Farewell Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre, Orchard Road, Singapore

A photo essay.

If your parents are as old school as mine, you would have grown up on ox-tail stew Wednesdays and have borscht (with a big dollop of sour cream of course) running through your veins.

You would have gone to Shashlik Restaurant (Level 6 Far East Shopping Centre, 545 Orchard Road) properly dressed, wearing covered footwear, and have been on your best behaviour under the watchful eyes of stern Hainanese waiters who served both cabinet ministers and little children with impeccable manners, disdaining the garish fawning that now passes for “good service”.

Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

There was a sizeable queue waiting to have their last meal at this retro institution, with its somewhat tired decor.

Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

We didn’t really need the menu:
Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

After giving a waitress our order, we settled in for the long wait, smiling as the sole remaining old waiter made his rounds, as serious as ever:

Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

To start, borscht soup with soft warm bread (on the side plate with a proper butter knife):
borscht soup, Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

complimentary bread roll. Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

or a tray of escargot:
escargot. Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

Then on to the main course: beef shashlik, optimally medium-rare, brought to the table in skewers, on a serving trolley, and set a-sizzle on hot plates:
beef shashlik. Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

or chicken a la kiev:
chicken a la kiev (imperial), Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

And to end, the famous baked alaska:
baked alaska. Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

baked alaska. Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

and a cherry jubilee, flambéed with butter, brandy, and cream, and served with vanilla ice-cream:
cherry jubilee, flambéed with butter, brandy and cream . Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

and a peach melba with vanilla ice-cream:
peach melba. Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

After paying for the meal, I tried to express how sad it was to bid farewell to another tangible reminder of childhood. But “goodbye” was all I could croak to the old cashier. By then, she had already turned to process the next bill.

Life, she seemed to say, goes on.
Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

business card. Shashlik Restaurant, Far East Shopping Centre

Ah B Pet Cafe and a Cat Safari at Sunny Heights (110 Turf Club Road)

Sunny Heights, Turf City, 110 Turf Club Road, SingaporeIn some other context, Sunny Heights (facebook. Turf City, 110 Turf Club Road) might have been a Floridian retirement community, or the ex-digs of an old Beatle, or the setting of a Stephen King novel.
"Old Dog, Young Dog, Several Stupid Dogs. Please Drive Slowly". Sunny Heights, Turf City, 110 Turf Club Road, SingaporeHappily, under our hazy Singaporean skies, it is a compound for pets and pet lovers – for fortunate, well, dogs mostly, there is a swimming pool, Pawlicious (a pet bakery for their meatloaf birthday cake)  and Ah B, a pet cafe:

Sunny Heights, Turf City, 110 Turf Club Road, SingaporeAnother block contains the newly opened Cat Safari. You register in the neighbouring block first and purchase a pair of socks (S$5 for adults, S$3 for students upon presentation of a student pass) as entrance fees for an hour of cat therapy. Outside the office, I asked a bemused staff member whom the therapy was for – for traumatised cats? or for humans via cats? She must have thought I was trolling.

map + entrance to Cat Safari. Sunny Heights, Turf City, 110 Turf Club Road, SingaporeThe Cat Safari is only open from 1pm – 7pm on weekends, for sessions lasting an hour, at a rate of 20 people per session, she said. All slots having been taken up that opening weekend, she advised calling 6314 9363 to reserve a place for the next Saturday/Sunday.

Sunny Heights, Turf City, 110 Turf Club Road, SingaporeSo we amused ourselves with the contextualised loo signs and wondering what the wolf dwelling with the lamb would really look like in the new creation.

And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt of his loins.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
    and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
    and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
    in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:3-9)

Rubbishy Reductionism; Sovereign’s Superiority; Tolstoy’s Tension

Having an hour or two between meetings today, I popped by the National Library to read Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and The Fox (amazon). The copy was well-kept and had once belonged to Lee Kuan Yew. I wondered, if he’d read it, and if he’d agreed with Berlin’s take on Tolstoy’s philosophy of history. After all, even while he lived, many sought his advice on replicating the (economic) success of Singapore in their own countries. But advice can only be properly given if the causes that effected such prosperity can be adequately identified (and, indeed, repeated to similar efficacy).

National Library of SingaporeAccording to Berlin, Tolstoy was uniquely tormented by ultimate problems – of good and evil, origin and purpose of the universe and its inhabitants, causes of all that happens: what is to be done? How should one live? Why are we here? What must we be and do?

