Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Thanksgiving Day Phenomenon

Is Thanksgiving Day a World Holiday?

It is that time of the year again in the US - the annual Thanksgiving long weekend. Thanksgiving in the US falls on the fourth Thursday in November, and is a federal holiday. Friday is effectively a holiday too for most people (most definitely a holiday for schools and universities). So it's four blissful days of hanging out with the family and friends, eating too much, and shopping (the bargain on Black Friday is hard to resist). So it's a pretty big deal in the US, if only, by virtue of those four days of rest from one's daily life.

But I am greatly nonplussed at how big it has become in other countries! Upon logging into my Facebook account, no less than five Singaporeans (at 9 am Singapore time) had already wished their friends happy thanksgiving and giving thanks for this and that in their lives.


People living in Singapore in the 80s and 90s were amply exposed to Thanksgiving through the media. I still remember all those American holiday movies that would be screened on Channel 5 in November and December (I always looked forward to those because of the winter scenes). And yeah, traditional American thanksgiving (along with the huge turkey) celebrations were often featured on many of these movies. But I do not recall any of us Singaporeans actually celebrating this holiday, as the Americans did. I never once wished my fellow Singaporean a Happy Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday on November! Well, not until I came to live in US at least.

So where is this coming from? Globalization of culture?

This McDonaldization of culture is a bit sad.

How many Singaporeans actually know of the origins of Thanksgiving? That it is essentially a harvest festival? Are they aware that Thanksgiving is also celebrated in Canada (second Monday of October) and in some places in Europe?

Interestingly, there are harvest festivals that are celebrated in Singapore itself - such as Onam and Pongal (by some ethnic groups within the South Indian community) that most Singaporeans are clueless about.

Now isn't that a shame?

Vegetarian Thanksgiving Dinner

A Vegetarian Thanksgiving Dinner

When in Rome do as the Romans do. So I will be celebrating Thanksgiving, along with 300 million of Americans. Only my household will be one of the minority who will not be partaking of the traditional turkey Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, we will be having a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner.

What's on the menu:

Soy-based turkey and gravy
Wild rice with mushrooms and sage
Spiced cranberry sauce
Spiced sweet potatoes
Mashed potatoes
Green Beans with Almonds and Thyme
Brussels Sprouts
Baked winter squash
Green apple pecan salad
Pumpkin pie

Happy Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving, Bob Marley says it all for me!

Thank you Lord!

Thank you, Lord, for what you've done for me.
Thank you, Lord, for what you're doing now.
Thank you, Lord, for ev'ry little thing.
Thank you, Lord, for you made me sing.

Say I'm in no competition,
But I made my decision.
You can keep your opinion.
I'm just calling on the wise man's communion.

Thank you, Lord, for what you've done for me.
Thank you, Lord, for what you're doing now.
Thank you, Lord, for ev'ry little thing.
Thank you, Lord, for you made me sing.

Sing along, sing along.

I don't fear their humiliation,
Just to prove my determination.
I don't yield to temptation,
I haven't learn't my lesson in Revelation.

Thank you, Lord, for what you've done for me.
Thank you, Lord, for what you're doing now.
Thank you, Lord, for ev'ry little thing.
Thank you, Lord, for you made me sing.

Sing along, sing along.

Say I'm in no competition
But I made my decision,
Lord, in my simple way.
Comin', comin', comin', comin'.
I love to pray.

Thank you, Lord, for what you've done for me.
Thank you, Lord, for what you're doing now.
Thank you, Lord, for ev'ry little thing.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Freedom of Expression Vs. Hate Speech

Some Quick Thoughts on the Fast-Moving Story:
Police Investigations on Complaints of Sedition Act Violations in Singapore 2011

It has been approximately 5-6 days since my last post on the Jason Neo incident, where his captioned photograph of young Singaporean Muslim children (Jason Neo's caption read: Bus filled with young terrorist trainees?) was brought to public light. A bigger furor has since arisen, both amongst proponents of hate speech legislation and proponents of freedom of expression. This recent development has interesting implications; not only for spotlighting race relations in Singapore, but also for how conceptions of freedom of expression will likely evolve in Singapore, as a result of this online fracas.

On Nov 18, 2011, it was reported that a full-time National Service man (i.e. a Singaporean male serving his mandatory army service), Christian Eliab Ratnam, was under investigation by the police for making allegedly strong anti-Islamic statements on his Facebook. It was reported that an online reader lodged a complaint against Ratnam for violating the Sedition Act. A screen-shot of Ratnam's Facebook page has been circulating on the Internet. I re-reproduce it below so that readers can see for themselves what actually prompted the reader to lodge a complaint against Ratnam.

