Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Fictionality and the Death Penalty in Singapore

Fictions. The idea that fiction bears no relation to fact is perhaps a fiction. Yes, another paradox.

Today, I examine fictionality.

According to an article by Joseph Koh, Singapore’s high commissioner in Australia, there are fictions about the death penalty in Singapore or about Nguyen’s impending execution. I examine his claims (which means I don’t necessarily agree or disagree).

Fact creation, it seems relies heavily on fictions sometimes. I mean fictions help to clarify facts, don’t they?

According to Koh:
Fiction No. 1: Singapore has breached international law.
There is no international agreement to abolish the death penalty. . . .

We respect Australia's sovereign choice not to have capital punishment. . . . The overwhelming majority of Singaporeans support this.”

Singapore has not breached international law. True.

The overwhelming majority of Singaporeans support the death penalty. Not sure. When was the last time a national referendum was conducted?

I believe many support the death penalty, as they do national service. As they do defamation suits to protect those with big reputations to protect. As they do all other state policies.

This has got to be true. A fiction made true through social engineering. After all, why would it be so amazing that, on the one hand, Koh claims that there is “no international agreement to abolish the death penalty” and, yet, on the other hand, there seems to be a national agreement. An overwhelming majority at that. What else do this overwhelming majority know other than the fact that the death penalty is good, necessary, normal and inviolable.

Singapore has not breached international law, of course. But does this say anything about making the death sentence mandatory?

The second fiction, according to Koh:
Fiction No. 2: The death penalty has not deterred drug trafficking.

This logic is flawed. The death penalty has not completely eliminated drug trafficking, but it has certainly deterred drug trafficking. Since the introduction of tough anti-drug laws in the mid-1970s, drug trafficking and drug abuse in Singapore have come down significantly. Potential traffickers know that, once arrested, they face the full weight of the law.”

Flawed logic used to counter flawed logic. No one, as far as I remember, even claimed that the death penalty should have “completely eliminated drug trafficking” if it were effective. What a gigantic straw man.

“Since the introduction of tough anti-drug laws in the mind-1970s,” we have reduced drug trafficking and drug abuse. I do not know what these “laws” are, but since they are invoked in the plural, I assume that the death penalty is not the only factor involved.

Moreover, how does one prove that the “tough laws” and the reduction in drug trafficking are related? A false cause? Last night, I ate a vitamin pill. Today, I feel very energetic. Thus the vitamin pill must have made me more energetic. Would you accept my logic? Would you accept even that “feeling energetic” is the same as being energetic?

In any case, why not a life sentence? Is there anything to suggest that this would be less effective.

Finally, even if the death penalty does deter drug traffickers, does this mean that it has to be mandatory and absolutely no clemency can be granted. (Which defeats the idea of clemency anyway).

In his introduction to the article, Koh claims that “the outcry [in Australia] has . . . made it difficult to separate fact from fiction.” Perhaps the biggest fiction is that fact and fiction are always separable.

The third fiction in Koh’s words:
Fiction No. 3: Mr Nguyen is an unsuspecting victim[.]

Mr Nguyen may not be a hardened criminal, but he is not an unsuspecting victim either. He knew what he was doing and the penalty if he was caught. Had he succeeded, he would have made a lot of money. If we let off a convicted courier because of age, financial difficulties or distressed family background, it will only make it easier for drug traffickers to recruit more "mules", with the assurance that they will escape the death penalty.”

A very interesting fiction. Perhaps even a fictitious fiction for the idea of an “unsuspecting victim seems to distort the views of many who oppose Nguyen’s hanging. Whoever said that Nguyen was unsuspecting might be a tad naïve. But no one says Singapore must to let Nguyen off. Let off? People are saying that there are mitigating factors and, thus, the death sentence might not be the most appropriate punishment. Do I see another over-blown straw man hanging around?

Abolitionists, in contrast to those who just sympathize with Nguyen’s case, would also not believe that Nguyen has to be let off. I think most abolitionists believe in tough punishments, but do not believe in the death penalty.

What is there to make it easier to recruit more mules?

The fourth fiction:
Fiction No 4: The punishment does not fit crime.

Mr Nguyen was caught with 396 grams of pure heroin, enough for 26,000 "hits", with a street value of more than $A1 million.

Yes, he was transiting Singapore, and not smuggling drugs into the country, but Singapore simply cannot afford to allow itself to become a transit hub for illicit drugs in the region.”

So how does the punishment actually fit the crime? I still don’t see it. Perhaps I’m stupid? I think this is, to some extent, a matter of opinion, not of fact vs. fiction. To cast one as a fact and the other as a fiction is to create fiction again?

Perhaps the bigger question is: does the death penalty fit any crime?

