The Social Sciences and Me

Submitted as the final essay assignment for Foundation Social Science, Certificate of University Preparation

At the start of the seventh season of Seinfeld, Jerry and George, having just broken up with their respective girlfriends over the most trivial of differences, come to a sudden realisation. “What kind of lives are these?” Jerry poses, with the implication being that their habit of making a big deal over minute details in their lives was starting to be a problem with the way they saw themselves (David & Ackerman, 1995). In the same way, Goffman (1963) categorises identity in three aspects: social, personal, and ego, which is defined by relationships with others, one’s definition of it, and experiences, respectively. Specifically, I will be talking about how my identity, being an amalgamation of my experiences (Goffman, 1963), has both been shaped by and relates to my experiences through the topics I have learnt in Social Science. This essay will give an overview of the topics I have learnt that I found particularly meaningful, mainly media and social anthropology. It will also explain their links to my experiences and expand upon them, demonstrating how they are inherently interwoven with each other and, ultimately, the overarching topic: identity. 

The media in today’s world is colossal and fundamental; its role in our lives cannot be overstated. Derived from the Latin word for ‘middle’, it started out with the Gutenberg printing press in the fifteenth century, and today, appears everywhere we turn, even on our wrists, enabling practically instant access to the happenings of the world. O’Shaughnessy and Stadler (2008) identifies five influences on the media, namely, the role of people in innovating, which also leads to, secondly, technological advancements in the space, the economic considerations which are a powerful motivator for advancements, controls and regulations from authorities which curb those advancements, and perhaps most significantly, the audience to the media that determines its success. Social media today finds itself as both a cause of and effect to these pressures, and recent developments suggest that it is about to undergo yet another substantial change. Facebook, as a monopoly in social media (“Social media stats worldwide”, 2018), has been under scrutiny by governments due to the Cambridge-Analytica scandal, which brought to light how it manages and profits over user data. Other concerns exist in the medium as well, such as the proliferation of fake news, and all these only demonstrate the significance of social media’s role today. Fake news, incidentally, is increasingly the authoritarian’s favourite scapegoat. Acutely aware of the role social media played in the toppling of regimes in the Middle East, autocratic governments have been justifying growing censorship as a way to combat the phenomenon of fake news, such as in Malaysia’s Anti-Fake News Act (Deahl, 2018). Where I am from, Singapore, too, has indicated its intentions in enacting such a law as seen in their setting up of the Select Committee on deliberate online falsehoods, which is ironic, as, according to historian P. J. Thum (2013), the Singapore government has also been the “biggest purveyor of fake news” by using the state-controlled media to regurgitate its justifications in its use of detentions without trial. My involvement in an opposition political party, and later, The Online Citizen, Singapore’s longest running independent online publication (“About us”, 2018), has shown me first-hand not just the impediments of censorship, but also the power of independent media, despite the former. Various posts and articles I composed as a reporter for The Online Citizen demonstrated this phenomenon, such as one on the arrest of an activist which garnered 500,000 views (The Online Citizen, 2017), and a posting of my exchange with a minister (Lin, 2017), which resulted in said minister later making a statement to clarify what he had said (Tham, 2017). Our reach, mainly through the use of social media, has led to the authorities responding accordingly in implementing a law they claim targets fake news, but, from their record of silencing dissent, suggests censorship. Ultimately, learning about the media in an academic setting as well as being a part of it has yielded in me the same conclusion: that the media, despite its flaws, is but a powerful tool that will only increase in prominence in the future, and wisdom lies in refining and learning it. By extension, media studies in the realm of social science and its graduates are becoming more vital than ever. 

Larry David, in an episode of the highly acclaimed series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, unabashedly asks his friends if their adopted Chinese child has “any proclivity for chopsticks” (David, 2009). That, of course, could not be further from the truth, which is that culture, rather than being biologically bestowed upon, is “acquired” (Tylor, 1871), and that process of acquisition is called enculturation. Culture, defined as the multiple facets of society that one learns, including the arts, law, mannerisms, thinkings, and attitudes, is a cornerstone of social anthropology since social anthropology studies the differences between and within cultures (“Discover Anthropology”, ). Social anthropologists deal with a wide range of topics, including politics and inequality, both of which, like the censorship of the media, are crucial in understanding the Singapore context. Along with media control, Singapore adopts a system of government that is ostensibly democratic, but employs various tactics seen in various laws, constitutional amendments, gerrymandering, and others, the result of which is a lack of free and fair elections, and thus the ability of people to affect change (“Elections in Singapore: Are they free and fair?”, 2000). This denies people the ability to affect change in economic issues, such as income inequality, another feature of social anthropology, in which Singapore’s is amongst the highest in the developed world (Watkins, 2007). A recent book by Teo You Yenn (2018) explores this problem in the form of an ethnography, which is a method of collecting data and analysis of a culture through immersion in participant-observation (Kawulich, 2005). In it, she uncovers stories of the unseen poor and bravely argues for what must be taboo to a government deeply-steeped in economic conservatism: universal welfare. Like Teo, I, towards the end of my stint at The Online Citizen, attempted an ethnography (without having heard of the word), in my process of documenting the volunteer work done in an elderly nursing home. Posted on The Online Citizen (Lin, 2018), the report, unlike a traditional ethnography, took a couple of months, rather than years, and probably contains researcher bias due to my not consciously taking account of it. Yet, in hindsight, several aspects of participation observation teachings have been employed. Kawulich (2005) found the advice of adopting the attitude of being “treat(ed) like a little child who knows nothing” helpful in her research, by removing barriers usually imposed by a group on an outside researcher. I started, quite literally, in the same way: as the youngest and most inexperienced of the group, being taught, guided, and welcomed throughout as that. I participated in the role as a “complete participant”, until the last few weeks when I decided to write up a report on it. During that final week, I employed the “participant as observer stance”, actively writing down quotes and observations in my interactions, and informing the participants that I had intended to write a report about them. I used background knowledge as a participant earlier to provide a foundation as to understand and report on the findings I had in that one week. Thus, studying ethnography through social anthropology in this course allowed me to learn not only through readings but also through analysing and learning from my own participation in it, which unexpectedly serves as an additional hands-on experience to a distance course, that research has shown to reinforce learning (Kontra, Lyons, Fischer, & Beilock, 2015). 

