Busking = Begging?

Just this Monday (16 April), I submitted a sociology honours thesis on young music buskers in Singapore. A day later, a forum post entitled “Do not allow busking as a day job” was published on The Straits Times and it caught the attention of plenty. I feel emotionally compelled to give my two cents on it, especially having befriended so many buskers through this thesis journey.

My first instinct was the same as most people – to dismiss Susan Tan as an uneducated narrow-minded prick and scorn The Straits Times for publishing such a “skewed and biased” viewpoint. But upon some contemplation, I figure that the point is really not to throw shade at Susan Tan, but to get to the core of the matter.

I base my discussion below on my interviews with 24 young music buskers, academic readings on busking in Singapore and other countries, and newspaper articles on busking that dates back to the ‘90s. I do have to make a disclaimer that as all my interviewees are music buskers, I cannot speak for other buskers like magicians or mime artists. But National Arts Council (NAC) also states that music busking is the most common form of busking in Singapore, so I believe that my findings would still be relevant for this discussion.

First, I would like to clarify some factual and logical lapses Susan made in her forum post. This is only to form a better foundation for my discussion later.

(1) Young vs. Elderly Buskers 

In the post, Susan did not distinguish young abled buskers from elderly/disabled buskers. This distinction is crucial. It is not my intention to imply that elderly/disabled buskers are any less competent, but these two groups of buskers are likely to be busking for entirely different reasons. A discussion that conflates them would not be a productive one. Since NAC statistics show that over half of the estimated 300 buskers are below the age of 35, I use that as a rough guide to define young buskers as those below the age of 35.

If Susan was writing this forum post primarily in response to The Straits Times article entitled “On song and coining it” (April 15), which features several young buskers who busk for university or their music endeavours, then I believe it is reasonable to assume that Susan was referring largely to the young buskers when she used the term “buskers”. She started the post with the observation that the numbers of buskers are increasing in Singapore. It is more accurate to state that the number of (young) buskers have increased starkly in Singapore.

Following that, her statement that buskers busk “at certain places every day and for most of the day, suggesting that this is their permanent day job” becomes questionable. It is unclear if her observations relate to the young buskers or the elderly buskers. From my interviews, none of the young buskers treat busking as their sole source of income. Rather, busking is better described as a form of leisure that they take very seriously. Undeniably, busking is also their part-time job, in the same way that other students give private tuition as a part-time job. What ought to be noted is that the significance that buskers place on their earnings differs based on their own economic conditions. But even if the buskers come from a less well-to-do background, their earnings are spent on endeavours which are meaningful to them such as supporting the family and funding their education, which by no means reduces them to “beggars” who perform for the sole sake of soliciting money from the crowd. This is also because busking requires a sizeable amount of competence and skill sets that I will further elaborate on later.

(2) International Students and Foreigners 

On Susan’s concern about foreign students who are allowed to busk, I would like to make a clarification on the eligibility criteria for busking applications. According to the NAC Busking Scheme, all Singaporeans and Permanent Residents are free to apply to busk. International students need to obtain a letter of recommendation from their school, while foreigners have to obtain a written consent from Ministry of Manpower (MOM) before they can apply. Thus, there is already an additional layer of administrative hurdle that foreigners need to overcome before they can busk. Hence, my findings show that a larger percentage of young buskers are locals. Of course, I am aware that not all buskers are legal and these buskers save themselves the trouble of going through applications and auditions. But these buskers do not form the majority of young buskers.

Additionally, Susan maintains, “Foreign students should have the sufficient funds to finance their studies”. For one, as mentioned above, foreign students who busk are not only busking for earnings, but also as a form of serious leisure. For another, on a more sympathetic note, I contend that just because these students may not have sufficient finances to fund their education doesn’t make them unworthy of pursuing an education or future career in Singapore. What matters more is their merit, be it in terms of educational or musical capabilities.

Lastly, Susan makes the further claim that allowing foreign students to busk would encourage more foreigners to come to Singapore to earn an income through busking. This is a logical leap on her part. My findings show that as a gauge, buskers may earn about 15-50 SGD per hour (subjected to occasions e.g. festive seasons like Christmas). This means that busking pays relatively well compared to other part-time jobs, which is one of the reasons that incentivises young buskers to busk as well. However, the earnings are certainly not substantial or stable enough to attract foreigners to come to Singapore just to busk for a living.

Having clarified the factual and logical lapses in the forum post, I will now delve into an analysis of Susan’s main assertion. Stripped down to its core, the forum post implies that busking = begging. I’m sure she’s not the only one who thinks this way. Some of the buskers’ parents also had the same sentiments. I do feel disappointed by such an opinion, but I don’t blame them for thinking this way because I know that there are historical and social origins to this opinion.

