“The [Singapore] government’s responses and general attitude towards the epidemic appeared not only lackadaisical, but also sanguine in contrast to the lived experiences of laymen on the ground.”
If “lackadaisical” doesn’t sound like the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) in the face of an epidemic, well it’s not. Liam Hoo, in his first piece for Jom, “Mayhem in May: Singapore’s 1957 Asian Flu epidemic”, is referencing the Labour Front government.
Why is Jom examining something from over 60 years ago? Well, the utilitarian viewpoint suggests that historical essays offer us insights into the present, including aspects of the unchanging human condition. “Disease historiography, for instance,” Liam writes, “flourishes best in times of disease; in the petri dish of epidemics and pandemics.”
The romantic in me simply enjoys the little peeks into the life that once was, the Singapore before independence, the Singapore our parents knew: the carrot-and-olive folk remedy popularised by Chinese newspapers and then adopted by Indians and others; the opportunism of BRAND’S Essence of Chicken and Ho Yan Hor Herbal Tea; the assertive actions of Inche Bindol bin Bengol, the penghulu of Pulau Sudong, one of the 15 “forgotten isles”, bereft of public services and amenities; and the “Nepalese hill-billies”, castigated by the media as entrepreneurial charlatans.
Unlike in 1957, the general sense is that the PAP government did a relatively good job of managing the Covid-19 pandemic—with some important exceptions, such as the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in horrid, overcrowded dormitories, and foreign professionals unsure if they could leave and return.
Still, Liam makes a strong argument for what could have been improved, both in 1957 and 2020: “a healthy, collaborative relationship between government and media—one in which the latter’s check on the former is understood as essential for societal well-being.”
On that note, it was great to see so many of you at last week’s Singapore Independent Media Fair, the first-ever, co-organised by Singapore Unbound and Mekong Review. You may recall that I moderated a panel featuring Ng Kah Gay of Ethos Books, Loh Pei Ying of Kontinentalist, and Ariffin Sha of Wake Up Singapore (WUSG).
- Kah Gay told us about how he manages the tension between accepting government money and maintaining Ethos’s independence (the money is ring-fenced for specific projects, it’s never used to cover operational costs); and about his dreams of transitioning Ethos into an employee-owned, kinda co-op firm.
- Pei Ying described the separation between Konti editorial and their primary investor; and about her plans to grow different revenue streams, including Kawan, its membership programme.
- Ariffin talked about how he grew WUSG from the back of his secondary school classroom into one of Singapore’s most popular sites—and the numerous tough decisions he has to make amid buyout offers and his own legal career: he expects to get called to the bar later this year.
Finally, in Singapore This Week, there’s inevitably a lot of discussion about the Rajahs of Ridout, including on the potential breach of Code of Conduct for Ministers, and Instagram’s decision to geo-block (in Singapore) a post that questioned the activities of Ravindran Shanmugam, son of K Shanmugam, home affairs and law minister. In our investigation of the numerous matters, Jom sent queries to the Singapore Land Authority and Meta, Instagram’s parent. We appreciate Meta’s response, which you can read in the blurb.
There’s also stuff on SAMSKRITI, an upcoming Indian classical dance fest put on by Kalpavriksha Fine Arts, and a bit of history on twakows—a type of squat, wide-bodied boat— the last two of which, still in the Singapore River, will be permanently removed and dismantled by August.
p.s. For the second week running, we have a bunch of reader letters, all responding to language sensitivities around last week’s essay, “How I nudged myself into losing 10kg in 10 months, as my doctor advised”. Did Jom make the right call with the title? Read what Serene Koh, Carolyn Oei, and Joshua Wong had to say. Thanks all!
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