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Idealism v Pragmatism May 31, 2007

Posted by Ned Stark in Uncategorized.
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Mr Wang seems to have become a self help guru; his recent posts have been talking about how one can live life and one can have big goals. What was interesting is the point that a commenter made:

Mr. Wang, for each person who made it to compete, let alone win, in the Olympics, there must be hundreds of thousands if not millions who aspire to that. It is wise for the average person to bear that in mind. Most champions are born and identified early in life. Goals must be realistic and commensurate with one’s ability. Otherwise, many will end up with miserable lives.”

Contrast that to Mr Wang’s point;

Although I believe that most people can achieve great things, I also believe that most people won’t. The greatest reason is that THEY don’t believe that they themselves can achieve great things.”

Both view points however are not wrong. The commentor is one who advocates pragmatism; namely, when one sets out on a course of action, one tries to take into account many factors and be realistic or, to use the word that Singaporeans are familiar with, practical. Mr Wang however, suggests that many people, in the name of pragmatism, start to give up on their dreams even before they started.

It is undeniable that pragmatism does play a role in people’s life, however, people should not, in the name of pragmatism, be forced to forego dreams and aspirations. Unfortunately, this is what is happening in Singapore now. While there is nothing wrong if a person simply aspires to live a simple life, have a simple job and live simply; how many people are in such a situation because it was their goal in life initially? How many people, in Mr Wang’s words, had  to water down their goals, blame your luck and just accept mediocrity?

Singapore society has made pragmatism into, for lack of a better word, a form of religion. The only ideal that is the norm among Singaporeans is the vaunted 5Cs, but evidently as one can observe majority do not even get a chance to hit 2Cs, not to mention 5. And there are also the conflict of Cs; for example if a person goes into debt just to get a car or condo, then he has problems with cash. Perhaps thats a reason why MLM is able to attract that many people for it offers the promise of 5Cs. It can be seen that, 5Cs notwithstanding, dreams and ideals are often quashed in the name of pragmatism, as witnessed from the example here. Other instances can be seen with regards to social, political and economic issues in Singapore. Often, those who have a different view from the government’s cold hearted pragmatism are often labelled as “ungrateful whiners, populist, western educated radicals” and so on so forth.

In an earlier post on the “Limiting Reagent“, YCK raised the point that there needs to be some sort of equilibrium in society. However with regards to the issue of idealism v pragmatism, I must say that there is definitely no equilibrium, in fact society is skewed in favour of pragmatism against idealism. While it is undeniable that there will always be a greater proportion of pragmatics then idealists, history has often shown that society progressed not because of pragmatism, but because of idealism. I find it highly unlikely the founding fathers of Singapore, or to put it simply the PAP, founded Singapore because of pragmatism. In fact as one of the national songs put it, there was a time when people said that Singapore would not make it. I hardly think that a pragmatic person would want to be in charge of a potential sinking ship; rather it was idealism which made the early leaders stay the course and build up this sleepy island into what it is today.

Unfortunately, it appears that idealism is discouraged and scorned upon in Singapore. And that is one of the limiting reagents which would limit Singapore’s development. As long as people are “programmed to fail”, have cold water poured on their aspirations, are told that they need to be”qualified” before they can talk about issues, then Singapore would merely remain as a city of robots, albeit one with clean streets and low crime, notwithstanding the attempts of authority to turn Singapore into a multi hub.

On the Alternative Elite May 28, 2007

Posted by Ned Stark in Uncategorized.
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Ever since i read Gerald’s article about the Alternative Elite I have used it rather often in some of the posts I have done. Just recently Monsieur Bernard Leong did a piece on whether there could be an alternative elite in Singapore. Despite the apparent differences in opinion, there is one similarity in both posts; namely, both define the elites referred to are either politicians or civil service organisations.

 Of course, it is not incorrect to talk about alternative elite in terms of politics. This is because it was in the context of politics that such a term came about; that such an alternative elite would play the role of check and balance in society. In his post, Bernard states that there is a possibilty that the alternative elite could become the new elite, as per what happened when PAP became the ruling party after being the opposition in Marshall’s government. In that case, another factor will have to come into play for this system of checks to work properly. For the alternative elite to function properly, the people, or more specifically the critical mass would play a decisive role. That is where awareness comes in, whereby people start to look beyond their rice bowl and think beyond progress packages and upgrading. Of course, while awareness will take some time, it is possible that if the current climate (Mainstream media remains the mouth piece of the government, the strict laws regarding political content and so on) continues then it is highly possible that there will be no alternative elite emerging. Allowing an alternative political elite to emerge will necessitate the opening up of society to a certain degree; and in the process two birds could be killed with a single stone as a more open society would make it easier for awareness to be created among people.

