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11-20 July 2003

20 JulShallow Hal, & ST's shallowness
19 JulA new Jap drama
19 JulWhat Should I Do With My Life? review
19 JulBlair's speech
19 JulThunderstorm
19 JulBuangkok brouhaha
17 JulAnti-anti-gay reaction
16 Jul10 Things I Hate About You, Can't Hardly Wait
16 JulKaleidoscope
16 JulAnti-gay reaction II
15 JulAbout Schmidt
15 JulAnti-gay reaction
15 JulFlaming about water
15 JulThe Kra canal proposal
15 JulThe evil PDF
14 JulUnlawful assembly
14 JulFlash mobs
13 JulRemaking Singapore Committee report
13 JulSingapore's lightening up
12 JulTherapeutic chewing gum allowed in
12 JulBungee jumping in Singapore
12 JulRogue teacher, rogue student
11 JulThe gay community reaction
11 JulCharity conscience sale results
11 Jul'Tis: A Memoir
11 JulTypepad

Shallow Hal, & ST's shallowness

20 July 2003 8:52 PM SGT (link)

I find that since I started to blog about the movies I watch, whether in the cinema or recorded off cable, I'm able to relate to current events or things I see in the newspaper, & it helps me to remember both the movie & the incident, & derive greater understanding in both. For instance, I watched Far From Heaven a week before the gay issue erupted here.

& today's movie for discussion is Shallow Hal, directed by the Farrelly brothers, who also did such works as There's Something About Mary & Me, Myself and Irene. It was received pretty favourably; David Edelstein at Slate called it a "deeply humanist gross-out comedy", for instance. I had a hard time trying to figure out whether they were praising the movie because it was good, or that the movie was so-so but the Farrelly brothers have done much worse with, say, jokes about body fluids, that they gave Shallow Hal some credit with actually saying something meaningful.

If you haven't heard of the movie or watched the trailer (because the premise & most of the "funny parts" are all there), Shallow Hal is the story of Hal Larson (Jack Black), a man who looks only for looks in a woman, until one day when he gets stuck in the lift with "TV guru guy" (Hal's words) Tony Robbins, playing himself, who decides to give him the gift of seeing women's inner beauty instead of just physical attractiveness. So he starts approaching women who to him look like supermodels but to everyone else, like his friend Mauricio (Jason Alexander), are ugly or fat or generally ordinary.

The jokes appear when he dates Rosemary (played by a svelte Gwyneth Paltrow) & although she looks like, well, Gwyneth Paltrow to Hal, she's actually grossly obese, & there are things like broken seats, big splashes from the swimming pool when she dives, & big panties. Hal is happily oblivious to the truth about what Mauricio calls the "beer-goggle laser surgery", & it doesn't take a genius to foresee that Hal has to do with the "real" (physically) Rosemarys eventually. The jokes not any more subtler than what you'd be used to from Farrelly Brothers' movies, but in this case they aren't very funny; they at most elicit grins. Commonly done: Hal praising the girl to high heaven about her beauty, while girls like Rosemary at first think he's being cruel, but later realise his "sincerity."

Roger Ebert, to his credit, points out the major problem I have with this Tony Robbins hocus-pocus; more accurately it's a reader who wrote in to him.

...Now here's a heartfelt message from Valerie Hawkins of Homewood, Ill., who writes: "Um, what am I missing, regarding 'Shallow Hal?' The trailer prattles on about how Hal now sees only the inner beauty of a woman. No, he doesn't. When he looks at an overweight woman and instead sees her as a thin woman, that's not inner beauty. What he's seeing is a typical tall, thin professional model type--which in some ways is more insulting than if he saw her as she really is and instantly rejected her."

This is persuasive. Hal sees Paltrow, who doesn't spend a lot of time wearing the "fat suit" you've read about in the celeb columns. What if she wore the fat suit in every scene, and he thought she was beautiful because of the Robbins training? This would also be funny; we could see her as fat but he couldn't. At the same time, screams of rage would come from the producers, who didn't pay Paltrow untold millions to wear a fat suit.

Hawkins has a good argument from our point of view and hers, but not from Hal's, because he does literally see an idealized beauty. To be sure, it is exterior beauty, not interior, but how else to express his experience visually?

- Roger Ebert's review of Shallow Hal

Needless to say, I find Roger Ebert's response inadequate. There are two of them, in fact. (1) Paltrow had to be Paltrow, not Paltrow in a fat suit, or else the suits (no pun intended) would flip, even if Paltrow herself didn't. What kind of a cop-out answer is this? It's Celine Dion, people: that's [just] the way it is. (2) What Hal regards as a beauty is indeed the supermodel species, so it's understandable that he starts to see ugly women as beautiful, & beautiful women as ugly, if the spell adjusted his perception towards inner beauty. It's a Kantian answer, if I may say so myself: you can't see anything other than what you're capable of seeing. (2) is more interesting because it's tied to what happens later when (spoiler) on Mauricio's request, Robbins teaches him how to break the spell, & Hal goes back to seeing the physical exteriors of women. Hal is obviously shocked, & part of the joke is how he can't recognise the people he thought were beauties. After a long struggle, (spoiler) he does manage to do so, & get together with Rosemary. Does this mean he learnt to see inner beauty, or that he saw these people's inner beauty when it was complemented with fake outer beauty, & when the façade was taken away, he already knew about their inner beauty, so he only had to abandon or shelve his preferences for outer beauty. Obviously this is quite different from Robbins's promise, & what we understand by "seeing the inner beauty in a person", unless you argue that after Hal's experience he learns to relate to people better, whether they look like supermodels or not.

So this is the issue that's bugging me after I watched Shallow Hal: how can it be claimed that Hal learnt to see the inner beauty of people if what he actually did was have the Acme Inner Beauty Goggles™ to interpret the external information for him into physical attributes of beauty he was interested in? He doesn't see the inner beauty or even do anything particular to unearth it - it gets done for him! & all he has to do is approach the lady, get readily welcomed (because usually nobody's interested in these women), & after some time getting to know them, succeed in finding inner beauty ex post facto.

If you look at it from the empiricist's point of view, our knowledge of the world is based on sense data that impinges on our senses. The realist's, or the sceptic's, response to this is how come you can still bang into the wall when you close your eyes & walk headlong into it: obviously there's a there there, & all this sense data jargon is just over-analytical claptrap. But look at what Hal says to Mauricio after the latter broke the spell:

[After Mauricio broke Hal's spell]

Hal: Okay, who do you think is the most beautiful woman in the world?

Mauricio: Wonder Woman.

Hal: Okay...let's say everyone else in the world thought Wonder Woman was ugly.

Mauricio: It wouldn't matter. Because I know they'd be wrong.

Hal: See! That's what I had with Rosemary! I saw a knock out, I don't care what anybody else saw!

Mauricio: You're right. I guess I really did screw you over then!

- Shallow Hal

Assume Hal does believe in this, & he's not just upset at Mauricio for spoiling his picture-perfect view of Rosemary & others. Hal obviously doesn't care about the strange glances or broken seats or big-sized underwear, or if he does, what he's saying is a version of what Robbins tried to convince him about: that a person's "inner beauty" is more important than his/her external appearances, even if his senses are obviously not working correctly. Is the self-help propaganda getting to him, or is he just trying to deceive himself?

ST's shallowness

ST 20 July 2003OK after a long discussion of Shallow Hal that somehow got empiricism involved, let's look at today's ST, specifically the front page, specifically the feature that you read as "Six-Figure Salary" under the picture of a young bespectacled chap. The small words, for those who don't have the dead-tree version on hand, are "A 23-year-old whizkid with a [six-figure salary]" on top, & "Dr Chua Choong Tze completed his bachelor, masters and PhD degrees in five years (page 3)".

Analyse what the ST felt worthy of saying about Dr. Chua on the front page that will attract its readers' attention to the article:

Inside the story is headlined Flying start to young professor's career: "- Just 23 and an assistant professor at SMU", "- Walks into first job, with a six-figure salary". Plus this:

WHO EARNS $180,000 A YEAR?

Sources: Adecco Personnel and BTI Consultants

- ST 20 July, Flying start to young professor's career

The three factors that were mentioned on the front page are also present in the headline & side feature, though "young" & "talented" are given more space than just his salary & "waltzing" into the job.

