Impression

Kian found it easy, three years after leaving this city, to rebuild it virtually inside his head. He could imagine a walk from the government housing complex in which he lived, taking the well-groomed pathway that ran between blocks of flats like a crack between paving slabs, out onto the road outside, then following the grey pillars of the subway line to the nearest station where he would board, and watch each stop go past him like the page of a photo album until he reached his destination. The effect was like gaming on a console: everything was photo-perfect but crisply defined, a little too clean to be quite real. And here there were no monsters to fight, no obstacles to overcome, only the slow unwinding of the ground beneath his feet. Each time he imagined a journey, he thought of a different destination, and eventually arrived without effort, without incident.’

– ‘September Ghosts’, in Heaven Has Eyes by Philip Holden

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O, Ingratitude, Where Is Thy Sting?

‘Opposition ingrates’ is a phrase I’ve seen floating around recently on social media. I found it fascinating, because while clearly meant as a stinging epithet within the very current context of GE2015, I found myself thinking: Couldn’t they have thought of something less anachronistic than ‘ingrate’?

As I understand it, the logic behind ‘opposition ingrate’ is that for a right-thinking Singaporean, your vote is owed to the political leaders that built a successful Singapore.1 This is not at all a difficult position to decipher, but I think it is a position worth examining in terms of the discourses and ideologies it implicates.

To return to the moment I first registered the term, to my ear, the use of ‘ingrate’ as a political epithet seemed out of sync with what I thought was the mainstream attitude towards politics and society. Wherefore gratefulness, in a meritocratic society where no-one is owed a living? Likewise, a persistent message of elections rhetoric is that you, the voter, have not been as well served as you have the right to expect, and the relationship between the state and you is that of service-provider and client, with the elections candidates being competing contractors.

In neither of the above schemas does gratefulness seem like the most relevant candidate for a social or moral value. It was in this sense that I saw what I called ‘mainstream attitudes’ being at odds with the notion implicit in ‘ingrate’, that it is your obligation to render your political support to the benevolent authority that maintains the social order.

This notion of a social order maintained by authority itself was something I would’ve thought was outmoded, or at least at a greater degree of remove from a current and popular political event. I’ve tended to encounter the idea in more hermetic contexts, e.g. in discussions about the history of political thought. In contrast, I saw current political news and its attendant media commentary (including satirical commentary) as tending to either start off from a different presumption about its audience’s political and social consciousness2, or identify anti-authoritarian/anti-establishment views with the popular consciousness. Basically, the idea of a social order wherein gratefulness to authority had significant moral weight seemed quaintly traditional, in a vaguely retrograde way.

Against this context, the question of whom exactly the people who use the epithet ‘opposition ingrate’ saw as their audience, was something of a puzzle. It would work, somewhat, as a message of solidarity, among some imagined majority of traditional, conservative folk with old-fashioned values; however, the audience against whom the force of the epithet is directed is, presumably, exactly the kind of anti-establishment advocate for whom ‘ingrate’ could hardly be expected to make sense as a moral criticism.

I wish I could call the situation I’ve described a novel one, but really it seems more and more like the template for political disagreement nowadays: call it the culture wars model, if you will. I might have called it ideological disagreement, but that would suggest more self-consciousness than appears to be in evidence, and I think the essential feature of this situation is the preclusion of the possibility of coming to terms.

*

The title of this post was also informed by my other, more superficial investigation of the instinct I had about the word ‘ingrate’ being somewhat anachronistic.

I went with Google Ngrams first, and we see clearly that you’re much more likely to be called ‘ungrateful’ (and even ‘faithless’) more than ‘ingrate’. ‘Ingrate’ is about as commonly used in the English corpus as the term ‘carpetbagger‘ (an epithet with a rather culturally specific context that, when used in a general sense, means ‘any opportunistic or exploitive outsider’, and when used in a current political context, might be fairly applied to a certain Son of Punggol).

ingrate-ngram

Next I went on BYU’s GloWbE corpus.

ingrate-glowbe

Nigeria registered an unusually high rate of the token, and though there were a few repeat instances, it appears that ‘ingrate’ has found a place in the idiom of Nigerian film dialogue (choice example: ‘As for Awolowo, he is an INGRATE & a BETRAYER!’). There appear to be several examples from real-world political commentary as well (specifically, politicians’ comments on each other).

In Pakistan, the examples were almost exclusively from religious texts (‘Verily! Man is an ingrate […]’). This is a fairly common use-context for other countries as well.

The other fairly common use-context is football, which is where this gem of a user comment on an article about a returning sports star:

‘you are ingrate. Show appreciation small to nation builders for their contributions. You are a reicarnate of somebody in the biblical times who would shout crucify him, crucify him (Jesus) after getting drunk from the water he turned into wine.’

