Friday, October 03, 2008

X for Congress. Bring change! Take on Washington!

Ah, behold the Collective, bereft of individuality, subservient to the lowest common denominator, hated by Ayn Rand. It is the "Power" to fight against; the "Man" to stick it to, the "Establishment" that must be disestablished. It is full of antipathy, nonchalance about social ills, myopic self-interest, and entrenched corruption. It is powerful, repressive, monolithic -- the reason why "Government" has a capital G.

Yet, what is the source of the Collective's evil, stubbornness and malice? Who exactly makes up "the political machine"? What is the root entity responsible for the Collective's actions? Is it Bush? Pelosi? Lee Kuan Yew? Why does Iraq proliferate with violence even after Saddam has been long hung?

It is election season in the United States. Everyone is clamouring for change; with the spectacular collapse of some of the biggest financial firms, everyone is collectively applauding the increasing misfortune of everyone on Wall Street. Rightly deserved, those scumbag i-bankers and CEOs! Stick it to the man! Stickkkk ittttt! And in this weeks' debates, if it was not already observed long ago, we see that both Obama and McCain are competing as reformers. Obama will apparently fight for change we can believe in; McCain the Maverick will deal Big Oil (a decidedly evil Collective) a crushing blow in Washington. Governor Palin, mayor, Miss Alaska, and soccer-mom, spent much of yesterday's VP debate stressing how she intends to address the plight of the average middle-class American, tackling the Big Guys (that oh-so-evil Collective) in the political arena.

Then today I saw one of those posters outside Newcomb Dining Hall -- we should apparently cast some vote for a fresh face I've never heard of for Representative in order to take on Washington. There's something romantic about the idea -- romantically quixotic.

But how did it come did you think, that the capital of a nation, named after its first commander-in-chief, painstakingly-planned and meant to be a prestigious cornerstone, is also used as a symbol of the greed, degeneration, and repression of the evil Collective? Take on Washington, the White House, the Fed. We must take it on, because the majority of people running the country thus far are adversaries to be defeated; we must hand the Collective's ass over to it, subjugate it totally, destroy it. Lenin would be proud, for he advocated that the machinery of the State should be totally suppressed.

The strange thing is, everyone is clamouring to disestablish the Establishment. Everyone wishes to fight the Power. Everyone thinks there is an institutional evil that must be broken. Truly, The Man must be very cunning and insidious, for it prevails even when everyone is against it!

Indeed, the insidious nature of The Man -- the evil Collective -- can be best seen when it prevails in the most unstable times. No matter how many times its secret police ravages the streets, it rules -- even when its own agents fight each other or get purged. Its original founders, who were once vicious and powerful themselves, fall and are removed from power -- but the Party, the epitome of the evil Collective, rumbles on like a tank, its viciousness never ceasing, not even with the death of the power broker Mao Zedong. Perhaps the Party's evil is really due to the Gang of Four? No, because the Party suddenly decides to cease following the orders of the Gang of Four, choosing to arrest them such that Hua Guofeng now rules. But is the Party's power controlled by him? Nay, for Hu Yaobang succeeds him, and then in turn by Zhao Ziyang; and despite all their sweeping reforms as the Collective's leaders, their power too, proves insignificant in the face of the evil Collective.

The agency behind their removal is always omnipotent: they are arrested, deposed, exiled, fallen out of favour; the downfall caused by the same dark Cloud that also hung over that prominent member of the Inner Party that Winston is asked to discredit. Surely then, the true source of the Party's evil must be Deng Xiaoping, who reveals his power behind the throne as he works to oust Zhao Ziyang, his own disciple. But nay, Deng Xiaoping dies -- and the Party continues to rule iron-fisted. The evil Collective insidiously penetrates governments all over the world, for despite the death of Ivan IV the Terrible, despite the removal of the Romanovs, despite the passing of Stalin and Lenin, despite the CCCP's fall -- the corruption and violence of the mobster government that everyone hates persists.

The story really began in the middle sixties, the period of the great purges in which the original leaders of the Revolution were wiped out once and for all. By 1970 none of them was left, except Big Brother himself. All the rest had by that time been exposed as traitors and counter-revolutionaries .... A few had simply disappeared, while the majority had been executed after spectacular public trials at which they made confession of their crimes.

(Nineteen-Eighty-Four, part 1 ch. 7)

Here the omnipotence of the Collective is truly frightening -- it has the ability to transcend and destroy its own architects. How then does it come to pass that an institution can be the adversary of all its members, and yet stand as powerful as ever? Is there something magical about the union of individuals and the social contract they form, that gives rise to a magical hydra-ish organism that thrives as an ethereal entity that haunts all its members, suppressing individualism, silencing dissent and inhibiting independent thought?

Perhaps a better metaphor would be centrifugal force. It is a strange kind of force, for it appears out of nowhere on the whole, even when it doesn't show up on individual free body diagrams. It is almost like a "phantom" force. But those who are familiar with physics know that no law of physics is being violated, for the problem is one of perspective; outside the collective system, one can see how each individual member of the Collective, defending their own self-interest, individually imposes a penalty on everyone, generating a force that pushes the collective towards common suffering; but when the Collective is the reference frame that the observer is in, it appears that a phantom force is causing everyone misery. It is a malevolent form of the invisible hand -- but it has no will of its own; it is merely the sum of the individual wills of others.

And so, we return to take on Washington. In Washington D.C., there are no gun battles, no secret police besides the Secret Service, no purges, coups or hangings. And yet all the candidates treat Washington like a battlefield. Bring change to America -- vote for me and I will fight the cronies in Washington! Yet nearly every Congressman promises that to his or her constituents in one form or other. Perhaps it has not occurred to them that they are all fighting against each other.