Reader: Ah, so after all this he's just trying to say that the ST & Singaporeans only care about his "six-figure salary" (say it in a sarcastic tone) & less about his diligence, his contributions to economics & statistics, & his "secret behind success" at such a young age.

LzyData: No, all those other things are mentioned in the article itself; if they had omitted them I would be really mad. For instance there's this interesting bit, especially for a person like me who spends a lot of time chatting & blogging:

...'There's enough time to do all these things. [Going to doctoral classes, doing his dissertation, teaching students, "finding romance" & travelling.] You just don't waste time doing stupid things like chatting on ICQ or surfing the Web for no reason,' said Dr Chua. 'I'm very focused.'

- ST 20 July, Flying start to young professor's career

But what the ST chooses to emphasise, because it thinks that will most capture its readers' attention, is "six-figure salary". Doesn't matter what exactly he did or what his job description is - he can be a professor or engineer or businessman or fill-in-the-blank-job, but the combination of youth & wealth is irresistable. Even more so when you look at the information the career consultants provided & see that people in this salary range are usually much older & more experienced.

Reader: It is pretty irresistable, in this economic crisis & all. People are interested in success stories, & in Singapore success is youth & wealth, or else the 5Cs. A lot of money at a young age, or a great lot of money at older ages, is not just a convenient barometer for success, for having "made it", but translates to real things. With money you can satisfy all your needs & indulge in your wants & desires. & that doesn't mean all rich people cannot have good marriages or families or social circles because they're rich; generally money gives one more than it takes away.

LzyData: Of course having more money is better than having less money, who could argue about that? It's not much use talking about happiness if it's out of your reach because you can't afford it, or because you're too busy scrimping & saving just to survive. I'm saying that there are things we can learn from Dr. Chua's example beyond SMU's largesse in professorial salaries, & just his genius that we can only marvel at. The ST is encouraging us to only think about this man's fortune (in the senses of luck & wealth) & not so much about how he did it - the latter's only for background knowledge, because he can be a whatever who did whatever in his whatever way, & the big screaming headline "six-figure salary" would still be the one capturing your attention. I think there is more to Dr. Chua than a "six-figure salary", & honestly I didn't need details on exactly how that's equivalent to those who are more experienced.

Reader: I think you're just young & so foolishly idealistic. You're positively disgusted with anyone who's rich & happy about it, because it seems that he's "sold out" to the establishment, to the conventional indicator of success in Singapore. You probably aspire to be a penniless bohemian playing the ukelele in the Orchard MRT underpass & revelling in it, except that you won't, because you'll be so broke you couldn't do anything really enjoyable except work & survive, & the respect you get from Singaporeans isn't a cover picture but maybe a dollar or two if they can be bothered.

LzyData: Very imaginative, but let's not get personal here, shall we?

Reader: Fine, so what front-page headline would you want?

LzyData: It's not really my job to be correcting the ST's headlines, but if I were the person in charge I would go for something like "The Youthful Professor", & "bury" the salary part in the article itself. What makes Dr. Chua somebody we would want to read about? Not his salary: plenty of people have that kind of money. Not his youth plus his salary even, because, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, that's a dead-ender; what else can you say besides ooh & aah?

It's like somebody reported: "Today I saw a car with the licence plate number 1234." & it's supposed to be significant because there's only one in the whole of Singapore that fits that description. Well it isn't: it only seems so because we like to see & remember patterns. I think the story of Dr. Chua has potential to be informative as opposed to just interesting: I've been cheated by the New Paper many times because its tactic is to put interesting headlines in big letters on the front page, & when you pony up the 60 cents & open the paper, you find there's something like a hundred words about it - worse, it doesn't tell you what it offers to tell you. What can we learn from Dr. Chua's example? When we finish the article can we tell someone: "Hey I read a great article today about ___." & not have it end there & then, but actually stimulate a discussion, add to your knowledge, inspire you, even?

To a certain extent you are right, Reader, in that I'm not really interested in folks who earn tons of money per se: I'm interested in how they earn it, what they do, how did they achieve their success...this type of questions. People can earn tons of money but not arouse my interest, or even my admiration; similarly poor or ordinary folk's lives & struggles can be compelling if you give them the chance. I'll start here: it's obvious that Dr. Chua has succeeded in not only being intelligent, because plenty of people are intelligent, but what makes Dr. Chua Dr. Chua? He had his goal to finish his education squarely in his sights, & through perseverance & not getting distracted in trivial things like aimless surfing, as he says. Are we being hampered from achieving more than what we have because of such distractions, anything that's done aimlessly?

Over to you, Reader.

A new Jap drama

19 July 2003 11:20 PM SGT (link)

& it is "Sora kara furu ichioku no hoshi" (空から降る一億の星), or "A 100 million1 stars falling from the sky", subtitled as "The smile has left your eyes." (A forum.)

The show stars Kimura Takuya as Ryo, Akashiya Sanma as Kanzo & Fukatsu Eri as Yuko. At the beginning Kanzo the detective is put in charge of a case where a woman was pushed off her balcony & the murder made to look like a suicide, & Ryo is a cook who attracts both Yuko, a magazine editor, & her friend from a rich family, Miwa (Igawa Haruka). Ryo is an extremely mysterious character: he seems to have a photographic memory, & it's implied that he has something to do with the crime, although at this stage (3 episodes out of 12) I can't be sure of that too.

The eerie atmosphere & opacity of Ryo reminds me of "Nemureru mori" ("Sleeping Forest") where Kimura Takuya also played a mysterious character Naoki who intrudes into Minako (Nakayama Miho)'s life (although the series is not totally obsessed with this, & Naoki's intentions are pretty clear by mid-way). & creepily, Fukatsu Eri is a spitting image of Nakayama Miho with short hair. What really surprises me is that this drama's written by Kitagawa Eriko, novelist & writer of previous Jap drama classics like "Long Vacation", "Beautiful Life", "Overtime" & "Love Story" (OK maybe not the last one, but I thought that was great too); these dramas are more romantic &/or touching than creepy & mysterious. You'll look for Nozawa Hisashi, writer of "Sleeping Forest" & "Ice World", for that. Staples of Kitagawa's vision of Japanese life like omiai: matchmaking, still appear though.

Not that I'm too frustrated with not knowing the motivations of Ryo; Kimura Takuya in my opinion is a great choice for acting out such roles. Plus he's simply mesmerising.

1: 一億 in Japanese, or 一亿 in Chinese, means 100 million, but it doesn't mean the title had that in mind; I suppose it actually means a large number, akin to English's "a billion" or even "a zillion".

What Should I Do With My Life? review

19 July 2003 3:31 PM SGT (link)

I wrote about it back in January, but I've only now gotten down to reading the book. Should I be disappointed? I knew it wasn't supposed to be a cookbook or a battery of psychological tests, designed to churn out a nice answer at the end. It's written as a collection of anecdotes & stories Po Bronson gathers from people referred to him via the message to friends & on his website that he was looking for such examples, people who have pondered the question deeply & have, or are in the process of, answering the question to their satisfaction. Bronson also interweaves the stories with personal insights, because he talks to these people & sometimes they also confide in him.

The book, however, suffers from lack of themes & overall insights, despite what Bronson says on several occasions that this is what he's looking for; evidently he wasn't very successful. He names important questions: "Should I accept my lot, make peace with my ambition, and stop stressing out?"; "Should I make money first, to fund my dream?"; "When do I need to change my situation, and when is it me that needs to change?"; "What will it feel like when I get there? (How will I know I'm there?)" etc. - but everyone has different answers, & in fact it seems that it will take one or more missteps & failure, years to pass, before one finds something to one's satisfaction. You'll find a story or two that you can identify with, surely, but the book reads like a Reader's Digest anthology. Mine is the literally dead-last story of Deni Leonard (under "Magic Powers: No Big Picture is Too Big"). Maybe it's grand enough, meaningful historically & numerically, or maybe I'm just amazed by this man's clear insight & planning into what he wants to do with his life.

...He realized that everyone in the sixties who wanted to help [American] Indians was, in fact, making them dependent. When a check shows up every month in your mailbox, you're the one who loses, because you lose your own survival skills...When you lose your identity, you lose your source of power. How could they regain this power? First, there were 107 tribes in California alone -- if they could connect, and work together, they would have a collective power. Second, young Native Americans needed to have their identities restored. Tribes had fought for political sovereignty, but they had never paid attention to their economic sovereignty. They had neglected learning business. Deni walked out of those mountains determined to write a new curriculum that embraced ethnic identity and emphasized self-reliance.

