Saturday, February 26, 2011

Baby Bonus Scheme

Our Baby Bonus Scheme is a marriage of heteronormativity and racism.

Once again in class, Singapore was brought up as an 'infamous' case study - this time, among demographers for our baby bonus policy. We were discussing Foucault's bio-politics, which is how the state controls bodies through population policy.

My professor brought up Serbia's (then Yugoslavia) population policy in the 80s, which encouraged people to have up to 3 children. The underlying intention was to increase the population of Serbs, who were having less than 3, and at the same time decrease the population of Bosnians, who usually had more than 3 children.

At first glance, the Baby Bonus Scheme seems to merely be an answer to Singapore's ageing population and low fertility rate (last measurement was 1.3 births per woman in 2008). Right? Have baby, get money - and up to SGD 6000 for the 3rd and 4th child. It's so simple, and seems so generous.

But this only applies to married couples. There are many single Malay mothers with up to 5 children, who do not see a single dollar of this scheme. Let's not talk about gay couples, but hypothetically, if same-sex marriages were allowed in Singapore, they're not going to get the Baby Bonus either.

Implicitly, what the state wants is more of the heterosexual married Chinese population (more industrious and hardworking, according to LKY's infamous eugenics policy), and less Malays and Indians. Since the Chinese are not much enticed by all this money, the state freely gives away permanent residency and citizenship to former citizens of China - the 75% proportion of Chinese to Others in Singapore must be maintained at all costs.

Something as innocuous as a population policy does have implications for those who are not part of dominant group in society.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Being undocumented in Holland.
Last night I followed a friend who had to interview an undocumented domestic worker living here. We met at a fairly inconspicuous cafe in town, and although I felt a bit nervous, I didn't know how much more scared she felt.

She stays anonymous here for obvious reasons, least of all for her privacy. She was born in the Philippines and worked in an electronics factory after college for a few years, before finding a job in Malaysia in another electronics factory. Since Malaysia only gives work permits that last 2 years, she found another job in a hotel and so worked in Malaysia for a total of 4 years.

It was at this job that she met a Dutch family, whom she befriended over the course of their stay, talking to them during dinner at the hotel restaurant. They asked her to work with them in Holland as a domestic worker. She waited in the Philippines for 10 months while waiting for her tourist visa to be approved.

She came to Holland in 1999 and worked with this family for a year, before moving on to another family. Now she works part-time as a domestic worker, doing household tasks in 2 or sometimes 3 houses a day, 6 days a week. Sunday is her only free day, and she goes to church or sometimes catches a film with her friends. Work dries up in the summer, when her employers go away for vacation. She has not seen her family (except over Skype) for the last 1o years and in her words, to see her daughter at age 23 come to Holland to work as an au pair, was "very strange."

In the last year or so, Holland has been cracking down on undocumented domestic workers like her. They join unions to try and get healthcare benefits because the Dutch need them and they do "decent work", but the government thinks there are too many workers to give work permits. Without a work permit, they cannot go home to visit their families, and cannot access public healthcare. However, their children can go to school here without papers.

She lives in fear now because neighbours will complain to the police if they notice a lot of foreigners coming in and out of an apartment, or if they make too much noise. Some have been caught while travelling in trams or cars, and after being detained for a few days they are deported to the Philippines. Some Filipinos who get papers from marrying a Dutch man can sometimes blow the whistle on undocumented ones out of spite.

She says that sacrifice this last 10 years was "worth it" because her children could afford to go to school and are now professionals - one works as a nurse and another as an engineer. She doesn't want to be deported because she can't come back, but she plans to go home for good if she can't get a work permit in the next two years.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Quick quick face the wall - a dance review

This piece by Club Guy and Roni, a husband-and-wife team of choreographers based in Groningen, was divided in two parts, with women interpreting the first, and men interpreting the second. The moment I stepped into the theatre, I saw a translucent screen and wondered if it was a film screening instead. It turned out to be a mixed media sort of theater, with not much movement, and by the end of the first half I wished I was watching a real film instead.