The answers provided by the theologians and metaphysicans struck him as absurd, says Berlin.

History was only the sum of the concrete events in time and space – the sum of actual experience of actual men and women in their relation to one another and to an actual three-dimensional, empirically experienced, physical environment. This alone contained the truth.

Metaphysical philosophy and history:

  • pretends to be something it is not – a science capable of arriving at conclusions which are certain. As if it must be possible to discover and formulate a set of true laws of history which, in conjunction with data of empirical observation, would make prediction of the future (and “retrodiction” of the past) as feasible as it had become say, in geology or astronomy;
  • is arbitrarily selective in deciding which factors determine the life of mankind. These are various, but historians select from them only some single aspect;
  • represent only “political” public events, while the spiritual inner events are largely forgotten. Yet prima facie, they are most real, the most immediate experience of human beings.

First Thai, 23 Purvis Street, Bugis, SingaporeTherefore Tolstoy set himself to:

  • do what historians were failing to do – to describe the ultimate data of subjective experience – personal lives lived by men, the thoughts, knowledge, poetry, music, love, friendship, hates, passions of real life. For only the individual’s experience is genuine – of colours, smells, tastes, sounds and movements, jealousies, loves, hatreds, passions, rare flashes of insight, transforming moments, the ordinary day-to-day succession of private data that constitutes all there is to reality;
  • expose the great illusion that (great) individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events. This self-deception affects almost all mankind. Men are unable to bear the fact that their lives are no less than what natural law has determined. They seek to represent it as a succession of free choices, and seek to fix responsibility for what occurs upon persons endowed by them with heroic virtues or vices – the “great men”. But this is hollow, self-deluded, and fraudulent – an elaborate machinery for concealing the spectacle of human impotence and irrelevance and blindness;
  • reject the notion that any historical movement is directly connected to the “power” exercised by some men over others. Or that these events were under the dominant influence or “force” of great men or ideas. What occurs is the result of a thick, opaque, inextricably complex web of events, objects, characteristics, connected, and divided by literally innumerable unidentifiable links, and gaps, and sudden discontinuities, visible and invisible;
  • demonstrate that while man’s freedom is real and there is free will and responsibility and the real experience of a private life, we are all victims of inexorable historical determinism. Omniscience belongs only to God. Our historical reasoning is an effort to substitute our own arbitrary rules for divine wisdom.

In other words, not much different from what God had already caused Nebuchadnezzar to realise in Daniel 4.
pad thai, thai iced milk tea. First Thai, 23 Purvis Street, Bugis, Singapore*so it was with some bemusement that I spotted Project South East Asia‘s Thum Ping Tjin at the back of SG Magazine with some mention of his The History of Singapore podcast.

**of course, there was also time for a quick pad thai at First Thai (23 Purvis Street). Wok hei, infused fish sauce, a little on the sweet side.

Haig Road Market Putu Piring and Letter from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to PAP MPs on Rules of Prudence

This made me forget I was eating very tasty Haig Road Market putu piring. (Oh, but how tasty. Not chewy in texture like Tan’s Kueh Tu Tu, but slightly delicately crumbly like idli. With melty coconut sugar in the middle. Festooned with sweet-salty shredded coconut. 5 for S$2.)

Haig Road Market Putu PiringNow Christian leaders are no strangers to the concept of servant leadership, and the idea that one must not just be godly but also must be seen to be godly so as not to stumble the flock. It was a pleasant surprise to see these things reflected in PM Lee Hsien Loong’s letter to the PAP MPs.

Surely common grace means that the sort of biblical wisdom found in the Old Testament isn’t just advantageous to Christians, but because God made all things, it is also the best way to live in this world.

Also, Isaac Watts!

PM Lee’s letter reproduced from here:

Letter from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to PAP MPs on Rules of Prudence

All PAP MPs

RULES OF PRUDENCE

BEYOND SG50

It is a tradition for the Prime Minister to send a letter on “Rules of Prudence” to all the PAP MPs after an election.  The context each time may be different but the subject remains constant, because integrity, honesty and incorruptibility are fundamental to our Party.  We must never tire of reminding ourselves of their importance.

2.        Our Party has won 83 out of 89 seats in the just concluded General Election, with all seats contested. Overall, the PAP won 69.9% of the votes.