There is no question that there is institutional evil, corruption, inefficiency and incompetence. But to try to fight it with an "us versus them" attitude, treating everyone else in the institution as an adversary, only contributes to the institutional forces that appear to commonly repress everyone. The problems of Collectives are not inherent to Collectives themselves. There is nothing inherently bad about a union of individuals. No, they are ultimately due to all the individuals that comprise and participate in them. It only seems that individualism disappears when collectively grouped, and this makes it much easier to attack inhuman collective entities (or certain prominent leaders) as the problem, without having judge the actions of ourselves and individual peers. Society is a fraud, they say. But aren't you part of it?

Sunday, August 03, 2008

does religious freedom necessarily mandate the strictest separation of church and state?

It seems that at first glance the answer should be a natural and automatic "yes," but then we face situations where it benefits the public good for the government to say, cooperate with religious charitable organisations, or offer financial aid for students of faith-associated schools, or provide public subsidies for restoring the exterior of an old but still-functioning cathedral.

The utilitarian in me has always been annoyed by arguments made by people I shall call fundamentalists of the secularist (atheist?) kind, who seem to assert that religious entities and religious interests should be treated as pariahs and outcasts who must not be touched by the state, indeed taking the idea behind the word "separation" to its most literal extreme.

So pardon me if I may declare something shocking: perhaps this separation isn't necessary in the first place.

Freedom of religion, and separation of church and state are quite two different things. Popular sentiments in the 18th century led a Convention to fashion an amendment prohibiting any law "respecting establishment of religion," but these are only related, not entailed by the premises that argue against laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion (or having no religion at all). Let us be reminded that the same popular sentiments also caused the massacre of a myriad of religious individuals in France, from all tiers of the religious hierarchy, in a particular period near the close of the 18th century -- and they were individuals who did not necessarily have a hand in the excesses of the Estate in which they were a member.

Religion, we note, is the only trait safeguarded from discrimination that is characteristic of changeable behaviour. In contrast it is not in one's easy willpower to change one's sex (and if science actually confirms this beyond reasonable doubt, orientation), race/ethnicity, nation of birth, nationality in general, handicaps and all that jazz that is generally taken to be protected. So please do not stone me if I question, "Why should religion fall into this category?"

For example, it strikes some of us as laughable (I should hope so) that political affiliation should be protected from discrimination, because this is already covered by the principles safeguarding freedom of speech, and by extension, freedom of thought, and the parts that are not covered should not be covered in the first place. The State has no right to force someone to be a populist, or for that matter, not to be one, but employers should have every right to fire someone for subscribing to crackpot ideas. If the ideas are irrelevant to the job, there are other forms of redress, such as the fact that the employer hurt himself economically for no reason, gathering the fury of peers and superiors and watchdog groups, but I digress.

It strikes me that freedom of religion falls along the same lines. People should not be able to vote on whether to forcibly convert everyone to a single religion, or make them atheist, or make them choose between a limited array of religions, and so forth, but this is just like people cannot vote on whether to make everyone a PAP member, subscribe to libertarianism, or force everyone to stop speaking Singlish. For such actions would be prohibited by principles covering the freedoms of speech and thought.

Nevertheless, these freedoms do not prevent us from ridiculing each other's speech, or each other's religions. But if governments are allowed to promote the interests of certain ideas of thought (along with their special interest groups, which are not necessarily against all freedom if the voters continue to tolerate those who allocate resources to them), or even certain ways of speaking, be it through public campaigns (Speak Good English Movement anyone?) or promoting secondary and tertiary-level forensics/debate, fiscal philosophies and ideologies, ideologies and philosophies in general, why should religion be excepted? Governments are allowed to make market corrections (how much they should correct, is of course a matter of dispute) and subsidise private economic entities, depending on the amount of public good they generate for society. Why should religious organisations be excepted?

No one's religious freedom is violated if governments choose to allow school vouchers to be used for faith schools, if that faith school generates the public good (via private economic transaction) the school voucher was meant to subsidise, and we can count financial aid in general as well. "But no!" go the militant atheists/secularists. "Anyone or anything religious must be a pariah! The state must not touch them!" The question of whether or not religious organisations should receive government aid is of the same nature as whether corn-based ethanol production should be subsidised by the US government -- a question ultimately decided by voters at the polls, based on the weighings of the costs and benefits and economic sense. Why shouldn't candidate X run on a religious ticket? Never mind that the official state policy is now said to be divinely-inspired -- unless the freedom of speech and thought (the ones that automatically cover freedom of religion) are violated, let the voters decide whether the policy benefits them.


The separation of church and state is necessarily entailed by religious freedom, for the reason that the two ideas sprung out of the same historical period, and their principles proclaimed at a common time. Taking the idea to its most logical conclusion, we can conclude that this same reason also justifies the rightful "cleansing" of the clergy in France. Ah, the First Republic -- the epitome of the most perfect separation of church and state -- the emblem of religious freedom!

Why, ignore anyone who says that these two ideas were separate solutions to the excesses of a religious establishment that had attracted mass resentment everywhere, or that in the United States, it might well have been a political compromise to prevent tearing the young nation apart along its religious, free/slave and socioeconomic seams. For it is known in a later historical case that because the abolishment (and ensuing execution) of the Russian monarchy came around at the same time that private property rights were abolished in Russia, where both policies were reactions against unjust socioeconomic conditions, and that because abolishing the monarchy is always a just action, we can conclude that abolishing private property is always a just action. From this well-known implication we can also conclude that because freedom of religion is always just, the separation of church and state is always just.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Singapore elitism at its best

This is a gem of a letter. It contains elitism of two kinds:

FOR umpteen years, a group of 12 of us have followed some good writers like Tan Bah Bah, Koh Buck Song, Ravi Velloor, Christopher Tan, K.C. Vijayan, Janadas Devan and Ms Chua Mui Hoong. We loved reading their articles.

I refer to Mr Janadas' article, 'It's en bloc, not end block' (ST, July 15).

We were taught by St Andrew secondary school teachers V. Quek, Edwin Thumboo and Srinivasan in 1951-65. We had expat teachers at Tg Rhu Girls School too.

Forty-four students of 4A, Tg Katong Girls School, passed with A1 in English in 1965. Ms Chee Keng Soon, then principal of Raffles Girls Secondary School, was the proudest senior teacher on March 2, 1966. I passed with A1 in GP in 1967.