 Besides looking at the alternative elite in the political context, it is also prudent to look at it in other contexts and expand the definition of elite. The common Singapore definition of elite refers to those who have excelled in their academics; getting a scholarship is often seen as a means of entering the elite. However as can be seen, there are many definitions of elite. Therefore one could say that the more prominent bloggers are the “elites” of the blogosphere and that Leslie Kee and Martyn See are the elites of the arts scene. As wikitionary states:

elite (uncountable)

Someone who is among the best at certain task.

Therefore allowing a alternative elite to grow need not only refer to the opposition; it could also refer to people like Martyn See and Leslie Kee who are good at what they do; they are considered “alternative”because they do not conform to the idea of a mainstream arts; the former because he tends to go against the mainstream narrative, the later because his art did not conform to the “Asian Values” which are said to be the norm in Singapore.

And so allowing an alternative elite to grow would not only safeguard the political future of Singapore, it could also help Singapore progress culturally and economically. And opening up these possibilities will necessitate the opening up of Singapore society into one that is more tolerant of differences including but not limited to sexual orientation, political inclination, and so on.

Homosexuality: Myth & Reality May 27, 2007

Posted by Ned Stark in Uncategorized.
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” I don’t understand why reasonable men go stark raving mad everytime something related to a homosexual comes up!” Atticus Finch

 Actually Atticus Finch said nothing of homosexuality; I merely took the liberty to switch the word “black” with the word “homosexual’. However the point of the quote remains the same.

 The debate on homosexuality rages on and till now refused to simmer down. The debate has drawn out people from both sides; including but not limited to a Minister for State, a law professor, some Members of Parliament, several bloggers and several people with intriguing comments. Of course almost everything that can be said on this issue has already been said; however recently there have been intriguing comments and thus I am compelled to whip the the dead horse.

 “Check out how the great empires all fell- Greece, Rome, etc.. the men adopted homosexuality as their way of sex- the birth rate dropped – end of story for their civilization. Sex between men and men is unnatural – how hard is that to understand?”

What an interesting idea. The fall of an Empire came about because of homosexuality. How interesting. Unfortunately this is a misconception and thus an absurd line of argument. In the past, homoesexuality was not frowned upon in both the Roman empire and Ancient Greece; in fact there was this practice called pederasty, whereby the younger will have a relationship with an older man. But the acceptance of homosexuality did not result in a civilization that was degenerate in anyway; one must remember that people like Solon, Archimedes, Hippocrates, Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Demosthenes, Leonidas and so on were, for lack of a better word, products of such a society. And these people and many others have left humanity with ideas, philosphies, governing systems which are prevalent around the world. It would be rank idiocy to suggest that such a society is degenerate if it gave rise to such personages.

Furthermore, the idea that homosexuals are effeminate or non masculine is ridiculous. Once again one must look to history. Alexander the Great, who at the time of his death was leader of a vast empire spanning the known world, was also said to be bisexual as he had a homosexual relationship with  Hephaestion, one of his commanders. That did not stop him from beating the Persian Empire and becoming master of the known world. That he died at the age of 32 make his achievements all the more astounding.

Richard I of England, better known as the Lionheart; of Robin Hood and Ivan Hoe fame, was also known to have had a homosexual relationship with Philip Augustus, the King of France then. Yet Richard was a warrior through and through, having led the Western Crusaders during the Third Crusade (and squaring of against Saladin no less) and having spent most of his life fighting the French in the English territories of France, dying age 44 during the siege of one of his rebellious vassals.

With all that said, I hardly think that repeal of the infamous Section 377A will cause Singapore society to collapse or degenerate (of course there are some who say that Singapore society is currently degenerate due to the worship of Mammon but thats for another time). Repeal of Section 377A, therefore, will not create a crisis in the armed forces or create a society which is morally bankrupt. In fact, conversely the repeal could sow the seeds of a society more tolerant of differences and thus pave the way for a more open society which could reap dividends for Singapore socially, culturally, economically, etc. But all that is mere conjecture if Singapore chooses to be “kiasi” and dare not take the baby step.

