Archive for the ‘06 the arts I’ Category


Tan Tarn How

Guest Editor

I am a fan of s/pores, so when I was invited to guest edit an issue of the journal I was both excited and honoured in equal measures. It took longer than I had anticipated (par for the course in these things, I guess) but here it is, the first part of an issue that became too big that it has to be split in two.

The assignment was to put together a collection on “culture”, as wide a remit as one could be given. I decided that it should be slightly narrowed down to critical reflections on the connection between the arts and culture on the one hand and society and politics on the other hand in Singapore at present and in the past. Other than that, my editorial approach was driven by just one other principle: greed. That is, cast the net as wide a possible. I asked as many people I knew who had interesting things to say; I also accepted a number of articles that Cheng Tju, a member of the s/pores collective, had sourced. Hence, the very eclectic selection before you.

This inclusive strategy was partly because it was possible to do as big an issue as one wanted: an online publication like this does not suffer from the space limitations of paper media necessitated by cost and ecological guilt at causing the death of too many trees. The other, perhaps more important, reason is that there is just too little writing about Singapore that fills the important gap between proper academic research and journalism; so the more the merrier. I have spoken elsewhere about the lack of “thickness” of intellectual discussion here; I hope these two half issues are small steps towards filling that sparseness.

I would like to thank with all my heart the authors, especially those who wrote new articles specially for the two issues under the pressure of constant reminders and the motivation of a big fat zero dollars in payment. The credit is theirs, the faults mine.

I hope you will enjoy reading the articles as much as I have enjoyed bringing them to you.


Read Full Post »

C. J. W.-L. Wee

The Artists’ General Assembly (AGA) – a week-long arts festival organised by both The Artists’ Village and the 5th Passage Artists Ltd. – took place from 26 December 1993 to the early hours of 1 January 1994, at the then-5th Passage Gallery at the Parkway Parade Shopping Centre in Marine Parade. Performance artists Josef Ng and Shannon Tham both participated at a 12-hour new year’s eve event. Three days later, the front page of the tabloid The New Paper‘s 3 January edition blared, ‘Pub(l)ic Protest’, and carried a picture of Ng’s back, with swimming briefs slightly lowered, apparently, cutting hair from his private area. On Saturday, 5 February, theatre company The Necessary Stage (TNS) was dragged into the expanding controversy when The Straits Times published an article by Felix Soh headlined, ‘Two pioneers of forum theatre trained at Marxist workshops’. These events precipitated an extraordinary arts crackdown.[1]

As it happened, on the same day Soh’s article appeared, Lee Weng Choy and Sharaad Kuttan, two of the then-editors of Commentary (the journal of the National University of Singapore Society), had arranged for an informal meeting of the arts community to address the AGA fracas.

Virtually everyone seemed to be there – playwrights, academics, some journalists, actors, directors. The tone of the meeting was sober, as memories of 1987’s ‘Operation Spectrum’ – the last time the Internal Security Act had been used in the city-state – lingered; no one had forgotten either that theatre group The Third Stage had been involved in that security sweep. Even though the Berlin Wall had fallen in 1989, everyone was acutely aware of how provocative the term ‘Marxist’ that Soh had used in his article still could be. Nevertheless Stella Kon, the author of Emily of Emerald Hill (1984), suggested that the community ought to be pro-active, as the negative situation also offered an unprecedented opportunity for a united artists’ stand. Take out a full-page advertisement in The Straits Times, she argued, and let everyone in the room put their name on it and protest the present situation. There was a surge of agreement, as the atmosphere became lighter, more positive.

Then, playwright and public intellectual Kuo Pao Kun (1939-2002) rose to say that such a move would makes matters harder for Josef Ng The buoyant mood was immediately punctured, and the meeting ended inconclusively. Only the enormously respected Kuo – who had been detained without trial by the Singapore government for four years for his artistic activities – would have had the moral authority to deflate the collective mood with simple, unemotional statements. There were some criticisms later of Kuo for not supporting that extraordinary moment when the Voice of the arts community could have enunciated a sharply critical stance which would have delineated the role of the arts for a society which appeared to consider literature and the arts irrelevant, barely decorative. Such charges too easily relieve those present of their responsibility to disagree with Kuo – for none demurred.

Despite the controversy, the 1990s was a decade where the cultural gains of the 1980s were sustained and, in some ways, exceeded. Nevertheless, 5 February 1994 was also a moment of lost potential.

Kuo Pao Kun was the major enabling personality in the theatre in the 1980s. After his detention between 1976-80 for alleged communist activities, he exceeded his previous prominence with plays that were unprecedented in examining the destruction of existing cultural formations, given the resolute, state-led modernisation with totalising impulses, and that asserted trans-ethnic relationships and understanding were possible in Singapore – multiculturalism, with knowledge of each other, and not merely a multi-racialism, surviving on mutual tolerance. That last statement now sounds like a cliché; but it was fresh in that decade, and still remains unrealised as a socio-cultural goal. Kuo was a natural institution builder who harnessed the energy of theatrical artists and visual artists involved with newer arts practices such as performance art. He helped pioneer an emerging multi-disciplinary contemporary arts scene. As visual and performance artist Amanda Heng, a founder of The Artists’ Village, has said to me that Kuo’s networks were extensive, and he had a good sense of cultural activities in different linguistic and social realms. His idea of an arts community was one in which linguistic, ethnic and class lines were crossed. To be sure, it was a community largely composed of those with a ‘contemporary’ orientation;[2] it had its boundaries.

Kuo continued to speak up for the arts throughout the 1990s, and The Substation – the independent arts centre that he founded in 1990 – was both an important staging space and a social-intellectual meeting place for the experimental visual, performing and even literary arts. The Substation and the nearby open-air kopitiam, S-11, outside the old National Library, became venues of social and artistic interaction. Poet and playwright Alfian Sa’at valorises this significant place from the 1990s thus:

Only in dreams. Under separate stars.
I had one last night; of sitting at S-11
With the usual bunch of affectionate liars,
Skinny artists, red-eyed dreamers, […]
– ‘Portrait of a Sentenced Library’ (2001) [3]

As for the visual arts , the late 1980s saw dynamic experiments in conceptual art, performance, installation sculpture, figurative painting that had German expressionist antecedents (but executed with personal rather than historical references), pop art and ‘happenings’.[4] The corporate ‘arrival’ in Singapore of conceptual art was confusingly plural, but enormously energising. The environment, sexuality, violence, identity and feminism became valid areas for enquiry. The overall creative release brought critical judgement into the visual aesthetic realm.

The 1990s saw artists attending each others’ performances and exhibitions, and a general dialogue was maintained between artists, arts professionals, journalists and academics to see how the profile of the arts could be raised in the city-state. The arts were linked to an emerging desire and identitarian discourse to rethink what Singapore culture itself – as opposed to the capitalist culture with petit-bourgeois social values the state had fostered. Such enquiries were influenced by the impact of postcolonial and multicultural theory and thinking, and the (so-called) ‘new’ social movements.

However, by the late 1990s there was a sense that the dialogue was a rehash of old, unresolved topics. The artists’ desire was to be autonomous and to provide beauty, provocation and insight in exchange for some tolerance, and support from state coffers. This desire drew on the Western European model of cultural support. As the artists who were in their late teens and early 20s in the 1980s became older, their attention and energy flagged. Some, such as TheatreWorks’ director Ong Keng Sen started creating works overseas. Others simply tried to get on with what they felt they had to artistically. Kuo’s untimely demise in 2002, at the height of his intellectual creative productiveness seems in retrospect to mark the winding down of a remarkable period of artistic growth.

Nevertheless, artists like director Alvin Tan of TNS, working with those sympathetic to public socio-cultural work, continued to toil tirelessly at keeping the arts connected with larger social issues and emerging civil society groups. Tan observed that:

The arts, particularly theatre, had an early start in [developing a non-state led way of building civil society] … in the late 1980s. An increasing number of arts practitioners left their mainstream jobs and accepted reduced incomes to work in this sector full-time, fuelled by the call of vocational passion. However, these opportunities were put in place for this sector because the state had set its mind to developing the arts in Singapore. [5]

As Singapore entered the new millennium, the context that framed artistic growth and the state had changed, and Tan’s comments give a sense of these changes. In November 2009, at TheatreWorks’ Expo Zéro by Museé de la Danse, I heard an actor-director active since the early 1990s comment that artists and arts groups seemed to have become more self-absorbed and therefore less likely to attend performance or arts events not directly linked to them . Competition for local and international recognition and, indeed, competition for state funding appears to be the norm.

What had transpired – and at a pace that caught arts practitioners and many Singaporeans off-guard – was the state’s desire to possess what can be called a ‘cosmo-urban globality’ that had a use for high culture and cultural institutions: the arts and museums, the culture industry and lifestyle consumption, taken in toto as a form of symbolic action in which (to quote Situationist Guy Debord’s famous aphorism) ‘the spectacle of culture is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image’,[6] can bolster the city-state’s economic attractiveness. The 1980s had seen Singapore become a modern but uni-functional premier ‘world city’ with a puritan work ethic. The 1990s saw the state’s ambition moving on t to transform the city-state into a multi-functional and metropolitan centre like London or New York City, given increased regional and international competition from other aspiring world cities in the region such as Hong Kong and, increasingly, Shanghai and Beijing. There was significant infrastructural, institutional and educational investments put into arts development.

The challenge for the arts in Singapore is acute. The island’s small size complicates manoeuvre and negotiation. The market and government have been relatively quick to understand that the key values of the contemporary arts – cultural heterogeneity, pluralism and even resistance to capitalism – can be converted into the new, cutting-edge standardisation that fits into the glam image of the global city. Culture has become a resource to be co-opted for post-industrial economic development.[7] While the old ‘pragmatic’ petit-bourgeois values embedded within the state that drove 1970’s economic development have not truly been transformed, there are enough continuities and changes in its expanded notions and management of culture to both offer genuinely new choices in the arts and to constrain critical arts discourse and development.

The relatively larger numbers of Singaporeans involved in the arts inevitably means that the culturalist political edge of the contemporary arts that existed in the 1990s has been blunted. Younger artists who became young adults in the late 1990s obviously would not necessarily subscribe to the socio-cultural imperatives of the 1980s and 1990s – and why should they? They may also possess more professionalised attitudes towards the arts. While, despite government rhetoric from the 1990s, Singapore is hardly a ‘global city for the arts’, there is no doubt that the arts are now normalised and more accepted in the city-state. A critical arts discourse that does not fully address the way contemporary capitalism, with its East Asian dimensions, now relates to the arts and culture will not be able to sustain interest.

It is possible, though, that if the arts controversy in 1994 had been brought to a head through Stella Kon’s proposed newspaper advertisement, a critical capacity in art making and thinking might have been immediately sharpened enough that it could have significant residues in the present. Depoliticisation and the marginalisation of ‘the socially-conscious minority’ [8] – already achieved by the 1980s – were not affected by the events of 1994. Many Singaporeans beyond a point cannot or will not come to grips with the forces that shape daily life in Singapore, and given the rapid transformations in culture and capitalism since then, one wonders how effectively the arts can come to grips with these forces. Of course, The Straits Times in 1994 may have refused to accept the full-page advertisement – but the very effort might have further enlarged our collective sense of art’s possibilities. And I suspect that if we had collectively gone for public engagement, Kuo Pao Kun would have come out in full support.


[1] See Lee Weng Choy, ‘Chronology of a Controversy’, in Looking at Culture, ed. Sanjay Krishnan, Sharaad Kuttan, Lee Weng Choy, Leon Perrera and Jimmy Yap (Singapore: Artres Design and Communication, 1996), 63-72; and Alvin Tan, ‘Forum Theatre: A Limited Mirror’, in Building Social Space in Singapore: The Working Committee’s Initiative in Civil Society Activism, ed. Constance Singam, Tan Chong Kee, Tisa Ng and Leon Perrera (Singapore: Select Publishing, 2002).

[2] The exact definitions or understandings of the ‘contemporary’ and the ‘contemporary arts’ are complex and contested; see Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor and Nancy Condee (eds.), Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

[3] Alfian Sa’at, A History of Amnesia (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2001), p.46.

[4] C. J. W.-L. Wee, ‘Christianity, the Work of Wong Shih Yaw and Contemporary Art’, in The Inoyama Donation: A Tale of Two Artists, ed. Low Sze Wee, exhibition booklet (Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2006).

[5] Alvin Tan, ‘The Working Committee Process: Building Trust’, in Building Social Space in Singapore, p.142.

[6] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson Smith (orig. 1967; New York: Zone Books, 1994), p.24.

[7] George Yu_dice, The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

[8] Cherian George, Singapore, the Air-Conditioned Nation: Essays on the Politics of Comfort and Control, 1990-2000 (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2000), p.15.

C. J. W.-L. Wee teaches English and cultural theory at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University. He is the author of Culture, Empire, and the Question of Being Modern (2003) and The Asian Modern: Culture, Capitalist Development, Singapore (2007), and recently co-edited Contesting Performance: Global Sites of Research (2010). His present interest is in the formation of and the relationship between contemporary arts, literature and capitalist development in Singapore and in East Asia.

Read Full Post »

For wolfnotes

Lee Tzu Pheng

wolfnotes, a firstfruits exhibition

We owe a considerable debt to Enoch for his trust and vision, his belief in the art of literature, which is what we are celebrating in this exhibition, wolfnotes. I see in this exhibition a way of affirming that literature’s roots are in the other arts even as its fruits may nourish the other arts. We are reminded of the natural connections among the arts and – one would hope – among artists, whatever their medium. Every art exists in an environment of awareness of the other arts, though each interprets experience in a language related to the senses that are dominant in that art. It is literature that calls all together, in how it invokes the imagination to replicate all the senses.

Click on image for <i>My Paper</i> article on the exhibition

Click on image for My Paper article on the exhibition

This exhibition is exciting because it affirms the connectivity among the arts, the basis of the community of artists. Human communities being what they are, however, we know that they are often divided within themselves; yet, to my thinking, an artistic community actually has the greater potential not to be divided, but to thrive upon an inner connectedness, if we could only recognize it.