We had top teachers. Words like en bloc, encore, envelope, entrepreneur, Pois and Les Miserables were pronounced as on bloc, on core, on-evelope, ontrepreneur, Pua and Lay Miser Rub.

The word, 'en bloc', is now so much in the news and, often, I hear many people pronouncing the word 'end block'.

We thank Mr Janadas for bringing up the pronunciation of en bloc in his article. My uncle, Mr Wee Seong Kang, the principal of Raffles Institution, had also taught me the same correct pronunciation.

We concurred that we should at least try our level best to pronounce words accurately, so to speak.

Nancy Loy Hwee Boey (Ms)

The first elitism is linguistic elitism.

Like if I really wanted to be pedantic, I could point out that "en" is technically not pronounced like the English "on" with the un-nasalised open-mid back rounded vowel, but rather with a nasal (unrounded) open back vowel. I could point out further that "Les Misérables" (note the accented closed é!) is actually pronounced "Lay Meezayrahbl", with an ending /bl/, and where "ee" and "ay" represent monophthongs, not the usual diphthongs. That the "-eur" found in "entrepreneur" is pronounced with a rounded open-mid front vowel, not the English r-coloured schwa found in "doctOR", and that the French "R" is actually an uvular fricative, not the alveolar approximant found in native English.


On top of this, many American speakers pronounce "envelope" like "ennevelope" anyway. This is not just a Singaporean trait. But nevertheless Nancy Loy, with her top school, top results and her membership in Singapore's top social classes, wishes to look down upon the rest of her Singaporean peers.

And apparently despite her uncle being the principal of Raffles Institution (let us hail her highness again!), what apparently her uncle did not teach her was tolerance.

Like the fact that "enne bloc" is a perfectly acceptable pronunciation.

And if this Nancy Loy says it like "onne block", with accompanying denasalisation of the /ɑ/ and the aspiration of the /k/ in "bloc", then I will truly laugh at her bigotry. These pedants are the worst. They correct other people for apparently failing their high standards when their own pronunciation does not meet the standards of the original language. Their pronunciation is neither native nor faithful. They have completely invented their own pronunciation, self-assured in their superciliousness.

It is this kind of elitist attitude towards English that explains why Singlish has been so unfairly persecuted. This leads to the second elitism -- Singapore class elitism.

Yes, she had top teachers. Went to top schools one. Wah, she even post her exam score on her letter to show to the world how top she is. Got top peers. Even got expat teachers some more! Must bow to her one! Duchess of Singaporean Standard English you know! Wan sui, wan sui, wan wan sui!

She should also stop offering corrections so haughtily if she does not know what she's talking about, especially if she is writing a letter to a national newspaper.

This letter struck such a nerve in me, for it reminded me of many grievances I have with the Singaporean press and the way the government has pushed its peddle-cart of arguments in general. This post is not related directly to Singlish, but the letter contained both class elitism and linguistic elitism, both of which are often combined together whenever the government launches an attack on Singlish. The government continues to push for linguistic extermination of the dialects and the cultural extermination of the minorities through elitist arguments such as this. Has anyone ever said to this girl (or old lady, actually), that you should not cite what schools you have gone to in a debate? (Unless naturally it's pertinent to the debate, e.g. a debate on educational policy, like your experiences with public education versus private education.) Why do many Singaporeans still think like this?

I hope at least the public has learnt to discard such arguments.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

compulsory voting

Should compulsory voting exist?

In the very least, there should be an option to abstain in such a system. This would be serve either as a protest against the choice of candidates given, or against the system itself. So even if you had only one candidate (this sounds familiar *cough*), if more people abstained than voted, that would undermine the idea that his walkover-seat was truly "mandated by the people".

The entire PAP regime is arguably in power due to the compulsory voting system: it is curious how they rose to power only after that was implemented, quickly filling up the vacuum the Labour Front left behind. It could well be most people did not really throw their support behind the PAP, so much as having heard about it, and come election day it was the only thing on the ballot they recognised. And after the PAP had secured power once, they had only need use their state power to consolidate their power and ensure their election victories from then onwards.

If not for compulsory voting, opposition parties would win far more seats in each election than with the present situation; perhaps even oust the PAP. Most of the politically apathetic Singaporeans would not vote, if it weren't required by law. So even in the present, when they get down to the polls, unaware of their rights and the issues, who are they more likey to choose -- a name they have been bombarded with from young, or an opposition party they never took the time to research?

It could well be the entire PAP rule from 1959 has been illegitimate, too. Most of the details of what exactly the PAP did at that time are suspiciously scant (and rather absent from the textbooks). The traditional propaganda paints a romantic picture of the PAP hard at work going door to door to collect votes, but I wonder if the secret of their success has been due to something else?

Low voter turnout is undesirable, because if the government were to be voted in on 10% turnout for example, the mandate would be weak. Most likely, the sheer majority of people do not (actively) support the government. There is little affirmation of consent by the governed. The legitimacy (or even the power, since political power is derived from the majority) of the government is called into question.

Compulsory voting drastically increases voter turnout. But isn't this an easy way out? Arguably, this only enforces a false mandate; in the very least, it only benefits the establishment. An Australian friend once described to me how she would rip her ballot in front of the election officials every election as a form of civil disobedience against the hated compulsory voting law.

If one still wishes to make attending the polls compulsory, there should be an explicit "abstain" (i.e. I hate all the possible candidates) option in the least. Again, this would partly solve the walkover issue for Singapore -- a PAP candidate would have to be explicitly voted for and surpass the "abstained" amount to gain the mandate for that seat.

also posted in the Young Republic mailing list

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

technological progression, social regression

A repost from my personal blog, I feel it is a pertinent highlight here. Some of you might have read this already.

As technology progresses, what happens to the state of human society? Aldous Huxley is quoted, "Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards."

