Our Invisible Defences: Of Black Swans, Boiled Frogs, and Sacred Cows

TL;DR – Nope, this is not about advocating for animal rights. It’s about us.

Do you know when Total Defence Day is?

It’s tomorrow, 15 Feb!

Why 15 Feb?

No, no, not because couples fall out of love and quarrel and fight after Valentine’s Day on 14 Feb. Our Total Defence Day is marked annually on 15 Feb in Singapore to commemorate the anniversary of the surrender of the British to the Japanese on 15 Feb 1942, precursoring 3 years and 6 months of Japanese Occupation.

What happens on Total Defence Day?

Every year on 15 Feb, the Public Warning System sounds as a reminder that we ourselves must defend Singapore. It’s a declaration of our resolve for Total Defence. So there, now you know why when you hear the alarms going off tomorrow!

WE ARE TOTAL DEFENCE
Every year on 15 February, the Public Warning System sounds as a reminder that we ourselves must defend Singapore. It’s a declaration of our resolve for Total Defence (Source)

And here’s what we would consider as a must-read for all things total defence. Written by Gaurav Keerthi, who’s with the Singapore Armed Forces, and whose previous Doubting Singapore’s Defence speech went viral and was shared over 1,000 times.

Lest you’re misled by the title of his latest Facebook note involving swans, frogs and cows, he wasn’t advocating for animal rights. Instead, Gaurav was raising important issues that we ought to be talking about more: how the dynamics in our region are changing, how there’re provocative actions by the big powers, the threat of ISIS, and how we Singaporeans will react if a Black Swan event really happens. Love what he said here,

“However, beyond the well-drilled responses of our policemen and soldiers, I am worried about the responses from our people in the aftermath of any attack. What will your first tweet be after the attack? Will you resort to blaming agencies for not preventing the attack, and make snide remarks about their incompetence? Will you resort to blaming each other for the attack? Will you resort to fear, hate, and hopelessness?

Or will you instead vocally defend and support each other with love, courage, and hope? Will you rise together, putting aside any differences, and help each other get back on our collective feet as a first instinct? Will you be resilient as an individual and be part of the societal resilience that helps us heal fully? I hope that love prevails, but it is not something that we can craft clever policies to enforce. Love for Singapore, and love for your fellow Singaporeans – regardless of race, language, or religion – must come from within you, not from propaganda efforts. A Black Swan event will truly test our solidarity and resilience. And in our darkest hour, we must shine brightest.”

He also spoke of Boiled Frogs and online toxicity, and how fractures may appear along religious, racial, socioeconomic, or xenophobic grounds. And worse, what if negative and anti-Singaporean sentiments are stirred by ‘foreign interest groups’? He warned us,

“The confidence in and passion for Singapore may be gradually eroding, due to the negative online culture in parts of the internet (where hate, fear, and escapism can thrive too easily). This online toxicity is problematic. In the US, there have been accusations that social media was used (by Russians, some believe) to manipulate voters into believing fake news articles and creating hostile divides between the Republicans and Democrats. Misinformation and antisocial behaviour and phobias are more easily cultivated by mischief makers or hostile forces. Fake News is a real threat, and it is worrying that some countries are prepared to ‘weaponise’ this to influence us, to subvert us, to divide us, and to fracture our society.

These fractures may appear along religious, racial, socioeconomic, or xenophobic grounds. These clever social media attacks will bring our real fears and emotions in our people, and are carefully designed to to turn us against each other. Each time an incident happens, some toxic commenter will blame a certain race, or religion, or type of person, and that will fuel the fire of rage among many others. Some troll will say “bloody ang moh did this” or criticise the “smelly bangla” or tell the “prc go home la.” Anybody who tries to stand up against such trollish behaviour will likely be immediately attacked as a “pap lackey” for trying to say something positive.”

Of Sacred Cows, Gaurav advocates that we ‘build a society that is intellectually courageous enough to ask difficult questions, but more importantly, is socially cohesive enough to debate those issues respectfully, rationally, and robustly – and if they still must disagree, then they do so without disrespect and without demonising each other.’ Yea, tough we know, but important.

“We need to build a society that is intellectually courageous enough to ask difficult questions, but more importantly, is socially cohesive enough to debate those issues respectfully, rationally, and robustly – and if they still must disagree, then they do so without disrespect and without demonising each other… (omitted)… If we choose to let these differences divide us permanently, then the fault lines in our social resilience will only lead us to an even weaker society in the end. When we fight each other so bitterly, nobody wins.”