It has been argued that one’s cultural identity is made up of eight factors: socio-economic status, ethnicity, family, religion, cultural heritage, their current territory and origin, sex, and language (Oganesyan, 2015; Sysoyev, 2001; Malouf, 2001; Meyer, 2007; Ward, 2016). Burr (2003) supports a similar perspective, describing identity as a “subtle interweaving of many different threads.” After watching Black Panther, a film which dealt with African-American discrimination as well as highlighting the importance of their roots to Africa (Feige & Coogler, 2018), a discussion arose between myself and a friend as to why I did not relate to the culture that one would consider to be part of my Chinese ethnicity, and did not feel as strong a need to, unlike African-Americans and Māori, for instance. The answer, as it turns out, is due to the fact that the strength of one’s sense of ethnic identity is directly related to the size, power, and discrimination encountered for that ethnic group (Martinez & Dukes, 1997; Phinney & Alipuria, 1990; Tsai & Fuligni, 2012), and I, being part of the majority Chinese race in Singapore, did not feel those effects due to privilege. Another reason for my not relating to the default ‘Chinese culture’ is perhaps due to a degree of multiculturalism in Singapore that has effectively changed individual cultures through regular, repeated contact between them, eventually forming a common Singaporean identity that I identify more closely with, a phenomenon called acculturation (Redfield, Linton, & Herskovits 1936). One of the hallmarks of this shared identity, like numerous other examples of acculturation (Kottak, 2014), is the formation of a new language called Singlish, a combination of English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil lexicons, with its own grammatical rules that is said to be focused on efficiency and practicality (Gwee, 2016). The Singapore government, however, is opposed to the proliferation of this language, purporting that it lowers the standard of proper English, and can serve as a “class marker”, handicapping those at the bottom who are only proficient in Singlish (Au-Yong, 2016; Siau, 2018). According to sociolinguistics, language and accent use can and have indeed been used as a signifier for status (Lyons, 2014; Wolfram, n.d). By discouraging the use of Singlish, however, the government may ironically be helping to enact a society defined exactly along these terms, based on an elitist mindset that resurfaces occasionally, as evidenced by a recent school textbook which categorises one’s use of Singlish as an indication of having a “low socio-economic status (SES)” (Lay, 2018). At a more fundamental level, identity theorists have described the self as being formed through one’s reaction to people’s perceptions and behaviours to the self (Cooley, 1902; Mead, 1934; Callero, 2003; Sullivan & West-Newman, 2007). Until recently, this was how I primarily defined myself: incorporating tastes, ideology, and attitudes that were in opposition to, but paradoxically, still subjected to, mainstream culture and what people thought of me. A turning point, and what I attribute to be a religious experience, came when a bout of depression lasting a month, and the almost instantaneous relief from it subsequently, led to what has been termed as “ego-death”, a feeling of a “complete loss of subjective self-identity” (Johnson, Richards, & Griffiths, 2008). The ego, belonging to the three main parts of one’s psyche (Freud, 1923; Jung, 1928), controls mainly one’s awareness of identity, and this cognitive shift from its diminishment is akin to the effects of psychedelics, which reduces blood-flow and electrical activity in the default-mode network (Carhart-Harris, Erritzoe, Williams, Stone, Reed, Colasanti, Tyacke, Leech, Malizia, Murphy, 2012), the feeling astronauts have described experiencing when viewing the earth from the moon, a term dubbed “the overview effect” (Yaden, Iwry, Slack, Eichstaedt, Zhao, Vaillant, & Newberg, 2016; Grant, 2017), as well as in meditation and mythicism in eastern religions (Safran, 2003). For me, it was the same spiritual death that the apostle Paul wrote about, whose previous self has been “crucified with Christ…(and that) it is no longer I who live, but Christ (who) lives in me” (Galatians 2:20, New Living Translation), leading to the realisation that so much of what I held to be in high regard and as part of my identity did not matter as much, as well as a recognition of my underlying selfish and egotistic attitudes. This new lightness of being enabled the more careful exploration of the various aspects of social science, both academically and experientially, such as in the ethnography in the elderly nursing home, as well as be less judgemental towards other beliefs, analogous to the concept of cultural relativism in anthropology, which emphasises equal respect towards each culture in spite of differences in a bid to deepen understanding of it (Kottak, 2014).

While the Social Sciences can be seen by students as merely a course to study intellectually for the obtainment of grades, it has been a window into aspects and experiences of my life, which I now can categorise into their respective fields of study. Having both theoretical and practical knowledge facilitates a synthesis of all subjects, which is essential because, as seen in this essay, they frequently overlap and intertwine with each other. The topics I have studied: media, social anthropology, psychology, linguistics, and many others, therefore also culminates as part of my experience and, essentially, my identity. 



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Submitted as the final essay assignment for Critical Academic Skills, Certificate of University Preparation

The golden rule states, ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you’. Such is ostensibly the implication behind Fairtrade, a type of product marketed by companies as being fairer to its producers, free from the usual exploitation of poor labourers and the environment, and thus more ethical and better for consumers’ consciences. Yet, there exist questions and doubts as to whether Fairtrade makes as much of a difference as it says it does, due to several reports indicating that the certification is oft undeserved, as well as a general lack of transparency and public understanding on the area. This essay will attempt to answer those questions and aims to bring more clarity to the issue. It will start with an overview of the issue of ethical consumerism, exploring the history of it as a whole, if such marketing really meets the standards it sets for itself, whether it can be sustainable in the long term, and finally determine if and how it can be implemented for greater success in the future. 

To be fair, the concept of ethical marketing has arisen from the intention to uphold social, economics, and environmental justice, which the free market in itself does not take into account. Ethical consumerism, as defined by Salem Press Encyclopedia, is “the practice of purchasing products or services that are manufactured or delivered using the most non-harmful available means…(and that) seek(s) to minimise the social and environmental impacts of consumption…”, and whose earliest conceptions began as early as 1965 in California when lowly paid grape labourers went on strike, leading to a boycott of the exploitative companies by the American public (Greene, 2016). Arguably the most recognisable ethical consumerism group, Fair Trade, found its beginnings in 1988 when a church-affiliated non-governmental organisation (NGO) in the Netherlands started a label called Max Havelaar to protect coffee growers from exploitation, and other initiatives and groups sharing the same goals soon sprung up elsewhere. The Fair Trade Labelling Organisations International (FLO), consisting of these organisations, was created in 1997, and in 2002 the Fair Trade label as we know it (apart from Fair Trade USA which diverged in 2012) properly began (Jaffee, 2014; Dragusanu, Giovannucci, & Nunn, 2014), and today makes up 1226 producer organisations in 74 countries (“Facts and figures”, 2018). Plenty of other ethical consumerism initiatives exist, including the Ethical Consumer, which began in 1989 (“25 years of ethical shopping”, 2018), The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), in 1998 (“Ethical trade”, 2018), and dozens more, many overlapping in goals and reach. Finally, self-initiated ethical marketing is increasingly being utilised by companies, most notably by the biggest brands in tech (Geuss, 2011). Apple, as a more prominent example, prides itself as being 100% reliant on renewable energy and publishes annual reports on efforts made on environmental sustainability and increasing workers protection amongst its suppliers (Environmental responsibility report, 2018; Supplier responsibility, 2018). Starbucks and The Body Shop, significant players in their respective industries, both employ Fairtrade certifications as part of their marketing strategies (“Ethical sourcing: Coffee”, 2018; “Fair trading community”, 2018). It is clear that ethical consumerism today has grown considerably since its inception, and its popularity proof of it being an increasingly significant factor influencing consumer decisions. 

