Month: September 2010

Freedom to laugh

I have great respect for the press in India. Shashi Tharoor once wrote that it has no sacred cows-  free to tackle any topic in any sphere. Just look at the recent reports of the Commonwealth Games preparations. The most strident criticisms have come from Delhi itself. The Times of India website carries acerbic columns chastising the games organizers and the government for their handling of the event, and I have no doubt that the newspapers have even more in-depth and analytical coverage of the issue. The freedom of the press is a very important aspect of democracy. It keeps citizens fully informed so that they can make rational decisions. And I have often felt a little depressed about the constipated coverage of events and issues in the Singapore papers. Years ago, when I was considering journalism as a career, I decided against it eventually because I didn’t think it offered much scope for thinking. (It’s a different issue, of course, that I may not have been any good at it!)

But there are a couple of ways of looking at this idea of press freedom. Where do a journalist’s responsibilities lie?   It’s good that so many of them in India are criticising their government. There must be some accountability. But maybe jumping on  the bandwagon now is the easy thing to do. Why not write a diatribe against corruption? Who is going to disagree with you? My question, though, is this: how come the press didn’t come in earlier, before everything fell apart? Perhaps they could have supported the event much earlier. I don’t mean they should have colluded with the organizers. What they could have done was shone the spotlight on the organizing committee right from the beginning. After all, if you grew up in India you know that corruption exists. Why would you think the Commonwealth Games organizers would be above this?  If they had known they were being watched and held accountable by the local media, perhaps they would not have had quite such a free run. At the same time, earlier involvement would have built up more national awareness of and support for the event.

The beautiful thing about being in India is  that everyone has an opinion, and is not afraid to voice it. I don’t just mean journalists who are professionally vested with rights and obligations. I am talking about the vegetable seller at the market, the maid who cleans houses, the women collecting water at the communal taps. It may not be a discussion about national level politics- every state, every minute political division has its own issues, and everyone seems to engage with them in some form or other.I realise I might be accused of naive romanticism here. Yes, people speak up, but there are places in India where certain groups of people have no voice. In this sort of situation responsible journalists are even more important, and there is no shortage of them in India. At the same time, general political dialogue among the people is alive and kicking.

Cut to Singapore, where we sometimes wonder if we have a voice. We are told we don’t. We even believe it most of the time. Yet we are declaiming our lack of voice in public. And what can be more public than the Internet? Introducing our very own form of political engagement: humour.

In today’s Straits Times, there is an article on online parodies of the Mas Selamat issue. Entitled “Mas Selamat, the joke’s on you”, the article describes the satirical portrayals of the terrorist’s escape and the prolonged hunt to recapture him. According to terror expert Kumar Ramakrishna of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, the use of humour is a sign of society’s resilience. Psychiatrist Brian Yeo posits that it could be a sign of confidence in the government. The authorities, we are told, are willing to put up with the mockery because, after all, the event did happen, and in an undoubtedly ridiculous way (who can blame the toilet humour that resulted?).

My take, however, is that the satire is not a one-off thing. The writers of the article are being a little shortsighted here. The Mas Selamat satire has to be seen in the context of the form of political engagement that Singaporeans seem to react most enthusiastically to- humour.

Steven Mcdermott’s paper on the political blogosphere in Singapore (I got it here) talks about the double-edged sword of truth-speaking in a country like Singapore. I don’t agree that we are as authoritarian a regime as he posits, but there is some credibility in his argument that the very act of positioning as an unofficial political adversary, while advancing the cause of democracy, also legitimizes the authority of the ruling power. If I challenge you as the ‘little’ man, then I am admitting that I see you as the ‘big’ man. In this sort of context, humour becomes a safe way to engage in political comment. It diminishes both the target as well as the satirist, softening the blow. This is akin to the saying that if I point one finger at you, four fingers are pointing back at me. I am a part of the system that allows you to be, and my poking fun at you shows that I accept my powerlessness, even while it might be viewed as a way of taking you to task.

Humour as a form of political engagement in Singapore is not new. Even before the internet came about the old uncles in the kopitiams would sit in their boxers and singlets, one leg hitched up on the chair, smoking languorously, poking fun at politicians and government policy. Taxi drivers were famous for their pithy comments that masked real pain with a veneer of laughter. For example: “The gahmen say have only two children. So I ask my wife go operation after number two come out. Then they say have more chewren. Where I get the chewren from now? Close shop already mah!”

