Should we believe in the arts?

Today marks the final lecture for my theatre module on Singapore English Language Theatre (SELT). But after one whole semester learning this module, I have arrived at more questions than answers.

My professor firmly believes in the power of theatre in bringing hidden sociopolitical issues to the foreground. He asserts that because Singapore is a highly regulated country, and arts defy regulations by nature, any form of performing arts is bound to be subversive. Hence, the arts, especially theatre, is often closely monitored.

At the start of the module, I was easily convinced by his thread of argument, especially because I was drawn by the powerful pieces of theatre works. But towards the end of the module, I started to question it.

Could the reason why the arts is so heavily regulated be that it has the power to point people to a perspective of truth they never knew exist, when it may not be based on actual facts? Due to the liveness of theatre, the audience is directly implicated and invested into a play. Even if the play has Brechtian elements in it, the playwright inevitably places his own bias into the play with a specific purpose in mind, be it directing the audience to other perspectives or to make them question the current state of matters.

Percy Bysshe Shelley once said that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Given the power artists hold, the next question is this- Is this power legitimate? When I pick up a play, or watch a play, how can I be sure that the playwright has done extensive research before claiming to reflect social realities? Arguably, artists reflect the social reality they see through their eyes, and hence have no responsibility in depicting the society as it is. If plays merely reflect the playwrights’ perceptions of the world, doesn’t that undermine their power in evoking change in society? Additionally, it is claimed from the start of the module that SELT provides a window into Singapore society. How do we judge the validity and reliability of the narratives that are meant to parallel actual issues in the society in these plays?

Personally, I think these are difficult questions to answer. Ultimately, I think it boils down to the responsibility of the playwright. Still, I do see the need for regulation because theatre, if handled carelessly, can be a dangerous tool. Even though SELT often criticises how the Singapore identity is constructed, it will be ironic if the plays that are meant to expose different narratives are based on mere perceptions that could have been constructed in the playwright’s subjective perspective as well.

For example, in Chong Tze Chien’s play, “Charged”, he exposes the underlying tensions between races in a highly confrontational manner. However, while playwrights constantly challenge the notion of multi-racial harmony in Singapore, should there not be a reason for being appreciative of at least a certain degree of peace between races in Singapore? The other day, in the lift, I met a Malay family. I pressed the “open” button for them and they greeted me with “thanks”. That could have been any other family of another race and it would have made me as happy and grateful nonetheless. I admit that I do not fully understand the customs and traditions of other races very well, but this degree of harmony is something so difficult to achieve in other countries. Should this perspective not be represented or respected then, just because it is cliche or mainstream? But I do agree that this perspective of mine does reveal beliefs that are subconsciously ingrained in me, which I will probe further in the later part of this post.

Additionally, there are two other means to reach a plausible solutions for the above questions. First, my sister pointed out a good point that we should believe in the competency of the audience in viewing the show critically. My concern has an implicit assumption that the audience will not be able to identify the biases held by the playwrights.

Second, in my Methods of Social Research lecture, I learnt about the value of Biographical Research. Biographical research “takes the individual as author and source of evidence, collect and interpret personal narrative, discourse, and story in order to understand the individual life within its social context”. Similarly, the question of validity and reliability arises. How objective can one person’s account of society or history be? This time, my professor suggested that perhaps biographical research is valuable precisely because it represents partial reality. For example, “Oral History”, which is the “collection and study of historical information about individuals, families, important events, or everyday life using audiotapes, videotapes, or transcriptions of planned interviews” may only capture personal perceptions, but personal stories often include very rich data that cold hard statistics cannot fully capture. Furthermore, these personal “oral histories” are part of the history making process, as they are parts of a whole.

This parallels art in the sense that we should value it as a medium to uncover deeper interactions between people, that facts cannot illustrate. Perhaps, there is nothing wrong with treating each of these plays individually, and valuing them more as platforms to give each playwright a voice to the issues to show that these voices exist, and less as plays that are representative of the population.

