After the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, my Facebook erupted with memes and commentary on the state of gun politics in the United States. Of the drama in American politics that would have implications for Singapore, this was decidedly not one of them. Gun rights are simply a non-issue in Singaporean politics.
But judging by the outpouring of anger around the deaths of school children half a world away, you might have thought that similar debates are being held in Singaporean politics. Two of my Facebook friends, over the course of a few days, engaged each other in a lively Facebook type-off.
Amongst the comments:
“So no, we shouldn’t ask teenagers to interview anyone. Teenagers are stupid and ignorant. They may have good intentions, as I hope Gonzalez and her merry band of survivors do, but good intentions can lead down a dark path if they are not bolstered by critical thinking but poisoned by ideology.”
And in reply:
“Do you always have this much to say when I share something remotely related to guns?
Firstly, “poisoned by ideology”? What ideology are these survivors “poisoned” by? How do you speak without ideology and first-order principles? Your arguments for guns are full of first-order principles that differ from what others might consider “common-sense”. We illustrated this in the previous FB post. I can easily accuse you of poor critical thinking “poisoned by ideology” because I don’t share the same first-order principles as you.”
Gun politics is present in Singapore and is usually centred on the obscure and relatively small Singaporean Rifle Association. Last year, many gun club members were angry that the police confiscated their guns temporary due to lapses in armskote security protocols. This was followed up by the government passing new gun control legislation which banned gun clubs members from owning “military-grade” weapons. There were about 70 automatic weapons, semi-automatic rifles and air weapon which had to be destroyed or exported from Singapore’s only gun club. The Rifle Association responded to the press that “It is unclear what the term military grade meant in earlier reports, but certainly none of our firearms has been flagged as military by the authorities.” They also “added that any resemblance to military-grade weapons is purely cosmetic and that there are “absolutely no automatic sub-machine guns“. (emphasis mine)
These were talking points copied verbatim from the National Rifle Association, an American guns-right lobby group. The “cosmetic accessory” argument was developed and rolled out during the contestation over the Assault Weapons Ban during the 1990s. It argued that the 1) “military-looking” weapons is an entirely subjective term of art, and 2) the banning of pistol grips simply allow AR-15s to be re-configured to be legalised.
This link to American gun politics was directly referenced by a member of the club who was also a member of American and Australian gun clubs: “We have among the strictest gun laws in the world. In New York, I could keep guns at home without a safe, although that was in the 1970s. In Sydney, I could keep it at home in a gun safe bolted to the ground.”
The other hot-button issue in America, that of “Fake News”, has also been imported into Singapore unadulterated by the spectre of comparison. As Kristen Han wrote in the New York Times:
Singapore is now on the tip of Mr. Trump’s tongue again — but this time, he’s expressing admiration for its death penalty for drug trafficking. He has reportedly invited government representatives to brief the White House on their approach to drug trafficking, including their use of capital punishment. Mr. Trump seems to believe he can learn a thing or two from Singapore.
This is convenient for the Singapore government, which has been using the global opioid crisis as an argument for the retention of capital punishment. While the American media reported Mr. Trump’s praise for Singapore’s “zero tolerance” stance, the country hanged a 39-year-old Ghanaian named Billy Agbozo…
But the borrowing of ideas hasn’t been a one-way street: the government here has taken a page out of Mr. Trump’s book. The new Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods is holding public hearings to explore measures for tackling “fake news.” The committee is meant to examine a range of options, but there are strong hints that new restrictions on the media are on the way, not least because the law minister, who is also a member of the committee, has already said that legislation is a “no-brainer.”
Amongst US-watchers, not many ranks as highly as the former titan of Canadian Politics and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Whenever he talked about developments in politics, after the election of an untested far-right celebrity-turned politician into the White House (i.e. Ronald Reagan), that “When the U.S. sneezes, goes the adage, Canada catches a cold.”
Almost half a century later, the world is more interconnected than ever before. Beyond that, however, there isn’t the Soviet Union that could challenge the soft power and hegemonic influence of America on the global zeitgeist. To be a cosmopolitan citizen of the world is to read the New York Times and to watch Oscar nominees. The media of America are inexorably linked to the zeitgeist of the United States; it is pretty hard to watch Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri without learning and developing emotions about race relations in Ebbing, Missouri. Even if Ebbing, Missouri is not a real place.
It’s not just the effect of art. GLAAD, an American LGBT advocate, had published yearly reports on LGBT representation in movies and TV shows and movies since 2006. The subsequent impact of increased representation of LGBT peoples in Western media – an unquestionable public and moral good – had the unintentional effect of off-shoring of Western cultural cleavages to the rest of the world. For every Adam Levine introduced to the Singaporean mind, so does a Billy Graham. The similarities of Singapore’s and America’s LGBT-rights discourse have been studied extensively. The results are conclusive: both countries’ discourses are deeply similar both mimetically and stylistically. Pink Dot adopts the post-Ellen DeGeneres approach of emphasising normalcy, similarity, and non-confrontation.