This sort of oxymoronic critique of history is not confined to Huxley, and has been quite prevalent in the writings of the prominent thinkers throughout history itself. There is an ancient Greek theory that history is circular, going through stages of anarchy, democracy, republic, dictatorship, oligarchy and back to anarchy again. Huxley wrote Brave New World, a book which describes a setting where technology has been utilised to the utmost for the advancement of public happiness. Everyone is entertained through audio-visual-"feelie" media feeds, all sadness has been suppressed – such as by using a drug (without side effects – nothing but pleasure) called soma. Yet, such a society is remarkably horrific: to achieve this sort of happiness, most of the population has been intentionally mentally retarded from birth, and technology is used to program individuals through subliminal messaging. Technology has made live births unnecessary – everyone is grown in test tubes.

The characteristic of technology that allows this oxymoron is that it is a double-edged sword, a tool that can be used to shape society in a certain direction. In the situation of Brave New World, society advances in terms of scientific knowledge; in terms of moral and ethical progress, society regresses. Even as scientific knowledge progresses, it can cause its own decline: the scientific knowledge of the masses eventually is eliminated because the masses have been retarded through science. Happiness is granted to all: but it is arguably false happiness – one is only happy because they have been stupefied to such a degree. Even the upper castes are ignorant of Othello and heart-wrenching poetry.

Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four describes a dystopian society where the idea of regression is less overt. Technology is used to control society with Thought Police with use of electric shocks and use of rubber truncheons. Rarely do firearms ever need to be used, and the only skyscrapers are the monolithic government agency buildings. 1984 describes many historical oxymora: technology advances to ultimately make further technological progress unnecessary. The technology of warfare is created only to destroy. The huge workforce and advanced technology has huge industrial and manufacturing potential, and must be utilised for something, and it is. It is used to create things that destroy, things to be destroyed: ammunition to be spent in warfare, floating fortresses to be eventually decommissioned, tanks that get blown up. Everything is put for the use of destruction, some of the resources diverted to keep the lower classes at the brink of starvation, but nothing else more. Technology is utilised in such a way that the lower classes are still deprived of resources that would otherwise give them intellectual growth, and thus the ability to rebel. Technology progresses in terms of death and weaponry: but there is no augmentation of constructive resources, hence there is no intellectual advancement, hence the masses never rebel.

Orwell describes how the final Revolution occurred – the pendulum would swing "once again", then stop forever, the High would stay the High, the Middle the Middle, the Low forever at the Low, and maybe some interchanging between the upper two. The original factors that brought about the change would ultimately be destroyed because of the change they brought upon themselves – the purges in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, as well as the purges seen in the various Leninist revolutionary cadres of the 20th century, such as the Soviets of Russia and the GongChanDang of the PRC. This is one depiction of a regressing history.
However, I do not agree with Huxley that technology has "merely provided us" with a more efficient means of going backwards. Huxley was rather suspicious of many new technologies; he was not a primitivist per se, but he was disillusioned with the trappings of modern society.

Technological progress is inevitable – one cannot ask that it be stopped for the greater mutual good, not even with nuclear weapons. Ultimately, technology has to create antidotes against the weapons it creates, as mutually assured destruction is not an effective deterrent in the decentralised warfare of today – where it is not states that wage war, but individuals, covert cells, and militias. In order to safeguard ourselves, we must only technologically advance more – can we already not detect elements at a distance, spot specific chemicals with the pass of a machine?

With greater detection technology then, calls problems of privacy and freedom from warrantless search. Technology must then advance in that direction – consider the military grade encryption now available to the common citizen because of the advancements that open-source and free software (free as in freedom) has made. It is a constant up-the-ante struggle.

Yet it is because of this struggle that a sense of constancy seems to arise, if not regression. By technologically advancing in all areas, or technologically advancing all factions, everyone is on an equal footing as before. The military situation still has not really changed: a state might have more technologically advanced forces it is still the monolithic empire awaiting a guerilla; a guerilla force that has updated its technology too, using improvised-explosive-devices instead of dynamite. The only difference is that the stakes are now higher, that where the reaction time used to be a few seconds for a soldier on the battlefield with swords and arrows, the reaction time now demands split-second throwback of grenades.

This is a theme that for me seemed quite evident whenever I played a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game. After hours of playing, the meaninglessness of the entire affair of researching technologies to advance one’s society became quite evident to me. Perhaps it was just exhaustion, but a rather cynical philosophical implication of technological progress became more obvious: it is all the same, as technology progresses. To what end does the technology achieve? One upgrades one’s military, but the enemy does the same for his too, with military advantage the same as before – essentially as meaningful as if we had never upgraded our technology at all.

Yet despite this realistion however, there remains a desire for the edge: we cannot tell our enemies, "we might as well not use this technology, because we would still be both at the same footing if we both use it" (whether it be nuclear weapons or otherwise), we cannot trust our enemies not to advance technologically, we cannot trust the corporate mogul not to find unethical uses for technology, we ourselves must be involved in technology itself in order to fight those who would use technology for bad ends against us. Hence this is why we should not stop technological progress merely because of Huxley’s cynicism.

The problem ultimately is with the use of technology. With modern society comes consumerism, and a rampant free market, which confusingly, is not quite so free. As we invented farming (Neolithic Revolution), cities (Urban Revolution) and industry (Industrial Revolution), and digital processing (Information Revolution) we required the quick invention of new concepts, in this case, a stronger concept of property, whether it be in industry or copyright. However, despite being technological progresses, often they may be seen as regressions because they are not technologically progressed enough.

For example, current intellectual property law is up-to-date to accommodate the use of file-sharing networks, but it is not up-to-date to accommodate the use of file-sharing networks *and* user rights *and* the freedom of information at the same time. Today’s global economy is highly advanced, but still has a long way to go. It is capable of mass producing billions of computers, propagating information along its highways faster than before, and even solving world hunger. Yet it is not able to deploy food where it is needed. It is still primitive in terms of finding advanced ethical and political concepts to fit the technology: it cannot yet compensate for the effects externalities while maintaining individual rights to one's property and labours; it cannot yet balance the ability to use one’s resources as they wish (private property), while maintaining the liberty from plutocratic repression.

