June 28, 2017


by Tan Chu Chze

THE year 2016 has been nothing short of crappy. Not that no good things have happened, but plenty of crazy things occupy our consciousness simply because they don’t make sense. And this is made obvious from the way we are choosing our words. Here are four words that have taken over our minds:


Oxford’s choice of word of the year are usually interesting ones. Last year’s was an emoticon. This year’s is ‘post-truth‘. The reason they seem like strange and novel choices is because they are also strange and novel words. Oxford Dictionary keeps track of words that people use – online and off – and takes note of words that spike in frequency. ‘Post-truth’ has become significant to our vocabulary that way.

It refers to circumstances where the objective ‘truth’ is no longer as important as subjective feelings. In definition, that sounds a lot like ‘populism’, which is probably the main impetus of the rise in the word ‘post-truth’. Yet, there remains a significant difference between the two words.

‘Post-truth’ appears to take ‘populism‘ to the next level. While ‘populism’ describes people voting irrationally, ‘post-truth’ bluntly posits that people are irrational. It is as if the word is playfully, yet ominously, ushering a new age in human development where logic and reason are suspended. How true is that? We’ll have to wait for 2017 to find out. But, it definitely deserves a place on the list as it seems indicative of a paradigm shift.

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Also known as the fear, hatred, or dislike of anyone or anything foreign. Unlike Oxford Dictionary, Dictionary.com selected this word based on user searches, meaning a heckuva lot of people looked up ‘xenophobia‘ on their site. People seemed most interested in the word around June this year, following Brexit.

What this means is that people generally wanted to understand or clarify the meaning of ‘xenophobia’. The word itself isn’t new or particularly rare in public use, but the fact that it was searched so many times shows that people were becoming more conscious of it. Perhaps other people are using it more in everyday speech, or are hearing it in the news more often… but what is certain is that we want to know its meaning.

‘Xenophobia’ finds its place on this list because it gives name to the demon that possesses our society. It has spawned other monsters, such as populism and terrorism and let loose the biggest monster of all, chaos.


Merriam-Webster’s offering takes a similar approach to Dictionary.com – it selected ‘surreal‘ for an unusually high number of searches on its site. The searches had three significant surges this year. They were during the Brussels terror attacks in March, the Turkish coup and Nice attacks in July, and finally the US presidential elections in November.

While these events are undoubtedly real, they felt surreal, which is the feeling of intense irrational reality of a dream. If that is the case, 2016 is nothing short of a nightmare the world is waiting to wake up from.

Of course, not all surreal moments are reflective of bad ones. Joseph Schooling’s gold at the Olympics is a clear (good) dream come true. At least for Singapore lah huh. However, other moments like the seemingly unrelenting list of celebrity deaths easily overshadow that joy. If anything, the interest in the word ‘surreal’ shows that this year has been especially difficult to make sense of, even after finding the meaning of the word.

Here’s our take on the word applied to Singapore.


If one could personify everything that is post-truth, xenophobic and surreal, it would have to be – unquestionably – Trump. His name encapsulates the irony that pervades 2016: literally meaning “to win”, but really representing a loss. Donald Trump continues to defy common sense, being a businessman to take US presidency while having the unpopular vote. Completely unpresidented unprecedented.

And for being vacuous and polarising yet absolutely and unpalatably irresistible, Trump was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. He is so hard to ignore, and on that virtue alone ‘trump’ finds a place on this list whether we like it or not.


Featured image “The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight, but has no vision.”Helen Keller by Flickr user Kate Ter Haar. (CC BY 2.0) 

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by Tan Chu Chze

MOST of us know what a ‘marquee’ is. It’s a tent. A big, big tent. The kind of canopy that Cirque du Soleil might run a show under.

However, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke last week about a “marquee project” in which no tents are being erected. Instead, a High-Speed Rail will run from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. PM Lee and his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak signed the agreement to this project on Dec 13 this year, so the plan is definitely not on tentative terms.

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So what is the deal with calling a train project a ‘marquee’ if there is no canvas stretched across the two countries? Or is ‘marquee project’ just monkey malarkey?

