Don’t you ever change

The Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore currently has an exhibition going on to do with the idea of the scholar in Chinese culture. (Long story short.)

Among the exhibits is this:

ACM Confucius crib sheet

Doesn’t look very interesting, does it?

ACM analects crib sheet

If that’s too small to read, here you go:

Crib sheet with the Analects of Confucius
China, 19th century
Ink on silk

In order to cheat on the Imperial examinations, the Analects (论语) have been written in tiny characters on both sides of this piece of silk, which could easily be smuggled into the exam room.

Bearing in mind the fact that Confucius was pretty much the origin of the Chinese obsession with the idea of scholarly virtue, and the exams themselves tended to feature a preponderance of questions on that same broad topic, the discovery that such a proof of subversion exists made me ridiculously happy.



Here’s something confusing for a Monday morning

Putin gun

Sure, but what’s the margin of error?

Here’s an odd little tale. Just recently this story has popped up in the Russian media:

Early in the morning , I heard an intriguing piece of news on Russian state TV: America loves Putin even more than Russians do themselves! He enjoys an 88 percent approval rating in Russia, but the figure is higher in the United States, the report on Rossia 24 television said.

“A lot has already been said about the incumbent [U.S.] president’s low ratings, a night news anchor said. “He has just been dealt a new below-the-belt blow. An opinion poll by the popular New York Daily News shows that U.S. citizens liked Vladimir Putin’s speech at the General Assembly session better than [Barack] Obama’s speech. Ninety-six percent voted for the Russian president and, accordingly, only 4 percent voted for the American president.”

Link. (I’m not entirely sure why it’s suddenly gained in popularity now, since the original poll and the initial reports on it came out over a month ago.)

If you want the RIA Novosti version, you can find it here.

The story has been picked up by various US right wingers:

Though some sites both in the US and Russia have been more cynical, speculating that the win may have been the result of voting by Russian 50 cent parties or even that the whole thing was a fabrication. Meanwhile, the armchair generals of Reddit have congratulated themselves soundly on seeing through the propaganda.

This is intriguing for a couple of reasons:

Firstly, it’s interesting to see the different spin put on the information by the different media outlets, largely because it reflects the way in which Russia’s PR guys take care to modify their message based on the kind of audience they’re targeting. For instance, while domestic and foreign media use similar techniques and have a similar ethos behind them, the aesthetics and the tone is entirely different. Domestic PR appears ridiculously unsubtle to foreign eyes but in fact plays relatively well to the sort of domestic audiences on whom the sly nudge-nudge-wink-wink tone of something like Russia Today would be largely lost.

If what the blogger says is correct, Rossiya 24 was reporting this as a straight-down-the-line popularity poll, which it obviously isn’t. They can get away with it, however, because they know that 99.99% of their audience isn’t going to go online and check. By contrast, Ria Novosti – which tends to target a more serious, grown-up audience – has given one of the more restrained versions of the story, sticking to the facts without trying to make it sound more than it is. Nevertheless, it has reported it – something that you wouldn’t necessarily expect a serious, grown-up news agency to do for every tinpot little online survey. Perversely, RIA Novosti manages to give the tale more credibility by the mere fact of covering it, even while Rossiya 24 is doing the exact opposite.

Secondly, its an excellent example of how Russia’s soft power strategies have developed under Putin. (Soft power is an over-used term;Russia’s media strategy in recent years is one of the few phenomena that merits it.)

Usually, when you are running a PR campaign you decide on a message you want to put across and then look for the best way to do so. The Russians have not taken this path. Instead they provide us with dozens of different possible messages, theories, conspiracies and hints and allow us to pick the one we like best, while nevertheless leaving us uncertain as to whether or not we have picked correctly.

Even the green-black-and-silver aestehtics of the RT site are borrowed straight from The Matrix, something which its intended audience will definitely register at least on a subconscious level, purely because it is such a familiar part of the demographic’s visual vernacular.

Russia Today aesthetics

There is no spoon

As a strategic response to the widespread perception that the “Washington Consensus” has imposed a single narrative on the world, it is a stroke of genius – like something made up by Umberto Eco (or, more probably, by Vladislav Surkov). They’re just providing alternatives: who could possibly object to that? Their slogan is “question more” because they want us to do just that: ask questions, not come up with answers.

The other side of the coin, obviously, is that when all truths are possible, no possibility is definitively true. The cat is both dead and alive at the same time. In other words, the same strategy works equally well to legitimise alternative narratives as to sew confusion.

