TFW it's not actually about Nas Daily

Nas Daily has moved to Singapore, and every time I come across an article or tweet about it, I can’t help but feel a little heartsick.

Not because I hate Nas Daily. The amount of shouty enthusiasm he packs into a minute makes me want to brew him chamomile tea, but it can’t have been easy churning out that many that consistently, and there’s something to be said about being able to communicate in an entertaining way in so short a time.

I feel heartsick because Nas Daily and his relationship with Singapore reminds me of something a lot more unsavoury than being profligate with superlatives.

When Nas Daily first came to Singapore, it wasn’t that big a deal. He goes to a lot of places; it’s what he does. And sure, maybe there were things he was missing, but how much can you really expect a tourist to be able to convey in one-minute chunks?

Then we all started to notice the access. How was this guy having a meet-and-greet with Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan? Wait... is that Lee Hsien Loong in his video, just “hanging out” at Gardens by the Bay?

That level of access is neither accidental nor incidental. It‘s no surprise that people immediately started wondering if Nas had been paid to produce his videos about Singapore; perhaps it had all been one of the PAP’s more successful attempts at engaging “influencers” to get the millennial social media-native crowd on their side.

Nas denied that he had been paid for his Singapore trip and his videos. Sure. Maybe he’s just a real fan. But there are more ways to show one’s favour than by paying money. Even if Nas doesn’t understand this, the People’s Action Party—masters of carrot and stick—do. (In any case, Nas was later featured in a campaign for NTUC Income; how, and when, did that contract come about? 🤔)

Now Nas has moved here, bringing his company with him. He says he intends to keep making videos about social issues in Singapore, and promises to hold a conference to talk about Singapore. Upon his recent arrival, he announced a meet-up, for all regardless of citizenship, at the Botanic Gardens. (I’m not sure if this is the “conference” he meant, or if he’ll get to do more than one of these things.)

None of this sounds very controversial. Nor should it be. These are all activities that Nas can and should be able to do.

The issue is who isn’t allowed to do these things.

In the same year that Nas fell in love with Singapore on camera, activist Jolovan Wham was put on trial—the first of many to come. He was later convicted of organising an “illegal assembly”—an indoor forum on civil disobedience and social movements, to which the Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong Skyped in. Jolovan still has other outstanding charges, including for a 15-minute candlelight vigil outside Changi Prison the night before an inmate was due to be hanged, and a vandalism charge for allegedly sticking a couple of pieces of A4 up in an MRT train carriage during a silent protest.

In the same year Nas rubbed shoulders with the prime minister among the Supertrees, my colleague Dr Thum Ping Tjin and I were told that we would not be able to register a Singapore subsidiary of the company that owns New Naratif, a Southeast Asian platform that we founded together. We were told that New Naratif was “political” because we held democracy classroom sessions and published stories that were critical of politics in Southeast Asian countries. The authorities pointed to our grant funding from a foundation linked to George Soros—information that we had willingly disclosed—and pulled out the “foreign intervention” card as a way to justify their refusal to allow New Naratif a legal presence in the country. Where other Singaporean-led start-ups have been welcomed into incubators, New Naratif was unceremoniously dumped into a pressure cooker.

Full page coverage just to say that ACRA rejected us! For what sia.

Full page coverage just to say that ACRA rejected us! For what sia.

A year before Nas came to Singapore, Pink Dot was forking out money, for the first time, to erect a fence around the perimeter of Hong Lim Park (the only place in the entire country where Singaporeans and PRs can gather without a permit). People had to queue to get ID-checked before participating in Singapore’s annual LGBT rights rally, the closest thing we have to Pride. LGBT people and allies who weren’t citizens or Permanent Residents were denied entry. Transnational families were separated by the barricade. The reason? New regulations, ostensibly to prevent foreign interference in domestic affairs.

So when a guy who’s clearly favoured by the very government that’s made life difficult for civil society—while dismissing local criticism as lacking perspective—arrives in Singapore and promptly says that he’s been granted all the “necessary permits” for an outdoor event (with stage! and music!) in a non-Hong Lim Park location to which people of any nationality are welcome, I’m not ashamed to admit that it really touches a nerve.

It’s a clear indication that, while Singapore might be known internationally as a stickler for the rules, things here really work based on the whims of the PAP. “Foreign intervention” is what they say it is. Things are “political” when they say it is. Activities are disallowed on “public order” grounds not because there are real concerns of public disorder—for God’s sake, Jolovan is currently being investigated for holding up a piece of paper and taking a photo—but according to the wishes of the powerful.

This is not rule of law.

Nas Daily might not be playing politics—I seriously doubt he knows that much about Singaporean politics, anyway—but the PAP is. And this isn’t new; the party has consistently sought (and largely succeeded) to frame narratives and shape the contours of political discourse in this country. Ambiguously worded legislation that allows these flagrant double standards is part of the MO; for the latest example, just look at the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA). Soon, they’ll get to have a say over what’s “fact” and what’s “false”, too.

As Sudhir Vadaketh writes, “the PAP’s cheerleaders are the last ones standing.”

With critical voices harassed, intimidated, or even leaving the country (by necessity or design), we claim to pass laws that protect and enrich our democracy, but in reality are suppressing the important conversations and difficult questions that we actually need to engage with. The stifling of these discussions will in turn shape the way we think, respond, and even imagine our future.

I’m heartsick to think of a future where we might have fewer and fewer independent, critical platforms, more and more restricted Pink Dots, less and less opportunities to see ourselves in struggles around the world (even via Skype). I’m heartsick to think of a Singapore where people aren’t able to make meaning for ourselves, to read and engage widely and come to our own conclusions, to be trusted to be able to exercise our own judgment when parsing the world around us.

We should welcome Nas Daily to Singapore, just like how we should welcome anyone who comes here (honestly and in good faith) to seek the life that they want. Nas should get to run his company, make his videos, hold his meet-ups. If that’s how he really feels about them, he should have the right to be as enthusiastic about the PAP government as he likes.

But he, and others with similar rhetoric, should not be the only ones able to operate so freely and openly.

Kirsten Han