Tuesday, July 25, 2006

National Days

here are moments when art and life intersect. In Singapore, the co-mingling of art with life is a tense affair. Especially when the life in question is political life. For that life remains the sole monopoly of the State. But art like laughter is always subversive. It always digs under the skin, beneath the fabric of society whenever the opportunity avails itself. But there are also times when art is used to add layers of skin, to dye the fabric of society. Some call this propaganda. The truly sophisticated artist sometimes abets propaganda but seeds the work of art with barely discernible pieces of resistance.

National Day in Singapore is a glorious affair. The country is swathed in red, stirring songs get aired on television. Fragments of Singapore History is often defrosted and given that magical, nostalgic aura of past time to touch Singaporeans. Grainy tears of spearation, rasping shouts of Merdeka. Bringing us to that moment of Singapore's birth and meaning.

The strength of the State's artistic production throughout National Day is its monopoly on Singapore History. Not a monopoly on the facts, but a monopoly on the interpretation of that History. Imagine a black and white video footage, scratched, fuzzied, historical, a troop of determined soldiers standing stoically in a flashing thunderstorm. Interpreted as resilience, as strength.

When we reach the Present, the State is at its zenith, precision military marching, pomp, paegeantry, a roar of F-16 fighters leaving each flat trembling in their supersonic wake. The boom of the ceremonial cannons, the retorts of the raised rifles. The rumble of the tanks, the Rapiers. Then, songs of achievement in one voice, one heart, pledges of loyalty. Harmony.

As the sun sets, the show moves into futurity and always, somehow, the State falters into the rote of performance. Gaily garbed children running obscure patterns on the Padang. Happy shiny youth placarding a cardboard Singapore-to-be. This trick, that illusion, the laser show. Than the rote is saved by an explosive climax of fireworks burning in our night sky. Singapore burning into Heaven.

As Singapore is convulsing through this performance, and the State is busy conducting this orchestra of Time and History, little pockets of counter cultural activities blossom. Indig-Nation is one.

Another I wish to highlight is the Singapore Theatre Festival (STF).

It has a delightful logo. A man garbed in red putting his head in the Merlion's mouth. Examining deep into the heart of Merlion. Or putting his head between the Merlion's jaws?

There is neither much pomp or much paegeantry in STF. But it asks alot of questions in its productions. The curtain raiser is the premiere of Alfian Sa'at's "Homesick". It asks questions of staying and quitting. People who stay, people who go. Cost of leaving. There is Ovidia's "Silence of the Kittens". Asking questions of creating safe and stable environments. Creating utopias. Very Molly there. Then, there is a doublebill on language, naming and history, the story of Utama.

All these are apt questions while Singapore is in its Celebration Narrative. I magine that the Festival is collecting the questions, the ideas of the marginal, the fringed who are brushed aside by the relentless Celebration Narrative. This is piety in Art and who knows what answers may be found in this questioning.

Smack right on National Day is the premiere of Eleanor Wong's "The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ". This is not exactly new ground. Such calls have been made at various times in Singapore's alternative media. But to see this Idea, given life by a playwright and presented in public is, to me, the achievement of the Festival itself. A beauty in Art, of Art.

And then on 5.30 pm, 12 Aug, Art meets Life quietly.

LIFE: Speaking and Quieted: New Singapore, Old Constraints?
ART: The Campaign to Confer the Public Service Star on JBJ

Could the Campaign to confer the Public Star on JBJ in fact become a reality in today's Singapore? How do we view the Opposition, or alternative views? How do we value or acknowledge them? Can we?

Moderator: Alfian Sa'at (Playwright)

Points of View: Gayle Goh (Citizen Commentator), Sylvia Lim (Worker's Party Chairman, NCMP), Eleanor Wong (Playwright, Lawyer), Tan Tarn How (Playwright, Social Commentator)

All the names will be familar to us all in Singapore cyber-space, perhaps barring ironically Eleanor Wong, the playwright. Alfian, he of that haunting line "if you love Singapore too much ...", Gayle the fearless blogger, Sylvia now a newly minted NCMP and Tan Tarn How, now an alternative media blogger, formerly a journalist. Its a fascinating gathering. Art, alternative media, alternative politics. This looks like engagement to me.

So my dear readers, if perhaps the Celebration Narrative of National Day exhausts you too much, or if you feel you want to think about rather just passively receive grainy footage of authoritative History, than go down to this Festival. With me, who tend to avoid being in Singapore during National Day, lets make our way into these dark and quiet boxes, known as theatres and see a different narrative unfold while Singapore hurtles toward Utopia.

Quote of the Day --

"Memory, having swept me back to the heady days of the war's eve, now drops me indecorously back in the present. I am seated at my desk, facing the row of books that stand against the wall between dusty bookends - large ungainly wooden elephants whose tusks have long since broken off. The spines of the books are marked by frequent use. The pages are yellow, blotchy and discoloured. Looking at these repositories of learning, my best friends, I pity their sufferings from our heat and humidity. Scholarship can never conquer in these parts: every seeming victory is mocked by the steady workings of the climate, a climate that rots wood, paper and fabrics with democratic indiscrimination. Perhaps it was always a hopeless battle- with that thought comes anger, momentarily shaking my body, reminding me of my increasing frailty, leaving me slumped in the chair." -- Philip Jeyaretnam, Abraham's Promise


Blogger Trabant_er said...

Not just the monopoly of their interpretation of the History, but the Future as well.

Our History isn't particularly interesting. Our pre-colonial History is un-modern. Our colonial History is offered as a distasteful contrast. Our History as an independent state (not nation) is too PAP-ly and being talked to death. I still remembered that a friend and I were laughing at a segment of last year's parade, that of the swordfish and Redhill legend being touted as "real".

Anyway last National Day Rally, we saw fireworks and celebrations revolving around the "signature landscape of the 21st century" - that of the new urban development at the Marina IFC, IRs and whatnots. How euphoria and jubilant our Furture is!! I'm looking forward to the incoming ND06 theme - Our Global City, Our Home - to see the ingenious ways that we are being socialised to see the "Inevitability" of our Future.

12:18 PM  
Blogger Trabant_er said...

Alas the thing about those little boxes of alternative narratives is that they are transient and intangible. They meet and go as long as the event last, non-affirmative, compared to the finality and the permanence of the Narrative.

But that's the beauty of it all. They provoke thoughts to be exchanged, allowing us a breath of fresh air. Compared this to the oneway State communication. That is most liberating.

12:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

National Day Parades are truely the Opiate of the masses in the marxian sense. Like an estacy pill or a heroin shot, it creates pyschedelic illusions with lots of dazzling lights, fireworks, planes and helicopters (especially our latest collection of toys, the Apache Helicopters). Makes people forget momentarily about the routines of life.

I guess there are also many Singaporeans who prefer supposedly less pleasurable activities like clogging the causeway, second link, changi airport and Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal as National Day approaches.

Having said that, actually being singaporean very good one you know? Everywhere got aircon, gahmen look after you so well like your own mother. Teach you to speak good Enlish and chinese and you still dont want to put up flag and still want to comprain. How can lat dat.

4:50 AM  
Blogger Medusa aka expiringpoet said...

Good one, but I'm inclined to think that with ticket prices for Art performances and plays starting from at least $28..., wouldn't and hasn't Art been a monopoly of the rich and well-offs? i wish that drama companies would consider making it more accessible to the poorer segments of society as well.

9:38 AM  

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