Anyway, we reached out to Gaurav and he has kindly given us permission to share and repost his note here. We think it’s an important and very timely read for everyone, so here’s his Facebook note in full,

Our Invisible Defences: Of Black Swans, Boiled Frogs, and Sacred Cows.

GAURAV KEERTHI · MONDAY, 13 FEBRUARY 2017

[Total Defence Day 2017]

Two years ago, I gave a speech at Raffles Institution entitled “Doubting Singapore’s Defence.” In that speech, I asked and tried to answer four fundamental questions: (1) Do we need to defend Singapore? (2) Do we need our own military force to defend Singapore? (3) Do we need to invest money, talent, and effort into our military? and (4) Is military defence sufficient? In the speech, I focused almost exclusively on the military component of Total Defence, and left the elements of Psychological and Social Defence (which are arguably the most important) to the very end with these lines: “Patriotism to me is not blindly waving our flag or yelling the pledge from the rooftops; it means believing that we can be better. It means believing that Singapore is worth defending, intellectually, emotionally, and physically if required.” I did an injustice to these elements by under-emphasising them, and therefore wanted to correct the imbalance this time.

While the SAF would like to believe that the military itself is the keystone of our national defence strategy, the truth is that all of you, our people, are the real foundation of our defence policy. Unfortunately we don’t focus enough on this message, because policy works best on things that can be tracked, measured, and tweaked. The visible components of Total Defence (soldiers, policemen, economic activity) are all well-suited for policy finessing. However, the invisible parts (psychological and social defence) lay buried deep in our hearts and minds. I suspect some policymakers dislike dealing with all this ‘emotional stuff’ because policies are generally ineffective in this realm. Dealing with the human aspects of policy is the hardest, but also the most vital thing we need to learn to do in the coming years. Our real defence strategy starts not in the muscles of our soldiers, but in the hearts and minds of our people.

There are three admittedly-imperfect-but-still-useful animal metaphors that capture my broader concerns about our psychological and social defences: Black Swans, Boiled Frogs, and Sacred Cows. (And yes, I am perfectly aware of the irony of a Hindu person discussing his fear of Sacred Cows.)

(1) Black Swans

Black Swan events are low probability but high impact events. Most people tend not to worry on a daily basis about Black Swan events, but they put aside some money in the form of insurance coverage. I don’t walk around every day worried about being struck by lightning, but I still invest in medical and life insurance every month to give me peace of mind that if anything like that really happened, my medical expenses would be covered and my family would be financially supported.

At the national level, people don’t go to work every day worried that an enemy military air strike might destroy the bus stop you are standing in. An all-out war between Singapore and another country is a Black Swan event; we do not expect or want one to happen in the near future, and we will work our hardest to avoid that situation to keep the probability as low as possible. However, given that the impact of war would be dire, it is prudent to invest some of your resources in an insurance policy against war. The SAF deters would-be aggressors from initiating war, and should they be foolhardy enough to attack us, we must be confident that the SAF can defend Singapore – and if required, teach them a lesson they will never forget. That confidence alone is part of the deterrence, and is in itself important to reduce the probability of this Black Swan event even further.

However, the dynamics in the region are changing, and new threats are emerging that could be new Black Swans for us. There is increasing instability in the South China Seas, with multiple claimants, increasing militarisation, and possibly provocative actions being taken by big powers like USA and China. Singapore may be quite far from those disputed waters and islands, but we were also very far from the epicenter of World War 2 when it first started (and yet 75 years ago, the Japanese invaded Singapore). There is also a lot more ‘sabre rattling’ in our region, and domestic politics is encouraging a more aggressive form of nationalistic rhetoric, which in itself is worrying and dangerous. Furthermore, as the war against ISIS forces in the Middle East tapers down, many of them may flee the Middle East and return home – to our neighbouring countries. Malaysia has already arrested many returning ISIS fighters. Indonesia, Philippines, and other regional countries may become the new breeding ground for terrorist plots – and Singapore could be a target again, as it was when Al Qaeda plotted to strike our home. It is worth remembering our own history of conflict, and understanding how history has a tendency to repeat itself if the lessons are not learned properly.

These are real Black Swan events that Singapore need to be concerned about. The SAF and our Home Team are important ‘insurance policies’ to invest in, so that we are ready to act swiftly and decisively against any such attack. However, beyond the well-drilled responses of our policemen and soldiers, I am worried about the responses from our people in the aftermath of any attack. What will your first tweet be after the attack? Will you resort to blaming agencies for not preventing the attack, and make snide remarks about their incompetence? Will you resort to blaming each other for the attack? Will you resort to fear, hate, and hopelessness?

