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“Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, Im meaningless.” (Lee Kuan Yew, 1998, The Singapore Story)
The Matrix is certainly a great movie, with a lot of philosophical and religious themes. “The One” seems to refer to the Messiah Jesus in Christianity while I like what the boy in the Oracle’s house teaching Keanu how to bend a spoon: realize that there is no spoon in your hand, only electrical impulses in your brain, and then it will be yourself that bend and not the spoon.
James Gomez has recently released his book, Self Censorship: Singapore’s Shame. In that book, he explained very concisely how the notorious climate of fear works in Singapore. This made me recall The Matrix once again. As I recalled, The Matrix mainly examines the question: What if what we believe is reality is actually a dream, and reality is actually a nightmare we’d rather not have to deal with?
As I was recalling the movie, I saw for myself its relation to Singapore. It is amazing how the themes spoke to me about the ‘climate of fear’ that is present here. I could now understand better how it is possible for some people to feel this cognitive dissonance about Singapore when the majority of the Singaporeans do not seem to feel it. I remember watching the National Day parade each year, observing so many Singaporeans in the National Stadium displaying such a deep sense of pride in Singapore and I was wondering to myself, “You mean they don’t realize the truth?”
The objective of this article is to give my personal and hopefully unique review of the Matrix and how Singapore, to me at least, is so much similar to the movie. I will be using what I learn in the movie to come up with a model that explains Singaporean’s political behavior, hopefully enhancing what James Gomez has said in his brilliant book.
Basically, the ‘Matrix model’ divides Singaporeans into three different categories. Through the interactions of Singaporeans belonging to the different categories, I hope to be able to offer insights to the political behavior of Singaporeans. I shall be using quite a few quotes from the movie as I explain. Of course, I do not expect others to see it the same way as I do. I think the directors of The Matrix wanted each of us to interpret for ourselves whether we truly live in a Matrix. This article is my interpretation.
Three categories of Singaporeans
“Repression, Sir is a habit that grows. I am told it is like making love-it is always easier the second time! The first time there may be pangs of conscience, a sense of guilt. But once embarked on this course with constant repetition you get more and more brazen in the attack. All you have to do is to dissolve organizations and societies and banish and detain the key political workers in these societies. Then miraculously everything is tranquil on the surface. Then an intimidated press and the government-controlled radio together can regularly sing your praises, and slowly and steadily the people are made to forget the evil things that have already been done, or if these things are referred to again they’re conveniently distorted and distorted with impunity, because there will be no opposition to contradict.” (Lee Kuan Yew as an opposition PAP member during 1956 speaking to David Marshall)
For those of you who did not manage to get his book, James Gomez has explained very well how is it that many Singaporeans are immediately disturbed whenever one of them try to discuss politics in a critical manner. I have experienced that for myself when I discuss such issues with my own friends so I can vouch for that. After watching the Matrix, I begin to classify Singaporeans into three categories.
Category One: The people living in the Matrix
The first category, which I think form the largest majority, is similar to the many people living in the Matrix. The majority of the Singaporeans, in my opinion, do not realize or have never found out the truth behind the PAP’s control over their lives, the media and the law society. The actual events of the 1987 Marxist conspiracy and what happened to Francis Seow were also hidden from them. I think this probably categorize those people who cheered with such pride during National Day. In my opinion, I cannot imagine anyone feeling such pride for Singapore if they bother to research into these events.
For these category of Singaporeans, whenever they hear someone like Chee Soon Juan, whom I put as belonging to the third category of Singaporeans, telling them about the truth behind Singapore’s Micropolis disaster or the Suzhou Industrial Park Fiasco, they may be thinking, “What is this ingrate saying? I am proud of Singapore and to me, the PAP is the only party capable of leading Singapore.”
At this point, Morpheus made an insightful remark about the Matrix (talking to Keanu): Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.
Thus, for this majority group of Singaporeans, nobody can make them realize what is really going on in Singapore. Until they witness first-hand for themselves, they will reject any thesis that tells them they have been misled. Furthermore, they may not appreciate realizing the truth because once they do, they are very likely to move into the next category of Singaporeans, which I would describe below as a very disturbing phase.
