Do Singaporeans even look at their own fears?

When someone says of another: “Oh, it’s brave of him to do that,” the remark may tell us more of the speaker than the person spoken about. Why was whatever he did brave? What were the mental associations we linked to that act that made it seem courageous? Yet, when we hear such descriptions of bravery, “no one asks what it tells us about ourselves,”  said playwright Tan Tarn How, underlining a view that as a society, we rarely engage in self-reflection.

His new play, Fear of Writing, explores questions like this. That’s what artists do: they hold a mirror to society.

Artists, however, often get the blues. Tarn How is no exception. “The play posits the possibility that in Singapore, political art is irrelevant,” he says of his work. He’s had this thought for some time: that political art changes almost nothing here. It’s not getting through to people.

Why not is the question. What is it about ourselves as a dull and smug society that is so non-responsive?

Quickly thinking of a counter-example, I asked, “Do you consider what Mr Brown does as a form of political art?”


“Does it not have effect?”

“I don’t think so,” Tarn How says.

And maybe he’s right. The short, sharp satire that Mr Brown is known for may heighten our criticism of its intended target, but we seldom stop and examine ourselves either. We laugh at the intended target, but do we ask: Why are we laughing?

Fear of Writing

Fear of Writing, which Tarn How finished in May last year, will be staged by Theatreworks from 1 – 10 September 2011 (more details at Theatreworks’ site). Over lunch, I asked him what it was about.

“It’s about what you can say, and what you cannot say.” Despite an increasingly widespread view that Singapore is opening up and the old rules no longer apply, there are still some things one cannot say. The Out-of-Bounds (OB) markers may have shifted, but they are still there.

“People have gone to jail,” Tarn How reminded me, for saying things recently that were outside those OB markers.

In his view, the current dispensation is that so long as an individual remains atomised, the space to say what he wants and live the life he wants has expanded. But when he does it in an organised way, like write a book about sensitive or important subjects, or mobilises others, that space shrinks rapidly. “Engagement still remains very much on the government’s terms.”

The play is an exploration of this. One of the characters is a typical Singaporean, an everyman in his thirties. And through him, we explore the question: What if a person tries to write a play he dares not write? What if it is never written, or never produced? What happens?

“The second issue the play explores is that we as a people are insensitised to certain kinds of injustices, and otherwise good people would routinely turn a blind eye to them.”

Somehow, that sounds horribly familiar to me. But how did such a situation come about? Tarn How suggested that in order to become like that, people take on a worldview that rationalises away and protects us  from feeling that injustice. For example, certain words like “Marxist” or “confrontational” have become auto-triggers for not thinking. They trip the thinking process, beyond which no further examination is carried out. No one stops to ask if perhaps there is a world in which confrontational is good.

Hermit Singaporeans

The conversation segues into the broader question of Singaporeans within a certain political and intellectual climate.

“A lot of people in our system work with doors and windows in their minds that have never been opened. It’s perfectly OK if they are first opened, the view examined and then one says, ‘this view is not for me’, but the problem is when they have never been opened. We never check out an alternative view. And we live a life in a world that is unexamined.”

This leads to the second of two types of self-censorship, perhaps the more insidious of the two. The first kind is when we are aware that it is dangerous to say something and we choose not to say it. The second is when we are operating with set modes of thinking, that prevents our minds from venturing beyond certain limits. When that happens, “we’re not even aware that it is self-censorship,” Tarn How adds.

Surely, that’s what art is for, to point this out so that people become more aware?

“And that’s the third side of the play,” says Tarn How. “It explores the nature, meaning and significance of political art.”

What is its relationship with society, especially “one that has neither sensitivity to art or politics?” Have Singaporeans, I wondered, been brought up and educated in such a way as to see these disciplines as tightly compartmentalised? Where art is a plaything for artists as politics is reserved for politicians? Do we therefore become deaf and disempowered?

On our education system, Tarn How had a lot to say. “Singaporeans are very good at giving answers, we are fantastic at this. But we are very bad at asking what should be the questions.” In other words, we suck at creative, greenfield and meta thinking.

