Filed under: By Rachel Zeng
Jeraldine Pneah, a local blogger, recently wrote a blog post entitled “Ego issues in Singapore’s civil society” based on her recent observations of “various quarrels online“.
While I can appreciate Jeraldine’s observations of civil society from what I see as a position of limited or zero interaction with most of us, our work and the way we engage with each other privately during meetings and discussions, I am not quite able to let her opinions go unchallenged. So here is a blog post in my humble attempt to paint a bigger picture of the civil society that I have come to know, appreciate and be part of in the past few years.
The reason why I am airing my disagreement in a public blog rather than writing to Jeraldine in person is because her opinions are displayed on a her blog. I strongly believe that alternative opinions should be expressed on the same platform as it is just fair for regular readers of online blogs to be presented with differing opinions and shall I add at the unfortunate risk of sounding patronising… realities and experiences.
“Civil society” is more diverse than observed
Citizen activism, as how I see it, did not just begin to grow in recent years. The current bunch of folks in civil society consists of advocates of human and animal rights with experiences ranging from as long as more than forty years to a few weeks or days. It did not just begin to grow, but has always been going through the process of growing and stagnation. Indeed it might be small compared to larger countries like Hong Kong, Philippines, Taiwan and basically almost all in the rest of the world, but civil society in Singapore is definitely not just made up of citizen journalists and activists. We have academics, social workers, artists, published writers and opposition politicians in our midst as well.
Issues such as gender equality, labour rights for local, migrant and sex workers, LGBTQ, death penalty, freedom of speech and expression, general discrimination, detention without trial etc have been taken up and championed by groups and individuals who form the general sector of “civil society.
The groups and individuals in civil society operate differently from each other. A handful work on their causes on a full-time basis, usually paid, while most of us do this in addition to our day jobs and our cause based work and activities are usually self-sponsored and not regularly funded. Some work towards having more engagement with governmental sectors and politicians, some believe in the need for pure ground work, some believe in “civil disobedience” while others believe in the need to be flexible in their approaches. Hence, civil society is really a very diverse sector in the social and political fabric of Singapore.
On agreements, disagreements, likes and dislikes
In her blog post, Jeraldine pondered “What is the point of publicly stating your stance immediately? Lashing out at them? Making personal attacks?“
All human beings judge, form impressions, praise, criticise and express their opinions on a daily basis. Similarly, all human beings are being judged, they create impressions and go through being praised and criticised on a daily basis.
As folks who choose to express part of our cognitive self and personal belief systems publicly, be it through our socio-political work, blogs, Facebook or any other platforms, we are constantly subjected to the above mentioned cognitive and emotional processes that all human beings do go through. It is humanely impossible to expect otherwise, and since we put ourselves in such public positions, the general criticisms, judgments, agreements and disagreements also happen publicly.
Personally, I think that a discourse cannot exist without public discussions which include both agreement and disagreement. The reason why our socio-political climate is pretty much immature, often leading to personal and misogynistic attacks as well as instances whereby constructive criticisms are being taken personally, is due to the lack of understanding of global ideologies and critical exchanges of opinions no thanks to an overdose of self-moderation in a society that has not put much value in critical thinking when it comes to socio-political issues.
As much as criticisms or the existence of differing opinions can sometimes sting and “make people look bad”, we do need to take into consideration the value and validity of such statements and take time to reflect on our personal work, thoughts and conviction. Public expression of differing opinions reminds us that diversity exists and there is much to learn from and about the opinions of others, whether we like, dislike, agree or disagree with their thoughts (and actions).
However of course, I am not agreeing with irrelevant and baseless character assassination or sexist and misogynistic comments made in order to deny an individual’s right to intellectual and emotional expression based on discriminatory stereotypes (e.g., “Why don’t you shut up and go back to your bloody kitchen?” or “Eh, time of the month is it?”).