Such confusion is not unfamiliar to the history of the word ‘marquee’ though. In fact, ‘marquee’ was formed by mistake:

The origin of ‘marquee’ is traced back to ‘marquis’ – the French term referring to a rank in nobility. So ‘marquis’ in Marquis de Sade is actually his title, not his name.

When the marquis set up camp next to their subordinates, they placed a special canopy over their tents to distinguish themselves. These canopies became known as ‘marquise’ – the feminine form of ‘marquis’.

Here is where the English language makes the boo boo; It mistook ‘marquise’ (pronounced mar-keys) to be plural, so the singular form, ‘marquee’ (mar-key), was invented. Possibly contributing to this confusion was that the English were using ‘marquess’ as their equivalent of ‘marquis’, which they still use today.

This historical blunder seems especially significant considering the impression it has left on our understanding of ‘marquee’. For one, it now doesn’t refer to any old tent, but usually a rather atas, if not large, one.

‘Marquee’ later evolved to refer to the canopy outside theatres, then to the signage put up on them to grab the attention of passers-by. Names of celebrity performers, and later sportsmen, were displayed on these marquees to draw people in, similar to the prestige of atas French men.

Thus, ‘marquee’ came to represent not just a grand tent, but also the charms strong enough to entice the crowds. Strong enough, even, to build new bridges across rough waters.


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by Tan Chu Chze

IF THERE is one thing the recent United States’ (US) presidential election has proved, it is that Donald Trump lives up to his name.

Against all odds – and the popular vote – he beat Hillary Clinton to become president-elect of the US. Trump trumped.

But in more ways than one, Trump embodies trump.

Like many things American, the word ‘trump’ actually has more than one origin. It is a marriage of two words.

The first sense of ‘trump’ comes from the word ‘triumph’, which Trump prides himself for. We all know by now how much Trump is all about winning, and it does make one wonder if that is because he is just full of himself.

But ‘trump’ and Trump also share one more thing in common: Two generations ago, the Trump family were Drumpfs, hailing from Germany. Nobody knows exactly why the family name was changed, but records show it just did.

Similarly, the alteration from ‘triumph’ to ‘trump’ is a bit of a mystery. All we do know is that ‘trump’ – meaning winning – is most commonly used in card games like Bridge. That is also where we get the term ‘trump card’ or the idiom ‘to come up trumps’, like how the Trumps have come up as part of the president-elect’s transition team. As it seems, the entire family is decked in their winning suits to take over the house of cards.

Besides that, ‘trump’ and Trump also have something to do with trumpets. While the word ‘trump’ is ‘trumpet’ in a shortened form, one could say president-elect Trump embodies the same word in human form.

There is, however, one more meaning of ‘trump’ that is obscure and perhaps the least associated with big T Trump. This variation of ‘trump’ means to trick or deceive.

Oddly enough, it is also connected to the other two meanings of ‘trump’: To ‘trump’, in this sense, comes from the idea of blowing the trumpet loudly to attract the attention of the public, then trick them into buying something. Or voting, for that matter. Many people say that is exactly how Trump won the election.

Maybe that too is a trumped-up charge? Who knows. But, it sure is pretty Hillaryous.


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by Tan Chu Chze

THERE might have been a (brief) time in my life when I was disruptive in class.

The conditions were simple. I was a teenager full of hormones and hubris, and I didn’t like my form teacher. As a class, we set out to make life difficult for him. By and large, we succeeded.

The satisfaction of disrupting our teacher came at a cost, though. There were many days when class became too caustic for learning, and we lost time on our syllabus. Our teacher, I’m certain, suffered a great deal from our bullying. We drove him up the wall, then out the school. We never saw him again.

That, in my mind’s eye, is what ‘disruption’ looks like. To ‘disrupt’ is to break apart, to cause a rupture. It could be a math lesson in school, or an MRT train’s journey. Either way, disruption prevents progress from happening, and usually, to everyone’s loss. It’s not something desirable at all.

Strangely enough, this negative connotation to ‘disruption’ does not scale when the disruption happens in the business world. In fact it is highly fashionable, even, to disrupt.

