Tuesday, October 16, 2007

a quiet contemplation

I've been inactive for a while, mainly because I have been (and currently still am) very busy. I haven't been able to read most of the stuff that's going on, but there have been two clear issues which seem to dominate the plogosphere recently. The first is Myanmar. I currently can't make up my mind about Myanmar, and thus I won't blog about it. The second is the call for repeal of 377A. This issue has always been around, but recently there have been more calls for repeal than ever with celebrities making a stand, and a petition being prepared to be presented in Parliament. I hesitate to write anything about homosexual issues, party because I doubt I can bring anything new to the table, and partly because I am wary of participating in a discussion where people are passionate and refusing to budge on both sides (or in the case of the plogosphere, one side much more than the other). I'm not here to be critical of anybody (although those more sensitive might disagree with that), but instead I would like to invite my readers follow me on a short contemplative journey as I try to take a different approach to think about this issue.

We start by talking about racism, and the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Whenever we talk about any form of discrimination or oppression, our vocabulary, our mindsets and our beliefs are all strongly influenced by this movement and the lessons we learned from it. In this political-correctness-conscious day and age, it is quite hard to envision what an overt racist was like. We have some glimpses of it still (according to Wikipedia, White Supremacist groups still exist today), but we are quick to dismiss them as aberrations of the human species, people so obviously wrong and downright crazy (not unlike the members of The Flat Earth Society).

Yet in the 1950s and 60s (not that long ago if you think about it), quite a lot of people were overt racists and white supremacists. In some places (such as in the South), the vast majority of white people were brought up in the tradition and sincerely believed that white people were superior to blacks. It is easy to react in disgust and vehemence when presented with such attitudes, but let us try to put aside our reactions and think for a while: What is it like to be a racist? How does such a person think? I found my answer, quite unexpectedly, in the book Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey (in the chapter on Martin Luther King Jr). Yancey himself was brought up a racist and a white supremacist, and this was what he recalled of that era:

The historians presented these names [Selma, Montgomery, Albany, Atlanta, Birmingham, St Augustine, Jackson], and I too now viewed them, as the battlefields of a courageous moral struggle. When I grew up in the South of the 1960s, however, they represented a geography of siege. Troublemakers from the North, carpetbagging students, rabbis and ministers protected by federal agents, were invading our territory. And the person leading the march in each of those cities was one number one public enemy, a native of my own Atlanta, whom the Atlanta Journal regularly accused of "inciting riot in the name of justice". Folks in my church had their own name for him: Martin Lucifer Coon.

King's appropriation of the Christian gospel galled us most. He was, after all, an ordained minister...We had our ways of resolving that cognitive dissonance, of course. We said that...King was a card-carrying Communist, a Marxist agent who posed as a minister...the liberal Crozer Seminary up north had polluted his mind. He followed the social gospel, if any gospel at all. And when the rumours about King's sexual dalliances surfaced, the case against him was closed. Martin Luther King Jr was a fraud, a poseur, not a true Christian...

There [in church] I learned the theological basis for racism. The pastor taught that the Hebrew word Ham meant 'burnt black', making Noah's son Ham the father of the Negro races, and that in a curse Noah had consigned him to life as a lowly servant (Genesis 9). That is when I heard my pastor explain why black people make such good waiters and household servants...'The colored waiter is good at that job because that's the job God destined him for in the curse of Ham,' he said. No one bothered to point out that the curse was actually pronouced on Noah's grandson Canaan, not Ham.

Around that same time, Mississippi's Baptist Record published an article arguing that God meant whites to rule over blacks because 'a race whose mentality averages on borderline idiocy' is obviously 'bereft of any divine blessing'. If anyone questioned such racist doctrine, pastors pulled out the trump card of miscegenation, or mixing of the races, which some speculated was the sin that had prompted God to destroy the world in Noah's day. A single question, ' Do you want your daughter bringing home a black boyfriend?' silenced all arguments about race.

[For the record, historical evidence did support the accusation that King was involved in extramarital affairs up until the eve of his death (the FBI bugged and taped King's hotel rooms), and also plagiarism in his graduate school thesis. Such however, should not diminish his contributions towards civil rights and indeed all humankind, but should instead serve as a reminder that even the most honored and deified heroes are but human and make human mistakes.]

With the privilege of retrospect, we may call such attitudes and beliefs deeply misguided and self-deluded. But we may not, in the strict sense of the word, call them crazy. Bring the aforementioned theological arguments to any contemporary Christian, and they will feel embarrassed that such views can even be considered to be true. But 50 years ago, they were indeed the norm in the South. Those who dare suggest that God made blacks and whites to be equal (as most Christians believe now) were considered heretics.

What if we are without the privilege of retrospect? What if we were born in that day and age, brought up with the same upbringing and teachings that Yancey had? What if all our lives we were brought up to believe that the blacks were an inferior race, and that "inalienable human rights", "equality for all races" and "tolerance for diversity" are concepts which are completely alien to you? Never heard of them before, and even if you had, you would dismiss them with disgust and couldn't possibly consider them to be true. What would you turn out to be?


Let's return to talk about homosexuality for a while. In some ways, this is a more complicated topic than racism. There are arguments about nature vs nurture; those who believe that the whole debate hinges on this distinction, and those who don't. There is a very vocal religious voice, and the question on how much religion ought to be allowed in the public arena and policy formulation. There is the question of "the conservative majority", it's existence (or lack thereof) and the justification of it's tyranny. And there is a question about the significance (or lack thereof), of a cosmetic and never enforced law.

I beg to differ when people say this is just a "simple case of equality". There are many intellectual issues to be argued out here, but it is not surprising that these arguments lead to no consensus or conclusions. In the 1950s, theologians and academics no doubt argue about rights and civil liberties for blacks, but is the other side ever convinced?


How was racism overturned in the 1960s? Certainly not by arguments. Partly by legislation perhaps, but the main force was the change in attitudes and mindsets of the majority of the whites. How was it done? According to historians, the turning point was when people watched on TV as white policemen beat up black protesters who were unarmed and did not fight back. No intellectual arguments could be as effective as the moral outrage in observing such an appalling scene. Martin Luther King Jr, quite possibly was only effective because he stubbornly stuck to the principle of "non-violent resistance". He didn't have to do so. Night in and night out, King and his supporters were beaten and cattle prodded by policemen without any apparent signs of progress. Many blacks and students grew impatient with his approach, often labeling King as soft, and gravitated towards the Black Power rhetoric and armed revolts. In Chicago, King was actually booed off the stage by Black Power advocates.

With the benefit of retrospect, we applaud King's moral courage in traveling city to city, bearing abuse from authorities yet at the same time trying to cool the tempers of the protesters. In Birmingham, a white man rushed on the platform and assaulted King with his fists. King's supporters surrounded the white man, but King cried out "Don't touch him! We have to pray for him."

But what if we do not have the benefit of retrospect? What if you were King, and then you decided enough is enough? If the whites don't get it when we ask them nicely, then we'll take the hard approach to make them understand. What would have happened then? Do you think the white supremacists would have buckled without fighting back? Would this have ended in any other way than a civil war, countless more deaths and a great tragedy?


"Civil disobedience", or the lack of it, is something often spoken about in the plogosphere. As Singaporeans, what is our mental image of "civil disobedience"? Dr Chee denouncing the government in some public protest? As I read stories of Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi, "civil disobedience" seemed to be a totally different creature. Here are some instructions Gandhi had for his followers (source Wikipedia):

1. A civil resister will harbor no anger.

2. He will suffer the anger of the opponent.

3. In so doing he will put up with assaults from the opponent, never retaliate; but he will not submit, out of fear of punishment or the like, to any order given in anger.

4. When any person in authority seeks to arrest a civil resister, he will voluntarily submit to the arrest, and he will not resist the attachment or removal of his own property, if any, when it is sought to be confiscated by authorities.

5. Retaliation includes swearing and cursing.

6. Therefore a civil resister will never insult his opponent, and therefore also not take part in many of the newly coined cries which are contrary to the spirit of ahimsa.

7. In the course of the struggle if anyone insults an official or commits an assault upon him, a civil resister will protect such official or officials from the insult or attack even at the risk of his life.

Compare this to Singapore's versions of "civil disobedience", like this recent protest/petition for Myanmar.

