Images of the Year, 2015

Last year’s winners were relatively frivolous, reflecting a new, more casual, more boisterous way of doing politics that accompanied the rise of the BRICS. Top of the list was the Natalia Poklonskaya fanart, symbolising the changing ways in which citizens interact with politicians and political events (and also because mmmmmm Natalia Poklonskaya). Second came Angela Merkel’s Caxton Street selfie, representing the same phenomenon but also the new breed of populist personality politics. Third was the razzmatazz surrounding the APPEC Summit in Beijing, in there to show how the rising states tend to lack the Western modesty and or embarrassment about openly taking pleasure in wealth and power.

This year’s winners?

Well most people would probably go for that photo of Aylan Kurdi.

Aylan Kurdi

However, it really says a great deal more about Western social media trends than about Asian politics, which rules it out for the purposes of this blog. On the other hand, the Charlie Hebdo cartoon satirising the Western attitude to refugees that was immediately seized upon as being anti-Muslim did make the short list:

Charlie Hebdo Aylan Kurdi

However, this blog deliberately focuses on high-level power politics and the way that this is expressed and understood. This year has seen a certain amount of settling, familiarisation and concretisation of the phenomena that first hit the limelight last year. The rise and rise of Donald Trump has gone a certain way towards confirming that populist personality politics is here to stay, even in the West. With this, however, audiences have also grown more cynical and calculating regarding its manifestations. Last year we were – to a large extent – blown away by all the showbiz glitz and renewed joie de vivre on the part of our leaders. Now we’ve had time to think about it, we’ve also begun to look beneath the surface. While we’re still impressed (cynically impressed, for the most part, but still impressed) by all the swag, we’re also aware that beneath it all decisions are being made and strategies played out that will change all of our futures, whether for better or worse.

That’s why this year’s winner is a group of pictures, namely every image tweeted under the #ModiFindsCamera hashtag, which began after video footage came out showing Modi literally dragging Mark Zuckerberg out of the way of the photographers.

The #ModiFindsCamera phenomenon wins because it shows that while people are still impressed by this new-style politics, they’re impressed because they can see the skill and calculation that goes into it, not because they’re deceived by the show.

And while we’re on the Modi theme, another honourable mention has to go to the brilliantly telling (not to mention sinister) pictures of Modi standing by while David Cameron serves as his warm-up act at Wembley:

Modi at Wembley

Which leads us on to second prize…

While last year’s political swag had a certain amount of because-we-can exuberance to it, this year the displays have tended to be more purposeful (though this hasn’t always been the case). The message has generally been more focused and clearer, even brutal in many cases. This is why second prize goes to the picture of Xi Jinping’s jet being escorted by JF-17s during a visit to Pakistan:

Xi Jinping visits Pakistan

Also, because it’s just fucken awesome

There is nothing I can add here that will better explain the message intended by this gesture than the image itself. It’s almost feudal: Pakistan is deliberately casting itself in the role of vassal, but accompanying this with such an immediately impressive display of military capacity (yes, I know it’s just eight JF-17s, but that’s not your first thought when you see it, and it’s the instinctive reaction that counts) that it nevertheless retains its dignity. The impression is more of a samurai retainer or a mob boss’ enforcer than of cringing neo-colonialism. Everything about the display works and is deeply satisfying.


Third place goes to another incredibly well-done piece of military image-crafting, this time from Russia. It’s gritty, brutal and immediate, but it’s also a media product, created with an aesthetic underpinning and an intention to use skill and artistry to produce a specific response.

Russiaworks Syria video

As we said at the time “Who knew reality could be this beautiful?”

Frustratingly, since the video was first published the team that made it seems to have signed some sort of rights deal to restrict the availability of their footage online. For the time being, you can watch it here, though the link may go down at any time. There are also some other videos available on their website.

It’s in there not just as a tribute to the success with which the Russian leadership has been able to sell its own Syrian narrative via the media, but also as a stand-in for all the other brilliant, witty, perceptive and creative Russian media experiments that have kept us amused and impressed throughout the year.

Finally, an honourable mention has to go to the coverage of Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral.

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY was genuinely one of a kind, so the reactions to his death cannot be said to be symptomatic of wider global trends (though they did include weather modification, which is one of the big political stage-management trends in Asia at the moment). Nevertheless, we predict that with greater insecurity and a return to personality politics, we will be seeing more of this sort of thing in coming years.

So that’s that. Think we missed anything? Please comment!



What do Lee Kuan Yew, Osama bin Laden and Wu Zetian have in common?

Lee family house Oxley Road

If you answered memorials – or more correctly a lack thereof – you’d be correct.

