HUB OR HUBRIS - THE ARTS IN SINGAPORE
Two recent articles in Asiaweek "Gaining Cultural Capital" by Alexandra A Seng & Santhan Oorjitham and "A Case of Too Many Tongues" by Norman Reveler highlighted the central role that theatre is playing in the arts in Singapore. Indeed the flurry of theatrical activity in Singapore if judged by the sheer number of performances per capital is impressive. Much attention has also be focused on the recent Ong Keng Seng/Kishida Rio production of "Lear" funded by the Japan Foundation and costing more than $1.5 million. This production was reviewed extensively in Life! on 20 Aug 97 and 12 Sep 97.
Expenditure on theatre and on the art in general have indeed been on the rise. As the Asiaweek article pointed out, this year alone, Singapore would be spending S$30 million on the arts. This can be compared to the S$8.69 million in 1992 and S$11.446 million in 1995. Sponsorship for theatre between '92 and '95 went up from S$1.6 million to S$1.8 million. With so much money being spent an so many people including artists, actors and politicians talking about Singapore becoming the hub of the arts in Singapore surely it is an appropriate time to ask if in fact it is so.
The situation portrayed is that with its economic take off Singapore is prepared to afford more and more art as a matter of course. This assumes a trajectory whereby art is something that is taken care of after economic fundamentals have been settled. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this analysis because it is to a certain extent true. As a country becomes wealthy it can afford more and more support to artistic endeavours for the simple reason that resources are more freed up. Yet at the same time such an assumption also imposes a certain definition around what art can and should be about.
Take theatre as an example, when one says that people are beginning to appreciate theatre more and more and that theatre productions are beginning to receive an audience one is actually ignoring the fact that Singapore has had a whole tradition of Chinese opera street theatre which commanded large audiences right up to the sixties when interest began to wane. One is also ignoring the mass audiences, sometimes as many as 30,000 that Chinese drama productions commanded right up to the fifties. Or when one say that the visual arts are beginning to be developed in Singapore with more and more exhibitions and the setting up of arts schools one is actually ignoring a whole tradition of political and social cartooning that has been going on and off for the past fifty to sixty years in Singapore right under our noses. Perhaps these have been forgotten and are paid less attention because they are not within the sphere of what we define as "art".
More relevant perhaps is that more often than not, one segment of the population is not always very clear of what another segment of the population is doing and thinking. Hence what is regarded as theatre or art by one segment is not really held so by another. The English educated, for example are seldom aware of what the Chinese educated are thinking or talking about and vice versa. For that matter how much dialogue goes on between segments of the ethnic communities. The title of the Asiaweek article mentioned earlier "A Case of Too Many Tongues" is actually an apt description of the arts in Singapore and the analogue does not stop at languages spoken. Singapore is often touted as having the ability to become the regional hub for the arts. Undoubtedly this claim is made on the basis firstly of the financial clout that we can exert, and secondly that Singapore with its English speaking Asian population base is poised to receive the best of both worlds, East and West and thus by extension to negotiate the tension between tradition and modernity, between what is Asian and what is Western.
Yet if we look at the languages that we speak and the traditions that we think we come from and our influences, what are they really and how much are they a part of us? Singapore is first and primarily an economic entity, second a political entity and lastly a cultural entity. Hence language, culture more often than not assumes the roles that the practicalities of life assign them to. This makes for a certain decentered mode of existence in Singapore where one is often left wondering what language one should speak or what identity one should assume, or even what traditions one really belongs to. As a culturally entity Singapore is confused and lost despite the various proclamations to the contrary. The truth about it is that Singapore is a schizophrenic nation, a country that speaks so many languages has so many traditions, and due to economic basis of its existence is opened up to so many foreign influences that in the end we are a bit hard pressed for choice. That alone does not make Singapore schizophrenic if not for the fact that there is no rootedness in any of these traditions, languages or influences.
