Taking notes 35: The symbol of Anarchy in Singapore

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by Sanjay Perera

There can be only one permanent revolution — a moral one; the regeneration of the inner man.

How is this revolution to take place? Nobody knows how it will take place in humanity, but every man feels it clearly in himself. And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself. – “Three methods of reform,” Leo Tolstoy

Thus far, five youths aged 17 have been arrested by the police for allegedly spray-painting obscenities against the ruling party at the top of a high-rise flat in Singapore.

What is significant, however, is not just that this was a prominent display of disaffection while it lasted, but that the symbol for Anarchy was used. It is unclear at the moment what was the motivation behind what is considered in Singapore an act of vandalism (which is not taken lightly); moreover, the graffiti was not exactly Banksy.[1]

It is intriguing that the idea of Anarchy was raised because while the mention of democracy abounds and sometimes there is talk about socialist ideas, Singapore does not have a grip on the thinking behind Anarchism.

Last year, I had written a letter to the press against the death penalty in Singapore.[2] Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is within you was cited as an example against this pernicious practice of state sponsored violence. And indeed, those who use violence in action and words while calling themselves Anarchists would do well to read Tolstoy.

For it is meaningless to counter the violence enshrined by capitalism in political structures in the form of, as some anarchists and socialists may claim, national constitutions, laws and other apparatuses of power — by more violence. Which is why civil disobedience, which is not always what rebels and revolutionaries subscribe to, is still a useful tool – not because it acknowledges the state and its laws as such but because it is an opportunity to coalesce people power and teach citizens the strength of unity in community as a form of resistance.

Indeed, the strength of anarchist thought is not so much in its protest, but in its way of showing community and people power in that empowerment of human beings is the way to go — through support groups and self-sustaining activities that respect the environment and peoples of the world while by-passing state assistance and programmes.

The oppressive nature of the state is what anarchists are primarily against, but they are for peaceful coexistence with other communities.

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The growing popularity of the anarchists today is due to their trying to show the weakness of the System as it is held hostage via governments and corporations etc. under the ideology of capitalism. However, Anarchists are not always enamoured by socialism either as it too is believed to include the state and its apparatus as part of our existence.

In any case, it is interesting that while there was mention of the “SG [Singapore] government” in the graffiti at the building top it was the ruling party that was given prominence. Granted it may be argued that Singapore has been a ‘one-party’ state, but for Anarchists top billing would be given to the government instead.

Some citizens bemoan the act on pragmatic grounds (a defining characteristic of many Singaporeans), that the act of vandalism has resulted in town council funds being used to rectify it, in addition to costs for extra security measures taken. As a result of this, more funds may be used to strengthen security measures at other housing blocks around the island.

In terms of making a political statement, the assumption many may have regarding the defacement of that block of flats is that the so-called Anarchists are against the ruling party per se and not the idea of government and control as such. So it may be interpreted that the graffiti was by default a way of supporting the opposition parties in Singapore.

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However, if the Anarchist scrawling atop the flat is by those who see themselves as believers and practitioners of a set of political ideals, then they would not be supporters of any political party vying for parliamentary presence or planning to take over the government, for government is anathema for actual Anarchists

Meanwhile, there has been a dramatic form of protest taking place in Singapore with attempts to burn the effigy of a minister, and recently, a plan to deface a poster of the Prime Minister. In both cases, police warnings led to a different approach to this.

The fuss over such matters may be puzzling to others the world over, but the high-rise Anarchy symbol and potential burning of effigies or defacing pictures of the head of government are uncommon in Singapore: so is what was termed rioting by foreign workers (in this instance primarily Indian nationals) in the city-state’s ‘Little India’ not too long ago. These are ‘interesting times’ for Singapore.

(What many may not be aware of — though tight media restrictions, the infamous ban on chewing-gum and the notorious transboundary haze tend to come to mind to those who have never lived in the country for awhile — is that Singapore is still a bastion for the death penalty and clings onto an Internal Security Act that condones detention without trial. It is still regarded generally as a strict place).