With this increase in popularity comes the responsibility for ensuring that such ethically marketed products are justified. Involved in answering the question as to whether such marketing is appropriate requires comparing it to consumer expectations of it, the first of which is if such products are truly fulfilling its promises. Fairtrade promises a living wage to lift producers out of poverty, safe working conditions, no child labour utilised, and environmentally sustainable practices (“10 principles of Fair Trade”, 2018), and generally tries to achieve this through the specific benchmarks as seen in Figure 1. Jaffee’s research (2014) into indigenous communities in Rincón, Mexico, reveals a host of problems. Despite the price premiums of Fairtrade products, the additional requirements imposed by Fairtrade and its cooperatives on needing organic and environmentally friendly farming methods increases producers’ workloads, effort and time needed, and ultimately, costs (Jaffee, 2014). Additional responsibilities as members of the cooperative also exist, such as the attending of meetings and various paperwork (Jaffee, 2014). Additionally, Fairtrade requires higher quality and organic coffee beans compared to the usual output, and this increased work leads to farmers hiring more workers on the plantation, further increasing costs (Jaffee, 2014). The increased hiring of labourers presents another problem, too, as these workers are usually not guaranteed the same protections by the Fairtrade cooperatives, and working conditions are often not very much safer compared to those working for non-Fairtrade certified farmers, as seen in Figure 2, or not paid better (Weitzman, 2006), due to the lack of effective enforcement and accountability (Cramer, Johnston, Oya, & Sender, 2014). In reality, Fairtrade imposes the burden of meeting its high standards entirely on producers and prioritises only those who can do so (Sidwell, 2008). 

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Figure 1: Most commonly used criteria by Fairtrade organisations (Jaffee, 2014).


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Figure 2: Working conditions among smallholder employers, Ethiopia (farmworkers only) (Cramer, Johnston, Oya, & Sender, 2014).

Inasmuch as Fairtrade claims to minimise traditional middlemen to reduce cost, it also introduces new ones or emphasises existing ones in the structure, such as its member cooperatives, Fairtrade’s own advertisements and campaigns, and the increased profits for companies who expect a higher return on this niche marketing (Griffiths, 2011; Sidwell, 2008). Another factor in consumer trust is the issue of branding, and more specifically, brand fragmentation. There are a dozen Fairtrade and Fairtrade related organisations out there, and consumers’ image of ethical marketing is becoming increasingly fragmented and confusing, an example being Fair Trade USA which split from the main Fair Trade in 2012, as well as new, less stringent labels by Fair Trade which allow companies to be certified even if they do not meet all of Fairtrade’s requirements (Poos, 2014), and the result of which leads to increasing consumer mistrust (Van der Merwe & Venter, 2010). All these factors certainly indicate a mismatch between consumer expectations of Fairtrade and its reality, and further, can be impediments to its future growth. 

Fairtrade, at least in its current form, undoubtedly falls short of expectations. What some opponents of Fairtrade and proponents of free trade purport are that the world would be better off without Fairtrade. Fairtrade, according to Krasnozhon, Simpson, and Block (2015), undermines the principles of free trade in that it rewards and enables inefficient economic behaviour, arguing instead that it is unfair for unproductive producers to reap the benefits of a higher wage. This, however, fails to take into account how human psychology works; that such producers are unlikely to be productive at all if they are not paid livable wages in the first place. It is precisely the severe conditions of poverty they are in that research has shown to impede their daily thinking and cognitive abilities (Haushofer & Fehr, 2014). On the contrary, similar to minimum wage legislation in developed countries, providing them with a living wage first removes a major obstacle from their path towards increasing productivity and efficiency (Ehrenberg & Smith, 2009).

Fairtrade, despite its flaws, has been shown to benefit Mexico’s, as well as other farmer communities on multiple levels. It does fetch a higher fetching price for the product, albeit with the aforementioned caveats, which also means that the solution lies in removing those caveats (Jaffee, 2014; Dragusanu, Giovannucci, & Nunn, 2014). It gives a more stable income as compared to non-Fairtrade farmers due to more frequent payments throughout the year (Jaffee, 2014; Dragusanu, Giovannucci, & Nunn, 2014). It also offers crucial guidance and support from the cooperative in farming, and an overall higher standard of living for Fairtrade families in the increased likelihood to send their kids to post-secondary school, and health benefits (Jaffee, 2014; Nicholls & Opal, 2005, Dragusanu, Giovannucci, & Nunn, 2014). For those not involved in Fairtrade, communities are improved through projects funded separately within the Fairtrade price (Jaffee, 2014). The removal of Fairtrade would be a disservice, rather than a benefit, to these communities, despite its current weaknesses. 

Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, the answer instead is to improve upon Fairtrade. Fairtrade inherently uses a market mechanism to attempt to counter human rights and environmental abuses caused by the free market itself. Jaffee (2014) describes it as a ‘paradox’, being both a social movement and yet another market structure. Perhaps it needs to be more of a movement, and less trusting of the free market to do its job. Government regulation, paired with government funding, can be a much more powerful enforcer of Fairtrade criteria, and there is certainly precedent for doing so, such as Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act (2010) in the United States, which discourages electronic companies from using conflict minerals whose profits are being illegally used to fund in-fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform and consumer protection act, 2010). In fact, Section 1502 has been successful in galvanising companies towards eliminating conflict minerals (Lezhnev & Hellmuth, 2010). A government-led initiative with a unified brand will also reduce fragmentation, confusion, and improve consumer trust (“Shoppers expect business and government to make food fairer”, 2016). With added government funding and assistance, Fairtrade and its cooperatives would be in a much better position also to take over more of the burden of implementing more labour intensive methods from the small farmer, ultimately freeing up their time, efforts, and returning more profits to the producer. The implementation of such government regulation fundamentally still depends on people’s will and activism. Perhaps people’s involvement in Fairtrade should go beyond mere voting with their wallets, but also in being better informed and better organised to pressure government, as well as companies, to prioritise people over profits. 