So I took him down another road and asked what that might mean for Singapore, long term. Would it ultimately hurt us economically? Interestingly, his answer was: Not necessarily. So long as we remain good at that one thing — finding answers without questioning the questions — it may still be sustainable. We may not create or invent anything new, but we can chug along as a good OEM maker, for example.

The recent exodus of top scientists from Biopolis came to mind. Apparently they have been unhappy with bureaucrats failing to understand the nature of basic research, expecting deliverables at regular intervals.

Do we only know entertainment?

Coming back to political art and its (in)significance in Singapore, the problem, as Tarn How sees it, is that in a lot of art, the artist is actually saying, ‘I’m talking about you,’ but the audience does not hear that voice. Somewhat depressingly, in this materialistic society, we treat art in ways not different from entertainment, as an object of consumption, and not a mirror reflecting onto ourselves. The audience’s approach is: How does this entertain me? How enjoyable is it?

“Even when a piece of work is manifestly political, the politics skims off the consciousness,” Tarn How pointed out. There’s an imprenetrability of the mind.

Take Cooling-off Day, a play based on the recent general elections by Alfian Sa’at that played to full houses a few weeks ago. Lots of people watched it, many praising it, yet by Tarn How’s observation, if one looks at what is said about it, there is no self-examination in the discussion that followed.

In such a situation, how does one write a political play? Is it possible to write it in such a way that it becomes relevant?

Are there no ways, I asked him, for a play to be entertaining and still deeply cutting?

“There are,” replied Tarn How. “You can make them laugh until they cry, but my experience is that the Singaporean audience laughs, but the tears don’t come. They can only see the spectacle — how funny, how cute. . .

“Laughter is the new opiate.”

By the simple measure that art should serve a socially transformative purpose, it may be failing in Singapore. And this failure may mean our politics is stuck in a rut, ancient assumptions unquestioned, old antagonisms unresolved, longstanding fears unbanished. The spectre of OB markers haunt us still. What has long needed to be said remains unsaid. Would Tarn How’s new play finally kickstart a reexamination of ourselves, as a starting point for a new look at our state and society, and ourselves?

21 Responses to “Do Singaporeans even look at their own fears?”

  1. 1 Anonymous 1 September 2011 at 02:45

    Alex, there is something about the way this piece is written that does not capture your (usual) voice.

  2. 2 TheRedPill 1 September 2011 at 08:04

    I was disturbed that Singaporeans in general abhors any confrontation with the government, even if the actions of the government were questionable, let alone wrong. Recent events clearly brought this fact out in my mind.

    The thought did cross my mind that our government and the MSM had indeed brainwashed our minds to the extent that most of us are no longer aware of the brainwashing.

  3. 3 Tan Tai Wei 1 September 2011 at 09:50

    Be careful that saying things via “art” isn’t a cowardly way of saying and not saying! Nobody, certainly not politicians, see or read “art”, and so you may “say” anything there, very safely, for even the politicians don’t bother.

    I recall that many years ago, Robert Yeo, a former colleague and a friend, got his “political” play produced. He wrote LKY inviting him to the performance. His secretary replied, politely declining.

    • 4 Tan Tai Wei 5 September 2011 at 15:46

      The crucial test that distinguishes art from merely clever verse, etc., is some particular worthy insight attained and communicable only in that unique mode, be that drama, poetry, painting, etc.

      But if the content were nothing extraordinary and could just as well be pointed out the more clearly in simple, pedestrian ways, then “artists” who so indulge in “art” deserve the censure of the then President Nair who called them “arty crafty nincompoops”.

  4. 5 Singa 1 September 2011 at 12:08

    Tarn How’s new play can certainly help “kickstart a reexamination of ourselves, as a starting point for a new look at our state and society, and ourselves”.

    Decades of being nannied by an overly protective government and being schooled with a creativity-starved education has resulted in a politically apathetic society full of “hermits”. But following GE2011 and the recent EP election, the political climate seems to be changing. The loss of a GRC and the horse-whisker win by the PAP-endorsed EP candidate, must surely forced the govt to relook many of its policies.

    With the help of the internet and social media, the good effort of social activists and artists will certainly generate lots of useful/meaningful conversations which ultimately is for the good of our nation.

