Posts Tagged ‘Cultural politics’

Transcribed and compiled by Kwee Hui Kian

On February 5, 1994, the Straits Times (ST) published a report by Felix Soh that Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma – artistic director and resident playwright of The Necessary Stage (TNS) – were trained at workshops conducted by the Brecht Forum in New York. After this fiasco of insinuating that they were attempting to promote Marxist principles through theatre in Singapore, both Tan and Sharma went abroad for further studies in Directing and Playwriting respectively. (more…)


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John Low

The legitimacy, rationality, psychology, technical expertise, training, education and history of the artist-person; in effect, everything that marks him out as an individual professional with a right to his own stakes and claims in society is, with one fell swoop, cast off on to the rubbish heap of irrelevance. Is it really any wonder then that it is the artist, always the artist, and particularly the artist engaged in the practice of contemporary art, who must end up accommodating society; and why the arts in Singapore will never be anything more than the icing on the national cake? The first and fundamental question that must be answered is this: Does the government really want Singapore artists to do anything other than produce the sweets?

— Thirunalan Sasitharan, “The Arts: Of Swords, Harnesses and Blinkers”, in State-Society Relations in Singapore, ed. Gillian Koh and Ooi Giok Ling (Institute of Policy Studies and Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 138.

In surveying the development of contemporary visual art practices in Singapore today, one question among many dominates. Has our recent historical past occasioned an awareness of the power of visual imageries, its potency as substantially representative of diverse social, economical, political and philosophical ideologies to motivate societal resentments, awaken perceptive political sensibilities against governmental powers, disrupt the prevalent state-social relations still regarded in Singapore today as necessary to safeguard against unregulated authorship, ostentatious display, and media circulation? (more…)

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Isabel Ching

First published in Cheo Chai-Hiang, The Story of Money, 2010, catalogue

The Story of Money shows in Hong Kong with adjustments to the exhibition hall as specified by the artist. A frontal wall has been built such that one can only enter via its central opening. Flanking the entryway on each side is the Chinese character 當 (more…)

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Lim Cheng Tju and Hong Lysa

Can art transcend history, pain and loss?

I think art helps in the healing process where there has been trauma. It is an emotional outlet for both the artist and the viewer. It helps by allowing people to revisit past experiences, and generates discourses so that people can talk about issues that have been swept under the carpet (Boo Junfeng, interview with the authors)

There has been a surge in the number of local films dealing with history in recent years, giving rise to the question whether the film format is a better medium to teach the subject than the textbook or works by historians. Non-mainstream histories of Singapore like Tan Pin Pin’s ‘Invisible City’ (2007), Eng Yee Peng’s ‘Diminishing Memories’ I and II (2008) and ‘Endless Days’ the in-production second feature by Ho Tzu Nyen come to mind.

In America, TV and films have been legitimized as purveyors of history as seen in the historicity of Tom Hanks’ ‘The Pacific’. In the case of director Boo Junfeng, his short films are haunted by the spectre of history, whether they are family secrets as in ‘A Family Portrait’ (2004), spatial history in ‘Changi Mural’ (2006) and ‘Bedok Jetty’ (2008) or social/gender/legal history in ‘Tanjong Rhu’ (2008).

Junfeng’s first feature film is ‘Sandcastle’. We sat down and talked to him on 4 September 2010 at the Esplanade Library café, a week after the film opened.
(text in block quotes or italics are from s/pores interview with Junfeng)



Working with silences

‘Sandcastle’ manages to explore the meaning and nature of history through its mutation into social memory in a more thoughtful and intricate way than if it were to be set in the 1950s, the turbulent political era where the Chinese middle school students were in the forefront of anti-colonial mass politics.

A historical reenactment would require the enormous resources such as that at the disposal of Oliver Stone. At the same time, such an effort may also not be the most fruitful, for our understanding of the period still hovers between the portrayal of the Chinese school students by the powers that be as dangerous, manipulative, if not manipulated, and the former students’ labeling of themselves as ‘idealistic’ and ‘anti-colonial nationalists.’ Even then, it is only lately that the latter narrative has been cautiously emerging.

The filmmaker’s attempts to interview former Chinese school student activists and political detainees were rebuffed. However he did not work his contacts very hard. After all, understanding and accepting their silence is what he deals with in the film itself.

I wanted to be considerate. I did not want to impose or intrude. It is history told as stories, people’s stories.

By telling the story through the eyes of 18 year old En, and selecting 1999 as the setting, the filmmaker cut his cloth to a manageable size. The death of his grandmother who suffered from dementia set him off on exploring En’s coming to terms with his family history. Each social unit, from family to country, is inhabited by a dynamic sequence of individuals, and cares about what is communicated and transmitted to its members, present and future, so as to maintain its cohesion and vitality in the face of contradictions, disjunctions and counter-narratives. En’s parents’ involvement in the Chinese school students’ political movement, deemed subversive and anti-national by the colonial as well as post-colonial state has brought shame, and awkward silence about the family’s past.

What interests, intrigues, inspires me are the many elements, the dilemmas and taboos in Singapore that surround us. I wanted to juxtapose what is happening to the current generation of Singaporeans, especially the way the internet, the social media is so much part of their lives, with the older generation who rely on the traditional media. Our mindsets are so different.

I wanted to reach out to the Chinese educated, to the intellectuals through the film. But it is very difficult to get in touch with them. The internet and facebook don’t work in this instance

En has a lot of questions. He speaks for my generation who wants to know. What En goes through is that he questions, but at the same time he empathises too. He deals with the revelation (of his parents’ past political involvements) passively. He did not confront his mother, but placed his father’s letter to her recounting their lives in a spot where she would know that he knew. You realize that there is this past, which is painful to bring up. You want to be considerate.

‘Sandcastle’ looks at the more emotional aspect rather than the larger political canvas.

The film has no answers, only questions [which the 18year old has]. I only want to pose questions. I don’t have the answers. The answers are with those who do not want to speak up. Hopefully the film will lead to some dialogue, trigger some communication.

It did not escape the filmmaker that ‘Sandcastle’ ‘made it’ this far because it was supported by the Media Authority of Singapore and the Singapore Film Commission. Being selected for Cannes and for international distribution by Fortissimo Film had allowed it to be viewed in Singapore as something without political agenda. Yet its political overtones were picked up by the overseas press.

For me, really nothing is at stake. I meant to address the issue of memory and it is not supposed to be overtly political. I am just that not polemic.

This perhaps can be seen in the filmmaker’s decision to focus on the 1956 and 1961 student activities rather than 513 ‘anti-conscription’ incident of 1954 (which would be too obvious given that En was about to be enlisted – “that would be too neat.”) or Operation Cold Store of 1963.

Reconciliation/ alienation

In ‘Sandcastle’, the disjuncture which threatens En’s family’s ability to tell the next generation who they are cuts across the three generations, with the one in the middle, in the person of his mother, as the pivot. She withholds and denies her husband’s past, and her own, from their son. En’s grandfather was about to tell him about his father, having taken out the photo negatives of the latter’s student activities so that En could store them in the computer to ensure their preservation. However, En was distracted by a phone call, and the moment passed. As it turns out, his grandfather died that very night.

En’s grandmother has dementia, but in her lucid moments, she turns away from looking at the photo album and tells En to leave the past alone. However, her mumbling in her sleep alerts him to the possibility that his father had been in prison. He finally learns that his grandmother had tried to persuade his father to sign the ‘confession’ that would lead to his release when En was born, even though it would be admitting to falsehoods. He had refused. En takes his grandmother to Johor where his father was exiled, died and was buried, to perform his belated qing ming ritual. En’s acknowledgement of his father’s life frees his grandmother from the burden of her son’s unfilial act. The wholesomeness of the family’s social memory is restored.

But there is another disjuncture between generations that the film is enmeshed in—one between 18 year-old En (and the 26 year old filmmaker) and viewers who had been middle school students in the 1950s. The sexual exploits of En, at the beginning of the movie where he watches a porn clip on the computer, and later having sex with the girl next door, may well symbolize alienation and listlessness, and the intimacy and solace derived from people of one’s age group. The girl, Ying is three years older than En, and so is mature enough to handle their relationship, but members of the audience in their seventies, particularly the women who were politically active in the 1950s may well find their sexual liaison not easy to take in their stride.

A key issue which had galvanized the middle school students into critiquing colonial society in the 1950s was the anti-yellow culture movement which condemned pornographic salacious publications and films as the product of unbridled greed of capitalism, which led the young away from a wholesome life and service to society. Proper male-female relationships were a primary code of conduct which the progressive students observed, and which gave them a tremendous sense of righteousness. En’s mother refused to talk to him and even slapped him in anger when he told her she was over-reacting—his grandmother had slipped out of the house when he was in bed with Ying. A former Chinese middle school student in her 70s who watched the film said that she would have slapped him as well.

People of different age groups respond to the film differently. That response is another form of conservatism. Things have changed.

Embracing China (once more)

Things have indeed changed, and to the filmmaker one change is that it is now alright to ask questions about the 1950s, for that is history. In an interview with Ng Yi-sheng, he said, “Honestly, there was a line in the film that we took out where the grandmother asked the grandson, ‘What the hell does communism even mean?’” Because in this day and age, like, we are like showing China’s 60th anniversary film [‘The Great Cause of China’s Foundation’], that huge propaganda film that was released to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Communist Party. And it was released here.”

