Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘editorial’

Editorial: So What?

Social Labelling, Discipline and Discrimination in Contemporary Singapore

Kwee Hui Kian and Teng Siao See

s/pores editors


In s/pores No. 4, Tan Pin Pin curated a provocatively titled theme issue on “What if…?” To ask this question of “if (not)…then what?”, one implicitly accepts the “what is” – without a priori questioning whatever that “what” referred to is/was in the first place. We do not claim that the question we pose in this issue is any more reflective about the Singapore society. Rather, our question is, perhaps, something of a cheeky rejoinder, possibly a little darker in the way it is posed. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Editorial

Slightly more than a year ago, when The Arts I was published, guest editor Tan Tarn How noted that he solicited critical reflections on the connections between the arts and culture on the one hand, and society and politics on the other hand in Singapore at the present and in the past. It had taken us longer than expected to present The Arts II, the continuation of Tarn How’s efforts, which included working closely with the authors to finesse their thoughts and writing. The delay however, has enabled us to invite Teo Soh Lung to publish the sketches that she did while in detention, and the notes that she has written in retrospect to accompany them, drawn from her recollections as narrated in her book Beyond the Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner (2010). We’ve also managed to be somewhat up-to-date, with observations made by Richard Chua on the Singapore Biennale 2011.

Read Full Post »

Editorial: Intellectual/History

Francis Lim

s/pores editor


Who are the intellectuals, and what roles do they play in the process of social change in Singapore? What is the relationship between the intellectuals, historical understanding, and political power? These are some of the questions explored by the contributors in this issue on intellectuals in Singapore.

The term, ‘intellectual’, can be understood in at least two ways, one more general, the other more specific. A general idea of who an ‘intellectual’ is can be gleaned from the oft-cited writing of Antonio Gramsci, whose own experience in dealing with political repression has contributed to the archetypal construction of the ‘modern intellectual’. According to Gramsci, an ‘intellectual’ is not only an educated person; he or she must also be actively engaged in either upholding or altering existing conception of the social and moral order based upon consciously and deeply-held values. In this understanding, an intellectual can adopt a variety of different social roles, such as a politician rallying citizens behind a particular vision of society, a public official involved in policymaking process, an artist or a writer seeking to change the way we perceive the world through their artistic works, or an activist participating in civil society for some causes. In addition, intellectuals can relate to the various centres of power in different ways. Thus, it is conceivable that an intellectual who is marginal to political power in society can at the same time be an integral member of its cultural elite. It is also possible that an intellectual has close ties with multiple centres of power.

A more specific way of understanding the ‘intellectuals’ is to consider them as a social group whose actual form is shaped by the social, cultural and political contexts in which it is located. In this perspective, we seek to understand how a society or a dominant public discourse within it constructs, legitimates and valuates the socio-political activities of its educated population. This includes the examination of the extent to which the public positively acknowledges the role intellectuals play in important historical events. This sort of public appraisal is crucially shaped by the contending discourses of the state, civil society and the market. Does a particular society expect its educated class to play an active part in the free discussion of important national issues, and lend their respective expertise to the effort in formulating viable solutions to various social problems? Is there a vibrant civil society where multiple views and opinions can be debated and discussed, without the participants fearing reprisals from the state and entrenched powerful interest groups as a result of exercising their constitutionally-guaranteed rights? Also, how do members of the educated class themselves see their roles in society and how have such views been historically shaped by different political and cultural forces?

As some commentators of Singaporean affairs have pointed out, part of the ideological work of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) involves the creation and promulgation of a particular rendition of Singapore’s history—now commonly known as the Singapore Story. Prominent within this narrative is the official story of ‘Singapore’s success’, defined primarily in economistic and materialistic terms, made possible by the valiant effort and wise leadership of the PAP, who had triumphed over their political opponents labeled variously as ‘leftists’, ‘pro-communist Chinese student and trade unions’, ‘racists politicians’, etc. As the narrative goes, it is precisely partly due to the elimination of these alleged ‘troublemakers’ that has enabled the highly pragmatic PAP to successfully build up the young nation to what she is today. According to its critics, the promulgation of the Singapore Story forms part of the ideological work of the PAP in highlighting its pivotal role in transforming Singapore ‘from a Third World to the First’ (this is a sub-title of the memoir of Lee Kuan Yew), thereby further legitimating its authority in the eyes of Singaporeans. Are we surprise then to read in Hong Lysa and Lim Cheng Tju’s interview with filmmaker, Boo Junfeng, that he ‘did not know about his alma mater’s [Chung Cheng High School] turbulent past when he was in school’? The promulgation of the Singapore Story has ironically stimulated a groundswell of effort by intellectuals and students of the country’s history to either seek out ‘multiple’ interpretations, or to uncover historical events and personalities previously buried under the weight of the official narrative. As Boo Junfeng explains to Lysa and Cheng Tju, an important reason for his making of the film, Sandcastle, is to explore the ‘sensitive’ topic of left-wing social activism of the intellectuals in the turbulent period of 1950s and 60s; more specifically, ‘to reach out to the Chinese educated, to the intellectuals through the film.’