He wrote a business plan that set out his objectives for the next twenty years of his life. [My emphasis.] He would train himself for five years in four different areas: education, business and banking, indigenous government, and international relations. "I had to learn the white man's ways to save the non-white man's ways," he explained.

I won't go into the details, but he stuck to his plan marvellously...

- What Should I Do With My Life?, "Magic Powers"

Blair's speech

19 July 2003 3:31 PM SGT (link)

From Slate's Tony Blair Runs Away From Home:

...Lede of the week. From an op-ed in the Scotsman:

The further a kilt is seen from Scotland, the warmer its reception. At home, it is often shunned as a trite Victorian invention; in St Etienne its bearers are treated like heroes. In Mexico and Australia, the reception can be positively raucous.

The same formula seems to hold true for British prime ministers. In London, Tony Blair is a liar-under-fire—viewed as a liability by his party and with increasing suspicion by his voters. Abroad, he is lionised as a statesman extraordinaire, on a par with Winston Churchill.

- Slate, International Papers: Tony Blair Runs Away From Home

Jokes aside, his speech to a joint session of Congress was great (transcript at CNN, MSNBC; the New York Times has "applause" annotations).

...Can we be sure that terrorism and weapons of mass destruction will join together? Let us say one thing: If we are wrong, we will have destroyed a threat that, at its least, is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive. But if our critics are wrong, if we are right, as I believe with every fiber of instinct and conviction I have that we are, and we do not act, then we will have hesitated in the face of this menace when we should have given leadership.

That is something history will not forgive. (Sustained applause.)

...As Britain knows, all predominant power seems for a time invincible, but in fact, it is transient. The question is, what do you leave behind? And what you can bequeath to this anxious world is the light of liberty. That is what this struggle against terrorist groups or states is about. We're not fighting for domination. We're not fighting for an American world, though we want a world in which America is at ease. We're not fighting for Christianity, but against religious fanaticism of all kinds. And this is not a war of civilizations, because each civilization has a unique capacity to enrich the stock of human heritage. We are fighting for the inalienable right of humankind -- black or white; Christian or not; left, right or merely indifferent -- to be free -- free to raise a family in love and hope; free to earn a living and be rewarded by your own efforts; free not to bend your knee to any man in fear; free to be you, so long as being you does not impair the freedom of others.

That's what we're fighting for, and it's a battle worth fighting. And I know it's hard on America. And in some small corner of this vast country, out in Nevada or Idaho or these places I've never been to but always wanted to go -- (laughter) -- I know out there, there's a guy getting on with his life, perfectly happily, minding his own business, saying to you, the political leaders of this country, "Why me, and why us, and why America?" And the only answer is because destiny put you in this place in history in this moment in time, and the task is yours to do. (Sustained applause.)

- New York Times, Blair's Address to a Joint Session of Congress

Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber comments on Economists, sophists and calculators, or the Economist's editorial revisiting the justification for the Iraq war. More on this later.

Thunderstorm

19 July 2003 3:26 PM SGT (link)

This morning at around 6.30, there was the most powerful thunderstorm in my area: thunder every few seconds that seemed to emanate from on top of my home, rather than from the distance, & lightning that lit up half the sky, instead of a faraway bolt or two that's more usual. But I was assured enough of my safety & thought it a fantastic display. This kind of weather in Singapore is extreme enough; don't talk about hurricanes or tornados or hailstorms. I've been trying to find out whether there was damage to trees or perhaps property, but news here is slow to travel, even if this is a relatively minor matter.

OK, back to the regular programming...

Buangkok brouhaha

19 July 2003 12:43 PM SGT (link)

WHEN the demand for public housing picks up, priority will go to building flats around the Buangkok train station, which remains closed for now because there are too few residents in the area.

Giving residents of the area this assurance, National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan yesterday said: 'We have started building some flats there already... We hope to do some more this year and I am asking HDB to make sure they are built around Buangkok station. In this way, we can bring more people to the station a bit earlier.'

Buangkok station has not been opened because SBS Transit believes it will not attract enough passengers.

Among the reasons it has cited is that there are 'only seven blocks of flats' near the station and they are 600m south of it.

It has also said that it would not be worth its while to open the station because people were loath to walk more than 400m to an MRT station. It based this assumption on its experience as a bus operator.

But a survey by rival rail operator SMRT Corporation shows that many Singaporeans walk 10 to 15 minutes to a train station.

Based on a healthy adult's normal walking speed of 3.5kmh, this translates to a distance between 580m and 870m.

The finding was part of a customer satisfaction survey conducted late last year by SMRT, which operates a subway network of 51 stations.

The survey covered 1,100 respondents, and found that 65 per cent of them walked to a station from home.

Mr Charles Chong, an MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC who has been lobbying for SBS Transit to open Buangkok station, said he is sure there are more than seven blocks within a 600m radius of the station.

In fact, Block 443 is just about 380m from the station, he said. His grassroots leaders have actually measured the distance, he added.

However, SBS Transit said the difference in distance is 'not very significant'.

It added: 'We believe that the distance, in particular, being exposed to the elements without any shelter, is one which few people are likely to walk every day.'

But Mr Chong is hoping that a survey of close to 2,000 residents in the area conducted by his grassroots leaders will prove otherwise.

Although its results are not yet ready, preliminary findings show an 'overwhelming' percentage of respondents saying they would use the station if it was opened, he said.

Not convinced by the operator's explanations, some readers have also pointed out that there are many stations with low ridership which are nevertheless open, including Dover station that serves Singapore Polytechnic, Marina Bay station, Clarke Quay station, and Expo station in Changi.

Urging SBS to reconsider, bank officer Lim Beng Chong, 31, wrote in an e-mail message that under the current weak economic environment, the authorities 'have really underestimated the residents' willingness to walk an extra distance in order to save on expenses'.

- ST 19 July, When housing demand picks up... HDB priority is to build flats in area

I've extracted the whole article here because it has several points that are worth discussing. It seems that slowly but surely, Buangkok residents are summoning up the support & the evidence to show that SBS Transit's assumption that no one would walk 400m unprotected from the elements was not right, & indeed that not only are people willing to, but there might be enough of them to justify opening the station after all.

About the comparison to other low-ridership stations: in a discussion I had with two friends last night, that ranged from everything from the U.K.'s national identity to, yes, the problems with the public transport system in Singapore, it was pointed out that although these stations might on average have low ridership, they might serve a strategic purpose in linking places like Clarke Quay, Singapore Polytechnic, & the Expo to the rest of Singapore when they are needed, so taking them away will also displease a lot of commuters - especially Expo, which is literally in the middle of nowhere. It seems that the factor of a minimum cost-effective ridership of x for a station is also joined by factors like whether there are alternatives to the MRT, like walking, buses or shuttle buses, & whether they are as good as what an MRT station would offer. This is obviously not so much what a public transport operator will consider but what the PTC will demand.

I also suspect that what is really pissing people off about the Buangkok station's non-opening is not that they have a perfectly good NEL station lying closed & unused, but because the residents nearby had endured the din & inconvenience of its construction, & up to the last minute believed they were going to be able to benefit from the NEL near their homes (certainly they were under no illusion that it was a pretty long distance, but manageable one). What's bugging them is the retraction that was done clumsily & at the last minute. As my friend also pointed out, people had also counted on the NEL's presence to boost their properties' worth, & they rightly feel cheated on that.

So far I've not talked about the Buangkok brouhaha, here or elsewhere, because (1) I'm not involved, so I don't have anything very new to say; heck I haven't even tried the NEL yet; (2) I see it as yet another unfortunate episode between a public transport operator & the public, two parties that have crossed swords before & retain some bitterness between each other. In this case the former was setting itself up for the big protest by not being open about its decision to close the Buangkok station; indeed it's saying that it decided to close the station because the PTC's approved NEL fares were lower than their expectations, hence indirectly trying to blame the public's watchdog for this predicament. One doesn't need to be a long-suffering Bukit Panjang resident to look at this & get mad.

& I might just point out, nobody's interested in whether HDB flats will be built in the area sooner or later - the future residents of Buangkok, if any know this, aren't the issue - & Mr. Mah should just extricate himself before he gets caught in the crossfire.