This is the field of knowledge we need to progress in.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

some language analysis of three articles

I suppose I have already beaten the dead horse with my post on Capital G Syndrome, of which I derive much of the argument of this essay from. But since I was required to write a language analysis essay comparing and contrasting three different articles on the same event for AP Language and Composition (ie. school), I suppose I shall publish it here.

For the record, the three articles mentioned are this, this and this respectively. I presume you know the rest. Yes, I wrote an essay on Singapore local politics in an American New England high school.

On 6 July, 2006, Singaporean daily tabloid Today "indefinitely suspended" the weekly column of Lee Kin Mun, who went by the pseudonym mr brown, taking effect on 7 July. This followed a letter written to the forum of Today by K Bhavani, the permanent press secretary of the Singapore Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA). Bhavani's letter took issue with the last column mr brown had published in Today, a column entitled "Singaporeans are fed, up with progress!" that focussed on worrying demograpic and economic statistics concerning Singapore.

Three articles will be especially pertinent to analyse. The first is a report that was published on July 7 in The Straits Times following the suspension; the second one is a report by a journalism-related international activist group that is called Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, or RSF). The last one is by a Singaporean citizen journalist who published his article primarily online on Singapore Angle outside the mainstream media.

The first article was probably the article which was the most read that concerned the incident, given that it was published in a national Singaporean newspaper that had the highest readership in the nation. Its content would be of most interest to Singaporeans. The Straits Times is owned by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), which in turn is owned by Temasek Holdings, a state-owned corporation. SPH also owns the tabloid Today, though both the register and the subordinate management of Today differ from The Straits Times. The Straits Times has a reputation among opposition supporters of being biased in favour of the Singapore government, employs a formal non-emotive register, and is the oldest newspaper in Singapore. I selected it because it represented the "official" national establishment view that most citizens in Singapore would be familiar with. It also retains formal grammar.

The second article represents the view of the international observer, looking at the incident as an outsider. Because it is written by an activist group, the article hints at outrage. The article would represent the views of most international civil rights activists in regards to freedom of speech.

The third article, published in the online Singapore Angle, was selected because there are no widespread and formally registered print newspapers in Singapore that are not internally regulated by, or linked to, the state. However, a thriving alternative media exists online through blogs and podcasts. The Singapore Angle in particular, is a project which attempts to create an online newspaper with a Singaporean focus that is free from government intervention. It tries to have a wide variety of regular writing staff with their own expert topics, supplemented by guest writers to create an editorial-based newspaper. This third article, entitled "On the rectification of mr brown", has the register of political analysis. I selected it because it represents the view of a Singaporean citizen, who is knowledgeable and deeply concerned about national issues such as this particular incident.

The incident was highly controversial, and up to this point, almost two months later as of September 5, 2006, Singaporean politicians are still mentioning it in their speeches. There were many blog entries, many newspaper articles, from The Straits Times and elsewhere, and many other international reports. However, the first article was chosen over the other articles printed by The Straits Times or other newspapers with government links because it was the most immediate and it was published the day after the suspension. Many of the following articles reported on the speeches that defended the suspension or responded to public concerns, and hence had the topic of the suspension by proxy. RSF is one of the oldest, most professional and most prominent journalist activist groups known internationally, and because of the activist register of RSF I chose the second article above other international reports.

The incident reverbrated outrage around the Singaporean blogosphere, which was no short of insightful essays regarding the incident. However, the third article's register most closely matched the type of register that would be found in a normal newspaper, the third article was also the most immediate. Many other further articles became tangential or had troublesome focus or organisation, despite the good content. Even the editorials published in The Straits Times following the incident, despite the professional reputation of The Straits Times, had rather troublesome arguments that had bad logical flow or was analysed to be messes by other citizens.

One of the properties I noticed about the langauge of the first article by The Straits Times is the use of a subjective grammatical reference when it prints "high cost of living here" that would only apply in a local context, despite its formal register. The second article by the RSF uses objective references grammar-wise, sticking to "Singapore", and not even the Singapore Angle uses such subjective references. I initially judged it as a slip up of a junior writer, since Chia Sue-Ann is a relatively new name to the public, especially since the government wanted to quell the fears or inquietude of Singaporeans more than anything else to the extent that the word "here" must have been stressed.

One thing I took especial issue with is the article's consistent capitalisation of the "G" in "government" to refer to various institutions of the political system of Singapore. This is part of a bigger practice of using blanket labels to avoid precise references in order to maintain a sense of monolithism for these political institutions. In a previous article I had dissected another Straits Times article for using weasel words, to the extent of reducing the source of some statements supposedly said by citizens to "some said".

The letter written to Today was written by K Bhavani, press secretary to MICA, not the entire government. The initial letter did not declare it represented the entire government, nor did it even declare it explicitly represented the views of MICA, other than signing her position at the end of the letter. However The Straits Times article uses very monolithic language, such as "Move comes after Gov[ernmen]t slams mr brown's latest piece", even though only a single individual wrote the response, with individualistic language that would seem to show that she was representing herself. Such a practice gives the subtle but false impression that the rebuttal was issued with the legitimacy of representing the opinion or consensus of the entire government. The article repeats this practice again and again with statements such as "the Government criticised', "the Government's rebuttal", and "the Government issued a strong response", all with a monolithic capital G.

The article does mention that K Bhavani issued a response, but it does not ever explicitly tie in "the Government response" with K Bhavani's response: it never links them together. This is despite the fact that "the Government response" and Bhavani's letter are one and the same. Rather, with the language used one could assume, if he or she were not aware of what other sources said, that the response of K Bhavani was one of many separate responses issued along with some official "Government response". In fact, I fear that possibly many people were deceived into such an assumption, as many rely on the state-linked The Straits Times as a primary news source and do not regularly check other sources, especially that of the alternative media online. Because of the language of this first article by The Straits Times, again the article gives the impression that the supposed rebuttal has more legitimacy or backing than it really has.

