Save Ralph is an animated short film that champions the banning of animal testing on cosmetics. Released earlier this month in five languages, the film has gone viral, clocking in more than two million views (as of 19 April). If you are moved to replace your existing beauty products with those that are cruelty-free, TheHomeGround Asia shortlists nine brands that are certified or vouch to be cruelty-free.
As an animal lover and someone who used to have a dog, I teared up when watching Save Ralph, a stop-motion animated short film directed and written by American filmmaker Spencer Susser.
The mockumentary follows Ralph over the course of a day as a “tester” at a toxicology lab. Created for animal rights group Humane Society International (HSI), the film features its campaign spokesbunny Ralph, voiced by Oscar winning screenwriter Taika Waititi, and a host of other celebrities, including Zac Ephron and Ricky Gervais, lending their voices to other characters in the film. It aims to shine the light on the plight of helpless animals who continue to be used as test subjects for cosmetics.
Save Ralph director Susser says, “I felt that stop motion was the perfect way to deliver the message. When you see the horrifying reality of the way animals are treated, you can’t help but look away. What I was hoping to do with this film was create something that delivers a message without being too heavy handed. I hope that audiences fall in love with Ralph and want to fight for him and other animals like him, so we can ban animal testing once and for all.”
Adds puppeteer Andy Gent, “The beauty of stop-motion animation – I think the beauty of animation, full stop – is that you can tell very complicated, very challenging stories and bring them to life in a nonthreatening way that helps to educate and inspire people.”
According to HSI, most major beauty brands have not been animal-tested in years, even decades, and the practice is banned in 40 nations. But some countries still require final cosmetic products or ingredients to be tested on animals for safety and effectiveness. In these instances, it is not the company that chooses to test on animals, but “is being forced to do so by government regulators”, says HSI.
Cruelty Free International reports on its website that hundreds of millions of animals suffer and die from testing every year in laboratories around the world. Besides cosmetic testing, this figure includes what is carried out using chemicals, drugs and food, as well as in scientific experiments.
But how does a consumer navigate the myriad of brands that claim to be ‘cruelty-free’ or ‘vegan-friendly’ to make a credible purchasing decision? HSI explains that companies that have been certified ‘cruelty-free’ have “committed as of a certain date not to conduct or commission third-party animal testing of finished products or ingredients, and to monitor the testing practices of ingredient suppliers.” It also warns that not all cruelty-free products are vegan, nor all vegan products cruelty-free. It advises consumers to read the fine print on the label or write in to the company to get some answers.
But before you throw out your favourite foundation or body lotion, refer to some of these useful resources to check if they are cruelty-free, or not; LeapingBunny.org, BeautyWithoutBunnies, Logical Harmony, ChooseCrueltyFree and Te Protejo. If you cannot find the products that you have in these shopping guides, rest assured there are more than 2,000 cruelty-free beauty brands available worldwide that you can switch to, including Garnier, Dove and Herbal Essences.
For starters, here are nine we picked.
A brand that is ranked high on the anti-cruelty list is Urban Decay, which is globally known for their ever-so-famous range of Naked eyeshadow palettes. So now that you know they do not harm any animals in the making of their makeup products, perhaps this is a sign to get your hands on that coveted palette that you have been eyeing for a long time.
Kat Von D
While it takes a level of skill to master that edgy incomplete liner that has been all the hype these days, it also takes a long-lasting eyeliner to perfect that look. Look no further than Kat Von D that not only has the holy grail liner that will make you a loyal fan, their brand also vouches for being cruelty-free, so you do not harm any cats while you draw on your cat-eye.
Tarte Cosmetics (Kose)
Aside from their volumising mascara for that dramatic look, Tarte is also highly sought-after for their eyeshadow palettes to elevate your eyes and give it a pop of colour. Phew, knowing that their brand is cruelty-free sure brought some relief, as I would not want to throw away my prized possession. Not only are they not testing on animals, they also use organic ingredients without preservatives, like sulphates and parabens.
Nyx Professional Makeup
For those who are on a tight budget, Nyx is a godsend that provides affordable, yet quality, beauty products, including foundations, lipsticks and mascaras. So good news for diehard fans – you can continue to purchase your favourite products as they are cruelty-free, and also available is a range of vegan products for those who want to go a step further in caring for animals.
Too-Faced Cosmetics (Estee Lauder)
Another staple brand for every girl’s unending makeup stash, Too-Faced continually brings to the table revolutionary eyeshadow palettes that are simply irresistible. The good news is they do not test their products on animals, making them free from cruelty.
The Body Shop (Natura Cosmeticos)
From body butters to shower gels, The Body Shop houses all our beauty and skincare essentials to achieve supple and moisturised skin. Not only are they cruelty-free, they also commit to sustainable and ethical business practices, as well as women empowerment with the belief that everyone is beautiful.
We all know a staycay is not a staycay without a bathtub and a bath bomb for that mandatory IG story, so most of us are no strangers to Lush Cosmetics that is our one-stop-shop for rainbow-coloured and sweet-scented bath bombs to complete our bubble baths. A respectable brand that champions many causes, they are cruelty-free, 100 per cent vegan and fight against animal testing.
This one is for all those who #supportlocal. A local brand that offers a range of lip balms, they even have uniquely Singapore flavours like the Coffeeshop Kopi O lip balm and Gula Melaka and Kueh lip scrub for the patriotic. Now is your chance to support a local business, while championing animal rights.
Another one that is proudly local, Balm Botanique provides all things body and skincare that are purposefully tailored to suit Singapore’s tropical heat. From body moisturisers to nipple balms, the brand is cruelty-free and vegan, as their products do not contain animal derivatives like honey or beeswax.
Opened yesterday (16 April), a photographic exhibition in Singapore titled ‘Finding What’s Next’explores the possible futures for individuals on the autism spectrum as they transition into adulthood. Featuring 12 individuals with autism spectrum disorder and their families, photographer and parent-advocate of children with autism Bob Lee unfolds their journeys through a series of intimate and touching images.
Located along the Esplanade Tunnel until 4 July, the exhibition is co-produced by two other parent-advocates of children with autism, writer-translator Lim Hwee Hwee and Founder of community group Friends of ASD Families Sun Meilan.
TheHomeGround Asia sat down with Mr Lee, parents whose children are featured in the exhibition, and St. Andrew’s Adult Home to gather their hopes and takeaways, even as they continue to search for ‘what’s next’ for these beautiful youth.
Nanda Kaur considers herself fortunate even though her son, Amit, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at the tender age of three.
Now 25, Amit works as a gardener at Edible Garden City. Every morning, he takes the bus to Queenstown MRT and makes the 15-minute walk to his workplace. After his day ends, he takes the same route back and has lunch at his favourite chicken rice stall before heading home.
Ms Kaur shares that Amit is able and willing to help out around the house. He changes the bedsheets, does the laundry, and helps put the laundry away.
“I’m blessed that Amit can do a lot of things on his own,” Mrs Kaur says. But things have not always been smooth-sailing.
“He used to do all this banging, breaking things and all that,” she recounts. “I have [had the] TV broken; the whole thing cracked. And I had a glass display cabinet when [my children] were younger. Amit banged his head against it and the whole glass cracked. I was so worried.”
Amit also had issues communicating at a young age. Mrs Kaur shares her earlier concerns: “He was slow in everything…I was very worried, thinking what is going to happen in the future. Will he ever talk? Will I ever hear his voice calling me?”
Mrs Kaur is not alone in her worries. For many parents or caregivers of children with ASD, the future is an unknown variable, carrying with it equal parts worry, fear, and hope.
And while Mrs Kaur takes comfort in her son being employed and independent, Jessie Chew, mother of a 32-year-old daughter diagnosed with autism, finds peace of mind that her child is safe living at St. Andrew’s Adult Home (SAAH), a facility providing long-term residential care for adults with autism.
The dream of a mother living away from her daughter
Ms Chew’s daughter, Naralle, has a friendly and cheerful disposition, and always up for small talk, as well as making friends. And while these may seem like positive traits, Ms Chew says that Naralle’s propensity to wander and her lack of situational awareness makes her vulnerable if her friendliness attracts undesirable individuals.
“I have found that SAAH is the only place that is secure and safe for Narelle to reside in,” shares Ms Chew. “[It allows her] to make friends with like-minded individuals in a secure environment.”
In time, however, Ms Chew hopes that her daughter can return home: “She may become more mellowed, and we can bring her home to stay with us. That’s what I am looking forward to.”
Naralle and Amit’s stories are two of 12 narratives in Finding What’s Next, which showcases many possible futures for individuals with ASD after becoming adults.
Turning 18 as an individual with ASD
For most, turning 18 is an occasion for celebration, a rite of passage to adulthood and independence. Typically, this brings with it a sense of anticipation for what lies ahead.
But for people with ASD, it is often accompanied by fear and worry. It is the age they leave the education system to face the world, which may not always be accommodating and welcoming to those who are different.
SPED (special education) schools in Singapore only cater to students under the age of 18. While some adults on the spectrum, like Amit, are able to find jobs and lead fairly independent lives, there are also some who are unable to join the workforce and have higher support needs, like Naralle.
Currently, there are seven autism-specific day activity centres (DAC), but demand far exceeds supply, according to an evaluation done in the Autism Enabling Masterplan. Alternatively, adults with autism can attend SAAH, which is the only full-time residential facility for this community in Singapore.
So where did adults with ASD go before SAAH was established in 2019, and if they were unable to get a place at DACs?
SAAH Resident Manager Eve Lee, who is also a psychologist by training, says that many of these individuals were either cared for at home, or if caregivers were unable to provide the support needed they were admitted to the Institute of Mental Health.
“A small pool of them may reside in disability homes,” she adds. “[But] this group is usually the milder ASD group.”
Bob Lee, the photographer behind Finding What’s Next and a father to a son on the spectrum, thinks that support for adults with autism is still lacking: “Today, more centres have early intervention and support…this part is taken care of. The lacking part is post-18.”
Besides an inadequate number of institutions that provide care for adults on the spectrum, Mr Lee thinks that training for employment is insufficient.
“If job coaches are not enough, then even if there are employers that are willing to take in [adults with ASD], they don’t have enough support…,” he laments. “If there are more organisations doing it, that will be better.”
These concerns inspired Mr Lee to embark on this project. In the process, he had hoped that he would discover what his son, Jun Le’s future could look like.
Seeking answers through the experiences of others
Jun Le turns 14 this year, and is going through vocational training at Pathlight School. The anticipation is that once he turns 18, he will be able to find a job that suits him, but this is not set in stone.
“14 to 18 is only four years apart,” says Mr Lee. “And we are not sure how many things we need to do to prepare him for work.”
