Crazy Average Singaporeans Offend Me

Rice
I Am A Crazy Rich Asian, And Crazy Average Singaporeans Offend Me
Pan Jie
25 April 2018

film-review-crazy-rich-as-9-jpg
A scene from the Hollywood movie “Crazy Rich Asians” shot in Singapore

Dear Singapore,

As a crazy rich Asian, I am deeply offended that you guys are offended by Crazy Rich Asians.

When I saw the trailer drop yesterday, I was so excited that I nearly spat oolong all over my fourth-best Chanel dress. Finally, I thought, a movie that depicts life in Singapore as I know it. Tears of joy streamed down my cheeks when the drone flew over Bukit Timah.

This is home, truly, where the Audis always flow.

However, you guys just had to ruin it for us, didn’t you?

My maid Felicia was nearly done editing my Instastory response when a viral post popped up on Facebook. Mothership isn’t my usual cup of tea but they were talking about Crazy Rich Asians too, so my finger was already hovering over the like button, until I saw the comments:

“Why must make movie about Rich Asian, make fun of us poor people issit?”

“Complete fail in terms of representation.”

“Disappointed with the lack of Singaporean accent in Crazy Rich Asians”

“Watched the two minute trailer and saw only 2 brown ppl”

Are these people kidding? I was so angry I couldn’t think. I had to cancel yacht-viewing for some alone time to compose my thoughts.

Okay, first and foremost, this movie is not racist. How dare they watch a two-minute trailer and assume the entire movie is racist? That’s like seeing one picture of my flawless, custom-built walk-in closet on Instagram and assuming that it’s my only closet. You don’t know the half of it. I have to share space with my husband’s golf club collection.

But that’s beside the point. The point is that us rich people are a persecuted minority too, just like the Wakandans in America. Although we contribute so much to Singapore’s economy, the country refuses to even acknowledge our existence.

If you want to know what it’s like to be truly invisible, try being a Crazy Rich Asian.

Every time you turn on the television, it’s always heartland, heartland, heartland. There are a million and one shows about ‘average’ Singaporeans doing HDB things in Toa Payoh or whatever, but not a single episode on how hard it is to book a last-minute flight to Milan.

Our politicians are no better. When the Ministers make speeches, all they care about are ‘everyday’ problems like water prices and GST vouchers and Smart Nation. It’s as if us rich people don’t even appear on their mental radar.

What about parking in landed estates? Or the jams along Bukit Timah road every morning? My husband missed a shareholder meeting on Tuesday because he was trapped in his Maserati, but my MP laughed it off when I raised the issue at his meet-the-people session.

Is there no ‘I’ in people? To think that I’ve wasted an evening at his tiny office when I could be watching my daughter’s violin recital!

Do you see why I’m so angry about Crazy Rich Asians now? WE finally have a movie to call our own, where WE are being represented fairly on the big screen. But all you people do is nitpick. Instead of celebrating this win for true minority representation, you choose to take what little we have away from us.

We ignored all those jibes about being high-SES.

We kept quiet when Jack Neo’s movies featured not a single High Net Worth Individual.

We even stayed silent when everyone mocked us for not speaking proper Singlish despite our best efforts to leh.

Those days of silence are over. I am tired of having my rights trampled on by the flip-flops of so-called regular Singaporeans. I’m tired of being excluded from our national narrative on account of my fabulous wealth.

Our country needs to know that crazy-rich Singaporeans are Singaporeans too, and not some elite, shut-off tribe that exists as a punchline for your Mediacorp sitcom.

I don’t think that poorer Singaporeans can understand just how hurtful their attitudes are. The other day, I was fetching my son home from ACS Barker when he piped up from the backseat: “Mom, someone called me atas in school, what does atas mean?”

My pulse raced, and I had to ask my chauffeur to pull over. In my naivete, I believed that an inclusive institution like ACS would shelter my children from such offensive slurs. I believed it would protect my kids from society’s privilege-shaming.

But I was wrong, and I cannot see a day when my yoga studio and his polo classes will ever be accepted.

So I hugged him and told him the truth: “Anthony, listen to mommy. Never let anyone tell you that you’re not Singaporean because you’re crazy rich. You have a place in this country, same as everyone else. Polo lessons and swimming pools are nothing to be ashamed of.

Until the day you leave for Yale, you’ll always, always be a Singaporean.”

#Sg #singapore #singapura #thelioncity #littlereddot

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Crazy Average Singaporeans Offend Me

Stop Denying Our Public Sector’s Culture of Learned Helplessness

Rice
Can We Please Stop Denying Our Public Sector’s Culture of Learned Helplessness?
Grace Yeoh
27 March 2018

In May 2017, I left the public service after two years of being a public servant.

It may have been a brief stint, but it was long enough for me to get comfortably acquainted with both the copious amount of red tape and the consequences of fighting it.

Besides mere inconvenience, this bureaucratic nightmare often hindered creativity and innovation. It also enabled those of higher status to wield their authority by turning down ideas from ‘lower-ranking’ staff.

This, in turn, exposed me to the pervasive fear of speaking up that exists within the public service.

Till this year, I’d thought perhaps I was overthinking the situation and that the fear I witnessed was inconsequential or perhaps even misunderstood.