This whole debate with myself unexpectedly brought light to the subconscious beliefs that I have held in my life thus far. Perhaps, I have been living in a bubble that assumes everything is perfect in Singapore, in which I have been termed as naive. Perhaps, the unspoken preconception that artists are troublemakers instead of able instruments for positive social change have been ingrained in me. Perhaps, the idea that arts should rightfully be regulated has been one that I have unknowingly conformed to, simply because that it has been the master narrative I have grown up with. These may account for the cognitive dissonance I experienced when I attended SELT lectures. But at the very least, it takes such moments for beliefs to be brought to light and that is the first step before I can evaluate if these beliefs are justifiable, or not. For that, I am happy to have learnt something about myself from this module.

Currently, my stand is more conservative than liberal on the question of the role of art and artists. However, these questions will continue to stick with me, and the answers will be constantly evaluated, as I approach the arts in the future.

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Barren

It was a pity I began to have multiple backlogs the moment school work started to pile up. I had less time and motivation to read about the newspapers and think deeply about issues raised in classes. ( This is something I still have to work on.) Even if I did develop some thoughts, they faded away when I failed to note them down.

However, one thought or rather, many thoughts regarding one issue continue to stick in my head till today. I only became aware of it as it is a recurring theme that is constantly reinforced in my TS3235 Singapore English Language Theatre (SELT) Module. That, is the theme of “Alienation” and “Memory” in Singapore. These topics are constantly dealt with in SELT, as seen from plays such as “Mama looking for her cat” and “The silly little girl and the funny old tree” by Kuo Pao Kun.

Alienation refers to the estrangement one feels towards his or her environment or community. In Singapore, alienation is experienced due to the rapid developments in our physical landscapes and society. This causes a void of memory because the spaces where we lived, played and breathed in no longer exists to remind us of the past. When this occurs, we easily fall prey to memories that are manufactured, and we unknowingly accept them, creating an illusive sense of belonging.

I never realised how alienated Singaporeans are until I started reflecting about my childhood, and how my environments looked like when I was younger, which is not too long ago, considering the fact that I am only 20. I have a friend who is almost obsessed with dainty and fluffy dandelions recently. Initially, she was upset because the only dandelions she had seen were the ones she found in Vietnam. We both thought that since we have never seen dandelions in Singapore before, there must be none, or probably only a few dandelions in Singapore. But upon closer observations, we started finding dandelions almost everywhere in Singapore, from home to school. I guess the concept of alienation or everything that we learnt works the same way. We overlook so many things that they often become invisible to us.

Hence, after introspection, I realised that within two decades, the large piece of forest in front of my house transformed into another primary school. The ice-cream shop in my neighbourhood where I used to visit to buy ice-cream cups with little toys to be uncovered in the cups was replaced by a modern hair dressing saloon. A makeshift stall in the neighbourhood used to sell my favourite kueh tu tu, but the stall does not exist anymore. King Albert Park Macdonalds, a dearly missed location where my friends and I used to gather in our school days was tore down last year to give way to a residential and commercial estate. Longhouse, a common “makan” place where my boyfriend and I visited a few times, no longer exist now. More recently, a large number of HDB flats were built on top of a large patch of green land in front of my house. The more I thought about everything, the more disturbing it got.

Some may say that the green patch of land will be developed sooner or later. It will be a wastage of land if it were to have nothing on it. But I question if a seemingly “barren” piece of land was nothing. I think it was something when my family and I once ran up the small green hill and attempted to fly a kite. It was something when we used to jog around it and the green hues never failed to bring me tranquility. It was definitely something when I could actually seen the sun set right above the hill beautifully. Simple as it is, a beautiful sunset is still one of the most pleasurable scene I have ever seen. Yet, even that is blocked behind the blocks of buildings as well.

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I saw this tree as I was walking home the another day. It was not just another photo you would instagram, but it just got me very concerned. If Singaporeans were to call ourselves a green city, where many trees are planted, why does it seem that things never grow old enough before they are demolished in this city?

Well, the thing about dandelions is that they are hardy plants that can survive in almost any condition. When the wind blows, they are able to disperse their seeds through the wind. This is why they can be found in almost every continent on the planet. But I do suspect that one of the reasons why we don’t see them so often is because the grass is trimmed regularly. Beautiful wild flowers are often levelled till what is left is only cold hard ground.

