Only Disconnect


The Singapore government is about to disconnect civil servants’ computers from the internet. They will still have email and be able to surf on their own devices. The reaction has been predictably measured and thoughtful.

Let’s all take a moment to laugh at how backward and authoritarian the Singapore government is. There now, done?

In fact, it’s common practice in most countries for computers in security-sensitive offices to be cut off from the internet (email excepted). It’s also common practice to ban staff from bringing their own devices into the office and to oblige them to clean all USB keys before use (whether they actually follow these rules, on the other hand…). The Russian government has gone a step further and reverted to typewriters for some of its functions, with Germany possibly following suit.

While the official line is that this is for security reasons only, it’s worth remembering that there’s little conclusive evidence on whether internet access makes workers more productive, but the workers themselves seem to think that the effect is generally negative. (Thought experiment: look at the first page of your inbox. Which of those messages would you still have received if someone had to type them out on a manual typewriter and deliver them?)

Obviously the Singapore government can’t actually say that they think that their employees are a bunch of time-wasting slackers, and prefer to endure a few days ridicule for being paranoid and out of touch rather than offend their homies.

Which is rather sweet.

Edit: This just in, Patient Zero in this initiative was our social media-loving PM, Lee Hsien Loong.

The first person to volunteer not to have any direct Internet access on his work computer was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

He took on the challenge at the beginning of the year after security experts advised that it was necessary to shield the public sector’s IT systems from cyber attacks.

Relating his experience yesterday to reporters in Myanmar, where he is on an official visit, PM Lee said: “It’s a nuisance, it takes some getting used to, but you can do it.”


Which other world leaders are famous for deliberately avoiding connectivity? Yup.


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.


Secular saints

Lion dance truck

Chinese New Year was a couple of weeks ago and Yuanxiao is coming up, so the streets of Singapore are thronged with lion dance trucks rushing between assignments.

If you’ve never seen a lion dance, here’s my favourite:


Companies pay for them to entertain their employees and clients and bring good luck, as do some rich families.

In fact, there is a law on the books in Singapore that bans noisy public religious displays, and which is much disliked by Tamils as it means that they can’t hold Thaipusam parades outdoors. Chinese New Year, however, escapes the ban because it’s not, strictly speaking, a religious festival.

Sure, there’s a lot of superstition and folk religion involved (that guy in red up there not smoking a cigarette is the God of Wealth). However, none of it is central to the event, which is merely the ticking over of the calendar from one year to the next. If the gods, spirits and Buddhas want to put in an appearance at what is an essentially human festival they’re more than welcome, but their attendance is not required.

Why you so fat?

CNY power play

Young people dread Chinese New Year. While they get red envelopes full of cash, they also get some pretty brutal criticism from their relatives for being too fat/too thin/not married yet/insufficiently fertile/not having a good enough job. Think Jewish grandparents, but ruder.

This year, the rebellion begins.

Singaporean teens and 20-somethings have begun compiling a Google Doc of all the passive-aggressive remarks they have had to endure over new year, and it has gone viral. You can read it here.

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.


Lucky pig Christmas ornaments

Yep, lucky snow pig Christmas tree ornaments. I saw these in Cold Sotrage and loved them so much that I bought them, and here they are sitting on my desk.

While neither the Middle East (birthplace of Christianity) nor Singapore (where I bought these) are renowned for their white Christmases, Christmas arrived in Asia via Europe and the US, where – thanks to Charles Dickens and the greetings card manufacturers – snow and Christmas are inseperably linked.

Equally, in China pigs are considered lucky, and there exists a huge market in pig-themed charms and trinkets.

Up Close

Modi Cameron Wembley

Whenever people are talking about scary rising powers, India always tends to get pushed to the back of the queue. When Xi Jinping visited England recently for a very sedate and polite exchange of money views, the press raged at the government for kowtowing to the Chinese.

When, a few weeks later, Cameron essentially served as the warm up act for Narendra Modi at Wembley, we barely heard a peep out of them. If you still retain any illusions about Britain’s place in the world, go and watch the video of it.

We didn’t cover this here at the time, not because we were suffering from the same let’s-all-ignore-India syndrome as much of the English language media, but because we had something even better in the offing and wanted to do both at once.

