March 27, 2017

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by Joshua Ip

AT THE “Singapore Perspectives” conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, 27-year-old lawyer-poet Amanda Chong accused the development of our arts infrastructure as (and here I begin to quote the Mothership article):

“… a branding exercise grounded in the desire to transform ourselves so we might be attractive to the world’, citing our beautiful galleries and museums as well as the government’s annual $700 million expenditure on the arts.

‘If we continue this trajectory of pursuing a global city built from the outside in while opening our doors wide to the world, we are ultimately closing the doors on ourselves… Singapore’s arts scene is important for our own sake. The arts should not just or even primarily be an instrument of the State to attract global talent.”

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In doing so, she drew the ire of Tommy Koh, but made a strong and strident argument for art for art’s sake. She made three points to back this up. I feel the need to further expand on the three points of her argument, as it seems inadequate to me. In the spirit of “Cabinet Battle” from Hamilton, I have crafted my retorts in a hip-hop beat:

 

1. The arts teaches us to be more mindful of dissenting views that exist, and enrich our understanding of the truth.

The arts assists the state to be more mindful of those
who must persist in making noise, who try to oppose;
it gathers them in easily-observable groups
so everywhere they feasibly go, Big Brother snoops.
Dissenting views enrich the few with faux independence,
so call a poetry reading and just take the attendance!

 

2. The arts helps us to see other members of our society as equals and as humans, not as objects to be dealt with.

The arts helps us to see other society members
as inspiration for our literary adventures;
Prostitutes or prisoners or even the Prime Minister
are equal opportunity protagonists in literature!
They won’t object to be subjected to our prolificity,
from nothing, we make something, we’re increasing productivity!
Human interest stories might be individually worthless;
we can monetise them if we just put the right word first!

 

3. The arts can contribute to the national conversation about our future in a meaningful way.

The arts can contribute to conversation.sg,
by making richer countries think that we are so edgy.
Unlike third world regimes that can be much more demanding
we never censor arts, we only pull back our funding!
If liberals want to gibber about freedom and passion
the free grants that we give will be our kneejerk reaction!

So what is wrong, Amanda Chong, with art not for art’s sake?
Observe the upward market curve that all of us partake.
We started with a junket to take part in this whole damn response
to marketing a market and its artificial Renaissance:
if foreign talent is inherently arts-obsessed,
why can’t our parent-state apparent fake its interest?
So Amanda, I contend there’s nought to contend with,
its fine to sell your soul but please just make it expensive!

P/S: (She plays the part of starving artist slightly too well:
please give her book a look at the attached URL.)

 

 

Joshua Ip is a poet and founder of Sing Lit Station, a literary non-profit that organises Singapore Poetry Writing Month, Manuscript Bootcamp, poetry.sg and other activities to promote writing in Singapore.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Felix Cheong

HOW your Ah Girl do for PSLE?

Like that lor. 200 plus. Never study, but still get 200 plus. If study harder, sure can get 300 plus!

Three hundred plus cannot lah! Only Prime Minister can score like that!

Really ah? Luckily we have a Prime Minister with good PSLE result! If not, cannot hold head high. Your Ah Boy how?

Also 200 plus. That one, quite playful. Whole day long want to play drum in school band. At home, also play. Chopsticks, pens, anything also can. Bang, bang, bang! So noisy. I tell him: You play drum, cannot make money. Maybe during Chinese New Year when you play for lion dance.

He can also play in funeral band mah. No need skill. Just dong dong chiang, half hour, then you get big angpao.

Maybe hor! Last month, my block already got six funerals. If one dong dong chiang can earn 100 dollars, then 600 dollars a month. Good money hor!

But 600 dollars not enough to live lah! Must get degree first. No degree, better go sweep floor or clean table at food court.

I hear on news cleaners now also can earn $1,000.

One thousand dollars, you go spa once a week, gone by end of month. That’s why I tell Ah Girl: I want you go to RGS, then to uni. She say she want to go SOTA to learn dance. I say: SOTA, your head! I want to throw sofa at you. She say she want to, what, “pursue passion”. I don’t know why now a day, ‘passion’ so important to young people.