Mr Lee explains that Jun Le’s expressive skills are still lacking, citing an example of how he got lost two weeks ago, but was unable to tell the lady who found him his parents’ phone numbers, as he was not asked.
“Communication is an issue because once you cannot communicate, the learning ability is also affected,” highlights Mr Lee. “These are things that we are still training him on, how to communicate to express his feelings, because it’s important in the future if he can find a place to work or in any activities that he participates in, he must learn how to communicate.”
The urgency to find an answer also arose due to a health scare in the family; Mr Lee’s wife, Lim Hwee Hwee, who is the co-producer and one of the writers for Finding What’s Next, was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer in 2018.
“The day that he’ll [Jun Le] be alone can happen anytime,” rues Mr Lee. “That made us think that we should start to prepare for his future.”
In speaking to various families during the creation of the exhibition, Mr Lee was assured that he and his wife, Ms Lim, were on the right track in preparing Jun Le for independence. While he has not found an answer for what is next in their family’s life, he is heartened by the stories he has heard. Beyond that, he wants the exhibition to educate and inspire audiences as well.
Inspiring families; educating the public
Through the personal narratives revealed in the exhibition, Mr Lee aims to prompt other families with children on the spectrum to start considering and planning for the future, whatever their child’s age. Eighteen years old, he warns, is never too far away.
He shares, “From our own experience, we know that we are busy every day with our own things. Taking care of kids with ASD, you don’t really have time to think so far. That’s what happened to us, until the [health] incident we have in our family [forced us to think about it].”
Besides reaching out to the ASD community and their families, Mr Lee wants the exhibition to create better public awareness and understanding of what it means to live with autism. In turn this could encourage them to extend a helping hand or even smile when they encounter people with ASD and show solidarity and kindness.
Naralle’s mother, Ms Chew, chimes in, “I hope the public will…be more accommodating and accepting towards persons with autism. There isn’t a need to shun away from them, nor be fearful towards them.”
Finding What’s Next is available for viewing all day at the Esplanade Tunnel until 4 July. Admission is free.
In view of the recently rekindled debate over registering bicycles and licensing cyclists, TheHomeGround Asia weighs up the pros and cons of the potential scheme proposed by Singapore actor Tay Ping Hui and wife of Singapore Prime Minister, Ho Ching.
Anyone familiar with social media will know that it only takes a single post to set off a flood of heated exchanges among netizens. And a heated debate is exactly what ensued after Singaporean artiste Tay Ping Hui took to Facebook and Instagram on 1 April to vent his frustration over a run-in with a group of cyclists whilst driving, sharing a dashcam video of the incident. Mr Tay went on to advocate for all bicycles to be registered, arguing that many cyclists who break rules on the road do not care because “they know whatever happens, there’s no way to identify them” unlike other registered vehicles.
Writes Mr Tay, “A small visible license plate would allow the cyclists to be identified in cases of accidents, conflict or rule breaking. Such registration should be free, and insurance if any, should be minimal and not subjected to excessive profit making by the insurance companies.”
His suggestion did not fall on deaf ears. It was followed the next day (2 April) with a Facebook post from Ho Ching, wife of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who shared a media account of Mr Tay’s story on her feed. In her post, the CEO of Temasek Holdings calls not just for bicycles to be registered like cars and buses, but personal mobility devices (PMD) too, and that they should come with third party insurance.
Exhorts Mdm Ho, “License riders as well separately, like the way we license drivers of trucks and vans. Establish different classes of bicycles and PMDs, off road and on road, pathway and highway, battery powered and non-battery powered.”
Some 10 days later (12 April), none other than Chee Hong Tat, the Senior Minister of State for Transport, announces that an advisory panel will take several months to conduct a review of existing rules to see how to improve safety for both cyclists and motorists.
He explains that the Active Mobility Advisory Panel will examine the possibility of measures, such as the registration of bicycles, licensing of cyclists and whether theory tests should be required for riding on roads – similar to users of PMDs and electric bicycles. The panel will seek feedback from the public, while examining the pros and cons of licensing cyclists and studying the experiences of other countries.
Set up in 2015, the panel consists of representatives from relevant groups, such as seniors, youth, cyclists and motorists.
Licensing bicycles, a thing of the past
Until 1982, bicycles in Singapore were registered, a practice carried over from the colonial era. According to Mdm Ho, it cost S$5 for a one-time registration and licence plate. Since being discontinued, there have been regular calls by politicians and the public to revive the licensing of bicycles and riders. Former Nee Soon GRC Member of Parliament Lee Bee Wah even suggested in 2013 that cyclists take safety lessons as a requisite for getting a licence.
The Land Transport Authority (LTA) has not seemed keen to implement these ideas so far. In response to letters to a local newspaper forum in 2016, where readers had called for registration to deter rule-breaking riders, it said that a licensing system would be too resource-intensive. It also shared concerns that riders’ might be discouraged from the activity if licensing became mandatory.
“Many bicycles are sold and change hands every year. The profile of cyclists is diverse, ranging from very young children to the elderly. Some people cycle to work, while others cycle occasionally to neighbourhood amenities, or for leisure and exercise,” said LTA’s then-director of active mobility Tan Shin Gee. “It would be resource-intensive to implement and police a system to license bicycles or cyclists that is up to date.”
The battle over road space
The episode recounted by Tay Ping Hui is just the latest in a string of incidents pitting motorists against cyclists, with both sides quick to air their grievances about the other’s disregard for road safety rules.
In December 2020, for instance, a clip of a cyclist rear-ending a car near Yishun Dam went viral on social media. The man had taken his eyes off the road to gawk at a lorry accident, and as a result, crashed into the back of a Toyota sedan and shattered its windscreen. Netizens lambasted the ‘irresponsible’ cyclist.
Earlier this month, another video involving a car and a bicycle made its rounds on the internet after a mother and her young daughter were knocked down at a pedestrian crossing in Punggol, sparking a fierce argument in the comments section over who was to blame for the accident.
A scroll through community-run Facebook pages, like SG Road Vigilante, Roads.sg and Beh Chia Lor, turns up plenty of altercations between drivers and cyclists. This long-standing dispute may soon find a resolution, but the question is: ‘Would the proposed registration scheme prove a boon or a bane to cyclists?
Boosting road safety
Proponents of bicycle registration argue that it would improve road safety and act as a deterrent to cyclists who might be tempted to break or bend road traffic rules. Common complaints against cyclists include running red lights, hogging lanes by riding abreast, and zooming through pedestrian crossings without slowing down. Hence, the possibility of being held accountable for such behaviour could enhance safety for all road users, from cyclists themselves to motorists and pedestrians.
A registration scheme would enable the authorities as well as fellow road users to easily and efficiently identify errant cyclists via unique licence plate numbers, and would thus facilitate the process of reporting and penalising traffic offenders. The fear of getting caught and being brought to book could, in turn, discourage scofflaws from engaging in careless cycling.
A social media poll conducted by SG Road Vigilante following Mr Tay and Madam Ho’s posts revealed that 90 per cent of the 5,000-plus respondents favour registering bicycles with a licence plate and third-party insurance.
Some believe that licensing could resolve tensions since a major factor in the motorist versus cyclist conflict is that many drivers believe cyclists do not belong on the road. In short, it could clear up existing misperceptions over who has the right to use public roads
Cooling tensions between motorists and cyclists
Richard Toh, an avid cyclist who clocks around 1,000 kilometres every month, attributes this car-centric mindset to the significant increase in Singapore’s car population over the last few decades, in addition to the widespread misconception that cyclists have no claim to the roads because they do not pay road tax.
“If we revisit how and why roads were initially constructed, [we’ll see that] roads were [designed] for people, not for cars,” says Mr Toh. “That’s why roads are called public roads and are funded by general taxation, not by road tax. Every taxpayer [contributes to] the construction and maintenance of [public] roads.”
Another benefit often given to register bicycles is that it would curb theft.
A national database of registered two-wheelers would not only work to dissuade thieves, it would also precipitate the return of any bikes that are stolen.
Case in point: When the Vancouver Police Department and the City of Vancouver in Canada launched a collaboration with a security software start-up in 2015, bicycle theft in the city dropped by 30 per cent in three years.
Although the Singapore Police Force (SPF) and the National Crime Prevention Council did introduce the Bicycle Security Label in 2011, participation in the programme has been voluntary. A mandatory registration scheme, on the other hand, might have better success in reducing the incidence of bicycle theft. Other deterrents to fight crime have included installing mirrors at public residential blocks, bicycle bays and rack areas. While the overall number of thefts has fallen over the years, in 2014, the police said that bicycle theft was one of the “major crime concerns”.
The cons of bicycle registration
Cycling enthusiast Wee Boon Kiat believes that a bicycle registration scheme is “simply a way to ‘stick a plaster on a gaping wound’, [but it] certainly does not solve the root cause of the problem”.
“If [Mdm Ho] thinks that registering bicycles would solve these problems [of poor cycling habits, road accidents etc.], then [by the same token] there would be no motor vehicle accidents in Singapore, since all our cars are registered,” adds Mr Wee. “In my opinion, registration is simply not the solution.”
Mr Toh concurs: “I am not against [a] bicycle registration scheme per se. But what I am against is that it does not [address] the root of the problem.”
But what exactly lies at the heart of the problem? According to experts, it boils down to a question of attitude. In particular, the adversarial attitude of motorists toward cyclists.
A joint study published in 2019 by Australian researchers from Monash University, Queensland University of Technology and University of Melbourne found that 55 per cent of non-cyclists rated cyclists as ‘not completely human’. The study also connects the dehumanisation of cyclists with acts of aggression against them. This includes drivers using their car to deliberately block or cut off a cyclist.
“When you don’t think someone is ‘fully’ human, it’s easier to justify hatred or aggression towards them. This can set up an escalating cycle of resentment,” explains lead author Alexa Delbosc. “If cyclists feel dehumanised by other road users, they may be more likely to act out against motorists, feeding into a self-fulfilling prophecy that further fuels dehumanisation against them.”
Therefore, unless there is a fundamental shift in attitude, legislation can only do so much.
Price of licensing
Cost is another obstacle for setting up a licensing system.
In 2016, LTA had explained in a letter to The Straits Times that while it had studied the licensing of bicycles and cyclists “very carefully”, it concluded that the disadvantages of doing so would outweigh the advantages.
“The main benefit of licensing is to aid identification and tracking of errant cyclists. However, this requires that the registry of licenses [sic] be regularly updated by licence holders. [But] there are practical difficulties for ensuring this is so,” said LTA’s Ms Tan.
