Fix The Education System and Stop Talking Politics

July 22, 2016

COMMENT: Mr. Ng, you are being very generous in praising Rural Development Minister Ismail Sabri for making a self serving remark on the quality of our graduates.

My friends and I have been discussing this matter over many years. What makes him special to deserve your praise? He just stated the obvious and what is worse he is part and parcel of the very corrupt UMNO system that sought to produce Malay graduates who are mediocre and weak so they can be cadres to serve  and perpetuate the UMNO patronage system.

There is no political will to deal with this serious national crisis. Employing foreign consultants to produce glossy reports with buzz words and worn out cliches will not help us. Ask former Minister of Education and sacked Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin what he did with the Educational Blueprint he commissioned when he was in power.

Let us not waste taxpayers money when there is no will to fix the system which has failed to produce employable graduates. So stop heaping praise on this minister who is part of this malaise. You are only compromising your integrity.–Din Merican

Fix The Education System  and Stop Talking Politics

by Scott Ng

There must be the political will to recognise the failures of the system and to address them.

It’s been a long time since a cabinet minister issued a statement that no reasonable person can find fault with. And of all people, it was Rural and Regional Development Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob who surprised us this week when he said something worthy of applause.

Ismail did right in ticking off university graduates for expecting the government to hire them. As it is, we already have a bloated civil service, and continuing to spoonfeed so many school leavers and university graduates is just not a viable option.

But then again, it is because our education system spoon-feeds our children that they cannot stand on their own when they go out into the working world. Ismail was probably being too idealistic when he said that “the government provides people with an education so that they can become those who provide others with jobs.”

Our education system doesn’t place enough emphasis on leadership, let alone creative and critical thinking and soft skills like public speaking and other forms of communication. As many graduates have found, the working world is quick to disabuse them of the notion that their grades mean anything more than ink scrawls on paper.

Employers look for more than just a 4.0 GPA. They want people who are problem solvers, who are capable of leading when necessary and who can communicate effectively.

The argument around education gets very politicised on the issue of employability, especially when it comes to English proficiency, but it cannot be argued that we severely lag behind in recognising the importance of soft skills in the professional world.

There is, indeed, a lack of urgency in addressing the problems in our education system.We certainly cannot continue to spoon-feed our students. They must be taught to fish, not just to eat. Not only must the education system teach them employable skills; it must also instill in them the belief that education must continue throughout one’s lifetime. Our education system must in fact teach them how to keep on educating themselves once they leave their institutions of learning.

If the government truly wants our graduates to begin fending for themselves and to be competitive, then it must recognise that the modern world demands more than just good grades. The government must have the political will to recognise the failures of our education system and to address them.

Remembering D J Enright–The Mendicant Professor in Singapore (1960)

July 21, 2016

I am about to complete my reading of Irene Ng’s  excellent, intimate and moving 575 page biography on S. Rajaratnam titled The Singapore Lion, where she mentioned the iconic Foreign Minister’s handling of the Professor D J  Enright Affair when he was Minister of Culture as follows:

“The laborious effort to give birth to a collective identity at times brought out an uncharacteristic edginess in Raja. It was manifest in his reaction –or rather, overreaction–to British poet academic DJ Enright who had dismissed the government’s effort to create a Malayan culture as “futile”at his inaugural lecture at the University of Malaya on 17 November, 1960.”(p.327)

I recommend this biography to all Singapore afficionadoes. It tells the story of Malayan from Seremban who made a fateful decision to go into politics from journalism and become a patriot of his adopted country. Raja’s onslaught on academic freedom in the early years of the PAP government was indeed controversial. But the issue of academic freedom remains relevant today. I think it is worth reviving it for our discussion.  –Din Merican

Remembering D J Enright–The Mendicant Professor in Singapore (1960)

by Edgar Liao

Few young Singaporeans today would know of Dennis Joseph Enright, a name that might ring only faint bells to some from older generation. As Professor of English at the University of Malaya in Singapore, he had taught for a decade between 1960 and 1970. Enright is inadvertently remembered for his role as key antagonist in the conflict with PAP Ministers Ahmad Ibrahim, S. Rajaratnam, and eventually Lee Kuan Yew, over his alleged criticisms of the newly-enthroned PAP government’s cultural policies in November 1960, published in then colonial-owned Straits Times.

Decades after Enright had left the University in 1970, the occasional mention of his name in the press would invariably evoke his ‘connection with the so-called ‘Enright Affair’’, for example in a Straits Times special feature on the event of his candidacy for the British Poet Laureateship; during a week-long visit in 1994; and in eulogies in remembrance of Enright by two of his ex-students, Robert Yeo and Ban Kah Choon.[1] Enright’s name also merits an entry in the recently-published Singapore: The Encyclopedia:

….he angered the newly elected People’s Action Party (PAP) government in his inaugural lecture when he attacked the government’s plans to curb so-called ‘yellow culture’ by banning jukeboxes and pornography…he almost lost his work permit; but a conciliatory letter to Lee Kuan Yew and mediation resolved the controversy, and Enright remained in Singapore until 1970.[2]

This representation of “the Enright Affair” belies its complexity. The politics of decolonization and culture during the tumultuous post-Japanese Occupation period provoked a vehement governmental response to published comments by a renowned British writer-academic who believed that culture and cultural production constituted a domain distinct and separate from politics.