Then in February this year, as part of his Budget speech, MP Louis Ng shared that he’d spoken to fellow public servants and learnt that they were generally afraid to speak up for fear of getting into trouble, thus essentially turning themselves into ‘Yes’ men. He then urged Parliament and senior management in the public service to ensure public servants do not fear speaking up against status quo.

In response, Minister Ong Ye Kung, who leads the public service innovation efforts, said that these generalisations tar the entire service with the same brush.

Despite Minister Ong reiterating that public servants can speak up without fear of getting into trouble, many netizens saw the irony in him ‘calling out’ and ‘chiding’ Mr Ng for his feedback.

Over email, I express my gratitude for Mr Ng’s courage to speak up for public servants, even if it may affect his political career.

Mr Ng shares, “My father always taught me to speak up, to question, and to always focus on solutions. When I entered politics, I said that I’m here to listen with my heart and ears and to speak up from my heart.”

He also believes the fear of speaking up is “mythical”.

“As a civil society activist for the past 17 years, I have actively spoken up and have never gotten into trouble. I became an MP! Some activists have, however, gotten into trouble, and I think this has created a culture of fear of speaking up.”

Nonetheless, he is adamant that constructive criticism is the way forward, and that speaking up should be encouraged and supported.

When I was a public servant, I created a group dedicated to memes and jokes about being a public servant on the public sector’s private Facebook Workspace. The group took off—finally there was an avenue for public servants to ‘complain’ about their jobs with humour.

While Mr Ng and Minister Ong’s views are well-intentioned, not everyone is able tap on their courage so easily, especially when they already internalise the exact opposite behaviour and convince themselves to ‘go with the flow’ for everyone’s sake.

To empathise with the public servants Mr Ng spoke with, we must first realise that humans generally experience two main types of fear.

First, there is the overt fear of specific consequences. This fear doesn’t bother disguising itself. It exists to keep one in check, because crossing the line will likely manifest in dire, tangible repercussions such as a reprimand, being passed over for a promotion, or getting into someone’s bad books.

Then there’s the constant, albeit unwitting, fear that we learn to keep at the back of our minds. In our heads, we grossly exaggerate the perceived consequences should we ‘cause trouble’, even though nothing imagined has remotely happened. Possibly the most obvious (if not the only) outcome of this strand of fear is excessive self-censorship.

But fear in itself is neither the be-all and end-all, nor does it exist in silos.

As a result of both the aforementioned variations of fear, learned helplessness starts to breed. We get used to being treated a certain way, even if we don’t like it.

Learned helplessness also stems from selfishness. We don’t want to bring unnecessary trouble to ourselves, so we resign ourselves to an unhappy situation, unaware that this selfishness also harms us in the long run.

In any case, public servants are already accustomed to taking top-down directives from senior management. Using this existing culture to enforce positive change would be making the best of a worrying situation.

This group on the public sector’s Facebook Workspace was my way of speaking up and showing that there is nothing to be afraid of. I never got into trouble. In fact, I was invited to talk about innovation in the public service as part of Public Service Week, an outcome that was equal parts absurd and hilarious.

Because of the hierarchical structure that learned helplessness needs to thrive, I get the sense that nowhere is this behaviour more prevalent in Singapore than within the public sector, an industry that ironically requires one to be selfless.

This deep-seated learned helplessness becomes clearer when I speak with several public servants. All of them request to remain anonymous, a fact that they all also coincidentally point out supports the fear of speaking up and its perceived consequences.

For a start, pulling rank seems to be a common occurrence in the public sector.

The first public servant I speak to, who only wants to be known as HC, manages her organisation’s website and content updates. She once raised her concerns with the way a project was handled by a senior staff.

She says, “Even though I had experience in the subject, he insisted he knew what he was doing. He raised his voice at me in front of everyone, and cornered me into answering whether I was going to do the work. I merely disagreed with the direction and tried to explain my reasons for disagreeing. Almost immediately, he shot back rudely and said they would get someone else to do the work instead.”

From HC’s perspective, many of her colleagues would rather “leave the decision making to those [of a higher] pay grade”, since dissent would “hamper their own plans to move up the chain”.

Similarly, Melvin, who is currently serving his scholarship bond, has experienced instances where both him and his colleagues don’t dare to oppose bad ideas raised by someone senior.

For the most part, he is satisfied with his job. Nonetheless, his contentment doesn’t blind him to the flaws of his organisation.

“There were numerous times when working-level staff, like me, thought an idea wouldn’t take off, because there was potential for bad PR, it was ambitiously out of touch with 21st century sensibilities, or it was simply obsolete. Often the ideas are raised by someone senior, such as the Executive Director or his equivalent, so no one dares to refute them at meetings. These bad ideas are minuted and taken as confirmed,” he says.

Even though this doesn’t happen all the time, when terrible ideas are executed, the departments play ‘hot-potato’ to get rid of the project later on.

The convenience of pulling rank also creates other equally harmful workplace behaviours, such as the paranoid need to cover one’s ass.

“A colleague I know would save screenshots of informal Whatsapp chats to prove that a certain idea was suggested by someone else in the organisation, so that he could dissociate himself with it in the event that it wasn’t successful. Fortunately, he never needed to use the screenshots,” says Melvin.

While this particular anecdote might be extreme, it reveals a fundamental distrust of one’s colleagues, which can be ultimately unproductive.

Unfortunately, this distrust is not unique to Melvin’s organisation.

