June 28, 2017

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by Bertha Henson

MR PETER Ho isn’t like Mr Ho Kwon Ping, the entrepreneur who threw a couple of grenades when he was the first to take on the S R Nathan lectures. Nor is he like Mr Bilahari Kausikan, the veteran diplomat who made no bones about what he thought about soft-headed approaches in diplomacy. Mr Ho, the former head of the Civil Service who gave his fourth and final lecture yesterday,  is gentle and scholarly. His lectures can also be described as an attempt to get people to understand that…

a. The world is moving is so fast that it is well-nigh impossible to predict problems.

b. Today’s problems are so complex and intertwined that new approaches which encompass the big picture are needed to solve them – and even then, not everyone will be happy.

c. Singapore needs a new, broader mindset that goes beyond the traditional idea of a national identity bounded by natural borders if it wants to prosper.

It is in his fourth and final lecture that Mr Ho makes his recommendations for the future. The first three are a lead-up to his point about not letting Singapore’s constraints get us down. The above points probably over-summarise his lectures, which were extremely scholarly and delved deep into how to develop a mindset to deal with the unexpected.

So here is a selection of quotes that struck me, as well as my one cent worth of thoughts.

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Besides Black Swans, he talked about Black Elephants

“The black elephant is a problem that is actually visible to everyone, but no one wants to deal with it, and so they pretend it is not there. When it blows up as a problem, we all feign surprise and shock, behaving as if it were a black swan,” he said, giving the example of how the British establishment didn’t think that Brexit could happen and was caught flat-footed when it did.

Nope, he didn’t give a Singapore example of a Black Elephant which is cross between the black swan and the proverbial elephant in the room.  Perhaps, the swelling of the foreign population in Singapore in the late 2000s could well be one of them. It needed an election and a backlash over the White Paper on Population to get the G to rethink its foreign manpower policies. As for a Black Swan event, there’s the 2003 Sars crisis which Singapore responded to magnificently with a Whole-of-Government (WOG) approach. See next point.

He talked about a WOG approach to coming up with solutions

“But while Whole-of-Government may be an imperative for dealing with wicked problems, it is not easily achieved. Governments, like any large hierarchy, are organised into vertical silos. For Whole-of-Government to work, these vertical silos need to be broken down, so that information can flow horizontally to reach other agencies.

“It requires not just a lot of effort but also a real change of culture to surmount this instinct to operate within silos, in order to make Whole-of-Government work properly. Often, the leader must nag his people to remind them that the Whole-of- Government imperative takes precedence over narrow sectoral interests and perspectives.”

Nope, he didn’t give any examples of difficulty. Rather, he gave examples of how the G was already taking this approach, which includes establishing institutions which work in the WOG way, such as the National Security and Coordination Secretariat and more recently, the Smart Nation & Digital Government Group.

He talked about the difficulties of challenging the official view

“But even if they try to do that, it is not always easy for the planner or policy-maker to challenge the official future, especially when that future is consistent with an organisation’s biases and preconceptions. Those who articulate a radically different future are at danger of being branded as subversive or lacking a sense of reality. So they will have a real incentive to make their scenarios more palatable for their audiences. But in so doing, they also inadvertently reduce the impetus for the organisation to confront uncomfortable alternative futures and to prepare itself for them.”

Maybe the paragraphs above reflect his thinking about the paucity of naysayers and the dangers of groupthink, which was a hot topic recently. Note, however, he is taking an organic approach – that all big hierarchical institutions have the same problems.

He talked about mavericks

“Some will argue that leaders should be more tolerant of mavericks. My response to this is “Yes, but only up to a point.” A maverick is a maverick only if he is fighting the establishment. If he believes enough in his ideas, he ought to have the courage and conviction of his beliefs to push them, even against resistance. If he gives up the moment he runs into some opposition or official rebuff, then in my book, he is not a maverick. I think this is a sound approach. It is essentially a Darwinian process in which only those who have thought through their ideas, and are prepared to stand up and defend them, deserve the chance of a second hearing. Some mavericks will survive.”

This was in his second lecture, delivered on April 19. So it wasn’t directed at a certain someone who wrote an unfortunate Facebook post.

He referred to the blame culture

“When things go wrong, as they often do, how do we respond? Do we just look for someone to blame, or do we work to solve the problem? A blame-seeking culture can be both destructive as well as unproductive. It might satisfy a human impulse to hold someone accountable. But it certainly does not solve the problem.”