In today’s Singapore, we can watch the film of the Communist Party of China praising its brilliant history, totally oblivious to the fact that what is being shown was that which had riveted at least one generation of student political activists in Singapore.

Why can’t we talk about that period, why can’t we put it into film, if it is done responsibly?

We have completely embraced China. There is so much communication between that country and our government. The story is set at the time after the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997, with China’s open economy as an established feature. I pushed it as far back as I could to 1999 to be able to accommodate the handphone, Windows 98 and to make the task of coming with clothes, hairstyles and cars on the road etc ten years ago easier for my production designer. Two years makes a great difference in Singapore, given the rapid physical changes in the country. Any later than 1999, and it would not have been possible for someone schooling in the 1950s to have a biological child age 18.

Embracing Chineseness

In the interview with Ng Yi-sheng, the filmmaker said:

“Bobbi Chen played En’s new girlfriend. She’s the character who moves in next to En and she’s a new immigrant from China, and so is her father. As the film deals with the idea of time, it also deals with the idea of new immigrants and old immigrants: that Chinese Singaporeans are essentially all immigrants. It addresses a little bit of the heritage of Singapore.”

However, the relationship between En and Ying, underplays the very real social tension and mistrust between the local Chinese, and the recent PRC immigrants in Singapore. Ironically, it is Ying who makes it possible for En to piece his parents’ past. She is the one who recognizes his parents in the old photographs, and is able to read his father’s letter, written in the non-simplified script, which younger Singaporeans, are unable to read (though in actual fact, neither can PRC Chinese). In a reversal of the situation in the 1950s where the Chinese middle school students in Singapore were steeped in the history of China, Ying struggles to read in English about Sir Stamford Raffles and the indentured Chinese labourers who came to Singapore in the 19th century. She cannot identify with this history, nor does En think that she should.

The issue of the Chinese educated is better explored in the film’s telling and casting. The filmmaker told Ng Yi-sheng:

“Language also plays a big role in the film. It’s a generational thing: between the grandparents, they speak in Hokkien; mother and son speak Mandarin, and then En, the son, and his friends speak English. I think language can really define how the generations of Singaporeans have lived.”

Junfeng is a former student of Chung Cheng High School, an Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school which offers Chinese as a first language. However, he was from the Express stream. He admits that it takes a long time for him even now to read a piece of writing in Chinese. Like En, he has difficulty connecting with the past because of his limited command of Chinese. En overcomes this when he stays with his grandparents, and when he get to know Ying.

Junfeng did not know about his alma mater’s turbulent past when he was in school. But he can see that embracing Chineseness is the way to go.

I still think it is harder for an English-language Asian film to travel, whether it is art house or commercial. The reality is, people want ‘authenticity’, and a film from Asia with Asians speaking in English isn’t considered ‘authentic’.

The improbable top history student, 1999

Were the students communists?

Well, they were protesting the closure of the student union, which was supposedly pro-communist.

And in the 60s, the government arrested the communists?

Well, that’s a contentious issue also… whether or not those arrested were communists.

What happened to them? Were they exiled?

They were locked up for many years. Some of them exiled after that.

Andy, En’s classmate gave this history lesson to En when they were at a disco. His voice was almost drowned by the loud dance music. It was impossible for them to discuss the subject further then. In any case, En did not seem to want to, nor is it plausible that Andy could have said much more. For that matter, his reply was rather improbable for 1999. ‘Alternative histories’ made its cautious appearance in 2001, with Comet in our sky: Lim Chin Siong in history (edited by Tan Jing Quee and KS Jomo). This book certainly did not hit the reading list in schools immediately. The civil society group, Tangent, organized a forum on ‘(Un)learning the past’ which featured an account of the idealism of the period by former Chinese middle school student Han Tan Juan (Han Sanyuan, born 1942). Tangent published the papers of the forum in a landmark issue of their journal (2003). Documentary filmmaker Tan Pin Pin, who had filmed the event for Tangent, featured Han in her ‘Invisible City’ (2007), which was a primary resource for the director of ‘Sandcastle’. In 2006, The Necessary Stage organized a forum where two former political detainees spoke

That Andy could utter the line ‘that’s a contentious issue…whether or not those arrested were communists’ certainly cannot be taken for granted. If such open-endedness existed in 1999, then En’s mother’s suppression of her 1950s self does not make much sense, or seem necessary. The silence that continues to be maintained by participants of that period of history is a product of a hardline insistence that the political detainees were all communists.

The unredeemed mother

The film’s resolution rests firmly on whether En’s mother finally lives ‘a fulfilling life’ and is ‘true to herself’, as her dying husband bid her to in the final line of his letter to her where he expressed his deepest love. In fact, she does the opposite, rejecting her past. Disavowing the admiration the students of the 1950s had for China, she makes baseless and disparaging generalizations about the hygiene level of food prepared by PRC Chinese. She embraces a ‘western’ religion, and disregards the ritual visit to En’s father’s grave during the qing ming period even though her son wants to observe it. In the same vein, she forces the deathbed conversion of her mother-in-law. Her beau is no less than a colonel in the Singapore Armed Forces, charged with organizing the National Day parade. There is no indication that with the burden of hiding the past from her son lifted, she finally attains some degree of liberation, and self-realisation. All that happens is that having discovered the truth of her past, En accepts her for what she is.

‘Sandcastle’ is the first feature film to deal with the Chinese middle school students of the 1950s and early 60s. As filmic history, it will shape the view of its audience to some degree, especially as there are no other means of learning about that generation beyond the prescribed stereotype, given the paucity of memoirs and other literature on them.

Ultimately, En’s mother lives that very stereotype. Just as she was even more committed than his father was to political activism as students, forty years later, she embraces her new religion and Singaporean identity in a much more uncritical and uncompromising way than her son.

While for En’s family, his discovery about his parents’ past brings an acceptance and equilibrium to its social memory, the same cannot be said about the large family of the Singapore nation. Its disjunctures remain, as such may even be reinforced, such is the impact of film. The trauma of being vilified largely remains. ‘Sandcastles’ privileges En and his generation. They grow, develop and move on with life. On the other hand, the wounds inflicted by the political system on En’s mother leaves permanent scars. She is disfigured for life. There is no healing for her. Nor for viewers then of her background and generation.

However, this is perhaps as far as En’s generation can grasp of that period of history. The failure to go behind and beyond the stereotype is not the younger generation’s alone. Historians have not done any better to date, nor have the subjects themselves helped to explain who they are.

But does En need to know more? He doesn’t seem to think so. That is a choice that his generation is entitled to make.

A beach sans sandcastles?

Newly built sandcastles would dot Changi beach when existing ones were washed away by the incoming tide.

One wonders if this is still the case.

Ng Yi-sheng’s interview with Boo Junfeng can be found at

Lim Cheng Tju is a secondary school history teacher who writes about history and popular culture in Singapore. His articles have appeared in Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, Journal of Popular Culture and Print Quarterly. He is also the country editor for the International Journal of Comic Art.

Hong Lysa, a historian, is the co-author of The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and Its Pasts (2008). She is a s/porean.

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Clarissa Oon

In the half-century from the 1920s to the mid-1970s, Chinese-language drama was a major cultural force and part of the lifeblood of the Chinese community in Singapore. Numerous amateur theatre and cultural groups were formed; their members came from all walks of life, including teachers, shopkeepers, businessmen, hawkers, artists, musicians and writers. Many of these drama enthusiasts already had exposure to theatre through drama groups in nearly all of the Chinese-medium high schools and their alumni associations. Plays were read and performed on Rediffusion and radio, and faithfully publicised and reviewed in the Chinese newspapers. From the outset, it was not just the scripts from China that were prized; equally important, if not more so, was the creation of original scripts reflecting Nanyang, Malayan and later Singaporean realities.

During this period, there was no consciousness of a theatre apart from politics. Chinese drama was tied, by an umbilical cord, to various socio-political movements in China, beginning with the May Fourth movement in 1919 which planted the idea in intellectuals and artists that the purpose of art was for the betterment of the people and the nation. There were other movements which galvanised Singapore’s Chinese language theatre at different points in its history – the anti-Japanese resistance during the Second World War, when dramas were put up to rally people and raise funds to help China fight the Japanese; and the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, when art and politics were so closely intertwined in China that artists who did not reflect the “correct” leftist values and ideology were seen as a threat to society’s moral fibre. As Singapore lurched from a tense merger with Malaysia to finding itself unexpectedly on its own as a new nation, the birth pangs of development added to the concerns of Chinese-language theatre. The economy’s strategic dependence on foreign multi-national corporations, the resettlement of villagers to make way for factories and the struggles of the working poor were seen by some as new signs of social inequality, barely a decade after being freed from the yoke of colonialism. The left-leaning views of many Chinese language theatre practitioners were not dissimilar to those expressed by the opposition Barisan Sosialis political party, student activists and more radical trade unionists. Many of them were Chinese-educated, as opposed to the minority English-educated elite. It was in this political and intellectual ferment that Chinese-language drama found its voice and its audience.