This change had its origins in 1995, when an academic named Clayton M. Christensen noticed a relationship between new technologies and companies. He found that emerging technologies could change the way consumers’ needs were addressed. Businesses that failed to predict and adopt these technologies eventually suffered when consumer demands shifted. Because these technologies affected entire markets to the detriment of many companies, Christensen called these technologies “disruptive”.

Later on, Christensen realised that it wasn’t the technologies per se that were ‘disrupting’ markets – it was the business models that the new technologies supported. Hence, he coined “disruptive innovation” to describe just that.

While these terminologies seem commonplace now in the vocabulary of business news, it started creeping into everyday use only in the early 2010s. That was around the time when Apple was gaining traction for changing the computing, music and mobile phone industries, and not just for its bravery. It is interesting to note that Apple doesn’t get cited as a disruptor anymore. I guess once it secured significant market shares, it became susceptible to being disrupted.

These days, Uber and Airbnb are taken to be the role model disruptors instead. ‘Disruptiveness’ really does belong to relatively new entrants in a market only — like teenagers in a classroom. And like disruptive teens, there’s a certain glory in being able to successfully disrupt a market.

The only difference is that such open defiance against dominant market players is more openly recognised as a good thing. It’s the quintessential entrepreneurial dream: be Steve Jobs and Jack Ma. Quit school, have brilliant ideas, work hard, face rejection, work hard anyway, make an awesome app that will confound the world and change life as we know it… (and also earn lots of money.)

Of course, the situation for the disrupted won’t look so bright and cheery. I’m not sure if any business would be as disgruntled as my ex-form teacher to leave its market. But, we do know how unhappy many taxi drivers were with the introduction of Uber and Grab. Until some of them started using the apps themselves…

But it seems that all in all, Singapore is embracing a world of disruptions as a reality we need to face. PM Lee went as far as to call it a “defining challenge” in his latest National Day Rally speech.

Not only that, his message to the country mirrored an important realisation my unhappy class had to arrive at: We have to learn and grow from our disruptions. For my secondary school class, that change was palpable. A new form teacher we respected took over. Our disruptions stopped, and the class calmed down and settled into a happier, functioning new normal.

But, good riddance to our previous teacher.


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by Tan Chu Chze

IT HAS taken us a while to sober from the initial shock of suddenly being a country with an Olympic gold medal. And, as the reality of Schooling being an excellent swimmer sinks in, so does the reality of Schooling’s privilege. He has the honour of being Singapore’s champion. The second to float like a butterfly. The one who beat Phelps.

Titles aside, there are other privileges that Schooling obviously had, but are not so easily apparent. These are the privileges that got him to the podium on a national sporting stage in the first place, but they quickly disappear under the glitz of being an Olympian.

‘Privilege’ is actually composed of two Latin words that translate directly to “private law”. It quite literally meant a law for one person – regardless of whether it was to their benefit or not.

That is not to say that our legal system bent over backwards to accommodate Schooling. A provision was made for his NS deferment, but Schooling isn’t the first nor the only one to receive it. Besides, what we understand as ‘privilege’ has extended beyond the legal system. We now think of ‘privilege’ purely as a special right or advantage given (by just about anyone with something worth giving) to a particular person or a group.

And many advantages were readily available to Schooling. He has committed parents who supported him with their wallets, and also with their hearts. They invested time to learn his sport, and guided him through it. Then there were swimming coaches, peers, and family friends who helped Schooling in one way or another.

Yet, as nice as it is to have privileges, the word sometimes takes on a slightly muddy aftertaste.

The problem isn’t so much the advantage of privileges itself, than the way it is gained. The notion of ‘privilege’ essentially divides advantages into a binary: either they were earned, or not. In that sense, privilege contrasts merit or credit – the praise and benefit we work for to gain. And since privileges are benefits we did not earn, we are sometimes compelled to feel that privileges are also undeserved. Privileges can seem unfair.

How did Schooling access the many resources to get where he is? The finances, the networks and such? What makes him more deserving than the swimmer in the next pool?

You get the drift. Going by this line of thinking, recognising one’s own privilege becomes a course of eating humble pie. “I am privileged,” Schooling said on being honoured in Parliament. It is nice how he acknowledged his privilege plainly. If not, he might have came across as ignorant and proud. Or worse still, entitled.