3.        The people have endorsed what we have done in the previous term, and given us a clear mandate to take Singapore forward beyond SG50.  Now we must fulfil what we have promised to do in our manifesto. We must never break faith with the people, but must always carry out our duties to them responsibly, address their worries and advance their interests.

4.        Be humble in victory. As MPs, always remember we are servants of the people, not masters. Do not mistake the strong election result to mean that our efforts have succeeded, and that we can afford to slacken. Much work remains to be done tackling issues which concern Singaporeans, and finding new ways to improve people’s lives. Listen hard to voter concerns, help them to tackle pressing needs, and convey their worries and aspirations to the Government. Persuade them to support policies which are in their own long term benefit, while helping the Government to formulate good policies and stay in close touch with the people.

UPHOLDING OUR REPUTATION AND INTEGRITY

5.        One vital factor that has enabled the PAP to retain the trust of Singaporeans all these years is honesty and integrity. The PAP’s reputation for clean, incorruptible government is one of our most precious assets. As PAP MPs, your personal standing reflects this high standing of the Party as a whole. I cannot stress strongly enough that every MP must uphold the rigorous standards that we have set for ourselves, and do nothing to compromise them. Never give cause for allegations that you are misusing your position, especially your access to Ministers.  That would discredit both you and the Party.

6.        As MPs, you will come across many different sorts of people. Many altruistic, public spirited individuals will help you without wanting anything in return, spending time and money to get community projects going and to serve residents. But a few will cultivate you to obtain benefits for them-selves or their companies, to gain respectability by association with you, or to get you to influence ministries and statutory boards to make decisions in their favour. Gift hampers on festive occasions, entertainment, and personal favours big and small are just a few of countless social lubricants which such people use to ingratiate themselves to MPs and make you obligated to them.

7.        You must distinguish between these two groups of people, and be shrewd in assessing the motives of those who seek to get close to you. At all times be seen to be beyond the influence of gifts or favours.

8.        Be scrupulously proper in your contacts with government departments or public officers.  Do not lobby any ministry or statutory board on behalf of anyone who is not your constituent or grassroots activist.  Do not raise matters with public officers on behalf of friends, clients, contractors, employers, or financiers to advance their business interests.  Conduct business with government agencies in writing and avoid making telephone requests.  If you have to speak, follow up in writing to put your requests on record.

9.        MPs are often approached by friends, grassroots leaders or proprietors and businessmen to officiate at the openings of their new shops or other business events. They usually offer a gesture, such as a donation to a charity or constituency welfare fund. Though it may be awkward to refuse such requests, once you accept one, you will be hard-pressed to draw a line. As a rule, you should decline invitations to such business events. If you feel you should attend, please obtain prior approval from the Whip.

SEPARATING BUSINESS AND POLITICS

10.      Separate your public political position from your private, professional or business interests.  MPs who are in business, who occupy senior management positions in companies, or who sit on company boards should be especially vigilant.  You must not exploit your public position as Government MPs, your close contacts with the Ministers, or your access to government departments and civil servants, for your personal interest or the benefit of your employers.  Your conduct must always be above board.

11.      MPs who are employed by companies or industry associations may at times have to make public statements on behalf of their company or industry association.  If you have to do so, make it clear that you are not speaking as an MP, but in your private, professional or business capacity.

12.      Do not use Parliamentary questions as a means to lobby the Government on behalf of your businesses or clients. When you raise questions in Parliament related to your own businesses or your clients, be careful to first declare your pecuniary interest in the issue.

13.      You may, however, speak freely to Cabinet Ministers, who are your Parliamentary colleagues.  Ministers will listen carefully to arguments on principles, especially when they relate to the general policy of their Ministries.  But Ministers will not exercise their discretion to change individual decisions without very good reasons which they can justify publicly.  Parliamentary Secretaries and Ministers of State who intervene in their Ministries to reverse or alter decisions should promptly report the matter to their Ministers to protect themselves against possible accusations of misconduct.  The Government must always base decisions on the merits of the issues, and cannot yield to pressure from interested parties.

DIRECTORSHIPS

14.      MPs are often invited to serve on the Boards of private and publicly listed companies.  This is a sign that the private sector values PAP MPs’ integrity and experience, and reflects the high standing of the Party and of PAP MPs in general.  The Party permits MPs to serve as directors, provided you keep your private and public responsibilities rigorously separate, and your private appointments do not compromise your duties and performance as an MP.

