Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Hard Truths 1 - The sustenance of Singapore's survivability

I am trying to develop an interest in politics and world affairs so that I can have more content that I can blog about. Moreover, I figured that I should start being a politically engaged member of society, if there is any purpose to being one, perhaps so that I will vote correctly in the next general election. I doubt I will make a career in politics, but I guess if ever I become good at blogging about politics, I can become a political commentator. Now, I am really a newbie at politics and might be ignorant about many things regarding the state of affairs. The information that I will read about comes from the straits times and alternative medias like the online citizen. But let me start my endeavour to be a more informed political citizen by learning the views of our first prime minister of Singapore – Lee Kuan Yew. I suppose I wish to form a more objective evaluation of the man, his character, and the work he has done in building up Singapore. So I will blog more about this political personality, that is, if I can keep a sustained interest in politics. And if I can, I will try to proceed to blog on other political personalities of Singapore, such as former deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee and S. Rajaratnnam. I suppose before I read his critics, I shall try to understand what the man himself has to say.

With that, let me start on my reading on the book the Hard Truths featuring Lee Kuan Yew’s views on what it takes to keep Singapore going. Each chapter is presented in a question-and-answer format preceded by an introduction.

In the first chapter of the book, Lee Kuan Yew gave his views on the trepid state of Singapore’s security given our geopolitical location and belligerent neighbouring countries, especially from Malaysia.

At Page 18 - “In Singapore, we are in a very turbulent region,” he would remind us. “If we do not have a government and a people that differentiate themselves from the rest of the neighbourhood…Singapore will cease to exist.” He recounted commenting to his Australian hosts in 1988 after a visit to New Zealand, that “I could come back here in 100 years and I’d be sure to find this place, still green grass, still sheep and cows and wheat and fruit trees…When I project myself forward 100 years for Singapore, I cannot tell you that it will exist.”

I remember reading for social studies lesson during my secondary school days on the nation state of Venice as a case study of small nation states, and its rise and fall. It held a prominent position as a centre of international trade, but subsequently declined from external threats from its neighbouring state powers, as well as from other circumstances such as the onslaught of the black plague. I suppose there is a concern by Lee Kuan Yew as to whether the narrative of the rise and fall of a nation state would similarly apply to Singapore. For now, Singapore is an economically strong nation amongst its neighbours, and holds many hub statuses, but would there come a day where Singapore would decline, or even become non-existent?

Lee Kuan Yew highlights the threats that Singapore experience within the geographical region from neighbouring country, and points out the vulnerabilities given Singapore’s dependence for resources which it imports from surrounding neighbours. In the past, we used to import water from Malaysia, and there were repeated threats from then Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir Mohammad about breaching the water agreement and cutting off supply of water to Singapore. From what I read about in the Singapore newspapers, Mahathir was making statements like, “To skin a cat, there are many ways, to skin Singapore, there are also many ways.” I wondered then why Mahathir would take such a hard-ball approach towards Singapore.

I kind of got some information for the reason for such animosity when Former law minister Jayakumar came to give a talk over at the law faculty of Singapore. According to him, Malaysia during the time of Mahathir Mohammad, was put off by Singapore turning down Malaysia’s request for financial aid during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Subsequently, Mahathir started taking a hard-nosed approach in dealing with Singapore, bargaining for hard deals in the Malaysia-Singapore Points of Agreement of 1990 such as a 60-40 percent owernship in favour of Malaysia for in exchange for selling back the area at Tanjong Pagar where the railway line was. There is an endnote snippet at page 39 of the Hard Truth which states that “Malaysia banned all snad exports to Singapore in 1997, saying that It needed to conserve resources and protect sea and river beds. Indonesia banned sand exports to Singapore in 2007, citing environmental concerns. Singapore uses sand in construction and land reclamation; Indonesia’s ban caused construction activities to grind to a halt as sand prices trebled in 2007. Singapore now buys sand from further afield.”