Keanu Reeves himself initially did not appreciate Morpheus trying to free his mind, Morpheus later remark to Keanu: I feel that I owe you an apology. There is a rule that we do not free a mind once it reaches a certain age. It is dangerous. They have trouble letting go. Their mind turns against them.
How true that is for this category of Singaporeans! I will describe later in the end how I came to “free my mind”.
Category Two: The blue pill (Ignorance is bliss)
Morpheus (to Keanu): “You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
In the above scene, the blue pill was offered to Keanu such that, when he takes it, he will return to the Matrix world and remembers nothing. Keanu, and apparently, all the other people of Morpheus’s gang, chose the red pill to begin their battle against the Matrix.
The second category of Singaporeans, to me, are those who may have ‘taken the red pill’ and found out about all these events. They might have realize that, you cannot possibly be happy living in Singapore knowing all these information. Thus, they begin a process of trying to expel the knowledge from their mind. When I saw the character, Cypher, in the Matrix, it suddenly dawned upon me that he represents this particular category of Singaporeans. Let’s take a closer look at Cypher’s words (to Keanu): “I know what you’re thinking, because I’ve been thinking the same thing. Actually, I’ve been thinking it ever since I got here. Why oh why didn’t I take the blue pill?”
Later in the movie, Cypher was talking to those sentinel agents, planning to betray the rest (to Agent Smith): “I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, do you know what I realized? Ignorance is bliss.”
Ignorance is bliss! How true that is in context to the climate of fear in Singapore, I realized. Therefore, these Singaporeans are perhaps thinking to themselves, “Why must I know all these? Is it not easier to accept the PAP’s rule and focus on making money and in raising up a happy family? Who cares about freedom of speech and transparency when we have safe streets in Singapore?”
Agent Smith: “Then we have a deal?”
Cypher: “I don’t want to remember nothing. Nothing! You understand? And I want to be rich. Someone important. Like an actor. You can do that, right?”
From my own experience, I am aware that there are Singaporeans whom I speak to in typical ‘coffee shop talk’ who might have the same perspective as Cypher. It always amazes me that, whenever I bring up any social issue that attempts to question the way the PAP is running Singapore, I can clearly see that they are very uncomfortable. It is written all over their faces!
I used to wonder why are they always so quick to change the topic or so quick to contradict whatever I say with a display of blind faith in the authorities. After watching and hearing Cypher, I begin to realize that they are only rational in doing so. I believe that they are well aware of the real danger if they ever were to pause to seriously consider such issues, which I will describe below.
To these Singaporeans, whenever anyone, Chee Soon Juan for example, tries to tell these Singaporeans the truth, it is immediately rejected, not because these Singaporeans do not believe it, but because they chose not to. These Singaporeans may have attended the many political meetings in NUS, where opposition members like J B Jeyaratnam and Chiam See Tong constantly urge them to take the lead to change the climate in Singapore. Although they realized what is going on, the vast majority would not bother entertaining such thoughts. They have learned from their own cognitive dissonance that such thoughts would only cause them perpetual discomfort.
Thus, if they continue to feed on such thoughts, they may eventually have to act on it. Examples were made out of Chee Soon Juan and Tang Liang Hong to illustrate to these people that acting on such thoughts are likely to result in huge losses for themselves and their families. Since they have made the choice to stay and make a home in Singapore, they do not want to remember anything else other than the apparent prosperity that they see around themselves.
These Singaporeans will not be seen in the National Day Parade cheering for Singapore, unlike those in the first category, because they still, in some sense, know what is going on. In my opinion, it is impossible to expel such knowledge completely; I have tried to do so myself without much success. There is a philosophical saying, Better Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. Better a man dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, that might be applied here.
These Singaporeans are what Catherine Lim described as those who possess a “Great Affective Divide” for Singapore. The term that was recently initiated by the PAP, ‘cosmopolitans’ could also apply to these people.
Category Three: The red pill
Now, this last category represents people like J B Jeyaratnam, Chee Soon Juan, Francis Seow and all the other exiles from Singapore. I could include Dr Toh Chin Chye in it as well. All of us are aware of the history of the first two and we clearly do not envy them. The supposed ‘climate of fear’ that exists in Singapore politics is a very scary force to change. Those who really want to change this climate, must be prepared to free himself from this fear and live with whatever consequences that might happen. Keanu Reeves himself have to overcome many of his own doubts about him being ‘The One’, even dying before being resurrected, before he can unleash his full potential. Too bad real life is not like a movie, or is it?
