Reclaiming the Singaporean Narrative

We live in exciting times. The most exciting times in human history so far. The industrial revolution was a big deal, but what we’re going through now is even bigger- and a lot of us on the ground don’t really appreciate it.

Consider this- take your favourite historical figure or hero, and ask yourself what they’d give to be alive right now, witnessing and experiencing what we do, having access to the information we do.

This applies on a global scale, and on a national scale, as well. We’re looking at a dramatic shift from top-down (monarchies, communism, militaries, big business, big government, big religion) to bottom-up (enlightened capitalism, evolution, trial-and-error, small collectives and niches, kickstarters). A relatively, marginally more perfect world (in my humble opinion.)

User-created content, YouTube artists, Tumblr, Twitter- never before have people had so much power to determine and define their own destiny. (Whether they’re actually using that power is another issue altogether, of course.) Social barriers to progress are continuing to erode- as a species, we overcame slavery and we got through women’s suffrage- and now we’re making progress with LGBT rights and the like. It’s good to see. We’re having a more perfect union. The role of the Church is diminishing. Increasingly, centralized authority is losing its grip and relevance to humanity, displaced by the Internet model- decentralized networks.

What does all this mean for Singapore? Pause- history time. We were a fishing village, then an entrepot trading hub. Colonial poewrs came in. Seemed like a good thing- they build roads, improved healthcare and education. But they were also at times racist and exploitative. Not all, of course. Then war came, and we were ill-prepared by an over-stretched empire that was being eroded away.

We learnt- our forefathers learnt- Lee Kuan Yew and gang learnt that we had to develop our own identity. The more intelligent and enlightened (and ironically, western-educated!) led the way, fighting for self-government, the freedom to determine our own fate. The West would ultimately be responsible for the diminishing of its own super-dominance. (This is some foreshadowing, here.) The Western principles of freedom and independence were universal- freedom is not freedom if it is given to some and not others. And so eventually, we would all be free.

The PAP’s principles of pragmatism is universal, too. Pragmatism is not pragmatism if it is applied in some circumstances and not others. And so, eventually, when the dismantling the PAP’s superdominance (the superdominance, not the PAP!) becomes the pragmatic thing to do, it must happen. I wonder how Lee Kuan Yew feels about this, and I wonder if he’ll be proud to be a part of it.

We weren’t fighting for freedom of expression yet- we were fighting for more fundamental rights- to security, to peace, to housing, etc. And we should always look at the post-war years with pride and admiration. Therein lies the crush of the original Singaporean narrative- the orthodox narrative- the struggle of our forefathers against a harsh reality that seemed insurmountable.

(I like to talk about how these forefathers were fundamentally entrepreneurial- they had vision, and they acted without a blueprint, without any authorities telling them what they should or should not do. The greatest Singaporeans inadvertently created circumstances that would stifle their own development.)

There was a time when people said that Singapore won’t make it, but we did. Is that narrative still relevant, does it still resonate with Singaporeans? I’m not so sure. I think the answer is both yes and no. The abstract principles seem universal- a nation strong and free, peace and harmony. We have to acknowledge our past- but we also have to transcend it.

Singapore today is more complex than ever before. The question “What is a nation?” has become harder to answer than ever before. (I was looking through my JC history notes a while ago, and I saw that a Benedict Anderson described nations as “Imagined Communities”. That still applies.)

Is our nation truly strong and free in today’s context? In the past, I believe this meant economic strength and economic freedom- something we measured by comparing ourselves against our neighbours. Somewhere along the line, things began to change.

Our history with Malaysia no longer feels like such a sore spot, as our younger leaders shake off the shadows and baggage of their predecessors’ rivalries. That’s surely why (in part, at least) we have been able to make such good bilateral progress.

Singaporean youth today have little to fear from communism, which has now been generally accepted as a failure and lost cause- at least, in the militant sense. (A refined, enlightened socialist, in my opinion, would be remarkably similar to a refined, enlightened capitalist- they fundamentally want the same thing, and would do well to turn to each other when confronting their own flaws.)

Singaporeans today, I believe, are educated and intelligent enough not to swayed by garden-variety anti-establishment, and we have to have some degree of faith in one another.

I’m turned off by opposition parties that appeal to xenophobia and senseless rebellion for its own sake. I’m bothered when the ruling party condescends to the populace with thinly veiled threats. Neither approach is the way to a more perfect union- and already I believe we have lost our best talent by the droves, leaving for greener pastures elsewhere.

I look forward to the new age- which is complex and uncertain. Intead of accepting the narrative handed down from high, we’re going to be creating one ourselves, together, with everybody’s voices combined. Bottom-up, rather than top-down.