While Osama bin Laden was controversially burried at sea so as to provide no physical memorial that may become a focus of discontent (ironic, given that his own branch of Islam hates them anyway), the other two made a conscious choice to go un-memorialised into that dark night.

Wu Zetian, for her part, is popularly supposed to have considered herself so badass that no epitaph would be adequate, and thus was buried beneath a stele with no inscription. (There is a slight problem with this version of history, in that it was relatively common at the time to put up blank gravestones, making Wu’s wuzi bei less exceptional than it seems. Nevertheless, it’s such cool story that we’re going to endorse it anyhow.)

Similarly, Lee Kuan Yew specifically requested no statues or memorials, and even specified in his will that the family home on Oxley Road in Singapore should be torn down following his death. He said this was because he disapproved of personality cults, though one can’t help but suspect that a certain part of him had Wu Zetian’s reasoning in mind as well.

And besides, when you come down to it, the entire city functions as a better memorial than anything else we could cobble together.

Nevertheless, as we already discovered with Lee’s do-not-ressuscitate order, respect and admiration do not necessarily lead to compliance, and already commentators in the media have begun calling for Lee’s last wishes to be ignored:

This should be an open and shut case in a country that has been run in a rational, practical and pragmatic way. But here comes an issue where the state is asked to listen to the heart and support what is essentially an emotional decision.

Lee Kuan Yew and his immediate family want their pre-war bungalow at 38 Oxley Road torn down despite its deep historical and heritage value. It was there where modern Singapore’s destiny was made. It was in the basement of the house where more than half a  century ago that the momentous decision to give birth to the ruling People’s Action Party was made.

It was also there that Lee and other founders of modern Singapore met to discuss and plan the country’s self autonomy and subsequent independence from Britain.

That in themselves are good enough reasons why the Lee family’s wish  should not be granted. With misty-eyed Singaporeans caught in the grip of a heritage hysteria which coincided with the country’s golden jubilee joy, a request like this seems misplaced.


Interestingly, just after Lee’s death, the Singaporean NGO Choson Exchange had a group of North Koreans in the city for a study trip. They happened to be passing by Oxley Road and decided to stop and take some pictures of the house. You can’t actually see much more than some roof tiles from the road, as the picture above shows, but hey, they’re North Koreans: paying respects to the houses of dead leaders* is what they do. Given that it was a sensitive time, the local police and soldiers were on the qui vive, and one of them ran out to order them to stop behaving so suspiciously.
“They must have felt right at home,” I said to the CE guy who told me the story.

*Kim Jong Il was probably born in Russia. Nevertheless, the Paekdusan Secret Camp version of the tale is more romantic and also provides a location that is more practical for North Koreans to visit on pilgrimages. In light of the fact that we quite happily repeated that Wu Zetian story above, we do not feel ourselves to be in a position to criticise them.

Da Man


This blog has made a half-arsed but nevertheless unceasing effort to chronicle Singapore’s many and varied responses to the death of Lee Kuan Yew.

Not only did we make predictions, write a post that got retweeted by SMRT (Feedback) Ltd., attend gallery openings and attempt to distinguish real weather from fake, but – damnit – we even waited in The Queue to pay our respects:

However, there’s still more to be said. Truth be told, we never really succeeded in nailing down the sentiment. Help is at hand, however. I was just given a copy of Gwee Li Sui‘s book of poetry, The Other Merlion and Friends, which does a far better job:

So Long Ah Kong…

And Thanks for all the Fish

You Da Man

You our father and our father’s father and our father’s father’s father how that was even possible I dunno but you Da Man

You turned us from Swamp Thing to something a think-thing tinted and tinkered by a thinning Tintin whom we knew affectionately as you Da Man

You dragged da other men kicking and screaming out of jungles and sarongs and put them in homely hives and ironed workpants and through you our women became educated for which we are most thankful more thankful than you might actually be but you Da Man

You got us to shun yellow culture to cut our hair short not to speak dialects not to be corrupt to be courteous to stop at two to work to flush not to litter not to spit not to chew gum to work to save water electricity money to work and we listened in every way because you Da Man

You led us from Third World to Firth World like how my literature went from F9 to A1 in 1986 at a time when we still feared becoming Second World which we little knew was dying and so was Literature in schools since it was da plan

You Da Man you da constant in every constituency that has only known walk over and over and over because no one dared to face your mighty party because they understood too well how you Da Man

You da strongman and da wiseman and da great man and da noble man and da sweet man and da man with da Kikkoman that made everything you cooked taste so good and made us go O you Da Man

You Da Man scaring da angmos and da non-angmos and da non-non-angmos everyone was in awe of you when you said to jump we shouted how high and then worked hard to afford foreign talents to do da jumping for you Da Man

Da Man who stood at da far left end since all da rest had to be right-hand men

Da Man at da top in all but housing where technically we in modern flats live on da second floor and up

Da Man you and we loved you but we feared you and we loved you but we also feared you and we dunno any more because you were larger than Life and Life itself loved and feared you and said to you you Da Man you Da Man you Da Man you Da Man you Da Man

Doing so for aslong as it could until we took over and in its place resoundingly proclaimed you Da Man!