Writing clearly owes a debt to the other arts. It may acknowledge this explicitly or implicitly. In my own practice, I am constantly aware of my debt to the other arts: to music, painting, even architecture, which in late years has enlarged my understanding of what is going on in poems. The bearing that other creative works may have on one’s own sense of what is pleasing or not in what one tries to create, is incalculable; and may involve strange elements. Let me give an example from my own life.

When I was quite young, I was very drawn to the poetry of that most English of English poets, Alfred Tennyson. I gradually grew more critical of his work, but I have to admit that he was a large formative force in my writing life, both in my attraction to his work as well as my reaction and rebellion. For better or worse, he has been part of the soil of my own writing. I remember his poem, “The Lady of Shalott”, which I still enjoy, though not for the reasons I enjoyed it when I was younger. But there is a line in that poem which completely enabled me to distance myself from its mournful lyricism from the start. It was a line that still stays with me, in all its curious, odd, even somewhat comic nuance – the line about the doughty knight Sir Lancelot singing “tirra lirra” by the river! Later, I discovered the Pre-Raphaelite painters, who had a wonderful crop of “Lady of Shalott” paintings – I especially like the John Waterhouse ones – but I do miss, somewhat perversely, the tirra lirra element which has been integral to my experience of this profoundly enigmatic, tragic story.

My “Lady of Shalott” experience came from other artists, from poetry and painting, and, may I say, programmed into me an appreciation of balance and the potential power of opposites at work, of the mysterious pleasure of art.

drawing from pebbles life going homeephemera detail

So what in the world am I trying to say? (I often ask myself this!) I think it is that we are seldom in control, we seldom have a choice, of what life throws at us. Art is our way of coping. At any moment it can be an instrument to help us make our peace with life. Because art is such a complex expression of our psyche, we must trust that whatever moves us, good or bad, pleasing or disgusting, can be subject to the transforming power of re-creation, if we harness it to the particular medium we work in.

If I may cite that often-quoted half-filled glass: do we see it as half empty or half full? The self-help gurus urge on us the virtue of seeing it as half full. But why can we not simply accept that however we may view it, both halves are part of the one entity? So also the line between opposites is often a shifting line. We are continually moving in and out of opposite areas – lack and fulfilment, disappointment and satisfaction. And these areas are often themselves morphing. Keats has a line which holds this wonderfully for me: “Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose, / Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave” (Ode on Melancholy).

thaw's reflection

In the same way, traditional Chinese landscape painting often invokes in me at one and the same moment this sense of both the fulness and emptiness that are a part of our spiritual awareness. Typically, in such paintings, we see large masses of rock that seem to be floating in a void; there is a lot of empty space countering the massiveness. And if there are human figures present, they are invariably tiny, dwarfed as much by the solid mountains around them as by the space in their surroundings.


We are all figures in such landscapes, and writing can give us this experience of the duality in ourselves, our responsiveness to the complexity of our inner lives. The art we produce, the poem or novel, is a performance of that complexity. And art changes as we change; at any moment a performance means different things to us at different stages of our lives. Every work of art lives as performance, be it an interactive installation, a painting, piece of music, dance, sculpture, architecture – they affect us in real time but resonate beyond that, as we change.

So the 12 years of firstfruits we celebrate, are probably more than that for many of us, in ways that matter. I am sure Enoch is aware that the years of support he has given writers cannot be calculated in terms of real time. So, Enoch, congratulations, and thank you.


Dr Lee Tzu Pheng is one of Singapore’s most distinguished poets. A retired university lecturer, she is an award-winning poet who has published in anthologies and journals internationally. Her most famous poem, My Country and My People (1976), was once banned from being read over the national radio. Some 20 years later, Alfian Sa’at wrote Singapore You Are Not My Country (1998) as a response.

Read Full Post »

Wong Souk Yee

The theatre company Third Stage was formed in 1983 by a group of drama dabblers who wanted to see life in Singapore played out on the local stage in all its glory and decay. They felt that drama in English in post-colonial Singapore had arrived at its third stage of development.

They traced the first stage of English drama to colonial days when British personnel formed the major patrons and players, and the plays were accordingly British. The second stage, in the 1960s, saw the formation of the Experimental Theatre Club with the aim of encouraging the staging of local works. Although foreign plays continued to dominate the scene, the casts were fast turning multi-ethnic. The trend took another turn in the 1970s when English-language playwrights drew inspiration from the modernising society, and high-rise living, family conflicts and changing social norms became common themes. This ushered in the third stage of theatre development which marked the growing importance of the search for cultural identity and the telling of stories grounded in the Singaporean imaginings.


Third Stage was formed by 10 friends who had been active members of students’ unions in Singapore and British universities in the 1970s. In the students’ unions, drama was both a creative recreation and medium for social discourse. Third Stage, therefore, served as part of a continuum of the founding members’ pursuit of critical leisure.

The theatre company saw that it could play its part in performance art that goes beyond the mythologizing of the East as an exotic and inscrutable throwback to the 19th century. It did so by creating works based on the present context and members’ musings of lived experiences. The attempt to faithfully portray the coffee shop Ah Pek and our next-door Bee Lian, (without irony), led to the organic use of Singlish, but members were mindful of not turning it into a gimmick or kitsch. Today, few stand-up comedians are able to provoke a laugh without speaking Singlish, and it is used liberally in social dramas on stage and TV, resulting in some critics complaining of its gratuitousness and over-use. But in the theatre scene of the early 1980s, it represented a milestone of sorts in its recognition of and relevance given to the local vernacular. Singlish also added an important dimension to Third Stage’s exploration and representation of the Singaporean identity: its concerns, creative spirit and quirkiness.


Third Stage was at its most productive from 1983 to 1986, staging a total of eight plays, all written and developed by its members, on issues and themes that affect Singaporeans, such as the graduate mothers’ scheme, education policy, in particular the destructiveness of the early streaming of school children, marginalisation of the lower-income and foreign domestic workers. Literary critics might consider the plays counter-discourse to Singapore’s nation building. Because of the group’s predilection for creating plays that depict human frailties and destabilising official narratives (such are the staples of any number of theatre groups in the world — with the exception of some dictatorship regimes), it was considered a security threat in the insecure minds of the government.

Meanwhile, the mid 1980s saw the emergence of the then fledging civil society. Political parties, such as the Workers’ Party and the Singapore Democratic Party, had gained a toehold in the erstwhile one-party parliament. The Law Society was injected with new blood and saw a group of lawyers questioning undemocratic legislations such as the Newspaper and Printing Presses (Amendment) Bill. The Government wanted to introduce the bill to restrict the circulation of foreign publications it deemed to have engaged in domestic politics. Several groups under the Catholic Church, following its teachings, adopted an outward orientation beyond personal salvation in their work, which took them to witness and report on social justice issues. They were a thorn in the flesh of the paranoid government which then responded quickly before that thorn had a chance to grow.

In 1987 the Internal Security Department (ISD) arrested 22 people and accused them of being involved in a “Marxist conspiracy” to overthrow the Singapore government. Of the 22, four were key members of Third Stage: Wong Souk Yee, Chng Suan Tze, William Yap, and Tay Hong Seng. Thus while negotiating the slippery path of critical dramaturgy, these members fell into a dark ravine of detention without trial. The four members were detained from seven to 15 months on the allegation that they used Third Stage as a front to subvert the social and political system of Singapore. This was despite the fact that all the plays produced by Third Stage made the cut at the censorship board (with a few even receiving monetary grants from the then Ministry of Culture) and were performed in a public venue.


On the artistic plane, Third Stage members had good stories to tell but many were still in the midst of honing the art of telling them. They were said to have the zealousness of the Crusaders, and little was left to the imagination. But the audiences were forgiving, as Third Stage was like a breath of fresh air in the wake of esoteric plays written by dead white males, plays which only literature undergraduates could endure. The comic-tragedy of living in a city that is perpetually under construction, that decides for you what language you should speak, who your neighbours are, whom you should marry and how many children you should have, resonated with the audience. Also, the use of Singlish, unlike the convoluted monologues of damaged souls, endeared the plays to the audience who would otherwise watch TV.

The ISD detention of the five Third Stage members certainly dampened the morale of the group, not to mention striking fear into the hearts of members and audiences. Third Stage became quite dormant after the macabre 1987 dragnet. They put up two more productions in 1988 and 1992, after which members were caught up in their own personal drama of marriage, family and career. Third Stage was de-registered in October 2005.


List of Third Stage plays

1. No Foul Play, written by Lim Soon Neo and Wong Souk Yee, directed by Wong Souk Yee, performed at the Drama Centre in July 1983. Based on a real-life story, a young woman decides to take her own life when it gives her too much pain and too little joy.

2. Things We Paid For, written and directed by Tay Hong Seng, performed at the Drama Centre in July 1983, together with No Foul Play as a double bill. A middle-class couple finds out after several years of living together that the only things they share are the things they paid for together.

3. Cry for a Cactus, written and directed by Wong Souk Yee, performed at the Drama Centre in January 1985. A young man’s gentle soul grates against the harsh terrain of parental expectations, National Service and social normalisation.

4. Oh! Singapore, written and directed by Chng Suan Tze, performed at the Drama Centre in January 1985, together with Cry for a Cactus as a double bill. An expressionist drama that depicts the progress and transgression of modernity on Singaporean life, quirky and sad, mundane and bizarre.

5. Corebela, written and directed by Chng Suan Tze, performed at the Drama Centre in January 1986. Set in the watery world of Neptune and his wide-eyed and bubble-blowing citizenry, Corebela parodies the government-funded Social Development Unit and ponders the eternal question of whether it is nature or nurture that determines the intelligence of fish and crustaceans.

6. Baby, written by Lim Soon Neo and directed by Yang Siew Mooi, performed at the Drama Centre in January 1986 together with Corebela as a double bill. Falling birth rate has brought about a baby drought in 2010, and a reluctant mother of the 1980s becomes an eager grandmother-to-be embroiled in a hysterical baby grab.

7. Esperanza, written by Tay Hong Seng and Wong Souk Yee, directed by Wong Souk Yee, performed at the Drama Centre as part of the 1986 Arts Festival Fringe. A social realist play on the still raging conflict between Singaporeans and their foreign maids, Esperanza foregrounds issues about what humans are capable of when in possession of almost absolute power over another individual.

8. Oh! Singapore II, written and directed by Chng Suan Tze, performed at the Drama Centre in November 1986. A sequel of sorts to Oh! Singapore.

9. Kevin’s Birthday Party, written and directed by Chng Suan Tze, performed at the Drama Centre in 1991. A monologue about our Generation Zzz – well-to-do, well-fed and well, kids from hell. It is also about children who enjoy birthday parties and adults who don’t.

10. Uhh!?!, written by the collective unconscious, directed by Wong Souk Yee, performed at the Drama Centre in 1991 together with Kevin’s Birthday Party as a double bill. It is all about realisations of some things that have always been stored in the inner recesses of our minds which surface tumultuously in the course of benign conversations and throwaway remarks.

Wong Souk Yee is a founding member of the socially conscious and path-breaking theatre group Third Stage. She and four others in the company were detained by the Internal Security Department in 1987 for alleged involvement in a “Marxist conspiracy”.

Read Full Post »

Tay Kay Chin

Jeff Chouw is a dangerous and crazy man, the sort that you probably will avoid, or at least be advised to stay far away from. If you were to run into him in the ‘happening’ side of Geylang, you will automatically assume that he is a seedy man there for unsavoury reasons. In person, Jeff alternates between good English and Hokkien profanities. On Facebook, at least half of his postings are not family-friendly. And by his own admission, he knows some ‘interesting’ people. You know, that kind.


With his beard and tummy, Jeff could pass off easily as a baddie in Hong Kong triad movies, though not quite the street-fighter. When he dons a bow-tie, tuxedo and black-rimmed reading glasses, he resembles a mafia accountant or lawyer, the kind that fixes things and people, without actually getting his fingers dirty. The kind that smiles wryly, but is someone you don’t really want to mess with. Simply put, there is something mysterious about him.

But Jeff is really quite an ordinary Singaporean. Trained in Australia as a marine biologist, he then spent five years working in a research institute in National University of Singapore, where his main responsibility was environmental impact assessment. He tendered his resignation a year ago, citing boredom as the main reason. The other reason was that he wanted to try to make a living as a photographer. A decade ago, a Singaporean man quitting a ‘decent’ job to make pictures would have been extraordinary. These days, full-time photographers in Singapore are a dime a dozen. But Jeff doesn’t just want to be a photographer, he wants to be a really a caring documentary photographer.


I first got to know Jeff, now 33, when a mutual friend told me about his first solo photo exhibition at The Substation in 2007. His topic was opposition leader Chiam See Tong and his quest for his sixth term as MP of Potong Pasir during the 2006 election.

The sea, no doubt, is Jeff’s first love; and politics was far from his mind until his return to Singapore in early 2001. “I was fined for not voting in a General Elections,” he said, “it was strange because I was studying in Australia.” Instead of just paying the fine, the incident piqued his interest in local politics, the players, and the processes. “I thought I should spend some time finding out how things work.” As for the project on Chiam, he shrugged it off as “no big deal”. Getting access to the opposition chief was really easy, according to Jeff. “I just called someone close to him and the guy just said, ‘Sure, come’, and the rest was a matter of just showing up and keeping his eyes open.


Recently, he started a project called ‘Car Head Photos’, also known as ‘Lorry Photos’. Jeff’s research suggested that a lot of people in Singapore die without a decent portrait of themselves to be used at the funeral, or for mounting at the front of a hearse Jeff wants to use his photographic skills to make good portraits for that specific use. And I offered my little advice: “You can use this tagline on your name card, ‘Nobody Should Go Ugly’. Substitute the word ‘Go’ with ‘Leave’ or ‘Die’ if you prefer.” I know from his past works that the lorry photo idea is an extension of his desire to map out the changing demographics of Singapore. I told him that I had started a blog at nationalportraitgallery.wordpress.com, for all kinds of portraits done locally and that his series belonged there.