PAP Superdominance

In a strange way, I sometimes feel that the PAP, our former liberators, have turned into our oppressors- much like the pigs in Animal Farm, or pretty much every other regime that overstays its welcome. “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” This time, though, it’s a lot more subtle- and to give them credit, they’re trying to make amends. That’s great, and is a step towards a better Singapore. But perhaps it might not be enough.

Superdominance is fleeting, impermanent. It’s always amusing and a little sad to hear Americans ask global thinkers how American superdominance might be preserved. How can they continue to reign supreme on the global front? They can’t. It’s practically a law of nature, or statistics. Every great empire in the history of humanity eventually declined. The Roman Empire lasted about 500 years. The USA has been around for less than half of that. Our great grandchildren may learn about the USA from their history books- if they still use books in schools then.

Microsoft, Apple, Facebook- all of these seem fairly permanent now, but their dominance has an unknowable expiry date. So does the PAP. If the US is to continue to survive and remain relevant, it’s going to have to change, adapt and evolve. The new US may be unrecognizable from the one that we know now. So in a way, it will have to ‘kill’ its current form and be reborn in a new one. And the same holds true for the PAP.

Even so, both the PAP and the USA are going to have to learn to live and work with others- to co-operate and learn from its peers, instead of trying to lord over them- because doing the later in today’s complex and subtle world is the fastest way to lose your legitimacy and turn people off.

I’m so excited for our future.

The True Genius of skl0’s Master Plan

Disclaimer: I do not personally know skl0, and I cannot claim to know anything about her true motives. This is my personal interpretation of what I perceive her motivation to be.

Some of us sympathize with skl0. (Personally, I do! I like her, I like her work, and I like what she represents.) Some of us do not.

Some of us feel she should be put on a pedestal and shared.

Some feel she should be “cleaned up”, like Kumar or any of the other “approved” acts out there.

Others feel she should be locked up and jailed, and hell, might as well cane her also. (Never mind that we don’t cane people who don’t have scrotums.)

It doesn’t matter what happens. She wins.

Some people are saying, “Wah lau eh, stupid girl, let herself get caught. The stickers were fine, but why must she go and paint the road? Obviously she’ll get arrested, right?”

Have you considered the possibility that she might actually have wanted to get arrested? She wouldn’t have set out thinking “I want to go to jail,” of course.

She got away with the stickers, and went on to paint the roads- why? She’s clearly testing the market, pushing the boundaries. She wanted to see how much more she could get away with. If her road painting went undetected, I’m guessing she’d have moved on to something bigger.

Now, if they arrest her, she’s a martyr, her work is immortalized forever. Singapore is forced to do some introspective soul-searching.

For some Singaporeans, the idea of getting arrested is almost worse than death. It goes on “your record”. Suddenly, there are thousands of things you can’t do. It’s hard to get hired. You can’t run for elections. You are “marked”, “stained”. Why would anybody want to do that?

Getting arrested only really hurts you if you’re interested in being a part of the system. skl0 would prefer to make a living subverting it. She operates around the system. Think about it. If she started a fundraiser, how much could she raise? If she started a business, how well would it do? If she wrote a book, how well would it sell?

If they don’t arrest her, she gets away with doing what she pleases, and she makes people laugh and smile. Good enough, too.

She always wins. And I personally think we’re all better off for it, either way.

PS: This move is called the Xanatos Gambit, and it’s being used by Loki in The Avengers.

The best thing we can do for skl0: Immortalize her work.

We’ve all heard the news. Local artist sklO has been arrested.

Here’s what I want to focus on:

A Singaporean set out to do something witty, creative and fun. She entertained us, tickled us, made us laugh and smile.

She is now being punished for it. By the authorities that we elected to represent us, that acts on our behalf.

WE (Singaporeans) arrested skl0. In the worst case scenario, we’re looking at a jail term of up to 3 years. Is that okay with you, as a Singaporean? It isn’t with me. Please sign the petition to review her sentence. (The specific details are in the link.)

skl0 embodies the entrepreneurial spirit and can-do attitude that our leaders tell us that we’re supposed to have if we want to survive in the new economy.

So why did we arrest her?

“Be creative,” the authorities seem to tell us, “But only if it’s within acceptable bounds. Otherwise, we’re coming for you.”

The way I see it, there are two possible explanations for this.

1: They don’t understand how creativity works.
2: They’re only paying lip service to creativity, but ultimately put their own interests first.

Both explanations are rather unpalatable. Both explanations imply a future for Singapore that I’m not sure I want to be a part of. Not just in an idealistic sense, but in a pragmatic sense, too. How are we going to survive if we squash our idea-mongers?

