It's not only The Simpsons and South Park that have proven eerily prophetic:
[N.B. More real-life Snuffles]
No, not in DotA Underlords (but just a hint, the 6 Assassins build's been the most consistent against the A.I. in racking up overall wins and XP in Proto Pass mode, with the Warriors alliance in a somewhat distant second - splashing the frenemy duo of Tidehunter & Kunkka plus Medusa fits almost any configuration later on, seeing as how this activates the Scaled alliance for +30% magic resistance, and also more or less the Warriors alliance, for a minimum of +10 armor... and this is before the insane all-around Area of Effect control)
Combat has been enjoined. Amidst loud whooping, prospective Democratic presidental candidate Elizabeth Warren has signalled the start of the Second Great Meme War, with the proposed formation of an official "Meme Team". Only one teeny problem with that - the left can't meme (fittingly, itself a meme)
Example of effective meme presented as an academic case study
[N.B. Kudos to BitChute for preserving free speech]
[N.N.B. Hosted non-embeddable (but probably smoother) version]
We have encountered this cringe with Hillary falling flat on her face with her "Pokémon GO to the Polls" failure in the last elections, in which she attempted to harness the highest-grossing franchise ever (and still going strong, mind) at the height of its popularity, to general ridicule. On the face of it, it was a no-brainer - cute worldwide phenomenon that no-one had much against, sorta-wittily combined into a "get out and vote" message. But sadly for establishment squares, memes don't work like that. Successful memes aren't sequential or linear mashups of desired properties, they can't be assembled or forced into the public consciousness on demand, as Regina comprehends when she says "stop trying to make fetch happen" in the Mean Girls movie. Think back to the all-time classics: Harambe, hamsterdance, LOLcats, distracted boyfriend, etc. They weren't made. They just were (like covfefe).
True memes, then, possess a certain je ne sais quoi, an ineffable quality present in their conception, of speaking for the times. Admittedly, despite that, there are some characteristics that many of the greats share:
Compare this to the organic grassroots support for the GOD-EMPEROR, from the denizens of 4chan, the_donald and other nexuses of unbounded creativity; they were not paid. They were not enticed. To them, the meme was life itself. They were born to the meme, moulded by it. And Warren and company imagine that they can just form a comparable unit of weaponized autists, on demand? No matter; the foe has called, and the shitlords will answer. Let the dank memes block out the sun!
The promised piece on A.I. hype's been pushed back for some more urgent hype - the just-introduced resource in DotA Underlords. But before we get to it, a follow-up on current affairs. On Epstein's August "suicide", a pathologist has opined that... yeah, he didn't kill himself, which clearly leaves a lot of very interesting questions open. One was asked of Hillary Clinton on The Daily Show, where she self-indulgently declined to reveal the mystery of how she pulled the hit job off, to everyone's intense disappointment.
This made a crossover of sorts with another surprise death, this time of ISIS leader and "austere religious scholar" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, at least according to the hopelessly-biased Washington Post, who might as well have described Epstein as a "wealthy philanthropist who dedicated his life to children", or Mao as "revolutionary culturalist and adult re-education advocate", in keeping with the growing representation of unhinged reporting in the mainstream media, which has fallen to the level of defending the courage of recognized terrorists, while assigning next to no credit for his liquidation. Luckily, this proliferation of FAKE NEWS in government is being stemmed by the mass cancellation of NY Times and WaPo subscriptions by federal agencies - which is only fair, honestly - with GEOTUS further rubbing it in Bezos' face by pushing the Pentagon's US$10 billion cloud contract to Microsoft. Excellently done!
And on to the main course. DotA Underlords is a new strategy game in the "auto chess" or "auto battler" genre, which may naturally spark memories of the venerable Battle Chess program, for the oldies out there. While both Underlords and Battle Chess utilize the standard 8x8 chessboard, the similarities end there; Battle Chess is essentially normal international chess spiced up with animated violence, which happens to be essentially unwinnable against a good smartphone nowadays. Underlords instead has the heroes from DotA as game pieces, each of whom retain some of their signature abilities. Moreover, there is no human input once all pieces are placed in Underlords - the pieces will automatically go at each other based on fixed logical rules, until one side loses all its pieces.
Additionally, DotA Underlords is not designed to be played in one-off rounds, or against a single opponent. Instead, eight humans (and/or bots) participate in tournament fashion, with players facing each other in round-robin order. The first three rounds are can't-lose gimmes that allow the player to pick his first three game pieces and items. After that, the real battles begin, with the loser of each round losing Health equal to the combined stars (we'll get to this) of the winning player's surviving pieces and Underlord. Each player starts with 100 Health, and is eliminated once he loses all of it; the last player standing wins the tournament, and players with an above-average finish (i.e. fourth place or above) are considered to have succeeded in ranked matches (i.e. gain rank).
