Tharman on state media, gutter politics

I asked Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam a question during NTU’s Majulah Lecture 2017. I felt it was worth drawing attention to because of some facts many people still aren’t aware of when the government continues to wax lyrical about promoting innovation and creativity in Singapore.


Me: Speaking of education, I agree completely with you, minister, that there needs to be more individualism, more thinking differently.

Mr Tharman: Individuality, not individualism.

Me: Individuality, that’s right. Having said that, don’t you think it’s also important to open up the media landscape to have the mainstream media not controlled by the government? As some of you may know, Singapore is ranked a 151st out of a 180 countries by Reporters Without Borders. And you’ve also said there is a need to return to honest politics, and have indicated that you believe political campaigns should be a healthy debate on ideas, not one muddied with mudslinging and personal attacks. Why then has the leaders of the PAP made gutter politics and character assassination central to their campaigns in recent elections, such as the Bukit Batok By-Elections last year? Is that something you personally approve of and would like to see continue in Singapore, or is that simply out of your control?

Mr Tharman: Thanks for your willingness to ask the question. Let me put it this way. I’ll answer this in two levels. First, as someone who’s lived through some of Singapore’s history – I grew up in the 60s, I was politically very conscious and aware, and in the 70s, I was active in my own way, and I joined the ruling party in 2001 – I would say Singapore has really changed. I don’t want to minimise anything you might talk about today, but it is a vastly more open and liberal place compared to what it used to be, believe me. I was an activist. Vastly more liberal and vastly more open. And the sense of fear, the sense of constraints is far less now. Yes you get pushbacks. Sometimes you may not like it. And I don’t agree with every tactic of every one of my colleagues. But I have to say, that there’s something that defines the PAP. It’s the insistence on character, honesty, and being true to Singaporeans. Now I’m not saying this to besmirch anyone, but that trait of the PAP shows up almost all the time. And sometimes the PAP falls short, and action is to be taken on individuals. So just bear in mind that that was one of the colours of the PAP, that emphasis on character, and it shows up in a variety of ways. But it is a vastly more open society than it used to be. Vastly more open politically, and people don’t have to be frightened. I don’t agree with every tactic but every political party and political campaigns have a range of tactics. I also have great faith in Singaporeans, which is my second point. Singaporeans judge. Singaporeans judge in Bukit Batok, Singaporeans judge in each general elections and they’ll judge the PAP in the next elections. I don’t think Singaporeans are fools. I don’t think they are fools at all. And even when they read what we call the mainstream media, they don’t read it lightly. They know some things are more likely to come up on page 4 than on page 1. The headlines might be a slightly different size, but Singaporeans aren’t fools. And Singaporeans have the social media as well. People talk more openly, they exchange views more openly and they make judgement. And that, at the end of the day, is the test of how we’re progressing.



Mr Tharman very nicely talked about Singaporeans not being fools,who were able to discern for themselves what is true and false, despite his admission that the media in Singapore is controlled. If one contemplates just for a moment the notion that the control of the media has no bearing on the mindset of the populace, you’ll conclude that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, regimes around the world and throughout history used the media as a way to control and indoctrinate its people. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister for Propaganda, once said, “A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.” Even in the US, we have authoritarian tendencies from Trump’s administration that follows this playbook exactly. The government knows this, and is using it to its advantage every step of the way. So, Mr Tharman’s response was a little disingenuous if you asked me.

I’m glad to hear that Mr Tharman has, for the first time, disavowed the gutter politics and mudslinging utilised by his colleagues during election campaigns. Before the Bukit Batok By-Elections of last year went into full swing, Dr Paul Tambyah of the Singapore Democratic Party got a promise from Mr Tharman that there would only be a healthy debate on ideas on how to bring Singapore forward, not dirty politics as the PAP has so often resorted to in the past. (One such example was how Charles Chong, the PAP candidate for Punggol East, made a still unsubstantiated claim about the Workers’ Party losing a $1 million surplus when they took over Punggol East. The accusation, and the media coverage, eventually led the PAP to win back Punggol East in 2015 with 51% of the votes, a slim margin.)   However, all that talk meant nothing for the numerous ministers (as well as our current President, then Speaker of Parliament) who launched many attacks below the belt against Dr Chee of the SDP. It was heartening, therefore, to at least hear that Mr Tharman wasn’t lying and truly did not approve of it, and one can only wonder how much better the PAP would conduct itself if he was prime minister. If only, if not for his race.