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So while it is no secret to some that effigy-burning takes on a significance at times when connected to Guy Fawkes, in addition to the use of the ubiquitous mask of the man as popularized by V for Vendetta (as a symbol for a resurgent Anarchism worldwide), for Singapore there are other ramifications.

An important question for Singaporeans who may be conscious of such matters is whether the defacement of the flat is in itself a sign of a burgeoning notion of Anarchy in the city-state, and not just a form of protest.

For some months there has been much unhappiness expressed mainly on online platforms and via some carefully held protests over an influx of foreigners that is perceived as integral to the government’s population white paper. The issue, however, is what do Anarchists want for Singapore apart from stirring-up growing resentment against the pressures of modern living and the drive for more economic growth?

Are these Anarchists pushing for a dismantling of the state? This is particularly important because as a small city-state with not much to rely on in terms of natural resources or a guaranteed hinterland, if the existence of the state itself is being challenged what then is the alternative?[3]

Singapore is the state that never should have been but somehow managed and survived. It was rightly called a social experiment that seemed to work with an economy that was well-nigh miraculous. However, its current strategy of courting openly billionaires and wealth capture has brought into brazen relief income inequalities. The perception of the ‘average’ citizen is that the place is increasingly one for the wealthy and elites, and the rest have to slog and ‘fight it out’ to get by.[4]

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To some, Singapore’s erstwhile idealists appear to have given up in trying to change the status quo and they seem to be on the same page as the Bob Dylan song that has the line “I used to care, but things have changed.” Paradoxically, there also seems a sense of nostalgia growing within an increasing number for a mythical ‘Golden Age’ in the earlier half of Singapore’s history that is still linked to the ascendancy of the political party that has dominated the state since Independence (which was forced through by the separation from Malaysia). And it is this ruling party that is receiving the brunt of the flack from some disgruntled citizens.

But if Singapore were ever to take the Anarchist path, it would imply not just working with communities internally but regionally/internationally; however, this may seem impossible prior to some form of ‘re-merger’ with Malaysia due to a lack of natural resources. Whatever the case may be, the reality is that it has to be always careful in handling relations with its immediate neighbours who have tangible impact on the well-being of the city-state for not only historical but geopolitical reasons.

Notwithstanding, any hint of some kind of ‘re-merger’ with Malaysia could raise hackles even further among those who are nationalist in sentiment and who are insistent that Singapore’s sovereignty is ‘threatened’ by an increased foreign presence: a recent fracas arose over Filipinos working in the country who wanted to celebrate their national day in the open which could have involved waving their national flag.[5]

But for Singaporeans and others concerned over what the Anarchist symbol means, rest assured, there has been no tradition at all for Anarchist activities in Singapore; for if even socialism is not well understood within the country, the conviction by many that Anarchy is synonymous with ‘chaos’ and ‘all-hell-breaking-loose’ will keep its rise at bay for some time.

Moreover, Singapore has politically distanced itself from its socialist roots (but there seems a recognition that it ought to be returned to by the ruling party). By and large Singapore is regarded as a capitalist state, though it has its own version of social safety nets (this too is seen as controversial these days).

One of the reasons for Singapore’s tension with socialism in the past is partly linked to conflicts that arose between British-Malayan forces in the post-WWII years against communist insurgents. The term ‘Communist’ or ‘Marxist’ still has potentially frightful if not disturbing connotations to some within the region.

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Indeed, it can be safely said that Singapore has no solid socialist credentials to fall back on. Moreover, the arrest of people for the so-called ‘Marxist conspiracy’ in the late ‘80s has not helped to make citizens more aware of the values of socialist ideals.

Ultimately, while the anarchist symbol as used in Singapore may be more a form of protest against a political group and parts of the state apparatus, the lack of an intelligentsia to discuss and debate things makes it challenging for forms of Anarchist dissent to take a shape that constructively and effectively undermines political control through the spreading of goodwill between peoples.