Jennifer Dodgson

Pretty sure that this is the ultimate armour for the Political PR Nerd character class.

Yep. We were behind the scenes at one of Modi’s rock concert rallies, and we’ve got the pics to prove it.

There were several key differences between the London and the Singapore event, however.

Firstly there is every chance that Cameron’s team and the UK Foreign Office genuinely did not realise what the event that he was being asked to speak at would be like. Modi does in fact have a record of holding what are effectively election rallies in foreign countries, but he is still pretty much the only world leader with the chutzpah to behave this way. Most politicians would never think of doing this, not because it’s not a reasonable strategy but because it’s simply not what one does. On the other hand, it’s well known that you could fill a barn with the fucks that Modi does not give, so the FCO should have realised what was about to happen.

The Singaporean government, on the other hand, is rather quicker on the uptake. Moreover, it is determinedly opposed to anything that has even a vague potential for stirring up ethnic division on the island. Nevertheless, while they were plainly not happy about what was happening, they could hardly ban Modi from speaking if he had been invited to address local Indian cultural groups.

Even then, local rumours suggested that originally the authorities banned Singaporean citizens from attending, only relenting when they realised this would make them look bad.

The result was that we ended up holding the event not at any of the excellent venues that Singaporean politicians use for their own events, but at the Singapore Expo, possibly the worst space you could think of for holding a political rally (well, you know, excluding the bathrooms at the New York Port Authority Bus Station, the bottom of the Marianas Trench etc. etc….).

The Expo centre is more usually used for trade shows, and if you’ve ever had to organise a concert or a speech in one of these dismal hangars you’ll know why it’s such a poor prospect. It’s miles outside the centre of town, you have to amalgamate several rooms to get enough seating, there’s no dedicated backstage, your podium has to be in the middle of the space if you want your audience to see anything, it’s impossible to light it artistically, and the room swallows sound like [insert joke about your mom here].

Modi in Singapore

First ushering volunteers meeting

The fact that the organisers managed not merely to get around most of these problems but to turn them to their advantage is a sign of how slick and efficient this operation really is. This was all the more impressive in light of the extent to which Modi’s own events crew were clearly happy to take a hands off approach and leave the organisation to local volunteers, many of whom were amateurs. I assume that Modi’s own PR professionals were present in some capacity (no one can successfully organise something like this from scratch on their first go; there are a million little details that you only learn through repeated practice) but merely provided the organisers with a sketched outline and advice where needed, and otherwise backed off and left them to it – a rare skill, and one that more managers should cultivate.

Modi in Singapore

10pm, the night before

The result was occasionally endearingly amateurish, but mostly extremely impressive, and created a sense of community and ownership that would have been lacking had they brought in a professional crew to handle everything. There was even a page in the event brochure saying thank you to all the volunteers. Giving us the chance to fuck up was a risk – and some things did go wrong (but then, things always do with an event this size) – but overall it was a risk that paid off massively.

Modi in Singapore

The dancers wait for their rehearsal slots.

Moreover, the Singapore government could, possibly, have spared itself some of the worry. In the end most of the Singaporean citizens present were members of the local dance groups drafted in to provide the entertainment before and after the big speech. The few locals present were mainly high school kids who’d gone along out of curiosity. (Modi tends to make a point of speaking Hindi in public, whereas most Singaporean Indians speak Tamil, and a lot of them are pretty shaky even at that.)

Modi in Singapore

Early doors: the official start time was 5:30. here’s the queue at 2pm.

The motivations of the audience varied. Some were genuine Modi supporters, some were here out of patriotism, a large proportion had come out of curiosity. In fact, Modi tends to provoke extremely strong reactions, both for and against. While the pro camp were out in force at the event, chanting and waving placards, we also spoke to some of those who would rather have chewed their own legs off than attend. One media guy (who shall remain nameless) when asked whether he was planning to go, told me “Hell no. Why would you want to listen to that man? I hate him.” Another said that he would be going, purely because he wanted to “see evil close up”. Others were more detached, saying that they just wanted to see a good show, but did not have any special faith in Modi’s policies.