Yah lor! When we younger, we got ‘passion’ or not to be housewife? No, right?

That’s why I tell Ah Girl: ‘Passion’ make no money. Tomorrow, I go market buy you a big basket of passion fruit, throw it downstairs. You go and ‘pursue’ all the passion you want!

Just tell her lor, our Prime Minister never ‘pursue passion’. That’s why can become Prime Minister.

 

Featured Image by Guet Ghee Pang.

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Goli tent at Toa Payoh during performance of The Lesson by Drama Box
Goli tent at Toa Payoh during performance of The Lesson by Drama Box

by Tan Tarn How

THIS year’s Singapore International Arts Festival (SIFA) again shows that the arts is like life: No venture, no gain. That is, if we go to watch something safe, well-known, we are more likely to be rewarded, but rewarded with only a “not-bad” night or day out. On the other hand, if we try something less safe, less popular, we are less likely to be rewarded — but when the reward comes, oh my, it can change us and the way we see the world. True, if we take a risk, sometimes are we left with a “huh?”. Or leave scratching your head about what we just spent $20 to $60 or more and an hour or three of our time on. Or sometimes we just hate the show. Once in a while though the experience is transformational, and rarer even, transcendental. That’s what art is about.

Another analogy is a pyramid: at the bottom, the chances of payoffs are more often, but mediocre; at the top, the pay offs are rarer, but superior.

This has been a great Singapore Festival of the Arts. I could not see Hotel by Wild Rice, or that Bukit Brown thing by Drama Box (It Won’t Be Too Long). I hope they will come back.

I watched:

  • Returning by Goh Lay Kuan (loved the music and some of the dance)
  • Imagination of the Future (the Chilean play in the Open season of SIFA that because our government banned from baring breasts laid bare Singapore’s censorship: more below)
  • Biomashup (a dance with live Theremin music; I was more mesmerised by the musician rather than the dance)
  • Cabanons (a head scratcher: circus or theatre?)
  • Dementia (innovative but emotionally remote for me)
  • Revolutionary Model Play (uneven).
  • One part of Dance Revolution (Cambodian Chey Chankethya’s My Mothers and I was excellent)

One of highlights was Drama Box’s The Lesson under the wonderful inflatable space the Goli at Toa Payoh Central. It was truly a lesson on the possibilities of theatre, of politics, and of political theatre.

After one of the shows, I had a chat with one of my favourite critics (and playwright) Helmi Yusof of Business Times about the old but important question of whether SIFA should be popular (like the HK Arts festival: success measured by ticket sales alone) or adventurous (measured by not how many people like it, but whether some people really really love it.) This year’s slate under artistic director Ong Keng Sen is indeed adventurous. That it got the numbers is an added bonus.

My view is that Singapore has such a bustling arts scene offering all the popular, middle of the road stuff from the casinos’ crowd pullers to numerous festivals and shows that cater to more popular needs. This is great. But it is not often that a big festival offers something more esoteric (and I don’t mean esoteric for the sake of being so). SIFA has that role. Unfortunately, SIFA has suffered from schizophrenia for much of its existence: one year it wants to be popular, the next year it wants to be cutting edge. Go for one, preferably the latter. Otherwise the audience gets confused.

Oh, by the way, the other highlight happened at the sidelines of SIFA. It is Keng Sen’s interview about censorship. The highlight from that highlight:

I think first of all the context is very very important. The fact that our censors were not considering context at all means there is an impossible situation actually put forward.

So I think it’s very difficult to show Singapore is a global hub, because all these companies are laughing at us. I feel embarrassed to be going to our international guests with such absurd demands from the censors, like, “Can you please cut the blowjob?” or “Can you do less?”

And in the end this censorship is a real mockery. It’s an international embarrassment for Singapore to be shown to be so childish.