So decision-making is an imperfect process. There’s so little time to come up with a solution, which can’t please everyone anyway. But surely holding someone accountable is not just a human impulse but also the right thing to do, just as we reward the meritorious? It is part of the process of transparency, which he didn’t touch on.

He said that Singapore can be more than a little red dot on the atlas.

“The central question that is posed in this evening‟s lecture is whether Singapore is merely a price-taker, or whether it has the ability to influence and alter the factors that shape the future?

“A thread running through all these four lectures – and this evening‟s in particular – is a hopeful view that even small city-states can influence, shape, and even create, not just markets, but also their operating environment. It is a belief in this view that hope can be redeemed for even a little red dot like Singapore.”

This was from his final lecture where he referred to small countries like Estonia and Denmark which envision e-nations in their future. But that is the subject of another column.

 

Featured image by Flickr user Megan Coughlin. CC BY-ND 2.0.

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by Suhaile Md

YOU’D think that with all the anti-Islam prejudice us Muslims chafe against, we would be better at recognising and weeding out the bigotry in our own backyard. Apparently not.

Last Monday’s (May 1) Yahoo article on the minority Ahmadiyyah community in Singapore drew a flurry of Facebook comments. This particular one bothered me:

Yes, Ahmadis consider themselves Muslim even though mainstream Muslims don’t, given the fundamental differences in some beliefs. Even so, neither threats nor anger are justified responses. I was hoping this blatant bigotry was a one-off incident but sadly that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The Muslim community is not a homogenous one. Just like how Christianity has a multitude of denominations, Muslims are diverse, with many sects and groups approaching the faith in different ways. Broadly speaking, there are two mainstream Muslim sects: Shi’ism and Sunnism.

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Earlier this year, Minister for Muslim Affairs Dr Yaacob Ibrahim spoke about the need for Muslims to embrace diversity in an interview with Malay-language newspaper Berita Minggu (BM). He specified the need for the majority Sunnis to respect the minority Shias (also known as Shi’ites), reported ST which had referred to the BM interview.

Said Dr Yaacob: “They pay MBMF (Mosque Building and Mendaki Fund). They come to our mosques. They pray together with us. They celebrate the same Hari Raya. So why are we not treating them as fellow Muslims but different?”

So why are we not treating them as fellow Muslims but different?

There are no firm numbers in Singapore, but a 2009 Pew report estimated less than 1 per cent of Muslims here are Shia. Over 457,000 Muslims reside here according to the G’s 2010 population census. Globally, up to 13 per cent are Shia.

There was no Shia-Sunni divide during Prophet Muhammad’s time. The split happened a few decades after his death over competing views on who should lead the Muslims. The political struggle evolved into a religious split as different interpretations emerged from different sources of authority, resulting in some differences in practices and theological views on certain issues.

There are many sub-sects within Sunnism and Sh’ism. A minority of Shias in Singapore are from the Dawoodi Bohra sub-sect. They tend to be Indian Muslims and they pray at Masjid Al-Burhani in City Hall, the only Shia mosque in Singapore. The majority Malay Muslim Shias tend to be from the Twelver branch.

Like Dr Yaacob said in the interview, Islam is “very diverse”. Nonetheless both Shias and Sunnis share the same fundamental tenets of the faith. In 1988, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) issued a fatwa (ruling) that Shias are Muslim. A MUIS spokesman said that the fatwa remains valid to this day.

Still, “there are some within the [Malay Muslim] community… they hate Shia,” said Mr Yusuf Roslan. The 32-year old radiographer, who became Shia about 10 years ago, once overheard a Madrasah teacher praise the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for killing Shia Muslims. Another time Mr Yusuf’s friend was chased out of a mosque near little India when his turbah was spotted. Unlike Sunnis, some Shias rest their forehead on a clay tablet, or turbah, when prostrating during prayers.

there are some within the [Malay Muslim] community… they hate Shia

Mr Habib Albaity has been involved in various Shia organising committees through the years. The 61-year old taxi driver said that there were times when the application to use mosque facilities for Shia events were unsuccessful. He is sure it had to do with them being Shia Muslims. While they have their own space on the second floor of a shophouse at Guillemard Road, it’s inadequate for larger events. They opened their new, larger, Shia centre yesterday (May 11).

When TMG emailed MUIS to ask if Shia Muslims can hold events at mosques, whether said events can be publicised on mosque property, and the possible reasons why they might be denied the use of mosque facilities, a spokesman only had this to say: “A mosque is an open, shared space for all Muslims regardless of orientation, to use for worship, learning and service. All Muslims are free to attend congregational worship together.”