In 1991, the Home Affairs Ministry stated that busking is illegal. At the time, the common discourse is that busking is a form of street performance that aimed to induce the giving of cash (i.e. begging). As official statements about the ministry’s rationale for framing busking as begging are limited, I turned to literature about busking in other countries. They illustrate that the state regulates the busking scene closely because an increase in the number of buskers who take it upon themselves to busk for money seems to reflect economic hardship in the country and the inadequacy of welfare programmes. This is applicable to the context in Singapore then, when economic growth is a real priority. Moreover, in the spirit of pragmatism, the public typecast busking as an activity left for those who are too incompetent or lazy to find a “proper” job.

This mentality permeates through the subsequent revisions in the NAC Busking Scheme. In 1992, busking was allowed but money had to be donated to charity. The rationale was to encourage buskers to busk for altruism and passion, rather than for earnings. In 1994, busking was banned yet again when buskers allegedly busked at undesignated spots and solicited money through their performances (which makes busking appear as a “disguised form of begging”). The Busking Scheme was reintroduced in 1997. This is possibly the result of an initiative to develop Singapore into a ‘global city of the arts’ proposed by then Ministry of Information and the Arts’ (MITA) and Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) in 1995. However, the fear that busking would “degenerate” into begging persisted. Earnings still had to be donated to charity after buskers offset their expenses. It was not until 2001 when buskers were exempted from licensing and only needed a letter of endorsement from NAC to busk, and until NAC allowed buskers to keep their earnings in 2003 that the number of buskers shot up. Seeing that the increase in young buskers is a relatively new phenomenon, it is of no surprise that there are Singaporeans, possibly those of the older generation, who still have the idea of busking = begging ingrained in them. As my findings show, the younger generation of Singaporeans may also have had the privilege of being exposed to vibrant busking scenes in other countries and have developed a different conception of busking as a result.

I do not wish to make presumptions about Susan’s age though. Regardless of her age, I would now like to make a case to defend the young buskers in Singapore. I wish to convince people who hold similar viewpoints as her that buskers are not “beggars” because of the skills and competencies that are demanded of buskers on the streets. As mentioned before, many young buskers treat busking fairly seriously and every act in busking requires much deliberation and learning. For the record, audiences on the street are said to be the harshest critics. One of my interviewees candidly said, “The crowd doesn’t lie. If they think you suck, they’re just not going to give you money.” A lot of skills are required to captivate a passer-by in the instant that he or she walks by.

In terms of musical competencies, buskers need to build stamina to sing for hours straight with little breaks in between. They often need to learn a huge range of repertoire so they can tailor their songs to passers-by that walk past at each moment. In terms of locations, buskers learn how to find a location that suit them best in terms of the crowd it draws (e.g. Orchard Road draws more youths who appeal to English music, while heartlands draw more elderly who appeal to Chinese music). They also need to work with other buskers to make sure that their busking locations and schedules do not clash, so that they can maintain amicable relationships with them. Lastly, equipment is a huge investment in itself but many buskers still pay a hefty amount of money to get the best equipment they can possibly afford because they understand how poor equipment can greatly impede the quality of their performances.

The skills that I have briefly described are only the tip of the iceberg. There are so much more competencies required that remain out of sight from the public, but they are what many buskers consistently seek to develop to become better performers. Through their efforts, I am certain that many Singaporeans no longer perceive busking as begging anymore, as seen in the comments section of the forum post. For that I am very glad, and I hope that more people would acknowledge the efforts of buskers, especially those that persistently seek to produce high quality acts.

Susan was right about one thing though. It may not have been fully explicated, but her forum suggests that buskers are busking because of a lack, be it in money or in performance opportunities. In recent years, newspaper articles about the busking scene have mostly depicted busking in a benign and almost angelic manner – busking enlivens the streets and provides a platform for young musicians to showcase their talents!!! But this forum post exposes the undercurrents that run deep in a discussion about busking. I aim to further demystify these issues here.

Evidently, busking is not all glitz and glamour. If it requires so much skill, effort and hard work to busk, then why do buskers still busk? As the article “On song & coining it” shows, many buskers do love performing, but they also use busking in an instrumental way. And there is something about doing art for an instrumental reason that sits uncomfortably with people in general. It’s the kind of irksomeness we feel when we witness an artist (a.k.a. sell-out) sacrificing his or her artistic integrity for commercial success. Where does that nagging feeling of annoyance stem from? It stems from the prized notion of doing “arts for arts sake”. It appears that if an artist is making art for a reason other than art, then they must not be “true” or “pure” artists.

But truth is – doing “arts for art’s sake” is a luxury some can never afford. In my own thesis, I further narrowed in on buskers who intend to use busking as a platform to enter the music industry. The buskers I have interviewed reveal their lack in one or more of these forms: money, connections and opportunities to perform or record their works. For some of them, busking is not just a good way, but the only way for them to showcase their works. Other trajectories include signing with a record label (which may be out of reach for them) and posting their works online (which is already way too saturated as a platform).