So, where's the skill in this game? Well, the tactical part comes with the selection and positioning of (hero) pieces, and their equipping with items - each player may have a number of pieces equal to his level on the board at the start of each round, with up to eight extra pieces in reserve on the bench that can be freely swapped with board pieces. Each piece has its unique abilities, stats and behaviour, and membership of two (or rarely three) alliances. If a player has enough unique pieces belonging to the same alliance, a useful alliance bonus will come into effect. These bonuses are generally strong enough that players would do well to pick pieces with them in mind.
The probably more-important strategic part comes with the acquisition of these pieces. Players earn gold at the end of each round, and are then presented with a random draft of five pieces to buy with their accumulated gold. Gold may also be used to bring up a new set of five pieces (2 gold per reroll), or to buy XP towards higher levels (5 gold per 5 XP), which allows the fielding of more pieces.
The improper management of gold reserves is probably how new players lose their tournaments - it is probably natural for newbies to try rerolling until they are presented with their imagined "perfect combination" of pieces. However, as with casino jackpots, this is quite unlikely, and wiser play tends to involve saving up a good warchest to earn interest early on, all the more since losing these rounds costs relatively little Health. Knowing what (piece or XP) to buy, whether to build alliances or rely on the "good stuff", and when to try rerolling (since there is a fixed shared pool of pieces, strong pieces may be heavily contested and thus simply unavailable) is probably the greater part of success in Underlords.
Stars good for pieces. Get more stars.
Slightly complicating the piece situation, each piece belongs to one of five tiers, which correspond to the power and cost of the piece (Tier 1 pieces cost a single gold, while Ace [Tier Five] pieces cost 5 gold but have near-broken abilities), and also may have one to three stars, with a two-star piece having approximately double the HP and damage of its one-star variant, and a three-star piece double again that of its two-star variant. However, to obtain a two-star piece, a player has to buy three identical one-star pieces. Then, for a three-star piece, three two-star pieces, or nine one-star ones, are required. In practice, this makes it quite difficult to create three-star pieces, and it's not uncommon to win tournaments without a single one.
Finally, each player is also represented by an Underlord piece as his in-game avatar, and is presented with an Underlord-specific choice of talents after certain rounds. Currently, only two Underlords - the support healer Anessix, and the fiery Hobgen have been implemented, although at least four are planned, from the game art. Current consensus appears to be that Anessix is more-forgiving and stronger early on, being able to sustain her pieces, which Hobgen comes into his own later with his superior damage, though his problem is surviving until that advantage comes into effect.
All considered, DotA Underlords has been suitably fun and addictive, which should come as a relief to Valve given how their last big DotA spin-off - the supremely-complex trading card game Artifact - bombed. Don't get me wrong, Underlords is anything but simple, with considerations such as predicting opposition formations, hogging pieces that they need and various many little tricks increasingly important at higher levels of play, but there's something of a thrill in watching one's chosen pieces do their stuff on the board. Moreover, being a solo game, griefing and over-demanding teammates are out of the equation, unlike regular DotA. Perhaps best of all, it's free to play and cross-platform. Can't ask for more.
Me: That was a good few months for the firm of H.L. Ham, yes; that's one final big swing trade from the double top of July concluded, from about US$11k to the target of US$7.5k, for a gain in crypto of about 40% - and with the Bitcoin price now settling around US$9.5k after its biggest single-day gain of some US$3k since it was worth like ten bucks in 2011, it's paid off in dirty fiat too. More or less as expected.
Mr. Ham: Under my fine leadership, no less.
Me: Anyway, that's why I like talking with you hamsters, you know. Often, try to be accurate about realities - not even right, mind you, just accurate - and people get all upset. Which wouldn't be so bad, if they didn't moan about the anticipated outcome afterwards. No, Mr. Robo here is as reasonable and rationally-minded as they come, while you, Mr. Ham, are an asshole possessed of an entirely-unwarranted and yet utterly-unshakeable self-belief. Basically, you're unoffendable since any criticism slides off your bulletproof fur.
Mr. Ham: Thanks for the vote of confidence.