Fiction No. 5: Mr Nguyen can testify against Mr Bigs.
All drug syndicates assume that some of their couriers will get caught. They never let the couriers know enough to incriminate themselves. The information that Mr Nguyen provided to the Singapore authorities was of limited value, and was, in fact, intended to mislead and delay the investigation.”

Yes, this is true. Nguyen probably cannot help the police nab the Mr. Bigs.

So he must be hanged???

The sixth fiction:
Fiction No. 6: Singapore connives with drug lords.

This is an old falsehood propagated by Dr Chee Soon Juan (Singapore opposition leader). He has alleged that the Singapore Government had invested in projects in Myanmar (Burma) that supported the drug trade. When this first surfaced in 1996, the Singapore Government explained that its investment in the Myanmar Fund was completely open and above board. The fund held straightforward commercial investments in hotels and companies. Other investors in the fund included Coutts & Co, an old British bank, and the Swiss Bank Corporation. The Singapore Government offered to set up a commission of inquiry so Dr Chee could produce evidence to prove his wild allegations. Unfortunately, Dr Chee never took up the offer.”

What does the word “connive” connote?

I cannot judge although I think one might be interested in reading (by which I don’t mean believing) Dr. Chee’s response to this sixth fiction.

He attempts to explain (the reader has to ask himself how convincing this explanation is though) why he has not taken up the offer to set up a commission of inquiry:

“Mr Koh has also not revealed the fact that I am not a member of parliament and could not move a motion for a commission of inquiry. In addition, the Singapore Government need not open a commission of inquiry to the public and that the international media is often barred from covering the proceedings. The Government barred the public from a parliamentary select committee hearing that I was involved in, one that my colleagues and I were fined a total of S$51,000 for challenging the Government on health care costs in the country.

If the Singapore Government will telecast a commission of inquiry “live” and allow the foreign media to attend it, I would be more than happy to participate in it.”

I note, nevertheless that Koh’s article is entitled “Why Nguyen must die.” (Or was the title an editorial effort?) Assuming that I believe the Singapore government does not connive with drug lords, I don’t see why Nguyen must be hanged. The government is entitled to his right of reply to Dr. Chee’s allegations, but I don’t think this point helps to convince anyone that Nguyen must die. Is it to pad the argument so that there seems to be more points?

[Edit: The title was an editorial amendment as I had suspected. The original title is "Separating Fact from Fiction," which is more tactful although it is still problematic. Let's just separate one fiction from another.]

Fiction No. 7: Singapore has treated Australia with contempt.

Singapore highly values good relations with Australia and with Australian leaders. We share a common belief in the sanctity of the law. The Singapore cabinet deliberated at length on Mr Nguyen's clemency petition. . . . Unfortunately, finally the cabinet decided that it could not justify making an exception for Mr Nguyen. . . .

[W]hen Singapore's Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, met Prime Minister John Howard in Busan, he could not inform Mr Howard of the execution date either. Mr Lee did not know that the letter of notification had by mistake already been delivered to Mrs Kim Nguyen, one day early. Once Mr Lee discovered what had happened, he promptly apologised to Mr Howard. . . .”

I don’t think that Singapore, or the Singapore government, has antagonistic or has treated Australia with contempt. After all, why would it? Of course, this might not stop Australians from thinking that they have been treated with contempt. Yet, again, I think this does not say anything about why Nguyen must be hanged.

One side question though: was the letter of notification originally designed to be received after PM Lee’s meeting with PM Howard?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Co-optability as Acceptability

1. The Political Flaneur (a sequel to my previous loss for words)

Flip through the papers. Arguments about the Gifted Education Program. Arguments about the death penalty (from one side). Limits of blogging.

The political flaneur is borne out of inanity. The metamorphosis of issues in the media turns one into a political flaneur: there is much to see, but little to say. And time passes. Look at the complaints about national servicemen who allegedly refused to give up their seats. Look at the “light punishment” (relatively so in more sense than one) Melvyn Tan was imposed. (Light punishment because others might get it worse. Like because he could have got it worse.)

We hear voices. Today’s “Voices.” Or perhaps I should say Today’s voice/s. A world of difference. A world without difference. Pro-death penalty letters collected under the heading, “Let cooler heads prevail” (Today, 23 November 2005). This is non-partisan. It seems almost perfectly synchronized when The Straits Times published another letter—from Australia, no less—claiming that Australia practices double standards. A free article accessible online. Press responsibility. (We do not want a subservient press. A responsible one will do.) At the same time, obscure Internet news articles accusing Singapore of hypocrisy do might interest the occasional political flaneur. Dr. Chee Soon Juan alleges hypocrisy. So do others, such as here and here.

We hear; we watch. This is the enjoyment and the participation. A more participatory society. A more inclusive society. Sometimes I speak and let others be the flaneurs. Sometimes I am the flaneur as others speak. After that, we could all forget about what we have said, heard or watch. It is best that memory atrophies in this age. At least, when you watch identical scenes unfold before you time and again, you won’t feel bored. Perhaps just a sense of déjà vu.