And how effective is busking as a platform to help them gain recognition as musicians in the music industry? I hate to say this but my findings show me … not quite effective. This finding would not be new to experienced buskers. In terms of money, buskers may earn quite a bit, but it is still not substantial enough for the production of singles/ EPs (extended play records) and the marketing efforts that follow. In terms of connections, the most common networks that buskers forge are connections with event companies that provide freelance gigs. But it is still difficult to break into the inner circle of the music industry. Buskers find it difficult to get connections with industry experts that can provide them with higher profile performance opportunities. Lastly, in terms of performance opportunities, buskers do have the potential to become excellent performers because of the sheer amount of training they gain from busking. But even as buskers shed off the label of “beggars”, there is still a stigma that they are not “proper musicians” or that they are “just another cover musician”. I asked one of the buskers if he considers himself a busker, and he replied, “I’m a performer. I entertain. But I am not an artist. Because artists have their own work.” The irony lies in the fact several buskers do have their own work. But busking as a platform encourages buskers to perform more covers that resonate more with the crowd.

That is not to say that busking does not help aspiring musicians enter the music industry at all. Another busker shared that busking is not easy, but one can “still get somewhere with busking”. Some buskers proclaimed that they started out with little cash, connections and experience. But I’ve witnessed for myself how they became polished musicians and even move on to produce their own singles and EPs. Some people say that the essence of busking lies in its spontaneity. But if you asked me, I’d say that the spirit of busking is not that, but sheer grit. I will never cease to be inspired by these buskers who try, try, and try, the best way they know how to.

What I do want to say is that these buskers are likely to face a considerable amount of challenges if they were to solely depend on busking to enter the music industry. This is why there is still a need for more opportunities that enable aspiring musicians in Singapore to showcase their music. But I definitely don’t agree with Susan that it should come in the form of “monthly events at major parks where local and foreign talents can freely perform” “for exposure”. Remuneration is a must for aspiring musicians to view music not just as a form of serious leisure, but also viable career. More importantly, as with every performance, busking is a two-way street. Members of the public deserves the chance to judge for themselves the worth of an act.

I quote my favourite excerpt from one of my interviewees:

There was this article in 2007 about Joshua Bell, a crazily cool violinist. The night before he played in Carnegie Hall, did his thing and people paid hundreds of dollars per ticket. The next day he played the exact same recital at the subway and got like (thirty) dollars. So then you know that that society doesn’t understand art. That society doesn’t understand quality. That society understands marketing. That society understands being seen where everybody wants to be seen. And that’s not good enough as a society.    

In my opinion, busking leads to the point when more Singaporeans walk past something, they are willing to stop, and having stopped, they have a deeper appreciation that the performance required skill and time to prepare and they are therefore willing to take out a note from their wallet and put it into the bag. (…) So how do you get a level when there is enough audience appreciation of not just what happens in the concert hall, but what happens on the streets? That people will understand quality wherever they see it? That’s the ultimate goal.

This is what I hope for as well. Busking is not just about buskers. Art is not just about artists. It is about Singapore as a society. Susan’s forum post suggests that there are still Singaporeans who view buskers as beggars. But the comments section heartens me as I find more people who believe that buskers can be excellent performers as well. Even then, that is not enough for me. My greatest wish is that in the future, all aspiring artists can find their place and be recognised for their talents, regardless of their backgrounds and limitations, wherever they may be.

(Note: Many details from my paper are intentionally left out in this post. I have also removed all academic jargons/ citations in hopes of putting across my points to the layman. If you would like to see my paper in its full form, feel free to drop me a comment or email me!)

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Alien Tongues, Brilliant Minds

One year ago, during one of my tutorial classes, I met a classmate from China, J, who was on exchange in Singapore then. The professor split all of us up into small groups to discuss answers for the tutorial questions. J ended up in the same discussion group as me.

As soon as we settled into our groups, J began flipping through his stack of assigned readings which were filled with boundless highlights, underlines and scribbles. He also brought along two pieces of foolscap paper, in which the answers to the tutorial questions had already been written down neatly.

Peculiarly, even though he had evidently prepared for the questions, he did not speak much during our discussion at all. When he did, he always stumbled over his words, and we always end up finishing all his sentences, or worse, making up new sentences for him.

To be very honest, in a curious way, I had felt a inexplicable sense of superiority over him there and then. That was despite the fact that I knew I had come to class half as prepared as he was. I was leading the discussion; I was expressing (his) ideas to the group confidently; I was speaking fluently in English.

After the tutorial, we chatted a little, and I found out surprisingly that he came from Fudan University, the university that I was about to go for student exchange the following semester! We exchanged contacts excitedly, and headed off to our next classes.

Fast forward one semester later, I realised that not only was I in the same university as him, we were taking the same course too. That course required us to do a group project, and J was kind enough to approach me to join his project group, considering that I did not know anyone there, and that local students tend not to group with students on exchange for fear that they will slack off.

On my way to our first meeting, I remember being rather nervous. I had done some research prior to the meeting, and I wished I would come off as helpful during the meeting – just not some slacker on exchange basically.

