Calvin Cheng: Singapore’s Donald Trump

It seems oddly fitting that, within a week of Donald Trump proposing that “all Muslims be placed on a national registry”, our dear Calvin Cheng argued that Arab children should be murdered in case they become ISIS insurgents.

These are two men, separated by more than ten time zones, who share the same devotion to provocative pseudo-conservatism. They are self-styled political outsiders, who take every opportunity to irreverently express their distaste for liberalism. Trump is a business magnate who relentlessly attacks the government for being too progressive and profligate in spending taxpayers’ money; Cheng is a fashion magnate who relentlessly defends the government for being socially moderate and fiscally conservative.

In fact, Trump and Cheng differ only in one key aspect: While Trump seeks to make America great again, Cheng would like no better than to see the decline of the United States and the soft imperialism of Western civilisation.

Perhaps, even this crucial difference reveals an underlying similarity. Both individuals are drunk on cultural chauvinism, a belief that West is best, or that the sun rises in the East. Trump asserts that American exceptionalism will never wane, Cheng thinks that we should reject the excesses and liberal idealism promoted by Western developed countries. Just look at this Facebook post he put up, calling the Deputy Director of the Human Rights Watch (Asia) an “enemy of the state”.

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Examples like these are easy to find; little vignettes of childish anger and vitriol which exist alongside Cheng’s more reasonable material. To his credit, he’s a (qualified) supporter of Pink Dot, and has called on Singaporeans to stand for political unity regardless of their party affiliations. He is occasionally the victim of unpleasant attacks and smears from pro-opposition supporters who despise his openly partisan support for the PAP. I’ll admit that most of the time, Cheng is fairly intelligent and considered, even if I may disagree with his political paradigms and intuitions.

But, like Trump, Cheng is never far from controversy. Rather than adopt the moral high ground against his critics, he decided to label journalist Kirsten Han a “traitor” for expressing her opinions regarding the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy. As if one is guilty of national treason if he or she doesn’t swear complete fealty to the PAP narrative of post-1965 Singapore! He’s sniped at Alfian Sa’at in a very ill-tempered Facebook exchange, and sometimes makes uncomfortably extreme remarks online. While I sympathise with Cheng when he complains about online trolls or unscrupulous new media platforms, one wonders if he is similarly guilty of such behaviour at times. He claims to promote unity and solidarity, yet uses divisive and derisory words like “moronic” or “stupid”.

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The recent episode surrounding his remarks about ISIS concerns me in particular. Rather than apologise upfront for his comments, or at least admit that he could have phrased things much better, Cheng doubled down and came out guns blazing. In a blog post, he argued that this was about “moral absolutism” versus “utilitarianism”, and that it was strictly about “self defence”. Words which merely obfuscated, instead of clarifying the debate.

I don’t wish to rebut him point by point, but suffice to say, his argument fails even on its own terms. If he truly understood the situation in the Middle East, he would know that dropping Western bombs on schools in Raqqa and Mosul is literally the worst thing to do. ISIS, a terrorist organisation with unprecedented media-savvy, is already winning the information war conclusively. Imagine if its slick propaganda machine could now accuse the West and Russia of targeting innocent children with impunity, plastering pictures of bleeding and maimed teenage girls over their professionally-designed magazines. It would turn tens of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi parents firmly into the embrace of ISIS, and convince many more disaffected Muslims to join the despicable cause. Instead of reducing the ranks of ISIS, such an approach would instead be an unprecedented recruitment coup, and further weaken the perceived legitimacy of the international community. What better way to bolster the narrative of brave Muslim martyrs fighting against the immoral and twisted European crusaders? This, quite obviously, would not be utile in our fight against terrorism.

Of course, there are also strong moral refutations to Cheng’s case, like how air strikes cannot differentiate between a terrified Syrian child waiting to flee with his parents, and a young ISIS terrorist. But let’s not go there – my main point is that Cheng needs to know when he has overstepped, and develop the sensitivity to back down even when his instinctive reaction is to fight. This sounds eerily like Trump, who earlier this week claimed that “Muslims in New Jersey rejoiced” when 9/11 occurred. Instead of retracting his remarks, Trump dodged the question by referring vaguely to a video where Muslims were seen celebrating the attacks. Never mind that these were Middle Easterners sympathetic to Al-Qaeda’s cause. Facts and logic are, after all, seemingly secondary to one’s intellect and public image.

I’m writing this piece because I believe Cheng can be a net positive to discourse in Singapore. His views on why the PAP is a force for good, and why liberals are not always right, are valuable contributions to the marketplace of ideas. The problem comes when Cheng undercuts his own credibility when he makes ludicrous statements like these, and apologises simply as a last resort. If he truly seeks to be a beacon of intellectualism and reason in the local cyberspace, then I would expect him to walk the talk. It is disappointing to see him descend to the level of those whom he critiques.

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