You can listen to the audio recording of the exchange below:


Beyond the Blue Gate

This book, Beyond the Blue Gate, was authored by Teo Soh Lung about her experiences of being detained by the ISA back in 1987 under Operation Spectrum, accused to be Marxists planning to “subvert” the government of Singapore. She was but one of the 22 who were interrogated, tortured, threatened, and ultimately forced to give a confession, and their accusations by the government were reported obediently as fact by the media. It was only after more than two decades that this book of experiences was published, as the political climate before then was extremely unreceptive to them.
I remember attending the book launch back in June of 2010 at The Legends Hotel at Fort Canning, and remember seeing a few prominent civil society figures there, but most significantly, waiting patiently after the launch to ask for an autograph by the author herself. I was just 16 then. To be honest, it has been in the cupboard ever since, with me giving the excuse of having “no time” to not read these books. Until now. This was one of the few books I’ve brought in with me during these 2.5 weeks of confinement.
The message Soh Lung wrote for me in the photo was flattering but completely undeserved. I have but a fraction of the bravery of the ones who were detained, having hardly enough courage to go through the first 2 days of NS without feeling utterly helpless in the process. I’ve known early on how unjust and cruel the government was in imprisoning these detainees who did nothing wrong, but I never understood as deeply as I do now on a personal level, when I started reading the book, what it meant to live like that for 2 years of your life (without things like weekly book-outs, of course). And I know I will even more as I continue reading this book for the rest of my confinement period.
To Soh Lung Teo, Vincent Cheng, Tan Tee Seng, and all the other ISA detainees, we owe you an immense dept of gratitude that society hasn’t, and yet, can never repay. You are the true brave ones, and even though not everyone may know of what you’ve been through yet, to those who do, you inspire hope and courage in us to continue the fight for justice in society. Truly, we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

Thoughts on National Service

Hi, my name is Kenneth. I hardly blog.

When I do though, it’s usually of things I feel and care deeply about. This is probably one of the things that I feel most deeply about, and am most conflicted about.

One of the sayings that recently shaped how I looked at the world was probably this by someone I respect.

“I take 2 weeks to come up with a good answer.”

The issues of today are usually met with knee-jerk reactions from most parts of society, whatever views they may be. People are quick to form opinions and cast judgements to feed their ego, without spending the time to sift through the details and get close as possible to the truth of the matter.  I think the quote above shows a side of humility that is rarely shown in society today. An admission that we might not always be correct at the first brush, and a willingness to put away any expectations or personal bias that we are often burdened with, and with a sincerity in wanting to find out the genuine truth of the matter.

I used to be rather impulsive, and can still be, but the above saying really assured me that it’s OK to not know the answer to everything all the time, and to patiently ponder on the difficult questions in life, rather than urgently coming up with answers. The journey of life, is in itself, the reward.

I have been pondering this issue for many, many months, gone through many self-reflections and sleepless nights. I’ve been pondering also on whether I should write this post, and how I should write it to best reflect how I feel.

National Service. A compulsory rite of passage of about 2 years that every Singaporean male must go through after finishing their pre-university studies. I am enlisting on the 12th of August, and have never felt more strongly against it.

I can’t even begin to list down the many number of reasons of why I am so against it, but it boils down to the fundamental issues of individual liberty and rights. I am against National Service because, it, being compulsory, denies us any choice to make about entering it, and that the organisation, as I know it, works by ensuring that all sense of freedom of thought and individuality is quashed and replaced with subservience to authority. In a sense, it’s akin to slavery.

Oh, but being a slave is certainly much worse than being in National Service! Slavery, as we think of it, doesn’t permit National Servicemen to return home every week, doesn’t give them the privilege of using their smartphones in camp and certainly doesn’t have the many facilities and privileges that National Service provides!

