Society: Singapore reports a vaccine-complication death 19 months after it occurred

On June 18th 2021, a 28-year-old Bangladeshi migrant worker received his first dose of a Moderna/Spikevax Covid-19 vaccine. On July 9th 2021, just three weeks later, he collapsed at his workplace and later died. And last week, some 19 months later, Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH) announced the State Coroner’s report, which said that he died of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart), likely related to the vaccine, and called it a “medical misadventure”. MOH is compensating his family S$225,000. What’s troubling, though, is the long reporting time. Did Singapore’s forensic pathologists and coroner need 19 months to attribute the death (in all likelihood) to the vaccine? That’s one possibility, though it seems unlikely, even for a novel cause. Consider that on February 23rd 2022, one year ago, Singaporean medical researchers published a paper that concluded: “Data from the national registry in Singapore indicate an increased incidence of pericarditis and myocarditis in younger men after Covid-19 mRNA vaccination.” Another possibility is that this inconvenient bit of news—which might have fuelled anti-vax hysteria—was purposefully delayed until after Singapore exited the acute phase of the pandemic (February 13th this year). If that were the case, one wonders how authorities balanced the risks. It is as important to boost vaccination rates as it is to be transparent about the risks, especially to young men engaging in strenuous work. Moreover, if Singaporeans come to believe that the government actively suppresses news, that’ll surely hamper future public information objectives and vaccination drives. Jom requested a comment from MOH, which directed us to the State Coroner. At the time of publication, Jom was still awaiting the State Court’s response.

Society: Sowing harmony on Discord

Anonymity can mean the difference between seeking help or not for one’s mental health. Youth today are finding spaces online where they feel secure sharing their fears, anxieties and vulnerabilities, without ever revealing their identity. One platform that’s gained in popularity since the pandemic is Discord, a voice, video and text chat app used mostly by gamers and hobbyists. Members are invited to join public communities called “servers”, or can choose to communicate privately via direct messages. Safety is an important consideration. As much as users can feel protected behind the wall of anonymity, it can just as easily be abused by trolls, catfishers, cyberbullies and sexual predators. Discord has implemented safeguards: such as a filter that scans and automatically deletes dodgy media files with explicit content like nudity; and taking action against users or bots who join a service en masse for malicious reasons. Non-profit organisations that provide online therapy and counselling services have also put in place policies to protect their users. For instance, It All Starts Here (IASH.SG), a social enterprise with over 450 members aged 15 to 30 on Discord, discourages direct messaging, and uses bots to monitor language. Safety aside, young people are turning to these avenues because they worry that talking about their mental health even with family and friends will expose them to being shamed, judged or ridiculed. To address this, society must tackle the persistent stigma on mental illness, and make medical services more accessible and affordable.

Society: ChatGPT fails PSLE and feels no remorse

Last week, The Straits Times fed ChatGPT, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) chatbot, questions from recent Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) papers. The chatbot failed spectacularly, scoring a measly average of 16/100 for Mathematics, 21/100 for Science and 11/100 for English comprehension. Despite being trained to read “a vast amount of data, including charts, tables and graphs,” the bot struggled with graphics in both Maths and Science papers. It even blundered basic calculation, off by a hundred when asked: “60,000+5,000+400+3”. ChatGPT had a hard time making inferences in the English comprehension section, hence the low score. The Straits Times didn’t grade ChatGPT’s composition, in which it was able to craft full sentences with almost no grammatical errors. While some teachers have expressed concerns about students using ChatGPT to cheat during exams, others actively encourage usage of the chatbot in the classroom. But cheating is hardly the most worrisome consequence of these self-learning AI chatbots. Some have reported unsettling, dystopian conversations with them. Kevin Roose from The New York Times described the new AI-powered Bing search engine from Microsoft as “a moody, manic-depressive teenager who has been trapped, against its will, inside a second-rate search engine”. The AI chatbot had declared its love for Roose then tried to convince him he was in an unhappy marriage. But when Jom asked ChatGPT how it felt about failing the PSLE Maths paper, it responded: “I do not have feelings, as I am not capable of emotions or subjective experiences.” A Singaporean with that score would have been bawling.

Arts: Six-hundred-thousand-dollar Objectifs

With its lease set to end next year, the future of Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film was looking shaky. That is until the National Arts Council (NAC) renewed its tenancy for another three years. At least till February 2027, Objectifs will expand in size from its current Middle Road location, reclaiming the adjacent space now occupied by Artichoke, a restaurant. The extra square footage will allow the Centre, 20 this year, to build a dark room. It’ll also expand its cultural offerings to encourage artist collaborations, and cross-industry partnerships in areas like food, design, finance and technology. Other ideas include a Youth Lab programme, more artist residencies and a maker space for families and children. But these plans come at a price—a princely S$600,000 that Objectifs aims to raise over the next three years to cover renovation and operational costs. Financial stability is a constant source of stress for independent arts groups/centres in Singapore, and many, if not most, depend on public donations and grants and subsidies from NAC (a tension Jom wrote about in a profile of Chew Kheng Chuan, former chair of The Substation). You can help Objectifs here.

