Chaos in the streets of Singapore

riot grrls

Masked female students from Chung Cheng High School forming a “suicide squad” human barricade against advancing police. (The Straits Times, 26 October 1956, page 2.)


Students barricade themselves in Singapore’s Chung Cheng High School, protesting against what they see as “high-handed actions” by the government. Riot police are stationed outside, together with several government officials. Three organizations have been either banned or dissolved in the past months — the Singapore Women’s Association, the Chinese Musical Gong Society, and the Singapore Chinese Middle School Students Union. Inside, students are giving speeches to parents, about how they can help to preserve Chinese culture. The students, together with some of their parents, have been here for days, and the food supply situation is getting tricky. At 2pm, the students’ demands are delivered over police radio via an intermediary: they want food, and they want the police to leave. The Deputy Commissioner of Police, Mr Broadhurst (a British man, since this was in the days when Singapore was still a colony), replies: “To your first point, yes, they can have food. Point number two, the police will stay put.”

As the situation escalates, the government issues an ultimatum for the students to clear out from the schools (students have also gathered at The Chinese High School). Two days later, the students are forced out from the schools. In response, the students, joined by what the Straits Times described as “hooligans”, spread out through the island, rioting, destroying property, and fighting running battles with the police.

Opposite the Central Police Station, the Eighth Police Court is set ablaze.
Mobs storm the Rochor and Jurong Police stations, shouting “pah mata, pah mata” (beat the police, beat the police).
A crowd of 200 attempt to storm the Thomson Road Police Station but are forced back, retreating while hurling missiles at police.

Thousands are involved, and even Johor sends reinforcements to help reestablish order.

(Information from The Straits Times reports, 26 and 27 October 1956. Retrieved from NewspaperSG via NLB eResources.)


Exciting, wasn’t that? I had fun doing my research on it, and I hope you enjoyed reading it. The real question here is: why wasn’t this in my history textbook?

In secondary school, I learnt the bare bones of Singapore’s history. The British discovered a nice little tropical island, colonizing it for their own purposes. The Japanese arrive later during World War II, putting our ancestors through a world of pain. The war ends, and after a few years, Malaya (Malaysia) and Singapore gain their independence. *YAWN*

Nobody told me there were a number of action movies that were played out right here in my little sleepy island home, action movies filled with intrigue, suspense, and sheer blood-soaked violence! Of course, the textbook writers can’t possibly include every single event from Singapore’s history in textbooks meant for teenagers, but now I’m wondering why they had to include only the boring bits. (I hated history so much in secondary school, I ended up dropping the subject.)

The 1956 student riots (continued)

Behind the violence, a number of complex struggles were taking place. In the larger scheme of things, the British were resisting communist elements in the region. When we think “Communism” these days, we often think of China’s faux-communism or of Karl Marx’s famous bearded picture. But back in the day, the communists were tough guys (and gals) who camped out in the jungles of Malaya, armed with rifles and grenades. In Singapore, the Chinese community was linked to the communist element, but in no simple manner.

Lee Kuan Yew in 1956, as secretary-general of the People’s Action Party (PAP), told the Labour Front Coalition Government to resign over what he described as an “inept handling of the situation”. (Yes, there was a time when the PAP were not the ruling party.) In later years, Lee Kuan Yew would clamp down heavily on the communist element, but in October 1956, he condemned the government for using force against these communist-linked groups, saying: “The solution to the present crisis does not lie in acts of violence against the police, troops, or in innocent civilians, or in burning cars. The solution lies in peaceful and non-violent methods of political struggle. We should remove the government constitutionally and not by violence.” (The Straits Times, 27 October 1956, page 1.)

What’s missing from our history (or social studies) textbooks?

In writing about the 1956 riots, I have had to leave out tons of information, all of which carry lessons for the way we think of ourselves as citizens in Singapore and in the larger global community. Textbook and curriculum writers face the same pressures as well, and the choices that are made about what information to include or to leave out often has lasting effects.

In the US, attempts are being made to leave out the “unpleasant” bits of American history. What’s left? Narratives carrying the ideas of white superiority and creationism.

Let’s not let that happen in Singapore. (I’m not a history teacher, so let me know what’s missing and what’s not in 2015’s textbooks!)

What have we forgotten?

We did it! Sing50 is now offering “honoraria” to their “community performers”!

Screen capture on 19 Jan 2015

Screen capture on 19 Jan 2015

Congratulations, all you online netizens, denizens, and Citizens of the World! Sing50, who were initially not going to pay the majority of its performers, will now offer honoraria to their “community performers”! (See this post and this clarification for more background information.)

