Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Evangelists in Kortenaerkade

In the first few weeks of school last year, I was parking my bike when this old, kind-looking lady came up to me and wished me a good morning. I smiled back at her and thought to myself, wow, Dutch people are so nice! Then she handed me a pamphlet that said 'The Names of God' and I thought, ehh.

The small booklet with a picture of a man supposedly Jesus looking up plaintively to save the souls of us brown, immigrant heathens in the Netherlands. I didn't see her giving this out to white people in the streets.

A few weeks ago I encountered two young men dressed in smart white shirts and black ties in front of one of the students hostels. They asked who lived in these buildings. He also asked me if I knew Jesus and wanted to give me a small booklet.

"No thank you, I'm Muslim." At least they leave me alone when I say that. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Rockclimbing and default speakers.

In our sexuality class we had been discussing how the man has usually been seen as the 'default' human being, and the woman is the aberration, or the man 'modified'. For example, medical research on the signs and symptoms of a heart attack was done only on male subjects, with the assumption that women would show the same signs. However, this was later found to be inaccurate, since women show different signs of a heart attack.

While this concept of man as the default human was explained as having originated and continued from Western thought in a specific century (18th if I remember correctly), I can't deny that this way of thinking is prevalent among people I know i.e. young Malays, Muslim Singaporeans.

As I was pondering this androcentric concept in class I recalled an incident about five years ago which highlighted the absurdity of this way of thinking. I was helping out with a youth group from a mosque that was holding a rockclimbing workshop for young teenagers, to help raise their self-confidence, team-building skills, etc. In so many of these Islamic events and group activities, boys or men are often taken as the default speakers for the entire group. I get the impression that female speakers are often 'added on' to give the perspective of Muslim women, or to address only the women (this probably has roots in some hadith or obscure law that I don't know about so I won't comment on it).

So it was time to demonstrate to the mixed-but-physically-gender-segregated of boys and girls how to wear a harness. If you don't know what a rockclimbing harness looks like:

And because somehow it would have seemed improper to ask a girl to demonstrate how to wear the harness in front of a mixed group, especially because it entailed having to open her legs (!) in public, a guy was asked to do it. Somehow, no one thought that seeing a male-related bulge in the middle of the harness would be improper for the entire group. Because, well, the man is the default, and he speaks for everyone.

The rest of the workshop also had other absurd moments, such as when some of the girls were upset that while they were climbing the wall, the male instructors had come over to help cheer them on or shout out tips as to which foothold to get next. Why were they upset? They felt that the male instructors were looking at their butts.

I have done sports in mixed-gender, mixed-religious, and mixed-ethnicity groups, and I keep getting this feeling over and over again. I keep feeling that in a situation where the greater the social control in terms of dressing or behaviour, the more a small transgression (or perceived transgression) can be seen as aggressive. For example, when girls wearing a headscarf run around playing and the wind blows to expose a bit of chest (still covered with clothes!) or neck (le gasp!), the girl herself or her peers can feel especially exposed, than if all of them were to run around in T-shirts and long pants.

In the rockclimbing incident I started out talking about, the heightened awareness of gender segregation made some girls feel that the guys coming over were looking at them - why else would the guys come over? It was difficult to think that perhaps they just wanted to know how the girls (their friends, and in some cases, their siblings even) were getting on.

How to destabilise discourses?

In class we keep talking about discourses or ways of thinking about the world, and how they work in insidious ways to reinforce oppressive social structures, but so far we were left to ponder about how concrete actions to change or destabilise discourses.

Of course, academic work is one way - by researching about for example, a marginalised group that has always suffered from negative stereotypes. I mean, I'm trying to do that, by showing a positive representation of Indonesian domestic workers that study in addition to working full-time as our household 'servants'. But how many people actually read academic work? Besides students and professors. It's not that the majority of people can't understand, but it does take quite some time and effort (especially how some scholars write!)

So actually it's people who work in the arts - theater, comedy, poetry,  that carry a certain responsibility to destabilise discourses about society - whether they challenge or question patriarchy, political hegemony, or stereotypes about micro-groups of people in their own society or macro-groups of countries.