The Irony that is this Country May 23, 2007

Posted by Ned Stark in Uncategorized.
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The Mainstream Media of Singapore has always been trumpeting one catch line or another by the government. Recently the hub word has been bandied about regulary; Singapore wants to be an Education Hub, a Biomedical Hub, a Medical Hub, a Cosmopolitan Hub, a Hub for the arts, legal hub, arbitration hub, commercial hub and so on so forth. Basically if one followed the emergence of the word “hub” in the government lingo that it is highly likely that one can get the idea that Singapore basically wants to be the “hub” of almost anything as far as is practically possible.

 Of course as a trite saying goes, saying is one thing and doing another. In a quest to become more vibrant the government brought in the Crazy Horse, which has since gone back to France due to restrictions in Singapore. Then there was this issue about the direction Singapore is currently taking in the area of biomedical research; which saw the “Clash of Titans” between Philp Yeo and Lee Wei Ling, and of course one must not forget the lively Speaker’s Corner at Hong Lim Park. Previously, the University of Warwick also refused to set up shop in Singapore, citing “academic freedom” as the hinge factor. And now the University of New South Wales has decided to close down their branch in Singapore.

Therefore it appears that the goal of becoming a, for lack of a better word, “multi-hub”, have taken a beating, (Even CNA seems to think so, stating that “The episode is clearly damaging to Singapore’s aim to be a global schoolhouse.”) In fact it appears that government initiatives have often for some reason either experienced diminishing returns or resulted in some kind of loss.

However all is not yet loss for Singapore. While Singapore at present has “inquisitors” going around championing the discrimination of fellow human beings and people casting aspersions on other countries around the world, there are positive developments, independent from authority, which do have the potential to reap returns to Singapore; as long as the authorities do not decide to do an “Operation Coldstore”.

Just recently, Lee Kin Mun, better known as “Mr Brown” (though not to some people are MICA) was featured in the World Business Magazine as one of Asia’s top 20 progressives. As one commentor noted, he was the only Singaporean featured and he is not even a minister!

Besides that, Singapore also has its own art talents in the form of Leslie Kee, who’s book was banned because it contained some pictures revealing some strands of pubic hair and Martyn See, who has made films which have been banned because it tells history in a way that is displeasing to the powers that be. And not to mention the fact that Singapore has a rather dynamic blogosphere, though it is currently undergoing a slow period having seen the departure of certain prominent bloggers.

Unfortunately herein lies the irony. Notwithstanding the potential contributions which people like Lee Kin Mun, Leslie Kee and Martyn See can provide,  by virtue of the fact that they do not conform to the National Scripture (that Singapore is an Asian Society with the “mysterious” Asian values which only GP students bother to define), thus are they hampered by the powers that be. The irony is that these people probably can or have done more for the arts scene than the authorities’ clumsy attempts to do so, but yet because they are seen to be “deviants” they are often treated as such. Even the blogosphere, which can probably do what only David Marshall managed to do in the 1950s 1960s, namely to get the common man to start thinking outside of the rice bowl, has been subject to ridicule and vague threats; at one time the blogosphere was likened to insurgents!

In essence, as long as the government persists in “artificial dynamism” then Singapore’s dreams of being a multi hub will be just that, a dream. The sad thing is that the factors which, given a conducive environment, can help Singapore transform dreams to reality, are often either given an environment which is detrimental at best or suppressive at worst. What an irony!

Voices in the Wilderness? May 21, 2007

Posted by Ned Stark in Uncategorized.
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Just last week, I came across this story from a Channel 55 drama (some Hong Kong Drama about a Cop who is transported back in time to the Warring States Era).

Moziwandered the realm spreading his teachings of universal love. One day his friend came to him and told him to stop what he was doing for his friend felt his efforts were wasted. Mozi then asked him a question,’ If a farmer has ten sons, and nine of his sons choose to idle around, what would the tenth son do?’

The answer to that question is thus,

“The tenth son will put in 10 times the effort, so as to be able to feed the whole family”. 

Indeed. Isn’t such a situation occuring in Singapore right now?