Jeff has just found out that the full-time photography job he applied for was officially a no-go, so now, it is back to the drawing board. Our mutual friend had wisely pointed out that his works are not suitable for commercial photography. “But is that even what you want to do?” I asked. He replied, “Not really.” “Then don’t even think about it,” I said, “Maybe you can turn this ‘lorry photo’ venture into a real business. Perhaps you can work with social welfare groups and bring this service to lonely old folks staying in nursing homes.” That seems to be the best compromise since documentary projects are not financially rewarding in Singapore. Being a commercial photographer will, sooner or later, just kill his enthusiasm for making pictures. He needed to find a way to make some money to sustain his projects, without giving up his desire to use photography as his tool for social research.


At a talk I gave recently, I was asked for my assessment of the state of photography in Singapore, and whether the fear of getting into trouble has discouraged people from attempting to tackle some of the more controversial issues. My view was this: In terms of technicality, Singapore photographers are high up there with the best in the world. But in terms of subject matters tackled by Singaporean photographers, I would say there is nothing much to crow about here, which I found worrying. Of the Singaporean portfolios that I got to see in the past five years, less than a handful made me sit up and ask, “Hmmm, just who is this photographer?” Most were forgettable mixtures of pretty travelogues masquerading as social documentaries; and I also saw a lot of ‘big’ projects that I didn’t understand.


I have heard Singapore subjects/topics don’t sell in the world stage – they will thus not receive recognition. If every photographer here only cares about the fame and recognition he stands to receive if he works on a project that has a big market appeal, then who is going to reach deep inside them to find stories that are close to the heart? Surely there has to be social issues worthy of our Canons, Leicas and Nikons? And please don’t tell me the authorities will hunt you down if you work on something controversial.

Jeff joked about wondering if he would have to spend a few days in a cell for his project on Chiam, but otherwise, he agreed. I am worried that in 50 years, there would not be any meaningful archive of imageries that would be reflective of our living conditions. And who can we blame but ourselves, the people with the power to make a difference? Doesn’t anybody believe in the power of photography to tell personal stories anymore?


Perhaps a reminder is in order that history is actually a ‘big’ word made up of two smaller ones – his story. It is not too late to believe your pictures of void decks, of corridors, of hawker centres, well done or not, are as important as winning that international award. Try using your lens to write the first draft of history. Enough people out there care. But most of all, you should care. I am looking forward to look at Jeff’s lorry photos. You should too.


Tay Kay Chin, a former newspaper photographer and design director, splits his time these days on his personal documentary projects, teaching photojournalism at the university, and selected commercial projects. Jeff’s works can be seen at http://www.illuminate-photos.net/

Read Full Post »

Jason Wee

Editors: this essay was originally written for the catalogue of Raised, a mini-art carnival that was part of the Singapore Art Show 2007 [see postscript]. See the Raised blog for documentation by the project artists, Amanda Heng, Shenu Hamidun, Siti Salihah bte Mohd Omar, Sriridya Nair, Nurul Huda Farid, Joshua Yang, Justin Loke and Cheo Chai-Hiang. Pictures here are from the project blog.

When I think about one of the subjects raised by this project, I think about the year 1987 and the state’s previously antagonistic relationship with social justice, especially with regards to foreign workers. In the early hours of 21 May 1987, sixteen people were arrested under an Internal Security Department swoop known as Operation Spectrum. At issue was their alleged foment and participation in a ‘Marxist conspiracy’. In all, twenty two people were detained without trial and, until the last orders were lifted in 1990, all had their movements restricted under various forms of suspension orders and house arrest. Among these men and women The Straits Times had tendentiously called ‘the new hybrid pro-communists’[1] were a number of Catholic church workers working in the Geylang Catholic Centre for Foreign Workers, as well as members of a theatre company that made its name with socially conscious productions such as Esperanza, a dramatization of the lives of Filipina maids working in Singapore.[2]


At this point I could try to exonerate that state action by tracing a history of occasional liberalization in the intervening decades, a trace that is itself only possible if the state is at least willing to retrieve this episode from collective amnesia. But this will not be a bumper-sticker essay, where ‘Things Are Better Now’ trumps ‘What You Don’t Remember Can’t Hurt You’. Instead, I suggest that this figure we call the foreign worker is not here. This is not the same as being invisible. If anything, the migrant workers are all too visible. If Little India is as a Member of Parliament once suggested, so dark you can hardly see or drive through it, perhaps it is because black is an additive consequence of too much colour. And unlike our white-uniform politics, which the state sternly classifies as privy to political parties only, crime and sex suffer no out-of-bound restrictions on commentary. The foreign worker makes an appearance when he or she is victim, witness or perpetrator in misdemeanors and vice, as often as the papers think their readers demand, but not as a person vital to our claims of hospitality, fairness and equality.

To say that the foreign worker is not here is to trace a dispossession. My claim requires a detour through events in Singapore law after 1987 (If you bear with me, the pertinence for art that raises this subject will come through towards the end). Chng Suan Tze, one of the detainees, brought a case against the Minister of Home Affairs in the Court of Appeals. Chng appealed against her re-detention after releasing a press statement detailing the conditions of her detention. The statement includes the following:

Most of us were made to stand continually during interrogation, some of us for over 20 hours and under the full blast of air-conditioning turned to a very low temperature.

Under these conditions, one of us was repeatedly doused with cold water during interrogation.

Most of us were hit hard in the face, some of us for not less than 50 times, while others were assaulted on other parts of the body, during the first three days of interrogation.

We were threatened with more physical abuse during interrogation.

We were threatened with arrests, assault and battery of our spouses, loved ones and friends. We were threatened with INDEFINITE detention without trial. Chia Thye Poh, who is still in detention after twenty years, was cited as an example. We were told that no one could help us unless we “cooperated” with the ISD.[3]

Remarkably, Chng’s appeal resulted in a landmark ruling which found the Minister of Home Affairs providing insufficient evidence for the detention of the accused. This will not be the last time that a member of the judiciary calls for court-admissible evidence in the case of any ISA detention. In his 2003 reading of the case, the former Chief Justice of Malaysia Tun Mohamed Dzaiddin Abdullah saw that the ruling placed the onus on the Executive ‘to justify the legality of the detention of the Appellants by producing evidence that the President acted in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or the authorized Minister … The evidence required must be cogent as would be admissible in trial’.[4]

By inviting the light of trial to an often secretive process, Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin achieved two outcomes: First, he empowered the judiciary to act as a check on executive decisions regarding national security matters. How the state decides what exactly constitutes national security is outside the purview of the courts, but Wee in his judgment writes in favour of ‘the judicial function of determining whether the decision [to detain] was in fact based on grounds of national security’[5]; Second, the ruling gave detainees a viable channel through the courts to challenge the grounds of their detention, a significant victory considering that their earlier appeals for writs of habeas corpus were dismissed.


The rollback was swift. Within a year, legislative amendments to the Singapore Constitution and the Internal Security Act effectively annulled that ruling. Subsequent legal challenges brought on by a second detainee proved that subjective, discretionary powers of detention have been further ascribed to what is already a powerful executive,[6] and any wisp of a case in court against the grounds for detention evaporated into despair. Throughout this, the application of the rule of law or a respect for due process was never in doubt. Letters of concern regarding the current round of detention prompted a letter from the Ministry of Home Affairs giving reassurance of due process, but due process is so moot it is almost beside the point. We should notice instead the paradox that the legal challenges and appeals suggested in that letter are extra-judiciary. The ISA Advisory Board, while looking like a court of law, able to hear a detainee’s representation and summon witnesses, is patently not a court of law, and the legislation is careful not to name it as such. The Advisory Board operates as an exception from the judicial system. For one, members of the public are not allowed to witness the proceedings. For another, it is not possible to lodge an appeal to a higher court against any ruling by the Board.[7]

In the meantime, the Catholic Center for Foreign Workers closed; the resignation of the head priest broke this camel’s back. Religious organizations were instructed to move away from social justice towards pietistic charity or risk ‘serious repercussions’.[8] Advocacy on behalf of foreign workers was tarred with the perilously red brush of Marxism. Foreign workers are fiercely discouraged from getting organized. In late 1990, Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin retired after 27 years of service to be replaced by Yong Pung How.

An inverse relationship between the situation of the foreign worker and the power of the executive emerges. While one is dispossessed of advocates, the other increases in discretionary power. The image of foreign worker threatens its messengers; sought out as a threat the image emboldens the state. The exceptional power of the state – aided by a law of the ‘special case’, the ISA – conjugates with an attack against an exception, a foreign element, within it. The detainees were allegedly abetting foreign worker unrest as well as orchestrating the whole operation with headquarters in the ivy-laden danger-room known as Oxford University. And is it too crude for my analysis to add that while the foreign worker is currently defined in law by a maximum wage (no earnings more than a stated amount), the executive is measured out by a different cup (no earnings below a top-tier benchmark)?


What we also understand from this bit of legal history is that state action concerns less with securing particular conditions for citizen agency; it is aimed instead at securing the discretionary power of the executive. To raise the subject as this project does is to begin thinking about the conditions of agency. The dispossession affects every citizen, and to the surprise of art practitioners then and now, them too. To say that the ISA is for special cases only is to forget that the law is written to apply to all of us. This law does not discriminate and it does not require detention to be publicly explained. Those with discretionary power decide where and how the shackles fall.

We begin thinking about our positions as subjects – how do we act the way we do, and how are those actions defined for us? Sometimes the knotted paradoxes are the most productive of answers. For example, three persons or more together in public could be charged with illegal assembly in Singapore. Protesters could walk the fine line by setting out in independent groups of two or three. In these cases, a current strategy of protest management involves police linking elbows to isolate an individual protestor. Yet, does not that very act of isolation free the protestor from the charge of illegal assembly? And does the delinking of elbows reconstitute that charge? If so, does it make those police party to wrongdoing?

Raising the subject has the double meaning of provoking a topical conversation as well as lifting into view persons and individuals, resurrecting a subject that has not been given a place at the table nor the urgency of being present, here. I thought it was highly suggestive that the schematic drawing in the catalogue is of a platform that is also reminiscent of a coffin The Lazaruses are not here, they are outside the gates. Not that I am intent on only these other people; raising them as subjects raises ourselves as such, a parallelism understood in the end of the movie-musical Love’s Labours Lost directed by Kenneth Branagh. The very moment the foreigners are finally welcomed, they are compelled by circumstance to leave, and it is only at that point these singing and dancing bodies, vectors of lightness, accept guilt and self-consciousness and become subjects. The film ends in the words of the immortal script, ‘you that way, we this way’.


On the other hand, you can retort that these sociological and political ways of talking and thinking ignore the way that those involved in this project are raising the subject as arts, that I have critically elided these projects as art and saw them as ethical-political acts. What I am actually suggesting is that a hybridity is necessary in our approach to these installations, projects and performances, that it is not adequate to resort to either-or, but to grant an admixture without drawing down the divide. I am thinking back to last night’s dinner conversation, when a friend explained how his Peranakan gatherings are coming to question the category of Peranakan as strictly between the ‘pure’ ethnographies of Malay and Chinese, instead choosing to see the term as a mélange of a variety of Southeast Asia ethnicities. Perhaps we could consider that the blurring is not a convenient explanation, but a critical one.

Abandoning continuities from this approach to others in history is not necessary when it is a matter of picking one’s parents, so to speak – Robert Smithson, Littoral and Jean-Francois Lyotard over Anthony Caro, John Currin and Rosalind Kraus. A critic named Grant Kester has called this littoral art, beautifully associating it with the constantly shifting zone between high and low tides. Among other things, Kester asks that we evaluate such art practices on the ‘condition and the character of dialogical exchange itself’.[9] Kester places a great premium on communicative catalysts for change and action. Dialogue, participatory conversations and exchanges are key terms within these practices, and he offers these as one basis for criticizing whether an effort succeeds or fails. To talk about enjoying this art is almost offensive (imagine enjoying a conversation on employer abuse), unless we are thinking of enjoyment along the lines of a demanding empathy, or in Slavoj Zizek’s reworking of the golden rule, of a demand to love your neighbour more than yourself.

I want to say two more things on not being here. In a way, foreign workers are not here because they have never been included even in Marx’s model for economic change. Given that Marx’s proletariat is presumed to be found belonging to various social bodies (the factory, the city, the nation), the foreign worker is excluded from the count for barely registering its presence in any given place; its stay in any given site of production is variable and short, limited by restrictive work permits. Marx would have considered them lumpen, a nebulous neo-class that includes secret society conspirators, prostitutes, service workers, persistent unemployed and beggars.[10] Marx has variously railed against the lumpen for obstructing his revolution and demurred over its significance.

I think that the lumpen is not completely out of Marx’s picture. Instead, I argue that the lumpen is a supplement to social change, a small but crucial nudge to his complicated and often unwieldy systemic theory. Before I provoke an unwelcome red scare with that statement, I will repeat what I wrote recently in the exhibition essay to ‘extra ordinary’. Forget revolution. Even incremental change may be asking too much (I feel like Bart Simpson, writing this on a blackboard for an invisible disciplinarian). But if we are to ask for respect for what is common, shared and public, in other words, for an extra dose of what is ordinary, then the lumpen is one consideration of that ‘extra’, both as excess and sub-par to the original working class. In this case, we can read Marx against himself and see the lumpen as signifying not only the failures of a proletariat revolution, but the foregone possibility of an alternative organizing principle around which a different vision of the future can be vitalized.

Finally, this is me saying as Lucy Davis, the editor of focas: Forum On Contemporary Art & Society, once did. In her essay on the desire for real interactions, Lucy writes of the artist as anthropologist, heading outside the gallery ‘to find and interact with the ‘real’ hybrid’.[11] As she pointed out, it is not more real out there than it is in here. I am not foolish enough to think that through my writing I will raise the subject to a face-to-face exchange with me, or that I could even pin down who a ‘real’ foreign worker is.


It seems that some of the artists in this project are cognizant of this difficulty of speaking to real subjects. After all, a monument to foreign workers will be presented with inscriptions in a language a great number of them will not be able to comprehend. Two artists re-inscribes the name Raffles as a chain[12] linking persons up in progressive solidarity, thereby presuming the name Raffles to be as free a signifier for us artists as it is for the ‘real’ foreign workers. One crucial decision facing the artists seems to me to be the mode and time of address; addressing the subject directly or by way of another audience, for example, and if the response should be deferred or timely.