As a sign of how politically influential Chinese drama was as a medium during the early years of independence, the ruling People’s Action Party’s Central Cultural Bureau formed its own drama group in 1965 to produce Chinese plays. This was presumably to counter the largely leftist output of the Chinese theatre scene. There were frequent bans on performances by the authorities, and not a few theatre groups were ordered to shut down.

In 1976, several Chinese-language theatre practitioners, including Kuo Pao Kun and his dancer-choreographer wife Goh Lay Kuan, were detained in a major security sweep against 50 alleged members of Malayan Communist Party splinter and front organisations. Kuo spent four years behind bars under the Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial. In those four years, a seismic change took place, quietly but with wide-ranging implications. The thriving Chinese-language theatre was nipped in the bud, and when it recovered in the 1980s, was a pale shadow of its former vitality. Suddenly, the English language theatre which had previously languished was now on the ascendant, as a major shift in education policy in the late 1970s established English as the first language and main language of instruction in all schools. The Chinese language, like the other mother tongues, was reduced to a second language. Vernacular schools, which taught in the mother tongue, had been facing declining enrolment for many years now due to the growing economic importance of the English language, and by 1987, were either shut down, or converted to English-medium schools. The young writers and drama enthusiasts were now expressing themselves in English, and this theatre scene that took off in the 1980s was a very different animal from the Chinese theatre of the past. Influenced primarily by the individualism of theatre-making in the contemporary Western tradition, theatre practitioners were now speaking for themselves and did not seek to reflect a larger collective consciousness. They were a vital part of independent civil society, but no longer as anti-government as before. Indeed, funded by state monies, they became part of the global capitalist circuit of art production and consumption. In comparison to the Chinese-language drama a decade before, this new theatre did not have the baggage of ideology and history, but conversely, its roots in the wider society were not as deep.

Kuo bridged those two worlds, as a playwright, director, educator and thinker who would also start writing in English from 1983. In a playwriting forum held at The Substation in 1996, he described his work from the 1980s onwards as “reflecting (on) and criticising life through drama and theatre, rather than using theatre as part of a socio-political movement” (9 Lives 1997 p. 70). Reoriented towards Singapore’s changing society and his own rethinking of his art, his rich body of work and his pioneering role in theatre training have established him as the most influential figure in Singapore theatre, a position which still stands despite his untimely death in September 2002.

And yet, remarkably little is known today about his early leftist plays. They have never been translated into English and have not been restaged in the last 35 years. The original Chinese scripts, written and staged between 1968 and 1975, were collected and published a few years ago for the first time. In one sense, they are products of their time that read somewhat anachronistically today. At the same time, they are integral to understanding Kuo as a person, activist and artist. If we take the earlier quote from Kuo, what he added after that is significant: “But I don’t think I could ever sort of cut politics away from my work – it just works in a different way.” (9 Lives 1997 p. 70)

The history of the forgotten Chinese theatre of the last century has been the subject of two recent exhibitions, one at the National Library in 2009, and another from February 2 to 28 in 2010 at the Esplanade, produced by Drama Box and curated by theatre academic Quah Sy Ren. Lately, the leftists’ role in Singapore history has also moved from the margins towards the mainstream of public discourse, beginning with Singapore Press Holdings’ publishing of the “untold” history of the PAP in Men In White (leaders of the left were among the PAP’s founding members, and later broke away to form the Barisan). Subsequently, a group of former leftists and political detainees told their side of the story in The Fajar Generation, a book of essays on the University Socialist Club and politics in postwar Malaya and Singapore. Kuo’s early plays help to flesh out the cultural and not just political history of the left. Through the medium of theatre, they shed light on what the Chinese-educated leftists stood for and believed in during that shadowy period in Singapore’s history, which for subsequent generations, has been filled out largely by the official narrative.

The leftist movement and the Singapore Performing Arts School

It was an uneasy dawn after Singapore was forced to split from Malaysia in 1965. While the PAP pushed for integration with global markets, injection of foreign capital into the economy and rapid industrialisation to spur growth and create jobs, the leftists hit out against what they saw as exploitation of the working classes. There were sharp rifts in politics and economics, and over other issues like education, language policy and the fate of the Chinese-language Nanyang University in a multi-racial society. As Quah noted in his introduction to Volume One of The Complete Works of Kuo Pao Kun, “Singapore’s formation was like that of many newly-independent, developing nations at that time; each individual, organisation, community had constructed different versions of the imagined homeland”. (2005, p. xv) The leftist movement in Singapore was a multi-racial one, but the Chinese-educated Chinese made up the biggest group.

By the 1960s, socialist and even pro-communist ideas were ingrained in the Chinese-language theatre here. This can be traced back to the influence of left-leaning China writers and intellectuals, who sought refuge in this part of the world at critical junctures during the civil war with the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government, before the Communists finally seized power in 1949. Chairman Mao Zedong’s dictum that art must be close to the common people (the workers, peasants and soldiers) participate in their struggles, and serve political ends, caught on here, though not without some debate over the extent to which art should be politicised (Zhan 2001, p. 39-41).

The start of Cultural Revolution in 1966 gave further impetus to the notion of theatre as agitprop, to rally the working masses in a class struggle. Kuo’s contribution, according to Malaysian drama doyen Krishen Jit in a 1989 essay, was to “inject strong doses of professionalism and artistic responsibility to the doctrinaire of revolutionary theatre”.

The modern Chinese-language theatre was a naturalistic one, with realistic dialogue, well-defined characters and scenography that represented local settings as faithfully as resources allowed. China had embraced Stanislavskian realism via the Soviet Union and the Moscow Arts Theatre. As an example of how this tradition had filtered over to Singapore, the founders of one of the most established and active groups at the time, the Singapore Amateur Players (inaugurated in 1955), had received drama training from visiting China instructors while they were in school and members of the Chung Cheng High School Drama Research Society. Kuo was born in Hebei, China, and his early background was in Chinese theatre. However, he was also proficient in the English language, having received formal training at Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art in his early 20s. Among his first works in the theatre were translations and adaptations of English-language plays. However he stuck to the naturalistic Chinese tradition for his original Chinese dramas, though he would sometimes throw in a Brechtian chorus during intervals; they recited their commentary in the Chinese oratorical style, instead of singing it as the German playwright and pioneer of “alienation” techniques in the theatre envisioned.

Kuo came to Singapore at the age of 10. He had a turbulent education, going through five different schools. One of them was Chinese High School, where he participated in the 1956 student strikes against the ban on pro-left organisations connected with the Chinese schools. After a brief stint as a reporter at Radio Singapore, he left for further studies in Australia with his wife-to-be, Goh Lay Kuan.

Upon their return to Singapore in 1965, Kuo and Goh wanted to do full-time theatre and dance, but there were no professional theatre and dance companies they could join, as the groups were all amateur. They decided to start a performing arts school, to train students who could eventually perform and produce works with them. (Hu and Lin 2000) That was how the Singapore Performing Arts School (renamed Practice Performing Arts School in the 1980s) was founded.

The school began by performing modern Western dramas translated by Kuo into Chinese, such as Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, but later devoted its energies entirely to creating original plays and dance performances. As was typical of other Chinese drama groups of the time, most of the plays were created collectively and Kuo was credited simply as “the one who does the actual writing” (执笔者; zhibi zhe), rather than as “playwright”. The creative process is documented by Quah as follows: the group members would first gather to brainstorm ideas for a script; Kuo then wrote a first draft; members would break into small groups to discuss the draft and present their ideas, consulting seniors outside the group; Kuo produced a second draft with the input; another round of discussion followed; then a third draft was produced. This was the version of the script that was used in rehearsals. (2005, p. xviii-xix)

The plays by the SPAS had a strong following, particularly among blue-collar workers. From the late 1960s, Kuo and Goh started “Going Into Life” campaigns where they and their group members went to live and work alongside farmers, rubber tappers, construction workers and fishermen. This was so that their dramas and dance performances could be closer to the lives of the working masses. Kuo recalled the symbiotic relationship with the workers:

I remember at the time when we had new plays performed, written by us – sometimes collectively, sometimes individually – you would have busloads of students and workers coming to see the play. And sometimes they came from as far as Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh or even Penang. At the time, it was still very much a peninsular kind of Singapore and Malaysia. The bridge was still very fluid in traffic. And people from my school, other groups and theatre companies fanned out into the working masses – the factories, the construction sites, even fishing villages, padi fields and plantations on the Peninsula to, so to speak, experience life and bring their experiences from what they found back for creative production. And very often workers and students come to the first rehearsals, or previews, to chip in comments about what they liked, what they didn’t like. (9 Lives, p. 68-69)

The “worker friend” (工友; gongyou) was their audience, inspiration and foremost critic. By the early 1970s, a Singaporean technocratic elite as well as mid-level bureaucrats and executives had emerged alongside the foreign bosses, with a mass of workers at the bottom employed as cheap labour. Costs were rising as the economy picked up, but the wages of these workers remained low. Not only was their employment in flux amidst the ups and downs of the business cycle, they were also very vulnerable to industrial accidents, as sociologist Noeleen Heyzer noted in a 1983 essay. From the 1970s, the once-militant trade union movement was largely tamed by the Singapore government, but dissent and strikes among workers still broke out occasionally. Kuo’s leftist plays did not attack the government directly, but targeted industrialists, technocrats and supervisors, portraying them as emblems of an oppressive capitalist class.