The Internet made this humour available to everyone on a larger scale. It also allowed everyone to have his say. is a very well developed website that has numerous sections which convey opinions in different voices. ‘Lim Peh Ka Li Kong’ is a column written in the voice of an old Chinese uncle along the lines of the kopitiam veterans described above. ‘Annals of the Dragon King’ carries the voice of a member of the well-educated and socially invested elite.

Blogs are certainly popular platforms for this sort of political engagement. Mr Brown’s blog makes use of multimedia tools to enrich the traditional text mode of the blog. His recent video on ‘Net Happiness’ pokes gentle fun at a speech by one of our elder statesmen. I think this video represents a higher level of sophistication in the use of media to get the message across. No extra words are added- only the actual words used in the speech appear. Yet the juxtaposition of the words with almost monochromatic HDB blocks set to artfully segmented and repeated sentences in the context of a catchy but mundane tune underscores the message of the speech that there is no such thing as total happiness. This leads the viewer to ask why this is the case. The overt humour of the video appeals while the subtle message teases.

In a context of perceived threat of retribution for speaking out, as well as one in which not many people have the time, inclination or aptitude for sophisticated media production exercises, political engagement appears in the form of comments people make on blog posts and media products. Increasingly, that champion of the one-liner, Twitter, has been mobilized to carry the Singaporean voice of humour. There is an entity who calls him/herself/themselves “Fake_PMLee”. Deftly circumventing legal issues by using the epithet ‘fake’, this entity now has 4142 followers on the microblogging site. At the same time, though, this cannot be seen as a uniquely Singaporean phenomenon. I also follow on Twitter an entity who calls him/herself/themselves “Queen_UK” and has more than 30000 followers. And there are many more fake versions of celebrities, which is why the real ones sometimes get their profiles verified so that bona fide followers know they are the real thing.

Our press may not be as free as their counterparts in other countries, but they work within a different paradigm of responsibility which I fully admit I am not qualified to speak of with any great authority. As citizens, we have the freedom to laugh at ourselves, at our government and our perceived lack of freedom. Somewhere within the irony are the seeds of democracy.


If the Emperor has underwear on that’s good enough

Someone recently posted this on Facebook: “don’t bother telling people your problems. 20% of them don’t care and the other 80% are glad you have them.” As usual my husband and I laughed it off. Clearly a joke, it also contained that little grain of truth that is essential for a joke to really take off. You don’t want to examine your reaction too closely for fear of what it will reveal.

My 12-year-old, however, didn’t find it funny at all. Sounding as appalled as only such an expressive child can, he cried, “But that’s 100%!”

Erm yes, we replied, that’s kind of the point of the joke. But he found it unacceptable that we could believe, even in a humorous context, that not a single person would care if we were in trouble. Even if one person in a hundred cared, that one person would carry more empathetic weightage than the other 99 people.

The Emperor, it would seem, is not wearing quite as many articles of clothing as he thinks. But maybe the one that he IS wearing covers the important bits.

It’s not how many people love you that matters, but whether the love of those who do is the sort that allows them to hurt when you hurt, and rejoice when you rejoice.

Mother of all success

The National Family Council wants Singaporean youths to factor marriage and having children early into their definitions of success. This is after years of conditioning that has led our society as a whole to place education, career and financial security above all else. According to the report in TODAY (23rd September 2010), NFC is going to have a strategic planning session soon where they will bash out the details. I will be very interested to see what they come up with. As usual, the term ‘new media’ has been bandied about, as though putting it online will convince young people to put the nation first. Why would they, when everything our society values puts the family last?

The hand that rocks the cradle, it is said, rules the world. I have put in my cradle-rocking overtime hours. No one is coming forward to give me a crown. ‘Woman of the Year’ contests run by various organizations don’t value the home maker. Always the ones feted with individual glory are the CEOs, the political figures, the successful professionals. Women who have demonstrated their undoubtedly well-honed abilities in fields where their skills are measurable. Behind these successful women are other women(mothers, mothers-in-law, maids) who keep the home fires burning. Let’s not pretend that anyone can do it all. I want to laugh every time I read articles where the Woman of the Year says she makes sure she has dinner with her family. Yeah because THAT’S what it takes to bring up children.