In other cities around the world, from Toronto to Beijing to Seattle, laws pertaining to bicycle registration and/or licensing were abolished for the very reason that such systems were far too costly to operate. Even countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, which are known as cycling utopias and have the most bicycles per capita in the world, do not require bicycles to be registered or cyclists to be licensed. Instead, they focus on alternative strategies to encourage courteous cycling and uphold road safety.
Mr Wee also believes that a licensing regime would be antithetical to the Government’s ambitions to transform Singapore into a car-lite nation: “If implemented, a registration scheme would definitely discourage [people from] cycling,” he says. “Would the next step be for cyclists to pay road taxes and ERP [charges]? It is a slippery slope that should be avoided, [and] it would be a killjoy to active transport for sure.”
It’s plain unfair
Not every cyclist flouts the rules of the road, so making it mandatory for all bicycles to be registered and all cyclists to be licensed runs the risk of seeming unfair.
“Just as there are inconsiderate cyclists, there are also inconsiderate motorists who purposely drive [too] close to cyclists,” says Mr Wee. “There are also inconsiderate pedestrians who do not keep [to the] left [on shared paths], groups who do not walk in a single file, and ‘handphone zombies’ who do not look where they are going. Cyclists should not be the only group to be penalised.”
Adds Mr Toh, “We don’t want a situation where we penalise the majority for the behaviour of the [errant] few. But I suspect this is exactly what a bicycle registration scheme would end up doing.”
Instead, he insists that data collection is necessary to understand the matter and to “substantiate” how many cyclists have “endangered other road users” because of their “errant behaviour”.
“Because I’m active in the cycling community, and I’ve done a fair bit of research based on road traffic statistics, when a cyclist beats a red light – a cyclist on a 12kg bicycle travelling at 30kmph – he’s not going to cause a lot of harm [to other road users]. If a cyclist hits a car, it’s the cyclist himself who would probably end up injured, not anyone else.”
He continues, “As far as insurance is concerned, we have the statistics to show that motorists [can] inflict a great deal of harm [on others], and we have the statistics to show the frequency of accidents [involving motorists].
“From the point of view of economics and of the need to protect public safety, [we can] arrive at a sound conclusion that [third-party insurance for motorists] should be mandatory. [But] do we have the conclusive evidence that demonstrates that cyclists [can] wreak so much damage that you would require them to carry third-party insurance before you allow them on the road?”
Government’s response to rekindled debate
Over the coming months, Active Mobility Advisory Panel will conduct its review to ascertain whether a revision of extant regulations is necessary, and to determine the feasibility of registering bicycles and licensing cyclists.
It will also raise awareness of existing traffic rules, working in tandem with stepped-up enforcement by LTA and SPF to boost road safety.
Mr Tat emphasises that it is important “not to rush the process, but to hear from all the different stakeholder groups before [the Government] come[s] up with a set of recommendations.”
Other possible courses of action
In order to bring about a lasting attitudinal change and foster a more gracious society, education is key, rather than just a focus on enforcement and creating awareness.
Mr Toh suggests a two-pronged approach. The first, revamping drivers’ education.
“I’ve cycled near a driving centre in Woodlands, and [on several occasions] I’ve [met] learner drivers who were told by their instructors to drive so close to me as to endanger me,” says Mr Toh. “Now, if a driving instructor isn’t teaching someone who’s learning how to drive the right thing [to do], then what kind of motorists are we putting on the road? I think that [starting] right at the driving school, change has to happen.”
The second, reiterating that all road users must share road space in a safe manner.
Mr Toh stresses that drivers “grasp the fact” that roads are not only meant for their exclusive use: “I’m under no illusion that it’s going to happen overnight, but the Government needs to undertake some sort of [education programme] to keep driving this message home – that roads are [meant] for people, and not [solely] for motorised vehicles.”
Building an infrastructure that considers multiple modes of transport
A Redditor and food delivery rider who goes by the username “wazookazooman”, shares his thoughts on the topic: “Footpaths are impossible to ride on because of the 10[km/h] law and [the] ban [on PMDs] on riding on neighbourhood footpaths. PCNs [park connector network] are very hard to ride on because of the sheer number of people and those [who] do not keep to their side of the pathway. So, many cyclists [and food delivery] riders [have to travel on the road] if they want to make it to places on time.”
Mr Wee agrees. “In many other countries, bicycle lanes [take up a segment of] the road. But in Singapore, the only bike lane on the road I know [of] is at Tanah Merah,” he says. “If the Government is serious about fostering a harmonious relationship between cyclists and motorists, then we need more of such bike lanes.”
We may just be a little red dot but it seems as if every week more and more new things to do are popping up out of the blue in Singapore! Jazz up the usual weekend routine with these new activities:
1. Filmgarde Primo
There is no shame in doing things solo. Instead, there is a certain inner peace that can be achieved when you learn to enjoy your own company. However, if you have always felt conscious about heading to the theatre sans anyone else, Filmgarde Primo has got just the thing!
Filmgarde Cineplexes at Leisure Park Kallang has rolled out their new Primo cinema hall, which is filled with premium seating. Open to the public on 8 April, each seat is situated apart from the rest, and comprises a plush reclining leather chair. If you still wish to share the experience with someone, the Privacy Cocoons offer double seating as well. Throw in a 360-degree audio experience, and the largest movie screen in its class – and you’ll be all set! Tickets are going for S$30 (single), and S$54 (double), and are bundled with a small popcorn, a can of Pringles, a bottle of water, a can drink, as well as a wet towel, per pax.
2. Dolce & Gabbana Beauty
Look good, feel good. Pamper yourself by taking a trip to ION Orchard, whose Basement 2 level has been transformed into a beauty heaven. Joining the flagship stores of Chanel Beauty and Dior Beauty is the brand new Dolce & Gabbana beauty! Inspired by Stefano Gabbana’s apartment, the shop is adorned with a swanky entrance, on top of striking black and gold accents.
Step through the doors into a beauty wonderland, where you can check out a large variety of Dolce & Gabbana fragrances, and the extensive full makeup collection – which has been made available for the very first time! Establishing an elegant balance between fashion and beauty, each product is decked out in classic Dolce & Gabbana prints.
3. Jaffa at SO
Bring your taste buds on a whirlwind culinary adventure! Be transported to the exotic lands of Israel with Jaffa at SO, the brainchild of SO/ Singapore’s Executive Chef Hong Dingzhao, and Miznon’s Chef Or Hakmimi. Happening from 15 to 28 April 2021, this omakase experience pays homage to Israeli street food. No expense is spared – expect an array of open-air kitchens, a dazzling Israeli barbeque, and the famous Israeli hospitality.
Dig into a variety of beef, lamb, chicken, duck, fish, seafood, and vegetarian skewers; on top of mezze, dips, pita bread, and salads. Lunch is at 11.30am or 1pm daily, at S$59 per pax. Dinner is either at 6pm or 8.30pm daily, and is at S$79 per pax. Each person will receive a choice of two skewers, a lavish spread of dips, mezze, and salads, as well as a pitcher of lemonade or soda. Make your reservation here!
4. HomeTeam NS’ “smart” clubhouse
As the years go by, the more technology advances. Now, HomeTeam NS has unveiled their new “smart” five-storey clubhouse in Khatib, which boasts multiple digital capabilities. An app enables members to monitor real-time occupancy to aid safe distancing measures, and book facilities with the touch of a button. This app also allows members to gain contactless access to the clubhouse.
There is plenty to do at the clubhouse: It is home to Singapore’s only Peranakan-themed indoor playground, as well as an indoor airsoft area. The clubhouse is also equipped with an array of eco-friendly features, such as an eco-filtrated swimming pool, solar panels, an auto-irrigation system, and rainwater harvesting.
5. Bukit Batok Central playground
Have a great day out with the kids at the spanking new Bukit Batok Central playground. Suitable for all ages – even the young at heart! The playground sports a long tube slide, a colourful climbing frame, as well as various rope elements. Opened to the public on 11 April 2021, the playground is part of the new Fuji Hill Park.
If you have younger kids in tow, the compound is also home to a mini-slide, a climbing wall, and a merry-go-round. Take a languid stroll along the elevated boardwalk, or climb to the top of Fuji Hill – there is something for everyone!
By the end of August, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hopes to be able to announce the Government’s decision on whether Muslim nurses will be able to wear the tudung with their uniform if they wish. PM Lee shared the latest progress on this issue after a closed-door dialogue with Malay/Muslim community and religious leaders on 10 April.
In TheHomeGround Asia’s third interview on this topic, we ask Founder of hash.peace Nazhath Faheema for her response to the latest developments on this decade-long debate.
Nazhath Faheema has made it her life’s mission, since graduating from the Singapore Management University 11 years ago, to push for the culture of peace, as well as racial and religious inclusiveness. She does this through interfaith dialogues and conversations around multiculturalism. Having founded the hash.peace movement in 2015, she continues to bring together young people of different beliefs and ethnicities in order to build social harmony and understanding across generations.
Besides being an agent for peacebuilding and keeping, Ms Faheema was first exposed to the issues around extremism and self-radicalisation among youths after being nominated as Muslim Youth Ambassador of Peace, in 2015. She has since been active in raising awareness about counter extremism and the influence of terror ideology among young Singaporeans.
While Ms Faheema acknowledges that she is not directly affected by the tudung ‘ban’ on Muslim women working in public unformed services, she says it is good that civil society speaks up for minority interests that might be unfair or discriminatory, “in a peaceful way”. She adds that the issue of the tudung ‘ban’ concerns her because it also raises the question of how Singapore can “embrace religious diversity in public spaces.”
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s latest announcement that the Government should prepare to allow Muslim nurses to wear the tudung while in uniform is a “promising, positive progress on this matter,” says Ms Faheema.
Mr Lee had acknowledged that “people’s attitudes have changed, because in social and work settings, the tudung is now more common.” He added that the Government would need to “prepare the ground” to ensure that the public understands this is a “careful adjustment”, rather than a “wholesale change”.
“We want people to realise what the limits are, as we make these changes,” Mr Lee said. “And we must make sure that Singaporeans, both Muslims and non-Muslims, are ready to accept the move.”
He added, “We are a multiracial and multireligious country. It’s a delicate balance, but we are fully committed to preserving our harmony, and to maintaining our common space.”
To this news, Faheema says, “It’s good to see that the Government is setting a timeline to decide… Looks like we are working towards an objective of finding a solution for Muslim nurses who want to wear their religious headscarves to work… How this matter is handled by the Government sets a precedent for policy matters regarding religious diversity in secular spaces. As such, in the coming months I hope the Government carefully considers the opinions of the Muslim community and the other non-Muslim groups. That would be fair, I believe, in a multireligious society.”