Upon the arrival of other group mates, J enthusiastically introduced me to them as “the new singaporean exchanger in school”. As we started our meeting, there were two things that struck me immediately. First, J was clearly the unofficial leader of the group. He shared with us the outline of the project that he had in mind, and asked for our opinions. He was SO confident, so in control, so different from the person I had known in the classroom just one semester ago.

Second, amidst streams of Chinese sociology terminologies, I was clearly … lost. Sure, J made the effort to pause time to time to explain what the terms meant to me, but I felt a little more embarrassed than comforted because I felt that I was wasting my group mates’ time. I later tried to express my project ideas to them in choppy Singaporean Chinese, and was not the least surprised that none of my ideas were adopted eventually.

I left the meeting feeling extremely shi*ty about myself.

That module was my hardest module that semester in Fudan University. I spent a lot of time in class getting awed at just how brilliant my classmates were, and getting upset at just how inferior I was to them. I spent a week ploughing through Chinese articles for our project, and only managed to churn out a page or two out of our twelve page report.

In spite of all of that, I must say that this experience was such a humbling one. The stark contrast between the sense of superiority I had felt back home and the sense of inferiority I had felt in a foreign land taught me this – to never judge the mind of a person by his or her language (or the lack thereof).

In my Cultural Anthropology class, we learnt that language is an integral part of one’s cultural capital. It signifies your class and group membership. As a result, we often mistake one’s inadequacy in language for one’s stupidity (sorry for the lack of a better word), and one’s proficiency in language for one’s brilliance.

For example, in the case of foreign workers in Singapore, many would perceive them as less educated, or worse – less than human – simply because they engage in low-paying jobs and speak a language foreign to us. But upon befriending these workers, I realised that their views are much deeper and more profound than I can ever imagine. Some would speak of politics back home in Bangladesh and others would share about their pursuit of further studies in Singapore.

So, I don’t know if intelligence can be objectively measured, but I sure do know that the perception of one’s intelligence is relative, subjective, and perhaps even constructed. You can totally be a genius in one culture, and be an absolute idiot in another.

There is a time, a place, and most importantly, a culture for everyone to shine. And none of us have the right to judge anyone (or ourselves) just when and where that may be.

Uplift

Just 3 days ago, I witnessed two other Singaporean contestants, Olivia Cho and Stella Seah make it through the first round of auditions in Sing! China(中国好声音), the first being Joanna Dong. It was such an ecstatic moment that I almost let out a squeal.

However, it was not long till I found a similar thread amongst the background stories of these Singapore born contestants, especially for Joanna and Olivia. Both are aspiring singers who have hustled hard in Singapore’s music scene for a (very) long time, but eventually find it too difficult to make a living out of music in Singapore, let alone carve a name for themselves, and decides to get out in the world and see where that leads them.

A part of me feels incredibly proud of them, but another sees the heart wrenching side of these stories. Because of our population, Singapore’s music industry is small. I get that. But the even more disheartening reality is that there is little desire from Singaporeans to know of, to get acquainted with, to uplift our very own music talents.

Talents like the three mentioned above, and Nathan Hartono have done amazing gigs/ released incredible covers on Youtube long before the Sing! China programme. I’ve had the luxury of watching some of them before they had even starred in the programme. So I wonder why it always have to take a programme like Sing! China before most Singaporeans realise just how talented some of our musicians are.

Some may argue that that’s precisely the purpose of singing competitions and programmes! To put the spotlight on talents who would otherwise slip by, unnoticed by the crowd. In that case, why do several champions of high-publicity singing competitions in Singapore such as Singapore Idol still fall short in their music careers? Even as Nathan clinches second-runner up, still I hear plenty of critical commentaries from Singaporean friends about him. Putting aside individual preferences, is it that difficult for Singaporeans to applaud a fellow Singaporean for overcoming his individual strife to achieve such splendid results on the global stage? Also, for Singaporeans who are awed by Nathan’s performance on the show, will this support be continuous?

Recently, I’ve become more familiar with a few other less high-profile Singaporean bands and singers (though whether they are high profile/ low profile is entirely subjective), such as Inch Chua, Charlie Lim, Lin Ying, Marian Carmel, Jawn Chan, Monster Cat, 龚芝怡, 铃凯 etc. PS: Highly recommend YOU to check them out. Previously, I may have known of some of them, but I have only delved deeper into their stories in recent years. I dare not consider myself a music guru. I just know that when I listen to these Singaporean singer-songwriters, I feel as happy for having found good music as I feel immensely depressed about how it is possible for so many Singaporeans to not know of the existence of such talents in our home ground.

In fact, this extends way beyond the music scene. In the theatre scene, we have Kuo Pao Kun, Eleanor Wong, Tan Tarn How, Chong Tze Chien, Alvin Tan, Alfian Saat, Haresh Sharma, Oon Shu An and so many more theatre practitioners who have created a whole tapestry of the Singapore narrative in one way or another. A week ago, I caught a theatre play, Without Reason, written by a friend of mine. I definitely felt more overwhelmed by the fact that someone of our generation has taken theatre seriously enough and has painstakingly written and performed a play, than the subject-matter addressed in the play itself. Sim Yan Ying is definitely yet another up-and-coming theatre practitioner to look out for in the coming years!

