Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Old Singapore

"This is how one pictures the angel of history. Her face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, she sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of her feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in her wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them."

This is how an angel perceives the past, a single catastrophe piling a mountain of wreckage at her feet. But we are told that it is a logical chain of events. Linear time, cause and effect, leading us progressively to a better modernity. A storm is blowing in from Paradise, dragging the angel away from the wreckage of History, dragging the angel into a Utopian futurity. Hurled into a beautiful Paradise. Some time in the future.

Even an angel is helpless, what more mortals like us?

There is a certain beauty in Tan Pin Pin's new documentary, Invisible City. Underlying this beauty is a grief of absence. We are shown beautiful and rare colour footage of a forgotten era of Singapore. At the same time, this footage cannot be contextualised. There is an absence in the beautiful reels of another Singapore. The documentarian struggles to provide a narrative, some form of context, but he cannot. Because he cannot remember. The screen is blank as he tries his best to dredge his memory, desperately trying to fill that absence. But there is only incoherence. And that scene transcends into a presence of absence.

There is footage of archaeologists at work. Excavating bits and pieces of forgotten Singapore. There is a montage of "I was here" graffiti at one of the excavation sites. But again there is an underlying grief of absence. The same lack of context. The archaeologists are digging and dispassionately cataloguing the relics. Reading and recording each sliver of information in the relics. But again there is silence, absence. And you can feel this in the documentary.

There is another narrative by Han Sanyuan, a former Chinese school activist. His recollections of Singapore history has the greatest coherence. He provides the context and has the photographic evidence of an alternative perspective of Singapore's past. But when he presents this in a forum, only the older in the audience has that look of comprehension, that gleam of understanding. The younger look bemused. He laments eventually that no one was interested. That his narrative is at best quaint when set against the dominant Singapore Historical narrative. So even for one who has the context, who remembers best, eventually there is an absence. And this absence is in the present. Now.

Preceding the scene of Han at the forum is a silent slow footage of the modern Singapore skyline. Some may see progress. Others may sense absence.

There is a narrative of a former anti-Japanese guerilla recounting his story to a Japanese journalist. He sings an anti-Japanese war song, tells of the atrocities committed by the Japanese occupation army, of how he meets his wife. And eventually, the article that is published highlights only absence. His story is re-contextualised. That old cliché, to forgive and forget, takes on a new dimension, a new layer of meaning. Can we forgive without forgetting?

The most memorable scene is that with an old, half-blind and bed-ridden British photographer.

"My only regret is not leaving Singapore to go back England when I had the chance ... Singapore is not a place to grow old in ..."

It is a stunning moment in the documentary delivered in such an ordinary manner. Her work is evidence enough of her passion for Singapore; a series of rare photographs of Singapore architecture most of which are gone. And the Singaporean in me intuitively wants very much to apologise to her and to all those Others cast into the wreckage of Singapore's history. But how can we seek forgiveness when we are complicit in this forgetting? How can we seek forgiveness when we ourselves are victims of this relentless Storm dragging us into Paradise Singapore 2020? How can we seek forgiveness when we left at the first chance? To forgive is to remember.

The angel of History would like to stay, to awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise. Dragging her into the future. Turning her gaze away from the past.

The director has taken a camera and gazed into the wreckage of our past that Singapore has deemed unnecessary to remember. Resisting the storm of Paradise, of progress, of modernity. To awaken the dead. To make whole what has been smashed. To present absence for us to remember.

You step out of the Arts House after the movie and you desperately try to remember the Empress Place hawker center where your father used to bring you for a treat of delicious satay. Where you had your first date sipping teh tarik and gazing at the bright lights of Boat Quay. And there is a storm blowing in from the site for this year's National Day. Another History-orgy of the great strides made by Singapore from third to first. From past to present to future.

And you wonder whether you can grow old in this Singapore.