15.      The public will closely scrutinise your involvement in companies, because you are a PAP MP.  Conduct your business activities so as to bring credit to yourself and to the Party.  Adverse publicity on your performance as a director, or lapses in the companies you are associated with, will tarnish your reputation as an MP and lower the public’s regard for the Party.

16.      You should not solicit for Directorships in any companies, lest you appear to be exploiting your political position to benefit yourself.

17.      You should not accept directorships where your role is just to dress up the board with a PAP MP or two, in order to make the company look more respectable.

18.      Some grassroots leaders are businessmen who own or manage companies.  You should not sit on any boards of companies owned or chaired by grassroots leaders appointed by you, so as to avoid the perception that you are obligated to them or advancing their business interests.

19.      If you are offered a Directorship, you have to decide for yourself whether to accept.  The Party is not in a position to vet or approve such decisions.

20.      Before accepting, consider the possible impact of the Directorship on your political life.  Ensure that the company understands that you are doing so strictly in your private capacity, and will not use your public position to champion the interests of the company, or lobby the government on its behalf.

21.      Make every effort to familiarise yourself with the business, track record and background of the key promoters of the company.  Satisfy yourself that the company is reputable, and that you are able to make a meaningful contribution.  Specifically, just like anyone else contemplating a Directorship, you should ask yourself:

a.         How well do you know the company, its business strategy, financial status, shareholding structure and the underlying industry?

b.        Do you know your fellow directors, the way the Board and its committees fulfil their responsibilities, the reporting structure between Board and Management and the relationship between shareholders and the company?

c.         Do you have sufficient industry, financial or professional expertise to fulfil your expected role and responsibilities as a Director?  Do you understand your obligations under the law and the Code of Corporate Governance?  Will you be able to discharge your fiduciary duties properly and without fear or favour?

d.        Will you face any conflicts of interest, and if so can you manage them? If in any doubt, you should decline.

22.      Once you have decided to take up a Directorship, please inform the Whip. Detailed reporting requirements are listed in the Annex.

PARLIAMENT

23.      MPs are expected to attend all sittings of Parliament.  If you have to be absent from any sitting, seek permission from the Government Whip.  Please inform the Whip if you have to leave the Parliament premises while a sitting is on.

24.      If you travel abroad, or need to be absent from Parliament for any reason, you must apply to the Speaker for leave, with copies to the Leader of the House and the Government Whip.  You should also inform the Whip where you can be reached while abroad.

25.      I have asked the Speaker to give all MPs, particularly new MPs, ample opportunity and latitude to speak in Parliament.  Your first opportunity will be during the debate on the President’s Address at the opening of Parliament in January 2016.  Following that, at the Budget Debate, all MPs should speak up.  Script your speeches or put your key points in note form to structure your presentation and help the media.

26.      The public expects PAP MPs to express their views frankly, whether for or against Government policies. During debates, speak freely and with conviction.  Press your points vigorously, and do not shy away from robust debate.  However, please exercise judgement when putting your points across, and do not get carried away playing to the gallery.

27.      Bring out questions and issues that Singaporeans and your constituents have concerns about, and grapevine talk for the Government to rebut, but avoid unwittingly lending credence to baseless gossip. This will show that you and the Party are in touch with the ground, and speaking up for Singaporeans. Bringing up pertinent issues and questions in a timely manner helps ministers to put across the facts, explain the reasons for policies and decisions, and maintain public confidence in the openness and integrity of our actions.

28.      Your honest, informed views are an important political input to Ministers when they formulate and review policies. Ministers will accept valid, constructive suggestions, but they have to challenge inaccurate or mistaken views. Over time, the public will see that PAP backbenchers are as effective as opposition MPs, if not better, at holding ministers to account, getting issues fully debated, and influencing policies for the better.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC OCCASIONS

29.      On certain occasions, like the National Day Parade and the Investiture Ceremony for National Day Awards, the whole Establishment, i.e. the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary, will be there.  Those who cannot attend must have very good reasons.  Those who have accepted the invitation must attend, otherwise they leave empty seats, which does no credit to them or to the Party.