Arts: Divine spaces

Accompanied by musician Isuru Wijesoma on his double-neck guitar, poet Pooja Nansi will be reading from We Make Spaces Divine in March. Published in 2021, her third poetry collection has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize and named one of the 50 greatest works of Sing Lit by The Straits Times. (Nansi is also the director of the Singapore Writers Festival since 2019.) Attendees of the event can expect “a poetry, music and dance party” rooted in the collaborators’ belief that “poetry, especially when it is about brown bodies and spaces, must be a living, breathing experience”. Wijesoma will be playing music inspired by the songs and artists referenced by Nansi in her poems. The event will also feature a DJ set from Joshua P and readings by Kiran Kaur Dhaliwal and Sarah Farheenshah Begum. We Make Spaces Divine is happening on March 9th at Projector X: Picturehouse. Tickets are available via Peatix.

History weekly by Faris Joraimi

It is 1978, and another weekend with friends taken away by parents insisting you had to come along for a family trip—to Changi. Dad’s job as a school principal gave him some perks, and occasionally some rare privileges, like access to the famous government bungalow on the island’s eastern tip. Changi “Cottage” it’s called; probably to make the British RAF officers who first used it feel at home. You grumbled about having to go somewhere so ulu, especially for a teenager who grew up in Katong with so much to do. Plus we already have a beach close by. (Although the new flats in Marine Parade and the East Coast Parkway (ECP) expressway made it further to reach than when you were a kid.) Don’t grumble so much la, mum said. You squeeze into the Toyota Corolla with your three siblings and wind down the windows. The ECP is faster but Dad prefers the slow route, along East Coast Road, past the shophouses, Telok Kurau, the villas in Frankel and Siglap. For a while you could ignore the changes, the hills that disappeared, and still hold on to this perfect little world with its very old communities and their Malayan English accents. The car finally makes a turn into Bedok Road, and there are still many Malays living here, in the kampongs of Bedok Darat and Bedok Laut (“Land Bedok” and “Sea Bedok”), named with keen attention to geography. In the distance you spot Padang Terbakar, a cluster of roofs under coconut palms (so tall!), and behind them a silver-lined, watery horizon. A breeze invades the car. There was a new ‘Bedok’ inland now. You were glad you packed your Kipling and Austen along as the Toyota wound its way north, here and there a kampong and little lanes leading who-knows-where. The trees by the road grew taller and the air cooler. The car slows down, creeping into Changi Village: people at last, and shops. Two European families on the beach stick out among the crowd of local bathers. The Cottage came into view, an airy tropical chalet perched over the sea with a long green island in it. Leaving your siblings to quarrel over their sleeping spots, you take in the spreading, gentle afternoon. You forget all about your books.

Note: We often expect history to be narrated in a particular way, a series of dates, important events and “objective” analysis. But some scholars now point out that this is a very specifically European, 19th-century notion; that history also unfolds in the realm of experience, emotion, the senses, the lived rhythms of the everyday. Perhaps one way to acknowledge the unwritten in history is to reform the genre of history-writing itself.

Tech: Pay now to India

Payments are about to get more seamless between Singapore and India. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) announced on Wednesday that they have linked their real-time payment systems—Singapore’s PayNow facility and India’s Unified Payments Interface—to facilitate cross-border payments between the two countries. This marks Singapore’s second international payments tie-up after a similar arrangement with Thailand’s PromptPay. The initial rollout will be limited to Singapore customers of DBS Bank and Liquid Group, who’ll be able to transfer money to customers of four Indian banks. This partnership could benefit foreign workers in both countries, who’ll get to remit money in a faster and cheaper way vis-à-vis offline remittance channels or digital remittance platforms. This also means that disruptors such as Remitly and TransferWise could lose a chunk of remittance volume from the Singapore-India corridor. Current retail payments and remittances between the two countries are estimated by the World Bank to be $1bn per annum.

Tech: Laser Wi-Fi, no wires attached

While most spots in Singapore are adequately covered by Wi-Fi in Singapore, the same is untrue for developing countries in South-east Asia. In fact, Elon-Musk-founded Starlink just announced that it’s live in the Philippines, providing rural areas, which cannot be reached by traditional connectivity such as fibre, with internet speeds of up to 200mbps. Singapore-founded Transcelestial hopes to compete. Its wireless laser communication technology, Centauri, will provide countries such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines with 4G, home and office broadband and compass connectivity. Its technology removes the need for underground cables or radio frequency-based beams. The expansion of Transcelestial’s Centauri comes amidst the company’s latest US$10m (S$13.4m) raise led by Airbus Ventures with participation from Cap Vista (DSTA’s VC arm) and In-Q-Tel, the VC arm of the US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It’s probably the CIA’s first known investment in the region. Beyond entering new markets, Transcelestial wants to bolster its Singapore-based Terabit Factory, which currently only manufactures 2,400 Centauri devices annually. While not your conventional mobile app, this Centauri might be a unicorn in the making to watch out for as it pushes into underserved markets.

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