Border crossings: Peter Watts and Singapore

Think happy thoughts. Think happy thoughts.

BoingBoing is on fire at the moment with the case of Dr Peter Watts, a Canadian scientist and s-f writer who was held, beaten up and charged with assaulting a federal officer at the US-Canada border while on his way back to Canada after helping a USAian friend move house. For the record, he was beaten up by US guards, although Canadian authorities can be equally brutal, as the case of Robert Dziekański clearly attests.

BoingBoing are putting together a fund to help Dr Watts’ defence, and you can contribute via Paypal if you are so inclined. As a sideline, it’s an interesting observation that the USA is a place that makes a big deal about what “rights” a person has, until the time comes to actually exercise those rights (whether medical, economic, or judicial). At that point, you find out that the person with the most “rights” happens to be the one with the deepest pockets. Nobody else need apply.

What has been equally interesting to me have been the comments on BoingBoing, including a fair few that imply that Watts had it coming because he was probably “lippy” or “uppity”. And that got me thinking back to an incident at the Malaysia-Singapore border almost two years ago.

Lets face it, stalwart reader, you may think that being a writer is a cool thing but writers, by and large, really don’t fit into the normal, quiet mainstream population. They may seem quite okay from the outside, but there’s always some kind of dysfunction that separates them from the rest of the herd. And that dysfunction mostly manifests itself as questions. Writers need questions the way we need air. Without questions, quite simply, we wouldn’t exist. What if human civilisation dominated our galaxy? (Stories set in the Republic.) How would a romance work between a female bodyguard and the male she’s assigned to protect? (Guarding His Body) Is it possible for me to even think of a likely steampunk story and thus jump on the latest trend? (Alas, no.)

So, when questions are like life’s blood to us, it’s obvious that we will start asking them whenever something interesting happens. And therein lies the problem, because our Neo Dark Ages™ world doesn’t like questions. It doesn’t like anyone asking them or otherwise being lippy. Used to be that only applied to niggers, wogs, slopes, kikes, spics, etc., and women. But now, it doesn’t like anything other than silent subservience from anybody who doesn’t wear the appropriate uniform, period.

I’m reminded of the time our family crossed from Malaysia into Singapore. There were five of us, two adults with two kids, and J’s mother, who was visiting with us at the time. And it was also the time of the Mas Selamat flap. Singapore is very proud of Mas Selamat because he is their very own Muslim terrorist, and is thus like a badge of honour Singapore can wear and be inducted into the Western nations’ Hall of Countries Who Are So Wonderful That Everyone Else Wants To Have A Piece Of Us Out Of Sheer Jealousy. Unfortunately, this short man with a noticeable limp had escaped the detention centre by climbing out the bathroom window.

Anyway, the security at the border was pretty tight after he fleed (I believe he also threw spare rolls of toilet paper out the window before he jumped, to help cushion his fall) , and everyone had to submit thumbprints via an electronic reader, ostensibly to check against the thumbprints of Mas Selamat that Singapore had on record. They let our kids pass without any comment, but I had to wonder when they insisted that my mother-in-law submit to a scan. Yeah, I muttered to J, because Mas Selamat is so obviously hiding in the skin of an older, white woman from Europe.

If you tell me that this was not the smartest thing to do, especially within earshot of the Immigration official, I’ll agree with you. But, you know, it’s that question thing again that I was talking about. You think, “why the hell are they fingerprinting someone who so obviously isn’t Mas Selamat?” and, before your brain has time to answer “because it’s their job, stupid, just shut up”, your mouth opens and out comes some smart comment.

At this point, we were directed to another office, had our passports confiscated and were left watching a blank wall while the rest of the border world went on behind our backs. After twenty minutes, an officer came out, smiled, handed us our passports and told us we could go. No explanation was given, although she was very courteous. You’ll be pleased to know I kept my mouth shut that second time.

In retrospect, and after reading what Watts and others have gone through, we got off very very lightly. Which is scary when you realise that the courtesy in newly-developed or developing countries actually currently exceeds that in fully-developed countries. We may rant and rave about lots of things, but I wouldn’t want to be in the line entering the USA, Canada or the UK. In contrast, Singapore was an absolute cakewalk, despite my overt sarcasm. Terrifying, isn’t it?

5 thoughts on “Border crossings: Peter Watts and Singapore

  1. See, I never buy this uppity or lippy crap. It’s no damned excuse. DOUBLY not an excuse for a public servant.

    When we accept that “uppity” or “lippy” is an excuse for abuse from ANYONE then we’re in a bad place. When we accept it from our government and its workers? Yeah we’re beyond bad

  2. Oh absolutely, Sparky. As someone who deals with external customers, I know the onus is on ME to keep my cool, not on them. However, that seems to, increasingly, not be the case. Put that together with the immense power given to certain officials, and the picture swiftly morphs to a nightmare.

  3. I don’t know about Canada, but at the US/Mexican border everything is videotaped. If Watts did indeed raise his hands to an officer it’ll be on tape.

    It’s been nearly 35 years since I’d been to the Canada, but I recall they were none too friendly either. You said: yes sir and no sir and didn’t crack any jokes. They were serious on both sides of the border. Mexico too, though it was easy enough to grease palms to get through the Mexican side a little faster.

    To be honest, I don’t blame them for being stern. Terrorists have been known to strap bombs to women and children. Huge caches of drugs and human trafficking cross the border in hiding places I could not even imagine. For every honest person, there are many more who try to get away with something. Border personnel are not perfect and they can’t read minds. They don’t know what they’re going to find when they check that next car.

    Same way with cops. I can very well understand their icy detachment when they stop someone. I don’t like it, but I sure as hell don’t envy their jobs either.

    Mouthing off to any cop who is only doing his job is counterproductive. I just want to be on my way as quickly as possible. If that means staying in my car and keeping my mouth shut, that seems a small and logical investment to that end.

  4. Here’s where we agree to disagree, M. :) Yes, of course they have to be “stern”. And maybe even aloof. But that doesn’t mean they get carte blanche to treat people like animals. Also, I always thought there was a presumption of innocence until proven guilty in the developed world? Except at the border, where you abrogate any hint of humanity whatsoever?

    I can quite understand that things were rough in Canada decades ago, but just because it’s been going on for a while doesn’t mean it’s a valid excuse. And I’ve been stopped by cops. Yes, they’ve been detached, firm, unsmiling, but they’ve also been courteous. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

    As for the “mouthing off”…. I doubt anybody with explosives strapped to their bodies would be mouthing off to a police or immigration officer. If anything, wouldn’t they want to keep as quiet as possible so they could get to their designated target zone? (Unless their designated target zone was the officer in question, that is.) Isn’t that why we have all this x-ray screening and what have you? To stop the guys who *aren’t* having a bad hair day but just want to blow things up? If not, you can just lock up all the “lippy” ones and declare your job well done!

    What I’m referring to here goes way past “only doing his job”. It’s about using the current climate of fear to shed any hint of professional courtesy and, instead, take on the persona of a pocket dictator. That’s never okay, terrorists or no terrorists.

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