And it should also not be discounted that many still, including the city-state’s opposition parties, may not want a way of life which entails politics as we know it as something redundant. The politics of nostalgia is in the end nothing but nostalgia for the familiar forms of control. It is not so much a longing for freedom but a desire to be given a longer umbilical cord to stretch out and do things, for the sense is still that people want to be attached to the ruling party and the structures of the state with a little spice thrown in through an increased oppositional presence.

In that sense, the city-state’s yearning is for the nostalgia of a politics in which you could trust everyone in authority for the most as long as those ‘three-meals-a-day,’ and then some, are virtually guaranteed with some use of elbow grease.[6]

But the bottom line is that people who are not ready for unity consciousness anywhere in the world, who sow division to win personal comfort, and who inadvertently embalm the inequality created by the slowly waning forces of capitalism, will always need nation-states, governments, the state apparatus and an anti-riot squad or two to remind everyone who is really Boss-man.

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End notes:

[1] According to the Singapore police on the arrest of the youth:

“The five suspects will be charged in Court on 10 May 2014 for the offense of Vandalism with Common Intention under Sec 3 of the Vandalism Act, Cap 341 read with Sec 34 of the Penal Code. This offence carries a punishment of imprisonment of up to three years or fine up to S$2,000, and shall also, subject to Sec 325(1) and 330(1) of the Criminal Procedure Code 2010, be punished with at least three strokes of the cane.”

[2] For the letter please see: “Death penalty should not be a tool for revenge.” The reader responses to the latter included banal ones that the death penalty was revenge against criminals and that one would sing a different tune if a family member was a victim for we would be crying out for vengeance et al.. The presumption is that each of us is like those who live with thoughts of revenge and harbour a lust for the application of death.

But the more enterprising commentators probably ‘Googled’ Tolstoy’s work and may have discovered to their horror that it was linked to Anarchy, and the response as usual was this would lead to chaos with hints of a possible apocalyptic finale for Singapore: not even climate change could wreak the havoc removing capital punishment would have on the small island city-state.

[3] Political leaders have again brought up the idea that Singapore is a city (rather than the usual ‘nation-state’ and that is perhaps how the powers-that-be around the world may view things). This, however, has caused consternation among some citizens who think treating Singapore other than a nation is incorrect. But people are also upset that the perennial claim of a multicultural identity for Singapore is in overdrive through an increased presence of foreigners. This has caused ‘voices from the ground’ to make (largely online) what some regard as xenophobic and racist comments.

There is, alas, nothing unusual in all this as European and other states face similar issues concerning an increased foreign presence which does have political fallout. However, the matter of trying to separate reasonable concern over an influx of people into a small city-state is complex as it is entwined with unavoidable aspects of prejudice that sadly plagues humanity as a whole.

[4] That Piketty’s Capital in the twenty-first century has become a bestseller is not strange. For the tome provides evidence that the mantra the ‘rich get richer’ and that economic growth is no guarantee of equality of opportunity, nor equitable income distribution, has been at long last rationalized and delivered to the world. The rate of return on assets of the wealthy can outstrip whatever the working stiffs of the world could ever gain even as they work themselves straight into the crematorium.

These findings also contradict Singapore’s hard-to-erase-obsession with meritocracy in that one’s best and most sincere efforts, whatever they are, can never hold out against the power of Capital and a global system that worships and generates more of it. The harmful ideology of meritocracy merits further discussion, but this is not the place for it.

For more on meritocracy please see: Taking notes 37: Meritocracy, repression and Piketty’s apocalyptic asymptote

[5] For some links on this: http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/focus/04/15/14/nasty-comments-mar-filipinos-independence-day-preparations

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[6] As is typical of capitalistic societies there is a schizoid tendency developing socially where some Singaporeans want a coalition government, or one composed of opposition parties, to run the state but would also simultaneously demand swift, urgent and proactive action in preventing further problems like rioting by foreign workers, transboundary haze, maintain a strong national defence, keep up good international relations, etc. Would it be far too realistic to claim that a government, if it is not unified itself, will be unable to deliver this in Singapore?