So why is there a need for such rapid developments? Indeed, despite all the alienation it brings, they were crucial, especially in Singapore’s nation building years. Since then, we have never stopped building, and demolishing, and building again, and demolishing again. But at this point of time, I would like to share one haunting story/ excerpt from Haresh Sharma’s play, This Chord and Others.

“Once there was this man who was invited to his girlfriend’s house for Christmas dinner. During dinner, he noticed that the roast turkey’s head and back were both chopped off. He was curious, so after the meal, he questioned his girlfriend. But, she too didn’t know why. All her life the turkey had been served that way. So, they went to ask her mother. Her mother didn’t know as well. Ever since she was a child, turkey was always served that way. So, finally, they went to ask the girl’s grandmother, who was old and bedridden. Her grandmother said that when she was young, her family couldn’t afford a big oven. So every time they wanted turkey, they had to cut off its head and back so that it could fit into their oven. That was the reason why in that household the turkey will always be served with its head and back chopped off.”

Just because a practice was justified in the past, doesn’t mean it is still correct in today’s context. Personally, I do not think that development is an absolute evil. Coming from a middle class family, I am admittedly and bashfully ignorant about the plight of Singaporean poor and how lives of people have been liberated from the developments that have taken place. What I do know is that something’s lost when something’s gained. Similar to the head and the back of the turkey in the short story above, what is lost at the expense of the ideologies we have taken for granted for all these years? Even if these measures are still justified today, at the very least, we ought to be aware of what we had lost, what we had lost them for, and constantly ask ourselves if these sacrifices were worth it. If we fail to do so, how can we trace them back and hopefully regain an ownership of the memories we have lost? How can we prevent ourselves from falling prey to the same pitfalls again?

Though it is an extremely idealistic dream, it is my humble wish that one day Singapore will start to value the spaces we own in our 716.1 km² land. Not all lands that are barren are useless. All the more so, not all lands that are barren are nothing. Instead, they are vacant spaces with the potential for beautiful wild flowers and memories to grow.

Humans and Faith

In my secondary school or junior college days, my teachers (usually teachers teaching an arts related subject such as general paper or integrated humanities) often told us, “There is no right or wrong answer.”

I was often confused when my teachers do so because when we eventually arrived at an answer, there were times when they simply frown and said, “Hmm.. not quite right. ” In those times, I still believed that my teachers had an answer that they were inclined to believe in their minds and hoped that they were able to steer us in the “right” direction.

After a sociology lecture on Methods, Types and Paradigms for SC2101 (Methods of Social Research), I finally understood what it really means when a perspective to an issue is neither right nor wrong. As teachers or students, we may have subconsciously understood this concept, but have never really understood why.

Dr. Feng explained that in sociology, there are 3 main paradigms: Functionalism, Conflict Theory and Symbolic Interactionism. Functionalists believed that “society is a system, in which each part performs a function to serve the whole”. Conflict theorists believed that “society is a field of confrontations between people dominating and people being dominated”. Symbolic Interactionists believed that “society is a stage of communication with a shared meanings system, which comes from social interaction. ” All these 3 perspectives can be used to understand a social phenomenon. No matter what beliefs one holds which leads him or her to be inclined towards a perspective, no one can say that any of these 3 perspectives are wrong.

The question is: Why? Why does the study of the natural world often leads us to one single answer but not for the study of the social world? Why does the study of cells, atoms, atmosphere, energy etc require so much more objectivity than that of the study of inequality, genders, power relations etc.?

The answer lies in the characteristics of humans. Dr. Feng notes that humans are non-examinable and non-debatable. This is because the psychological processes of humans are invisible. As such, the things we note about another person may not be true. They are inevitably based on assumptions which are influenced by our own cultures, subjective experiences, knowledge and beliefs. I was once fascinated by a quote by chinese scholar, writer and poet 王国维 (Wang Guo Wei). He wrote, “以我观物,故物皆我之色彩。” It skilfully encapsulates the idea that everyone’s perception of the world is coloured by his or her own subjectivity. In other words, we can only attempt to understand others via an understanding of ourself. But it is questionable whether we truly understand ourselves as well.