Mr. Robo: About the ridiculous boom in crypto prices, some have pinpointed it as being caused by President Xi's endorsement of blockchain on Friday, alongside the People's Bank of China seemingly planning to implement a digital yuan. We have analyzed this scenario in our AGM of January 2018, recall, with the conclusion that state currency blockchains offer next to no additional value proposition over existing digital solutions. They would likely wind up as official Tether-like stablecoin services, though probably with additional mandatory reporting requirements and transfer limitations that essentially defeat the whole purpose. The fundamental tradeoff remains: ban crypto outright and lose the new financial sector, or accept crypto but lose some control over capital movements. It's taken awhile, but I expect that China's technocrats have finally figured that not even they can afford to sit this one out.
On the other hand, it could be argued that China has certain qualities that are a good fit for crypto, which had us wondering as to why they were legislating away their own strengths in mining. In particular, a developed crypto-based alternative monetary system would break the American stranglehold over cross-border money transfers - consider how SWIFT was weaponized against Iran, for instance. Indeed, as the challenging power, China would more naturally seek to establish an alternative financial ecosystem, even if they are unable to fully control it. On the contrary, America as the defending hegemon would seek to maintain its deathgrip on money flows, thus the continued scrutiny over Facebook's Libra, with Zuckerberg again summoned before Congress.
Almost feels like nothing's impossible with A.I. now,
least of all a retiring Jack Ma pwning kungfu masters
[N.B. where "retiring" means handing power over to the CCP]
Me: Leaving further Bitcoin discussion for the next AGM, it was perhaps no coincidence that our DPM was in China a couple of weeks back as Singapore continues to try and triangulate between them and the U.S., but as previously explained in detail, I doubt it'll count for much, what with the resulting pacts all seeming rather vague and inconsequential - and from our own and Duterte's experience, the actual benefits are up in the air. Meanwhile, the recent security spat involving an Indian national has reopened debate as to how ordinary Singaporeans are benefitting from the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, what with India threatening to refer us to the WTO for allowing just two hundred thousand of their workers in. Honestly, the EDMW set has a point here.
Continuing on questionable governmental decisions, the automated bicycle storage facility highlighted in June as not making any sense, will indeed cease operations by the end of the year due to low take-up. How low? Well, only three of its 500 lots were used daily through its lifetime, but given the unrealistic pricing, we can only show a shocked Pikachu face. Apropos from the national subreddit on the S$4.7 million white elephant, "I bet huge money that who ever came up with the idea has already been promote up to another position... the kah gias left behind need to shutdown this project which all knew is a bad idea from start... Scholar-generals are like a F15 plane.... Come in hard and fast and high and loud... Drop a big fucking load of bomb.... And then they are out and away."
We can only hope that more common sense will be involved in the designation of the entire western part of Singapore as a test ground. Despite the deluge of personal mobility device incidents, both on the road and off, I'd gather that their enduring popularity relates to the organic suitability of their design as a transport solution for the masses. While I had originally envisaged bare-bones kart-like vehicles, that niche appears to have been taken up by seated mobility scooters for the elderly, with the able-bodied largely going for the standing type. And, let's face it, I can hardly believe any contraption will be significantly more energy-efficient or compact than a foldable e-scooter. With proper regulation and dedicated road lanes, they could well be a plausible public transport solution - one of those things the political elite should be very concerned about.
What else was there... United finally won just their third league match of the season, and sometimes I question why I even bother watching, but I suppose it's become a habit. Oh, and archived all those ancient Yahoo Groups from two decades back, given that they'll all be deleted by December. Oh, and the Utopia webgame from that era has also been revived, not that I've the time to get into it.
Might as well list out some of the long-overdue forthcoming content too, then:
Mr. Ham: Kiang tu ho, mai keh kiang.
Me: Excuse me?
Mr. Ham: That's what you do, no? Keh kiang? Literally, artificial intelligence?
Mr. Robo: ...he's accurate, you know.
Me: Yup, very well done, Mr. Ham. Original joke there for once. No flatten you today.
The Final Boss.
We return to the planned third and final item in the entrepreneurship video trilogy: The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. To recap, we began our reviews with a wannabe sultana who didn't know the cost of bread in her own fiefdom, and moved on to a bevy of hardscrabble ladies who at least knew the value of a buck, even if they then went slightly too far in their pharmaceutical dealings, towards goosing their profits. This trend, then, would come to a head with the savviest and sneakiest of them all: Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos.
We've mentioned Theranos in passing back in 2016, and the intervening few years has only added more clarity to the drawn-out fraud saga, so let's begin with the biosketch. Neither pampered Agrabian princess nor downtrodden ethnic exotic dancer (no, not the same), Holmes was about as privileged as any nominally upper-middle-classed American lass could expect to be, being possessed of a generation-suffixed Enron vice president father, which led her to Stanford via exclusive prep school. She had the bandwidth to sell C++ compilers along the way (shades of Bill Gates there), and crossed paths with Singapore as an eighteen year-old, interning at the Genome Institute of Singapore on SARS.
