By Kelvin Tan
This is an account of the singer/songwriter's trip to the 16th North Korean Spring Art Festival
"The world is systematized horror, but therefore it is to do the world too much honor to think of it entirely as a system; for its unifying principle is division and it reconciles by asserting unimpaired the irreconcilability of the general and the particular."
Fragment 72, Minima Moralia,
The journey began ordinarily. A letter appeared on my table. It was faxed by Wong Kwang Han, my fellow partner-in Art from Aporia (a society we set up to examine the questioning between Art and Society). The North Korean Embassy had extended an invitation to the Chinese Opera Institute to send 2 performers to the 16th April Spring Friendship Art Festival. They couldn't make it. Could I go instead, representing Aporia and Singapore.
Why not, I said to myself. North Korea was one of the last purely communist countries, besides Cuba. Furthermore, it'll be good to see how the people lived, and to foster friendships with other performers from the other 45 countries. Being politically curious , I thought that it'll be good to see a totally different political system from our country's own.
I set out to learn one Korean song Pyongyang in the night?with help from the counselor from the Embassy, Mr Kim Tok Phil. I was tempted to perform songs from my new album, The Bluest Silence. But I decided on a James Taylor-like version of Di Tanjong Katong? Being Peranakan, I could relate to the song. I also wanted to open the North Korean audience to the beauty of the Malay language. I was fully aware that as the first Singaporean ever to perform in Pyongyang I had to be mindful of the example I'll set.
After this trip my life would never be the same again.
Directly after we landed at the Pyongyang airport, I was assigned a lady interpreter who would be my guide throughout the festival. Before going to our hotel, we were escorted to a huge bronze statue of President Kim II Sung. We laid flowers before the statue and were told to bow before it. It was 11.30 pm. We were tired, hungry and cold. I knew then, I was in an unfamiliar country.
Everything about North Korea, the Koreans attribute to their Great Leader President Kim II Sung. Noted for bringing North Korea to independence in 1945 by disposing of the Japanese, he was also noted for victory over the Americans in the Korean war. As a result, the split between North and South. I ask my interpreter if she had a religion. She replied calmly "My religion is President Kim II Sung."
The next 11 days will prove to be a hectic and pressurizing schedule, with reminders of the people's love for their now deceased Leader. We were treated like absolute VIPs. We stayed in the swankiest hotel in Pyongyang, ate abundantly, and the interpreters spoke perfect French, German, Arabic and relatively fluent English. And most of them had not left the country. They were helpful and caring.
We were told not to leave the hotel without them. Nights were to be spent in the hotel. We were also told that we had to perform four major performances to determine if we'll be selected for another two.
The first thing you notice about a communist country is their total devotion to one leader. You woke up in your room and hear songs in praise of The Great Leader cranked through the loud hailers. Children marching down the road singing the songs. To the Koreans, President Kim II Sung was God. We were brought to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace (also known as the sacred temple of Juche) where his body laid at rest. We had to climb up countless stairs, elevators to get to a huge 30 ft marble statue. After that we were led to the gigantic mausoleum, where literally thousands circled round his body in a see-through casket. Thousands wept. We were told to bow.
Every building virtually had a painting of The Leader. Every interior of the buildings had a picture or painting of the Leader and his son, Dear Leader Kim Jong II. After the mausoleum, we were escorted to rooms that were filled with the medals he had won on display. Next, the exact Mercedes he used to sit in. Next, a segment of the train carriage he helped to design. The huge square outside the Mausoleum reminded me of Tiananmen Square. As a Singaporean, I was stunned. I had never seen anything so incredibly huge. And so incredibly attributed to one man.
I was reminded of our SM's remarks on Fong Swee Suan in the marvelous book Lee Kuan Yew. The Man and His Ideas. "How one person can manage 5,000. You only need to get one person. The key person must be on your side - he's the organiser. And you've got a whole group on your side." Never did the words ring so true till now, as I was standing in the huge Kim II Sung Square, staring at the paintings of Marx and Lenin, opposite the one of the Great Leader. One man had single-handedly mobilized millions to believe in an ideal, regardless of consequences.
Our SM's remarks on the communist sprit is also spot-on. "The dynamism, the drive, the idealism, the organizational capabilities - oh it was tremendous! Most impressive. Their ability to move thousands of students to picnics , to meetings and mass discipline". Through the rehearsals, all of us witnessed the drive, determination and indomitable sprit of the North Koreans in the way they organized the rehearsal, the sightseeing trips, the programmes. Everything was done in a brisk precise manner.