The Straits Times article also heavily quotes K Bhavani in a very formal register, but through the quotes, her letter subtly dominates the article's viewpoint. Entire paragraphs of her letter are quoted, rather than paraphrased with the reiteration that it is a subjective viewpoint of her beliefs, with the effect that many of her statements and imperatives (which would be later nicknamed the Bhavani Commandments) seem to be the stated view of the article, the writer, and The Straits Times, all the while maintaining a formal register.

In contrast, the weight The Straits Times article lends to other views is considerably less, stressing their subjectiveness. Whereas Bhavani is implicitly given authority in the article by using "her parting words" and "said" to invoke the lengthy quotes of her, the responses of many other citizens are lumped together and their weight and legitimacy lessened. This can be seen through the statement, "...received more than 400 responses ..... most of which were critical of Today's decision". The language of the statement hints at the idea that most of the dissenting citizens mainly just have tired and cynical critical opinions which can be generalised easily.

The views of the two individuals (Tan Tarn How and Cherian George) that are less fond of the establishment are respectively invoked using reported speech or some paraphrasing. The article places "the Government" shortly after. This has the unfortunate case of marring the original statements. For example, Tan Tarn How might not have exactly meant "intended by the Government" and used such a monolithic term to describe the source of the criticism. He might have possibly stated "intended by Bhavani" or "intended by MICA". By cutting the quote short, to a ridiculous "probably intended", The Straits Times can generalise the source of criticism implied in the reported speech to "the Government". The way the article manages to gracefully avoid explicitly linking Bhavani's response with "the Government response" as one and the same almost seems like intentional wordplay on either the part of the writer or the editors. The remaining areas where the quotes of Tan Tarn How and Cherian George are not paraphrased in this playful manner, seem to be taken out of context such that it seems that the quotes make concessions towards the establishment view and have a register reminiscent of the imperative or jussive mood. This is the same way the article previously quoted Bhavani, hinting at the imperative where the material favours the establishment. It almost seems as if the article is mandating that its readers know that it is not necessarily acceptable to tolerate in a "more public platform" an individual who is tolerated online.

The second article by RSF has in contrast a clear slant against the establishment and the government of Singapore, but it makes less generalisation and misleading paraphrase. The RSF refers to itself in the third person and too uses a formal register like the first article by The Straits Times. The register is slightly different because whereas The Straits Times tries to adopt the perspective of the third person as much as possible, and though the RSF report only invokes the third person, the article is centred around the perspective and views of one entity: Reporters Without Borders. The tone almost implies a narration, using the third person to refer to itself.

The RSF article uses many of the same techniques to achieve its slant that The Straits Times did to achieve a slant the other way round. It hints that its views are imperative, though grammatically not so. This can be seen with its use of reported speech: "it is not the job of government officials..." It further directly quotes itself, though its dominance is less than that of the quotes from Bhavani's letter in the first article. Unlike The Straits Times however, it dedicates a relatively long paragraph to quote its opponent, which is in this case from the letter of Bhavani.

It further differs from The Straits Times by not conflating the concept of government criticism and individual criticism by Bhavani. It explicitly states that it was "an opinion piece by an official", rather than a response of the entire government. It does not use the monolithic "capital G" to invoke the word "government". It states that she "defended her government's policies", and reiterates again that it was an individual behind the letter, not a monolithic government. In this case the RSF article has less misleading language, though the language is not neutral.

The third article published in the Singapore Angle retains some formality in its register, but also has more familiarity than the previous two articles. It adopts a register which resembles more like an editorial. Unlike the previous two reports, the article does little to introduce what the author presumes is well-known knowledge: that Lee's column was suspended. Because it also uses an online medium, it introduces what it can through links and presumes the reader is well-read with what has happened, or expects the reader to click on the appropriate links otherwise. Though aiming to be a newspaper, like other blogs, it is nested in a network of links to other blogs, news articles or pages, effectively part of a community. In print form, these helping links do not exist - the reader is already expected to be familiar with the concepts that the editorial will invoke, just like in print editorials in general.

Like any editorial, the third article does not assume a register of objectivity, and immediately states its own views as fact - as an expository argument. The article is written with the air of an expert, as can be seen through the implicit tone of the phrase "was not unexpected", because the language reflects the idea that the writer has an insight that others may not have, and is not merely reporting the facts.

The article has a register which is generally aimed at a local audience. Although it still has a rather formal register, it imports several creole or non-standard loanwords characteristic of local speech. "Cheeminology" meaning "pedantry", for example, is a creole word derived from a word from Chinese dialect meaning "profound", and is a word most local readers would be familiar with. It also invokes many parentheses as side, somewhat intimate remarks, making it more informal than most editorials. Like the original column of Lee Kin Mun which sparked the entire controversy, it might temporarily and directly assume another register to poke fun at it or to suggest familiarity. For example, the article has dialectical phrases such as "sometimes comprain gahmen why they so liddat", without quotes while in the indicative mood, in order to convey the idea that the subject in question (Lee Kin Mun) is a common Singaporean. Despite this, the third article pubished in the Singapore Angle is still very much a formal argument, with logical connectors such as "however" and "in contrast" to convey its observation, to clarify and distinguish its viewpoints from other viewpoints, or to rebut other viewpoints.

All three articles have some evident bias, even as news sources, but it is this bias which lends themselves distinct voice, register and language.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

why consumers must organise

At the risk of sounding polemic or creating antagonism, I shall state this.

Firstly, as many of might know, I have a leftist streak. Secondly, I have an anarchist streak, but I am satisfied with less-than-perfect versions of it, such as the political side of libertarianism. I am what you would call a libertarian socialist. Oh yes, some are thinking, it's yet another naive idealist leftist youth, guided by his heart with no sense. But let me digress.

I do not get why often so many laissez-faire and libertarian capitalists abhor the idea of trade unions, or any type of unionisation for that matter. If anything, I think unionisation is one of the saving graces of a market economy, because it empowers the individual against the influence of corporations and the government, institutions with organisational superiority. Unionisation levels the playing field. Over history, I think it is hard to deny that better working conditions and wages have arisen because of the trade unions' ability to bargain with these institutions.