The cultural policies Enright derogated were aimed at forging a homogenous ‘Malayan culture’, synthesized from the cultural traditions of the main ethnic groups in Malaya and Singapore with Malay as the national language, in order to resolve the twin menaces of communalism and chauvinism which the PAP moderates viewed as the most pressing impediment to their desired political goal of achieving Singapore’s independence through Merger. Concomitantly, the public rebuke of an impertinent Englishman was consistent with the PAP’s constantly-voiced hostility towards foreign interference in local politics, and necessitated by its fierce anti-colonial stance, demanded by the fervently leftist and anti-imperialist Chinese-educated masses that constituted the party’s support base.

D J Enright–The Poet of Humanism

Crucially, the Affair subsequently involved the English-educated students of the University of Malaya. A section of this group had already been politicized by the Japanese Occupation and the tide of decolonization in the region. Other than overt political activism, another expression of their politics was their staunch defence of the inter-woven ideals of university autonomy and academic freedom. Governmental violation of the two principles had been a subject of the students’ ire since at least 1951, when British authorities raided the university’s grounds to apprehend members of the Anti-British League.

After ascension to power in 1959, pointed gestures by the PAP directed at the university only exacerbated the students’ fear of the university losing its autonomy. Perceiving the rebuke of a professor as another intolerable infringement of academic freedom, over five hundred students voted at an Emergency General Meeting to publicly condemn the government’s action against Enright.

While the Enright Affair is one of many incidents in Singapore’s past which has remained absent from the official discourse of Singapore’s history, the event had acquired historical significance within a diverse yet inter-related range of discourses. It is occasionally extricated from its context and evoked as a metaphor and symbol by different individuals and groups who attached different meanings to the event in accordance to their own identification with the underlying issues. For the PAP for example, the Affair became an occasional metaphor for the students’ over-idealistic defense of abstract principles that hindered their participation in nation-building. In a speech to University students in 1966, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew invoked the Enright Affair to express his frustration with the students’ persistence in defending an abstract notion of academic freedom.[3]


The Students Mobilize [Extracted from The Malayan Undergrad, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Dec., 1960), pp.4-5]

On the other hand, the Affair is remembered generally as a trace of the PAP government’s paternalistic style of governance. For the staff and student members of the University, it is embraced as a symbol of increasing governmental interference in the university and the PAP’s infringements of university autonomy and academic freedom. In his Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor, Enright complained about the unremitting persistence of people he met, within and without the University, in associating him with the Affair, and about being taken by the University ‘as a symbol of academic freedom in its quarrels with an increasingly intrusive government.’[4]

On the occasion of a University of Singapore lecturer alluding to the Enright Affair at a university forum on university autonomy and academic freedom in July 1966, which was reported by the Straits Times, Enright sent the Straits Times a letter in which he sought for ‘remission of symbolism’ and expressed his wish that the battle for the two ideals be waged on ‘firm and on firmly remembered ground’, instead of an event that had become ‘mythical’ in his opinion.[5]

The entrenchment of the Affair’s symbolism accompanied the government’s assertion of its authority over the University, from the Sreenivasan Affair in 1963 to the eventual modifications made to the Constitution of the University and the Students’ Union in 1976 that marked ‘the end of student activism’.[6] Roland Puccetti depicts the Affair as one of the ‘Ghosts from the Past’ that illuminated the tensions between the university and the state as he recounted the demonstration of PAP belligerence within the University during his tenure in the University’s Philosophy Department.[7] The Enright Affair would also continue to be referred to by the students during clashes with the government over university autonomy.University of Singapore Students’ Union Handbooks, presented to freshmen every new academic year, laud the Students’ Union’s place in defending the University from threats to its autonomy, and unwaveringly cite the Enright Affair as the first of several rows with the government.[8]

In 1966, a writer in the Malayan Undergrad, the organ of the university’s Students’ Union again invoked the Affair as an example of the government’s continued violation of the university’s autonomy.[9]Professor Koh Tai Ann, herself part of a generation of English-language writers and cultural commentators who continue to bear fond memories of their erudite Professor of English, sees the Affair as ‘another instance of student opposition’ in the series of conflicts between the PAP government and the University’s student body, which made university and academic freedom ‘very lively issues’ among the students.[10]

With the effective depoliticization of the University of Singapore after 1976 however, the Enright Affair’s relevance to the University faded, along with radical student activism that perturbed relations between the two institutions of state and university. In reflecting on his days as a student activist in the early years of University of Malaya, Dr M.K. Rajakumar spoke of his amazement at his cohorts’ ‘idealism and innocence’, which contrasted strongly with a prevailing sense of apathy among university students today.[11] Similarly, Professor Koh would compare Singapore’s university students today with the students of her era who ‘did not have the same total awe of politicians who came to persuade us to support what they were doing.’[12] Yet, more than four decades after the Enright Affair, and in a radically altered environment of student political activity, the event would be deployed as a meaningful metaphor, ‘perhaps the most high-profile clash between an academic and the Government’, invoked in a newspaper review addressing the question of the existence of academic freedom in Singapore after Britain’s Warwick University decided against establishing a local branch campus in October 2005 because of the ‘worries over the lack of academic freedom.’[13]

Enright’s memorialization within the institutional memory of the University itself encounters dissonance and hints at the shifting identities of NUS. An earlier commemorative history focused on charting the University’s growth and development in tandem with the Singapore nation-state planted responsibility for the initial conflict squarely on Enright’s shoulders, for ‘taking a dig at the policy to create a national culture’, which was unacceptable to a new government ‘full of fervour for social reform’. In this representation, the dramatic aftermath and involvement of the students were whitewashed by a single statement that ‘in the ensuing fracas, the Enright camp appealed for the right to speak freely in an academic institution.’[14]

