The power of silence; on AWARE, pornography and prostitution

At some level it is almost absurd that pornography is banned in Singapore. After all, any self respecting port would measure itself by the number of banks, bars, and brothels; the entire premise of the ‘nation state’ is commodification and trade.

However once we take into consideration the fact that no one likes to air their dirty laundry in public, this begins to make a little more sense. After all, this is the reason why the state refuses to acknowledge the well known fact that Singapore is one of the gay capitals of Asia. It is not that sodomy is criminalized, and hence acknowledging the state’s acceptance of the gay community is tantamount to saying that laws here are not respected, but that the homosexuality reveals the state’s adherence to the principle of surplus value. So it matters little whether sexual relations produce another person or not: surplus value can easily be obtained via increase in gross domestic product; the power of the ‘pink dollar’ is well known. The perverse core of this logic – the dirty secret that must not be mentioned – is this: by extension, humans are but figures in an accounting ledger, can be counted, traded, exchanged, and hence must obey the rules of not only surplus, but also depreciation.

Even though prostitution is legal in Singapore, it is confined to designated areas. There is no moral code behind this decision – after all, it is not as if these are specialized areas in which only brothels exist. However having these zones of exclusion allows the state to maintain the illusion that commodification of sex, and by extension humans, only occurs in specific areas; the rest of the nation is different; the rest of the nation can hold on to the belief that they are different.

The prohibition of pornography functions in exactly the same way, for it exposes too clearly how the state functions. All porn films are virtually the same; the only difference would be the actors. This suggests that all actors are exchangeable; it really makes no difference which actor is playing that role. In fact, it foregrounds the very nature of roles itself. In fact each porn flick is an echo of Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage/ and all the men and women merely players” and this is precisely the reason it will always be marginalized in any society: it reminds us too honestly of the fact that everyone is exchangeable, ourselves included. And there is nothing that is worse to a state that is attempting to create a ‘national identity’ to have the illusion that each person is unique and has a sense of belonging to the nation shattered. In fact, regardless of the size and age of any nation state, it cannot afford to have its basic illusory premises exposed.

This was very clearly illustrated on Monday morning of 27 April 2009, in New York City.

On the said morning, there was pandemonium in New York City. A low flying Boeing 747 tailed by two jets over Lower Manhattan, Staten Island, and Jersey City, caused scores of people to rush from their office buildings. As the New York Times reports:

the low-flying Boeing 747 speeded in the shadows of skyscrapers, trailed by two fighter jets … awakened barely dormant fears of a terrorist attack, causing a momentary panic that sent workers pouring out of buildings on both sides of the Hudson River.
( )

The irony of it all was that this was Air Force One flying over the New York City skyline to allow officials to take photographs near the Statue of Liberty for publicity purposes. President Obama was said to be furious. Of course he would be; never has the impotence of the United States at countering the terrorist threat been so openly displayed. The fact that it was Air Force One with two military jets trailing it cemented this even further; clearly nothing in the skies over New York can ever be trusted again. At the moment when the terror spread over New York, when people fled from buildings and “ran like hell,” what happened was the exposure not only of the fact that the United States would never be safe, can never be safe, from a well planned attack, but even more so that it was always most at risk from itself. One might even go as far as to posit that the terror of Air Force One over New York was not just brought on by the reminder of September 11 2001, but even more so of the Oklahoma City bombings of 1995.

On 2 May 2009, another illusion was tested; that of the status of democracy in Singapore. 28 March had seen an alleged power coup when a group of new members grabbed nine of twelve seats in the Executive Committee during elections at the Annual General Meeting of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). Six of those women – including then president Josie Lau – are members of the congregation of the Church of Our Saviour, a Protestant church who are rather vocally homophobic; this of course led to rampant rumours of collusion and power grabbing in order to push the religious envelope onto an otherwise secular women’s organization in Singapore. These events led to an Extraordinary General Meeting on 2 May, where the Josie Lau led group stepped down after an over-whelming vote of no-confidence.

The question of which group is better suited to lead AWARE and to champion women’s issues in Singapore is of little concern to me. The more interesting question is, ‘why has this event garnered so much media coverage in the state?’ After all, petty political struggles are commonplace. Moreover, Singapore is not particularly well known for issues of human rights, let alone women’s rights. What is even more unusual is that beyond a few statements from government officials as to how this internal power dispute must remain within the boundaries of civility, the state has remained completely divorced from the issue; something very unusual for a government that is hell bent of maintaining the illusion of a conflict-free state for reasons of economic stability.

If one was cynical, one might posit that the state has remained silent on this matter as women are of little concern. After all, the fact that there is a Women’s Charter (passed as an Act of Parliament in 1961; amended in 1996) suggests that women are always already peripheral in the legislation: the main body of the Law is addressed only to the men; women will always be a footnote.

A generous reading of the state reaction would be that the government is finally shifting away from its traditional paternalistic stance where it micro-manages every aspect of society. One could also contend that this is part of the re-branding efforts of the incumbent party; it is increasingly difficult to win elections if one is seen to be overbearing and autocratic.

However, one might also consider this possibility: the incumbent is silent on the power struggle at AWARE as it reinforces its underlying approach to democracy. After all, one of the main defenses given against gerrymandering and a hatchet-like approach to dealing with the opposition is that the incumbent must safeguard itself against hostile takeovers that free elections are open to. One must never forget that Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Worker’s Party came to power through the election system. The nature of democracy is that of majoritarian rule: hence anyone who can garner enough support, regardless of their political leanings, can come to power; by extension this means that democracy is inherently open to non-democracy. In this sense, the power coup by Christian fundamentalists at AWARE demonstrates this better than any political rhetoric could. The fact that the ‘old guard’ that had lost resorted to the exact same strategy – gathering its own support to oust the incumbent party on 2 May – only serves to reinforces this.

By leaving the issue alone, the incumbent allows the fiasco at AWARE to prove its point for it. Getting involved would be a fatal error; it would be tantamount to showing too obviously that they were right. That was the mistake made by the officials in New York; by parading Air Force One over New York, they were attempting to publicize the fact that they owned the skies again, that all was safe. All they managed to do was shatter that very illusion.

For in order to maintain the illusion, one has to keep a proper distance from it; sometimes this is the distance of silence. By not telling everyone that they were right, the incumbent party in Singapore will give everyone the space to come to that conclusion themselves; precisely by letting the women of AWARE indulge in their cat-fight.


< Back