PM’s pick: Upheavals, displacement and the art of resilience

Mar 06, 2017 03.45PM |
 

by The Middle Ground

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong took to Facebook on Saturday evening (March 4) to praise the quality of Mr Kok Heng Leun’s speech in Parliament, as well as those of Nominated MP Randolph Tan, Nominated MP Ganesh Rajaram, and even WP chief Low Thia Khiang

Of the NMPs, Mr Lee said: They are not in politics, and would not otherwise have had a voice in Parliament. But they have brought their expertise and experience to bear, and enriched the public discourse,” and that their speeches “exemplify the purpose of the Nominated MP scheme”.

He said NMP Kok Heng Leun “spoke on how arts and culture can help bond and build resilience in our society, at a time of upheaval and uncertainty”.

He said that “some opposition MPs made good speeches” and ended his Facebook post by saying that “this is how Parliamentary democracy is supposed to work. Sometimes we fall short of this ideal, but in the case of these four speeches, we have not done badly”.

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Here is Mr Kok’s speech in full:

UPHEAVALS, DISPLACEMENT and THE ART OF RESILIENCE

Thank you Minister Heng for preparing this budget for 2017.

I recall my experience last year, the first time I stood before the House to speak about the budget. I had noted that culture was not mentioned in the speech. This year, I am thankful and happy that the arts and culture are mentioned, although in only one paragraph… on the good news of the boost of the Cultural Matching Fund.

So, for the next few minutes, I would like make art and culture my subject: Upheavals, Displacement and The Art of Resilience.

UPHEAVALS

We are all acutely aware that we live in a complex world today. We have been forewarned that the times ahead will be difficult. There will be displacements to our seemingly orderly lives.

Last month, I attended a seminar organised by the Salzburg Global Seminar. This organization was set up 70 years ago after World War Two, gathering thinkers, practitioners and policy-­‐makers to consider world issues, articulate problems and propose broad strategies to deal with these problems. For the 2017 iteration, 40 fellows from various part of the world (including myself) participated in the seminar, which was held in a beautiful palace, the Schloss Leopoldskron. The palace is famous because it is the location site of one of the beloved musical film, The Sound of Music.

During the seminar, while overlooking the idyllic lake, we shared and listened to stories and experiences that were at times harrowing, heartbreaking and deeply disturbing.

One fellow from Uganda shared that her brother was abducted by rebels, and how her family had to keep silent, despite knowing that he would become a child soldier. Another participant shared about the unbearable lightness of existence—the result of her experience of war and blood shed.

Our American friends said they feared waking up to another executive order that would bring the U.S. closer to isolation. Yet, within the same country, we heard about another crisis, this time from a Native American, through songs and rituals, demonstrated the solidarity of her relatives in their bid to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

There were also stories about other urgent global issues, from climate change to social and income inequality. So many issues, so many crises and so many stories of upheavals, which resulted in a huge sense of loss and displacement.

DISPLACEMENT

As I listened to these sharings, I realised that back in sunny Singapore, although we are cushioned from the immediacy of these crises, we cannot deny that they will undoubtedly impact us. For many Singaporeans, myself included , the Rohingya crisis seems far away, when in actual fact, it is really close, refugees in Johor, needing help and support.

A community that is hurt and injured is a world that is not at peace.

Let us also not be complacent and imagine that such upheavals is too far away, or will never happen to us.

For now, while we may not experience such gut-­‐wrenching upheavals, we have our own issues of displacement: Migrant workers who have come to Singapore to make a living despite their personal sense of dislocation; single parents and their children who do not enjoy the same benefits of other traditional family units, and who struggle to make ends meet; workers who feel that their jobs are at risk because technological advancements and artificial intelligence might make their roles obsolete, losing their sense of place at home, in the society, and with themselves.

Displacement comes with change. In physics, displacement maps out the relative change of the position of an object, moving from one point to another. But it does not reflect the distance and time one need to take to move from this point to the other. Just like in real life.

For some it is a straight line, quick and fast. Or others, it is a path with a lot of derailments, bringing them through ups and downs, and in some instances, they never arrive.

Naturally, we want the change that we experience to be good, that it bring us forward and upwards, in a straight line—in other words, positive displacement. But most of the time, negative displacement within our society is real and undeniable. With the widening income gap, the lower to middle income groups constantly feel the squeeze as they try to keep up with change.

At the same time, their lack of resources has resulted in derailment. When they are reminded to catch up or be left behind, it sounds as if the problem is that of a personal failing in their lack of trying, rather than a systemic one.

Change favours the privileged. Privilege comes in different forms. All of us here are privileged because we have the power to affect change. Or so I’d like to believe. You can be privileged in terms of wealth or education… or even as a race. It is thus the responsibility of those who are privileged to speak up for those who are not – those who do not earn as much, those who are not as educated, those who are sidelined by our laws.