However, it seems that consumer organisation is being ignored. It is not merely about passing laws for the welfare of the consumer. such as anti-fraud laws, laws requiring health certification or licencing laws, or having consumer activist organisations. These are important, but I think they are still lacking. Rather, there must be organisation of consumers which actively involves consumers to directly participate in conscious objectives.

Just as there are strikes, there can be boycotts. Both the consumer's money and the worker's productivity are sources of power for the gentry. Yet often consumer's ability to organise is overlooked, while trade unions are well known. It also seems that all too often, unions are looked down upon as being socialistic, while strikes are seen as damaging, Bolshevik and radical, especially in anticommunist Singapore. But one of the reasons why people argue for laissez-faire is that of competition, and that naturally the superior company wins, and the consumer benefits. As a side note, I will put forth the idea that mutual benefit is more productive than mutual strife. Yet, it seems to be all too hypocritical: does not unionisation and voluntary collectivisation add justified increased pressure for companies to create better products and offer superior services?

Note, that I oppose compulsory participation in strikes (although there is a difference between not working because all your other colleagues are not working), and especially unions which force individuals to pay dues, since I would think donations would be more worthy of a grassroots organisation. Unionisation of the consumer should be voluntary. In fact, they may be part of several organisations, to achieve several different objectives, because they may have diverse values. For example, someone may decide to participate in a consumer union to gain lower prices in a certain commodity, another union composed of perhaps of fans of computer games, pushing to see features implemented that may otherwise be overlooked, while someone may join a union for environmental reasons, and seeks to pressure companies to be more environmental. A more hostile consumer union may be formed to drive what they see as undesireable elements that would prevail in an non-consumer-organised economy, ie. to stamp out the tobacco industry.

Consumer unions are needed because of the difficulty of organising boycotts as a standalone movement. For example, if someone started a boycott on a certain company because it uses sweatshop labour, it might be very hard to disseminate the idea. Firstly, I am unsure that my not buying anything from this company (which I may well buy from often) will have any effect, and in the end it might not make a difference at the expense of my own hardship. Yet because the first individuals find it hard to do, the boycott finds it hard to gain any momentum for additional people to join. People won't join because it has too little people. Catch-22.

But a consumer union can organise multiple boycotts to achieve an objective. It does not have to ask that its members immediately stop buying from a certain company, rather it waits for the right moment to organise its buying power, ie. when it has enough momentum, when things are agreed on, or when it has made a declaration, or when another event has occurred. It does not necessarily even have to seek its downfall, or see it hurt: it might be along the lines of, "we refuse to buy anything from you unless you lower prices", similar to a strike, and sustain this boycott for a conscious period of time. Contrast this to the rather ineffective "don't buy gasoline/petrol for a day" boycott in response to higher oil prices, which is ineffective (as many have already pointed out) because it merely delays the buying time (people will merely buy the gasoline later), while it hurts the small gas pumps, who generally have no control over the prices.

It doesn't even have to be along the lines of a boycott: rather, it seeks to organise its consumers' purchases to seek a certain objective, or to pursue an alternative. Such objectives sound vague, but I will come to that later.

In this post I challenged the institution of extreme private property. This is because of externalities, and the private doings of one individual can have public or environmental effects, likewise as we see with pollution. I believe immediate property rights are important; one should have the ability to control what he or she creates, because property is security, as John Locke would tell us. If we make a chair, or grow our own food, no one should be able to take them away without our permission. Yet, the individual private economic decisions we make can have collective effects. We may be conservatively hoarding resources, perhaps not consciously, but too protective of them to release them to have them circulate and stimulate the economy. Yet if we were to apply coercion, it would be a violation of rights.

I should clarify I am not a huge fan of utilitarianism, because changing one's rights to fit the situation seems woefully inconsistent. This one of the reasons why I dislike the command economy in the first place, as well as because of its economic failures. Being the idealist that I am, I believe in following a paradigm of rights. In the case of a famine, it is not ideal if the the state were to make an exceptional decision and decide it will seize some farmers' crops to distribute to the people. Rather, some sort of systemic mechanism should be in place.

Ultimately, the source of all government power is popular sovereignty. Even in a dictatorship or a totalitarian state, popular sovereignty is still the source of all political power, which is exactly why the state resorts to propaganda and secret police. The people in the society effectively is the source of the power of any government, because the government would become powerless if the majority of the population decided to suddenly stop cooperating with the government, not pay taxes, nor work for anything which would benefit it.

The difference between the totalitarian world of Orwell's 1984 and a democratic society is organisation. In 1984, one of the major themes is indeed organisation. There may well be millions of dissenters, enough to be an influential political force, but the Thought Police keeps them under tab, away from each other, and makes sure that an organisation never arises by eliminating key individuals.

The majority of people may well have dissenting thoughts, but they do not rebel because they can't find a strong organisation to rebel with. And without a visible sentiment of rebellion, it is for such a strong organisation to be created in the first place. The catch-22 is underscored with the line in 1984:

Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious. (Part 1, ch. 7)

The state does not need to instantly crack down on any dissenter that arises; this may well undermine its economic power, especially if dissenters are widespread. Rather, they only need to crack down at the right strategic moments on the right people. (Does this not sound like the strategy employed by the PAP when they cracked down on Mr. Brown?)

Thus, the underground of the Brotherhood is a desperate last-ditch attempt to organise individuals to actualise the power of popular sovereignty, so they can effectively cast off the regime. However, the process is slow, the organisation seeing the overthrow of the regime as a distant goal, and it uses cell-structure. The entire organisation is shrouded in secrecy, so that no one member of the organisation has the ability to know much of the other individuals in the organisation. It is decentralised. Decentralisation is one of the major features of anarchism, but the difference here is that even the information is decentralised. In the end, Winston is unable to know whether it is a real organisation or not. Such last resorts are a warning to show what will happen if individuals do not organise early enough.

