Category Archives: Mumblings

He Who Rebelled Against the Sun

I was born under the shadow of its light,
Doomed to the chill of its restless heat.
To forever prostrate myself in acquiescence
To the soundless music of the life infinite
It bestowed and it possessed.

I could not listen. I would not hear.
I turn away from the light that immolates
Regardless of my blaspheming eyelids.

Blood rays, fiery orange.

The light is all that is pain.
And I would surrender myself
To the deaf and blind.

Deafness, self-imposed,
That disables the soul.
Blindness, self-inflicted,
That breaks the better angels of our nature.

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Nausea

In a month’s time, he would say goodbye to the world of green, to its uniforms, to its cloth ranks, and the stunted life in nauseous limbo that it presented. If life was a movie, those two years of NS were the two great vertical bars hovering over a paused movie playback.

He, like many, had counted down with a fervent zealousness to the last day of army life. But for some reason, he was there this morning, a fractured boy, hugging himself pathetically on his bunk bed in the grips of an acrid nausea that creeped up on his soul since morning, until then unnoticed.

Nausea is a crippling affliction. Nausea incapacitates, nausea torments. It is a discomfiture, an anguish and a despair that seemed to emanate from the core of his soul.  And because it seemed so, he can only feel a surging loath for his own existence.

The nausea of his soul now was as clear and as pronounced as the caustic blue of the skies outside his bunk windows. With a striking suddenness, he had realised a simple truth: he did not want to ORD.

He had grown to love so very much the limbo that army gave him that he could not survive without it. He could not survive without this limbo, without this excuse from life and all its contingent terrors. He thought deeply and saw the unassailable fact that NS has been his perfect excuse from facing his faith and its proselytising he had run from, from facing family and home, from the failed relationships that was the unmistakable manifestation of his own moral and emotional failings. Those two years in an isolated world of green was the best holiday he had ever had even if it had been nauseating, and only now did he realise that he could not breathe in a world without NS.

And that was when the panic came with its full barrage: he couldn’t breathe, he shivered, he vomited, he tore at his own skin, he screamed his head off.

There was but one simple solution: he had to continue running from the terrors of living, one way or another.

He had to sign on. This nausea of the army was more bearable than the nausea without.

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Has art become a hoax?

I’m Coming Up is an 87 minute film, without dialogue or a plot or anything interesting whatsoever. Min-Wei Ting, the director, walks unflinchingly with a steadicam through all 21-storeys of a sleeping HDB flat in Jurong for a full one and half hours. A live band plays electro-acoustic noise as a background accompaniment to the film – the only redeeming element. (You can watch the SGIFF trailer here if you don’t get what I mean: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PzsgfBQYwQ)

By the fifth storey, about 20 minutes in, half of the cinema has walked out with a bitter taste of a wasted $13.

In the post-screening dialogue, which should have been a caustic post-mortem if not for the courtesy of the audiences that endured through all 87 minutes, Min-Wei Ting speaks nonchalantly and facetiously, almost sleepily. He may as well just not be present at all.

What were you trying to achieve? Hmmmm, I guess I was trying to say something the interplay between architecture and music. What is it that attracts you to this particular HDB block? Hmmm, I don’t know. I guess I liked it. Did you intend this as a metaphor for Singaporean society? Hmmmm, I don’t know. Yeah, maybe it was some kind of metaphor I think. I’ll leave it up to the audience. Why did you film the block counter-clockwise? Hmmmm, I don’t know. I guess I felt like it.

In this same spirit of self-congratulatory facetiousness, anyone could as well write a grandiloquent review on how the film has broken new ground in a “seamless exploration of space”, how it is a “true social-realist appraisal of Singaporean society” and how it has gone a full 9 more storeys than Eric Khoo’s seminal 12 Storeys. Up the ante, broke new ground, revolutionised a dying art form, paved a new path, popped a cherry. One could essentially say a lot but say nothing.

I’m Coming Up is yet another drop in an increasingly congested toilet bowl of local art films (or art works for that matter) that have either tried too hard or just didn’t try at all.