From “Hey, Wake Up!” to “Growing Up”

From 1968 to 1975, Kuo wrote three full-length plays. The first two, “Hey, Wake Up!” 《喂,醒醒!》and “The Struggle” 《挣扎》were produced by his own group, Singapore Performing Arts School (SPAS). The third play, “Growing Up” 《成长》, was produced by a younger group, Selatan Arts Ensemble, whose members had been trained by Kuo and Goh at the SPAS. It was Kuo’s revised version of an earlier play he had done with SPAS that was banned and never saw the light of day, titled “The Sparks of Youth” 《青春的火花》. “Hey, Wake Up!”, “The Struggle” and “Growing Up” are published in volume one of The Complete Works of Kuo Pao Kun.

“Hey, Wake Up!”, which premiered on December 27, 1968 at Victoria Theatre, centers around a headstrong high-school graduate, Xiao Mei, who answers a job advertisement for a “ladies tour agency” despite the reservations of her working-class neighbours and washerwoman mother. The play follows Xiao Mei as she tries to safeguard her integrity in her new job. She rationalises that she is simply making a living and trying to make enough money so her mother does not have to wash clothes anymore. It ends, somewhat inevitably, with a rape scene, but her neighbours in her crowded tenement block rally around her and she finally “wakes up”, so to speak, to the reality of her exploitation.

The play received extremely good reviews in the Chinese press. One critic, Zhong Shi, writing in the Chinese daily Nanyang Siang Pau on January 5, 1969, hailed it as “an utterly though-provoking play. It did not resort to sloganeering or lectures, and there was not a scene out of place… It is the most successful locally-written play we have experienced”. To a contemporary reader, the script would seem a tad melodramatic, but Singapore had a flourishing sex trade in the 1960s and 1970s. Upscale escort agencies took off along with the economy, catering to foreign and local businessmen and recruiting young women looking for a way out of poverty. In Zhong Shi’s view, the story told by “Hey, Wake Up!” is “one we are familiar with” and the play would have “definite educational and instructional value for our young audiences”.

The next full-length play by SPAS, “The Struggle”, was scheduled for production in December 1969, but was banned two weeks before it could go on stage. In that short two weeks, the SPAS members managed to rustle up a series of poetry recitals and one-act playlets to take the place of the banned play. “The Struggle” opens with the forced eviction of villagers from their land by an unscrupulous landowner who wants to build factories. Some of the younger villagers go on to work in the factories, where they face the dilemma of whether to cooperate with factory bosses, take on longer hours and be compensated for it, or band together with other workers to fight for better terms and conditions of work.

As an ideological statement, “The Struggle” is more hard-hitting than “Hey, Wake Up!”, one of its key messages being that unity among workers is more important than the filial piety so valued in traditional Chinese culture. This is clearly seen in its confrontation between an elderly and ailing mother and her daughter, a factory supervisor. The mother is aggrieved that her daughter, Ya Long, has not aligned herself with the other workers. As she says accusingly: “Everyone is saying that my child is standing together with the bosses and opposing the workers (工友)!” When a hurt Ya Long says that all her actions stem from putting her mother first, so that they can pay her medical bills and put food on the table, her mother counters: “Before you stopped school to work and we had debts to pay, who helped us through that time? Friends! Now, just for the sake of earning a few more dollars, you are not acknowledging your friends? How are you ever going to become a person of dignity?” (The Complete Works p. 97-98)

Kuo’s third original full-length production, “Growing Up”, was staged in January 1975 and is perhaps the fullest expression of his leftist ideals. It traces the journey of three young women who become labour activists. There is Li Mei, who has slogged to earn enough money to help her boyfriend finance his studies overseas, only to be betrayed when he returns and marries someone else. There is Gui Yu, who comes from a wealthy but estranged family; her father is a philanderer and her mother, a second wife. And then there is Zhou Xia, their friend who helps them find a spiritual calling in looking out for the disenfranchised and educating workers about their rights. The play portrays their inner conflicts in casting aside the bondage of romantic love and empty family ties. As they take up jobs on the factory floor to serve other workers, they learn how to do so not just in words but in action, and to pay willingly the price for taking a stand against injustice.

Kuo and SPAS also created several short plays, dramatic poems and xiangsheng (相声; cross-talk) skits in a similar pro-labour, anti-capitalist vein. For example, “Sister Luo’s New Year Eve” tells of a woman who has no choice but to work on Chinese New Year’s Eve, even though her daughter is seriously ill at home. If she does not work, she will not get the bonus that she needs in order to send her daughter to hospital, and her unfeeling boss refuses to cut her some slack by releasing her earlier, despite her plaintive explanations of her daughter’s plight. By the time she gets home with the money, it is too late; her daughter has already died.

There are several common themes in all these works. One is the distinction between the “yellow culture” of sexual debauchery and “healthy culture”. The “anti-yellow movement” had begun in the Chinese-medium schools from the early 1950s, when the British colonial government was perceived to be turning a blind eye to the growing number of brothels, hostess bars and girlie shows as well as the influx of pornographic magazines (Zhan 2001 p. 28-30). Pop music tunes which sang of freewheeling love, parties and gambling were also seen as unhealthy. The campaign to stop “yellow culture” from corrupting youths and society at large took the form of school talks, public rallies, dramas and newspaper articles. In this, activists were influenced by May Fourth intellectuals who regarded women as equal to men, breaking with a feudal Chinese tradition of seeing them as sex objects and having only a secondary role in a patriarchal society.

Another trope running through Kuo’s early plays is the leftist revisioning of the classic coming-of-age plot, redefining the notion of what youths should aspire to have and to be. One unnamed Nanyang Siang Pau writer, reviewing “Growing Up” on January 6, 1975, concurred with the play’s perspective: “In this age, what kind of ideals should young people have? What kind of lives should they live? Born into different families and different life experiences, the three young ladies in the (play) grapple with these questions in different ways; however, they finally uphold the interests of the masses in a righteous resistance, continuing a resolute struggle on behalf of the majority.”

Clearly, the most distinguishing feature of the plays is their binary treatment of issues and black-and-white dichotomies of good and evil. Those who are capitalists, or align themselves with the forces of capital, will invariably set out to exploit the working class, regardless of the background or initial intentions of these businessmen and industrialists. This is because the system is inherently unjust. In turn, workers must lock arms, seek power in numbers and not compromise their integrity by falling in line with what bosses demand of them, in exchange for limited material gain.

The 1980s and the utopian imagination

In the second half of the 1970s, Kuo and other left-leaning intellectuals were put to sleep.

In subsequent interviews and writings on his four years in detention, Kuo would regard it as a constructive period of reflection, during which he began to see the limitations of the kind of theatre he had been pursuing. By this point, leftists across Asia had become aware of the ruthless extremes of the Cultural Revolution in China, including its persecution of many artists, writers and intellectuals. Many became disillusioned with the ideals of socialism, as Kuo’s compatriot, veteran Chinese newspaper journalist Han Tan Juan revealed in a 2003 interview with the Tangent journal. Kuo speaks of his own break with ideology in an interview with Alvin Tan and Sanjay Krishnan:

It is a good thing that Chinese theatre in the 80s cut itself off from active party politics because only then could it begin to exist on its own as an art form… The great Chinese writer, Lu Xun, wrote an article in the ’30s entitled, “The Diverging Path of Politics and Art”. I read it before I went to prison but it never really registered until I read it again under detention… Suddenly, it sort of jumped off the pages. Lu Xun said that progressive politics and progressive art very often seem to be fellow travellers, partners in struggle, but once that political movement assumes power, their paths begin to part because it is the nature of every political movement or party to hold on and perpetuate its rules; and it is in the nature of art to always pursue truth, even to the extent of incurring the hostility of the ruling powers. (9 Lives 1997, p. 132)

Some have argued that from the 1980s onwards, like many others who had been against the PAP, Kuo was co-opted by the government. But anyone who has watched or studied his plays after 1980 would know that he did not lose his critical voice. Nonetheless it was a different voice. These plays questioned policies such as relentless urbanisation (The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree), the utilitarian abandonment of Chinese dialects (Mama Looking For Her Cat) and the pervasive, humourless and soul-destroying rigidity of the bureaucracy (The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole and No Parking On Odd Days), but were not really issue-based plays as such. While various elements were clearly rooted in the contemporary Singaporean reality, their mix of realism and allegory also made them less socially-specific than his earlier plays. The later plays were an attempt to cultivate an “independent cultural space”, as he himself put it (9 Lives 1997, p. 133), a space for the imagination, story-telling, art and philosophising that could not be ascribed to any particular brand of politics. They were more about the human condition than anything else, striving for a deeper understanding of life and society, without offering easy answers.

According to Kuo, another reason for the change in direction of his works was his move into bilingual theatre practice. In 1984, he wrote his first English-language play, the monodrama The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole, and translated it into Chinese himself the following year. Subsequently, he would create both Chinese and English versions of many of his plays. From 1985, he began conducting some of his drama workshops in English; these workshops would be attended by many of the future leaders of the English-language theatre scene, including TheatreWorks’ Ong Keng Sen and The Necessary Stage’s Alvin Tan. He was moved to start working in the English-language theatre because he knew the ground had shifted, and with it, the outlook and values of a whole new generation. Chinese-language education was no more. In 1980, Nanyang University (Nantah) was merged with the University of Singapore to become the National University of Singapore, putting an end to Chinese-medium university education. Serious discourse in Chinese was severely weakened. In 1983, citing declining circulation of the two Chinese broadsheets Nanyang Siang Pau and Sin Chew Jit Poh, the government merged them into one newspaper, Lianhe Zaobao.

