Answering Questions About Singapore's Defence And Future

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This article is concurrently posted on The Kent Ridge Common.

Source credit: NUS

Dr Ng Eng Hen, our current Minister for Defence, participated in a discussion last Friday titled “Defending What We Fought For”.

The title itself conjured up images of Singapore being under siege, a gleaming metropolis facing relentless threats, always being tossed against multiple challenges. It exhorts citizens to be constantly vigilant. It perpetuates the rhetoric of vulnerability that we’ve heard so many times from various government ministers.

A quick look at the seminar’s description threw up this notable and rather dramatic line: “These developments have led to the traditional and non-traditional security threats, that, if not promptly and decisively managed have the power to wipe out what we spent years to build: not just structures and institutions, but the heart and soul.”

What better way is there to unite a nation than to point towards some common threats – perhaps with a dramatic flourish - and emphasize the need to band together?

Dr Ng began the discussion by sharing anecdotes from his childhood. He had grown up poor, along with five other siblings, and his family had stayed in one room, sharing the interim three room flat with other families. Within three decades, however, the poverty that his family experienced was broken.

The metrics for Singapore’s success are very telling, be it by looking at the percentage of students who have achieved academically or the employment figures. The system has allowed for such drastic mobility; it is “virtuous” and “had to be protected and nurtured but updated”. It was where Dr Ng had come from that explained why he had found it difficult to divorce himself from what he perceived to be the strengths of this system.

Many questions were asked by an enthusiastic audience. Some wondered about the need for such a strong military. For one, National Service is compulsory for all Singaporean men, and 2nd generation male Permanent Residents. Also, Singapore has a defence budget of around 12.3 billion in 2013, even surpassing its geographically larger and more populous neighbours.

Dr Ng said that these are good questions, ones that we can only ask because Singapore is safe and stable. Should our military defence be found lacking, we would be confronted with an entirely different set of questions. Why is it that you’ve such a weak force? Why did you not perform to expectations? The faith in our defence was won by our predecessors and there is a need to keep respecting and upholding it.

“The stronger you are, the less enemies you have.” In the last five years, the region has changed. There is an ongoing South China Sea dispute between variant claimants, along with instances of tension which are not at all theoretical. If Singapore does not have a firm deterrent force, Singaporeans would have less confidence in the future.

40 years ago, when the Singapore Armed Forces was first founded, very few people believed we could defend Singapore. Now, very few people believe they can test our defence systems without being severely hurt in turn.

Someone else wondered if we need such a high level of capability and if it is time to scale down a bit, perhaps divert the funds into building a more robust social safety system.

Dr Ng assured that the government is a custodian of the people’s time and money, and the tax dollars are spent wisely. The military has been brainstorming on ways to make national service more meaningful, sharper and as long as necessary to raise a credible support. The scientists employed in the defence institutes are very meticulous – any weaponry purchased have been probed very extensively and sometimes, they ask questions that even the manufacturers have to scramble to answer.

Another person wondered about the reasons that prompted Dr Ng to be a politician, despite having been trained in medicine. Mr Viswa Sadasivan, the moderator, cleverly reframed this question and asked if Dr Ng had wasted resources that were spent on his education.

There was a hearty burst of laughter from the audience.

As a surgeon, Dr Ng had cut people up after putting them to sleep. In politics, participants – including him – are cut while they are awake. Upon hearing this, everyone laughed again and the atmosphere was really quite jovial.

Doctors see many people and learn to deal with their emotional and physical pains. Through his medicine training, he had learnt to offer support to those in need, and while he isn’t sure if NUS had wasted a medicine education on him, he is certainly grateful for the lessons he received.

Also, “politics in Singapore is a noble calling.” Because the current climate is a bit robust, good people may shy away from stepping forward and Nature abhors a vacuum. Those who come in may not be the best people, the brightest people with noblest intentions. These reasons, coupled with his growing up experiences, has prompted him to be a politician.

And what about the sacrifices that some have to make, the religious obligations that are neglected due to training schedules? And the treatment of certain races? Is there any security clearance according to racial categorisations?