I am also not in agreement with fallacious labels being slapped upon well-meaning and vocal members of civil society or others who have made the effort to participate in the discussions (e.g., “Migrant rights groups are pro-foreigners” and “Since you say that we should not discriminate against foreigners, are you trying to tell us that you are anti-Singaporeans?“), even though several of these misunderstood individuals have continually taken the time and effort to explain themselves and their stance in the bid to seek for a common understanding BUT we must also understand that if people choose to stubbornly maintain their false opinions of the basis of our work, they do have all the right in the world to. Perhaps instead of letting that affect us, we should politely end the engagement and move on, while also reflecting on our personal effectiveness in communicating our intentions – something which all advocates in the world have to go through in order to develop a better way of advocacy.
Yes, this is a reminder to myself as well.
That said though, I do agree with Jeraldine that one can write to another in private to seek for clarification. In fact, there is much of that going on even in this current debate on the perception that foreigners are here to “threaten our livelihood” (quoted words aren’t mine) which may or may not be reflected in the public discussions and it is totally fine because they are after all, private discussions.
On intentions and motivations
We have to acknowledge the fact that there is no such thing as a full set of common interests and motivations across the board, while we seek to call for change in our society with our work on various causes. It varies, although there are instances whereby common interests and motivations do occur. This happens not only in civil society but in every sector and every corner of the world where human beings exist.
We cannot determine that an individual disagrees with another publicly in order to generate attention or to display superiority over another. However I am not entirely sure about what sort of comments Jeraldine was referring to when she mentioned “in the pursuit of wanting to come across as correct, that your method is the best, that you are intellectually and morally superior and more experienced“. I must say that my personal experiences with many of the folks in civil society, even after considering all the discussions and heated debates that have occurred when we work together, have mostly been in contrary to what she has experienced or observed.
Undoubtedly, bad experiences do occur (although rarely) but is that not a part and parcel of human interactions? Rather than letting ourselves be hurt and offended or let our credibility be torn apart, we should be ready to defend our opinions and work if we see the need to, or to learn from the experience. In short, we need to get rid of this “save face” mentality.
So what’s my point?
My point here is, we are not here to please everyone. For example, in the past few years of championing for human rights causes, several activists including myself, have received harsh judgments from total strangers to people we work with, love, care about and grow up with. We have also personally received death threats, threats to personal safety, sexist and misogynistic jibes, burned bridges (due to my straightforward nature) and rebuild them back again or see them forever destroyed (no doubt, it is very sad).
We cannot live life being bothered about who likes us and who do not, based on their disagreement of our thoughts and work, especially when they are complete strangers. In relation to our work as activists, we should do ourselves a great favour by not taking constructive public airing of opinions personally because it distracts us from the main purpose of our work. Also, taking differing opinions personally, whether on behalf of oneself or others, in my opinion, reflects one’s bruised ego and how one values self appreciation over the need for public discourse and discussions.
To Jeraldine, I would say that I am in no position to determine whether I like or dislike you (referring to one of your comments on FB in response to a friend’s criticism of you) because we do not know each other in person. As much as I disagree with several of the opinions expressed in your entire blog (I read your blog too!), you are definitely entitled to them… and I hope that you do not misunderstand this response of mine as an attempt to “come across as correct, that your method is the best, that you are intellectually and morally superior and more experienced” because I do not hold that sort of attitude and we are honestly, equals.
P.S: I am very long winded (“sipeh granny” like what my friend Joshua Chiang said), so I thank everyone for reading this.
“I can feel how my son suffered before he died. I can feel that. Really, I can’t take it.” – Mdm Selvi, mother of the late Dinesh Raman who died in prison on 27 September 2010.
How can the State and its judicial system not see the need to let a grieving parent and the rest of the family members know what exactly happened behind the death of a loved one?
How can the system be so non-transparent about the facts, especially when they run on public funds and has a responsibility to answer to all of us?
We currently have 543 signatures on the petition to call upon the Coroner to re-open the inquiry into the death of Dinesh Raman. If you would like to join us in the call, kindly visit the following link to have your name added to the petition:
Filed under: By Rachel Zeng, Singapore, Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign
When I received the news that Vui Kong will be issued the Certificate of Co-operation on Wednesday, I was close to tears. After 4 years of working on the campaign, which has been a roller-coaster ride between hopefulness and frustration, this feels like half a heavy load lifted from my shoulders… what a relief, in a lot of ways!