Here's a great example of using humour to address some really serious issues, a video done by Munah and Hirzi on using "sex appeal and jokes" about the upcoming general elections:

These two fantastic comedians addressed PAP's dubious political tactics such as giving money just before elections, the lack of political participation by youths, and the social exclusion, marginalisation, and overwork of migrant workers. If you work in the arts, don't forget to make your work a socially meaningful contribution. (:

For the more academia-inclined among you, Craig Zelizer's (2010) short article on humour and peacebuilding neatly summarises the different roles that humour can play in conflict. The abstract reads:

"In conflict-affected societies, humour has significant potential to contribute to the escalation or reduction of conflicts. This paper provides a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding the social role of humour in conflicted societies, drawing on literature from social psychology, health and conflict resolution. The paper offers an analytical model regarding the role of humour in peacebuilding in divided societies, as well as documenting several examples of the application of humour and the opportunities and challenges to using humour in societies in conflict. Concrete roles that humour can play are discussed, including as a tool to cope with violent conflict, humanizing or dehumanizing the other, bridge builder, mobiliser, etc. Avenues for future research are also outlined."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Seedy Bojang harasses two Muslim women.

Is it harassment when someone brushes against you but because it happens so fast or not so obviously, you think it's one of those accidentally-not-so-accidentally type of contact?

I had a recent brush (pun intended) with this in Copenhagen. I met Seedy Bojang, a Gambian journalist on the way back to the hostel. He gave me his namecard which showed that he was a member of ICORN (International Cities of Refuge Network) and explained that he was on his way to a meeting of writers in Denmark. Denmark pays for his costs of living because he cannot politically express himself freely as a writer in his home country, Gambia.

The next day my friend and I met up with him. I did my prayers at his house and although he asked us if we were Muslim, he did not seem surprised or happy to meet fellow Muslims. In retrospect, I think perhaps he might have even made a big show out of praying loudly after I was done, but maybe that's just the way Gambians pray. I thought we were in the company of a decent Muslim man, who surely wouldn't try to do anything funny with us.

While walking in the Frederiksberg gardens, he asked to take a photo with me. He stood on my right and placed his left hand a little below my waist. It was a grey zone, was he trying to touch my butt? My jacket was thick anyway and it was not obvious, what he was trying to do. On the way back, he asked for a photo with my friend and later she told me that he did touch her butt.

Without addressing this explicitly (because I didn't yet know what happened to her), Seedy explained that close contact between men and women is part of his culture. In his words, "there are some men in Gambia who sometimes kiss women on the lips and then go off to do their prayers without making ablution". Was he trying to use culture to justify his disgusting behaviour? Is there any culture that promotes this?

I talked to several of my ISS guy friends who come from African countries (Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Ghana) and all of them were extremely disgusted and angry about this. Even more so because Seedy comes from their part of the world and tried to use a cultural relativist argument to defend himself. I think every culture has rules about men and women, and I'm pretty sure that no culture where  men and women accept men going around touching women anywhere they like.

The worst part about this is that he said he is Muslim and was even doing his prayers. I'm angry, but more than that - I feel so ashamed for him. Of course he shouldn't do that to anyone, but to me it seems even worse that he did that to us, because we share the same teachings and some values.

Do people not do things out of pure compassion anymore - if I am rendered a kind favour, do I have to expect to give something - my dignity or my body - in return?

This is not the first time such an incident has happened to me. But this is the first time I'm talking about it in public, to shame the perpetrator. This is not possible all the time, because most of these people remain anonymous, but in this case, it's just Seedy's bad luck that he's well-known on the Internet. I'll speak out because when we keep quiet, we quietly allow men like him to keep doing this. 

What Intan Azura Mokhtar should say.

"The family I grew up with was a contrast to the fertile images of Malay families - overproducing and threatening to overtake the Chinese majority of Singapore according to Lee Kuan Yew - because of the family planning policy that increased the costs of raising more than two children, especially for the poor. And we were poor – both my parents had to work.

I am telling you about how I grew to like physics because today few students, let alone Malay female students, like to study math or science. I am telling you about my education level, because today few Malays, let alone Malay females, pursue university education. If you are a female Malay, listen, you can also have a family, and further your education.

I became a teacher because I had shorter working hours than if I were to say, work as an engineer, which has too much of a glass ceiling for women anyway. Singapore likes to pride itself on the quality of its teachers but somehow there are some that escape scrutiny and quality control. 

I’m afraid you’ll think I got married too young, so I’ll add a qualifier here to show the relativity of the age of marriage. I had a baby almost immediately after marriage because Malays think their first child is a blessing so few couples use contraception and we don’t get much education on that in school or in the media anyway.

I only have a few months experience on the ground but I know the most common task of an MP can only go through if it’s not an opposition MP writing it. I’m concerned about education, women and children because that’s what female politicians are supposed to be concerned about, although other candidates do not have to be concerned with issues relating to singlehood, the privileging of Mandarin, and the high salaries of MPs. I’m aware but I may not necessarily speak out in Parliament against the high costs of living, public housing and education. 

Vote for me because I am the only female, Malay, Muslim candidate. Thank you."

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What Vikram Nair does not say.