Maybe raising the real subject is not the right question to ask anyway, of the efforts in this project, or of this essay. The ‘real’ foreign worker is not here reading this. With a nod to Kester, the questions to ask may be, who is talking (are you talking to them), and who is talking to whom (are they talking to you)?


[1] ‘Marxist Plot Uncovered’, The Straits Times 27 May 1987.

[2] Chris Lydgate, Lee’s Law: how Singapore crushes dissent (Melbourne, Scribe Publications 2003), 200.

[3] Francis Seow, To Catch A Tartar, (New Haven, Monograph 42, Yale Southeast Asia Studies, 1994), Appendix 1.

[4] Tun Mohamed Dzaiddin Abdullah, ‘National Security Considerations under the Internal Security Act 1960 – Recent Developments’, Malaysian Law Journal. First presented at a conference on “Constitutionalism, Human Rights and Good Governance” at Kuala Lumpur on 30 Sept to 1 Oct 2003.

[5] Chng Suan Tze vs. Minister of Home Affairs, Singapore Law Report 132, C.A.

[6]Teo Soh Lung vs. Minister of Home Affairs, Singapore Law Report 40, C.A.

[7] Internal Security Act 8B(2).

[8] The Straits Times quoted in Chin Kin Wah, “Singapore: Threat Perception and Defense Spending in a City-State,” in Defense Spending in Southeast Asia, ed. Chin Kin Wah (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1987), 246.

[9] Grant Kester, ‘Dialogical Aesthetics: A Critical Framework For Littoral Art’, Variant 9.

[10] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in Marx & Engels Collected Works: Volume 10 (Moscow 2005).

[11] Lucy Davis, Natural Born Vandals (Or The Desire For Real Interactions With Real People), focas: Forum On
Contemporary Art & Society
No 1 Jan 2001, 130.

[12] See chain of equivalence in Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason, (Verso, London 2005).


An essay I wrote for Raised, a festival revolving around foreign workers, has been pulled from publication by National Arts Council. Raised is a major component of the Curating Lab, part of this year’s Singapore Art Show. 8 artists are involved, and three of them corresponded with me as I wrote my essay – Amanda Heng, Cheo Chai Hiang and Justin Loke.

It began early last week, when NAC called for a meeting regarding the publication of the catalogue. It was originally going to include my essay, artists’ interviews as well as images. Amanda and Chai Hiang were called, but I was strangely omitted. Lim Chwee Seng, Phillip Francis, Director and Assistant Director of visual arts in the Council were present. Amanda and Chai Hiang were told that the essay cannot be published. Amanda had asked if the essay could be published if they suggested areas for rewrites, but the directors were firm on their request for no rewrites, but no publication. According to Amanda, they offered a few rationales to her and Chai Hiang, one being that a single catalogue essay will overwhelm any other interpretation of the artists’ work. Amanda, that dear woman, replied that speaking as one of the artists involved, she has no fear that Jason will overwhelm her work. Another rationale was at five pages, my essay was too long in comparison to the shorter artists’ interviews, but again, they were firm on suggesting no rewrites.

When I’ve gotten word of the meeting, I called Phillip up to talk over a coffee. Phillip was careful to avoid framing the removal of the essay from publication as censorship. Whether he is reflecting his boss’ opinion, or his own, I cannot tell. He says that NAC will look for alternative platforms to place the essay.

A few questions came to my mind. In deciding between publication platforms, does Chwee Seng and Phillip have some kind of division between publics, between a critical one and a non-critical one, for example, or between a populist readership and a marginal one? And what does pulling the essay the week before the Art Show opens say about the possibility of re-publication? Also, it is hard for me to determine the level of sensitivity that the two directors have taken issue with. Is the essay threading on sensitive territory because I connected the ramifications from 1987’s Operation Spectrum to the contemporary engagement with foreign workers as a social cause? Or is it because I footnoted Francis Seow? Or is it because I discussed the dreaded Internal Security Act? Or is it simply because I suggested possibilities of seeing socially engaged work as art, where the social engagement is evaluated as a crucial criteria of the work’s artistic success? Finally, since my writing is part of the meeting’s agenda, isn’t it professional courtesy to call me to the meeting?

That is the problem with bureaucratic positions that suggests ambiguity in place of censorship. I understand the desire for wiggle room, but I also wonder if it might be better for the council to hold a press conference for every future time they decide to withdraw a license, pull a publication, cut lines or images. Publicly announce the decision and the rationale. If there is no rationale, just say exactly that. At least it acknowledges how the requirement for justification is, in reality, low, and it preempts journalists going to artists to ask difficult questions that the council might be unhappy about.

On hindsight, looking at this from 2010, the offer to find alternative publication is a deceptive misdirection. I have not received any offer in the intervening period to re-publish, and I have not received any apology for they not being able to find opportunities to do so

Jason Wee is an artist and a writer. He also runs Grey Projects, an alternative arts project space, www.greyprojects.org

Read Full Post »

Censure and Censor

Loretta Chen

An edited extract from the author’s PhD thesis, Contra-indications: Corporeality, Iconicity and Representation in Singapore Lesbian Theatre

A recent media episode ignited much (on-line) dissent amongst the Singaporean lesbian community albeit in a quiet, unobtrusive manner. Starhub Cable Vision (SCV) was fined by the Media Development Authority (MDA) for airing a commercial for a song by singer Olivia Yan on the MTV Mandarin Channel on 26 and 27 November 2007 that it alleged depicted lesbian kissing scenes. In MDA’s press statement the commercial was said to “portray romanticised scenes of two girls kissing” and highlighting that such behaviour was “acceptable.” This representation was “in breach of TV advertising guidelines which disallow advertisements that condone homosexuality” (The Straits Times, 9 April 2008). The MDA had apparently consulted the Advisory Committee for Chinese Programmes which concurred that the commercial had promoted lesbianism as a romantic and acceptable lifestyle. The lyrics of Yan’s song apparently further amplified this interpretation. Taking into account the severity of the breach, as well as the fact that the commercial was aired on a youth-oriented channel, the MDA found that a financial penalty was warranted and fined SCV S$10,000.

SCV had earlier been fined S$10,000 for what was considered “a footage of lesbian sex and bondage” (The Straits Times 24 October 2006). A statement updated on the MDA website on 23 October 2006, accused SCV of having breached the Subscription TV Programme Code by airing scenes of women having sex in an American reality television series, Cheaters.

In both instances, what was objectionable was clearly the (mis)representation of lesbians as seductive or alluring bodies. However, the severity of the indictment was really due to the (mis)representation of lesbianism as attractive and more importantly, accessible alternatives to what Adrienne Rich calls “compulsory heterosexuality”.

‘Silly Child’, Olivia Yan’s ironically titled music video foregrounded the tensions between sexuality, Chinese-ness and the queer lesbian body. The discernible narrative is as follows. A voice-over that precedes the song states, “This summer, I finally learnt what love as sung in love songs is all about”. The video is seen through the eyes of Olivia, the singer, a fledgling undergraduate singer on the brink of a creative break who reminisces about a summer fling. During one particular band practice, she notices that a girl seems to be attracted to her. Both women are what can be conventionally described as “andro-femme”, dressed casually in spaghetti strapped tops; cardigans, paired with military “cargo” pants or jeans and pretty dresses.

The girls are seen frequently flirting, kissing and cuddling in the comfort of a typical undergraduate’s room, replete with a Nirvana poster and Union Jack (Great Britain has legalised civil partnerships). There are also several shots of the girls in their burgeoning romance – practicing and flirting in what can be interpreted as the campus green room, where the undergraduates s apparently while their time away in band practice. There is also a clear shot of the girls sharing an intimate moment, kissing on the lips when one of the girls’ boyfriend (presumably Olivia’s) walks in on them. In the next shot, Olivia is seen talking to the boy. The couple look upset, with Olivia looking evidently sheepish. The duo embrace and Olivia then walks away. She breaks up with boy, presumably for the other girl thus foregoing heterosexuality for a potential homosexual encounter. There is no dialogue, nothing is made explicit.

From the brief four-minute long video, it is clear that the girls were acquainted though their love for music and shared band sessions. Alternating between the quiet domesticity of home and the benign, progressive domicile of what can be interpreted as a university campus, Yan’s video caused discomfort perhaps because of its innocuous insidiousness.

What the Advisory Committee for Chinese Programmes and MDA failed to take notice was the fact that the song and its attendant suggestive lyrics seemed not to celebrate lesbianism but was really a rejection of lesbianism. Olivia chose to be single and alone at the end of the song due to her own inability to decide (as suggested by the lyrics), the confusion and lack of personal conviction in pursuing a lesbian romance, thereby presumably caving into the pressures of a heteronormative society. In the final shot of the two women together, the girl asks Olivia in hushed tones “Can we still be friends?”. The video ends with the women standing across each other in the far-flung corners of band practice room, exchanging wan and pained looks in what can be read as the “end of the affair.” This interpretation lends itself very well to the opening preamble when we first hear of Olivia’s “summer fling.” The ignorance and foolishness of the summer fling is performed with Olivia self-reflexively calling herself and perhaps the other infatuated girl ‘Silly Child’, the title of the song.

This reading is altogether missed by the censors. In the MDA’s and the Advisory Committee for Chinese Programmes’ haste and discomfort in the very corporeal representation of the two female desiring bodies, they have ironically censored what could have been read as a flagrant rejection of lesbianism rather than a celebration of lesbianism.

The reality programme Cheaters features cases handled by the Cheaters private agency whose clients seek to find out if their partner was being unfaithful in their relationship. Despite the suggestive nature of the contents, the programme was allowed to be aired on the Zone Reality Channel (Channel 83) as part of the Family Plus Tier subscription package “aimed at a general audience!”

The controversial episode was aired from 22 to 26 May 2006 and repeated on 29 August 2006. It had apparently contained footages of a woman engaging in lesbian sex acts with another woman. The programme also showed the woman tied to a bed in a bondage session with two other women. Although the scenes were deliberately pixellated, the MDA insisted that it was still obvious to viewers that the women were naked and engaging in “unnatural sex acts.”

MDA says SCV has breached the “guidelines which disallow the promotion, justification and glamorization of lesbian lifestyles and their explicit depictions […] It also considered the fact that the channel is in SCV’s Family Tier which is aimed at a general audience (23 October 2006 ).

The MDA further noted that episode was aired on a Family Plus Tier channel. The Programme Advisory Committee for English TV and Radio Programmes (PACE) also agreed that the airing was objectionable. The Committee and MDA further argued that the woman featured in the programme had managed to get her boyfriend to accept her lifestyle and even invited other individuals to engage in threesomes with them. This portrayal was read as promoting lesbianism as an acceptable lifestyle.

The very content of Cheaters is already predicated upon couples cheating on each other and yet MDA and PACE deemed it suitable for general viewing. However a woman who cheats on her boyfriend with another woman is deemed unacceptable. What would have caused particular grief to the authorities would be the fact the woman in question actually persuaded the boyfriend to understand her attraction to the other woman and even successfully lure him into participating in a threesome. Not once did the authorities censure the threesome act as offensive but rather conflated the cheating, the threesome and the same-sex attraction as a single “lesbian act”. In fact, the presence of the boyfriend in the episode already renders the threesome act un-lesbian.

The authorities also made the sweeping assumption that all lesbians engage in threesomes. Bondage is also not part of a lesbian lifestyle but is a sexual preference that people can choose to engage in, regardless of sexuality. In fact many lesbians engage in long-term monogamous relationships much as heterosexual couples do. Heterosexual bondage acts or threesomes are written about in female magazines and openly discussed with some magazines even heralding the act as a means to spice up a staid heterosexual relationship.

MDA: Ministry of Discrepancies & Ambiguities

The Censorship Review guidelines contain discrepancies with respect to free-to-air (FTA) television, cable television, theatre (classified as arts entertainment) and film.[1] The general rule of thumb for free-to-air (FTA) television is that only NC15 programmes can be aired after 10pm. while those classified as M18 are not allowed to be broadcast at all. Cable TV, on the other hand, is able to air M18 programmes after 10pm on their international, premium and Video-On-Demand (VOD) channels, with appropriate advisory warnings given.

Clearly the concerns of the MDA were with the promulgation of “unnatural sex”. However, there is clear ambivalence (pun intended) in the treatment and outlook of these notions of morality and increasing liberalization. In particular, three sections of the censorship review appear to be in contention if not contradiction with each other. The detailed classification is also available at the Censorship Review guidelines stipulated for “Media Content Standards” proposes to:

• Continue to disallow content that undermines public order and the nation’s security, denigrates race and religion and erodes moral values through pornography, deviant sexual practices, sexual violence, child pornography, bestiality etc.
• Gradually enlarge common space for discussion of racial and religious issues through the various mediums, as a long term approach in fostering racial and religious understanding and harmony.
• Continue to strike a balance between allowing more space for creativity and maintaining moral standards (15).

However, these guidelines are unclear especially when played out against two taxonomies: “homosexuality” and “sexual content and nudity”. Under “homosexuality” the guidelines stipulate,

A more flexible and contextual approach when dealing with homosexual themes and scenes in content [and] allow greater leeway for adults, through suitable channels, to access such content provided it is not exploitative (15).

However, with regards to “sexual content and nudity”, the guidelines are to

Allow for greater leeway to non-exploitative sex and nudity relevant to context and content for adults. But, continue to impose stricter standards for such content in public spaces [and to] allow adults to access magazines such as Cosmopolitan and programmes such as Sex in the City through suitable distribution channels (16).

Yet the definitions of “flexible and contextual” and what can be defined as “exploitative” or even “greater leeway” remains ambivalent and normative, dependent upon highly personal preferences and viewpoints of the Committee members. The case with Cheaters highlights this increasing ambivalence and also performs a liminality — the state of being in the margins, the “neither nor”, as there is a clear conflict of priorities. From a mass broadcast media’s standpoint however, the indication is clear — it is permissible to have a homosexual character as long as s/he does not perform the act on air. Indeed, it seems that the guidelines promote a culture that tolerates homosexuals but still condemns the act of homosexuality — analogous to having lungs but being forbidden to breathe.