As a true creative, I hated anything that forced me to deal with GeBiz paperwork. Luckily I was blessed with bosses who understood and supported my dark sense of humour—as long as I still completed the paperwork.

One public servant, Kevin, who is from the education industry, tells me that at a recent meeting, one of his colleagues explicitly admitted she never dares to speak up, for fear of offending senior management by saying something wrong.

This fear runs so deep that this particular colleague doesn’t trust their boss’s word, even if the boss specifically asks for honest and candid feedback in order to “co-create solutions”.

“Our boss said it was sad if our small team wasn’t able to be honest with each other. In the end, she spoke up first about her shortcomings. I could tell she was gratified when more people started speaking up after that,” he says.

Two of his other colleagues, Frank and Rachel, brought up the issue of workload, despite being afraid their thoughts would be misconstrued as “complaining” or “attacking other teams”.

On one hand, Frank could tell that voicing his opinions created a sense of openness within the room, and helped him see that he was able to trust his colleagues and boss with his feedback.

However, Rachel realised there are greater issues that her boss might not even be able to help with. For example, she laments the lack of resources and manpower as the root of the frustration with her workload, which isn’t something she knows will be solved anytime soon.

She adds, “We also fear speaking up because we know our bosses fear criticism.”

Rachel also readily admits to her own “learned helplessness”, even before I suggest the concept.

In a state of learned helplessness, many of us adopt a defeatist mentality. We don’t just convince ourselves that the ‘every man for himself’ mentality inherent in most Singaporeans is what it is; we also convince ourselves that we should embrace it. Eventually, we stop pushing back altogether.

At the same time, amending internal policies can go a long way to facilitating broader and deeper change, no matter how tiny the initial start. When public servants witness their feedback being taken seriously, there can only be less uncertainty about speaking up in the future.

Outdated HR policies may just enable the current culture, especially in comparison to more enlightened practices in the private sector. At present, because obedience is rewarded, people move up by not rocking the boat.

33-year-old Daniel says, “Sometimes, in fact, it’s counter-intuitive to work very hard. The annual opportunity for promotion means that you have to wait another year if you miss it. Hence, many opt for a slow and steady approach, instead of a revolutionary one. The latter approach in the private sector, however, can get you promoted twice a year or two years in a row.”

Daniel adds that certain HR practices, which “aren’t very transparent in the first place”, result in ambiguity about how individual performance is assessed, as well as how one’s potential is derived and evaluated. This contributes to a culture of uncertainty and fear.

Granted, it’s necessary to implore individual bosses to embrace and implement change within their own teams. Yet, to address overarching policy that affects an entire organisation would truly be living up to the effectiveness and efficiency that our public sector is recognised for.

Several times, I got into trouble with Admin and Finance for forgetting to send an approval email or two, before I’d gone ahead with my purchase. I can’t say I ever learned from my mistake. I still continued to do things without asking for permission.

That said, if the public sector doesn’t want to risk losing some of its more bold and capable employees, then radical change needs to happen soon.

At this point, I recall how Melvin, the aforementioned scholar, recounts his frustration (with the system and with himself) whenever he fails to speak up.

“It usually feels like a mixture of losing my individuality combined with a hopeless resignation to the incurable malady of a conservative bureaucracy. Due to the herd mentality of not confronting anyone or going against a boss’s opinion, doing what is most effective or most conducive for growth will almost certainly offend others.”

According to Melvin, after he was vocal against a particular policy in manpower planning, “they bore a grudge and would bring it up to senior management as a black mark against me”.

The only silver lining is that his candid opinion may have helped future colleagues, since the implemented changes had positive outcomes.

Unlike Melvin, however, former teacher Laura’s insistence on speaking up hasn’t been as successful. The 28-year-old used to work for the Ministry of Education.

“My colleagues and I were victims of two upskirt incidents, where students took videos and photos of us. Back then, my principal discouraged us from reporting it to the police and told us to give the students a chance. I don’t know whether it was shame on our part or reluctance to ‘disobey’ the principal, but the students got away with light punishment,” she says.

Laura was also bothered by the seemingly better performance bonuses and promotion for her male colleagues, as well as the injustice of covering for colleagues whenever they took MC during crunch periods or to travel overseas.

Even though she regularly brought up these issues, she was told that they would be dealt with “during appraisal” and that she should be “more understanding”. In the end, nothing got done.

Then Laura adds something that I believe most of us wish we had the guts to say: “I think the only time I felt like I was appreciated was when I threatened to leave [after my bond].”

I know Laura doesn’t say this lightly. For one, the public sector is an incredible paymaster. After living with an iron rice bowl and being able to afford certain luxuries in life, almost anything else feels like a step down.

In addition, no matter her struggles with her school’s management, she remained passionate about teaching and loved her students.

While the option to extricate herself from the situation may seem like the easy or ‘cowardly’ choice, Laura realises she did what she could, but that the public service is far too entrenched in its own culture of fear and learned helplessness. It isn’t an issue that will be solved overnight, let alone within a few years.

Like me, despite her stubbornness to enact swift and bold change, she also didn’t hold enough authority to make it happen.

And so, she did what I did when I realised my love for public service was quickly being eclipsed by a growing fear of speaking up, and an inevitable, creeping sense of learned helplessness in the face of unyielding rigidity.

She quit.