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, when questioned by an investor on why Apple continues to invest in environmental sustainability despite a lack of return on investments, famously responded by telling him that if he did not agree, to “get out of this stock” (Geuss, 2014). Such a viewpoint, while applaudable, is an outlier in the sea of multinational companies focussed only on profit, as the free market does not attach value to social or environmental justice. People need to be at the forefront of advocating for these principles, and in doing so, enable government and ethical marketing organisations, Fairtrade and others, to build on its progress in protecting human and environmental rights. In this way, they can not only survive, but thrive; not only for the immediate future, but long-term. 



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Submitted as the final essay assignment for Māori Culture and Society, Certificate of University Preparation

Of all, Disney’s Moana (Clements & Musker, 2016) stands alone as perhaps the only Māori and Polynesian piece of work that has penetrated mainstream pop culture, thus serving as probably the public’s only window into what the culture pertains. While highly praised as a film of representation, the reality for many Māori in Aotearoa today is decidedly less romantic. Tikanga Māori, defined broadly as the “values, standards, principles or norms” of the Māori people (Durie, 1994) and as “the right Māori ways” (Metge, 1995), has served and guided Māori society from since the time that they first landed in Aotearoa. This essay will give a brief overview of what Tikanga, and thus, Māori society consists of, as well as describe the difficulties Māori have in modern day New Zealand society as a result of applying those principles. Finally, this essay will make the case of how Māori culture is not incompatible, and can, indeed, benefit modern culture. It will explore the ways that they already have, as well as future opportunities in doing so, and, in a sense, expanding on the small step that Moana has taken in allowing society to understand and appreciate Māori, in both word and deed. 

At its most literal translation, Tikanga is a portmanteau of the words “tika” and “nga”, with “tika” meaning correct, or appropriate, and “nga” meaning “the ways”. Putting them together, Tikanga translates as “the way(s) of doing and thinking held by Māori to be just and correct” (NZ Law Commission). Gallagher (2008) suggests understanding Tikanga through three levels: the highest being the fundamental truth of what is right and wrong, the second level consisting of the ideals and concepts which supports that morality, and the third, the resulting actions and customs applied in the real world. With its refusal to adhere simply to any single definition, Tikanga consists of many concepts that are not compartmentalised; they are interwoven and pervades through all facets of Māori life (Mead, 2016; Gallagher, 2008; Durie, 1994). Tikanga Māori has served Māori from their beginnings in Aotearoa before the 1200s and has evolved since then to help them adapt to environmental changes, ensuring their survival (Clarke, 2014; Ka’ai, Moorfield, Reilly & Mosley, 2004). 

A few of the main concepts that underpin this notion of morality are Whanaungatanga, Mana, Tapu and Noa. Whanaungatanga, consisting of the word “whanau” or family, is defined by Te Aka Online Māori Dictionary as “…extend(ing) to others to whom one develops a close familial, friendship or reciprocal relationship” (Moorfield, 2018). More specifically, it is the “relationship-glue” (Smith, 2014) that serves to bind and maintain relationships (Smith & Cram, 2001), most of which stems from whakapapa. Whakapapa, or genealogy, was the basis for not just individuals’ relation to each other, but also to the larger community, as well as the land, guaranteeing them rights to the land which their whakapapa was from (Māori custom and values, 2001). The concept of Whakapapa has also been used to relate people to Māori stories of creation, and essentially, everything about the universe being interconnected (Barlow, 1991; Prytz-Johansen, 1954). Mana, an all-encompassing word in itself, is made up of several variants. Mana Atua refers to the power related to or bestowed by the gods, or ‘Atua’ (Barlow, 1991; Gallagher, 2008). Mana Whenua is the prestige related to one’s rights to the land, and, by extension, the activities conducted on that land, while Mana Tupuna was the authority attained from one’s predecessors, and both are highly dependent upon whakapapa (Barlow, 1991; Gallagher, 2008). Finally, Mana Tangata, serving as a balance to the previous whakapapa-dependent Mana, relates to the prestige gained from one’s capabilities and its potential to benefit one’s group (Barlow, 1991; Gallagher, 2008). Tapu relates to that which is sacred and Noa, as its polar opposite, is defined as “without restraint” (Moorfield, 2018). As the definition of Noa suggests, Tapu was used as a method of control, enacting restrictions on depleting resources to allow it to recover (Gallagher, 2008). It is also inherently linked to the creation of the world, and thus, relates to and exists in everything, just as in the aforementioned concepts of whakapapa and mana (Barlow, 1991). The mythological roots of these concepts serve as a strong foundation in the practical applications of these concepts, thus showing us their significance in having a direct impact on the social and political aspects of Māori life in the past. 

If such a robust system has enabled Māori to survive and, indeed, thrive in the past, Māori in recent times have seemingly been more disadvantaged in society, though through no fault of their own. Chandler and Lalonde (2008) identify several factors that contribute to the health and well-being of indigenous communities, ensuring “cultural continuity”, but many of them, which includes self-government, land control, health services, and the control of cultural activities, have been violated in the context of Māori in New Zealand. A loss of culture due to colonisation and urbanisation, for example, is correlated to increased levels of stress and suicide in indigenous communities (Leach, 2014; Hallett, Chandler & Lalonde, 2007). With regards to land control, the poverty of Māori today can be linked back to the War of Waikato in 1863, which saw Māori land plundered and confiscated by the Crown, clearly violating the concept of mana whenua, and of which the residue effects are still being felt today (O’Malley, 2016). A series of laws and systems which discriminated against Māori, such as the New Zealand Constitutional Act of 1852 that excluded Māori from voting, have been and are continuing to be the bane of Māori, as part of institutionalised racism (O’Malley, 2016; Wright, 2016; Brittain, 2016). Additionally, Māori today make up only 15% of the total population of New Zealand, but a disproportionate 51% of the prison population (“Prison facts and statistics”, 2017). Māori are also less likely to be let off with warnings by police than non-Māori and are more likely to be convicted of the same crime (Review of pre-charge warnings, 2016). Ultimately, the reason for Māori’s disadvantageous position in modern society is due to a total disassembly and disregard of Tikanga by the perpetrators of colonisation. 