Daniel Hui’s Snakeskin (2014) is yet another shit local art film I’ve had the misfortunate to be bamboozled into watching (Joel has since abdicated his role in deciding what art films to watch next having selected an unbroken streak of shit films).

For all you know, this could just all be a practical joke. Made for the sole reason of poking fun at the self-absorbed state of film and modern art where everybody takes everything far too seriously. It’s just like how Salvador Dali’s 1929 Un Chien Andalou, meant to be a satirical parody of the surrealism, became a crowning poster child of the surrealist movement.

This inevitably brings me to my next point: there is a serious problem of demarcation of the arts. Where the scientific discipline has Karl Popper’s falsifiability, what criteria have we for art’s own problem of demarcation – what is of substance, and what is bullshit? What is art, and what is pseudo-art?

We give far too much latitude to the arts. Technical incompetence, directorial laziness, turgidity of an overweight script is passed off behind the excuse of artistic liberty. The artist has the final word. The artist says so. Critics are dismissed as mere labellers and cynics. Concept is now everything, and delivery is just reduced to an unimportant medium. I could very well turn a tiny carcass of an ant into a key museum exhibit just with a 500-word write up with oblique references to Nietzsche. Or a 4 hour still shot of an MRT escalator. Or montages of bird shit. As long as the concept sounds highbrow, I, the artist, am beyond any human dimension of reproach. Everything and anything can and will pass as art.

Let’s take a step back from the furthest fringes of modern art. Let’s take a look at how this lack of artistic quality has affected the mainstream.

Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice fell victim to directorial laziness at the very end. K. Rajagopal’s A Yellow Bird screwed over whatever promise and potential it had with an indolent and half-hearted script. You can’t just give the excuse of “it’s my artistic rights”. Neither can you just throw “open-ended endings” at the audience for lack of creativity in actually writing a compelling work. It’s not a deus ex machina that you can pass off as enigmatic, or open to intepretation or as any other tepid gimmick so popular with artist nowadays.

Incompetence should not be allowed to hide behind the license of artistic liberties. Especially so, if works with such potential like A Yellow Bird failed to take flight simply because of the whims of a director/screenplay resistant to the idea of trying harder. You’re selling yourself short and you don’t want to face up to what a waste it is.

This is no mere storm in a teacup. This is a serious problem for the health of our cultural community as a whole.

Pseudo-art affects the legitimacy of the cultural industry. If you want people to take you seriously, you have to start taking yourself seriously. And we need to hold ourselves up to higher standards. In a place as tiny and saturated as Singapore where art is a recently resuscitated cardiac arrest victim with one foot still stuck in its decomposing coffin, it matters a lot. An influx of pseudo-art could easily crowd out legitimate art and legitimate talent. And a streak of bad apples could easily undo years of rehabilitation of our cultural scene.

You make all art and the entire cultural industry look like a major hoax.

But it is not a hoax, and I refuse to believe it is a hoax. There have been great local works even in the tiny market of film that is the starting focus of this long and rambling post: I’ve watched and enjoyed a great many local films be it art films or experimental films. Not everything out there is shit, and shit shouldn’t be the default state of things.

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Thoughts: 1987

Me and S snuck into an R21 theatre for the first time in our lives today. It wasn’t sex, nor drug use, nor strong language that was the main attraction. It was anti-state subversion.

1987: Untracing the Conspiracy traces, through a series of concise interviews, the experience of 22 political detainees arrested in 1987 under the ISA for an alleged Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the Singaporean government. There were no weapons, no evidence, not even Marxist inclinations, just concocted confessions. It’s a shocker that a film so blatantly defiant of The National Narrative could pass through censors with a mere R21 rating. Jason Soo, director and visionary behind the film, illuminates us with a subtler answer: banning Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore with Love in 2013 merely invoked the Streisand effect, whereas a less publicity-screaming R21 rating in this case would bury the film under the immanent amnesia of the Singaporean public.

I’ve watched some incredible films that have incited great anger in me; this was another one of them. Torture, repression, injustice, Kafka-esque absurdity – the full Orwellian treatment spelt out in the soft and quiet confines of my very country’s history. Unthinkable. Unpalatable. Impossible to swallow.

