Bebel Without a Clause

Bebel Without a Clause

Friday, November 23, 2012

Orang putih Baru tahu Singapura itu macam Israel?

Last week, Yale political science professor Jim Sleeper wrote a column titled Blame the Latest Israel-Arab War on… Singapore?”, which linked Singapore to the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

It alluded to the links between both countries as well as the similar geopolitical situation both countries were in, and then went on to attack the Yale liberal arts college in Singapore.

The piece, however, did not answer nor explicitly state, why he thought Singapore was responsible for the conflict but it was enough to spur several young Singaporeans to write sharp ripostes to the academic.

One that went viral was by a blogger named Nur Fikri, a political science student in the London School of Economics. She has kindly allowed us to quote from her blog.

In the piece, which has since attracted more than 2,000 likes, she says that it was a bold claim by Dr Sleeper to say that Singapore is “behind this particular revivial of an age-old conflict.

“Not yours which has been involved in more military conflicts that we can reasonably know about, much less count, but my tiny nation, which many people aren’t even sure how to locate on a map, much less link to Middle Eastern turmoil. I’m almost grateful for this new angle on an otherwise stagnant issue.”

Acknowledging that there are several similarities between both countries, she points out the professor had conveniently left out the differences between the two countries.

“Let me give you a few more: we have not been engaged in military hostilities for most of our sovereign existence. We do not believe we have a god-given right to our land that we have to literally fight to protect. Our “less-than-friendly Muslim neighbours” not only acknowledge the legitimacy of our nation, but are among our largest trade partners and freely & willingly participate in the same international organisations we do.”

So, the real reason for writing this piece? Ms Fikri believes that the professor just simply dislikes the country.

“You don’t like us. I get that. That’s okay. I mean, there are lots of things in which my country could stand to do better, and I’d definitely put the state of our democracy and the extent of our militarisation near the top of that list.. But what I don’t get is how you, a Lecturer in Political Science at Yale University, are letting a less-than-perfectly-logical bias against one country cloud how you cut through the complexity of other issues…

“You just tried linking Yale-NUS to a 70+-year-old conflict in a completely different part of the world, Jim. Take a step back and get some perspective.”

She ends off her post with a “plea” to Dr Sleeper and “others of your ilk”:

“Stop writing about us like bizarre science fiction. For all our illiberalism & paradoxes & illogicality, we exist…

Our existence does not undermine your democracy or your education system or peace in the Middle East — for the simple reason that we do not exist for you. We do not exist for your country, or for your university, or for your ideals of democracy. In fact, we do not exist for “democracy” at all; we exist for real actual people, we exist for ourselves;and that means that our struggles (for democracy/freedom or otherwise) are ours and ours alone.”

She later wrote a post-script to her original blog and explained the rationale for posting such a strong rebuttal to Dr Sleeper.

“Most of all, independent of this particular article/issue/whatever, I wrote that first blogpost — and it is a personal blogpost, not an article! — because I am very, very tired of condescending neocolonialist sentiment masquerading as progressive, liberal discourse. I am tired of being described as living in a “dictatorship,” I am tired of being talked about like an anomaly to be dealt with. I am tired of HuffPo contributors deciding for me what my problems are.”

Her post brought on huge cheers from the Singaporean audience, who praised her for her sharp wit in dismantling Dr Sleeper’s piece. She was also joined by other young Singaporeans who also took aim at Dr Sleeper’s commentary.

One is National University of Singapore student Koh Choon Hwee who also wrote a stinging critique of Dr Sleeper’s piece. And she kindly allowed Singapolitics to repost it on our site. You can find it on the next page.

Mr. Sleeper, a lecturer of Political Science at Yale University, recently published an article titled, “Blame the latest Israel-Arab War on… Singapore?”, on the Huffington Post.

This sensational title certainly garnered some attention in Singapore/ amongst Singaporeans – judging by the comments on his article, as well as the few friends who emailed it to me and posted it on their Facebook walls. It also refocused some attention on the long passé subject of Yale-NUS College and the controversy surrounding it; and this Yale venture is, ultimately, Mr. Sleeper’s main target.

I do empathize with Mr. Sleeper and his efforts at reviving public awareness on this controversial venture. While an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore (NUS), I too had objected to the Singaporean government spending millions of dollars on importing the “Yale” brand and ‘expertise’ to establish a liberal arts college, and had expressed these objections in articles (here and here) at the Kent Ridge Common, an independent online student newspaper.

Indeed, as an alumna of NUS, I am well aware of the resources and home-grown talents we have who are equally capable of creating an intellectually-challenging academic program for Singapore’s next generation. So why waste taxpayers’ money to buy this ‘brand’ name – why not create a local, home-grown brand that Singaporeans can be truly proud of?

