came from Africa, we are actually all Africans and he's denying his African heritage. Now obviously we think that that argument is pretty much pure bunk, the question here is why. One possible retort is that there is a clear evolution into different races which have a clear genetic component to it. The problem is that we share very similar (if not identical) genes to other Indo-Chinese type of races and we would not consider ourselves part of their "race".

So we see here a need to very clearly distinguish a number of things. 1. Ancestry simply refers to your line of descent and from there there isn't any argument that I'm Chinese since both my parents are themselves Chinese. But 2. ethnicity plays a huge huge role in this matter. I can think of no better examples than the Chinese (by ancestry) twins who were separated at birth and one raised in a Chinese household and the other a Malay Muslin household. So the question is this, can she still be considered Chinese or is she for most intent and purposes Malay Muslim (ignoring the legal requirements of what constitutes a minority in Singapore for Election purposes)?

But to push the we are all African or we are all Chinese points a little further, the question is this: are we all simply bound by a genetic component in blatant disregard of the realities of a) culture and b) heritage and c) ethnicity (note, this is called framing the issue =P)? I'm Peranakan for most intent and purposes given that I primarily grew up in such a household, imbibed their food (absolutely delicious), spoke and was primarily spoken to in English, and suffered through aspects of their culture (particularly the predominance of females and the Matriarchal familiar structure and me being the ONLY male and a young one then. The cruelties of teenage girls know no bounds....). Oh and historically, the Chinese (I guess here to be the Chinese immigrants from China and the locals ones who had a pretty distinct culture from those immigrants) hated us because we didn't act Chinese and definitely spoke a weird dialect of Hokkein which no one understands (try to understand what the Filipino Chinese speak and you think you understand them but some realise that they are not speaking even the same dialect). Which brings to a similar question, would Mr Woon consider these people Chinese and in denial of their culture and heritage as well?

One who finds it painful to be reminded of his ethnicity would do better to sort out the problem within himself before addressing the issue of 'a mature and cosmopolitan society'.

Okay, same logical fallacies as above and here's introducing a new one called an ad hominen attack. People frequently think that insulting a person is an ad hominen attack or that any insult thereby invalidates the argument the person who insulted making the argument. NB: Link this to the motive fallacy.

Nope. If a person is a liar and I say that because he's a liar his testimony is not to be trusted, that's not an ad hominen attack. Similarly, if I call him an idiot without any learning much less expertise in this matter, that's also not an ad hominen attack.

BUT, if I say that this scientist was a former convicted felon and therefore his testimony is to be ignored on a scientific issue on which he is an acknowledged expert, that's pretty much a ad hominen attack (also somewhat of "poisoning the well") because his prior conviction has absolutely no direct bearing on the issue at hand.

So similar, even if he were somehow "ashamed" of his ethnicity yada yada bullshit, it does not take down his earlier point that there is a difference in culture between Singapore and China that makes comparisons and analogies especially ones linked directly to culture, heritage and ethnicity to be tenuous at best and misleading or downright fallacious at worst.

And with that....



Wednesday, May 10, 2006

*Fare thee well*

Just for a while more.

Things are getting busy, what with a mixture of debate training and the preparation for the St Gallen Symposium (and the whirlwind tour round Europe after that). As such, I figure this would be a good time as any to shut down the blog temporarily till I return to Singapore on the 3rd of June.



Saturday, May 06, 2006

*Aftermath of the Elections*

I'm going to be slightly lazy for now and repost some earlier pieces I did on elections, democracy and voter's intentions in a one-party state. I want to give it some time and look at the figures before trying to discover what the relatively poorer performance by the PAP means in the larger scheme of things.

Thus I refer you to these earlier posts I did. There will be some additional comments and amendments made in reflection of the highly amonolous situation that we found ourselves in this GE i.e. that a total of 47 seats were contested such that the PAP did not automatically form the government for the first time in 18 years, that the Opposition finally abandoned their so-called "Winning by Losing" electoral strategy and that there was a much longer electioning period this time round (with the GRCs generally staying the same). Oh and the active campaigning by the former PMs.

This first post was an commentary on the two following posts by my friends:
Pro-Create: a reply to catherine lim
me, myself and I: A response to a response to Catherine Lim

Both are good posts and touch on some rather importants points, including the nature of political discourse in Singapore and what choices are and have been made.