#Sg #singapore #singapura #thelioncity #littlereddot

Stop Denying Our Public Sector’s Culture of Learned Helplessness

We Don’t Care About Thaipusam, We Just Resent White People

Rice
We Don’t Care About Thaipusam, We Just Resent White People
Rachel Lau
20 March 2018

Why is live music banned for Thaipusam but not for St Patrick’s Day?

This was the question on everyone’s mind when the police issued a ‘public entertainment license’ for last weekend’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations permitting the playing of musical instruments—a right that was denied for the Hindu celebration of Thaipusam just one month before.

Naturally, outrage and accusations of hypocrisy ensued.

The government’s excuse for this apparent “double standard” was that we are comparing apples with oranges. St Patrick’s day is a cultural procession, while Thaipusam is a religious one.

Of course, this explanation did little to temper online expressions of exasperation.

At the same time, the wrongful (or rightful) classification of St Patrick’s Day as a cultural celebration was never what this was really about. Rather, it was how the allowances made regarding St Patrick’s Day have been read as yet another instance of preferential treatment of ang mohs (white people) over locals.

The truth is, Singaporeans (apart from Hindus and Indians in general) don’t actually care about Thaipusam and the discrimination the festival and its devotees face.

Prior to this incident, Singaporeans have hardly—if ever—rallied against the supposed unfair treatment of Thaipusam despite the fact that musical restrictions on the festival have been around since 1973.

Even now, as Singaporeans express their indignance on behalf of Thaipusam, many stop short of calling for the reinstatement of the festival’s right to its musical instruments. Anger and effort is instead spent on denying the Irish a place in Singapore and denouncing the existence of leprechauns.

It’s no secret that anti-foreigner sentiment amongst Singaporeans has existed since the beginning of time, giving birth to terms like “AMDK” (ang moh dua kee or white people big shot) and ‘foreign talent’.

The Thaipusam vs. St Patrick’s Day debate is merely the latest incident supporting the belief that expats have it better than the rest of us average, non-Caucasian Singaporeans.

Unfortunately, such beliefs are not only circumstantial, but of little help regarding the plight of our fellow Singaporeans.

If we really want to make a difference and be rid of this inequality, what we need to do is resist making this issue about foreigners and focus instead on where the real problem lies: with the outdated and antiquated laws governing Thaipusam and religious processions in general.

Perhaps the 45-year-old ban on the use of musical instruments during Thaipusam was relevant during a time when fights between competing groups were common and would threaten to disrupt the procession.

But given that it’s been decades since a notable riot broke out during the Hindu festival, it’s high time the law be relooked.

I also believe that society has since matured enough to know that if racial riots don’t result from regular (usually Taoist or Buddhist) funeral processions and festival marches like the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, the same can be expected for Thaipusam.

One argument that Singaporeans often put forth is that most processions happen during the day and not overnight unlike Thaipusam. As such, the ban on musical instruments is necessary so as to not disturb Singaporeans.

But as one commenter on Facebook aptly put it, “When fellow Indians can tolerate a month of smoke and burnt ashes that float into our household and loud music from Getai performances, ain’t the Indians tolerating this for Singaporeans.”

This, I would argue, is the issue. Not the fact that we, as another eloquent commenter put it, “Are always opening our legs for ang mohs.”

We Don’t Care About Thaipusam, We Just Resent White People

Raffles Stole Singapore

The Spectator
How Raffles stole the jewel of Singapore
Alex Colville
27 January 2018

The true founder of Singapore, the humane and diplomatic William Farquhar, has for centuries been unjustly eclipsed by his bullying, reckless superior

BOOK REVIEW:
William Farquhar and Singapore: Stepping out from Raffles’ Shadow
Nadia H. Wright
Entrepot Publishing (Malaysia), pp.258, £27.91
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Accounts of the founding of the British Empire once echoed the pages of Boy’s Own, featuring visionaries, armed with a flag, a faith and a funny hat, arriving in exotic lands untouched by civilisation. Overcoming great odds, they would kick-start the regions’ histories, show the locals the proper way to live and extend the imperial pink on the map a few inches before sailing off into the history books. Cook in Australia, Rhodes in Africa, Clive in India: in the popular imagination, the Empire was built by remarkable men, all by themselves.

Singapore was no exception — and the myth endures to this day. Stamford Raffles continues to dominate its pedestals, revered as the inspired founder who built an international trading enclave from the island swamp at the foot of the Malay peninsula where he disembarked in 1819.

Into this dusty tale Nadia Wright throws a much-needed stick of revisionist dynamite. Raffles is here portrayed as a reckless, inept opportunist, a bully and a hypocrite, who stole the crown from the man actually responsible for building the entrepot. Spare a thought for Raffles’s second-in-command, a tall, gentle Scotsman named William Farquhar.

Most versions place Farquhar at the margins of the story, presenting him as the bumbling, incompetent caretaker of Raffles’s brainchild for the first three years of the territory’s history, wandering around in military uniform with his stick and his dogs. But without him, Wright argues, Singapore would never have survived.

Although some new research has allowed Farquhar a greater role, Wright goes into unprecedented detail in this respect, having sifted through piles of East India Company documents to unearth the truth. Farquhar, it is immediately obvious, was far from incompetent. In his previous post as commandant of Malacca, he had only been expected to oversee this Dutch possession while the Netherlands were occupied by Napoleon. Yet he managed to turn around the Malay state and its capital entirely, creating substantial profits after years of losses.