On stage right, near the audience, a quietly comical woman plays the piano and very seriously puts on a platinum-blonde wig halfway through to play a Japanese lounge singer who sings in an plaintive and non-erotic way. Meanwhile, the screen shows a long, drawn-out, and ultimately overkill video about the experience of a woman who loses her husband in a car accident. What I found completely strange was the interweaving of absurd characters (like a man dressed up as a small girl, wearing a blue dress with pigtails) into the otherwise tragic story. Comedy and tragedy unfortunately did not mesh in this story.

To assign more cooks to the broth, sounds from the film like footsteps and swerving tires were repeated and amplified by the dancers behind the screen. I found this wholly unnecessary since film as a medium is both visual and auditory; it seemed like a whole lot of work and resources to do a job already done. Sometimes simple really is best, and perhaps adding their touches to a silent film might have been more interesting.

The second part had for a setting half-stage and half-living room. In one corner is a set of drums and in the other, a tall girl watching a small television from a sofa. The male dancers enter and exit in a variety of personas: drunk macho, drag queen uncomfortable in heels, crazy kilt-wearing and drum-beating acrobat, and quiet-but-devastatingly-handsome nerd. At some moments they dance together to set movements, but it is the individual personality of each dancer that really makes the piece amusing and enjoyable.

A piece of furniture in the middle of the stage is also unexpectedly functional - in the beginning it serves as a bar, then a magician's box to make people appear and disappear, and finally as a platform for a short moment of extreme machismo, involving parading around in their underwear.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Helping Timor

I'm excited about my new internship at Timor Worldwide, NGO that helps indigenous communities in East and West Timor with issues like land and sea disputes. They're located really close to ISS, a few minutes bike ride away. While chatting to the chairperson I couldn't help but notice a couple of names on the whiteboard behind her - turns out that many of the Indonesian students at ISS are already volunteering there.

Timor Worldwide is organising an international conference on 18 Mar 2011 with the topic "Indigenous Claims to Water: What does International Law say?" and we're trying to get more people to come! So if you're reading this and you're interested, send an email to

Unfortunately, after this conference they have to vacate the building because there are no more funds to pay the rent. So, we're aiming to raise 3000 euros (to cover 5 months of rent) through a film screening of 'Troubled Waters' at ISS which is about how Rotenese fishermen are losing their livelihoods from the maritime claims of bigger states, and the sale of two kinds of cookies - pineapple and spiced.

More details to come (:

Solo, the lonely transparent ghost.

The little French kid I babysit continually amazes me with his view of the world. Tonight he asked me in what language do I speak with my husband with. When I told him I’m not married, he said mais t’as un cheri quand meme (you have someone special right?). To him, everyone has someone dear to them in this world – which is a lovely thing of course. And then he showed me a picture of his copine (he’s 4 years old, mind you) very matter-of-factly.

He’s warming up to me, and it’s really endearing. We played a children’s educational game on Wii together (in French!) and it was meant for kids a few years older than him because of the need to read things on the screen, but he breezed through some sections like a pro!

Before I put him to bed I read him a story about Solo, a transparent ghost who has no friends. I asked him if he had ever seen any ghosts, and he said no, because they don’t exist. There goes the joke I was about to make about ghosts being transparent, haha.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

'Iki Shi Tai' - a dance review

On the evening of 13 Feb I watched 'Iki Shi Tai' at Korzo Theater, choreographed and interpreted by Shintaro Hirahara, Shintaro Oue, and Masahiro Yanagimoto - three charming Japanese men who have been dancing for years in the European scene.

The whole piece was inspired by breath, and it starts with Hirahara speaking in Japanese at the beginning. I didn't understand a thing, but at some points he narrated a dialogue between a man and a woman, and it's interesting how body language speaks much more, because I knew somehow that it was funny.

He is sitting on the floor on his knees and rotates his upper body; he takes a breath which helps his back to arch and move forward, and releasing it makes his back curve and move backwards. It was not until two-thirds of the way into the piece that Yanagimoto spoke about how the body moves according to the breath, while the two other dancers moved to his words.