The Singaporean opposition to LGBT rights is led by church delegations professing the Southern Baptism denomination – most notably, pastor Lawrence Khong and the Faith Community Baptist Church of Singapore. During one of Khong’s sermons on the infiltration of the “gay agenda” into Singaporean culture, he drew heavily on the talking points and heroes of American conservatism: behold, a slide with a single giant picture of Ronald Reagan and the subtitle “US PRESIDENT”. Also included are quotes of Edmund Burke (“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”), and oddly enough, a revisionist interpretation of African-American Civil Rights hero Martin Luther King is quoted at length:
Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?
Expediency asks the question, is it politic?
Vanity asks the question, is it popular?
But conscience asks the question, is it right?
And there comes a time when one must take a position that is safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.
– Taken from a slide during a Sermon, source.
Singaporean liberals may use the hashtag “#Asianvalues” ironically after Taiwan’s legalisation of same-sex marriage. Conservatives, conversely, can invoke the “Asian Values” defence against what seems like thoroughly Western-derived social movement. Both are undeniably concerns raised by Singaporeans to change affairs in Singapore. But arguments of undue Western subversion of “Singaporeanism” may well be true – just, works both ways.
LGBT rights is a sphere where this is most evident, possibly because accusations of Western subversion are actually being made out loud and to the public. It is only one of many similarities between the US and Singapore; Singapore’s single-issue nativist party is called “Singapore First”, a slogan separately adopted by the current seating US President as his foreign policy mantra. Our healthcare system, too, borrows heavily from the non-single payer “Romneycare” system first implemented in the American state of Massachusetts by Mitt Romney. This system, in America, would later morph into Obama’s Affordable Care Act. At a recent closed-door discussion at Tembusu College, a leading opposition party member noted that our healthcare system “will be facing the same problems the Americans have been facing since twenty years ago” because we copied the Americans without updating it for lessons they had learnt the hard way.
Policy and debate transference aside, the American influence in Singapore also works more subtly. One might note, after the fall of Communism in 1989, that ideology has become a non-factor in international politics. Reflecting on Richard Nixon’s adage that “We are all Keynesians now”, David Harvey described the post-Cold War mood as such: “We are all neoliberals now.” Neoliberalism, here, referring to the “Washington Consensus” of market liberalisation and democracy as the universal object of policy.
But in spite of this seemingly universal consensus, global ideological battles are more globalised than ever before. They are, in this epoch, no longer fought through states but directly to the hearts and minds of individuals within states. If one holds nationalistic or has ideological sympathies with the liberal-hating, cuck-bashing alt-right, he or she will almost always see Donald Trump as their guiding light.
See, for example, local blogger Xiaxue who tattooed the word “Covfefe” on her arm. Similarly, liberals share deep sympathies across borders, all convulsing in horror at each new news story about the Trump administration. There may no longer be a Communist International, but looser assemblages of global political ideologies are more dominantly than ever.
Singapore politics will always be only half as interesting as the politics of the United States. Such is the inevitability of a one-party dominant state where the potential for political upheavals is low. But humans are political animals who need their fix. Like how Thomas Jefferson once clung to every new political development in France to displace his own frustrations with American political intransigence and gridlock, Singaporeans project their aspirations unto a country half the world away from where change seems ever more likely. Singaporean liberals detest Donald Trump, for example, not because they gaslight themselves into thinking they are voting American citizens. Rather, Donald Trump’s defeat means for Singaporean liberals a reclaiming of the moral high ground and the global zeitgeist. It makes arguments that “Singapore should be more like X country and adopt Y policy” that much more plausible.
In The Adventures of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, Sonny Liew’s Eisner-winning graphic novel set in Singapore, the fictional titular character struggles to make a living in Singapore as an artist of satirical political cartoons. Alienated in his own country after Singapore’s brief experiment in liberal democracy in the 1950s and 60s was put into cold storage, he struggled to find publishers for his political cartoons and arts. Decades later during the 1980s, he gathered up what little money he made as a security guard to visit the San Diego Comic Convention. At the storied trade fair and fan convention, Charlie sought to find a commission and place for his work; to find kindred spirits amongst the comic artists of the West.
“It was a lot of money for someone in my circumstances, but I knew that it was something I had to do. So I started to put together a portfolio of my best work. Because America was the promised land. Singapore was too small, our population of 3 million lacking the critical mass to support a real comics industry. Readers here would never appreciate local comics. They would always see us as poor imitators of those from the U.S., Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. And most of all… I knew that, away from this sterile country and cultural backwater with its closed and shallow minds, I would at last be able to find other members of my own tribe.”
“It had given me a glimpse of what comics and a comics community could aspire to be. But I remained an outsider looking in, unable to become a member of the club, however much I long to do so.”
In the end, as much as the US is in our imagination, we will be Singaporeans first and Singaporeans last. Just ask Amos Yee.
About the Author
While not buried under books, you will find Reuben digging the depths of Wikipedia and Reddit for the most obscure of trivia facts. He would like for you to know that his major, Geography, is not only about rocks.