Welcome to the beautiful Arous Village on the sun-kissed shore of Sudan’s Red Sea coast. Enjoy diving in pristine waters guided by the best professionals and enjoy the fresh and hearty seafood meals!
Except, Arous was no mere holiday resort. In reality, it was a front for Israel’s Mossad spy agency during the early 1980s. The resort was used as a cover to smuggle tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews fleeing their war torn homeland via Sudan to the “promised land” of Israel.
As Muslim Sudan was an enemy state, Mossad had to get creative in devising methods of extracting the refugees. Author Gad Shimron, an agent who was assigned to the resort plan, describes in vivid detail the great lengths to which the Mossad team went to set up Arous in 1981.
Taking over a defunct complex built by Italian entrepreneurs, the Mossad team renovated it with top-of-the-line equipment, hired local staff and welcomed scores of unsuspecting tourists to the ultimate diving adventure. Meanwhile, they secretly worked to transport Ethiopian refugees to the beaches or airfields to be picked up by Israeli navy and air force craft.
Most Mossad operations lose money, but we found ourselves making a small profit. We had to come up with all sorts of excuses to get away for our real work — parties in Khartoum, stocking up on provisions, that sort of thing
Among the excuses Shimron describes was heading to a distant Red Cross Hospital to supposedly spend the night with “beautiful Swedish female volunteers”. Arous itself was no stranger to the bizarre, even hosting Egyptian army officers and British special forces troops on leave. Along the way, the team bumps into various seedy Sudanese officials and a hodgepodge of colourful expat characters.
Mossad Exodus expertly blends the amusing anecdotes of resort management with the dangerous rescue operations that necessitated all the subterfuge. One will sense the deep anxiety and fear of the refugees and the Mossad team in the pages. An account of one incident where Sudanese troops stumbled onto a pickup operation at the beach is narrated in gripping detail.
Shimron adds useful context that helps readers understand the history of Ethiopian Jews and the political circumstances surrounding their journey to Israel. We also see the ugly side of the story, when new Ethiopian arrivals faced (and continue to face) racism and discrimination in the very country they had seen as their ultimate salvation.
In a recent Parliamentary speech, Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong warned of the dangers of foreign interference in local politics and elections. He noted the “curious spike” in anonymous online comments critical of Singapore during the disputes with Malaysia late last year, and referred to the SingHealth hacking incident which experts commonly attribute to state-linked actors.
Mr Tong stressed that Singaporeans are the first line of defence and therefore should be discerning enough to guard against such attempts to divide our society and soften our faith in ourselves and our governance system.
To anchor this effort, we can draw on a concept from our history that emphasises how internal cohesion is a critical condition for our resilience as a country.
In his 1966 National Day Address, on the eve of the first anniversary of Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, founding Prime Minister (PM) Lee Kuan Yew said he hoped to build a “rugged society” where Singaporeans accepted the sacrifices needed to become a well-educated and productive workforce to generate critical economic growth.
At the time, the rugged society prized physical and mental discipline, as well as a strong commitment to collective action directed from above. Mr Lee later added that this rugged society would enable Singapore to stand on its own feet, deter those who sought to subdue it, and produce a generation of leaders who had the “brains, the guts and the industry” to steer the nation.
Ruggedness has manifested itself since modern Singapore’s earliest days. As we commemorate the bicentennial of its founding by the British, it is important to recognise the tenacity and grit of the pioneer and Merdeka generations who toiled in factories, plantations and the docks to build a better future for their families.
However, as we transition beyond the first fifty years of independence, we face growing strains in the governance system as society becomes more diverse, the geopolitical environment more fluid, and the electorate more demanding. Questions have arisen on whether the current governance model and political leaders are robust enough to deal with this complexity and uncertainty.
In his 2015 National Day Rally speech, PM Lee Hsien Loong referred to the founding PM’s call for a rugged society, adding: “We don’t use that term quite so often anymore. But our people must still be robust and tough, able to take hard knocks, always striving to be better.”