  5. 6 Jeremy Tiang 1 September 2011 at 12:26

    It may be simplistic to expect overt “self-examination” to follow the viewing of a play – I think, in any society, that only happens for a minority of the audience. By my observation, a more likely process is that the viewer consumes the play as entertainment, but internalises the messages of the play – a good play changes the way its audience sees the world, whether or not they realise it.

    So the crowds of people who watched at, laughed at, and even cried at Cooling Off Day (and it’s interesting that Tan Tarn How says Singapore audiences don’t cry; by coincidence, I’d been noticing a handful of comments on twitter and, I think, the Flying Inkpot, about how the play moved people to tears) – may not go home and consciously discuss the play.

    But they will have, hopefully, taken on board its messages, which were made very clearly – for instance, how gerrymandering has destroyed communities such as Katong, and how Singapore is not the homogenous nation the government would portray it as, but a series of neighbourhoods with their own character, particularly in the east. And perhaps, the next time a whole new set of constituency boundaries is announced, something from the play will resonate.

    Which is not to say the creators of political art don’t face an uphill battle in Singapore. But I think there is potential for success, despite apathetic audiences and overzealous censors. It is a centuries-old pursuit, after all, to smuggle potentially explosive messages into the public sphere under cover of entertainment.

  6. 7 PatricNoNSTan 1 September 2011 at 12:47

    In Singapore, the ‘mirror’ that art holds about society is always smudged by the FAP’s ruthless censorship. It is the moral high ground adopted by the FAP that directly shapes fear – what is disallowed by the FAP is commonly mistaken to be something inherently to be ‘feared’.

    I choose to believe that the best art form lies in our imaginations – it is imperative not to let our imaginations die, even though there may not be (immediate) media for their expressions to broader audiences. As the saying goes, ‘one day, you just never know…’

  7. 8 Shawn Byron Danker 1 September 2011 at 16:58

    of course not la. otherwise why would all the fear mongering work? why would the people here shrink in the face of confrontation instead of smiling and standing proud in it. sigh…we need a Green Lantern ring to come find one of us to show us the way.

  8. 9 bookjunkie 1 September 2011 at 18:42

    I self censor myself all the time due to fear, and I’m ashamed of it. But it’s survival mode.

    I sometimes half say what I really want to say. It’s the main reason why I feel oppressed, even though things have loosened up a wee bit.

    I often wonder what it would be like to live in a country with full freedom of expression.

    Unless things change, you can’t help feel stunted here.

  9. 10 Anonymous 1 September 2011 at 20:32

    I think the lack of self examination is not a uniquely Singaporean trait. Rather it is a failing that all humanity is guilty of. Cognitive bias is so built in to our biological and neurological wiring that so many things we do are so comical. I would be the first to admit that I am also not without these failings. However, what I find most abhorrent are those people who exploit these faults in humanity such as many corporate, political and religious leaders. These people are the real obstacles to any hope for humanity to escape self destruction

  10. 11 Ivy 1 September 2011 at 21:44

    Self-reflection is not possible when there’s no self-awareness.

  11. 12 percevale 2 September 2011 at 07:50

    The fact is that the majority of Singaporeans are lack self awareness because the education system places emphasis on short term thinking rather than long term- the result, a colony of tiny worker bees who cannot look beyond their next meal. No self-reflection occurs because their primitive thought processes do not allow for that possibility.

    In short, no one takes the “red pill” because (almost) everyone is more concerned with where the “next meal” comes from- Singapore is the land of the short term pay-off (e.g. Ooh $400 GST rebate before elections, PAP is so AWESOME!) – how does one become self aware when so many fall for such cheap tricks?

    Those that are aware have either left or are planning to.

  12. 13 Jenny 2 September 2011 at 13:13

    Oh please, enough with the self-pitying comments laying the blame on education, the leaders or anything other than yourself for the sake of looking good at being able to spot problems other people can’t. It ruins otherwise this excellently written article.

  13. 14 Han 2 September 2011 at 14:45

    It is totally the fault of the PAP that there is a lack of self-awareness amongst Singaporeans.

    The Ministry of Education could have cast off their image as a tool of the nanny state by mandating a comprehensive system of education throughout all schools in Singapore that inculcates critical thinking and encourages independent thought and self-reflection.