Christian Eliab Ratnam Facebook Page

On Nov. 21, it was reported that a blogger, Donaldson Tan (picture, left), was being investigated for re-posting an image where a pig was superimposed on the Kaabah in Mecca. Someone with access to Donaldson's Facebook page, took a screen shot and reported him to the police for violating the Sedition Act.

Why was the reader upset enough to report him to the police? It could be for two reasons (I am speculating here): (1) insulting Muslims by degrading the Kaabah, a holy site in Islam (2) Tan's subsequent comments when urged to delete the image (see the screen shot image below).

Why is the Kaabah sacred to Muslims? Well, according to the Quran, the Kaabah was built by Prophet Abraham and his son Ismail. During the pre-Islamic times, the polytheistic Arabs worshiped idols that were housed in the Kaabah. When Prophet Muhammad re-entered Mecca (he forced to leave Mecca in previous years due to threats on his life), one of the first things he did was destroy the idols in the Kaabah as a re-affirmation of monotheistic belief. Today, all Muslims around the world face the Kaabah during their five daily prayers. The pig is considered a filthy animal by Muslims, and the Quran forbids Muslims from eating its flesh (as an aside, Jews also do not eat pork as according to their religious teachings).

Donaldson Tan Facebook Page

So basically, in a span of a week, we've had three police reports made against individuals for alleged racist (or hate speech).

In the first instance, the offender, Jason Neo, was found to be a YPAP member. The ruling party was quick to act. Members of the government were pictured visiting and touring the Huda Kindergarten (whose students had been likened to future terrorists by Jason Neo). Neo resigned from the party and issued a written apology to the owner of the kindergarten.

The PAP's quick move of sending its Chairman of the Young PAP, Teo Ser Luck, who is also the Minister of State, Ministry of Trade and Industry, and its vice-chairman, Zaqy Mohamad, who is also a Member of Parliament, undoubtedly, sends a signal to Singapore Muslims that their concerns will not be taken lightly.

YP chairman Teo Ser Luck (centre)
and vice-chairman Zaqy Mohamad (right)
shaking hands with Huda Kindergarten principal and owner
Syed Abdul Rahman Al Tahir during a visit to the school

Contrast it with the response from pro-democracy opposition groups, such as the National Solidarity Party, which advocated a different form of response to the Jason Neo incident: "The correct response therefore is not to censor individuals but to censure them when they speak irresponsibly". Presumably, according to NSP, societal censuring (read: reprimanding) was enough, and censoring (read: prohibiting) was unwarranted.

But given the fact that two additional incidents were reported to the police, after it appeared to many that Jason Neo was "getting off" with a mere reprimand, indicates that a segment of Singaporean society DO in fact want to see the law on Sedition Act upheld, and to ensure that further examples of hate speech will be strongly prohibited from being expressed (i.e. censored and expressed only at risk of facing deterrent punishment).

Under the Sedition Act(CHAPTER 290), 3 (1)(e) having a seditious tendency is "to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore.

The authorities now have to determine if the criteria of "seditious tendency" under Sedition Act(CHAPTER 290), 3 (1)(e), may have been met, in all of the three cases.

Let's take a closer look at each of these cases.

Jason Neo case: He labelled Muslim children (through a captioned photograph) as having the potential to grow up and become future terrorists by virtue of being educated in a Muslim kindergarten. This perception, if unchecked and left in the public domain, could perhaps lead to discrimination or prejudicial acts against individuals who are Muslims by individuals who indeed believe that Muslims are (or have the potential to be) terrorists. This kind of speech could breed distrust amongst Singaporeans, and could potentially be an example of dangerous hate speech.

Christian Eliab Ratnam case: He posts a picture that states that "Islam is not a religion, or a race. Islam is an authoritarian, political doctrine which imposes itself by force. Any political doctrine that calls to kill those who do not believe in it is NOT a religion. Islam is not a religion It is __(censored - I do not know what it said originally) that glorifies de__(censored - I believe it originally reads "death").

The image Ratnam posted appears to be representative of Ratnam's personal belief about validity of Islam as a religion (never mind that there are more than 1 billion Muslims worldwide, and is the world's fastest growing religion, something in Islam must be worthwhile to retain that huge number of followers). The question is, can Ratnam's personal belief about Islam hurt individual Muslims now or in the future through discriminatory or prejudicial acts?

It could be argued in the Singaporean context, as in the Jason Neo case, that such beliefs, if propagated in the public domain, could spread and lead to hostilities between Muslims (who believe in the validity of Islam) and others (perhaps a group of people sharing Ratnam's beliefs). That could be a real possibility in multicultural Singapore, a country that has previously experienced race riots, albeit over 4 decades ago.