30.      At all public functions and constituency events, punctuality is of paramount importance.

GIFTS

31.      You should not accept gifts which might place you under obligations which conflict with your public duties. If you receive any gifts other than from close personal friends or relatives, you must declare them to the Clerk of Parliament who will have the gifts valued.  If you wish to keep the gifts, you must pay the Government for them at the valuation price.

FUND-RAISING

32.      Party Branches should not raise funds on their own without permission, for example by soliciting advertisements for a souvenir magazine or a carnival.  If you intend to raise funds, please clear it beforehand with the Organising Secretary.  When your branch embarks on a collective fund-raising activity, e.g. a Family Day or Walk-A-Jog, you must follow the rules strictly.

FINANCIAL PRUDENCE

33.      As MPs, you should manage your personal financial affairs prudently. Do not over-extend yourself or become financially embarrassed. This would be not only a potential source of personal embarrassment, but also a weakness which may expose you to pressure or blackmail.

34.      In particular, be careful about making major financial commitments assuming that you will continue to receive your MP’s allowance.  While MPs typically serve several terms, you cannot assume that you will automatically be fielded in future General Elections, or that if fielded you will definitely be re-elected.  There is neither tenure nor job security in politics.

DECLARATION OF INCOME

35.      For your own protection, every MP should disclose to me, in confidence, your business and professional interests, your present employment and monthly pay, all retainers and fees that you are receiving, and whether your job requires you to get in touch with officers of Government Ministries or statutory boards on behalf of employers or clients.  Office holders need not do so because you will be subject to the reporting requirements of the Code of Conduct for ministers. This should be done by 31 October 2015.

GENERAL BEHAVIOUR

36.      The PAP has held our position in successive elections because our integrity has never been in doubt, and because we are sensitive to the views and attitudes of the people we represent.  MPs must always uphold the high standards of the Party and not have lifestyles or personal conduct which will embarrass themselves and the Party.  Any slackening of standards, or show of arrogance or indifference by any MP, will erode confidence in him, and ultimately in the Party and Government.  New MPs can pick up the dos and don’ts from older MPs.  You should conduct yourselves always with modesty, decorum and dignity, particularly in the media. You must win respect, not popularity, to stay the course.

MEDIA PUBLICITY

37.      I am releasing a copy of this letter to the media so that the public knows the high standards we demand of our MPs.

LEE HSIEN LOONG

cc: Government Whip

Schools Closed, Exams Postponed, Singaporeans Complain

South, Singapore Air Pollution: Real-time Air Quality Index (AQI) - 368 (hazardous) at 22:00 Thursday 24 September 2015Singapore’s haze situation worsened over the Hari Raya Haji public holiday.

Having just settled in Singapore for the long haul, I was impressed by the nimble efficiency with which so many parts of the Singapore government rolled out measures and made the requisite announcements (because silence from authorities = bad) about them, all pointing to much forward-looking contingency planning.

Protecting the People

Today, since there was a probability of PSI being at hazardous levels, Ministry of Education made the decision to close primary and secondary schools and postpone Singapore-Cambridge ‘O’ level examinations. Yet, it had the forethought to keep the premises open:”parents who are unable to make alternative care arrangements can continue to send their children to school. Teachers will continue to report for duty, and students will be placed in suitable facilities such as libraries and enclosed spaces…school-based student care centres will remain open.”

They also stocked air purifiers ready to tackle any potential disruption to national exams.

Free masks for elderly and needy from Channel NewsAsia. Singapore Haze 2015The People’s Association made available N95 masks for the elderly and needy at community centres, also distributing them and other essentials to the vulnerable and possibly housebound. And the Ministry of Trade and Industry ensured a sufficient stockpile of masks for companies.

National Libraries to open earlier. Singapore Haze 2015National Library branches opened an hour earlier to provide a community space for people wanting to stay out of the haze. Bravo, library staff!

The National Environment Agency continued to publish 1-hour, 3-hour, and 24-hour PSI readings, together with simple explanations of how to use these readings. And the Health Promotion Board had good write-ups on how to wear N95 masks.

More on the Air+ Smart Mask here.

Yet, you get Ugly Singaporeans complaining that there is no national work shutdown and also they want the government to pay for their utilities for staying at home. I thought it was a joke at first but the vitriol suggested otherwise. How exactly they expect to get their groceries, water, public transportation, security (from external threats and internal threats), wages, and money for doing nothing etc, I did not know; the complexity of the situation was swept aside in favour of their selfish greed.

