Monday, August 31, 2009

How much do protests matter?


That was the question posed last week to Howard Zinn, Bernardine Dohrn and several others by Stephen Dubner on the New York Times’ Freakonomics blog. Their responses were affirmative and generally quite good, especially for those who are not already very knowledgeable on the subject.

Before giving a useful, but very brief recap of some of the different nonviolent social movements in our history that have concretely affected the direction of this country for the better, Howard Zinn makes an important point, especially for activists currently struggling to make our systems a little more humane:

Do protests work? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes very soon, sometimes there is a long-term effect. Sometimes you can see a direct connection between the protest and the result, and sometimes it’s difficult to trace.

What this means is that you must not desist from protesting because you don’t see an immediate result. What immediately looks like a failure may turn out to be a success.

Bernardine Dohrn, a leader of the Weather Underground during the Vietnam War, who is now a clinical associate professor of law and director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern Law, makes a similar observation:

Looking backward, it seems obvious that sitting down to strike at Flint, and sitting in at Greensboro lunch counters, and standing up to enter school in Little Rock were obvious sparks to larger social movements. At the time, no one could know.

To conclude her thoughts, she then makes a crucial point about the necessity of creativity and perseverance that we have tried to emphasize on this blog:

Clearly comedy and humor open doors where earnest entreaty fails. And the art of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Audre Lourde, and Tony Kushner opens eyes and encourages the ethical longings of others. I don’t think we know what it takes for a walkout or teach-in or musical performance to simultaneously expose tyranny, enlighten, give heart, educate, recruit allies, and forge connections. So we have to act as we can, and then doubt whether we are fully right and effective, and then act again.

Only one part really jumped out at me as off the mark. Juan Mendez, a visiting professor at American University’s law school and an adviser on crime prevention to the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, wrote that farmers in Argentina opposed to export taxes “had no right to block highways and impede the access of food products to the markets.”

I personally think that at times people are justified in using tactics (such as blockading roads or nonviolently occupying buildings or factories) that much more directly disrupt business as usual, particularly when the opponent proves resistant to milder nonviolent methods.

All in all, however, the quorum is definitely worth a read.

Monday, August 24, 2009

NMP Viswa Sadasivan: Did he just shake the foundations of the PAP facade to the very core? (Part One)
20 Aug 2009

Did new Nominated Member of Parliament Viswa Sadasivan shake the foundations of the PAP facade to the very core in his maiden Parliamentary speech on Tuesday, and in so doing, attracted an avalanche of criticism from PAP MPs who sensed that very essence of their self-serving political philosophy had been given a thunderous jolt?

Viswa Sadasivan’s motion was deemed so threatening, so audacious, that no less a personality than MM Lee Kuan Yew was compelled to state that it was dangerous to allow such high falutin ideas to go un-demolished lest they mislead Singapore.

In tabling his motion on Tuesday, NMP Viswa Sadasivan wanted Parliament to reaffirm its commitment to the principles enshrined in the National Pledge. In his view, this entailed strengthening Singaporeans’ sense of citizenship, and upholding the fundamentals of democracy and racial and religious unity. He admonished Parliament to stay mindful of these tenets when pursuing economic and other national policies.

In his 50-minute speech, Viswa lamented Singaporeans’ lack of freedom to express themselves, the Government’s seemingly unmitigated grip on power, and what appears to be an inconsistent willingness on the part of the authorities to listen to public sentiment that does not suit it.

Viswa said that the country, through the Government, is expected to be accountable to citizens. And this accountability must be visible. People’s views and concerns must be sought and heard, and acted upon. Where the Government cannot address citizens’ views and concerns, it must explain the reasons. Similarly, when citizens challenge the Government on issues and policies, the response needs to come across as being sincere, not intimidating on one hand and callous and cavalier on the other.

In the electoral arena, Viswa advocated a more level playing field, especially in the management of elections and media coverage. He stated that what is increasingly demanded is fairness and justice, not just in form but also in substance.