In a society that celebrates achievement and progress, no one wants to be seen as a failure. Failure results in alienation. People who feel alienated, who feel helpless, become angry. We see the outcomes of such unhappiness on social media, often resulting in an echo chamber effect, reinforcing collective discontentment.

The frustration that stems from material, emotional and psychological insecurity creates a further polarisation of society. We begin to fear the other. This pervasive sense of threat is dangerous. It not only prevents us from being empathetic and compassionate, but encourages selfishness, and can even make violence and brutality justifiable in extreme situations.

STATE STRATEGIES

The government is aware of these concerns and addresses them through pro-­‐business policies and enhancing the safety net. In an immediate term, pro-­‐business policies may retain create and jobs, but it might not ensure a trickle-­‐down effect on the economy to individuals. Standards of living may still stagnate.

While the government’s extended social safety net will help, with no substantial increase in income, the reliance on social support may be protracted. But self-­‐esteem is directly related to self-­‐reliance. Rather than hoping the safety net is wide enough to catch them, people would generally prefer to lead a self-­‐sustainable, dignified life, earning a respectable wage that ensures their independence. The late British sociologist, Peter Townsend, once said,

“It may be worth reflecting, if indeed a little sadly, that possibly the ultimate test of the quality of a free, democratic and prosperous society is to be found in the standards of freedom, democracy and prosperity enjoyed by its weakest members.”

I and many others believe this to be true, and in difficult times, we must be ever more attentive to those amongst us who fall through the cracks.

As such, I wish to hear more from the Minister on how the livable wages of the middle income and lower income can be raised.

This brings me to the next point: while the Committee for Future Economy focused on economic strategies, it is essential that a study on the cultural impact of these economic strategies be made. Every economic structural change affects individuals, family, society, politics, infrastructure, environment, the tangible and intangible heritage, and the arts—in other words, the culture of our society and the city state as a whole.

We must take a proactive approach to anticipate the impact of these structural changes, rather than react to them when they arise. To give an example: technological advancement has progressed so rapidly beyond our imaginations that we as humans are trying to grasp hold of the changes and manage them well without falling behind. Another example is that the impact of the expansionary immigration policy of the 90s to early 2000 could be mitigated if we had done a cultural impact study earlier. Cultural impact of economic strategies will therefore put us in good stead to manage changes and their effects on society.

I would now like to unpack a term I have heard numerous times in the House since our debate began: “deep skills”.

What is deep skill without deep thinking?

What is crucial here is a culture of creative and critical thinking. Such a culture cannot manifest overnight through new state funding schemes. There is no better time than now to scrutinise our current education system, and incorporate opportunities for creative and critical thinking within it, to develop our next generation and generations to come. The government can create scaffolds and support structures for innovation, but the root source of innovation lies in the people.

We often talk about software or HEART-­‐ware, as opposed to HARD-­‐ ware. Software is not just about skills, it’s about human interaction. How lacking are we these days, in the art of conversation? We have reduced our exchanges to monosyllables: ‘Can’. ‘Want’. ‘K’. I’m not talking about language. I’m talking about connecting.

How do employers and employees connect? How do strangers converse? How do we settle a public disagreement in a multiracial and multi-­‐religious society? How do we manage the increasing moral panic? How do we not see ourselve as helpless individuals, alienated, or a powerless observer to surrounding injustice? How do we see ourselves as active change agents for our society and the world?

THE ART OF RESILIENCE

This leads me to my next point on resilience. To manage change and displacement, we as a society must become stronger; we must actively develop the art of resilience. In trying times, resilience in individuals is key in helping us repulse fear, resist and reject the injustice and oppressive status quo. Resilience embraces difficult yet transformative changes. It takes courage and conviction; it encourages objective and critical thinking. At the same time, it enables empathy, compassion and a greater sense of hope.

I have attended a number of forum last year’s and there was always this call to artist to response to this trying times.

In Salzburg Global Seminar, policy makers, thinkers, NGOs and rep from C40 etc made the call for arts to be the active change agent and building resilience.

In Weimar, a conference on Sharing and Exchange, political scientists, economists, philosophers also stress the importance of collaboration and inter-­‐cultural exchanges.

In Malta, NGOs, CEOs of arts council around the world made the call for resilience and more arts to heal, to repair, to imagine.

As an arts practitioner, I can attest to the fact that the arts can develop resilience, because it opens us up to critical thinking processes, be it as a spectator or audience, participant or creator.

To give an example: Mr Ong, an audience member of my community forum theatre play, shared:

“I used to be a very impatient person. But after watching forum theatre play, when I get into a disagreement with my spouse, I will remember you, Heng Leun. I remember when you will conduct a forum theatre play, and when a crisis happens, you will say, ‘Stop! Take this moment to think, to reflect.’ So I do it. I stop. I think. I reflect. It makes me less impatient, and of course with that, there is less arguments and more discussion.”

