Tuesday, May 28, 2013

In Media Res

T. S. Eliot, in his choruses from The Rock, asked:
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
One might add, 'Where is the information we have lost in media?'

I am driven to this question by the saddest (as in, most pathetic) of things: I was annoyed by comments on the internet. Such pettiness would normally not be worth more than a moment's hyperventilation, not to mention a blog post. But this recent ugly round of online irresponsibility has interfered with my sheer sense of joy and wonder that on Sunday, Singaporean director Anthony Chen won the Caméra d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his film, Ilo Ilo (爸妈不在家) . This is the first Singaporean feature film to win at Cannes. Chen had also, in Cannes in 2007, garnered a special mention for his short film Ah Ma. Rejoice! I thought. Things were to prove more complicated than this.

The sorry story of the online shenanigans is told here and here. In short, some persons online decided to set up a fake facebook account with the name of 'Cindy Toh' to spread an utterly spurious story about how Chen had sought support for his studies and filmmaking from the PAP government and MPs and was repeatedly turned down. This was parroted by many online commenters as it seemed to fit into what they wanted to believe: that the PAP government was useless; that it neglected local talents; that it was only now trumpeting Chen's success (Chen received laudatory mentions on the Prime Minister's facebook page, for example) because well, he had succeeded. "Whatever" you think: the internet is a hive of misinformation anyway. But the weirdness comes next.

Minister Lawrence Wong responded to these comments by pointing out that the Media Development Authority (MDA) of Singapore did provide funding for Chen and the film. (If you check out the film's twitter feed, it thanks the MDA.) These online provocateurs than responded, and I kid you not, that they had successfully baited the minister. Mr. Wong, in pointing out that the government had provided funding for the film, had in fact admitted that this was a government propaganda effort to normalise the presence of foreigners in Singapore. Their fake facebook troll and rumourmongering had paid off! One observation to made from the off, which Mr. Wong made, is that this is not news. A quick search on Google will reveal that Chen
recently completed his MA in Film Directing at the National Film and Television School, UK with a scholarship from the Media Development Authority of Singapore.
If one looks at the official site for the movie, the logo of the Singapore Film Commission, part of MDA, is clearly visible on the bottom left corner of the page. So much for 'baiting' Mr. Wong then -- it appears internet provocateurs aren't very good at using the internet. On the whole, it was plain upsetting that we couldn't simply celebrate Chen's triumph, and were exposed to the strange minds of conspiracy theorists online. But again, you say, nothing new. The internet was designed for conspiracy theorists. (Though conspiracy theorists will tell you otherwise, of course.)

What was worse was that various online news outlets, including the fairly well-read theonlinecitizen and also publichouse.sg, among others, repeated this story. As pointed out, if these editors had bothered to google the stuff (as I did), they would have realised what the truth is. The question I have is simply this: isn't this sloppy approach an argument against your very existence? The onus is on these online news outlets to prove that they're as good as, if not better than traditional media. That way, journalism in Singapore will be improved -- and that's the way they can best justify their existence. If they're going to descend to reporting rumour that simply confirms their own and their readers' cognitive biases (as the online comments on their posts seem to show), then what's the point? Why should a discerning reader support alternative media/online news/whatever you call it if they can't even verify news? Then, today, like an omen, the MDA announced a new licensing scheme of online news websites.

The moment hasn't been ruined, despite a few hours of annoyance. I am very happy that Ilo Ilo, a film about a Filipino domestic worker (from the province of Iloilo in the Philippines, hence the title) in Singapore, the Asian financial crisis and family pressures, has won. I am even more happy that it's a win for Singapore (and really, I would argue, for the Philippines as well). I can't wait to watch it: my family employed a Filipino lady -- whom I am still in touch with and still love very much -- when I was growing up, to largely take care of my great-grandmother. She taught me many things, cooked many lovely Filipino dishes (like stuffed milk fish, or rellenong bangus) , spent many idle afternoons with me, playing and drawing, made sure my great-grandmother was comfortable and happy till she died and is now still providing help to another family. I recall a friend's mother telling me that without maids, she wouldn't have been able to be a career woman. I'm not going to let these idiots ruin this for me, and neither should you. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

