A Singapore debate stirs New York University

A New York University alumni friend of mine told me about a controversy brewing at his alma mater. It stems from a larger controversy, far away on the small island nation of Singapore. Dr. Thio Li-Ann, law professor at the National University of Singapore, has been appointed as a visiting scholar on human rights to NYU’s law school beginning this fall.

But Thio’s track-record on human rights is in question.

This Week: Singapore in the news

When I lived in Singapore I stayed in Bukit Timah, on the west of the island near a large nature reserve and beneath the city-state’s tallest peak, which is not the grandest mountain at just over 530 ft. Bukit Timah is just south of the bridge that crosses into the Malaysian border town of Johor Bahru, in the southern Malaysian state of Johor. At the end of February, 2008, soldiers combed this area and security along the border was tightened in an effort to catch terrorism suspect, Mas Selamat, who had escaped a maximum security prison from an unbarred window in a restroom. Fliers of Selamat with a mustache, without a mustache, every detail of what he was wearing, his alleged limp, his favorite meal (ok, that last one is from an interpretation by Singapore’s most famous satirists) — one by one, the government released more and more details and asked for vigilance.

The big news this week is that Selamat was captured in early April, over one year after his escape. Authorities believe that Selamat, who had been held without charges under Singapore’s Internal Security Act since his first capture in 2006, is  the leader of the Singapore arm of Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI, which is responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings and an alleged plot to attack Singapore’s Changi Airport. News of his arrest came out last week, withheld, say Malayasian officals, to allow for continued investigation into the JI network. According to Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng, Selamat escaped across the Johor Strait on an improvised flotation device; weaknesses in border security, say Singapore authorities, will be addressed. Perhaps now is a good time to revisit another mr brown show classic, Blame It on Somebody (or perhaps the remix, or the follow-up episode Just Can’t Quit). For a good explanation of the whole story, read the account from AFP.

From FP Passport via International Economy via vesseltracker.com, global trade is taking a hit, and Singapore, the “world’s busiest port for container traffic” according to International Economy, is feeling the pain. Compared to last year, traffic in Singapore dropped almost 20 percent in January and February, 2009. See the short but striking report (and a really startling graphic) on a PDF from International Economy. Other indicators of Singapore’s financial predicament are the central banks’s move to devalue Singapore dollars and Singapore Airline’s move to give people $1 hotel stays.

And not related to Singapore at all, an Asia Pacific Arts story is getting a lot of buzz in the Los Angeles neck-of-the-woods. I’ll let the headline sell it: Hot Asian Actors Hollywood Doesn’t Yet Realize It Needs.

my online journalism life

I started reading the introduction to The Elements of Journalism, published in June, 2006. I stopped at this paragraph:

When the flow of news is obstructed, “a darkness falls,” and anxiety grows. The world, in effect, becomes too quiet. We feel alone. John McCain, the U.S. senator from Arizona, writes that in his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, what he missed most was not comfort, food, freedom, or even his family and friends. “The thing I missed most was information — free uncensored, undistorted, abundant information.”

And it occurred to me that, though I was no prisoner, I shared this feeling when I was living in Singapore. I had comforts and avenues for learning, but I missed the vibrant news cultures of Bangkok and Mumbai and even Los Angeles. Lo and behold, a few paragraphs down, the authors, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, write this:

Journalism provides something unique to a culture — independent, reliable, accurate, and comprehensive information that citizens require to be free. A journalism that is asked to provide something other than that subverts democratic culture. This is what happens when governments control the news, as in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. We’re seeing it again in places like Singapore, where news is controlled to encourage capitalism but discourage participation in public life. Something akin to this may be taking root in the United States in a more purely commercial form, as when news outlets owned by larger corporations are used to promote their conglomerate parent’s products, to engage in subtle lobbying or corporate rivalry, or are intermingled with advertising to boost profits. The issue isn’t just the loss of journalism. At stake is whether, as citizens, we have access to independent information that makes it possible for us to take part in governing ourselves.

To me, this is what is exciting and daunting about a life lived, in part, on the Internet. Those worlds of information open up, dare I say, revolutionizing how free information and conversation can be. I did go to the Zocalo talk, “Age of Rage: “Is the Internet Making Us Mean?,” which I mentioned in my last post. It turned out to be more of a discussion along the lines of, “Why are People Mean to Journalists on the Web?” To quote from an article by Andrew Sullivan in The Atlantic once more, “Writers can be sensitive, vain souls, requiring gentle nurturing from editors, and oddly susceptible to the blows delivered by reviewers. They survive, for the most part, but the thinness of their skins is legendary.” I think this explains pretty well the focus of Wednesday’s panel, where journalists were the three speakers. And it’s a topic I can sympathize with certainly, but it’s still not as interesting as a more direct conversation about the effects of cyberbullying, Internet hate campaigns and the potential neurological effects of social networking. I’m not as worried about anonymous people burning journalists in comment sections as I am about what is happening to those people who lose their inhibitions (or create new ones) as they go virtual.