Tackling the Source

But let us think about what can possibly be done about the source of the problem – the Indonesian forest fires. Of course, the transboundary haze has been going on for decades.

Here are some of the not-very-well-thought-through suggestions (or rather, going by the tone, demands) going round:

  • let’s water-bomb Indonesia – err, that is a violation of another country’s territorial rights and will possibly trigger an outright war. Consider our puny-ness and the extreme largeness of Indoneisa.
  • let’s boycott Indonesia – how exactly that will encourage the co-operation of the Indonesians isn’t clear. Singapore will surely stand to lose more. To them, our Little Red Dot is but a specky gadfly. It’s silly to ape superpowers like America in imposing bans without considering our own situation – Singapore cannot afford hostile relations with neighbouring countries, and it imports almost everything from everywhere including raw materials, clothes, maids from Indonesia.

The best that can be done, is alot of diplomacy and invoking of laws including the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act.

It doesn’t seem much.

But perhaps then, this is a good time to understand our place in Singapore society, and Singapore’s place in the region and the world, and the whole of humanity’s place in the workings of the earth. No human can command the wind not to blow and the rain to fall, at will, in a certain place.

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41)

The Haze, Half-face Particulate Respirators and Filter Masks, and International Relations

Singapore haze: half-face particulate respirators - Air + Smart Mask and 3M filter mask
Since the Indonesian forest fires have had Singapore and bits of Malaysia on choke-hold a few weeks ago, I’ve manage to cruise along without much protection. But the recent onset of stinging in my respiratory tract has finally convinced me to play the adult and acquire a mask or two.

Most of the usual pharmacy chains (Guardian, Watsons) carried both the usual 3M N95 variety (introduced to the general public during the SARS period) and the much newer and more design-conscious Air+ Smart Mask (S$7.20 for a box of 3, S$29.90 for the micro-ventilator.

Singapore haze: half-face particulate respirators - Air+ Smart Mask, large sizeAir+ Smart Mask, in large

The friendly (over-friendly! said LL) sales assistant warned us that the medium sized Air+ was far too small and suggested a large for all adults. Our chat turned a little to international relations with Indonesia, the home of the “transboundary haze”.

Regional Haze Map Source: NEA

The recent hesitation of Indonesian politicians to accept Singapore’s offer of help to control the fires (“yes they did“, “no we didn’t“) might be explained by the relationship between the countries and their self-perception in the regional arena.

…size could also be a reason for the failure to resolve conflicts between Singapore and Indonesia. Size, in this sense, can be interpreted literally as well as symbolically, as the self-images of both countries. Both the original conflict in 1968 as well as the current one in 2014 have been directly attributed to size. When then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew turned down a direct appeal by former President Soeharto to pardon the two Indonesian marines, in the words of former MFA Permanent Secretary Bilahari Kausikan, “he could not have done otherwise without conceding that the small must always defer to the big and irretrievably compromising our sovereignty.”

However, if Singaporeans are adamant that the small must not defer to the big, then the Indonesians are equally adamant that the big must not defer to the small. A few days ago, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Djoko Suyanto declared that “the fact that there is a different perception of Indonesian government policy by other countries, in this instance, Singapore, cannot make us backtrack or be uncertain about carrying on with our policy decision and implementing it.” Golkar MP Hajriyanto Thohari, deputy chairman of the People’s Consultative Assembly, went one step further, declaring “Let Singapore keep shrieking, like a chicken beaten by a stick.” (Singapore and Indonesia: An Uneasy Coexistence?, Yvonne Guo, The Diplomat, 2014)

In the aftermath of the Indonesian navy naming their warship KRI Usman Harun, after two Indonesian marines executed in Singapore in 1968 for a 1965 terror attack on MacDonald House in Orchard Road, there were rather self-righteous and dull comments about how Singapore should have spared those men.

These commentators seemed to forget to take into account (i) the context of that event in Singapore’s national history (1965 was the year of its independence; and (ii) the context of Singapore in regional politics.

Said Kausikan:

…the respected American scholar of Indonesia, the late Dr George McTurnan Kahin, wrote in 1964 while Konfrontasi was still ongoing, that episode of aggression towards its neighbours was the consequence of the “powerful, self-righteous thrust of Indonesian nationalism” and the widespread belief that “because of (the) country’s size… it has a moral right to leadership”.