Quote of the Day -

"As Nietzsche observed long ago, the moderns suffer from the illness of historicism. They want to keep everything, date everything, because they think they have definitely broken from the past ... maniacal destruction is counterbalanced by an equally maniacal conservation." -- Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern

Friday, July 20, 2007

On Banging Walls

In her latest thought provoking entry, Molly has dis-assembled the irony of political discourse in Singapore. The context is this: There is a proposed constitutional amendment to give the Prime Minister power to nominate up to two members for appointment to the Legal Service Commission. NCMP Sylvia Lim raised a question to this amendment. Her point was simple: by enlarging the ambit of the PM's powers to make political appointments to an important institution within the judiciary, will public confidence of the judiciary's neutrality be affected?

The Law Minister issues a predictably scathing reply, accusing NCMP Sylvia Lim of resurrecting a conspiracy theory over the political integrity of the judiciary. A host of lesser MPs join the chorus of condemnation, but couched in perfectly rational and logical language. But it is the Law Minister's rebuttal that stands out. Insinuations abound in his reply on the supposed insinuations of the NCMP's question. Aspersions are cast on the supposed aspersions of the NCMP's question.

This is what happens when we adhere to the ruling regime's lexical rules and OB markers. This is what happens when we buy into this illusion that we can have perfectly rational and logical political discourse of difference in Singapore. This is what happens when we are ushered into the well-walled conduits laid down by the ruling regime governing political discourse. You will be shredded.

NCMP Sylvia Lim's question in Parliament was perfectly rational and logical. It is the epitome of how the ruling regime wants Opposition politicians and all contrarian public figures to engage in political discourse. If Catherine Lim had gone into politics as advised by former PM Goh after she transgressed the invisible OB markers, she would also have asked questions in the style and manner as NCMP Sylvia Lim. But would the criticism of her be any different? She would still be accused of crossing the OB markers. Exciting the masses. Inciting discontent.

It is apparently not enough adhering to this lexical monopoly of the ruling regime. And the cruel irony is that you are silenced by colorful, inflammatory, even dangerous words like "conspiracy theory". You are rebutted in a way you have been told is not allowed. You are rebutted in an inflammatory and highly politicised language.

If NCMP Sylvia Lim had replaced her questions with truly insinuatory vocabulary, she would have been accused of threatening the fundamentals of Singapore society. She would have undermined the sanctity of the judiciary. She would probably be sued for defamation. And the rebuttal would be in the rational and logical language.

And there is no recourse. You are silenced. silent. speechless. There is no way to speak politics in Singapore. Damned every linguistic turn you take. Who are the ones consistently engaged in adversarial politics then?

In the same Parliamentary sitting, Minister of State, Education cited the wrong figures on foreign students in local universities. The correct figure should be significantly higher than what was cited. But if you follow the news report on this mistake, its factual and rational tone pre-empts any damage by citing another figure of foreign student population in the prestigious MIT; another interviewee states that we should increase foreign student numbers. If someone stands up in Parliament to question this mis-citing of figures, the reply would be a rational answer. It was an honest mistake. If NCMP Sylvia Lim stands up to question the political convenience of the mis-cited figures, she will be accused of resurrecting another conspiracy theory and possibly defaming the good person of the Minister of State. If it was she who mis-cited figures, her integrity and her character and her motive would be called into question without mercy. Her credibility would be destroyed. Remember the story of the bak chor mee?

A citizen wants to save an angsana tree. She goes through the prescribed process, the meetings. But for public safety, the tree is cut down. She laments if only she could be given a chance to convince the motorists ... To speak to the right people ... It’s only a tree after all. Let’s be rational and logical. What about speed strips? It’s only a tree after all. Let’s be rational and logical. But they should not be speeding in the first place? It’s only a tree after all. Let’s be rational and logical. Cut the tree down.

There is another state of the blogosphere entry at Singapore Angle in video form. There is glowing mention of social-political blogging being rational, logical and non partisan. You can throw in "objective" as well. There is a different entry by Molly which would fail much of the above features of social political blogging. But the entry pummels into my consciousness. It is writing. It is writing in a multitude of disparate dimensions, differance. It is not a social-political blog entry. It is ringisei's utility in futility written.