Nevertheless, this recent article by Mr. Sleeper brings his cause to a new low, and as somebody who supports the continuation of critical debate on Yale-NUS College, I object to the offensive associations Mr. Sleeper has cast on this subject.

Mr. Sleeper links the recent Israeli attacks on the Gaza strip to discrimination in Singapore against ethnic minorities. It is offensive not only for all those of us who call Singapore home, but also, more pertinently, to all the Palestinians who are suffering and dying under Israel’s fire at this very moment. This travesty of an analogy trivializes their plight to an almost ludicrous extent, and Mr. Sleeper has, like many before him, shamelessly exploited the Palestinian cause for his own ends.

Students of the region are well-aware that Israel’s attacks on Gaza this time – as in all previous times – are only possible because of military, financial and political support from the US. Added to this is the subservience of the American media to the Israeli cause, which keeps the American public from protesting Israeli aggression to her neighbours. If ever there were an appropriate title for Mr. Sleeper’s article, it would be “Blame the latest Arab-Israeli war on… the US.”

It is farcical that Mr. Sleeper has somehow managed to leave out the critical role of the US in his diagnosis of the recent Arab-Israeli war, focusing instead, rather irrelevantly, on a Southeast Asian nation-state, Singapore. Even then, Mr. Sleeper’s article is full of inaccuracies alongside willful misrepresentations and half-truths.

Let us begin with the half-truths.

Singapore’s military was indeed formed, groomed and trained with Israel’s help, as Mr. Sleeper documents. There are similarities in Singapore’s and Israel’s geopolitical positions – both are small majority non-Muslim nation-states in majority Muslim regions. Singapore does indeed have a majority ethnic Chinese population, and there is real discrimination – both official and unofficial – against minority ethnic groups (“races”, in official-speak).

In fact, recently-arrived Chinese nationals (from China), who are referred to locally as “P-R-Cs” (PRC stands for the People’s Republic of China), are arguably subjected to more and harsher discrimination and racism than Singaporean Malays or Indians. Earlier this year, a Chinese national was at the wheel of a red Ferrari that crashed into a taxi and caused the deaths of the Singaporean taxi driver and his passenger. This sparked a national outrage directed primarily at PRCs, with many xenophobic comments made online against Chinese nationals.

Typical examples may be found on the comments thread of this Temasek Times article, which highlights the responses of the Chinese national’s family. A commenter called Desmond wrote,

“is there any way we can ask these china dogs to **** off from our (used to be) lovely island? 10yrs ago, our island was so peaceful, till these dogs crawl onto our shores……..”

This may sound odd to Mr. Sleeper, but the “Han Chinese” majority in Singapore is not the homogeneous, monolithic bloc he imagines it to be. As this New York Times article , “In Singapore, Vitriol against Chinese Newcomers” points out, “Tensions over immigration bedevil many nations, but what makes the clash here particularly striking is that most of Singapore’s population was already ethnic Chinese, many of them the progeny of earlier generations of Chinese immigrants.”

Racism and discrimination are very real in Singapore, especially those directed at newly-arrived Chinese nationals, and I condemn these wholeheartedly.

Mr. Sleeper, in belabouring the parallels between Singapore and the Israeli model of a dominant ethnic group subjugating a native minority, has shown himself to be grossly misinformed about contemporary Singaporean realities. More importantly, the majority ethnic Chinese in Singapore have not ghettoized any minority, systematically deprived them of housing, water, transportation, mobility and then regularly subjected them to air raids and bombing.

In his article, Mr. Sleeper also equated the position of “Han Chinese” in Singapore with the position of the Jewish in Israel/Occupied Palestine, noting, “ In Singapore the Chinese have a status, power, and reputation that will sound familiar to Palestinians and others who regard Israel’s Jews as arrogant interlopers.”

He further underscored the fact that “the politically dominant majority of Singapore’s population consists not of indigenous natives but of “overseas” Han Chinese,” which he deems a “striking analogy” with Israel.

Through these parallels, Mr. Sleeper implies that the “Han Chinese” came to be in Singapore in the same way that the Jewish came to dominate Palestine; yet he neglected to mention anything about Zionism in his article. Indeed, there is no “Han Chinese” equivalent of this dogged ideology aimed at reclaiming a certain piece of real estate for the establishment of a nation, no equivalent to a divinely promised homeland, no analogue of the idea of “right of return” etc.

The Chinese, like the Indians, arrived in Singapore in different waves, but most significantly during the colonial era in the 19th century. At the time, European colonial powers in the region asserted control over colonial states by engaging collaborators, and minorities in the region proved to be more willing to collaborate. These European colonial powers then played off different ethnic groups against each other and deepened the fault lines between them to keep the native population divided. This accounts partly for the continued, contested use of racial categories as a form of social organization in Singapore, despite its myriad problems. For example, there are many Singaporeans who are of mixed heritage, but have opted for one reason or another to be classified under one ‘race’ or other for practical purposes.

