Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Away for a while....

Dear readers, regular customers, and fans,
I will be away for a while for a secret retreat (2-3 mths)....Feel free to leave comments. I will be back (hopefully with enhanced prowess)... :)

Update (13th October 2005): I won't be back until March 2006 or even a few months later than that. Apologies to the few of you, my dear readers, who have been checking and getting slightly disappointed each time you click on the link to this blog. I'm fighting a huge battle over at my side - a financial, emotional, intellectual, and career battle. I have to win, for otherwise I'll not get out of this paralyzing aura of 'good-for-nothing'-ness that surrounds me right now. I think that a man like me in this current state really shouldn't be blogging. Let me achieve something first.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Heavenly Sword learns to write poems...

I've been thinking of taking up Poetry Writing as my new hobby, having been inspired by talented Singaporean lawyer Mr Gilbert Koh at The Reader's Eye and talented Singaporean blogger Dead Poet at Rest in Peace, so let me give it a try on this peaceful Saturday night....

Singapore Angle's latest entry about books and new blogger Trisha's entry about the National Library as a 'storehouse of knowledge' have inspired me to write a poem about 'Books'...

Books have helped and hurt me in my life
They have burnt a big hole in my small pocket
And made me a very poor man indeed...

Books have made me wiser, though still not wise enough
More critical, but still not critical enough
More conscious of the world at large, but still not conscious enough...

Books have made my tiny HDB flat a huge mess
But custom-made bookshelves cost too much to make
And bungalows cost too much to purchase

Books are for the rich men to buy
And for the poor men to borrow
That is what libraries are for...

Yet books-buying is an addiction that is hard to break
For books on hand for scribbling and highlighting are great
Thus making the poor man poorer and poorer all his life...

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Think critically? Notes on 'critical blogging' by Heavenly Sword

A few rather intellectual bloggers have been advising others to 'blog critically' or 'think critically'. I think that the advice is a good one and originates from good intentions.

The above advice, however, has often been misunderstood or applied wrongly. Being critical should not mean being cynical all the time, nor should it mean giving anti-establishment views all the time. Simply reversing the claims made by others represents just that – a simple flip from one view to a directly opposite view – an action which can be executed by any ordinary computer or robot.

Critical thinking, I suggest, should mean that one is able to judge for himself the strength, weaknesses, nuances, and structure of the arguments presented by proponents of various schools of thought on particular issues. It is perfectly normal that on certain issues, one might well feel that the government has done the right thing while on other issues, one might feel that the government could do better. But some habits hinder genuine dialogue in Singapore's civil society. Firstly, there is a tendency in some people to view any sort of criticism negatively. Critics are often viewed as unpatriotic just because their discourses do not match those of the Ministers perfectly. Thus any deviation from the standard script is viewed with suspicion. At the other extreme, there are others who criticize everything they see, as though the country is a shithole. These critics tend to take the moral high ground and assume that their arguments are superior just because they have a moral case. They will ignore other views that are based on a holistic assessment of situations that take into account unique characteristics of a particular country. I would like to suggest that both extremes are unhealthy. Just as no society is perfect and utopian, no society is so bad that you have to totally dismiss it or condemn it (for example, by describing it with the word "bloody" as one blogger has done).

Thus, one should always take the time to see things from various perspectives. This sounds cliché but it is the phrase that most adequately captures what I think. Critical thinking and 'proper argumentative writing' are inseparable, in my opinion. The latter means that having judged the strength and weaknesses of the various schools of thought, the person is able to present his own arguments in a way that is convincing/persuasive, fair/reasonable, and polite/non-sarcastic.

An argument that is phrased in a sarcastic way can hardly persuade people to try and see things from your point of view. Whenever I read or hear something sarcastic, I feel that the person is not interested in convincing me or engaging in a civilized dialogue; instead, he is probably out to provoke, irritate, annoy, or enrage me. Arguments designed to convince should come across very differently from those designed to say, 'please punch me'. The philosopher Nietzsche once said that people sometimes do not agree with one another not because of the substance of the arguments, but because of the ways they are phrased and delivered – that is, the form of the arguments. So form can be as important as substance.