In as much as there are breakdowns and failures of modern society to respect Tikanga Māori, it also brings to light the opportunities of how things should change for the better, as well as evidence of how both worldviews have already benefited each other. The current figures show that 11 out of the 12 prison rehabilitation processes have reductions in reoffending rates of only around a 5% (“Reoffending is reduced”, 2015). The Māori Party suggests, instead, healing through family counselling in place of incarceration, an approach driven primarily by the concept of whanaungatanga (Wright, 2016). Reducing institutionalised racism and effects of discrimination against Māori will also logically lead to a reduction in poverty, and thus, decreased income inequality, which is a growing pain in New Zealand. This reduction in inequality benefits not just Māori, but the entirety of society, in terms of economic growth (Cingano, 2014), reduced crime rates (Metz & Burdina, 2018), and the mental well-being of its citizens (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). Māori healthcare, as opposed to western medicine, is a holistic approach that takes into account all parts of a person’s life, and very significantly, whanaungatanga (“An introduction”, 2006). A holistic approach to healthcare, in fact, is increasingly backed by science to be the next logical step; both the mental and physical states of being are but two sides of the same coin (Powles, 1973; McKeown, 1979; Guttmacher, 1979). Kaitiakitanga, a concept emphasising the protection of the environment (Smith, 2014), is increasingly relevant in combatting climate change, oft quoted to be “the most pressing issue of our time.” Finally, a resurgence of ancient Māori astronomy and their ways of navigation have uncovered previously hidden knowledge and undoubtedly added to modern astronomy (Harris, Matamua, Smith, Kerr & Waaka, 2013). Tikanga Māori is, hence, not a liability to, nor is it incompatible with mainstream society, but can be complementary and prove to be mutually beneficial to both. 

Tikanga Māori has advanced Māori society for many generations. In today’s world, these values are condescended upon, but there is much proof of its inherent value. Just as Māori can and have been positively influenced by the modern worldview, the modern worldview can also stand to benefit from Māori. Just as how Tikanga Māori, having a great deal of flexibility, have adapted in the past (Durie, 1994), so too can it continue to evolve itself and its current perspectives on life, while staying true to its principles. Indeed, this mutually beneficial relationship can be a virtuous cycle that benefits all people. After all, Māori were but once sea-faring Polynesians, and if one traces back their whakapapa far enough, one would realise that we are all related as a giant kin (Prytz-Johansen, 1954). In a sense, all of us can be quite literally ‘Māori’: “normal”(Moorfield, 2018).



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Chandler, M. J., & Lalonde, C. E. (2008). Cultural Continuity as a protective factor against suicide in First Nations youth. Horizons, 10(1), 68-72. 

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United States: Walt Disney Animation Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

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Gallagher, T. (2008). Tikanga Māori pre-1840. Te Kāhui Kura Māori, 0(1). 

Guttmacher, S. (1979). Whole in body, mind & spirit: Holistic health and the limits of medicine. The Hastings Center Report(2), 15. doi:10.2307/3560273

Hallett, D., Chandler, M. J., & Lalonde, C. E. (2007). Aboriginal language knowledge and youth suicide. ScienceDirect.

Harris, P., Matamua, R., Smith, T., Kerr, H., & Waaka, T. (2013). A review of Māori astronomy in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 16(3), 325-336. 

Ka’ai, T. M., Moorfield, J. C., Reilly, M. P. J., & Mosley, S. (2004). Ki Te Whaiao: An introduction to Māori culture and society. New Zealand: Pearson Education.

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Māori custom and values in New Zealand law. (2001). Wellington: Law Commission.

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Metz, N., & Burdina, M. (2018). Neighbourhood income inequality and property crime. Urban Studies, 55(1), 133-150. doi:10.1177/0042098016643914

Moorfield, J. C. (Ed.) (2018) Te Aka Online Māori Dictionary.

O’Malley, V. (2016). The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000: Bridget Williams Books.

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Smith, L., & Cram, F. (2001). Community up model.

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Wright, T. (2016). Māori prison rates at record levels. Newhub. Retrieved from

A Week at All Saints Home, Part One

First published on The Online Citizen on 20 February 2018.

An old lady in a wheelchair looks up at me. She smiles and says something in Teochew to the volunteer beside her. They both share a laugh.

“What did she say?”, I ask the volunteer.

“She says her painting isn’t very nice, and she’s afraid you’ll laugh at her.”

“No lah, it’s very nice!”

I turn to the old lady, trying to recall its Mandarin equivalent.

“很漂亮!”, I manage.

She looks up at me again with a sweet smile, then continues painting with the brush in her left hand. Her hand trembles slightly and her lips press firmly together with a glint of determination in her eyes. I look around the room and notice similar expressions on the faces of the elderly residents seated around several tables. Newspapers spread atop each table beneath red and white paper; palettes and clear containers lay about, reminiscent of an art class in Kindergarten.

They’re painting lanterns, I’m told, as part of the Chinese New Year celebrations.

“We did the same thing last week, at Tampines, when President Halimah visited”, Sherry tells me. Sherry is the organiser here, the one who manages the volunteers.

She’s referring to the All Saints Home in Tampines. Started in 1986 by Bethel Presbyterian Church, All Saints Home is an elderly nursing home that began at the very place we were at, Poh Huat Road in Hougang. They eventually built three more homes around the island, in Tampines, Jurong East, and Yishun.

As for Sherry, she started volunteering some nine years ago, initially with just a couple of people. A member of Bethel Presbyterian Church, she approached the home and started out by having weekly sessions, singing a mix of Christian songs and old Mandarin, Malay songs that the elderly residents could relate to.

It was tough initially, with little help and organisation. So why did she do it?

“I saw all these old people and felt that they were in need of someone to come and befriend them because they were all so lonely in the home,” she recalls.

“We were very few, so we didn’t have a name nine years ago. But God sent people.”

I look around the room and count seven volunteers helping thirteen elderly residents with their artwork. Some residents are unable to complete the task that followed the painting: pasting little paper flowers on the painted branches of their lanterns. A volunteer approaches me.

“Can you help Aunty paste the flowers? Because their hands are a bit shaky, so we will help them with that.”

She’s referring to the same old lady with the sweet smile, and I readily sit on the chair next to her. A stack of paper flower petals, cut out from old red packets, are laid before me on the table. Aunty now uses her paintbrush to paint glue on the places she wants to place the petals and points them out to me. I follow, laying and pressing them firmly on the lantern, hoping the glue will stick. I, however, have autonomy on the colours that I paste. I try to alternate between colours, making sure I get a good mix of red, gold, and occasionally, rare blue petals, in. We finish one side of the lantern and Aunty smiles, once again.

“Thank you, teacher!”, she says in Mandarin. I chuckle at her remark. Around the room, the volunteers likewise share smiles and laughter with the residents they are attending to. For a while, you forget the gloominess commonly associated with old folks homes.

This merry band of volunteers calls themselves ABBS. “It stands for ‘All Saints Home’, ‘Bethel’, because many of us are associated with Bethel Presbyterian Church, and ‘BefrienderS’ because many who aren’t part of the church come and help, too.”, Sherry explains. “After getting more people, we officially had a name seven years ago.” ABBS now conducts activities at all four homes, several times a week. Today’s session was fully dedicated to painting.

”It’s like art therapy”, a volunteer remarks to me. “It helps with coordination between their eyes and hands, good for old folks. You know, it takes a lot of work and preparation to come up with ideas for the residents.”