Anti-anti-gay reaction

17 July 2003 6:34 AM SGT (link)

A bounty of responses has been printed in today's ST Forum regarding the conservative stance on the gay issue (extracts here); three are positive & one (made up of 3 short letters) negative: No reason to condemn gays, Not all heterosexuals feel the same way as George Lim, Keep an open mind and respect differing views, Threat to family system. Some highlights:

...Are homosexuals the result of nature or abusive nurture? I really can't say but I can honestly say it doesn't matter to me because this much I know: I have homosexual friends who are kind, compassionate, honest and intelligent, just as I know of heterosexuals who are dishonest and unkind - and just as capable of sleeping around.

- ST 17 July, Not all heterosexuals feel the same way as George Lim

...The assertion that the gay lifestyle will erode moral values and expose the next generation to corrupting influences seems to suggest that the world we live in, that is predominantly heterosexual in orientation, is a perfect world, vulnerable to deadly influence if we permit the gay lifestyle to prevail.

If we were to survey the kind of problems we experience daily, we would be familiar with physically and sexually abused children, females being raped and molested, people growing up emotionally and mentally disturbed, as well as a variety of deviant behaviours.

Those in the mental-health profession would easily testify that the large majority of them come from homes where parents are heterosexual in orientation.

- ST 17 July, Keep an open mind and respect differing views

& now for the negative responses, & some of my comments:

THREAT TO FAMILY SYSTEM: I agree whole-heartedly with Mr George Lim's letter, 'Govt should rethink hiring of gays' (ST, July 15). What message is the Government sending to the people by allowing gays to take on key positions in our society?

Some of these people might one day take on leadership roles in the Government. What's next then? Gay parades and homosexual behaviour might be made legal.

If homosexuality is allowed to take root, the family system would disintegrate. If the Government wants Singaporeans to be more open-minded, fine. But in doing so, let us not compromise our moral values.

DOROTHY KOH (MS)

The "slippery slope" argument resulting in the collapse of the nation. What's being misunderstood is that this is some sort of a power grab by the gay minority against the morally-upright majority. So having gays in government will lead to them legalising homosexual behaviour - without any sort of consensus in the population? How is one "open-minded" towards gays if one won't even "condescend" to giving them the right to work in the government? I suppose it means shunning them, keeping them at arms' bay, & in short treating them as second-class citizens.

STRESS HETEROSEXUALITY: With the recent move to increase acceptance of gays, there needs to be a limit on how much diversity we can tolerate and accept.

Society, somehow, has to express its clear preference for heterosexuality, without denying anyone his dignity, so that children who are discovering their sexual identity know what the norm is.

Just as with religion, anyone who speaks on behalf of the Government should not proclaim himself to be gay. No one should represent the gay movement politically.

JOEY CHIANG YUET CHING (MISS)

Two points made here: that there is a threat of homosexuality becoming a popular option among impressionable children & teenagers, & that anyone who's gay loses the right to speak on behalf of the government or the majority of Singaporeans.

The second point first: the writer is prepared to allow ministers, parliamentarians & government spokespeople their religion, so long as they don't proclaim it loud & clear, or let it bias their decision-making, & hence cast doubt on their impartiality. Fine, but that doesn't mean we can deny that they have religious preferences of their own; they can't all be agnostics! Similarly for sexual orientation: everyone has a view on it, personally & politically, but now that the majority view happens to coincide with the writer's view, she's perfectly OK with preventing gays' rights to be heard. That's of course ignoring the fact that their is a Minister for Muslim Affairs, as a mark of respect to the importance of this to our nation, & that practically every major religion is well-represented & no religion is discriminated against. If the writer is to be consistent in likening respect & tolerance for different religions, then why not for gays against the heterosexual majority?

Now the first point: It's assumed that homosexuality is more "nurture" than "nature", that such "abhorrent" & "immoral" behaviour can have an unhealthy influence on our children. As some of the positive responses mentioned, it's doubtful that any therapy works consistently to convert homosexuals to heterosexuals, & doubtful that any pat sociological reason like sexual abuse is the cause of homosexuality. In other words, I believe homosexuality is a highly individual matter & not so amenable to influence or promotion from others - assuming that giving gays the right to equal consideration for government jobs, & perhaps gay marriages down the road, is going to lead to commercials & parades & whatnot promoting the great gay lifestyle. Most people are naturally heterosexual & no amount of "immoral" propaganda's going to change that.

DON'T CONDONE UNNATURAL BEHAVIOUR: What kind of morality are we inculcating in Singapore when we implicitly condone homosexuality? What kind of signals is the Government sending to its citizens?

Being in a multi-religious society, shouldn't the authorities heed the moral teachings and reservations of religious groups?

I am not condemning homosexuals and lesbians. We should sympathise with them and help them, as we do with drug addicts. But we must never condone their unnatural behaviour.

THE REVEREND DR GEORGE WAN TIAN SOO

Being in a multi-religious society, but having a secular government, means our government should not bow to moral teachings or positions of any particular religious group unless it's for the good of the greater whole. No one has gagged religious groups; they're free to express their views & call on their members to adhere to them strictly, but they also want the prerogative of gagging the gays' point of view & essentially denying their right to be heard.

Clarification about "greater whole": the majority of Singaporeans are no doubt heterosexual, & there may or may not be a majority that wants to actively persecute homosexual behaviour & homosexuals. What I meant was that as long as homosexuals don't cause harm to others, they should be accorded their right to live as equal citizens, get jobs etc. Much of the opposition to gay rights seems to me to stem from bigotry & lack of respect for alternative lifestyles instead of any real concern for the greater good of society, & considering that accommodating & accepting others who are different from us could be a good instead of a morally-unclear bad.

Also, homosexuality as "unnatural behaviour" is a poorly-reasoned argument that Prof. Volokh at the Volokh Conspiracy has analysed & questioned (I've linked to it before). It's a long post, so I won't duplicate it here, but please read it in case you're tempted to jump to the conclusion that homosexuality is "unnatural" & hence should be repudiated & homosexuals disenfranchised.

10 Things I Hate About You, Can't Hardly Wait

16 July 2003 10:28 PM SGT (link)

It was premiered on Channel 5 yesterday. Even the Bard couldn't save this teen comedy, & it's about as lame & predictable as the half-dozen (or maybe full-dozen) contenders in this genre. 10 Things I Hate About You is slightly above-average, I'd grant, because of the semi-wit from "The Taming of the Shrew" that manages to permeate through the genre stereotypes. & also, as Roger Ebert credits, the scene where Australian-accent Pat (Heath Ledger) buys off the school band to accompanny him as he croons "I Love You Baby" to Kat (Julia Stiles) through the PA system, microphone in hand on the spectator stands - that was the above-average part. Oh, & there's another where Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) throws a tantrum in French that totally befuddles Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the guy who has a crush on her (it has to be watched to be understood).

Bianca: Laisse-moi te demander une question, Cameron. Quand me demanderas-tu de sortir avec toi?

(Let me ask you a question, Cameron. When are you going to ask me out?)

- 10 Things I Hate About You

(I am such a sucker when it comes to foreign languages. & please don't blame me if you know French & the sentence is ungrammatical or something; I got it off a fansite & it seems to be correct when I compared it to the movie.)

When it comes to a discussion on the best scene in teen comedies, I've got one to recommend, better than the two in 10 Things: it's in Can't Hardly Wait, not one of the most popular because it doesn't have big stars. The scene involves the scrawny geek William Lichter who attends the (genre's obligatory) big party (not the prom, but it's about the same) to seek revenge on the pretty boy jock Mike Dexter (& I mean pretty, not handsome), but gets too drunk to execute his plan. In his stupor he hears a familiar tune coming from the sound system inside the house & he wonders in, saying his Math teacher made him listen to it. It's Guns 'n Roses's "Paradise City", & he takes up the mike, singlet-clad, & brings down the house, not literally but almost, & gets all the girls. It was so funny! The movie's above-average because of this scene & also its well-developed characters, which strangely don't include the main ones, played by Ethan Embry & Jennifer Love Hewitt, but the supporting ones, like Kenny (Seth Green), a white pretending to be a gangsta rapper, ya know, & Denise (Lauren Ambrose), an antisocial girl who's actually the only one at the place with some intelligence (as Roger Ebert impassionately points out). It's not a great movie, but it's at least entertaining.