Using phrases such as "if you think about it..." (as though people are not thinking about it) or "come on..." (as though people are being unreasonable), or swear words such as "WTF" (whatever that means), or loaded terms that imply dissenters' stupidity, immaturity or incivility, are all strategies falling outside the realm of proper argumentation. I will never think more highly of a piece of writing just because one or more of these strategies are used. In particular, I do wish that people in Singapore will use Hokkien swear words less frequently or not at all if possible, especially in public (and publicly accessible domains). People who are vaguely famous should take note of this, because 'with great power comes great responsibility'. My fear is that over time, my beloved dialect group, Hokkien, will be associated with a vulgar culture of the most banal form – and I would like my culture, which obviously includes its language, to be associated with something more positive in my very own country.

Thus, I have presented my view of what (a) critical thinking and (b) 'proper argumentative writing' should entail – namely, civility (as represented by a decent form), and avoidance of the two extremes that I have described earlier. Only when (a) and (b) are combined can one engage in 'critical blogging'. Lastly, I would say that many people confuse critical thinking with the practice of voicing personal views on every controversial issue on earth. This is understandable, since this practice does allow people to boost their egos in the process of trying to appear encyclopaedic or morally superior. However, commenting on every single controversial issue on earth is not something that I would personally do, because at times it just seems obvious to me that the fundamental disagreement over certain issues, laws, or policies is due to normative differences in value systems, to the extent that arguments and counter-arguments will only end up in a stalemate.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

In defence of Sumiko Tan: Notes on decent blogging

The veteran Straits Times journalist Ms. Sumiko Tan wrote an article in The Sunday Times (Reflect column, 31st July 2005) which I feel is a timely one. It is about time that somebody prominent so eloquently articulates the truth about certain portions of cyberspace, albeit in a somewhat exaggerated way. My personal interpretation of her article is a positive one. What Sumiko is doing in that article is not merely to describe cyberspace, but also to urge bloggers to do two things essentially: (a) to write in a more polite way, and (b) to read high quality websites from now. (a) is an explicit message; (b) is an implicit one. And based on my interpretation, I would summarize Sumiko's key points as the following:

(1) She wrote, "See no evil, blog no evil". This is what she proposed and the sentence is prescriptive. I would support what she has prescribed.

(2) Next, I would group the following sentences (a) to (c) together as 'sentences describing (large portions of) cyberspace'.

(a) "Need evidence that man is nasty and brutish? Go to the Net. You can witness the worst of human nature there....(b) Cyberspace has degenerated into such a malicious, nasty, toxic place. There is so much bile and vile floating around...The Internet has also brought out the worst in people. Cyberspace is choked with smut....(c) What scares me more is the personal smut that litters the Net, the vicious gossip, invidious hearsay and the big, fat lies you get on some websites, chatrooms and...blogs.... It's fine to lie about, insult and denigrate anyone you know...Isn't the Net simply reflecting the idle gossip that's already being traded at the office water-cooler?"

The words in bold are those representing the kinds of behaviour that I think she is really criticizing – those that are truly bothering her. And everyone would surely agree that those are terrible kinds of behaviour to display.

Of course, one could argue against Sumiko and say that not 100% of cyberspace is like that, and she would probably say, "Ok, even if not 100%, then at least 80%." But therein lies the catch: even Sumiko herself knows, obviously, that of course not 100% of cyberspace is like that (she is not stupid, you know?). Although she apparently said things to the contrary, as a reader, I felt that she was very much trying to get her point across by exaggerating things slightly, using hyperbole (where 'hyperbole' is defined as 'deliberate exaggeration that is not meant to be taken literally').

Next, Sumiko moved on to state her normative stance, which is exemplified by the third key point that I would extract from her article. She wrote, "In asserting one's right to comment, surely one must be guided by some decency and decorum?" And I think most readers would support such a normative stance.

Sumiko also wrote that she is "leery of chatrooms, forums, and blogs." That is her attitude and feelings towards blogs in general. She did say that she will be missing out on some potentially useful information that might help her feel the 'pulse' of society. Her attitude and feelings towards blogs resulted from a 'halo effect': she has seen too many terrible blogs to want to go near any blogs now. In other words, she has developed blogphobia, as I would call it. I think anyone who gets exposed to too many low-quality blogs will somehow be afflicted with this condition.

There is one solution that I will propose - which is that parents, educators, and everyone else should put in the effort to know blogosphere in greater rather than lesser depth, in order to direct the younger ones better in this jungle trail, especially in the earlier phases of their personal experimentation with blogs. Withdrawal from or complete dismissal of an increasingly widespread social activity like blogging is not the best way to cope with the changing times ourselves, let alone to provide relevant guidance to our children or younger/teenage friends. Just like the orang asli, we should know the jungle well in order to help the younger ones avoid the dangerous areas of the jungle. In other words, we should be the cyber-orang asli.

Many readers/bloggers have thus interpreted Sumiko's article in a negative way, but as I have shown above, her article should be welcomed despite the strategy of using hyperbole to get her point across. Now, even if she is saying that 99% of the blogs in cyberspace are of poor quality, that itself is also not entirely bad. The greater the number of lousy blogs in existence, the more the good ones will stand out and shine like twinkling stars in the sky at night. Discerning readers will then be more appreciative of civilized and substantial blogs such as Singapore Angle, Commentary Asia, and many others. I think even Ms Sumiko Tan herself would probably agree that blogs such as the two mentioned above are insightful and would accept them as notable exceptions. Although they are technically 'blogs' in the sense of 'online diaries' (in terms of their form or format), they are essentially de facto websites dedicated to social commentary and civilized discussion on societal issues (their substance). And Ms. Sumiko Tan did hint that she would still visit websites that are useful, civilized, and insightful, did she not?

Finally, Sumiko Tan wrote this: "If I want to be mentally and spiritually calm, I should strive to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil – and blog no evil". I can see her point. But at this point I would differ. I think that true calmness should not be just externally induced calmness, for that kind of calm depends on the quietness of the environment, rather than on the instrinsic calmness of the person himself, and is therefore something which cannot be sustained when one encounters a more chaotic environment or situation. The ultimate test of spiritual calmness should comprise three parts: (a) the ability to ignore people who hurl insults or vulgarities at you (i.e. do not exchange insults/vulgarities), (b) to speak politely to people who defame or misinterpret you (one can be firm and polite at the same time), and (c) to address the issues raised by an over-zealous blogger who has a misguided conviction in certain fallacious arguments, but to do so fairly. Indeed, these abilities can only be cultivated after regular practice – and such forms of practice are probably more readily available in cyberspace than in the real word. Such practice would be a very good way to build up one's patience, threshold of anger, and overall 'internal strength' to face less fearful enemies in real life, or even more fearful ones. Patience and the ability to contain anger are surely the best skills to possess in this Hobbesian society that we live in today, insofar as it is Hobbesian.

So, do not draw your weapons and fight the moment someone has a different view from you (if you slay him with your sword now, who will spar with you?). Do not hurl Hokkien swear words at people no matter how angry you are. And most of all, even if someone is rude, sarcastic, or appears ignorant, sit down with that person, drink coffee, and converse calmly. Be the calm one. The world is in a terrible state as it is - there is no need to make things worse...

Related Articles
(1) From a Singapore Angle: 'Sumiko Tan on Cyberspace's 'Bile & Vile' & 'Online Diaries'
(2) Trompe L'oeil: 'Blogging - An Extension of Self?'