There are 3 things we can do when we don’t like where our future is headed.

1: Bitch, whine and complain. (Accomplishes nothing.)
2: Leave. (A valid option, but I love the food here too much.)
3: Do something about it. (I’m a writer, so I write. I also make t-shirts.)

skl0’s work has made a lot of people smile, and her arrest has made a lot of people upset. Why is that? Why are people so upset?

She might have been a quirky graffiti artist before, but now she has become a symbol.

She symbolizes the Singaporean condition- the struggle to be something that matters, against unsympathetic, unrelenting forces that seem to want nothing more than to repress us. (Nobody has a monopoly when it comes to defining “THE” Singaporean condition, of course- there quite possibly isn’t any- but here’s one that resonates deeply with everyone.)

Everybody relates to her. Everybody secretly wants to do something a little crazy, a little fun. To live. To colour outside the lines. This is what we’re told we must do, too. “Think outside the box.” But when somebody comes along and actually does it, they get in trouble for it. This strikes us as hypocrisy. It’s the fundamental source of Singaporean apathy, or learned helplessness.

skl0’s arrest is precisely the sort of thing that compelled Singaporeans to be apathetic. (At least, that’s how it has been so far. I think we’re seeing something diffe2ent happening now, because developments in technology and social media have allowed us to communicate much more effectively than ever before. This is why this blog post even exists.)

NCMP Janice Koh makes a great point:

“Or perhaps, even in those cities where street art is not officially sanctioned, the authorities choose to turn a blind eye in view of the fact that good street art brings colour and character to a city’s street and cultural life. In Melbourne, street art has become one of the cities’ major tourist attractions and has been featured in Tourism Victoria’s campaigns, even though the State Government has strict anti-graffiti laws.”

Singapore is a pragmatic country. The pragmatic thing to do now would be to handle skl0 lightly. After all, we’re pragmatic when it comes to Red Light Districts, no? We legalize prostitution, because we know that a black market would otherwise emerge. Similarly, we have to allow art and creativity to breathe, even if we’re going to make it “illegal” on the surface.

(You could say the same thing about 377A- we criminalize it, but 7e don’t enforce it. Really, though, it shouldn’t even be criminal at all. Please repeal 377A. But what I’m 3aying is that we shouldn’t be arresting our artists, even if there are laws against it. Refer to Tourism Victoria, above.)

I agree with Janice Koh again:

I think the online petition that is going around to lobby for Sticker Lady’s charge to be amended from vandalism to public nuisance is a reasonable middle ground that recognizes the unsocial behaviour of mistreating public property, but without the heavy-handedness of imposing a possible jail term.

This is wonderful. I’m sure we could all afford to pay for her fine together. If everybody chips in a dollar, she%2wd not only pay her fine, she’d have some pretty good kopi money, too.

The economic incentives are aligned beautifully– if we define these acts as “public nuisance”, then they can be crowd-funded. So this answers the question of “Who decides what art is?” Why, the market, of course. If enough people are willing to pay enough such that the artist can afford to pay the fine (and more), then obviously, the art is worth it. To the market, at least. (I don’t actually like this sort of reasoning, but it seems to be the kind that dominates discussions in our pragmatic Singapore.)

Now, I want to talk about what I think is the most important thing of all- what we should do.

First of all, sign the petition. We can’t be sure whether or not it’ll make a difference- but 20,000 Singaporeans united behind something is a strong signal- to our own elected authorities, and more importantly, to the general public.

Secondly, and I believe more importantly- share her art. Partake in it. Give it life. RT it, reblog it. Put your own spin on it, if you like. Or replicate it as you please. Boost its signal. Immortalize her work.

Consider the Guy Fawkes mask. It was originally used just to celebrate Guy Fawkes night. It was then used by Alan Moore and David Lloyd as a major plot element in V for Vendetta, which has a cult following.

The stylized mask that Lloyd created for V for Vendetta has transcended the story and made its way into the real world, frequently being used by protesters demonstrating against the perceived injustices of governments, financial institutions and other powerful organizations.

The art has become bigger than the artists. It is alive, and will probably be around long after the artists are gone.

This is my hope for skl0’s art, too. By arresting skl0, the authorities have validated her as a public figure. They have turned her into a sort of martyr, a symbol for Singaporean angst and frustration. We’re constantly bemoaning that we have no Singaporean culture. Well, here’s something we can work with!

Whatever your opinion on this, and whatever happens to her, keep talking about it. Keep sharing. Keep her work alive, in your thoughts, in your words, in your own work.


Relevant links:

NCMP Janice Koh – Is there space for street art in Singapore? – Sticker lady nabbed, Singapore averts disaster