Recently, Mr Lee Kin Mun, better known by his moniker Mr Brown, was listed in the World Business Magazine as one of Asia’s top 20 progressives. The write up accompanying the list was rather accurate in its depiction of the Mainstream Media vis a vis what has come to be known as the Blogosphere:

Singapore has some of the world’s tightest media restrictions. Little genuine public debate is permitted and investigative journalism is largely non-existent. The role of the media is to report government announcements rather than to hold the government to account. And so Singaporeans are fed a bland diet of lifestyle articles, world news often slanted to show Singapore in a good light by way of comparison, and news about government policy. Not surprisingly, Singapore has one of the world’s most active blogging communities. Genuine debate, opinion pieces and news appear on many Singapore-related websites…Lee continues to publish and broadcast his satires and commentaries, providing Singaporeans with a vibrant and diversified media otherwise denied them.

And not too long ago, Mr Bernard Leong did a post regarding sociopolitical bloggers, namely their motivations and the problems they face.

The situation now therefore is not so different from the situation faced by Mozi during that time. Those who blog on issues are akin to the proverbial voice in the wilderness; wilderness because these people have been cast there by the sanctioned media or powers that be, through veiled threats, scorn or sheer disregard. There are also some mindless people who are all too ready to jump on the bandwagon and start labelling bloggers as “ungrateful”, “disloyal”, and any other remark which is rank falsehood in so far as I am concerned.  Besides disturbances from the “PAPanons”, there are also disturbances from some fellas who seem to think that bloggers are here to lead revolution or change the world or to perform any other grandoise task, which is inherently not true as can be seen from Mr Leong’s post. Bloggers are not here in the name of world peace or anything, although they can play a  role by fostering debate and getting more people to think of issues.

Ultimately, the crux of the matter is creating awareness which will, hopefully translate into more action, destroy the “scourge” of apathy and ignorance and prevent the decline of Singapore, socially, politically, economically (this is where the part about feeding the whole family comes in. As the Chinese say, Guo Jia Xin Wang, Pi Fu You Ze [Rise and Fall of
Country is dependant on the People] ). My learned friend Guojun has described it as the “enlightenment”, whereby Bloggers try to foster awareness among their own circle and, with the help of aggregators and websites like Intelligent Singaporean and The Online Citizen, reach out to a wider “audience”. This process is often hampered by laziness, impatience, complacency and ignorance. No doubt about it, this is an uphill task bloggers face, akin to the situation faced by the fictitious tenth son in Mozi’s story. Perhaps Singapore is not ready or will never be ready to progress socially or politically, and thus attempts to foster awareness may not bear fruit.

Out of the blogosphere, there are many other voices in the wilderness. Just recently, one of them managed to throw away the financial shackles which were the consequences of choosing to be such a voice. He is the one and only Joshua Benjamin Jeyeratnam. Rather than enjoy his twilight years, JBJ is unfazed and raring to go; to be the public “Voice” in the wilderness. His methods notwithstanding, one must salute Mr JBJ for his unwavering dedication to his cause. Such dedication is, sad to say, is nearly extinct in this souless and pragmatic Society people call Singapore. Of course, much like the bloggers, he and others like him face and uphill battle, a battle littered with libel minefields. And like the bloggers, there will always be those detractors ready to pull them down.

National Service and Rehabilitation May 19, 2007

Posted by Ned Stark in Uncategorized.
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There have been many changes to the legal system in Singapore, namely, the establishment of the Community Court, the Bail Court and a move towards rehabilitation which was relatively unseen under the former CJ Yong Pung How. The current move to allow for early enlistment for juvenile offenders is one of these.

Of course this begets the question, should the SAF be used as a tool for rehabilitation? Would not such a use of the SAF result in problems with SAF’s image? Would being in the SAF expose these juveniles to vices, and given the circumstances which landed them in the early enlistment scheme would this have an adverse impact on their character?

As stated in the article, ” Early Enlistment for some youth offenders” in the ST, May 19th 2007, the rationale of early enlistment is to put them in an environment whereby they would not be able to idle around and thus  lowering the chances of them creating trouble. This is a sound move; theoretically its akin to killing two birds with one stone. A “high risk” offender is, for lack of a better word, “neutralised”, and the SAF gets one more soldier in its rank for the purposes of national defence (or if you want to be cynical you have one more sad fella to bully during the weekends in the name of National Day Celebrations). While the by product of such a move could have an adverse effect on the SAF’s reputation, the fact of the matter is that the SAF, for all its wonderful advertisements trumpetting the virtues of perserverance, patriotism and so on so forth, already has a rather negative image in the eyes of the people for whatever reason. Thus being perceived as a “rehabiliation centre” for youth is the least of the SAF’s problems. In fact being a rehabiliation centre, it is in a position to do some good for society, and as can be seen from insanepoly’s post, the SAF does help build up some people’s character, though not all the time.