If I was born just two generations earlier, I would have very easily been one of those former detainees sitting there before an audience, talking about the absurdity of my experience under the boot and the truncheon. Throughout the film, I was silently cursing myself for all my explicit dabbling in Marxist-themed pranks, and all the troves of pro-Maoist conversations on my phone. All of that along with the Little Red Book beside my bed would serve as enough a body of evidence for a 30-year stint in solitary confinement.

Unlike the 1987 treatment of the detainees where their prime-time television confessions was their last words to the world, this screening inverted that hierarchy with a post-screening dialogue. The detainees themselves will speak last, not the manipulative medium of film and media.

“What can we as private citizens do against such monolithic state power?” is the penultimate question of the dialogue which stretched longer than what I imagined the attention span of a Singaporean could last.

Tan Tee Seng shrugs and laughs in response, “We can’t do anything.”

We can only want for a country with an accountable government, with the rule of law, said he. That the ISA is a suspension of law, is the one running comment that next to every one on stage has reiterated.

In a private conversation, S and I talk to Vincent Cheng, the alleged ring leader of the conspiracy, now a mild-mannered white-haired man . He says there’s hope. He smiles at us, young boys, unshaven with our black NS spectacles and army haircuts.

He thanks us for our support. We thank him for his courage.

It’s been almost three decades. Lee Kuan Yew is dead. There are 6 opposition members of parliament. The Internet is a superstructure that the state has not been able to subsume. And the ISA still stands, an unchanged institution.

What has changed? A lot has changed.

What has changed? Nothing has changed.

Was it worth it? For political expediency? For economic stability? Mere collateral damage of the wisdom and grand schemes of our paternal leaders? It’s not up to me to judge – that would be the correct answer. I am no president scholar, nor a white-shirted, white-pants minister. I am just a coward, I would confess to every damn thing they accuse me of.

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Flight of the Lights

2354 is the last train to Pasir Ris. I want to miss it but the moment I step on board I am whisked away like an ant in an emptying sink. The train launches herself out of the station and disappears into the kaleidoscope of the fluorescent and incandescent. Night is the swathe of black that is the canvas on which light is life. Oh how they soar all about us in the lightness of hyperspeed. They all seem like headless folk rushing headlong but then it is they that is stationery and I that is hurtling.

I crushed a cockroach with my boots not because I had to but because I wanted to. I wanted to know how the power to kill so callously would feel like. Its little consciousness oozed out of its shattered and battered shell into nothingness. I felt it go under the hard rubber of my boot heels.

0520 is the first train to Joo Koon. Sobriety is the burnt wisp of a tasteless, stubbed cigarette. Those white fluorescents of the carriage are a firing squad of dry interrogation lights on the crimson wetness of sight. I have in my wretched hands the morning paper – her words are of a foreign land, an alien world.

My heels reek of the stench of a dead cockroach. It is a stench that intrudes into her brain.

Dentures for the toothless

They talked about excursions. I talked about a mechanism for action. They talked about excursions. I talked about my worries of our inability to act effectively in the rigid rank-and-file. They talked about excursions. I talked about shoring up legitimacy and recognition (because they are essential stepping stones for ground support). They talked about excursions. I talked about the need for savviness in diplomacy while being firm. They talked and talked. And talked.

I am no unionist. I have no subversive or revolutionary ambitions, but it does not mean I have no ambitions for this committee. But excursions are so utterly feeble a contribution for a committee established with far greater aims, especially so in a community so plagued with such immense resentment and tensions.

For someone who has studied colonial history, this committee is remarkably reminiscent of vapid collaborative independence movements – paper, soft, toothless, biteless, inconsequential.

Just because we are handicapped by the system does not mean we have to conform ourselves to irrelevance. Institutional action and redress is still possible with a viable mechanism.

My posters have gone up around camp to the raised eyebrows of army regulars. They smell insurgency.

But the toothless see no use for dentures. They just want liquid food and IV drips.

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Thoughts: Geng Rebut Cabinet

In Philip K. Dick’s Man in High Castle, we are presented a parallel universe where the Allies lost the war and America is carved up into occupied territories of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. From that very promising premise, he tumbles into his drug-laced rambling about the I Ching and mutable truths and realities. Alfian Sa’at however, does it quite differently. Thankfully.