We seem to take the understanding of "civil disobedience" and "non-violent resistance" quite literally. As long as we are not (physically) violent, we are being civilly disobedient, and that puts us in the same category as the protesters who marched alongside Martin Luther King. But the spirit of civil disobedience, at least what seems to be intended by Gandhi and King, goes beyond merely "no physical violence". It's about protesting without getting angry. It's about willingly accepting insults, blows and arrests without providing any insults or blows in return. King was deeply concerned that the response to hate must not be hate in return, but love. Such was the only way to "save the Negro from seeking to substitute one tyranny from another."


What is our approach towards homosexual issues? What is our own approach towards our opponents in the homosexuality debate? Do you really think Christian-bashing will further your cause or actually cause your opponent to harden their stance? Do you think that since none of us are engaging in any physical violence, any and everything we say, we type and we blog is fair game? Do you think this issue will be solved by arguments, or even online petitions? Do you think the intolerance of the intolerant is in itself not guilty of intolerance?

It is totally reasonable and natural to be frustrated and to be angry if you feel that your cause is right, but others just don't get it. It was also totally reasonable and natural for Martin Luther King to be frustrated and to be angry. And he probably was too. But we're all glad that he didn't succumb and act out of that frustration and anger.

The repeal of 377A is a battle about legislation. I don't have anything against that, but as far as I am concerned, the far more important battle is the one over people's hearts and minds. And such a battle is not won over arguments, over petitions, or even over legislation. A question to ask is: in fighting so aggressively and passionately for legislation, are you actually losing the battle over hearts and minds?

I just watched on TV an episode of Life Story, featuring the life of Paddy Chew, the first person in Singapore to publicly declare he has AIDS, and a declared bisexual. I wasn't too impressed with the production of the episode, but it's point was clear: Paddy Chew was a human, just like you and me. A human who perhaps might not be so "normal", but still has dreams and aspiration like any other human. A human who upon realizing that his days are numbered, struggled with shock, rage, grief and the acceptance of his condition. A human who, knowing that he has made mistakes and are paying for them, decides to make the best of the life he has life. A human who needs care, concern and love from the people around them. Just like you and me.

I don't know how many Singaporeans watched that episode of Life Story. I don't know if there are Singaporeans who after watching this show, question, challenge and de-construct their own views, assumptions and beliefs about HIV patients and people with different sexual orientations. But my guess is, a show like this (
tacky production notwithstanding) challenges and changes the mindsets of more people than the most passionate and aggressive arguments.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

the first degree: a publication on scholarships

i was quite surprised to receive a copy of "the first degree" today, together with today's edition of TODAY. [siah lah, there are 3 "today"s in the last sentence...] it caught my attention because the girl on the cover looked like sun yanzi for a moment, but actually it was a Mrs Leong-Ho Hil May, a MOE post-graduate scholarship holder.

according to the color-printed guide (on page 35), "the first degree" has been established since 2001, and i feel quite obiang for not knowing about this free magazine/guide until today. i was quite aware about the scholarship special the Straits Times has once a year, but i wasn't aware that there was a free version being distributed by TODAY.

first thing i noticed about "the first degree" is the scholars depicted in the magazine are all quite chio or yandao (especially this probably-PRC babe on page 26). maybe this is the first thing everybody notices. of course this has no bearing on the reader when deciding whether or not to take up scholarships right? right?

the second thing i noticed was that the timing of the publication was kind of weird. why September? the JC2 students are in the midst of preparing for their prelims and A Level results now. while they might be considering about options after A level results, they are more likely thinking about integration by parts and the first law of thermodynamics. well, if you think they are really really nice guys, maybe they published at this time to serve as motivation to JC2 students to spur them on to do well. if they are really really really nice lah.

the third thing i noticed was that the articles on scholarships only run from page 7 to 34. from page 36 onwards are articles (and advertisements) on SIM, APMI Kaplan, MDIS, NAFA, MIS, Hartford Institute, SHRI, RTRC and Informatics Education Singapore. hmmm i wonder why there are no articles on NUS, NTU and SMU. there are also two content pages. page 4 is the scholarship contents page, while page 6 is the "education" contents page.

the above three points i noted above lead to one conclusion. this is a commercial enterprise. this publication actually is, not unlike the Straits Times scholar special, one large collection of advertisements. it is not public service, articles about Public Service Commission (PSC) scholarships notwithstanding. maybe SPH might partially motivated by altruistic concerns, but i think if not for the money the advertisements bring in, this colorful and glossy publication would not exist. similarly, expensive photographers and photoshop-ing (a la xiaxue) is but basic marketing strategy, a September edition is a promo for the March edition (and the extra revenue doesn't hurt), and there exist articles on private institutions because private institutions paid for it.

now, there is nothing wrong with it being a commercial publication. just because it is a collection of advertisements doesn't mean you must not patronize the advertisers. i happen to not think very highly of the current M&Ms commercial on TV, but this does not affect my consumption of M&Ms one bit. my point is just this: just don't take this as an authoritative source of information about your available options after A levels. you may decide to go for a scholarship still the same, but let it be after you have really contemplated the implications and considered all the options available, and not just all the options that appears on "designed-for-scholars" publications like this and the Straits Times scholarship special. it is not in the best interests of scholarship agencies (and SPH is one of them too) to publicize the various other options available, so you just won't see them on such publications.

if you are a JC2 student and a potential scholar (or a parent of one), you may want to look into these links, as well as this more recent article on Singapore Angle, so that you can make a more informed decision about your future.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

not unreasonable to ask otto fong to take down letter

I'm tight for time, but I feel really inclined to write something short about all this furor going on about Otto Fong, and his taking down of his open letter. I've been trying to find the official MOE press release about this incident but failed to locate it [can somebody help me?]. I read an excerpt of the press release on a comment in an article on TOC, but that article has been deleted (in view of updated information) so that comment is lost, and also that excerpt of the press release. Here is another excerpt, by Mollymeek, which is from Fridae.

Even though I am somewhat sympathetic to Otto's cause, I think it is not unreasonable for RI, or MOE for that matter, to ask him to take down his letter. There has been some sentiments on the blogosphere about how MOE and RI are gay-hating bigots, and I have no evidence that proves them otherwise. Nevertheless, I think what they have done is not unreasonable. Bear in mind that Otto Fong has not been fired, and I doubt he will be. I have no idea to what extent he has been reprimanded or in other ways punished, which is why I need to look at the official press release.

Here is why I think MOE/RI are not totally unreasonable: this whole incident is creating a lot of unwanted attention on RI and Mr Fong himself, and this in the long run, will hurt his students more than help his students. Please bear in mind that Otto Fong did not write an open letter as a political protest. He wrote his letter, and admirable step of courage no doubt, to "confess" to his friends and his colleagues. Perhaps he was not aware of the online frenzy his blog would cause. I suspect that if he knew, he would not have blogged or he would have blogged differently.

Issues about homosexuality are complicated. Or at least I think so. A good deal of Singaporeans, perhaps even the majority, are still not too receptive to the idea of homosexuality. [All the more reason why there should be more gay activism? Perhaps. But Otto Fong wasn't trying to be an activist. Or so I believe.] So what happens when you say "I am gay, and I teach in RI." in this backdrop? There will be a public outcry. Parents will call the school and demand an explanation. Maybe some parents will threaten to take their kids out of the school. Colleagues will be harassed by their own peers. The 12-16 year old students, even though more mature and probably more liberal minded than their peers, will be confused and pulled in different directions. End-of-year exams and O levels are coming up in just weeks, and this happens to them.

I think like any true educator, Otto Fong places the interests of his students first, and he realizes that the controversy he has created may probably harm students more than help them. I think that was why he was convinced to take down the letter, to minimize the damage caused. There are other ways to educate the young about tolerance, discrimination, human rights and gay rights as a teacher. I just think putting up a blog and saying "I am gay and I teach in RI" isn't the best way to do so. I think he thinks so too. Read what he says carefully.

[addendum: Singapore Kopi Tok seems to have some inside info that Otto Fong's letter was intended to be political after all.]

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

some updates

i do have some ideas i want to play with, but i'm currently swamped with work (including 2 music performances in september), and i doubt that i'll have the time to blog a proper post until october or so. in the meantime, a few quick updates:

1) Intelligent Singaporean has closed down. i have been thinking what to say about this, but i am unable to come up with anything appropriate. InSpir3d's contribution to the plogosphere this past one year is arguably unparalleled, and i wish him the very best.

2) i have joined Singapore Angle (together with some dude called Teh Si). quite possibly i may write less on this blog now that i am part of SA, or possibly i may not. whatever the case, i will probably be too busy to blog for either until october or so.