Moreover, this is approach to mass communications is not simply a sort of invisibility cloak to conceal whatever is really going on inside the Russian state. It is what is going on inside the Russian state. The maintenance of perpetual uncertainty is central to the current government’s management strategies.

To pick one example: the rumour that Putin funds his own opposition has been doing the rounds for ages. It could be entirely true (it’s what I’d do if I was an autocrat, and if I’ve thought of it then he certainly has), or it could be made up to induce paranoia at a relatively low cost.

I’ve even heard from people who should know that Putin’s PR team has, in the past, pressured polling organisations to reduce his popularity scores to make the numbers more democratically plausible. It could well be true, or they could be putting the rumour about purely in the hope that incorrigible gossips like me will repeat it as widely as possible. Either way: mission accoplished.

Slick moves

Watch this video with the sound on. It’s worth it.

It’s difficult to overstate how much I, as a connoisseur of fine PR, enjoy RT’s work.

I assume that this guy genuinely is a spy of some variety. Not just because he has the too-clean look of a secret policeman (he also looks like he’s openly wearing an earpiece, so he’s probably someone‘s security guy to start with, just going the extra mile with the aid of a retro manbag full of directional microphones), but also because I’m not convinced that RT would decide to out a complete stranger just for the hell of it – for all they know he could well turn out to be a Russian spook collecting audio of a supposedly off-the-record meeting.

Also let’s face it, most of the people in that shot look pretty shady to begin with. You could add the Pink Panther soundtrack to footage of any one of them and end up with something almost as hilarious. If they’re picking on this one individual, we can only assume it’s because they know who he is and want to fuck with his employers.

Haters gonna hate and ain’ters gonna ain’t…

This looks and sounds insane to anyone who isn’t North Korean, but it’s worth noticing that:

  1. North Koreans tend – surprisingly – to be a lot more open about expressing emotion than South Koreans, and…
  2. Overblown gestures have – to a certain extent – become common currency in North Korean politics over the years.

So while the participants in this scene probably aren’t really as ecstatic as they appear, it’s equally unlikely that they’re secretly dying a little inside at the indignity of it all. Another day, another won…

Truth is a Slippery Animal

There’s a passage in a British political autobiography (I think it’s Julian Critchley’s A Bag of Boiled Sweets, but I couldn’t swear to it) in which an old stager warns a younger colleague on the campaign trail that one should never tell voters that crime is falling, even if it is, because you won’t be believed: “that’s just not what crime does.”

Similarly with these US tales of Russian airstrikes in Syria hitting some hospitals. There’s every possibility that they’re entirely true; the Russians have certainly never shown or laid claim to any great passion for pinpoint accuracy in their military operations. Nevertheless, coming immediately after US strikes did verifiably hit a hospital, the announcement becomes unconvincing ex officio.

Suppose you toss a coin five times. The first four times it comes up heads. Of course, the chance of it coming up heads the fifth time you do it is still 50:50, but even knowing that your mind rebels and tells you that the probability of getting heads a fifth time must be massively reduced.

Similarly in this case. The probability of Russian airstrikes hitting a Syrian hospital has not changed, but the story nevertheless looks far less believable coming immediately after the US really did bomb a hospital.

Look at the comments from the video above:

cctv comments thread

Granted, people who follow CCTV on Facebook are unlikely to constitute the most pro-US audience out there, so let’s try an alternative source. Reddit is an always-reliable furnisher of lowest common denominators opinions that tend to be pretty evenly spread across the spectrum:

Reddit Russia Syria hospital


Reddit Russia Syria hospital


Reddit Russia Syria hospital

Reddit Russia Syria hospital


So here’s a handy hint for the State Department: whether it’s true or not, next time just say it was a fucking orphanage or something. It’s not as though the Russians are going to come forward spluttering and saying “I think you’ll find it was actually a hospital…”

For everyone who’s ever wondered what the people around Kim Jong Un are writing in their little notebooks

That is – I am not kidding – the most frequent North Korea related question I get. So now you know.

(Real answer: these are actually “field guidance” sessions. The people on the ground are supposed to listen and take note of the Leader’s advice, before putting it into practice in their work. The tradition was inherited from Kim Il Sung and is not always the most efficient way to make policy.)

He’s aliiiive!!!

It's alive!

No, not him. Him:

Ma Won Chun

Ma Won Chun, the architect that Kim Jong Un supposedly had executed back  in November of last year because he didn’t like his latest airport design. In fact, he’s alive and well and, according to KCNA, wandering round Rason in KJU’s entourage.