What I’m referring to, however, is the slavery of the mind. We train unthinking soldiers to accomplish only the tasks they were ordered to perform, because that’s how the army works most efficiently in times of war: to carry out orders quickly and swiftly as a team. If they don’t, punishments and humiliation will almost certainly ensure that. But it cannot be mentally healthy to these young individuals and eventually, society, to be brought up in this manner. The 2 years in the army doesn’t just impede their growth because of the actual time period of 2 years spent in the army, it impedes their growth because of what the army does to their minds.

There are those, many of whom I know, who take pride in serving the army and our nation. To them it is an immense honour and a worthy sacrifice in defending this small island state that barely made it out alive 50 years ago. I respect and admire their conviction and share their sentiment in wanting to do what’s best for this place we call home. I understand, too, the need and responsibility of every one of us to do our part in protecting our nation. This country, 50 years ago, needed a strong and committed army not just to defend our nation, but to provide that sense of hope and security to citizens who lived in fear and uncertainty everyday, and we owe them our immense gratitude. 50 years later, our army has more than successfully completed that task, projecting a strong and independent Singapore that we all can be proud of.

But circumstances change. The army hasn’t evolved enough to care more about our young people’s hopes and aspirations, and hasn’t been part of the larger change from a society that does what it’s being told to a society that does what is right because it is right. The army needs to evolve to accommodate a larger spectrum of views, such as religious ones like Jehovah’s Witnesses who don’t believe in carrying arms and are therefore forced to detention barracks. Malay muslims who are distrusted and aren’t treated equally just because they are thought to have their loyalties elsewhere should we go to war with our predominantly muslim neighbours. Countless of other peoples whose liberties were not respected but we don’t yet fully know about because of the immense secrecy, and the power and control of information that the army holds over its soldiers. And its inability to tolerate people speaking truth to its power shows how disconnected it is from the rest of society that is moving, slowly but surely, toward openness.

How then should the army be like? Do I propose a professional army that is not conscripted and so doesn’t consist of everyone? Don’t I know that Singapore has a small population and can’t afford a professional army? Who is going to defend Singapore, if not I?

To be honest, I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t pretend to know. What I do know, however, is that we cannot continue to use the reason of defending our country to discredit and silence concerns about the way it is being run and about the way it should treat its soldiers. The army, after all, is here to defend us from the oppression of our invaders, not oppress us. An organisation which prioritises our defence at the expense of other equally important priorities such as our liberties is not something I can support with a clear conscience.

There are people who will question my intentions in writing this, that I am selfish and want to be exempted from serving, or that I crave attention, but believe me, I’d rather not have such attention. I admit to my selfishness in not doing more other than just speaking my mind on this blog, as I haven’t had much support on this issue amongst those I know. But I know that if I do not express how I feel, which is about the least I could do, then I would not be able to answer to my conscience. And my conscience is just about the only thing that is keeping me from just following the advice of countless of friends to just “tahan” and be done with the two years.

I pray for wisdom and understanding. Oh and happy 50th, Singapore.


I got to watch one of my favourite animated films of all time again today on the Disney Channel.

There are two scenes which especially stood out for me ~

This scene is simply beautiful. It’s amazing how without any dialogue at all, just the same progression of notes and chords can produce emotions ranging from the happy and joyful to the sad and pitiful. It’s probably the combination of rhythm, dynamics, the leaving out of certain notes in a chord to make it sound less full and conveying that sense of emptiness in Carl’s heart when his wife is gone, and definitely a lot of emotion and care by the animators themselves that produced this truly wonderful work of art. It really is one of my favourite scenes of all time and just further proves that the genius artists at Pixar are producing insanely great work, and that Steve would have been immensely proud of them. He was very, actually. The track, which they repeatedly play and remix accordingly throughout the film, is called Married Life.