In Memoriam: the St. Giles' Café, Oxford

I woke up this morning, like all mornings, feeling sundered from the Divine and dragged back to squalid earth. This was made worse though, by a text from my good friend, Tom. Tom informs me that my old breakfast greasy spoon in Oxford, the St. Giles' Café ('Café' was a real misnomer) is now under new management, no longer does bacon and chips, and offers an 'earthy breakfast' and 'asparagus with home-cured pancetta'. The diner seats are gone, replaced with wooden tables and chairs. There are now placemats with quotations from Martial. In short: it has been captured by hippies. 

I don't have separate memories of my many meals at this institution. Instead, they are all congealed (like the bacon fat in my arteries) into a single ur-Memory, the proto-St. Giles' Café experience. It runs like this: a night of excess with one or two or three too many pints of ciders; waking up at eleven in the morning; struggling to find the floor; walking down the boulevard of St. Giles filled with regrets and hope, wishing my head was more well-supported, somehow; meeting up with Tom, who has just had a tute in American history at St. Anne's; and finally, with the sign of the Eagle and Child just visible, with the sun on my face, filtered by the leaves of the huge London planetrees, we enter this hallowed hall. There are red diner seats, metal tables and a single alley leads up to the counter. (The walls, for reasons I've never figured out, were absolutely covered with framed black-and-white photos of Oxford scenes, as if the place wanted to make satirical genuflection to Oxford.)  Service, if one wishes to dignify it with that name, is brusque. Tom gets a coke. I get a cup of tea. We both order a variant of chips and bacon. They give us our tickets, with a number on them. We then pick a seat, usually nearest the door, in the hope of avoiding leaving the place smelling as if we'd just fornicated with a deep-fat fryer. (There was also the chance of some light.) Waiting. Conversation made half-hearted by anticipation. And then our number is called out. 

Thereafter, bliss. Very little talk as we exhaust the possible combinations of egg, bacon, chips, brown sauce and ketchup. (I only got the sausages once: they were horrid.) The bacon was the star: thickly cut to give some bite, but fried expertly to a crisp. Sipping my cup of black tea, my delicate state giving way to contentment, I feel a complete serenity, as if I were one of the stones of nearby John's, ancient and unchallenged. 

So the barbarians have come. Have fun, you hippies. I hope your allotment catches fire. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Value, Wealth and Richness

'Rocks and Vegetation, Chamonix', John Ruskin (c. 1854) 

Can't stop staring at this picture. Chamonix was where Ruskin composed his intervention into political economy, Unto this Last, which inspired Gandhi, among many others. To capture the drama of this moment in 1860, when Ruskin published this provocative work, I (shamelessly) quote a piece I wrote a while ago: 
A great Victorian art critic, arbiter of the nation’s taste, suddenly turns his intellect and wits on the orthodoxies of the day — in this case, the revered science of political economy. In a series of four articles published in a popular, widely read periodical the critic condemns the very epistemological basis of classical economics. It is, he says, “the most cretinous, speechless, paralysing plague that has yet touched the brains of mankind”. His once docile, admiring and thoroughly middle-class audience is horrified. He is, in his own words, “reprobated in a violent manner”. He is denounced in the press variously as “crazy and ignorant”, “a womanish man, who has run foul of a scientific truth”, “a mere baby”, “a mad governess”, and so forth. But the man does not relent. He spends a good part of the rest of his life lecturing and writing on society and economy. He stubbornly describes his economic writings as “probably the best I shall ever write”. That, in short, is the story of John Ruskin’s foolhardy foray into social criticism. The four articles, a call to infuse economics with affection and morality, were published in the Cornhill magazine as Unto this Last, from August to November of 1860. In time, more sympathetic ears would transform his words into action: his message would inspire Octavia Hill, Gandhi, and scores of other acolytes.
In fact, a survey of the first batch of elected Labour MPs in 1906 revealed that Ruskin and in particular, Unto this Last, were an inspiration for them, a name and a book they invoked more than any other writer or title. The issues Ruskin raised haven't gone away, in an age when inequality is worse than ever, when Thatcherism is still declared triumphant. As Ruskin said,
it is impossible to conclude, of any given mass of acquired wealth, merely by the fact of its existence, whether it signifies good or evil to the nation in the midst of which it exists.
We need to go back to those debates. Rather, we need to always have them -- in any good society. What is value? what is wealth? and what does it mean for a person or a country to be rich?