2. The Work of Journalism in the Age of Political Reproducibility

We watch crowds go by. Crowds are all different, but they are all the same too. What is the difference between the crowd in the MRT yesterday and the crowd today? They come with different faces, but they are the same: just crowds.

Political reproducibility is perfect for the political flaneur. Just like the crowds, political reproductions or repetitions gives the sense that one faces something new everyday when there is, in fact, nothing new. It is almost formulaic. Say that we are open. Do some things to show that we are. Have a sex exhibition. But use it as a chance to reinforce the Fact that we are conservative. Send the police down. Every “opening” becomes a platform to implant the signifiers of surveillance and conservatism. It is a Fact that we are conservative. They say, we believe, we become and so we are. Say that we will help the poor. At the same time, use it as a chance to lambaste welfare. Every opening is a chance for closing; every seeming destabilization is a chance to put the ideological thermostat to work (lest the thermostat gets rusty over time).

Reproduce and repeat. Chant:

There is a need to be: responsible/ transparent (although some have the right to privacy)/ethical.
We are conservative, mature, open, transparent and sovereign all at the same time.
Any threat to the power center is a threat to the nation and is hence anti-Singapore.
Threats are always external. Hence internal threats have to be purged and rendered external.
We would love to allow certain things but we have to be sensitive to whoever there is to be sensitive to.

Perhaps an even better summary: if you are outside, don’t interfere; if you are inside, be “responsible.”

The work of journalism in the age of political reproducibility is perhaps a postmodern application of the technologies of mechanical reproduction to produce the sacred. Give each repetition a different face and it repeats even more precisely than before. In the process of repeating, the aura of the sacred is created. The sacred is the inviolable, immutable residue after filtering away all the different faces/facades.

We know what to expect as we go window-shopping. We don’t expect a third-rate coffee shop (like one in some obscure part of Yishun) next to Crystal Jade Palace in Takashimaya even as we are not even aware of such knowledge. There is a character to whatever we gaze at. The political flaneur, similarly, develops an instinct. There will be no transgressions. When you are shopping in the space of LV and Gucci, surely you don’t expect a This Fashion outlet? Or perhaps one might say that transgressions are already pre-determined. The occasional tramp might tread into a Gucci boutique. But he can never afford anything; he is unlikely to even get any service.

The work of journalism in the age of political reproducibility is a work filled with immense creativity and sophistication. It is true that the press (and other media) cannot be subservient. A subservient press has no creativity. It cannot simply regurgitate and be a mere voice box. It can be propaganda but it cannot just be propaganda. Its forte is to delineate and thereby enclose the space/limits of “transgression.” It has to cast the spell of fatigue over all those who seek to transgress. Perhaps this is why many agree with one famous (even if misunderstood) line from Alfian Sa’at:

“If you care too much about Singapore, first it'll break your spirit, and finally it will break your heart.”

I don’t think the “it” refers to Singapore. Perhaps “it” does not even refer to The System. For me, “it” is precisely the activity of caring about Singapore. In caring for the country, you run round the pre-determined pseudo-transgressive domain endlessly. Unless you have the energy to do so ad infinitum, fatigue sets in. On the other hand, there is a seat of power on which the phallus rests. “Rest” not only in the sense of sitting but also in the sense of consolidating and conserving energy. The phallus, ironically, thrives on its seeming passivity.

With fatigue, the gestation of the political flaneur ends. Just let things get by. Watch the protean crowd.

3. Personalization in the Highly Rationalized Society

There is supposed to be a high degree of depersonalization in highly rationalized societies. The individual does not matter. Yet, perhaps in this late capitalist age of rationalization, there is an uncanny form of personalization. Perhaps over-personalization.

The political flaneur might seem like a detached figure. But insouciant detachment is not allowed either. He has to be forcibly (or otherwise) attached. (After all, the detached is always a threat given the fear of “external influences.”) A personalization within rationalization is the way to go. If Big Brother could, instead of looking at people as a mass, gaze at each person from head to toe, he would be very successful indeed.

The technologies of efficiency and rationalization could also be the technologies of personalization. The public can access a portal for NSmen. Here, everything seems personalized—whether one likes it or not. This is an example of personalization that really targets each and every individual in the system. This is not just any computer-generated personalization of services. Register in a forum or something else online and you might get a “personalized” email that goes: “Hi Molly Meek, ….” The MIW portal, however, targets an audience that is bound to it by law. No pseudonyms, no account terminations—nothing of this sort. You can be sure the system knows exactly who you are. Everything looks personal: MyMIW, MyUnit, etc. There is even a link that goes: “My very own Personalized Page for NS transactions and activities” (underlining mine). (I presume it is safe to cite these instances since the page to which I refer is accessible to the general public.) The last instance almost looks as if it were screaming out at the target audience about how personal the system really is.