It’s a curious response. Surely, a simple yes you can hold Shia events at mosques but like everyone else successful applications depend on availability, would have sufficed? There was no response to the question on publicity.

But the challenges are not from the Islamic authorities, said Mr Habib. It’s from the ground. People don’t understand Shi’ism and “give bad remarks as if we are not Muslims but very bad people”.

Since her school days, for example, 28-year old Ms Sakinah Abdul Aziz said she has heard offensive comments like “Shia are Kafirs (disbelievers)… oh they are orang sesat (deviant)”.

These are not benign stereotypes.

These are not benign stereotypes. In October 2015, a video of Shia Muslims singing and slapping their chest – a well-known practise – was uploaded on Youtube. There was public backlash significant enough that the owners of the private space near Bedok North, which they had rented, advised them not to apply the following year, said Mr Muhammad Al-Baqir. The 32-year old who was part of the organising committee added that the owners “have nothing against us… it was just the situation at that time”.

So it’s not too much of a stretch to think that mosque managers would prefer to avoid rocking the boat by disallowing Shia Muslim events to be held.

This discomfort with Shi’ism has taken a nasty turn up north. Shia Muslims face legal persecution by the authorities in Malaysia, said Associate Professor Syed Farid Alatas. But it wasn’t always the case, added the National University of Singapore (NUS) academic who specialises in sociology of religion.

A 1984 fatwa by the Malaysian Islamic authority, JAKIM, made it clear that Shi’ism was acceptable. This was reversed in 1996. Anti-Shia fatwas were issued in various states in subsequent years. This is contrary to the views of leading Islamic scholars, like the Shaykh Al-Azhar and Shaykh Qaradawi, from around the world. Now, Shia Muslims are detained and harassed by Malaysian authorities, their places of worship raided. Hate speech is also allowed to circulate.

“The thing is, Singapore is being influenced by this,” said Dr Farid. And it’s to a “very great” extent, he claimed.

The thing is, Singapore is being influenced by this

I went online to see for myself. A quick search led me to posts and comments on social media and Youtube which demonised Shia Muslims as monkeys, satanic, kafir, sesat, and so on. There’s also a public Facebook group called Melayu Singapura Tolak Syiah (Singapore Malays reject Shi’ism) with over 1,800 members.

It’s not just online. A trip to some Muslim bookstores along North Bridge Road and Geylang Serai revealed some questionable material on Shi’ism – mostly from Malaysia – like this book for example:

Self-flagellation as shown on the cover was outlawed decades back by the highest Shia Muslim religious authorities, said Mr Habib. The blurb describes the book’s contents as a “clear” outline of the “ideological background, and threats posed by Shi’ism against the true Islam… a warning against falling prey to the calls of the Shi’ites.”

There are legitimate doctrinal differences to discuss but “usually these anti-Shia books present a caricature and attack that caricature… it’s substandard scholarship,” said Dr Farid. Traditionally in the Malay- Muslim world, he said, the majority “Sunnis are not anti-Shia” to the extent it is now. There are many reasons for this shift.

One reason is “the rise of more extremist Ulama (religious scholars) influenced by Salafism” which in turn is “partly related to the greater influence of Saudi Arabia in Malaysian affairs”, he said. Salafist anti-Shia propaganda from Saudi Arabia spread in response to the Iranian revolution in 1979 which saw a secular government replaced by a Shi’ite-oriented leadership.

While there is extremism in many branches of Islam, including Shi’ism, Dr Farid believes “Salafism is the most dominant form of extremism in the Muslim world today”. He stressed however that “the vast majority of Salafis do not condone physical violence and are in fact against terrorism”. He meant extremist “in the sense that” it is too “exclusivist” and “legalistic” to the extent that even Sunni branches of Islam like Sufism are also considered deviant and dangerous. That said, Salafists are Muslims and he is “not a fan of banning” them.

Exclusivism, or the idea that there is only one narrow interpretation of Islam, is at the heart of the discomfort with Shias. This poster from 2015 for example advertised a seminar on the creed of the Sunnis and the “dangers of Shi’ism”:

Seminar on the creed of the Sunnis and the dangers of Shi’ism to be held on the Deepavali holiday.

It’s not clear if the seminar went ahead or whether anyone had complained to the authorities.

It’s more difficult to hold such seminars now. Since Jan 1 this year, all religious teachers must register under the Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS) to ensure what is taught takes Singapore’s context into account.