Time and Passion: How Many Seconds Doth A Lesbian Make?

I was personally embroiled in a long drawn out discussion with the MDA and the Esplanade over the staging of 251, a play based on Singaporean pornographic star, Annabel Chong aka Grace Quek. The play staged in April 2007 drew abundant local and international media coverage owing to the sensationalism and controversy surrounding Annabel Chong.

Poster of <em>251</em>, written by Ng Yi-Sheng and directed by Loretta Chen

Poster of 251, written by Ng Yi-Sheng and directed by Loretta Chen

The officials from the Esplanade debated on the viability of the scene which shows Annabel Chong (played by Cynthia Lee Macquarrie) sharing an intimate moment with her secondary school fellow classmate and Friend (name of the character in 251) played by Cheryl Miles. The tender, fleeting kiss on the lip was integral to the play as it highlighted the first emotional entanglement and budding same-sex romance Annabel Chong had before she became a porn star. In January 2007 the authorities had already granted an R(A) rating to the play based on the draft script submitted, which meant only persons above the age of eighteen was allowed to be admitted. The play included the use of strong language, highly graphic sexual scenes and a much-touted topless scene.

As the performance date of the show drew close however, the Esplanade officials began to request to sit in for rehearsals and also started sending e-mails and sms messages to ask for daily updates on the progress of the play. They were in particular concerned with the depiction of the “lesbian-kissing” scene and demanded to know the length of the kiss. I suggested that the authorities come up with guidelines to enable me to direct the “lesbian-kissing” scene and wanted to know what the authorities regarded as “acceptable length” for the “lesbian kissing scene”. The personnel both at the MDA and the Esplanade did not provide an answer but placed an indefinite “embargo” on the scene. In the end, I decided to proceed with the “lesbian kiss” with a few small changes made. After all, the MDA has a track record of shutting down productions that they deem unfit for public viewing — even if it was opening night.[2] Instead of portraying the girls as sixteen year olds, I had them share an “innocent kiss” as young twelve-year olds (with Madonna’s iconic tune, ‘Like a Virgin’ playing in the background). The actors “clocked in” at slightly under five seconds and we never did hear from the authorities again.

Friend (played by Cheryl Miles) and Annabel Chong (Cynthia Lee Macquarrie) share a “girl-bonding” moment at home. As requested by the authorities, the actors were re-visioned as giggly 12 year-old girls so as to downplay the lesbian elements.

Friend (played by Cheryl Miles) and Annabel Chong (Cynthia Lee Macquarrie) share a “girl-bonding” moment at home. As requested by the authorities, the actors were re-visioned as giggly 12 year-old girls so as to downplay the lesbian elements.

These separate incidents testify to the lack of transparency in the attitudes and treatment of lesbians and issues pertaining to their representation in Singapore. The first instance, involving Olivia Yan’s ‘Silly Child’, demonstrates the inability to “represent” lesbians in Singapore, while the other two instances involving SCV bring up an interesting conundrum. The ambiguous legal status of lesbian sex is indicative of the ambivalent attitude to lesbianism per se. Jacqueline Lo, in an essay entitled “Prison-house, Closet and Camp: Lesbian Mimesis in Eleanor Wong’s Plays” points out that while homosexuality is amongst a list of sex offences made punishable by law under Section 377 of the Penal Code, lesbianism is not specifically mentioned since it is arguable as to whether sexual acts between lesbians involve “penetration”.

Poster of Eleanor Wong’s <em>Invitation to Treat</em>

Poster of Eleanor Wong’s Invitation to Treat

Yet arguably, this lack of “penetration” or more crucially, this lack of a (to quote Judith Butler’s term) “visible referent” raises the question of what Sue-Ellen Case cheekily calls “penis, penis, who’s got the penis?” This supposed “lack” has ironically abetted the invisibility of lesbians in the eyes of the law. Turning this line of argument on its head, one can question the viability and ability of the authorities to penalise an act of lesbian representation when there is first and foremost nothing to (re)present , in which case how can lesbians be visibly represented in the first place?

If the lesbian has no referent in the eyes of the law, is not able to be visible in representation, then what makes the lesbian visible? Dress, deportment, language and mannerisms are determinants of lesbian identity and there is indeed a shared lesbian reservoir of knowledge that creates a particular lesbian iconicity. While there exists an unsaid code that governs lesbian corporeality this is not a shared code with those outside the community such as censorship boards, etc. This lack of knowledge of lesbian codes of behaviour may have led to the indecisions and ambiguities within the authorities in handling issues that deal with female homosexuality. Is there efficacy in ambiguity or should there be greater transparency of the lesbian codes of conduct to enable the authorities to make clearer and more informed judgement calls? These are pressing and intricate issues that have to be stripped, teased and examined. The issue of lesbian iconicity, corporeality and subsequent representation needs to be raised and examined. If a lesbian is rendered invisible in the eyes of the judiciary and legal system, how can and how does one raise the spectre of the lesbian

Lauded internationally on the one hand for our tough stance on crime and lambasted on the other for our intolerance of oppositional views[3], this nascent state is awash with contradictions and paradoxes. Singapore is a country where chewing gum is banned, but where meteorically rising casinos define its skyline; individual creativity collectively incubated in State-run institutions homosexuals “tolerated” but sodomy criminalized. The lesbian is not recognised by the government and thus legally not in “existence”. Yet there have been overt efforts and high-profile measures taken to censure and censor lesbian representations. Theatre’s role in creating or making (in)visible the lesbian body through a decisively Singaporean framework, though aided and informed by Euro-American (and an increasing amount of Asian) lesbian scholarship has contributed to the vibrancy of the lesbian community. To quote Ng Yi-Sheng, playwright of 251, where better to start than “in the beginning [as] there was the body…” and where else better than on our local stage.


[1] There are various classifications of different media in Singapore. In film, the ratings are as follows G or General, PG or Parental Guidance, NC16 or No Children below 16 years old, M(18) or Mature content for persons above 18 years old and R(A) or Restricted (Artistic) for persons above 21 years old, i.e. R(21) to be shown only in the city areas and not the residential heartland. For theatre, advisories are given if the play deals with mature themes and the R(A) rating is applicable to persons below 18 years old i.e. R(18).

[2] One high-profile case that made it to international news is SMEGMA. Made up of 10 different short plays by controversial local playwright Elangovan, the play was to have been performed on August 5-6, 2006 by Agni Koothu, or Theater of Fire. Its characters include men who patronize underaged prostitutes, a pregnant suicide bomber and a foreign maid. The play received its license to stage with an R(18) rating on the Tuesday prior. But on the day before the event, 4 August 2006, the MDA told S Thenmoli, the Artistic Director of Agni Koothu that the license had been withdrawn. The play subsequently had to be shut down.

[3] Singapore came under international scrutiny most notably in the recent 61st Annual Meetings of the Boards of Governors of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group, 2006. With 23,000 delegates and 300 finance ministers, the event was the largest conference ever to take place in Singapore. The authorities banned all outdoor demonstrations in accordance to the Unlawful Assemblies Act and it was only following negotiations with the police that indoor demonstrations were allowed within a 14m X 8m red cordoned space in Suntec City. The State also denied entry to 28 accredited protesters of which 22 were allowed in following objections by IMF/World Bank officials. In response, ex-World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz stated that Singapore’s stance on the free speech issue had harmed its image, “Enormous damage has been done and a lot of that damage is done to Singapore and self-inflicted…I would argue whether it has to be as authoritarian as it has been.”

Read Full Post »

National Songs Revisited

From Propaganda to Pop to Anti-cool Kitsch

Tan Shzr Ee

There was a time, when people said that one Singapore song was too many – but maybe they were wrong.

Lame attempt aside at parroting that famous opening line of our 1987 hit, We Are Singapore, what can be gleaned from rusty minds which have forgotten how to factorise quadratic equations but remember every word to Count On Me, is that something in those tunes must have clicked over all these years. Yes, I’m talking about Sing Singapore. Since 1985, no fewer than 16 national songs, in the spirit of discovering and promoting original melodies ‘written by Singaporeans for Singaporeans… cultivating a greater sense of togetherness among Singaporeans’, have been bombarding state television, radio and other media platforms in the run-up to annual National Day celebrations.[1] Remember One People One Nation (1990) and Home (1998), long before the likes of home-grown pop rock band Electrico pulled their Coldplay chops in indie-Ah Pek tee-shirts for last year’s What Do You See and ‘community tunes’ like Chan Mali Chan, Dayung Sampan, plus – gulp – that evergreen Tamil ditty with its inimitable ‘ethnic’ diphthong, Muneeru Valiba?

When I was growing up (to use that cliché ), these were the mantras they made us sing at assembly and other ‘community’ sessions, shortly before we were corrupted by the ‘angmoh’ evils of Tiffany, Madonna and GNR. Unbelievably – we weren’t even really coerced into these exercises of what must now be viewed through politically-incorrect terminology as propaganda. Such, indeed, was the glee then of getting to skive classes for the surely innocent activity of simply opening our mouths to make a noise Yes, I happily admit: I was part of several Sing Singapore campaigns. I even made it to minor TV fame (raving belligerently over my celluloid debut as a yellow speck in a two-second flash of panned Betacam footage) when my school – Raffles Girls’ Secondary – was shortlisted in 1989 as a finalists in a performance competition promoting these songs.

In those days, we sang the straightforward tunes of awe-inspiring nation-building schtick: Stand Up for Singapore (1985) Count On Me Singapore (1986), One People One Nation and of course, We Are Singapore. We held hands and wept tears of pride when we re-imagined good ol’ Clement Chow and the ‘effectively-bilingual’ Samuel Chong croon their hearts out for ‘no dream too bold … that we can’t try for’.

We kept our promises not to smile when singing the pledge, while strolling prefects with furrowed brows suppressed giggle outbreaks, and hordes of pre-pubescents in sweltering pinafores brimmed over with a curious mix of collective schoolgirl hysteria and induced patriotism as we mouthed word after word with our fists clenched to our bosoms. We memorised all the lyrics to Muneeru Valiba and Chan Mali Chan in the name of multicultural inclusion, but never bothered to find out what they meant. The Cultural Revolution (and its accompanying swarm of similarly communitarian propaganda tunes) was something that happened in a different country’s even more distant past. We did not care – or indeed know – that many of the songs we held so dear to ‘my country, my flag… my future, my life’ were penned on behalf of the Ministries of Defence and Culture by a Canadian music producer called Hugh Harrison (now apparently residing in Thailand).

Of course, there are more objective ways to take stock of all this, as has been attempted by myself and others.[2] The emotionally-rousing power of music psychologically reifies messages through accompanying lyrics. The socially-interactive event of mass singing further bonds group identity, generating energy and collective consciousness.

Conveniently extrapolating, such a setup suggests that any kind of singing activity might therefore be understood as an ultimate demonstration of private or public propaganda, given that any kind of music will also be driven by a motion separate to itself – be it an advertisement jingle, a love song or a church hymn. But there’s ‘art for art’s sake’ – you argue. And yet: even this engine functions on the basis of an aesthetic value and inherent message of sorts, deeply couched in any kind of manifested ‘absolute music’. Still, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to point out an obvious difference between Electrico doing its regular Love In A New Wave fare, and What Do You See for the National Day Parade.

My point is, there are different species of musical propaganda, even as evolving ways of experiencing and appreciating these separate styles over time exist: Hence a conscious attempt to revisit the old chestnuts in an age where almost everything is available for downloading or listening pleasure, thanks to the miracles of YouTube and Google.


Let’s All Consume Some State Ideology!

So what happens, then, when you start digging up those old turkeys? Perhaps it’s the proverbial generation gap at work, but recent dinnertime musings over these tunes with a group of Singaporeans led to a curious consensus that it was the 1980s hits which had really ‘stuck’, instead of those slickly-produced pop tunes of the 21st century.

Perhaps the older songs were too well-drummed into our systems through the carefully-orchestrated school campaigns, even as newer songs have not necessarily been foisted upon teenagers in state-wide competitions. Perhaps their distinctively slogan-like and cheesy choruses made individual pieces stand out all the more from the emerging soup of parallel Cantopop and Mandopop offerings, which newer tunes were struggling to emulate. As a good friend, R, pointed out: ‘At least those early songs didn’t pretend to be anything else’.

Indeed, straightforward musical propaganda was the early order of the day everyone from the Ministry of Defence to national newspapers celebrated what-would-now-be deemed as a somewhat distasteful marriage between art and politics. A 1987 report in the Business Times, for example, proclaimed:

Music is an exercise in harmony. Singing in chorus is more difficult than singing solo, because whereas in the latter the individual is his own master, in a chorus, an individual’s voice must be in total harmony with every other’s voice. A government is made up of people who bring exceptional qualities to their office, but it becomes a government only when these different people believe in, and find, the harmony of a common ground. When the Prime Minister and his parliamentary colleagues this week rehearsed songs for National day, they testified to existence of the bond between music and government: harmony. And when the rest of Singapore join them, full-throated, on National day, the picture will be complete: harmony, not just in song, not just among members of the government, but most important between a people and their government…[3]

The messages within the music – doubly reinforced by images of parades, military might, politicians at rallies and Singaporeans of the requisite Chinese, Malay, Indian and ‘Other’ ethnicities holding hands and beaming in front of an HDB block – were, in turn, clear and predictable. ‘Ethnic’ flourishes of the tabla or guzheng were inserted into individual tracks as token ‘cultural symbols’ in songs otherwise executed primarily in only English and Mandarin. We were reminded once again of how precariously Singapore teetered before the last generation strove to achieve today’s economic success that ‘young people now take for granted’. We were consciously creating new folk-songs for a post-1965 demographic that was as culturally-orphaned as it was merrily writing new scripts on a tabula rasa. We were in all honesty told that each new Singaporean song given to us was a piece of Singaporean propaganda, and henceforth cheerily encouraged to partake of it in the name of nation-building. So what went wrong – or better yet, what went right?