Time may have given a more sophisticated gloss to this attitude but has not essentially changed it.

This attitude lies, for example, behind the outrageous comments by some Indonesian ministers during the haze last year that Singapore should be grateful for the oxygen Indonesia provides; it is the reason why Indonesians think Singaporeans should take into account their interests and sensitivities without thinking it necessary to reciprocate. (Indonesia’s naming of navy ship: Sensitivity is a two-way street, The Straits Times, 13 February 2014)

and so instead of just keeping quiet, Singapore needed to protest this and show our stand clearly.

Curious about this ambassador-at-large, I came across his warning that “foreign policy cannot be a tool for partisan politics”

already and all too often, I see the irrelevant or the impossible being held up as worthy of emulation…

…I see our vulnerabilities being dismissed or downplayed; and I see only a superficial understanding of how the real world really works in civil society and other groups who aspire to prescribe alternate foreign policies… (Foreign Policy Cannot Be ‘Tool of Partisan Politics‘, Today, 17 September 2013)

This parallels nicely with some discussions we’ve been having about how American, English, Australian evangelical models of what godliness looks like might/might not work in a Singaporean context. But that’s for another day.

If you have an old 3M mask, check its expiry here.

Other helpful sites:

National Environment Agency’s Haze website

Ministry of Health guidelines on the use of masks

The Myth of Democracy As Perfection?

So it’s time for the Singapore General Elections 2015. Nomination Day was 1 September 2015 and since then, posters, illegal stickers, billboards, Facebook posts have be sprouting like mould on a wet book in the tropical humidity.

Heading home one day, I came upon a sizeable crowd heading to a Hougang field. A Workers’ Party rally was on:

Singapore General Elections 2015: Workers Party Rally in HougangIt doesn’t take long to observe how the concept of “democracy” is thrown around freely, without any attempt to define what it means.

To my shame, I’ve never really thought much about politics, much less democracy, until returning to Singapore. If someone’d asked what form of government I thought to be the best, I would have unequivocally replied “democractic”. Clumpy thinking on my part – democracy = human rights = freedom = civilised = good.

So thought I’d better have a read around to see what it was all about. Going to very messily dump thoughts here:

(1) definition of democracy

(2) use of democratic over the course of human history (akan datang)

(3) touted benefits of democracy as system of government of a people (akan datang)

(4) what is necessary for a successful democratic process

Singapore General Elections 2015: Workers Party Rally in Hougang Singapore General Elections 2015: Workers Party Rally in Hougang

(1) Definition of Democracy

This actually a hard one! Other than the lowest common denominator of voting in the government, Roger Osborne says in Of the People By the People – A New History of Democracy:

  • “when we try to pin down exactly what democracy is, we find ourselves chasing rainbows. The problem is that everytime we get near to a definition, or compile a list of conditions that any democracy must fulfil, we find examples of fully functioning democracies that do not comply, or of societies that are not regarded as democratic but nevertheless fulfil some of the criteria” [Comment: wait, but then by what criteria is a society defined as “fully functioning democracy” and “not regarded as democratic”?]
  • “Our story shows that democracies exist at different times, but democracy does not necessarily improve over time.”
  • “However imperfectly, democracy attempts to solve the great dilemma of human life: how to flourish as an individual while existing as part of a community?”

Singapore General Elections 2015

(4) what is necessary for a successful democratic process
Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book mentions the need for (i) minds that can read well, that have their analytical and critical powers developed; (ii) people who can communicate and discuss matters intelligently, who aim to persuade by reason rather than by force:
“One of his motives in starting the Honors course was to revive college life as an intellectual community. If a group of students read the same books and met weekly for two years to discuss them, they might find a new sort of fellowship. The great books would not only initiate them into the world of ideas but would provide the frame of reference for further communication among them. They would know how to talk intelligently and intelligibly to one another, not only about the books, but through the books about all the problems which engage men’s thought and action.

In such a community, Erskine said, democracy would be safe, for democracy requires intelligent communication about and common participation in the solution of human problems. That was before anyone thought that democracy would ever again be threatened. As I remember, we did not pay much attention to Erskine’s insight at the time. But he was right. I am sure of it now. I am sure that a liberal education is democracy’s strongest bulwark.”

“The mind which is trained to read well has its analytical and critical powers developed.”