It was only in a recent centennial commemorative volume, significantly titled Imagination, Openness & Courage, that he was embraced as one of ‘Three Wise Men’, and a more balanced portrayal of the event presented.[15] This depiction may have been enabled, and in fact welcomed in light of the Warwick University issue, by NUS’ re-corporatization and acquisition of greater autonomy from 2005 onwards, and its interest in formulating and privileging an institutional heritage in which to root, buttress and accompany an identity as a global knowledge enterprise which transcends, without necessarily sacrificing, its role as a ‘national university’. One pervasive theme is ‘openness’ and NUS would naturally be interested in reconciling itself with chapters of its history in order to exorcize ghosts from its past which may haunt it, for example its record with university autonomy and academic freedom, even as it projects an image of being an open institution which encourages intellectual ferment and creative freedom.

Another retrospective reading of the Affair would see it become associated with the Singapore government’s repression of oppositional voices. In a book which emphasizes the PAP’s record of crushing dissent, Chris Lydgate presents a slanted representation of the Affair to suit his scathing condemnation of PAP’s assault on “yellow culture” as an ‘assault on free expression’. He also portrays Enright as a dissenter who was ‘upbraided’ by the PAP.[16] The Affair is also remembered in relation to the government’s restriction of intellectual space. Political scientist Chan Heng Chee had written a harsh piece criticizing the PAP’s treatment of intellectuals critical of government policy in the 1970s.[17] Twenty-four years later, Professor Koh would refer to Chan’s article to comment on the role of intellectuals in civil society. She locates the Enright Affair together with the Catherine Lim Affair of 1994 to underline a lack of alteration in PAP’s intolerance towards intellectual criticisms of state policies with regards to cultural or political governance.[18] More poignantly, local poet Alfian Sa’at alludes to the Enright Affair in a section of his poem “Singapore you are not my country”:

How dare you call me a chauvinist, an opposition party, a liar, a traitor, a mendicant professor, a Marxist homosexual communist pornography banned literature chewing gum liberty smuggler?…[19]

Although he knew little about the Affair, it had acquired significance for him because of how ‘it seemed to presage the Catherine Lim affair’ and resonated with the banning of performance art and Forum Theatre in 1994. He identified with the issue of the curtailment of intellectual space engendered in the Affair in two principal ways – firstly that ‘one could apparently be discredited if one is not somehow a legitimate commentator’ and secondly that ‘the Enright case can be seen as one of those episodes which in a sense pitted the artist against the State’, including the Josef Ng case.[20] Thus, despite being unaware of the details of the Affair, Sa’at read both political and cultural meanings in it and positioned it within a series of state repressions of cultural producers and intellectuals.

While the Affair was remembered by others for its political implications and ramifications, other cultural commentators position the Affair in relation to the cultural concerns that had provoked the altercation between Enright and the PAP stalwarts in the first place – the campaign against yellow culture and the attempt to forge a national culture. After the turn of the century, when the issue of culture seemed to be re-invigorated with a new intensity, Yao Souchou and C.J.W.-L Wee situate the Enright Affair within a discourse of PAP’s search for ‘a new Asian identity’ and a ‘“East Asian modernity”’ in a postcolonial world via modifying or discarding cultural and ideological traditions inherited from the West.[21]

Similarly, Professor Philip Holden sees the debate between Enright and Rajaratnam’s positions on culture decades ago as resonant with ‘the current debates over East Asian modernity and “Asian values in embryo.’[22] Wee too discusses the Affair as an incident which revealed PAP’s rejection of ‘any organic thinking on national culture’ and preference for a view of culture as ‘a key part of what nation-building meant and still means in the country’ – the creation of a national culture ‘is a matter of practical politics… [and] nation-building.’[23]

The “Enright Affair” resonates within several intersecting discourses which reveals tensions within and between the Singapore state and society across different domains and contexts. As an example of PAP’s interference with university autonomy, the Enright Affair had been positioned as the first major clash between the PAP and the University, not least because the students viewed their strong stand in the conflict as a mark of triumph. Others viewed the Affair as a precedent demonstrating PAP’s disdain for foreigners’ intrusion into domestic politics or for dissenting voices, and its strict insistence on cultural management and keeping tight reins on cultural production. How different subjectivities have remembered and connected this past event to the present illuminates both their positions and concerns in the present and the relevance of discovering the multifarious connections between Singapore’s national university and the broader state and society through examining the hitherto marginalized moments of the University’s past. Some salient issues underpinning and engendered by the Enright Affair remain starkly alive and relevant today, albeit within differing contexts and circumstances, for example the ideological distance between the government and local university students that seemed to have re-opened in recent years and the divide between Singapore’s cultural producers, and the state on certain aspects of cultural production in Singapore. It becomes fitting to recount an anecdote told by Professor Holden, from the same department Dennis Enright headed decades ago.

In a class on the place of writers in Singapore, his students were asked to consider Enright’s offending remarks and views on cultural freedom and to participate in a discussion of two positions. The first was Enright as a ‘residual colonialist’ who did not understand ‘the importance of cultural autonomy in Singapore’ and thus was ‘unwittingly patronizing’, and the second ‘an idea of artistic liberation or autonomy that transcended the immediate specifics of the case’. Despite having made known the historical circumstances surrounding the Affair:

What I was surprised by was that no one in a quite active class was willing to entertain position 1), and there was a great deal of sympathy for Enright’s views, despite the fact that we’d already been over and critiqued Arnoldian views of the transcendental nature of art. When I pushed students further, I remember one saying that if you looked at today’s context in Singapore, Enright’s views were still very relevant and indeed correct–coming to a Singapore situation, students (and not all were Singaporeans–we had a couple of quite good international students) tended to prefer not to read the incident in its historical context but rather in terms of how it related to present-day policy in the arts.[24]



[1]Straits Times 23.10.1994; Straits Times 24.10.1994; Straits Times 11.01.2003.