For comparison: Kim Jong-pil on Park Chung-hee, Tharman Shanmaugaratnam’s shirtless poetry.

The Politics of Weather

Marina Bay Sands rainbow

“To the young and to the not-so-old, I say, look at that horizon, follow that rainbow, go ride it.”

Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister for Environment and Water Resources, has just been on Facebook denying that the two days of downpours that we just sat through were the result of cloud seeding by a government keen to provide good weather for the Grand Prix (which locals hate anyway, because – being a street circuit – it disrupts our travel plans).

Singapore seldom makes the headlines in the international press, so the F1 is more or less our only chance to show off our swag to the world. And, it has to be said, there have been planes zipping overhead doing unknown things in the haze for the past few days, and I’m sitting here this morning in a far less hazy Dunearn Road than I walked down last night. If the gahmen didn’t do this, then we’ve been very lucky.

Moreover, this is not the first time they’ve been accused of stage managing the weather for an important event this year.

As you will no doubt have seen in the press, there was another enormous downpour earlier in the year, on the day of Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral.

LKY funeral rain


The weather had been pretty good in the couple of weeks leading up to it, and was great again afterwards, but on the day itself we all went out and stood in the pouring rain making an appropriately moving spectacle for the press cameras.

LKY funeral rain

However, almost immediately afterwards rumours started to circulate that the storm had been cloud seeded prior to the event for precisely that reason.

Weather is, after all, an emotional vector. The photo at the top of this post also circulated on the day of LKY’s funeral, with various netizens saying it had been taken that very day at Marina Bay. It’s patently untrue – Gardens by the Bay, which is about as prominent a landmark as you can get, and which was most certainly there during LKY’s funeral, has not yet been built in that photograph – and yet people wanted to believe it. Hell, I wanted to believe it, and I’m bitter and cynical Eurotrash.

If this had been happening in mainland China, they would almost certainly have – tacitly at least – admitted that they had been stage managing the climate for the event (APEC blue was no secret, and Beijing has an entirely non-secret Weather Modification Bureau dedicated to handling these things). And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Popular though the “even the heavens are crying” idea may have been, in a way the knowledge that our sharp-suited, soulless bureaucrats cared enough to change the weather for the Old Man’s funeral is – if anything – even more touching. (LKY himself – bleakly agnostic as he was – would probably have prefered that explanation too.)

Of course, when westerners find out about East Asia’s dedication to arranging the appropriate weather conditions for big events, they tend to be shocked. “Messing with nature”, whether it be via contraception or global warming, is a wide-ranging taboo in Western culture. Notice how many western horror movies start from a premise involving scientists creating something unnatural in the lab (by contrast, Asian horror tends to focus on evil forces that exist in nature invading the human sphere – think Sadako emerging from the tv at the end of Ringu).

This probably has religious underpinnings: in the West and the near East nature was seen as God’s benevolent creation, and thus attempts to modify or immitate it were liable to be seen as sacrilege.

East Asian religion tends to be far more ambivalent about nature. In Taoist thought, bad things are an integral and necessary part of the natural order. Buddhism sees the physical world as a series of pitfalls to be escaped or rejected. Shinto – unsurprisingly for a religion that grew up in the natural disaster capital of the world – goes one further and sees the forces of nature as being at best capricious and at worst actively malevolent.

Intellectual Properteh

SMRT Feedback

SMRT Ltd (Feedback) is a sort of Singaporean equivalent of 4chan. Most people know them via their high-profile spats with other bloggers and the authorities, or their hilarious trolling replies to people mistaking them for the actual Singapore Mass Transit complaints department. You can read more about their exploits here.

Something interesting happened when Lee Kuan Yew died, however. SMRT Ltd designed a set of perfectly straight, non-trolling commemorative t-shirts (see above) and sold them online. However, they also made it perfectly clear that this was purely an attempt to make money from the hyperactive pre-funeral atmosphere that prevailed at the time:

SMRT Ltd (Feedback)

Even though they quite liked the old man:

SMRT Ltd (Feedback)

And people bought them. A lot of people. Many of whom also felt a genuine sense of affection for Lee:

SMRT Ltd (Feedback)

It’s a great example of the fluidity of 21st century sentiments, which are often real and ironic at the same time.