There were some inspirations from athletic events like javelin-throwing and shotput, which were interspersed with flirtations with Japanese fans of various sizes. Every move and scene seemed to have a bubbling layer of comedy underneath the seriousness, although sometimes it was an obvious comedy.

Men acting feminine is unfortunately somehow always funny (who hasn't laughed at 'Men in Tutus'?), and Hirahara and Oue were very good at acting feminine, moving like geishas performing a tea ceremony, leaping like uncontrollable ballerinas, and making exaggerated sharp glances like gymnasts.

They speak while dancing, and sometimes it feels like I'm watching a rehearsal instead, as I can see the process of dance creation. They also laugh, and I want to laugh along with them. They have perfect timing, making just a small gesture or expression in moments of physical and auditory silence, for maximum comic effect.

All three men move with striking strength and endurance, and seem to have a remarkable memory for the intricate contact improvisation variations. The duo and trio contact improvisation is interpreted flawlessly, though they did not hesitate to show the force and fatigue of some positions through groans and grunts. It is refreshing to hear and see the effort and emotion behind the movements, normal physiological reactions that a lot of dance forms aim to eliminate.

In the final minutes, plastic bags fall from the gallery and are swept into gentle hurricane by four fan blowers in each corner. All three are swept around like plastic bags, and for a moment it suddenly feels too serious for these three delightfully-dressed men in red, yellow and blue.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A significant dot.

I'm always quite amazed whenever Singapore appears in the articles that I have to read for class. Some of the topics that our tiny red dot appears in are:

- 'Singapore girl, you're a great way to fly': Women as cultural symbols of the nation
- Migration: The migration of female labour to care for the elderly in our ageing population
- Newly-Industrialised Country: Rapid growth from fishing village to economy of financial services and skyrocketing GDP growth thanks to import substitution industrialisation

I have to admit the last topic is the one most discussed in several courses, to the point of nausea. There are other aspects to our country too, y'know!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt, post-Mubarak.

I'm feeling terrifically excited for Egypt's success, with Mubarak stepping down today. I wonder what's the specific and special mix of factors that allowed this to happen. If poverty plays a big role in getting people across the demographic to protest, there are friends from Zimbabwe hoping for a similar uprising and overthrow of a dictator.

It's also worthwhile to reflect upon why I feel compelled to comment on Egypt - is it because I've been constantly bombarded by all forms of media (especially social media!) about it? Funny how we can all remember where we were and what we were doing when 9/11 happened? Thomas de Zengotita analyses this phenomenon in his book called 'Mediated', pointing to the media as creating a culture of reflexivity and making us feel that we are at the center of the universe.

Even as planes crash into the Twin Towers far away, we can think that what happened to us at that moment is of equal significance. Even as Mubarak steps down in another country, we can feel that our tiny opinions on this matter is of equal, historic significance.

'Beyond' - a dance review.

February is the month of a modern dance festival in The Hague, called Cadance. On Tuesday 8 Feb I caught a performance called 'Beyond' at Korzo Theater (bringing to life memories of late night practices at the SMU CCA room, eating speculoos amongst skinny dancers, trying to somersault backwards on tables and keeping a peripheral lookout in my identically-titled swan song in Feb 2010) with choreography by Pedro Goucha Gomes and Kalpana Raghuraman.

The first piece, 'Toxic Tears', choreographed by Goucha Gomez and interpreted by Raghuraman, revolved around the Ganges river in India and how it is a source of physical pollution but at the same time, a source of spiritual ablution. Tens of used green plastic bottles were strung like a curtain at the back of the stage and scattered around the stage, forming a sacred circle for Raghuraman to dance in.

As she was trained in Bharatanatyam by her mother, Raghuraman carries out two rituals at the beginning and at the end of her dance are reminiscent of the Hindu worship rituals done before a temple Bharatanatyam dance. Small plastic cups caress her arms, which start to move rapidly like the tails of ducks and swallows all around her torso and head. Her hands moved so fast that at a moment it appeared as if an infestation of insects surrounded her head.