My own testimony on how I took the red pill
I ask myself, “Which category do I belong to?” I would say I am somewhere in between the second and the third one. I am clearly not someone willing to pay the price like Chee Soon Juan and yet I am clearly not contented to take the blue pill and forget everything.
I remember the period when I first took the red pill and found out for myself about this climate of fear. It was my first year in NUS. I attended this closed door Philosophy seminar where the topic was on the role of Philosophy in Singapore. I think Cherian George was also present in that seminar, somewhere in July 1994. The discussion turned into an issue about whether the government is open to the idea of Singaporeans thinking for themselves. As a “newbie undergraduate”, I tried to make a point then that Singaporeans have no freedom of speech and the government does not want us to contribute to policy making. I think it was Cherian George that later asked me, “If you think freedom of speech is so important, why didn’t you parade with banners in Singapore urging for a change?” I remember replying, “Look what happen to Chee Soon Juan.”
At that point of time, there was a combination of chuckling and some silence, but I did not know why. After the seminar, I met up with some of my friends who gave me a rather stern look and said something like, “Why did you say things like that? Didn’t you know that S Vasoo was among the audience?” To be frank, at that time, I did not know who S Vasoo was. Later I found out that he was the PAP MP who sued Dr Chee Soon Juan in court in 1992-93.
And guessed what? I felt scared! I really did feel fearful. I went back home and started wondering, “Oh no! What have I done?” I begin to wonder whether my grades would be condemned from now on, whether my future will be ruined and so on.
Looking back, I guess I was too fearful, for my situation now would not have been so if they really kept tabs on me. But the point is still that, for the first time in my life, I experienced for myself the climate of fear in Singapore. Ironically, I originally wanted to be a journalist in the Straits Times. After swallowing that ‘red pill’, I begin to research more into the history of the press in Singapore. It was then that I found out what happen to the Singapore Herald and the Far Eastern Economic Review. I guess I kissed that dream goodbye after that.
I also began researching into Singapore’s history in 1987, not the official government version, but one told by Francis Seow in his book, To catch a Tartar. After finding out what really happened in the 1987 ISA arrests, I was shocked. I cannot believe that, during that time, I actually ran in front of the TV then whenever they started playing the patriotic songs, Count on Me Singapore and We are Singapore, to sing those songs with a great sense of pride. I guess if any of my friends tried to tell me then what really happened in that year, I would have rejected everything they say completely. Thus at this present moment, I can understand the reaction I get from my friends whenever I try to discuss about politics, after all, I was in their shoes before.
I love The Matrix so much for giving me the inspiration to come up with this article. If you were to ask me whether I regretted having taken the red pill, I would say, “No!” I always believe it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. But I understand that my fellow Singaporeans are only rational in remaining apathetic, because if you want to settle down and make Singapore your home, having these thoughts will be very harmful to your mind.
That is an important reason why I need to get out of Singapore, temporarily at least, for now J. I am not willing to pretend it does not affect me. And I know that, the longer I remain here in Singapore, the more I will have to expel all these thoughts out of my mind. I would hate it if I one day have to put the cross on the lightning symbol of the PAP, during the elections if I get to vote, for ‘fear’ that my career would be affected if I did not do so; that is a real possibility if I were to settle down here. I do not want my kid to come up one day and ask me, “Daddy, why didn’t you stop the PAP earlier from making Singapore to be a city of fear,” because I will not know how to answer him.
I thank God that he has given me an opportunity to experience life in another culture. I want to find out for myself whether I am better off being a second class person in a racially discriminating society like in the US, or being a second class person in a politically discriminating society like Singapore (Of course, Singapore, in my opinion, also practice racism. It is just that I belong to the majority race so I have to look closely to feel it, you can read my viewpoints towards racism in Singapore here) I may not be able to fly like Keanu Reeves did in the last scene of the movie, but I am certainly looking forward to a different environment here.