As the writer is considered an ethnic Chinese he will speak about this from the point of view of being Chinese. The taking of Chinese lessons, the look towards Confucianism do not alone make us Chinese. Chineseness is more than that, when we speak of a Chinese tradition that we want to "adopt" which Chinese tradition are we talking about, for there are so many? Is it the Chineseness of our gentry Chinese society, is it the revolutionary Chineseness of the May Fourth Movement or is it the ruthlessness that characterised the Cultural Revolution? Or what about the radical anti-traditional anti-Confucian stances of writers like Bo Yang? We are not sure because most of the time we don't really know what they are anyway. Our sense of Chineseness is enshrined in the traditions that are handed to us from our parents and grandparents and most of the time these are the values of pre-modern, pre-Sun Yat Sen China. The radicalness of Singapore Chinese students in the fifties and sixties took its cue from Mainland China, yet how much do we really know about what has gone on in recent intellectual developments in the Chinese speaking world? For that matter how much do we know about "high" Chinese traditional culture? Listening to the latest Canto pop hits or watching the lastest Wong Kar Wai or Zhang Yimou movies do not alone make us Chinese. Let us admit to ourselves, we are a nation of migrants, a nation of workers and merchants who has come to Singapore for opportunity, in near desperation out of survival instincts, and in that desperate flight how much of that was brought over? The answer must surely be not much. Our anscestors came to Singapore for opportunity, for work during what is ultimately is the result of a colonial phase of history.
Singapore is in actuality a colonial creation much more than we would care to admit. Much of the conventions and rules of our society surely comes from the Western idea of respect for the law rather than the person that wields the law as compared to the limitless power of the dragon throne or the absolute power of traditional princes and kings in what we know as India today and the Malay archipelago. Our rational system of government surely takes much from the European idea of the impersonality of bureaucracy rather than the ties of patronage and personal links which characterises Asian governments. The language of business and government and for some, personal ties is English; how much does that shape our consciousness? The very fact of language makes for a great deal of difference between us and other Asian nations.
English becomes our heritage as something that is inherited from our former colonial masters, something that is also responsible for making us what we are. Yet again the question that stares at us is again how much do we know about it? How much are we of it? Much of what we know comes in the form of popular culture through popular movies, music, comics and MTV. There is nothing wrong with popular culture except that sometimes people do not look deeper when they should.
We are much like the protagonist in "Tramp Like Us" (a play by local playwright Kelvin Tan) an electric guitarist who embraces his art only to find that he is in an ambiguous position. An ambiguous position both because he doesn't know why he's doing it and what it means, and that in essence sums up much of what so called "Western culture" means for so many of us. Probably to a certain extent the Government recognises this and is trying to encourage the arts in Singapore because what is perceived as "art" meaning painting, the performing arts and so on is regarded to be as deeper than the trend of popular culture. Traditional culture for that matter is highly encouraged. However this path too is strewn with pitfalls that we have to watch for.
The question that an artist has to face is much more complicated that the simplistic model set out in "Lao Jiu" where the choice is between the achievement oriented traditional emphasis on scholarly achievement and that of an "artistic" path. The question must surely be "do we really know what we are doing and why". A few years ago a local group was put in the spotlight for practising the "Marxist" oriented theatre of Augustine Boal. Rightly enough the group did not get into trouble for it was decided that the charges were not serious. The same group in a recent production claim to be inspired by the epic theatre of Bertholt Brecht, (the forerunner of Boal) who is perceived as the foremost speaker of the socialistic purpose of theatre to bring about change. As has been discussed by the writer in a previous letter to Malibag, close readings of the plays (under his name) and theories reveal, what is proclaimed and what is done more often than not do not correspond. It is not clear whether Brecht's theories gain much currency because people really believed them or whether they were just fashionable thing to do than. As the memoirs of British writer and one time political activist Doris Lessing show, political subversion can be quite fashionable and serve as substitutes for addressing real questions.
The whole idea of epic theatre as elaborated by Erwin Piscater and later Bertolt Brecht stems from the premise that the situation of the exploited can only be truly understood by looking at the larger economic and political forces that has brought him to his present state. In order for the audience to be "educated", the focus of epic theatre is on the workings of the system rather than the neurosis of the individual. Once the audience realises the issues at stake, they would thus be able to see the exploitation in his/her life and make the necessary changes.