Or will you instead vocally defend and support each other with love, courage, and hope? Will you rise together, putting aside any differences, and help each other get back on our collective feet as a first instinct? Will you be resilient as an individual and be part of the societal resilience that helps us heal fully? I hope that love prevails, but it is not something that we can craft clever policies to enforce. Love for Singapore, and love for your fellow Singaporeans – regardless of race, language, or religion – must come from within you, not from propaganda efforts. A Black Swan event will truly test our solidarity and resilience. And in our darkest hour, we must shine brightest.

(2) Boiled Frogs

Boiling Frog situations exist when things get worse little by little, but is done so incrementally that it is only noticed after it is too late and the damage is irreversible. I don’t notice whether I look more tired today than I did yesterday, but when I meet a friend who hasn’t seen me in a while, they can see the immediate difference between the size of eyebags today versus last month. (Hopefully my eyebags are not irreversible.) The environment is another classic example of a Boiling Frog situation; we barely notice whether each month is drier than the last until it becomes a serious problem (e.g. a drought is announced and there is a shortage of drinking water). In both of those examples, there are least some physical elements we can use to track the changes (you can see your eyebags in a mirror or in photos, we can track the water levels in reservoirs). However, for changes in our emotional and psychological state, there are no convenient thermometers. Society as a whole could gradually become more hateful, more fearful, more hopeless – and there is no way to track these invisible changes. It is the most worrying kind of Boiling Frog situation, because the changes are not only gradual, they are invisible to all observers until it is too late and society has fragmented beyond recovery.

The confidence in and passion for Singapore may be gradually eroding, due to the negative online culture in parts of the internet (where hate, fear, and escapism can thrive too easily). This online toxicity is problematic. In the US, there have been accusations that social media was used (by Russians, some believe) to manipulate voters into believing fake news articles and creating hostile divides between the Republicans and Democrats. Misinformation and antisocial behaviour and phobias are more easily cultivated by mischief makers or hostile forces. Fake News is a real threat, and it is worrying that some countries are prepared to ‘weaponise’ this to influence us, to subvert us, to divide us, and to fracture our society.

These fractures may appear along religious, racial, socioeconomic, or xenophobic grounds. These clever social media attacks will bring our real fears and emotions in our people, and are carefully designed to to turn us against each other. Each time an incident happens, some toxic commenter will blame a certain race, or religion, or type of person, and that will fuel the fire of rage among many others. Some troll will say “bloody ang moh did this” or criticise the “smelly bangla” or tell the “prc go home la.” Anybody who tries to stand up against such trollish behaviour will likely be immediately attacked as a “pap lackey” for trying to say something positive. The xenophobia against foreigners and ‘foreign-born’ Singaporeans in particular worries me, on a personal level. I was born in India, moved to a number of countries, and only came here when I was 10. My family and I chose to call Singapore home, because we felt welcomed here back in the 1990s. I sense that people are increasingly less welcoming these days, and we are starting down the dangerous path towards intolerance of immigrants. There are challenges with assimilating immigrants, and foreigners may sometimes cause problems for locals – but we should address the specific problems and not attack the people. Some of them may truly want to call this home and contribute to our richness as a multiracial, multicultural society. If we do not stop these growing societal tensions and fractures, over time, gradually, people will be simmering with rage against each other. Over time, we will divide ourselves into ‘us’ and ‘them’. And before we realise it, the damage to our social fabric may be irreversible.

To overcome this, we need to start building another narrative online to stop this festering toxicity. A narrative where if we see unwarranted negativity or hate, we feel compelled to step in and stop it. Where saying the right thing is the acceptable thing to do. Where we are not willing to stand by and watch people build walls between each other, and we proactively go out to build bridges instead. In that narrative, we can undo the damage being caused, and our psychological and social defences will be able to fend off attempts to turn us against each other.

(3) Sacred Cows

Sacred Cows are generally held ideas, policies, or institutions that people dare not question or criticise. Until quite recently, democracy was seen as unquestionably the best way to let a country decide on their future; in the past few months, many people have had their faith in democratic outcomes shaken. There are many truths that we hold to be self-evident, but some of these hard truths may need to be revisited from time to time. Singapore’s success in the past has been attributed to a number of social and economic strategies, and this narrative has been reinforced and condensed into seemingly revered and simplistic principles of governance which are sacred cows. If left unchallenged or unquestioned, these simplistic principles may be misinterpreted or misunderstood for a new context, and following them blindly may actually be the incorrect or irrational path. Worse still, they may give people a false sense of security that “doing things this way worked in the past so it is sure to work in the future.”