Oh, & in case anyone has any misunderstandings about its title, it refers to Mike Dexter, the jock, being eager to go to college because he thinks it's swarming with women ready to jump into bed with him. Needless to say, his opinion changes by the end of the movie.

Guns 'n Roses: This fan site has the sound clips of their songs like "Paradise City". It's not my cup of tea; I just like the song because I'm picturing William singing it. & it works well as a website's background music because the song really has only three real lines of lyrics, so when it loops it sounds like the complete version is being played. If any of my readers are fans of them, please don't flame me: I just tell it as it is.

Kaleidoscope

16 July 2003 3:12 PM SGT (link)

Some articles that I bookmarked but forgot to write about here:

Addendum: Now I realise this family's pretty similar to Lily & Rick's in Once and Again: also two divorcees who've married, with two kids each. In one episode, I remember, Lily & Rick were in the kitchen with dinner prepared, & Rick wants to go up & call the kids down to eat, but Lily says something like "no, when they're hungry they'll come down to forage." It's almost exactly like that in the profiled family too.

Anti-gay reaction II

16 July 2003 1:03 PM SGT (link)

I've been reading some articles that have appeared in the local dailies that Yawning Bread has archived, like Don't ask, be happy (Today, 11 July), where the writer argues that sexual orientation should be a private matter & that gays should not be forced to "come out" when applying for a job. She also touches on the local/foreign gay issue. There's also a letter, Get this straight: bigotry is not a family value (Streats, 10 July), whose headline says it all.

This post is mainly a reply to David's response to Anti-gay reaction (part I). But first I'll say that I'm uncomfortable with the "anti-gay/pro-gay" labels, because they strike me as being somewhat illogical, much like if someone were to be anti-female/pro-female. It was never the case: both sides just had different ideas of what roles women had to play in society. Read literally, the labels are nonsensical, & conveniently the pro-female movement was called feminism instead. The anti-gay/pro-gay label only makes sense if we use the definitions in Homosexual but not gay, where homosexualism is the act while being gay is a culture & pro-gay means accepting (but maybe not advocating) that culture.

Even with that said, there are gradations to one's acceptance of homosexuals & the gay culture, & while PM Goh announced that jobs would not be denied to homosexuals with the necessary qualifications, it's still required of them to reveal their sexual orientation, to prevent being blackmailed (this is laden with hidden assumptions); & the anti-sodomy laws stay. Logically one could say our government has skipped the first step of decriminalising homosexual sex in favour of accepting homosexuals into government jobs, some maybe in sensitive positions - but as a political matter, the latter is much easier to do than the former.

(Digression: Today's ST & Zaobao both report prominently SM Lee's comments regarding Tung's future (Beijing unlikely to replace Tung, says SM Lee; 李资政:北京不会撤换董建华). These comments come not from some public forum, but David Ignatius's column in the Washington Post, Slow Burn in Hong Kong - apparently through e-mail. When I see this together with how PM Goh's announcement on the government employing gays that was buried in a Time magazine article, I'm beginning to wonder whether this is a new trend: our leaders making announcements or pronouncements in the foreign media before the local ones.)

There are other stages: conservatives in the US are now afraid that gay marriage is next on the cards after the Supreme Court struck down all anti-sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas. (Just seen: Broadcaster Pat Robertson calls for retirement of justices (CNN); he has railed against the ruling that "has opened the door to homosexual marriage, bigamy, legalized prostitution and even incest." Whether that's true is another story for another day.) Will Singapore accept a pro-gay society like People Like Us? Or gay parades? Or even a gay representative at the Big Daddy of all parades, the NDP? & all these are procedural stages; one neglects the general feeling among the populace towards homosexual behaviour & the gay culture.

Those who watched the movie or read my review of Far From Heaven will know that I likened the taboo-ness of gays to interracial relationships, represented in the movie by Frank, & his wife Cathy's growing attraction to her gardener Raymond. After being discovered, Frank almost immediately promises his wife that he'll seek treatment & he'll "lick this problem", but eventually he gives up & leaves his family. This is by no means reflective of the general gay community, but while David is correct to say that some gays (most? unknown) seek treatment & do lick the problem, becoming heterosexuals with healthy family relationships, others don't make it, & yet more probably aren't even interested in "treatment". Homosexuality is not something one can readily admit to oneself regardless of your moral & religious beliefs, because it's obvious that heterosexuality is the biologically-correct behaviour & the majority behaviour. I presume homosexuals go through a long period of self-reflection (in addition to public chastisement & bigotry) about this decision. This is why I find ludicrous suggestions that allowing movements like Gay Pride, or even admitting that there are gays in our society & they might be interested in working for the government, is going to lead us down the slippery slope of moral degradation. I think sexual orientation is as personal as religion, & nobody is harmed by a secular state like ours: indeed more benefit because no religion is persecuted or regarded as inferior. (This is somewhat unrelated, but in a discussion of the burka vs. the bikini with respect to women's modesty & dignity, Aziz Poonawalla calls America "the greatest Islamic country on Earth", because it's in a society with freedom of choice that gives "Qur'anic modes of modesty in women's dress" their true meaning.)

Another thing you find on Yawning Bread, besides news articles on gay culture, are reports from contributors on police raids on gay bars & such places, & a series of articles on what it's like to declare oneself a homosexual upon being enlisted. While the police raids may not have targeted homosexuals but rather were for drugs or illegal immigrants or things like that, you can see how the gays are trying hard to read the tea leaves, to understand what the official policy is towards this or that, & how they are carrying them out. This Sword of Damocles is constantly hanging over their heads because their private behaviour is not respected by society as their right as adults, & indeed not condoned by the police should they choose to enforce the law. I too am compassionate & "loving", but in a libertarian sort of way: why should we stigmatise these people & their behaviour for a lifestyle they were born with & also have chosen for themselves, when they don't harm anyone else? As the previous article said emphatically, bigotry is not a family value, neither is it an Asian value, whatever that means. In the case of anti-gay bigotry, it may take time, but ultimately I think it should be rejected.

About Schmidt

15 July 2003 9:54 PM SGT (link)

People said About Schmidt the movie only borrows slightly from About Schmidt the book: as I see it, in both, there's a guy named Schmidt who's just retired & his wife died - those are the only similarities. It's not just the details & events but the thrust of the stories.

The movie wants to tell us a funny yet tragic tale of a man who's worked hard all his life but finds himself isolated & his life meaningless when he retires & his wife dies. It's been compared to The Remains of the Day, & both are about men in the twilight of their lives & judging their legacy, but of course the latter's superior, both as the book & the movie, I'd have to say. But About Schmidt is a pretty good movie: Jack Nicholson's performance, Schmidt's struggle with a water bed, & that scene when Schmidt returns to his old office to see how his successor is doing, & later as he walks by the rubbish dump sees the boxes of documents & notes that he had painstakingly collected & compiled over the years. Not only his documents but also his career is seen as being of no lasting importance to anyone. Schmidt in the movie is also suckered into sponsoring a child in Africa called Ndugu, & he surprisingly finds that this is one of the few meaningful activities he has left to do. (Sponsor your own with the help of WorldVision Singapore, at $45 a month.)

As I said, practically everything in the movie & book is different. Schmidt in the book is a wealthy retired lawyer who drives a Saab & has reservations about his future son-in-law, he claims, because he's a wonk - doesn't seem to have any concerns other than work, although in actual fact Schmidt is a mild anti-Semite & probably never took the time or effort to get to know him better. Schmidt spends the time fussing about the legal details of ownership of his country home, realising that he barely has any friends that weren't actually his (dead) wife's friends - so he's pretty lonely, & reminiscing about his past infidelities. There's nothing that's as powerful or meaningful as reevaluating your legacy or leading a renewed life in retirement, which is why you probably won't enjoy the book if you've watched the movie & have it constantly at the back of your mind. I couldn't appreciate the book: I don't know whether it's this Schmidt's unlikeability, the vast difference from the movie, or my feeling that why should this rich pampered man's rants matter to me?

Anti-gay reaction

15 July 2003 3:22 PM SGT (link)

Today's ST also has reaction to the discussion on gay rights some days back, like Chua Mui Hoong's "It's not about gay rights - it's survival" (my comments). I thought "Gay-rights study heavily tainted" was informative; I hadn't put much trust in the "creative class" findings anyway. "Govt should rethink hiring of gays" is the fabled conservative hard-hitting response, two of them in fact.