And then things seem to end there. Is that all there is to being ‘privileged’? Just be grateful? Give a thank you speech? Make a Youtube video?

Perhaps the problem with ‘privilege’ is the binary that defines its meaning. Dividing advantages into ones that were earned against ones that were not is not very helpful. It blinds us to an aspect of ‘privilege’ – the blessings that one receives are also blessings another had to give.

Sure, Schooling was advantaged with parents who have the experience, wisdom, networks and financial capacity to groom his talent. Sure, he may or may not deserve any of that. But to look at Schooling’s success through that lens of ‘privilege’ simply ignores his parents’ hard work and sacrifice: the early mornings, pep talks, training schedules, meals cooked and measured, a house sold… It ignores the community which rallied behind Schooling, and supported him every step of his journey to the Olympics.

Talking about ‘privilege’ creates an illusion that the journey to success is travelled alone – just you, your skills, hard work and the fortunes you were born with.

The reality is that what Schooling received as ‘privilege’ is the collaborative effort of a family, a community – a nation, even. It is true he didn’t have to strive for some advantages, but somebody else did.

It takes a village to bring up an Olympic medallist. And while there is no denying that Schooling is privileged, the village that raised him is every bit privileged to have him too.


Featured image by Najeer Yusof. 

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Coup, WOTD, word of the day

by Tan Chu Chze

PAUSE and stare at the word for a bit, and you’ll realise how tiny it is. It’s just four-letters long, and you only pronounce three: “Koo”. You might even try to drag the “oo” out to make it sound extra French. Still, the word slips easily from our lips.

The word appears to understate the magnitude of what it signifies. Most uses of the word “coup” actually refer to “coup d’etats” (pronounced “koo day-ta”, not “coop dee-at-tats”), but, even the latter half of the phrase is often omitted – almost like it didn’t matter. The meaning of the word though, is not to be taken lightly. In its origin, “coup” refers to a strike or blow. Taken together as “coup d’etat”, it means a sudden and violent seizure of the government, as if one were striking the government. Such a small word for such a big idea.

But what is an even bigger deal is pulling off a live coup. It is definitely much harder than pronouncing the word right. Just look at the recent attempt in Turkey. Even with the support of 60,000 people including soldiers, policemen, judges and civil servants, their coup was a poop. And that was in spite of having all the makings of a classic coup.

First, they (whoever the mystery masterminds are) had military backing. Almost every coup in the history of toppling leadership has had soldiers involved. You only have to look to Thailand or even Indonesia for some examples. But why is the army always so kaypoh? Isn’t it supposed to be defending its country?

That is part of the problem. As part of a state’s defense system, the military has direct control over big guns. In fact it probably looks after all of its state’s biggest guns. And because it has so much muscle and firepower, it can, well, put up a fight. One big enough for the government to back out from. What defenses can a government have against its own army? Not much.

So uniformed, armed men invariably get entangled in coups and coup attempts. It’s part of what makes a “coup” a “coup”. Thankfully, having guns involved doesn’t mean there will always be killing involved. Sometimes these attempts to kick out a government can happen rather smoothly and peacefully, thus, earning itself the honour of being called a “bloodless” coup and not a “heartless” one.

Anyhow, convincing the military to break the law and attack the government is just the first step. After muscling oneself into the government comes the mammoth task of running it. That means the “coup-prit” needs fingers and toes in government institutions – civil servants and administrators who can hit the ground running if and when the coup succeeds. Not only that, a coup with any hope would probably hijack the media too. That’s important for getting the public on board with its new leaders, if at all.

With much consideration and coordination needed to bring together a “coup”, it’s no wonder the word takes on a second meaning – an instance of successfully achieving something difficult. This kind of coup doesn’t necessarily involve armed forces removing government officials from their posts, but it does draw from the pride and accomplishment of having done so.

In that case, it’s no contradiction for the Turks to say the coup was not a coup at all.


Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Populism (WOTD), Word of the day

by Tan Chu Chze

Cameron is out. May is in. Brexit is on.