The following lines are the cruel words from the seminal Pink Floyd album, The Wall :

All alone, or in two's,
The ones who really love you
Walk up and down outside the wall.
Some hand in hand
And some gathered together in bands.
The bleeding hearts and artists
Make their stand.

And when they've given you their all
Some stagger and fall, after all it's not easy
Banging your heart against some mad bugger's wall.

If by rational, it means measuring the length and breadth of each word to stab each word deep into a reader's heart, I will want to be rational. If by logical, it means weighing the heaviness of each paragraph such that it buries each paragraph deep into a reader's heart, I will want to be logical. If by objective, it means composing each nuance and tone of a blog entry such that each nuance and each tone sears itself deep into a reader's heart, I will want to be objective. If not, I will decline the mantle of a social political blogger.

The political discourse of the ruling regime is not one of reason or of logic. It is politics. It is clinical, it is ruthless, it is efficient. The ruling regime has the lexical monopoly. They won this monopoly not by banging their heads against the wall in the 50s and 60s. I will concede them this: they won this monopoly by banging their hearts against the wall.

So you can be rational. You can be logical. You can be objective. You can be non partisan. You can bang your heads against the wall. And when it’s over. You can take a step back, pat your back and tell your children : I was so into this anti-Government thing last summer.

Or you can just bang your heart against the wall.

And you may stagger, you may fall.

You must go on, I can't go on, I will go on.

Quote of the Day --

"Where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on." -- Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

Friday, July 13, 2007

whats your story?

There is something odd going on in the blogosphere.

The story is this.

Two weeks ago, someone leaked a story of a 2nd Lt, who happened to be the Prime Minister's son, in a discussion forum known as Hardwarezone.

The discussion thread was deleted.

No explanations were given then. No explanation exists now. No one knows why the discussion was deleted. No one knows what happened to the forummer who leaked the story.

Another discussion thread in SgForums, on the same topic, was deleted too. No one knows why. No explanations. (Explained by CelluloidReality, a mundane replication post deletion thankfully)

An archaelogy of deletions. Very Singapore indeed.

Bury it. I won't let you bury it. I won't let you smother it ...

There is a very cute discussion thread in EDMW, a spin-off discussion forum from HWZ following the latter's acquisition by SPH. The title is "top secret news deleted" or something like that. Here, the forummers talk about the story in a way that is very funny.

Then, there is a blog entry by a SPH journalist on this story. The journalist cites the above story, but highlights the issue of discussion deletions. He suggest a little on the climate of fear and information suppression.

Fairly ironic.

Then, his blog entry gets cited in various forums and websites.

Everyone in Sg cyberspace is looking for this delicious e-mail written by the 2nd Lt.

Then, the e-mail appears, with names and details blanked out, in the comments of a Tomorrow.sg post on the blog entry by the SPH journalist.

Then, the very next day, Straits Times and CNA publish reports of the story of a 2nd Lt, who happened to be the Prime Minister's son, charged by Mindef for insubordination.

The news reports also highlight the reason why he is charged.

The reports also cite in factual terms what happened to those protaganists in that delicious e-mail written by the 2nd Lt.

The news reports give closure to the problem mentioned in the e-mail written by the 2nd Lt.

Problem solved, done and dusted. The errant are punished. Fair and square.

With the news reports, the blogosphere gets all buzzed. Even Rockson is awakened from his hiatus.

Some say the 2nd Lt is a hero. Fighting the system, fighting for his men.

Some say the 2nd Lt is a zero, a spoilt brat, bypassing command chains, disrespecting the officers' corps.

Others pat their own backs. Claiming the "power" of alternative media, of the Internet.

Maybe there is another story residing in this story of the 2nd Lt.

Maybe the story is about HWZ and what happened there.

Maybe the story is why the story was deleted first.