She would then drop out of university like all the cool, well-supported kids, having become enamoured of the idea of performing a battery of tests using merely a few droplets of blood. To this end, she founded Theranos in 2003, which grew into a super-unicorn valued at some US$10 billion by 2014, making her a self-made multi-billionaire and primo feminist tech icon feted in TIME magazine. Zoom ahead a few more years, however, and her net worth's back to approximately zero with Theranos wound up, facing nine Federal counts of wire fraud totalling possibly twenty years in prison, and with her lawyers wanting out due to nonpayment of bills.
How did it all go so wrong?
No Way Back
be first, be smarter, or cheat."
- Margin Call (2011)
Shorn to the essentials, the cause of Holmes' and Theranos' downfall is disarmingly simple: they promised a machine that could perform blood tests on tiny quantities of blood; after a dozen years or so, it transpired that they, in fact, did not have such a machine, and were nowhere close to creating one.
Note, however, that the sin lay not in promising something that they did not yet have (at least in the early days). Heck, that's the entire point of start-ups and Kickstarter campaigns. Returning to the Gates example, he essentially licensed what would become MS-DOS from another Seattle company, after negotiations for CP/M fell through. Holmes' more-visible black-turtlenecked role model Steve Jobs had Woz to do the heavy technical lifting. Prompt outsourcing is certainly one way to be first to market, and has perhaps reached its utmost expression in a recent murder-for-hire case where the assassination got subcontracted out five times, before the last guy met the targeted victim and offered to split the fee if he played dead.
No, the first problem is arguably the choice of domain. Having non-accredited founders in near-pure tech fields such as advertising (Google), hipsterism (Apple), selling books (Amazon) or induced social anxiety (Facebook) is one thing. Biochemistry and medicine, quite another (which is part of why Singapore's slinking away with tail between legs here, what with all the clinical tests, regulatory approvals and ISO certifications involved; it's a pain, from personal experience). Put another way, nobody bothers overmuch if Google misranks or entirely misses out on a website, or Apple omits the headphone jack from their gear; misdiagnose a critical illness, though, and a lot of very scary organizations are gonna get involved.
That said, one might wonder why anybody would bother getting involved with biotech, and especially the hardware side, given the heavy capital requirements (this observation was also made at the Deep Learning Indaba conference I spoke at some months back, where one panellist identified software development as Africa's future for much these reasons). The answer is that the moat works both ways: it may be tough to get inside, but once you're in, the moat protects you from competitors to an extent. For many app-based products, there's always the looming risk of getting cloned down to the last pixel by dev sweatshops (refer to Chapter Two of Kai-Fu Lee's AI Superpowers, for one description)
The half-bearded author of The Upside of Irrationality chips in
The documentary goes over how Theranos pivoted unsuccessfully through several approaches - microfluidics, a gluebot, and then miniaturization, which was perhaps as expected, given that nearly all her early scientific advisors knew better about the limitations of these technologies from the beginning. This was not to say that it was absolutely impossible for an undoubtedly conventionally-brilliant nineteen year-old with some introductory courses under her belt to essentially push the scientific cutting-edge forward, of course - just that it was vanishingly unlikely.
Adding to the overall murkiness, Theranos published next to nothing about their development work, which while kinda understandable given that this was essentially revealing trade secrets, wouldn't do much to foster confidence. Holmes had set up an intelligence agency of sorts, where employees from different departments were disallowed from discussing their work, such that only she (and possibly some few trusted underlings) was aware of the whole (not-so-nice) picture. This, together with some good P.R. and the backing of more than a few retired warmongers, turned out to be sufficient to secure US$700 million in funding, and a Walgreens rollout.
Behind the scenes, however, it was a total clusterf**k of cherry-picked tests, secret (and improper) usage of existing Siemens analyzers, and outright cheating. To be clear, it never had to get this far - Holmes could have bowed out, probably at any time before about 2010, after admitting that she had done her best and it didn't quite work. That would be it. It happens, particularly with hardware (e.g. the Kreyos scandal), but also in software (e.g. the initial release of No Man's Sky, all manner of other vaporware). She could have walked away, reputation unblemished, or even enhanced, given Silicon Valley's abiding taste for comeback stories.
We know, of course, that she didn't, and instead doubled down on the outright lying... with predictable results.