...The saying 'Love the sinner, hate the sin' is my guiding principle. I accept a criminal, a gay, a gangster or a hooligan, but I reject his behaviour. Why? Because as human beings we have a conscience to distinguish between what is good and what is bad.

There is no greyness between white and black. White is white, and black is black. There is no relativity in morality. Morality is absolute. Yet the guiding principle is love.

I find this belief quite popular among some who are more religious than the average person: that they are prepared to accept the person but reject the person's behaviour, obviously because they feel they are following the true moral compass in prescribing what's right & what's wrong. I may be wrong, but the reason why they are eager to emphasise that they don't reject the people is because they want to portray their religious & moral beliefs as being objective, & that they are merely following the truth, & they want to encourage others to do the same, & be redeemed & all that. They want to appear big-hearted, yet they secretly condemn those they say they love, for doing things they disapprove of.

Also, is morality absolute? Has this man ever agonised over some ethical decision, where both outcomes could be logically consistent with one's moral beliefs? Or does he actually mean that what's absolute is the will & intentions of his God, which believers & non-believers alike must obey?

...I disagree with the Government that people are born that way and hence helpless to change. Gays are never born that way. The law of nature has been that you are either born a male or a female, hence the proper behaviour follows.

However, because of negative influences in their lives, homosexualism and lesbianism set in and took control of the person's mind, soul and body.

Most gays are reported to have had a history of being sexually abused when they were children. Others mentioned that they had grown up in homes without a father or father figure and subsequently rejected their own sexual identities. Still others admitted that their attraction to the same sex started when they allowed themselves to be addicted to pornography.

Yet the person himself still has a choice as to whether to accept or reject this immoral behaviour. Some people may be comfortable with the change in views, but I am not and will continue to educate my children in the right way.

I think the jury is still out as to whether homosexuality is more from genetic rather than environmental causes. The conservative believes that acknowledging that there are homosexuals in our society, and perhaps also acknowledging & legitimising their lifestyles will lead his children & others' children astray. Of course this hinges on whether homosexuality is fundamentally genetic, because if it is, no matter how much pro-gay propaganda there is around us (assuming there will be any, or that there's any such thing), the naturally heterosexual children won't "convert". Only if homosexuality is what the conservative likens to a moral failing, a social disease, that people can be influenced, like people dye their hair red when they see Gillian Anderson's glamour, for instance. Perhaps we can sidestep this controversy by instead looking at whether homosexuals harm anyone by being homosexuals, instead of whether they're going to embark on some conversion campaign - the idea is ludicrous.

I would like to appeal to the Government to reverse its decision to hire gays for key jobs. History has shown time and again that great empires fell because of failing human values and shaky moral principles. Does the phrase 'the chain is as strong as the weakest link' sound familiar?

Obviously he hasn't heard of the troubles Iran's theocracy is having now with its students & the majority of the populace. & the Afghans weren't too happy with the Taliban's strong & resolute moral principles, I gather.

I AM disturbed by just the thought that gays are ordinary people like you and me. Their sexual orientation is more than just a deviant desire which needs to be corrected, and their lifestyle remains questionable.

If we accept gays as a sexual minority, then subtly we are telling ourselves and our children that it is acceptable to have sex with the same gender.

I would encourage gays to rethink the way they live, being man or woman. Getting back to religion or the basics of sex is the right thing to do.

And, hopefully, they would realise that they have to change. They should not allow themselves to be blinded by other parts of the world where the gay community is accepted, nor jump onto the bandwagon on the pretext of evolution of a country or people's maturity.

To be blunt, even in the animal kingdom, a tiger will look for a tigress to share their lives together.

PHIROZE ABDUL RAHMAN

Nobody's disputing that heterosexual sex is the only way for people to procreate, but must all stable loving relationships consist of a man & a woman? If homosexuals feel that they are naturally so, that is indeed their nature; one might be "disturbed" that they are ordinary people, but you know what? They are.

Anyway, Prof. Volokh has a great post analysing the oft-heard claim that gay sex is "unnatural", & another considering gay marriages. Both expose the assumptions & hidden motives behind the social conservatives' complaints.

Flaming about water

15 July 2003 3:10 PM SGT (link)

KL's water ad blitz ignores crucial facts, says Singapore (ST 15 July): Now that Malaysia's taken out some advertisements in the papers alleging Singapore robbed their country blind, or something like that, we are poised to restart the flaming about the water issue. & this after a months-long "truce", after the Singapore government published the book that's now the subject of controversy.

I'm no expert on Malaysian politics, but the most simple & obvious reason that they're launching this smear campaign now, because of elections or Dr. Mahathir's stepping down in October, doesn't seem to be sufficient. Neither is the claim that their internal deliberations on what to do took so long. All in all, it's quite mysterious, like our version of Kremlinology.

The Kra canal proposal

15 July 2003 1:35 PM SGT (link)

It seems the old idea of building a canal through the Kra isthmus is being revived as China wants to better secure its Middle East energy sources after a deal with the Russians fell through; yesterday's Today reports on The Kra Canal threat.

Interestingly it seems to suggest that the renewed Chinese interest is due to tensions with Singapore about SARS:

Last month, the Beijing-controlled Economy magazine stated that it would be in China's interest to invest billions of dollars in the Kra Canal to reduce its dependency on the Straits of Malacca "choke point". In a strange mix of politics and economics, it also explained that China had long been interested in the project, but held itself back so far because of its friendship with Singapore. Now, however, China is less obliged to Singapore due to the latter's attitude during the Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) period, the magazine said. (At the height of the Sars outbreak, Singapore had criticised China for not disclosing its Sars cases earlier).

- Today 14 July, The Kra Canal threat

Strange indeed. Anyway, although I am not an economist, & I don't have much knowledge to definitively say that a Kra Canal would or would not devastate our economy, it seems to me that Singaporeans should not be running around like headless chickens & panicking about our livelihoods, because sectors like services & manufacturing make up a significant part of our economy & those won't be unduly affected. Put it this way: if it was done a century or longer ago, when a large part of Singapore's business was a stopover along the Europe-China trade route, that would have been a cause for concern. The Kra Canal was going to be done sooner or later since its economic (& now political) viabilities are unchanged, & we should concentrate our efforts on how we can make ourselves relevant. The machinations cited in the article whereby we're trying to ward off the threat by parachuting salesmen (& saleswomen) in seems to be a stop-gap measure.

With that said, I wonder how the people in trading & fuel outposts along the African coast reacted to the proposals for & eventual construction of the Suez Canal.

The evil PDF

15 July 2003 1:34 PM SGT (link)

Coincidentally, Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox for yesterday condemns PDFs as being only good for printing, & has a list of its usability crimes.

Unlawful assembly

14 July 2003 6:14 PM SGT (link)

OK again I'll need my lawyer readers' help on this: any flash mob that wouldn't be considered unlawful assembly? It seems to me that if they so much as block the passageway they can be deemed as such.

Unlawful assembly.

141. An assembly of 5 or more persons is designated an “ unlawful assembly ”, if the common object of the persons composing that assembly is —

(a) to overawe by criminal force, or show of criminal force, the Legislative or Executive Government, or any public servant in the exercise of the lawful power of such public servant;

(b) to resist the execution of any law, or of any legal process;

(c) to commit any mischief or criminal trespass, or other offence;

(d) by means of criminal force, or show of criminal force, to any person, to take or obtain possession of any property, or to deprive any person of the enjoyment of a right of way, or of the use of water or other incorporeal right of which he is in possession or enjoyment, or to enforce any right or supposed right; or

(e) by means of criminal force, or show of criminal force, to compel any person to do what he is not legally bound to do, or to omit to do what he is legally entitled to do.

Explanation. An assembly which was not unlawful when it assembled may subsequently become an unlawful assembly.

Being a member of an unlawful assembly.

142. Whoever, being aware of facts which render any assembly an unlawful assembly, intentionally joins that assembly, or continues in it, is said to be a member of an unlawful assembly.

Punishment.

143. Whoever is a member of an unlawful assembly, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 6 months, or with fine, or with both.

- Penal Code, Chapter 224.

Update: I added the clauses 142 & 143, as well as the explanation to 141.

Flash mobs

14 July 2003 5:40 PM SGT (link)

Via WordSpy's Word of the Day, Flash mob, I learnt of this crazy thing some folks in Manhattan, & also other cities, were organising as a private joke, or a limited public joke. See Wired News's E-mail Mob Takes Manhattan & E-mail Mobs Materialise All Over; interestingly the second article was written only a month after the first.