Quote of the Day -

"Learn their needs, and they'll dance to any fuckin tune you play ..."
-- DBC Pierre, Vernon God Little

Friday, July 06, 2007

A Silhouette of an Invisible City

"Once I heard someone say that if you have to lose something, the best way is to keep it in your memory." -- Ouyang Feng, from Ashes of Time

The above line is from a Wong Kar Wai movie, Ashes of Time, which is not very well known even though it is probably his most complex film. Its a revisionist rendition of a classic martial arts novel by Jin Yong, The Legend of the Condor Heroes. The making of the film was so exhaustive that WKW took time off to make another film, ChungKing Express, which ironically became his most recognised work.

Ashes of Time revolves around the themes of memory and forgetting. The very fine thread that runs through this film is a bottle of forgetting wine (wang qing jiu) that the characters imbibe. And as one drinks, thinking that in forgetting her past, her pain is erased, her forgetting tragically moves the pain to another character who ends up drinking the same wine to forget his past, to erase his pain. And this tragic chain of forgetting result in the characters evolving into empty, elegaic husks, feeling loss, feeling lost. But not knowing what they have lost because they have forgotten. And this feeling of loss is no different from pain, perhaps even stronger.

There is a new film by Singaporean film-maker Tan Pin Pin. It is titled Invisible City. Unfortunately, I could not attend a preview screening of this documentary. Based on the website notes and the trailer, I have an inkling that it is an important film. Because it deals with this tussle between remembering and forgetting of a place or a space called Singapore. The Chinese title of the documentary translates as a record against forgetting. In her own words, the film is "less about Singapore and more about people who looked for Singapore, people who were propelled by curiosity to find a Singapore for themselves, on their own terms".

The film trailer has the director with two interviewees who remember another Singapore, a different Singapore. They have evidence and relics from their city of the past, in the form of pictures, of film, of audio recordings. But they display some hesitation to share their memories of Singapore. They caution, they advise the director to "censor", to ask in a correct manner. They remember a different Singapore, from one where most of us are persuaded to remember.

What the director has done is to remember those who remembered a different Singapore. An invisible city. Perhaps the director in this remembering, will have etched a silhouette of a different city, possible memories which we have forgotten or for the younger, never there. At the same time, the film is edged by a shadow of hesitancy and a little underlying fear of remembering another Singapore, another city. That somehow this memory is not right. Because it does not fit the Singapore Story. That we cannot remember this.

But sometimes we do. We do remember a different city. And why not?

If so, this documentary is a brave piece of art. Because it shares memories which would otherwise have been silent. Stories which would have remained untold. Because this film is about people who "find a Singapore for themselves, on their own terms".

In a previous post, I mentioned this moment of remembering Singapore, 70s Singapore, while in another city in the cusp of a gathering typhoon. Trying to reconstruct a memory I do not possess. Trying to feel for another Singapore, another remembrance that somehow, intuitively and disloyally, overtakes me in another city, another place, another space. Maybe I will be able to find that history, that city when I watch this film.

From her blog, I understand that Invisible City has no marketing budget. So I would appeal to my kind readers to help spread word on this film which premieres next week at the Arts House.

Because she has coaxed into existence, memories to be shared. Memories, which if kept, may otherwise have been lost.

Quote of the Day --

"I decided to seek out people who like me, choose Singapore as the topic of their work. I don’t mean where Singapore is the setting for their work, but where Singapore is the main subject. I was curious about whether I was the only person who found this country so interesting, enough to spend most of my professional life to date making films about its blind spots. I also wanted to thank and show my appreciation to those whose work on Singapore I admired and have benefited from. I sought out photographers, journalists, film directors, archaeologists who were observers and documenteurs of this city, past and present. The result of our interactions is Invisible City. It is a documentary less about Singapore and more about people who looked for Singapore, people who were propelled by curiosity to find a Singapore for themselves, on their own terms. So Invisible City is really about the basic human need to search, to question, to preserve evidence and to share one’s discoveries with others. It is about the need to be remembered for what one has seen and experienced, about the fear of being forgotten and unaccounted for." -- Tan Pin Pin, notes on the making of Invisible City