Tech Hype, or the Unicorn is a White Horse with 3D-Printed Horn
A large part of how Theranos got as far as it did, was how much investors wanted to believe - and frankly, this is hardly limited to biotech. The latest cautionary tale would be that of co-working space provider WeWork, which started off with an expected IPO valuation of US$47 billion in January, only to have it cut to US$10 billion (possibly already generous, given IWG's valuation of US$3.7 billion) upon cursory inspection, with the CEO stepping down and possibly a third of its workforce to be laid off. This might go to show, once again, that it may be the timing that matters the most - hop onto the crest of a bubble wave, and it don't matter what you're pushing, be it blood tests, dog walks or subletting by another name, as long as you can brand it as "tech", "A.I." or old-fashioned "big growth!".
Quite interestingly, there's a Theranos connection too, with SoftBank also having loaned them US$100 million - which may just go to show how easily Saudi, UAE and Our Most Successful Investment Firm (and perhaps even Malaysian) easy money flows, in this low-returns environment. Given how nonsensical WeWork's valuation was, it's small wonder that there're rumblings on whether SoftBank's simply out to launder money here. Personally, I'm not exactly sanguine about the long-term future of brick-and-mortar, but I suppose it could still make sense in certain specialized applications, such as labs-for-rent - and, most of all, at the right price, in an age where cars, shoes and sweaters are increasingly getting placed on payment plans.
On the other hand, I remain unconvinced that the opposite - tech being underappreciated - doesn't hold true here, all the sudden attention on A.I. considered. It'll probably have somewhat more staying power than biotech, though.
Healthcare Costs & Implications
It's difficult to disentangle Theranos' motivations from medical costs, and while we have discussed it through the example of the EpiPen injection device for insulin in 2016, the scourge of rising prices has shown few signs of slowing. Over in Great America, TRUMP remains battling both his own party and colluding drug firms towards having the government negotiate drug prices, but to little avail thus far, with nary a peep of support from the bought-and-paid-for FAKE NEWS. Not only that, his representative might have been suicided - and with billions on the table, why wouldn't that be plausible? Faced with this, the only responsible thing to do was to make sure that prospective immigrants could pay their own way.
Singapore isn't entirely in the clear either, with a number of overcharging cases hitting the media recently, atop the use of debt collectors by one of our general hospitals hitting the Chinese papers. This perhaps reflects the special status of healthcare in the public consciousness, as being an unavoidable necessity that should be guaranteed, no matter what. It's one thing to sic the bailiffs on a guy who's behind on his Ferrari, and another to hound him about a medical bill, so it seems.
Disregarding bad-faith treatment by the black sheep of the medical community, as with wanton prescription of opioids and false billing claims, it remains that the overall economics of healthcare is exceedingly dysfunctional by its nature. There's a huge principal-agent problem to begin with, in which the medical professionals are supposed to be much more knowledgeable of the patient's needs, than the patient himself. To compound this, the doctor-patient relationship tends to be tighter than, say, with car workshops. It might be expected to shop around for a mechanic, but less done to ignore the family dentist's call for fillings... and this is without going into emergency work that the patient may have effectively no say in.
From the hospital's perspective, however, they have wages and bills like everyone else, and in countries without universal healthcare and privately-run practices, this money has to come from somewhere. Thus, the abomination of US$200 slings, near US$50000 to set a broken leg, and US$350 to hold one's own baby after birth. Then, since next to nobody actually pays list price, what usually happens next is prolonged haggling, pleading and threats between the patient, hospital admins and insurance lawyers, that's worthy of a Turkish bazaar.
Given all these bugbears, it seems more and more to me that the clubby atmosphere of the traditional medical fraternity might not indefinitely escape co-option by technology, such as the A.I. medical booths covered in February. For the right price, I'd gather many would be prepared to take certain risks, because they can't afford a US$200 sling elsewise anyway. From the ongoing debate about telemedicine in the broadsheets, local doctors are likely recognizing how the wind's blowing.
Today & Tomorrow
Finally, to conclude the Holmes story thus far, she's reportedly happily married to a hotel heir, with some wags uncharitably foretelling a baby bump right on cue for her July 2020 trial. Still, with in-supermarket and fingerstick tests remaining very much in the works, it's easy to dream about what could have been. Could she have simply bought over a better-run competitor, with a half-billion dollar warchest? Or could she have instead tamped down her promises to something more realistic? Hey, she had Kissinger on her side...
If there's one lesson to be learnt from the whole mess, it's this: you can't, and frankly don't want to, get away with fudging results in medicine. It's not worth it.
the Minds of The Leaders of our Time,
after Last Days Of Empire & The Emperor's Compassion]
The Prime Minister of a sunny island-state set in the sea sat down. It did nothing for the tension in his shoulders.