[2] Tommy Koh [et al.], Singapore: The Encyclopedia. (Singapore : Editions Didier Millet, 2006), p. 143.

[3] Speech by the Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, On Academic Freedom and Social Responsibility at the Historical Society, University of Singapore, November 24 1966.

[4] William Walsh, D. J. Enright : Poet of Humanism (London: Cambridge University Press 1974), p. 18; Koh Tai Ann, “The Mendicant Professor” in Jacqueline Simms (ed). Life by Other Means: Essays on D. J. Enright (New York : Oxford University Press 1990), p. 21.

[5] Dennis Joseph Enright, Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor (London : Chatto & Windus 1969), pp. 147-148.

[6] C.M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore: 1819-1988 (Singapore : Oxford University Press 1989), p. 309. The Sreenivasan Affair of 1963 saw the Vice-Chancellor of the University, Dr. B.R. Sreenivasan, fiercely resisting the government’s attempt to force the University to reject students deemed or suspected of being subversive from admission into the University. Sreenivasan’s justification was that university admission should be based on academic merit and not political considerations. He eventually resigned after the government, in response, made unmasked threats about the severance of funding to the university.

[7] Roland Puccetti, “Authoritarian Government and Academic Subservience”, inMinerva, Vol. X No. 2 (April 1972), p. 224.

[8] USSU Union Handbooks 1961-1972.

[9] Malayan Undergrad Vol. 15 No. 3 March (April 1966), p. 7.

[10] Koh Tai Ann, “The World of the English-educated in the 1960s and 1970s: An Interview with Koh Tai Ann”, transcribed by Teng Siao See; translated by Lee Chih Horng, Sng Tuan Hwee, Goh Sin Hwee. Tangent, No. 6 (April 2003), pp. 265-267.

[11] Dr. M.K. Rajakumar in P C Shivadas (ed), University of Malaya : 1949-1989(Kuala Lumpur : Organising Committee of the Fortieth Anniversary of the Founding of University Education in Malaysia and Singapore 1989), p. 64.

[12] Koh Tai Ann, “The World of the English-educated in the 1960s and 1970s”, p. 267.

[13] Straits Times 22.10.2005.

[14] Edwin Lee & Tan Tai Yong, Beyond degrees : the making of the National University of Singapore (Singapore : Singapore University Press 1996), pp. 131-132.

[15] NUS, Imagination, openness & courage : the National University of Singapore at 100 (Singapore : NUS 2006), p. 143. See Appendix 4.

[16] Chris Lydgate, Lee’s Law: How Singapore Crushes Dissent (Melbourne : Scribe Publications 2003), pp. 34-36.

[17] Chan Heng Chee “The Role of Intellectuals in Singapore Politics: An Essay” in Verinder Grover (ed), Singapore: Government and Politics, (New Delhi : Deep & Deep 2000), p. 126.

[18] Koh Tai Ann , “The Role of the Intellectuals in Civil Society: Going Against the Grain?”, in Gillian Koh & Ooi Giok-ling (eds), State-society relations in Singapore(Singapore : Institute of Policy Studies : Oxford University Press 2000), p. 14. The Catherine Lim affair refers to the case of local writer Catherine Lim being chided by the government for writing an article criticizing the government for being more authoritarian than consultative.

[19] Alfian Sa’at, One Fierce Hour (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1998), p. 38

[20] Email correspondence with Alfian Sa’at. The Josef Ng case refers to the incident where a performance artist, Josef Ng snipped his pubic hair in public as a protest against punitive police tactics. He was fined by the government, which also banned all performances without fixed scripts.

[21] Yao Souchou. Singapore: The State and the Culture of Excess (Oxon : Routledge 2007), p. 62; C.J.W.-L. Wee, Culture, empire, and the question of being modern (Lanham, Md. : Lexington Books 2003), p. 204.

[22] Philip Holden, “On the Nation’s margins: The Social Place of Literature in Singapore”, in Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Vol. 15, No. 1, (April 2000), pp. 37-38.

[23] Wee, Culture, Empire and the Question of Being Modern, p. 204.

[24] Email correspondence with Professor Philip Holden.

Edgar Liao is currently pursuing his M.A. in the Department of History, NUS and is studying the political, ideological and cultural dimensions of student politics and activism in the University of Malaya/Singapore.

Tags: cultural politics, education, student activism

Once Upon a Time, a Mendicant Professor in Singapore: Remembering the Enright Affair (November 1960)

Religion–The Quest for Meaning and Solace

July 19, 2016

RELIGION–The Quest for Meaning and Solace


Searching for Meaning Inside Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam
By Corinna Nicolaou
289 pp. Columbia University, $35.

The increasing numbers of young people in Pew surveys who select “none” when asked to choose their religious affiliation cause extensive hand-wringing among religious leaders and pundits. But this phenomenon is more productively addressed through a memoir like Nicolaou’s sincere, idiosyncratic “A None’s Story.”