From 1984 onwards, Kuo’s plays would still be broadly rooted in the socially-conscious Chinese intellectual and dramatic tradition, driven by the May Fourth ideal of art-making as something for the greater good of society. Yet influences from other theatre traditions were much more palpable than in his pre-detention Chinese plays. These included Polish director Jerzy Grotowski’s concept of the “poor theatre”, emphasising an actor’s physical and spiritual development above other elements such as text or scenography. Kuo introduced Grotowski’s techniques to a new generation of young actors when he wrote The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree in 1987 and invited the Grotowski-trained Taiwanese director Liu Jing-min to co-direct the production. The European theatre of the absurd was another influence that could be felt in Kuo’s plays such as The Coffin, perhaps his most enduring work which has been frequently restaged and reinterpreted by younger theatre practitioners. In the monodrama, a man vividly narrates how his late grandfather’s huge and ornate coffin could not fit into the standard-sized plot at the cemetery, resulting in the protagonist’s tragicomic clash with bureaucrats who have trouble bending the rules for him. Reading The Coffin as an expression of the dilemma of modern man – caught between the living and the dead, family and society – the renowned contemporary Chinese playwright and novelist Gao Xingjian noted that Kuo had transcended the social specificities of Chinese culture by borrowing from the Western absurdist tradition and making it his own (Gao 2000 p. 73-74).

What is the relevance today of his forgotten leftist plays? Why is it worth understanding them and the context in which they were created, even if their moment in the sun has passed?

One, Kuo is acknowledged to have pioneered the technique here of devising plays with a group of actors, known as “workshopping”. Many younger practitioners became exposed to this method of creating theatre through The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree and 1988’s Mama Looking For Her Cat, a ground-breaking multi-lingual play. Like theatre groups elsewhere, Singapore theatre companies now routinely create productions through workshops, in which the kernel of a script is improvised by actors in rehearsals to create new performance riffs, fragments of dialogue, and subsequently entire scenes. A study of Kuo’s earlier works reveals why this method of creating theatre came so naturally to Kuo – because of its antecedents, for him, in the collective mode of script-writing in the left-leaning Chinese-language theatre of the 1960s and 1970s.

The difference between the two forms of collaboration, I would argue, is that earlier process was more intellectual and literary, centering on analysis and discussion of the script and how it could be improved. The later process of workshopping, however, was and is more theatrical and performative in nature. The director and actors improvise and play around with ideas while “in the moment” of a particular scene, and the work evolves more organically as a result. This methodology was instrumental in the creation of Mama, involving a multi-racial cast of actors. The story of a dialect-speaking old lady, who grows increasingly alienated from her brood of adult children but finds a connection with a cat and a Tamil-speaking old man, resonated with the all the linguistic complexity of everyday Singaporean reality, yet also turned it on its head as social commentary, in a way that was quite instinctive and unforced.

Two, throughout his life, Kuo remained passionately concerned about justice. His later plays were, at heart, about little people and the larger forces they are enmeshed in, as much as those that he wrote as a card-carrying socialist. The difference was that, this time, he knew that the enemy could not be so easily defined, and that the seeds of impotency and betrayal lay in one’s own heart. He learned how to inject humour – and black humour – into his plays.

Finally, the early works put one indelible trait of Kuo’s in sharp relief – his utopian imagination. His leftist plays reflect an idealistic hunger for a world where the disenfranchised are no longer oppressed. Post-1984, his hopes for humanity increasingly found expression in the ideal of multiculturalism. Again, such leanings were not new and harked back to the Malayan consciousness of his works with the SPAS from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s – not so much the plays, which were written in Chinese for Chinese-speaking audiences, but the dance-dramas he created with his partner Goh, which incorporated Malay and Indian dance as well as Western classical ballet (Quah 2004).

From the 1980s onwards, however, multiculturalism would form a greater part of what he stood for as an artist and intellectual. This trajectory began with the multilingualism of Mama. With later plays like 1995’s Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral – an allegory of the castrated condition of contemporary Chinese and Singaporean life – a deeper understanding of the ancestral cultures of Singapore and their respective connections became for him a way out of the mind-numbing corporatisation, a form of salvation for the decultured urban nomad.

This belief found its ultimate fruition in his setting up of an intensive programme to train actors in Asian and Western performance cultures, known as the Theatre Training and Research Programme. As he said in his interview with Tan and Krishnan, he likened the cultures of the world to trees in a densely-packed forest. In his words, “the higher you reach into the respective cultures, the more you see all the branches and leaves touching each other. But the stalk, the stem, the trunk are very separated” (9 Lives 1997, p. 134).

In his journey from socialist to multiculturalist, the one constant was his desire to make the world a better place, and his belief in the transformative powers of theatre to do so. And we are richer for it.


Gao Xingjian. 2000. “The Coffin Is Too Big For the Hole: Dilemma of the Modern Man.” trans. Kong Kam Yoke. Images at the Margins: A Collection of Kuo Pao Kun’s Plays. Singapore: Times Books International.

Heyzer, Noeleen. 1983. “International Production and Social Change: An Analysis of the State, Employment and Trade Unions in Singapore”. Understanding Singapore Society, eds. Ong Jin Hui, Tong Chee Kiong and Tan Ern Ser. Singapore: Times Academic Press.

Hu Wen Yan and Lin Ren Yu. 2000. “郭宝崑谈实践新课程‘剧场训练与研究’60岁让梦想成真”(“Kuo Pao Kun discusses Practice’s new course, Theatre Training and Research Programme – at 60 his dream has become reality”) Lianhe Zaobao, 1 March 2000. Singapore.

The Necessary Stage. 1997. “Playwright’s Voice: A Forum on Playwriting” and “Between Two Worlds: A Conversation with Kuo Pao Kun”. 9 Lives: 10 Years of Singapore Theatre, 1987-1997. Singapore: The Necessary Stage

Quah Sy Ren. 2004. “Form as Ideology: Representing the Multicultural in Singapore Theatre”. Ask Not: The Necessary Stage in Singapore Theatre, eds. Tan Chong Kee and Tisa Ng. Singapore: Times Editions.

Quah Sy Ren. 2005. “导论: 另一种理想家园的图像” (“Introduction: Another Representation of the Imagined Homeland”) in The Complete Works of Kuo Pao Kun, Volume One: Plays in Chinese – The 1960s and the 1970s.

Quah Sy Ren and Pan Cheng Lui, eds. 2005. The Complete Works of Kuo Pao Kun, Volume One: Plays in Chinese – The 1960s and the 1970s. Singapore: Practice Performing Arts School and Global Publishing.

Rowland, Kathy, ed. 2003. Krishen Jit: An Uncommon Position. Selected Writings. Singapore: Contemporary Asian Arts Centre.

Tangent. 2003. “Riding the Tide of Idealism: An Interview with Han Tan Juan.” Tangent: Special Bilingual Issue: Voices of History. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing.

Zhan Dao Yu. 2001. 《战后初期的新加坡华文戏剧 1945-1959》 (Singapore Chinese-language Drama in the Early Post-war Years, 1945-1959). Singapore: Department of Chinese Studies, National University of Singapore and Global Publishing.

Clarissa Oon is a former Beijing-based correspondent and the author of a book on the history of English-language theatre in Singapore. She has written about theatre, politics and Chinese culture for The Straits Times.

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Kelvin Chia

Situating The Tangent: Chinese-educated intellectuals in Singapore’s socio-political history

The Chinese community in pre-Independence Singapore can be seen as one that is bifurcated between the ‘Chinese-educated’ and the ‘English-educated’. These two sectors were schooled in institutions that use Chinese (i.e. Mandarin) and English respectively as their dominant language of instruction, and this distinction in language stream. While the community can also be differentiated along other socio-cultural markers such as clan membership and dialect group, the distinction in language stream was especially salient as it engendered clear differences across various dimensions – the two sectors were distinguishable not only by access to opportunities in employment and higher education, but also by cultural outlook and political inclinations (Kwok 2001:495–6).

Such differences were exemplified by the establishment of Nanyang University (abbreviated in Mandarin and referred to hereafter as Nantah) in 1955. Prior to its establishment, those who had completed Chinese high school education had to travel abroad to China or Taiwan to pursue tertiary education while their English-educated counterparts could enrol locally in the University of Malaya. The call to establish a Chinese-language university drew financial support from “all classes in the Chinese community, from the richest magnates to the poorest drivers and prostitutes” (Hong & Huang 2008:9), and culminated in the establishment of Nantah, the first Chinese-language university in Southeast Asia. Nantah thus represented not only a response to practical constraints confronting the Chinese-educated sector, but also a symbolic community project that demonstrated their solidarity (Kwok 2001:496).

Besides the establishment of Nantah, the 1950s and the 1960s also saw increased political prominence among the Chinese-educated. There was, for example, a wave of student movements in those years, the most frequently remembered amongst them is the ‘May 13th Incident’ of 1954 when Chinese-educated middle-school students protested against the colonial government for implementing mandatory military conscription. Such social movements were not simply isolated reactions to specific events, but were fuelled by “a wider sense of exclusion for the Chinese-educated with a colonial society in which fluency in English was the route to employment and advancement” (Harper 2001:15).