For creators, the arts is a means for articulating difficulties otherwise left unvoiced and seething beneath the surface. Take for instance my friend from Uganda, Beatrice Lamwaka, who wrote stories that helped her heal from her pain and trauma of living through arduous times. I urge you to read her award-­‐winning work Butterfly Dream, which can be found on the internet.

At home, we have witnessed the lyrical poetry of our migrant workers in Singapore, who have given us an unflinching glimpse into their lives here. Take Bikas Nath from Bangladesh, a poet and shipyard worker who won first prize at the 2016 Migrant Workers Poetry Competition. He shared that when he is lonely, “the pen and paper are my friends. So when I have the time, I try to write down my feelings.” I quote from his award-­‐winning poem, “Why Migrant?”:
.

I long to run back

into the warm embrace of my homeland

Among loved ones

Laugh over a steaming cup of home-­‐made tea

to the sound of the impatient strumming of a guitar somewhere

Wearing my blue school uniform

I want to lose myself

Back into my childhood

Like a stubborn child on a rainy monsoon day

Hiding under the safety of Taro leaves in the swamp
.

What the arts offer is a world of imagination, and in that, the seed of hope. In art-­‐making, an individual encounters the power of art to heal, repair, and bring hope in difficult times.

Aside from individual resilience, we need to build on community resilience. By that, I mean a community that comes together to listen to differences, mediate and recognise that each differing point of view deserves respect and understanding. The resilient community will never neglect the individual voice within the sea of voices.

Again, the arts compel us to be engaged through active listening and collaboration, which are essential building blocks that inform creation. Active listening allows us to develop empathy and to experience views beyond our comfort zone and echo chambers. I therefore urge the House, that WE, continue to listen and give, with respect. More communication, more openness. Less groupthink, less judgement.

Beyond our own communities, we must also build on inter-­‐ community resilience, so that we do not become insular and self-­‐ serving. We live in an inter-­‐connected world, and we therefore need to look out for others, because their circumstances will have an effect on us. To develop inter-­‐comunity resilience, we must create platforms for active engagement between communities that allow for good, honest and deep dialogues. The arts is one such platform that not only entertains but also educates. It presents scenarios within safe spaces for the public, making us aware of narratives that are often concealed in our midst, and inspiring us to be the change we want to see in society

Similarly, in building inter-­‐community resilience, we need to build such safe spaces where rules of engagement are adhered to, to ensure that our dialogues remain respectful yet robust, critical yet compassionate, passionate yet measured and non-­‐violent.

therefore urge the House, that WE, continue to listen and give, with respect. More communication, more openness. Less groupthink, less judgement

Beyond our own communities, we must also build on inter-­‐ community resilience, so that we do not become insular and self-­‐ serving. We live in an inter-­‐connected world, and we therefore need to look out for others, because their circumstances will have an effect on us. To develop inter-­‐community resilience, we must create platforms for active engagement between communities that allow for good, honest and deep dialogues. The arts is one such platform that not only entertains but also educates. It presents scenarios within safe spaces for the public, making us aware of narratives that are often concealed in our midst, and inspiring us to be the change we want to see in society

Similarly, in building inter-­‐community resilience, we need to build such safe spaces where rules of engagement are adhered to, to ensure that our dialogues remain respectful yet robust, critical yet compassionate, passionate yet measured and non-­‐violent.

LEADERSHIP

It cannot be stressed enough that leadership plays an important role in motivating and inspiring citizens to take greater responsibility for our shared growth, instead of just focusing on individual success stories. This means being politically motivated to gain a better

distribution of wealth and success. It cannot be achieved merely through business-­‐oriented measures or short-­‐term handouts. Rather, in developing long-­‐term strategies to reduce the income gap, our leaders can reignite self-­‐belief, meaningfulness and dignity in the people.

Likewise, an enlightened leadership must respect the differences that exist within our society—not tolerating, not co-­‐existing with, but embracing and celebrating diversity and plurality of views, lifestyles and people. In an era where there is increased polarisation sparked off by religion, politics and class, our leaders have ever more important roles as beacons of reason and mediation. To be resilient is to never allow communities to splinter into us vs. them ideologies, but rather, to make people see that there is a “u” in “us”. We are in this together

As we move our nation forward with the proposals by the Committee of Future Economy, let us remember to become positive forces of change, to find new ways of seeing and listening, and to always be resilient and compassionate to those who fall through the cracks of the system. If we are to become a community of hope in these difficult times, we cannot merely focus on straightforward success stories, but must engage with those who feel most sidelined and marginalised, so that we can become more robust and resilient, together, and never alone.

In Pig Earth, part of a trilogy written by later John Berger, about peasant’s trying to survive under capitalism, there is a scene of a old peasant playing a mouth organ in the mountain, while he was trying to save an old cow. And John Berger wrote, “All music is about survival, addressed to survivors.” Hence, by extension, all art is about survival, addressed to survivors.

And only with that, I support the bill. Thank you.

 

Featured image by Shawn Danker.

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