The technology does away, one supposes, with tedious administrative processes. This is rationalization. At the same time, it does not target an undifferentiated mass. It has the capacity of catering itself to each individual. The more highly personalized it gets, the more deeply one is interpellated into the system. Every click on a My--- link becomes an acknowledgement of the specific individual’s place within the system. And, often enough, the use of the portal is inevitable. The reach of the state goes right down to specific individuals.

4. What experiences?

How does one speak of experience in this age of rationalized personalization? The technologies of personalization could even provide platforms for speaking about experiences, albeit in pre-determined ways again thanks to mechanisms of (self-)censorship. One could speak about one’s experiences, but speech could inadvertently be co-opted when by the pre-determined modes of enunciation.

In a Today article, incidentally in the “Voices” section that I have previously mentioned, Benjamin Lee (or Mr. Miyagi) discusses the latest controversy involving blogs—the controversy over NSmen blogging about NS. Lee had removed his online posts about his reservist stint but has also restored them after obtaining permission. The issue here is not one about not allowing or restricting NSmen from posting about NS. After all, it is understandable that there are concerns about security breaches. What I’m concerned with is that NSmen are actually allowed to blog about NS. While I do not object to such sort of blogging, I find the situation uncanny.

Lee puts the stand of his superiors this way: “There was no formal warning per se, but rather, a reminder from my commanders that while the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) encouraged people to talk about their national service experience, individuals had to be mindful of operational security — like the effectiveness of the SAF's weaponry — when doing so.”

People are encouraged to talk about their national service experience.

“I've since restored my blog posts, following consultation with my NS unit superiors, who, together with their superiors, agreed that while I should have asked for permission to post photographs first, there weren't problems with the posts about army life,” Lee writes.

People are encouraged to talk about their national service experience, but they might go through a chain of command that will determine if the contents are permissible.

I don’t see why Lee’s online posts would be deemed offensive or objectionable either. After all, there is ultimately an acceptance of national service despite jibes here and there. Photographs of the reservist experience simply situate him as an interpellated subject who is accepting or at least resigned to his lot. But what would have happened if, instead of lightheartedly blogging about his reservist stint, he had blogged seriously about conscription as (for example and purely as an example) an oppressive mechanism and said that he feels enslaved and miserable enough to kill himself?

My speculation is that, as long as the message could ultimately be co-opted, the system would tolerate it. Why not? The more you speak of your experiences, the more you are entrenching the system. The NSmen’s jibes at NS become a part of our way of life, the necessary pre-condition for the jibes being that NS is accepted in the first place.

A few jibes here and there do not hurt when you have already got people to do your bidding.

Even the hypothetical example that I have given could possibly be “acceptable.” If it ever sees light, one could be sure that there would be lots of understanding members of the “authorities” who express sympathy while weaving the issue into one of necessity.

Can the subaltern speak?

As Lee mentions, a foreign paper constructed the latest blogging controversy (which perhaps never was) as the latest move by the authorities to impose restrictions on blogging.

Lee himself, having been allowed to post his entries, gladly and truthfully declares that NSmen are not barred from sharing their experiences.

I don’t know what happened to the other two servicemen who were warned about posting articles and pictures of the Australian exercise.

I don’t know about those who have unexpressed frustrations that neither foreign papers not the local media (Lee himself included) speak to/for? A frustration beyond the curtailment of free expression, beyond the rhetoric of necessity and the limits of acceptability?

Where is the silent subaltern?

Where is the speaking subaltern whose speech have been spun into the web of other discourses?

5. Breaking your Spirit, Breaking your Heart, Losing your Mind

When your experiences are factored into the dominant discourse, perhaps madness is the only recourse?

I cannot complete this article for I’m still burdened with sanity. And I’m fatigued.

Spirit broken,
Heart too;
What of the mind?

Even s/he who runs from darkness in the night (to borrow an idea from XenoBoy) will eventually see daylight because the night is never eternal. Yet, how many have experienced running away from the cycles of day/night?

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Twits

Let's revisit our childhood by recalling a tale by Roald Dahl, The Twits.

The twits were an English couple with the last name "Twit" and they aspired to have an upside-down monkey circus. They had a family of monkeys locked up in a small cage and these monkeys had to stand upside-down as part of their training. (What a distorted worldview imposed on the monkeys!)

The Twits ate Bird-pie every Wednesday although I believe the monkeys didn't even get peanuts.

In the end, the Twits were outwitted when the monkeys' friend, the Roly-Poly Bird came to their rescue. (External influences are bad!)

The monkeys took their revenge by turning the Twits' house upside-down. To re-orientate themselves, the Twits put their heads to the ground and got glued to the ground.

I want a Roly-Poly Bird.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

A Verbose Entry Expressing My Loss For Words

A 49-year-old pianist, Melvyn Tan, has been fined $5000 for evading National Service about three decades ago.