So, who came up with this idea for painting?

“Foong Peng, she’s very good with art.”

She points to Foong Peng, who’s helping with the final stage of lantern assembly. Armed with a hot glue gun, she glues two paper lanterns perpendicular to each other, transforming what were two flat paper lanterns into a three-dimensional one. There are holes at the tips of the lantern for strings to go through.

“Oh, so that’s how it’s supposed to be”, I remark.

“Yeah I’m supposed to glue it and hang it up, like the one on the window”, Foong Peng explains, still concentrating on glueing both pieces together.

“So how did you come up with this idea?”

“Oh, you know, Google and put things together. Every month we’d have to come up with a new idea for artwork, and we’ll do it in Tampines and Poh Huat. We’ll do different types of lanterns for Chinese New Year and Lantern Festival, and then for Christmas and National Day too..”

“Wait, did you say every month?”, I ask incredulously. “Not just Chinese New Year?”

“Yeah, every month, I know! It’s draining me!”, she jokes. “But I’ll have lots of help from the rest.”

“And how long have you been doing this?”

“Two years. I’ll just put this string through and stick it up.” She puts the finishing touches on her lantern and heads to another table.

I return to the table Aunty was at to help her with another round of petal pasting. She was getting good at administering glue on various parts of the lantern, faster than I could paste the flowers, even. Aunty finishes her brushing early this time, looking keenly at me struggling to keep up. We complete two more sides, and I decide to switch it up a bit for the final petal.

“Which colour do you want?”, I ask, offering her the choice between a red and gold one. She pauses for a moment, then points to the gold petal. I oblige. After glueing both lantern pieces together, I thread a string through the top hole for hanging, and a red ornamental ‘tail’ at the bottom usually found on Chinese lanterns. It looks really respectable now, I thought.

“Gam Xia.” Aunty thanks me in Hokkien and pats my arm. She seems pleased with it, too.

A Filipino nurse comes along. “Wow, this is very nice,” he marvels. “You have to sign your name ah, Aunty.” Aunty jovially nods as he takes out a pen to write her name on the lantern, reminding me of the age-old tradition of artists throughout history signing their work.

“So, do their lanterns get to be hung up somewhere after they’re done?”, I ask one of the staff.

“Yes, yes, at the main entrance. When we hang it up, their families can see it. They will also know that they did it and feel very proud and satisfied, and they will want to participate more in the future”.

I can’t help but feel a sense of pride at my contribution to Aunty’s lantern, too. As we depart, I wonder if I’d be able to recognise the lantern and my strategically-placed blue petals the next time I returned.

A Week at All Saints Home, Part Two

First published on The Online Citizen on 20 February 2018.

Three days later, the ABBS volunteers gather at All Saints Home in Yishun. One by one, the volunteers push the elderly residents in their wheelchairs to neatly parked rows facing a projection screen. Today, the volunteers will lead the residents in song and games, and they begin the session with a fun exercise. A video featuring a group of elders with exercise attire starts playing, and they move their arms while singing a catchy tune in Mandarin:

“有人靠车, 有人靠马, 我们要提到耶和华神的名…”

“Some trust in chariots, some trust in horses, but we have to trust in the name of Jesus..”


The volunteers stand in front and around them, imitating the video; their arms propelling forward as if they were wheels of a train. The residents follow readily and enjoyably. Now, this is an activity that a young person might feel embarrassed to do, but these elderly residents are devoid of any such shame; they are merely happy to be engaged with a level of excitement not usually found in their daily lives. The volunteers, too, are brimming with energy, focusing on bringing joy to the elderly residents.

“Alright, we are now going to sing ‘You are My Sunshine’,” Sherry announces in front, smiling and making eye contact with each of the rows of residents.

“We hope we are your sunshine when we come, too, because it gives us joy to see you all so happy!”

A volunteer starts playing the piano while the screen now displays the lyrics to the song. They continue singing a mix of classic songs in English which the residents are familiar with, then some Christian songs, before moving on to a range of old Mandarin and Malay songs. No doubt these are songs that the elderly residents know from their younger days, and many of them are comfortable enough to sing along, while some are even bold enough to grab the microphone to sing, karaoke-style. Even as the Chinese New Year songs in Mandarin are playing, many non-Chinese elders seem more than happy to join in. I spot an elderly Indian man singing along to one such song, albeit to the syllable “da”. Language is not a barrier here.

Today’s session celebrates Chinese New Year, and all activities and songs are chosen to fit that theme. At one point, volunteers stand in front, holding up clear folders displaying the numbers one to ten. Behind each number is an image relating to Chinese New Year, like a pair of oranges, or a bundle of red packets. The objective is to pick two numbers, and for them both to contain the same picture. If the residents choose correctly and get two matching images, they are given a biscuit as a reward. It’s a simple game that offers a chance for the residents to exercise their memory skills, but more importantly, have fun.

Some residents are better at this game than others. A few have pretty good memories, and when asked they choose two winning numbers they recall from the previous week when the same game was played. Sherry forgets to shuffle the pictures on occasion, much to the benefit of those with good memories. Then there are the ones who sit in front and have had a chance to peek a little behind the numbers. They smirk confidently as they choose two numbers without hesitation and await the inevitable biscuit prize. They are the ones in the home who probably know how to get their way more often than not, I thought.

Another activity involves the residents each holding a crude musical instrument, either a squeaky hammer or a plastic shaker that tocks audibly when shaken. As the famous CNY song, ‘恭喜恭喜’ plays, Sherry conducts the residents to shake or hammer at a specific rhythm at each phrase, depending upon which instrument they held; not unlike a music class in school. It took a few tries of practice, but soon the residents got the hang of it, and the full song started playing.

I notice a Malay resident tapping competently and consistently with his instrument, and approach him.

“Wow, you’ve got a good sense of rhythm, Uncle!”

“Of course, I used to be a drummer in a band back in school!”

That must have been at least forty to fifty years ago, I thought.

“But now, not that good already, I can only use one hand you see.”

He gestures to his left arm lying between his thighs, motionless.

“What happened to your arm?”

“Diabetes. Then doctor operate lah. You see they operate my head also, got one hole.”

He pushes his hair up, exposing an indent the size of a lemon at the top of his forehead.

“When did they operate on you?”

“Since 2010. In and out of the hospital. Then in 2017, I came to this home. My children sent me here.”

He has only been here for a year, I thought.

“And your children, do they come and visit you regularly?”

“No.” He pauses and looks down with a momentary look of sadness. I observe at that moment the depth of his emotion. I squat to lower myself down to the level of his wheelchair.

“You know, Uncle used to do Silat. You know Silat?”

I shake my head.