According to the Code of Ethics which must be followed, an Islamic teacher “must recognise that there are diverse opinions and schools of thought in Islam and may choose to adopt and teach any of these” so long as it does not cause public disorder. Also teachers cannot claim any practice of Islam is “deviant or unacceptable” unless the “Fatwa Committee has pronounced it to be so in a ruling”.

This is good methinks but more can be done. Given what is found in some bookstores, on social media, and the personal accounts by Shia Muslim Singaporeans, it’s clear that anti-Shia sentiments in Singapore are not insignificant. While such sentiments cannot be banned out of existence, stereotypes that fuel bigotry need to be engaged directly by religious and community leaders of all stripes together along with the community.

MUIS’ azatizah code of ethics recognises that there are “diverse opinions and schools of thought” in Islam. Maybe MUIS can consider having exhibitions and seminars presenting the diversity of Islamic thought at the various mosques – a grassroots education programme. Intra-faith dialogues at mosques would also be a good start.

Recognise that there are diverse opinions and schools of thought in Islam

There is a view that addressing differences in plain view – even if not sensationalised like the Imam video case – will blow the issue out of proportion riling people up unnecessarily. I think this misses the heart of the problem.

The point of the ARS is to ensure Islamic teaching is contextualised to our own society. But foreign celebrity preachers have the largest social media presence. Who vets them? Some like Zakir Naik are controversial and are banned from speaking here.

Yet through videos and social media posts, the ideas flow unchallenged, freely, online, publicly. Closed door engagement will never come close to the reach of viral videos. We risk having only one narrow interpretation of Islam dominating, that too a foreign one. Islam’s diversity in Singapore should be actively defended.

So public engagement should supplement closed door sessions. No doubt some will see engagement as a direct challenge and get upset. But it’s cowardly and wrong to stand by quietly while bigotry festers. Let’s take a stand, please.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Felix Cheong

THE moment the studio lights came on and the current affairs programme was back on air after a two-minute ad break, the three panellists scrambled to adjust their clothes and props. No one wanted to be caught on national television without their government-enforced muzzles. It was just not the “Singapore way”.

“Welcome back!” host Steven Lee announced brightly to the camera, though his voice wasn’t so clear through his muzzle. If you closed your eyes, you could just about imagine the super-villain Bane with a bad case of the sniffles.

To follow the flow of the discussion, you would have to rely on government-issued subtitles on the screen. There was no way you could lip-read, what with the speakers’ muzzles worn tight over their mouths.

Nonchalantly, Lee picked up one of the six Hello Kitty collectibles lined up like terracotta warriors on the table in front of him. The camera zoomed in for a close-up. They looked made-in-China, disposable-cheap but had, in fact, taken the production team a few months – and something like a small fortune – to acquire on eBay.

“If you’ve just joined us, our topic today: Why are Singaporeans perennially obsessed with this cat with no mouth?” Lee – or rather, his subtitles – continued as he turned to the guest on his right.

“You see,” said the academic with the big eyes, made bigger by her concave glasses, her voice also barely audible through her muzzle, “for the voiceless, this Hello Kitty cat defines us as a society. One people, one nation and no mouth. We’re reflected in it, by it, through it and with it…”

“That’s rubbish!” the MP sitting next to her cut in. Trained as he was in public speaking through the muzzle, his voice naturally boomed across the studio. Every word was governmentally enunciated and nagging-clear.

“Are you suggesting we suppress dissent? No one on this island has ever been put down or put out because of what he believes in.”

A wave of applause, nods of approval, erupted from the studio audience, every one of them a devotee of Hello Kitty.

The MP, now in the full stride of his rhetoric, clapped in unison. “Right or not?” he asked the audience rhetorically.

Another wave of applause followed. The silent majority had spoken. It was loud and muffled-clear.

 

Featured image by Guet Ghee Pang.

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by Daniel Yap

IF NMP Kuik Shiao-Yin wants kiasuism dead, I’ll be the first to pull the knife. I hate it – it has none of the nobility of competition. The outcomes it produces are the least efficient sort. Its expression disturbs us so deep down in our gut that our only coping mechanism is to laugh about it, or shrug. I hate it and Singaporeans hate it too – we simply haven’t come to terms with the fact that we do.

It’s time to be honest with ourselves. Nobody cherishes kiasuism. It is Singaporean culture’s dirty laundry that has been airing so long we’ve grown accustomed to the smell. Kiasuism is the strange 20-year lump at our armpit – we suspect it’s cancerous but don’t dare to check. Instead we show it off to our close friends like a freakish trophy. But really, we’d rather it be gone.

