Bar Joke

A sociologist, a political scientist, a media studies professor, and two economists meet in a webinar to talk about Singapore beyond the pandemic. The sociologist emphasizes the social inequities surfaced by the pandemic. The political scientist urges a mindset change from profit calculation to moral reasoning in the formulation of public policy. The media studies professor warns of the dangers of fanning nationalistic rhetoric. One of the two economists argues that efficiency pursued to the detriment of social justice actually becomes inefficient. The other economist wants Singapore to change its input-based development model because it has not been working for the country for years before the present crisis.

Although the webinar is not about hawker food or getting ahead in school, it attracts scores of people, partly because the speakers have strong social-media followings, and partly because it is so refreshing to have an intelligent discussion of public policy not sponsored nor dominated by the state. This group of social scientists that have gathered around the platform are independent-minded and unafraid to criticize Singapore state and society. In terms of politics, they seem to lean left of center, although the media studies professor, with his talk of our duty to strangers, is probably to the left of the group.

Listening to their discussion of structures and systems, policies and procedures, I learn certain ways of thinking but I must admit that I miss the voices of the humanities, my own special interest. When our duty to strangers is raised at some point of the conversation, someone asks, why, meaning, I’m guessing, why do we owe such a duty. A philosopher, if present, could have shed light on the ethical question. And when the sociologist exhorts the use of the inequality lens in all discussions of public policy, I think of the lived and living realities so delicately evoked by the short stories of Alfian Sa’at, whether they be about a Malay mother who, grasping instinctively the relations between race and class, pushes her son to play with Chinese boys, or about a successful Malay woman who can no longer recognize the homelessness in people described by the state as just “camping” on the beach.

The American thinker and writer Paul Goodman finds no clear demarcation between science (or social science) and the humanities. The reasons for studying science are, after all, humanistic: the pursuit of knowledge, the understanding of self etc. Even less understood is the fact that the chief content of literature is scientific. It is, as Goodman writes, “the worldly wisdom and ‘criticism of life’ of good observers who, in the field of human relations, had plenty of empirical experience and some pretty hard experiment.” If literature does not describe, summarize, and propose as sociology or psychology does, but expresses its knowledge in the density of a poem or a novel, it is because “the subject matter of human conduct requires this density of statement,” a density that benefits from interpretations by literary scholars and historians.

To point out the missing voices of the humanities at the webinar is actually to add my voice to the call made by the social scientists for more scholars to join them in the independent and critical study of Singapore. Membership, however, may come at a cost. It is worth noting that three of the five speakers have to work outside of the country. Still, whether they work inside or outside of Singapore, all of them should be thanked for performing the public duty of scholars in sharing their knowledge and expertise with us. Five social scientists meet in a webinar and it is a joke only if no one else will join them.

Jee Leong Koh


6 Responses to “Bar Joke”

  • uselessgov:


    the outcome of his sow


    GD Star Rating
  • Eye of Horus hocus pocus:

    Q: What did Pharaoh say when he saw the foreign worker levy piling up high as a pyramid?

    He exclaimed: Oh my Papa! MOMmy’s home!

    GD Star Rating
  • Glass is actually Empty:

    He who controls the Narrative controls your votes.

    State media is used to control their narrative. 54 years already, there is a severe permanent damage of the heads of sinkies.

    They are always told the good news and some bad news are omitted unreported. They always think the glass is Half Full and on half Empty. They see the water but not the process of missing water.

    GD Star Rating
  • trublu:

    Everything boils down to humanity.
    Public policies more so?

    Whats the use,for example,claiming we have the WORLD’S BEST HOUSING POLICY WHEN MIGRANT WORKERS HAVE TO LIVE IN SQUALID CONDITIONS BECOS SOME RICH N POWERFUL PEOPLE think too much in terms of *ECONOMIC$*, in terms of mere $ n cents?

    What is social science when society is being ignored?
    And,of what good is MONEY IF IT IS JUST HOARDED?

    GD Star Rating
  • oxygen:

    THE WORLD IS ROUND BUT NOT EXACTLY ROUND, we have Mount Everest and Marrianna Deep – dictatorships intolerant of contrary views like PAPpypolitics are just a gust of obnoxious fart that must be exposed and removed.

    IT TAKE POLITICAL COURAGE AND CONVICTION to be independent-minded in a political and economic space.

    Those “jokers” in the webinar need to proudly applauded and supported in the social media.

    GD Star Rating
  • scrutinise:

    ahhh, the benefits of an armchair warrior.
    Break a Joke

    its useless to flog a dead horse, as its has been said
    that singaporeans deserved the GOVT that we chose.
    Dream on about Upsetting the Apple CarT.
    N a malaysian Wave, wont be happening.
    theses also Disruptions up north, too this month.
    Lets watch the drama unFOLDS.

    GD Star Rating

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