Monday, September 29, 2008

It's a Political Circus

So I've been following the US elections the last couple of weeks, months even, and it strikes me like it's one big circus. The voters come to watch, the more sponsors the troop gets the more extravagant the display, the crowd either gets entertained or riled, and at the end of the performance, they go home and nothing changes.

That was nothing but a moment of suspended reality, where they toy with the idea of doing something crazy like voting for the opposite camp.

A republican (American) I spoke to recently agreed that at the end of the day, people vote on emotions, and candidates don't follow through with their campaign promises anyway. Sure the Democrats may be more pro-environment, pro-welfare type intervention for sectors like health and education, and anti-war, but in essence they won't change economic policies and the big businesses will continue to run the show they were before. Which means the same economic and social inequalities that are endemic in the current system (that, by the way, has endured since the 19th century) will persist and possibly widen with the added pressure of migration (both legal and illegal).

When Karl Marx spoke of the "Lumpen Proletariat" in 1848, he had no idea of the global scale it would take in modern civilisation. Our low-skilled migrant is the 21st century's Lumpen Proletariat

But let's not get carried away. Looking again at the Republican vs. Democratic candidate's stand on the rescue package for Wall Street to avert complete collapse of the US financial system, BOTH said they would support it. Both say that they have proposed different changes to is and different approaches. I've been digging deep to understand what this difference is, and the only difference I can really find is the rhetoric.

The theatrics of politics is something that never fails to amuse, maybe because we are so starved of it here in Singapore. Here we skip to the chase. We know nothing's going to change anyway so why bother with the performance?

But what's even scarier is the prevalence ideology has over the choices an individual makes. We may call ourselves republicans or democrats, liberals or conservatives, but if we dig deep into what these ideological groups really represent, you'll encounter many overlaps, and these groups we claim allegiance to suddenly spread into a spectrum of conservatives and liberals within each group.

Should we then be so quick to claim allegiance to a euphemism that is a social construct born out of selective understanding?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

'Tis the season to resign

Last weekend, two countries forced their leaders to step down - South Africa's ANC called for the resignation of their President Mbeki, and Israel asked their PM Olmert to step down.

In fact, the last couple of months have seen a call for the change of leadership across the world. Everywhere, people are calling for change. But what exactly? It's all too easy to say we don't like what we see today. But to come up with a concrete vision for tomorrow, is quite a different task altogether.
In Malaysia, the saga has been going on for a good while now. PM Abdullah Badawi has been ask by senior members of his own party to quit soon to save the Barisan Nasional from its battered political position. The Barisan Nasional has seen a crisis of credibility across the board, not only in the eyes of its minorities but also the poor Malays who continue to languish in poverty despite the governments affirmative action such as the Bumiputra law.

In Thailand, the PAD (opposition party) sit-out at the Government House in Bangkok has gone on with quite a stamina, leading to the ouster of then PM Samak. He's now been replaced by a much less assertive figure Somchai Wongsawat, brother-in-law of ousted premier Thaksin. Not quite the change the PAD and their supporters were looking for. Still, Somchai may not have the metal of his predecessor, but he did do some good work as minister of education, making education free and more accessible for people living in the rural areas.

The PAD wants change. But not the change that is good for Thailand or its enshrined democracy. The PAD leadership is neither liberal nor democractic and the change they seek is in fact a regression to old-style authoritarian rule with a mostly appointed parliament and powers for the army to step in when it chooses.

Skipping over to the African continent, in South Africa, Thabo Mbeki was forced to resign over corruption charges. A high court judge accused Mbeki and senior justice officials of being part of an illegal conspiracy to charge Zuma (his political rival) with corruption for political ends.

But Mbeki has been good for South Africa's economy. He has been responsible for the emergence of a "Black" middle class in South Africa and his pro-business policies saw the country rise as one of the largest recipients of foreign direct investments in the developing world. Yet, growth has only trickled down to a small minority and Zuma claims to have the solution to South Africa's widening income and social inequality. Though he claims that he will not reverse Mbeki's economic policies, it is hard to see how he will be able to create an economy that is both pro-business and pro-union (from which his main support comes from) at the same time.