Our use of the word “kiasu” is uniformly negative. We always exhort others to “Don’t be kiasu!” and nearly never verbally encourage this behaviour. Otherwise we are apologetic about it: “Wah, why you take so many prawns?” “Hur hur, buffet mah… must kiasu a bit.”

Deep down we know every grant-preneur is really mooching off taxpayers, but do we call them out? Instead we find ourselves saying things like “wah, so clever. Can teach me how to cheat the system also?” We see some fool endanger others on the road just to get to her destination three seconds faster and the only thing we can think of is that we should do the same. We are like addicts in the presence of addicts – irrepressibly drawn to our horrific vice when we see someone else fall victim to it. “It’s the culture.” No. It’s disgusting. We want our culture to be noble, praiseworthy, and resilient.

We are ashamed of kiasuism and silently hold others in contempt when they are kiasu. That student who choped four seats at a crowded Starbucks with a small drink to mug for nine hours? The gluttons who take all the most expensive food at the buffet but never finish it? The creeps who rush into the MRT lift ahead of the strollers and the disabled? We hate them all the more because we see the same horror of kiasuism in ourselves. It is a sinful temptation we cannot resist. A dirty habit we cannot shake. A hurtful vice we cannot purify ourselves of.

We try to justify our bad behaviour but we can’t. So we joke about it, make excuses for it. We hang out at online forums and websites with the word “kiasu” in them, feeding off each other and seeking comfort in the fact that there are others as wretched as we are, kind of like weaboos or people who collect preserved fetuses or people who enjoy bestial necrophilia porn. Oh yes, there are communities for every vice and kiasuism is no exception. Heck, sometimes it is even profitable (like TRS, gambling, and slavery).

It’s time to stop lying to ourselves. We can only progress together by cutting out the tumour that is kiasuism. It may have been a part of us for the longest time but it has got to go. Start by calling kiasuism out, but gently as from one fallen creature to another. Stop celebrating the spoils of kiasuism – the nauseating, made-for-envy lists of all these top scorers from this cram school. (Enrol your child now!) Chastise queue cutters. Defend the weak.

Above all, recognise that we, as Singaporeans, have been steeped in this culture and need to talk about it as a people determined to change what is worst about ourselves. It is a poetic irony that we can only shed our kiasu culture by working together, being generous and being open about our dreams and aspirations.

 

Featured image Kiasu Attitude Revealed by Flickr user Jason D’ Great CC BY 2.0. 

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THE last day of 2015 – Singapore’s 50th birthday, the year Mr Lee Kuan Yew died, the year the PAP cleaned up at the GE – much to our surprise and perhaps, even the party itself. What will you remember most about 2015? MSM has put out several year-end reviews, and so have we.

We’ve saved our best for last: Bertha’s take on what LKY would have thought of 2015; and since we’re an online news site, how could we not serve up Our Most Viral Moments of 2015? (Stay tuned.)

But first, a quick review of what happened yesterday:

More Build-To-Order (BTO) flats will be launched next year – 18,000 to be exact. The G said it expects demand to surge after easing some of the Housing Board’s eligibility requirements, such as a higher income ceiling, and more grants for first-time home buyers. Property curbs however, will stay for now. New National Development Minister Lawrence Wong yesterday said while the market was softening, it was not time yet to lift the restrictions that include a cap on how much of your salary you can use to pay your mortgage (30 per cent).

Resilience is a word that the G used not so long ago to talk about the “toughness” of our society – now, it’s being used to describe our… MRT? From ST: “In a first for the rail network, the LTA has appointed an Independent Advisory Panel to study the power system’s resilience.” And from TODAY: “The panel will later report on the resilience of the current power supply system and provide recommedations (sic) to the LTA on how to enhance the resilience of the power supply system.”

TODAY must feel pretty awkward for putting out that clumsy sentence, but perhaps not as much as SMRT, whose East-West Line yesterday stalled for the second day running for almost two hours. A spokesman said (we imagine a bit sheepishly) that the breakdown was due to… a track circuit fault (again).

Speaking of awkward… the Israeli Embassy has said sorry after one of its diplomats used the Singapore flag as a table cloth during a dinner party. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs graciously accepted the apology – saying: “We welcome the Israeli Embassy’s apology and assurances that it will undertake the necessary disciplinary actions against the individual concerned.”

In other words: “Ok lah, say sorry can already. But you say one ah, better go and punish that joker.”

No joke, today’s the last day of 2015. We’re not publishing tomorrow, so here’s Happy New Year to you in advance. Thanks for reading!

 

Featured image by Chong Yew. 

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