Before one applauds the unfailing state mechanism or scampers to a corner out of fear, it is interesting to first examine the disastrous reactions amongst some of the 25 people polled by The Sunday Times.

In the article “Did pianist Melvyn Tan get off too lightly?”, More than half (13 out of 25) people “felt that Mr Melvyn Tan should do time, one way or another.” An excellent way of phrasing the survey question, in my opinion. Whether your answer is “Yes” or “No,” you are agreeing that Melvyn Tan has to be punished and that The System is right. A punishment for a wrong against him something everyone has been conditioned to believe is wrong. Yes, effectively, everyone believes in Tan’s guilt. Therefore Tan is not only liable legally, but also liable morally, ethically, publicly.

In the same article, it is revealed that “[s]ome were in favour of a short jail sentence, while others wanted him to do two years of national service.” Yes, a 49-year-old doing two years of National Service. Perhaps I should write in to the press to demand specifically that he serves two years of COMBAT service. After all, following the suggestions of people who wanted him to serve two years of national service, it would not make sense to simply give him any position. For if any position were to count as National Service, people might start demanding that they serve their national service that way.

Incarceration might, of course, be the better option. For he who does injustice to The System needs to be punished. The notion of deterrence might ironically be even more pertinent here than in the case of the death penalty.

One cannot help but be impressed by the myopia people who “argued that a mere fine would be unfair to those who had spent two years of their life serving NS.”
1. Is this to be taken to mean that fairness is not inherent in The System, but has to be established by the incarceration of someone who has gone against The System? No. It is not possible. Isn’t the system always Fair and Equal?
2. Or should we slam these people for implicitly suggesting that NS is not a very desirable experience (for, if it weren’t, why would it be so unfair that someone did not serve).

Or perhaps both the above questions have to be thrown into the rubbish bin as soon as possible. The pro-incarceration camp “also brought up examples of how their friends, who had been charged for being absent without official leave, had to do time in the detention barracks.”

Dear readers, I don’t know what to say. Thus, allow me to digress and talk about something else entirely unrelated. Since people like to bring up their friends, I also wish to talk about my friends.

I have a female friend who was raped by her stepfather. To be fair, I think all stepdaughters need to be raped by their stepfathers. If I could convince enough people of this rationale, perhaps one day all stepdaughters would be raped.
Ok, let me get back to the issue before I get slammed for digressing. After all, Digression is a patented style of the Livejournal Molly Meek. “Many also felt that even if Mr Tan had paid the maximum fine of $5,000, the amount was not enough to deter people from committing such an offence.”

I have already mentioned deterrence. But did I mention that the people want this mechanism of deterrence so that they themselves would be deterred from committing the heinous sin of evading NS? From the people, by the people, for the people. The state apparatus can relax in the latest Osim massage chair or in the latest aromatherapy spa since it no longer needs to do much manual work these days.

The article quotes a 24-year-old man (whom, I presume, has been through a minimum of 2 years of NS or even 2.5 years of it) as saying: “Money is no problem, everyone can pay the money.” This is right. Everyone can pay the money although, if your mind is as warped as mine, you might ask if everyone who can pay the money has the same chance to pay the money.
I suddenly have a mental block. Allow me to talk about my friends again. I had two friends, May and June, who liked to canoe. Once, May wanted to canoe northwards and June wanted to canoe southwards. They ended up fighting and both fell into the sea and drowned. They were in the same boat, you see.

Let me get back to the topic. An 18-year-old student said that Tan “should not be let off lightly just because he is an accomplished pianist.” Which brings us to the most interesting reply of the day. The argument is that Tan should not be simply fined just because he is accomplished. After all, isn’t NS supposed to be blind to individual merits, backgrounds, etc? Yet, by making such an argument, the 18-year-old is lending his support to The System. NS is natural to him. Probably something as inviolable and fundamental as human rights. Or perhaps not. Human rights are decadent Western human constructs whereas NS is really something basic and unquestionable. Such is the laudable worldview of our youth.
No matter what, NS is unquestionable. So is The System. A female student, Amy Foong says that “Tan should not even be fined since he went away to 'nurture his talent'” (paraphrased by article). Perhaps a very enlightening reply. He should not even be fined. This sounds like a radical suggestion, doesn’t it? Yet, the reason Foong gives should reassure The System: since he went away to nurture his talent. Foong is not saying that Tan should not be fined because the State Mechanism should not be working this way. It should be working the way it is working, still.

But doesn’t this bring one back to the comment: “He should not be let off lightly just because he is an accomplished pianist”?
At this point, I suspect that there are already defensive readers (whatever they are defensive of) pointing fingers at me and accusing me of being anti-NS. Allow me to clarify: this is NOT an anti-NS article. If the gracious reader could pardon me, let me frankly confess that I don’t dare write any article that is anti-NS in the first place. This does not mean that this article is pro-NS or even that it is neutral. In fact, this article is not even about NS. If you need a guiding word, let it be “experience.” What is your experience? What is his/her experience?