Associative Memories and Grassroots Reinscriptions

I’m pleased to tell you that many people actually bought – and continue to buy – into the literal nation-building ethos of Sing Singapore. This is was possibly as much tied up with the mass hysteria-fueled sentiment of watching a National Day Parade live, as with a longer-standing moral investment in the political promises of our trustworthy men-in-white. However, I know also that for many others (myself included), national songs have moved along a wider arc of changing taste: attitudes towards Sing Singapore began with happy compliance innocent school choral activities that swerved quickly into a phase of self-conscious embarrassment at one’s past co-option into a propaganda campaign, before re-emerging victorious in a warped but deeply-patriotic celebration of anti-hype-meets-self effacement-meets-trip down memory lane.

Allow me to explain. Over the years the very cringe-worthiness of many lyrics of national songs have kept me (among many other Singaporeans) from publicly or privately identifying with any notion of Singaporean nationalism. Yet, at the same time, I admit that I do retain fond memories of these songs, simply because they contain natural associations to memories of growing up during those early years; of skiving classes to sing in a quadrangle; of staying back after school to paint Sing Singapore banners. And thus, the evolving campaign agendas of Sing Singapore seem to have fostered a sense of personal-mini-historical identity.

But it’s not always that simple, of course. Even as national songs have been flooding our media channels and larger consciousnesses over the years, newer breeds of self-effacing and government-lampooning Singaporeans have risen to the challenge of re-inscribing the real ‘grass roots’ into top-down distributed musical ideology. Already back in the 1980s, way before the era of internet spoofs, Mr Brown, TalkingCock.com and piss-takes, alternative versions of anthems such as We Are Singapore and Count On Me Singapore were already floating around private chainmail networks. If the government was ready to spend money creating a piece of fake folksong, surely the onus was equally upon self-respecting, self-deprecating and happy-to-be-nannied heartlanders to re-fake the fake? Indeed, a well-known mutant version of Count On Me, whose anonymous vintage can be traced to the late 1980s (thus arguably authentically ‘of the people’), is reproduced as follows:

Count Money, Singapore

We have a revision of pay tomorrow
Just released, just released
We have a poorer Singapore
We won’t receive, we won’t receive__
You and me, we have to part
With our CPF for a start
We have to show the world that we take less money
We won’t receive, we won’t receive

There is nothing down the road that we can look for
We were told a dream that we could never try for

There’s a spirit in the air
That Seventh Month feeling we all share
We’re gonna build a better after-life for you and me
We were deceived, we were deceived

Count money, Singapore
Count money, Singapore
Count on me to give my salary and more
Count money, Singapore

You and me
We’ll do our part, give our kidneys and our hearts
We’re gonna show the world how to GIRO our body
We can’t resist, we can’t resist

Count money, Singapore
Count money, Singapore
Count on me to give my life and more
Count money, Singapore

Together Singapore, Singapore x 3

Anti-cool is the New ‘Cool’

But the fun only starts there. Even as anonymous mutant versions abound, publicly-authored ones with sharper satirical edges – including a well-known music-hall act by Dick Lee at the Esplanade (a cabaret rendition that has come to be a YouTube hit),[4] as well as numerous spoof posts by the likes of Mr Brown (aka Lee Kin Mun) and TalkingCock (Colin Goh) – have also surfaced.

In more recent years, the trend has u-turned into a celebration of retro-meets-anti-cool. Here, the entire farcical nature of consuming and being consumed by propaganda has become a whole performance of cheerful irony in itself. By this, I am referring to an increasing number of private and public National Day-themed parties where these songs are deliberately sung for their cheese factor, alongside an expression of genuine pride in Singaporean identity. The trick lies in learning to experience and re-create different layers of intentionality and meaning in the process of consuming these songs. Such cumulative layers of meaning are postmodern in nature, signifying a celebration of the uncool as the new ‘cool’. Here, active endorsement of the ruling government’s exhortations on nation-building becomes more than a patriotic act of will: It embodies the status quo of supporting the state mandate to the extent that such an act becomes ridiculous and laughable, and is thus truly worthy to be celebrated for its own sake. In other words: national songs have become ‘so bad they are actually good’.

In 2003, at a fund-raising dinner held by theatre company W!ld Rice attended by several important politicians, 1980s Sing Singapore songs re-appeared in the guise of lightweight and officially sanctioned political humour. Guests, dressed in flag colours of red and white, watched a comedic revue of hit propaganda tunes performed by celebrity thespians Glen Goei and Ivan Heng dressed in tokenistic costumes that had now taken on kink value. Stage gear – some of which was worn in drag – included the cheongsam, the sarong kebaya, the sari, school uniforms and army camouflage wear. Performances were delivered with over-the-top theatrics, and musical nationalism was championed in the name of kitsch and camp. Old turkey tunes from Stand Up For Singapore to Count On Me were delivered and sung along with violent applause and laughter, alongside the frantic and orchestrated waving of toy flags. A double-edged delivery of patriotism – understood by the superficial acceptance of state ideology, as well as simultaneous awareness of its contrivance in singers who were triumphantly performing in the face of politicians– was the name of this new, reclaimed game. Today, national song parties and Sing Singapore sessions continue to be consumed by ‘the people’ in an ever-expanding plethora of platforms: at increasingly Mardi Gras-styled Halloween festivals at reunions of overseas communities in chacha and line-dancing backing tracks recorded for shopping centre roadshows phone-videoed (and released unto the internet); finally, in happy-ironic National Day parties within and without Singapore every year.

Between Home, Britpop, the Olympics and Truly Asia?

If the Sing Singapore ball was now bouncing so firmly in the ‘people’s court’, one might wonder here: what was the state doing all this while?

Ironically, from the late 1990s into the early 2000s, national songs began to move away from outright propaganda. Enter instead soft-sell, feel-good fare reminiscent of Mandopop and Cantopop genres prevalent in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, glossed over with an inspirational church song twist. Local TV stars such as Evelyn Tan and Gurmit Singh, as well as pop personalities Tanya Chua, Mavis Hee, Stefanie Sun, Kit Chan and Singapore idol winner Hady Mirza were all roped into the campaign, delivering melodies such as Together, Shine, Shine On Me, We Will Get There and My Island Home. Jazz maestro Jeremy Monteiro was called in to re-interpret the oldies with a swing beat. Prominent business personalities such as Jennie Chua, alongside overseas-based but Singapore-born soprano Yee Ee-ping, were invited to guest different segments in updated and pop-ified versions of 1980s tunes.[5] As Singapore rode into the internet age, the campaign also developed virtual fronts, spawning official and unofficial sites and postings where visuals, lyrics and mp3s of new and remixed songs could be downloaded.

The original turning point, as many tell, came in 1998, when Dick Lee was hired to write the nostalgic Home, voiced by Kit Chan. Lee’s tune – which many hail for its fine craftsmanship and subtle lyrics that speak of personally-rooted ‘belongings’ rather than publicly-mediated communitarianism, bypassed the usual musico-textual rigmarole of ‘striving’ for some nebulous notion of loud, national achievement. Ironically, it marked the glorious start of a campaign that seemed to fade into the more generic struggle for style and substance alongside mainstream genres already dominating consumer and pop markets in Singapore. While Home marked a distinctive change in the identity of national songs and continues to be celebrated among many as ‘the best of the lot’, it also set a standard that would prove to be hard to meet.

Paradoxically, the more ambiguously signified meanings of national songs after Home seemed to be faulted by its target audiences for not being ‘propagandistic’ enough. This was a case for both sides of the pro-campaign and anti-campaign divide. 2007’s There’s No Place I’d Rather Be, for example, was faulted in The Straits Times for not mentioning the word ‘Singapore’ at all.[6] At the same time, its coy message of luring overseas-migrated Singaporeans home through soft-sell was tut-tutted by the sly and knowing for being less than ‘transparent’. To recall my dinner partner R’s words: ‘If you’re going to give us propaganda, you should just give it straight and not pretend that it’s something else’.

Singaporeans, it seemed, wanted the lines between artistic creativity and political signification more clearly drawn. These emerging mindsets, evolving in the course of one-and-a-half decades of the state steadily churning out culturally-engineered musics, were no doubt also developing alongside the relaxing of social mores that ironically called for more clearly-defined political, religious and social-censorship classifications and differentiated markers. In many ways, the earlier, overtly-political songs were easier and bigger targets for sociopolitical reinscription (through alternative lyrics, ironic ‘takes’, anti-cool performances or otherwise). In comparison, the newer, more generic pop tunes were simply not blatant enough to be effectively satirised, transformed or reclaimed, even as they appeared unable to penetrate the Singaporean consciousness as fully in the wake of more competitive Mandopop and Cantopop parallels.


National songs are once again moving onto yet another paradigm. In 2009, local band Electrico – a church-originated indie act that has since achieved cult status in Singapore – was made the face of the new National Day Parade theme song. Its Britpop-inspired, ’emo’ and slightly ambient sound in What Do You See marked yet another new identity. This gear-switch from soft pop to a more alternative sound received equal amounts of praise and criticism from Singaporean listeners, who correspondingly argued that the tune came across as a tribute/rip-off of British alternative rocker Keane. While What Do You See appears not to have packed in the blatant punch of early hits such as Stand Up For Singapore, it has generated enough media interest for the sake of its novelty value alone, as seen in numerous blogs, FaceBook and YouTube comments that have flooded its multi-mediated existence alongside traditional media platforms.

What next for the National Song as a genre, then? Interestingly, the employment in recent years of well-known gay theatre practitioners as directors of the annual National Day Parade (even as homosexuality is technically still illegal in Singapore), has led many to believe that ideological, practical and creative tussles between art, politics and prevailing social mores (read state-mandated?) continue to be actively re-negotiated. Meanwhile, 2010’s national song lineup has re-entered the internet age proper, acquiring the front of a virtual music contest. This time around, as a joint project with the upcoming Youth Olympics in August, the larger extravaganza will be masterminded by no less than last year’s celebrated National Parade Director, Ivan Heng of W!ld Rice. As part of yet another revamped inspirational song competition , it is now not only Singaporeans but also ‘songwriters and music lovers from around the world’ who have been called to contribute, via the internet, original tunes embodying musical expressions of the Olympic spirit: ‘striving for excellence, fostering friendships, exercising respect, inspiring young minds’.[7]

Wherefore the national song today, in a world of emerging new media platforms allowing instant revisiting and reclaiming of Sing Singapore’s musical past via endless YouTube videos, alongside old-school TV screens found in coffeeshops and HDB sitting-rooms? How do they speak for an evolving sense of Singaporean identity co-constructed by the state and the nannied-but-not-disempowered people, and by everyone else in between? Indeed, national songs have been loved, hated, re-lyricised, re-recorded, re-mixed, re-voiced, re-learnt, re-consumed and created afresh over dynamic as well as tiny increments of time and space. If they have not exactly come to be ethnically-coded as Singaporean for lack of any identifiable pan-ethnic musical value to be found in the island’s culturally-orphaned scene itself – then they have been transformed into a rojak plethora of random multicultural offerings. These have included everything from propaganda kitsch to Mandopop, opera, new church song, chacha, line-dancing fodder and classical music essentialised (as seen in Chan Mali Chan delivered by a visiting Vienna Boys’ Choir complete with thinly-vibrato-ed ‘hoi hoi’ some years ago) and, finally, emo-rock. Indeed, the next frontier to be knowingly crossed in 2010 might well be rooted in the possibility of such new songs being voiced and created outside the national framework of Singapore itself: could our national songs – like Britain’s Jerusalem or Australia’s Waltzing Matilda – become internationally known and sung in time to come, in congruence with the original aims of this propaganda drive as a ‘new folksong’ campaign, even as they might be penned by foreigners? Trusty old R, who never tires of interesting suggestions, plays the devil’s advocate once more as he puts forward an old-school glam queen as his unlikely candidate: ‘We should get Anita Sarawak to front it next. But better check she’s not Malaysian… sekali Truly Asia!’.


[1] National Arts Council, 2002. Sing Singapore press release.

[2] Tan, Shzr Ee. 2005. ‘Manufacturing and Consuming Culture: Fakesong in Singapore’. Ethnomusicology Forum 14.1, 83-106.

[3] The Business Times, August 1 1987. ‘There’s a Sing in Singapore’.

[4] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0eSQhXiAZvw

[5] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pr85UFtdo0U

[6] Chee, Frankie. 2007. ‘Why no Singapore? The Sunday Times Aug 12 2007, L2.

[7] http://www.singapore2010.sg/public/sg2010/en/en_newsletter/en_happenings/en_20091126_16_hp03_sing_singapore2010.html

Tan Shzr Ee is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London, currently researching musical activities on new media platforms in the Chinese diaspora as well as folksong of Taiwan’s aborigines. Her research touches on phenomena ranging from viral videos to politico-musical activism on the internet. Shzr Ee is also an active musician in London, playing the piano, accordion and other lutes and fiddles in classical, jazz tango, Balkan Chinese and Okinawan bands.

Read Full Post »

Michelle Loh

First-World Leaders

Every year, after the examination results come out, many graduating students in the top five junior colleges in Singapore would receive bundled information on various scholarship schemes. They must decide which scholarship to apply for, which will then determine their career paths for the next ten years. After they bag a scholarship and come back to work, as long as they do everything ‘right’, it is almost safe to assume longevity and prosperity in the civil service for the next twenty years or more.

This is Singapore’s system: If you yearn to work in the civil service, the Cambridge GCE ‘A’ Level results can either make or break you.

The installation of top brains at age 18 to civil servitude has been one reason behind Singapore’s great economic success over the last thirty years. This system created a leadership educated in the areas that are identified as critical to economic success: the sciences, mathematics, engineering and economics. Many of these top students pursued their studies in top universities overseas with government scholarships and returned to work in Singapore, holding important posts in the public sector or key roles in government-linked companies. It was a well-calculated structure, ensuring high probability of successes.

Singapore’s system of civil service was so successful, that The Monocle Singapore Survey 2009 suggested that one of the Singapore brands that could go global was “Singapore’s civil service”. Imagine the day when Singapore franchised its civil service to the Netherlands, Italy and maybe even the United States. By the way, only the Central Provident Fund was deemed a more prominent brand for Singapore (Monocle, 2009, pp10).