Nicolaou sets out to “quench my thirst for spirituality and address the religious ignorance I had felt so acutely in the wake of 9/11” by attending as many houses of worship as she can. Her four-year itinerary is not a methodical survey; it’s religious tourism. She celebrates Mass with Catholics, whoops with Pentecostals, meditates with Buddhists, celebrates Purim and Passover with Jews, Ramadan and Eid with Muslims.

The author’s naïveté can be grating, and she covers so much ground so quickly that her tone can veer jarringly from breezy to suddenly spiritual. But her determination to understand practice rather than ideology is wise. To those who criticize her project as superficial, or who expect her to eventually settle in a denomination, that’s “like being criticized for being homeless by people tucked under cozy comforters. I don’t have a snug bed — that’s the point.”

How to Save Religion From Itself
By Donniel Hartman
180 pp. Beacon, $24.95.

If religion is supposed to guard our best human virtues, why does it so often lead to war and injustice? Rabbi Hartman puts forward the radical notion that religion has an “autoimmune disease,” a critical flaw contained within it that leads to its misuse. (He sticks to Judaism here, but calls for similar self-criticisms within other traditions.) The disease’s two main symptoms are “God intoxication,” which over focuses believers on  the superficial worship of God, and “God manipulation,” which allows believers to justify pure self-interest in religious terms. Faith in God, Hartman argues, should not be excised from human life, it should be “treated and cured of its pathological side effects.” He attempts to do this by returning to the tradition’s texts, especially to one Talmudic saying of the Rabbi Hillel:“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”

Hartman argues that the true moral and ethical center of Judaism does not depend on a notion of God, but on an autonomous, universal moral consciousness that it is our job to interpret responsibly. Religion should be a “moral mentor, reminding, cajoling, exhorting and at times threatening its adherents to check their self-interest.” Though this book will necessarily appeal more to the “loyal opposition” within Judaism, Hartman’s courageous, meticulously supported argument deserves wider hearing.

A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World
By Dennis Covington
212 pp. Little, Brown, $26.

Best known for “Salvation on Sand Mountain,” in which he embedded deeply with snake-handling preachers, Covington has always been drawn to danger and God. Now in his 60s, he decides to go to “places where religion bled,” where he can “write about faith as an action rather than just a set of beliefs.” He sets out for the site of ancient Antioch, in Turkey, following the movements of early Christians. But soon he can’t seem to stop making trips across the Turkish border into Syria. The horrific violence he witnesses at the beginning of the ISIS takeover draws him into the international humanitarian catastrophe. In taut, immersive chapters, Covington broadens this war story in time and place, back to his childhood during the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Ala.; his reporting in the El Salvadoran war; and his relationship with his severely disturbed older brother.

Always questioning his own motives, Covington doesn’t spare readers the discomfort of his obsession with violence. “It wasn’t a suicidal impulse; I knew what one of those was like. This was the opposite, a desperation to live intensely so as not to die before we were dead.” The faith he finds is not steady, historical, or some kind of inner light. It is a mode of life occurring at the front lines, where people suffer most — haunted, tormented, but always intensely alive.

A Spirited Manifesto

By Lesley Hazleton
212 pp. Riverhead, $26.

Agnostics have it rough in American culture; their refusal to take a stand has the whiff of cowardice or laziness. But in Hazleton’s vital, mischievous new book, the term represents a positive orientation toward life all its own, one that embraces both science and mystery, and values the immediate joys of life.

Fully aware that a manifesto of a non-creed is a contradiction in terms, Hazleton nevertheless takes on the task with considerable gusto, insisting that “the absence of an ‘ultimate’ meaning of life — a grand, overarching explanation of everything — does not render life empty of relevance.” She proceeds through a number of the big questions or themes where she finds herself feeling most “agnostic”: the anthropomorphizing of God, the suspicion of doubt, the conflation of faith and belief, the characterization of a “soul” as something that can be either “lost” or “found.”

In each of her wide-ranging reflections, Hazleton nimbly avoids the “danger . . . of entering ­chicken-soup-for-the-soul territory” and the pitfalls of being “spiritual”: “The tag feels too nebulous and at the same time too self-congratulatory.” Instead, she remains intimately grounded and engaged in our human, day-to-day life.<

Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of “Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden” and editor of Killing the Buddha, an online magazine of religion, culture and politics.

A version of this review appears in print on July 17, 2016, on page BR26 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Religion.

The Class Politics of Decluttering

July 18, 2016

The Class Politics of Decluttering

Missoula, Mont. — SUDDENLY, decluttering is everywhere. It may have started with Marie Kondo and her mega-best seller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” but it has exploded into a mass movement, anchored in websites, seminars and — ironically — a small library’s worth of books about how to get rid of stuff.

To its advocates, decluttering, or “minimalism,” is about more than just maximizing space: “By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth and contribution,” say Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, hosts of “The Minimalists” podcast.

But minimalism is a virtue only when it’s a choice, and it’s telling that its fan base is clustered in the well-off middle class. For people who are not so well off, the idea of opting to have even less is not really an option.

I understand why people with a lot of stuff feel burdened by it, and the contrasting appeal of having less of it. I cleaned houses to put myself through college as a single mother. I spent my days in expensive homes, full of large televisions and stereo systems, fully furnished rooms that collected dust. I was alone and isolated most days, and at night, I concentrated on the three or four online classes I took through a local community college. My daughter and I had about $50 in spending money a month.