I heard the reason why Indonesia was quite unhappy with Singapore was because of the outflow of capital after racial riots caused Chinese businessmen to park their money into Singapore. Singapore’s initial refusal to sign an extradition treaty led Indonesia to mete out a sand ban. Of course, the reasons given was masked as environmental concerns about eroding shore lines.

For now, it seems like Singapore’s foreign relationships with its neighbouring countries are more amicable, especially with the passing of leadership to the current leaders of Singapore and Malaysia. I do hope that the various leaders in the region would be sensible and peaceful in dealing with one another, and not allow their personal gripes to affect foreign relations in a negative manner. After all, there are many people that lives in each country, and they would suffer if the leaders of the various neighbouring countries take a hard-ball attitude towards one another.

My impression of Lee Kuan Yew is that he is a tough man who takes a tough attitude towards ensuring the success of Singapore, and he has no qualms about resorting to tough measures to address his concerns. After all, Singapore is his legacy, and what history shall ever make of him will depend on whether Singapore stands the test of time.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Philip Yancey - Where is God when it Hurts?

There is this small book joint runned by mentally handicapped people at a hospital near the area I live at. They sell donated books at a relatively small price than what is to be had elsewhere. I frequently pass by the place and would be intrigued by certain books that catches my attention. Just a few days ago, I bought a book titled “Where is God when it hurts” by Philip Yancey. I suppose it is going to provide some consoling answers as to the problem of suffering. You know, I have been praying a lot for my tension headache to be healed, and I have friends and relatives who prayed for me as well. But it is there till today, so I am bitter about it. I really wish that I could do many other things in life rather than gripe and be paralyzed by this condition.

I suppose the first chapter of the book got me to reflect about how much worse a person’s suffering can be. So in the book, Philip Yancey writes about a friend of his who he has named Claudia. She and her husband were newly-wed. But not soon after, Claudia was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, cancer of the lymph glands. She was given a host of medical treatments, such as Cobalt treatment, which drained the vigour of life out of her. Like Job, she was visited by Christian friends who offered their words of wisdom which weren’t actually that encouraging. The first, a deacon from her church solemnly advised her to reflect on what God was trying to teach her. “Surely something in your life must displease God,” he said. I suppose he play those archetype biblical characters who treat suffering as necessarily a punishment for one’s sins. The second friend is the more optimistically inclined character who goes, “Sickness is never God’s will”. A woman in her church brought along some books about praising God for everything that happens. And another visitor said to her, “Claudia, you have been appointed to suffer for Christ, and he will reward you. God chose you because of your great strength and integrity.”

I suppose their empathy is appreciated, although their words fail to provide much consolation. There is sometimes really little that one can say or do for a friend who is experiencing suffering  to provide any consolation or reprief. There are some people who get all bitter about it and blame people for not being understanding or caring enough when they are suffering because they feel their friends should be doing more. I suppose it helps for understanding on all parties about the limitations of people when it comes to addressing a human’s suffering. If there is anything that one can do to show care and concern, perhaps it would be to pray, because there isn’t really much what one can else do sometimes.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Genesis 3:16 – A description of female psychology?

I decided to give the bible a reread today, starting with the book of Genesis. Usually, I would simply read through the new testament, or favourite old testament books like Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes  for my daily quiet time. My way of doing quiet time is to read through the bible so as to be reminded of Christian values that I should live by. But I have obtained some ideas from reading blogs that I can study a certain passage of the bible more in detail for my daily quiet time, and write out my thoughts and ideas on the passage on my blog. It seems like a good way to internalize what I am reading, and to make my reading of the bible a more active one, rather than a passive one, and to help me articulate simmering thoughts that I might have on my mind whenever I read the bible. And it would also be a way for me to engage my friends who read my blog and bring them in for my bible study quiet time as well. Hopefully I can write something enlightening or thought-provoking, and I could certainly benefit from comments from people as well.