Chiu Weili’s contribution on the modernist poetry movement and the poet Lin Fang goes some way to dispel the common myth surrounding Chinese intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s as predominantly ‘leftwing’, pro-China, or pro-communist. Here, we see an influential artistic movement that celebrated ‘Arts for Arts sake’, and focused on the creation of a new aesthetic in poetry by combining the influences of Malay poetry, Western modernism, and classical Chinese culture. The artistic output of Lin Fang and those associated with the May Flower Poetry Society departed from the work of the more left-wing Chinese artists which tended to exhibit a strong dose of socialist realism. For further discussion on the artistic movements in Singapore of that period, readers can refer to Cheng Tju’s review of Yeo Wei Wei’s edited volume, Realism in Asia, in which Cheng Tju points out the crucial distinction between Social Realism and Socialist Realism.

The early works of Kuo Pau Kun, the doyen of Singaporean theatre, certainly depart from the aesthetic sensibility shown by the modernist poetry movement. Clarissa Oon’s discussion of Kuo’s early Chinese works shows how deeply ideological and political they were, with the explicit identification with the working masses and their class struggle against capitalist oppression. In the context of a newly independent Singapore, when the ruling People’s Action Party sought to tame the trade unions and invited the multi-national corporations into the country with open arms, the artistic works and political orientation of Kuo and his collaborators were deemed by the powers-that-be as against National Interest. The imprisonment of Kuo and his wife, Goh Lay Kuan, as well as their subsequent rehabilitation, would become a recurring leitmotif of the general story of prominent intellectuals in Singapore whose ideological-political stance diverges from that of the ruling party.

The experience of Kuo Pao Kun and the transformation of his work throughout the years—from the explicitly political to a ‘different voice’ (as Oon puts it)—perhaps epitomizes the experience and dilemma of many ‘independent’ intellectuals who are confronted with a situation where a strong state constantly seeks to establish ideological hegemony and exert control over civil society. The existence of the draconian Internal Security Act that allows for detention without trial, and its use in 1987 against a number of social activists under Operation Spectrum, further helps to instill among many Singaporeans what the scholar Hussin Mutalib calls the ‘Caution Syndrome’. This brings us to a very interesting phenomenon evident among some intellectuals in Singapore: the often expressed qualification of being ‘non-political’ in their work and activities. This has come up in the Boo Junfeng interview, when he says that his film, Sandcastle, ‘is not supposed to be overtly political’. Similarly, in interviews for Kelvin Chia’s article on The Tangent, members explicitly mention the group’s positioning as ‘non-political’ and explain that The Tangent focuses on dialogue rather than achieving ‘tangible’ outcomes. Is the response of Boo Junfeng and members of The Tangent of being ‘non-political’ a reflection of an underlying cautious (and perhaps fearful?) attitude, given the well-known fate that befall some of the older generations of prominent intellectuals? Or is this a strategic positioning that allows for some form of substantive engagements with certain ‘sensitive’ issues under the watchful eyes of an authoritarian state?

For Constance Singam—social activist, past President of AWARE, and a former Nominated Member of Parliament—being ‘non-political’ might not be a viable position to take for an intellectual who wishes to promote progressive changes in society. In her contribution to this issue, Singam tackles another ‘sensitive’ topic in Singapore, race. In a society where race has become a dominant identity for many Singaporeans, intellectuals from various ethnic communities face a particular challenge: to be able to speak to members of their own ethnic community, and at the same time, to reach across the ethnic divide to engage all Singaporeans on issues of national importance. Singam’s article offers a critical look at Singapore’s discursive practice of ‘multiculturalism’ and sees it as a ‘technology of control’: the state exercises control over the population partly by culturally essentializing the various ethnic groups, and then constructs the parameters for acceptable social behavior and delimits the imagination of alternative social possibilities. Hence, Singam’s call for civil society groups to transcend racial categorization is also an exhortation to break out of the state-imposed limitations on social activism and imagination.