She breaks through the plastic curtain noisily, and her feet move horse-like in regular rhythm to the galloping beats in the music - a noisy mixture of techno and percussion. Her Graham-like movements rise and fall like waves crashing on sand. I recognise several classical movements like Krishna shooting from his bow, and the faces of demons. Unlike many modern or contemporary dancers who show only a few emotions on their faces, at one point Raghuraman shuffles in an 8-pattern with the smallest of movements of her feet, but I can see love, seduction, horror, anger, and jealousy alternate in her face.

In the second piece, 'Kiss of Life', choreographed by Raghuraman and interpreted by Sabina Perry, the two dancers try to find a compromise between a 'traditional' Indian woman and a contemporary one. There are four shallow clay pots filled with incense marking the four corners of the stage (which sparked some coughing fits in the audience), and they were not used as anything more than markers throughout the piece.

Photo from Facebook

Perry wears a toga-like dress and the braids in her hair and the leather boots she puts on later during the piece give altogether a misplaced impression of a Greek gladiator. In a rectangular spotlight which starts the piece, Perry shakes rather controllably (I felt she could have let go more), perhaps to symbolise the rupture from the image of a pious traditional Indian woman? She moves much more gracefully in between balletic and Bharanatyam positions, and is able to impressively form and switch complex hand positions.

I suppose an attempt to depart from classical dance while trying to hold on to some of its vestiges was the reason behind the appropriation of gestures from Perry's own life, like drinking tea, shooting a gun, and disco-dancing. However, it was a shame that such a dichotomy was made between the two women - the contemporary woman brazenly splayed her legs at the audience and licked lasciviously - as it reinforced stereotypes of women as either virgins or whores. Maybe it's the heeled boots, or maybe Perry feels like a tourist in someone else's cultural landscape, as she did not look wholly comfortable dancing in some moments.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reflections on the 'Malay Gap'

As I re-read the previous article written at the end of 2009, one semester away from graduating, I thought about how I've changed in the way I think about things, and also how I have so many more questions about the issues surrounding activities I worked on back home.

As a student about to graduate, I clearly thought I knew everything and I think it was quite audacious for me to propose a solution (education) for all the problems of the Malays, who face persistent disadvantage in multiple arenas, including education. So somehow trying to single-handedly bring better education when it should be the duty of the state seems like an uphill task.

Now that I learnt about intersectionality, I could further specify this disadvantaged group that disproportionately forms a percentage of Singapore's poor; it is the working class Malay single- or elderly-headed households. Whether they are functional or dysfunctional does not seem relevant nor is it within my capability to find out.

What has really changed in how I think about this problem is the importance of institutions bigger than the family or the community. Due to the politics of race which characterises our politics, each ethnic group is somehow made responsible for their own problems. In fact, now I see no sense in such a system because why bother with a nationalistic, one-Singapore rhetoric if one Singapore cannot help its own population? May I remind you, regardless of race, language, or religion?*

The fact that APEX has been going on for four years is evidence of how small-scale initiatives cannot affect institutional change, at least in Singapore. APEX receives lots of help and funding from MUIS, but what needs to happen to help these primary school kids are changes at two levels: the curriculum, structure, and fundamental mindset of some of these madrasah, or Islamic schools, and also a consistent effort to get all children into school and keep them there.

There appears to be a ridiculous sort of attitude in one of these Islamic schools - they mistakenly envy and fear the other schools. Maybe it's because the Compulsory Education Act created competition between them (who will meet the PSLE benchmark and by when?), but maybe they see the Act as an evil plot to close them down (although honestly I think some just bring about their own demise).

I see the dubious quality of some of the teachers as part of the problem. So for example, if academic subjects are going to be taught in a way that does not incorporate any Islamic lessons (biology is taught according to the 'O' Level syllabus, and does not add any Islamic value like pointing out and studying phenomena in the Qur'an), why doesn't any madrasah hire non-Muslim teachers? They would most likely be MOE-trained, which would be better for the students.

Instead of highlighting certain stellar students, what's stopping a madrasah from making everyone high-achieving and stellar, well-taught in academic subjects and Islamic ones?

*A line from our national pledge.

Can we shrink the Malay gap?