Having been involved in encouraging discourse on race and religion, Ms Faheema notes: “I am hopeful and quite confident that regardless of religion, most people will be supportive of the Government’s move to allow our Muslim nurses to wear their religious headscarf, if that is their personal will,” adding that she has observed this support during hash.peace conversations.
She shares that one of the questions raised with youth participants during these sessions was how Government and civil society could talk about religious diversity: “Commentaries made about ‘closed-door’ dialogues need closer consideration. It shows how the young generation in Singapore want to have conversations with the Government on such matters… This is a very important takeaway, especially for the 4G (fourth generation) leaders.”
Ms Faheema suggests that the Government “works towards honest and deep dialogues on these matters” and that information about the discussions are shared “with people in the best way, so they gain confidence – be it closed-door or any other format.”
She adds, “I look forward to a positive decision that not only caters to the needs of today, but also gives a good precedent for [the] future. Let’s resolve the issue for our Muslim nurses first and learn from the experience of handling such conversations”
Here are some of Ms Faheema’s thoughts around various aspects of the tudung issue.
(Note: The interview below was conducted before Mr Lee’s announcement on 10 April and has been edited for clarity and length.)
On how things have evolved since the tudung issue surfaced in the public sphere in 2002 over schoolgirls not being allowed to wear the headscarf in school
Faheema: We must bear in mind that in 2002, when this issue came up that was also post 9/11. It was also the start of Islamophobia. Under that kind of context, it does make sense not to try to do anything that will single out or target Muslim women. But that’s 2002. In the [almost] 20 years, what is not being evaluated is firstly, the role of Muslim women… [their] presence in various sectors… involvement in activist work or in social work, where their voice has changed a lot. [Also] in terms of our Members of Parliament, our president. So much has changed. So if we still seem to have the same fears as 2002, what has been the impact of this change to the role of [Muslim] women [in society]? Has it not had any impact on clarifying prejudices?
We also have invested quite a lot of effort to build social harmony; the Harmony Fund, the IRCCs (Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles), we’ve got so many groups working on inter-faith. And yet, we seem to be grappling with this complexity of managing, I quote, ‘the different aspirations [and expectations]… between communities at the same time’. That makes me wonder what have we not done to strengthen the understanding between different communities that live in Singapore?
Are people still having such prejudicial thoughts about Muslim women? It becomes a broader question of whether people who tend to openly practise their religion through [wearing] visible identity markers face certain uncomfortable experiences in this country. If the answer is yes, then it’s a very disturbing answer.
It shouldn’t happen in my Singapore because we’re supposed to be the country that’s advanced enough in this kind of effort. We’ve got so many young leaders out there who are putting so much effort into [building] religious harmony.
On whether Singapore is ready to talk about sensitive issues and what is needed to harness these discussions for good
Faheema: I don’t know whether we’re still living in an environment [where] speaking about each other’s religious differences is not comfortable… Unless they [people with prejudice] are at ease to discuss religious issues, we’ll never find out why a person might not want to be served by [or feel uncomfortable with] a Muslim nurse… What does it mean for them? We haven’t had that conversation.
The second question is are we so afraid to have that conversation? Why is this conversation not possible when our public discourses or national discourses on various issues have become much more vibrant and dynamic. Maybe because knowing ‘why’ is going to create a lot of unhappiness between people. I’m not so sure that I want to know from a person why he doesn’t want me wearing a tudung and standing next to him. Even [with] good intention and honesty, I’m still going to be unhappy and hurt.
So before we start discussing prejudice, there has to be a lot of effort to make sure that people who learn the truth about the prejudice need to know how to manage it. And it’s two-way: Whatever the person says, and how I react to it, will determine how he sees not just me but an entire community. This involves more genuine dialogue at the grassroots level.
And then thirdly, do we really want to hear the truth and are we ready to handle the truth? Because many times online communities make me feel like they’re not ready to face the truth… There’s so many harsh statements made. I don’t think people manage that well. And whether that kind of conversation creates something better, or more polarisation?
On why closed-door discussions are a way to manage sensitivities but could potentially breed suspicion
Faheema:There are so many questions that need to be deeply considered. There has to be a lot of effort on how to manage the honest and truthful discussions, which is why sometimes I feel that it does make sense to discuss [these issues] behind closed doors.I, as an example, prefer to discuss such matters when I know the people in the room and I can trust that my opinions are objectively considered. I need to have trust established. Not everyone is courageous enough to walk into a room of strangers and give opinions on this kind of issue. That is the reality of it. But the problem is that we don’t know what happens after closed doors; we don’t know what the outcome of these discussions are.
There’s the other aspect of who has to be in the [closed-door] conversation because they should witness the conversation. This should be community leaders with ground access to people. Of course, I do not expect them to report on everything [that is said] but I think they can help to calm the waters and give people a little bit of information about what happens [in closed-door meetings]. Some of them may be doing this. More can do so.
We have to also make sure that the people who are not in the room are pulled into the room if they need to and only [if] they have something to say. If that doesn’t happen the bridge-building is not there, I don’t know how we will actually identify people who have this prejudice. It should be between the nurses who may have experienced it firsthand, and the [prejudiced] party. I don’t know whether volunteers or officials will take up this responsibility, that’s another administrative question. But I think the Government can do something about it.
On whether dealing with prejudice is the crux of the issue
Faheema: A person who’s prejudiced will be prejudiced no matter what, I don’t think it’ll make a difference whether it’s colour, a turban [or headscarf]. As long as the person comes from an exclusivist group, they are going to be against anyone who’s different from them.
I can understand managing different aspirations, expectations and trust. So what are we lacking to create that high level of trust despite so much effort? Maybe a lot of efforts are not reaching the points where they should. Even I, as an activist in this area, would be guilty of it. Have I made enough effort to understand the deep prejudice in society?
On the explanation that the ‘ban’ protects Muslim nurses against discrimination from patients
Faheema: We should be confident enough for people to step up and say that as Singaporeans we won’t allow for that [discrimination]. I think a government, too, needs to be given that assurance, and if despite that assurance the Government decides not to [listen] then I think that’s wrong. But I was thinking in my head all the chaos about Count on Me Singapore then I’m thinking Singapore can I count on you?
Have Singaporeans matured or come to a point where they can band together, and decide what kind of Singapore they want, as opposed to always looking to our leaders to make that decision? That’s my angst… I thought it would have been nice to hear the non-Muslim, non-religious community stand up and say, ‘No, that’s not true. That’s not us, we won’t do that. And if any of us does do that, we will stand against it.’I have seen some of these voices rise up – online and offline – which made me happy. But this is not enough. I’ve also seen a lot of voices politicising the matter. I know I can count on my friends, if my headscarf is under threat. But we’re talking about a national identity; that voice is not strong.
So many civil society organisations can step up and say, ‘Look, there’s education needed in this area for people to understand why. We can provide education for it. We can explain. We can help the hospitals with it.’ We’re supposed to be setting an example for the region and other countries.
On what it means to maintain neutrality in handling sensitive issues like religion
Faheema: It’s convenient to just couch this as a Muslim issue. But to me, it’s sad. To me that is us trying to help one particular community, neglecting that there will be others [affected]. But [some might ask] why aren’t other communities saying anything about it. So why care? But if we come to this acknowledging that we are a multireligious country, and there are different kinds of people we are going to engage with, in a hospital or not, isn’t that already a step forward? We cannot move forward if we fear differences and want to pretend that this person serving me is not Muslim… or is Muslim? Or any other race or religion?
Are we extending such a policy [removing visible religious markers like the tudung] to everyone else? Are we looking at who else is facing such a problem? Until that question is being discussed openly, it’s not neutral. It is still slanted towards one religious community. But I don’t know how comfortable we are in asking suchquestions. There might be far more sensitive and difficult-to-resolve issues.
On whether this is an issue of gender rights too
Faheema: I don’t know whether [framing it as a gender issue] will help. [But] since we are all about celebrating SG women, it might help in that narrative. I think there definitely will be more support from a lot of women activists and stuff. And it might be for one reason; this issue about Muslim women and patriarchy, or the fact that they are being hindered by family traditions, or what is insisted as religious obligations for women. This is a long-due conversation that’s always there. I also worry will people start using this change as a way to pressure others into wearing the headscarf, even if against their will? If making it a women’s conversation will protect the freedom of the female as well, I would say it’s a benefit.
On what sort of society we want to build
Faheema: I have met people from different parts of the world who are always in awe of our racial and religious harmony. Some of them live in multicultural metropolitan cities. They live peacefully with people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds too. But, what is so unique about Singapore’s social cohesion? Our whole-of-society approach in which the Government has done well to prevent conflicts that are motivated by ethnic or religious differences. We have been successful in protecting ourselves from extremist attacks and riots, etc. We must admit that this is because of the regulatory framework, policies and the security system.
On top of that, the collaborative approach taken by the Government and the community leaders. This is an achievement, one which many countries grapple with. I am proud of this.
But, can this alone be the pride of our racial and religious harmony? Especially when we are moving towards the fourth generation Singaporean society. Our peace and harmony cannot be based only on stricter laws and tougher policies. I think it has to be based on interpersonal relationships that are able to have difficult conversations. Civil society needs to mature to have dialogues that can proactively deter exclusivist mindsets and the growth of extreme ideologies.
Yes, this sounds sound idealistic, but is it impossible? I do not think so. I see this possibility in small groups, so how can we amplify it [to the wider community]? I want a society that is thinking about how to solve this situation. And I pray that this happens before Singapore’s fifth generation.
This April, do some good with your food choices as we check out three cafés making a difference in Singapore. With inclusive hiring practices, a heart for the vulnerable and underprivileged, and most importantly, sumptuous offerings, these diners are must-adds to your April food jaunts!
1. The Social Space (Kreta Ayer)
As a part of the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise (raiSE), The Social Space is an eco-friendly café space along Kreta Ayer that brings the charm of Bali to our sunny shores. Stepping into The Social Space feels like a quiet retreat into serenity, with rustic vibes from its rattan backed chairs and whimsical turquoise cushions.
Housed in the same premises is The Nail Social, a concept under the same group that provides training to marginalised women. The store also carries an extensive range of eco-friendly products such as castile soap. On second glance, it’s clear that The Social Space is thoughtful in the selection of products it carries, with unique items such as plantable birthday cards that grow into herbs after being placed into soil.
In the spirit of sustainability, the café takes care to source its food from fair-trade and environmentally friendly producers. The menu caters to a variety of tastes, with a selection of open-face toasts, smoothie bowls, baked goods and drinks.
For a classic brunch dish, look no further than the Avo + Egg, which features a bed of perfectly seasoned avocado laid atop a slice of French sourdough. Topped with a generous portion of sliced hard-boiled eggs, this palate pleaser looks as good as it tastes.