But then does he not have a right to his personal belief on the invalidity of Islam as a religion? He is NOT targeting individuals, specifically Muslims, rather he is targeting the religion, Islam.

How different is it from a vegetarian believing and stating in public that the slaughter of sheep during Eid-al-adha is murder? Would a vegetarian be allowed to state as such on a Singapore-based website aimed at propagating the view that animal slaughter is murder? Or would that vegetarian be deemed as having offended Singapore Muslims who permit animal slaughter?

This could be an arguable point for freedom of expression proponents. Where does one draw the line between expression of an opinion, and expressing an opinion that others might find offensive? Is it dependent on the intent of the public propagation of that opinion? Could it be also dependent on there being justifications/evidence/scholarly treatment of the subject (from the person expressing the opinion)?

Interestingly, under the Sedition Act, intent of the person is irrelevant if the speech/publication etc is deemed to have a seditious tendency:

Sedition Act(CHAPTER 290), 3 (3): For the purpose of proving the commission of any offence under this Act, the intention of the person charged at the time he did or attempted to do or made any preparation to do or conspired with any person to do any act or uttered any seditious words or printed, published, sold, offered for sale, distributed, reproduced or imported any publication or did any other thing shall be deemed to be irrelevant if in fact such act had, or would, if done, have had, or such words, publication or thing had a seditious tendency.

Donaldson Tan case:He re-posted an image that many Muslims would be sensitive to (degrading a sacred place, the Kaabah, in Islam) and then when asked why he did so, he stated that it was "to alert people that there is a flame bait. Censorship was never an option". When urged to delete the image Tan responded "Censorship is never an option. You guys have to live and let live with differences, and not expecting people to pander to sensitivities".

In light of the previous two cases, it is probable that Tan was re-posting his image as a political statement on his conception of what freedom of expression should entail; case in point was his response to the individual Muslims who encountered his image and who were offended.

It has been suggested that Donaldson had re-posted the image so as to highlight the potentially offensive nature of the image to the public.

Sedition Act(CHAPTER 290), 3 (2)(d): to point out, with a view to their removal, any matters producing or having a tendency to produce feelings of ill-will and enmity between different races or classes of the population of Singapore

But his subsequent statements on censorship, and refusal to delete the image despite being requested to do so by the offended parties, could work against that line of defence.

These three cases raises some very interesting questions on conceptions of freedom of expression in Singapore.

Freedom of Expression and Its Limitations

Freedom of expression is always to an extent regulated in all societies, for example, through hate speech, solicitation to felony, slander or libel laws in Western societies. It is up to society to decide what speech is harmful enough to warrant deterrent punishment.

Singapore has, through its legislation (Sedition Act, Penal Code, section 298A, Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act) defined what harmful speech is. But is this legislation relevant, or could the legislation itself be accused of promoting ill-will amongst the races and classes in Singapore?

The practice of freedom of expression always comes with caveats. It is apparent that certain forms of speech are regulated even in the most liberal democracies (eg: Gayssot Act in France). Singapore's Sedition Act resembles, in essence, many of the hate speech laws in Europe.

But the Sedition Act may be too broad to account for the differences in opinion based expression, expression of personal beliefs, and hate speech aimed at degrading and/or harming specific groups (as discussed above in the three recent examples).

Moving forward, this is something that pro-democracy proponents in Singapore will have to think deeply about and address in a meaningful way. Freedom of expression, which includes a permissive acceptance of the propagation of degrading and/or hateful statements targeted at characteristics of groups of people (be it color of skin, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation etc) breeds a culture of intolerance in the long run. The key, perhaps, is formulate a narrowly defined legislation that prohibits hate speech, and that does not have the potential for chilling freedom of expression through fear.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Hate Speech Legislation in Singapore

Hate Speech Targets Muslim Ethnic Group in Singapore

A photograph with a controversial caption has been circulating on Facebook since yesterday, attracting the ire of many Singaporeans of all races. The photograph (see on the left) shows a school bus with young children inside. The bus services students from the Huda Kindergarten in Woodlands, Singapore. One can see clearly the attire worn by the little boys - a white shirt and a songkok (Muslim hat). These little children are clearly Muslims. And for those who are not aware, Huda is a Muslim-run kindergarten. The caption below the photograph (part of it has been blurred in this version of the photograph) states "Bus filled with young terrorist trainees?". This caption has been attributed to a Jason Neo, a member of the Youth People's Action Party (YPAP).

Clearly, the caption to the photograph is hate speech targeted at Muslims in Singapore.