Furthermore, this image problem as a result of the early enlistment of offenders is not localised to the SAF. The French Foreign Legion, for one, had a reputation for attracting felons. In fact after the Second World War there were a considerable number of German POWs who signed up with the Legion. Historically, many Navies, including the French Navy, made extensive use of convicts to operate their vessels. This goes to show that the image of a rehabilitation centre is not as dire as one might think.

While it is indeed true that there are those who are exposed to smoking, drinking and gambling during their course of service in the SAF, the fact of the matter is such exposure is not limited to those who are in the army. There are females who smoke, drink, among other things, and they most probably will not have anything to do with the SAF! Exposure to such activities need not necessarily occur during their NSF term, thus the point of exposure can be said to be moot. In fact, as many former army fellas can attest, the first few months in the army are one of the most restrictive in a NSFs life, and if they are stuck in Tekong then there chances of them being exposed to vices is rather minimal. The issue therefore is that the trainers would have to instill in these young men discipline during the early stages of their army lives. If that can be done then Singapore would have one more constructive person. And even if the person proves to be a trouble maker, then he will be dealt with under military law. Either way society gains. And with regards to “vices”, I have encountered people who smoke, drink, visited brothels, among other things, who I would trust to guard my back and people who are top scorers or are scholars who I would not trust with anything at all. Just because a person smokes does not necessarily mean he becomes a troublemaker or an unconstructive member of society.

Therefore, theoretically speaking, this is a good move in ensuring that the “punishment” fits the person. Of course there will be issues regarding to the practicalities, but such issues can be dealt with as and when they arise.

Full Circle May 15, 2007

Posted by Ned Stark in Uncategorized.
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There is a saying which can be said to be overused, namely that history repeats itself. And it is happening in Singapore, right here right now.

The recent debate over homosexuality has become fiercer; perhaps because it was triggered by a comment made by Mr Lee Kuan Yew at a Young PAP event in St James Power Station. Then we had Yvonne Lee and people like Istyana who waded into the fray, on the side of the no repeal camp. And of course there are familiar faces like George Lim Heng Chye, who, while not addressing this issue in his letter to the forum, made some references to it by saying,

The reason why our country today is enjoying much peace and abundance is that the people accept and apply good moral standards.

We support laws that govern and underpin righteous behaviour and public decency. We are blessed with a Government that did not waiver and yield to licentious demands of the minority.

If we, as a people, are unable to uphold good moral laws, including the Penal Code, then we will surely lose our next generation to perversion. This is not what we would want to see happening to our country in the near future.

This, as stated by my learned friend Guojun, is complete bollocks. But our dear friend’s crusade did not start there. In fact saltwetfish showed us an article which reminded me of the scene in Kingdom of Heaven where the Templars yelled “God wills it” and then proceeded to hantam an unarmed caravan.

Such self righteous posturing is rather ironic given the early history of Christianity. The early Christians, including the disciples of Jesus were often persecuted either by the Jewish Authorities (the first martyr St Stephen was believed to have been stoned by the sanhedrin) and eventually were persecuted by the Roman authorities. At that time, the Christians were blamed for every thing that happened in the empire. An example is the burning of Rome in 64AD. It is agreed that Nero, the mad emperor, was the one who set fire to the city. Unfortunately the Christians were implicated in this arson, and thus the persecutions began, with varying degrees of intensity until the Christianisation of Rome under Constantine.

But then the story does not end. Eventually the Christians began to persecute each other . The Jews also became the targets of persecution, and it is said that one English Monarch (I believe its King Edward I) went so far as to have the Jews expelled from the Kingdom of England. And of course one must not forget the horror of the Inquisition.

And now, its hate speech against homosexuals. So as can be seen everything comes in full circle and the roles are often reversed depending at certain points in history. Despite knowing the pain of being victimised, these former victims are still willing to inflict such torment on their new targest. This is akin to the situation common in the SAF. After being “tekaned” by trainers, the batch that passes out will then inflict a harsher “tekan” on the new guys. And then the vicious cycle goes on.

The Limiting Reagent May 14, 2007

Posted by Ned Stark in Uncategorized.
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In chemistry we learn that the yield of a product from a chemical reaction is dependent on the limiting reagent. Likewise Singapore’s quest to  become a more open, dyanamic and caring society also faces several limiting reagents, most notably a certain writer who has been known to take a stand consistent with that of a fundamentalist.