That is the gist of the happenings in UK. But what do they mean for the rest of the world?

Politicians everywhere were quick to jump on the Brexit story and spin it into a cautionary tale. “Beware!” they said, “this is what populism looks like.” Even our own ministers and ambassadors’ responded similarly. From what is heard from the MSM, it seems like ‘populism’ is a very bad thing.

What is all this pessimism surrounding ‘populism’ anyway? Especially when it’s not even clear what ‘populism’ actually means.

Based on the picture painted by MSM, ‘populism’ is a disaster – a political hurricane of sorts. And, like most natural disasters, ‘populism’ can be identified by a number of conditions.

First, that ‘populism’ storms occur only in democratic climates. There are two main geological features: an evil/distant/ineffective ruling minority, and a deeply disgruntled voting population – otherwise known elusively by names of “the masses” or “the people”. When the ambient temperature becomes temperate – or worse still, temperamental – then chaos ensues… Disgruntled voting population engages in disgruntled voting.

The fear, at least for politicians, is that angry voting isn’t good voting.

And, the Brexit story says it all. Not long after the disgruntled people of UK had expressed their anger, many of them discovered – some, for the first time – what they were actually voting for. Others began to regret their vote because they realised how it mattered. Thus, what seems to be suggested by ‘populism’ is that it leads to irrational, and hence unreliable votes.

Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh summed it up neatly in a Facebook post. “[Brexit] is a victory for populism over rationality. It is a victory for fear over hope,” he said.

“The global wave of populism which is sweeping the world is a danger to democracy and to democratic institutions. Let us hope that it will not invade Singapore.”

Perhaps what is ironic about the caution against ‘populism’ is that it only seems to grow. There is Trump in the US, Hansen in Australia, and Duterte in the Philippines. Depending on who you ask, these politicians are either products of ‘populist’ voting or popular voting. Do they represent the sentiments of their voters? Or are they manipulative fear mongers?

Whichever the case, the term ‘populist’ clearly makes enemies of certain politics.

However, to say that fully describes the meaning of the ‘populism’ would also be a mistake. The real problem of the word ‘populism’ isn’t so much the fact that it is insidious, than it is ambiguous.

If Brexit was all that populist and hence a bad decision, why does UK’s new PM May wish to follow through with it? Especially considering that she had voted against it. Does the fact that PM May promises to act on a populist vote make her populist too?

And even more puzzling, why does Obama call himself a populist in place of Trump?

Besides, the original intent of the populist movement was positive. It arose, and rises still, when the concerns of “the people” are not addressed. That means in spirit, the idea of ‘populism’ was to be fair and democratic.

So does that make ‘populism’ good or bad?

We just might need to take a vote on that.


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Illustration by Sean Chong

by Tan Chu Chze

MAY the winds be in your favour: May they blow when your laundry is wet, when the afternoons need cooling, in the direction that flows through your windows, and parts your hair stylishly. As long as you don’t break wind.

Winds play an important role in our understanding of fortune. Seemingly unpredictable and uncontrollable, we feel lucky to have winds blow the way we want them to. Sailors of the past understood this very well, since ships depended on winds to propel them. This is why Latin speakers of the past had the phrase ‘ob portum veniens‘. It means “towards the harbour”, describing a situation which worked very much in their favour.

Hundreds of years later, we retain ‘ob portum veniens‘ in the English language – only in a shorter form. It is now the word ‘opportune’. The noun form, ‘opportunity’, is our go-to to describe a favourable situation.

In that perspective, ‘opportunities’ seem like a good thing to have. However, taking opportunities isn’t always seen positively. When you change ‘opportunity’ to ‘opportunism’, it becomes an ugly behaviour. How is it that the practice or behaviour of taking opportunities is considered undesirable?

The past week or so has been rampant with cases of ‘opportunism’ – specifically legal opportunism – reported in the media. And by rampant, I mean a total of two cases. That’s a lot considering that MSM has no apparent record of legal opportunism prior to this. Even if there had been cases before, legal opportunism was clearly not an issue often talked about.

So the first was the Kho Jabing case. Despite being quite drawn out, the case had quite the fiery closure. Kho’s lawyers Gino Hardial Singh, Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss and Alfred Dodwell fought hard to save Kho from the death penalty, and took every opportunity to do so.