The great range of merchants who traded there — Arab, Indian, Chinese, Malay and European — affectionately knew him as the ‘Rajah of Malacca’; and news that Farquhar was to run the show in Singapore in the early 1820s gave more than 5,000 of these merchants the confidence to leave their homes in Malacca and risk settling in the fledgling trading post. So concerned were the Dutch, they even blockaded the harbour to prevent a mass exodus.

Farquhar’s secret in both settlements was to cooperate closely with the local population, using his expert knowledge of Malay culture and politics developed over 25 years in the East. He promoted trading relations by networking with the different communities of south-east Asia and often acted as a cultural go-between, explaining to the British why certain actions in Malacca would upset the Malays and suggesting diplomatic alternatives. He did everything possible to make Singapore appeal to local traders, even permitting gambling and opium dens, provided a licence was paid — which ended up funding the Singapore police.

That Farquhar’s role has been neglected for so long is extraordinary. But the more remarkable part of the story is that Singapore exists at all. From the start, Raffles did not inspire confidence. Singapore was considered just one in a long line of failed settlements that he had attempted to found in the South China Sea. His superiors in the East India Company despaired of anything he touched, and refused to back the project. He had caused diplomatic headaches in the past by trying to settle in Dutch territory, and his spell as lieutenant- governor of Java between 1811 and 1816 had haemorrhaged money. To one frustrated colleague he was ‘a man who sets a house on fire, and then runs away’.

When Raffles departed Singapore a few months after his arrival in 1819, he left Farquhar understaffed, underfunded and under-stocked, having issued hopelessly impractical orders to be carried out in his absence. Farquhar was directed to obtain supplies from Raffles’s command post six weeks’ journey away, rather than from another British port only eight days’ distance, whose governor Raffles disliked. That Farquhar managed to build up Singapore from scratch in these conditions is all the more impressive.

But keen to safeguard his legacy, Raffles returned almost four years later and removed Farquhar from his post on exaggerated, misleading and hypocritical charges, about which he kept him in the dark to prevent him organising a defence. These charges, and a later glowing memoir by Raffles’s widow, resulted in the two men swapping roles in the history books. Still dotted across the island are streets, squares, statues, schools, museums, libraries, the famous hotel and even a lighthouse all stamped with the name of Raffles. But there is not a single memorial to William Farquhar.

It is a pity that Wright focuses so narrowly on Farquhar’s desk job, as the glimpses we have of his personal life are intriguing. He soon dispensed with his uniform in favour of looser garments, and his household included a pet leopard, a tame tapir (which would arrive at the dinner table hoping for cake) and even a Malay mistress. Being a keen naturalist, he also commissioned Chinese artists to paint a magnificent series of watercolours, illustrating the fauna and flora of Malacca and Singapore, now preserved as the Willliam Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings.

Clearly, he was a man devoted to the East and fascinated by its ancient, flourishing civilisations. Instead of remaining aloof, he chose to interact with the local population almost to the point of assimilation. This book, not to mention the existence of Singapore itself, is a reminder of how profitable this attitude could be. Going native didn’t always lead to the Heart of Darkness.

Raffles Stole Singapore

Yale psychologist John Bargh: ‘Politicians want us to be fearful. They’re manipulating us for their own interest’

The Guardian
Yale psychologist John Bargh: ‘Politicians want us to be fearful. They’re manipulating us for their own interest’
Decca Aitkenhead
8 December 2017

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have free will – a book by a US academic has analysed the unconscious, evolutionary instincts driving modern society and the results are a chilling indictment on how far we are yet to come.

As the year’s end draws near, many of us look back and reflect on what we got right and got wrong during the past 12 months. For some, this will be a less agreeable experience than for others, but however you feel about your behaviour in 2017, you will almost certainly assume that the choices you made were your own.

You could not, according to John Bargh, be more wrong. The Yale psychologist has just written a book, Before You Know It, about the eye-opening extent to which our actions are dictated by forces within us to which we are almost entirely oblivious. Who knew, for example, that we feel less hostile to people different to ourselves after washing our hands? Or that the reason why you’re feeling so friendly is the cup of piping hot coffee you are holding? Or that parents who want to encourage their children to be generous will have more success by turning the room temperature up than by telling them to share? Bargh’s book, as Malcolm Gladwell puts it, “moves our understanding of the mysteries of human behaviour one giant step forward” – not least in helping make sense of some of the big stories of 2017.

The 62-year-old American is a big, smiley man, but his demeanour is at odds with the rather depressing message of his work. Human beings’ brains, it explains, are primed by prudent and rational evolutionary instincts to trust people who look like us, and to fear those who look “other” as a threat. This goes some way to explain why, despite all of modern society’s efforts to promote progressive values of openness and equality, and for all our stated intolerance of prejudice, social progress is so agonisingly slow. That’s pretty dispiriting, isn’t it?

“Yes, I hate to say it, but yes. Democracy is an advance past the tribal nature of our being, the tribal nature of society, which was there for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. It’s very easy for us to fall back into our tribal, evolutionary nature – tribe against tribe, us against them. It’s a very powerful motivator.” Because it speaks to our most primitive self? “Yes, and we don’t realise how powerful it is.” Until we have understood its power, Bargh argues, we have no hope of overcoming it. “So that’s what we have to do.” As he writes: “Refusing to believe the evidence, just to maintain one’s belief in free will, actually reduces the amount of free will that person has.”