This is certainly great news for the loved ones of Vui Kong as well as the campaigners past and present, who have been working on this campaign since 2009. Special mention has to go to M Ravi, who has worked tirelessly and passionately, exploring all legal possibilities. Without him, Vui Kong and many others on death row might not have been here with us today and no amendments to both the Penal Code and Misuse of Drugs Act might have seen the light of the day. I would like to extend my heartfelt congratulations to Vui Kong and his family, as well as Ravi for what has been achieved today in this particular case. I would also like to congratulate the loved ones of Subashkaran Pragasam, the other death-row inmate who will be issued the Certificate of Co-operation.
For Vui Kong and Subashkaran, this is half the battle won and we await the good news that will result from the review, especially in the case of Vui Kong because I strongly believe that he stands a good chance to have his death sentence commuted.
However for advocates against both the death penalty and mandatory death penalty, work for us continues until the day we are rid of both. We shall pat each others’ backs and shake each others’ hands in encouragement and solidarity today for we have seen some results no matter how slight, and get back to our work as usual when morning breaks.
Note: I must reiterate though that as much as I am hopeful that Vui Kong and more death-row inmates will see their sentences commuted to life imprisonment, I do not welcome the addition of judicial caning as part of the deal.
This conversation happened sometime back and after reading through the transcript several times over the past few days, I feel this have to be shared.
Student A: Rachel, when people build more things, it means that they have to chop down the trees right?
Me: That’s right. How do you feel about this?
Student A: Then where do all the animals like the birds and the worms move to?
Student B: And monkeys and ants also.
Me: Where do you think they will move to?
Student A: Another tree? But then if they move to another tree, that tree will become so crowded. And then if people keep on chopping trees, then the animals need to keep moving right?
Student B: Or they die lor…
Me: Well, that’s true… how do you feel about this?
Student A: Then we cannot build more buildings anymore.
Student B: And then where do people live?
Student A: If we keep thinking about people, people and people, one day there will be no animals left. We need to think about the animals too and stop chopping down their homes! (She was actually angry…)
Me: What should we do then?
Student A: Recycle houses? Hahahahaa…
Student B: No… I don’t know what to do.
Student A: I know! We make posters to tell people that animals are so poor thing so we should stop destroying their homes. Can we do that or not?
Student B: Will it be too late? I mean, are many of the animals’ homes gone already? In future, will we still have any animals left when we grow up?
Indeed, will we still have any wildlife left in Singapore when my students who are now 5, grow up? I think it is time for us to seriously think about what we are destroying here… Bukit Brown might be gone soon, along with all its wonderful biodiversity. What is next, Chek Jawa and perhaps the whole of Pulau Ubin?
Let’s stop this before it is too late.
Dear Mr Tan Chuan-jin,
According to this Straits Times report, you called upon critics of the government or this country to help improve things. Guess what, I totally agree with you! Fortunately, I do know many Singaporeans who are not only critics, but spend their time trying to make things better for Singapore in their own ways.
However, as much as all of them are passionate in the various causes they have undertaken, work is often filled with obstacles. Let me introduce some of them to you and I would like you and your colleagues to take a few moments to reflect upon their work and the government’s attitudes towards us. Do note that this is not a full listing and that there are many more groups and individuals out there who are constantly working on making Singapore a better place.
1. Animal Rights:
Animal Concerns Research & Education Society (ACRES) – They are an awesome bunch of people whose work and mission are driven by their concern for animals and their welfare. One of their most notable campaigns that targets on making tourism in Singapore a little more cruelty-free includes urging Resorts World Singapore to send the dolphins back to where they belong – the ocean.
Cat Welfare Society (CWS) – Volunteers of the CWS work very actively in promoting a humane, responsible and informed society in Singapore where cats are cared for as pets and treated with kindness as community cats.