This issue got me thinking about the study of religion. Perhaps, religion is a human need simply because humans need a simple and perhaps even convenient answer to all the questions we cannot answer. I was reminded of an excerpt from Mitch Albom’s book, Have a Little Faith.


“Look, if you say that science will eventually prove there is no God, on that I must differ. No matter how small they take it back, to a tadpole, to an atom, there is always something they can’t explain, something that created it all at the end of the search.

“And no matter how far they try to go the other way – to extend life, play around with the genes, clone this, clone that, live to one hundred and fifty – at some point, life is over. And then what happens? When the life comes to an end?”

I shrugged.

“You see?”

He leaned back. He smiled.

“When you come to the end, that’s where God begins.”


“When you come to an end, that’s where God begins. ” Personally, I believe that God exists. However, what I do not know is whether we perceive God to be what God really is. Perhaps God is not omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent or benevolent. Perhaps he is just a supernatural being without all the values and meanings we have attached to it.

I do not know a lot about religions. Considering the nature of the study of human society,  I doubt that I can ever know more about religion with any confidence that what I know is “correct”. But after this lecture, what I now know is why it is so difficult to understand the society and a subject like religion.

Dr. Feng concluded by sharing with us the story of the elephant and the blind men. (Source: http://www.jainworld.com/literature/story25.htm)


Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.”

They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.” All of them went where the elephant was. Everyone of them touched the elephant.

“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.

“Oh, no! It is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.

“Oh, no! It is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.

“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

They began to argue about the elephant and everyone of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, “What is the matter?” They said, “We cannot agree to what the elephant is like.” Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features what you all said.”

“Oh!” everyone said. There was no more fight. They felt happy that they were all right.


This story is commonly known among everyone. Yet, its concept is not easily applied and exercised. As humans, we have to acknowledge how small we are and how limited our perception and knowledge of the world is. It is as true for the wise men to say that all the blind men are right as it is true to say that all the blind men are wrong. The only thing we can do and ought to do is to suspend our own judgement and be open and more tolerant of other perspectives.

After all, there is truly no right or wrong answer.

The Oil Paradox and Global Inequality

Since I will be taking a module on sociology of inequality this semester, I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts on inequality based on a limited knowledge of the recent oil crash after reading 2 articles from the straits times “A year to take advantage of cheap oil” and “Understanding the oil crash”.

On 7th January 2015, Brent crude oil yesterday fell below US$50 (S$67) a barrel for the first time since May 2009. I was rather perplexed by this phenomenon because the reactions seem rather mixed. I then realised that this was because the plunge of oil prices have different impacts on producers and consumers.

The plunge in oil prices is mainly caused by the shale revolution in America, which enables America to extract shale oil and gas which were untapped on previously. This has increased the supply of oil significantly. However, oil companies in Saudi Arabia do not wish to decrease their supply as they would want to drive out their American counterparts by lowering their profits further.

At the same time, the fall in oil prices is also worrying as it signifies that the demand for oil is low and that economic growth is slowing down. Developing countries such as China are not growing as much as they were.

For oil importers and consumers, especially developing countries such as China, a fall in oil prices indicate lower cost of production for industries, lower inflation and stimulate the economy.

On the other hand, for oil exporters and producers, especially countries such as Saudi Arabia and America, lower oil prices will indicate a fall in profits. In the past, a fall in oil prices might have been a good thing for industries in America, but the rapid growth of oil companies also mean that they make up a larger part of the economy and have a greater impact on the stocks in the market, thus leading to a plunge in stocks in America. (The plunge in stocks can also be attributed to other reasons such as a weakening Euro caused by political instability in Greece. This has raised fears and uncertainties about the eurozone and the global economy.)

This made me recall a statement my Integrated Humanities teacher made in class. He said, “When someone becomes richer, it must be that money is taken away someone else. When someone becomes poorer, it must be that money is taken away from him and given to someone else.” In that sense, the world economy acts like a zero sum game, whereby one person’s gain is equivalent to another person’s loss.