In Alfian Sa’at’s Geng Rebut Cabinet, Singapore’s racial dynamics are inverted with the Chinese now as the minority and the Malays, the majority (I suppose this would be a wet dream of his). And with such a promising premise, Alfian launches (thankfully, I must emphasise) into an emotive and effective satire of politics and the “Chinese privilege” (gosh how much I hate that lazy little term).

Alienation is Alfian’s weapon: I come in completely disorientated by a play that begins in Melayu and I am fed by rather unreliable subtitles while the rest of the audience laughs comfortably to Malay jokes I don’t get. Over and over again, I am unsettled by an unfamiliar yet familiar world where my race, something I care little about, and its accompanying package of language, world view, stereotypes, behaviours and tradition has taken up such self-consciousness.

In a witty and uncannily familiar end, the Chinese minority candidate of the GRC team is punished for violating OB markers in her rally speeches not with expulsion from the party but the crushing coup de grâce of appointment to the seat of Speaker of Parliament. The Speaker of Parliament, as we are all aware of, is handicapped with the inability to table any bills or raise any issues in parliament and when given to a minority MP, it merely reinforces the perception that minorities in parliament are merely tokenistic representation. No surprises that in real life, Halimal Yacob is our Speaker of Parliament.

(I should also mention that one of the actors, Fir Rahman, was the main lead in Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice which was breathlessly good!)

How very alienating when suddenly, your race is depicted as the victims of bullshit like this.

And because the play alienates and disturbs me, the play has succeeded. It has stabbed in my stomach with a stiletto the issue of racial disempowerment and institutional racism, in all its subtlety and nuance, to a Chinese majority that could otherwise feel only faint empathy.

After the play, Joel and I sat in a panel discussion with Alfian, Daniel Goh, Mohamed Imran, Braema Mathi and with moderator Janice Koh (I felt like the police would raid the cafe any moment – oh boy I tend to get that feeling quite very often), where they launch into a long dialogue and left many deep scratches on the surface of this issue that Alfian has been so impassioned about.

I’ve always wanted to watch an Alfian Sa’at play, not just read them. And there we have it, the first Alfian Sa’at play I’ve watched, and I’m already profoundly disturbed.

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Cultural Cringe

Alright so I’ve been discovering (and falling in love with) a lot of Singaporean music recently. While I’ve explored and appreciated the pioneering Singaporean music acts like The Thunderbirds, The Stylers, The Quest, etc, it’s only recently that I started discovering the more recent ones.

I can’t describe how madly in love I am with The Observatory. I shook Leslie’s hands at their most recent gig at Keong Siak Street and told him how much I loved their music. (Holy fuck I shook his hand, oh my gosh!) He asked for my name and smiled. (Oh my gosh, he asked for my name!) And then I started exploring earlier music acts by Leslie and The Observatory members like the Humpback Oak (which I’ve also fallen madly in love with). Then there’s the Stoned Revivals, and the Great Spy Experiment.

I’ve always been particularly impressed by the kind of original creativity, avant-garde experimenting and strong script-writing that The Observatory exudes. It’s not exactly something I’ve been cynically inculcated to expect of the local arts scene – that it is dull, barren, run-of-the-mill and an idiomatic dead-end. I can still remember how pleasantly bewildered I was when I listened to The Observatory for the first time at the fact that it was lyrically and musically sophisticated, it was original and it was good. It was something you’d last expect from a local band.

To illustrate my point, when The Observatory started playing at the carnival, there was a surprised crowd. Surprised because (1) those guys on stage were Singaporean, and; (2) those guys on stage were good. And “Singaporean” and “good music-making” are mutually incompatible in the eyes of many (or maybe just mine, for the past 19 years of my life).

I had a horrifying realisation this morning that Electrico was a Singaporean band. I’ve had a few of their songs in my music collection that I inherited from my sisters and I’ve always unthinkingly assumed that they were some obscure indie group from the land of the ang mohs. It just didn’t occur to me that a local band could mimic (okay “mimic”, is mean. I meant “match”) the kind of professional music-making vibe, skill and originality that one would expect from a billboard’s chart music act.