2. Human Rights:
Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign (SADPC) & We Believe in Second Chances – Pardon me for the self-promotion here but these two groups, one of which I am very much involved in, call for the abolition of the death penalty in Singapore by looking into more humane methods of judicial punishment. Besides organising events at Speakers’ Corner, running petitions and writing about death-row inmates in the angle that the mainstream media will never think of writing, we try our best to help the family members of death-row inmates by reaching out to them.
Think Centre – Think Centre is one of the two human rights NGOs in Singapore. They work on many human rights issues in Singapore and in the region such as migrant rights, freedom of speech and like SADPC and We Believe in Second Chances, they also work on advocating against the death penalty and reaching out to the families of death-row inmates. As their work is also regional, they help to put Singapore on the regional map. It is important for Singaporeans to participate in regional human rights work, don’t you think?
Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics (HOME) & Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) – These two organisations work on issues faced by migrant workers in Singapore. I cannot imagine a day without these two groups around. Do you know why? Well look, we have really ugly employers here who mistreat their migrant workers. Horrible horrible… but I am sure you know very well, you are the Acting Minister for Manpower anyway. By the way, time to change “Manpower” to “Labour” for goodness sake.
Function 8 – Function 8 works towards restarting the process of critical thinking in society, rejuvenate the staleness of a society based on economic expediency and reclaim the human dignity and freedom which is the basis of our humanity through events such as workshops and seminars, that create platforms for discussions and reflections.
Sayoni, People Like Us (PLU), Pelangi Pride Centre, The Purple Alliance (TPA), Young Out Here, Oogachaga – These organisations (and more) provide support networks for the LGBT community in Singapore. They also help to raise awareness on the issues faced by the community as well as seek to work towards having a more inclusive society in Singapore where members of the LGBT community are not discriminated against.
3. Nature, culture and heritage:
SOS Bukit Brown – I believe you already know them and their work but I am putting this on the list in case you have forgotten about them. This wonderful group of people not only advocate against the government’s plan to remove the cemetery, they also organise trips for visitors to Bukit Brown, imparting their rich knowledge of all the history and nature that lies within the very place that the government plans to destroy. Besides that, they also help Singaporeans locate their ancestors’ graves – now that is NOT an easy peasy piece of work.
Nature Society Singapore (NSS) – This is another wonderful group of people. Not only are they involved in the Bukit Brown issue, they also work towards educating the younger generation of Singapore on the importance of conserving what is naturally ours.
4. Online Media:
The Online Citizen (TOC), Publichouse.sg, TR Emeritus – They are not only writers. They run stories that seek to educate Singaporeans about people and issues that have been forgotten by society at large. They play an important part in enriching the minds and lives of Singaporeans, providing them with issues to think about. Remember the old lamentation that Singaporeans are rather apathetic and apolitical? Well now, this is changing, thanks to our online media.
Besides these groups, there are also many other individuals whose work contribute towards more awareness in our society, especially when it comes to social justice and civil liberties. One of them is human rights lawyer M Ravi. His legal battles reflect his beliefs that we need to put in place a more humane, democratic and inclusive society in Singapore.
Now Mr Tan, I hope that you will look through the whole list and realise that there are many Singaporeans who are actually acting upon their unhappiness about different aspects of our society. They are constantly working towards changing things for the better and most of the work are done at their own time and expenses. Rather than saying that Singaporeans should work towards helping to improve things, perhaps you should take a good look at the work done by people you and your colleagues have ignored, despised, intimidated, sued, criminalised and villianised.
I think that it is time that the government stops being so stubborn and listen to what Singaporeans have to say about the current policies and laws. It is also time for the government to stop being so reluctant to change their stance on various issues ranging from minimum wage to the death penalty. It is time to stop pointing fingers at Singaporeans, but to think about the government’s past and present actions and attitudes. It is also time for all of you in the Parliament to ask yourselves whether you are in office to serve the people or your personal political ambitions.
Now no one is perfect. So please do not act as if you are, just because you wear a white party uniform.
Thank you very much.