3) i am working with (at least) two other bloggers on a (possibly very exciting) blogosphere-related project. watch out for it soon.

4) i just discovered that i'm on the blogroll of this dude from RJC called manman. and just above me in that blogroll is andrea fonseka's blog. hosay lah.

cheers =)

Monday, August 13, 2007

thoust art n00b hence thou shalt not blog (part 2)

In all honesty, when I wrote Part 1, I wasn't too sure what I wanted to write in the Part 2. After thinking about it and after a discussion with dansong, I realized that this is a complicated and not at all a straightforward issue. I am still going to present my thoughts, and I apologize if one finds them haphazard or incoherent.

Criticism 1: Aaron's article is flawed in many ways.
Criticism 2: Aaron is a n00b. He does not have expertise in this area.
Criticism 3: Aaron should not blog this on SA, as he is a n00b.
Criticism 4: Aaron should not blog this anywhere, as he is a n00b.

1. Dansong's argument of undesirable consequences
Dansong presented an argument which I found rather persuasive, and hence I find it quite necessary to present it. Putting aside all talk about "rights" (which we will return to later), Dansong presents an argument which focuses on consequences (i.e. a consequentialist approach). If Criticisms 2-4 are allowed to be made (or perhaps only 3-4), it will narrow the normative boundaries of what is acceptable discourse in the blogosphere. In other words, if this carries on, we will soon demand that everybody flash credentials (or otherwise prove sufficient expertise) before they can take part in discourse on the blogosphere. We assume, this is a non-desirable state of affairs for the blogosphere in general. Certainly, even those of us who criticize Aaron would not like to be in a blogosphere where they need to prove their credentials first before they have the right to criticize Aaron.

2. The Problem with Ad Hominems
Dansong was right to point out that if Criticism 2 was Ad Hominem, then so were Criticisms 3 and 4. I've glossed over the issue with Ad Hominems in Part 1 so that I can discuss it here instead. As someone who received training in Philosophy, I have been trained to regard logical fallacies (such as Ad Hominems) as poor or faulty reasoning. In fact, we view it with so much disdain that to accuse another individual of committing a fallacy is equivalent to saying that you cannot reason and that you are illogical. Occasionally, I see some fallacy-bashing on the Singapore blogosphere where someone (usually with some nasty words thrown in) accuses another individual of committing a fallacy, and thus Q.E.D., that individual was wrong.

I have a problem with such fallacy-bashers. The first is a philosophical issue: they could be committing what is known as the fallacy fallacy. But secondly and more pertinently, the plogosphere, as we know it, is not (just) a platform for academic philosophical discourse. When I first entered the plogosphere, I was absolutely aghast with the level of reasoning (by philosophical standards) and I wanted to bring up the level of discourse to that similar to academic philosophers. Since then, I have come to realize that while there is an important need for philosophers in the plogosphere, the plogosphere itself does not belong to philosophers alone but to everybody else as well. Of course it is important to point out faulty or poor reasoning, therein lies one of the roles of the philosopher, but there is no need to hold the whole plogosphere to academic philosophy standards. Some fallacies are so commonly used in our regular day-to-day thinking that it is almost hypocritical to fallacy-bash defaulters who commit ad hominems or commit appeal to authority.

3. The Argumentative/Meta-Argumentative Distinction
Dansong brought out a distinction between criticism 1 and criticisms 2-4. Criticism 1 is a criticism of Aaron's views, of what Aaron says. Criticism 2-4 is a criticism of Aaron himself. The subject matter of the criticisms are different, and this is what Dansong calls the difference between argumentation and meta-argumentation. For a philosopher, meta-argumentation is in the realm of the ad hominem, and is strictly a no-no. But something else came to mind when I was thinking about this: the Wee Shu Min affair. If I recall correctly, the entire fiasco was about Wee Shu Min's blog response to Derek Wee. Yet, although some of us did criticize her views, most of us were criticizing (and counter-criticizing) Wee Shu Min herself. This is certainly in meta-argumentative territory. Yet, on retrospect, do we think that the Wee Shu Min affair was good or bad for the blogosphere? I for one think it was good that it happened. If we did not venture into meta-argumentative territory we would not have debates and discourse about the issue of elitism and the side-effects of meritocracy. Although I was appalled by how low some of us went to make fun of Ms Wee, I am also glad that all of us (including the general public) could see and talk about how ugly Singaporeans can get when we sit behind a keyboard and a monitor. Likewise, while I may not personally agree with those who made criticisms 2-4, I am glad that they made it because now Dansong would counter-criticize and we can all discuss about this. At the end of the day, hopefully, some of us learn something and the blogosphere gains because of this.

4. Who's right is it anyways?
Even though I spent much time in the study of ethics, I have to say that I am neither familiar nor comfortable with rights-speak (I am more trained in the tradition of consequence-speak). Nevertheless, when we encounter a situation where rights clash (e.g. Aaron's right to blog VS your right to silence Aaron), the classical response would be that the rights will need to be balanced against each other. [Another obvious case where such a conflict occurs is in potential racist content, i.e. freedom of speech vs freedom not be offended.] In other words, there is not such thing as absolute unbridled rights, just like there is no such thing as unconstrained freedom. It is only human to see you own rights more clearly than the rights of someone else, which is why I think this often leads to the abuse of "free speech".

5. The Power to Silence
Does Criticisms 3-4 (or 2 for that matter) constitute silencing? In one sense it certainly does. As Dansong explained, criticisms 3-4 are negotiating the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not, i.e. the norms of the blogosphere. If somehow these voices have succeeded in establishing the norms, presumably Aaron would either choose to follow the norms and no longer voice his views, or he will be chastised for not following the norms. But we don't need to get so technical. If Aaron was an especially sensitive young man, any form of criticism might be silencing (about norms or not). Yet in another sense, Aaron is not denied the freedom to blog even after the criticisms. His hands are not physically tied, and he is neither threatened by lawsuits or by violence not to blog. I think it turns out that whether or not we consider criticisms to be silencing depends very much on how we define freedom (to blog) to be. Is Aaron free to blog a flawed article and be free from criticism at the same time? I think not. Some might consider this denial of "freedom" to be silencing. Let's compare intuitions with two more examples. Consider again, Wee Shu Min. Wee Shu Min never posted a reply to her critics. Was she silenced? How about the "robust responses" given by the government to Cherian George or Catherine Lim. Were they silenced? Note that no legal action was taken or threatened against these individuals (let's leave aside political figures such as CSJ).

At the end of the day, I remember something KTM told me a long time ago: the blogosphere is not necessarily a nice place. You say something which is flawed, you get whacked for it. You say something which is unpopular, you receive flak. You say something which can potentially undermine government authority, you might get a "robust response". How much of this constitutes an infringement of your freedom of speech? If your skin is thin, then perhaps much of it does, but if your skin is thick then perhaps much of it is not. Anyways, I am personally glad that Aaron has this "baptism of fire" as an SA blogger. He will only improve and be a better blogger, and all of us can learn from by observing this exchange as well.

6. The Community that is the Blogosphere: Intensions matter
Dansong said that he was agnostic to the intentions of those who criticize. Well-intentioned or not, the consequences when it comes to narrowing the normative domain of discourse is still the same (see point 1). He is right of course. However, I personally like to think that intentions matter. Why I say so is that we bloggers are affective, emotional, ego-carrying creatures. It is very easy to pretend that discourse is pure intellectual exchange, but it is not, especially in the plogosphere. It is also a human-to-human exchange. And when it comes to dealing with other humans (and not just disembodied minds), things like our perceived intentions and how we phrase what we say all carry consequences. E.g., Does the person on the other side get offended? Does the person start to get defensive? Does this escalate into mudslinging?