Over the course of a year, and after seeing how the other half lived, I started to recognize that by having less, by trying to find joy in what little things life brings — like a 25-cent puzzle we found at a garage sale — we were living a somewhat happier life. Or, I assumed we were, after noticing while cleaning bathrooms that my clients tended to be on several medications for depression, pain and sleeplessness.In some ways, I was practicing what minimalism preaches. But it didn’t make me happy. And I imagine for millions of other working-class Americans who struggle to get by, minimalism’s principles don’t sit well either. Buddhist belief says happiness is the freedom from want, and yet, what if your life is streamlined out of necessity, and not choice?

I had to downsize severely several years ago when my daughter and I moved into a 400-square-foot studio. I had no usable wall space, and although my boss gave me temporary storage space in her garage over the summer, I had to sort through and get rid of carloads of clothes, my childhood toys, school papers, books, movies and artwork. I couldn’t afford to store all of these items, which had value to me only as a record of my history — including mementos from my parents.

 My stuff wasn’t just stuff, but a reminder that I had a foundation of support of people who had loved me growing up: a painting I’d done as a child that my mom had carefully framed and hung in our house, a set of antique Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls my ferret once chewed an eye out of when I was 15, artwork my mom had collected over the decade we lived in Alaska. Things I grew up with that brought me back to a time of living a carefree life.

I’ve grown to appreciate living in a small space over the last decade, even after having another child. I now keep a 667-square-foot apartment clean, and can’t imagine the responsibility of doing the same to two or three times the space. But it would be nice for my girls to have their own rooms, and a yard to run around in. It would be nice to have a real couch that isn’t a futon I’ve held on to for several years. I hunt for deals, and hurry to Walmart whenever there’s a sale.

And that’s the other class element lurking behind minimalism’s facade. In a new documentary about the movement, “bad” consumption is portrayed by masses of people swarming into big box stores on Black Friday, rushing over one another for the best deals. They are, we’re led to understand, slaves to material goods, whereas the people who stay away from mass consumption are independent thinkers, free to enjoy the higher planes of life.

But those people flocking to Walmart and other stores don’t necessarily see things that way. To go out and purchase furniture, or an entertainment set, or a television bigger than an average computer monitor — let alone decide that I can afford to get rid of such things — are all beyond my means. That those major sales bring the unattainable items to a level of affordability is what drives all of those people to line up and storm through doors on Black Friday.

Those aren’t wealthy people who have a house full of expensive items they don’t need. Those are people teetering on or even below the poverty level, desperate for comfort in their homes. To point to them as a reason to start an anti-consumerism movement is just another form of social shaming. Those aren’t the people who would benefit from a minimalist life. They can’t afford to do with less.

Stephanie Land is a writing fellow at the Center for Community Change. This article was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Angmoh’s View of Singapore: I will choose Singapore again in a heartbeat.

New York

Angmoh’s View of Singapore: I will choose Singapore again in a heartbeat.

by Dr. Theodore Shawcross

I’ve read all the answers here and I’d just like to give my opinion on Why People hate Singapore, as a “foreign talent” as an “angmoh” and as someone who grew up in England, eventually moved to the US for my PhD, and then chose to raise my family in Singapore.

As a person who grew up in the west, there’s nothing that gives more credence to the phrase “the grass is greener on the other side” than when a caucasian chooses to move to a predominantly Asian country. It gives me great pride to say that I could somehow travel 10 years back in time to that moment I made this decision to move to Singapore with my wife and 5 month old boy, I will choose Singapore again in a heartbeat.

Singapore is an amazing country. That sentence is perhaps more of an understatement than any of the understatements in history, because although many Singaporeans like to rant about its imperfections, Singapore is the closest you can get to a near perfectly run country. I’m saying this objectively, because amid all the freedom, the welfare, the “quality of life” that Singaporeans seem to admire about Scandinavian countries, or for some odd reason, the US and the UK, I sincerely doubt that any person with the desire to be in a competitive, fast-paced, ultra modern, yet clean, safe and economically solvent country would have any other options other than Singapore.

Singapore has lived up to all my expectations of enabling my children to receive a world leading education, to grow up in a country bereft of violence, misconduct and disorder, and enabling me to work alongside one of the most highly educated and skilled pool of talent that happens to speak in my native tongue, to enable my wife and I to mingle with people from all around the world in a tight knit environment, to live in an essentially equal country without overt racism because to be Singaporean is to accept that anyone can be Singaporean, regardless or race and religion, now that’s priceless. The US has always claimed to be an inclusive country where people of different walks of life can live freely and ironically “safely”, it might be a surprise to some folks because they never really found out how to get that done.

Racial Equality

This country has its flaws, but I’m an economist, therefore I know firsthand that whatever you choose, there is always going to be something you give up. Freedom of speech is something that has become very controversial in recent Singaporean history given the persecution that Amos Yee had to face by posting a seemingly “harmless” video. It has become a theme now that young Singaporeans are becoming increasingly enchanted with Western ideas of freedom and yet they’ve not actually lived in those countries long enough to get an idea of what that sort of freedom is about.

Singapore is undoubtedly multiracial, and to maintain this heterogeneity comes at a huge price, it’s a price that the founders of this country felt it was worth paying, and it did pay off. I come from a country riddled with hate crime. Although I’ve never really experienced it firsthand on the tube or on buses, but everyone in England will always have that friend with a story to tell about racial conflict in public places. I’ve also lived for more than half a decade in the US, essentially a country still deeply ensconced in racial tensions, especially in southern states. Singapore is a country that has essentially solved that problem.

Cost of Living

I understand through volunteer work and community service in Singapore that there are people choking under the increased stress that Singapore is becoming too expensive for the poor. I don’t like to dismiss this as a problem we cannot solve, but I would say that it is a very difficult problem to solve. Singapore is an entrepôt nation, add that to the fact that it is one of the most densely populated modern metropolises in the world. Being born in this country has its disadvantages if you weren’t born into a well-to-do family, I get that.