What sort of experience? Experiences of justice; experiences of oppression. Also, what experiences create your value systems?

I have no answer.

I have nothing to say.

I can't say anything.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Understanding Media: The Pretensions of Man


In an entry in my other journal (yes, I am the Livejournal Molly Meek), I mentioned that, these days, people become the transcendental referent.

Why the death penalty (whether you are for or against it matters no more)? It’s to protect the people.

Why ban gay events? It’s because the people are conservative and cannot accept gays.

Why consider a workfare bonus? It’s for the people who are poor. Though some might suspect that any workfare bonus would not be created for the poor as much as the poor are invoked for giving the bonus.

Now, what happens when the press is not free? It’s the people who are supposed to play the role of the free press. At least, Today journalist Dharmendra Yadav thinks so in his article, “It’s your job to serve as a check” (11 November 2005).

To be precise, perhaps I should not say that the people are the ultimate referent as much as they are the ostensible ultimate referent. If the hierarchy or structure of power could be compared to a mountain, the referent being the pinnacle, then the people belong to the other end of the pinnacle—the soil that bears the weight of the entire mountain.

In a nutshell, Yadev’s argument in his own words is that:
“Voters must take on the burden of ensuring a corruption-free government, in a situation where the media does not.”

In the process of his argument, he assumes that the voters do not rely on a free press for information that would help them play the role of the Fourth Estate. He assumes, it would seem, also that, where the media plays the role of the Fourth Estate, the voters do not play any such roles—that is, the role of a free media and the role of the people to ensure a corruption-free government are distinct rather than inseparable. He assumes also that, in Singapore, although the media is not free, the voters are.

Or perhaps the third assumption is not an assumption but an illusion intended for the naïve reader. This, then, would precisely pinpoint Yadev’s argument itself. When the press (which at this point seems to be self-confessedly not free) propagates naivety amongst the very people that are supposed to replace the press’s disavowed role of the skeptic, what sort of check can the people serve?

Furthermore, one might be inclined to contend that the argument insidiously reduces the people to a role by defining them as voters—a single role that homogenizes people. An undifferentiated mass, to use a good old cliché. People are not just voters. In they are truly allowed to express themselves, they are not going to be homogeneous. There will be different interest groups and different interest groups might peacefully lobby for their causes through media. Yet, if the media were not free, would not these people be crippled? Media is perhaps not merely the extensions of man; insofar as the media could cripple the human political animal by its unavailability as a resource, it is inseparable from man.

To construct the Fourth Estate as a substitutable position is to do violence to the structure of a democratic society, a violence that is possible perhaps because democracy is alien to the perpetrator of this violence. The effect of this violence is to deny the people access to this alien structure—perhaps not to deprive the people of a fulfillment of their desire, but to deny them of their desire altogether.

What function does the article serve then? It begins this way:
“Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, whom I regard as a political hero of my generation, recently addressed the audience at Today's fifth anniversary dinner on the key issue of media responsibility in Singapore.”

This is a valorization of the political center and a reiteration of its stance on media freedom. When did media responsibility become a key issue when the question was one of press freedom? When the political center says so. When does media responsibility become entrenched as the key issue and, in fact, the only issue? When the media itself reiterates the same point. It is also a reiteration of a reiteration. As the article says:

“There was nothing new in his [Goh’s] position, since it was something his predecessor, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, had emphasised.

“So why reiterate this?”
One can read this as “Why does SM Goh reiterate this?” One can also read this as “Why am I reiterating this?”

Regardless of the question, the short answer Yadev gives: “In recent months, Singapore has come under criticism yet again from organisations such as Amnesty International.”

“Yet again.” A fascinating phrase to use. It simply reeks of the return of the repressed. The need to reiterate ad infinitum arises from the Laius Complex. To prevent the Oedipal usurpation, Laius could, retrospectively, have castrated Oedipus at birth. In this case, the media as the extension, prosthetic or phallus must be denied to the people. The phallus must remain as Laius’ sole prerogative. Nevertheless, residual anxiety remains especially when the status of the phallic media is destabilized—for instance, when you suggest that the phallic instrument has to cease being phallic.

“No surprise here that one of the country's elder politicians rose to defend what Singapore stood for,” writes Yadev. One might suggest that, he rose (did anyone miss this Freudian slip?) not really to defend, but to define what Singapore stood for. First define, then defend. The job of defense is, of course, not the job of the ruling elite (to be figurative). Let the likes of Yadev perform the function of defense. This way, every defense would also be a diffusion and intensification of the definition. The defense would also produce new models of signification, still serving the same purpose. The idea of the people serving as the Fourth Estate demonstrates this.