One thing that interested me that I thought I should study about while I was going through the book of Genesis today was the part of the fall of man in chapter 3 in which God pronounced judgment on the various characters involved.  I have always found the part to which God pronounce judgment on the woman quite curious. In Genesis 3:16, God said to the woman, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

When God pronounced this judgment, did he address this specifically to Eve alone, or is it a judgment that applies to the entire female gender? A literal reading would suggest that it was specific to Eve. From my understanding, childbirth is quite a painful experience for women. And so, this seems to imply that the judgment is for the entire female gender. But does this mean that the subsequent sentence about the woman’s desire being for her husband, and her husband ruling over her would necessitate such an extensive application to all members of the human race as well?   

Truth is, the reason this verse interest me is that it seems to make a general description of female psychology. I have read two commentaries on the verse which seems to make an explication of general female psychology.  Matthew Henry’s commentary writes “She is here put into a state of sorrow, one particular of which only is specified, that in bringing forth children; but it includes all those impressions of grief and fear which the mind of that tender sex is most apt to receive, and all the common calamities which they are liable to.” Ray Stedman says in a sermon of his “Her desires run after her husband. This is not primarily a reference to passion but to the hunger for approval. It is speaking of the fact that a woman finds her fullest sense of satisfaction in gaining her husband's approval. No other person can approach his approval in its significance to her. There can be no substitute for it. Others can be pleased and happy with her, but if he is not, she is distressed. He can be happy with her, and she doesn't care a fig what others think about her. Her desire thus finds its fulfillment in her husband -- she longs to be important to him.” I can’t begin to describe how uneasy I feel when I hear a male sermon speaker asserting his understanding of female psychology to a congregation that has female members in it. Who is he to profess to know what women want?

But isn’t desire for member of the opposite gender an innate characteristic of a person? After all, mutual attraction between opposite gender is required for the procreative interest of all species of the animal kingdom. So what then did God add to the equation when he pronounces that the woman’s desire will be for her husband? Wasn’t it already there?

Irvin A.Busenitz elaborates on the various views of what ‘desire’ means in his article “Woman’s Desire for Man: Genesis 3:16 Reconsidered”. “One prominent interpretation suggests that, as a punishment for the Fall, a woman's desire will be subject to her husband's."Her desire, whatever it may be, will not be her own. She cannot do what she wishes, for her husband rules over her like a despot and whatever she wishes is subject to his will. Another viewpoint contends that the woman will have an immense longing, yearning, and psychological dependence. More recently a third view has surfaced. It suggests that, based on the usage of "desire" in Gen 4:7, the woman will desire to dominate the relationship with her husband. The woman's desire is to control her husband (to usurp his divinely appointed headship), and he must master her, if he can.”

Irvin argues for the position that “The "desire factor" is not a part of the judgment but an explanation of
conditions and relationships as they will exist after the Fall. Even though the intimacy between the first man and his wife was abrogated, even though the unity with man would bring woman to the threshold
of death itself in the process of childbirth, yet woman would still possess a strong desire to be with
man. The broken intimacy and the pain in childbearing would not be allowed to nullify the yearning of
woman for man and the fulfillment of God's command to populate the earth or to alter the divine order of the headship of man.”

Ray Stedman’s view in his sermon I mentioned above seems to corroborate with the exegesis provided by Irvin, and he asserts that ‘this desire is not in itself a consequence of sin. This relationship of woman to man was present before the Fall as well.”

Irvin disputes the argument that desire here is about the woman’s desire to control her husband. “Woman may desire to dominate or rule over man, but it is not a part of the punishment pronounced up
on woman; it is just the essence, character, and result of all sin against God. Self-exaltation and pride
always result in the desire to dominate and rule. Every person to some extent desires to dominate and rule over others--not just woman over man.”

