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.
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?
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?