(Source: http://ghanasoccernet.mobi/kwarasey-trains-before-home-crowd-for-the-first-time/)

This comment was directed at another user, who favored another player as first-choice keeper.

But taking all of these observations together, my suspicion is just that ‘ingrate’ is used where they study more Shakespeare (and used less where they used to study more Shakespeare).


1. Relevant context here is the fact that the message, ‘The PAP led the building of Singapore,’ was clearly the message most thoroughly developed in public discourse, in a year that afforded several occasions to invite Singaporeans to collectively reflect on the nation’s history.
2. E.g. Singaporeans are politically apathetic and individualistic, Singaporean youth are influenced by Western liberal ideas and aren’t conscious of local history, etc.

Finding Singa: Principles of Singaporean ‘exceptionalism’

In recent years the idea of a Singaporean exceptionalism has been raised by those who make the argument that for Singapore to continue being what it has been, being  ‘exceptional’ is a necessity and not an option. The meaning ‘exceptional’ takes on in those contexts tends to be in terms of the achievement of distinct national economic capabilities.

Between the first and second steps, there’s something of a gap. The first step, that Singapore needs to continue being Singapore to remain Singapore, is a truism. What the second step does is to specify conditions and interpose criteria. I don’t wish to go too far into discussing the technical economic/social/geographical/historical details, but the two main discourses this second step draws from include the discourse of national vulnerability, as well as the discourse of the primacy of economic concerns.

Yesterday I was in a discussion where two participants took issue with what they saw as whiney or ‘escapist’ Singaporeans, whom they criticized as responding to a perceived economic pressure in non-constructive ways (futile complaining & leaving the country, respectively). Their suggestion was for ‘escapists’ to be more realistic about economic pressures and dig in their heels, and for complainers to reduce their expectations about their income level if they wanted to enjoy more free time

While neither were irrational suggestions, I had serious points of disagreement with each. Regarding the first, I said that rather than regard Singaporeans as being escapist if they truly believe that the economic pressures are too great and decide to leave, wouldn’t it be more rational to conclude that they made a good choice? As for the second, it contained that argument that economic pressure is more perceived than real, and can be opted out from; while this is true at the level of the individual, I think it is fair to say that Singaporean society as a whole would not (perhaps cannot) endorse this choice.

In my assessment economic pressure is an inherent feature of Singaporean society as it currently exists. As long as Singaporeans continue to seek what they currently seek (a certain ‘quality of life’), pressure will be the status quo.

I happen to prefer not to deny that what I see Singaporeans seeking is worth seeking, but this is something anyone with an opinion is free to disagree with. What I think is an undeniable feature of the situation is the exceptional consensus (or perhaps habitus) that has developed, and that has persisted. I think this is something we could fairly term a Singaporean exceptionalism.

How I opted to describe this attitude of Singaporean exceptionalism was as a decision matrix, one with a unique mix of factors. The curious thing about this decision matrix is that, when applied to the question of whether to ‘do Singapore’ or not, it will always generate the same solution. (Or at least it must do so for enough people to sustain a viable population.) The kind of economic aspiration that is the norm now, can be thought of as some subset of relevant factors.

According to this logic I think it becomes easier to understand how some individuals will come to the point of decision that their priorities are incompatible with what is on offer, and that this decision need not be something to lament or regret over much. At the same time we can see how some individuals will decide that their priorities may not be an entirely comfortable match but that there remain compelling reasons to continue with the status quo.

One of the other things I like about this description of Singaporean exceptionalism is that it contains the possibility of out-Singapore-ing Singapore. We could theoretically apply this matrix to search for something somewhere that is worth ‘doing’. The thing we find might be something we can emulate and perhaps eventually integrate. Perhaps it might be something that shows us where we have fallen short of our own standards.

As for the sustainability of this way-of-being, it rests squarely on the extent to which the matrix can be improved and adapted while having it continue to serve its users. It calls for the kind of resilience built on flexibility and creative destruction. It calls for knowing ourselves and being true to it, while trying to outdo ourselves and recognizing where we may be outdone.

The Problem with ‘Integration’

On Quora, the question was asked, ‘What do Singaporeans think of the vast immigrant and non-native population in the country?

In one of the answers, I read: ‘But something seems different about some of the new immigrants, and that is worrying Singaporeans. As the numbers of foreigners have increased, there is no longer a compelling need for them to integrate to survive.’

I vehemently disagreed with this, and the orientation of the rest of the answer. I am cross-posting my response here (initially here).


 

I would broadly agree that a desire to integrate has value for anyone in any community or society, but I could not insist on this as a kind of standard for accepting immigrants (or not).

Desire to integrate is a tricky criterion to stand by, I think, for two reasons. The first is that it runs both ways, in that, if we are being consistent, other countries have as much of a right to demand this of their immigrants. The second is that the judgment about the ‘right’ level of desire to integrate is going to vary.