In Singapore, intellectuals who are dedicated to the study and sharing of ideas—and through the process implicitly or otherwise hoping to contribute to social change—are often disparaged as ‘idealistic’. ‘Idealism’ has taken on a strongly negative connotation in the eyes of many Singaporeans who live in a society that prides itself on its economic pragmatism. In the final article of this issue, Kwok Kian Woon poses two important questions for us to ponder: Can (and should) one be idealistic in a capitalist (and consumerist) world? And what is the role of ideals and ideas in relation to ‘real-life’ contemporary problems? Kwok argues for what he calls a ‘troubled idealism’, one that entails an intellectual effort that combines moral reasoning and rigorous knowledge inquiry, and which can serve as a solid foundation for social action.

Finally, if we hear intellectuals claiming to be ‘non-political’ in Singapore, we should perhaps bear in mind what Edward Said advises: don’t believe them!

Read Full Post »

Editorial

Men in Black or White: History as Media Event in Singapore

In January 2010, s/pores together with the Asia Research Institute (ARI) and the venue sponsor, the National Library, co-organized a seminar on the book Men in White: the untold story of Singapore’s ruling party. The seminar was entitled ‘Men in Black or White: History as Media Event in Singapore’.

Written by three senior journalists from The Straits Times and commissioned and published by Singapore Press Holdings, Men in White was publicized extensively in the print and cyber media. The media blitz surrounding Men in White turned on its claim to offer an accessible and unbiased history of the ruling PAP government and of post-World War Two Singapore history in general. Yet, this claim quickly provoked challenges and invited critical scrutiny of its contents and research methodology from different quarters in the country. For several months following the book’s launch in September 2009, history took centre stage in the nation’s mass media.

We invited three speakers ― Tan Tarn How, Philip Holden and Hong Lysa – to discuss the book and the sensation it provoked in the mass media. Tarn How dissected the media environment in Singapore that has impacted the laudatory as well as critical reception of Men in White. Notwithstanding the attention the book created, Tarn How was critical of the less-than-satisfactory thickness of the exegesis it has generated. Philip Holden took seriously the book’s claim to ‘tell a story’. He unpacked the social and stylistic story-telling conventions giving life to the book, paying special attention to the gendered-ness of the Men in White narrative. Questioning the book’s claim to depart radically from previous accounts of post-war history, Hong Lysa traced the book’s genealogy to a long list of journalists who were given privileged access to resources and sources to write popular history books that had made similar claims as Men in White. Will Men in White be written over by another Men in White effort at tweaking the Singapore Story while aspiring to new-ness and news-worthiness all over again? Imagining one ‘missing handshake’ between the departed Lim Chin Siong and Lee Kuan Yew, Lysa probed the repetitive compulsion to secure an ‘untainted origin myth’ for the post-war Singapore nation.

In this issue, s/pores is reproducing a condensed version of the papers presented at the seminar as well as a special write-up of the event by Chua Beng Huat who was co-organizer from ARI’s side. Beng Huat’s write-up first appeared in ARI’s newsletter. For those who missed the event, Beng Huat’s article provides an introduction and summary of the day’s proceedings.

Read Full Post »

Editorial

Tan Tarn How

Guest Editor


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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

Editorial


This issue is about the detention forum of February 2006 and its aftermath. Two former political detainees Michael Fernandez and Tan Jing Quee and a poet/playwright Robert Yeo gathered on stage to talk about art and healing (more…)

Read Full Post »

Editorial

Tan Pin Pin

Guest Editor


I have always been interested in alternative Singapores, the path not taken and relatedly, I also think about the cost of paths taken and how these decisions have come to shape our lives today. What if we could turn back the clock? (more…)

Read Full Post »

Editorial


This is the third issue of s/pores, and we appear to be still stuck in the 1950s, and on history rather than other modes of inquiry. In the inauguration issue we did state that it is perhaps no accident that this period tends to attract most interest when it comes to attempts at reassessing Singapore history. It was a period of ‘open politics’ or to borrow the imagery from a recent publication, Michael Barr and Carl Trocki, (editors) Paths not Taken: Political pluralism in postwar Singapore (NUS Press, 2008), when numerous paths to defining the Singapore nation were being explored. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Editorial


Welcome to part II of s/pores issue 2. The technology available allows us to update s/pores on a regular basis. Just as we were about to upload issue 2, I met up with Robert Yeo and he told s/pores about an interview with Wang Gungwu he conducted in the mid 1980s which was never published. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Editorial


Welcome to the second issue of s/pores. This issue focuses on the theme of Memory and History. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »