Sunday 3 August 2014

Big Brother? We have bigger things to worry about - like scary movie posters

“Quite a country you got there, Ong.”

That was the comment posted with a link on my Facebook timeline last week by an American friend whom I was in college with and haven’t seen since SWV were topping the charts.

Before this, Bill hadn’t contacted me in months.

So what was this irresistible item about Singapore that Bill, who’s now an archaeologist in the US Midwest, felt compelled to share with me and comment on?

I mean, he didn’t comment on the hilarious bit that comedian John Oliver did two Sundays ago on his HBO show Last Week Tonight on the National Council on Problem Gambling’s World Cup ad where Andy’s father bet on the Germany, the eventual champs.

Yes, Jimmy Fallon had already done a bit on the same thing a week earlier on The Tonight Show.

But Oliver took it even further by producing “prequels” to the ad where Andy’s father also correctly bet Andy’s savings on the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby and that Ryan Gosling would get Eva Mendes pregnant.

But, no, not a peep from Bill about that.

Also no pithy remarks from him when newspapers around the world were running headlines like “Singapore libraries to destroy copies of gay penguin book”.

Maybe he thought the headline was from The Onion, the satirical website known for fake news stories where a mutual acquaintance is a writer.

But Bill is a little more high-minded than that. The link he sent me was to an article entitled “The Social Laboratory” in a US magazine called Foreign Policy.

This intro alone was enough to make me want to curl up in a corner and cry:
“Singapore is testing whether mass surveillance and big data can not only protect national security, but actually engineer a more harmonious society.”

What I read was: “Singapore is big words, big words, big words society.”

Did he really expect me to read this article?

Sorry, Bill, I don’t have a PhD like you.

Can’t we just go back to talking about homosexual flightless birds and movie stars making babies? That’s more my wheelhouse.

Could I just ignore Bill’s comment? Would that offend him?

What’s the social media etiquette for a situation like this?

I mean, I really didn’t want to read the article.

Or maybe I can just click the “like” button on Bill’s comment and be done with it.

But that would be lying.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a “I don’t know what you’re talking about and I can’t be bothered to read what you sent me” button on Facebook that I could click.

I felt I owed Bill a proper reply, like something with words.

Well, since the article is about Singapore, I guess I should read it.

The article begins with an anecdote about some Singaporean bureaucrat meeting some American defence research guy in the US in 2002 and how that started Singapore on the track to “testing whether mass surveillance and big data can not only protect national security, but actually engineer a more harmonious society”.

I assume.

To be honest, I just skimmed through much of the article. It just goes on and on.

But I got enough of a gist to realise that from the point of view of Bill, who has never been to Singapore, Singaporeans must be living in some sort of “Big Brother” dystopia, as in George Orwell’s novel 1984, not the reality TV show for voyeurs.

Or perhaps a little of both.

I don’t know how many Singaporeans care about the issues of privacy and individual freedom raised in the article.

Even the author of the article acknowledges:
“Most Singaporeans I met hardly cared that they live in a surveillance bubble.”
After all, we have bigger things to worry about.

Like the growing number of ATMs that dispense only $50 bills and not $10 notes.

This is apparently such a major problem that Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, also Finance Minister and chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), said: “MAS will continue to monitor the situation to ensure adequate access to smaller denomination currency notes.”

On Tuesday, I read a letter to The Straits Times from someone complaining about a bus stop ad for a horror movie that “traumatised” his daughter and demanding that the Media Development Authority (MDA) “explain why this was allowed”.

My own daughter is demanding to know why the X-Men comic book issue with the gay wedding cannot be found in the library even though it’s not banned by MDA.

Now the only way she can read about queer mutants tying the knot is if I pay for the comic book at Kinokuniya. It’s 24 bucks!

I wish I could withdraw the money from the ATM, but it dispenses only $50 bills.

These are the kind of First World problems that Singaporeans really care about.

Yes, it’s quite a country we got here.

So how did I reply to Bill?

I wrote: “Quite a positive article, I think.”

He “liked” my reply.

As SWV would sing - weak.

- Published in The New Paper, 3 August 2014