“Malay Martial Arts. Fighting lah. I was the top fighter, representing Singapore for competition, you know. Then Uncle later became Silat instructor, number one in Singapore, I tell you.”

He looks down again.

“But then this happened. What to do? If God wants this to happen to me, what can I do but depend on God? Have to depend on God, every day, for everything, you know. Can’t depend on yourself. Can’t depend on anything else.”

I realise this was a man who had it all, then lost everything, but his faith.

“No matter what religion you believe in, you must still trust in God. No matter what you do in life, you must trust in God. We are nothing without God, you know.”

He then grips my arm and looks at me.

“Make sure you trust in God for everything. Make sure you eat healthy also, so you don’t become like me, OK?”

I nod, noticing that today’s session had already ended and that the residents were being transported up to their wards. I hadn’t expected someone to open up and share with me so intimately his life story. I look around the room at the residents and realise then that each was a person, filled with their struggles, hopes, and decades of experience and wisdom. I wonder how many go untold and unshared.


At a coffeeshop later, I chat with Sherry.

“There’s a lot of nursing homes out there,” Sherry says, suggesting that people who feel inspired by what they are doing can start volunteering themselves in nearby nursing homes at their own time and pace.

“There are so many other old folks who need companionship…everybody has a story to tell.”


As I push Uncle into the elevator, he asks about my plans for my studies. We reach his ward and head towards his bed, the furthest into the room, and it was time to say goodbye. I was thankful for this unexpected friendship.

“Thanks for pushing me up here ah. All the best for your studies. Remember, always depend on God. I pray that God will always guide you. I won’t forget you, make sure you remember Uncle. Remember me!”

‘The Past is not the Past’, an exhibition to remember

First published on The Online Citizen on 28 January 2018.


“The party is not the….”, a visitor beside me squints into a portrait, trying to make out the tiny words handwritten just below it. After the words, an ‘Erica’ is signed.

“The past is not the past”, I correct him. He grins and then realises. That is the name of the exhibition, after all.


It is opening night for Erica’s first ever art exhibition. Erica is an art student and has always been intrigued with exploring different materials and mediums to express herself. She has also been interested in social and political issues since she was in school, and this series of works marks the first time both interests have intersected and culminated. Erica recalls, “I spoke to my tutor and he suggested that I work on issues in relation to my country and I thought, since I am always so interested in the political scene in Singapore, why not I do something in relation to it?”

This is also Coda Culture’s first exhibition since its inception. The gallery was started by artist Seelan Palay, who himself is featured in a portrait depicting his arrest after a performance art involving him standing in front of Parliament holding a mirror. In the portrait, his head is bowed, hands behind his back as two policemen eagerly handcuff him, after failing to persuade him to stop his one-man protest. Tonight he seems less restrained, fervently welcoming, with messy hair and all, visitors and friends into his small gallery that’s no bigger than an HDB bedroom. Like melting ice, people flow out from the gallery into the corridor outside. Streams of people come and go; quite a surprising bubble of activity for the second (and highest) floor of an old building in a sleepy estate just behind Lavender MRT Station.


The same handwritten words the visitor was squinting at are scribbled below each of the eight portraits, four hanging on each wall, facing each other. Below each portrait, an ice block with black ink melts away and stains the floor, surrounding itself in a puddle. Some puddles begin to bleed into each other. Footsteps in every direction are imprinted around them, suggesting the sometimes haphazard way people shift their focus from one artwork to another. Some visitors take little notice of the ice right in front of their feet.

“I decided to print on ice because it’s a performance in itself”, Erica explains.

“Normally when you are talking about performance art, people will ask, are you the one performing? No, the ice is the one performing it for me, the ice is saying what I want to say. When it melts, the image disappears, and people will think about the image behind it.”

Chia Thye Poh’s arrest in 1966

Each of the portraits features images of different people in different eras. Seelan’s arrest in 2017 is the most recent, of course, and it goes all the way back to 1966, where a portrait shows the then Member of Parliament Chia Thye Poh being escorted into a police car. He was not to be released until some 32 years later in 1998. Several portraits hark back to a time when the Singapore Democratic Party was more known for its public protesting. In one, Dr Chee Soon Juan is being physically restrained from marching by police officers who are, strangely, hugging him. In another, Ms Chee Siok Chin sits on the floor and looks up to a horde of police officers surrounding her in a circle. This protest was held at Speakers’ Corner during the 2006 IMF World Bank meetings when leaders around the globe met in Singapore for a conference. More importantly, the international media were present. Needless to say, the protest and how the police reacted made international news. A film of their three-day protest, wittily titled ‘Speakers Cornered’, has been uploaded onto YouTube.

Ms Chee Siok Chin encircled by police, 2006

These portraits each tell their own deep stories and have so much context behind it, but a common thread seems to exist between them.

“Someone was telling me something interesting. When it was melting just now, and the print is on the floor, when the ice melts and comes together, it’s like moving in spaces, and you’ll see footsteps of people stepping on the ice that’s melted. Something is shared through that.” Erica’s way of explaining things always seems to hint at something, but never quite giving a direct answer or resolution at the end, preferring to leave it open-ended. It’s this arbitrariness that makes you constantly look at the framed portraits, the melting ice, and then the portraits again.

“I can’t write posts, words”, she admits. “Instead through these pictures, through this medium, I can say what I want to say. To me, I think imagery is a very strong way to represent it.”

Another portrait depicts the now famous silent protest on the train in June last year, showing activist Jolovan Wham and several others blindfolded while ‘reading’ copies of 1987, a book commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Marxist Conspiracy. For that incident and several others, Jolovan was slapped with seven charges relating to organising public assemblies without a permit, and one vandalism charge of sticking two A4 papers onto the inner wall of the train with scotch tape, which he later removed.

Jolovan Wham’s silent protest on train, 2017

I stand before that portrait, choosing instead to study the pamphlet given to me describing the inner nuances of the symbolism of the art. Someone taps my shoulder and enters my right peripheral vision. “Hey, how are you doing?” I look up, not expecting to see the real Jolovan. “Hey, good. That’s you in the portrait!”, I joke. We engage in friendly conversation and proceed to talk about the portraits, moving deeper into the gallery. I point at one depicting a woman with her mouth opened, wearing an oversized T-shirt with some words on it, both her arms being restrained by police. “Is that someone we know?” I ask. Jolovan shakes his head. He explains that it happened in the 1960s, and that filmmaker Martyn See, who incidentally made the film ‘Speakers Cornered’, shared it on Facebook. “But it’s not someone we know, that history is lost. It’d be really interesting if we could find out who that is and interview her.”

I peer closely at her T-shirt and struggle to make sense of the words. The portraits are printed in a dotted, pixelated style in pure black ink, with no shades of grey in between. Lighter parts of the image are portrayed by fewer and smaller black dots in that area, providing more white space and giving our eyes the perception of greyness.