Filed under: By Rachel Zeng
(Wrote this for a friend recently. She just made me share this on my blog for the most bizarre reason but I think that she may perhaps be the only person who can laugh at this lame letter.)
You’ve swallowed some tiny little pills last night and they are nasty nasty little things. I never like those things, not even for migraine. And how very unfortunate, when you knew that you could have just called me up and I would have arrived with two items that will certainly knock you unconscious for awhile – a carpenter’s hammer and one of Pantera’s album. Yet you didn’t but I don’t blame you because I found your wee brain in the washing machine, where you left it for a spin and had forgotten to put it back to where it should be.
You aren’t alone. Nobody ever tells the perfect truth in this world and I know that because I too, hear the same lies everyday. Life’s a tough journey. There are many people you will continue to meet, who will lie to you, hurt you and try to exhaust that flame of brilliance burning brightly within you. However you will also meet those who will genuinely care about you – friends, lovers and/ or partners. I have, and you are one wonderful testimony of someone who I can rely on as a friend although at certain times in our friendship, I am sure that we must have been close to tearing each others’ hair out.
Now, Louis Binstock puts it very aptly that “very often we are our own worst enemy as we foolishly build stumbling blocks on the path that leads to success and happiness”. I hope that you now realise that this is so very true. Human beings are really very bizarre. We hold on to the very moral codes that have been shoved down our throats, as much as we do not believe in them… well, almost all of us anyway, and almost too often. Perhaps it is time that we reflect upon the oppression that lies just beneath the surface of these so called moral codes, and try to free ourselves from the way we allow these codes to control of our lives (ok, not all are bad or should be flushed out but you know what I mean).
Look, you are a wonderful human being. Appreciate yourself even if he did not appreciate you enough. Appreciate him for who he was and let go… let go because it is not worth dying for… and because one can only truly belong to oneself, not another (applies to you too). Been down the similar path a few times (the only diff: no paperwork was ever involved for me), I know how it feels like, really I do. It makes you want to break that bloody brick wall with your head, but it isn’t the end of the world. Well, not yet… the zombies are still in the making.
I know you must be pretty mad at me for saying all of the above, muttering under your breathe that my head must be in the clouds. All I am saying is, take ownership of your life and make it good, not the way you chose to but… well we all gotta try to be here for ourselves and live this life with our heads held high. You know what I mean right?
Well you’d better. Life is short, live it well and let go of all the crap that may drag you down. It may be difficult but help is just a hotline away and you know the charges – one cuppa hot chocolate per 15 minute block with extra whipped cream please.
Get well, bounce back soon. I believe in you.
Filed under: By Rachel Zeng, Singapore, Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign
On Tuesday 16 July 2013, Fabian Adiu Edwin became the first death-row inmate to get his sentence commuted after his case was reviewed at the High Court under the new amendments to the Penal Code and Misuse of Drugs Act, which allows judges to exercise judicial discretion by taking mitigating factors into consideration. In his judgment, High Court judge Chan Seng Onn considered Fabian’s young age at the time of his crime and his sub-normal intellect as mitigating factors and re-sentenced him to life imprisonment, plus 24 strokes of the cane.
Now I have been following this case since it was first reported in 2009. To a legal layperson like me, it was clearly a robbery gone wrong and in addition, Fabian’s sub-normal intellect should have granted him diminished responsibility. However when he was tried and sentenced in 2011, judge Chan disagreed with the Defence that Fabian should be tried with the consideration of diminished responsibility as the Defence could not produce evidences that he was suffering from an abnormality of mind at the time of the crime. Judge Chan also found inconsistency in Fabian’s statements when asked if he had intended to hurt the victim. Therefore, Fabian was found guilty of culpable homicide and was sentenced with the mandatory death sentence under 300(c) of the Penal Code. His co-accused, Ellary bin Puling, was found guilty of robbery with hurt and escaped being sentenced with the mandatory death sentence as judge Chan did not find common intent between Fabian and Ellary.