Singaporeans and the ISA Refrain Each Time Racial Agitators Strike

Many Singaporeans on Facebook have been quick (to their credit) to denounce the inflammatory caption. Several have also called for the Singapore Internal Security Department (ISD) to investigate the matter; in what I can only call a knee-jerk reaction. Each time, a racial incident rears its ugly head in Singapore, invariably the ISD is foremost in the minds of people.

More so today, as the ISD and the Internal Security Act (ISA) have been debated in the Singapore only a month ago.

The ruling party, PAP, had defended the relevance of the ISA in Singapore and has stated that it has been used against racial agitation:

"The ISA has been used, for instance, against foreign subversion and espionage as well as racial agitation. Between 1991 and 2010, there were a total of seven cases of detentions for espionage. One case was subsequently charged under the Official Secrets Act. Wherever possible we have prosecuted espionage cases in court, but this is not always practicable when the danger from compromising confidentiality of the intelligence involved outweighs any advantage from open prosecution and conviction".

Source: DPM Teo Chee Hean

ISA Unnecessary as Means to Prevent Racial Agitation

Hate speech (the general definition of hate speech is: any communication that disparages a person or a group on the basis of some characteristic such as race, color, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or other characteristic) is regulated by various legislation in Singapore, other than the ISA.

Legislation that addresses hate speech in Singapore, other than the ISA:
Sedition Act
Penal Code, section 298A
Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act

The ISA, as a means, to deal with racial agitators in Singapore is unnecessary. Singaporeans need to avoid this knee-jerk reaction to invoke the ISD/ISA, given the host of available legislation to deal with hate speech.

Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act

In 2010, a Christian pastor was called up by the ISD for posting Youtube videos deriding the Buddhist and Taoist faiths. He subsequently apologized and was let off with a reprimand from the ISD. But in that particular case, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act could have been a route that police could have used.

Section 8(1) of the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act permits the Minister for Home Affairs to make a restraining order against any priest, monk, pastor, imam, elder, office-bearer or any other person who is in a position of authority in any religious group or institution where the Minister is satisfied that the person has committed or is attempting to commit any of the following acts:[8]

(a) causing feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different religious groups;
(b) carrying out activities to promote a political cause, or a cause of any political party while, or under the guise of, propagating or practising any religious belief;
(c) carrying out subversive activities under the guise of propagating or practising any religious belief; or
(d) exciting disaffection against the President or the Government while, or under the guise of, propagating or practising any religious belief.

Sedition Act

In 2005, animal shelter worker Benjamin Koh Song Huat, 27, was jailed for one month while Nicholas Lim Yew, an unemployed 25-year-old, was sentenced to a nominal prison term of one day and fined the maximum $S5000 ($A3924) for racist comments against the Malay community. Both were convicted under the Sedition Act.

3. —(1) A seditious tendency is a tendency —

(a) to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the Government;
(b) to excite the citizens of Singapore or the residents in Singapore to attempt to procure in Singapore, the alteration, otherwise than by lawful means, of any matter as by law established;
(c) to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the administration of justice in Singapore;
(d) to raise discontent or disaffection amongst the citizens of Singapore or the residents in Singapore;
(e) to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore.

It remains to be seen how and under which legislation Jason Neo will be investigated for his hate speech.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Deadly Clashes Erupt in Libyan City

Aljazeera has just reported that clashes have erupted in the Libyan city of Zawiya.

"We are fighting with the pro-Gaddafi followers. Gaddafi followers still exist and we're still tracking them down and capturing them. We will clean the country of them."

Mohamed Sayeh, a member of Libya's interim government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), played down the fighting.

He told the Reuters news agency it was an attack of men from Zawiya who wanted control of the Imaya military base, and who had been misled by a rumour that Gaddafi loyalists were in the area.

The incoming prime minister, Abdurrahim El-Keib, has promised to disarm the country and set up a national army, but has yet to announce a concrete timetable or form a government.

Source: Aljazeera

The statement - We will clean the country of them - is ominous at a minimum. I wonder if this portends a future civil strife in Libya.

The armed men in Libya are not going to disarm willingly, and they do appear bent on ridding the country of opponents (or any perceived opponents).

This does not bode well at all for Libya.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Andy Boyle #BurgerKingBreakup

On Monday, a web developer with the Boston Globe, Andy Boyle (in picture on the left), live-tweeted a young married couple arguing loudly in a Boston Burger King location. He had suggested that the couple were on the verge of a break-up.

His account of the argument (complete with quotes, pictures and videos) was very quickly picked up by his followers, and spread like bush-fire. It wasn't long before the press, both local and international, got wind of it.