If unconscious racism is an ancestral legacy, it is also reinforced by contemporary culture. Bargh offers a study of popular prime-time US TV shows – Grey’s Anatomy, CSI, Bones – in which participants who had never seen the programme before were shown scenes in which the main character interacted with either a black or white character. The scenes were edited, however, to show only the main character. The audio was also removed, so that participants could see only the main character’s non-verbal communication – facial expressions, gestures, body language – towards the off-screen character. They were then asked to judge how the visible character felt towards the unseen character.

“These are shows, remember,” Bargh says, “that intentionally tried to have equal-power black and white characters. It’s not like the black people on the show are all the criminals, and the white people are all the detectives. They have the black detective and white detective; they actually have equal power.”

The findings were chilling. The main character was consistently judged to be conspicuously more positive towards the show’s white characters, and more negative towards its black characters.

“They don’t script it that way. And it’s not intended by the producers or actors of the show. There are programmes that do intend it – but we’re even talking about the ones that don’t, and it still has this massive effect. It’s conveyed so powerfully to people watching that, after they see it, they have more negative automatic attitudes towards black people. The research found that the more they see of shows like that, the more they have more of a racist attitude.”

Anyone who has ever wondered why minorities often object about what colour a doll comes in, say, might reconsider their scepticism about the importance of culture after reading Bargh’s book. He presents a study of two sets of Asian-American five-year-old girls, who were asked to perform maths tests after being “primed” with activities designed to trigger their unconscious sense of identity. One group was asked to colour in pictures of Asians eating with chopsticks; the other to colour in pictures of a girl holding a doll. The first group dramatically outperformed the second in the maths test. By the age of just five, they had absorbed the cultural stereotypes that Asians are good at maths and girls are bad.

“These Asian-American girls are not hearing at home that girls can’t do maths,” Bargh points out. “These are Harvard preschool kids; the parents are, like, tiger mums and dads. A lot of them brought the children into the study thinking that being in this Harvard study at age five would help their girl get into Harvard at age 18: that’s how motivated they are. They’re not the ones who are telling the girls they can’t do maths. It’s in the culture we soak up, without even knowing it.”

Bargh decided to test his own unconscious racial bias, using a complex system of word association and physical reflexes devised to eliminate any possibility of him consciously dictating his responses. He was dismayed to discover that his unconscious associated “white” with “good” and “black” with “bad”. However, he found he could override his bias by deploying the power of imagination. He sat the tests again, and got opposite results, “simply by really trying to feel as if I was a black person. Now obviously with no experience, it’s laughable that I could try – but I really did try to convince myself temporarily that OK, I’m a black person. And I reversed the results.”

In a fascinating study conducted by Bargh, participants were invited to imagine they had a superpower that rendered them safe from all physical harm, and were then quizzed on their social attitudes. Half the participants were liberals, and half conservatives. The imaginary superpower had no impact on liberals’ social attitudes. “Feeling physically safe,” however, “significantly changed the conservative participants’ social attitudes to being similar to those of liberals.”

This worked, he explains, because research has found that “conservatives have larger fear centres of the brain. They’re more concerned with physical safety than liberals.” Once we feel afraid, our own fear can further distort our perception of actual danger. For example, research has found that when people become new parents of a tiny, vulnerable baby, they begin to believe their local crime rate is going up, even if it is falling. “That happened to me,” Bargh admits. “After my daughter was born, suddenly we felt that the neighbourhood was getting so dangerous that we had to leave.”

Even more pertinent to current world events is Bargh’s research into sexual harassment. In the 1990s, an esteemed law professor had studied supreme court cases of sexual harassment and concluded that 75% of the accused genuinely did not realise they were doing anything wrong. Intrigued, Bargh devised a study to see if this could really be true.

Participants were asked to fill out an anonymous questionnaire devised to reveal their willingness to use power over a woman to extract sexual favours if guaranteed to get away with it. Some were asked to rate a female participant’s attractiveness. Others were first primed by a word-association technique, using words such as “boss”, “authority”, “status” and “power”, and then asked to rate her. Bargh found the power-priming made no difference whatsoever to men who had scored low on sexual harassment and aggression tendencies. Among men who had scored highly, however, it was a very different case. Without the notion of power being activated in their brains, they found her unattractive. She only became attractive to them once the idea of power was active in their minds.

This, Bargh suggests, might explain how sexual harassers can genuinely tell themselves: “‘I’m behaving like anybody does when they’re attracted to somebody else. I’m flirting. I’m asking her out. I want to date her. I’m doing everything that you do if you’re attracted to somebody.’ What they don’t realise is the reason they’re attracted to her is because of their power over her. That’s what they don’t get.”

Perhaps the single most confronting revelation of Bargh’s work is its implications for consumer capitalism. It’s not that our economic model makes us sad – although it does – so much that making us sad is good for consumer capitalism.

He describes a study by a Harvard social psychologist. “It found that sad people not only buy more, but they pay more. They’re willing to pay more because, basically, when we’re sad, we want to change state.” Someone feeling sad would rather spend £100 than £10, “because it changes the state more. And stores know this.”

Ever wondered why shops like to pipe out mournful music, or why Walmart plays Céline Dion on a loop? Well, Bargh grins – there’s your answer.

“They don’t want us to be happy; they want us to be sad. Politicians want us to be fearful. All these things are not in our own interests at all. They’re manipulating us for their own interest, and against our own, and I think that’s horrible.”