It was from such movements that ‘Intellectual-Politicians’ such as Lim Chin Siong emerged. Lim attended Chinese-medium schools, but he never completed middle-school education. In 1951, he was expelled from his school for participating in examination boycotts. His subsequent employment as a trade union official continued to develop his oratorical and organisational skills, and eventually led him into the leadership of the left wing faction of the People’s Action Party (PAP). It was Lim and his allies from the left wing faction who drew support for the PAP from the Chinese-educated electorate (Harper 2001:13–25).

By 1961, the left wing faction of the PAP split from the party to form Barisan Socialis, an oppositional political party under Lim’s leadership. When the electoral battle took place between the PAP and the Barisan Sosialis in the 1963 general elections, Tan Lark Sye, founder of Nantah, provided overt financial support for all graduates of the University who were running for the Barisan Sosialis. Students of the University were themselves equally participative in electoral politics, and were reportedly seen to be going to electoral areas in busloads to solicit support for Barisan Sosialis candidates (Yao 2008:184). In 1965, the students of Nantah were to be galvanised into a dramatic protest involving marches, petitions, and examination boycotts with the release of the University Curriculum Review Committee Report. The report made several recommendations that were interpreted by some members of the Chinese-educated community as a attempt by the PAP to take control of the University and to remove an education stream that ostensibly cultivated immense support for its nemesis – the Barisan Sosialis (Hong & Huang 2008:109–135).

The period from the 1950s to the 1980s, which overlapped with the political prominence of the Chinese-educated, saw the gradual phasing-out of Chinese-medium education. Key changes during this period include the teaching of English as a second language in Chinese-medium schools in 1956; the ‘merging’ of Nantah with the University of Singapore to become the National University of Singapore, an English-medium University in 1980; and the conversion of nine established Chinese-medium middle schools into Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools – bilingual institutions that will offer both Chinese and English as first languages (i.e. Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools) in the same year. These changes took place amidst a broader shift towards English as the main language of instruction – by 1987, English officially became the language of instruction for key subjects in all secondary schools and Chinese was taught as a subject itself (Kwok 2001:500; Sai 2006:195–196).

Given the historical trajectory of Chinese-medium education in Singapore, Kwok instructively suggests that the Chinese-educated sector can be seen as a “continuum” of ideal types:

On the “purer” end of the spectrum are the older generations who have had long years of exposure to Chinese education. At the apex, this includes Nantah graduates… On the “diluted” end of the spectrum are the younger generations in their twenties and thirties. They have a more mixed education in terms of exposure to both English-language and Chinese-language universes of discourses (2001:502–503).

As Kwok adds, it is problematic to apply the term ‘Chinese-educated’ to those at the ‘diluted’ end of the spectrum from a purist view because they are taught primarily in English during their schooling years. However, having received their education in SAP schools where high teaching standards of the Chinese-language are maintained in an environment that bear some semblance to ‘traditional’ Chinese-medium schools, those at the ‘diluted’ end continue to operate regularly in the Chinese-language. As such, the term ‘Chinese-educated’ may still be applied to them (Kwok 2001:503).

In the same tone, Chinese-educated intellectuals can also be seen along a similar continuum. On one end, there are those from the ‘purer’ end of the Chinese-educated who were active in the political scene during the 1950s and the 1960s. The most illustrious amongst them is perhaps none other than Lim Chin Siong. On the other end, there are those from the ‘diluted’ end of the Chinese-educated. They are bilingual in both the English-language and the Chinese-language, but have chosen to use the Chinese-language in intellectual discourse. The most visible among the ‘diluted’ end are members of The Tangent. They are a much younger cohort than the Chinese-educated intellectuals of the 1950s and the 1960s, and have emerged from an English-dominant education system although many were schooled in SAP schools. Subsequent sections of this article will consider how the group has constructed their roles as intellectuals in contemporary Singapore.

Constructing intellectual identities: The self-positioning of The Tangent

Given their educational background and their emphasis on using the Chinese language in their events and publications, it is worthwhile to consider how members of The Tangent have positioned themselves vis-à-vis the older generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals. For Lee Huay-Leng, a founding member and the first president of the group, the decision to register themselves officially as a civil society is itself tied to the experiences of the older generation. In the inaugural issue of the group’s biannual journal, she explains this decision:

By starting first amongst ourselves, we hope to see members of the Chinese-speaking community let go of their historical baggage, and to participate actively in dialogue during this time when Singapore is continuously progressing. Some of our qianbei may have had very unhappy personal experiences, and we do not dare to forget them. However, instead of allowing ourselves to be constrained by the past, we should try to see things through a more positive lens in this different time and age (2000:4).

The Chinese term qianbei (前辈) translates literally into ‘earlier generation’, and implies common descent and a shared identity. Here, the term is used in reference to the older members of the Chinese-educated community who were subjected to state-sanctioned violence and political detention for their political activism in the 1950s and the 1960s. The use of such a term in this account signals continuity and a sense of identification between members of The Tangent and the older generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals even as the former see themselves as being situated in a “different time and age”.

Other members of the group, however, held differing views. In the words of another member,

I think they [i.e. the older generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals] are quite different from us. The whole socio-historical context is different. At that time, as you know, it was before Singapore as a nation-state was established. So there were a lot of complex issues of identification – ethnic identification, national identification.

In this account, members of The Tangent and the older generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals were situated in two markedly different socio-political contexts. In the 1950s and the 1960s, the process of decolonisation created “complex issues of identification”, and questions as to whether the Chinese-educated should view China or Malaya as their ‘homeland’ were often raised and debated. For another respondent, this historical context engendered a clear discontinuity between the Chinese-educated intellectuals of those years and members of The Tangent:

Those who were schooled in Chinese-medium schools during the 50s and the 60s were never our reference point – they never were. The social context of that history is very different. The linguistic environment and the historical context – they were all different. So I feel that there is no way to make a comparison by juxtaposing them and us. Our whole organisation and what we want to achieve is based on the situation of Singapore from the late 90s and onwards, and you need to understand it from this context. I don’t think there is continuity between them and us.

Contrary to Lee’s view, such strongly-worded responses suggest that members of The Tangent and the Chinese-educated intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s are two incommensurable groups

Here, the sociological notion of ‘generations’ may be useful in understanding the divergent and conflicting accounts. The idea of ‘generations’ signals at a tension between continuity and discontinuity: on one hand, it is only meaningful to speak of a different generations insofar as it is meaningful to think them as belonging to a larger community; on the other hand, each new generation also represents a departure from its predecessor. As Edward Shils puts it, each generation “comes to its task with a fresh mind, unencumbered by the beliefs and attachments settled in the minds of the generation antecedent to it”, and “seems to have to chance to begin again, to call a halt to the persistence of the past into the present and to make its society anew”; yet, “the boundaries of any generation are vague; there are no natural boundaries. Where does one generation begin and another end? There is no satisfactory answer” (1981:35).

If there are no natural boundaries between generations, then the idea of generational differences may itself be a product of construction. As Maurice Halbwachs points out, we preserve traditional values or entire systems of traditional values (e.g. religion) even though they no longer seem to apply to contemporary conditions because we are not certain if they are indeed obsolete; we are afraid of eliminating them because we are not sure if we would be able to create an equivalent should there be a need for them again. Hence, we “emphasize their antiquity and avoid effacing all that which no longer has present-day utility.” In so doing, we allow the “society of yesterday” to be perpetuated today without becoming constraints for the ‘society of today’ (1992:120–121). In this view, the rejection of the older generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals as their antecedents can be read as a desire on the part of members of The Tangent to ‘work the past out’ without erasing it, and in so doing, to chart new intellectual roles for themselves in the present.

The contours of the intellectual roles that members of The Tangent have charted for themselves can be sketched by looking at how the group is positioned in relation to two other civil society organisations in Singapore – Thinkcentre, and the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP). The backgrounds of these two organisations are themselves rather distinct. Thinkcentre was officially registered in 2001 as an organisation that “aims to critically examine issues related to political development, democracy, rule of law, human rights and civil society” through “research, publishing, organising events and networking” (Thinkcentre, n.d). In contrast, AMP was founded by a group of Malay-Muslim professionals who felt that Malay members of the parliament from the PAP yielded the interests of the Malay-Muslim community to those of their party. They established the organisation to provide an alternative form of representation, but subsequently shifted their focus to providing educational service to the Malay-Muslim community (Chua & Kwok, 2001:100–101)

In comparing The Tangent with these civil society organisations, one respondent offers that:

[Thinkcentre and AMP] are quite different from us… We don’t have any political agenda, or any intention to champion any kind of social movement. I think that they are also doing things for their own community. AMP, for example, is working for a particular community, to strive for their welfare. Thinkcentre is a more of a think tank. From my impression, it has a stronger political inclination.