I am reminded of Mao, Stalin and even Pol Pot, in the way Kim II Sung has united the country. And how the people idolised him. My interpreter pointed to some high rise buildings and tells me that The Great Leader was responsible in giving on the spot guidance to building such grand buildings. She asked if we has such buildings in Singapore. I answered yes and carried on munching my apple.
The people were all in worship of the Great Leader's idea of ‘Ju-Che? the belief that man had the will and inner strength to overcome and achieve anything. Everywhere there were banners proclaiming the words ‘The Great Leader Comrade Kim II Sung Will Always Be With Us? ‘Long Live and Good Health to the Great Leader Comrade Kim Jong II?and ‘Let Us Preserve the Idea of Ju-Che Forever?As I gawked at the gigantic Tower of Juche, The Arch of Triumph, The Grand People’s Study House, and The Monument For Party Founding, I was suddenly aware more of how one man could do all this. Then it dawned upon me the ultimate question, could this have happened to Singapore?
For the North Koreans, they revere their leader. It is their desire. I respect and admire them for it. For me, the Tuan Mong riots and the Marxist conspiracy took on a different meaning. History reveals that totalitarianism could have abounded back home. Communist works only with total submission. Something which I wouldn’t exchange for my freedom. What is clean and green to me, if they’re trapped in the cage? I thought about home, its strict laws, but thoughtful considerations for its people, and really felt homesick. I guess like Joni Mitchell sang ‘you don’t know what you have got, till it’s gone.?#060;/P>
Nonetheless, I was incredibly impressed by the courteousness, warmth and helpfulness of the ordinary Korean people and the incredible resilience of the people, their will to live. I remember telling myself, if only we could import the strong respect they have for ideals and bring them, back home. The focused sense of belief that they possessed humbled me to no end. It made me reassess my role as an Artist in Singapore.
It made me re-asses our country’s system too. Suddenly it dawned on me why our country was run the way it is. We want stability, and yet the freedom to do the things we want. We need rules, also enough room to create our own existential path. In order to do that, we have to strike a balance between maintaining law and order, and enabling the people to breathe, which our SM sums up brilliantly;
"I would put myself really as a…liberal democrat. Not in the Japanese sense of the word, the Liberal Democratic Party. A liberal, in that I want to run the system as efficiently as possible, but make allowances for those who will not be doing well because nature did not give them enough, or they cannot make that extra effort. A liberal in the economic sense of the word, you know. Not a liberal in the sense of the American word "liberal". The American word "liberal" means somebody who thinks that you should allow everybody to develop in his own way and do his own thing. So, that has a special meaning. But a liberal in the classical sense of that word, in that I’m not fixated to a particular theory of the world, or of society. I’m pragmatic. I’m prepared to look at the problem and say, all right, what is the best way to solve it that will produce the maximum happiness and well-being for the maximum number of people. You call it whatever you like."
I remember being in the only church in Pyongyang while thinking these thoughts. We had to travel way out miles away, it was Easter Sunday, and being a Christian, I wanted to make it. I thought about how in Singapore we practiced religion freely without restraint, and how we’ve taken it for granted.
On the 15th April, it was Sun’s Day. The Great Leader’s 84th Birthday, if he were alive. There was a huge banquet, a trip to his birthplace in Mangyongdae and a gathering at Kim II Sung Square where a huge band were performing while close to 60 000 couples were dancing. The people seemed joyous, happy and contented. No signs of starvation. But then, we never really left our hotels to see any, if there were. While I looked at the gaily lit event, I wondered to myself about choice. Does it exist here?
There is so much to love about Pyongyang, it’s good natured people, the awesomely beautifully Parks with its apple blossoms and beautiful shrubs. Most of all, the wonderful River Taesong that flows through the capital. Serene and wonderful beyond words. Occasionally, we’d pass by the half gray homes that the common people lived, I looked at their faces and wondered if they were happier than us. I looked at the low-rise humble homes and thought about the massive mausoleum and wondered about the equality of man.
"You see, starting block, a marathon, get ready, all at the same line, fire, off you go. One hour later, you see the wide differences between those who are still steady, pushing ahead, and the stragglers struggling in the end. Two hours later, five, six, are in front, racing to beat the record. That’s the problem of life" Lee Kuan Yew. The Man And His Ideas
Where our hotel was, the roads are incredibly wide, but very few cars were around. Its an offense to cross the road. Everyone uses the subway. There are no traffic lights. Only a woman traffic warden rules the junctions. Everyone wears a Great Leader badge where the heart is. The line between do and don’t are marked out in absolute bold print. People here really believe equality exists.
I made it through the 1st 4 rounds singing both the Korean and Malay songs. I was in the same group as the Nigerian dancers, the Vietnamese, Mongolian and Kazakhstan opera singers, a French jazz classical quintet, a Swiss folk dancing group and Maltese violinists. We were joined by the Czech folk group and a massive Russian dance and band entourage. We performed at the prestigious Mansudae Art Theatre, the President’s favorite venue. Unfortunately, he was too busy to attend.
I was told that I had chose a very apt and popular Korean song and evidently they like it. They were so interested in Di Tanjong Katong that they requested a direct translation to it, which I obliged.
What was most surprising was the fact that I was filmed on national television live. Before you know it, I was featured in newspapers all over, talk programmes and even on radio. On the first day when I was made to stand with the other heads of delegations in front of the cultural minister and 5,000 people, I knew that protocol was the key. From a singer/songwriter, I had been elevated to Ambassador. Funny thing was, I was getting used to it.
I said pretty much the same thing to the reporters; that I had respect for The Great Leader, and that I saw our SM as having the same good and brilliant qualities. Its?just that we have a different political system that has worked very well for us. That we may come from different cultures and political systems, but we could still be friends. We were Asians and that is important. I also made it clear that I had my own ideas about ideologies. They had to respect my views.
I made friends with the Swiss, the French, the Nepalese, the Austrians, the Americans. We spent hours in the hotel discussing the country and what we’ve learnt from these experiences. We spent the nights playing billiards, sitting in the cafes, buying Ginseng and performing for one another. We jammed together. All of us found the experience challenging.
But I wouldn’t leave my views unspoken. I spoke with the interpreters, encouraging them to explain the country’s policies to me. I told them we don’t have to agree, but we should be frank and sincere to one another. I wanted to show them that all I wanted was the Truth or some semblance of it. I knew somehow, it will never be possible. All of us had such different concepts of Freedom, Responsibility and Love. I was saddened, but enlightened. At least we still could have imsan tea together, shake hands and really mean it.
The friends I made were always and will be priceless to me. While we admired the Spirit and Grit of the cause, we couldn’t relate to it. The Americans were Christian singers sent to proselytize. Their hymns sounded softer and softer as the days went by. We were all tired, but no one regretted the trip.
I will never forget the last day of my trip. I’d left a day earlier because there were no flights the next day. It was 6.30 am, and I was about to leave, when my interpreter summoned me upstairs. Now what, I wondered.
They had a small gathering there. Top government officials were present as they congratulated me on winning an Individual Prize for my performance in the festival. With it came a diploma. I was surprised. I brought the trophy down, went into the bus. As I took one last look at the beautiful sunrise amidst the beautiful Korean Parks, I somehow knew that my life will forever be transformed. I took out my guitar, sang "You’ve got a friend" for the Swiss who were with me, handed them each a key chain souvenir from Singapore, and looked forward to going home.
I had learnt in this trip as Artist, Singaporean and Human Being, that Democracy, Art, Peace, like life, are truly fragile. As a Singaporean, I should never be complacent about what I have and that it can be taken away from me the very minute I take it for granted.
As an Artist, I learn that I have to be humble, and delve deeper into the truths about existence, be they existential, philosophical, religious, political or sociological. I have a responsibility to truth and to depict truth unswervingly. I also have the responsibility to live my Art and to see how it can be relevant and even transforming to my country and the world.
Singapore is truly a miracle city. But it is also a fragile one. Whilst searching and defining our culture, I fear we’ve developed a pseudo-culture - a culture based on selfishness, a lack of self-awareness, a false sense of consciousness. We must look at what’s worse about ourselves and be centred on the right things; how do we develop our minds, our consciousness for the next millennium. Notions of education, self and nation-building have to be re-analyzed and re-assessed and discussed in a sprit of understanding rather than self-indulgence. We also have to be forever conscious of the fact that if we don’t build a foundation of authentic loyalty and love for ourselves and our country, we will digress into a faceless people, idolising the idols of materialism, with no consideration for each other, or for the future of our people. We will emerge, ignorant, egotistical, and vain in our despair.
It upsets me to find that in my normal day-to-day existence in Singapore, group of Singaporeans with an irritating ‘biting the hand that feeds it?attitude. Retired pensioners who complain about the government’s policies of rising costs. Blaming the government about their own personal grievances, instead of looking at the problems in their proper contexts. Also, fashionably cynical young ‘slacker?Singaporeans who rebel against establishments for minor frustrations that revolve around their own personal needs.
How many of us really think about society in its proper contexts. We expect perfection, but remain seated in our critical armchairs, being cynical because we ourselves feel inadequate. Being a struggling artist with no CPF, regular salary, or proper funds for my Art, I should be the most cynical. More cynical than your average doctor, lawyer or civil servant. It’s so much easier to be cynical than inspiring.