Before You Know It; The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do, by John Bargh, is published by Penguin Random. To order a copy for £17 (RRP £20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders minimum p&p of £1.99.

Yale psychologist John Bargh: ‘Politicians want us to be fearful. They’re manipulating us for their own interest’

Singapore Palestinian Film Festival 2017: Adela Foo

Doyenne.Sg
The Singapore Palestinian Film Festival 2017: Adela Foo
Lee Ying Ying

Organiser of the Singapore Palestinian Film Festival 2017, Adela Foo, sheds some light on war-torn Palestine and what drew her towards the region.

More than two years after the war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict left its citizens displaced and unable to resume their daily lives. Citizens of both war-torn states have experienced immense grief and loss, and Israelis living in border towns have lived their days fleeing from rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. It is a fact that the average Singaporean cannot possibly imagine life on either side.

This is why Adela Foo intends to open our eyes on life in Palestine.

Adela Foo is the organiser of the Singapore Palestinian Film Festival 2017, which aims to dispel common stereotypes surrounding Palestinians living in Palestinian territories in the Middle East. The media often depicts Palestine as an unsafe and unstable state, but the truth is far more nuanced than that.

You might wonder why Adela is so drawn towards Palestine and the Middle East, but spend a little time with this Arabic and Classics major at Bard College, a private New York liberal arts college, and you’ll understand why. Admitting that she’s the only one in her class majoring in both Arabic and Classics, the zealous girl lets on: “because really, who wants to learn Arabic and then Ancient Greek on top of that?”

Adela turns serious: “However, I have always been in love with Classics and knew that I wanted to major in it, especially after taking Daniel Mendelsohn’s class on the ‘Odyssey’. As for Arabic, I was particularly interested in learning more about the region after studying about the Arab-Israeli conflict in junior college.”

Arabic is an extremely intricate language and difficult to master. Yet, Adela dismissed thoughts of giving up learning Arabic after “running away” to Egypt last summer, and her parents had since set aside their disgruntlement about her majors. “To clarify, I didn’t actually run away, but simply did not tell my parents that I would be attending the Arabic Summer Intensive Program at Al-quds Bard (AUB). After my father found out, I actually think he was slightly impressed by my commitment to pursuing my studies,” says Adela.

“After running away to Egypt, I realised what a rich and incredible history this region has from times of antiquity to our present day and age. How could I ever give up studying either subject?”

Even though Adela grew up post-911 and witnessed how the image of the Arab world became associated with hostility, she never believed that people could be born as terrorists: “Perhaps that seems idealistic and naive, but it’s just something that I never really bought.” Let’s hear more from the dedicated 21-year-old.

Doyenne: Tell us about the complexity and diversity of Palestinian culture.

Adela: This is what Palestine is to me: babies with the bluest eyes, girls with curly, red hair and liquid brown eyes; when we’re roaring across the highway, there’s a 50% chance that you’ll see the craziest kinds of rock formations and there will always be a flock of goats or donkeys under the flyover.

The worst thing that someone can do is to invite you into their homes for tea, cooking an entire meal for you, and then giving you a bed to sleep in for the night without even knowing your last name.

D: Do you think that the media often portrays Palestine in a bad light?

A: Well, that really depends on what media you subscribe to, doesn’t it? I think in general, the media tends to cover stories in Palestine that are either about rising tensions between both parties in the conflict, or the inability of either side to come to an agreement about resolving the conflict. Either way, I think people’s takeaway from the media’s portrayal about Palestine is that the entire country is unsafe, unstable, and inherently dangerous.

When I was living in the village of Beit Sahour in the West Bank in Palestine, I felt very safe. The atmosphere of the neighborhood was calm and the only ruckus was when children were playing football in the streets and neighbours placed their chairs at the gates of their homes to chat.

However, I am also very aware of the fact that this is one aspect of Palestine that I had the privilege of experiencing. What I experienced in Beit Sahour cannot be taken to echo all of Palestine.

D: Are your classmates also passionate and outspoken about this topic?

A: My classmates are even more passionate and outspoken about this particular topic. Because of the Palestinian diaspora and the fact that my college has an exchange program with a Palestinian university, there are always Bard students who are Palestinian. Perhaps this human factor allows the community at Bard to see the conflict in a more humane light, that these are people too whom we should care about.

Additionally, there are student-run clubs such as Students for Justice in Palestine, which constantly invites speakers to come and speak out against the conflict. Another interesting club is the Bard Palestinian Youth Initiative, which is committed to sending a group of Bard students to Mas’ha, a small village in the West Bank to teach high school students through our “Language and Thinking” program. It is an introduction to the liberal arts and sciences with a strong focus on writing.

D: You’ve gained quite a bit of traction online in a short span of time. How do you feel?

A: I feel incredibly grateful for the amount of support shown by Singaporeans towards supporting the first ever Singapore Palestinian Film Festival! My greatest hope is that even after this festival ends, Singapore’s society will become more permeable with regards to being more informed about the Palestinian conflict and hopefully, taking a stand with it.

D: Doesn’t tackling a complex issue scare you?

A: Not particularly. I constantly remind myself of the bravery of a lovely feisty old grandmother whom I lived with last summer in Palestine. If she could live through it all, what do I have to fear?