And this should be in every shop and house, again from Unto this Last:
what one person has, another cannot have; and that every atom of substance, of whatever kind, used or consumed, is so much human life spent; which, if it issue in the saving present life, or gaining more, is well spent, but if not, is either so much life prevented, or so much slain. In all buying, consider, first, what condition of existence you cause in the producers of what you buy; secondly, whether the sum you have paid is just to the producer, and in due proportion, lodged in his hands; thirdly, to how much clear use, for food, knowledge, or joy, this that you have bought can be put; and fourthly, to whom and in what way it can be most speedily and serviceably distributed: in all dealings whatsoever insisting on entire openness and stern fulfilment; and in all doings, on perfection and loveliness of accomplishment; especially on fineness and purity of all marketable commodity.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Alternative Histories

We could be making Portuguese egg tarts, frying up tempura and speaking Singaporean Portuguese now... (Also another nail in the coffin for that myth of Raffles 'discovering' Singapore -- not to mention that the regional Malay princes and the Chinese already knew of it before the Europeans.)


Some extracts from Jaques de Coutre (a Portuguese diamond merchant), ‘Information about Building Some Castles and Fortresses in the Straits of Singapore and Other Regions of the South, etc.’ (1620s), a memorial addressed to King Philip III of Spain and Portugal. 

‘In the middle of the Singapore Straits there is an island [present-day Sentosa] ... this island forms a stone peak ... called Surgidera ... Your Majesty should order that a very strong citadel be built on this peak; all the vessels that pass through these Straits, through the Old Strait as well as the New Strait, stop and drop anchor around the said peak.’ 

‘It is necessary to build a second fortress or citadel in the Johor River estuary at the promontory of the Isla de La Sabandaria Vieja [present-day Singapore; around Changi]* ... The second citadel situated at the Johor River estuary and the first one at the Singapore Straits can lend each other assistance either by sea of by land ....Your Majesty ... should become the lord of this port, which is one of the best that serves the Indies. Your Majesty can build a city there and become the lord of this kingdom.’ 

(adapted from Peter Borschberg, The Singapore and Melaka Straits: Violence, Security and Diplomacy in the 17th Century (Singapore, 2010), pp. 245-8)

* This translates as 'Island of the Old Shahbandar's Compound'. I should note that the 'Shahbandar', a Persian term, was a port official of the Sultan of Johor, who supposedly had a compound here for the collection of dues and tolls. So Singapore was already a port of sorts, under the Johor sultanate, but we know regrettably little about it. Vieja is simply the Spanish word for 'old'. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Partying like it's Nineteen Eighty Something

Brief thought: North Korea's belligerence has now brought the (distant) prospect of nuclear war back to people's minds, a fear that was rampant, unavoidable and utterly haunting in the 80s. To quote Martin Amis' incredibly evocative article, 'Nuclear City: The Megadeath Intellectuals' (Esquire, 1987): 
When nuclear weapons become real to you, when they stop buzzing around your ears and actually move into your head, hardly an hour passes without some throb or flash, some heavy pulse of imagined supercastastrophe.
At the same time, Margaret Thatcher's death has provoked a memorialising of the same decade, filling the air of a week in April, 2013 thickly with the remembered actions and words, nostalgia and hatred intermixed, of Thatcher herself, but also Reagan and the still-living Gorbachev. An odd, hopefully brief, shadow has been cast. I thank the conjunction of world events for bringing back to life the decade before my birth. Please stop at this stage, though. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Top Five

I've decided to record this list at this stage in my life, so I can look back and compare profitably in say, ten years.