This is the latest in a long line of miraculous North Korean resurrections, and the reasons for the phenomenon are various.

a) The reports are based on sketchy rumours coming out of North Korea, and thus not super-reliable. Another story had Ma dying of a heart attack upon being summoned to visit the dear leader. Other tales merely suggested that he had been purged. Which leads us to a second point:

b) A lot of people – even within the media and among Asia specialists – tend to see the word “purged”, but read the word “executed”. I assume that this is a hangover from the Moscow trials. In fact, the two are not the same thing. Kim Jong Un is, in fact, unusual in that he does execute a reasonable proportion of the people he purges. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, by contrast, tended to use purges more as a political naughty step. After a few months in the wilderness and a self-criticism session or two, you’d generally be let back into the party. (Rumour has it that Margaret Thatcher used the post of Northern Ireland Secretary in much the same way.)

c) North Korean rumours are picked up and embellished by South Korean tabloids (this means you, Chosun Ilbo). The Western media then gets them from the Chosun Ilbo website, and reprints them as gospel truth.

Louder than the astroturf

Lingo lingoHere in Singapore we’re all naturally very excited about having reached our 50th birthday. As part of the celebrations, a bunch of local celebs have released a song about the wonders of Singlish.

I’d link to it here, but since I watched it last night it’s been set to private, for reasons that I shall go into in a moment.

It basically looks like a K-pop video, with a mixture of tits:


gangsta rap bling (plus additional tits):


and extremely synchronised dancing:


Also, somewhat strangely, there isn’t all that much Singlish in the song. You can read the lyrics here. And you can read them because they’re pretty much entirely comprehensible to any basic English speaker.

As points out:

As someone who is fluent in Singlish – this song doesn’t sound Singlish. It’s like throwing in a bunch of random French words into a song and calling it a French song. Baguette, croissant, oui oui. Foux du Fa Fa. Non.

If you want to listen to a song with some actual Singlish in that was genuinely popular, check out Munah and Hirzi’s parodies, which need subtitles unless you are a minah or an ah-beng yourself:

However, what’s interesting is that bling definitely isn’t something that comes naturally to the Singaporean national character. Even in the current mood of pan-Asian optimism that is accompanying the rise of China and India, Singaporeans are not – by nature – flashy people, and tend to look down on this sort of tuhao culture as exemplified by mainland Chinese. Mothership again:

Also starring in the video is a bevy of Lambos and Ferraris which kinda made no sense at all because our national mode of transport is definitely the Bus or MRT. Thus, it should be ‘Can you hear our echo. Louder than the train fault.’

On the whole the national reaction has been one of snark and scepticism, which is probably why the video has been pulled. See, for example, the reaction from Coconuts Singapore:

Give a slow clap for yourselves, ladies and gents — we have all done our service to the nation this SG50.

With all our snarky powers combined, the travesty that is the ‘Lingo Lingo’ music video has been taken down from the JTV YouTube channel, ensuring that Singaporeans everywhere will never be exposed to such a godawful clip. Or at least for now, until it goes up again.

Luckily, we did save some highlights from the stunningly out-of-touch music video, featuring Ah Boys to Men’s Tosh Rock, some dude called Bunz, and a whole lot of cringeworthy lyrics, among other things. To top it all off on its proverbial turd-cake, the video claims to be a tribute to our Singlish patois. You can check out our original article here.

If you’d like to find out the thought process behind the abysmally bad concept, take a gander at this behind the scenes clip. ‘Why 50 supercars? I feel that they represent a lot of our Singaporean culture and behaviour’. Wow… just wow.

However, there are a whole plethora of political implications to it that I am going to go into now. Or just skip the cheeminology and go back and look at the nehneh some more, liddat oso can.

Firstly, since this is Singapore, we can assume that this received some sort of official government sanction before being released. This is unusual because the Singapore government has not traditionally been a fan of Singlish, having spent years trying to cajole its population into sounding less ghetto in their everyday interactions via the Speak Good English Movement. (However, it’s worth noticing that this isn’t the first recent government-backed video to endorse unofficial dialects: remember the awesome Hokkien retirement PSA?)

Secondly, government initiatives that try to be cool almost never succeed. As has been observed here before, politicians only become cool when they clearly don’t care about being cool. Attempting to jump on someone else’s bandwagon, however proficient the attempt, will be seen through immediately by a media-savvy public and subjected to widespread derision.