Unfortunately, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) saw their actions as taking advantage of legal appeals to delay Kho’s execution. While Kho’s lawyers argued that they were only doing their best to serve their client, the AGC maintained that it was at the cost of abusing legal processes for motivations the procedures were not designed for.

A similar situation goes for Roy Ngerng and Teo Soh Lung. Both Teo and Ngerng are being investigated for publishing articles on the recent Bukit Batok By-Election on Cooling-Off Day. You can read our report here.

However, the tables have been turned. This time, it is the police force who are seen as overstepping the requirements of their investigation, particularly with the confiscation of the two people’s computers and mobile phones. The group, Function 8, has gone as far as to describe the police’s fervour as – you guessed it – legal opportunism.

What is clear from these cases is that opportunities remain a positive thing for the people taking them. In Kho’s case, it is his lawyers, while in the case of Teo and Ngerng, the police. However, what makes opportunities ‘opportunism’ is when there are negative consequences, like when the intentions of legal appeals, confiscation policies, and powers of search are undermined.

Perhaps what best defines ‘opportunism’ is that it is not considered illegal or even malpractice (we covered “malpractice” here). There simply isn’t much basis to determine if it’s wrong or unethical. At least not clearly so. It just happens that the outcomes of taking some opportunities can sometimes really piss some people off enough for them to call it ‘opportunism’.

Then, ‘opportunism’ is just a vague and windy way of saying: “I don’t like what you’re doing.”


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Honour (WOTD)
Illustration by Sean Chong

by Tan Chu Chze

‘HONOUR’ must be very important for it to have its own party. The Honour International Symposium 2016 was held yesterday (May 19) by Honour (Singapore) in honour of the honour that made Singapore what it is today.

Yet, as honourable as honouring honour might be, the idea of honour adopted seems a bit sketchy. Neither MSM’s report on the symposium nor Honour (Singapore)’s webpage offers any clear insights on one essential question: What do they mean by ‘honour’?

My first encounter with the notion of ‘honour’ probably started in Sunday School. Honour your parents. Honour God. In my 10-year-old brain that meant: Do what you are told. Honour was a way to make obedience noble.

Years later, ‘honour’ resurfaced in my National Service experience. My unit operated under an elegant motto: For Honour and Glory. What that meant was more than a respect for my immediate authority: ‘Honour’ was a reverence for the soil (and concrete) I live on; the imperative to serve and protect it; the pride of carrying that duty out with excellence; and the privilege of earning respect and recognition. I learnt that honour was something one had to give, in order to gain.

But more years later has only shown me that ‘honour’ cannot be understood only in these terms.

For example, the annual observance of qingming – which my family doesn’t do – is also an expression of ‘honour’; Experiences of National Service could (read: mostly) have little or nothing to do with ‘honour’ for many individuals; Worse still, some versions of ‘honour’ could compel violence – even to one’s own family.

Evidently, what is meant by ‘honour’, especially in a movement like Honour (Singapore), is actually not obvious at all. For one, Honour (Singapore) does not appear to drive at any of the suggestions for ‘honour’ I spelt out.

‘Honour’ is highly subjective in action even though we can largely agree in word. Sure, ‘honour’ means “respect” – but how does one show that? Maybe there’s some exotic subculture out there that honours nose picking. Who is to say that isn’t honourable?

Perhaps a neater way to think of ‘honour’ is as keeping promises. Like the saying, “honour your word”. For honour to function, there has to be a code of honour – some set of rules that tells you what is honourable to do and what isn’t. Say my family’s code of honour is “obey your parents”. If my parents say “eat your veggies” and I faithfully abide by those words, it becomes an act of honour. But, if I don’t, then shame on me.

That means ‘honour’ is as much about action as it is about words. ‘Honour’ arises when what is done agrees with what is believed should be done (a code of honour). Or in other words, ‘honour’ is based on our actions and words.

The irony is Honour (Singapore) pitches it the other way round. Mdm Halimah Yacob, speaking at the Symposium, aptly captured it: “Our words and actions are based on honour.” ‘Honour’ is seen as a guiding principal, or as Honour (Singapore) puts it, a “blueprint” on which our nation was built.