According to Dr Ng, there are Malay soldiers in every vocation. This seems to suggest that there isn’t security clearance according to racial lines. As for the issue about how to respect religious preferences and requirements, it is a very challenging one. The secular spaces in Singapore are shrinking; preserving common spaces where various religious factions can use is increasingly difficult with growing religiousity.

For example, there may be constituents in his ward who would say, I’m not going to sit on the table if alcohol is served on that table. This eventually leads to segregation along religious lines and weakens the social fabric.

Of course, Singapore can follow the mode of Canada. When Dr Ng visited a school there, he saw two hundred Sikhs in a room. 95% of them were from Punjab. In Canada, migrants are encouraged to preserve their traditions.

Singapore could have formed enclaves according to racial, religious and ethnic lines. The country, however, is well-known for having quotas in the public housing blocks, to ensure a mix of races and nationalities. Is the government right about enforcing such secularism and mixing? Is it wrong? The public has to decide. If the next generation decides to have precincts, then the government’ll have to go ahead.

At this point, Mr Sadasivan shared his experience on a military overseas mission he had attended. That season was very hot and it happened to be the Ramadan. His Muslim soldiers said that they needed to fast even though the cohort had to travel thirty to forty kilometers under the oppressive heat. In a show of support, the entire battalion decided to go without water. These are the memories that have shaped his attitude towards Singapore. He is defined – he chooses to be defined – by this episode instead of others.

The sharing ended off with a question about how to balance the defence budget in relation to the healthcare budget.

The Minister said that the solution is to have an economy that produces enough wealth to satisfy not just healthcare and defence requirements, but also the education and social safety expenses. In the last decade, there are very few countries in the world, if any, with Singapore’s fiscal strength. The Sing dollar is strong, it is appreciating. Even though the government is increasing the social safety nets, they are still spending within the budget.

The day the Singapore economy stops growing will be the day when there is a need to think about where to cut and how to cut spending. That is exactly what is happening in Europe. In Barcelona and Madrid, for example, structural unemployment is high while youth employment is at around 50%. This means that almost half of these youths would spend the best parts of their prime years being unemployed.

In Singapore, the actual number of jobs created for one of the hardest group – those aged 55 to 60 – have grown by 10% in the last five years.

Dr Ng reminded us that we have to guard against a sense of exceptionalism, defend against hubris and realise that the fundamentals that got Singapore here are very precious, very rare and very easy to lose. They can be lost very quickly as many countries in Europe can attest to.

Fortunes can change. The Europeans have great capabilities, great assets that they’ve built up and yet, even nations change and the fates of nations change. It’d be sheer pride and arrogance if Singaporeans don’t believe that they can suffer the same faith. “Our exceptionalism is only exceptional when we’re willing to do the right things.”

With that, Dr Ng ended the sharing to rapturous applause.

The Minister struck me as the most sincere Member-of-Parliament I’ve ever had the privilege to listen to. The other four – including one from the opposition party – were simply too preoccupied with cultivating their public images.

He warned against hubris, speaking of the need to be humble, keep moving on with times, to not be complacent. In this way, he reminds me of my father, with his considered and kindly way of speaking.

However, there is doubt lingering over the content of his words. There are cracks happening in the Singapore system – the escape of Mas Selamat, the infrastructural groans of hospitals and trains, the problematic responses to the ‘Little India Riot’ – all these suggest that the fundamentals underlying the public policies are outmoded or that the government itself has grown sloppy.

Singapore’s development from Third World to First was clearer - perhaps easier - for the blueprints for industrial success have already been well documented. But where to go from here, from this gleaming position of steel and glass, Singapore seems just as confused as other developed nations.


The full Youtube discussion is available here.

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Art Stage 2014

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Art Stage 2014, held from 16 to 19 January, was a magnet attracting top-notch galleries. There was a buffet of installations, sculptures, paintings, photographs, even performance art, within the Marina Bay Sands exhibition hall.

Here's a summary of the various pieces that had captured my attention, in both positive and repulsive manners.

