Dear Jim Sleeper,
I awoke this fine Sunday to the rare bit of London sunlight streaming in through my windows, and your HuffPo article, “Blame the Latest Israel-Arab War on… Singapore?” promptly ruining any warm fuzzy feelings that that might have inspired. It was my fault, I suppose, for checking Twitter before getting out of bed, but you could have written a less aggravating piece — so let’s just share the blame for a ruined morning here, okay?
So this is a new one.
Not the bit about Israel and its neighbours, of course, but the bold claim that my country is behind this particular revival of an age-old conflict. Not yours, which has been involved in more military conflicts that we can reasonably know about, much less count, but my tiny nation, which many people aren’t even sure how to locate on a map, much less link to Middle Eastern turmoil. I’m almost grateful for this new angle on an otherwise stagnant issue.
I’ll qualify my position here: I’m a Singaporean, evidently. I’m a Singaporean of minority ethnic & religious status — whom you would have us believe is tragically dispossessed of the “status, power, and reputation” bestowed upon my “Han” Chinese peers — and one who has a brother going through two of the most mind-numbingly pointless years of his life in the “service of our nation.” I’m a Singaporean who disagrees fundamentally with the policies of my government in both these areas, but one who will not stand for unjustified criticism or misrepresentation of them nonetheless. I’m also a Singaporean, coincidentally, of Semitic descent — though my ancestral heritage has about as much to do with my politics as my country’s policies have to do with Hamas.
You aim to call attention to Israel’s “deep, dark, secret love affair” with Singapore; you wish to unsettle us with the notion that we’re sleeping in the same military-issue bunk bed. We’re so uncannily similar that surely Singapore must have had a hand in all of this. That’s just how complex global politics work, yeah?
Our “similarities to Israel are a lot more striking than [our] obvious differences”? Okay, we’re both non-Muslim states surrounded by Muslim ones, I’ll give you that. Both bear the
scars mark of the British, both have similar-sized populations with marginalised minorities, both disproportionately outperform neighbours economically.
But what of these “obvious differences” you pay lip service to? Of all the things you could’ve said about how our nations and the contexts in which we exist & operate differ, you choose the fact that Singapore is an island?
Let me give you a few more: we have not been engaged in military hostilities for most of our sovereign existence. We do not believe we have a god-given right to our land that we have to literally fight to protect. Our “less-than-friendly Muslim neighbours” not only acknowledge the legitimacy of our nation, but are among our largest trade partners and freely & willingly participate in the same international organisations we do. Our multiculturalism is far, far from perfect, but just as far from the history-, ethnoreligious- and ideology-fuelled tensions between Arabs and Jews. And on the main thrust of the article: we may be the second-most militarised nation in the world, but we haven’t actually used that military in direct conflict — and definitely not on the same scale that Israel has.
(I must interject at this point that the notion of China being afraid of a “Singapore Sting” is about the most hilarious thing I’ve heard. Have you seen our two countries? Do you buy that giants fear mosquitoes?)
(And yes I just compared S’pore to a mosquito. It’s not that far off-base when you think about it.)
So now I ask you, Jim Sleeper: how is my country to blame for the Israel-Hamas conflict — whether for this particular incarnation of it, or in general? What did we do this time that was different to make Israel take up arms yet again? Why are you convinced that we’re the missing puzzle piece to this persistently unsolvable problem? Because see, Jim, that’s the title of your piece — one which I’ve unfortunately spent the better part of my Sunday evening reading & rereading — but I can’t actually find the answer to this question in it.
I can only conclude, then, that that’s not really what you’re after. And I didn’t have to look far to find what you are going for: what starts as a critique of warfare, meant to “[shed] light on Israel’s inclinations and strategic judgments” in the wake of recent events on this front, ends in an attack on Singapore’s bid to “become the education [centre] of Southeast Asia” that is tenuously linked to our implied illiberal democracy.
It’s even easy to go more specific than that. Here’s a quick review of your last few HuffPo articles:
- While You’ve Been Following the Campaigns, Singapore Has Been Romneyizing Yale (5 Nov)
- As Yale’s Blunder Deepens, Singapore Bares Its Teeth (5 Jun)
- Yale Has Gone to Singapore, But Can It Come Back? (4 May)
- Will Yale’s Alumni Rescue Liberal Education at Yale? (11 Apr)
- How Yale’s Singapore Venture Imperils Liberal Education (16 Mar)
Just 5 because I like the number. See more here. Let me know if you find a pattern.
I don’t want to go into the whole Yale-NUS affair because (a) it’s been done to death, (b) it’s far less exciting than militarism in the Gaza Strip, and (c) selfishly, as someone who is not a student at either university, it’s simply not interesting to me. But this chip on your shoulder when it comes to Singapore? That fascinates me.
You don’t like us. I get that. That’s okay. I mean, there are lots of things in which my country could stand to do better, and I’d definitely put the state of our democracy and the extent of our militarisation near the top of that list.
But what I don’t get is how you, a Lecturer in Political Science at Yale University, are letting a less-than-perfectly-logical bias against one country cloud how you cut through the complexity of other issues. You look to me, a Student in Political Science at the LSE, like the single-issue voter who’s afraid of Obama taking away his guns and therefore blames every conceivable economic and social ill on him. You just tried linking Yale-NUS to a 70+-year-old conflict in a completely different part of the world, Jim. Take a step back and get some perspective.
I’ve got a more important request to make of you (and others of your ilk): stop writing about us like bizarre science fiction. For all our illiberalism & paradoxes & illogicality, we exist. I know we do not fit neatly into your narrative of how the world should be, but we exist nonetheless. And you know what? Our existence does not undermine your democracy or your education system or peace in the Middle East — for the simple reason that we do not exist for you. We do not exist for your country, or for your university, or for your ideals of democracy. In fact, we do not exist for “democracy” at all; we exist for real actual people, we exist for ourselves and that means that our struggles (for democracy/freedom or otherwise) are ours and ours alone.
So nice try with blaming Israel’s militarism on LKY. And really smooth work on bringing Yale-NUS into it; no one could’ve seen that coming. Now look elsewhere & try again — maybe starting with your own country.
An Oppressed, Militarised Singaporean
P.S. Predictably, I have written a follow-up piece to this: On Sleeper (& Sleeping): The Morning After
P.P.S. It has been brought to my attention that Sleeper has since edited his post, particularly to remove the parts about Yale-NUS — without noting this on the original article, where he only mentions a correction about Michael Rubin. I loathe to link to TR Emeritus here, but here is what he had to say about it.