Over to Israel, PM Olmert was asked to resign on Saturday over corruption charges and did so promptly the next day. Foreign minister Tzipi Livni is poised to succeed him if she manages to form a new government within 42 days.

With Israel, it's hard say what change they could be looking for, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. But it is heartening to know that Livni supports a two-state system, which would facilitate peace with Palestine, far better than the position of the opposition party, Likud, which is Ultra-nationalist and anti-Palestine.

With all this change in the winds sweeping across the globe, it's now time for us to watch and wait to see if this really brings a storm of change, or if it is just a light breeze of reprieve from the old stink of corruption, war and politicking.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Are we desensitising our readers?

It can be quite dehumanising working in the newsroom, where the availability of news - often the more harrowing the better - determines whether you have a good front page or not.

When I made the decision to choose journalism as a career over research, I had in mind the idea that I could make a difference by what I write and by joining the newsroom, I will have greater impact. But after being here for just a couple of months, I begin to realise that news today, not just in Singapore, is rife with macabre reports.

Are we as journalists, desensitising our readers with our constant flow of negative reports. Are we creating a humanitarian fatigue among our readers to the point where they no longer want to read about starvation in Africa or human rights abuse in Myanmar, or protests against forced evictions in China?

I was reading a book review by Stephen Wolgast on a book called "My Brother's Keeper" which tracks the emergence of human rights photography. Wolgast brought up the same issues - What is the function of photographs and what is the role of photographers?

Wolgast sited examples of photographers whose work "shocked audience[s] and led to social reform".

Should that not be what us journalists aspire to as well?

Susie Linfield, photography scholar, also brought up a dilema faced by photographers that we reporters also encounter - how to show suffering without demeaning the subject. For reporters, how do we write about someone's plight without taking away his/her dignity as a human being, with a God given right to be seen as a person and not an object of pity?

In the end, Wolgast contends that "instead of making us immune to the suffering of others, the proliferation of images has made us more aware of inequality in the world".

I hope he's right. And I hope it's the same for news. It is at least heartening to see that the youth in Singapore are at least more active in overseas volunteer activities today. But whether it springs from a genuine desire to make a difference, or the glam factor of being a do-gooder in a third world country, is another story altogether.

For the most part, Singaporeans are happy to observe and acknowledge poverty from a distance. We feel sorry for a moment, shed a tear or two, and then proceed to shed many more dollars at a spa, restaurant or boutique to soothe our aching conscience. After all, if we're not buying these products, those poor child labourers will be out of a job.

Picture source:

Monday, September 15, 2008

9/11: Questions that remain

A few interesting points brought up in this clip:
  1. Osama bin Laden is not officially held responsible for the 9/11 attacks because there isn't enough evidence to prove the connection.
  2. There is enough evidence to prove that the official reasons for why the twin towers collapsed after the 2 planes crashed into the towers were false.
Have a watch....

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Holy terrorism in the name of Democracy


It is highly disturbing to hear someone like Sarah Palin say that this war on elusive "terrorism" is the will God because terrorists threaten everything humanity and the US stands for - i.e. democracy, human rights and freedom.

"that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending [U.S. soldiers] out on a task that is from God."

But hold on a second. The US has become a much less free nation since Bush declared war on "terrorism" and civilian freedoms, and the enshrined right to fair trial has come undone by the very people who claim they are fighting for the world's freedom and human rights.

An article by Hesham Hassaballa in the Islamica Magazine says that secret prisons have been set up across the world where CIA can interrogate SUSPECTED terrorists with "techniques tantamount to torture (read Washington Post 2005).

In Afghanistan, the largest CIA covert prison was code-named the Salt Pit, at center left above. Source: Washington Post

The Bush administration also sought to prevent detainees from revealing details of the "alternative interrogation methods" used in these secret prisons in federal court (read Washington Post 2006).