On the contrary, Ray Stedman asserts that this desire of a woman to control her husband is also a result of the judgment, but he makes this argument from the part of God’s judgment about the husband ruling over the woman - “It is the latter phrase of the sentence that marks the result of the Fall, "he shall rule over you." If, in imagination, we can put ourselves back with Adam and Eve before the Fall, in that blissful scene in the Garden of Eden, then we can see that the relationship of the woman to the man consisted of a natural desire to follow. She came out of man and was made for him, to be his helper and to work toward his goals. It was a natural yielding to which she opposed no resistance, but found herself delighting in the experience of following the man. But now as a result of the Fall, a perverse element enters into this. A struggle occurs, a tension ensues, in which the woman is torn between the natural God-given desire to yield to her husband, and at the same time, the awakened desire to exert her will against his, a perverse urge to rivalry or domination. This is what creates tension in women, as a result of the Fall.” In my opinion, I think it quite a stretch to infer this desire of the woman from the phrase “he will rule over you.”

As a roundup to this discussion on female psychology, I would say that I think that female psychology is as diverse and as complex as there are male psychologies. There are guys who like playing the submissive role in a relationship and are okay with girls taking a more dominant role and taking charge. I am sure there would be girls of such disposition suited for them. I have read that there are cultures with a matriarch hierarchy to marriage. In Japan and Korea, there is a tradition for the woman to handle the finance of the household. And I can vaguely recall watching a Chinese drama on Channel 8 where one of the characters mention a Chinese idiom about how a henpecked husband makes a good business person. I think contemporary societal culture is fine with different power relationships between genders. We have female bosses and leaders in society. I think women are capable people.

On another note, I get the understanding from reading such passages in the bible that Christianity supports the notion of a gender hierarchy in certain aspects of societal life, like in marriage or in church roles. I wonder what the girls in my church or in my varsity Christian fellowship think about this notion of gender hierarchy that seems to be the mainstream position of the church throughout history. I wouldn’t be surprised if they would argue for more egalitarian interpretation of texts in the bible regarding relationship between the genders.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Palm Sunday – The tale of the two trees

Today was Palm Sunday where Christians commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem where he enters the city on a donkey.  There was the usual distribution of palm leaves before the service to the congregation, mimicking the celebrating people who lay down their cloaks and small branches of trees in front of Jesus.

During the service, there was the introduction of this new part in the liturgy that I have neither seen before in the usual church services, nor could I remember its invocation during previous periods of Lent.
It went, “It is truly meet, right, and salutary, that we should at all times and and in all places give thanks unto Thee, O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God: Who on the tree of the cross didst give salvation unto mankind that, whence death arose, thence Life also might rise again; and that he who by a tree once overcame might likewise by a tree be overcome, through Christ, our Lord; through whom with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify Thy glorious name, evermore praising Thee and saying”

The point of confusion was the part about who this he who by a tree once overcame and who likewise by a tree be overcome was. The instinctive conception was that this he was referred to Jesus. But it seemed weird that Jesus would be overcome.

The Pastor decided to clear up the confusion before dismissing the congregation. He said that “he” here, refers to Satan. The tree by which he overcame was the tree of the forbidden fruits in the garden of Eden. And the tree by which he would be overcome is the cross on which Jesus died for humanity’s sins. Now, that made sense, although I thought it was unnecessary introduction of ambiguity into liturgy. A friend I talked with after church had conveniently misread the part in reverse, so that in effect, it was about Jesus being overcome by the cross since he died on it, but who in the end overcome with the cross because he effectively redeemed humanity from sin. A suitable alternative preface to be used for the liturgy I thought.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Django Unchained

I have not been writing much on my blog these days. Reason is that I find it hard to concentrate when I have quite compulsive obsessive worries about the pressure sensation in my head because it does not seem to go away. If it were just a tension headache, as what most doctors would tell me, I would have expect to be more episodic in nature rather than this constant pressure sensation that I get. It scares me silly to go onto the internet to do research and read on medical forums of people who suffer from similar symptoms and who were diagnosed with serious maladies like brain tumor or brain aneurysms. But I suppose I shouldn’t be worried so much about these things since the neurologist I went to cleared me after an MRI scan of suffering from such maladies. Nevertheless, I came across a condition known as pseudotumor cerebri while researching online a few days ago, which is a condition of increased intracranial pressure that is not attributable to brain tumor or abscesses, and hence not detectable by MRI scan. Left untreated, it may lead to vision loss. I have arranged an appointment with a neurologist for consultation a few months from now so as to clear my worries that I might not be suffering from such condition. In the meantime, I am trying to keep away from my tendency to obsess over health-related worries. I am trying repeating a mantra whenever I find myself obsessing. I repeat the words “forget it” to myself 7 times to distract my thoughts away from the worry. Why 7 times? I suppose I believe 7 is a good holy number, and I would like God to be with me in my struggles.