While I am genuinely grateful for the decision to overturn Fabian’s death sentence, I am dismayed by the fact that he will still have to face 24 strokes of the cane. In my opinion, caning constitutes torture and in a first world country like Singapore, we should be more enlightened about that fact and look towards alternative and humane ways of punishing and rehabilitating criminals. Furthermore, Fabian has been certified to be of sub-normal intellect and was said to be lowly educated, which could have contributed to his gross misconduct. Looking at all his circumstances, Fabian obviously falls within the marginalised. Do we want to become a country that treats the marginalised in such a barbaric and inhumane manner?
Well I think we seriously need to reflect on that.
As the matter is currently going through investigations and will be heard in court soon, this is considered sub judice. With this, I urge the Attorney General’s Chambers to charge all the editors and journalists from the mainstream media with contempt of court.
The general experience of working as an early childhood educator
Working with young children is a joy because they are such intriguing creatures with amazing thoughts and imagination. Due to our understanding of how experiences and exposure in early childhood equip children with the necessary life-skills and attitudes that they will bring forth into their contributions towards the society of the future, we are well aware that we are touching the future as we facilitate their learning and development. Being a participant in the process of molding the future, is an amazing experience – for most of us anyway.
It should be entirely so, shouldn’t it? Well no, let me show you the reality.
Where on one hand we are filled with so much passion and joy, the amount of frustrations and stress early childhood educators face can get overwhelming too, especially when our working conditions can sometimes be really appalling and demotivating. Being an early childhood educator can be a physically and emotionally demanding profession. We are not only responsible for the well-being, development and learning of our students, we are also filled with numerous non-teaching related workload that can sometimes be carried out by cleaners and office administrators. As the cost of living goes up, we see our salaries becoming gradually insufficient. This is especially so for those with families to support. In addition, many of us are still not empowered to advocate for our students but are required by the management of our centres to fulfill the demands of parents… which at times, may be unreasonable (towards their children, and towards us). There is also a lack of recognition of the importance of our role and while I am not blaming society at large for this, I think at the very least we should not be insulted with the label “high class nannies” and childcare centres should not be seen as a place for parents to “park” their children (people DO say things like that to us).
Indeed by plain descriptions, these may not seem like anything at all and unless one experiences it on a daily basis, the reality of how demotivated and frustrated we feel at times, may not be truly understood. It is also true that working conditions in some centres may be better than others but generally, things cannot remain stagnant in exploitation of our passion for our work. I am aware that the leaders of the sector are looking into ways to improve our working conditions but we need to speed things up as a sector… before the lack of early childhood educators becomes a crisis and this will actually come to aggravate the negativity because it simply means that our already heavy workload will have to increase again.
Let’s reflect and re-examine
No doubt as an educator, I condemn the action because the implications on the child can be seriously damaging. However, I can empathise with the educator while at the same time my heart goes out to the child and his family. Empathy with an individual though, is not the same as being supportive of her mistake. Nor am I saying that she should not shoulder her part of the responsibility and face the consequences. She should, and she needs help as well (counseling, anger management, medical attention if necessary).
A lot of reflections are needed here, rather than more hurtful words which aren’t really helping. We are gifted with the ability to think, reflect and problem solve. Pure condemnation without a series of thought processes is simply a lazy and non-productive way to utilise our brain cells and the intellectual abilities we are gifted with. I think we are all better than that.
I would personally like to appeal to the general public not to judge the whole lot of us just because of one grave mistake or mistakes of one or a few educators. Early childhood educators are professionals who are well educated in child development, education and to a substantial extent, child psychology. We did not become educators to make life difficult for your children. In fact, I think most parents are quite aware that their children mean the world to us.
a. implication on the ECE sector – this will only deepen the fallacy that all early childhood educators cannot be trusted;
b. possible implication on families/ school community – this will cause misunderstandings between parents whose children are involved in classroom conflicts (e.g., “Your child bit mine first, why can’t my child retaliate?”);
c. possible implication on parent-educator relations – this will cause misunderstandings between parents and educators if parents feel that their children are not being treated fairly (e.g., “My child was punched, and the other child just got a time-out and some questioning?”);