My friend Ian has just written an article on sg entrepreneurs on how the word "community" is an overused buzzword when it comes to talking about Web 2.0. Perhaps so, but I really do believe that the plogosphere is a community. Not in the sense that we share a common agenda (we don't), but that what each one of us say affects each other, and we are hence somewhat affectively bonded to each other. Although I enjoy the discourse as well as the opportunity to think and to learn, I personally find that the friendships and the human-to-human bonds that I've made through the plogosphere are by far the richest gains that I've got out of blogging. Although it is true that the blogosphere may not necessarily treat you nicely, I think it still pays to be a nice person. [But don't ask me to ask KTM to nice. I've given up on that. =P]

Conclusion: The Blogoshere that we want to be
I've mentioned in Point 5 that those who use criticisms 3-4 are negotiating the normative boundaries (or norms) of the plogosphere. Like Dansong, I happen to disagree with them. But I think they have the right to, and that they should, engage in this negotiation. And others who disagree, such as Dansong and myself, ought to engage them and present our own cases and negotiate the norms we find acceptable. I've been told that when the Singapore Angle teams has to make a decision, whether on administrative issues or on approving a guest article, they usually argue internally among themselves, and these arguments are often heated and passionate. Being the organized folks that they are, they will eventually discipline themselves to make a collective decision, although not all may be satisfied with the outcome. Such is to be expected when we have a negotiation. I think the collective plogosphere is neither organized nor disciplined enough, and has too many members anyway, to ever reach a consensus on norms, but I don't think that makes the process of negotiation any less important. It is messy, and it is often unpleasant, but it is important that we take up the mantle to define who we want to be as a blogosphere.

I want the state of reasoning to improve but I don't want the plogosphere to be just a place for high-level philosophical discourse; that is good, useful and important, but I also want to leave enough room to poke fun at my friends, like what I've done with Aaron and KTM in this article. I want the plogosphere to be a place where people try to be nice at each other, although there will be misunderstandings and there will be conflicts. I want the plogosphere to be a place where people take responsibility with their views and understand that the freedom to speak comes with it the responsibility to stand by what you say. The plogosphere today is nowhere near there. That is why I will negotiate.

[Turns out that I've structured this article largely as a response to Dansong's comment. It is only appropriate that I thank him for his thoughtful comments and his contribution in the production of this second installment.]

Saturday, August 11, 2007

thoust art n00b hence thou shalt not blog (part 1)

My good friend, Aaron, has recently joined the ranks of Singapore Angle, and in his debut article as an SA writer he wrote about health care economics. Aaron's article has been heavily criticized. I know nuts about health care, so I can't comment on that, but what I found rather interesting were a series of comments saying that since Aaron does not possess enough expertise in the area, he should not blog about this issue at all. SA incumbents Dansong and Sze Meng both spoke out against such criticisms, on the basis (I infer) that even if Aaron does not do possess enough expertise, or even if Aaron's article is flawed, he still has a right to post it.

It appears that this is an issue about freedom of speech, or rather, the freedom to blog. This is something which I had talked about in the past (sort of), and before I discuss further I want to say that I am not a huge fan of "freedom of speech". I think that it is often abused to justify irresponsible and destructive talk. However, I do think that the basic premise is sound, and I will now go on to examine this with respect to Aaron and his critics.

Criticism 1: Aaron's article is flawed in many ways.
Criticism 2: Aaron is a n00b. He does not have expertise in this area.
Criticism 3: Aaron should not blog this on SA, as he is a n00b.
Criticism 4: Aaron should not blog this anywhere, as he is a n00b.

[Disclaimer: I do not know enough about health care to subscribe to any one of these views. But am I enjoying myself doing mimicry-Aaron-bashing? Yeah. =P]

I think we all agree that Criticism 1 is fair game. Of course, if you make criticism 1, then you ought to elaborate further where Aaron's argument was flawed, and offer your own arguments to support your case. That is, if you are interested in having a discourse, rather than just a criticism for the sake of criticizing.

Is Criticism 2 fair game? Technically, we call this a ad hominem, or a personal attack, and is usually something we don't want to encourage too much. Nevertheless, not everybody uses such a criticism with malicious intent, or as an attack. It may, for example, be used as an appeal to authority (still a fallacy philosophically speaking, but not totally unjustifiable) such as "Bart has much more expertise than Aaron in economics. So Bart is probably right if they disagree." Or perhaps, it maybe used as a consolation or an encouragement: "Don't be so harsh on Aaron. He is not a full-time economist" or "I commend Aaron for writing on such a difficult topic even though it normally requires much more expertise to do so".

I think people who said criticisms 3 or 4 were well-intentioned, not as to "put down" Aaron per se. For example: "This is really a difficult issue which even experts have a hard time. It is good that you attempt this, but truth be told, your attempt will look pretty ugly because of your lack of expertise. So perhaps, it is in your best interest not to attempt to do so." Nevertheless, the beef that Dansong (and presumeably Sze Meng as well) have with such advice is that it is silencing. Good intentions aside, Aaron is a big boy and has the right to blog whatever he chooses to blog, but he has to accept the circumstances. If he chooses to blog a flawed article which he is n00b in, that is his right. Of course he will be whacked left, right and center, but that is his choice and his right.

What is the difference between Criticism 3 and Criticism 4 then? The medium which is Singapore Angle is in question. Perhaps some are of the view that to blog on Singapore Angle there is some kind of quality control, and that only articles of a minimum quality of standard ought to be published on Singapore Angle. Perhaps one might also feel that, writing on an area which is outside your expertise, and committing lots of flaws, is somehow below this line of acceptable standard. I am not going to comment on this, but perhaps one should read this article by BL.

So plain and simple. It's okay to say criticism 1 (and maybe 2) but not 3 or 4?

Wrong. What happens to my right to say criticism 3 or 4? If it is my opinion that "Aaron should not blog this because I think n00bs should not blog about what they don't know about", am I not allowed to express my opinion? If I am not allowed to express my opinion, then are you then not silencing me?

Also, are we so sure that criticism 3/4 is silencing? Perhaps we ought to take it as an expression of opinion, not at all different from criticism 2. After all, criticism 3/4 is not a magic spell which binds Aaron's hands such that he may never blog again. Aaron is free to blog whatever he likes no matter how many criticisms he receives. Yet, one might argue, it is silencing because it causes a certain kind of psychological or emotional trauma in Aaron. That his views are not appreciated and not accepted, and that is sufficient cause to call it "silencing". Then, if phrased harshly enough, is criticism 1 not "silencing" in an equal manner?

My. Tricky huh?

[Part 2 here. Yes I know I'm doing lots of Part 1s and no Part 2s. Are you going to deny my right to do so? =P]

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

(for own reference) significant events in past 3 months

I went on a 3 month hiatus from May to July, and during that time I hardly read anything from the blogosphere. This article is an attempt to catalogue the significant events that during my time of absence for my own reference, as well as to comment briefly on each event. If I missed any events which you think are significant, do let me know and I'll fill it in.

1) Concern over State of the Blogosphere
Elia Diodati first brought up the view that the plogosphere is in some state of decline, especially after the prominent exits of Gayle Goh, Ben and Kitana. Mr Wang disagreed with Elia [he also had a run in with the brotherhood in that particular article], as did Aaron. BL writes about how social-political bloggers have unrealistic expectations about their influence, and also noted that it is controversies which stimulates the blogosphere into activity.

this in itself is probably not considered a significant event. mollymeek said that nobody else other than bloggers care anyway. however, as FO, i am usually more interested in the state of the blogosphere than issues itself, so this is a significant conversation for me to note. of particular interest is the comment left by RSE on aaron's article, which said that aggregators (in particular, IS) has a large role to play in this apparent perception. in the past netizens used to browse around, but now IS is the one-stop center of the plogosphere. this is a good thing of course and InSpir3d is doing a great job, but it is still a one-man-show, and many obscure entrances to the plogosphere are missed, and in the same fashion, prominent exits are highlighted.

2) Homosexuality
As expected, Yawning Bread is the forefront of gay rights on the blogosphere. The catalyst for a sudden surge in talking about homosexuality was the talk given by MM Lee at St James Power Station, which generated plenty of replies and counter-replies. The debate rages on till today, and in all likelihood, will not cease soon. Some important events which add to this discussion include the ban of Alex Au's kissing project, a gay-affirming speech by ex-Methodist Bishop, Rev Dr Yap Kim Hao, denial of Rev Dr Yap by the Methodist Church in Singapore, call for repeal by MP Baey Yam Keng on P65 blog, Nicholas Lazarus's infamous article on Young PAP Blog, a video by Ian McKellen, and the recent denial of permit for a lecture by Douglas Sanders.

this has been a controversial issue for the longest time, and will continue to be controversial issue for a long time. although "gay rights" seem like a simple concept, the factors involved are complicated, and they always are when you religion right at the middle of the debate. for the Singapore case however, it is important to note that it is not just a moral issue but also a issue of law (by now, all of us are familiar with the numbers "377A"). Although the Christian right has been the most vocal opposition, it is important to note that many non-Christians in Singapore also hold views that similarly oppose the gay movement, and could quite possibly be the majority voice. On the plogosphere however, it is overwhelmingly pro-gay, and now that whybegay has been driven into exile, there is no real opposing voice (unless one counts Nicholaz Lazarus). Of some interest to me is how Simply Jean, herself a Christian, argues for repeal by attempting to distinguish decriminalization from legalization.

