Wednesday, January 12, 2005

News from around the world 12 Jan 2005

Creepy e-mail hoax: A British man admitted this week that he sent fake death announcements to the families of British tourists missing in the tsunami. Christopher Pierson, 40, said that he was looking at a bulletin board site where people were asking for information about their relatives when a “moment of madness” came over him. He sent at least 35 of the posters e-mails purportedly from the Foreign Office, saying the British government “regrets to inform you that the missing person you were inquiring about has been confirmed dead.” Pierson has been charged with “malicious communication” and creating a public nuisance. The British government said it would never inform anyone of a death by e-mail.

Voxleo: Talk about a sick, sad world we live in. That's disgusting. You'd think people would have a bit more sympathy.

Basques want out: The parliament of Spain’s autonomous Basque province voted last week to hold a referendum on secession, only to be promptly rebuffed by the Spanish government. Basque Prime Minister Juan Jose Ibarretxe said that giving Basques the chance to vote on independence would end the long campaign of bombings and shootings by Basque separatists. But Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero said secession was against Spain’s constitution and was not an option. “This proposal, which has no legal basis, is going nowhere,” Zapatero said. “And Ibarretxe knows that.”

Voxleo: Sigh. More violence to come in Spain. Now they also have Muslim terrorists to worry about.

Kiev, Ukraine
Democratic triumph: An ebullient president-elect Viktor Yushchenko said this week that he would use his democratic mandate to stamp out corruption in Ukraine. “Ukrainians have been independent for 13 years,” he said, referring to the country’s break from the Soviet Union, “but now they are free.” The pro-Western Yushchenko was elected in a re-vote, after widespread fraud in the first vote prompted a month-long series of mass demonstrations, in what is being called the Orange Revolution. The government-backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, stepped down from his current post of prime minister, but said he would file a lawsuit contesting the legality of the re-vote.

Voxleo: I wonder if this was widely reported in Singapore. The masses forcing democracy to really work for them. If I were a MIW this news would send a shiver down my spine.

Phnom Penh
Cambodia spared: The former king of Cambodia took credit this week for protecting his country from the tsunami. Norodom Sihanouk, who gave the throne to his son last year because of poor health, said on his Web site that an astrologer came to the queen mother last month warning of an “ultracatastrophic cataclysm.” The former king said that he and his wife spent millions of dollars to ward off the evil by having religious ceremonies performed at temples around Cambodia. The tsunami engulfed neighboring Thailand but caused practically no damage in Cambodia. The royal family sent condolences to the countries affected.

Voxleo: Now of course we should take into account that Cambodia doesn't really have much of a sea front with the Indian Ocean. But then again who am I to say if the old king's prayers didn't hold the tsunami off. Maybe Old Man also made prayers to the various gods to keep Singapore out of harms way. Or maybe it's just because we're geographically lucky. Crazy royals.

Musharraf keeps uniform: Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has reneged on his pledge to step down as army chief of staff by the end of 2004. “Pakistan needs continuity of its internal and external policies, which can only be ensured if I stay as the army chief,” Musharraf said in a televised New Year’s Eve address. He said the war on terror and the conflict with India over Kashmir could only be managed if one person was making the political and military decisions. An opposition coalition of Islamic parties said it would hold mass rallies later this month to protest the move. “We cannot have diluted democracy,” said Makhdoom Amin Fahim, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party.

Voxleo: Yet another dictatorship waiting to happen. Why would anyone believe that a man who siezed power illegitmately would surrender it without worrying about repurcussions.

Khartoum, Sudan
Giving peace a chance: Sudan signed a peace agreement this week with rebel factions in the south, in the latest attempt to end a 22-year civil war. The war began in 1983, over oil rights, but morphed into a religious conflict pitting the Arab Muslim north, which controls the government and uses strict sharia law, against the Christian and animist south. Under the new power-sharing agreement, southern Sudan will be partly autonomous and field its own army. African diplomats were optimistic about the deal. “Africa begins the year 2005 on a very good footing,” said South African President Thabo Mbeki. “Let’s party!” But the peace agreement does not cover the bloody conflict in Sudan’s western Darfur region, as that war involves different rebels.

Voxleo: Yay! Peace in one part of Sudan, maybe there'll be peace in Darfur too.

Poppy crop conundrum: The Pentagon’s civilian and military officials are at odds over whether to destroy Afghanistan’s opium fields, the Financial Times reported this week. Civilian leaders agree with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who wants the heroin trade stopped before parliamentary elections. Karzai fears that warlords will use their heroin profits to influence the vote. But U.S. military leaders argue that disrupting the country’s main agricultural product would be even more destabilizing to the elections. “If you pull at the thread of counternarcotics the wrong way, because of the sheer proportion of the gross domestic product wrapped up in this business, you should be careful of unintended consequences,” said Gen. James Jones, the American commander of NATO.

Voxleo: America's war on drugs runs into its war on terror. Hmmmm... Tough call guys.