When I was young, I used to think that one will become richer by his own effort. If he is poor, he must get a job and work harder to earn more money. (I believe this is the effect of meritocracy in Singapore’s education.) It is only when I grew up and learnt more about economics that I realised that our personal wealth is not just controlled by our own efforts.

If any global phenomenon, such as the plunge in oil prices definitely mean that some countries will gain in some aspects, while others will lose, does that mean the global equality can never be reached?

Then, I started realising that perhaps, if we choose to define equality simply in the monetary sense, we have to accept that equality can never be achieved. Well, we even had different natural endowments in the first place. For example, Singapore didn’t have an abundance of natural resources, but we are well endowed with a strategic location and a relative lack of natural disasters.

However, if we redefine our definition of equality and broaden it to include other aspects such as a stable society, beautiful sceneries and a general satisfaction of life, it could be possible that different countries in the world is not unequal, but merely different.

Once, a friend of mine, embarked on trip to India for a mission trip. She returned sharing about how the people there are rather satisfied with their lives and even strive to share whatever they have in their house with their guests. They needed no sympathy, even though they are “poor”. This is because, they are only poor by our standards. This is typical of ethnocentrism, whereby people of a culture judge people of another culture by their own culture’s yardstick and standards.

A food for thought before I take my first lecture on sociology of inequality in school this week.

Sources:
1. A year to take advantage of cheap oil: http://www.straitstimes.com/news/opinion/more-opinion-stories/story/year-take-advantage-cheap-oil-20150106
2. Understanding the oil crash: http://www.straitstimes.com/news/opinion/more-opinion-stories/story/understanding-the-oil-crash-20141205
3. Alarm bells ring as oil dips below US$50: http://www.onenewspage.com/n/Asia-Pacific/754uw3q7n/Alarm-bells-ring-as-oil-dips-below-US.htm

Thoughts on National Identity in Conjunction with SG50

In a straits times article published on 2nd january, written by William Wan (http://www.straitstimes.com/news/opinion/more-opinion-stories/story/pink-ic-and-red-passport-not-enough-make-you-singaporean-201), William Wan reflects upon what it means to be a Singaporean. He notes how “cultural identity can be a source of division, focused as it is on the differences between communities, including race, practices, food and socio-economic status”. Hence, Singaporeans have to recognise and accept that “Singaporeans have to find a delicate balance…We have to foster an identity that is embedded in our cultures, yet not over-emphasise differences that inherently exist among the different communities.”

This is exceptionally true and it could be the reason why Singapore clings on to our identity as a country that is multi-cultural and multi-racial, even though they may not be true in some aspects. While tolerance is seemed as an unsatisfying and imperfect solution to our diversity, assimilation is seen as a naive approach for a country with a presence of such distinctly different cultures. Forcing citizens to abandon their cultural roots for a unified identity may only incite mistrust among races and religions because it raises the question of: Who has the power to decide what identity Singapore should take?

The government has often taken a top-down approach in addressing the issue of nation building. On national day, the narrative of how Singapore grew from a fishing village to a modern metropolis is presented to Singaporeans time and again, as an attempt to remind us where we came from. As William Wan writes, “The default solution, almost inevitably is to present a medley of Mandarin, Malay and Tamil songs that we sing in school on Racial Harmony Day and at the National Day Parade Celebrations.” These narratives are almost seen as commercialised especially when they are used to publicise Singapore’s culture in the aspect of tourism. It is questionable if these narratives and ethnic songs are truly representative of the Singapore Spirit.

Admittedly, a lot of what Singapore is today is created under the Lee Kuan Yew regime. This ranges from housing, economy to ideologies. Singapore is also often described as a miracle. “A mere 50 years ago, Singapore didn’t even exist as an independent state. We were Malaysian then and, before that, subjects of the British Crown. Before the more recent waves of immigrants, fewer than half of us could claim that our parents were born here. ” While this is a miracle that many Singaporeans are proud of, it shows why the problem of culture is such a difficult question for us. Apart from a geographically strategic position on the world map and a successful port, we do not have natural resources and land. As a result, a lot of Singapore’s success relies on policies and opportunities that are created with the vision of the government. The economy was a priority back then, anything related to identity and culture could wait. Ironically, this pursuit of economic progress was exactly a factor that attracted a large influx of immigrants in the past, which also contributed to the current problems of culture and national identity in Singapore.