The next scene is no less beautiful, showing photographs and memories of the times Carl and Ellie shared, but all the more revealing and insightful even, containing many life lessons to be learnt. At this point of time, Carl has achieved what he set out to do from the very beginning – to travel to and have his home situated right next to Paradise Falls. However, he doesn’t feel satisfied, not as satisfied as he felt he would be. Truth is, when he flips through the book of memories with Ellie, his late wife, he realises that getting to Paradise Falls didn’t matter that much after all. It wasn’t the end that actually mattered; what he really treasured and enjoyed were the daily adventures with Ellie, be it saving up for their trip to Paradise Falls, or ending up using those savings instead to repair a roof or replace a flat tyre. The journey, it turns out, was the reward. Not the end. Life isn’t always about getting to the end. And that journey ended when Ellie passed away, and the house is, as Carl puts it, is ‘just a house’. It didn’t matter anymore whether the house managed to end up situated beside Paradise Falls, as the true reward was the journey through life with Ellie. And that’s the way life is, so we might as well enjoy the ride.

I’ve been reminded recently how fragile life is, and it’s a real reminder to how we all live our life. We take things, people, for granted, we worry about tomorrow, the future, and we regret. We don’t live in the present, we take each passing moment with friends and people as part of the usual routine, and we complain and grumble about daily grievances, such as school or work. We should really be giving thanks for all that we have, every friend that we know and love, people we meet and pass on the street, the music we hear passing by street buskers, the morning sun and air we sometimes forget to notice, and just about every passing moment of our precious lives. Maybe that’s why I’m trying to focus more on the arts now, as the arts is really the thing that requires all of your senses and emotions, and is when your mind is the most resonant with what your senses are feeding it, and hence, when you are fully alive.

I’ve been reading a Bible reading plan for the past week or so entitled ‘Toward a Fearless New Year’, and one day’s message really spoke to me on how we should be thinking about fear and anxiety.

Nine Promises for Battling Anxiety

1. When I am anxious about some risky new venture or meeting, I battle unbelief with the promise: “Fear not for I am with you, be not dismayed for I am your God; I will help you, I will strengthen you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
2. When I am anxious about my ministry being useless and empty, I fight unbelief with the promise, “So shall my word that goes forth from my mouth; it will not come back to me empty but accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).
3. When I am anxious about being too weak to do my work, I battle unbelief with the promise of Christ, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9), and “As your days so shall your strength be” (Deuteronomy 33:25).
4. When I am anxious about decisions I have to make about the future, I battle unbelief with the promise, “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you” (Psalm 32:8).
5. When I am anxious about facing opponents, I battle unbelief with the promise, “If God is for us who can be against us!” (Romans 8:31).
6. When I am anxious about being sick, I battle unbelief with the promise that “tribulation works patience, and patience approved-ness, and approved-ness hope, and hope does not make us ashamed” (Romans 5:3–5).
7. When I am anxious about getting old, I battle unbelief with the promise, “Even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save” (Isaiah 46:4).
8. When I am anxious about dying, I battle unbelief with the promise that “none of us lives to himself and none of us dies to himself; if we live we live to the Lord and if we die we die to the Lord. So whether we live or die we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose again: that he might be Lord both of the dead and the living” (Romans 14:8–9).
9. When I am anxious that I may make shipwreck of faith and fall away from God, I battle unbelief with the promise, “He who began a good work in you will complete it unto the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:6). “He who calls you is faithful. He will do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). “He is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).

Knowing all these just keeps me feeling relieved and blessed, and determined to make the new year count, not by any external expectations or rewards, but by truly living and being thankful for all I have, and just enjoying the ride, for that in itself is its true reward.

The journey is the reward

Dear Mr Balakrishnan

This is a from-the-heart response to a status update posted by Vivian Balakrishnan on his Facebook page.


Dear Mr Balakrishnan,

I am touched by your statement on how Dr Lim Hock Siew inspired and influenced you to join politics, as well as your cordial friendship with him over the past 24 years. Lim Hock Siew was a good and honourable man. But more than that, he was a patriot. A patriot who never wavered in his belief that all men should be treated fair and equal. For his peaceful activities, however, he was incarcerated for over 20 years, missing out the prime of his life and the times he could have spent with his growing son and wife.