3) The Perils of National Service
On 11th May 2007, a Taiwanese F5 jet crashed into a Taiwanese base. 2 SAF soldiers who happened to be stationed in that base were killed on the spot and a 3rd SAF soldier died in hospital later. Not unexpectedly, the SAF was much criticized in the blogosphere, and much of the attention is focused on the story of Lawrence Leow who suffered from heat stroke while he was serving his nation, and ended up incapacitated for life. Critics of the SAF included Mr Wang, Insane Polygon and Aaron. Meanwhile, Defector, an SAF officer (or ex-officer), argued against the views of Mr Wang and Insane Polygon. More views by Mr Wang, mrbiao, mollymeek and Jimmy Mun.

the relationship between the SAF and the general public has never been great, despite recent attempts to improve their image (L.I.V.E.). that said, there is something to be said about how it is only the males who voice their passionate disapproval towards the SAF and especially on issues about NS. although most females do not go through NS, it is not difficult for them to read the arguments for themselves. i think it is largely true that guys who have been through NS usually end up quite unhappy with SAF and Mindef, and we carry this chip on our shoulders unto our blogs.

4) University of New South Wales closes down
This was such big news practically all bloggers had something to say about this issue. After only 3 months after it was opened, UNSW closes down citing insufficient enrollment as the reason. In the ensuing weeks, UNSW and EDB will attempt to blame the other party on how they failed to prevent this from happening.

i actually have not much to comment on this event. there are probably millions of dollars of taxpayers money lost here, and some people's heads will roll (if not rolled already). this is a lose-lose situation for all involved (except maybe the students who got scholarships to go study in Australia) and i think unless you are really in-the-know, it is practically impossible to point the finger and find the real person at fault.

5) Termination of Alfian Sa'at
Alfian Sa'at is most famous in the plogosphere for his quote: "If you care too much about Singapore, first it will break your spirit, then it will break your heart." Other than that he is a nationally celebrated playwright and poet, as well as an outspoken critic of the government as well as an active proponent of gay rights. According to his blog, he was working as a relief teacher in East View Secondary School, but his appointment was suddenly terminated by a phone call from MOE. He sent an inquiry to MOE and received a response, which Alfian found unhelpful. Yawning Bread speculated that it could either be his anti-establishment views, or his being gay. Views also by Mr Wang, Xenoboy, TOC, and an interesting one (especially the comments) by Blogger Samurai.

it is quite understandable why there would be a reaction by the blogosphere. Alfian Sa'at is easily enshrined as a hero in the hearts of many, and this looks just like the evil gahmen coming down to make the life of one dissident difficult, a la CSJ. i don't know the details, and again it takes someone in-the-know, like the principal of East View Sec, or someone in MOE, to really know what is going on. nevertheless i admit, this termination is highly unorthodox, so it does seem like there is something fishy going on.

6) Local University Admissions
This huge firestorm started off by a letter written by Mr Ong Tong It to the ST forums asking for local universities to allocate more places for local students over foreigners, especially now that the dragon year cohort is entering university. Aaron and then Bart both blogged a reply to this letter, claiming that such a view is protectionist (or over-protectionist) and will hurt rather than help Singaporeans in the long run. Mr Wang disagrees with both of them, and argues that of course, priority must go to the tax-paying Singaporeans. Others who added to the discussion include KTM, Clarence, and mollymeek. [A few weeks later, during parliamentary debates, there was a wrong quotation of figures about the number of foreign students in local universities, sparking further criticisms.]

i remember talking to aaron and how frustrated he felt about his debate with mr wang. (do note how long the comments thread is on mr wang's blog.) to me, this is reminiscent of the SAF issue. it appears to me that many participants in debate had many strong emotions about foreigners in local universities, i suspect, due to negative personal experiences. i personally thought this debate was a good study in civil and rational discourse (or lack thereof) in the plogosphere, and also the intricacies and complexities involved in policy making (economics vs protecting citizens, managing reactions).

7) Issue of Blood
This actually came out on the mainstream media first; the original news clip can be found on Lucky Tan's blog. A mother giving birth to twins met up with complications and needed a blood transfusion. The hospital reportedly told the husband that she required so much blood that the hospital needed additional authorization to access the blood from the blood bank. In addition to that, the husband was told to top up the blood bank with their own blood donations. Frantic that his wife's life was on the line, he gathered 200 donors to appear at the blood bank, but eventually the mother still passed away. Stressed teacher predicted that there will probably be a scapegoat without a formal apology, and eventually, the hospital gave a press release which denied any lack of blood, and that the husband had been misinformed.

i found this event very interesting, but unfortunately, not many bloggers paid much attention to it as it was overshadowed by the last event on this list. there is obviously some cock-up here, especially since this made it to prime-time news. but the question is, what is the exact nature of the cock-up? how did the husband get misinformed? was he intensionally misinformed? Lucky Tan has an interesting hypothesis about hospitals making it regular practice to ask family members to top up blood supplies. the last we heard about what really happened is that it is still "under investigation". perhaps the hospital got lucky, because people soon forgot this issue as they were all preoccupied with...

8) The Li Hongyi Incident
By now, we should have all heard about the Li Hongyi incident. 2LT Li Hongyi, the son of PM Lee, broke the chain-of-command by mass-emailing a letter to his entire battalion as well as up the entire command chain including the Minister of Defense, and was formally charged by SAF for doing so. The purpose of the email was to blow the whistle on two of his superior officers, one for AWOL, and the other for failing to duly punish the AWOL officer. The email, edited to omit names, is available on most blogs, including Rockson's, who returned from retirement just to blog on this issue.

if we use the amount of traffic in the blogosphere as an indicator, the Li Hongyi incident seems to be the most significant event of 2007. i heard that the traffic was tenfold that of last year's Wee Shu Min incident. this story has all the right elements of a sensational scandal, but if you break it down there are actually several different issues and it is not just a simple case of for-or-against. there is the issue of the white horse (would Li Hongyi be punished differently if he had a different father?), the issue of silencing whistle-blowers (is the SAF using "breaching chain of command" as a tool to cover up?), the issue of an incompetent SAF (how often do officers get away with AWOL? are there really sufficient avenues to seek redress?) the issue of elitism, (was Li Hongyi disrespectful of authority because he grew up an "elite"?) and lastly, the issue of fear among netizens (why was the original story on hardwarezone deleted?). it is also important to note that the leaking the email to the public is a violation of the Official Secrets Act, and is a criminal offense, but it seems like the perpetrator has not been uncovered yet.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

congratulations aaron & peiying!!! =)

the food was quite good. but you never introduce me to any char bors....=(

neutral and objective (part 1)

In the recent interview of Ephraim Loy by TOC (very interesting in its own right), this comment by Sarek_home drew my attention:

“An eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.” Mahatma Ghandi

Fighting “Partisan” organisations with “Partisan” organisations will blind the society collectively with partisan also. We need to set an example and evolve beyond partisan politic.

Readers who distaste MSM biased reporting at one end of the spectrum do not want another online biased reporting at the other end of the spectrum.

The best way to defeat and balance off MSM biased reporting is to be neutral and objective.

Well I do not disagree in the general spirit of her comment, her last 3 words got me thinking about these questions: What do we mean by being "neutral" and "objective"? What does being "partisan" or "non-partisan" got to do with being "neutral and objective"?

Part 1: Non-Partisanship as an Indicator of Neutrality

In the context of the Singaporean plogosphere, whether a blogger is partisan or not simply refers to the whether or not a blogger is affiliated with any political party. [I guess it may not be so straight forward for an ex-member; is Goh Meng Seng (ex-WP member) partisan or non-partisan?] What beef do we have with partisan bloggers? Are they in some way inferior to non-partisan bloggers?

The concern, it seems, has got to do with neutrality. Perhaps one might think: a blogger who is affiliated with the PAP may very likely blog something which is "pro-PAP", and hence is "not neutral". Conversely, a blogger affiliated to WP is likely not to be neutral, because he is likely to blog something "pro-WP". Before I go on to talk about what is wrong with this line of thinking, it is worth noting that many partisan bloggers seem to blog about views which disagree with the views of their affiliated party. Read the interview with Ephraim, as well as this P65 article by Baey Yam Keng (both on Section 377A). I have previously noted examples in the Young PAP blog as well.