I went to watch the movie Django Unchained yesterday with my mum, featuring the star-studded cast that included Leonardo Di Caprio, Jamie Foxx, and Samuel L Jackson. I thought I would give it a watch since I have read raving reviews about the film on the newspapers. I have never watched a Quentin Taratino film before, even though I did purchase a Kill Bill DVD a long time ago which I have left languishing in my cupboards. I did expect violence in the movie, but certainly not as much violence as what I did see in the film. The amount of gore was simply gratuitous. The last time I saw something as gratuitous in violence content was in the movie Ninja Assassin featuring the actor/singer Rain. I mean, a movie with violence is one thing, but one which depicts gore with such gratuitous abandon is quite something else. Frankly speaking, I would prefer to give movies with lots of violence and gore a miss. Certainly not a movie to take a girl out to watch

Nevertheless, I thought the film gave an intimate picture of the time of slave-owning America, the days of the cowboys where bounty hunting was a law enforcement measure, and the government issued out warrants for the capture or execution of fugitives with a dead or alive bounty on their heads. And those were the days where property owning aristocratic white men runned plantations with bastions of black slaves under their supervision, they make their sport and living from the free labour of the black people working under them. The film features some of the most barbaric treatment that the white people inflicted on the black people, such as slaveowners whipping black female slaves out in the open fields for running away or making mistakes, and aristocratic white slaveowners making the male black slaves pit against each other to death in ‘mandingo fights’  while they wager bets and cheer on. There was this scene where the white slaveowner, played by Leonardo Di Caprio, set his dogs to maul to death one of his mandigo fighting slave for running away.

Basically, the story is about this black slave who was freed by a white bounty hunter, who was an exception amongst his white community in that he opposes slavery. Together, they went on bounty hunting, and then on a quest to free a black female slave who was the wife of the black slave held in the mansion played by the Leonardo Di Caprio slave owning character. There was much gunning down of white men in the process, and it could be said they painted the house red, literally!

One of the most poignant part of the film for me was when the Leonardo Di Caprio character was mocking the black people at the dinner table by taking out a souvenir of a skull by a former house slave that had looked after his family, and sawing it up to explain how there were certain dimples behind the area of the skull of the black people. This, according to him, was the scientific explanation for the submissiveness of black people as those regions of the brain was responsible for submissive traits. He mockingly asked why all those black slaves under him did not rise up to kill him all those years when they were working for him.

I am not sure how scientific this claim by the Leonardo Di Caprio character is. It is certainly politically incorrect. I was wondering whether there is indeed such things as genes that is inherent amongst the various races that influences their inherent behavior – such as aggressiveness or submissiveness, or intelligence level etc. I have mixed conception of the characteristic of the white people. From most of the movies and television shows that I watch, and from the white people whom I have dealt with in Singapore, they seem like nice people with a congenial disposition. But from hearing about history and how the western foreign powers treated Asia, there are those white people who have a streak for wanting to dominate other races and who treat other races with condescension. Django Unchained features white people at their worst, with the lack of compassion and Christian generosity that I sometimes come to associate with white people. But I think Asian people are really no better, and can be quite ruthless, authoritarian, and war-mongering amongst themselves as well. I remember reading a quote by the eminent philosopher Bertrand Russelll who said something about how humans have the tendency to see virtues in their own race, and vices in others. The truth probably is, that there are both good and bad people in every race. I certainly hope for good people to take charge of their society, and make the world a more peaceful one.

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