As usual there are many loopholes in the writer’s argument, including and not limited to the renowned slippery slope; which is seen in this statement:

“If we, as a people, are unable to uphold good moral laws, including the Penal Code, then we will surely lose our next generation to perversion. ”

Of course there are also more nonsensical arguments. Especially the part about Singapore society being peaceful because of these draconian laws and the mysterious asian values which we hear so much but have never defined save in General Paper Essays. I thought the credit for the above should go to the Old Guard, including but not limited to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Toh Chin Chye, Mr S Rajaratnam etc. Furthermore someone should advert to this author that Canada, a country that is said to be more open than the USA, has not fallen into a “backward and morally regressive society”. More details can be found here. What this person has done is to lump art with pornography. Furthermore, lets take a journey back in history. Ideals such as democracy and other modern philosphies were bequeathed to us by men who lived in an era where people took part in games in the nude and homosexuality was practised. I dare say that Ancient Greece was in no way backward or morally regressive given those circumstances.

The regretable thing is as long as the Singapore government continues to gve in to the ridiculous and ill informed demands of the majority, Singapore society will then indeed become regressive and risk being left behind in the global nations. For the future of Singapore, her leaders must needs look beyond vague arguments of morality and instead have the courage and temerity to boldly go forward and break new ground. Thus can Singapore be able to thrive in the 21st Century.

A Tale of Two Papers May 13, 2007

Posted by Ned Stark in Uncategorized.
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Being in the military is a risky proposition, even during times of peace. The handling of equipment of war involves a certain element of risk and at times the folly of man or the nature of circumstances are such that accidents do happen. As can be seen in the latest incident in Taiwan, where a F5 fighter crashed into a building, causing the deaths of 4 military personnel, the 2 Taiwanese pilots and 2 Singapore servicemen.

The interesting thing is, the Taiwanese Media, in their typically inquisitive manner, have raised the possibility that the Taiwanese Airforce F5s are old and outdated and therefore they are accident prone. A few years ago, the media did the same, this time it was regarding the crash of a Vietnam War Era UH-1H helicopter. It appears that the Taiwanese Media do indeed practise investigative journalism.

Contrast this with the ST, which for all practical purposes can be said to represent the Singapore Media. It appears that everytime something to do with the government is published, the Senior Editors would either parrot whatever has already been said, or merely report the fact ad verbatim. Rarely have the ST journalists attempted to get into the bottom of things; so much so that words like “mouthpiece” and other not so pleasant terms have been hurled at their doorstep. In fact rather than ask why, at times they have gone so far as to try to convince the people of the government’s policy. The Forum too is a sad place, often filled with the inane or at times horrible posts by our fellow countrymen. If a letter not supportive of the powers that be does get published it will often be shot by several other letters, as can be seen by the recent flurry of letters regarding the Invasion of Iraq.

But then did not the ST publish several stories regarding military accidents? Most prominent being the incident where the guardsman drowned during prisoner of war training? Does that not constitute investigative journalism?

Unfortunately, we must remember in the above incident, there was a death. Thus in such an instance, it would be impossible for such a thing to be kept under wraps if the intention was to do so. Furthermore ST merely reported the facts and findings, and did not question the various practices of the Military. In fact, it is precisely because the media rarely engages in any investigative journalism; thus resulting in situations whereby unfortunate people like Lawrence have no recourse should anything happen to them in the military. There are things happening in the military which can be said to be a direct contravention of standards; however precisely because the system is extremely against whistleblowers, therefore many victims choose to, in NS speak, “lan lan suck thumb, Serve and fuck off”. Thus when the seeds of disasters are sown, they are often left to grow until disaster strikes, and then everyone engages in unconstructive finger pointing.

Thus, for ST to work in the interests of society, it has to go beyond parroting of facts and parroting of the government’s line. The latter action may not necessarily equate to the interests of society, for if one accepts the fact that there is a great divide, then it naturally follows that there be a divergence between the interests of the ruling party and the common man in society.

The Kingdom of Heaven & Modern Society May 12, 2007

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 (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)

The Kingdom of Heaven was a 2005 film which did not do very well in the US box office. It was directed by Ridley Scott, the man who brought us Gladiator. Criticism of the film tended towards the negative, making this in my opinion a sadly underrated movie.