Viswa also said that the Government should desist from making it difficult, in an unfair and undemocratic manner, for the opposition to gain success -– through last minute changes in electoral boundaries, or a lack of media coverage, or what can sometimes be seen as biased coverage.

In Viswa’s view, it is the duty of a responsible Government to help evolve a political climate that encourages greater interest and participation from the people. If not, people are likely to feel increasingly alienated and disenfranchised, resulting in apathy, and worse, cynicism.

On the topic of new media, Viswa offered the opinion that there appears to be a resurgence of interest in engaging in debate of issues in cyberspace, accompanied by a growing sense of restlessness and even helplessness with what is viewed as a traditional media that is aligned with the Government.

He said that there is the perception that the mainstream media tows the Government’s line because it is required to, and that this is certainly not healthy for the Government or the country as it nurtures a “them versus us” climate that could become unnecessarily adversarial.

Viswa, in discussing the Government’s responsibility to the less fortunate, said that our rejection of a welfare state does not in any way absolve an elected Government of the responsibility to provide for the basic needs of a small group of citizens who cannot fend for themselves because of illness or disability.

And on the topic of political participation, Viswa stated in no uncertain terms that from the late 1960s, stringent rules have discouraged active political activism. Detention of political activists under the ISA and media controls have created a climate of fear that inhibits political participation. Over years, this has crystallized into a political culture of apathy and disinterest.

Viswa was of the view that we must consciously and proactively start the process of re-politicisation -– to get people, especially the youth, interested and involved not only in social work but political matters. A good place to start this would be our universities, which have been the traditional base of political interest and activism. Political associations should be encouraged, and campus rallies should be allowed once again.

But perhaps the remarks that drew the most ire was Viswa’s statements concerning race and religion. Viswa said that over the years, we have become very race conscious as a people. In almost everything we do we are asked about our race — starting with the NRIC, and in almost all application forms.

Most controversially, Viswa opined that the creation of ethnic self help groups such as Mendaki, SINDA, CDAC and the Eurasian Association have exacerbated the problem.

Viswa said that the practice of racial categorization and the perception of segregation due to the way the Government collects data about population trends have resulted in an apparent contradiction with the “regardless of race” tenet of the Pledge.

To be sure, Viswa expressed tremendous pride in the progress of our nation and attributed much of it to the PAP Government.

But that did not stop MM Lee from taking Viswa to task in a scathing manner that left no doubt in the mind of anyone who witnessed the debate or who watched the telecast on CNA that the Minister Mentor was going all out to thumb him down.

In Part Two of this series, I will examine what MM Lee as well as what some other MPs said, and discuss just how coherent their views were.

Click here and read Part Two.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Young Democrats elect new leaders

Singapore Democrats

The SDP's youth wing, the Young Democrats (YD), met last week to elect a new set of leaders to bring the group forward to meet the exciting challenges lying ahead.

Under the YD Charter, the Council comprising of the President, Vice-President and Honorary Secretary are elected once every two years. The officers will lead the youth wing to further the aims and objectives of the Singapore Democrats.

Mr Priveen Suraj, currently serving his remaining few months in the National Service as a commando, was elected President. Mr Priveen will pursue a law degree after he finishes his army stint. He joined the SDP when he was still a junior college student.

"I am proud to serve as president of the Young Democrats," he said. "We are a motivated group of Singaporeans who will be actively reaching out to our fellow youths to get them interested in politics and involved with the SDP."

Mr Jufri Salim will deputise as Vice-President. A young father of three, Mr Jufri has shown exceptional courage and political maturity when he took part in the Tak Boleh Tahan protest outside Parliament House. He pleaded guilty to the offence because of work commitment but insisted on going to prison instead of paying the fine.

The Honorary Secretary's post was taken up by Mr Jarrod Luo, a biomedical science and microbiology graduate from Australia's University of Queensland. Mr Luo became active with the Singapore Democrats last year and has shown tremendous drive in helping to organise the YD.

The YD was formed in 2000 with just four members. The number has grown steadily through the years and is now an active component of the Singapore Democrats. Its members and associates provide the skills and know-how in the party's online work.