If we choose to define "a neutral blogger" to be "not affiliated with any political party", then partisan bloggers are, by definition, not neutral. In other words, the follow 6 statements are all tautologies (grammatically correct, but have no meaning):

1. A partisan blogger is not a neutral blogger.
2. A non-partisan blogger is a neutral blogger.
3. A neutral blogger is a neutral blogger.
4. A non-neutral blogger is not a neutral blogger.
5. A partisan blogger is a partisan blogger.
6. A non-partisan blogger is not a partisan blogger.

I believe most people will claim that the first two sentences are not tautologies, i.e. they are more meaningful than sentences 3-6. If you believe so, then the definition that "neutrality = non-partisan " cannot work. Here is an alternative definition of neutral: "free from influence from any political party". This makes sense to some people, because it is linked to the idea of biasness. If you are influenced by something, that makes you more biased.

However, ask yourself, have you ever listened to the views of politicians? Were you ever influenced by them? If say, you agreed with a certain view of Low Thia Kiang's, does this not mean you were influenced by him? Does that then make you not neutral? Maybe you heard or read from source A, which was influenced by source B, which was influenced by source C, which in turn was influenced by a politician. Does not that make you also (indirectly) influenced by the politician? Does that mean you are not neutral? With such a narrow definition of "neutral", it is hard to imagine any blogger being able to fit the description of "neutral", regardless if partisan or not.

I have a third proposition for the definition of neutral. A neutral blogger is a blogger that honestly blogs his or her own personal views, and not just the representative views of his or her affiliated political party. By this definition, all non-partisan bloggers must be neutral, since they do not have an affiliated political party. But now begs the question: how do we tell if a partisan blogger is being neutral (i.e. personally honest and not just being party's mouthpiece), or not?

One might say: just see what he/she blogs, and if it looks just like the political party's official stand, then it is not neutral. Perhaps so, but this begs another question. How do we know what is the political party's stand? Do we know what is a party's stand by what their politicians say? If so then consider this:

1) Politician ABC says Statement X.
2) Therefore Statement X is the party's stand.
3) Politician ABC is also a blogger (i.e. Partisan Blogger ABC)
4) Partisan Blogger ABC blogs Statement X.
5) Since Statement X is the party's stand (2), and since Partisan Blogger blogs Statement X (4), then Partisan Blogger ABC is not neutral.

This is of course circular reasoning, or another tautology at best. The example becomes even more ridiculous if you allow "what ABC blogs" = "what ABC says". In which it will become:

1) ABC blogs Statement X.
2) Therefore Statement X is the party's stand.
3) Since Statement X is the party's stand, and since ABC blogs Statement X, ABC is not neutral.

In reality, it is hard to see anyone falling for such obvious circular logic. Nevertheless, it does highlight a certain problem when it comes to judging neutrality: it is not that straight forward to decipher whether a partisan blogger is "being a mouthpiece" or really saying what he/she feels. After all, it is very likely that the individual happens to believe in the political party's views, which could be precisely why he or she choose to be affiliated with the party in the first place. What the party's views are may very well coincide with the individual's personal views as well. When your personal views coincides with your party's, does that make you non-neutral?

I think among most of us (especially those who are bloggers ourselves), we have developed a sense of when someone is blogging in a "forced manner" or someone is blogging "naturally". I personally find this the best way to tell if some blog is a "mouthpiece" or not. Nevertheless, this mode of discernment is more of an art than a science, and a blogger with a really good command of English may still fool many a reader.

Even among non-partisan bloggers, we often classify ourselves as "pro-establishment" and "anti-establishment". Many have objected to such a sweeping classification. Nevertheless, if you openly identify yourself to be "pro-PAP" or "pro-opposition", even if you are non-partisan, does it seem that you are neutral? Can you be "pro-opposition" and "neutral" at the same time? I think our intuitions differ on this question.

I only have one point to make here. When we use the word "neutral" (or rather "not neutral") to criticize one blogger or another, it can mean one out of many meanings, and not all of us may mean the same thing when we say the same word. Some meanings, as seen by the tautologies, totally don't work. Whatever the case, it appears to me that using non-partisanship as an indicator of "neutrality" seems sketchy at best. I am also not convinced if "neutrality" is really a virtue for a social-political blogger.

Part 2 (forthcoming): The Problem of Objectivity

Thursday, August 02, 2007

10 blogs i don't (like to) read

isn't making a list of links so fun? and there's no better way to make a comeback than by making enemies. =P

before i list the blogs that i don't like, it is important to note that just because i don't like them doesn't mean that i am discouraging you to read them. very often, my dislike for certain blog has got to do with my own personal tastes and preferences, and little to do with the actual quality, or lack thereof, of content.

also, just because i don't like the blog, doesn't mean i don't read the blog. on an important issue which is "hot" around the plogosphere, i usually read as many articles as i can find by whoever blogs about such an issue, just to get a good gauge of what different people think, and to expose myself to different point of views. sometimes, a particular comments thread on a single blog article might be the location for a particularly fierce debate, and I usually would follow the debate (assuming it got my attention in the first place) even if it is on a blog i don't like.

but on to more fun stuff:

Mr Wang Says So
when i first entered the plogosphere, Mr Wang was one of my favorite reads; it is still the favorite read of many people. there are many good qualities to Mr Wang's blog: he has amazing clarity and communicates effectively. he is also a very intelligent chap, and his persona generates much appeal to the average blog reader. nevertheless, several bloggers (most recently InSpir3d) are lamenting that in recent months, Mr Wang has moved his blogging focus away from social-political issues and more on self-help. that is not why i don't like to read Mr Wang. it's just that over time, i just started to not like the dude, that's all. =)

A Xeno Boy in Sg
if there is anyone more revered than Mr Wang in the plogosphere, it is Xenoboy. sorry, but i don't like him either. there was a time when i really adored Xenoboy, and he was once in my blogroll but not anymore. i used to think, and i still do, that he writes the most artistic and beautiful prose on the plogosphere. Xenoboy himself, is a really deep thinker, and it is good to pay attention to what he says. nevertheless, what i don't appreciate about him is that you can't really engage him and have discussion about his views. while i appreciate his artistry and his intelligence, i don't like his lack of clarity, and his sheer cheem-ness. while he has a right to express himself, i think he is doing no favors to those of us who believe that the plogosphere is a place to listen carefully and critically to each other's ideas and to engage each other in civil and rational discourse.

P65 and Young PAP Blog
actually, if i were to write a critical review of these two blogs, i would consider them to be fairly good blogs (sans shoot-myself-in-the-foot articles by Nicholas Lazarus), and i am rather impressed by how they are not just propagandist fluff. nevertheless, there are two important reasons why myself (and probably others like myself) don't read these blogs. firstly, they don't update regularly. it is okay not to blog regularly when you are xenoboy, because hundreds of netizens will salivate over each rare article you write. but when you are from the PAP, and actually hope to increase your influence over the blogosphere, you need to publish often, and publish good articles. secondly, as far as i can tell, these blogs are kept "out of the loop" as far as the plogosphere netizens are concerned. i.e., other blogs in the plogosphere do not talk about, or link to, these two blogs. (again, sans shoot-myself-in-the-foot articles.) you can only generate influence when people read you, and whether or not people read you is largely dependent on how many people connect to you. two ways they can fix this: write controversial stuff (like Nicholas Lazarus), or write good articles and publish often. not easy, but those are the cards dealt to the ruling party. i've said it before, the plogosphere is hostile territory. you do not have home advantage here.

on a separate but related point. i think InSpir3d is the most powerful person in the plogosphere right now. being the lone individual to decide what goes on or not goes on Intelligent Singaporean means he has direct influence over the minds of hundreds of netizens. this could be quite scary if you happen to know that InSpir3d himself is some young chap around my age. nevertheless, i think he's been doing a great job so far.

why i do not read TOC is partly due to the fact that i was on a hiatus the past 3 months, which was when TOC started growing and becoming very popular. all credit to TOC for doing (what i believe to be) the right moves: getting high profile individuals like Yeo Toon Joo and Leong Sze Hian on board, Andrew Loh ceding ownership of TOC to maintain a non-partisan image, and getting Ephraim Loy on board to help create balance. all very good. credit to them for their hard work and being a more successful and popular blog than 4 months ago, although i suspect the void left by Gayle and Kitana helped to increase their popularity. all very good. but still i don't like them. trivially, i don't like the way their blog looks. i don't like the color scheme, and i find the many links and small pictures too gaudy. perhaps less trivially, i find a number of their articles, while worth reading, contain much angst. perhaps Ephraim can help change that. we'll see.