Millennial mockery aside, the star of this dish lies in the clever addition of a layer of torched cheese, adding a smoky finish to the otherwise clean flavours – one that’s reminiscent of aburi-style sushi. Cherry tomatoes give both tang and a pop of colour, which complements the crusty sourdough.
Veggie lovers will also take a shine to the Roasted Mushrooms + Crème Fraîche, which features sautéed mushrooms on sourdough with torched cheese and a sprinkle of parsley. While the sourdough acts as a good accompaniment to the salty richness of the mushrooms, we feel that there could have been more crème fraîche, as this dish was a tad dry.
Looking for a sweet start to the day? Try the Tough Nut, a smoothie bowl featuring a comforting blend of housemade peanut butter, banana, soy milk and honey. Well-balanced and rich, this is served in a coconut bowl, a nod to the Bali-themed café. This dish is reminiscent of a sinful chocolate banana milkshake, albeit a healthier one – the perfect indulgence. Coconut flakes and almonds give this dish a mix of textures, while a generous drizzle of honey pairs well with the liberal serving of crunchy chocolate granola.
Sadly, the selection of housemade nut milks was not available on the day of our visit, but the Homemade Lemonade does not disappoint. An unpretentious concoction of freshly squeezed lemon juice and simple syrup, it’s a great refresher to beat the heat, with no added preservatives, to boot.
For those looking for a taste of Christmas, the Spiced Chai Tea has got you covered. The Social Space’s rendition of the classic chai staple is one of the most aromatic ones we’ve tried, and provides a pleasantly warming heat. A sip of this piquant brew takes you right back to the festive season with its generous topping of cinnamon. The milk to tea ratio is just right too, allowing the spices to take centrestage.
Opening hours Wednesday to Monday: 8am-5pm Closed on Tuesdays
2. Professor Brawn Bistro
At first glance, Professor Brawn Bistro seems to be a standard Western-style diner, serving up hearty meals at reasonable prices. And really, that is a fairly accurate description of what it is, with only its location within Enabling Village hinting at its true purpose.
For while Professor Brawn Bistro is a bistro like any other, the team behind it is undoubtedly special – more than half of its staff is made up of adults with autism, a hearing impairment, or who are intellectually differently abled.
The bistro is the second outlet in the Professor Brawn chain, a social enterprise under the Autism Resource Centre (Singapore) (ARC(S)) which aims to provide jobs and social integration opportunities to individuals with special needs. With support from job coaches from ARC(S)’s Employability and Employment Centre, Professor Brawn outlets train and employ these individuals, giving them the opportunity to earn their keep in an inclusive and welcoming environment.
Professor Brawn’s menu is a simple one, sticking to Western classics done right. We start our meal with Crunchy Calamari, which our waiter highly recommended.
It definitely lives up to its namesake, with the flavourful spiced batter providing a delightful crunch. Encased within, the squid rings are tender and cooked to perfection, a tall task for such a fickle protein. Accompanying the dish is a punchy tomato sauce, its acidity balancing well with the starter.
Keeping with the seafood theme, we also order the Battered Fish & Chips. Professor Brawn’s take on the dish comprises a bed of thick cut fries, battered white fish, and a salad. No frills, but the dish certainly delivers. Much like the calamari, the fish is coated in a light and airy batter. Interestingly, the salad proves to be the star; its tangy dressing a much-needed refresher to uplift the palette.
After two fried dishes, the Lemon Posset is a welcome end to the meal. Topped with fresh fruits, the lemon-flavoured pudding is most definitely our favourite of the day! The citrusy dessert manages to please on all levels; it is sweet, but with a nice tang, rich without being cloying, and velvety smooth. If we are to be nit-picky, a small gripe we have is the presence of candied lemon peels, which unfortunately came with a lemon seed embedded within.
Despite that, we wipe the jar clean and agree that of the three dishes we tried, this is the one we will be willing to make a special journey for.
Address Enabling Village, 20 Lengkok Bahru, Academy #01-17, 159053
Opening hours Monday to Friday: 11am-9pm, Saturday: 9am-9pm Closed on Sundays
3. Five &2
Escape the bustle of the city at Five &2, where good food meets a great view. Established with two missions in mind, Five &2 believes in employing people from marginalised groups of society and in creating an inclusive environment. It also provides meals for underprivileged households through partnerships with welfare organisations.
Feast with your friends in this tranquil space, while taking in the lush greenery surrounding the café with al fresco dining. To encourage diners to return their dishes, the café has also adopted a return-your-own-tray policy, where one receives a dollar after returning one’s tray.
Five &2’s menu comprises a broad range of dishes, ranging from Western to Asian-fusion. We decide to try the Sarawak Curry Chicken Shepherd’s Pie, intrigued by the Asian spin on a typically English dish.
They say you feast with your eyes first, and that is definitely the case for this dish, which is still sizzling when it is served to us. Before we dig in, the fragrant aroma of the curry wafting in the air is enough to make our mouths water.
Be warned, though. This pie is not for the faint of heart. The curry packs a punch that left our tongues tingling, even as we marvelled at the robust flavours. The spice pairs surprisingly well with the dish, cutting through the richness of the mashed potatoes and cheese atop the curry to make for a well-rounded flavour profile.
Besides the pie, we also order a side of Spam Fries. Crisp on the outside without being greasy, and tender and moist on the inside – the fries don’t leave much more to be desired. Simple though the dish may be, Five &2 still adds a new dimension to it with their dipping sauce, a kaffir lime mayonnaise, lifting the dish and leaving us wanting more.
One more thing: Dog paw-rents rejoice! Your canine companions are welcome to join you at this café, and they even offer delicious dog-friendly grub to ensure your furry friend’s stomachs are filled after a day of play at the park.
Address Punggol Park, 97 Hougang Avenue 8, Singapore 538792
Opening hours Monday to Sunday: 4pm-11pm Last order at 9.45pm
Across Singapore and Asia, millions of voices are being drowned out by the cacophony of digital noise. Through our new series of weekly interviews called In Conversation With, TheHomeGround Asia amplifies and celebrates the thoughts, achievements and experiences of extraordinary individuals, who are creating ripples in their industry in unique ways. In our first installment, we talk to wildlife and nature photographer, Jayaprakash Joghee Bojan.
On most days, you will find India-born Jayaprakash Joghee Bojan at Pasir Ris Park in eastern Singapore, camera in hand, lying in wait to capture the next National Geographic moment.
It will not be his first.
In 2017, Mr Bojan won the grand prize in a photo competition held by National Geographic, earning him the prestigious title of National Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year. The prized photo? A snapshot of an orangutan crossing a river in Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.
Much of Mr Bojan’s time pre-Covid was spent chasing stunning shots like these. He travelled regularly around Southeast Asia, pursuing primates. When the pandemic struck, however, the photographer was grounded in metropolitan Singapore, which he made home about six years ago, a far cry from the rainforests he used to traverse.
Still, the pandemic was not about to deter the nature lover from doing what he loves most. A fateful encounter with artist Dan Ng led the pair to embark on an ambitious project – the creation of a documentary series on Singapore’s wildlife.
The duo became permanent fixtures at Pasir Ris Park when filming their first project, an 11-minute film titled Residents of the Park, showcasing the abundance of wildlife in their neighbourhood. The film was met with resounding success, with Mr Bojan reporting over 90,000 views to-date across his social media platforms.
Residents were astounded by the cinematic quality of the film, and even more astonished that it was shot in Singapore.
Encouraged by the support, they went on to film a second iteration, entitled A City in Nature, Singapore, which was met with equal fanfare. Now, Messrs Bojan and Ng are already hard at work filming the third installation in the series.
TheHomeGround Asia catches up with Mr Bojan on one of his jaunts to Pasir Ris Park. He graciously shows us around his favourite haunts, shares about his photography and filming ethos, as well as how he started his journey as a full-time photographer.
NOTE: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Jayaprakash Joghee Bojan: It wasn’t an overnight decision.
Photography is something that I always enjoyed doing. I’ve been doing this professionally for seven years, but I was a hobbyist photographer for much longer.
I grew up in a place in India surrounded by an abundance of wildlife. From a young age, I had the opportunity to see tigers in the wild, leopards, huge herds of migrating elephants, all kinds of stuff. I used to spend a lot of my vacations with my grandfather, who owns a farm in a village surrounded by forests. It [going into photography] was a natural progression for me, I was just looking for the right opportunity to make that move.
Eventually, I decided it was time for me to let go and do what I want to do. Thankfully, my wife was super supportive. She enjoys and she likes what I do, so that made my decision a lot easier. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll take two to three years off and see how things go and if not, just go back to the corporate world.
The first year was a little shaky. I started getting second thoughts. You’re used to a well-paid job, stable income, and all of a sudden you’re doing something different. But you learn different lessons, and if you’re crazy about what you like to do, things will happen.
That’s how it started, and things started happening, I started winning awards, and that put my career on the fast track. I started doing a few projects with National Geographic Asia, and I did quite a few projects in Singapore with the [Ministry of Environment and Water Resources] (now known as the Ministry of Sustainability and Environment) on issues of recycling and plastic.
I also started teaching part-time photography lessons here in Singapore. Whenever I was not travelling and was free, I would do these guest lectures. I was doing a mix of many things, not just wildlife.
TheHomeGround Asia: What was it like moving to Singapore from India, where you grew up surrounded by nature?
JP: I was a little hesitant because I had just started making this my career. I had this impression, same as everybody else, that ‘Oh, there’s not much wildlife there.’ But honestly, I love Singapore now because people are nice, we have family and friends here, and it’s a nice hub for me to work out of. Most of my work is around Southeast Asia so travel is easy, everything is close by.
Singapore has been super nice to me. The Straits Times was the first paper to publish when I won the award. I’ve had so many interviews, people are calling me, schools are inviting me for talks, all kinds of stuff.
Considering I was so new to Singapore, I wasn’t expecting that kind of response from the country towards me, so I was overwhelmed. I’m super thankful for the recognition and things that it has given me. I’m very grateful.
Also, Singapore spoils you. So after a while, you don’t feel like leaving.
Some things are really cool about Singapore. It’s one of the few places in the world that you’re in such close proximity to wildlife. Where else in the world can you see hornbills sitting on your windows? Or otters running around you? Or orioles waking you up every morning?
THG: Tell me more about the first video, Residents of the Park. What inspired you to embark on the project?
JP: My goal was to showcase the amazing biodiversity we have here in our parks and in Singapore. Initially, when we started the Pasir Ris project, the target audience was mostly just friends and the community we have here. We weren’t expecting it to go as well as it did. Between my social media pages and YouTube, I think the first video got close to 90,000 hits.