However, the top-down approach of the past in directing a rugged society has its drawbacks. Former head of civil service Peter Ho has argued that a complex and fast-changing world means that trade-offs in public policy decisions are harder to make due to unintended consequences that may arise.
Gathering more input from the citizens’ perspective will help the government design better calibrated policies. Moreover, the current generation of Singaporeans who grew up in relative affluence desire greater involvement in shaping public policies that will affect them.
We should inculcate a sense of ruggedness and collective consciousness of the nation’s interests in each citizen that enables them to co-create effective solutions with the state. This bottom-up approach in the social compact between Singaporeans and the government should preserve what has worked well in terms of strategic coherence, and equip individual citizens to decisively respond to rapidly evolving situations in their spheres. We will progress from being a rugged society to a rugged citizenry.
We will need to take practical steps to make this happen. Singaporeans need greater access to and interest in information about how policies are designed, debated and implemented. Conversely, leaders and civil servants need to explain policy decisions clearly and minimise jargon.
Proceedings of our most important institution of public policymaking, Parliament, could be live-streamed online to allow Singaporeans to observe the dynamics of how issues are debated and legislation passed. Researchers will also benefit from greater access to archives and statistics. This is because knowledge gaps that are not duly addressed will allow rumours and conspiracies to fester.
Beyond greater awareness about policymaking, Singaporeans must also be able to see that senior management and political leaders are held accountable to the same standards as the rank and file when there is a failure. Our leaders should not only speak hard truths plainly, but also withstand the same from the ground.
The perception that only lower-level staff are punished for mistakes will corrode morale, and instill an attitude of “every man for himself”. This will undermine that collective consciousness and trust we need to maintain our governance system’s integrity.
The government could also draw upon a greater diversity of opinion and feedback when formulating policies. While existing organisations such as REACH and the grassroots network continue to play a role in gauging ground sentiment, the increasing complexity of Singapore’s challenges means that the government will not have all the answers, as Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat acknowledged in Parliament last year.
Feedback should not be treated as a bureaucratic exercise, but as a clarion call for citizens to give constructive input and for leaders to take those views in good faith. We need to encourage the so-called silent majority to make themselves heard, so that vocal fringe groups do not end up dominating any discourse.
In a 1966 speech at a community centre, founding PM Lee said, “Slowly, we must educate a generation able to stand up, able to identify its collective interests, able to defend it to the end. And when people know we are prepared to defend it, then we will live in peace.”
As Singapore’s fourth-generation leadership prepares to take the helm it must see itself as being embedded within a rugged citizenry that is strategic and savvy in confronting challenges and robustly defending Singapore at every turn.
The National Day Parade is an occasion where the state holds a large birthday bash, smothers citizens in feel-good patriotism and binds them tightly to its definition of national identity.
In Jeremy Tiang’s It Never Rains on National Day, the characters in its 11 short stories all grapple with a sense of drift and a distinct lack of meaning in their lives. Singapore’s well-worn narratives of success and material wealth wash over them uselessly. In fact, the author dispenses with the standard Singaporean tropes about the “heartland”, with many stories not even situated in the island itself.
Instead, they evoke some of the unease that lurks beneath the veneer of sanitised success that Singapore has become infamous for. This is most stark in the story Harmonious Residences, where a Chinese migrant worker dies in an accident on the worksite of a new executive condominium. The well-worn bureaucracy initially hums with clinical efficiency and pragmatism in handling the aftermath, but flails against the raw emotions of the worker’s widow.
In National Day, we share an evening with migrant workers on an excursion to St John’s Island. There, they banter about which building projects they worked on and marvel at the extravagant expense of the National Day Parade. When a local comes up to warn them to put out their campfire, the dialogue highlights an unacknowledged reality that has only recently surfaced with the coronavirus outbreaks in the dormitories.
We let you into our country and you just take advantage, shouting and making noise and leaving your rubbish anywhere. When will you learn that we have laws here? If you don’t like to obey our rules you can just go back, go away.
You think you’re so clean, we’re the ones who clean up after you.