In the literature scene, I have discovered, and sought emotional refuge in several Singaporean poets and authors like Jennifer Anne Champion, Cheryl Julia Wee, Krishna Udayasankar, Alvin Pang, Yeoh Jo-Ann and so many more. Let’s just say that I never knew how liberating it was to have the stories of ordinary Singaporeans shared, and by implication, my story, captured in printed ink. How nice it was, I thought, to have had HDBs and local streets as the background for the stories in the books to occur. If you would like to understand more about what I mean, I think this particular article, “What local poetry does that Shakespeare cannot” explains it pretty accurately.

On a random side note, I think that is where my anger for this year’s National Day song stems from. Having listened to songs written by Singaporean musicians, and having read plays and stories written by Singaporean playwrights and authors, I know for the matter that Singaporeans do have the words and the melodies to express who we are beyond hackneyed vocabularies like “one nation, undivided” or “everyone is family, friend, and neighbour”.

All that being said, this article is not meant for me to flaunt my knowledge of the local arts scene, or to patronise other Singaporeans who do not know so much. First, I know as much about the arts scene in Singapore as an entrepreneur would know about the start up scene in Singapore. I count myself very very lucky to have had exposure through school modules, inspiring friends who are carrying out their own artistic endeavours and a very culturally well-informed sister who works in an arts-related company.

Second, it would be naive for me to think that the arts scene in Singapore is as such because Singaporeans just don’t care. Maybe audience engagement is poor, maybe there is a lack in technical expertise, maybe Singaporeans are already accustomed to prioritising bread and butter before the arts. For the local talents that Singapore have in all fields, all I hope for is that whenever we spot one, we support one. Buy their books! Listen to their songs! Go to their plays! And most importantly, share the news, and make their brilliance known to even more people.

It’ll be a day after Singapore’s 52th National Day by the time I post this article. What do people actually mean when they say ‘I love Singapore’? ‘Nation’ is too abstract a term for me. ‘Love’ too. One thing’s for sure though – that a nation’s made up of its people. I’m proud that mine is inhabited by such a brilliant bunch, and for me at least, to love is to uplift.

So here’s a reminder to myself, and an earnest plea to you – uplift, uplift, UPLIFT.

The American Election – An Emotional Rollercoaster for All

The past few days have been nothing short of an emotional rollercoaster as I ploughed through countless articles, videos and commentaries on the Internet, as the American election unfolds. This post is an attempt to make sense of the situation thus far and pen down all the thoughts that crystallised in a mind of a Singaporean Sociology student.

Gender 

“America is in labour now…In 24 hours we shall know if it’s a *BOY* or *GIRL*.!!” says one trending post on subreddit before the election. Gender is obviously one of the most salient themes that sets the background for this election. I was never the kind of person that into politics, but the reports of sexual assaults and the insults that Donald Trump hurled at women first stirred something in me and made me interested in the election. As a woman, these comments cut very deeply and personally. An article by telegraph, “Donald Trump sexism tracker: Every offensive comment in one place” left me feeling humiliated, angry and I found it incomprehensible how a person of such moral standards can run for presidency.

Then, another thread of articles focused on the elephant in the room – how Hillary Clinton’s gender itself makes her unlikeable for many reasons. These articles epitomise the kinds of dilemma that a woman of power faces. On one hand, articles such as “Hillary: Why the Clinton America Sees isn’t the Clinton colleagues know” highlights Clinton’s feminine characteristics such as great listening skills that do not appeal to the electorate that is used to charismatic leadership. Some articles even explain that men’s dislike for Clinton is visceral, and part of it is because she “reminds them of their nagging wives”. On another hand, articles such as “Hillary Clinton: I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions” paradoxically shows how Clinton’s efforts in suppressing “negative” feminine characteristics such as being too emotional did not gain the support of the electorate either. Instead, she is accused of being too cold and unauthentic.

By far, the most heartbreaking articles picked up on the effects of Bill Clinton’s infidelity on Clinton’s run for presidency. Some argued that while it would be expected that women would support Clinton after Trump’s sexual assault saga, many women did not in fact support Clinton. Articles such as “Enabler or family defender? How Hillary Clinton responded to husband’s accusers” show that one of the reasons is because Clinton was seen to have “enabled” her husband’s actions by managing the female accusers, thus tacitly implying that such behaviours were acceptable. These articles can’t help but make me think how confusing it is that conflicting demands are always casted on women. In such a situation, I thought, what could she have done? File for a divorce, and she might be seen as sacrificing the political career of her husband, and worse, the future of America, in the process of fulfilling her personal wishes? Choose to stay in the marriage, and she risks being called passive and conforming to the stereotype of women as docile and forgiving? It is also pretty disturbing that blame for Bill Clinton’s infidelity is casted on Hillary Clinton and not on himself, while Bill Clinton still manages to retain his popularity for being the well-loved “first black American president” that he is. Why are men (both Bill Clinton and Trump) more easily forgiven, and women more harshly judged when it comes to issues that involve gender and sexuality?