Speaking of going virtual, a piece I co-authored for the Far Eastern Economic Review has just showed up as a blurb on their site. It’s subscription only though — yes, some people on the Internet do that.

Two more random links:  Zocalo does some pretty cool stuff, including giving shout-outs to really great writers. And let’s be honest, globalization and connections and entrepreneurship aside, the Internet is pretty awesome.

eight-hour layover

I’m pretty well acquainted with the airports of transportation hub city-states. The airports of Hong Kong and Singapore are well-designed places where travelers can keep living or working or holidaying, instead of just waiting. While I was living in Singapore, the proud little red dot unveiled its brand-new Changi Airport terminal, the enviable T3, where environmentally friendly vines cling to indoor walls and sculptures, waterfalls flow from architecturally integrated fountains, and brides and grooms gather to take advantage of the soft lighting for their wedding memories (no joke — I saw it with my own eyes and discovered later that the airport advertises itself as a wedding venue). I’ve made three trips through the spacious arrival and departure halls of the Hong Kong International Airport, where you get floor to ceiling views as planes taxi in and out against the backdrop of the island’s beautiful, rolling hills.

Airports in Asia compete to be the most beautiful, the best for shopping, the grandest. But my layover in Hong Kong this time around — an eight-hour marathon of aimless walking and bottom-numbing musical chairs — reminds me that a) I can get pretty restless and b) the world is very connected.

The flight boards show many cancellations today. Flights to or via Bangkok are all not coming or going. Flights to Mumbai are delayed. Travelers here watch the news and know people who are or were or might have been in these places, stuck or injured or worse. And its that sense of, “It could have been me,” on such a grand scale that makes geography almost irrelevent. I’m working on the first episodes of a podcast called “Global Lives” — this, I suppose, is one of the drawbacks to the otherwise exciting lives of people who consider the whole world their home.

Gateway of India

On my last visit to India in December, 2007, (correction) June, 2008, the Gateway of India in front, the Taj hotel just across the street.

queuing for movies

They all said the Pusan International Film Festival is the premiere festival in Asia. I’m no Asia film scholar, but it certainly is a big deal here. I’ve never seen teenagers wake up so early to get movie tickets before.

On the third day of the festival, we also woke up early to get tickets to some shows we wanted to watch. My friend Brian Hu is fully accredited and can get tickets one day ahead of time. I, as an Asia Pacific Arts photographer, am not.

Last night I attempted to reserve tickets for shows today. The interesting thing about this festival is that it really is designed for Koreans here to see Korean films and international films with Korean subtitles that they would ordinarily never have access to. If you are a Korean resident you can buy tickets online, at ATM machines and in banks. It’s wonderful to see all the excitement – the festival is visible in one way or another all over the city.

sell_out_thumbail147x200.gifA foreigner, however, needs to queue up. They sell tickets in person only on the day the movie is showing, and the tickets sell out fast. I got in line just after 9 a.m. and by the time I reached the counter at 10:45, more than half the films showing today were sold out. I did manage to get a ticket to the Malaysian film Sell Out! by Yeo Joon Han, which I am really looking forward to. Considering I was tasked with teaching students in Singapore to be creative (no joke), it will be interesting to see Yeo’s lampooning of how corporate interests wreak havoc on creative industries.

I also picked up a ticket to 63 Years On, a documentary by Kim Dong-won about Korean comfort women (sex slaves in World War II) and how their lives are now. I’ve crossed paths with this topic so many times before that the film caught my eye and I thought I’d take a look.

In the coming days, I’m hoping to catch a few more documentaries, and some films from Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Tan Chee Wee, head of the Signapore Film Commission, gave brief opening statements at the beginning of an event adjacent to the festival, Asia Policy Plus, a two-day conference about film policies in the region. He speaks again tomorrow, so I’ll learn more about how films in Singapore are funded. Today, Tan talked about a bit about a funding scheme for new directors to make their first feature-length films. It seems that the Commission will take a large role in “nurturing” these films — and I hope to clarify exactly what that means. Brian is focusing on Taiwan and Hong Kong films and we’ll both be writing some short reviews for Asia Pacific Arts.

random updates: writing about Singapore, teaching in Cambodia and watching movies in Korea

I had a little bit of an epiphany about my writing life in Singapore a while ago. And I promised I would write more about the country where I live. So, a few months later, I am true to my word and am posting for Global Voices. Will work my way up to longer, reported writing.