This is why freedom of peaceful assembly is important, so that popular sentiment has a chance to organise itself, in order for the advantages of popular sovereignty to exhibit itself. However, one of the advantages grassroots organisation has today is internet technology; blogging, as an example. Orwell would well be amazed at what consequences the internet will have on grassroots democracy - remember, blogging is a relatively new practice, and will probably become as influential as other forms of media invented in the 20th century (radio; television).

In the same way that organisation is the difference between liberal democracy and totalitarianism, organisation may well be the difference between corporate tyranny and economic freedom in a monetary economy. I think a monetary economy has its limitations, and ultimately a gift economy is more flexible, especially as the difficulties of maintaining copyright and intellectual property rights progress in this day and age. However, if consumer organisation exists in the framework of existing economies of today, such as Singapore's, it will provide lots of content. If 1984 gives any warning, organisation should take place before circumstances prohibit organisation altogether.

I favour the idea of social contract theory, because it provides a ground-up paradigm and a grassroots approach to society, government and economics. As I have said, the consumer and the worker are the basic units of an economy. Consumers have the right to withdraw their support for any company they choose, or to drive a company out of business through boycott if they see it as undesireable to society, perhaps only sustained by a minority of society. For example, consider the tobacco industry, narcotics trade, spammers, or other stigmatised trades which the majority of people may dislike.

The tobacco industry is effectively maintained because a significant minority of society happens to rely on it. The majority of society is probably in fact, hostile to it. Yet the supermarkets, the quicky marts, the various other retailers sell it because it's another way to make a profit. These retailers rely on the majority of society. In effect, the majority of society contribute to the sustenance of the tobacco industry even though they do not wish to contribute to what they may see as an evil. But without organisation, their purchases may well end up supporting something they loathe. This is why organisation is important. If determined enough, unions can organise boycotts to pressure retailers not to sell tobacco, or face boycott. The key feature of unions is that they can wait until enough people agree to have critical mass, then begin it.

Of course, the tobacco industry may very well stop relying on retailers and open their own outlets, but at a significant cost. Such a war may be waged further: ie. refusing to hire smokers, refusing to buy anything from smokers, or sell anything to them , or anyone who involve themselves with tobacco. Of course, this brings concern of majoritarianism. Don't people have a right to pursue their own pet smoking habits, because it's their health and their choice? But the difference is that they still have the right to smoke tobacco if they eventually want, or sell it, at the cost at lots of social stigma. They still have the final right. However, society also has a right to respond, because individuals have a right to withdraw their support for an institution, because in this case, the tobacco industry also relies a lot on a society of people who don't smoke: the retailers, their non-smoking customers, the other-non smokers who run the society, they live in. Ultimately by social contract, they have a right to withdraw their support - a boycott.

This is helps resolve some issues of private rights and the greater good of society, such as externalities, that supply and demand cannot resolve. Economic laws of competition, supply and demand under the principles of laissez-faire will not curtail pollution, because these principles rely on unorchestrated purchasing power. Pollution has no immediate detrimental effect, and curtailing it has no immediate competitive advantage. However, add consumer organisation into the picture, and suddenly cutting down on pollution becomes more attractive than it already is - because of public backlash, and because the public is the reason because a company has the money to maintain a factory which pumps pollutants into the air in the first place.

Consumer organisation is also grassroots in nature - a voluntary association. Individuals choose whether they want to participate in such an association or not. An organisation depending directly on consumer cooperation will be highly dependent on consensus-decision making, and as a result consumer unions will be part of the missing component of democracy that is lacking in most market economies.

In contrast, top-down governments which regulate economies, even popularly elected ones, are less advantegeous for two reasons. A representative government which holds great power such as economic regulation can eventually become corrupt, bit by bit, because with the power it holds it can use it to prevent the opposition from organising against them, in the most subtle ways. (Consider how the PAP came to power in the first place; also consider how powerful the PAP-dominated yet elected Parliament of Singapore is, with its ability to pass major constitutional amendments like the Parliamentary Elections Act without so much as a regard to the consent of the governed.)

Secondly, elected governments may implement bans on tobacco for public health and public good reasons, but without grassroots support, grassroots organisation and grassroots action, it will likely fail, just like any command economy, or any price controls. Like Prohibition for alcohol, the smoker will be able to obtain his goods in the black market, and society is too unconcerned and unorganised to make any matter out of it. However, because the source of the power of consumer organisation is getting individuals to consent to something, in this case, consent to a wipeout of a certain industry like tobacco, a measure implemented by consumer organisation is likely to be more effective. A measure implemented this way targets a commodity like narcotics at its economic source: the consumer and the supplier, as well as being able to instigate stigma against anyone associated with it.

Narcotics and tobacco is only an example, and targetting an "undesireable commodity" is only a minor part of the possible scope of what consumer unions can do. Thus, individual private rights are maintained, a right to keep that chair, keep the food one grows, keep the house one has built, and no one has a right to seize it without one's permission. However, if one's fertiliser starts contaminating the runoff with no measures being taken, then the consumers have the ability to adjust their patronage based on the knowledge of this fact because they are organised. Government environmental regulations only becomes a last resort; the economy has just taken care of the environmental issues itself.

In contrast, without organisation, consumers are less able to pressure a producer at fault effectively.

Googling the concept of "consumer union" reveals that such a concept does exist (118,000 results), but it does not seem to be too widespread. Existing unions seem to be advisory, rather than something in which consumers consciously organise their buying power to wield influence on the market. In this regard, I am very interested in the formation of such organisations, but I myself am unsure of where to start.

This post was initially inspired by another post by the Singapore Economist, and is one of the reasons I decided to write this, is because I feel the need to present my view of economic freedom. If laissez-faire supporters champion economic freedom and the ability of people to form corporations, then the ability of workers to form unions should similarly be championed - it would be hypocrisy not to do so.

My objective of writing this post is to instil this desire to organise in others, so that one day such organisations may arise, for the greater benefit of us all.