Life had been so idyllic, just a few years back. Sure, there had been hiccups such as the 2008 financial crisis and the minor 2011 election setbacks, but nothing of any real significance. Any opposition was mostly a harmless nuisance, and if warnings or payoffs weren't enough, as with at least one troublesome political cartoonist, suing their pants off was easy as pie. Election rules could be changed at the drop of a hat, taxes could be raised at a whim, wifey's investment company would remain flush with cash even if they had to redirect attention from mounting foreign losses by directing the state propaganda to play up their local wins... yes, life had been good overall.
And then TRUMP blew Hillary away, screwing our TPP commitments, which led to certain party members muttering about registering our discontent with our U.S. friends.
Well, let's take a look at the canonical case studies of us "standing up to the superpowers", shall we? There's the 1994 Michael Fay caning case, but that was merely a no-name juvenile vandal who could have been shot out of hand, had he pulled his stunts on the wrong side of town in America. Additionally, we reduced the sentence under pressure anyway, so it's not so much "standing up" as "going down on only one knee". And then there's the resisting China in Papa's era, but let's get serious, China was barely recovering from massacring tens of millions of their own people, were irrelevant in terms of world trade, and had no real force projection capabilities back then; they were barely even a regional power at the time!
And of course, there's the celebrated story of the CIA trying to bribe Papa in 1960 to hush up an espionage attempt, only for Papa to reject the bribe and insist on a formal apology and economic aid. Extremely noble, definitely, but again, does this qualify as "standing up"? I mean, the CIA probably appreciated a guy with balls, but the key factor was that Papa was fighting the Commies then. In other words, he was basically on the same page as the CIA. Seen in this light, the CIA's response was analogous to a 350-pound football linebacker teasing a kid by pretending to steal his ball, being impressed by the kid's gumption in daring to reproach, and handing out candy as a reward. If the Barisan Sosialis had won and introduced Communism, there would have been no such light touch, and I don't want to know what would have happened, balls or no.
Fast forward to today, it's America versus the Commies again, and Uncle Sam's calling his banners. What do you think we can do? Fact is, the previous episodes of so-called "standing up against superpowers" were either in matters that they barely cared about, or where we were being backed by a bigger fish. But today, today it is different. It's not a game any longer. This is for all the marbles, it's Cold War II: Unelect Winnie The Pooh.
New Poohbear, same as the old Poobah
Yea, there was that spat between Bilahari Kausikan and his former boss Kishore Mahbubani, from a couple of years back. Kishore, recently dean of the LKY School of Public Policy, opined that "small states must always act like small states", to which Bilahari indignantly reacted that we should not act subservient. With due respect to both - not many scholars have enjoyed the honour of being name-dropped in texts such as The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order - the key word here is "act". It's one thing to thumb noses at third or fourth-rate powers such as Indonesia or Malaysia, but quite another thing to openly defy the thousand-pound gorilla having your back - i.e. the United States of America - when you're doing the nose-thumbing.
He for one wasn't about the forget the Prime Directive of Geopolitical Hard Truths that Papa had privately passed on to him: the Americans were the boss. Sure, the scholars in the Public Service Division could invent crap arguments such as our "strong contesting of Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia in 1979" was to demonstrate our "self-commitment to sovereignty" because it opposed Vietnam's - actually quite convincing - justification of invasion due to Cambodia's internal affairs [?!]. No, we took this stand purely because Vietnam were Commies - Saigon had just fallen in 1975, remember? The indisputable counterpoint was that if defending other small states' sovereignty had truly been our guiding principle, we would have rightly also called out Uncle Sam's many various regime change adventures from the 1970s on, for the sake of consistency. Obviously, we were never that dumb.
Oh yes, but we did protest Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, while happily getting in on the invasion of Iraq in 2003, despite that not being in conformity with the U.N. charter. Recognize the pattern here?
Honestly, any competent polisci student with half a brain would, after analyzing all our major foreign policy directions and stands since our separation from Malaya, admit that they make sense only within the context of being a de-facto American puppet state; or, in more polite terms, loyally aligning with the U.S. whenever they insist, and usually even if they don't. Which brings us back to the core of the Kishore-Bilahari spat: some of our very well-educated blue-blooded politicos appear to have forgotten the Prime Directive; as Ngiam Tong Dow had also tried to point out, they were believing their own propaganda. Or, in drug-dealer lingo, never consume your own crack.
It's kinda telling that the proudest example we could come up with to showcase our "independence", is genocide support...