Jakkai Siributr, Thailand
Rape and Pillage (2013)
Embroidery on Thai civil service uniforms

This installation is a commentary on Thailand's turbulent polities.Numerous civil service uniforms were stitched with caricatures of influential Thai personas. The crisp whiteness of the suits, coupled with the headless mannequins, evokes discomfort and a certain ghostliness.

Very interesting installations of bees! Resting on empty boxes; floating in the middle of nowhere; just looking dazed and un-busy.

Perhaps a criticism on the destruction of the insects' natural habitats and the resultant devastation to its population numbers.

(The little figures look frail but cute. Each costs 250 sgd.)

Comprised of paper and artificial moss, I think.


Juz Kitson
Changing Skin (2013)
Porcelain and mixed media

This is an installation of ceramics against a clean, blank wall. Each piece is biomorphic, an assemblage of various body innards and parts into flower-like lumps. Eerie.

I probably won't want this hanging around in the living room.

Sam Jinks
Divide (2011)
Silicone, resin and horse hair

Its title is self-explanatory in an absurdly literal manner. -.-

Painting by Penny Coss

The olive textures in the central panel, its dreamy density and slow, thoughtful motions, seems like an unfurling field of flowers.

Painting by Kim Eun Ju

At first glance, his paintings seem bland, with mere silhouettes of floral arrangements. Flat and rather unexciting stretches of blackness.

However, the rich webs of textures reveal themselves when the viewers shift closer to the artwork.

This is the first time I saw embossing as a technique used so dramatically in an artwork. Surprisingly harmonious.

(It's a pleasant piece, although not that memorable.)

Charley Case
World Mother (2013)
Ink

It is mesmerising in its swirls of meticulous red, orange and black. Very beautiful.

There isn't any "LOOK AT ME! I'M SHOCKING, GROTESQUE, THEREFORE ABSOLUTELY GROUND-BREAKING" vibe to it.

It is a very dignified piece.

Unknown artist

An office worker stands at the top of the food chain, only that there is nothing to be on top of.

Zeng Fanzhi
Mask
Oil on canvas

He paints people like pieces of meat, with unsentimental strokes and colours.

A few years back, Zeng had a solo exhibition in Singapore, with a wider range of more impressive works.

This tiny portrait is one of his older and more minor paintings.

By an unknown artist.

A crowd of people wrapping around a ball of light. In the darken room, this work seems desperately lonely.

Unknown artist

A man stands in front of infinity, looking forward to nothing.

Kenichi Yokono
The Room
Painting on wood

A molecular structure of disembodied eyes.

Sakshi Gupta
Strange Beginnings (2013-2014)
Cast cement, iron sheet and bird feathers

This caught my attention because of the surprising tuft of feathers poking out from a concrete pillar. It's strange.


Sun Yi
Water (2013)
Wood carving

Interesting combination of wood and water.

Yuna Bert
Angrybirds (2013)
Mixed media

Very current. Social commentary on the pursuit of luxurious goods?

Rinat Voligamsi
Check your eyesight (2006)
Oil on canvas

Very witty! Can you imagine entering into the room and the optician tries to test your eyesight with this board?

You'd probably be saying, "Where you're pointing at now is a housefly. Where you point next will be a housefly too."

Hahahah!


An installation by Jan Fabre

Coat made from dead beetles. Smells of preservatives :[


Anthony Gormley
Quantum Void IV (2008)
Stainless Steel

Nicely abstract. 

Chloe U-Ram
Not very sure about its title (2013)
Metallic material, machinery

My favorite piece in the entire exhibition hall. The hypnotic opening and closing of a biomorphic flower, as though it is breathing, thumping.

Very calming effect on the audience.

By an unknown artist

The glow-in-the-dark effect of the rosettes is achieved by the skillful juxtaposition of various clashing colours in close proximity. 


Artwork by Wang Tiande

Re-interpretation of the Chinese traditional painting styles, with an overlay of burn marks.