My theatre professor once made a sobering statement after Obama was elected as President in 2008 that, “This shows that America would rather vote a Black man in, than to vote for a White woman.” This is an extremely disheartening thought. But beyond anger, one article finely conveyed my feelings towards Clinton now. This article, “A Lament for Hillary Clinton, The Woman” writes, “The shattering of one woman’s career aspirations are no tragedy compared with the globally catastrophic effects of a Trump presidency or even just the awful knowledge that half of the American people are on his side. But I can’t help thinking right now about Hillary Clinton as a person, rather than a symbol. She’s a woman who stayed so strong for so many years, but who is, after all, only human. And she’s a woman who many of us have grown to love.”

It’s a feeling of quiet heartache, but also of quiet admiration. While the results may have shattered not just the dreams of one woman, but the dreams of a woman too many, it reveals a lot about the salience of the status quo, and reminds women that our fight for equality has far from ended, and it is of utmost importance to lean in on opportunities with even more grit and perseverance.

To quote Clinton herself, “To all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.

Race

Another theme that was just as important was race. A moving excerpt from CNN showed Van Jones, a political commentator, commenting that this election was a “white-lash against a changing country, against a black president”. This point of view corroborates with other articles such as “Taking Trump voters’ concerns seriously means listening to what they’re actually saying” which rightly point out that it would be a blatant mistake to disregard the decisive role that race played, and muddle it with economic issues. These perspectives are backed by evidences from exit polls, which clearly showed that Donald Trump won because of the overwhelming support he gained from working class white men.

While I do not wish to under-estimate the effects of race on this election, I do not wish to over-estimate its influence either. After all, other post-election analysis such as “How Trump Won the Election According to Exit Polls” showed that while a majority of minorities continue to vote for Democrats, their votes actually fell compared to previous elections. This appears surprising in light of all the racist comments that Trump made.

At this point, I would like to bring in a concept that my sociology professor quoted from works of other sociologists on race, “Race is a smoke screen for what is essentially a class difference.” The salience of race comes from the fact that people of different races obtained differential material resources. If more minorities are supporting Donald Trump than before, then it becomes clear that the issue transcends race. Yet, the discourse surrounding race in this election has often been about the symbolic differences of race. For example, emotions run high on how Donald Trump’s racist comments are morally distasteful, simply because it’s racist. While nobody would disregard these comments as untrue, they seem to be missing the core of the issue – that what the minorities needed were not lofty concepts of respect, love, freedom and more, but concrete jobs and income.

Class

Unfortunately, I find that the issue of class was only brought to the forefront after the election, as many try to justify the triumph of Trump. One such article that has only gained further attention after the election is “Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump. Here’s why“. I think this article is important at so many levels because of the 3 important issues that it covers – Trade, Globalisation and the Media.

First, globalisation and free trade has had a toll on the lower-income or unemployed Americans who suffered when American companies moved to other countries with lower production costs. Additionally, migration has also led to loss of jobs for locals. The article writes that “A map of his support may coordinate with racist Google searches, but it coordinates even better with deindustrialization and despair, with the zones of economic misery that 30 years of Washington’s free-market consensus have brought the rest of America.

From an outsider point of view, and from the point of view of the educated class, it is often taken for granted that free trade is obviously beneficial, and taking in migrants is obviously the most noble thing a country that hinges upon the concept of diversity can do.

But who are we? Along the way, we’ve stopped questioning that. If we take a moment to reflect, it is true in some sense that we could have been speaking from an ivory tower. We are the educated class, the ones who are privileged enough to go to universities, the ones who are often socialised to take offence with authoritarianism, racism and sexism. But if we accuse Trump of extremism, I can see how from his supporters and his point of view, it must be equally extreme, or even naive, for the other side to pretend that free trade does not lead to the loss of jobs among locals, or that large-scale immigration does not threaten the social stability of a country. It is not to say that Clinton entirely ignores the negative effects of trade, globalisation or immigration, but the concerns of the affected group are not sufficiently addressed.

And what are we influenced by? Other than our schools, we are also influenced by the media. One thing that constantly baffles me is this – if social media is all that powerful, how did Trump manage to win despite the number of popular celebrities who had come forward to pledge their support for Clinton, and the countless reports from media outlets that have exposed the ugly truths about Trump? The article “Taking Trump Seriously, Not Literally” hits the nail on the head. Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel provides examples for this, “When (Trump’s supporters) hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment or things like that, the question is not ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ or, you know, ‘How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?’ What they hear is ‘We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.’ ‘We’re going to try to figure out how do we strike the right balance between costs and benefits.’ ”

This situation shows that the media has failed to represent the voices of the working class. Thus, on polls and social media, it might seem that the conditions are favourable for Clinton, when the reality paints a starkly different picture. People who find the results difficult to understand might have been the exact group of people conditioned by the media to similarly undermine Trump just as a racist, misogynic and bigot person, without coming to terms with the fact that his concerns might reflect very real concerns of a significant group of people in America. Trump’s supporters could have very well voted based on daily struggles that most of us are blinded to.