But this article is not about press freedom. It is about the people being held responsible for the very conditions of their oppression—conditions over which they have no control.

The artificiality of such a responsibility can be shown in another instance of the claim to a fallacious substitutability of the Fourth Estate: the claim that one of the possible ways of checking the government is that the responsibility “falls on the Executive (that is, the Prime Minister and his team), the Legislature (Members of Parliament and, by extension, the electorate) and the Judiciary.” Yadev refers, one supposes, to the notion of a check and balance mechanism by the separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. This is a separation generally deemed necessary, but it becomes one that is reduced to being a mere alternative or substitute to having the media as the Fourth Estate. He even naturalizes the unorthodox lack of such a separation of powers:

“In Singapore's model, there are legislative prohibitions on the judiciary's powers of review on executive decisions.
“In addition, the executive and the legislature have been in the hands of one dominant political party for as long as Singapore has been independent.”

The separation should be in the separation of powers. The media as Fourth Estate, the people actively checking the government and the separation of powers are different mechanisms that need to exist together. To turn these three mechanisms into mechanisms that are substitutable for one another is to minimize the potential checks on governmental power.

Of course, Yadev’s claim that “[t]he people . . . must hold the elected government accountable for its cleanliness, fairness and efficiency” has a definite appeal. One can call it a truth. One, however, takes exception to the presentation of this truth—a presentation defeats the purpose of the truth itself. Without a sufficiently independent media (if one finds the word “free” ultimately too naïve and without a political system that has an internal check and balance system, how are the people going to have the power to hold the government accountable. In a moment of immense irony, Yadev’s statement sounds like a massive distortion: to hold the government accountable for its cleanliness, fairness and efficiency. Who wants the government to account for these good traits? Why does Yadev not say, instead, that the people needs to hold the government accountable for all its policies and actions (which may or may not be good)?

Further violence is inflicted on the people when the article asserts the distortion to be a fact:

“This is a fact that all Prime Ministers of independent Singapore have emphasised — citizens must take their right to vote seriously, which is why the right has been linked to administrative decisions such as estate management.

The rhetoric of the importance of checking the government, in the above statement, turns into a forceful curtailment of this check itself. The scope of responsibility suddenly widens from media responsibility to the people’s responsibility (to so-called “take their right to vote seriously”). The responsibility has, in an astonishingly magical moment, transformed from the responsibility to check to government to the responsibility to the government. To link the vote to upgrading (or what Yadev sophisticatedly calls the linking of the vote to the “administrative decisions such as estate management) is cleverly turned from that which the people needs to check or question into that which the people needs to be responsible for.

How do we know if a group of voters has taken the right to vote seriously? Apparently, we know it from the person for whom the group of voters votes. If they vote for the “wrong person, he is not taking his right to vote seriously. Is this what is means to have the people playing the role of the Fourth Estate?

What happens with the news article is simply a rehash of old rhetoric that serves governmental power—except that it is a rehash cleverly (or otherwise) masked as a reminder of the people’s responsibility to check the government, to be the Fourth Estate.

The masking is carried to a ludicrous extent when Yadev talks about citizen participation quotes Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi: "The task of nation building does not rest on the government alone. Every Malaysian has an equally important role in ensuring the nation achieves further progress and prosperity." What Yadev calls for is participation indeed. Except that it is a participation that allows each individual to be co-opted into the dominant discourse.

The article trivializes the need for various checking mechanisms. Just let the people do the job, the article seems to say. Then it effaces even this last remaining mechanism. Yet, what really makes the article chilling is the note at the end of the article: “The writer, a corporate counsel, contributes in a personal capacity.” The article is not top-down propaganda, I would suggest. With such initiatives at the “lower levels,” what happens? Perhaps the state-controlled press itself is already a myth. Perhaps the state has even been freed from the trouble of controlling.

The mountain is not getting any lighter.


*The blogger contributes this article in an impersonal capacity and holds no claims to rigorous analysis or truthful evaluation. Every statement is potentially a joke. The blogger, like Yadev, takes the right to vote seriously for the blogger believes in proper estate management.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Cyclical Time

In Singapore
Time is cyclical
Every seventh month
Ghosts rise from below
Commandos fall from above
The Rally invades every TV

In Singapore
Time is cyclical
In the seventh month
The ghosts get goodies
And so do I

Time is cyclical
After the seventh month
The ghosts get reincarnated
Though I don't

Time is cyclical
After the seventh month
Icy ICT cycles still haunt me

Time is cyclical
Everything repeats

Especially price hikes

The Gift of Freedom and Responsibility

The Gift of Freedom and Responsibility

Working Title: Structure and Play in the Discourse of the MIW

"Do not get me wrong. I do not favour a subservient press. An unthinking press is not good for Singapore. But press freedom must be practised with a larger sense of responsibility and the ability to understand what is in or not in our national interests.