As another respondent point out, the “political inclination” of Thinkcentre refers to their intent to influence policy-making and to champion for greater democracy:

I think they [i.e. Thinkcentre] are more about offering inputs about policy-making, to shape policy-making. I don’t think Tangent has that explicit purpose – the shaping of policy-making in Singapore, but you can see Thinkcentre coming out with position papers. And also, importantly, I think links to other civil society groups in the region, democracy groups, or something like that, if I am not wrong. The explicit purpose is, I think, influencing policy-making and pushing for greater democratisation in Singapore. I think the explicit goals are quite different… Tangent is about discussion and publication, and hopefully, it is also to contribute to nation-building. But the kind of democratisation or influence over policy-making is not explicit goals of Tangent.

The same respondent also shares a similar view on the difference between AMP and The Tangent.

…it [i.e. AMP] seems to serve as a bridge between the Muslims and the government… they try to represent the Muslim community. And Tangent, when it was set up, was not trying to represent the Chinese community. In fact, many in the Chinese community think that Tangent is like jettisoning the 5000-year history kind of good critical thinking, or even the Chineseness and Chinese culture… Tangent is really explicitly set up to engage in social and political discussion, and getting more people to talk about such issues.

The above response underscores an important characteristic of The Tangent: its members do not see themselves, and do not want to be seen, as representatives of the larger Chinese community. Such a view is also emphasised by another member:

… we do not take a unified stand. You can see that in our journal, everyone is voicing different stands. This is why all our articles are published in the capacity of individual writers. This is also true for our forums and discussions – we always note down clearly who said what. There is never any statement or article that is published collectively in Tangent’s name; none at all. It is precisely because we emphasise so much on our individuality that we have no way, honestly speaking, we have no way, of fighting for the privileges of any community. We do not try to represent. Even among ourselves, we do not think we can represent Tangent, much less any larger community.

To summarise the preceding analysis, The Tangent has been positioned by its members as a group that aims not to explicitly influence the policy-making process, but rather to provide a multitude of platforms to discuss a wide range of social, cultural, and political issues. In addition, by emphasising individual expression rather than consensus, the group is also positioned as one that does not attempt to speak to, or on behalf of, the larger Chinese community in spite of their use of the Chinese-language in their conferences and discussions. In sum, their intellectual role is constructed as one that is both ‘non-political’ and ‘non-representational’

Intellectual life as a social practice: Articulation and representation

The roles of intellectuals are constructed not only discursively but also in practice. Since their inauguration, the group has published 13 issues of their journal. The journal contains articles written by its own members and those contributed by non-members. In addition, the journal also contains transcripts of interviews, dialogues, conferences, and discussions that are organised by the group. The themes that are covered in these articles include arts, civil society, culture (especially multiculturalism), economics, education, history, intellectuals, and politics. The varied nature of the group’s interest raises one central question: who is/are its ‘target audience’? As one respondent relates, the idea of ‘target audience’ is not a central concern for the group:

We seldom think about issues from such the perspective of ‘target audiences’. If you are to organise an event or a project, you will consider who your target audience is. Your target audience might decide how you say certain things, the words that you choose, the scale of your project, and so on… we do not see the need to talk to any specific group of people. Instead, we feel that as long as there is a record of what we say, and if were to publish any materials, then the proceedings of the activities we organised are recorded, then those who come after us can see that there is indeed such a group that has done these things at these points in time, then it is sufficient.

It seems then that the group is not particularly keen on speaking to any specific group of audience. Rather, its aim is to create opportunities for discussions and to document these discussions for posterity. This resonates closely with the self-positioning of the group as one that does not aim to explicitly influence the policy-making process or to speak to, or on behalf of, any specific community.

Nevertheless, it is counterintuitive that members of the group do not see their actions as being directed or oriented towards the Chinese community. This brings into question why the group had chosen to operate primarily in the Chinese-language. The same question has been raised by members themselves in an online members-only discussion forum on the theme of Multiculturalism in Singapore. In her comments, Lee writes:

When we explore the multicultural issue, make great efforts to understand other ethnic groups, we come to a question of whether we understand our own community in the first place. Do we not know or have we thought we knew, but in reality we don’t? Whatever the case, and whether we like it or not, we will be perceived by others as Chinese-speaking Singaporeans. In fact, one of our main objectives in forming The Tangent is to promote the use of Chinese at a higher level. This implies that subconsciously, we also perceive ourselves as part of the Chinese-speaking group (Goh et al. 2002:166–167).

Ong Chang-Woei, another member of the group, expresses a similar opinion:

Yet we all truly belong to the Chinese community, regardless of how fragmented this community is or whether it can be represented by only a few. All along, I have been insisting that as someone belonging to the younger generation of the nation and who feel at ease when using Chinese, we have a responsibility towards the Chinese community… I ask The Tangent to simultaneously consider the needs of the Chinese-speaking community when we are reaching out to other communities (Goh et al. 2002:172).

For Lee and Ong, the cost in becoming ‘multicultural’ is to be marginalised from the larger Chinese community, of which The Tangent is seen to be a part. However, other members have expressed opinions to the contrary, the strongest of which was put by Chiu Weili:

I am utterly disappointed with the seemingly compulsive obsession with one’s identity being deeply rooted in some kind of essentialist self which we would then spend a lifetime trying to uncover. It is not! Otherwise to be really pedantic we might have to adopt Ethiopian identities if that is where we think we originate (Goh et al. 2002:189).

Hence, among members, opinions are divided on whether The Tangent is a part of the larger Chinese community that they ought to establish closer relations with. Indeed, even the idea of a ‘Chinese community’ has been subjected to questioning and criticism among members. Perhaps, these differences are can be summed up by Lee’s view that “with our generation growing up with a very different family and education background these days, I wonder how many would still see ourselves as a Singaporean with a Chinese background” (Goh et al. 2002:177). In a way similar to how the Chinese community in the 1950s and the 1960s grappled with and is fragmented along complex issues of political and cultural identification, The ‘Chinese community’ of today is fragmented in terms of linguistic and ethnic identification.

Between autonomy and engagement

In understanding the relationship between intellectuals and the social groups from which they emerge, Antonio Gramsci’s distinction between ‘organic intellectuals’ and ‘traditional intellectuals’ provides a useful framework. For Gramsci, the emergence of every social group in the world of economic production will create, within those very groups, ‘organic intellectuals’. The roles of these ‘organic intellectuals’ are to give their group “a consciousness of its own function in the economic sphere”, and to secure “the most favourable conditions” for the group’s expansion (1996:199). When social structures are altered such that certain social groups are antiquated, ‘organic intellectuals’ that are created with those groups will appear and regard themselves as being autonomous and independent – that is, as ‘traditional intellectuals’ (1996:200).

As the previous sections show, members of The Tangent have taken on an intellectual role that is different from those the older-generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals. While those who are at the apex of the older-generation have engaged themselves actively in activism and electoral politics, members of The Tangent have chosen to focus on dialogue. The issues that both groups dealt with, and hence the ‘constituencies’ that they serve, were also considerably different – the older-generation frequently rallied together on such issues as changes in Chinese-medium education (including changes to the operation and administration of Nantah), but there seems to be no readily identifiable thread in the issues that members of The Tangent have responded to through their activities and publications. Finally, while the relationship between the Chinese-speaking community and the older-generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals is unconscious and unarticulated, the relationship between The Tangent and the Chinese community is itself an issue that has been problematised among its members. In this sense, there appears to be a transition from ‘organic’ to ‘traditional’ intellectuals.

What then accounts for this transition? As one respondent points out, the political activism of Chinese-educated intellectuals in the 1950s and the 1960s is followed by a void in intellectual activities in the 1980s and the 1990s:

One of the reasons why we want to use Chinese as a medium to discuss all sorts of issues is that people in the past did not want to do so. Why did they not want to do so? Because they took part in, for example, the political activities of the 1950s and the 1960s, and they suffered for it. After that, their thinking is ‘Okay, that’s it. I don’t want to say anything anymore’. These people suffered in the 1950s and the 1960s, so they chose to remain silent in the 1980s and the 1990s. They may not want to speak anymore, but for me, I want to have the opportunity to come in and speak.

This account echoes the words of individuals such as Han Tan Juan, who writes that:

To those of us, the traditional huaxiaosheng, who were ‘born in the 40s, grew up in the 50s, fought in the 60s, and felt a sense of loss in the 70s’, we have incurred a lot of ‘battle scars’ on our bodies. Some of these ‘scars’ have taken a very long time to heal. They still hurt when the weather changes. We really do not want others to touch these scars anymore (2003:39).

At the same time that the older-generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals have opted to remain silent for the ‘battle scars’ that they incurred, there was an important shift in the language-education as schools increasingly adopt English as the primary language of instruction. For one respondent, the result of this is a shift towards an English-speaking community, which essentially meant the “elimination of an entire linguistic community.” Such a description might have been worded too strongly as there are still individuals who choose to operate in the Chinese-language or to work in a Chinese-language environment in spite of the education that they have received. Besides members of The Tangent, Chinese-language teachers who were products of the English education policy also serve as a case in point. Nevertheless, that these teachers identify themselves variedly as Chinese-educated, English-educated, or bilingually-educated (Sai 2006: 208–212) indicates a fragmentation within the Chinese community along the lines of language and, in a sense, ethnic identification following shifts in educational policies. Returning to Gramsci’s distinction between ‘organic’ and ‘traditional’ intellectuals, it may be said that a transition from the first to the second category is engendered by linguistic and educational policies that results in the fragmentation of the social group from which ‘organic’ Chinese-educated intellectuals first emerged. With the nature of the social group altered through state policies, and as a new cohort of intellectuals are pushed by the silence of earlier cohorts to chart out new roles for themselves, the link between members of The Tangent and the broader Chinese group becomes increasingly tenuous.