So Honour (Singapore) has gotten the chicken before the egg. In short, they are telling us to act on honour without saying what honour is acting on. This apparent lack of an unified code of honour – or at least one that is locally understood – is probably what made Honour (Singapore) suspect to Christian agendas when it first started in 2014.

Regardless, this doesn’t make their cause any less worthy… it seems Honour (Singapore) has an idea of some sort of code of honour, one that involves remembering, appreciating, and connecting different members of society, so we can work together to improve Singapore.

What is left for Honour (Singapore) to articulate are the values and principles which they hope will guide our sense of ‘honour’. Personally, I can already think of two easily accessible resources for that: our national anthem and pledge.

They may not have the word ‘honour’ in them; but, if their words are honoured, I think our anthem and pledge would more than suffice Honour (Singapore)’s cause.


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by Tan Chu Chze

“HYPOCRISY” is a heavy word. It is a sharp and pointed bullet, accusing its target of – not just telling – but being a lie. If a person claims to be better or nobler than their actions speak of, we arm our weapons and shoot: hypocrite!

It thus seems surprising that such an aggressive word derives its meaning from more innocent roots: namely, the theatre. In its origin, “hypocrisy” refers to the pretence of acting on stage. A performer puts on the character of a different person and is thus not his “true self”. We can understand “hypocrisy” as a person having inconsistency between his public and private selves.

In that light, it does seem a little strange how accusations of hypocrisy against Dr Chee Soon Juan came about to begin with. Allegedly, Dr Chee is considered a hypocrite on two counts: First, for not displaying any remorse, regret, or repentance to legitimise his “change” in character; second, for the party’s inconsistent treatment of David Ong – the previous MP of the seat Dr Chee is contesting.

However, these accusations of “hypocrisy” are not so clear in and of themselves. What does it take for a man’s change of heart or character to be conceivable? Is some display of guilt and remorse absolutely necessary? Clearly, there are some parts of the story missing regarding what Dr Chee means when he is “proud” of his past, and what PM Lee thinks he should be sorry for.

Likewise, Dr Chee has kept to his word on withholding comments about David Ong, although some members of his party did not. And after PM Lee’s comments on that, Dr Chee said there won’t be anymore of it from anyone. Perhaps there was a lapse in management on Dr Chee’s part, but at least it was quickly rectified?

The point is that “hypocrisy” is not so easy to prove. How truly inconsistent Dr Chee’s character may or may not be can be proven with time, as with other characters before Dr Chee. Any such inconsistencies of character would eventually be self-evident anyway.

But, one thing remains certain: What lies behind any accusation of being “hypocritical” are a pair of eyes that are hypercritical. Thus the function that the word “hypocrisy” really serves is to cast doubt. To mark someone as possibly untrustworthy. This is reflected in an older origin of the word.

Broken into its components, “hypocrisy” combines “hypo” and “crisis”, which come together loosely as “under crisis”. To call someone out on “hypocrisy” is to put his or her character under stress, so that a different persona is sifted out. This is where the power – and danger – of “hypocrisy” surfaces.

To make any accusation as grave as “hypocrisy”, one has to assume a moral high ground. To do otherwise would be sheer hypocrisy.

Then again, one’s ivory tower could just as quickly turn into a witch’s stake. Just look at how Dr Chee deflected allegations of hypocrisy with… allegations of hypocrisy.

And therein lies the paradox. Inherent within the metaphor of acting for “hypocrisy” is that the acting itself cannot be done in isolation. An actor’s false character, or performed self, has to be summoned by another actor. One only becomes the imagined character when called on by another character in the same story. The catch is that both characters are pretence anyway. Therefore the term “hypocrisy” cuts both ways, like a two-edged sword.

This leaves any conversation about hypocrisy with two possible outcomes:

One, both parties engage in an endless cycle of pot calling the kettle black. Both vessels are equally dirty, and probably empty.

The other option: talk about something more constructive.


Here are more articles about the Bukit Batok by-election:


Featured Image by Sean Chong.

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