I'm going to attempt to make some comments on what are pretty cogent ones made above. And this will be by way of personal opinion, so I'm not going to pretend to speak for anyone else. This must be understood in the context that I doubt that I speak for the average man on the street and I think most people would laugh if I attempt to portray myself as a heartlander.

1. On the nature of political discourse in Singapore.

This lies at the heart of both posts. On the one hand, the first argues that Singaporeans have indeed made the choice of choosing economic growth and prosperity over that of individual rights and civil liberties and that as a party the PAP has fulfilled that need.

(ed: I think it must also presume quite a bit more e.g. the system of economics that is promulgated i.e. free-market capitalistic globalisation, the ostensible lack of welfare, strong meritocracy)

The second argues that it is premised on a fallacious argument that claims political democracy (or political pluralism if you will) is not mutually exclusive with economic growth (to be fair, no form of government is mutually exclusive with economic growth). That there really is no choice that one could speak of given the automatic formation of government and lastly questions whether if there had been a choice, whether it was an informed one.

I think they are actually both right.

The first one is persuasive insofar as it does explain the social contract that the PAP formed with society i.e. political power (and the corresponding loss of political dissent) in return for economic prosperity. This is something that the PAP has achieved in spades and it's track record is undeniably something that prompts a certain proportion of people to vote for it.

Similarly, that it has continued to deliver the goods probably prompts another segment of society to vote for it.

The second is persuasive in that it does show up some of the holes in the first's theory. And it does explain why the government probably feels the need to resort to what might be termed jerrymandering and to repeated trump the proportion of actual voters who got to vote that did vote for them.

I suppose here's where I come in. The way political discourse is shaped in Singapore and the manner in which electoral campaigning is done is that it does create the dichotomy that the first post mentions. The PAP will stress that this is an election about a tried and tested government against an inexperienced oppostion. But interestingly, even before elections begin, it will have already created an article of faith that says political democracy as incompetible with efficiency and economic growth. As a result, while it must be true to a certain extent that Singaporeans when voting in PAP candidates have this in mind, nevertheless, how important is the second factor compared to the first when it's not the most important electoral issue?

And as the second post points out, this must be further qualified by the fact that given that the government has already been formed and that a good 2/3 of the electorate did not vote, what kind of choice was it really? As a result, the credibility of the choice is in question.

But what must also be added is this. The fact that people actually vote in opposition members must say something. But what does it say? One argument would go that it is like trying to have your cake and eat it. That because the government has been formed and good times are likely to roll and all they want is a dissenting voice in parliament. As a result, all it merely says is that people put economic growth first and then civil libeties.

(ed: This of course was not the situation this time round. While there were indeed walkovers, there was also an actively contested GE, where admittedly thr results were not in doubt. As far as I can see, I think the PAP performed worse in terms of relative proportion of votes than they did in the last elections. But why? As I express some frustration below, it says something, but what exactly does it say is a massive pain to tease out without exit polls.)

However, given the very particular factual matrix of Singapore, where during elections, the PAP has acted AS the state and said like in the Cheng San GRC situation to delay upgrading if they voted in the opposition, then I think that an argument could be made that where in the face of this implied threat that nevertheless the opposition came close to winning, or in fact have won despite knowing that there will be a problem because of the PAP controlled grassroots (and rejecting upgrading etc.), that this is not a situation where 'civil liberties' come without personal cost.

(ed: Especially so when HBD and the CDC actually controls the monies)

But let's take this on a more fundamental level. Given the walkovers, can the 33% of electorate who actually voted be considered representative of the entire populace and their desires and aspirations? Without having more information, it is probably impossible to say.

(ed: Well it isn't 33% anymore, but the higher figure may well suffer from the same defect. I think it's definately more representational, but how much more and whether it is sufficient is another matter altogether)

To further complicate matters, what is really being said when an opposition member is actually voted in? Can it be said that they are voting for the opposition party's manifesto? I think that generally cannot be true simply because not being able to form the government means that they will not be able to implement their manifesto.

(ed: On reflection, this may not be necessarily true given that the PAP has a history of cooping good ideas and not just people after all)

But even where it could be said that people voted for this opposition member on the basis of the manifesto, can it really be said to be a vote for civil liberties? Because as far as I'm aware, quite a few of these opposition parties are actually rather populist in nature and advocate crowd pleasers like welfare (which I personally agree with on moral and some economic grounds). So arguably then, a vote for the opposition is not a vote for civil liberties (although the rallies do mention this of course).