Modi in Singapore

Security screening

The event had booked up three of the Expo Centre’s six halls. One for managing the queue and doing the security screening, and two opened up into one big room for the event itself.

Modi in Singapore

Local dance groups perform and the volunteers hand out water and biscuits

Imrpessively, they managed to turn this awkward layout to their advantage by going for a sort of theatre-in-the-round effect. As you can see from the photos, it was impossible to entirely open out the two rooms. So instead the speaker’s podium was placed centrally in the gap between the two, with a lectern that revolved slowly and a whole bunch of cameras projecting onto massive tv screens throughout the room, allowing Modi to speak directly to everyone there, even at the times when he had his back to them.

Modi in Singapore

Again, this was a calculated risk that was skillfully handled and paid off spectacularly. Not only did the fact that the speaker had his back to half the room half of the time not bother the audience, but it meant that all of the tv pictures effectively show Modi entirely surrounded by a sea of adoring supporters. You can watch the video here. The success of the gambit can be entirely attributed to Modi’s own theatrical skills. Would you have the acting chops to deliver a barnstoming oration to 9000 people sitting behind your back?

Modi in Singapore

Immediately before the start

Actually, the tv pictures made the event look more impressive in more ways than one. In real life it was pretty much impossible for the stage crew to turn the house lights down, making dramatic effects difficult to achieve. The video footage makes it look like we were all sitting in tasteful semi-darkness. In fact, those migraine-inducing halogens were on throughout. Moreover, the lousy accoustics that are built into all trade show venues by design (if they magnified sound like a real theatre the trade events would be hellish) make more or less any music sound like it was coming from the speaker of some kid’s phone on the back seat of the night bus.

You get round this, incidentally, with either lots of bass (if you see the women in the front row wriggling in their seats, you’ve got it about right) or by going acappella. The event crew obviously knew this, and the minutes preceding the speech were occupied by an ident created – I presume – specially for this purpose, with computer graphics to do with dynamic modern India interspersed with quotes about what an incredible leader Modi is, and set against the sort of music that sounds like Right Here Right Now had a baby with Carmina Burana. You know the sort of thing.

If you think this all sounds a bit North Korean (as one of the audience members said to me afterwards), I have been told that Modi’s domestic events ratchet back the hyperbole to a huge degree, instead presenting him as a humble chai-wallah’s son who happened to have the good fortune to be entrusted with running the country. Partly this is because he is less able to play on patriotism at home, and partly because Indians within India tend to be more cynical about domestic politics than their foreign counterparts.

Modi in Singapore

He’s coming! (Possibly)

But the thing is, it worked. By the end of it, everyone was on their feet waving – despite strict injunctions from security to stay seated – and cheering. And then it turned out that someone had told the stage management guys that he was arriving a tad prematurely, so we all sat down again and listened to someone singing about Namami Gange, then someone must have told the stage crew that he really was coming this time, so we got the introductory hi-tech ident again, but received it with rather less enthusiasm. Finally, the poor MC was left standing onstage – clearly with some guy yelling “just 30 seconds more” in his ear – begging us to keep clapping while we waited. As mentioned above, the evening was not without its mishaps. (A cynical friend in the audience texted me that they were clearly working on “Indian Standard Time”.)

Modi in Singapore

For real this time.

As for the speech. Well, it was very impressive. You can watch it here. I don’t speak a word of Hindi (and if you don’t either, here’s a summary of the main points), and was nevertheless not bored, despite the fact that it went on for about an hour. To a certain degree, I didn’t need to understand. Even with no Hindi, I could tell that the message and the language was simple and repetitive and probably to do with international cooperation being a good thing. As one Indian author told me, Modi is the message – he’s dynamic and entrepreneurial and can bring the roof down for an hour straight without even a glass of water. What else do you need to know?

One of the supporters in the crowd told me afterwards that it had been so good that it had made all the hair on the back of her neck stand up.

Coincidentally, one of the anti-BJP intellectuals I spoke to said almost the exact same thing to me about a run in he’d had with Modi back in his local politics days, except that he meant it in the sinister sense.

Watch the video for yourself and see which of the two you agree with.