I ask Erica about the type of printing and she tells me it’s called halftone silk-screen printing. “It’s actually the dots (of the ink) that make it more significant, because if it’s too clear, too realistic, it’s quite meaningless.”

I take a step back from the portrait and the words become easier to decipher. The words tell me that the woman was protesting for the unconditional release of all political detainees, presumably the ones detained under Operation Coldstore in the 1960s, of which Chia Thye Poh, whose portrait was to the left of this, was subjected to.

“It actually looks clearer when I step back”, I remark to Erica. “Don’t you think this also means that you can’t look at it individually, that you have to step back and look at it from a distance away, which causes you also to take into account the portraits around it?”

Erica looks surprised. “That’s a great point. Because I haven’t thought about that. That’s why I was talking about the observation someone gave me. Yeah, you can’t be fixated on one.”

“Only when you step back, can you see all the words.”

A woman protesting against the ISA, 1960s


‘The Past is not the Past’ is Erica Chung’s first solo exhibition presented by Coda Culture. Part psychological play and part performance, a series of melting ice blocks with silk-screened images invite the audience to explore dominant narratives from a nuanced perspective. It runs from 27th January, Saturday, 7pm, to 2nd February. Artist’s talk is on 28th January, Sunday, at 3pm.

Address: #02-160, Block 803, King George’s Avenue, S200803

‘The Past is not the Past’ Facebook event page.

MOF: Govt did not say it will not raise taxes (Yes, they did)

First published on The Online Citizen on 22 November 2017.

The Ministry of Finance issued a rebuttal on its website against accusations that the government has reversed its 2015 position on not raising taxes.

Quoting DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam, they said that the following statement made in 2015 was still accurate today: ‘For this current term of government, we have enough revenue.’ The ministry explains, “The government began its five-year term of office after the General Elections in Sep 2015.”

That means that the government has enough revenue thru 2020, when its five-year term ends, but not after that, according to the Prime Minister. Therefore, the government has to plan for the issue now “to better ease in the needed measures, and to give our people and businesses some time to adjust.”


(Alternative) Factually?

However, according to the statement released by the ministry on 6 August 2015 before the General Elections, it specifically says that it was dismissing claims of “the Government trying to raise the GST after the next General Elections”.

“There have been claims on some online websites that the Government will raise the GST after the forthcoming General Elections to fund increased spending planned in the next term of government”, the ministry wrote in 2015, in response to online rumours and warnings by the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) that the GST might go up after elections.

“There is no basis to these claims, and they are inconsistent with what the Government has recently stated.” Two years later, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong backtracks on this statement, and the Ministry of Finance comes out claiming no U-turn. “The Government has to remain forward-looking,” it says.

The government has thus far not shared with the public the details on the planned tax hike.

Alliance Forged at 5th Annual Global Green Economic Forum

First published on The Online Citizen on 4 November 2017.

A moderator for one of the sessions, Juliette Saly of Bloomberg Radio and Television, closed the session with a quote by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam made just a week prior:

“If sea levels rise, we have to take it seriously, or all of us will have to take swimming very seriously.”

Laughter ensued, but the underlying message was taken very seriously by the audience. It was, after all, the reason they gathered at JW Marriot Hotel on an early Friday morning.

Now in its 5th year, the Global Green Economic Forum brought businesses, academia, and government together to learn and collaborate on solutions for what has been said to be the most pressing issue of our time: climate change. With the theme of “Belt & Road Initiative – The New Asian Model of Sustainability”, the focus was on building a sustainable Asian economy in the context of China’s Belt & Road Initiative.

A memorandum of understanding was also signed between two organisations dedicated to setting companies on a greener path, Global Green Connect (GGC) and the United Nations Global Compact Network Singapore (GCNS). This agreement will mean that GCNS will start promoting GGC to its members, and both will collaborate on future events and trade-fairs.

Said Wilson Ang of GCNS, “We are pleased to partner with GGC to help Singapore businesses, especially SMEs, to internationalise by connecting them with like-minded businesses and investors through corporate sustainability.”

Minister for Environment and Water Resources, Masagos Zulkifli, was also present to oversee the signing and to give an opening speech. In the speech, he praised Singapore’s journey on sustainability thus far, while highlighting challenges and the kind of progress the government hopes to see in the future:

“The journey towards environmental sustainability requires the active participation of businesses and consumers. Governments cannot achieve this alone. Strong collaboration across stakeholders is vital.”

“Minister Masagos Zulkifli bin Masagos Mohamed underlined the foresight and vision that the Singapore government is taking in this field”, said Christina Lee, founder and CEO of the Global Green Economic Forum. “It is encouraging to see so many stakeholders participate.”

Participants heard from experts and specialists in their fields in two sessions, each followed by a Q&A. The first, titled ‘Sustainability Matters to Investors”, focused on the recent US administration reversing course on green technology and the finance industry setting up a task force to promote climate-related financial disclosures and risks. Panelists include Helen He of IFC World Bank Group, Tan Chee Wee of OCBC Bank, and Yeo Lian Sim of the Singapore Exchange, with Juliette Saly of Bloomberg as moderator.

The second session, titled ‘Stepping up from Smart Cities to Smart Nation’, discussed about Singapore’s recent commitment to using technology to increase efficiency, and how renewable energy and sustainability plays a part in this development. Rahul Kapoor of Bloomberg Intelligence was moderator, while the panel consisted of Esther An of City Development Limited, Jake Layes of Autodesk, and Poyan Rajamand of Barghest Building Performance.

While many participants surely learnt something, and the focus on practical, actionable steps to take now is commendable, the self-congratulatory aspect in the forum with regards to Singapore’s progress in sustainability ignored and betrayed the fact that Singapore is, in many ways, conflicted in making sustainable choices and its economic growth. For instance, Singapore’s land reclamation efforts have been criticised as causing much environmental harm both from where the sand originates and locally where the land is expanded. Singapore remains an oil hub with its oil industry (operating mostly on Jurong Island) making up five percent of its GDP. Local companies like Old Chang Kee and Polar Puffs & Cakes continue to use palm oil from companies that may be responsible for the indiscriminate burnings and deforestation of Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests, causing the dreaded annual haze. In this sense, local consumers have yet to be truly informed on making more environmentally conscious decisions in terms of the companies they interact with.

“Sustainability is not merely a choice, but a matter of survival”, said Tan Chee Wee of OCBC Bank in response to a question. For now, at least, the government seems to rely more on such clichés and feel-good statements than actual accountability and transparency to promote itself as a green hub. Perhaps economic growth is too strong an addiction to put aside instead of a slower paced, but greener, growth.