To keep any economy stable, solvent, and growing, there will be positive selection from other countries, it’s inevitable. The rich, the highly qualified, the highly skilled will always find a reason to get their asses to this island. I’m a living breathing example of that. People will always move to the place, the job, the field or the country they feel they can be most productive in, it’s just economics. Now the only way the government can solve this problem, is to increase spending in welfare, how? Well the only way is to increase taxes isn’t it? But wait, isn’t the only thing keeping Singapore such an attractive location for startup businesses and highly skilled professionals is the relatively low taxes? Singapore is too small a country to be dilly-dallying, that I can assure you. It needs to stay competitive, it needs to keep growing, otherwise it wouldn’t last long, and I do mean, the country will crumble if its economy falters.

There are many things keeping this country economically strong, many components, many attributes, I believe the current government understands that and it’s difficult to compromise those components to improve the cost of living. The cost of living of any metropolitan city is bound to be high, Google the rent on flats in New York, or London, or Tokyo, or Sydney, and I’ll find something to keep your jaws from dropping. With the exception of Tokyo and maybe Sydney, most of the capital cities in the world are filthy, dangerous, crime-infested and their public transport systems are failing ALL THE TIME. And I do mean “all the time”, not the once a month kind of deal that we have to deal with SMRT. I will not in a million years expect Singapore to be any less expensive to live in than any of these cities, and yet it holds up pretty well. Singapore can be affordable, which is one of the great triumphs of the Singaporean government, which is to make relatively high quality public housing available and provide financial aids to afford them. It’s impossible to go out for a proper meal in London without having to spend more than 50 SGD on your meal, whereas I can take a train to any shopping mall with a food court and spend less than 10 SGD on a full meal, sitting in clean seats and an air-conditioned environment.

Singapore has a lot to give, and I can imagine being in the shoes of the government, because the people never seem to be satisfied with what they have. It’s a really tough job.

Cost of Cars

Something that’s linked quite closely to the Singaporean notion of “quality of life” is car ownership. Yes cars are bloody expensive in Singapore, more expensive than any other country perhaps. The government seeks to solve this problem through making public transport a viable option, by constantly expanding their coverage and making it very affordable. Barring the relatively infrequent breakdowns. In America car ownership would be something of a necessity, because it is virtually impossible to travel without having a car. I drove an hour from where I lived to the Stanford campus every day for 5 years. However, you can only imagine the traffic congestion I have to deal with on the I-80 every day. Making cars affordable in Singapore is just going to make the roads more congested, at which point it’s not going to make sense to own a car anymore.

Freedom of Expression

I believe I touched a little on this topic, so now I’m going to clarify that freedom of expression has never meant freedom to say anything you want without consequences. You may think there is freedom in just about any modern developed country so why can’t Singapore have it, but you have to also take in account the laws that these countries have against racism such as the Crime and Disorder Act in Britain. There is absolutely no country in which you can just say anything to incite violence, disorder, or possibly terrorism without being persecuted. The US is a very unique situation wherein everyone can practically say anything they want without being held for trial, but that doesn’t mean you can defame anyone you like without being sued.

Yes, the US probably has the freedom of expression that most young, naive Singaporeans are asking for, but look at the state of the country, and look how they were able to regulate racism. I really wonder if that is what Singaporeans want, the freedom to go on any MRT train and call an Indian or a Malay person out based on the colour of their skin. This toxic right belittles the very equality that the founding fathers of this country fought for.

I thought Singapore left Malaysia because they weren’t able to promise the sort of racial equality that Lee Kuan Yew had asked for. People may argue that this wouldn’t happen, and that education is the only solution to racial tolerance, but how many people in Singapore are actually educated to the level that would make them impervious to racial hate? The last I checked, the leader of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke is a university graduate. Humans cannot realistically be given the ability to run their mouths in hopes that education can be an effective restrictor, because it is obviously not. Only the law can protect the rights of the people from being offended, racially or religiously. The question on whether the right of being protected from emotional harm or the right to be able to express our ideas freely has an obvious answer. People want to be able to say what they want, but they aren’t willing to bear the consequences that being emotionally fragile human beings, violence is just one step away from offensive remarks with racial or religious undertones. This brings us to the question of “is prevention better than cure”. Do we want to let loose the darkest sides of our psyches in hopes that Singapore will continue to be an inclusive society?

I’m not going to sugarcoat the bad things about Singapore, because there are some pretty strict laws that must be changed, like laws against homosexuality, which I think will, in time, be abolished. But people need to understand one thing, if you want to demand the government to do something about your problems, please make sure you’ve done enough academic research about whether or not your problems are essential problems, or are they problems that are just characteristic of a modern metropolitan city, for if they are, there’s really no solution to many of those problems. No country has been able to keep housing affordable in their capital city relatively to their suburban or rural areas. Singapore has no suburban areas, the closest thing we have to a countryside is Malaysia, where houses are by the Singaporean definition, affordable and cheap. As I have said about freedom of expression, there’s a huge price we have to pay for it. Not everyone is educated, not everyone is inherently tolerant. If we allow that to happen, may I refer you to the countless of videos on UK, US and Aussie racism that happened regardless of the laws imposed against racial remarks in the UK and Australia. If Singapore starts to lax its laws against freedom of expression then the fundamentals of what made this country great will crumble.