"My name is Vikram Nair and I’m  here to make you feel like you can make choices even if you vote for the current party that has been ruling Singapore since independence. Unlike the other fielded candidates, I have to explain to you my Indian heritage but you shouldn’t worry that I am more loyal to India because my family has been in Singapore for a very long time.  

I’ll just quickly gloss over my childhood because I lived a sheltered cushy life, not a rags-to-riches story that can be instrumentalised to demonstrate the existence of meritocracy in Singapore. I didn’t care about work in the community until 2 years ago, because the rat race means that I had no time to make things other than money.

When I was volunteering at the Chong Pang branch I met a lot of poor people who did not get enough education for a multitude of reasons and because there is no minimum wage or social safety net, now cannot get enough income for a decent life. And I found that if an MP is in a position of power because he mediates between common people and sources of help, so an MP can make or break someone’s appeal for financial assistance. 

If I was sincere in helping these people I would do it even though I was not paid a huge salary as an MP, because I already earn a ridiculous amount as a lawyer anyway. But I hope that you'll vote for me so that your housing estate can be upgraded and so that you can continue receiving money just before elections."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What Zainal Sapari could say.

"My name is Zainal bin Sapari. I have to tell you my age, marital status and the number of children I have to reassure you that I fit into the heteronormative requirements for Singaporean politics and that I live and breathe the national axiom of 'family as the basic unit of society'. My parents had little education so when I was young, my father had to work 3 jobs and my mother had to work as a maid to feed their five children. My story of rags to riches is an exception because of the special residential arrangements we had – any other parents who had to support 5 children while working 4 jobs would probably find it extremely difficult.

We happily moved to an apartment because we thought that highways and high-rise apartments were signs of modernity and progress. This country is no place for those with no education because we saved enough for only a 3-room flat for the 7 of us. Among my siblings, I am the only one who graduated from university on the bursary most accepting of Malays. I decided to teach because teaching is the most popular and respected profession among Malays and because I present my life as an example of how education can contribute to the social mobility of the poor.

I let myself be chosen as a candidate after joining its sister organization, unique to Singapore – a state co-optation of trade and labour unions presented as a ‘tripartite’ harmonious working relationship, and use the memory of my late mother to add a personal touch. When I was 17 or 18, I applied for financial assistance from an organization that is supposed to give aid to the politically-constructed category of Malays/Muslims in the name of ‘self-help’. 

To make sure they were helping only those who deserved it, I had to tell them my aspirations, but I don’t know why I told them I wanted to be an MP. I use analogies from Islam so that the Malays, who are 99% Muslim, can see I am a religious man who will take God-given duties seriously and willingly. I speak in Malay because the PAP thinks Malays will only vote for Malay candidates.

The Malays in Singapore don’t know who I am, because I am neither a singer nor a footballer. All my life, I have wanted to help people and being an MP is a much higher-paid way to keep helping people. I want to help bring up safe issues like increasing the parenting skills of Malay parents and preventing Malay students from dropping out of vocational schools in Parliament because I won’t have the clout to push forward any other important issues like allowing Malays in top positions in the military.

Please let me put myself up for public criticism, the doubting of my competence, and fielding into a constituency not of my choosing. I strongly believe that if we think less like Malays, Chinese or Indians and more like Singaporeans, we can have a better sense of what it means to belong to a nation."


Elections are going to be announced anytime soon in Singapore, and I'm eligible for overseas voting, although the nearest overseas polling station is in London. In the meantime, I'm planning an entire series of analyses of the introduction videos of the new candidates of the People's Action Party. It's all set to be a lot of fun, because they speak using the same discourse and euphemisms.

If anyone would like to volunteer to make a video using these scripts, let me know! We can collaborate and contribute to a critical analysis of a ruling party's rhetoric.

To save my butt from any legal complications, I should make it clear that these are my opinions and that I'm critiquing the rhetoric of the party, not the people themselves - I'm clearly aware that I don't know these people personally. Feel free to enjoy them though (:

Monday, April 11, 2011

What Tin Pei Ling really wants to say.

"In all of my 27 years, I have never left the country  and I have no life experience outside of the 647 square kilometres of my hometown, Singapore. I grew up in an environment where transport strikes, demonstrations and labour unions are banned so that foreign companies would be attracted to set up their factories here in the 70s to raise employment and economic growth.

My parents were working class and demonstrated the industriousness and hardworking attitude that Lee Kuan Yew insists all Chinese people have. They believed that if we don’t say anything bad about the PAP and just make money, we won’t be poor but we won’t be rich either.

Indeed, they have witnessed how the relentless growth of our capitalist economy has erased our kampongs and built in their place sterile, anonymous, public housing with racial quotas. From a family that humbly gave physical labour to serve food to people, I now work at a big multi-national firm and earn enough to finally improve my parents’ lives and allow them to retire.

