here's a note originally meant for facebook, but then i decided not to post it there after all:
Singapore's own little "umbrella movement"
I don't like the word "emotion", have never liked it. Yet this week I've swung from emotion to emotion, have been trying to make sense of it, am still trying.
On Monday morning, lying in bed upon waking and checking my phone immediately for breaking news as had become the habit over the week or so before that, I felt a strange sadness -- over the death of a man I did not know personally and (as a friend put it) had ever been in the same room with only once, when the MFA Diplomatic Academy was launched in 2008.
Over the next couple of days, I was moved by my fellow countrymen's outpouring of grief, touched by their unexpected show of unity, surprised at the intense international media coverage that didn't let up even several days after, and proud of the considerable number of political "close friends of Singapore" that I didn't quite know we had.
By Wednesday or so, however, I was beginning to feel a little ambivalent about the increasing public display of emotion; I mean, I've never been quite comfortable with even the word alone. I wondered if it was getting excessive; did so many people really adore him so much? Not being in Singapore and being connected to them only via the web, I felt like I couldn't get a good enough grasp of the extent and complexity of the sentiments on the home ground.
Then all of a sudden, I found myself having to defend my fellow Singaporeans on precisely the matter I was secretly unsure about. I tried to explain to those who raised reasonable questions; I came up with analogies (albeit imperfect ones), pulled in some historical context, invited them into our shoes and to walk around in it, tried to get them to understand or at least see things from another perspective.
Later in the day, scrolling through my Facebook feed, I started to feel somewhat annoyed by a small handful of posts, written by non-Singaporeans who had clearly spent little time -- if any at all -- in Singapore, who knew little about us, our history, the tiny intricacies of our local politics, who had spoken over such matters to probably less than a handful of Singaporeans in their lifetime.
There were posts that lambasted our government and civil servants over an anecdote that I interpreted as a mere manifestation of culture differences, those that condescendingly referred to us as the wealthy North Korea (which was immensely amusing except for the tone taken), even those that expressed hope for Singapore to one day be granted true democracy. I felt, privately, slightly disturbed by these posts.
But not as disturbed as I felt the following day, when I started seeing fellow Singaporeans actively shutting down genuine discussions over some of these issues. Non-Singaporeans were told off over an innocent observation that we were probably the only country whose citizens would heap so much praise on their late leader who had ruled with an iron fist. To other less-than-fawning remarks, people said things like "if you have nothing good to say, then just shut up".
And these were conversations among friends from around the world, not just petty squabbles among fellow Singaporeans. I was embarrassed and horrified -- what poor representation of Singapore, what would others think of us then? How can we hope for others to spare a thought for us if we cannot even try to understand and accommodate their curiosity or bewilderment?
By Friday, I was irked yet again, this time by another group of people -- those Singaporeans who employed their intellect, years of good education and talent in writing to (while raising some points worthy of real debate) disparage fellow Singaporeans over their display of grief.
One particularly offensive piece condescendingly referred to "how crippled and stunted our culture is. All this triviality and pornographic display of sentiment ... I've never seen our society look so intently upon itself, and do mostly nothing but slobber uselessly" in its opening paragraph. It went on to lay the blame of Singaporeans' personal, individual censorship of recent less-than-fawny LKY articles entirely at the late leader's feet...in much the same way (except in the opposite direction) that he had suggested others were thoughtlessly crediting to him every little thing that turned out well for Singapore.
What intellectual snobbery. Maybe the majority of those who spent half their day queuing outside Parliament House might indeed be less likely to want to engage in deep philosophising. But that doesn't make them any less worthy human beings than the writer.
Then on Sunday, the day of the funeral, I found myself seated within earshot of a person who spent the day moaning over "What?!? LKY again!?!" and repeatedly reading aloud written paragraphs about him in a high-pitched mocking tone, stopping to scoff every sentence or so. This one didn't even have an argument to make. Thankfully, by then, I could muster only mild irritation, having been nearly exhausted of my narrow, very Singaporean range of emotions over the past week.
Later in the evening, scrolling through the Lees' eulogies given at the private service, I felt a muted sorrow for the grieving family, and also slight relief that, for the rest of the nation at least, we could look forward to things regaining some semblance of normalcy tomorrow.
Among my many scattered half-baked thoughts this past week is the hope that non-Singaporeans might realise that if they actually lived in Singapore and had, say, years worth of a wide range of Singaporean friends on just their Facebook feed alone, they would get to see for themselves the whole spectrum of views and voices that make up this city state.
Over the past few days, I have admittedly restricted most less-than-fawny opinions to private chats among closer friends. It is out of consideration for others whose emotions may be running high, and because I value harmony among my friends more than trying to prove "intellectual superiority". Surely this is as much "censorship" as is someone deciding against posting a complaint about one's boss on a Facebook account shared with colleagues?