The Malay gap

My father once told me about his friends who studied overseas and when they returned for vacations, would gather groups of students within their kampong for free and tutor them for free. My lack of social consciousness then prevented any personal takeaway, but in university I began reflecting on solutions to the problems of the Malay community.

The main discussion today seems to be on social problems and the efficacy of efforts by Malay/Muslim voluntary welfare organizations. There aren’t many who talk about the growing gap between rich and poor Malays. More and more Malays are gaining social, academic and economic success but there remains a group held up by various dysfunctional social problems.

Even though this polarisation reflects the broader state of Singapore’s society, poor Malays are disproportionately larger compared to other communities. It thus seems that social problems would be an obvious cause, but because solving this requires a different, complex approach, here I focus on functional families who are trapped in a poverty cycle – an almost-forgotten group.

The poverty cycle

This group remains under the radar of popular discussion because successful Malays are lauded on the basis of individual merit (in line with the national rhetoric of meritocracy). This approach unfortunately places the poor Malay as the cause of his own failure. In her book The Singapore Dilemma, Dr. Lily Zubaidah Rahim posits this ‘culture deficit theory’ as a crippling cause of marginalization through the internalisation of negative traits.

This is unfortunate because there are many Malays who work hard but despite their efforts, are trapped in poverty. They do not further their education because their parents cannot afford it or they have to start working early to contribute to household income. In turn, their low education levels prevent them from earning high incomes in good jobs. Even though they are not involved in crime, premarital sex or drugs, transmitted cultural attitudes and stereotypes of being ‘lazy’ prevent higher attainment.

The cycle of poverty that this group faces is an unhappy consequence of low incomes and low education. Poverty affects the performance of students and their availability to attend school. Low levels of education lead to low incomes, perpetuating poverty. There are also other mediating factors such as parental attitudes towards education, type of residence and surrounding peer influence.

One way to break the poverty cycle is through education. Early childhood interventions have been found to be the most effective, but in general, the earlier the involvement, the better. A better-educated workforce is more likely to enjoy higher earnings. Identifying education as an antipoverty tool is an acknowledgement of the structural cause of poverty. Simply put, some Malays are not poor because they are lazy, but because they are not getting enough education.

Breaking the cycle of poverty

A letter by Zuraidah Abdullah from Yayasan Mendaki to The Straits Times forum on 19 December 2009 affirms that the “community’s role (is) key” in helping the needy. It also asserts that the community needs to take ownership and support grassroots efforts instead of waiting for solutions from the top or relying on national agencies. Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim also invites “young professionals to come forward to share their ideas” and “take up projects” because effective solutions come from contextualising problems on the ground. Custom-fit solutions are more likely to succeed, and many successful small initiatives provide evidence and clout for policy change.

The importance of education in breaking the poverty cycle and the collective effort in assessing problems and finding solutions are brought together and illustrated by two recent initiatives by local tertiary students. The first initiative, Ace PSLE Exams (APEX), provides personal coaching and mentoring to Primary 6 students in various madrasahs. It started in 2008 with 26 tertiary student volunteers at Madrasah Al-Irsyad Al-Islamiah, and quickly swelled to around 90 volunteers at Madrasah Al-Irsyad, Al-Arabiah and Wak Tanjong Al-Islamiah in 2009. It will enter its fourth year of operation in 2011.

The second initiative, Aspire and Achieve through Mentorship (AAM) provides academic coaching with the aim of giving madrasah students more options for higher education. It also organises activities similar to those in government schools to create inclusiveness and develop character. It was started by Nanyang Technological University Muslim Society in January 2009, who will continue to run it next year.

Both APEX and AAM are managed by and mostly supported by tertiary students. Although APEX’s efforts were boosted with support from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), both programmes now need community-wide support to ensure their continuity.

What to do now?

There is no magical, one-size-fits-all solution. What these two initiatives have in common is that they were started by people who saw the Malay gap, understood the specific needs of a group, and sought to meet those needs. The problems of Malay students in primary vs. secondary schools, government vs. private schools, Express vs. Normal Technical streams, all differ. What they all need though, is a dedicated group of people to implement a tailor-made solution.