(ed: I should also add that some of the opposition parties did campaign on a rather economic mechantalist platform of anti-privatisation and free-trade)

So maybe, what it really is, is politics of personality rather than politics of policy. The grassroot ties that Mr. Low and Mr. Chiam has created and strengthened over the years were more than sufficient to weather whatever slings and arrows shot in their direction.

(ed: And there were still the only Oppostion members actually voted into power despite all the additional campaigning from the former PMs. Plus at least for Mr Low, he improved on his prior performance. The WP did amazingly well in Aljunied though which really surprised me. I expected the SDA to lose in Punggol, after all, given a whole group of unknowns, what chance did they have against a seating Minster of Defence in an uncertain time?)

2. Personal Experience

I'm very much a supporter of a liberal secular democratic regime but also one that supports the PAP in almost everything except domestic electoral politics. But this is also shaped by the fact that I don't think the opposition is really good enough. Which is not a surprise given the usual electoral tactics, the generally apolitical electorate and the PAP's policy of coopting not only the best (who would not have join any party on their own) but also the so-called dissidents e.g. Dr. Vivian.

As a result, I cannot say for certain that I will vote in an opposition member unless I think he's capable of raising pertinent and relevant issues in parliamentary debate. If not, I would much rather go help put in an NMP who I think can cut it instead.

(ed: I think I overstated the issue here but the sentiments remain)

By way of illustration here's what happened a couple of months ago. As a member of the YoungRepublic (a non-partisan internet mailing group which discusses various issues), there came to be a certain WP member who basically told us the party's strategy. Note, this was way before the manifesto was published or announced and he said that because the WP could not form a government, therefore it would not try to even propose policies but would simply act as an opposition in an All Asians Debate format i.e. just rebutt.

What was interesting was that it was the most 'liberal' members of the mailing list who took him to task and basically said that if that were the case, there would be no point voting on the basis of a party but solely on the basis of the candidate (which might hurt the WP in a three way fight).

After the fifth mail, he disappeared from the discussion. But hey there's the manifesto now which we hope we played some small part in creating I suppose.

(ed: That and their grassroot activism did pay off at least in Aljunied I suppose)

This was a further post in response to Ted's Comments...

Ted was kind enough to leave comments on my general commentary based upon observations by two of my friends. I agree with much of what he says and it does address some issues that I unwittingly left out in my prior post.

Hmm just commenting on some points you made. I would have thought that being able to cast a vote would be an exercise in Civil liberties/rights, i.e. no matter who you vote for, just the act of casting a vote is an exercise in a (arguably) fundamental right.

Yes and no. While I do agree with this sentiment, the truth is, the right to vote is actually not in our constitution (unlike other fundamental rights in Part IV). It's actually derived from an Act of Parliament so theoretically it could just as easily be revoked by a simple majority of MPs. I do wonder whether that would push Singaporeans to protest, or whether the reasoning given will be sufficient for them to acquiese to this mitigation of our 'right'.

The AG in turn argues that there is an implied right to vote based upon the fact that our political system as envisaged by the Constitution requires it (if you read the parlimentary debates, it turn into a mess of ideas like 'duty' and 'privilege' etc.). So I suppose the courts will generally agree with that and our democracy is safe for now.

(Ed: Especially since he's the CJ now and would decide on Constitutional issues, whether on the Court of Appeals of the Constitutional Tribunal convened by the President)

Smaller political parties being small, have really nothing to lose by advocating populist policies, at the very least I do not see them as appealing to a section of voters (fundamentalists of whatever denomination) or else we would see the appearance of Family First Parties like in Australia. I also think there is a limit to how centrist or pragmatic any political party can be since at the end of the day no one policies looks different from the other. So it would just boil down to like you said who do you like better or as the PAP would say, the proven track record.

Our particular system doesn't work for, or perhaps to put it more bluntly, discriminates against small parties of any sort. Other than the fact that campaigning time is short (which means that you need a large party aparatus to get your name out or already have huge name recognition), our system does not reward small parties unlike a system with proportional representation. Worse still, with the GRC system now so huge and the pitiful number of single member wards, small parties would find it even harder to even contest an elections.