First-Class Report Card

Singapore has a first-world economy. It boasts of many achievements: world-class infrastructure, great wealth, and a high quality of living (see the World Economic Forum 2009, The Globalisation Index 2007, The Monocle Singapore Survey 2009 and the World Competitiveness Report 2008).

There is one thing, however, that Singapore has not managed to score an A plus in: its arts and culture. It is not difficult to understand why.

Singapore’s education system is structured mainly according to the country’s manpower needs. The government predicts the number of professionals required in each industry, projecting this ten or even twenty years ahead. Singapore’s educational institutions would then react to the government’s forecast, and managed the number of graduates produced in various fields as projected by the government. Which industries are on the rise, and how many people – or as Lee Kuan Yew says “digits” – are required to satisfy the quota? By default, the system should churn out the necessary tools (brains, hands, legs and all) to meet the demands of the industries that will propel Singapore’s economy in the future.

Third World Culture

What about Singapore’s culture? What about music, dance, theatre and fine arts? The level of appreciation and expectation we have for the arts are so much lower than that for money. If we compare the level of passion and energy that the Singapore government and its people have in making money and with that devoted to the arts, the difference is glaring.

We have world-class buildings, state-of-the-art performing and arts exhibition venues, an efficient transportation system, high-quality healthcare, finance, and legal institutions and the essential economic wheels. When it comes to culture and the arts, all Singaporeans want are free cultural events in the community (Kong, 2008). In other words, we expect culture to be sent straight to the doorstep, free-of-charge. Then, we will decide whether we want to watch it or not. For many Singaporeans, getting to know your neighbour’s culture or learning to appreciate an art genre is dispensable.

From an official perspective, the Singapore’s government began to pay attention to the arts only from 1991 onwards when it set up the National Arts Council (NAC). What have been done during these eighteen years that can be considered impactful?

The transformation of Singapore’s arts industry was rapid, especially so from the view of the government. Singapore had resolved infrastructural and institutional issues for performing and visual arts. In the last few years the NAC with the other agencies such as the Media Development Authority have enlarged the scope of their work to include other areas of the so-called ‘creative industries’ such as architecture, design, and game design, which are considered income-generating (Renaissance City Plan, 2008). In our position in the globalised world, where economic matters, societal issues, political concerns and cultural networks are closely linked together, Singapore has chosen to move with the international trend to bet on the next wave of economic prosperity deriving from the creative industries.

Unfortunately, we do not have enough people to front this endeavour. Most of the nation’s senior civil servants enter the public sector immediately upon graduation. They tend to be highly educated and have been trained to think, with a strong inclination towards left-brain skills. Many have been trained in law, mathematics, engineering and the sciences. No matter how risk-adverse the government is, the reality is this: the economy is now heading towards a greater dependence on creativity.

The ‘Cultured’ Minister for Culture

Could Singapore use the same scholarship and educational system to produce the next generation of leaders, teachers, and workers to build its creative industries? It may be too late now, in order to ride the ‘creative industries wave’.

At a recent town hall meeting of artists to select possible nominees for an “arts Nominated Member of Parliament”, someone asked when Singapore would have our first minister for culture who is an artist. Perhaps now is the time. Why? It is because the arts can earn its keep. People may argue that arts should not be viewed as an alternative route to a country’s economic developments. Here are the facts: the creative industries (which also comprised the arts) produced a multiplier effect of 1.66 in the year 2000, which was more than the banking, and petrochemical industries (RCP I, 2000). So the stark truth again: there is money in the creative industries, in the arts.

Taking from the above meeting, the government may wish to consider having a Minister for Culture who is an artist, a person equipped with artistic knowledge, and one who knows how the industry functions. One who understands the artists, their temperaments and their concerns. There were predecessors whose primary training may not be in the arts, but other creative fields such as journalism and architecture.

Singapore’s first Minister for Culture, S. Rajaratnam, put in place the ‘Music for Everyone’ series and the first South-East Asia Cultural Festival. Ong Teng Cheong, Acting Minister for Culture from 1978-1981, was an established architect and also an accomplished pianist. Under his governance, the Cultural Medallion Awards and the Singapore Arts Festival were instituted.

On the contrary, there were others who were not trained in the arts, but fully represented the arts and culture of Singapore during different times. George Yeo was a double-first graduate in Engineering. He was also the longest serving Minister for Information and the Arts (1990-1999), seeing through the restructuring of the Ministry as well as the formation of the various councils.

This does not mean to imply that artists are better in handling events, and engineers are better for organisation and order (though it very well may be true!). What it means, is that the ‘Cultured’ Minister for Culture is just another part of the bigger picture. Where do the arts stand at the current junction? Is it time to create new identities in the arts or is it time to review the responsibilities of the arts council? How is Singapore positioned in the regional context? Is it still relevant to promote an Asian collectivism? He or she may be bound by issues that affect the priorities of the arts, the government, and the society.

All the above different styles and personalities of governance have contributed to the overall artistic landscape that we have today. But wouldn’t it be good if Singapore has more right-brainers as policy makers instead of only using artists in advisory boards and consultative panels?

Jack Lang, the Minister for Culture of France for ten years, was the guardian of the country’s cultural and artistic heritage, especially the French language. He was an actor and producer. Not only did he strengthen the French national identity, he also prevented the infiltration of the English-language. In other countries such as UK and Japan, the Ministers for Culture are still very much trained in the more scientific areas. They and their predecessors have also created a first-world culture that promotes the creation of new identities, yet maintain a high level of appreciation for the traditional arts.

A minister who sets policies that will nurture and encourage the development of various arts forms, and who preserves and creates new identities in the arts: that is what Singapore needs. But does having a Minister for Culture who is trained in the arts (or is an artist) mean that Singapore’s policies for the arts and creative industries would change for the better? Does an artistic leadership mean better policy making for the arts? In order to build an open society with high tolerance for diversity and a people who are receptive to nurturing the ‘old’ and creating the ‘new’ in the arts, it may take more than one person’s effort.

However, a ‘cultured’ Minister for Culture may be a symbol that distinguishes a first-world culture. He may represent a first-world culture where the nation embraces change and the creation of new identities in the arts. A first-world culture in which the environment is fertile for seeding ideas and facilitates the preservation and development of various arts forms.

Singapore need not follow in others’ footsteps. We can create our own artistic landscape. But I feel that by having ministers and Members Of Parliament with professional arts backgrounds do make a difference. Already, there are some top civil servants and leaders of the society who have received training in various artistic competencies. Together, they can contribute to a collective voice that calls for both the strengthening of roots and the pushing of boundaries to build a first world culture. A collective voice of different opinions is the step towards an open society, one that embraces change. A collective voice that acknowledges that by taking the risk to fail, is to allow us a chance to learn, to explore.


Notes Across the Years (2005). Paul Abisheganaden, UNIPRESS, The Centre for the Arts, National University of Singapore (pp 168, 254)
The Monocle Singapore Survey (2009). Monocle.
Give it up for the Surgeon General (October 2009). Frank Ferri, Reader’s Digest, p. 72.
Renaissance City Plan I, II and III (2000, 2005 and 2008). Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts.
Study on the Value of Arts and Culture and Public Engagement Strategies, Professor Lily Kong (January 2008). Department of Geography, National University of Singapore
World Economic Forum (2009). The Global Competitiveness Report [Online].
http://www.weforum.org/en/initiatives/gcp/Global%20Competitiveness%20Report/index.htm (Accessed 2 November 2009)
ETH Zurich (2009). KOF Globalisation Index [Online]. http://globalization.kof.ethz.ch/
(Accessed 2 November 2009)
IMD (2009) World Competitiveness Yearbook 2009 [Online].
http://www.imd.ch/research/publications/wcy/World-Competitiveness-Yearbook-Results.cfm (Accessed 2 November 2009)
Economic Development Board (2009). Singapore Rankings [Online].
(last accessed 27 October 2009)

Michelle Loh is teaching Arts Policy at Lasalle College of the Arts. She is also a full-time PhD candidate with Goldsmiths University of London, and a full-time mom. Her arts background is in music.

Read Full Post »

Joseph Tham

Various Artistes. +65 Indie Underground. Universal Music Singapore, 2009. 3-CD box set.

It was a warm and humid evening. Fans of the band playing on the make-shift stage in the garden of the Substation (now the popular live space/café, Timbre and formerly Fat Frog) were euphoric and jumping and slam-dancing away as the thunderous thuds of the drums and the overdriven guitar sounds were emitting from the two speakers. Some of them were queuing up at the left corner of the stage; they were getting ready to stage-dive off the wooden platform, similar to what the kids do in the rest of the world at hardcore gigs but with one major difference– they waited for their turns and they, like all good Singaporeans, jump off, one by one, in an orderly manner. And that was the image which stuck in my head. This gig was my very first occasion catching the raw power of legendary hardcore band, Stompin’ Ground, live back in 1990.

Stompin Ground

Prior to that gig, I had just purchased my first copy of BigO magazine (more on it later), at a newsstand behind Funan Centre, properly printed and stuffed with interviews and reviews on the musicians and bands in both the underground and independent/indie scenes, locally as well as overseas. Yes, that year was the year I discovered Singapore indie underground: it was truly subterranean, and except for a couple of friends of mine, it seemed that no one knew anything about the scene nor did they care, let alone the record industry. We were of course showing our contempt for mainstream/commercial music by donning t-shirts of indie/underground bands and putting on our Doc Marten’s boots (a staple for punk/hardcore and a little later grunge fans). It was a real scenario of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, when supporting local ‘indie’ music meant putting in that much more extra time, effort and commitment to attend the once-in-a-blue-moon gigs and to hunt down the hard-to-come-by cassette releases of the local underground acts. By the way, I still kept the cassettes which were released by many of these local underground acts, though some of them have shown signs of mould through the clear plastic between the two spools of the tape.

Indie, Not Indie


So when I first saw the name of this compilation of Singapore’s underground music scene twenty years later, the thing which hit me first was: what is ‘indie’ in the context of today’s internet-dominated and hi-tech-saturated media-obsessed 21st century? Is there still such a cultural-political divide between the commercial mainstream and the countercultural underground? Before we look further, we need to first, examine the sea-change which has taken place in the music industry and its attendant context for the past two decades.

With the digitalization of music in the 1980s and major record companies discarding vinyl and fully embracing the CD format, they did not realize at that point of time, that with this once-hailed indestructible mode of storage and playback, it marked the beginning of the slow death of the transnational corporate dominated music industry. Bored music fans started, with ease, converting their favourite tunes from CDs into MP3 format and uploading them on the then nascent internet via peer-to-peer file-sharing platforms from the mid 1990s onwards. The protracted history of the legal battles between the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the major record companies, bands (Metallica vs. Napster) and the MP3 file-sharing communities the world over basically overturned the entire industry: from multiple platinum selling albums in the range of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (released in 1982, 110 million), Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction (released in 1987, 28 million) and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon (released in 1973, 45 million) in the 1970s and the1980s to today’s tops at only double/triple platinum (platinum means a sale of 1 million copies accorded by RIAA since 1976) sales of the top bill of the major labels. The mainstream music industry as a force to influence the minds and souls has been seriously compromised, and the trend continues despite the temporary necrophiliac ‘resurrection’ towards the end of last year as a result of the death of the ‘King of the Pop’, Michael Jackson, as well as the hyped re-issues of the remastered CD albums of the Beatles. Thus, the long running oppositonal stance between the mainstream charts and the indie underground since the late 1970s has been gradually turned upside down.

Today, ‘indie’ or independent bands and acts are invading the Billboard Top 200 almost as frequent as we see an ERP gantry for the past two years: just last year, Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavillion reached no. 13 and Grizzly Bear’s Verkatimest peaked at no. 8; other chart showers like Bon Iver and The XX amongst many others have managed to place themselves comfortably within the upper reaches of the chart. And of course, this year in January, Vampire Weekend’s second release Contra actually debuted on the Top 200 at no.1! Can we still consider these acts as ‘indie’ in its original sense?

One can of course interpret this as signs of the bankruptcy of creative validity of most major label sanctioned acts who are more concerned with flashing around on music videos in spandex and fishnets, as well as the growing discerning taste amongst serious music fans (the not-so-serious ones are busy downloading) and it is reflected in the chart actions of these indie acts which broke through to a wider audience base. People who love and believe in music are still endorsing their favourite acts by going to the stores to purchase the CDs/LPs or paying for MP3 albums online legally.

In Singapore, however, it is a sad state of affair when most of the bands featured on the 3-CD compilation are still ‘indie’ in the old-school sense of the word, even for those active in recent years: independent, unheard of by most and strictly off the radar. Except for the occasional chart indenture once in a blue moon over the past three decades, the state of rock in Singapore remains unknown, under-supported and under-appreciated. (even chart action on the radio doesn’t mean anything – the Oddfellows, Daze and the Watchmen all had No. 1 hits on the radio in the 1990s, but it did not translate to CD sales) What contributed to this prolonged phenomenon?

Us Versus Them

X’ Ho is spot-on to attribute the subterranean existence of rock music and its subsequent stunted growth in Singapore to the local censorial atmosphere due to the suspicions the government had towards anything to do with rock/popular culture from the 1960s through to the 1990s. [Editor’s note: Joseph Peirera’s Legends of the Golden Venus and Robert Conceicao’s To Be A Rock But Not To Roll: Autobiography of Jerry Fernandez offer the reason for the 1970s decline of local pop to be the withdrawal of the British naval bases from Singapore and the end of the Vietnam War – the Lion City was a hot spot for Rest and Recreation for American troops and that sustained the whole sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll trade here as hinted in Saint Jack] The ban on slam dancing after the Henry Rollins gig at the Singapore Labour Foundation Auditorium in the early 1990s, which the local papers sensationalized, is just one example of the triggered government reaction to the decadent/violent/unsavoury/unbecoming practices/culture surrounding the music.


