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Arts in the Lion City, Rule 'by' Law in Singapore

Interviews with SDP Asst. Sec-Gen John Tan and playwright Alfian Sa’at

Interview with John Tan, Assistant Secretary-General from the Singapore Democrat Party, during the CALD Conference “Asian Liberal Parties in Power: Getting There, Remaining There” from 27.-29. June 2010 in Manila – FreedomAsiaTV

Read SDP’s report A glimmer of hope in the political darkness.


I love my country, I hate my country
theSun, 1st July 2010

Award-winning Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at talks to BISSME S about writing and his love-hate relationship with his homeland.

What are some of the challenges you face as a writer in Singapore?

Where do I start? Some of the challenges that we face are universal. It is difficult to make a living and a career out of writing and publishing in Singapore. For a country of 4.5 million people, I believe that there are fewer than 10% who are active readers. From that percentage, even fewer pick up and read works written locally. Readership is a challenge. We don’t have a reading culture. If you look at the bestseller lists, they are works, in a sense, already successfully and globally marketed, like Harry Potter. A lot of self-help books reach the bestseller list. That happens to be the reading diet of the Singapore population.

Why is this the reading pattern?

I think it comes from this idea that any kind of reading should be sort of instrumentalist, which means that you don’t read for pleasure alone. You read for some kind of edification. You read for a purpose, like improving your life. I find self-help books strange and presumptuous, trading on the idea that you can actually prescribe certain things for every single individual.

I think we are a complex people and I believe in us as individuals. I don’t think one self-help book is going to have the one size fits all solution. I must say in terms of theatre, it is a little better because you are not competing with international works. We are able to make inroads when it comes to theatre.

Of course (Singapore’s) film-makers and writers who are producing literature are facing stiff competition from Hollywood and pulp fiction paperbacks from other parts of the world. We are also competing against books by people who won the Booker prize or who are Nobel laureates. There is an attitude among Singapore readers who will say: ‘You have not won some international award, why should I read you?’

Are you not happy as a Singaporean?

Yes (we laugh). But I have to qualify this. It is unhappiness, an agitation, which I think is a source of a lot of creative energy. It is not a paralysing kind of unhappiness. It is an unhappiness, I think, that compels me to try to figure out certain questions. What it means to be a Singaporean … nationhood, belonging, ethnicity and identity. I hope it is not just something that ends up being a kind of involuted, armchair critic kind of complaining. I am, of course, unhappy.

Picking up a copy of Straits Times in Singapore can ruin your morning. You wonder whether they really had to report on the ministerial speech at a community centre.

It is just rehashing the same thing you have heard for the last four decades. It is so pro-government. The Opposition is always portrayed in an unflattering light.

But it doesn’t take much to read between the lines. Obviously, I am not happy with the situation. I feel as if I am not getting real access to the real information.

From your writings, one feels you faced some discrimination as a Singapore Malay?

I have been a beneficiary of the system. It is not as if I am a Malay, I am denied, like say, access to subsidised education. It has not happened to me.

But I don’t think writing is solely about your own personal grievances. I have this platform where I can share certain ideas and information. There is a certain responsibility to speak up on behalf of other people who have been discriminated against because of their ethnicity. I have heard a lot about working class Malays facing discrimination. I believe I should write about all these incidents.

Are Singapore’s Malays being discriminated against?

Singapore likes to compare itself to Malaysia, using Malaysia as a negative example. Apparently, the twin pillars of Singapore’s ideology are meritocracy and multiracialism.

Singapore’s ideology sounds good on paper and in principle. But what they ignore is that not all races are in equal proportion in society. There is still a dominant Chinese majority in Singapore. When you are the majority, you form the bulk of your market. Your images in the media are everywhere, etc. So you need to do something a little extra for the minorities who are not going to have this kind of resources simply because they form a smaller number.

But I think a lot of people in Singapore especially the Chinese don’t realise what they are enjoying is majority privilege. They think that just because everything is supposedly meritocratic, there is no such thing as market forces that will favour the majority. Why don’t I see Malay faces in magazines and advertisements? The reason is simple. Because you want to sell to the majority. The buyers want to see faces they can identify with. The question is what should the state do to prevent minorities from feeling alienated by all these market forces?

Can you cite an example of blatant discrimination?

There is still discrimination in the army. A Malay would not be assigned to a sensitive position in the army. They will not get to deal with areas like military intelligence and handle more sophisticated weapons. It has been happening for so long. But the thing that makes me unhappy is the government doesn’t admit it.

When these questions are raised, they keep insisting the army is meritocratic. It isn’t. I’d rather have a government that comes out in the open and says: ‘We do not recruit Malays into higher ranks because of security issues … because we think their loyalty might be torn between Singapore and neighbouring countries.’ Only when this is out in the open, perhaps then we could have some healthy discussions.

But if they do this, of course this would invite a response from neighbouring countries. I believe that none of the neighbouring countries want to attack Singapore. It has no strategic depth. No natural resources. The rhetoric in Singapore is that other countries are ‘envious of our success’. I don’t think there is envy. But there is pity. Because here is a country with such a delusional sense of self-importance that it devotes so much of its budget to defence, and wastes productive years of the lives of its adult males through mandatory conscription.