Monday, January 03, 2005

A reply to a critic

So I received this comment from the Knight of Pentacles. Being a student of history, and having spent alot of time dealing with intellectual history, I think I see what sir Knight is talking about. Frist read it, and then allow me to reply:

I disagree with the article on so many points that I do not even know where to begin.

Apathy. That is why you are not going to get a complete and carefully crafted response from me. Most of my peer group do not care enough (or are not politically aware enough) to get off our candy asses chasing the mighty dollar and buying the newest toys.

In the context of improving our country, even before we look at reformers versus revolutionaries - does Singapore even have a critical mass of people who care enough to go beyond coffeshop mumbling and complaining?

Or maybe those who care (and can leave) - have left. Then we need to ask why. Instead of conveniently dissing them as 'quitters'.

Get your PhD in Public Works. Then perhaps our academic-obsessed rulers may choose to listen to you. Having the right family connections would not hurt either. I sense your desire to contribute to and improve Singapare - and I wish you well in your endeavour. It will be a long hard journey. And be careful of libel lawsuits that could bankrupt you.

As for the rest of us unqualified immobile serfs who are only fit to work the land and heed the edicts of our masters - we will continue to exist until we do not.

Posted by KnightofPentacles to Vox Leo - A Singaporean Voice at 1/1/2005 11:53:33 PM

I agree with Knight that most people of my generation are apathetic. I have no doubt about that.

I also see Knight's point on the critical mass issue. I suppose there are two schools of thought. One believes in individual exceptionalism and another in movement of the masses. I can argue that both actually work hand in hand. Indian independence was nothing more than an intellectual excercise before Gandhi took it to the next level. I will admit that I have few ideas on how to bring it to the masses with the current socio-political context. My only answer is the Anarchist answer, which is education. Hopefully we can stir the masses through education. And like the Anarchists I would argue that it would take a long time. Don't get me wrong, there are other aspects of the Anarchist creed (like the destruction of specialisation) that I find hard to follow.

I will say that I care enough, and I try my best. Being at a distance makes it difficult for me to do much.

Yes I will concede that our current ruling party is somewhat obsessed with experts. And yes I would argue that a PhD in Public Works is essential for road building and sewage management, but unfortunately my focus is in Public Policy Analysis. Slight difference.

As to the quitters issue, I will say that this is a personal issue with me. Quitting means giving up. If someone was forced into exile due to persecution (I won't name names), that's a different story. Leaving home and turning your back to it shows that you don't really care about "home." I believe in sticking things out. I may hate it, but I would stick it out and try to change it. Quitting is a sign of weakness and lack of committment. I served my NS even though I hated it, but I kept chugging on. I didn't run away or hid behind some other country's citizenship. I have little respect for draft dodgers and similiarly I have little respect for those who quit.

Also thanks to Knight for the warning on libel suits and the advice on family connections. I believe I know them all too well. Thanks for the heads up.

Funny how the Knight uses terms like serf and unqualified. Both the Chinese and Russian revolution built on the backs of unqualified immobile serfs. The American rebellion was fueled by farmers. Do not adopt the ruling party's attitude. In names lie the power. If we take the ruling party's argument that serf means to be weak, then we are bound to their power. Take the word serf and infuse in it "strong", for the people are the strength and lifeblood of the country. Gandhi's peaceful resistance hurt the British because the masses refused to follow British orders. Remember "animal farm" by George Orwell, the few cannot hope to control the many when the many decide to act against the few.

I believe that if we can have more frank discussion like these, the intellectual scene in Singapore can get more mature and exciting.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Surfing and Thinking

Ok, so I decided to go and view the web after watching parts of the Rose Parade, live from Pasedena,CA, USA. Then at 5pm the Rose Bowl begins.

Anyway I was just reading the blogs of Singapore (heh, sort of like the Pirates of the Caribbean) and I came upon Mr McDermott's page, Singabloodypore, and read what he posted on New Year's Day (my time, 2 Jan SGT). And I found this really well written essay which I will reproduce here.

Our smart students not willing to think critically

I FIND it ironic that after decades of praising the education system for producing students who are adept at memorising formulas, a skill that has enabled them to be world beaters in international mathematics and science competitions, the Government now wants youths who are able to express their opinions about what sort of Singapore they want to build.

Unfortunately, as in the case of the bilingual policy, we cannot have our cake and eat it, a fact that has taken the Government some time to figure out.

The more we reward students for their ability to memorise model answers, the less willing students will be to use their critical minds. Why should they risk getting low grades by expressing critical, unorthodox views when it is so easy for them to just be spoon-fed by their teachers?

In his article, 'Lost generation or future leaders: Our call' (ST, Dec 30), Mr Verghese Matthews questions whether figures of authority have instilled in young people the critical spirit and the moral courage to use it for the good of society.

He is optimistic that there is hope yet for Singapore's future: 'I am confident that there are many young critical thinkers in our society who are testing the waters.'