"Editors need to understand what their larger responsibilities entail and to demand them of their journalists. Editors and journalists must have high personal integrity and sound judgment -- people who understand Singapore's uniqueness as a country, our multi-racial and multi-religious make-up, vulnerabilities and national goals.

"By this, I mean that our editors and journalists must be men and women who know what works for Singapore and how to advance our society's collective interests."

"Capturing readership is an important goal but to do so through sensational coverage is not the right way. The media is free to put across a range of worthy different viewpoints to encourage constructive social and political discourse. It should not parrot the government's position. It would lose its credibility if it tries to be the government's propagandist. A discredited media would not serve our national interests."

Senior Minister, Mr. Goh as quoted by Channel Newsasia in “Singapore media must practise responsible press freedom: SM Goh”

CNA Article

Indeed, it is heartening to have these words coming from a prominent politician. Perhaps this is because of truth-producing powers of any constructed political center. What other effect does the speech really need in any case? Or, more specifically, what effect does such a speech from the center need at this point in time?

Looking at the speech synchronically, the center is structuring a relief, a consolation or an assurance. Of course, speeches are not really meant to be looked at. But let as cast this doubt aside first. The relief relies, even if somewhat ironically, on difference. It is relief only because it alleviates the anxiety of incompletion by defining the system as a complete whole instead of being a deficient other. The assurance is one of a completion based on an illusory difference. Since the assuring or reassuring performative, in fact, imposes on the relieved an inevitable misrecognition, the relieved must not be given a chance to see the misrecognition or neurosis would once again come into play. Hence, the relieved has to be blind(ed). But the relieved, despite being blind, also has to refuse to be looked at lest it turns from a constructed subject to an object of study (though, in fact, the difference itself is only imaginary in this case). Hence, the speech and its effects are not to be looked at. The suggestion to look (or attempt to look) at the speech and its function is thus necessary.

In looking at the speech, it is possible to see that the effect of the speech is not necessarily the function of the speech. In fact, the effect of the speech serves the function of the speech which now remains to be surfaced. To put things simply, the mechanism at work (we can speak of a mechanism because it has already been constructed) is that of the center reaffirming itself as the center by showcasing its significationary capacity. This might then suggest (again ironically) that the center bears the initial anxiety, but diffuses it through or projects it to the rest of the system and then proceed to repress the anxiety. By doing so, the center consolidates its centrality by constructing itself as the ultimate referent.

The synchronic perspective makes things seem somewhat too benign to be true for it is not always unwelcome to have relief in place of anxiety. If we look at the speech diachronically, however, we would see the play of signification by the center. At one point, the center confers relief; at another point, it could very well inflict fear and discipline instead. The play is not in the center, but nevertheless is by the center. Playing is, in an ironical and paradoxical sense, the prerogative of the center. The center stabilizes the structure by playing with what it structures. What it says is responsible, is responsible. What it says is worthy, is worthy and can only be worthy. Change the words “responsible” and “worthy” to “national interest,” “societal interests,” “sound judgement” or whatever else and the same rule applies. The center is thus both the transcendental signifier and the transcendental signified—if such a distinction is sensible at all. In short, the effect of the speech is inconstant. (It might be necessary to clarify that by the phrase “the speech,” I refer not to a particular speech but the speech in general—in all its possible repetitions and variants.) The effect could be relief, fear or discipline (or a combination of any of these) even at any one point in time, but the function of the speech remains the same—that is, to establish and reestablish the centrality of the center. This is a secret so transparent that we might not even realize its presence.

What the structure entails for the press, the ostensible subject of the speech, is that its responsibility is a responsibility qua a prosthetic (or perhaps remote controlled) and mechanical arm of the center. It is attached to yet detached from the center; it has no agency over signification (which remains the prejorative of the center proper). In the same Channel Newsasia article, it is mentioned as an instance of press responsibility that “when the JI members were arrested in Singapore in 2002, editors here realised they must not inadvertently portray the arrests as being targetted against a particular community.” Perhaps one could also say that the press must also not portray certain defamation suits as being targeted against opposition politicians (as some human rights watchdogs might allege). The media portrayal—the simulacrum—has to serve the center. The simulacrum, which is famously real, need not and sometimes must not strive towards mimesis. The object of portrayal does not matter. What matters is that the portrayal itself serves what the center defines to be a “collective interest.” The center is the collective as far as it is concerned and it cannot be wrong because there is no collective other than that brought into being by the center.

The media qua the attached-detached prosthetic of the center cannot be subservient. Subservience makes it too detached for one could only be subservient to someone else. One could never be subservient to oneself for this would suggest that one also has the agency to go against oneself or to will oneself against one’s will—an impossibility. The gift of freedom is the gift of freedom and responsibility. It is a gift that places the media in a masquerade of relative free play while it is actually actively enhancing the center. This is perhaps also its responsibility.