The author excels in penning captivating dialogue, as Trondheim demonstrates. An MOE scholar on the run from work bumps into another scholar on a Norwegian train. In the course of the journey, the former shares her intense dissatisfaction with life while the latter admonishes her for her lack of gratitude at having a seemingly bright future to look forward to.
Singapore is so easy to live in, low taxes and low crime and nice food. Isn’t that enough? Where else do you want to be?
Anywhere. Anywhere except where I am.
During a time when questions are being asked about what it means to be Singaporean, as well as about the many myths that underpin our state and national identity, It Never Rains on National Day is a book that invites you to ponder whether the status quo (represented and celebrated by the NDP) is truly inclusive of human and ideological diversity.
An instantly iconic symbol of India is the teeming chaos that permeates every facet of life in this nation of over a billion souls. But few outsiders pause to think about how this vast subcontinent is kept supplied amid this chaos.
Enter Rajat Ubhaykar, a journalist who set out to chronicle what he considers to be the backbone that supports India: its truckers. Over the cause of under 300 pages, he escorts the reader through multiple unplanned hitchhikes around the country from the commercial heart of Mumbai to the insurgent infested hills of Manipur and the shores of Kanyakumari.
“But it is only when I fill in ‘truck’ as my mode of transportation in the hotel ledger at Udaipur does the utter ludicrousness of my endeavour truly hit home”
Truck de India!
Along the way, he meets a myriad of characters who are mostly amused at this outsider’s curiosity about the trucking industry. For instance, we meet Jora Singh, an addict of bhukki (dried poppy pods) who in turn introduces the author to legendary truck builder Mewa Singh in the dusty city of Sirhind. There we get an insight to the intricacies of assembling the metal beasts and painting them in arresting colours and designs.
Truckers have longed been maligned as ill-mannered thugs and drunks who spread HIV across India, but Rajat also digs out their stories of constant struggles with harsh bosses and corrupt bureaucracies looking to squeeze their cut with bribes, taxes and fines.
“I can’t help but feel that the substantive role of the Indian state in its micro-economy seems to revolve around creating problems for some, so others can be employed in solving them.”
Truck de India!
There is hope too though. Younger, digitally savvy truckers are more aware of their rights and aspire to achieve bigger dreams than slaving away behind the wheel. The industry itself is evolving, with safer, comfortable trucks and better labour conditions. But as the old and new worlds collide, this book will leave the reader wondering if they really do know India and all its hidden complexities.
A conservative heterosexual Jewish couple wouldn’t be out of place in a synagogue. But it certainly raises more than a few eyebrows when they are the owners of Los Angeles’ largest gay porn bookshop.
Karen and Barry Mason were that couple, when they took over the Circus of Books shop in West Hollywood, a historic area with a large concentration of LGBT related businesses and activities. The Masons’ humble store rose to become one of the largest distributors of gay porn in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s.
Rachel Mason chronicles her parents’ stewardship of Circus of Books in this Netflix documentary, highlighting the matter-of-fact manner in which Karen and Barry dealt with merchandise and customers. These are complemented with interviews with long-time business partners and employees (many of them gay themselves) who talk about the safe space that the shop was for vulnerable LGBT persons during a time when conservative attitudes dominated mainstream society.
“It allowed us to realise that you can live as an adult without following the path that everyone’s telling you need to follow.”
Fernando Aguilar, Former Employee
“No one has ever given us anything we haven’t had to fight for”
Alexei Romanoff, veteran LGBT activist
The Masons also open up about how they were forced to discard the dividing wall they had carefully built to shield their family from the business when their son Josh came out as gay to them in college. Karen, who had personally held conservative religious attitudes while selling hardcore gay porn, also recounts her reckoning with this dissonance and eventual involvement with LGBT advocacy.
Circus of Books finally closed in 2019 after years of declining sales from the advent of online porn and dating apps. But for decades, it served as a symbol of and repository for a marginalised community, as well as a business that put food on the table of an “all-American” family.
