The Age of Unpleasant Doubts and Ridiculous Certainties

As protests and riots erupt across America–a tinderbox lit by yet another callous killing of a black man, igniting a sea of humanity rising up in revolt, some masked, many unmasked–one watches with macabre fascination. It’s hard not to be riveted, and invigorated, by agitation, purpose, injustice.

So much so that it dispels, if momentarily, any fear of the invisible coronavirus–the unerring opportunist, the creep which stalks both the almighty and the ordinary, the impassive Voldemort filtering through men and women, boys and girls, without regard to race. Everywhere is war.

The view of America from here, a flat-screen Toshiba in my bedroom in a public housing flat amid the humdrum flatness of Singapore, is dystopic. Unnerving. Jolting. Outside my window, it is the magic hour and the evening rays are fantastically radiant. A rainbow rises from a cumulus pillow (looking like the cruise ship-like garden atop the Marina Bay Sands (MBS), built by migrant workers, some of whom have been quarantined on an actual cruise ship). The next day, phase one of what we call a circuit breaker here, will be lifted.

Yet, America, the land of the freely spiralling number of COVID-19 infections and fatalities, looms large in our consciousness. America is larger, louder, more demanding, more assured of itself, than any other country. I love and hate its guts. Its self-regard is awe-inspiring, but also a black hole, sucking the energy (and logic) out of everyone else. Is this its much-trumpeted exceptionalism?

By and large, the conceit is deserving. As Jean Baudrillard opines in America, Americans “build the real out of ideas,” whereas the Europeans “transform the real into ideas, or into ideology.” Generally, Singaporeans laud actual work (not so much philosophy, sadly). So we marvel at Americans’ can-do spirit, bold imagination, rude health, innovativeness, confidence, plain speak, their lack of historical baggage. The French philosopher, being French, qualifies: “Americans believe in facts, but not in facticity. They do not know that facts are factitious, as their name suggests.”

According to Merriam-Webster, “factitious,” like “fact” and “factual,” comes from the Latin verb facere, which means “to do” or “to make.” Strangely, “factitious,” these days, does not mean “factual” or “true.” Rather it’s the opposite. “Factitious,” to be precise, comes from the Latin adjective facticius, meaning “made by art,” or “artificial.”And, so, there is something naïve and utterly idealistic about American chutzpah that inspires admiration and jealousy in equal measure.

From the vantage point of Singaporeans comfortably sequestered at home, it is, pardon the overly-used adjective, surreal to witness America come out in droves, protest and chant, “I can’t breathe.” Hats off, too, (but not the masks) to Hong Kongers who defy a police ban to come together for a candle-lit vigil in Victoria Park to commemorate the anniversary of June 4, 1989 (the day tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square to crush a student-led democracy movement).

Voltaire says: “Doubt is not a pleasant mental state, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” In this current climate, these two–doubt and certainty–have collided. The fog around the coronavirus–its asymptomatic spread, the lack of a vaccine–produces doubt, stupefying malaise, and inaction. In contrast, certainties, ridiculous and unquestioned, drive people to action.

The pandemic does not create new injustices. Instead, it unearths long-entrenched ones, ignored, tolerated, even institutionalised: racism, or police brutality, for example. What those Americans and Hong Kongers have startlingly demonstrated is how much a commitment to a social good–democracy, justice, equal rights–far outweighs any unpleasant doubt, or fear of the unknown, the other. Who the hell cares about the virus when your life can be snuffed out in eight minutes and 46 seconds by a familiar boot of authority?

At the same time, the American carnage happening in real time on television and the Internet is visceral and immediate, yet also far removed for many Singaporeans, mollycoddled by good governance and self-entitlement. What’s going on Stateside feels like pure cinema even when it’s reality, amplified by 24-hour CNN pundits, and a reality-TV president fixated on photo ops.

For some months, Singaporeans have been wallowing in an indolent fog, where apocalyptic vision and uneasy boredom coalesce, and no one knows when the fog will be completely lifted. There was, at first, a smidgen of self-congratulatory smugness when the country was praised for its low transmission rate and rigorous contact-tracing. That air of certainty evaporated when the infection rate began to spike among migrant workers, who now account for the majority of infections. The outbreak among the labourers, many of whom stay at one of numerous densely-populated dormitories, “has shattered the island’s aura of infallibility,” as the Financial Times puts it.

The outbreak among the migrant community is, by all accounts, a certainty bound to happen, a perfect storm. It should have been predicted. Play the blame game, but, really, no one is exempt. Responsible for building much of the country’s infrastructure (including the abovementioned MBS), these workers, while economically essential, have long been scrupulously shepherded, ghetto-ised, rendered invisible in the public eye–at least, not until they appear in your own backyard.

One thing’s for certain: the virus, omnipresent and dispassionately agnostic, does not care for such prejudice, selfishness, or unpleasantness. It attacks all: weak or compromised, especially those morally afflicted. Everybody pays the price.

In time to come, this pandemic will pass. Across the world, some folk are already emerging, or pondering emerging from different degrees of lockdown, a second or third wave of infection notwithstanding.

The question is: What state does one emerge into? One does not, or cannot surface from a metaphoric state of drowning into wonderfully fresh air, or exit from fog into wide, open spaces–not when doubts fester, and certainties expose other inconvenient certainties, least of all the spectre of another pandemic. I don’t have the answer, but one piece of graffiti, scrawled across a wall in Hong Kong in the wake of the massive protest against the now-withdrawn Fugitive Offenders amendment bill last year, strikes a chord:

“We can’t return to normal, because the normal that we had was precisely the problem.”

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