SG-palestinian-film-festival-doyenne.sg_
Date: 19 – 22 Jan, 2017

Venue: The Projector

Films that will be screened: Speed Sisters, Sling-Shot Hip-Hop, The Wanted 18, The Time That Remains, Broken Cameras.

Singapore Palestinian Film Festival 2017: Adela Foo

Singaporean English is Almost Impossible to Pick Up

Atlas Obscura
Singaporean English is Almost Impossible to Pick Up
Urvija Banerji
2 May 2016

Wah lao! Why can’t I speak Singlish?


The Merlion is a famous statue and symbol of Singapore. “To merlion” in Singlish means to puke everywhere. (Photo: WolfgangSladkowski/CC BY 3.0)

“Two dollar onny, dis one,” a street vendor might say to you in Singapore. A local might reply, “Wah! So espensive one, cannot leh.”

While this might sound like broken English, it is an example of Singlish, the highly complicated English creole spoken in Singapore. Its staccato, off-grammar patois is the subject of much bemusement for visitors to the country, and it’s almost impossible for outsiders to imitate.

“Singlish is easy to learn, but hard to execute,” says Sai Pogaru, who moved to Singapore in 2001 and is now a citizen. “There is a certain flair to the language/accent. It actually requires lots of practice to sound authentic.”

Singlish is not just one creole: it’s an amalgamation of many different Southeast Asian dialects and pidgins all rolled up into one.

Singlish comes from the mixing of Singapore’s four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. English, now the lingua franca, was brought over by the British during Singapore’s period of colonization, which lasted from 1819 to 1963. Following its introduction into Singaporean schools, English began to permeate the streets outside them, and was picked up by the Malay, Chinese and Indian populations. After independence, the newly formed Singaporean government made the decision to continue teaching in English after identifying that there was a need for a common language in the country.

Many British expatriates moved back to England after Singapore’s independence. In the unregulated environment following their departure, the English spoken in Singapore became substantially influenced by Malay—the native language—and the other languages brought over by immigrants: Tamil and the Chinese Mandarin and Hokkien dialects.

The grammar of Singaporean English began to mirror the grammar of these languages. For example, a modern-day Singaporean could say “I go bus-stop wait for you,” to mean that he will wait for you at the bus stop. This phrase could be translated into either Malay or Chinese without having to change the grammatical structure of the sentence. Those unfamiliar with the grammatical structure of these languages, as a result, have a hard time picking up Singlish.

Words from the other languages became appropriated into the creole as well, creating an entire Singlish lexicon that is used today. The word “ang moh,” for example, is a Hokkien word which literally translates to “red hair,” but is used in Singlish to describe people of Caucasian descent. The Malay word “makan” is commonly used to mean food, or the act of eating. The Tamil word “goondu,” which means “fat” in its original language, is used in Singlish to describe a person who is not very smart.


An advertisement written in Singlish on the Singaporean island of Pulau Ubin. (Photo: Michael Elleray/CC BY 2.0)

Perhaps the most famous Singlish word is the ubiquitous “lah,” an example of the language’s more playful sensibilities. It is essentially a filler word with no meaning. “Lah” can be placed anywhere in a sentence, but is often used as a form of audible punctuation at the end. Another popular exclamation is “wah lao,” or the even more flamboyant “wah lao eh,” used to express surprise or wonder.

One of the many barriers to picking up Singlish is its complicated intonation. English is a stress-timed language, which means that some syllables are longer, and others are shorter. Singlish, however, is syllable-timed, which means that each syllable is pronounced for an equal amount of time, making Singlish far more staccato in nature.

Where it gets even more complicated is in the tones. English is a non-tonal language, which means that words do not have particular tones associated with them. Chinese, on the other hand, is a tonal language, in which words change their meaning depending on the tone used to speak them. Singlish retains all the tones of the Chinese words that it borrows, but maintains no tones in its English, Malay and Tamil words, making it a semi-tonal language.

There’s more. Though Singlish is prevalent all over Singapore, it operates on a spectrum dependent upon the circumstances, making it even harder to trace down. In formal settings, for example, Singlish tends to be toned down to its acrolectal form: Singlish words and grammatical structures are eliminated, and only the accent remains. In the day-to-day, however, a more colloquial form of Singlish is used.


A warning sign in Singapore written in the country’s four official languages: English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay. (Photo: Gabbe/Public Domain)

Pogaru, who moved to Singapore with his family at the age of eight, explains that his ability to speak Singlish only came when he joined the Singapore Armed Forces at the age of 18. “Singlish to me was just an accent with a “lah” thrown in at the end of a sentence,” he says of his opinion of the creole before joining the army. “I didn’t think much of it.”

His experience with Singlish drastically changed in his first year of National Service, the two-year period of compulsory service required of all male citizens of Singapore. “I vividly remember an incident in Basic Military Training where my sergeant told my platoon, ‘You all have 15 minutes. Go up and lepak [relax],’” says Pogaru. He spent the next 15 minutes trying to figure out what “lepak” meant and what exactly the sergeant wanted. “Singlish was the language of communication in NS, and I realized that I would have to learn some new vocabulary to truly understand what was happening.”

Though Pogaru has worked hard to increase his understanding of Singlish over the years since his time in the army, he’s not quite sure he has it down yet. “Despite knowing Singlish, I still have not been able to impress my Singaporean friends with my attempts to sound local,” he says. “Guess I just have to keep practicing.”

Singaporean English is Almost Impossible to Pick Up