Screen capture on 14 Feb 2015

Screen capture on 14 Feb 2015

Of course, labeling the payment as an “honorarium” is a sneaky way of saying that Sing50 still treats its performers as volunteers. (Honorarium: A payment given for professional services that are rendered nominally without charge.)

There is a horrible, toxic culture of not paying musicians in Singapore. When I played in Perth, festival organizers were thoroughly apologetic that they could only pay my band a small amount (only in the hundreds of dollars). When I played in Copenhagen, festival organizers were similarly apologetic that they couldn’t pay me anything, but they gave me tickets that I could sell (I would keep all the money from any of those ticket sales). There is an understanding in these cities that musicians should be paid, and that it is a shameful, shameful thing when musicians are not paid.

In Singapore, people act as if musicians should be grateful for the opportunity to perform.

Of course, this isn’t the only problem that musicians face in Singapore. This may sound a little strange, but if we want Singapore’s music industry to thrive, we need more social safety nets, and we need to be more forgiving of “failures” in our local system.

When people dare to fail, they often succeed. We need to have some kind of safety net for entrepreneurs and artists who try for their entire lives to accomplish something, but who eventually end up in a financially dire situations. Yes, a welfare system is tricky to create and to maintain — but I don’t think it’s an accident that countries with solid welfare systems (the Nordic countries, US, and UK come to mind) also have very healthy music industries.

It is absolutely ridiculous that being in the “Normal (Academic)” or “Normal (Technical)” streams in secondary school is seen as a major life failure. These are teenagers we’re talking about, with their entire adult lives ahead of them. Why do we need to condemn these children as failures when so many of them have the potential to excel in other fields beyond the academic?

Everything is connected, and our local music scene is inextricably connected to our local politics.


Everything is connected, and this post is connected to this post, where you will be able to find Mr Seah’s (Kevin Ghosty’s) music 😉

A clarification: the PAP-led government didn’t buy the 50 Steinway-designed Lang Lang pianos.

In my previous post, I complained bitterly about what I saw as a S$1,300,000 waste of money. Apparently some of my readers misconstrued what I was saying and thought that I was blaming the PAP-led government for this S$1.3m waste of money. This is simply a misreading of my text. Perhaps it’s because people have the (erroneous) perception that The Straits Times, SPH, and the PAP are all part of the same “government”? Hmm.

What I wanted to allude to was the fact that legislation like the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, together with regulatory agencies like the Media Development Authority (MDA), work together to create a monster like the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH). SPH publishes the two newspapers that are organizing the Sing50 concert: The Straits Times and The Business Times.

Going by Straits Times reports, there seems to be no tax money going towards the Sing50 concert, which is linked to but separate from the larger SG50 celebration. This reminds me: SPH is linked to, but separate from, the PAP. As Cherian George has observed:

Singapore’s news industry is dominated by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), a corporation created by the merger of two newspaper groups. While not government-owned, it is closely supervised by the political leadership. (link)

To recap: the PAP is not responsible for the Sing50 concert, but it is responsible for creating the conditions conducive to SPH’s current shape, which has resulted in 50 Steinway-designed Lang Lang pianos being purchased for the Sing50 concert organized by two newspapers run by SPH, for S$26,000 each, at the total cost of S$1,300,000.


Now, one might ask: why is Mr Seah getting so angry over S$1.3m being spent, since this isn’t taxpayer money? Good question — even though I asked it myself. Ha!

Here’s why I’m so upset — I think spending taxpayer money implementing lousy legislation is just money badly spent. This money with evil powers (if I may use a really strange metaphor) has resulted in our current media landscape, one lacking the voices of the Breakfast Network and Sintercom, two casualties of censorship in Singapore. The absence of loud competing voices has allowed SPH to grow as it has, and has thus allowed it to Sing50 as it has.

In my previous post, I observed that there was a shortfall of S$952k. I added:



Let me make a point in a more civilized manner.

The general elections in Singapore are coming soon, and our social media feeds will soon be full of GE-relevant articles and essays. But discussions about politics shouldn’t just be contained to election periods. All of us need to be politically aware and active so that we don’t end up having shit like this our taxpayer monies misused, or having policies enacted that few of us actually are happy with.

Everything is political. If we appear apathetic about our politics, politicians can and will assume that they can get away with anything, because no one’s watching, and no one cares.

Nowhere did I say that the government was funding this using taxpayer money. I’m just hoping that not one cent of my tax money goes towards ST’s and BT’s Sing50 event.