You don’t need a lot of time and resources to help. Here are some things you could do:

1. Join APEX or AAM as a mentor or contribute resources.

2. Give free tuition to a needy student.

3. Tell a friend about this article.

Then, like my father, you can tell your children about your friends who studied in local universities and tutored students for free.


This is an updated version of an article written on 22 Dec 2009.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Social exclusion and the 'Journals of Musan'.

Sometimes I get the feeling that events over several days converge onto one point, presumably, to drive it home. Or maybe it's just that I tend to view life with the lens of the latest theory in my head (: Yesterday in class we talked about social exclusion, a concept that has recently become more useful when talking about issues such as poverty and unemployment.

Originating in Europe (like many other things!) where it was used to analyse high levels of unemployment in the 1980s, the concept of social exclusion is now 'popular' since we have started to see how problems are interlinked and often reinforce each other - poverty, housing, education, unemployment, teenage pregnancy, healthcare access, etc. The reason why it's so difficult to get out of such a 'dysfunctional' situation (like what we call a 'vicious cycle of poverty') is because these factors reinforce each other to create a situation of persistent advantage. Because of this, intervening upon one factor doesn't help - interventions are needed on several fronts.

We had to give some examples of socially-excluded groups in class, and I thought about the video I had just watched on Youtube about the homeless in Singapore. Just by a rough recollection of all the people I've seen begging, collecting recyclable materials, or selling small things like tissue paper, it seems that there's a group of elderly, less-educated (perhaps primary school education?) Chinese that seem to have fallen through the cracks. Clearly, they are shut out from the formal labour market, working as cleaners or street peddlers. If you have talked to any of them, what is their life story like?

Last night I saw 'The Journals of Musan', a film directed by Park Jung Bum, which chronicles the problems faced by Jeon Seung-Chul, a North Korean defector in South Korea. Because his ID card number starts with 125, a textile factory employer knows where he is from and doesn't want the risk of employing him. Thus we can see that the basis of entitlements or rights in South Korea (as in many other countries) is based on citizenship. If you have the right documents, you can access employment, healthcare, education, etc.

Seung-Chul thus does all kinds of informal, temporary (and sometimes dangerous) jobs, such as putting up posters. There is some sort of mafia of poster-pasting groups who guard their territory jealously, and he is repeatedly chased and beaten up by 2 mean-looking guys for putting up posters in their area. Since he has hardly any money, he can't get any medical attention for his injuries, buy new clothes, or get a haircut, which his helper (a detective) thinks would help him get a better job.

He goes to church, and he finds a job in the same karaoke bar as one of the women in his church. Towards the end of the movie he is brought to one of the prayer meetings by the detective in order to 'make some friends', but he ends up telling the prayer group about how he accidentally killed a man in North Korea out of desperation of having no food to eat.

Even though we talk about South Korea as a developed country, the film decides to tell the story of a socially-excluded group - defectors from North Korea. It seems that they are quietly accepted in the South, but nowhere near being included. The very basis for their inclusion is something out of their control - an ID number that does not start with 125. It's the same as people who are excluded because of their ethnic appearance, because it's not something that can be controlled either, and no amount of language fluency or cultural assimilation can help.

The film also shows seemingly neglected areas near Seoul - Seung-Chul lives near a demolished village, and there are many shots of him walking across hills of sand and broken concrete slabs on his way home. My fellow film-watcher also commented that Seoul does not seem 'as clean as it sounds', as the film shows littered streets and dirty streams under expressways.

While Seung-Chul tries his best to act according to his Christian beliefs, eventually he ends up stealing the savings of his roommate, whom he thought to be a 'thief and a crook'. But perhaps he deserved the money after all the terrifically bad luck he had been through. I guess this could also warn us of judging people based on one visible action, like stealing or killing, since there could be an entire story behind it.

Seung-Chul hides from his friend after promising to meet him at a bus-stop

I think it's a great film about the underside of modernity. While a city carries on with a capitalist throb and a mass consumption facade, there are groups of people like Seung-Chul who cannot fully participate in society due to circumstances out of their control, and there's not always a simple solution.


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