(in alphabetical order)

1. Martin Amis
2. Jorge Luis Borges
3. James Joyce
4. Orhan Pamuk
5. J. R. R. Tolkien

But in terms of top five books, that's a slightly different list:

1. The Lord of the Rings
2. Ulysses
3. The Anatomy of Melancholy (Robert Burton) 
4. The Dream of the Red Chamber  <<红楼梦>> (Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹)
5. The Black Book (Orhan Pamuk)

As I was saying to someone, Shakespeare isn't here because that'd be like putting 'The English Language' on the list. No point comparing the celestial with the merely mortal.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Guicciardini on Politics

When I think about politics in the Italian Renaissance, I am drawn not to the much-maligned meditations of Niccolò Machiavelli but to the writings of his more aristocratic, pessimistic colleague, Francesco Guicciardini, the Florentine historian, statesman and political theorist. Guicciardini saw more service than Machiavelli, which accounts for his more realistic and sceptical politics. He is thus a good foil to Machiavelli (who despite his reputation was really an irrepressible optimist) though he's been somewhat forgotten, except by students of the Italian Renaissance. Guicciardini is the historian's historian, refusing to draw simplified lessons from political events, and often distrusting of Machiavelli's aphoristic pronouncements on matters. Contra Machiavelli, he doubted the value of historical parallels, claiming it was a mistake to be 'quoting the Romans at every turn'. In his Maxims (Ricordi), Guicciardini says that even if valid parallels existed
the names and surfaces of things will be so altered, that he who has not a quick eye will not recognise them
Above all, Guicciardini is troubled by complexity. The problems of Italy at the turn of the fifteenth century were so complex, claims Guicciardini in his History of Italy (1537-40), that
they could not be cured with simple medicines; rather, as so often happens in bodies overflowing with corrupt humours, a remedy employed to cure one disorder in one part generates even more pernicious and dangerous ill   
The problem that bedevils political action, says Guicciardini, is uncertainty of judgement and mistaken common opinion. We are told that 'wise men do not always discern or pass perfect judgements', that 'it is impossible ... to form a judgement as to the course of events ... our opinions must be formed and modified from day to day'. The world is full of 'erroneous and unfounded opinion'. In such an environment, policy is often impossible and as he notes above, one is sometimes hard-pressed not to do more harm than good. Politics is often defined as the 'art of the possible'. Guicciardini seems to me to ask, 'Do you even know what's possible? And how do you know?' Of course, Guicciardini is then free to construct and exploit his persona as the ultimate insider, somehow privy to the truth lurking beneath appearances. Yet in an age where T. S. Eliot's questions, from The Rock (1934)
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?  
are more unanswerable than ever, I think Guicciardini's vacillations have some use. But it is this passage, from his Dialogue on the Government of Florence (1527), that I find striking
Consider, too, that our city is now old, and as far as one can conjecture from its development, the nature of things and past examples, it is now declining rather than growing. It’s not like a new-born or a young city, which is easy to form and set up, and receives the habits given to it without any difficulty. When cities are old, it is difficult to reform them; and once they have been reformed, they soon lose their good set-up and always remember their original bad habits.
This sense of senescence and exhaustion must be immediately recognisable to even the most casual observer of politics. Countries are old, as are their systems and governments. Politics sometimes seems  to have calcified along unchanging lines. The debates seem to be fought with nothing but ancient clichés, incendiary watchwords that serve as substitutes for thought, as automatic, unthinking calls to arms. (Class seems to be one such category, in Britain at least.) Guicciardini reminds us how truly difficult politics is; how even more difficult change is; how limited the power of politicians, even in the highest office, can be; and how policy is not for the faint-hearted, requiring steely consideration.