But if you were the defence minister would you put Malays in higher positions in the army?

Yes, I would. Even the Israeli army recruits Arabs. In terms of social integration, it is absolutely important we do not mistrust any members of our society.

I believe their rationale is the Malays still have an attachment to Malaysia and we need to wait for several years until they feel fully Singaporean. But my rationale is: How can we feel fully Singaporean if we are not integrated into the army and made to feel Singaporean? Just because you are born in some Singapore hospital doesn’t make you feel Singaporean.

You have to go through a certain rite of passage and citizenship that makes you feel for your country. It must make you say: ‘I will fight for the army because it happens to be an army that trusted me to fight for my country.’ You must have confidence that a citizen will execute his duty as a citizen. Malaysia has had non-bumi generals for so long. Singapore never had a Malay general since independence in 1965. Only last year we had an Indian-Muslim colonel promoted to the rank of brigadier-general. It has taken them so long to appoint a Muslim general.

How do non-Malays in Singapore react to your statements?

I have more non-Malay friends than Malay friends in Singapore. I always put my views in an honest way but never in an aggressive way that will make them feel offended and defensive. But for some people in Singapore, even raising such issues puts them on the defensive.

Some consider you are ultra Malay. What is your comment?

To be an ultra Malay, I have to speak Malay well and be rooted in Malayness … wearing songkok, samping, waving the keris (he laughs). But I don’t. I speak to my parents in Malay. But my first language is English. I even dream in English. So it is hard to be a racial chauvinist when you can’t even speak the language well. When I see a lot of this ultra Malay gestures in Malaysia, I feel nauseated because they are the same as the ultra Chinese in Singapore. Someone raising a keris is the same as a Chinese talking about the superiority of Chinese culture and their 5,000 years of civilisation.

Have you gotten into trouble with the law over your views?

I have never broken any law. But I also know there is the ISA where you do not need any evidence to catch you. I have not been detained under the ISA. But in Singapore, the process of making art comes under so many regulations. There are so many guidelines we (the artists) have to subscribe too. I had issues with censorship.

Can you give some examples?

In one of my plays, I wanted to include a scene where in the future, Malaysia decides to cut the water supply to Singapore. So some Singaporeans travel to the North Pole to transport back some icebergs. The scene was considered sensitive and we had to pull it out.

In 2001, in my poetry collection, History of Amnesia, there was a bit where I included poems on ISA detainee Chia Thye Poh. He had spent 32 years in detention under the ISA. I had a hard time getting a publishing grant (from the government). In the end, my application was turned down with no written explanation.

What misconceptions do people have about you?

That I am an angry young man. But when they meet me, they are surprised to find me soft-spoken and mild. They can’t match the writer and the person. I feel I have disappointed them.

Why are you often in Kuala Lumpur?

I am inspired whenever I come to Kuala Lumpur. I feel there are little pocket freedoms which I do not find in Singapore. There is greater freedom of expression in Malaysia. The idea of democracy is better practised here. There are no demos in Singapore. The idea is foreign to Singaporeans. Nobody has any idea what takes place in a demo … what it feels like to shout a slogan or even hold a placard. Of course there are also repressive measures when it comes to Syariah law here. I do not want a kind of Jais (Jabatan Agama Islam) in Singapore. I do not want moral policing or even vigilantism.

Why do you want to see a demo in Singapore?

I am not saying that we should have one just for the sake of it. But if there is some legitimate grievance, then this avenue should be available. I think it is possible to have demonstrations conducted in an orderly fashion. The Singapore government is not so much afraid of the law and order aspects of allowing a demonstration. They are more afraid of public expressions of unhappiness over their rule.

Many Muslims believe the community needs the moral police. What is your comment?

We should be clear about the reach of the law when it comes to governing behaviour. When you behave in a way that harms others, obviously it is a crime and you need laws to curb it. When you are doing certain things in private and where the principle of harm cannot be demonstrated convincingly, I don’t think those are things that require legislation.

Do you hate your country?

In the foreword to my latest book (Collected Plays One), Ivan Heng (a Singapore theatre director) said that after reading my works, he realised that I hate Singapore as a lover would. Only the ones you love can hurt you. For example, if a waiter serves you late, you get annoyed but forget about it the next day. But if you felt wounded by someone you love, the pain stays for very long.

If I felt affected by some things that are happening in my country, a part of it is because I love Singapore. Of course, not in a facile, flag-waving kind of way. The frustrations come from seeing so much potential going to waste and being neglected.

What made you want to be a writer?

I wish I could tell you that there was a book that transformed my life and I wanted to be a writer. I wish I could tell you that I met this author and we shook hands and I felt something pass through me and I wanted to be writer. But the reality is I just love writing. Writing is one of those few things in life that I am probably good at. Writing is something that keeps me sane, that keeps me balanced, and that keeps me alive.

Alfian is doing a residency at the Instant Café House of Art and Ideas (CHAI) in Kuala Lumpur and will be conducting writing workshops. Those interested can log on to http://blog.instantcafetheatre.com/2010/06/writing-workshops-by-alfian-saat-singapore/)

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