If the country is already uncomfortable with a slight laxity and edginess in things due not only to globalization but an attempt to open it up socially and politically (some may yet disagree with this), how much more discomfort will be caused by a coalition or ‘weak’ government that may have to go to the polls soon after forming due to internal wrangling, more protests and possible unrest due to frustration engendered through heightened expectations, or an even greater expression by competing social, linguistic, ethnic and religious factions — all wanting a stake and representation in affairs of state and political and economic structures in a way that is far from cohesive.

If anger over the breakdown of mass rapid transport trains and hitches with other forms of public transport can raise temperatures to boiling point, will more fuzziness along the edges of reality be celebrated? If gays and other minorities expect to be able to be as they are in open, will there be a ‘conservative’ backlash? The peculiar belief that Singapore is multiracial and whatnot has produced a circular mindset: that all will be well with political uncertainty and despite further bickering (that is dividing the country into those for-or-against the ruling party), because: after all, the country is a multiracial, stable place and the list goes on.

If anything, recent fractious events and anger sounded publicly by a reasonable amount of people should be evidence that nothing could be more problematic than imagining all is well. This is not the place to examine further this complicated issue, but ironically much can be said about the openness in discourse wherein finally racism in Singapore is discussed publicly. Some vociferously deny its existence just as others insist on acknowledging it as an unfortunate aspect of life — but the denial of racism in any form should give psychoanalysts a field day. A refrain of those in denial is “People of community X are also guilty of racism and prejudice in their own country or in Singapore” therefore why are they not accused as well. This is one way to understand why many problems may never be resolved if we carry on doing wrong because others also do so.

Additionally, a constant complaint of those angry with the ruling party is the high salaries politicians receive, but this is difficult to sustain as long as corporate honchos and bankers believe themselves entitled to continue their money-grab at the expense of the welfare of others: for the bluff of the corporate world must be called and until this can be effectively done by the people there will always be some justification for certain things by those who hold political power. Political ‘Mother Teresas‘ are hard to come by.

And calls for the abolition of conscription of male citizens into the military and security forces to allow for a level playing field in economic competition between local men and foreigners and women (who are not required to do National Service) are contradictory, if not paradoxical. This can be seen as follows. Plans to induct foreigners into the police, for instance, are receiving guarded acceptance by some citizens due to questions of loyalty (as in how would they deal effectively with other foreigners who broke the law). Yet recruiting foreigners into security organizations may be an option if conscription is to be abolished. The setting-up of a standing army primarily of professionals and allowing for volunteers alone may not be sufficient to avoid resorting to foreigners to man posts (e.g. permanent residents; if otherwise, it would involve mercenary elements which may raise blood pressures further irrespective of the practice of hiring Gurkhas).

Fast-tracking citizenship may allow for more freshly minted citizens to occupy positions that Singaporeans may not want but there will still be sensitivity over such people in security posts. Again, locals do not want many of the jobs done by foreigners as in construction, garbage disposal and other demanding menial tasks; however, some think a minimum wage is the solution, but that still begs the issue of what happens if this leads to inflated costs in a city-state where cost-of-living is rising; and it bears repeating it is principally foreigners who seem to take up unglamorous employment.

Moreover, calls to ‘fight for and defend’ Singapore against foreigners may still be by a small group, but if this grows it is hard to see how the desire to ‘defend’ Singapore from foreigners is to be reconciled with calls to abolish National Service. There will always be some who insist that conscription is a duty/necessity and any government that attempts to abolish this suddenly may have to answer severe criticism from those who believe it has abrogated its responsibility to defend the state simpliciter. This is part of the ineluctable paradox that defines the human dilemma.

Singapore is at a difficult cross road and is in dire need of enlightened leadership and a populace that is willing to look past prejudice and anger to socially cohere and prosper as it also grapples with the innate exploitation of capitalism: it has to confront these challenges no matter how much unhappiness and angst this creates.

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The writer is the editor of Philosophers for Change.

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