Be that as it may, the whole idea of the engendering a revolution to create an "equal society" has more or less ran out of currency with the revelation of the excesses of the "equal" societies of the former Soviet Union, the former Eastern Bloc countries and the Cultural Revolution. What remains is the idea that larger societal forces and structural dyfunctions are responsible for the plight of the individual. Thus we see in the theatre of Boal which attempts to locate these larger causes of oppression through audience participatory theatre games.
This approach towards theatre has been more influential in Singapore than we would care to admit. Various groups such as The Necessary Stage, Practice Theatre Ensemble, Ravindran Drama Group and Theatreworks see their work as a commentary on various issues in society. As a local actor recently said in an interview with Asiaweek, artists want to hold a mirror up to society. As such Singapore plays have a tendency to be issue oriented products as opposed to character/plot oriented. From the deeper plays of Kuo Pao Kun in the eighties to shallow plays about mail order brides, from the so called "environmental theatre" of Theatreworks to the docu-plays of TNS the focus has been on issues, issues and more issues. Of course to assume that most Singaporean plays shows such an ideological consistency is too much. Some plays (like those of Robert Yeo) are merely mouthpieces of writers and do not attempt to locate any structural dysfunction whatsoever, others are outright orientalism in catering to the Westerners assumption of what the East is about.
Such methods have been popular in the West for quite some time. Brecht's plays enjoyed enormous popularity in the United States and Forum Theatre is currently one of the theatre 'rages' in the world right now. However the problem arises as such theatre techniques necessarily sets the paradimatic limits within which a theatrical discourse can take place. These limits more often than not detracts attention away from the individual to society. Hence artists can shout about wanting to reflecting society through theatre. Yet one is tempted to ask the question of whether in fact the issue lies in the individual rather than in society and whether such techniques are expropriated simply because they come with the ready made structures and paradigmatic parameters. Hence it could be a case of cultural fast food. It is there and ready for the taking.
Which leads us back to the whole question of art, do we imbibe notions of what art is simply because they sound good and fashionable or should we trouble to delve deeper and find out what it really means. The problems of mimesis are legion considering our state of cultural rootlessness and the influences and traditions that are opened to us it is tempting to simply adopt something and call it art.
The temptation is especially strong when the people artists set out to please like the Americans or the Japanese are those who more often than not happen to have the money to fund projects. Hence doing what they think is right and fitting into their conceptions of what art is becomes our covert and sometimes not too subconscious agenda. For example when a theatre company set up in London by a Singaporean calls itself "Tripitaka Theatre Company" (as in one of key characters in Chinese classic Journey to the West) how much of it is playing up to the English conception of the Oriental and how much of it is an artistic decision, or perhaps the two are the same. Or just because Westerners tend to look at Singapore as a country where the people are politically repressed and thus we perform plays which either overtly or covertly confirm this impression.
The problems of art in Singapore as usually are set out as those of censorship, monetary support or "educating" the audience on the arts. These are problems but much smaller ones than is usually made of them. One does not need a million dollars to make a good production and having a million dollars do not necessary mean it will do the trick anyway. Censorship is a problem to an extent but it is not as legion as people sometimes makes it out to be. It's not censorship or the lack of funds that prevents the theatre and arts scene in Singapore from becoming deeper than it can be. It's certainly not money that enabled great plays like Fugard's "Bloodknot", Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" or Osborne's "Look Back In Anger" to be written. Perhaps it's more of a certain consciousness of ones position in space and time both culturally and physically.
Surely the beginning of any cultural consciousness starts with the questions of "Who am I?" and "What makes me?". That great forger of modern black American consciousness Malcom X asked the same question and came to the conclusion that he has no name but the name of white slavemaster, no mind except that which the white man had given to him, hence the name X, X is a question, a search and an admission of ignorance and awareness all at the same time. Perhaps its time for us to admit our ignorance and see where we can go from there instead of indulging in orgies of self congratulation.
© Aporia Society MCMXCIX