To be fair, the US supreme court did strike down these acts and opposed the unilateral establishment of a military commission to try terror suspects. But President Bush later signed a Military Commissions Act of 2006 which made the latter legal:

"[It] establishes procedures governing the use of military commissions to try alien unlawful enemy combatants engaged in hostilities against the United States for violations of the law of war and other offenses triable by military commission."

Note - No definition for "alien unlawful enemy combatant" was given, so practically anyone who looks alien, speaks arabic, is mulsim and has a glazed over look could potentially wind up in one of their special secret cells in Guantanamo or Cuba. The lucky ones get to go to Thailand.

Hesham's article calls for a rethinking of the strategy in the war on terror. The US, not least western media should stop spreading Islamaphobia, and stop framing this war with religious lexicon.

This war is not a holy war and certainly not a war of religions. It's a symptom of oppression and economic inequality. God knows this war is keeping America's "defense" industry awash with profits. How about redirecting some of that money to creating jobs and educating people instead?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Religion is more than just the 'opium of a nation'

Marx called religion the "opium of a nation", he left out how religion is equally potent as an instrument of war and belligerence.

Here's a comparison of 2 articles from The Economist on how religious sites have been the source of conflict:

Note: some parts of the original article have been omitted here. Click on link for the full article.

Places apart

Aug 28th 2008
From The Economist print edition
A plan to turn sites of conflict into beacons of peace

WHEN an army wants to dishearten a defeated foe, few things are more effective than desecrating his holiest shrines. And when a demagogue or warlord wants to make peaceful folk take up arms, nothing works better than telling them that their faith’s holiest site needs reclaiming.

And in modern times, fighting over holy places—from India to Jerusalem to the Balkans—seems almost as common as it was in the Middle Ages. During the Bosnian war, over 3,000 religious buildings were destroyed or damaged, including Catholic and Orthodox churches, and above all mosques. In Kosovo, the minority Serbs say scores of Orthodox churches or monasteries have been wrecked by ethnic-Albanian nationalists.

But holy places, even those that are claimed by more than one religion, are not always a source of conflict; there are plenty of cases where a shared holy place has led to a bond between people of different faiths who have divergent beliefs about the site but still rub along.

Hence a plan that was unveiled in Norway this summer to establish a code of conduct for holy sites on which all governments could agree. The code would protect the right of one or more communities to worship at a sacred site and the right of individuals and groups to manifest their faith at holy places.

Temple temptations

Aug 14th 2008 JERUSALEM
From The Economist print edition
The issue of Jerusalem’s holiest site may again be dividing Jews

After the 1967 war, Moshe Dayan, Israel’s then defence minister, ruled that the Temple Mount where the golden Dome of the Rock has stood since the seventh century after Christ, would remain an exclusively Muslim place of worship, administered by the Waqf, or Muslim religious trust. Jews and Christians could visit but not worship there. Rabbis of all religious and political stripes agreed.

This arrangement broadly endured, between periodic bursts of violence. But it never allayed Arab fears that the Jews had designs on the mount.

In 1984, the Israeli authorities arrested a group of fanatical Jewish settlers for plotting to fire rockets into the mosque. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, infuriated Bill Clinton and Israeli negotiators by repeatedly denying there ever was a Jewish temple on the site and rejecting proposals to share sovereignty over it.

In September 2000, a walk on the mount by Israel’s then opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, prompted bloody clashes which turned into a six-year Palestinian intifada (uprising).

The negotiation of Jerusalem has also split the Jews. The Nationalist-orthodox close to Jews who have settled on the Palestinian West Bank are permitting—even encouraging—their followers to visit the mount.

The larger, ultra-Orthodox community remains ostensibly unaffected. Its rabbis still forbid even walking on the mount and are content to wait for the Messiah without spurring him on.

But between the two groups there is a theological overlap that translates into a tough brand of politics. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a pivotal part of the government’s coalition, has given notice that it will walk out if there is any negotiation over Jerusalem. Sure enough, in leaked draft proposals put by Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, the question of Jerusalem is postponed indefinitely. Or until the Messiah comes?