With regards to centralist policies and pragmatism, it's actually a very real trend that we see in mature democracies. With the exception of the extreme right shift in the Republicans in the US. Most biparty systems, or even multi-party systems see a growing convergence in terms of the policies of the 'left' and the 'right'. So if one looks at the policies advocated by Labour and the Conservatives (even in New Zealand or the Scandinavian countries), the differences are really miniscular.

I always think it was interesting that most people say they never think the opposition parties are good, simply because the cards are so stacked against them, ever seen a PAP member protrayed in a bad media light before like scratching his backsides on TV, I highly doubt so. Yes I know you also mentioned it,

No comment. The Andrew Kuan incident was disturbing in that he wasn't even a candidate for Presidency before he was savaged by and in the Press.

Raising pertinent and relevant policies questions or issues is also highly subjective to many circumstances. Mr Chiam had raised many concerns over education issues for many years and when the PAP government finally changed their minds, do the parents in the street at the end of the day think that it's due to the efforts of Mr Chiam or the opposition? I wonder.

I don't disagree. Hopefully with such information becoming more accessible and readily transmitted, we will learn more.

On your point on what are the signals broadcasted when opposition members voted into parliament, is it that important to ponder on what the voters intentions are or what are the effects of their votes? Does it really matter that they want to have their cake and eat it"

My commentary has to be read in the light of my friends' posts. Voter's intentions and signals matter insofar as it tells us what their aspirations and desires are. The problem when there isn't the possibility of an alternative government is that one then has to strain to figure what the hell the electoral will is. After all, being in a parliamentary democracy, parliament is suppose to represent the will of the people (the 'mandate' theory of representing constituents notwithstanding), one has to be able to figure out what they mean when they cast the votes to serve them. In theory anyway =P

Lastly, here's something from our Constitution that's worth thinking about i.e. the NMP and NCMP scheme. Note that the NMP scheme is subject to a sunset clause, which means that each parliament decides if they want NMPs. I don't think there's any danger of it being not implemented because of the overwhelming favour it found and the constant expansion of the scheme.

Anyway, here's article 39 of our Constitution
39. —(1) Parliament shall consist of —

(a) such number of elected Members as is required to be returned at a general election by the constituencies prescribed by or under any law made by the Legislature;

(b) such other Members, not exceeding 6 in number, who shall be known as non-constituency Members, as the Legislature may provide in any law relating to Parliamentary elections to ensure the representation in Parliament of a minimum number of Members from a political party or parties not forming the Government; and

(c) such other Members not exceeding 9 in number, who shall be known as nominated Members, as may be appointed by the President in accordance with the provisions of the Fourth Schedule.

(2) A non-constituency Member or a nominated Member shall not vote in Parliament on any motion pertaining to —

(a) a Bill to amend the Constitution;

(b) a Supply Bill, Supplementary Supply Bill or Final Supply Bill;

(c) a Money Bill as defined in Article 68;

(d) a vote of no confidence in the Government; and

(e) removing the President from office under Article 22L.


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*And it shall come to pastness*

Finally, polling day has arrived and very soon the results shall be released. And come a few more days of political "analysis", I should be able to read the local papers without straining my eyeballs from all the eye rolling and having to survive sharpnel injuries from the exploding irony meters.


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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

*Personal Update*

I've just moved from the Western Outbacks to the Desolated North to a place where the previous resident did not even have a landline. As such, I've been forced to do without an internet connection and had to have CL check my emails for me.

Which led to a very ackward situation:
S (on handphone with CL): Could you do me a favour?
CL: Yes?
S: I've been cut off from the rest of the world. My phoneline and internet connection doesn't get activated till tuesday.
CL: You do know that people actually pay good money to get away from these forms of technology right?
S: Yeah, that's them. I'm me. I need to check my email. I should have gotten a Blackberry.
CL: Hoi! *Singaporean expression for annoyance and irritance* First I was an Economist Widow, once you get a blackberry, I'm going to become a Blackberry widow as well?!
S: *Cough*, Anyway, could you check my email for me?
CL: Bah. Fine.

Oh well, what can I say? I'm a geek and a sucker for new technology.

Hopefully now that I'm connected with the rest of the world again, the updates will come fast, furious and regular. But odds are I'm just going to play computer games till the elections are over.