The COVID-19 pandemic, beyond being a tangible danger to human life, is also a disrupting force, upsetting societal and economic norms, and forcing deep and long seated issues in society, Singapore included, into the fore. I believe that it is time that we address these issues in the open, and deal with them accordingly.
The first issue to be addressed would be local wages. When COVID-19 first hit our shores in late January, much attention was given to frontline workers, who were given public ovations, free meals, discounts, and one-off bonuses to thank them for their sacrifices and efforts.
While that is a nice gesture, I believe that a more permanent measure is needed to recognize the risks and discomforts that they face in their line of work. A tangible way to do so would be to grant higher wages. The government can lead by example when tendering contracts, with greater emphasis on quality over costs, and including employee remuneration as an assessment rubric under quality factors, so that companies that pay their employees fairly would be rewarded for doing so via government contracts.
The second issue to be addressed, is the lack of a strong Singaporean core workforce, and a lack of next generation work practices. In recent years, the government has been calling upon Singapore-based companies to reduce their reliance on foreign manpower, and to instead build up a strong core of local workers, and to use innovation and automation to improve work efficiency.
Unfortunately, many firms still choose to rely on cheaper foreign labour to make up for headcount shortfalls, and this weakness has been exposed by the COVID-19 crisis, when the inflow of fresh foreign manpower was tightly restricted in the name of containment.
I believe that locally-based companies have had plenty of opportunities to voluntarily build up a local labour core and use innovation and automation to cope with smaller workforces, and that the government should use this COVID-19 pandemic to push firms to adopt such practices. It could do so by tightening the issuing of foreign labour permits, and maintaining or increasing related levies to discourage hiring of foreign labour. The government could also use its linked statutory boards and corporations, like the EDB, or Temasek, to incubate local companies to rise up with local-friendly work policies and innovative work practices.
Companies themselves should also learn to adapt to the rapidly changing global environment, by being willing to challenge industry norms when it comes to work practices, be willing to pay and treat their employees better, be willing to train local employees, instead of expecting ready-made workers straight out of the education institutes.
However, we as individuals should also step up to the challenge of strengthening our professional skill sets, of taking on the less glamorous yet honest or essential careers, so that we can become that strong local labour core. We need to adjust our expectations, that sometimes, we would need to put in the extra effort, to endure the occasional discomfort, so that our skills can be honed, and our work can be done.
The last issue that has to be addressed, is how we treat our foreign workers. The explosion of COVID-19 infections among foreign workers has been attributed to the cramped, and sometimes unhygienic, living spaces that they have been provided. And this is not a new issue, for migrant advocacy groups have been talking about it for years, but they were conveniently ignored until it became a national health crisis.
All Singaporeans, whether they are the government, corporations, or even individuals, cannot claim innocence from this issue. We have enjoyed the fruits of their labour cheaply, yet give them dirty looks, or simply chosen to blissfully ignore their plight. This has to change, for they are humans like us, and they are doing their very best to earn an honest living by supporting our society.
The government and its agencies can start by reviewing current laws governing living spaces for foreign workers housed in dormitories. Currently, the formula for calculating the living space per individual includes shared spaces. But this should be modified so that the space per individual is solely occupied by that individual alone. This would give workers more space to comfortably live in.
Enforcement of hygiene standards in dormitories should be ramped up, to ensure that beyond giving our foreign workers the dignity of clean living spaces, that our national healthcare is safeguarded.
We as individuals should also begin to start asking the corporations, and even the government, hard questions, like “during the process of coming to our country to work, were these workers exploited in any way, such as being made to pay ridiculous sums to come to work here?” We should start ensuring that they are paid fairly, and on time, for the work that they do, and that if anyone is injured in the line of work, that they are given fair compensation. We need to pressure our government not to use contractors that are known to exploit their workers, or hire subcontractors that do so, and we need to be willing to accept the higher costs for doing so.
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt for years to come, but the question is: will these lasting changes be viewed solely in a negative light, or can we see some positivity out of this crisis?
Isaac Leong is a casual current affairs follower, gamer, questionable meme lord, and professional (micro)biologist.