Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Don’t Piss on the Ashes

By Dr Wong Wee Nam, 20 January 2015

I couldn’t resist the headline “Chan Chun Sing rebuffs Huffington Post for running articles by Chee Soon Juan”.

The latter had written two articles “Without Freedom There is No Free Trade” and “Free the Singapore Media and Let the People Go” talking basically about income inequality, media freedom creativity and the need for improvement in the system.

There is rarely open political debate in Singapore involving the ruling party, and certainly, a debate even between a powerful ex-Major General turned Minister and what Chan Chun Sing calls a politically-failed nobody must surely deserve some attention.

I started reading the rebuttal with great expectations because I expected a scholar and a touted future Prime Minister to demolish the “failure” with very strong and logical arguments. But I was disappointed. What I read was not a response to the issues raised by Dr Chee but a personal attack on him, raking up his past and labelling him with derisory terms.

Phyllis Schlafly, an American constitutional lawyer, has this to say about ad hominem personal attacks: That shoddy tactic is a loser before any audience.

Confucius also warned of the dangers of being ungentlemanly. In the Analects of Confucius under the segment of The Great Learning, there is a famous saying,十目所视,十手所指, 其严乎 (Ten Eyes Watching, Ten Hands Pointing, How Terrifying!) This is a famous saying from Zengzi, a disciple of Confucius. It simply tells you how you behave is watched by 10 pairs of eyes and the fingers pointing at you will come from 10 pairs of hands. Quite unnerving! In the age of the internet and particularly when you are a politician, you will be watched by hundreds or even thousands of eyes and criticized by the same number hands. Zengzi’s advice is that a person should be sincere, should not to be overbearing, and should act without airs.

Mencius, another disciple of Confucius, also advised. 言人之不善,当如后患何?This means that when you speak ill of others, you had better consider how things will backfire.

No wonder the internet is flooded with criticisms against those who strike a low blow!

The PAP has always been a supporter of a Confucian-style of government. Perhaps the Analects should be made compulsory reading for its potential acolytes.

There is a story from the History of the Han Dynasty that people aspiring to positions of power should take note. During the reign of Emperor Han Wudi, an official, Han Anguo, was sent to jail for some offence. The jailor, Tian Jian, frequently insulted him. Han told him, “Who can say for certain that dying ashes would not burn again.” Tian retorted, “If that happens, I’ll piss and put it out again.”

A few years later, Han was released and became an official again. For fear of his safety, Tian fled. Han ordered that he return or his whole family would be executed. Tian returned and apologized to Han.

“Now you can piss on me,” Han said.

Tian turned ghastly white, dropped onto his knees, kowtowed nonstop and begged for mercy. “Get up,” Han told him. “I am above retaliating against a person like you.”

What a gentleman. An exemplary leader indeed!

Brecht & Biennales

"Aren't today's questions about the role of art in instigating social changes equally pressing as they were in the 1930s, when the Left confronted fascism and Stalinism? Or do we really consider them today to be solved within an all-encompassing system of cultural industry and its contemporary malformations, confined to art genres, predictable as cultural trends, and profitable for the purposes of marketing?"

"Brecht himself pointed out similarities between the time of early industrial capitalism when Gay's The Beggar's Opera was written, and his own time: 'We still have, however, the same sociological situation. Just like two hundred years ago we have a social order in which virtually all levels, albeit in a wide variety of ways, pay respect to moral principles not by leading a moral life but by living off morality.' The situation continues to this day, with the emphasis sliding periodically back and forth between religious morality and liberal democracy."

"Today, biennial exhibitions are elements of cultural tourism through which cities attempt to use their benign and internationally communicative regional specificities to position themselves on the map of the globalised world; they are manifestations tending to 'cultural shopping' in which art is often presented as cool, fun, entertaining... Brecht was certainly critical of what he called a 'culinary' treatment of art solely as a means of entertainment, but he did not shy away from the entertaining role of art. In the popular and mass culture, as Brecht warned us, the problem is not pleasure, but its function. The question is therefore how to 'set pleasure free,' how to regain revolutionary role of enjoyment in a society in which, as Zizek points out, demands of the Super-Ego to enjoy-and not repression of enjoyment-have become the main mechanism of social regulation and repression."