I’m also not giving up just yet on my goal to get at least a few of my students reading more. I’m writing for them at npReads. Students, colleagues — if you’re reading this, I’d love for you to contribute and build the site after my fellowship ends.

Next next weekend, I’ll be attending a bar camp in Phnom Phen. I’d like to teach a news writing topic — perhaps about upsidedown triangles or a spiced up lead drill of some sort. Any suggestions or requests? Mostly, I am very excited to meet new people and get to know Cambodia a bit.

In the first week of October, I’ll be off to the Pusan Internation Film Festival with my friend and trusted film maniac Brian Hu. I’ll take some photos and do some writing and try to see as many beautiful people as possible. And get a taste for Korea.

Then it’s off to Los Angeles, home of tacos and burritos and In ‘n Out burgers. And my family too.

Orientalism or chinoiserie?

Marketing material for the 1926 Milan premeire of Turandot on the left, and for the 2008 Singapore staging on the right.

Like most people, I don’t know where I first heard the famous aria Nessun Dorma of Puccini’s Turandot. But my interest in the opera has certainly been revived several times recently.

Maybe it was Pavarotti’s triumphant (if staged) performance of the aria at the 2006 Torino Olympics. Or maybe it was the recent Beijing staging of the opera, with a new ending that revisited Puccini’s version of a Chinese folk song instead of recapitulating Nessun Dorma.

Both of these revivals, for me, took place (via YouTube and podcasts) in Singapore. It’s an interesting vantage point, to see how an Italian opera set in “legendary China” — Peking more specifically — is interpreted in Asia. Some criticize Puccini’s work at worst as Orientalist, and more diplomatically as chinoiserie. So when I read that the Singapore Lyric Opera is staging a production at the Esplanade, I bought a seat (back, center) to see how they would interpret it.

While the quality of the music was not awe-inspiring (though, Nessun Dorma takes my breath away under almost any circumstance), the staging was interesting and rich. Along with the simple but grand sets, came sometimes grammatically awkward English translations on two side screens, as well as Chinese translations below. The audience laughed heartily at the wise-cracking ministers, Ping, Pong and Pang, and other elements of the show most often criticized as stereotypical.

China had banned Turandot for 70 years. Its brutal title character, a steely princess who has her suitors beheaded for not answering riddles correctly, was not an ideal heroine. The opera was, however, an inaugural piece for the Beijing National Center for the Performing Arts, with its new ending by a Chinese composer. Puccini died before completing the opera and the most commonly staged ending is by his contemporary, Franco Alfano.

It’s interesting that the Hong Kong-born director of Singapore’s production, Lo King-man, has also endeavored to localize the opera by adjusting for Chinese sensibilities, though he sticks with Alfano’s version of the end. “For us Chinese, to see it being set in the Qing Dynasty [1644-1911], we lose that exotic and remote and fairy-tale and legendary feeling that some time there could have been such a woman like this,” he told Time Out Singapore. Lo took a darker approach, using bronze metallic colors and simple, peasant costumes for the chorus, instead of the flashy Qing and Ming Dynasty costumes and sets of more famous stagings of the opera. It was meant to look older than the Qing Dyanasty, Lo said.

These kinds of adaptations create cultural webs — Italians interpreting Chinese, then Chinese interpreting Italians interpreting Chinese — that say a lot about how cultures get appropriated and reappropriated, by the West, East and every multinational production (such as Singapore’s) in between.

unlikely combos

I spent maybe too much time this weekend reviving my rap playlist on iTunes. But it’s not my fault! To be fair, rappers are making pretty good news lately.

I’ve been waiting for a hero to take on Fox News, and I’ve found one in the most unexpected of places. My favorite rapper #2, Nas, is taking Bill O’Reilly to task, and what’s even better is that he’s doing some of this very important work on really reputable new sources.

And I thought this was enough for one weekend, enough to keep me busy looking for videos and awesome soundbites from both sides. Enough for me to start emailing friends links to my favorite Nas songs from YouTube. But two more unlikely combos are taking even more of my attention.

snoop-akshay.jpgSnoop has gone to Bollywood. My favorite line: “Snoop Dogg’s got love for everybody. I like how the Punjabis get down;
the way they dress is fresh and they got a real appreciation for music.”

