Monday, March 20, 2006

Little Singapore Stories

Came across a little story within a story-book.

It is a story of the City of Laughter. This was once a vibrant and energetic city. It stood at the crossroads of major trade routes and welcomed people of all kinds into its fold. The diversity of peoples made the city strong. It was a place brimming with ideas and creativity.

The King did not like the excessive diversity. It was too real. The diversity. Such unpredictability was a threat to the sustenance of political power. Thing can change. Things can fall apart. One day, he asks his Senior Minister to come up with a plan to remove the diversity. Have things more homogenous. The Minister disagreed as he saw that the City's prosperity was rooted precisely in its open embrace of difference. It was all or nothing. so the King beheaded the Minister.

One night, the King watched a performance by a group of professional mimics. It was hilarious. Their mastery of the craft meant they could mimic anything. They mimicked the different peoples in the city. They could talk like swarthy sailors. They could re-enact the mannerisms of wearied traders. They could imitate the body language of soldiers and generals. The King was enamoured and hired the mimics as full-time officials mimicking everything around the King. The troupe brought many of their fellow professionals into the City. Some were adept at mimicking politicians. Some were adept at mimicking animals. Some were adept as mimics of citizens. Soon the City swelled with mimics. The original peoples were banished from the City. Only the mimics remained and grew in numbers. But in the King's eyes everything was as the same. The mimics mimicked diversity. Everything was as before. The city mimicked democracy, mimicked prosperity, mimicked diversity, mimicked lives. It was a wonderful performance. And the City became the City of Laughter.

The King was appeased and saw in himself his great wisdom. He had changed the City.

Across at PoliceState's blog is his review of a new book, Struck by Lightning, penned by 4 journalists born in the post-65 era. It is touted as a no-holds-barred book openly commenting on the flaws and foibles of Singapore. Interwoven in the narrative structures are the journalists' own growing up processes in Singapore. Little stories of co-optation and rationalisation; how you have to think to live in Singapore. Acceptance that certain things are as they are. Assumptions that lightning is good ultimately and that some sacrifice of the personal is a necessary, indeed noble thing.

JB Jeyaratnam also has a book published. The Hatchet Man of Singapore. His too is a narrative of a post-65 experience. But an experience forged through a grown man's eyes. His narrative is about non co-optation and a refusal to rationalise and to accept that some personal sacrifices is needed to achieve a common good. The heart of his message? That the common good is attainable without the restrictions imposed by the lightning gods. Often the "common good", the "common weal" has been meshed with realpolitik survival strategies.

It is not easy to write a book. Just ask Phil aka E@L, who can certainly write, but have not taken the step to write. The obstacle, the threshold, is precisely to locate that heart in the story, as he reveals in his recent post. The pulse that makes the story unfold and connects the ruins, the fragments, the anagrams of the storylets into one single shimmering story. A story that is not a mere mimicry.

Sometimes it is hard to write about Singapore. Inadvertently, sometimes, without knowing it, you are mimicking as a citizen of Singapore. An integral part of the entire performance. A fictitious truth in existence. A mimic citizen.

Quotes of the Day --

"Writing is basically a technology, a way of committing things to memory and communicating them, enabling people to send orders and to carry out administration at a distance. Empires and organized societies extending over space are the children of writing ....

The move back into the past seems to have been most marked in Greece. Along with writing, that jewel amongst achievements, all the luxury arts vanished too ...

The adoption of an alphabet reintroduced writing into a Greek world which had lost it. And once writing was within the grasp of all, it not only became an instrument of command but a tool of trade, of communication and often of demystification. Secret laws became public thanks to the alphabet; literature began to play the immense role it later assumed."

-- Fernand Braudel, Memory and the Mediterranean

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Kurtz of Hearts

Found in Mr Wang's eminently interesting blog is his recent take on media self delusion, that Singapore is the "Heart of Asia". Its like Lee Ang's Academy Award. The PRC media hails it as the proud achievement of a Chinese. The Taiwanese media hails it as the proud achievement of a Taiwanese and Singapore media hails it as a proud achievement of an Asian.
I am reminded of this word "Heart". The organ that pumps blood and life to animate life, make it possible to live.
In 1999 to 2000, there was this committee fervently steering Singapore into the 21st century. It was called the S21 committee. The relic of its existence can still be found in cyberspace. The committee was a so-called bold effort by Government to connect with the people. Prompted by the pressures of globalisation and quite possibly the millenial anxieties that accompany regimes in power, S21 was the blueprint to steer the Singapore ship into a new age. I was flipping through the online book on the committee's findings embodied in its bold five-pronged plan. The usual words. HeartBeat Singapore, creating active citizenry, every Singaporean matters etc.
You know whats funny? In the report, probably numbering tens of thousands of words, penned by a high-powered committee of civil servants, I could not locate a single word "politics". It is probably somewhere in the report, that the word does not stand out is precisely the malaise that shadows the Singapore Heart.