Therefore, my story of social mobility is an exception that is hailed as the norm so that the rhetoric of meritocracy can be used to give legitimacy to the PAP who is desperate to appeal to the middle-class majority of Singaporeans. I give back to society by involving myself in community service and social work that, although being the responsibility of the state, is outsourced to the family and private sector, while imagining that I am serving the country politically. It feels good to help others but having those activities written on my academic records and CV feels even better.

I stand before you as a sacrificial target to be criticised by everyone who thinks that I do not represent the average Singaporean because I am a woman, or am too young to have any reasonable life experience, or have no idea how democracies are supposed to work.

I want to continue to perpetuate ideas that the poor are poor because they don’t work hard enough, and that charity, not the government is responsible for helping them. I want to continue helping smart students from rich families get the scholarships and awards that their affluent background has groomed them to receive. I want to continue letting the disabled and less-educated fall by the wayside. I sincerely want you to keep thinking that there is no such thing as a poverty cycle and that wealth is not linked to education.

With my naivete, I hope to be chosen because you think I am just like you. My name is Tin Pei Ling and I am from the political party that has been in power for the last fifty years and has incarcerated numerous opposition candidates under the Internal Security Act. Please vote for me because there’s only so much advantage I can have, being the wife of the Principal Private Secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Friends, flowers, farmers.

I had two guests over this week, old friend (Hon) and newer friend (Tine). It was great fun because my spare(ish) time-table meant that I could skip a few classes here and there, heh. Here we are having "typical Dutch" food of andijvie stamppot (mash of potatoes, escarole and hard-boiled eggs mashed together) and hete bliksem stamppot (mash of sweet potatoes, shallots, and apples) with sausages.

In our search for more typical Dutch things, we decided to go find some flower gardens. Since we didn't want to pay the 15 euro entry fee to the Keukenhof flower park, we searched for the flower farms around the tourist attraction from Google Satellite. It was a long bus ride on Connexxion 90 from The Hague Centraal Station to bus stop 'Narcissa', a fitting name for the rows upon rows of narcissen or daffodils that we were about to find. In all permutations: yellow and yellow, white and yellow, white and orange, yellow and orange...

We waved to a family of farmers in the distance and spoke to them as they cut a row of white tulips, to be refrigerated for a week before being made into bouquets for Easter. Here the mum and daughter are checking that the tulips are being cut right above the bulbs, while the dad drives the blade through the row, attached to his tractor.

Packing the cut tulips into boxes.

A lone red tulip growing among the white ones.
Wandering amongst private property seems pretty safe, as long as we're far away from the houses themselves. We found hyacinths growing in peach, pink, white and blue rows...

and some kind of small crocus-like flowers in bright red and dark pink.

We got to pick up discarded tulips and revived them at home, and later they made it all the way to Ghent alive, yay!

Hon sniffs the fried rice, Tine sniffs the tulips

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Capture of Brielle

The Low Countries (or what is now the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and parts of France and Germany) were under Spanish occupation in the 16th century. They rose against Spain in the Eighty Years War and on 1st April 1572, the capture of Brielle (or Den Briel) by the Sea Beggars (Watergeuzen) was a historic turning point. People started to support William of Orange against the Spanish Duke Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, starting a chain of events leading to the establishment of the Dutch Republic.

A friend from my specialisation comes from Brielle, which celebrates its status as the first liberated city from the Spanish every year on April 1.

Lunch at Ilona's place

Restricted area for those in costume only

Watergeuzen or Sea Beggars enter the undefended city

ChalkNight on 31 March is the time for kids to vandalise in the style of the Watergeuzen perhaps, but fines apply!

Quite the medieval style to hang laundry?

The Spanish defending Brielle

The aristocratic elite, haha.

Celebratory procession

Captured Spanish men!

My favourite costumes to spot were the nuns and monks

'Hanging' the Spanish leader. Rather morbid, in my opinion.

Games and flea markets

The 'original' city entrance

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Brown skin.

I baby sit for the most adorable little French boy who just turned five last week. He couldn't tell me when his birthday is, preferring to point out that he had two parties - one at home and one at school. I offered him an Easter chocolate egg from Albert Heijn, and he took the blue and yellow one (because blue is the colour for boys), leaving me to eat the purple and pink one.

He looked at my hands and said,

Your skin is brown but your hands are beige. C'est marrant! (That's funny!)

I explained to him that everyone's palms and soles are paler than the rest of their skin, and that he is all beige because he's light skinned.

But it was just something funny to remark, and soon he jumped up to wipe his blackboard clean so we could play school.


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