Winter Is Coming
i think Ned is a nice guy. i really do. and speaking as someone who has had the opportunity to meet and interact with many bloggers offline, it is really not that easy to find nice guys in the plogosphere. that said, i'm sorry Ned, i'm not extremely fond of your blog. [i am in ingrate. Ned wrote a really nice article about me some more. =(] a big reason, like for TOC, was that i was on a hiatus the past 3 months, which was when Ned's blog grew in popularity. i also have trvial reasons why i don't like Ned's blog...i don't like his avatar =P, [talking about which, i don't like BL's avatar either, but i got used to it =P] and i don't like the stuff about "Lord of Winterfell, Warden of the North..." etc etc. sorry dude =(. also, he has 30 names on his blogroll, but i'm not one of them. =(. that's why i don't like. muahahahaha. =P.

[Ned, i'm sure you're reading this. what to have coffee sometime? we can invite Aaron, or whoever else you like to hang out with. drop me an email.]

George Yeo's blogs
i think no explanation are necessary here. although i am rather sympathetic towards BG George Yeo. i think he does try hard. =\

Diary of A Singaporean Mind
i have a great deal of respect for Lucky Tan. in his comments on other blogs, he has shown himself to be very intelligent as well as possessing a strong love for our nation. although i feel that his blog is a must-read for people who are new to the plogosphere, i have a hard time appreciating his sense of satire. also, like with xenoboy, satire pokes fun at an issue, but is not particularly useful if you are interested in engaging and understanding alternative points of view. i think it is more the fault of the medium than the author, and to his credit, satire is not something easy to write at all (you try lah!).

Anything from the Brotherhood Press
as we all know, anything we say about the brotherhood is very sensitive =X. i am not advocating or encouraging anybody to be less than civil to the members of the brotherhood (or any blogger, for that matter). i am just saying some people like to read stuff from the brotherhood, i am just not one of them.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

i not botak (purple)

i have this bad habit. when i meet someone for the first time (as experienced by some of you), i like to ask: "how old do you think i am?". not wanting to be rude, most people tend give a generous estimate, "30?". i would then tell them my real age (when i meet bloggers, i sometimes also add that i'm the same age as aaron), and then get a kick out of seeing their reactions. i've been told this isn't a nice thing to do. =P


i suffer from androgenetic alopecia, otherwise known as male pattern baldness. my case is quite severe, and i believe i have never met another 25 year old male with as much hair loss as i have. nevertheless, it has never been of much concern to me. it's genetic (both sides of my family suffer from hair loss), and it doesn't affect me or my life in anyway. certainly, its not something worth hundreds of dollars of treatment over (should i go to Beijing 101 or Yun Nam).

my mother however, believes differently. perhaps anxious (like all mothers) that i am yet unattached at the age of 25 (and hence nowhere close to getting married and giving her a grandchild), she thinks that my lack of hair is seriously affecting my eligibility. [a survey onced found out that 60% of females would not agree to date a balding man] therefore she wants me to get it treated. after a few years of nagging, i finally relented and found myself in the National Skin Centre this morning.

the doctor who saw me was a young, relatively attractive, korean female doctor. the name plate outside the office said she was a "visiting fellow". she said to me, in a thick korean accent, "there are two kinds of treatment, one is a topical hair spray, the other is an oral medication, taken to suppress the effect of androgen on your hair. both treatments are long term. if you stop the treatment, your hair loss will continue. for the oral medication, you will eat a pill a day, until you are about 40 years old."

"wait a minute. does the oral medication suppress androgen, or just the effect of androgen on the hair?"

"well, to put this more academically, there are two different kind of androgen receptors in the body. the ones in your scalp are different from the ones used for sexual functions. there has been studies done on the effects of the oral medication. there were two different groups of people, one group took the medication, and the other group was on a placebo. after the studies we found no significant side-effects of the oral medication, so it SHOULD be safe..." [paraphrased]


the risks some men take for the sake of vanity.

[important: pregnant women should stay away from such androgen suppressants. they risk miscarriage if consumed.]

[a blue version of this post is currently being planned. it may, or may not, be published sometime in the near future]

Thursday, June 14, 2007

unfinished projects

at the behest of my good friend aaron, i dropped by the blogosphere today to take a look at the current commotion going on about university admissions, where KTM and Bart, two of my favourite bloggers, had made significant contributions. aaron also notified me of the (rather nice) eulogy that Ned Stark had written for me. as a result, i had been sufficiently motivated to un-retire (not that i was officially retired in the first place), if only just to blog some "final" posts, for purposes of closure, as well as just sharing what kind of personal journey it was for me to be FO.

but first, i would like to share some unfinished projects which i had been formulating with some individuals a few months back, and even though i probably won't be able to complete them now, maybe some other bloggers might be interested to see the ideas through:

1) summary of Tochi case
it occurred to me when i was reading many blogs that talked about Tochi and the death penalty (especially these two articles at SA), that although there has been alot of substance espoused on both sides of the argument, but due to the lack of structure of blog comments, it was hard to see a big picture view of what are the various points of what each side was saying.

it occurred to me that if i could summarize all the various views for and against death penalty, give credit to original sources, and present it in a very clean cut catalogue form, that could be a very useful resource. not just for GP students who want to do research on death penalty, but also as an indicator of the kind of productivity and interaction the singapore blogosphere is capable of.

it was a really massive project to do by myself, so i enlisted the help of aaron. but we both got too caught up by the then new issues of the plogosphere, and soon abandoned this project. Similar projects, not necessarily on the same subject matter, may be potentially useful resources, if anybody would be interested to carry out such an activity.

2) new group blog
this idea wasn't mine, and i'm not sure if it is a good idea to make it public. nevertheless, several months ago, kitana, ben, aaron and myself were talking together with inspir3d of intelligent singaporean to set up a new group blog, sort of like a younger and less academic Singapore Angle (we were also thinking of getting Gayle Goh on board). we felt this was a good idea, not as to compete with SA, but to cater to a slightly different audience who finds some of the material presented in SA too academic for their tastes.

what happened was that we KIV-ed this project as Kitana, Ben and Aaron were busy preparing for final year exams, and as we all know, Kitana and Ben both stopped blogging after (or rather, stopped blogging as Kitana and Ben). i have always believed in co-operation between different inidivdual bloggers, especially those who have different points of view. why we thought Aaron, Ben, Kitana and myself would be a good mix was that the 4 of us vary quite widely, not just in style, but also across the conservative-liberal spectrum. i suspect Inspir3d and Aaron would still be interested in resurrecting this project if other bloggers are willing to come forward and talk to them about it.

3) dining with FO
this was the project which i was most enthusiastic about, but was also abandoned in the most infant stage of planning. through blogging as FO, i had got the chance to meet (and drink coffee with) many bloggers face to face, and many of them (KTM, Huichieh, BL, Aaron, Ian, Kitana, Heavenly Sword, to name a few) have become people whom I can call friends. when PJ, an NUS student, was interviewing me for her honors thesis on the new media and i was chatting with her about the different bloggers she had interviewed, i realized how it would be interesting, entertaining, and actually useful to the blogosphere, if we each knew more about each other as bloggers (i.e. humans) rather than just monikers with attached views.

that was when i formulated a project idea, similar to some of the mediacorp dining shows, where i will go around interviewing various prominent bloggers of the plogosphere (i already know like half of them personally anyway), over dinner (their choice of dinner location), with the intention of publishing the transcript of the interview online (on my blog or a new blog). the interview will have blogosphere related questions (e.g. "KTM, what will you say to Mr Wang if you meet him in real life?") as well as non-blogosphere related, personal questions ("Are you single/attached/married? What are your hobbies? How do you spend your time doing when you're not working or blogging?"). Finally, we will talk slightly about the food and the choice of the location for the interview (related to the personal preferences/tastes of the blogger interviewee).

Of course, i will discuss with the interviewee how much of him/herself she would like to reveal, as well as the questions i will ask. i originally wanted to pay for the dinner for the interviewee (as thanks for the interview), but i wondered if i'll go broke doing that (dunno what kind of ex places they choose to eat in mah). when i was talking about this project to Kitana, she even volunteered to be the photographer (of the food at least, if the interviewee does not want to be photographed. definitely the interviewer, me, does NOT want to be photographed).