It’s enough that my government uses my tax money to create conditions that end up having my country rank 149th out of 179 countries in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Therefore, I repeat my point.

Everything is political. If we appear apathetic about our politics, politicians can and will assume that they can get away with anything, because no one’s watching, and no one cares.

I think the rage that people are expressing over the 50 Steinway-designed Lang Lang pianos stems in part from the frustration over the lack of press freedom here. Of course, it’s much easier to say wah piang waste money la! than it is to say the legislation that has allowed SPH to thrive is inappropriate given current conditions and citizen sentiment.

So I’ll say it again… WAH PIANG WASTE MONEY LA!!

I’m thoroughly disgusted with the Sing50 concert, and there are S$1.3m reasons why

You might have seen the headline already and thought, hmm, well done, supporting local music! The headline’s innocent enough: “$348k boost for home-grown music“. Wow! More money for starving musicians! Excellent!

The only problem? This.

The first initiative by the fund will be to buy 50 Steinway-designed Lang Lang pianos, at $26,000 each, for use at the Sing50 concert on Aug 7, which is organised by The Straits Times and The Business Times.

After the concert, the pianos will go to 50 primary and secondary schools for music education and choir practices.

Wait, what? 50 STEINWAY PIANOS??

If you have no idea what a Steinway is, here’s a short summary. A Steinway is a piano that sounds so good, most prestigious concert halls carry them. For example, the Esplanade Concert Hall has four Steinways that probably sound like God himself designed them.

Do any of the schools actually need the Steinways? And why 50 GRAND PIANOS, for —-‘s sake? Do any of them have concert halls as well designed as the one in the Esplanade?.. (A comment below pointed out that these may not be grand pianos, but upright pianos which are still double the price of a very good Yamaha upright. Thanks, Josephine!)

Here’s an idea: buy 50 pianos from a local company, and support a Singaporean business. Instead of China’s Lang Lang, brand the pianos with a local pianist’s name, and support a Singaporean musician (I randomly did a Google and found this lovely award-winning pianist, Abigail Sin).


(I’m a wee bit pissed off now, yes.)

OK, maybe I don’t have the complete picture, and maybe having Steinways in schools will actually help home-grown music. Somehow. But here’s the thing — home-grown musicians are making sacrifices and suffering for their art, and they’re only getting very minimal support for it.

The family that scrimps and saves just so their beloved daughter can study music — they could use S$1.3m.
The rock band that’s good enough to play at overseas festivals, but can’t because they have to work at their day jobs — they could use S$1.3m.
The entire local music industry that few people pay attention to — it could use S$1.3m.

It’s true that “home-grown music” is getting some funding. But S$1.3m is a huge pile of money to most Singaporeans, and getting 50 Steinways that will probably end up being underutilized just sucks. And where’s the remaining S$1m gonna come from? I HOPE MY TAX MONEY ISN’T GOING TOWARDS THAT.

Cost of 50 Steinway pianos is — S$26,000 x 50 = S$1,300,000
The fund currently has S$348,000.
Shortfall is — S$952,000.)

Let me make a point in a more civilized manner.

The general elections in Singapore are coming soon, and our social media feeds will soon be full of GE-relevant articles and essays. But discussions about politics shouldn’t just be contained to election periods. All of us need to be politically aware and active so that we don’t end up having shit like this our taxpayer monies misused, or having policies enacted that few of us actually are happy with.

Everything is political. If we appear apathetic about our politics, politicians can and will assume that they can get away with anything, because no one’s watching, and no one cares.

I hope the Sing50 concert planners do something to redeem themselves. If they have big budgets to play with, perhaps they could spend the money in ways that actually help the nation. Perhaps I should complain less and actually contribute more.

Ah, I’m a musician, perhaps I could play for the concert!

sigh pie

The Sing50 concert FAQ


Oh. Sigh pie…


I realize that some of this money comes from well-intentioned individuals and private companies. Generosity is a lovely thing, and anyone who gives a gift from the heart should be lauded. I am not finding fault with these generous donors. If you’re someone who contributed to this fund with the intention of helping local music, thank you. There are just so many other better ways to support home-grown music, and that’s what gets my goat.

Edit 2:
Let me be very clear about this, since some people seem to be misreading my writing. I’m not blaming the government for this. (The Sing50 concert people are the ones being a bit silly.) I’m implying that the power structures of our country allow for this kind of wastage, and that these structures exist because too many people are apathetic about politics. Everything is linked, but these links are very often invisible even to the people who use them.

Edit 3: See my follow up post here. People are misreading my post, and it’s bothering me. As far as I know, no taxpayer money is being wasted here.