People were sharing it, so that was motivation for us to do another video.
Usually when you’re talking about Singapore, especially when you’re talking to friends overseas, it’s always, ‘Oh, I know you guys have some otters in the country’, because there’s so much focus on the otters. Don’t get me wrong, I love otters. They’re like my first love because I spent my first two to three years in Singapore just chasing otters all the time.
But having spent a lot of time here, I realised there’s so much more. Eagles, all kinds of bird.
That’s why in the second video if you noticed, we specifically wanted to do a section where we call it the enchanted forest. It’s almost like trying to take people on a journey in Singapore’s enchanted forest. So that’s something we filmed across the island.
THG:What was the process of filming Residents of the Park like?
JP: The first video is kind of interesting because there were a lot of people in the community, especially in the park, who have played directly or indirectly a part in the direction of the video.
It’s been an amazing experience for me, because I’ve always been kind of a loner when filming or doing my work. It’s easier when you’re alone because you’re not disturbing the birds. So this is a different experience for me.
When we started filming at the park, a lot of people noticed because we were pretty much living here. People started asking us what we were doing, we showed them, and the community just grew.
We now have WhatsApp groups, people who message us, and tell us, “The otters are there, or the eagles are on the other side!”
We can’t be everywhere all the time to see what’s happening, so information was key for what we were doing.
THG: Has there been anything surprising that you’ve discovered during the course of filming these videos and exploring Singapore?
JP: Yes, to an extent. Usually when you’re talking about wildlife or birdlife here in Singapore, people will always ask me if they will be able to see all these wildlife if they come to the park. But there’s no guarantee when it comes to wildlife, right? Sometimes, if you really want to see wildlife, you need more time.
You need to spend time and proactively look around for these birds and creatures that we have over here. You can’t just come as a visitor or as a tourist for a few hours one day and say we don’t have anything. Most commonly, people are like ‘Oh, we went to the park yesterday but we couldn’t see anything.’ But it doesn’t work that way.
In the second video where we filmed islandwide, we were filming for six months in total. But technically, it took us only about two and a half months of filming [to get all the clips we needed].
The reason I say that is because we pretty much touched on all the key species in our second video. So that means, I was not only able to see them, but also film them in under two months. I can understand if it took us a year to put something like this together, then maybe you can say some of these species are really hard to find, [but that was not the case].
That is a testimony to the abundance of wildlife we have here.
THG:How did you know where to go to find these animals?
JP: Oh, I just went around. I visited a lot of these parks in the past so I had a fair idea of where to find what. Also, I’ve been doing this for long enough. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, but I’ve a reasonably good understanding of the kind of trees where I can find some species, the kind of habitat where I can find others, so that makes it a little easier.
With wildlife filming, there are no actors, there are no retakes. You only get one opportunity, so you want to be prepared.
Almost 100 per cent of the filming for these videos was done from boardwalks, edges of roads, fringes of the park. Because it was a passion project, we didn’t obtain permission from NParks [the National Parks Board] to have special access. We didn’t want to do that. We just wanted it to be more of a common man’s perspective.
Everything [we filmed was in places] where joggers or walkers can just walk by.
THG: How has filming this series and being grounded in Singapore changed your perspective of this island?
JP: Covid was a good opportunity for me to look inwards into Singapore. Even though it has been my home for the past six years, I haven’t spent too much time doing anything locally.
I think it was a blessing in disguise to have the option to explore more. Over the last six months, I realised that there’s so much more nature and wildlife over here even though we’re a small tiny island.
THG: It seems your videos have helped many Singaporeans realise the wealth of biodiversity present here as well.
JP: I hope so. That was the intention: I wanted people to look at the video and say ‘Wow, this is not Singapore’. A lot of people have said that, so that was a good reaction for me, because the message I wanted to spread was, “This is Singapore, you just need to open your eyes and look around you.”
We spent a lot of time trying to make the shots more cinematic and pretty much filmed everything in the golden hour or blue hour, whatever you want to call it. Late in the evenings, early in the mornings, just during the sunrise, and stuff like that.
It was important for me to impress people to show them what cool stuff we have here.
THG: Can you share more about your thought process when out shooting? Is there a method to the madness?
JP: I’m always looking to do some creative photography.
I use aperture-priority mode pretty much 100 per cent of the time, only very rarely do I use manual mode. It’s a myth that professional photographers shoot in manual mode all the time.
I don’t see a point in spending $15,000 on [a camera] if I have to do everything. These days, the cameras do a better job than us in terms of setting exposure and things like that.
I use aperture-priority mode because I like to control the depth of field and the type of bokeh I want in my pictures. I like shooting more environmental shots. I like to include all of that into my pictures. It’s fun to do interesting compositions.
When I shoot birds, even if the bird is only 20 to 30 per cent of my frame, it’s good enough. The rest is all trees, the sky, and all of that stuff. That way, you’ll get more unique pictures.
When I’m going overseas, even if I’m just going for a trip with a group of friends, I do my research on what has already been done in that location, or with that specific species. That gives me some kind of baseline to decide what I should be doing when I go there, so I can try something new.
THG: You’re here at Pasir Ris Park nearly every day, and many members of the community recognise you as a professional photographer. Do you often get people coming up to you to ask for advice?
JP: All the time. But it’s nice, because in a way, I’m just trying to help people be a little more creative in what they’re trying to do. What’s beautiful about nature is the colourful leaves, the sun, the moon. It’s nice when you embrace all these things into your picture.
I try to influence all the people that I come into contact with, or the people who reach out to me to try something different and new.
THG: Any advice for aspiring wildlife photographers and videographers out there?
JP: The more knowledge you gain, the more time you spend observing these species, it becomes a lot easier to photograph or film.
Observation is key. I always tell [newcomers] not to be in a hurry to pick up the camera and start shooting. Spend more time just watching them, because that will make you a better photographer when you start photographing. For instance, just from the body language, you can tell when a bird is going to take off.
THG: You’ve been doing this for seven years now, are there any species that you enjoy shooting more than others?
JP: My primary focus the last few years has been all kinds of primates across Southeast Asia. I’ve been travelling a lot across Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and more, because some of the most highly endangered primates are in this region.
Unfortunately, because of loss of habitat, destruction of rainforests for palm oil and things like that, a lot of these species are slowly disappearing.
In Singapore, we have a lot more birds than mammals so I love owls. They’re one of my favourite species. I like all kinds of owls. We have a reasonably good population of owls across Singapore such as the buffy fish owl and spotted wood owl. .
If I’m forced to pick one or two species [in Singapore], I will say owls and otters. But otherwise, I love anything that moves.
THG: What’s the favourite part of your job?
JP: I’m a nature enthusiast, I love the outdoors. The interesting thing is a lot of people think when we’re out there, we’re filming a lot. But if I spend a hundred hours outdoors, the actual time of filming is probably an hour.
The rest of the time is spent trying to find the species. Sometimes, it’s just waiting and waiting and waiting for birds or animals to show up. I enjoy the process.
THG: You’ve already released two videos to much success. What are you planning for next?
JP: Currently, we’re working on a brand new video that we’ve started filming over the last few weeks. It’s going to be micro- and macro-habitat focused.
The concept in my mind is that if I were to shrink you down to the size of a mudskipper and put you next to a mudskipper in its habitat, what will your view look like? I’m trying to recreate that on a video, to show the mudskipper in its habitat, and not just the mudskipper on its own.
We’ll try and see if we can come back with a video about three months from now. I’m looking forward to it.
Domestic violence has been on the rise due to movement restrictions brought on by the pandemic around the world. But before Covid-19 kept thousands indoors, foreign domestic workers in Singapore by virtue of their work have been susceptible to abuse by their employers (lest we forget the horrific series of actions that eventually killed Myanmar domestic worker Piang Ngaih Don in 2016 and other cases). TheHomeGround Asia asked in this earlier op-ed, how the community could do more to speak up against abuse? Besides helplines and support from NGOs, how can bystanders better offer assistance to strangers? And how can people intervene safely when it comes to both public and private conflicts? We get some answers.
Last May, the Singapore Police Force reported a 22 per cent increase in police reports of family violence since the pandemic lockdown (circuit breaker) started in April 2020. A month later, in June, NGO Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) reported that it had received a record number of calls (752, including messages, online chats, e-mails and referrals) to its helplines in May. It also observed a 137 per cent increase in the number of calls pertaining to family violence in that month compared to the same period in 2019.
With family violence and conflict becoming a growing concern, what are some factors that hinder or encourage people to intervene in conflicts, and what are some safe and appropriate ways in which the public can intervene?
What is involved in helping others?
Albert Lee, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), explains that helping is “known to many as a complicated process of calculations.”
Referring to the bystander effect, he notes that one might question whether a person is in need of help, whether the potential responder has “what it takes to help”, and whether others in the vicinity want to “offer the hand of help”, in a crisis situation.
According to Psychology Today, the bystander effect occurs when “the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation, against a bully, or during an assault or other crime.”
Professor Lee cites authors Latane and Darley’s five-step model that determines a bystander’s decision to intervene.
In the first instance, in terms of noticing the event, he notes that if preoccupied, one might “fail to see the needy person and miss the event altogether.”
Determining that the event is an emergency is the next step and he says that certain situations might look ambiguous or there might not be sufficient information to decide if the event requires an onlooker to take action.
“Suppose we see an old man who seems to be sleeping on the MRT for a while, [who is] not moving at all. Has he fainted? Or is he really [just napping]?,” explains Professor Lee. “If I check on him and he really is napping, that would be embarrassing for me and annoying for him,” adding that ambiguity could also result in failure to label an event an emergency.
The third step involves assuming responsibility to help. Professor Lee explains that the presence of others could dilute one’s decision to do something.
“When assistance is delayed due to the assumption that other people would or should do their part in an emergency event, we are witnessing the bystander effect in action,” he says.
The penultimate step in determining intervention involves the ability to help: “Even if we take responsibility to help someone in need, we may not have the skills to do so. There is nothing you can do for a drowning person if you don’t know how to swim, [or] have no mobile phone to call [for help].”
He adds that the final step is linked to the cost of helping. Hence if the person perceives the cost as too high, they might hesitate to step in.
The effect of “kiasi-ism’’ and the fear of losing face”
Cultural factors like being ‘kiasi’ (literally means ‘afraid of death’ in Hokkien, or describes being overly afraid or timid) or ‘kiasu’ (refers to a ‘grasping, selfish attitude’ that comes from the fear of missing out) also affect one’s choice to intervene in conflicts.
PhD student Pamela Goh suggests that the fear of “losing face” and putting one’s reputation at stake affects the decision.