The most saddening outcome of this is that by extension, people perceive Trump supporters just as racist, misogynic and bigot people as well. Instead of being a voice for all Americans, the media has polarised the views of the population, making it difficult for either side to reconcile with the views of the other. Since the results were released, many netizens have been lashing out on Trump supporters, without recognising that they too are aggravating divisions based on political and class lines, in the process of claiming to promote unity on race and gender.

This is why I refuse to make sweeping allegations like these. And I believe that no one should do so, no matter how upset they are. In a wonderful TED talk “Can a divided America heal?“, social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt talks about the distinction between anger and disgust. There can still be love in anger and disagreements. However, disgust operates at a much deeper and hurtful level. He says, “Disgust paints the person as subhuman, monstrous, morally deformed… As we demonise each other more, as the manichaean worldview that the world is a battle between the good and the evil ramps up, we’re more likely not just to say they’re wrong, I don’t like them, but we say they’re evil, they’re satanic… and then we want nothing to do with them. Thus, it is of utmost importance to view the concerns of Trump supporters as real and legitimate, and not simply sweep it aside as ludicrous or even inhumane.

Singapore

Back at home, I can’t help but reflect on my nation’s obsession with pragmatism. In the previous years of elections in Singapore, I always recall a kind of disdain for bread and barter issues whenever we discuss about the elections in school. We conveniently choose to believe that Singapore has reached a high level of economic prosperity. Thus, it’s time to dwell into deeper issues of sexuality and freedom of speech and more. But we have always been cautioned to never treat our economic prosperity for granted, I think I now understand why. While issues of sexuality and freedom of speech are undeniably important (not just for the rich, but for everyone), I’m also reminded of all the invisible poor who must have felt so left behind when we assume that poverty is an issue of the past.

Another thing that struck me is Singapore’s stubborn stance on authoritarianism. I call it stubborn because the government has consistently reminded us of the possible failings of democracy regardless of how foreigners continue to judge us for being un-democratic in this modern era of democracy. Yet, it is not until now that I have learnt to truly understand the imperfections of democracy. I call it an imperfection, not a failure, because no one would really be able to judge the actual repercussions of this election until much later. After all, who is to say that Americans made a wrong decision? Nevertheless, the election brings up an important question – can the people really be trusted to make a wise decision for the nation? For America, whose “constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power,” as Clinton puts it, the answer has to be yes. Every decision, good or bad, would most definitely be a learning point for America, and for the rest of the world.

One last thing that I have always taken for granted is racial harmony in Singapore. Honestly, I think that race is something that Singaporeans of the younger generation don’t consider very much about. When the government constantly harps on the importance of racial harmony, we dismiss it like a reminder from a naggy parent. But racial tensions can be very real, and it is high time we realise that we do have a lot to reconsider and protect.

Conclusion

I call this election an emotional rollercoaster because of the whole range of emotions I’ve experienced since the very beginning. After the election, I experienced shock, sadness and heartache. But as the day went by, and more introspection kicked in, there was much more sympathy, empathy and peace in my mind.

While others may think that a lot has changed overnight, I beg to differ. For anyone who has a cause to fight for, nothing has changed and nothing should have changed. The societal background may appear different, but efforts ought to continue. For all the young people in the world, Clinton is right to say that we should “never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it”regardless of the process and the outcome.

Humanity can be divided along a thousand and one lines, but I would like to end this post with a beautiful quote by a poet, Rumi.

“Out beyond ideas of
wrong-doing and right-doing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there. 

You’ve got a question?

Today is a special day because I asked my first ever question in a lecture of 70 people. The lecture was on Sociology of Power SC3205, a lecture conducted by Professor Kurtulus Gemici. To foreigners in the United States or United Kingdom, this may seem like a queer thing to be proud of. Yet, to me, a Singaporean, who grew up in an environment where everyone is used to “shut up and listen” in lectures, I am pretty darn happy about it.

To clarify, it is not that teachers in my secondary school and junior college do not encourage us asking questions in lectures. But what hindered many of us (at least for me) was the fear of looking and sounding stupid for asking stupid questions. Eventually, it became such that when teachers ask, “So, does anyone have any question?”, it actually translated to “So, I know that nobody is going to ask but I am going to ask anyway… does anyone have any question?… If not, that’s all for today. Yay, time for a break!”

In fact, what’s really upsetting about these scenarios is not when students fail to speak up when they had questions, but when students eventually stop questioning the materials they were presented with. The silence did not come from a lack of courage. Instead, it came from a lack of curiosity and inquiry.

So today’s episode made me pleasantly surprised not only because I asked a question, but also because I had a question that I cared enough and felt strongly enough to ask.