The YD is a member of the Young Liberals and Democrats in Asia (YLDA) as well as the International Federation for Liberal Youths (IFLRY). YD member Ms Surayah Akbar recently participated in a workshop for women in Hong Kong organised by YLDA.

There are already high expectations of the three leaders, all in their 20s. They are tasked with expanding the YD's membership and to promote the mother party's message of reform and political change in Singapore.

At the meeting, members expressed that it was important for the YD to conduct community service and extend a hand to those who have been left behind under the system. They also indicated that they would reach out to younger Singaporeans through social events.

Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan congratulated the leaders and called on them to demonstrate effective leadership by working with all YD members to bring about an organisation that will be the pride of not just the SDP but also the whole of Singapore.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Friday, August 7, 2009

Monday, August 3, 2009

Overseas students don't want to work in Singapore

Tue, Jul 28, 2009

Jonah , 22, has been studying in US for less than a year, but he has already decided that he will not return to Singapore to work after graduation.

A first-year student taking computer science at Stanford University, he says that US is far ahead of Singapore in science and technology. Situated near the Silicon Valley, Stanford's outstanding students are offered jobs by top IT firms even before they graduate.

"They have the world's top firms like Google, Microsoft and Apple - companies that value creativity. Working for them will broaden my horizons and improve my resume," he told my paper.

"While there are also many multi-national companies in Singapore, my impression is that they focus on product assembly, marketing and sales."

According to a survey by Experiences 2009, the organiser of an annual US education convention, there are quite a lot of overseas students who think like Jonah.

According to the survey of 153 Singaporean undergraduates at 15 top US universities, as many as 79 per cent prefer to work in US after they graduate. Only 18.1 per cent want to return to Singapore immediately after they complete their studies.

At Chung Cheng High School's 70th anniversary celebration last month, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong expressed his concerns about this phenomenon. He said that more than one-fifth of the students who performed well between 1996 to 1999 (those who scored at least four 'A's and a B3 in General Paper) are no longer working in Singapore a decade later.

More than one third of those who studied overseas and did not receive scholarships are also not working in Singapore.

In SM Goh's speech he pointed out Singapore's conundrum - while preparing our students to be 'entrepreneurial and world-ready', we are also 'growing wings' on them and more students will be heading overseas to develop their careers in future.

Why they leave

Why has Singapore no hold for these students? Do they leave because the pull factors from other countries are much stronger?

Students interviewed by my paper say that they leave not only because of the lack of job opportunities, but also because Singapore is too stressful, or because they don't feel appreciated.

Ng Hui Jin, 20, a Biology student at Imperial College in UK said that the pace of life is so fast in Singapore she can barely catch her breath at times. She feels that Europeans place more emphasis on quality of life. The pace is slower there and her classmates do not compare their results.

"Perhaps the learning environment and lifestyle here is what keeps Singaporean students in Europe," said Hui Jin.

Ridy Lie, 28, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 2003 has worked at for six years. He said that he likes the free and easy culture in American IT companies. A software developer, he can wear t-shirt and jeans to work, and their supervisors do not require that they report to work by a certain time.

"The company also provides a two-storey recreation area which includes a basketball court, arcade and gym. Our bosses even encourage us to spend our time there during work hours, to get inspiration."

Higher pay also played a part in his decision to stay in the US.

"Big IT firms in US will pay a fresh grad between US$60,000 to US$80,000 (S$87,000 to S$115,000) while investment banks and consultancies can pay up to US$90,000 (S$130,000), this is practically three to five times more than what they can get in Singapore."

At least one student says that she wants to leave because she doesn't feel appreciated.

After the financial crisis last year, many firms around the world retrenched a large number of employees and quite a number of graduates made their way back home but were unable to find a job in Singapore.

London School of Economics graduate Ruchika Tulskyan, 22, applied to 20 companies for a job but received no response.

"The government has been encouraging overseas students to return to Singapore, but Singaporean corporations do not seem to hold the same attitude. It has made me doubt my decision to come back."

Disappointed, Ruchika has decided to further her studies at Columbia University next month.