And then, I find out that Ludacris is eating roti pratas. I can relate to one of the patrons of his new restaurant: “‘The roti is like crack,’ said Camille Wright, 36, the owner of a boutique in nearby Decatur, who was devouring the paper-thin pancakes with friends.

the other self-censorship story


The front page of the Sunday Times (the Sunday edition of the Straits Times) on July 20 had a big graphic about a really sensational story of two “warring” bloggers. One is suing the other for defamation.

Here’s a follow-up that’s free on the Straits Times website.

No, I have not fallen into the black hole of tabloids news from the trenches of online celebrities. I just wanted to give you a bit of background to the opinion piece the Straits Times ran yesterday:

Ignorance may not always be bliss

By Ang Peng Hwa

The lawsuit between two of Singapore’s top bloggers is alarming. It
may spill over into the larger blogging community and could even
backfire on the two involved.

Given that no writer or editor can be free of errors all the time,
defamation suits can and do crop up. But, often, those between a media
organisation and an individual can be settled quietly.

It is, however, quite another matter altogether when one content
producer sues another. This may set a precedent with far-reaching

The law is a two-edged sword: It can cut the wielder too. To avoid
being sued, would Singapore blogs have to be sanitised by lawyers? If
so, how edgy can they be? And what appeal would they have if they
aren’t edgy?

This particular libel suit may lead to self-censorship. In which case, the biggest losers would be the biggest bloggers.

(via AsiaMedia)

Reading this opinion piece, I wonder if such a frank critique of the use of defamation suits has been made about Singapore’s most famous defamation suits. Do politicians have the same rights to lose in suing each other?

If there are some locally published articles or opinion pieces on the topic of how defamation works (or doesn’t work) in Singapore, please do comment and leave links.

the scales of justice

I haven’t written much about Singapore. As I approach my last few months here, I’m starting to ask myself why.

Perhaps it’s because I live here — sometimes it’s easier to observe things when you are a complete outsider. That doesn’t seem satisfactory though. I’m a curious and inquisitive person by nature, wherever I am. I remember as a kid one Christmas, while all my sisters were getting toys and clothes, my uncle bought me a really fat, hardcover, Costco-esque book called “The Big Book of Tell Me Why” — he said maybe it would be better to consult the book, then to ask so many questions to the adults.

So, as much as I try to gloss it over, the reason I don’t write about Singapore is pretty clear. While I know the risks are actually quite minimal, I just don’t want to deal with the hassle of people here finding out that I’m writing about Singapore politics. Reading that last sentence again, I realize it sounds absurd, but that’s how this little island really operates. People self-censor to make their lives easier.

But why? What are the risks involved? There’s of course livelihood issues. Employers tend to not be so happy about their employees being outspoken on political issues. They subtly nudge their employees to focus on art and culture and economics so as not to risk their company’s reputations.

But there is also a judicial question. This country is famous for its efficient and fair court system, which is a big reason why so many businesses feel comfortable setting up shop on the island. They know that they will get a fair shake if something goes wrong.

But since the Far Eastern Economic Review was kicked out in 2006, and subsequently sued for defamation (here’s a nice summary and introduction to the issues by Columbia’s journalism school), there have been questions about how the judiciary in Singapore operates. It’s important to read the essay that created the stir (PDF), as well as some of the explanations for the suit (scroll down to the question about FEER near the end).

And now, with the defamation suit against Chee Soo Juan in full swing, those questions are coming back. The International Bar Association listed their concerns (PDF) about, among other things, defamation suits and their use in Singapore’s courts.  Here’s the Straits Times take, a view from Australia, a Wall Street Journal opinion, and a piece from The Economist. You can also get lost in the black hole of Singapore Rebel’s court transcripts for first-hand information, editorialized introductions to each blog entry aside.

What does this have to do with my hesitation to blog about Singapore? Well, nothing. And everything. When everyone around you self-censors — they whisper certain names, cut lines out of scripts, report heavily on certain speeches but not others — it’s hard not to think that they have real reasons for doing so. Not many people want to bring trouble on themselves for voicing an opinion, or even just reporting on others’ opinions. And after a while, even if I don’t know what can get me into trouble and what cannot, I just make a habit of not publishing certain things.

I don’t think this entry is objectionable — I have not taken a position on these issues and all of ten people read my blog. But I will reread it three times before I hit the publish button anyway.