Of course, many of our own citizens might not be able to accept this truth, but fortunately there were many ways by which to save face. Basically, we were always being led by the U.S., but maintained a sufficient distance from them to maintain plausible deniability. They turned left, we would look at our watch a bit, then shuffle left; they turned right, we would stop to chat with the janitor, before hurrying to catch up before being left behind. They scratched their butt... well, we didn't have to scratch ours! That's sovereignty for you!
This was what the wise Kishore was getting at, he supposed. The first and second generations of our diplomats had few illusions of who was calling the shots (hint: the U.S.), and they moderated their behaviour accordingly. Some of the young punks, however, appear to actually believe that we have an independent foreign policy worth the name, after enjoying mild prosperity and climbing near the top of some worthless ranking lists! Sure, we did create some informal groups such as the Forum of Small States, but seriously, they're mostly honeypots used by agents from big powers to gauge dissent and select their next victims. These small fries are here for the kopi and pastries, my friends. The most that could be expected from them, were we to be embroiled in any real conflict, would be a strongly-worded letter to the U.N. - if at that.
He had unavoidably noticed it himself, of course: the odd snigger or smirk from fresh interns, when he spoke of the island-state's "sovereignty" at global meets. The senior diplomats would applaud the statement with their standard-issue smile, but that was their job description, wasn't it? To listen to and say the most ridiculous bullshit, while maintaining a cordial expression throughout. It was a big problem, you understand. As PM, he could hardly step in personally to rein in all those idiots with a laughably badly-developed sense of proportion/self-preservation. Kishore having to appeal directly to the public probably meant that the rot had set in too deep.
Oh, Bilahari was not completely wrong about us not appearing subservient and punching above our own weight. Borrowing his boxing parlance, we've had sporadic bouts with Malaysia for instance, all the more with Bapa Mahathir back in charge. We're a pretty good flyweight, if he did say so himself - we've bloodied our fair share of bantamweights and featherweights, one or two weight classes up. But when f**king superheavyweights such as America or China step into the ring, it's not a question of courage or principle or respect or what have you, any longer. It's a question of survival, as Papa so decisively invoked when he switched allegiance to the invading Japanese, once the British were losing. Personal honour is nothing in the bigger picture. Adapting another famous quote by Papa, "Equality (between nations) is an aspiration, it is not reality, it is not practical".
In real life, Goliaths wear full head protection
The brave Bilahari talks about not being meekly compliant; but does Bilahari understand the reality of that? Our not grovelling, it seems, is best exemplified by Uncle Goh - as Prime Minister, mind - having to go through a private golf buddy just to get face time with Bill Clinton, all of this because of one lousy teenaged hoodlum... and being proud of sneaking in by the back door. This, dear Bilahari, is the practical sum of our national dignity. Sure, there's the famous Holdridge denial in 1981 over a minor ASEAN resolution on Cambodia, but is the good ambassador aware of the calculated risk taken over the former CIA spook likely going out of favour in his own administration, back then? And of the dozens, nay, hundreds of incidents when we "just happened" to abide by the U.S., for every such pushback?
You see, for all the public hand-wringing over not being drawn into the orbit of either the U.S. or China, seasoned by wumao influencers supporting the latter, the sad and brutal truth is that there was ultimately no decision to be made; the decision would be, and had been, made for us. By default, we were firmly, deeply, within the American sphere of influence. Some wumao are for example trying to sell the story that "China [impounding our] armored vehicles in Hong Kong in November 2016... convinced [us] to no longer echo U.S. views over the South China Sea", but let's get real, those Terrexes are like, tens of millions cost price? Compared to having half of our air force, our main technological advantage worth untold billions, effectively held hostage - willingly, mind - in the States? And we're possibly jumping ship to China and giving all of that up? Is that a joke?
There simply wasn't much, if any, space for maneuver or petty tricks at this level, honestly. Fact is, we have always had next to no leverage. Oh, nobody expects us to admit it, obviously, but they know it nonetheless. The Chinese had their own agenda, it went without saying, but a particular remark by one of their generals struck him hard: we were no longer seeking balance between big countries, but all too openly playing big countries off against each other. This was, indeed, playing with fire.
He had dragged it as long as he conceivably could, but the endgame had come, and nobody could mistake our extension of the American pact for another fifteen years as anything other than a taking of sides for the U.S.; the barefaced lies about not being an American ally could only go on for so long, especially after TRUMP opened the post-signing remarks with "We signed a very important agreement having to do with defense and mutual defense, and I guess you could say mutual offense, also". It took all his willpower not to faint there and then, as he had done during the 2016 National Day Rally! He shot an urgent missive to the state newspapers not to include that detail in their reports, but there was no doubt over America's intent.
WHY? WHY ME?