Where do these two facts leave migrants? It might not be a problem for Singaporeans; we might well expect Singaporeans abroad to manage to integrate, because we regard their ability to do so highly. But remember that not all migrants are equal (apart from being human beings); we might not all have a home state (one that we like, anyway), or be as economically free to make the choices we would rather make. I would imagine that, more often than not, migrants leave more behind than they might like.

Given the above two facts, as well, I think it is a trap to view the desire to integrate as a value, in that the agency is devolved to the migrant rather than the community as a whole. If we truly believe the community as a whole is worth integrating into, then shouldn’t the community value being open and accepting over demanding that newcomers integrate?

From the broader perspective, comparing different countries, for example, I think we will find some places easier or harder to integrate into. Is that ease or difficulty due to the migrant not trying hard enough, or is it simply the result of how open to immigrants the society decides to be? There is only one immigrant, or one family, or one sub-community of immigrants, ultimately.

Societies do have that right to decide, I think, but it is precisely for this reason that I think ‘desire to integrate’ is a terrible criterion to adopt. It facilitates a potential kind of hypocrisy in our relationship with migrants, in that it is not because we’re not accepting, but because the immigrants don’t want to integrate.

*

Personally speaking, my view is that Singapore should value being open and accepting, for reasons of geography and history. I think that our capacity to do so is going to be determined by our sense of community as a society, and perhaps our sense of identity as a ‘nation’ (a problematic category too).

Not A Refrain Sung Lightly?

The whole tawdry Purple Light ‘saga’ has been generating a ton of discussion in my digitally extended social circles, much of it in earnest, and all the more frustrating for that.

There is very little to disagree with as far as the rightness of the actual actions taken regarding the offending lyric is concerned. AWARE was right to raise it. MINDEF was right to ban it. Singing songs about rape is wrong and damaging. With the last point especially, the opposite position is morally indefensible.

Yes, it is true that there are those who seem to want to defend their right (or something) to do the indefensible. Yet I would contend that most people recognize that this would be an error.

There are those others who manage to avoid actually defending the indefensible, and still manage to be implicated as doing just that. These tend to be the ones criticizing the military higher-ups, or resenting the angry feminists. I cannot defend those males who feel that their status is being impinged on in some way by qualified feminist criticisms. Furthermore, I think it is not an easy thing for critics to patiently and untiringly put across those criticisms and take the time to qualify them, and I am persuaded that it is already an injustice that such qualifications and such criticisms need to be ceaselessly reestablished. But these things do not make unqualified criticisms any less unhelpful.

For those who’ve tended to criticize the military’s response, I don’t think their response is justified, but I do think they have been misinformed. I’ve argued elsewhere that how the ban was presented in ‘The Real Singapore’ (from what I know, the first popular faux-news source to pick up AWARE’s announcement) was highly misleading. The easiest way I can put it across is that the report came across as something like, ‘Wah MINDEF ban Purple Light!’ This naturally elicited the response, ‘Wah lidat also ban.’ This was my immediate response, and I would be confident in saying that that would have been the immediate response of many NSFs and NSmen, if  only because the discourse about the tendency of higher-ups to concern themselves with trivial things and deal with them in ham-handed ways is a pervasive one. During your full-time NS it seems as though you’re confronted with examples of it every day. Many servicemen eventually realize that part of it is structural, due solely to the size of the operation, etc., although though it never actually disappears, because the fact is that military life is fundamentally tedious. If I checked my immediate response, it was because I have been persuaded not to be so ready to think of the higher leadership as incompetent.

This is precisely where those who persistently argue that by expressing ire over the reported ban, the general run of males, barring a few or even a generous many exceptions, have shown themselves to be ready to defend rape culture because they’ve been socialized by the patriarchy are wrong. Most of them who are annoyed at the ban are annoyed for a different reason, and if you’ve not served NS or experienced something like the constant tedium of military life, it is indeed something you would not immediately understand. Within the attendant discourse, the action of banning a song does indeed appear trivial.

The problem is that the banning of a song (or a verse – whatever) was not the substantial action. What was the substantial action was the institution’s acknowledgment that the verse is bad, that the singing happens, and should be stopped. This is a moral response, in keeping with the institution’s values (as they wrote). The moral issue was treated as such by AWARE and MINDEF. It was not represented as such by ‘The Real Singapore’ and subsequent reports.

Let me affirm that the existence of the alternate context and discourse does not preclude socialization by the patriarchy and its discourses. It is clear that this is pervasive as well, from many of our responses. And it is wrong that rape culture can still be lightly justified, either in the song or in our responses to this spurious saga.

At the same time, none of this makes the majority of readings-into about why so many young Singaporean males (either my news feed, or because the older ones are further away and wiser) are upset (‘butthurt’) any less patronizing or misguided. If these readings-into happen to occur alongside legitimate criticisms, so much the worse.