“The mind which is trained to discuss well has them further sharpened. One acquires a tolerance for arguments through dealing with them patiently and sympathetically. The animal impulse to impose our opinions upon others is thus checked. We learn that the only authority is reason itself—the only arbiters in any dispute are the reasons and evidences. We do not try to gain ascendancy by a show of force or by counting the noses of those who agree with us. Genuine issues cannot be decided by the mere weight of opinion. We must appeal to reason, not depend on pressure groups.”

“We all want to learn to think straight. A great book may help us by the examples it affords of penetrating insight and cogent analysis. A good discussion may give further support by catching us when we are thinking crooked. If our friends do not let us get away with it, we may soon learn that sloppy thinking, like murder, will always out. Embarrassment may reduce us to making an effort we had never supposed was within our power. Unless reading and discussion enforce these demands for straight and clear thinking, most of us go through life with an amazingly false confidence in our perceptions and judgments. We think badly most of the time and, what is worse, we do not know it because we are seldom found out.

Those who can read well, listen and talk well, have disciplined minds. Discipline is indispensable for a free use of our powers. The man who has not the knack of doing something gets tied up in knots when he tries to perform. The discipline which comes from skill is necessary for facility. How far can you go in discussing a book with someone who does not know how to read or talk about it? How far can you get in your own reading without a trained ability?

Discipline, as I have said before, is a source of freedom. Only a trained intelligence can think freely. And where there is no freedom in thinking, there can be no freedom of thought. Without free minds, we cannot long remain free men.”

Singapore General Elections 2015: Workers Party Rally in Hougang“They have experienced the pleasure of talking about serious problems intelligently. They do not exchange opinions as they would the time of day. Discussion has become responsible. A man must support what he says. Ideas have connections with one another and with the world of everyday affairs. They have learned to judge propositions and arguments by their intelligibility and relevance.

Where men lack the arts of communication, intelligent discussion must languish. Where there is no mastery of the medium for exchanging ideas, ideas cease to play a part in human life. When that happens, men are little better than the brutes they dominate by force or cunning, and they will soon try to dominate each other in the same way.

The loss of freedom follows. When men cannot live together as friends, when a whole society is not built on a real community of understanding, freedom cannot flourish. We can live freely only with our friends. With all others, we are constantly oppressed by every sort of dread, and checked in every movement by suspicion.

Preserving freedom, for ourselves and our posterity, is one of our major concerns today. A proper respect for liberty is the heart of sound liberalism. But I cannot help wondering whether our liberalism is sound. We do not seem to know the origins of liberty or its ends. We cry out for all sorts of liberty—freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly—but we do not seem to realize that freedom of thought is the basis for all these others. Without it, freedom of speech is an empty privilege, and a free conscience nothing but a private prejudice. Without it, our civil liberties can be exercised only in a pro forma way, and we are unlikely to retain them long if we do not know how to use them well.”

“…in his recent commentary on American democracy, called Of Human Fredom, Jacques Barzun cautions us not to be misled by the boast that we have the most literate population in the world. “Literacy in this sense is not education; it is not even ‘knowing how to read’ in the sense of taking in quickly and correctly the message of the printed page, to say nothing of exercising a critical judgement upon it.”

Techniques of communication, which make for literacy, are our first obligation, and more so in a democracy than in any other kind of society, because it depends on a literate electorate.

Slighting the three R’s in the beginning, and neglecting the liberal arts almost entirely at the end, our present education is essentially illiberal. It indoctrinates rather than disciplines and educates. Our students are indoctrinated with all sorts of local prejudices and predigested pap. They have been fattened and made flabby for the demagogues to prey upon. Their resistance to specious authority, which is nothing but pressure of opinion, has been lowered. They will even swallow the insidious propaganda in the headlines of some local newspapers.

Even when the doctrines they impose are sound democratic ones, the schools fails to cultivate free judgement because they have forsaken discipline. They leave their students open to opposite indoctrination by more powerful orators or, what is worse, to the sway of their own worst passions.

Ours is a demagogic rather than a democratic education. The student who has not learned to think critically, who has not come to respect reason as they only arbiter of truth in human generalizations, who has not been lifted out of the blind alleys of local jargons and shibboleths, will not be saved by the orator of the classroom from later succumbing to the orator of the platform and the press.

To be saved, we must follow the precept of the Book Common Prayer: “Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.”