‘Traditional intellectuals’, in the sense that they are disengaged from the interests of their own social group, conjures up images of ivory-towered thinkers who are engaged in scholarly pursuits with little stakes for the ‘real world’. With The Tangent’s positioning as a ‘non-political’ intellectual grouping that focuses on dialogue rather than on achieving any ‘tangible’ outcomes, it is easy for critics to dismiss them as a group of disengaged intellectuals who are interested only in talking among themselves.

For its supposedly ‘non-political’ orientation, The Tangent had even been referred to by the state as evidence of how it has provided more space for “bottom-up initiatives”. In a speech delivered at the 35th anniversary of the Harvard Club in Singapore in 2004, Lee Hsien-Loong, who was then Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister (and who is now the Prime Minister), offered the following words:

I have focused on what the Government has done to encourage civic participation. But equally important is where the government has stepped back, to give space for people to look after their own affairs. For example HDB estates all used to be administered by HDB, centrally and inflexibly. But now they are looked after by town councils, with MPs and town councillors, who are volunteers, deciding on municipal matters on behalf of residents. And there have been independent bottom-up initiatives too, including “non-political” associations like the Roundtable, AWARE and Tangent, and eco-environmental groups like the Nature Society.

The term ‘civic participation’ has its roots in ‘civic society’, a term which seemed to have first appeared publicly in a speech delivered in 1991 by George Yeo, former Acting Minister for Information and the Arts, who is now serving as Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs. The term ‘civic society’ is a non-political variant of ‘civil society’, with the latter connoting a stance that was deemed to be too politically adversarial (Hill & Lian 1995:225–227). ‘Civic participation’ may thus be understood as participation within civil society that falls well within “the accepted parameters of discourse” as established by the state (Hill & Lian 1995:227; see also Koh 2000).

Yet, the state’s mention of The Tangent as an example of ‘non-political civic participation’ has not been acquiescently accepted. For example, one member of the group raised this as an instance of how The Tangent’s “indeterminate nature” (in the sense that it does not deal with a clearly-defined set of issues) has inadvertently provided leeway for the state to cast the actions of the group in a manner that befits its own agenda. This indicates that the ‘non-political’ identity, insofar as it implies compliance with the state, can be contested. In addition, the notion that The Tangent is a group of ‘non-political’ ivory-towered intellectuals is also problematic if one accepts Edward Said’s contention that

The intellectual who claims to write only for him or herself, or for the sake of pure learning… is not to be, and must not be, believed… the moment you publish essays in a society you have entered political life; so if you want not to be political do not write essays or speak out” (1994:110).

The term ‘political’ is used here, as did George Orwell, in its widest possible sense: “Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after” (2005:5). Having published 13 issues of their journals, and having organised public forums on various issues, it can be argued that The Tangent has played a visible role in public discourse and political life, without being partisan in the sense of supporting or opposing any political party. Why then did the group choose to focus on discussion and dialogue rather than on tasks that would produce more ‘tangible’ outcomes? One founding member offers the following view:

In Singapore’s context, I don’t think we can take the initiative. That is to say, whether the state wants to listen to your views, how it chooses to listen to them, what it does after listening, how to conduct a dialogue, all these are not determined by us; they are determined by the state. The initiative is all on the other side. This is why I would say that I am honestly not so concerned about whether what I say has any effects. I will just say what I want to say. After I have expressed my opinion, it will be there. Whether the state wants to consult it, whether the state wants to accept it, and how the state wants to treat it, that is for them to decide.

In this view, the focus on dialogue can be interpreted as not only a recognition of the state’s initiative in decision-making processes, but also a refusal to be mired in incapacity, and a conscious response to overcome challenges that intellectuals operating within civil society have to confront .

Yet, the most difficult challenge for intellectuals comes not from the external environment, but from within. As Edward Said explains:

The hardest aspect of being an intellectual is to represent what you profess through your work and interventions, without hardening into an institution or a kind of automaton acting at the behest of a system or method… the only way of ever achieving this is to keep reminding yourself that as an intellectual you are one who can choose between actively representing the truth to the best of your ability and passively allowing a patron or an authority to direct you. (1994:121).

In this view, an intellectual is one who remains constantly self-reflexive in relation to ‘truth’ and power. For members of The Tangent, this self-reflexivity is manifested through their tenuous relationship with the older Chinese-educated intellectuals, their questioning of the group’s own position within the larger Chinese community, and their choice of using dialogue as an intellectual practice. In turn, these allow them to situate themselves tangentially at the margins of history, tradition, and authority. The position of marginality implies some measure of exclusion from the centre, as much as they are not marginalised in terms of educational and occupational status. However, this marginality is not one that is resented by members of The Tangent. As Quah (2001:2) puts it, “there is nothing wrong with [being at] the margins – on the contrary, it allows for a sober, independent, and incisive perspective”. In this sense, The Tangent is a case study of how individuals come together as a group to play a social role that attempts to maintain both intellectual autonomy and public engagement.


Chan, Heng Chee. 1977. “The Role of Intellectuals in Singapore Politics.” Pp. 39–47 in The Future of Singapore: The Global City, edited by T. B. Wee. Singapore: University Education Press.

Chua, Beng-Huat and Kian-Woon Kwok. 2001. “Social Pluralism in Singapore.” Pp. 86–118 in The politics of multiculturalism: pluralism and citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, edited by R. W. Hefner. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Goh, Sin-Hwee, Yen-Yen Low, Cheow Thia Chan, Sy-Ren Quah, Wei-Hong Toh, Tuan-Hwee Sng, Siao-See Teng, Huay-Leng Lee, Sheo-Be Ho, How-Wee Ng, Chiang-Woei Ong, Wai-Fong Chiang, and Weili Chiu. 2002. “The Tangent Virtual Forum: Multiculturalism in Singapore.” Tangent 5:155-193.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1996. Prison Notebooks. Translated by J. A. Buttigieg. New York: Columbia University Press.

Halbwachs, Maurice. 1992. On Collective Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Han, Shanyuan. 2003. Wen Shi, Hua She Zong Heng Tan. [文史、华社纵横谈]. Singapore: Ba Fang Wen Hua Qi Ye Gong Si [八方文化企业公司].

Harper, Tim N. 2001. “Lim Chin Siong and the ‘Singapore Story’.” Pp. 3–55 in Comet in Our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in history, edited by J. Q. Tan and K. S. Jomo. Kuala Lumpur: INSAN.

Hill, Michael and Kwen-Fee Lian. 1995. The Politics of Nation Building and Citizenship in Singapore. London; New York: Routledge.

Hong, Lysa and Jianli Huang. 2008. The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and its Past. Singapore: NUS Press.

Koh, Tai-Ann. 2000. “The Role of the Intellectuals in Civil Society: Going Against the Grain?” Pp. 156–167 in State-society relations in Singapore, edited by G. Koh and G. L. Ooi. Singapore: Institute of Policy Studies and Oxford University Press.

Kwok, Kian-Woon. 2001. “Chinese-Educated Intellectuals in Singapore: Marginality, Memory and Modernity.” Asian Journal of Social Science 29:495–519.

Lee, Hsien-Loong. 2004, “Speech by Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Harvard Club of Singapore’s 35th Anniversary Dinner – Building A Civic Society”, Retrieved 28 February, 2009 (http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/apcity/unpan015426.pdf).

Lee, Huay-Leng. 2000. “Yuan Qie Xian Chuang She Yan Tao Hui Zhu Xi Bao Gao. [圆切线创社主席报告]” Tangent 1:3–5.

Orwell, George. 2005. Why I Write. New York: Penguin Books.

Quah, Sy Ren. 2001. “To Engage, to Understand, to Communicate: The Significance of Cultural Reflections.” Tangent 2:1–4.

Sai, Siew Yee. 2006. “Post-Independence Educational Change, Identity, and Huaxiaosheng Intellectuals in Singapore: A Case Study of Chinese Language Teachers.” Pp. 191–218 in Race, Ethnicity, and the State in Malaysia and Singapore, edited by K. F. Lian. London ; Boston: Brill.

Said, Edward W. 1994. Representations of the Intellectual: the 1993 Reith lectures. London: Vintage.

Shils, Edward A. 1981. Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Yao, Souchou. 2008. “All Quiet on Jurong Road: Nanyang University and Radical Vision in Singapore.” Pp. 170–187, in Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-War Singapore, edited by M. Barr and C. A. Trocki. Singapore: NUS Press.

This article is excerpted from a longer thesis that was submitted as a Graduation Project to the Division of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University in March 2009. The thesis was completed under the guidance of Associate Professor Kwok Kian Woon, and draws on in-depth face-to-face interviews conducted in 2008 and 2009 with six members of The Tangent who are serving on its Council at the time of writing.

Kelvin Chia holds a Master’s degree in Sociology from the London School of Economics and Political Science

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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.

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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”.

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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

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李慧玲 : Lee Huay Leng

English version

Translated by Francis Lim Khek Gee, with additional translation by Tan Siok Siok



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