 In a nutshell, the film is loosely based around events surrounding the Fall of Jerusalem to the forces of Saladin. Balian( Orlando Bloom of LOTR and Pirates of the Carribean fame), a blacksmith, is acknowledged by his natural father, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) who unfortunately dies soon after fighting to save his son from arrest. Balian then travels to Jerusalem and eventually becomes the person who leads the Defence of the City against Saladin after the disaster at Hattin. Along the way he spoke to King Baldwin IV, the Leper King, befriended his father’s friend Tiberias, Marshal of Jerusalem, pisses of Guy De Lusignan, and has an affair Guy’s wife, Queen Sibylla, sister to Baldwin. However, while the aforesaid description makes it seem as if its your typical farm boy becomes hero, beds royalty kind of movie, in actual fact it is more complex than that as it deals with a variety of thought provoking issues which a relevant even today. A more detailed synopsis is found here.

 Of course there are several historical inaccuracies; the historical Balian was an older person who was a rather scheming fellow, and during the negotiations with Saladin he did threaten to destroy the city. Furthermore, Balian only knighted a few burgesses and not all the fighting men in the city. Sibylla did not go back to France with Balian, she died during the Siege of Acre, Tiberias did not exist, though he was based on the historical Raymond III of Tripoli.

 Now what makes this movie so relevant to Singapore and general humanity as a whole? What is the ingredient that makes it more than just a mere hack and slash in the mould of 300?

 The Journey of Balian

In the Movie, Balian starts of as a young blacksmith, albeit a grieving one for his wife has committed suicide after losing her child. Through interactions with his father, Godfrey, and the Hospitaller, King Baldwin IV, Sibylla, Guy, Tiberias and Saladin, Balian grows from a confused and sad man to a chivalrous knight who follows the “spirit” rather than the form of the knight’s vow, the precepts of Christianity among other things. His journey is both thought provoking and in light of the recent times very relevant to us today.

To make a difference

Inscribed in Balian’s smithy are the latin words :

“Nemo vir est qui mundum non reddat meliorem” (What man is  a man who does not make the world better?)

These words are rather telling, in view of the fact that Singaporeans are known to be an apathetic lot who are more concerned with the material needs of life. Unfortunately these words show that there is indeed more to life, which can be found in the spirit of serive to a higher ideal rather than self. Balian’s actions are consistent with his belief, for he strives to fulfil the idea of a Kingdom of Conscience, a kingdom of heaven. Despite being Lord of Ibelin, he joins in the digging of water sources in his land, helping to improve irrigation efforts and thus making his land better. Perhaps we should take the time to ponder this phrase and start to think beyond self.

Of Noblesse Oblige

In the movie, the knights vow is as follows:

Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright, that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong; that is your oath. [Slaps Balian] And that is so you remember it. Rise a knight… rise a knight!

As can be seen, the idea of noblesse oblige is apparent. During the middle ages, knights, as landholders and professional warriors, were considered the elite of the society. Besides laying a duty to be honorable, righteous and fearless, the last part “Safeguard the helpless” bids the knight to be a champion of the weak. This makes one ponder the current situation in Singapore society, the “Get out of my elite uncaring face” talk, the talk about people choosing to be homeless and the general disdain for those who are less well off. Is compassion, nobless oblige and the spirit of generosity an anomaly in Singapore society? Furthermore, the lines which deal with truth and being without fear are also noteworthy given the fact that the truth in Singapore seems to be lopisided and fear seems to be very prevalent in this society of ours, leading often to self censohship and knee jerk reactions (remember remember the Mr Brown Matter!). Is our society so afraid of the truth?

Futility of Excuses

Baldwin IV tells Balian,

“You see, none of us chose our end really. A king may move a man, a father may claim a son. But remember that, even when those who move you be kings or men of power, your soul is in your keeping alone. When you stand before God you cannot say “but I was told by others to do thus” or that “virtue was not convenient at the time.” This will not suffice. Remember that. ”

One of the most memorable quotes of the meeting. Ignoring the part about judgment day, the basic premise of this quote shows that even if circumstances dictate otherwise, or even if “men of power” do influence one’s actions, one excuse one self from the consequences of one’s actions. Excuses like it was not convenient, circumstances dictated as such are, often enough, at the end of the day, just that. Excuses. A glaring case in point is the Singaporean Electorate. Despite all the talk of wanting change, the Electorate still voted in favour of the PAP. Despite all the complaints about PAP, Singaporeans still voted for it. Aljunied GRC remained in PAP hands. Perhaps it was the “Uniquely Singaporean” attitude that they want opposition but not in their ward, or the fact that they feared that their flat would not be upgraded or any other kind of fear. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is, having chosen a party which has a practice of raising fares and taxes, the people who voted them thus cannot use such excuses to absolve themselve of the blame of causing such a situation to occur. A cynical way to put it would be to say people deserve the government they get. As Baldwin IV will say to those who cry that they were coerced or anything, IT WILL NOT SUFFICE. Perhaps it is time for people to stop finding excuses and start acting according to their conscience, if any.