I spend a lot of time (too much, my wife would argue) on the internet studying how people comment online. Disagreeing on Sacred Cow issues is actually very hard to do. Some people get uncomfortable with disagreement, and choose to avoid any confrontation altogether by isolating themselves in echo chambers online. They unfriend people with opposing views, and stop reading articles or posts that could cause them discomfort. In these echo chambers, fake news goes unchallenged because it conforms to the views of that group, and is also therefore more readily believed. Even if you are comfortable with disagreement initially, sometimes disagreements on Sacred Cow issues like multiracialism can get very heated and political, and you think that it is ‘safer’ for you to not comment or not even visit that blog post at all. People feel safer in the sanctuary of their echo chambers, which worries me. Even more worrisome though, is when people choose to polarise the issue further by staging “us versus them” protests and petitions instead of coming together to debate and respectfully disagree. When we are torn apart by being “for” or “against” something and engage in heated petitions and protests (such as the “wear white”/”pink dot” divide), it tends to accentuate our differences instead of our shared identities, and build walls instead of bridges. Friends distance themselves or become enemies because of differences in views. Over time, our society could stratify into disparate echo chambers, and we may see the same liberal-conservative divides we are seeing in America, where both sides hate each other viscerally. I felt very personally motivated to fix this issue before it got out of hand, and launched www.dialectic.sg to encourage better debates for a better Singapore. [Yes, that was a shameless self-promotion for the site, but it’s non-profit and for a good cause…]

We need to build a society that is intellectually courageous enough to ask difficult questions, but more importantly, is socially cohesive enough to debate those issues respectfully, rationally, and robustly – and if they still must disagree, then they do so without disrespect and without demonising each other. We are not perfect, and will never be so; but rather than tear each other apart for those differences, we must learn to weave a tapestry from our differences. We all hold different ideals to be our own Sacred Cows, and our instinct is to feel hurt and offended when they are questioned by others. This is natural. However, we must learn to rise above this, and let the better angels of our nature open our hearts and minds to the conversation. If we choose to let these differences divide us permanently, then the fault lines in our social resilience will only lead us to an even weaker society in the end. When we fight each other so bitterly, nobody wins.

Conclusion

The world is becoming a more dangerous place, and many of us feel a grave sense of unease about the political and social changes that we are living through right now. This is an uncertain era, and when uncertainty and danger mix, the reaction is often volatile. Bigger countries may attempt to pressure us to ‘fall in line’ during these uncertain times, as history teaches us. We must nevertheless consider ourselves relatively fortunate to live in Singapore, where we have peace, security, and relative prosperity for our people.

Is there more that we can and should do to make Singapore a better home? Certainly. Singapore is not perfect (as I said in my previous speech), but we should not use perfection as the measure for whether we feel like this is home, truly. I am hoping that we will continue to make small and big changes, to make our country more compassionate and more harmonious – not just more economically productive, which is also not the best measure for how good a home this is to us. We must do more to make Singapore into a better home worth loving.

I know that the men and women who work in our uniformed services – myself included – will continue to give their best to being part of our visible defence against some threats. However, I hope you realise by now that this will not be enough. We must be aware of the risk of Black Swans, the threat of becoming Boiled Frogs, and the bitter polarisation that worshipping Sacred Cows can bring to us. We must work hard to build up our social and psychological defences, so that we are able to put up a strong invisible defence as well.

Over the past year, I have noticed many of our young (and young-at-heart) people trying to make a difference through a variety of wonderful initiatives. Whether they are going out to the streets to share a message of inter-faith understanding, organising respectful discussions on sensitive issues like race and religion, or trying to build a more compassionate society through social media campaigns (and this is just a sampling of the amazing things that Singaporeans are now doing to give each other strength through difficult times) – these efforts give me so much hope for our future.

Because – as I said earlier – our real defence strategy does not begin in the muscles of our soldiers; it begins in the hearts and minds of our people. We must invest in and strengthen that part of our story as well. I hope that you will join me in defending Singapore.

Posted by Gaurav Keerthi on Monday, 13 February 2017



Author: Maggie Wang

Hello, I’m probably your most socially awkward cave-woman this part of town. In the day, I work to put wanton mee on the table and chocolate ice-cream in the fridge. At night, I read a lot and write a little.


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