However, as a nation matures, it is important for Singapore to find its own identity, from a bottom-up approach.

In sociology class, one definition of “culture” appealed most to me. Culture is defined broadly as “all the ideas, practices, and material objects that people create to deal with real-life problems”. Perhaps this is why instead of characteristics like multi-cultural or multi-racial, Singaporeans identify themselves more with attributes such as hardworking, kiasu or practical. This is because they are the attributes which have helped us overcome daily problems or crises such as the 2009 economic crisis or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003.

I like this definition of culture, because it suggests that perhaps National Identity is something that just is, not something we have to consciously find or even create. It is something that is embedded in our daily lives as we solve problems, no matter how big or small they are. When citizens of two races meet at the lift each day, they are once again reminded of their distinct differences through the colour of their skin, and the language they speak. However, the conscious decision to accept each other’s presence each day, regardless of whether it is merely tolerance, or true assimilation of the races, is what makes Singaporeans uniquely Singaporean. When the economy is down, and Singaporeans become more aware of their finances, it is how they will go the extra mile to seek for discounts in supermarkets or shopping malls that depict the Singaporean Spirit of kiasuism (fear of losing out).

In the last part of his article, Willam Wan provides his opinion on what National Identity means to him. “The only thing that matters, the only thing that should matter, is that one makes the decision to be Singaporean, to call this island home, and to contribute to making it our best and only home.” In recent years, blogposts such as a letter written in 2012 by a Singaporean blogger, Zing, about leaving Singapore and another article, “Why I’m leaving Singapore” written in 2013 by another blogger, Danny Dover, reflects the trend of young Singaporeans leaving Singapore for other countries with supposed better prospects.

While individual choices ought to be respected, my personal opinion leans toward William’s opinion. I believe that while identity is becoming a fluid concept because of globalisation, what makes Singapore uniquely Singapore is how Singaporeans learn to take ownership of the problems we observe in this place we call home. It is my hope that we will choose to stay even when things get rough, and not simply leave when things do not go our way. After all, the grass is greener where you water it.

Making a Mountain out of a Molehill

In the book “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, Rolf Dobelli wrote about the Confirmation Bias. It refers to human’s nature to seek a certain pattern and form theories about it. However, our theories may be wrong, and there may not even be a pattern in the first place.

A quote from Warren Buffet goes “What the human being is best at doing, is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact. ”

This may be a dangerous practice because it can paint a grossly inaccurate picture of the world. People stay in their comfort zones and are contented with selective understanding of the world which adheres to what they already assume of the world.

One thing I tend to do is to over extrapolate from a single incident and relate it to past incidents and knowledge. For example, I make sweeping assumptions such as “The frail uncle that cleans the trays at the hawker centre must be poor and live in a one-room flat like many elderly in Singapore these days. ” and immediately start to feel bad about the plight of elderly in Singapore.

Indeed, I have learnt in sociology classes that one should always practise the sociological imagination, so as the old uncle start to clear my table for me, I ought to ponder about elderly issues in Singapore, how the dependency ratio has decreased significantly, how birth rate continues to fall etc. However, I never realised that doing so could well be committing a mistake of over analysing. In any case, the old uncle could just be someone who has children that are willing to provide for him, but he wishes to earn extra income for himself. Thinking otherwise is a result of myself trying to find evidences to suit a certain preconception.

One useful tip to prevent the confirmation bias as stated by Rolf Dobelli is to seek for counter-arguments instead of evidences to proof a theory. Showing that a theory is strong enough to stand alone, and can defend all the counter evidences, is better than simply searching for evidences to prove one’s own point. An important point to note for the rest of my academic journey ahead.

Beginnings

This blog is an attempt to challenge myself to think broader and deeper about the world around me. It includes my thoughts about issues both personal and general. It is my wish to learn something new everyday and to track my changes in thoughts as I embark on this journey. 🙂