Of Religion, Fanaticism, and Other Matters

And finally, being a movie which is about a clash of two religions, there are many issues with regards to religion. In light of the debate on Homosexuality, the issues brought forth become even more relevant to modern day society.

When Balian tells the Hospitaller that he is out of God’s grace and has lost his religion, the Hospitaller replies,

” I put no stock in religion. By the word religion I have seen the lunacy of fanatics of every denomination be called the will of god. Holiness is in right action, and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves, and goodness. What God desires is here (points to Balian’s head) and here (points to Balian’s heart) and what you decide to do every day will make you a good man…or not. ” 

The above is very applicable, in view of the many poorly constructed responses calling for Section 377A not to be repealed, the various homophobic reponses seen everytime someone does a post on homosexuality, and so on. But moving on from homosexuality, the above also deals with the issue of religious fundamentalism, be it in the violent form which culminated in the 9/11 Attacks in 2003 or the more insidious form whereby people go around daming everyone not from their religion to hell. As Humanoid Interface puts it, religion has often been used as a tool for oppresion, violence and just plain nastiness at times, leading us back to the part of lunacy being called the will of God. Indeed, the quote suggests that people have missed the forest for the trees, for holiness is more than just memorising the holy books, it is also about action, and by action it most certainly DOES NOT refer to condemning but to take a stand for what is right and for those who are in need.

Later on during the Siege of Jerusalem, Balian orders that the bodies of the slain be cremated to prevent disease from spreading. When confronted by the Patriach, that such an act goes counter to Christian Faith (cremation would destroy the body and thus without a body it was said that it would be impossible for a person to rise again on Judgement Day), Balian replies,

” If we do not burn these bodies, we will all be dead of disease in three days. God will understand, my lord. And if he doesn’t, then he is not God and we need not worry. ”

This is telling in view of the fact that many fundamentalists Christians tend to go around calling on people to convert lest they be consigned to eternal torment in hell. But that begets the question, would a God, who sent his son to suffer and die for humanity, send an essentially good person to hell just because he happens to be atheist or happens to pray in a different manner? Furthermore, there are several people who tend to latch onto quotes from the bible or any holy book to justify the actions against other groups of people. Essentially,  as said earlier, they have missed the forest for the trees, and at best, can be said to be too preoccupied with the afterlife, at worst, can be said to have manipulated religion for selfish motives.

The theme of tolerance and mutual respect also appears in the movie, as can be seen when Templar knights who have attacked a Moslem party are executed in accordance to the laws of the Kingdom and the fact that Baldwin IV has Reynald de Chatilion imprisoned for attacking a Moslem caravan. Furthermore, Saladin sends his physicians to treat the ailing Baldwin, and Balian strikes up a friendship with Saladin’s right hand man after sparing him from the sword. In return, the man spares Balian’s life at Kerak. The theme of tolerance is seen when Tiberias angry tells Guy,” That I would rather live among men than kill them is certainly why you are still alive. ” The age old argument, ” the end justifies the means” also rears its head in the form of Sibylla’s angry “There’ll be a day when you will wish you had done a little evil to do a greater good” when Balian refuses Baldwin’s request that he marry Sibylla, take the throne for to do so would necessiate the murder of Guy and anyone who so refuses to swear allegiance. As Balian puts it,” It is a Kingdom of Conscience, or not at all!”

While it is undeniably true that two hours is a rather short time to explore the many themes of religion, tolerance, courage, responsibilty for one’s actions etc, the movie has managed to flesh sufficiently the various themes into a story which not only has a fair share of hack and slash action, but is also rather thought provoking which is relevant in view of our world today.  It can truly be termed as the “brutal truth” for it forces one to examine oneself and actions and perhaps this could be one of the reasons why people do not warm up to the film. As they say, the truth hurts. Moreso a truth which could possibly challenge one’s fundamentals.