Some seven or eight years ago, I wrote in a report that one of the three main messages from speaking to practitioners, academics and policy makers in the creative industries in Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong was this: Censorship matters. A very senior civil servant who read the report retorted: “Censorship is no longer an issue in Singapore”. From Keng Sen’s interview, I guess, it still isn’t.

 

Tan Tarn How is a policy researcher and playwright. He blogs at https://tantarnhow.wordpress.com/ (where this article first appeared) and https://projectflourishinglife.wordpress.com/

Conflict of interest disclaimer: His plays have been directed by Ong Keng Seng.

Featured image Drama Box’s The Lesson by Tan Tarn How .

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Photo by Shawn Danker. Shared Copyright.
Some NSmen waiting around the Esplanade while the NDP rehearsals go on.

by Yen Feng

I’m not a sportsman so I have no idea what it’s like to be an athlete – much less compete in something like the SEA Games. But I can imagine, it must be pretty tough. Now, if you’re a guy and have to worry about NS on top of that – damn stress lah!

It’s not a new subject, and one that has been debated in the past – the question has come up not only for our athletes but for talent in other fields, including music and medicine, to name a few in recent memory. Throughout it all, the G has taken a hard stand on this. It has made exceptions, but by and large, getting a deferment might be harder than, well, getting a Gold.

So imagine everyone’s surprise when Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, who is also the president of the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC), came out to say he wants to work with Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) to “push the boundaries” and allow our national athletes more flexibility in fulfiling their NS duties?

Even the president of Singapore Athletic Association said he was “pleasantly surprised” – after all, other people like him including leaders from the Singapore Table Tennis Association, Singapore Sports Council, and the Singapore Badminton Association, have been talking about this for years without much effect.

That a former brigadier-general has come out to support this call now is fantastic news, of course, – one that TNP columnist Leonard Thomas said today was “a hugely significant development”.

There has to be more to supporting our athletes than NS deferment.

Right after reading Leonard’s column, I was struck by what I read on the next page – how apparently some fans had abused (verbally I assume) the football coach Aide Iskandar, his family, and some players when the Under-23 football team lost 1-0 to their Indonesian counterparts in the Games.

“It got a bit ugly,” said Mr Tan in a message he posted on SNOC’s Facebook page. Even the story’s headline in TNP made me sad: “Fan vitriol can make athletes stronger; negative criticism comes with the territory, say former stars”.

There’s plenty of room to grow as a sporting nation, and cultivating young sports talent has to start with giving them a supportive environment – yes, at the stadiums, but also in structures and processes. If you’re world-class, the G should really just stay out of your way.

Opening the door for potentially more deferments is an acknowledgement that the G has to recognise the value of making exceptions for exceptional, world-class talent against the needs of national security. When it comes to international rivalry, soft power is just as important as military might.

What about in other fields besides sports?

Responding to whether artists can apply for NS deferment, a MINDEF spokesman said in 2013 that they would have to “convincingly” show that it was necessary for them to practise full-time, and that they have the potential to achieve “outstanding results” at top international competitions.

But unlike sportsmen, artists may not share the same international platforms as the Olympics or SEA Games, or the kind of passion and fervour such sporting events attract. It may also be harder for the G or the public to get behind an artist if the talent is perceived to be too arty farty and out of touch with the average Singaporean.

Still, exceptions have been made – some examples include violinist Lim Chun and pianist Lim Yan, though they have been rare.

Between 1999 and 2009, MINDEF granted deferments on “less than 10 occasions”, said then Second Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, in a 2009 parliamentary speech. It’s unclear how many of these were for sports or other reasons, but between 2003 and 2013, only five people applied for NS deferment to pursue the arts, of which two were granted.

Will – or should – Mr Tan’s call for more flexibility to NS deferment apply to artists as well?

Boundaries have to be drawn somewhere. But exceptional talent is a precious thing. If you’re that good and winning all kinds of international awards and competitions, you should be allowed to keep doing what you’re doing. Not just allowed, encouraged even. Make us proud.

But hey, what do I know. I’m not a sportsman – and I’m rubbish at art too.

 

Featured photo by Shawn Danker.

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