Ben said that if this project was done really well, it could even be compiled to be a coffee-table book of sorts. unfortunately, this project never got further than the conception stage. it would still really be cool if i (or someone else) could find the time or resources to do something similar.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

tv irony

i just saw something on tv so amusing i just had to blog about it. i'm currently watching "i not stupid", one of my favorite movies, currently showing on the 10pm-midnight slot on channel 8. in the movie, there was this scene where Jack Neo and his colleagues, who work in the advertising industry, complain about how their proposals get rejected for "inappropriate language" such as "don't play play". in a subsequent scene they complain about the government's attempt to promote "proper english" over singlish.

what i found so amusing was that they had edited the movie to omit the phrase "lim pei", which i guess the media authorities found too crude for tv (or maybe they were trying to discourage the speaking of hokkien and promote speaking mandarin instead? =P). nevertheless, i just found the irony of the edit very amusing. =P

oh fyi, for those wondering about my long absence, yes i am contemplating quitting. in brief, i think i'm bored of the political blogosphere. i may set up a new blog somewhere else, or i may stop blogging altogether. or i may resume this blog again in a few months when i feel so inspired. regardless, don't expect any updates from me soon. for those who have been checking me regularly, thanks for reading =).

Saturday, April 28, 2007

music break

some of you might know that i am a musician. i have a concert coming up in july, and most likely i will be very busy preparing and practising for that concert, so i doubt if i'll have much time to blog until then. contact me personally if you would like more info about my concert.

Monday, April 23, 2007

moving pebbles

[This is a much belated tribute to Kitana. It took longer than expected to come out because I had to scrap a previous few versions that I didn't quite like.]

[On terminology. "Plogosphere" refers to the subset of the blogosphere which talks about local social, political and economic issues. See here for more details.]

I can't make a difference.

This is a not uncommon sentiment in the plogosphere. Many bloggers cite this reason for feeling bitter, tired or jaded, and for quitting. I would beg to differ. I think bloggers can and do make a difference. The relevance of blogging about social/political issues lies in increasing awareness.

We might forget this if we spend too much time on the plogosphere, but generally Singaporeans, and especially young people, are highly politically ignorant or apathetic. I suspect that the man on the street just shrugs off most political issues as "not my problem". Even when they hear of the GST hike, or the ministerial salaries raise, they might spend two seconds to kao peh, but then they put the issue behind them and carry on with their lives unaffected.
I was just like that 7 months ago.

In the past, it may be that it is structurally difficult for an individual to become politically conscious and aware in Singapore, but Web 2.0 has changed all of that. A politically ignorant teenager, out of sheer boredom, may google "Wee Shu Min", "GST hike", "Ministerial Salaries", "Gayle Goh", (heck, or even "Kway Teow") stumble upon a blog or two in the plogosphere, and his/her life (and his/her perception to politics) may be changed instantly. That was how I started blogging.

But how does that change anything? The government is still the same, the ruling party is still the same. Many bloggers carry unrealistic expectations about how much change they can evoke. The PAP is not going to change their mind just because they came across your blog and say "hey, you're right." But that doesn't mean that blogging (and increasing awareness) is worthless.

Power lies in the voting population. Many people treat the government's promise of opening up as a direction that they are advocating, and get disappointed when they don't see much progress in the form of public policy. They way I see it, the "opening up" of the government is not an indicator of what the ruling party wants to do, but what they have no choice but to do, given the way the population is changing in their attitudes and their values. At the end of the day, the voting population will get more liberal and less conservative, and public policy has to reflect that, or the government will risk losing its influence or even its mandate.

That the population gets more liberal and less conservative, is going to happen because the youth of today, more influenced by "western" concepts of democracy and civil liberties than "asian values", will become the major demographic group of the future. The relative affluence (and increased standard of living) of the youth today, compared to the youth of the past, also means that they will probably worry less about bread and butter issues compared to the voting population of today. This is going to happen whether you blog or not. But blogging may help to speed up the process.

This occurs on two fronts. The first, already mentioned above, is creating awareness among politically ignorant individuals. The second front is in changing and influencing minds, even among those who are politically aware. The second front is trickier than it seems, because the plogosphere is not unanimous on issues. There are people who agree and disagree with each other, but each view has the potential to influence others. The most susceptible to influence are the (often forgotten) silent readers who neither blog nor leave comments [commentors and and bloggers are usually quite decided in their opinions and hence their minds are not easily changed].

We all know that there are different ways to blog on the plogosphere. Satire (Mollymeek and Lucky Tan) is a more powerful tool than many realize. I have previously argued that narratives and anecdotes are important tools of argumentation (recently, I find Yawning Bread very good at using anecdotes). But I think there is a line to be drawn between blogging to convince other people to agree with you, and blogging so that you present the reader with alternative points of view for the reader to decide for themselves. Some spats occur in the blogosphere when bloggers accuse each other of doing the former and "misleading" the readers with "rhetoric". Although I personally think it is important that we respect our readers to make their own rational decisions, often the line between what is rhetoric or not is a blurred one. But that is material for another post.

Increasing the number of politically aware individuals does not just have an effect when it comes to electoral concerns. By creating a platform where like-minded individuals come together and share ideas, seeds may be planted for civil societies, which might or might not bear influence in the future. We might be skeptical about the influence of ThinkCenter, Sintercom and RoundTable when it comes to influencing the politics of yesterday and today, but tomorrow it may be a totally different ball game. Singapore Angle, in its own way, is not unlike a civil society at all. SA's influence is probably negligible when it comes to the voting population in general, and it is tiny among the entire blogosphere, but I suspect that it is potentially one of the most influential voices in the plogosphere. When considered as a percentage of politically aware individuals, that is significant influence indeed.

Many times, as bloggers we get discouraged when we find ourselves talking about the same issues over and over again, without any sign of progress. Often, it is a struggle to find something original to say, as everything seems to have already been said before. While that is true, it is important to continually keep the engagement going (what likely is going to happen is that blogs close and new blogs are created and fill in the void), because there are new people who read the plogosphere, maybe everyday. Current material, as opposed to archived material, is much more accessible (and appealing) to the new plogosphere explorer, and that is why repeated engagement, even if but rehashed arguments, is relevant and important. Singapore is still getting more wired, and more and more people (especially the young) will take to the internet in the future. It is important to still stay active if you want to influence these individuals. The best evidence of the plogosphere's increasing influence is the government's attempts to engage the blogosphere (i.e. we are no longer insignificant).

As an individual, you can also carry your influence outside of the blogosphere. You can talk to people within your sphere of influence: your family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, taxi drivers and kopi-tiam uncles. Can you convince them to move away from a self-centered lifestyle into thinking about issues which affect not only them, but their fellow Singaporeans? Can you convince them to want to understand what they are really voting for or against, in the next elections?

Lastly, I feel that it is important to guard yourself against cynicism. When I was younger, I thought it was hip to be cynical. Being cynical means I could go around labeling others as "idealistic" or "naive", and made me feel as if I was more enlightened. Cynicism is dangerous in the plogosphere because it is infectious, and if more and more bloggers feel that what they do cannot make a difference, then not only are you missing out in influencing the new readers who enter the plogosphere everyday, but instead you instill in them a sense of hopelessness, and that social/political issues of Singapore are ultimately not bothering with. Someone once said fear was the ultimate paralyzer. I think cynicism paralyzes more than fear, because you can overcome fear with courage, but when you are a cynic, you already have no hope.

Kitana was surprised by the number of individuals who responded to the closing of her blog. It is easy to underestimate your influence, because it is hard to gauge how many silent readers are reading your blog and being influenced by your views. As bloggers, it is important to realize that while we cannot move mountains, we can move pebbles. Often, we don't realize when we move pebbles, there are others observing us, and a few of them will be inspired to move pebbles of their own. And in turn, these individuals inspire others to move their own pebbles. Over time, the first blogger might look over her shoulder and be surprised that a small hill has been moved.

We may not seem like we're helping to cause any immediate change. But we're influencing minds, and each convinced individual may in turn influence others. That is a very promising and exciting reason for hope. But that is also a very heavy responsibility. Our opinions influence others. Do you respect others enough that you have seriously thought through your opinions before you start influencing others?

Kitana once wrote that the Internet is the most powerful voice we have. It was actually the first Kitana post I ever read. I don't agree with what she said, but I think it is true. The internet is the most powerful way of influencing change for us, even if it is not in the way Kitana imagined it to be.