The immigration of Jews into Palestine in the same time period was a very different phenomenon. The establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine was also facilitated by a colonial power, but it entailed the expulsion and dispersal of over 750,000 Palestinians from their own homes – there is no comparable analogue in the Singaporean case. The founding of the state of Israel thus created the longest standing refugee situation in the world, with Palestinian refugees today numbering 4.5 million. Moreover, the Zionist project has been continuously fought over since its founding in 1948, engaging in major wars and invasions of neighbouring countries in 1967, 1973, 1982, 2006, 2008, and, with 75,000 reservists called by up PM Netanyahu this week, maybe 2012. For all of Singapore’s military strength, which Mr. Sleeper so assiduously documents, he failed to note that we have not once resorted to military force against our neighbours or citizens since our independence.

Moving on to the blatant inaccuracies, Mr. Sleeper wrote,

“Singaporean university students receive substantial tuition subsidies after military service but must accept what the National University of Singapore calls “a service bond under the terms of the tuition grant to work for a Singapore-registered company for three years upon completion of their degrees so as to discharge some of their obligations to the Singapore public.” In some professions, the mandatory service is to government agencies, for up to six years.”

Firstly, I am unaware of tuition subsidies that specifically target Singaporean students who have served in the military – these subsidies are applicable to the female population as well, and we do not serve in the military.

Secondly, there are a plethora of scholarships available to Singaporeans and to foreigners, each with their own conditions. Contrary to how Mr. Sleeper has depicted these scholarships, they are strictly voluntary (and highly-coveted). Those with a bond period of up to six-years are overseas scholarships, which enable many meritorious Singaporean students to study abroad, with the largest numbers congregating in the US and the UK.

Those with a bond period of up to three years are also voluntary, and are awarded to students from ASEAN countries, China or India who come to Singapore for university – and male students from these countries are not required to serve in the military. Mr. Sleeper failed to check his facts.

By highlighting the similarities and neglecting to mention the differences between Israel and Singapore, and by failing to verify the veracity of his information on Singapore, Mr. Sleeper is irresponsibly misleading the general public, most of whom would have little idea about Singaporean history. Singaporeans themselves, who are mostly unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Arab-Israeli conflict, are also liable to be misled.

Jim Sleeper’s History of Opposing Yale-NUS College and Singapore

For readers encountering Jim Sleeper for the first time, some context is needed to better understand his latest article. Jim Sleeper has long been opposed to Yale-NUS College and the corporatization of Yale University, especially what he perceives as Yale University’s signing over her valuable name to an “authoritarian regime” like Singapore. His attacks on Yale-NUS venture thus very often spill over into a castigation of the whole of Singapore.

Mr. Sleeper had previously tried to deny that his opposition of Yale-NUS College was linked to his views on Singapore. In my article, Do We Need Yale?, Mr Sleeper had left the following comment :

“For some of us who teach at Yale, the Yale-NUS controversy has never been primarily about the sins of Singapore, real or imagined.”

A short glance at recent articles from him – While You’ve Been Following the Campaigns, Singapore Has Been Romneyizing Yale (Romneyizing here used pejoratively) and As Yale’s Blunder Deepens, Singapore Bares Its Teeth – shows otherwise. It has been Mr. Sleeper’s habit to routinely assassinate Singapore’s character, as he is seemingly unable to critique Yale-NUS College without slandering a whole nation.

He is apparently unable to conceive of political systems, other than democracy of the American-type, in a sophisticated, nuanced manner. Hence, he blithely refers to Singapore using the reductionist label of an “authoritarian regime” , which could describe everything from Putin’s Russia to Communist China to Saudi Arabia, and is unable to imagine the complex reality on the ground in Singapore. It is much easier, after all, to defame a little-known nation-state in the Far East than to actually make the effort to do the necessary research on it, and to use one’s cerebral powers to formulate respectable arguments against this venture – which is unpopular amongst Singaporeans too, myself included. It is a disgrace for Yale University that Jim Sleeper is on its payroll.


Ultimately, Mr. Sleeper’s roundabout attempts to drum up opposition to Yale-NUS College by associating Singapore with Israel and exploiting current public attention on the attacks on Gaza are irresponsible, at best.

Mr. Sleeper, trash Yale-NUS College if you want, but please don’t insult the Palestinians.

In fact, trash Singapore as you always do, but leave the Palestinians out of it.


Koh Choon Hwee

* This article first appeared on



Blame the latest Isreal-Arab wars on… Singapore

Blame the Latest Israel-Arab War on… Singapore?

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