I don’t want to give the impression that I dismiss the contributions of these ‘Superwomen’. I am a great admirer of people who have what it takes to rise to the top of their profession. Woman have so much to contribute to the world and it is only right that their efforts are lauded.

My point is that we need to shine the spotlight on the silent sisterhood as well. Aside from that marvellously lucrative invention of Hallmark, Mother’s Day, what do we really do to make women who stay home to raise their families feel appreciated? Perhaps there is a sense that turning it into a competition would be inappropriate. Who can really say what the ‘Mother of the Year’ should do to win that title? Altruism is presumed, sacrifice is a given. Stretchmarks and loss of bladder control are no big deal- what would it take to ‘exceed expectations’ when expectations of motherhood are already culturally defined as being close to superhuman? In a meritocratic society which glorifies individual attainment, how can we re-frame the role of  motherhood so that young people feel it is worth their while? When happiness depends on achievement, how do marriage and children fit in?

It is unfair to center this discussion on women, of course. In an age where women’s contributions in the wider world are so valuable, the only way for the family to survive is for men to become equal partners in the parenting process right from the beginning. It is heartening to see so many young fathers playing with their children, reveling in the time they spend with them, taking pride in their active role in their children’s lives. However more often than not, when one parent has to stay home with the kids, it turns out to be the mother, either because of cultural norms related to gender roles, or sheer financial pragmatism.

I am assuming that the ideal situation for raising children is one in which at least one parent stays home with the children in the formative years. This may raise hackles among those who have successfully used childcare facilities, as well as those who may have felt that they had no choice but to have a dual income family. With such a complex array of factors that determine each family’s unique situation, no one has the right to judge anyone’s decisions. I can only speak for my family. My husband has always had a job that involves a great deal of travel. Very early on, I decided that I wanted to be the one who stayed home. A convenient decision of course, given the cultural and financial context.

So I resigned from my teaching job on the eve of my first son’s birth, and for the next 10 years, my attention was centered on my home. I cooked, cleaned, did laundry and everything. But I also spent huge amounts of time with my children. I talked to them, listened to them, sang to them, danced with them, played with them, dreamed with them. How can you have quality time if there is no quantity? Children do not schedule their thoughts. Their little insights come as you stir cake batter together or sort marbles together. Their fears are expressed as they finger paint, drawing abstract shapes with their fat little fingers in soothing rhythms that encourage disclosure of secret doubts. Their questions are asked as you lie on the grass together gazing at clouds. They learn to trust you when you hold them to your breast to feed them, speak sharply to them to protect them from danger, then gather them up in your arms to wipe their startled tears away. When they start school they unload their immediate memories as soon as they get off the schoolbus, then bring out the ones that have been stored much deeper as the afternoon progresses and you fold clean laundry together.

What was my gratification? The hugs, smiles, kisses, proclamations of “I love you more than anyone in the world”? Of course! These are the currencies of motherhood. Freely given, gratefully received. For almost 8 years I slept every night with at least one child in my arms. Even now, my children are quick to kiss me, hug me. My teenage son who is taller than I am slings his arm casually around my shoulder as we walk, no sign of the moodiness and distancing you normally associate with kids his age. My tween moves in to hold my arm if he sees men he thinks are threatening, because he wants them to know I am ‘taken’. My husband is the solid rock on which all this love has been built, for it is his hard work and sacrifice too that has allowed me to revel in my motherhood. If my sons respect me it is because their father does. If they protect me it is because he does. If they shower me with love and tenderness it is because they have known nothing else all their lives.

But these are intangibles. My 10 years off the radar translate into a yawning gap in my resume. My tour of duty is not over- it never is when you are a parent. But my children can stand on their own two feet and it is time for me to build my career. How do I tell prospective employers that I have gained so much that would be of great value to them if only they could see it?

My sons are my pride and joy. They do reasonably well in school, but more importantly, are strong in character. They will be men the world can count on. They will be men who believe in marriage, children and sacrifice for the greater good. But if I am looking for awards and accolades I will be disappointed. Our society does not reward parenthood with individual glory. Yet our youths are trained to crave individual glory.

We have to find a way to show that we value parenthood and appreciate the sacrifice that goes into it. We have to look beyond producing the children and think about how much time we are prepared to spend raising them. In our country, we cannot depend on the altruistic motivation of nation-building or the continuation of the species. What’s in it for young people raised on meritocratic principles? What will be their gratification?