(“Mimic” would be a blasphemous word to use to describe The Observatory because their impassioned music-making has created its own entire unique music genre. I suppose the angsty political material that they feed on gives rise to a lot of emotion and inspiration, something rare in this little island. And of course, their music isn’t the everyone’s cup of tea.)

It was a horrifying realisation because it revealed just how prejudiced I’ve been brought up to be towards local potential – prejudicial, dismissive, cynical. And how much I’ve missed out because of this wilful ignorance. And it also reveals a desperate need for arts education for the public – our music scene, our theatre groups, our visual arts, our performing arts, our writers, our poets, our painters, our film-makers.

Not the contrite low-quality made-for-cheap-laughs Jack Neo-esque imitations, but the actual thing: things like The Observatory, things like The Quests, or xinyao, or Kuo Pao Kun or Haresh Sharma. Call it nationalism or whatever, but it’s nice to have something you’re proud of to call your own.

My gosh, there’s so much out there I have to explore and to love.

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Reading is subversion

What if the national library deliberately and overtly maintains a collection of subversive titles just so as to bait potential political dissidents into the open? Along with tracking of your book depository purchases? I mean after all, while political activism and mobilisation is clear evidence of subversive intention and action, reading is an indication of potential subversive tendencies. And avid readers are intellectuals, smart people, and the founding father says the smart people are the most dangerous (*gasp*!)

It’s the best means to crack down on subversion before it erupts into full-blown revolutionary anti-state dissent like talking about elections on cooling-off day, listening to local punk-rock, having long hair, voting for the opposition, joining an NGO, liking an anti-establishment Facebook page or even (*gasp*!) organising a demonstration at the Speakers’ Corner!

Perhaps one day we’ll eventually see people arrested and interrogated by the ISD due purely to conjectures of anti-state subversion based upon a single piece of evidence – your list of borrowed library books of the past decade. Don’t forget the eight hour interrogations in 15 degree celsius air-conditioned rooms, surrounded by burly interrogators and threats of indefinite detention. Oh and the signed confessions of participation in a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the state in an armed insurrection, although you possess no arms, only borrowed books.

Absurd indeed. But anything, however ridiculous, is a plausibility when people’s lives are intruded upon, houses raided with a search warrant, their possessions confiscated simply because they posted comments on the elections on their personal social media accounts on cooling-off day.

And I used to believe faithfully that a touchy and errant police service has come a long way since 1987.

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The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

An afternoon browse at the library turned out to be rather serendipitous. I found The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye and quickly added it to my check-out pile of poem collections and political theory books.

By late afternoon, I had ravenously devoured all of it up.

There is a certain brilliance that shines through each page. It is informed by both a perceptive historical and socio-political leanings as well as an impeccable cultural taste. You taste his gnawing obsession with issues of language politics, Asian values and civil liberties on every page and every shade of colour. It’s a refined mix of foreign and locally influenced views on the Singaporean narrative.

The meta-persona of the comic takes the form of a luckless comic artist who bears witness to the nation’s economic development and cultural deterioration, and through it all, remains both an outsider and a victim of it, and at the same time, at heart a closet dissident always.

Sonny Liew’s artistic voice is clear and powerful through it all – the loud, boyish and innocent idealism that gradually evolves into a subtle and muted bitterness. More than an ode of love to one’s nationhood, it is instead one artist’s attempt to make sense of the inanities, tragedies and miracles of his nation’s story from pre-independence to the contemporary. And thus, Liew builds a bildungsroman in every sense and on multiple layers – that of the persona and that of the nation and its spirit.

He (and his persona) is a dissident through and through – the overt sympathy for the likes of Lim Chin Siong, JB Jeya, the Chinese Middle School students and their lost mother tongues; and his markedly less impassioned depictions of Lee Kuan Yew and his Machiavellian and talented authoritarian tendencies. (I can’t emphasise enough how much I enjoyed the subtlety and satire in some of the more provocative insets.)

He is also at the same time a great lover of the nostalgic. You may just mistake his work sometimes as sponsored by the Singapore Memory Project.

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If you look closely, you can still see the printed Arts Council logo before they withdrew funding *wink*

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