The year is 2006. The vision as promised by S21 has not materialised. What has changed? Nothing.
There has been a fundamental change in the world with the new millenium. But the promise of change in Singapore to adapt to the changed globe has not materialised. Fundamental changes in environment requires fundamental changes in system. To adapt. To survive. That has not happened.

Nothing has changed. But there have been changes and there will be changes but these are changes with an empty core.
Lets take an example : Singapore will be the most wired wireless city in a few years time. The heart of cyber Asia.
But there is no content.
No Singaporean will want to base their content in Singapore. Ask Sintercom that. So Singapore is a hub of wires. Wireless, wired but mere conduits for Singaporeans to find their Hearts out of the wired city. The shells are here but the ghosts are travelling every night out into scapes where dreams and hearts are made.
MercerMachine once mentioned, Singapore as an ideal place of transit. Gilbert Koh, esteemed local poet, hinted of this transit status too in one of his delicate poems on Singapore. Wireless Singapore and wired Singapore is exactly this. We do have change, we create a change but only to make the transit more efficient. To facilitate our departure. Hope you have enjoyed your stay. Please visit us again.

So where's the heart? Where's the heartbeat? Is it Pin Pin's aural soundscape in her latest docu-drama on Singapore? The aural soundscape in the film that represents Singapore is itself an indictment of a humdrum Singapore. These are beautiful, evocative, nostalgia-driven sounds but these are what we listen to every day from cradle to grave. Did we live through the fiery rhetorical resonances of "Merdeka! Merdeka!", the visual wrenchings of Separation tears to achieve humdrum?

This is 2006. Where's the change? where's the heart? What is missing?

Its always that one word. Politics.

Quotes of the Day --
"You can't understand. How could you?-- with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums--how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man's untrammeled feet may take him into by the way of solitude--utter solitude without a policeman-- by the way of silence, utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbor can be heard whispering of public opinion? These little things make all the great difference. When they are gone you must fall back upon your own innate strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness.
And I remember I confounded the beat of the drum with the beating of my heart, and was pleased at its calm regularity.
This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it ... And perhaps in this is the whole difference; perhaps all the wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible.", -- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Inflections, Concatenations and Thinking Alone

Something curious happened last week. A little article slipped through all of us. The article in question can be retrieved here.
In Singapore's political lexical landscape, this is an issue which spawned a lot of little lexemes, the chief being OB markers, the affective divide and the Catherine Lim affair.
This article and supposedly others dealing with the same question, the same query, reflects the constant tension involved in articulations on this issue. More than any, this article is an act of inflection. A turning away. Inflection is a common practice in the local mainstream media when reporting on political matters or issues with potential political significance. It gets inflected. The focus is re-moved to another adjacent spectrum, another adjoining dimension, another additional meaning.
You see. The dynamics of this inflection is summarised thus :
I ask you : "How much you are paid sir?"
You reply : "I am not paid enough. My pay is lagging behind the benchmark."
I ask you : "How much are you paid exactly sir?"
You reply : " The formula calculating how much I am supposed to be paid was discussed a few years ago and agreed upon."
I ask you : "How much are you paid sir?"
You reply : "I decline to tell you."
Its a million dollar question and it is doubly inflected. By the person who answers it and by the media reporting it.
Why? The trick is to inflect this word "why". To layer the meanings into this "why". Why do I have the right to know. Why do you answer in this manner.
In a period of intensified political sensitivity, certain questions carry an aura or constellation of ramifications or more accuratley significations that cannot be concatenated.
In Singapore, political concatenation is a risky affair. The risk escalates when elections are near. When elections are near, the Singapore political lexiconography undergoes a process of silent ambiguation and open inflection.
This then is the morphology of the Singapore General Elections narrative. It is more than de-politicisation. It is the processes of ambiguation and inflection which are operative during this period of potential constellations and concatenations.
You can only think alone. Not with anybody else. Think alone.
Quote of the Day --
" Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow ... Total power can be achieved and safeguarded only in a world of conditioned reflexes, of marionettes without the slightest trace of spontaneity ..." -- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism