Politics: The “illiterate” from the “lousy school” is now chief

Perhaps the most damning bit of evidence about the arrogance and elitism of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is from a September 2021 parliamentary session. In a debate over the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) between India and Singapore, PAP politicians became agitated by the persistent questions from Leong Mun Wai, a member of parliament with the Progress Singapore Party (PSP). They started mocking him, unaware that a microphone was still on. “He is illiterate,” Vivian Balakrishnan, foreign minister, was heard saying. “Seriously, how did he get into RI [Raffles Institution]? Must have been a lousy school,” somebody else added. (Thereby confirming the party’s own belief in an educational hierarchy: good schools, and lousy ones.) Leong has continued to be a thorn in the side of the government on all manner of subjects. The PAP’s attempts to portray him as a fool seem to have failed, for the PSP has just announced Leong’s election as its new secretary-general, taking over from Francis Yuen. This is part of a broader succession plan given that Tan Cheng Bock, party founder (and chairman), is almost 83. But it also speaks to a style of politics that few saw coming and that may feature prominently at the next election. “Folksy”, “big into histrionics” and positioning himself as “the proverbial David against Goliath”, as one analyst told CNA, Leong offers a more confrontational approach than that of the Workers’ Party (WP), the main opposition party. That many Singaporean empathise with Leong might have both the PAP and WP puzzled—and worried.

Society: Appetite for in vitro meats growing

Options for lab-grown meat are growing and next on menus here, quail meat? Vow, an Australian cultured meat start-up, said that it’s close to getting approval from the Singapore Food Agency to sell Morsel, a minced quail product. Vow aims to have it in stores and restaurants by year-end. The Sydney-based tech firm made headlines for creating a massive meatball using the 4,000-year-old DNA of a woolly mammoth. Exotic meats, including alpaca, kangaroo and water buffalo, feature heavily in its inventory. “Humans have been experts at eating chicken, beef and pork for a long time,” said Tim Noakesmith, Vow’s founder. To get consumers to sink their teeth into unconventional proteins, “we’re going to have to make something that’s even more delicious and nutritious,” he added. Unlike plant-based meats, cultured products are produced from the same cells as conventional meat, in what’s known as cellular agriculture. Theoretically, they replicate the real thing, without the antibiotics, growth hormones, and slaughter of billions of creatures each year. Some studies have shown that a shift from traditional to cultured meat could reduce global warming and air pollution by over 90 percent. But that’s assuming the highly energy intensive process uses renewables. Other researchers have warned that the billion-dollar, cultured meat industry could instead exacerbate climate change. Singapore is the only country to have approved the commercial sale of cell-based meat. Given our ‘30 by 30’ food security goal—to produce 30 percent of our nutritional needs by 2030—it’s likely that all omnivorous Singaporeans here will have to develop a taste for alternative proteins.

Society: A weight-loss drug to feed our addiction to thin-ness

“When I look around this room, I can’t help but wonder ‘Is Ozempic right for me?’” quipped Jimmy Kimmel during the 95th Annual Academy Awards. Originally developed for diabetic patients, off-label use of the drug has now morphed into the newest weight-loss craze: the TikTok hashtag #ozempic has 741m views, and everyone from Elon Musk to (allegedly) Kim Kardashian rely on Ozempic or its higher-dose sister Wegovy, to shed pounds. And the Hollywood wave has now reached Singapore’s shores. Doctors here are seeing an increase in demand for Ozempic, which was approved locally for use two years ago. Some have even encountered patients who angrily demand a prescription after being told they don’t fulfil the required criteria. For those looking to unregulated online markets, tough luck—the Health Sciences Authority has removed four listings of Ozempic and Wegovy from local e-commerce platforms since the start of this year. Semaglutide, the active ingredient in Ozempic and Wegovy, functions to curb appetites and regulate blood sugar levels. It was not created to be a magic ingredient for weight loss. Going on and off it unsupervised can harm a person’s metabolism and liver. Its common side effects of nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea have sent some users to the ER. Excess demand could also crowd out diabetic patients seeking much needed medication. But the Ozempic and Wegozy craze doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Despite all the talk around body positivity and acceptance in the past couple of years, it seems fatphobia remains alive and well.

Sport: Singapore’s race queen continues to stun observers

Singaporean sprinter Shanti Pereira broke three national records in as many days at the Australian Open Track and Field Championships in Brisbane: twice in the 100m event (once in the heats and once in the final, which she won) and once in the heats for the 200m, her pet event. (She pulled out of the 200m final, probably because of over-exertion, but her sub-23s heat time would have given her gold.) With record keepers having trouble keeping up with her, Pereira looks a shoo-in for a “double gold” at the upcoming SEA Games in May (at the last one, she won gold in the 200m and silver in the 100m). Stiffer competition will follow at the Asian Athletics Championships in July and the Asian Games in September-October. “Her 200m record is a world class performance, it’s a new paradigm in women’s sprinting in Singapore and she’s very close to qualifying for the Olympics,” UK Shyam, Singapore’s 100m record holder, told Jom. As a “rare talent” who joined the sport at a young age (primary school), and then was able to continue training uninterrupted (later a graduate of the Singapore Sports School), she had continuity in a high performance environment, so could remain focused, Shyam also said. Aspiring athletes would do well to note the 26-year-old Pereira’s trajectory as well as her favoured nutritional supplements, as she told The Straits Times: “Toast Box teh C and anything with lots of sambal chilli.”

Arts: Success on the West End

Singaporean actresses are cleaning up in London. On Sunday, actress Anjana Vasan became the first Singaporean to win a Laurence Olivier Award, the highest honour in British Theatre. Vasan was named Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her portrayal of Stella Kowalski in a staging of Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”. She has been steadily making a name for herself on the British stage and TV, appearing in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “King Lear” at The Globe, as well as the television series “Killing Eve” and the critically acclaimed “We Are Lady Parts”. Vasan was nominated for a BAFTA TV Award for her performance in “We Are Lady Parts”, a six-episode series about an all-female Muslim punk band. Also making the news this week is Nathania Ong, the Singaporean actress who currently plays Éponine in “Les Miserables” on the West End. While Ong has been in the role for several months now, a recent televised performance on the BBC’s Big Night of Musicals has gained traction on Instagram, bringing her rendition of “On My Own” to audiences online. Ong briefly studied acting in LASALLE College of the Arts before enrolling in the prestigious Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London. It’s notable that both Vasan and Ong have benefitted from a practice known in theatre as “colour blind casting”, where roles are cast without consideration paid to the performer’s ethnicity. It’s nice that Singaporean actors have the opportunity to share their talents internationally beyond “Crazy Rich Asians”.

Internet culture: Raggedy (Sim) Ann

Sim Ann has thrown her hat into the already-crowded ring for Least Popular Politician. Last week, she went viral, and subsequently issued a non-apology, for blithely interrupting a musician’s set and shaking hands with attendees at the Esplanade. This week, she has made waves for posting about a S$3 economy rice and 70 cents kopi o kosong meal she had at a Corporation Drive coffee shop. Unsurprisingly, Singaporeans online have responded in disbelief, saying that the times of sub-S$3.50 economy rice are largely over. As one commenter put it, “No way this plate of rice can be S$3 with such a big portion of chicken. Maybe only for the ministers.” Sim responded by sharing more about the Budget Meals initiative, a government directive for stalls in HDB-owned coffee shops to offer low-cost meals and drinks as a condition for the renewal of their tenancy. While the initiative will surely be welcome amidst the worsening cost-of-living crisis here, it seems to ignore the root of the problem with affordability—the rising prices of ingredients, labour, and rent for most hawkers. This is a well-documented phenomenon on social media, particularly in Facebook groups dedicated to hawker food. A quick search for “rent” and “manpower” in these groups brings up dozens of posts alerting group members to popular stalls that are closing down or moving because these costs have become untenable. The average Singaporean has no power to address the rental crisis but they can definitely do their part by sharing good lobangs.

History weekly by Faris Joraimi

Following up on last week’s story about Chan Sun Wing, it’s worth unpacking how communists are represented in today’s narratives. Official histories in Singapore and Malaysia continue to stereotype the communists much like the British did: as bandits, subversives and terrorists. These word choices matter. The so-called “Malayan Emergency” (1948-1960) was a full-fledged war of independence, which is why the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) called it the Anti-British National Liberation War. Though violent, it represented a legitimate path to these patriots that was preferable to continued colonial subjugation. But it had to be called an “emergency” because insurers would not have compensated plantation- and mine-owners for damages if it were a “war”. According to historian Loh Kah Seng’s book, Behind Barbed Wire, the Colonial Office adopted the term “bandit” instead of “insurgent” as the latter would give the impression of “a genuine popular uprising”. Loh wrote that this was deliberately intended to downplay the fact that the MCP campaign was a political movement with grassroots support. The British themselves would later realise just how disciplined, effective and well-trained these armed fighters were, and from 1952 started calling them “communist terrorists”. Every label and category in history is a political argument in some way or another; nothing is neutral. The dreaded spectre of “the communists” still haunts Singaporean accounts, where “they ultimately remain”, wrote Hong Lysa, “cardboard figures”. They’re painted with the same broad strokes: fanatical, loyal to their cause, but misguided in their goals and methods. Hundreds of interviews with these communists were supposedly conducted for the book Men in White, but we’ve yet to have a full hearing on their actual roles in, and thoughts about, the pivotal changes they not only experienced, but helped inspire.

Tech: How much does your boss make?

Product manager median base salaries have surged by 27 percent since 2021. And Singapore remains the priciest market for tech talent, with engineers and product managers earning three times more than in Indonesia and Vietnam. These are two of the key findings from a new research report by Monk’s Hill Ventures and Glints on founder, C-suite, and talent salaries and equity. The analysis is based on over 10,000 data points for start-up tech and non-tech talent, over 150 founder and C-suite data points, and over 40 interviews with founders, VCs, and operators from Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.  Other findings include that over 60 percent of start-ups prioritise business development and sales roles for hiring, and that overall, despite the gloomy environment, 86 percent of start-ups interviewed still plan to hire in the coming year. Hybrid work takes centrestage, with 45 percent of start-ups offering hybrid and 12 percent offering remote work options. In the face of funding challenges, start-ups must adapt and strive for efficiency.

Tech: PayNow to Malaysia

Tried scanning a QR code in Malaysia only for PayNow to fail? Well, try again. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and Bank Negara Malaysia have just announced that they have connected their smartphone QR code payment systems to facilitate cross-border transactions. Following Singapore’s earlier partnerships with Thailand’s PromptPay and the Reserve Bank of India, this means that QR code payments from NETS and Malaysia’s DuitNow can be used interchangeably by Singaporeans and Malaysians. The initial wave of banks that are participating includes DBS Bank, OCBC Bank, UOB, Ambank Malaysia, Boost, CIMB Bank, Razer Merchant Services and TNG Digital. While cross-border retail payments are available now, MAS also said that person-to-person transfers and remittances will be possible by the end of the year. This would benefit foreign workers in both countries, offering faster, cheaper remittance options compared to traditional or digital platforms like Remitly and TransferWise. With remittances between Singapore and Malaysia estimated at S$1.3bn annually, this development streamlines cross-border payments and enhances financial cooperation between the two nations. The next time you head to Johor, you might be able to skip the money changer.

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