I applaud Mr Matthews' attempt to bring into public discussion the question of whether enough is being done to encourage critical thinking among Singaporean youths, but alas his article has come two decades too late for my generation.

Having gone to a top secondary school and junior college, and now doing my undergraduate studies at a local university, I can safely say that there is an appalling lack of passionate, critical thinkers, even among the intellectual elite of Singapore's youth.

It is not that my generation does not have smart people with critical-thinking skills. The problem is that too many of my peers lack the moral courage to speak out after going through an education system that rewards conformity and punishes originality.

We have become a generation of sheep, too afraid to challenge the authority of our herders. The few wolves left among us who do challenge the status quo run the risk of being labelled as anarchists and troublemakers.

It is no wonder that many have become so jaded that they no longer feel it worth their while to carry on expressing their views, choosing instead to either remain quiet or to head for greener pastures elsewhere, in which case they run the risk of being labelled as 'quitters'.

In both cases, the ultimate loser is Singapore, for conformity results in stagnation, while 'invention is always born of dissension', as the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard so rightly pointed out.

In 1784, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote his famous essay 'What is Enlightenment?' in which he appealed to his countrymen to have the courage and resolution to use their own reasoning skills instead of blindly depending on the authority of so-called experts. More than two centuries on and in a country far away from his beloved Prussia, his emotional appeal still remains relevant.

Sadly, the works of Kant seldom take pride of place on the bookshelves of many of our policy-makers, who would much rather fill their shelves with more 'practical' books, such as those by economist John Maynard Keynes.

The price Singapore is paying for their narrow reading habits is an entire generation of lost sheep: Gen S. My generation.

Jamie Han Li Chou

I do not necessarily agree with Jamie on some of the things that are brought up. I do think Jamie makes a valid point though.

First allow me to critique a little:

I do think that policy makers need a grounding in some theoretical philosophy, I personally prefer Rousseau and the Romantic movement, which some might say is a reaction against Enlightenment thinking. However I think Jamie is being unusually harsh to the policy makers. Being interested in getting a PhD in Public Policy myself, I've come to realise that a firm grounding in economics is extremely important to any policy maker. Keynes, Smith and the likes, were not soul-less bean counters. Smith afterall wrote during the Enlightenment period.

Practical books are neccessary for practical purposes. No point having a leader who can tell me about the Post-Modernist thinkers and not work out the economic impact of implementing a new education policy. I personally know some policy wonks, and I will say that they do have philosophical leanings and they can hold their ground against the cafe-variety intellectuals. But to quote my favorite policy wonk, Professor Tommy Koh, "I'm a Pragmatic Idealist." We can have ideals, but if we run with just our ideals, we will not be the men who builds a system that lasts longer than a lifetime. How many revolutions have failed because there was no structural development to the ideology?

Now allow me to back Jamie up:

Yes I think my generation is not dissimilar from the previous generations. We're coffeeshop rebels. Yes the shops may have changed from Yup Ho Lai to Starbucks, but we're merely coffeeshop rebels. SO the grumbling is kept to a mumbling level and people get on with life. That is the general feeling of my generation.

Of course we have the Cosmopolitants (as our good SM Goh called it), and they have seen the world outside and like to quote fantastic philosophers and use big theories to make a point to argue for change. But they're nothing more than cafe-variety intellectuals. I really loathe those kinds of people. Dropping big names and theories but have no practical way of bringing about reform or revolution.

We can speak out, but until we have some plan in place, speaking out does little. Furthermore we must adapt to local situations. Lenin took Marx and Russified it, and then Li Dachao and Mao took Lenin-Marxism and made it into a Chinese Communism, and eventually Maoism. Singaporeans will not rise up because Kant said so. It must revolve around local needs and wants. We must work with the latent mumblings and grumblings and nuture it to make it loud and productive.

Quiting is not an option either. I know too many of my friends who want to leave and go elsewhere. Singapore is not home for them. All I can say is good riddance to bad rubbish. Yes they may be my friends, but I have scant respect for quitters. I truly love my home. The place where my ancestors picked to settle in for commercial and religious reasons (yes we were Catholic before we left China). I feel a sense of connection and the urge to help reform the system.

I believe that any generation will produce leaders to reform the system. I think that my generation has barely begun flowering and maturing, but already we are hard at work debating and discussing. Granted that most blogs are about mundane and idiotic things, but there are a few that strive to create a lively debate. I know that most forums are full of the same people, but we keep on debating. I also believe that over the years there are more level-headed people joining the fray. The PAP bashers are still around, but there are also more pragmatic idealists out there who strive to change the system without necessarily being rabidly anti-establishment. Reformers versus Revolutionaries.

Well that's my New Year's spiel. Off to surf more and maybe add comments.

Have a wonderful 2005 and may the intellectual debates continue to flourish. For my part, I'll try to be more like Lu Xun and be the alarm clock to wake my fellow intellectuals up.