Agreeing to disagree is gracious behaviour expected in a democracy. Yet, one thing we must all defend in a democracy is another person’s entitlement to his or her rights, even if we strongly disagreed with them.  Dr Lim’s sacrifices were not brought upon him through any fault of his own. Rather, they were brought about through the abuses of the ISA, which, decade after decade in Singapore’s history, has been used to silence and intimidate political opponents and dissent.

Even after all he’s been through, he was still willing to forgive his oppressors and had no feeling of bitterness to them. I can especially relate to this, as a Christian, as Jesus has taught us to “love your enemies”. Indeed, here was a good and honourable man worthy of our respect. But merely singing Dr Lim’s praises is not enough; Dr Lim wouldn’t have wanted this. We must, sooner than later, address the issue of the injustices caused by a law which has no place in a just and equal society. We must not be silent on this grave issue, as to do so would only affirm that Dr Lim deserved all that he went through. Regardless of whether we are in the ruling party or opposition, this is an issue which we all have to stand united on. For it isn’t about partisanship or the disagreement of policies anymore, this has to do with our very own morality.

Last Saturday, I attended an event at Speakers’ Corner calling for the abolishment of the ISA. Dr Lim Hock Siew wasn’t the only one unjustly incarcerated, plenty of others were, too. We, as sons of this country, all have a part to play in reconciling these detainees and removing the ISA, so that we may yet dream again of a more caring and just society which respects the dignity and rights of every person for future generations to come. Thank you and God bless you.

An 18 year old Singaporean


This is also found here:

Adaptation in the PAP’s style of politics

In many areas of society, adaptability can be seen as an ability to change something or oneself to fit to occurring changes. This can be said as well for governance in autocratic countries, and in particular, the PAP’s style of governance. Over the past 50 years of its rule in Singapore, the PAP government, and the man at its helm, Lee Kuan Yew, ruled Singapore with an iron fist in order to implement the hard-hitting and unpopular policies that they claim are best for Singapore. To easily implement such policies without opposition, the PAP government has had to eliminate and silence dissent, but how they have done so over the course of 5 decades has changed a lot, as the changing times require that they mellow in or be toppled over by their very own citizens, which history has proved time and time again to be true. Indeed, the style of governance in the past 50 years have changed, I believe, all for the betterment of a Singapore which can join the ranks of nations that respect each and every citizen as a person with rights, instead of just mere economic digits.

Firstly, when the PAP was in opposition, and Lee Kuan Yew the opposition leader, Lee said these bold words to the then Chief minister, David Marshall: “If it is not totalitarian to arrest a man and detain him, when you cannot charge him with any offence against any written law – if that is not what we have always cried out against in Fascist states – then what is it?” Barely 7 years later, in 1963, he launched a nation-wide crackdown and detained hundreds of his most-feared political adversaries and trade unionists – labeling them communists- under Operation Coldstore. As these men were detained under the Internal Security Act, till this date, they have yet to be given a chance to defend themselves in court, let alone been proved to be communists. In fact, many authors who read the British’s declassified files on Singapore have noted that there is no evidence that they have been communists at all, and concluded that this is merely political rape as seen during the beginnings of many authoritarian countries around the world.

Thus began the start of authoritarian Singapore, where roughly every ten years or so would see the removal of a prominent group or person who aired dissenting views. As the chinese saying goes, “Killing a chicken to scare the monkey”, such were the purposes of the measures taken, to remind the citizenry that the same would befall of anyone who tried to go against the system. In the 70s, the PAP made such an example of student activist, Tan Wah Piow of NUS, who they claim were “inciting riots”, thus jailing him for eight months. Fearing for his safety, he fled to the UK after his release and sought political asylum. In the 80s, just when Singapore’s civil society was starting to grow and give promise, Operation Spectrum saw the detainment of 22 young professionals and activists accused of being Marxists trying to overthrow the government through the use of force. Such detainments and fear-mongering tactics, however, had already begun to be harder to justify by the 80s, as a young, educated generation brought about by the economic success of the government had begun to question more fervently the government’s legitimacy. From then on, the PAP has had to use more subtle ways to systematically remove dissent.