    Further they should not be involved in any sort of censorship at all as that is clearly not what the majority of Singaporeans want, because Singaporeans all love and accept a diversity of views.

    And truly the fearmongering is the single biggest obstacle that people face in speaking truth to power. If Alex wasn’t so afraid he would be publishing his analyses and opinions on a blog to communicate them to the public.

  14. 15 Anonymous 3 September 2011 at 09:54

    “And truly the fearmongering is the single biggest obstacle that people face in speaking truth to power. If Alex wasn’t so afraid he would be publishing his analyses and opinions on a blog to communicate them to the public.”

    Ever heard of “the exception that proves the rule”?

    • 16 Han 3 September 2011 at 17:16

      How many exceptions does it take to prove the rule doesn’t exist?

      That’s not a riddle by the way.

      • 17 Anonymous 4 September 2011 at 13:06

        You think there is no fear in a country where the police intervenes when you colour co-ordinate you t-shirt colour?

      • 18 Anonymous 4 September 2011 at 15:16

        That’s an excellent question. Note that I did not say that there was no fear. I am asking, what really is the obstacle to speaking up?

        Consider this question in return: what is the difference between Alex’s blogging and “t-shirt colour coordination” that makes the latter likely to attract police intervention but not the former?

  15. 19 Matilda 4 September 2011 at 17:52

    I think we’re forgetting that art can’t have much of an impact politically unless, in the first place, people are taught how to read it and ‘appreciate’ it. People treat art as an object for consumption because they don’t have any other option in Singapore. Our education system is very happily stifling the teaching of Literature, the one place in the curriculum where they do learn to develop imaginative responses to the arts. MOE has made it possible for students to study the Humanities without touching Literature. The government promotes the arts because of its income-generating potential, but it has not yet seen that such a business requires the continuous production of intelligent and critical audiences.

  16. 20 Matilda 4 September 2011 at 17:55

    “The second issue the play explores is that we as a people are insensitised to certain kinds of injustices, and otherwise good people would routinely turn a blind eye to them.”

    Absolutely true, and a very disappointing aspect of Singapore culture.

  17. 21 jaguar003 6 September 2011 at 23:48

    I’m rather disconcerted about Tan Tarn How’s revelation, “Laughter is the new opiate.” That’s because I absolutely agree with it.

    For my O Level examinations this year, one of the books I’m doing for Lit is Fahrenheit 451. There is such a striking similarity, because one of the common issues that this post and the book touches upon is how the people distract themselves from the reality of their lives by using entertainment. In F451, the people use their parlour walls (wall-size TV screens) which blare out ads and violent and sexual programmes to dull the pain. In this society, we have a startling tendency to laugh things off, to turn things into ‘just a joke’ and get away from what we’re not facing. For all the studies that my class has done on the book, I still don’t see any discernable change in them. This just reiterates your point that we’re all laughing and seeing whatever it is as entertainment, but not as a mirror unto ourselves.

    And this sentence made me think again about how MOE really can’t do much to install “a comprehensive system of education throughout all schools in Singapore that inculcates critical thinking and encourages independent thought and self-reflection”, to quote someone above. It’s because we need the O Level grades, and since the syllabus already is supposed to be crammed into a few short years of education, there isn’t much time left for anything is. How are we students supposed to be thinking independently, critically and reflecting about our lives and all when we’re all caught up with studying?

    I’m not blaming the education system. Neither am I lamenting the apparently stressful student life. (Maybe I’m too bochap to feel stressed.) Rather, I feel that the main problem is that Singaporeans are not willing to take the “red pill” (to borrow someone else’s idea, presented above). How many of our youth are willing to sit silently in retrospection and think about their lives and their actions? How many of us ‘youngsters’ are willing to think about who we are, who we will be, and who we want to be?

    This article needs to be printed in the newspapers and distributed to schools. I know that much of my fellow 16-year-old classmates may not be willing to wade through such an article, but still I feel as though it is us against the tides of unthinking youth and citizens. If our youth are merely filled with thoughts of studying and their social and love life, how are they to become the future of society?

    If this gets printed and mass distributed, it is my fervent hope that through reading this, our people (and not just the youth anymore) will elect to take the “red pill”. To wake up, and truly shine a mirror upon themselves.

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