Yet, I chose to be praising and supportive of Singapore, of our government, fully aware that it has its imperfections. Why? Because I have chosen to think for others, for society, and for my love of Art and God, rather than for myself. At the risk of losing all material possessions. Also, through my experience, I’ve realised how we always lack the courage to wish for happiness and not even hope, let alone try to achieve it. We cage our own aspirations, and blame someone for it. People always want to blame someone for something they can’t achieve, because it’s easier to blame someone. How many Singaporeans threaten to migrate, but never migrate eventually. Continuing to live here and blame the government for it. Even if we achieve utopia, we will find something to gripe about. Such is human nature.
Many of my friends advise me of leaving the country, telling me it’s better there. Well, ‘there?is not home. This is home, and I will struggle to create here. Because, inspired by the words of Fanon, Gramsci and Derrida, I believe the intellectual has a role in his/her own country.
My art is my contribution to Truth, thereby an addition to the texture of realising the spirit of society.
Dissatisfaction, unfairness, prejudice and evil are everywhere in the world. Utopia doesn’t exist. We make what w can of our lives to give it more meaning. I consider us lucky, inspite of the limitations that a small country has, that we were born Singaporeans. We have a lot to be grateful, amidst all the usual incongruencies of everyday life. After my trip, for obvious reason, I have been humbled and more in love with my country. It’s a feeling I know will remain permanently. To me, every Singaporean should read ‘Lee Kuan Yew. The Man and His Ideas?completely and thoroughly to truly understand the God-given miracle which is Singapore. We should read the book with a spirit of unbiasness and as objectively as possible, and read what is being said about how this country was built. We shouldn’t be cynical or jump to conclusions because our feelings and prejudices warrant us so, without knowing the proper facts that we may discover in this book, to make sense and to be true.
Our SM, together with the group of brilliant people he had put together to build this nation, has been the main architect in transforming the many political ideas he had read in books, into reality. In every article I’ve read in Time magazine, Asiaweek and other magazines that have featured our SM I’m astonished by his extremely focused vision, steadfastness, and his fastidious intellect. In an interview with Tim Sebastian of Hard Talk, I witnessed how our SM resisted Sebastian’s rude, misplaced questions about SM’s tyranny with disarming calmness, wit and truth. It is my opinion that Caucasians like Mr Sebastian have lived too long in London to understand what tyranny really is. After all, his people were once our colonisers.
To me, Singapore is the realising of an idea borne into reality. No one can argue with that. Critics will abound, Huntington or not, arguing what has been achieved or ridiculing the government’s strict measures. But ultimately, they don’t live here. We don’t live in a perfect world. But we go on striving to be happier, if it is possible.
SM Lee Kuan Yew, in my opinion, is as much a post colonialist as great post colonial thinkers like Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire or Edward Said. The main difference being that he has shown in reality that it is possible to be who one really is, to struggle to be independent, to live in dignity and pride and yet successfully put into practice well thought concepts that actually work practically in real life. He achieved it by sheer leadership and scholarship by amassing all the philosophical and political ideas he had learnt, fusing them into original concepts and putting them in practice by the sheer route of hard won experiences. Mistakes will be made by trial and error, but his faith that the problem could be solved have made Singapore what it is today.
His experiences with the Japanese also affected his family and the English who assumed their right to rule the country, showed him that if we didn’t stand up for what we believe we will ultimately end up being powerless individuals wrecked by a loss of self and dignity. Our SM is a genuine example of a true post colonial leader.
While both our SM and President Kim II Sung had similar ideals about independence and anti-colonialism, both took radically different paths. I strongly feel, without a doubt, that the path our SM chose to govern our country was and still is the best possible path. We now have only the responsibility to further develop the paradigm of government he has mapped out, for the future.
I like to end this journal of my trip with a thought from the great Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein "The Philosopher is not a citizen of any community of ideas. That is what makes him into a Philosopher". Wittgenstein understood that a true innovator was one who did not focus on his own illusory dreams to solve problems, but one who sought the right method to solve it. To find the answers to the problems, regardless from where it comes. Like Art, you can have all the money, verbosity and dazzling philosophical bombastic ideas you want. But if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.
To me, this is what our SM has achieved in our country. He chose to do it in a spirit of integrity, selflessness, and a spirit of love for the country, and for peace. To me, as he remarks in the book, he has truly 'done his best' and we are far better for it. It is my opinion, that our SM has truly transcended the profession of politician to one of Philosopher, Thinker, Artist and Humanitarian. All this has been clearly revealed to me because of Pyongyang.
Note: This article was originally considered for publication in the Straits Times.
© Aporia Society MCMXCIX