The basic idea is that an email is circulated to friends, & then friends of friends (it can also be done in a more public fashion by posting it on a website or blog, but that would, ahem, arouse unwanted attention, as you'll see). For instance, the Manhattan email readers (read the email) were asked to synchronise their watches & meet at one of a few specified bars, where representatives in "trucker hats" would disseminate further instructions. Later, a crowd of 200 went to Macy's rug department & viewed this rug, saying they were part of a commune interested in the "Love Rug". After 10 minutes or so, they all dispersed, hence explaining the "flash" in "flash mob", like a flash flood that disappears just as suddenly as it appeared. A more recent gag at New York's Grand Hyatt Hotel had its participants clap loudly for 15 seconds & then disperse.

People say it might be a new form of performance art, but I think the main reason for organising & participating in flash mobs would be the sheer fun of seeing everyone's befuddled faces. I don't believe it would lead to anything dangerous, like the Seattle WTO riots or French union violence, simply because the participants are just there to follow the harmless instructions, & they're also asked to disperse quietly - it's part of the game. Unfortunately when the news goes around too much, a police presence is guaranteed, & besides such events would be considered "unlawful assembly" in Singapore. The closet anarchist in me wonders whether there's a way around that. Even if the first or second flash mobs are successful in evading trouble, I wonder what will happen to subsequent ones. Even if nothing except clapping is done, I suspect most Singaporeans would see it as civil disobedience.

Remaking Singapore Committee report

13 July 2003 9:07 PM SGT (link)

PM Goh's speech at the Remaking Singapore Committee report presentation & appreciation lunch (also the one where he surprisingly announced the lifting of the bungee-jumping ban), & the Committee's report (or download the full report (PDF)).

Most of us probably know some of its proposals by the fact that they have already been shot down or put in the "not yet" category by ministers in public, but the whole thing is still worth reading, & one must not forget the proposals that, in contrast, have already been accepted, like the lifting of the female quota in the NUS medicine faculty. There's no recommendation I would violently object to, but I found that the proposals I thought were most radical (& also most beneficial if reforms were made in those areas) all fell into the "Proposals Without Consensus" annex. Somewhat unsurprisingly they mostly have to do with political, as opposed to social or economic, issues. Ideally you should read the whole thing (PDF), but I'll summarise the points here & also add my own thoughts.

Changes to Defamation Law

Some say that in election periods, candidates should be accorded "qualified privilege" for any inaccuracies or untruths that might arise in what they say - subject to whether these were relevant to the issues debated & whether the defendant had reasonable grounds to believe it was true, & had taken steps to verify its truth. Others say the status quo strikes a good balance between free speech & communitarian interests, & current defamation laws don't inhibit any legitimate expression but rather discourage "malicious" defamation, which is what it was designed to do.

It was also suggested that defendants be protected if what they said was with regard to something of public interest - "fair comment" - but others pointed out that without explicit legal protection to this kind of speech, defendants have been allowed & judges have accepted this defence in some cases.

Lastly it was proposed that there be a cap on damages awarded, as some cases had damages "even more than what courts usually award for the loss of life and limb". Those who opposed this preferred that judges have the flexibility to determine damages on a case-by-case basis.

This has been a big sticking point with opposition candidates, especially since the Tang Liang Hong & J. B. Jeyeratnam controversy a few years back. You can blame the general Singaporean for not fully understanding the purpose of defamation laws, but these incidents were enough to have a chilling effect. It might have been beneficial in preventing more silly or baseless statements from being voiced, but the populace is also generally quieter as a result.

Further Liberalisation of the Mass Media

It was proposed that a Freedom of Information Act, obviously inspired by the example of the US, be passed to allow journalists to request & receive information from government agencie & ministries. But it was noted that there are already many avenues through which government information is available to all & sundry, & a FOIA might "impose rigidities on the way information must be kept and managed in order to be made available for public scrutiny".

That's something I don't really understand: it's inconvenient for the government ministries & agencies to maintain information so that the public can readily access & understand it? Perhaps that can be resolved with a refinement of such a FOIA, instead of its outright rejection. As I see it the principle behind it isn't wrong.

Also it was suggested that foreign correspondents be given more leeway to comment on local issues & politics to "provide alternative perspectives" to Singaporeans. But many foreign correspondents already operate in Singapore, & all the Singapore government ask is that they report accurately & "not engage in domestic politics", & it insists on the right of reply.

I remember there was some talk about the proposed EU constitution or something mandating that media allow the right of reply, which could have a chilling effect on frank discussion - because it's inconvenient in the long run, the media would sooner just stay clear of controversial issues. If publication A has an article riddled with untruths, must a rebuttal be given in the same publication? Why not publication B? - it's still big news. Would nobody print it? - that's unlikely. I believe most people, governments & individuals, in liberal democracies would either get their right through the competitive media, or by letting the truth come out in the end.

Changing the Political Playing Field

Changes to electoral boundaries should be announced some time in advance of elections, so that prospective candidates can "work the ground" better, & the "perception that the electoral process was designed to favour the incumbent party" can be removed. Also, the work of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) should be more transparent: reports on population shifts, or even proposed changes to the boundaries, can be publicised for public scrutiny & feedback.

However, others argued that electoral boundaries are not the focus of elections, & instead more attention should be given to free & fair elections, & a stable political system to promote development & progress. This was also why the committee concentrated on the "upstream changes to the relationships and mindsets of Singaporeans."

Another big sticking point. It's correct that free & fair elections are important, but beyond the negative perception that the incumbent party is somehow manipulating the boundaries in absurd ways so as to put the opposition at a disadvantage, there's also the potential of gerrymandering; if the process of reviewing electoral boundaries is not open & transparent, even if overt & unhealthy political influence doesn't exist now, there's no guarantee it won't happen in the future.

In another way, I agree that electoral boundaries don't matter so much in our election process, but not because they're less important than the overall process, as what was said in the report, but that the Singapore political landscape is simply not distributed in any intelligible geographic way. Noisy one-seat contests might produce fiery orator-MPs, but is it relevant to Singapore beyond its entertainment value? Would it be better to have municipal boundaries, & municipal elections, instead? - something like what we already have in the form of our CDCs & Town Councils. Such boundaries would be much more logical to set & to justify. Better, similar to our GRC system, some MPs could be "sold" as municipal managers, grassroots people, whereas the others that make up the ticket concentrate on the national level, either in the Cabinet or in parliamentary committees.

Other Stuff

There were some other issues covered in the "Proposals without Consensus" annex, like streaming, but I don't want to go into that, largely because I think the Committee's proposals on acknowledging more alternative paths to success, such as the arts & sports, & encouraging more liberal admissions policies in tertiary institutions, pretty much cover the ground there. There's also a suggestion to rank secondary schools in bands instead of numerically - I also support that.

I also heartily support the first chapter's suggestions for "greater identification with and use of National Symbols", & "renewed emphasis on values & ideals for which Singapore stands". I believe there's much too little discussion of what's really said in our National Anthem & Pledge, & on the question of what it means to be Singaporean, & what kind of society we want to have, not to mention other components of our republic like our judiciary & our Constitution. For too long everything has been subsumed into top policies & the personalities they come from, & we should reacquaint ourselves with vital republican "organs" like civil society, the judiciary, the mass media, as well as encourage a politically-engaged population in the process.

Misses: maybe voting rights for NSFs, as I talked about here. Also, the Committee report can be made available in HTML rather than just in a proprietary format (yes I know, that's a bit too geeky, but it has to be said!). Personally I think if most of the measures in the report are implemented, & more importantly, important deficiencies in the Singaporean character are addressed, such as political apathy, materialism & excessive deference to authority at the expense of creativity & individuality, that would be a great step ahead for our young nation.

Singapore's lightening up

13 July 2003 1:07 PM SGT (link)

It turns out that the Prime Minister was pretty sincere in reducing government controls and encouraging Singaporeans to respect diversity in each other, so in fact my negative comments on the economic justification for allowing bungee jumping were too hastily made. Now instead I wonder what greater changes the government has in store for us:

'Diversity will affect how the people and the Government relate. If Singapore is to become a place where people can fulfil their aspirations, where they can explore many different things, it will no longer make sense for the Government to always control and regulate every activity.' he said.