"Brecht invites us to rethink our position again and again, to see the world as amateur actors, without dulling our critical faculties or our potential for intervention and change by learning the rules all too well. As a writer and a director, Brecht continuously sought to slice open and display, then deconstruct and transform the theatre's 'production apparatus'-it is this approach that should lead us out of the current deadlock of 'contemporary art apparatus.' At this time, the question of 'usability' of Brecht means first and foremost a repeated need to observe the interaction of art and social relations."

Excerpts from the concept note of the 11th Istanbul Biennial.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Monday, January 5, 2015

Happy Birthday JBJ, 5 Years Later

Today, January the 5th, is the birthday of Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (JBJ), one of Singapore's most respected opposition politicians. He passed away in September 2008, and this is a video I made for his birthday in January 2009.


Actually it was a nightmare for me to make this video, because I feel that he did not see justice done to himself within his lifetime. But others such as Low Thia Khiang, who did not provide him help when he needed it the most, remain in parliament till this very day.

At his funeral, as his coffin went into the incinerator, everyone in attendance stood and sang 'Majulah Singapura'. That was probably the first time I felt every single word of it being sung in pure, crushing sincerity. And of course, it crushed me. As the crematorium cleared out at the end... I remained, crying, as a few of my friends waited by.

Five years later, I believe we are starting to see the changes he spent his whole life fighting for. Singaporeans have started waking up, not all of them surely, but so many more than before. And in this next coming election, I know we will see Singapore moving forward in the right direction.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

உள்ளத்தில் நல்ல உள்ளம் (Ullathil Nalla Ullam, The Most Beautiful Amongst Souls)

A scene (in Tamil) from the Indian epic Mahabharatha, where Krishna sings a hymn to the dying Karna on the battlefield. The source of the English translation below espouses that for all the virtue claimed of Krishna, he was the greatest liar on the "good" side and for all the filth thrown his way, Karna was the purest drop of gold on the "evil" side. Reflecting upon this, Krishna presented this parting gift.


உள்ளத்தில் நல்ல உள்ளம் உறங்காதென்பது
வல்லவன் வகுத்ததடா... கர்ணா
வருவதை எதிர்கொள்ளடா
உள்ளத்தில் நல்ல உள்ளம் உறங்காதென்பது
வல்லவன் வகுத்ததடா... கர்ணா
வருவதை எதிர்கொள்ளடா

The most beautiful amongst souls
Shall never fall to the fatal tell of time
Thus, say the greatest of men, Karna
Prepare for the fate that shall be thine

தாய்க்கு நீ மகனில்லை தம்பிக்கு அண்ணனில்லை
தாய்க்கு நீ மகனில்லை தம்பிக்கு அண்ணனில்லை
ஊர்ப்பழி ஏற்றாயடா நானும் உன் பழி கொண்டேனடா
நானும் உன் பழி கொண்டேனடா
உள்ளத்தில் நல்ல உள்ளம் உறங்காதென்பது
வல்லவன் வகுத்ததடா... கர்ணா
வருவதை எதிகொள்ளடா

You are not a son unto your own mother
And not a brother to your siblings
Oh! How you bore the insinuations!
I too share your sin, by my cunning

The most beautiful amongst souls
Shall never fall to the fatal tell of time
Thus, say the greatest of men, Karna
Prepare for the fate that shall be thine

மன்னவர் பணியேற்கும் கண்ணனும் பணி செய்த
உன்னடி பணிவேனடா - கர்ணா
மன்னித்து அருள்வாயடா
கர்ணா
மன்னித்து அருள்வாயடா

He who is served by the greatest kings
(That) Krishna, to serve you, is ready
By bowing to your magnanimity
Karna, will you grace me with mercy?

செஞ்சோற்று கடன் தீர்க்கச் சேராத இடம் சேர்ந்து
வஞ்சத்தில் வீழ்ந்தாயடா - கர்ணா
வஞ்சகன் கண்ணனடா - கர்ணா
வஞ்சகன் கண்ணனடா
உள்ளத்தில் நல்ல உள்ளம் உறங்காதென்பது
வல்லவன் வகுத்ததடா... கர்ணா
வருவதை எதிகொள்ளடா

To repay the hand that fed you
You pledged your loyalty to the vile Kauravaa
And fell in the trap of great deception, Karna
(Though) the greatest knave is the son of Vasudeva

The most beautiful amongst souls
Shall never fall to the fatal tell of time
Thus, say the greatest of men, Karna
Prepare for the fate that shall be thine

Monday, December 29, 2014

Thursday, December 4, 2014