No Cane, No Gain: Harry, Queer Discipline and Me, by Eng-Beng Lim

29 Mar

To cane or not to cane, that is the question: Somewhere between the mirror and the international stage, Singaporeans and Singaphiles alike must all face the cane as the instrument and metaphor of state regulation in loco parentis whether or not the name of its founding father Lee Kuan Yew is invoked. The question has  polyvalent resonances for political commentators, cultural pundits, media watchdogs and queer theorists attuned to this model city-state, and is endlessly reproducible. It is on everyone’s lips as soon as Singapore or LKY is mentioned even on the fly at a cocktail party in D.C. or an Asian Studies seminar in Durham. Whether it has to do with the existential or the parodic, Lee, the cane and Singapore are a guaranteed lightning rod for thinking about liberal democracy, capitalist social formation and political subjectivity.

Now that Harry has died, what will happen to that perennial inquiry?

As a kid growing up on the island, one of the prompts for my postcolonial English composition class under Lee’s immaculate administration was “‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’ Discuss!” The unvarnished and phallic test question is barely able to conceal its paddling tendencies even with the padding of the verby imperative “Discuss!” On paper, it was an exercise for organized thinking (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) but all I can remember was my teenage terror, trembling pen in hand, at having to expose the rituals of corporal punishment in my social surround. Worse still was to find the rattan cane with frayed edges hidden behind some closet at home.

More than LKY, my immediate references for authority as a self-hating queerlet were two competing domestic regimes with my domineering live-in grandmother as an established matriarch and my dad as the emergent patriarchy. Both were immigrants from China and simultaneously tender and terrifying as they wielded the cane in different ways. In the case of my grandma, the cane was also aimed at school bullies in the neighborhood who dared to pick on my sisters. I secretly loved the vigilantism of her Hokkien street justice even as it was an implicit warning she could turn on me just the same if I misbehaved (she never did.)

Cane-talk often incited a will to action, making the instrument itself at once legendary and real. I don’t remember now if it was even used with any regularity or at all…

The assignment to write about caning was ostensibly for a grammar lesson but it felt like a kind of Chinese family tradition. And that family was also a nation with a Sino-chauvinistic edge. I am talking about a national pedagogy led by LKY with a disciplinary moral center and an operational racial logic. It stayed with me as a writer around how I think and unthink. If pedagogy sounds a lot like ideology, a quick revisit of Louis Althusser’s notes about educational ISAs (Ideological State Apparatus) may clarify their intersection or interanimation. As Althusser notes, the school is paramount in the state’s arsenal of ISAs that propagate in a concealed and symbolic way ideologies that elicit rather than enforce public consent for capitalist social formation. As a main conduit of bourgeois self-production, the school hones the common ideology of the ruling class through captive rehearsals (“the obligatory audience of the totality of children… eight hours a day”) that are like parental guidance. The difference in Singapore is “[w]e are ideology-free,” says Lee in a 2007 interview with The New York Times in reference to the state’s illiberal pragmatism that is based on a can-do (others say cane-do), do-it-over ethos.

It is no wonder then that writing a response about the rod and its virtues at school brought out every juvenile authority I thought I wielded as a class monitor, pledge leader, gardening club president, and school prefect. Denuded of queer agency, my compensatory overdrive for delusional moral leadership took the form of ever more extra-curricular activities. If the neoliberal regime had an early model of exhaustive excellence, this overdrive was one of its forceful charge. From oratorical, singing, drawing, handwriting and translating competitions, I did them all! Drama society, audiovisual club, boy scouts, bring them on! My singular drive for competitive endeavors was trained and destined for the free market. As an all-around go-getter, Teamy the bee, the mascot for the national productivity campaign (1982) would approve of me, as would Singa the Courtesy Lion:

Teamy

“Good better best! Never let it rest, if it’s good make it better, if it’s better, make it best!” says Teamy the Bee, mascot of the National Productivity Campaign, 1982, Singapore.

Singa

Singa the Courtesy Lion, the mascot of the National Courtesy Campaign launched by the Ministry of Culture in 1982, Singapore.

My law-abiding perfectionism seemed to know no bounds. Not only would it be rude to talk back to Daddy Dearest in his anthropomorphic drag as cartoon apian or lion, it would have been a total betrayal of his patriarchal patronage for my own good.

The operationalization of cane pleasure and pain by Lee, one part Confucius/Asian Values, one part Ayn Rand, and one part cartoon bureaucracy, was thus set in motion for Singaporeans of my generation. It puts the interrogation of the original question around the caning of American teenager Michael Fay in 1994 for public vandalism a freaky sideshow. What’s more notable in that spanking-gate was the way it brought Bill Clinton, Larry King and William Safire together as media mansplainers of that authoritarian regime over there in the East. As Safire opined earnestly in his 1994 NYT Op-ed, “Lee Kuan Yew, the aging dictator of Singapore… Lashed U.S. by way of Fay… so as to make himself an ethnic hero of Asia.”

FB Grab

As the nation-state mourns for Lee’s passing on March 23, 2015 at the age of 91, the symbolism of the cane hovering over the discourse of Singapore runs the risk of nullifying its own excess and the question of national hyperbole around the loss of a Father Figure. So closely identified is the Asian patriarch with the garden city-state invented by him in the late twentieth century as a new temple of efficiency that the two have become one and the same. The mourners call him the Father, and thank him for the material wealth afforded to them. A FaceBook entry depicts a well-groomed male professional leaning on an expensive car professing his gratitude for Lee: “I love you…Without you, I could have been a construction worker in a foreign land.” The eulogies from Singaporean citizens who identify as his sons and daughters, the majority of whom he had never seen or touched, attest to the strengths of the affective binds that the game of cane, the disciplined nation and the love of Daddy Dearest bring together for better or for worse.

As Singapore holds its state funeral procession today (29 Mar 2015) for Harry with Bill Clinton, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and other world leaders in attendance, an undated open letter of resignation from Singa the Courtesy Lion is resurfacing on the internet.

Singa fu

The death of a national mascot and its ignored funeral portend the end of an era just the same. Singa is evidently sick of being polite and kind, and no longer gives a shit about creating a gracious society. It refuses to be a cover for the ugly Singaporean, and no endless campaigns with cartoon niceties are going to conceal a nation of cruel optimists or the selfish bourgeois materialists of the system.

Will “no cane, no gain” dissipate as a national axiom or will it make a softer comeback post-Harry? And will queer discipline qua neoliberal excellence find a different form? Only time and more hurt-so-good memories between Harry and me will tell.


No cane no gain

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