Katrin Fridriks
Stendhal Mothernature - White
Acrylic on canvas

Mesmerising textures dancing in a musical symphony. How did the artist create it? What reagents did she use?


Damien Hirst
Tityus (2012)
Entomological specimens and Hammerite paint on canvas

This work of preserved insects is by an artist known for pickling animals to display in museums.

What is the difference between observing dead animals in a natural history museum versus seeing them in an art institution?

Is it moral to order the deaths of these animals? What is morality anyway?



Rachel Kneebone
Shield (2012)
Porcelain

A fusion of limbs and phalluse, all writhing, one morphing into another. Maybe suggesting that men act, react and think with their penises?


Lu Zhengyuan
From the artist's Chronic series
Black marble

Three plastic bags carved from black marble... Perhaps the artist is suggesting that all art is rubbish?
*
Many Art Stage 2014 works, in trying to capture the attention of a fleeting audience, have chosen to be grotesque. Louder, horrific, more shocking - all to jot the anesthetized masses into feeling again, all to outdo one another. There were twisted limbs, bloodied eyeballs and mash-ups of various body parts, along with all sorts of dead insects. Sigh...

But it's really a challenge for an artwork to be outstanding in a hall with so many other brilliant works. Perhaps the grotesque nature of these artworks reflect the insecurities of their creators?

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The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar

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Myanmar is the land of golden pagodas, with each glinting architecture capturing the wisdom and spirit that has lasted throughout centuries of people.


Of all pagodas, the Shwedagon Stupa is the most revered in the country. It is a gleaming tribute to the Buddhist faith, the most sacred pagoda for the Myanmar people. The entire structure is gilded with gold, glittering, and crowned with jewelry donated by devotees. 

Many locals believe in reincarnation. They give their best to the maintenance of this stupa, believing that their current lives are set - perhaps even doomed - hoping only to accumulate good karma for their next lives.

 
What are these people searching for? They with an army of cameras, snapping shots at golden architectures from so many angles.

(And I'm implicit in this too, am I not? A silly tourist who has taken a fair number of photos as well. What is it about this compulsive need to photograph everything?)


Why is it that we outsiders are so impressed by its scale? The entire stupa towers above us, monumental, placing us into supplicating positions. Why is it that these stupas become larger and larger over time?

And why are we so impressed by the sheer mass of gold? Is it because it connotes wealth and royalty? Gold is gold is gold. It is merely a soft metal. It is not even that useful. 

Then, an inelegant thought crosses my mind. There are dollops of bird shit on the ground. Since all visitors must walk barefooted in this religious complex, I wonder how many dry splatters I have already stepped on.

I wonder too, about the flocks of swallows and crows swirling about the stupa. They must have left smears of their waste on the golden monuments too. Perhaps this is their way of offering tribute.

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"Those who can't, Teach"

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The below snippet is adapted from Haresh Sharma's "Those who can't, Teach". As the hard copy has been returned to the public library already, I'm typing this snippet out from memory.

"Mrs Lim, I'm back."

"You are...?"

"Ah Teck, remember? The 4N1 student, best friend with Jackson."

"Ah Teck, yes, Ah Teck. Twenty years already, so long ago. Are you looking for me? If you're looking for Mr Chen, he's teaching one class now. Should be back soon."

"No, no, I'm looking for you. Want to tell you something. Remember how you told me that everything would work out in the end, that my problems would go away?"

"Ahh, yes. You see, everything went well. Here you are -"

"No, no, I just wanted to tell you that I'm delivering pizzas now. Very poor and hard to find another job. Nothing went well. But it's okay. I still want to thank you."
*
Teachers must be encouraging. They must tell students that they'll go on to experience successes if they would just study hard and work intelligently. They are bound by their professional ethics to repeat such 'words of wisdom' to different cohorts, year after year.

Yet, most would grow and end up as the average people. After all, the 'average' is defined by the bulk, by the majority.

Perhaps some would eventually taste success that they've dreamed of, success that their teachers spoke of.

Some, not all.

A poignant play that Singaporeans, especially
teachers, would relate to. Please read it!
Source credit: Epigrams

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