The account of the fight - which he called tongue-in-cheek "a study in marriage disintegration, with anthropological data collected in the field" is definitely an amusing read. Check out Andy Boyle's tweets below (note some the links to pictures he took of the couple have been deleted (presumably he had deleted the pictures himself after some people had questioned the ethics of publicizing the argument).

The Burger King Fight: a study in marriage disintegration, with anthropological data collected in the field

A study in marriage disintegration, with anthropological data collected in the field by Andy M. Boyle on Nov. 7, 2011. Location: A restaurant.

I am listening to a marriage disintegrate at a table next to me in this restaurant. Aaron Sorkin couldn't write this any better.
Andy Boyle

These kids must be 21, tops. His main complaint? She doesn't clean the dishes when his mom asks her to.
Andy Boyle

She is sobbing quite loud. He gets up and walks out. She stays. We all feel quite awkward. Do we console her? No one does anything.
Andy Boyle

He is back. She is telling him she didn't cheat. He doesn't believe her. He says he loves her anyway. He sits. We are more calm.
Andy Boyle

Another unrelated couple, who has been giving me the "can you believe this?" look, is hugging each other in response to this drama.
Andy Boyle

"Baby," he says. "I only say these things because I want you to be a better wife." The restaurant does not believe him.
Andy Boyle

She thinks it is unfair that he gets to play video games and she has to clean when "his mother" tells her. We agree.
Andy Boyle

"If you loved me," he says, "you would want me to be happy." We notice his argument is not swaying her.
Andy Boyle

"I don't want to hear it!" she shouts. The tables are turned: She is now accusing him of lying, of what we do not know.
Andy Boyle

"Why did you even marry me?" he asks. "Because I loved you," she responds. "Loved me?" We all notice the past tense.
Andy Boyle

The couple.
Andy Boyle

Apparently they both think the other cheated because of missed phone calls on occasion. It must be noted he has a speech impediment.
Andy Boyle

"A big lie and a small lie are the same thing," he says. "And I told you not to lie!"
Andy Boyle

I have no clue if you can hear this, but here's a snippet:
Andy Boyle

"I am a gentleman," he says. She stands up at his audacity and states out the window. Someone's phone on speaker is blocking their chat.
Andy Boyle

"Go!" she says. "Run away like a scared little boy!" He continues sitting, eating his fries.
Andy Boyle

She has moved to another table, still facing him.
Andy Boyle

"Let's go outside," she says. "Why? Let's do this here. Everyone needs to know what kind of a wife you are."
Andy Boyle

He is now critiquing how she dressed at a party recently. "I like dressing like that," she says. "I get to decide how you dress," he says.
Andy Boyle

He is now swearing a lot, mentioning something about cutting his hand in the dishwasher (?) and that's why he shouldn't clean dishes.
Andy Boyle

"It was only one time!" he admits. "I only did one time, too!" she says. "That doesn't make us even."
Andy Boyle

"You want to bring up the slap? I'll bring up everything. It wasn't a punch. If it was, I would've left," he says.
Andy Boyle

Just so those are aware, he is not being physically imposing or threatening violence. I would call the cops if that was the case.
Andy Boyle

They are now speaking too quiet for me to hear as U2's "Beautiful Day" plays. Seriously.
Andy Boyle

"It's kind of weird having to talk to you about this here," she says. He laughs. She sort of laughs.
Andy Boyle

"I understand that some of this is on me," he says. People at a nearby table actively laugh after this.
Andy Boyle

He brings up something about having a baby. She runs out. He empties the tray and follows.
Andy Boyle

She comes back in. She apologizes. He shrugs. They walk into the vestibule and he sorta hugs her. They depart.
Andy Boyle

Their chair is now empty, just like the love in their marriage. With this, I depart.
Andy Boyle

You do not have to be a celebrity, it seems, to have people want to read about you. But it is unsurprising that this has gotten the publicity it has. We have been watching lives of average Joes and Janes on reality shows for nearly a decade now (The Bachelor, The Biggest Loser, Wife Swap, Supernanny and so on) - and our appetite for reality insights have been whetted. It is precisely that they are average folks that we are so curious about how they would handle everyday life events, which is what this Burger King argument exactly was. In all likelihood, if the media does manage to track down the couple, they'd merely tell us that it was just one of those moments - and that they're back together again.

Of course, it can be argued that the folks on reality shows have given voluntarily consent to be on the media for public viewing. We can debate the ethics of this to ad nauseam. But why bother? Thing is, we had just better be prepared for more of such incidences.

Privacy-conscious folks, be warned that the inane (and at times melodramatic) arguments that you have with with your spouse, child or friend outside of your home is all fair game. They're all watching you!