- ST 13 July, PM hints at further relaxing of controls

BAR-TOP dancing and 24-hour pubs, chewing gum, employing openly homosexual people even in sensitive government jobs - and now bungee jumping.

That's right: If some Singaporeans now want to take a flying leap off a bridge here tethered to a bungee cord, the Government said yesterday they can go ahead.

The surprise announcement by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, coming on the heels of the other changes, has prompted some observers to wonder if these shifts are a signal of more to come.

...This easing up is part of the process of making Singapore a place where people can make more informed choices for themselves - and decide on the level of risk they want to take.

- ST 13 July, Bungee: Now you can make that leap in Singapore

Therapeutic chewing gum allowed in

12 July 2003 11:50 PM SGT (link)

S'pore to impose stiffer penalties on therapeutic chewing gum littering, Singaporeans mixed on whether chewing gum ban should be lifted (Channel NewsAsia): I'm for the chewing gum ban. Is that surprising? I think that it would be great if we could allow the sale of chewing gum, therapeutic or recreational (?), & only punish those anti-social idiots who think it's cool to stick them between the doors of lifts & MRT trains. The fact is that those idiots were free to do so & get away scot-free, & some still do to this day, using self-imported gum.

Suppose we want to try to limit the punishment to these idiots: What is the best way of making sure they are brought to justice, & the rest of the law-abiding gum-chewing population is left to ruminate in peace? Surveillance cameras to identify the culprits? Can surveillance cameras cover every square centimetre of public facilities - lifts, MRT stations, buses etc.? Public consciousness? Public consciousness didn't work the last time: one lapse can lead to inconvenience for quite a lot of people, & cleanup costs for the operator or government agency involved. Public consciousness would be OK for the price of one cigarette butt here, one sweet wrapper there, but on the whole, general cleanliness; it doesn't work that way for chewing gum, especially for the malicious culprits who want to cause disruption using the gum.

Basically this: I'm perfectly OK with regulating the use of therapeutic gum strictly, even to the extent of treating it as a dangerous substance, because of the disruption these idiots have caused with the gum. (But I'm not sure how registration would accomplish the effect of warning people not to dispose the gum improperly, unless you could somehow trace who chewed the gum - but wait, maybe you could do it via the saliva residue.) Unless we have some clear sign that there's been a great change in Singaporeans' mentality, I think it should stay that way. I think Singaporeans can live perfectly well without chewing gum as they do without, say, assault weapons.

Bungee jumping in Singapore

12 July 2003 11:43 PM SGT (link)

Singapore to allow bungee jumping, says PM Goh (Channel NewsAsia): Actually I didn't even know it was banned. & yet again the lift on the ban is to "cultivate risk-taking", so that these crazy bungee-jumping Singaporeans can become entrepreneurs & remake the economy. Does anything in Singapore happen without an economic justification, I wonder?

Rogue teacher, rogue student

12 July 2003 11:48 AM SGT (link)

Sigh this was the unpleasant surprise on Page 3 of the ST today: Student's ticking-off goes from RJC to Net. A GP teacher's tirade against a student was secretly recorded by another & posted online, because the latter student wanted to "find out what other students thought", not to "entertain people or humiliate the teacher." Methinks that however frustrated any student was with the teacher, there are proper channels to address the issue, & the Internet & secret videos are not some of them.

What I say is over & above the usual rules & peer pressure students of a school, or members of an organisation, face about ugly incidents affecting their own: circle the wagons & not talk to outsiders. Most of the time it's borne from a "don't wash your dirty linen in public" consciousness, but it's also to protect those concerned from being cast in a bad light, especially if it's your teacher or somebody. But when something goes really wrong & there's no one in the organisation you can turn to, I still think right-minded people who want to see something done should have the means to do so, a la Darby Shaw in The Pelican Brief (it's omitted in the movie, as a lot of good things were, but I thought the way Gray Grantham, the reporter Darby Shaw talks to, manipulates the competing presses in order to get his story printed was marvellous).

And no, I have no idea who the teacher is, or whether she has done such things as tear up people's homework before. No gossip, please.

Addendum: I thought this case reminded me of something, but it slipped my mind when I wrote this post: mothers using hidden cameras against maids that manhandled &/or tortured their babies! Those news programmes, Chinese ones specially, love to play the footage even though they're shocked & appalled by the violence, & everyone tunes in & watches carefully, even though they're also shocked & appalled by the violence. But please, we're talking about JC students here, not defenceless infants.

Addendum 2: Do not be judgemental on RJC teacher in videotape incident, says Dr Ng: wise words.

The gay community reaction

11 July 2003 9:51 PM SGT (link)

Yawning Bread comments on the reaction from the Singapore gay community to PM Goh's comments to Time: Gay civil servants, and what next?.

"Within hours of Time Magazine uploading their story "The Lion in Winter" onto their website, news buzzed through Singapore’s gay community." - within hours?! There are some very loyal readers of Time out there; I happened to be reading the latest issue when I saw that crucial paragraph & wrote about it. & my reaction was negative, in contrast to "many gay hearts [brought] to fibrillation" - that shows I didn't understand the importance of PM Goh's comments from their point of view; but with subsequent commentary in the papers, I'm beginning to see the optimism.

2nd point: Yawning Bread says that after "taking a peek" at the transcript of the interview PM Goh had with Time, he realised that it was PM Goh who raised the gay bars & gay employees issue, not the interviewing journalist. He brought it up as part of explaining how the government was opening up & changing in the face of economic difficulties, & also changes in our society. It's too bad the transcript isn't available online, so that we can look at it ourselves, but I think we can take Yawning Bread at his/her word. Anyhow that was a surprise to me: I too thought it was the journalist who raised the issue.

Charity conscience sale results

11 July 2003 9:33 PM SGT (link)

...The number of items each person bought and what was paid for them have been passed to a sociologist for analysis.

Mr Sim believes this could throw up some interesting conclusions, though he concedes the data may not be representative of Singaporeans in general.

He has not decided what he will do with the results.

Told of the experiment, another sociologist, Dr Nirmala Purushotam, said: 'Only two types of people would be attracted to the sale: the charitable ones and the ones out for a good deal.

'So having the two extremes of people there is not surprising.'

...Said the man dubbed Singapore's Bill Gates of his latest sale: 'Just giving money to charity is no challenge - it benefits only one party. By organising such a sale, the volunteers, recipients, buyers and Creative Technology benefit.'

- ST 11 July, A charity sale conscience test

As could be expected, there were many cheapskates & generous people. I think Mr. Sim's efforts to benefit as many people as possible, even the sociologist, are extremely commendable.

'Tis: A Memoir

11 July 2003 2:41 PM SGT (link)

'Tis: A MemoirBy the same Irish poor kid turned "brilliant teacher and raconteur" that wrote Angela's Ashes. I didn't read that volume of his memoirs, but I watched the film, with Emily Watson as Angela McCourt, & I thought it was pretty good. 'Tis is the continuation of Frank McCourt's story in America (Angela's Ashes described his childhood in Limerick, Ireland, & ended with him on the ship bound for New York) as he works his way up to become a successful teacher.

McCourt's writing style could be described as a stream of consciousness, where he dispenses with quotation marks & hyphens when reporting most conversations & things, & most of the time it makes them really funny. Unfortunately I didn't enjoy 'Tis as much as I thought it would. I thought there was much too little of his actual teaching & learning experiences compared to the other things he describes, like the ups-and-downs in his relationship with his first wife & his quirky neighbours & co-workers. I wanted more about New York University & his horrendous experience trying to get his high-school students interested in Giants of the Earth and Silas Marner - in the end, he said, he took the easy way out & bought them The Catcher in the Rye, but the books were later confiscated. Those were the parts I enjoyed the most, & I thought he could have written more about exactly how this transformation to "brilliant teacher" took place. Also, his habit of telling anecdotes everywhere gets a bit tiring after a while, so I think the book is best read piecemeal rather than in long sittings.

Typepad

11 July 2003 2:34 PM SGT (link)

John Holbo has been selected by the folks at Typepad to beta-test their blogging service: something like Blogspot, but running on Moveable Type. Another difference: it's not going to be free, but considering their feature set, I think a reasonable price is worth it. John Holbo's already created two sub-blogs, a Reason and Persuasion blog for his PH1101E/GEM1004 course, and a Nietzsche blog for his coming PH4206 honours course.

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