So why do people hate Singapore you ask? Well my only answer is blame Hollywood, and blame ignorance. Young people are a pain in the ass, we’ve all been through that phase. They just need to grow up and realise that you cannot always get what you want, you should not always get what you want.

Singapore is in good hands, and I’m proud to stay on, contribute to the economy, create jobs for Singaporeans, do community and volunteer work, all in the name of preserving my choice to come live here.

Majulah Singapura.


I’ve received a lot of abuse on the internet these past few days, so I felt that I had to clarify that I do not claim to know all about Singapore, or any at all, everything I said here are based on my observations living in the country. I’m very new to this whole internet thing so I’m starting to get the sense that it isn’t quite that hospitable, I probably should go back to commenting on Brexit and UK questions on here. It has never been my intention to overlook any of the problems that I didn’t bring up, or introduce sweeping solutions of how freedom of speech is mutually exclusive to racial harmony. I based my responses on my experiences in the US and UK, so it’s not mental to come to the conclusion that you have to have some level of control otherwise they can be no harmony. It’s nice to have so many people show their appreciation for my answer, but this whole questioning of my identity malarkey is getting out of hand, I do not work for the PAP, nor can I vote in elections, I’m sure if I was writing this as propaganda, there would be much more I should’ve said. Have nice life everyone.

About the Author


The normalisation of Racism in Malaysia

New York

June 24, 2016

The normalisation of Racism in Malaysia–Thanks Farouk for Socking to Insolent  Nik Abduh and Biro Tata Negara

by Farouk A. Peru

A Member of P.Ramlee’s Tiga Abdul (remamed Abduh)

In a week that saw Nik Abduh advising Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to spend his remaining years on the prayer mat seeking forgiveness, I thought I had seen my fair share of ludicrous remarks for the week at least.

Nik Abduh has taken over his late father’s place as the purveyor of silly comments, it seems. He told Tun Dr M that the latter’s time was short and so he should spend it in worship. How does Abduh know how much time anyone has left? And why should anyone spend it solely on the prayer mat when he could be helping society? Is Abduh saying Islam is only practised on the prayer mat? If so, he should withdraw from politics and spend it on the prayer mat himself.

The UMNO-sponsored BTN Troopers are told that” racism is a good thing”

But even Abduh’s comment could not overshadow those by the Biro Tata Negara (BTN) or National Civics Bureau in terms of ludicrousness. BTN used to be very sheepish about its institutional racism. After all, being racist is a shameful thing.

Around six years ago, one of its officers was caught using derogatory racial epithets to describe Malaysian Chinese and Indians. At the time, the usual excuses were given. Misquoted, misunderstood etc. Though I doubt anyone actually believed those excuses at the time, at least there was a sense of shame about it.


Fast forward to the present and BTN is actually saying that racism is good to bring about unity! There were no more excuses or being sheepish about it. This is a blatant, audacious and brazen proclamation: racism is a good thing!

I had to read the headline a few times to ensure I got it right; it had occurred to me that language may have betrayed them. Perhaps they meant “racialism” instead of “racism.” “Racialism” is the focus upon a particular racial group to benefit them but does not entail oppressing other racial groups. Call it cultural empowerment, if you will. Perhaps BTN meant this instead of racism. Except they did not.

They actually meant racism. They contrasted this racism with the fact that other races had their fair share of human rights (notwithstanding child abduction and bodysnatching for the purposes of religion, of course). They even said that most of the wealthiest people in the nation were Chinese as if this somehow absolves us of the sin of robbing others of educational and economic opportunities.

Apparently, they had lifted this concept of racism from the Arab nationalist tendencies of “asabiyyah” which was discussed by ibn Khaldun. Perhaps, in their uncritical approach which accepts anything Arabic as “Islamic”, they failed to understand that Ibn Khaldun was a sociologist and not a theologian.

Khaldun’s ideas were not necessarily Islam. In fact, the Quran does not condone any kind of racism or even nationalism. It sees our cultural diversity as a means of recognising one another (49/13) and that human disunity only came out of exploitative tendencies. That should sound very familiar to the BTN and their overlords, UMNO.

Let us now take a rational perspective. Can racism actually bring about any benefit? The proof of the pudding is in the eating and after nearly 50 years of affirmative action supposedly benefitting the Malays, even our leaders admit that they have grown used to their crutch! Instead of developing our competitive capacities in the wider world, we have chosen to create a controlled environment full of jaguh-jaguh kampungs. Kings of the small pond who would get devoured in the wider world.

These racist policies have had a terrible effect on the Malay mindset. We have come to have a privileged mindset and a sense of entitlement. Who could forget the speech last year by a young Malay woman bemoaning her struggle to make it once she graduated? Her sense of expectation is a depiction of the mindset Malays tend to have. This does not tally with our competitiveness at all and our lack of skills, especially in English, has been made into comedy material.

Racism must be also blamed for our current lack of national cohesion. Despite people seeing this as an increase in religious consciousness, Malays have not become more religious. Rather, they have mistaken another kind of racism (pseudo-Arabic racism, to be precise) for piety. Now, we even have organisations shamelessly peddling Islamisation while claiming their Malay rights!

Having said the above, I am all for cultural empowerment and activism. I see Malay culture, like all cultures, as a treasure trove of wisdom and human experience. But its access should be for everyone, not just Malays. It is not an excuse for nationalism let alone racism. We in Malaysia are fortunate to have many cultures in one melting pot. Instead, we have chosen to be governed by racists who will tout their racism to exploit even their own people. We need to dismantle BTN and work towards national unity at the grassroots level. –