Currently working on her thesis at Nanyang Technological University about helping behaviours in crisis situations, she notes that a lot of literature ignores the effects of culture: “Kiasu-ism is actually very prominent in our society, especially in [the] Singaporean context. If [we] want to examine helping behaviours or reporting behaviour, we cannot neglect [the] cultural effects of kiasu-ism or kiasi-ism; the fact that [one] knows they are losing face if they actually make a wrong report.”
Ms Goh, who has worked as a behavioural sciences researcher at a government ministry, adds that people are less inclined to intervene if they have to “sacrifice” their reputation. This is usually due to a fear of being judged.
“Especially [when it involves] calling the police and [having] investigators go down [only to] realise that it’s nothing. Then it’s something that we have to get through ourselves – the shame, the embarrassment.”
Demographic factors, such as age and gender, also impact the likelihood of helping and receiving help from others. Professor Lee explains that research shows that older people may receive more help than younger ones, and that females tend to receive more help from people as compared to males.
How the presence of other people affects one’s choice to step in
The presence of others also affects the likelihood of helping says Ms Goh: “If other people in the environment seem to be helping, you [are more likely to] actually help… The behaviours of other people have a very huge implication on [the choice to help]… It’s a pro-self versus pro-social [mentality].”
She notes that motivating the first person to help in a group of bystanders is “very difficult”, and adds that studies indicate that people trained in first aid or law enforcement are most likely to extend a hand.
“Whether the person has certain professional training will help them to make this kind of helping behaviour natural and instinctive.”
Fearing legal repercussions
A fear of legal repercussions also prevents people from intervening in conflicts.
In urgent cases, such as life-or-death situations, Ms Goh explains that some first responders worry about doing “the wrong thing”, because certain lifesaving procedures, like administering CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), might involve breaking a person’s ribs in the process.
“So you’re [weighing] the odds of actually being able to save the person versus killing the person and then being blamed for [them], even though you are doing it out of goodwill [and] you genuinely want to save [them].”
When it comes to private conflicts happening behind closed doors, intervention can get trickier.
Criminal lawyer Audrey Koo, a Senior Associate at Populus Law, explains that if a person enters another person’s home after hearing or witnessing domestic abuse and tries to restrain the perpetrator, they can be found guilty of trespassing or even housebreaking. She defines it as “intentionally breaking in with the intent of causing mischief, annoyance or nuisance to the house owner.”
But she notes that prosecutors will “consider the circumstances” prior to charging a person, adding that it is highly unlikely that someone would get charged in such an instance: “I would say the risk is not very high if you intervene with appropriate force or in an appropriate manner.”
Ms Koo advises, “It depends on the circumstance. [For example], if the person is going to beat his [family member] or if you [only] suspect that he’s beating [them] and it hasn’t happened yet, it’s probably best not to use force in any manner. You should just shout out [to stop them].”
Encouraging public intervention
For public conflicts, Professor Lee explains that intervention during an emergency is increased when a person takes charge of the situation and assigns bystanders to different roles.
“For example, as opposed to saying, ‘Can someone call the ambulance for this guy while I take care of his wound?’, single someone out and ask, ‘The girl in [the] t-shirt, call the ambulance for this guy while I take care of his wound’,” he says.
Ms Goh suggests that informing the public of the legal repercussions of intervening to provide greater reassurance may result in them being more likely to help. And adds that the ability to remain anonymous when helping, such as in calling the authorities, can also increase a person’s willingness to intervene.
With these factors in mind, how can members of the public intervene safely?
For private conflicts, such as an instance of physical violence in private spaces, Ms Koo recommends calling the police immediately, and then telling the perpetrator to stop and informing them that the police is on its way.
“If you only hear or suspect that there is family violence, just call the police, and they will investigate the situation,” she says. “Most of the time, there is very little merit in getting involved… It depends on the degree of your involvement. Are you just shouting at the person? Or are you actually getting physically involved? There’s quite a big difference.”
Ms Goh adds that people who wish to help should prioritise their own safety.
“Based on their quick judgment of what they can see.. If a victim requires certain things that you know you can offer, then by all means help,” she advises. “If you realise that you cannot help the person because it’s beyond your means, don’t help – because [what] you do may actually aggravate [the situation]. That will go against the purpose of helping that person.”
Author and political commentator Sudhir Vadaketh reflects on Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat’s announcement to withdraw as heir apparent, writing that Singaporeans are concerned with the seeming paucity of political leadership talent in the ruling People’s Action Party. And posits that this shortage is reflective of the city-state’s economic and democratic maturation, about which there is plenty to cheer.
The little moments often offer the best insights into a relationship.
On Thursday evening (8 April) Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s Prime Minister,opened a press conference by acknowledging that Heng Swee Keat, Deputy Prime Minister and the person designated by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) to one day succeed Mr Lee, was no longer in contention.
After the dismal showing by Mr Heng at last year’s general election, stuttering on stage and leading his team to a narrow win, there was an air of inevitability about it all.
Having spoken for over a minute, Mr Lee invited Mr Heng to say something. It was intended as a sort of self-criticism struggle session, effectively signing off on his own political demise. “It’s not you, it’s me.”
The camera panned to Mr Heng, who is seen fumbling around with the table-top microphone, unsure how to turn it on.
“Is the mike, is the mike tu-“
“You press [the button],” Mr Lee thundered, without missing a beat, like the impatient, irritable teacher who only teaches, and never lets the student try.
It brought back memories ofa 2018 parliamentary session, when Mr Lee is seen, his face knotted with annoyance, coaching Mr Heng how to joust with the opposition’s Sylvia Lim, like a general issuing orders to his colonel in full view of the enemy.
Mr Lee is probably relieved that he no longer has to school somebody who often appears off the pace; and Mr Heng is probably relieved that he is no longer squarely in the teacher’s gaze.
Over the past few days Singaporeans have expressed much surprise and disappointment at the news. For the first time in independent Singapore’s history, the PAP has bungled a leadership transition.
Never before has there been doubt over the identity of our next prime minister. Those still in contention – all male Chinese scholars – are perceived as mediocre and/or polarising.
Yet while this leadership crisis should in some ways worry Singaporeans, there are reasons for hope.
3G’s 4G hopes
“The next generation of leaders must come from our post-independence generation… Hence, leadership succession will be one of my top priorities,” Mr Lee said at his swearing-in speech in August 2004.
Mr Lee led the PAP to victory in the 2006 general election, and then at the 2011 election first fielded the men who would become figureheads for the so-called 4G (fourth-generation) leadership: Mr Heng, Chan Chun Sing, Desmond Lee, Ong Ye Kung, Janil Puthucheary, Tan Chuan-Jin, and Lawrence Wong.
It was a baptism of fire, as the PAP recorded its lowest-ever victory and, for the first time, lost a larger group representation constituency. Over the past decade, as the 3G and 4G teams have melded together, the former gently shepherding the latter through two more elections, the succession question has never really been answered.
Even when the party anointed Mr Heng in late 2018, it was under a cloud of palace intrigue, as cadres supposedly revolted against the mooted elevation of Mr Chan, believed to be the favoured pick of Mr Lee and his wife Ho Ching.
With the one really exceptional and popular leader, Tharman Shanmugaratnam,ruled out of the race – because of race? – ordinary Singaporeans have grown increasingly frustrated at the seeming paucity of world-class politicians. Surely the PAP’s rigorous, time-honed recruitment funnel must have produced something more?
These frustrations, bubbling under the surface for years, burst into the open following last Thursday’s announcement. Yet in truth the PAP’s attractiveness to young, would-be politicians has been on a slow, secular decline.
In the mid 1990s, when I was studying at Raffles Junior College (RJC) – seen as a key feeder for Singapore’s political elite – I knew many people who seemed destined to become politicians. By the late 2000s, most had lost interest. I believe there are several reasons for this.
First, the internet and then social media has completely changed the kind of public scrutiny politicians face. More so in Singapore than in other democracies, because we do not have proper, full-blooded investigative outlets or tabloids (unlike, say, in Taiwan or the UK). Singapore’s mainstream media outfits have never subjected politicians here to any kind of deep interrogation, whether on character, politics or their personal life. New voices on the internet started doing so.
Sometime after the 2011 election, I spoke to a politician. This person told me that they no longer felt comfortable leaving the house in shorts, lest somebody photographs them and makes some unkind comment.
Over time I think Singaporean politicians will grow thicker skins, especially as more millennials – so-called digital natives who’ve grown up with cameras around their faces – join their ranks. But there is a generation of aspiring politicians, I think, thinned out by the exponential rise in public scrutiny from the 1990s to the 2000s.
Second, this happened in tandem with a blossoming of alternative professional career paths for Singaporeans, both locally and abroad. I know some lament the fact that the Admin Service and the PAP can no longer easily attract Singapore’s top talent. In my mind, this is a good thing. Singapore has become more vibrant because people are doing different things. And the diversity, with pockets of excellence across numerous sectors, has boosted our economic resilience.
As well as our political resilience, which relates to the third reason why I think the 4G slate appears sub-par: Singapore’s best politicians are no longer all at the PAP. In the 1990s the PAP was the only serious, well-oiled political outfit in town, and its politicians seemed mostly driven by the interests of all Singaporeans.
The infamous salary review of 1994 – when politicians’ salaries were first pegged to the private sector’s elite – changed incentives such that by the 2000s, there was a sense that politicians were becoming more driven by self-interest. Amid rising inequality, politicians and senior civil servants were seen cavorting with the global elite and boasting about expensive holidays abroad, appearing completely out of touch with ordinary Singaporeans.
Instead, their interests appear to be increasingly represented by The Workers’ Party (WP), even if the actual policy proposals of the WP – sometimes mocked as “PAP lite” – are not radically different.
The WP’s increasingly sophisticated machinery has helped it grow from one elected seat prior to the 2011 election to 10 today. Even as the PAP’s leadership succession has floundered, the WP has pulled off the most unlikely one, from Low Thia Khiang, an older, Teochew-speaking stalwart, to Pritam Singh, a young Sikh.
(Many Singaporeans seem inspired by a young non-Chinese who did not go to any brand name schools. Is the PAP taking note?)
The upshot of all this is that in the 1990s a young person may have been attracted to the PAP out of a sense of duty and a desire to help the least fortunate in society. Perhaps by the late 2000s, and certainly by 2020, those same instincts would have more likely inspired somebody to join the WP. Which seemingly was the case for Jamus Lim, the WP Member of Parliament for Sengkang, who was one year my senior at RJC.
Likewise some of the smaller opposition parties, such as the Singapore Democratic Party, also boast politicians like Paul Tambyah who appear more accomplished than some of the 4G.