But one important point to raise is that my little “milestone” today was probably less attributed to my personal growth in thought and courage, and attributed more to the environment I was in. First, learning in university, I believe, gives room for so much more independent thought and that is a privilege that I am truly thankful for. Choosing topics that I am interested in (independently of my friends’ interests) and going to lectures alone can be quite an enjoyable experience because you get the actual physical space, and also mental space during lectures to ponder about issues that matter to you, and you alone.

Secondly, and more importantly, the environment of the lecture was extremely comfortable for open discussion. This is attributed mainly to my professor, who emphasised from day one that he encourages all of us to participate. He also made it clear that he is more than happy to hear us ask stupid questions. Because, more often than not, the questions we ask may not be as stupid as we think they are. He also assured us that we can ask questions at any point of time, even if that means that we may have to break his flow of lectures sometimes.

I love his attitude towards teaching because that is exactly what I think education should be. Asking questions is the key to learning because it unlocks a wealth of knowledge that we would otherwise not have known.

At this point of time, I would like to bring in an extract from the article “Standardised testing: the scourge of student life“, written by a senior of mine, Chan Chi Ling, for Standford Daily:

“Looking back on my education, the moments of insight and learning that I hold on to most dearly came about not because a test told me what I “needed to know,” or when I lost a point where I shouldn’t have. They were those that came as a result of inquiry into questions that excited me  questions that certainly do not end with test timers forcing me to put down my pen.”

Just like my professor, I truly believe in the notion that there are no stupid questions. As a tuition teacher myself, I experience at first hand, questions that are deceivingly so simple which are so difficult to answer.

To quote an example, to the question of “Why is blood red?”, it is very tempting to answer, “Because it just is! Can’t you see it for yourself?” But in actual fact, there is another question embedded in this particular question, which is “What are the components of blood which makes it red?”, to which I would have to answer that blood carries red blood cells which are red, and that red blood cells contain haemoglobin which gives it its red colour. (Then, my student was smart enough to ask further, “What makes haemoglobin red?” and I would have to admit my inadequacy in knowledge and tell her that I will get back to her next lesson.)

This is why, when a friend of mine responded to the feelings of pride I felt today with “So, did you get participation points?”, I felt an inexplicable sense of uneasiness. After writing this article, I think I understand why now. This is because, no matter how much we have been taught as students that participation points are important in terms of our grades (even my professor emphasised so in our first lecture), I still believe that it should never, ever, override a deep sense of quest for learning.

As much as participation points can motivate students to speak up to some extent, real and meaningful discussions only come about when students are engaged, when they are asking questions that they “wanted to ask” and not what they are “made to ask”. The best students are learners who seeks knowledge for the sake of it.

Idealistic as I always am, I hope that this is the kind of learner that I am, and will always strive to be.

To Educate and to be Educated

You can’t be a student and not think about Education. So here, I recounted 3 incidents I have encountered, which triggered a few questions about Education.

// ONE.

A few months back, my mum, sister and I ate lunch at Pontian Wanton Noodles stall in Bukit Panjang Plaza. Sitting beside us was a family of four, who brought along a scooter with them. Suddenly, the scooter fell on our table, toppled my mum’s bowl of soup and the soup spilled all over her shirt. My mum immediately stood up in shock. But what was even more shocking was what the little girl from that family retorted, when her mother commanded her and her brother to apologise.

“Mummy, it’s not me! It’s the wind! “

Despite relentless attempts on getting her to apologise, and her brother apologising to us, that little girl never did. I sincerely feared for her and millions of children who are just like her.

To the mother who apologized on the behalf of her children in the end, how much does the child has to lose when her mother loses a million of these golden opportunities to educate? How do we recognise them and how do we educate?-

// TWO.

Last week, a friend of mine recounted a hateful incident when he applied for a scholarship and his teacher never provided him help full-heartedly, until his A level results were released. Stellar results were the defining measure that he was finally worth his teacher’s effort.

To the teacher who failed to believe in him when he yearned belief, what defines talent and who should be given the power to define it?

// THREE.

During Sing50, a concert where Singapore musicians who had contributed largely to the Singapore music industry came together to perform, the sound system was laden with problems. While the sound was of discomfort to the ears, what was disturbing to the heart were the swarms and swarms of audience who got up from their seats and strolled across the center field to leave the stadium in the middle of the concert. It was presumably out of disappointment at the sound system, and out of kiasuism (a Singaporean term for the fear of losing) to beat the crowd. At the finale, the audience was left with an appalling 2/3 of the audience.

To the thousands of people who left before the show ended, does earning a degree truly guarantee an education?

To you and me, I have my answers to some of these questions, while others remain unanswered. As a senior of mine Chi Ling wrote, “(My moments of learning) were those that came as a result of inquiry into questions that excited me — questions that certainly do not end with test timers forcing me to put down my pen.” Here’s to learning more about Education, a topic so close to the hearts of many, as I embark on lessons on Sociology of Education in school tomorrow.

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.