While the NFC works all these details out, I am going to work on a revolutionary new resume format that allows for the inclusion of the years devoted to parenthood. When those years are seen as societal assets and not gaping holes, and when they can be translated into professional capital, then our young people might step forward and proudly bring forth the next generation of Singaporeans.

The Green Spot of Conditional Availability

On google chat, the little green spot next to a contact’s name means that s/he is ‘available’. In the traditional sense of the word, this would indicate that you can start a chat with the person. ‘Hi’, you could type, ‘Are you there?’ After all, being available implies being ready to communicate with whoever wants to communicate with you.

Ah but nothing is that simple in today’s world. Be honest- how many times have you seen that little green spot (or whatever the corresponding symbol is on any other chat platform), typed your little existential call into the cyber wilderness, and then been met with complete silence?

Most of us don’t even see this as a communicative blip anymore. Asking ‘Are you there’ is like ringing a doorbell. The person can’t do a thing if s/he isn’t home. So there you have it. Non-responder absolved, problem solved.

But wait! What of that pesky green spot? If the standard existential question is like ringing the doorbell, the green spot is akin to leaving the door open. ‘I’m not only home,’ it seems to say, ‘I’m waiting for you to come in, sit down and chat with me.’

You know what happens when you walk into someone’s house and you sit down and start talking, only to find that they aren’t actually there? At worst you might get arrested. At best you come away feeling like the world’s biggest fool.

I know that we have become so accustomed to this sort of thing that we don’t even think about it anymore. We have socialized ourselves to adapt to the duality of our existence online. There is the person, and there is the computer (or smartphone, as the case may be). The green spot indicates that the device is ready to carry the communication, but offers no guarantees about the availability of the person who may have signed in and then stepped away from the device or forgotten to sign out before going into a meeting. Not many people remember or even think it’s important to switch to a ‘busy’ or ‘away’ status when they are not in fact available. I know I don’t.

It’s when you are eager to chat with someone that this zone of human/machine non-contiguity becomes obvious. Is she there? If she is, why doesn’t she respond? If she isn’t, what’s with the green spot? Is she available? Or (and this is probably the most damaging line of thought) is she selectively available- chatting away furiously with others but stubbornly refusing to respond to me?

On the horns of such dilemmas are perched the fates of relationships dependent on computer-mediated communication. Which is why I value face-to-face interactions the most. Some of my best friends are people I have only ever met online. But always there is the expectation that one day we will meet offline. In the meantime, we are quick to apologize to each other if there is any hint of non-response, or even a response that is delayed beyond a reasonable time frame.

Graciousness, you see, never goes out of style.

Enterprising young people

They came up to us as we got out of our car one evening, having just come home after a grocery run. Two young men with purposefully pleasant expressions on their faces.

“Can we have a few moments of your time?” they asked.

Of course I could feel my face arranging itself to be all hard-nosed and skeptical. Been there, I wanted my expression to convey, done that. How bad could it be? They wanted to spread some “good news”? Sell ice-cream? Bring it on. Teaching in secondary school has given me a soft spot for young people, so even though I was sure I would turn them down, I was prepared to do it gently, after letting them have their say.

I tell you gentle reader, I was glad I listened. These were no fly-by-night, out-to-make-an-easy-buck teenagers. These were young men who were prepared to Work (and I don’t capitalize lightly).

Here is what they were offering, in a nutshell: they would wash our car, three nights a week, for $40 a month. Only after we approved their first few washes would we have to start paying them. They even had a contingency plan all worked out in case of rain, and I was amazed to see how fairly they had worked out every niggling detail such that it was, whichever way you looked at it, a win-win situation for all.

I could see respect dawning on my husband’s face. A sales guy himself (and a very accomplished one at that), he has always respected the spirit of enterprise and the courage it takes to execute it. He also shares my love for young people and has done a great deal to motivate and guide many of them.

These guys are not the creme de la creme of the education system. Except for one (whom they very intelligently recruited as the articulate face of their operation) they are not from any of the top schools in Singapore. But they are the sort of people on whose backs the Singapore story is carried. Smart, hardworking, eager, energetic, sincere- to my mind they have more nation-building capacity than any President’s scholar.

Which is why I think they deserve our support. Che Hao, Jian Ming, Kenrick and their associates are ready to wash your car. Are you ready to give them a chance?

That Car Grooming.
Tel: 91372464