Defamation suits were waged against prominent opposition figures such as JB Jeyaretnam and Chee Soon Juan by Singapore’s leaders, eventually bankrupting both of them and causing others to flee, thereby obstructing the progress of democracy in Singapore. But even these relatively subtle tactics proved to be too much to swallow for another new generation, who are well educated and globally informed by the internet. In particular, Facebook and Twitter helped to propel the progress of freedom of information and the alternative media even further, leaving the control of the press and traditional media in Singapore nearly useless to those who depended on the internet for news instead. Even libel suits against the opposition were considered to be too harsh and authoritarian, and the government had to take an even more open stance to criticism, as evidenced by the watershed 2011 GE, where not a single defamation suit was filed against anyone, and even our PM had to apologise for his mistakes to defuse some of the public pressure his party is facing. Contrast this to the 2006 elections, when our PM openly proclaimed in front of a lunch-time crowd that he needed to “fix” the opposition and buy his supporters over should the opposition take power.

Through the gradual adaptation of the style of governance by the PAP government, Singapore has over the years become a more vibrant and creative society. To be sure, the adaptation of the style of the PAP and our progress towards becoming a genuine democracy is a relatively slow one – the other three Asian tigers, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, have become full democracies decades ago and have long overtaken Singapore in respecting the civil liberties of their people – but, steps forward, no matter how small, are still progress. As Lao Tsu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The adaptations the PAP government has had to make were not willing nor was it intended at all from the beginning, they were forced by the winds of change, winds which were blown time and time again by those who yearn for justice and freedom, winds which they could not continue to withstand with the previous autocratic methods of governing. And so, this inevitable adaptation the PAP has to make can only be good not just for Singapore and her people, but for the PAP as well. Just like how the KuoMingTang of Taiwan has slowly become a legitimate party by stripping off their old and autocratic ways, we look forward to the day when the PAP can become a legitimate party contributing to the vibrant political scene in Singapore.

Some (Much needed) updates

Ok, firstly, I’ve  just finished February Choir Camp. Planning was very last-minute, as I’ve said during the debrief today, because of my underestimation of the amount of planning needed for the entire camp. Also because of the busy previous week preparing for Common Test One. Planning was done in class, during Recess, after school, and lastly, throughout the night to as late as 4am during camp itself. Therefore, I’ve gotten only 5 hours of sleep in the two days of camp. Extremely tired, but still had to do my own admin and homework, the day camp ended was spent very much at the computer, and I only slept for 9 hours that night, hardly enough to make up for the loss of 11 hours of sleep during the camp. This was the same for Sunday night, causing me to wake up late for school today. Strangely, I seem to have not learnt from my mistake, and am doing the exact same thing as I did the day before.

However, I felt that the planning for the camp was really satisfying, having come up with the various games. In a way, it feels kind of  good to be this busy as I know that I’m not rotting my life away, and I generally feel more productive.

So wordy my sentences have been, yes? I have been feeling very much like that these few days, God knows why. Maybe I’m just feeling debate-ish. (Did I just sounded Sim Christopher-ish?)

Words, words, words. In other related news, my entire class has failed the English Common Test. I really do doubt my teacher’s ability to properly convey the “proper” method of answering questions, as none of us seemed to have gotten it. I put inverted commas because I believe the method of answering questions required by the teacher isn’t really the only correct way. What may be proper to one person may not be to another, and the difference really is quite noticeable, in the area of the way she asks us to answer a question and how modern society does it. In other words, the teaching is fundamentally flawed.


In the second half of this post, I will try to be as wordy-less as possible.

I bought my Macbook Pro 15-inch last year in early September, and expected it to be perceived as new to me at least until April this year, a good 8 months. But recently, I got this shit in my inbox –


WHAT?!?!? 2 months early?? 720p HD FAceTIME CAmeRA????? 3X FAsTER GRAPHICS??????