Saturday, May 7, 2011

Prophecies from Divers Sources

Back alley shisha bar hummus.

I'd had a very nice Turkish dinner with my friend before she took off at dawn for Thailand. Indecisive, I'd ordered the appetizer sampler – a big thing of flatbread with many delicious dips and delights.

But first I need to address bin Laden.

“Employed in the service of my country abroad during the whole course of these transactions, I first saw the Constitution of the United States in a foreign country. Irritated by no literary altercation, animated by no public debate, heated by no party animosity, I read it with great satisfaction, as the result of good heads prompted by good hearts, as an experiment better adapted to the genius, character, situation, and relations of this nation and country than any which had ever been proposed or suggested.”

So, yeah. That's basically what it felt like, although my teaching career in Singapore isn't as august as John Adams' foreign service; nor am I in the elevated position he found himself delivering that inaugural address. And the event wasn't as momentous. But still.

No parties, no chanting 'USA! USA! USA!', no discussions on the political ramifications. It felt like a piece of interesting foreign news. Did you know Brazil just granted major gay rights? Oh, and the Thais and Cambodians have come to another truce.

In general I've been a Bad American for the last decade. If polled I would've been part of that tiny minority that still loathed Bush in the week after 9/11. Of course, by the time everyone, finally, came to that point of view many became retroactive Bush-bashers. It's like Indie cred: I hated Bush before it became popular. The War on Terror had been a waste of resources and lives.

Stewart actually made a very good point, though, about the whole thing, namely: we've not been invested in this war, most of us, because we haven't seen it. It's been in the shadows for far too many Americans, a major change from the news on Vietnam and the live feed of the Gulf War. So the War on Terror, the Afghanistan confrontation, hasn't felt vital.

Nor can I say, in my comfortable complacency, that I ever really feared al-Qaeda. Statistically they pose no threat to me. Meanwhile all overseas American travelers and expats were given a worldwide warning from the State Department on May first that until August we need to be on alert. But I still feel terrorism is no greater a concern for my well-being than getting a cramp while swimming.

Glad he's dead. Now for the important stuff.

Singapore's General Elections are today! Mandatory voting across the island. The Singaporeans are worked up, let me tell you.

The day bin Laden died I went to a Worker's Party rally near my flat. A good number of people showed up: around 40,000. Needless to say, it was quite animated. The WP is the original opposition, fighting the ruling party since 1965. They've got a fan base.

This year 82 out of 87 seats are being contested in parliament. This is a major issue. Last election only 47 were contested, and in 2001 only 29. It really hit home when the principal at my school mentioned that “for many of you this will be the first time you've ever voted.” It was a shot between the eyes. Most Singaporeans never have had to vote, because their district has been uncontested, a walk-over for the People's Action Party for over forty years. Since only one district has that this year, it's big news.

The eagle-eyed may have noticed that there are five parliament seats unchallenged, but only one district. That's due to a mix of single and group representative districts on the island. Some districts get one rep, some get up to five. It's a bit of an issue, since whichever party gets the most support overall takes the district. “First to the finish line” politics. So if three of the five votes in a district are PAP then they get the other two PAP reps as well, not a split of three and two. It's a rigged game, but everyone knows that.

What has the PAP worried is this whole social media thing and actually meeting a challenge from a grumbling group of Singaporeans.

Combine these two threads – bin Laden's death and Singaporean election jitters – with back alley hummus and I present you with last night's Turkish Fever Dream:

I was in a building, eating. Spanish colonial architecture, (like Singapore's Chijmes for those in the know). We were hanging out at a cafe, when the raiders came. Everyone scrambled. Keep low, look for cover. Try and get to the bridge.

Use cars for shields, don't go in the open, run, dash, stay put, dash, run, RUN! The firefight was all around us.

The town was in a panic, men on horseback, machine guns, yelling.

Days later I was in a shantytown shack, living in a module classroom, with some compatriots. The election had not gone well, and the new al-Qaeda rulers of Singapore were cracking down fiercely. We were all trying to figure out ways to sneak off the island.

The airport, the bridges, the docks were all heavily guarded, constantly under surveillance from gun-toting Arabs. In the days leading up to our planning their martial law had been deadly, and the city-state had been turned into a prison state.

A cross between 'Stalag 17', 'Bridge on the River Kwai' and the recent photos of the roads outside Benghazi, the island was quite small – dreamily vacillating between an internment camp and a country.
I was resisting, but resisting meant getting out. We stood around smoking cigarettes and plotting in the doorways of hovels. The skies were clearly Singaporean: the sunsets and clouds of the equator. Our tormentors were radical Islamic terrorists. Jeeping down a dusty road towards us women and children began to scatter as we threw our cigarettes and went inside.

They were coming for us.

I woke up, sweating and parched, at five in the morning. I got some guava juice, and turned on the aircon for a while. Once I'd cooled off I went back to sleep and didn't dream.

- Intermission -

The first half of this was composed in the early afternoon the day of elections. We now pick up the next morning after the elections.

The sunsets and skies here are very beautiful.

Polls closed at eight pm and the results began trickling in around eleven. By three they were tallied for all districts and I went to sleep.

The PAP won the election. They took eighty-one seats, out of eighty-seven. Yet the opposition was hailing the victory: they'd never had this many representatives in parliament before, breaking the previous record of four in 1991. More importantly five of the opposition had taken a group district, which had never happened before.

In terms of raw numbers the PAP won with slimmer margin than previously, there were only two districts with serious majorities. On the island 40% of eligible voters voted opposition. They will not have their voices heard.

For folks with their thumbs on the pulse many interesting little things happened. Two major ministers had to step down when not reelected. The longest seated opposition seat in parliament was lost, from a fellow who had won the past six elections. The only PAP district that won with a greater majority than in the past was the Prime Ministers, by 3% more than last time.


The fact remains that Singapore's PAP still isn't willing to consent to a representative parliament. If they did so they'd lose their critical 2/3 majority needed to control constitutional amendments. And with that their power would be broken. Compared to the last election, which was 70/30 and two opposition seats, it seems as if the regime is slowly moving towards the goal. At this rate they'd be an effective two-party system in 2016 if they were fair. But since 40% = 6 seats out of 87, unless there are some surprising changes they won't become a 'first-world parliament' (the victorious opposition party's slogan) until they secure 60% and 54 seats. Around 2021, and only if the 'gaining three times as many for each 10% of representation' holds.

In August the President's term expires. Let's see if like the last two elections he is uncontested when he 'runs'.

After the election I remember no dreams. With the results in the excited fears and hopes were gone. Business will basically be as usual, one presumes. Of course I'm open to PM Lee showing himself as an innovator in this time of revolution. He said he would be when he got into government a decade ago. But everything he said rolled back the few liberalities of the 1990s under PM Goh. As his father's son the paternalism continues, and unless there's a de Klerk or Gorbachev moment, I foresee no honest change in this peculiar, non-democratic parliament.

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