However, the sustained impact of the long-armed paternal policies of the government in almost all aspects of life of Singaporeans since independence also acted as extra fuel, if not the main cause, for apathy towards the small but burgeoning underground music scene here. As the government basically planned, guided and single-mindedly focused the direction of the fledging nation towards economic sustainability since the 1960s via export-oriented industrialization, it has resulted in Singaporeans basically placing their faith in the government totally, and thus far, to give it credit, the government has indeed been successful in steering the nation towards what it is today. The prevalent socio-political climate and conditions present in other countries to allow for a vibrant arts scene were muted as a result, for the arts were seen as either unproductive or simply of a more frivolous nature, and this indirectly hindered the growth of a home-bred serious fan base for music. Most were ignorant of the fact that the arts are not mere entertainment, but possible forces of change, at least in cultural terms, like dada, Fluxus and of course, punk.

The entrenched ‘us versus them’ vantage point held by most ‘indie’ musicians, record labels, radio stations, record shops and live network systems began precisely because many in the West have stopped viewing rock music as mere painkiller to the drudgery of the capitalist system (especially so in the 1950s when rock ‘n’ roll was more entertainment than rebellion) but a possible conduit of self expression, change, independence and freedom. However, the existence of any such infrastructural framework for the ‘indie’ minded community to work in did not really exist then in the psychedelic/hippie 1960s when countercultural forces started to gain wider consciousness amongst the youth around the world (there were the Beats, the Beboppers, Free jazzers and the Situationist International before the folk revival and psychedelic rock). It only appeared suddenly but rapidly mushrooming via one of the most explosive musical/cultural moments in recent history in the 1970s: Sex Pistols and punk.

The Birth of Indie

In the UK, punk as a cultural and musical movement was seen as a force of great change in musicological, social and political terms by many critics and historians: the decaying British social system and the inability of the political structure to resolve high unemployment rates, soaring public expenses, rising debts and peaking fuel prices, were basically stabbing the zombie of an ailing British nation in the mid 1970s. It was a culmination of cultural ennui, political hopelessness, economic strangulation and social bleakness which created the context for Malcolm MacLaren, music Svengali cum cultural entrepreneur par excellence/former manager of the New York Dolls, to invest his time and handpick his ‘designer’ band in the form of the Sex Pistols which basically kick started the punk phenomenon in London and spread to first, other parts of the nation, and then swiftly to the other parts of the world. Despite the original Situationist-inspired intentions of MacLaren to subvert and ‘play’ in, and with, the music industry, he did not though, expect punk to encompass the spirit of do-it-yourself, ‘punk/independent versus mainstream/major’ stance, egalitarianism and bottom-up creativity which fans and musicians took to their hearts so earnestly later on.

The arrival of cutting edge punk/post punk groups, within the next few years after the explosion of punk in the national consciousness, like Public Image Limited, the Slits, the Pop Group, Gang of Four, Young Marble Giants, Scritti Politti and Crass, into the music scene, affirmed a couple of things: first, anyone can do it, even if you don’t even know a single chord (it helps a wee bit if you do), and second, the mushrooming of independent music labels and shops to record, release, distribute and more importantly, serving as inspiration and rallying point to anyone who showed the slightest sense of independent and creative spirit. By the beginning of the 1980s, independent or ‘indie’ chart (as listed in the pages of NME and Melody Maker) was inaugurated to champion and celebrate the fact that there was enough of a fan and structural base supporting the punk-inspired independent/indie scene with the likes of subsequently famous labels like Factory (home to Joy Division and New Order) and Rough Trade (home to later indie superstars, the Smiths). And interestingly, the proliferation of roots reggae and dub via the fans amongst the key punk practitioners like Jah Wobble (Public Image Limited), Ari Up (the Slits) and Mark Stewart (the Pop Group).

By the mid 1980s, independent record labels and acts took another turn due to the subsequent development of music zeitgeist in the increasingly post-capitalist and ‘me’ generation of the 1980s: the independent spirit was seen less as the mindset to provide a viable alternative to the mainstream which had been dominated by superstars, multi-platinum selling albums and goal-getters but more as another path to avoid major label bureaucratic burden with twice the efficiency in money-churning. By the end of the 1980s, top selling production houses like Stock, Aitken and Waterman (home of early Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan) were topping the indie charts in the UK due to the fact that it was not under any one of the major record labels.

In the USA, independent music took on a different turn: punk was never big in the way the Sex Pistols and the Clash were in the UK in the late 1970s and early 1980s, instead, punk was seen as either a youth movement like the Straight Edge Washington D.C. scene (Minor Threat), the nihilistic Los Angeles punk milieu (the Germs), the mid-West Chicago thug punk crowd (Big Black and Naked Raygun) or, a concurrent development to the flowering of independent minded art-school blossoming in New York (the original punks, like Patti Smith, Television, Richard Hell, Talking Heads and Ramones as well as their antithetical counterparts in the No Wavers like DNA, Mars, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and James Chance) or San Francisco (art punk rockers like the Units, the Avengers and Tuxedomoon). Other than the first wave of punk rockers like Patti Smith and Television who released key albums on major record labels, corporate A&R execs were keeping their distance from anything remotely punk.

The attitude of the record industry in early 1980s Singapore was of course similar to their counterparts in the West. No distributors brought in punk records. [Editor’s note: This gives rise to the legendary story of Bobby of The Attic, then at Centrepoint, and his mythical gang of SIA girls who hand carried records back for him – they sold for $25 a piece back then] So don’t even talk about local punk bands. (that got to wait till 1986 for the birth of the Opposition Party) But to even mention anything made in Singapore would invite strange looks as well: besides Toyko Square’s Within You’ll Remain, how many ‘local’ hits can one remember from the 1980s? The mainstream was saturated with glitzy glam/hair metal rockers, post-disco rehash pop stars and MTV savvy rock icons flaunting their bust lines and tight spandex pants. Punk, surprisingly, infiltrated the consciousness of serious music fans in Singapore during this period. So if the majors were not paying attention, and we did not really need them, let’s do something on our own guys!

Indie, Singapore Style

The Pioneers: Zircon Lounge and Corporate Toil


The local scene started in the early 1980s with one key band, Zircon Lounge. Their track, Guide These Hands, included in +65 as the very last track on this three CD set, betrays traces of New York punk pioneers and New Wave (distilled through the Cars and Romeo Void) and Velvet Underground/Lou Reed (re-routed via the Dream Syndicate, a key band in the neo-psychedelic Californian Paisley Underground scene and on the first LP of Zircon Lounge, the group actually covered ‘Sweet Jane’ by the Velvet Underground). The group stood as a brave and defiantly firm statement in the local music scene then: the first band to embrace, ingest and produce an original sound back in the early 1980s, amidst general apathy, of course. One of the key members, Chris Ho, went on to become the John Peel of Singapore when he became a DJ with Rediffusion Singapore from the late 1970s through to the 1990s, influencing thousands of youths who either sat in front of the cabled radio speakers every Friday evening [Editor’s note: I did exactly the same thing, except I had to go to the Lower Delta Community Centre to do so, much to the disapproving stares of aunties watching their Channel 8 programmes at 9 pm] or found out about his monthly Eight Miles High charts in the pages of the one and only independent music/cultural rag, BigO (Before I Get Old, a line from 1960s mega-selling mod group, the Who, which specialized in instrument dismantling antics on stage). The band represented the first breath of independent music locally but after the band disbanded, all went quiet, or so it seemed.

When BigO became properly printed (with colours et cetera) and distributed locally in 1990, the local independent music scene started to grow. One act which had a controversial reputation then, is also featured on this CD set: Corporate Toil, though influenced by the more palatable post-punk/New Wave acts like New Order, Cocteau Twins and Japan, was Singapore’s answer to Suicide (the audience-taunting and axe-baiting duo from New York; arty yet hooligan-like in their demeanour, raw and brutal in their sound. Despite its tough New York persona, the duo still managed to squeeze in enough melody to make their tunes hummable: just imagine Elvis Priestley fronting a fearless, confrontational rockabilly band using keyboard-generated noise in front of rednecks back in the days before Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode); they were equally confrontational when they played live: audience heckling was nothing new for the duo, who duly gave the instigators reciprocal treatment in no time during their set. Often seen using a plethora of odd instruments like loud hailers and any sound making devices they could lay their hands on (even scotch tape – go figure), they were truly one of the most original independent bands of Singapore’s first wave of underground music with Zircon Lounge serving as the spiritual godfather to all.

The other tracks on this set adopted a chronological sequence albeit backwards: with the most recent acts/tracks in disc 1 roughly marking the 2000s as well as the third wave of the independent music/underground fraternity, disc 2 documenting the bands active from the mid to late 1990s approximately, which were themselves inspired by the first wave which staffed the first disc, tracing the 1980s and early 1990s. Most of the releases of these bands were done in true indie fashion in less-than-satisfactory studio set-ups and transferred to cassette, the medium of choice and necessity of many 1980s independent bands and scenes all over the world from genres as diverse as Extreme Metal to Industrial, from Noise to Garage Punk (Coincidentally, all these indie and underground genres were off-springs of the punk milieu of the late 1970s).

The impact of punk, D.I.Y. and cultural resistance continued here with the local bands struggling to fight to express themselves independently with integrity intact, though the odds were against them: almost zero radio airplay, public apathy (still more or less so if we look at how 1980s-themed retro radio/television programmes and club nights which air hits of yesterday from the USA and the UK constantly still get Singaporeans going today – go check out Mambo at Zouk on Wednesday nights) and general countercultural stance adopted by many musicians, fans and scenesters in the late 1980s and 1990s. The embrace of more extreme music forms says it all when many took a shine to, for example, the sound of hardcore/metal crossover before the term Metalcore was coined (though not very well documented here except for Opposition Party, Stompin’ Ground, S.U.D.S. and Global Chaos). Gritty but power-punched, raw but self assured, many of these bands were not thinking about crossing over to the mainstream or receiving widespread acceptance. The scene was, like scenes pre-Internet, truly for the believers: one had to look real hard for the next occasional gig, to score the hard-to-come-by vinyl or cassette copies of their favourite bands which they found out through either word-of-mouth, music rags (which were usually months late) and of course, Chris Ho’s programmes and, later on his illuminating articles in the ‘Pop Life’ column in The Straits Times every Friday in the 1980s and 1990s.

Bands that Stood the Test of Time: Nunsex and OP

Opposition Party

Opposition Party

Despite all these handicaps, the local scene produced a few truly originals besides Corporate Toil and Zircon Lounge, which have yet to get their dues: Nunsex and Opposition Party. Nunsex’s track, Riptide (Tons Of Black Clouds), on the set is an excellent showcase of the band’s thorough understanding of garage punk and psychedelia, equal part sneer of the Stooges and the manic energy of the 13th Floor Elevators with an extra dosage of the neo-psych guitar noise of Dinosaur Jr and Ride. The group managed to release a cassette which I still treasure till today. Sounding nothing like everyone else in the local scene, they could have gotten critical acclaim in the USA or the UK if they were not based locally. Opposition Party, on the other hand, is slightly misrepresented in the set as the track selected to appear here, Zombie, is from their recent album in 2005 and not from the un-self conscious experimenting days of the late 1980s and early 1990s when the honcho of the group, Francis Frightful (yes, staying true to the group’s original spark in English Punk), decided to up the power quotient of his penchant for angst-infused Discharge (a key UK punk band from the 1980s) with the crunching chords of metal. Today, critics are talking about punk/metal crossover in the USA and UK for the past two decades but OP had already done that, years ago.

X’cuse Me, You Still Indie?

The rest of the set features some of the ‘top’ names in the local scene and one can feel the change of influence from the early days to today’s post-rock and indie (as a genre with a sound which sometimes suggests fey, whimsy and a strong sense of melody, but not its original definition of ‘independent’) saturated tunes in disc 1. Today, with Internet, indie or independent music has gradually lost its sense of alternativeness and countercultural significance. Any band can go on Myspace, upload their songs (today there are many studios for local fledging musicians to rehearse, ‘jam’ and even record with ease whereas back in the 1980s and 1990s, everything was an uphill struggle) and social-network with people all over the world. If we were to look at the number of independent acts coming to our shores to perform, we had in the early 1990s, only Henry Rollins, Buzzcocks and Fugazi, while in the 2000s, music fans expect at least a couple of groups of such caliber to perform right at our pinnacle of culture excellence, the Esplanade: Mogwai, Jaga Jazzist, Envy, Biosphere, Kreidler, Andrew Bird, Cat Power, Dinosaur Jr, Yo La Tengo, Tortoise, Kode9 & the SuperApe, Ryoji Ikeda and the list goes on.

Simon Reynolds, renowned music critic, commented recently in one of his articles, that the gap between the mainstream and the underground is no longer as wide and as significant: with the slow decline of the major record labels seemingly impending and the apparent triumph of indie labels in the USA and UK at least seen in the recent chart actions, the two key words in the name of this excellent CD set will lose their meaning and validity in the near future. A band like Electrico penning the National Day tune in 2009, performing it live on national television, and leading the nation on a sing-along no less – this was definitely beyond the dreams of even the craziest indie fan in the 1980s.


1. Blush, Steven. American Hardcore: A Tribal History. Los Angeles: Feral House, 2001.
2. Cavanagh, David. The Creation Records Story: My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize. London: Virgin, 2000.
3. Heylin, Clinton. From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.
4. Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History Of The Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1990.
4. Nobakht, David. Suicide: No Compromise. London: SAF Publishing, 2005.
5. Reynolds, Simon. Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984. London: Faber & Faber, 2005.
6. Savage, Jon. England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock And Beyond. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
7. Waksman, Steve. This Ain’t The Summer Of Love: Conflict And Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

1. BigO magazine (various issues from 1991 to 1996) http://www.bigozine2.com/

1. Reynolds, Simon. “Simon Reynolds’s Notes on the noughties: The changing sound of the underground” available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2009/dec/21/changing-sound-underground
2. Tham, Joseph. “Let Us Rock, Singapore!” published in THINK magazine and then available online at http://gashaus.com/component/content/article/57-scenes/109-let-us-rock-singapore.html

1. Various Artistes. +65 Indie Underground. Universal Music Singapore, 2009.

Joseph Tham is a history teacher who used to run the indie record shop, Flux-us and was a founding member of the experimental band, I/D. He blogs at http://www.psychmetalfreak.blogspot.com/

Read Full Post »