This means you, Amos Yee

Amos Yee

The gahmen has a new campaign to convince us all to be nice online. If you want to know why this is an issue now:

On 27 March 2015, Amos Yee uploaded an 8-minute long video to YouTube titled Lee Kuan Yew is Finally Dead![16] In the expletive-laden video,[17] Yee likened Lee to Jesus, saying that both were ‘power-hungry and malicious but deceive others into thinking they are both compassionate and kind. Their impact and legacy will ultimately not last as more and more people find out that they are full of bull‘.[16[18] Yee went on to compare Lee’s ‘completely delusional and ignorant’ followers with ‘absolutely no sound logic or knowledge about him that is grounded in reality’ to the Christians’ knowledge of the Bible and the religion’s priests.[19]

Apart from conveying his hope that the late Lee would not rest in peace,[20] Yee also said that Lee was a ‘horrible person’, an ‘awful leader’ and ‘a dictator but managed to fool most of the world to think he was democratic’.[18] Lastly, Yee issued a challenge to Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, stating that if the younger Lee, the Prime Minister at the time, wished to sue him, Yee would ‘oblige to dance with him’.[21] The 2015 video was viewed over 880,000 times.[22]

Arrest and charges

At least twenty police reports were made against Yee’s uploading of the 2015 video, while another police report was made against alleged obscene material on Yee’s blog,[23]where Yee had displayed and claimed credit for making ‘a picture of Lee Kuan Yew buttfuckingMargaret Thatcher‘.[24]The Straits Times reported that Yee’s mother had filed a police report against her son because she was unable to control his behaviour.[3] Yee’s mother, Mrs Mary, later told The Online Citizen that she had filed a police report on 29 March, ‘not … to have my son arrested’, but in response to Yee publishing a vulgar image online despite her objections, leading her to fear for his safety. As she assumed that police action would soon be taken against her son, she filed a report in which she apologized to the nation for her son’s actions and requested counselling for Yee.[25]

On 29 March 2015, Yee was arrested. Police stated that the arrest was on the grounds of ‘deliberate intention of wounding the religious or racial feelings’, ‘threatening, abusive or insulting communication’ and obscenity.[26]

Provoking a government – any government – into launching a public information campaign to convince its citizens to behave less like me is now at the top of my bucket list.

Who’d have a political career?


Lee Kuan Yew is dying, or – as you will read in our famously hard-hitting and independent Singaporean press – quite ill.

I wasn’t going to do this until the day came (a lot of other media outlets have been advance-publishing their obituaries and it’s creepy), but there’s a new angle on it now, which merits consideration: the Advance Medical Directive. That Lee had signed a DNR was common knowledge – he mentioned it in one of his books.

The interesting part is that – previous spectacular recoveries aside – if ever there was a case for DNR, it is clearly the one that lies before us now, and yet the full resources of Singapore General Hospital are being poured into keeping him alive.

So there’s some bleak irony for you. The last wishes of a man whose word was law for so long are being ignored precisely because his word was law for so long.

There are various rumours going around as to when his bucket will finally be kicked. I have heard variously that:

a) A general election will be called this year, and the Lee family and the PAP intend to keep him around until then in the hope of stirring up nostalgia, sympathy and patriotic fervour.

b) Police are on standby for a state funeral on May 2nd, so the life support will be switched off shortly before that.

c) They intend to keep him hanging on until National Day in August.

If you think that sounds horrifically gruesome, well, yes. But this is the Lee family we’re talking about. These people have form. Frankly, I suspect that the old man probably guessed what was coming anyhow (hence the AMD).

Though, on the other hand, the plan could easily backfire. While the majority opinion is sympathetic (and the perennial antis are wishing him a swift translation to a warmer place), netizens are incresingly raising questions about that pesky AMD:

Prince: It’s sad to see people living in denial, death is inevitable and people still wish him to get well soon? I can only ask that his family members will allow him to go in a smooth and less suffering way and not prolong his suffering by making him live through a machine…

Misled: Pappies go to all length just to garner supports. Now they are utilising the health of a living dead just to achieve that.

Soong: AMD(Advance Medical Directive) or LPA(Last Power Attorney) from LKY also no use in this case, his son is capitalising on his father’s famous and infamous reputation for more political gain. Sad sad way to let the father to go in peace. sad sad sad. No one bother with Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death wish for a ‘quick death without any machine hook-up’. So sad sad sad to watch some people just ignore his last wish to leave in peace.

JN.: LKY already signed an AMD that he wishes to leave peacefully and not to be hooked up in machines and be humiliated.Why his followers never obey instruction?

Derek Duke: Ch**b** pinky will pull the plug on the old man just before elections to get the sympathy votes from kind hearted but gullible Singaporeans … lol

Senior@VOTE: delusion & disillusion, wishing well is actually insulting, LOLOL