(Original source: straitstimes.com)
But really, what could he do? Disagree with the President of the United States? He was fortunate that the camera happened to have panned away when the "mutual offense" bombshell dropped, and he was crying inside as he deliberately avoided repeating the o-word, while turning the topic to trade. Ah, Bilahari, it's one thing to tell a CNN lackey that we're "not an American ally", and it's quite another to suggest that to the POTUS's face! And you know what? He had nightmares each and every time he or MINDEF or some other ministry had to gently affirm that they were "not a treaty ally", because there was always the chance - however small he hoped it to be - that TRUMP would get wind of it, and tweet the equivalent of "we respect your decision to be a strong independent city-state that don't need no U.S., kthxbye" and then we are finished! And, unlike Bush or Obama before him, the sonofabitch will do it! Heck, Japan and Pakistan aren't safe, and they are so much more strategically important!
Oh, some of his braindead advisors would say, there's always China, let's make some inquiries. It has become popular to claim that China respected Papa - that was part of the image-building propaganda, after all - but do you treat someone you respect by swindling him of US$90 million in your first joint venture? And that was when China was relatively weak, and when they should have been trying to make a good impression, and they just didn't give a shit! What sort of deal do you think we can get, then, if we had to go cap in hand to China with no viable great power alternative, after our long history of siding with the U.S. against them? He might as well simply hand over the keys to the republic, were that to come to pass.
There was nothing for it, but to squeeze as much juice out of the impending American alliance as he dared. CNN referring to us as the "fourth American ally in Asia" when proclaiming our acquisition of the F-35 was no coincidence, of course; it was a pointed reminder of the expected price to be paid, and a veiled warning not to try anything too funny. The chaos in Hong Kong was further proof of what they could foment, without even trying, and the casus belli was merrily being constructed in the American media, with the sudden concern over the Uighurs; since when did they care so much about Muslims? Well, as our foreign minister said, we did not believe in becoming a client state, but Papa believed that we had to be part of Malaysia too, and where did that get him?
There was nothing to do, but to make the best of the new reality. MNNA status would allow increased participation in Department of Defense projects, for one, and he would lobby hard for a slice of that pie. He'd also have to expend his remaining credit with China, if they would accept it - they were surely aware; there had been so much undercover moving of pawns, with Cambodia and Laos probably solidly under their influence already, so much for ASEAN unity. Bapa Mahathir was thankfully likely too sly to be fooled, the old fox, which would give us some much-needed breathing space. Still, the pain would come, and he was dreading it. Sigh, if only he could be at Cambridge, solving open math problems! Guess there's always suing a random blogger to release some stress, before sabotaging the opposition in preparation for the next elections. He could still do that much, at least.
The Lion King, and the Lion City;
their fates entwined evermore
From the PoliticalDiscussion subreddit grapevine, Singapore is due to be officially declared as a major non-NATO ally (MNNA) next year, together with Chile and the United Arab Emirates, by the incomparable GOD-EMPEROR OF MANKIND, he of "great and unmatched wisdom" (I live for these moments). What made this indication all the more damning, though, was our Prime Minister/President explicitly stating on CNN a couple of days ago, that "Singapore, while not an ally of the US... also has its biggest trading links with China".
So, who's gonna be accurate, the PM of Singapore on CNN (which probably reduces the credibility of the statement, though), or one anonymous first-class boi on Reddit? Then again, they could both be right, if you interpret the PM's statement as "we're not allies *now* (i.e. in October 2019)".
Personally, if it looks like a client state, walks like a client state and talks like a client state, I'd gather it's fair to simply call it a client state, because there's functionally no difference. This established, what do you call a country that's essentially opened up its air and naval bases to a foreign power? Like every Instagram hottie stringing along a gaggle of boyfriends, there has to be an eventual accounting; it's just the old fable of a maiden who, faced with one poor but handsome suitor, and another rich but ugly suitor, declares that she would wish to eat at the house of the east, but sleep at the house of the west. China certainly isn't that dumb, going by how a PLA general has already complained a few years back: "Singapore claims it is a non-aligned country and its Changi Naval Base is an open port. But why don't you invite the Chinese navy to berth at it?"
Well, it seems like our government's reached the end of the talking-out-of-both-sides-of-mouth neutrality runway, as not unexpected, and once the MNNA status becomes official, I'd gather life might get a bit more colourful. Of course, GEOTUS might agree to keep it under wraps and spare some hurt feelings, but personally, having our leaders manning-up for once doesn't sound half bad either!
And the geopolitical winds blow again...
"Here, the four winds know/Who will break and who will bend"
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