Finally, the job of a Singaporean politician has changed radically over the past 30 years. It used to be much more about administration and governance; today there is more politicking involved. Soft skills are increasingly important, as politicians have to one moment opine on China-US relations, and the next calm the resident whose rubbish chute is faulty. It’s unclear if the PAP has recalibrated its recruitment system for all this. (Exhibit A: Chan Chun Sing.)
Nevertheless, even as Singaporeans despair about the declining quality at the top of the PAP, we should recognise the rise elsewhere. Indeed, the growing support for the WP – which won more total votes than the PAP in the wards it contested last year – is proof that many Singaporeans already do.
The main problem, as I see it, is not that the PAP and the Admin Service can no longer easily attract the best; after all, they still get highly competent and trustworthy individuals (the odd Ivan Lim aside).
The problem is that many of them – not all – still think that they’re the best. Scholarly hubris and God complexes abound (fuelled, probably, by those salaries).
Some self-awareness and humility might boost the system’s receptiveness to ideas from outside. Just last year, Singapore paid a heavy price for this: Our worst humanitarian crisis since independence was at least partly due to politicians and civil servants blithely ignoring warnings from academics, contractors, employers and NGOs about overcrowding in migrant worker dormitories.
Leadership transition woes
The transition from Lee to Heng was never going to be easy.
The former is known for his razor-sharp mind, decisiveness, and disdain for the opposition and its supporters (in 2006 he said that the opposition’s job was “to make life miserable” for him and that if Singapore ever had 10 or more opposition MPs – the case today – he would have to “spend all my time thinking what is the right way to fix them, what’s the right way to buy my own supporters over.”)
The latter is known for his consensual, deliberative style paired with aneasy-going, sweet nature – a nice guy who says nice things about others.
Notwithstanding his other flaws, I thought that these qualities are precisely what Singapore needs now, in keeping with the spread of talent across society, and the increasing complexity of the policy environment.
As part of a broader effort to improve our democracy, Mr Heng, I imagined, could help accelerate the flow of information across society by better harnessing the thoughts and skills of all Singaporeans – fostering a proper marketplace of ideas.
In response to a question at NTU in 2019 about his desired immigration rate, Mr Heng offered a long, convoluted answer, sounding professorial, perhaps eager to inspire students to think broadly without himself wanting to commit.
Mr Heng wanted us collectively to think; we just wanted an answer from him.
Singaporeans are used to leaders with grand visions and the decisiveness to execute them (some say this is the only kind that “small, vulnerable” Singapore can countenance). Nevertheless, Mr Heng’s about-turn last Thursday saddened me because I was looking forward to a new kind of leader.
The other real cause for concern is that it appears like Mr Lee and other party elders might succeed in their supposed bid to install Mr Chan as prime minister. The broader conspiracy theory – one offered succour by no less than Mr Lee’s own siblings – is that his and Mdm Ho’s ultimate aim is to groom their son, Li Hongyi, to one day take over. Mr Chan, in this telling, is merely a seat warmer. For those who subscribe to this, last Thursday’s announcement was confirmation that we are all passengers on some slow-motion train wreck.
In 2017, Mr Li said that he is uninterested in politics. Yet even if this nightmare scenario – the perpetuation of Lee family rule through a third generation – does not materialise, the mere fact that Mr Lee is staying on, 17 years after he first spoke about succession, is worrying (not least because of the toll it might take on his health).
Does Mr Lee want to improve his electoral legacy? During his tenure, the PAP’s vote share has declined from 75.3 per cent (in 2001, his predecessor’s last) to 61.2 per cent (2020) while the elected opposition members in Parliament have grown from two to 10. One wonders if Mr Lee would have stepped down had the PAP enjoyed a thumping victory last year (as many had predicted).
Whatever the case, there are many reasons why Singapore needs to move on from the Lee family, including the need for a more open, honest accounting of our history.
What gives me hope is that we are even having this conversation. Not long ago, political apathy ran high; few Singaporeans would have cared about the inner workings of the PAP, fewer still would have dared say anything about them.
In recent years, the trust among Singaporeans in the PAP has been eroded by a number of perceived Machiavellian manoeuvres, including the introduction of a broad, sweeping legislation against online falsehoods in 2019 and a constitutional change in 2017 that prevented Tan Cheng Bock, a former PAP MP and now thorn in its side, from contesting in that year’s presidential election.
Many Singaporeans at first accepted the PAP’s narratives on these issues, for instance that the constitutional change was necessary to ensure minority representation in the presidency. Only later did murmurings of discontent emerge, with trepidation.
Last Thursday was different. The backlash was immediate, with many across the political spectrum doubting that age was the real reason Mr Heng was stepping down. All the more since Mr Lee, who is staying on for the foreseeable future, is nine years older. It appears like it is getting harder to pull wool over our eyes (or, if Mr Chan so prefers,cotton).
“They think we are so stupid,” a senior party member told me, uttering a line that is fast becoming a cliché. Over the coming years it will be interesting to see if, in the face of a powerful (and possibly sclerotic) party leadership, the PAP’s 3,000-odd cadres become more assertive – will they again reject any future attempt to elevate Mr Chan?
Indeed, the idea that Mr Lee could so easily use and discard Mr Heng must make all Singaporeans again worry that we are less citizens with a shared vision than disposable widgets in a Darwinian meritocracy.
The PAP’s Old-Chinese-father-knows-best paternalism, whatever its merits in our early years, is starting to wear thin. Perhaps we no longer want the brilliant leader who feels the need to relentlessly harry us, but the one with the patience to let us learn and bloom – even if that means waiting one more second for us to speak through the microphone.
Community group Transformative Justice Collective has received some 20 letters, from Singapore and overseas residents, written to Syed Suhail, a Singaporean man on death row. The collection was part of a letter-writing campaign that the group launched in March with hope that the letters would provide a source of comfort to Syed. As part of the collective, freelance journalist and anti-death penalty activist Kirsten Han tells us more about the campaign and why she is against the death penalty.
Singapore’s death row can sometimes feel like a black hole – people get sent there, and, as far as the Singaporean public is concerned, vanish.
A public opinion survey conducted in 2016 found that 62 per cent of 1,500 respondents reported knowing little to nothing about the death penalty. About half said that they were not very interested or concerned about the issue. But even people who are interested in the matter are hard-pressed to find solid information about death row, and details of the application of capital punishment in our country.
Anti-death penalty activists like myself aren’t allowed to visit and interview the inmates in prison, so most of what we know about death row has been pieced together from snippets of information passed on by their family members. Some turn out to be false, the result of incomplete memories or miscommunication. Others might be true, but prove impossible to verify – like when an inmate tells his sister that someone had been executed last week but he only knows their nickname, which can’t be matched to official court judgments or news reports.
This is what we know: Death row inmates spend most of their time alone within the concrete confines of their cells, and only have one hour of “yard time” – which means they can go to a sort of recreation room – a day. They are usually allowed one visit a week from immediate family members, lasting about 40 minutes. But if they’re being executed at dawn on the Friday of that week, they get to have visits in the mornings and afternoons from Monday to Thursday.
Being in prison is like being displaced; the pace of regular life replaced with the regimented rhythms of incarceration. Any contact with the outside world, from trips to hospital for medical check-ups to letters to family visits, is regulated and mediated by the prison authorities. Recently, we’ve even found out that private correspondence between death row inmates, their families, and even lawyers, had been copied by the prison and forwarded, without consent, to the Attorney-General’s Chambers. While these are conditions that might cut across the entire prison population, death row inmates endure this while also waiting for impending execution. It’s an alienating, dehumanising experience, difficult for any of us outside to truly understand or relate to.
Late last year, some friends and I got together to form the Transformative Justice Collective to research, document, and advocate for reform of Singapore’s criminal punishment system, with abolition of the death penalty as one of our priorities. Although we’d already been vocal about our opposition to the death penalty before, it was the case of Syed Suhail bin Syed Zin that motivated us to start this new collective.
Syed was sentenced to death in 2015 after being convicted of drug trafficking. He’d been charged with possession of 38.84g of heroin, which triggered clauses under the Misuse of Drugs Act that presumed he was trafficking drugs. If found guilty of trafficking 15g or more of heroin, the penalty is a mandatory death sentence, unless one can fulfil a set of narrow criteria.
Syed had two close shaves last year; the date of his hanging had been scheduled twice, and his family notified, only for the execution to be halted. What really surprised us, though, was the support for him. A petition calling on President Halimah Yacob to commute his death sentence gathered over 30,000 signatures – a much higher number than petitions for other inmates in previous years. It seemed like, after years of activists plugging away on this issue, Singaporeans are now more open to critically evaluating capital punishment, talking about how such cruel penalties do little to address problematic drug use, and considering harm reduction principles.
With cases still pending in the courts, Syed and his family are currently awaiting further news. To support them at a nerve-wrecking time, the Transformative Justice Collective decided to launch the #DearSyed letter-writing campaign, encouraging people to write to Syed. They can either post their letters to him directly, or e-mail/send them to us, for his sister to bring to him whenever she visits.
The idea behind the campaign is to provide Syed, generally so cut-off from the world outside of Changi Prison’s death row, with more human connections to bolster his courage and hope. At the same time, we wanted to raise more awareness of Syed’s case, and the issue of the death penalty itself. By encouraging people to take time out of their own busy routines to communicate with a death row inmate, we hope that more people will be spurred to consider where they stand when it comes to capital punishment.
The same public opinion survey mentioned earlier in this piece found that when people have more details about specific cases or the application of the death penalty, their support for capital punishment wavers. It’s easy to say that you support the death penalty when you’re thinking about it as an abstract, faraway issue, or when your considerations revolve around hypotheticals about psychopaths and evil dictators. It’s another thing completely when you learn more about how it’s disproportionately applied to drug offenders whose back stories are not as black-and-white as what the Government and mainstream media portray them to be.
People who have written letters to Syed have mentioned how testimonies from both his older and younger sisters have helped them relate more to him on a personal level. This is a rare thing for Singaporeans; while our country clings stubbornly to the death penalty, it is remarkably hush-hush about many aspects of this regime, and Singaporeans are generally cut off from any knowledge of the death penalty, or opportunities to learn and talk about the factors that might lead one to end up where Syed is now.
Although some, including myself, have already posted our letters to Syed, his sister Sharmila says that, from what he said during her last visit, he hasn’t received any of them. There’s not a lot of transparency about how the prison screens letters written to inmates, but we hope that he’ll get his letters soon (if he hasn’t already).
Nevertheless, Syed is aware of the campaign. “Syed did mention that it is incredibly humbling to hear that many people have been writing to him, and that they are showing support,” says his sister Sharmila.
When asked how the campaign made her feel, she says: “Very moved. I am always in awe whenever I see drawings/paintings… like these total strangers put in so much effort for Syed.”