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Archive for the ‘Singapore’ Category

 

LGBT+ artists – creating everything from movies to music – say state censorship, far from a deterrent, acts as a muse

By Sonia Sarkar

SINGAPORE, Oct 16 (Openly) – Homosexuality is banned in Singapore and arts are strictly censored – yet performers say the tough line helps foment a thriving, LGBT+ cultural scene in this conservative city state.

Drag artists stage sellout shows at upmarket bars, gay performance poets are in demand and singers use rap to come out.

Gay sex remains illegal – even in private – but LGBT+ artists feel they now have a firm foothold in popular culture.

The tiny island plays host to three LGBT+ arts festivals a year and performers say their work stands in resistance to the government as they weave past censors to reach a wider audience.

“It is our way of pointing at the world we live in and saying it’s ridiculous and wrong,” said drag queen Becca D’Bus, whose shows attract a young, prosperous and professional crowd in some of the city’s busiest downtown bars.

LGBT+ artists – creating everything from movies to music – say state censorship, far from a deterrent, acts as a muse.

“The harshness of the government … increases the ingenuity of artists in staging events without actually using words like ‘queer’ or ‘gay’,” said poet and author Cyril Wong.

“A word such as ‘gender’ is used instead.”

Gay sex between men – though not women – is a crime in the Southeast Asian city state, a state governed on strict lines and conservative values.

“In terms of laws, our rights for gay and bi men are bad. Gay sex is still a jailable offence. This is worse than many other neighbouring countries where gay sex is not illegal,” said writer Ng Yi-Sheng. “But again, we haven’t had crackdowns on gay men such as in Malaysia and Indonesia.”

Lawmakers are cautious on social reform, citing the rich ethnic and religious mix in Singapore’s 5.6 million inhabitants.

Activists are increasingly pushing back against the ban on gay sex, aiming for change in the courts and an end to discrimination across their young and modern society.

“From theatre to performance and visual art exhibitions, LGBT+ artists in Singapore have slowly carved out space and pushed the comfort zone for dialogue around gay counterculture,” said Tristan Cai, a Singaporean, who teaches art and Asian studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in the United States.

LGBT+ festivals such as Pink Dot, Queer Zinefest and Love and Pride Film Festival have sprung up as a form of resistance against state restrictions on LGBT+ art and culture.

In July, popular musician Joshua Su came out to his parents by releasing a new track on which he raps: “G-A-Y-B-O-Y OK.”

Academics say the high-profile arts scene helps the wider push for LGBT+ rights.

“The LGBTQ community has been working hard for inclusion and against discrimination over the past decade….Their efforts have contributed to a level of greater acceptance in Singapore society,” says Ian Chong, associate professor in the department of political science at National University of Singapore.

The National Arts Council, a government funding body, said art had “the power to bring people in our diverse, multicultural society together” and reflected the many voices of Singapore.

QUEERNESS

“I talk a lot about queerness in my comedy, trying to debunk myths and stereotypes people may have about me,” 32-year-old bisexual poet and stand-up comedian Stephanie Chan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Film-makers have learnt to use the internet to get round the state censors of their LGBT+ output.

“If we were to make a film to show in cinemas, we will have to get a classification rating and some scenes may get cut,” said filmmaker Leon Cheo.

“Queer festivals make us feel less alone since social discrimination never goes away,” said 42-year-old poet and author Cyril Wong, a winner of the Singapore Literature Prize.

Yet Singapore has liberal credentials compared to some countries in the region.

Brunei sparked outcry this year over plans to impose the death penalty for gay sex, then backtracked after intense global criticism. In neighbouring Malaysia, the authorities caned two women last year after they were convicted of same-sex relations.

Popular opinion in Singapore appears divided.

Last year, an Ipsos survey revealed 55% of Singaporeans support the ban on gay sex. Yet a study by the Singapore-based Institute of Policy Studies found six in 10 people aged 18-25 believe same-sex marriage is not wrong.

Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong says his country occupies a middle ground on LGBT+ rights.

“We are not like San Francisco, neither are we like certain countries in the Middle East,” Lee told a conference in June.

“It’s something in between. It’s the way this society is.”

CENSORED

All plays and public performances – including poetry readings – must be screened and approved by the government’s Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA).

There are no official statistics on how much content is banned each year and the IMDA declined to comment.

In 2007, Ng was banned from reading a short story at a Pride event as it described a civil servant who turned gay after reading a piece of erotica.

“I felt indignant and frustrated, but it was also funny. By banning my story about a banned story, they were fulfilling this image of Singapore as a censor-happy nation,” Ng said, noting the irony of the government banning a story about censorship.

The National Arts Council (NAC) said it had regularly supported Ng’s projects.

Yet many gay artists and writers say their projects are rejected by the NAC and complain of missing out on teaching jobs at public universities.

A spokesman for the NAC said the body supported all artists and arts groups “according to our strategic priorities”.

The situation has improved immeasurably since the 1990s, Wong said, when LGBT+ art was limited to independent galleries or low-key informal events for fear of police persecution.

Now, there is more of a spirit of openness with local companies sponsoring festivals since as PinkDot, he added.

“This freedom cannot be underestimated,” Wong said.

Mainstream media, such as digital sites Today and Nylon Magazine, also prominently feature drag queens, added D’Bus.

The other visible change is that people – from both the straight and LGBT+ communities – flock to her shows.

“I find fun, glamour, frivolity, beauty and pleasure productive,” she said.

“They bring people together.”

[This story appeared in Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Openly on 16/10/2019. Original Link to the story: https://www.openlynews.com/i/?id=5d144d0b-a97b-4f83-8d31-de015cc60789%5D

(Reporting by Sonia Sarkar @sonia_26; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths and Hugo Greenhalgh. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.

 

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because it’s bringing fearless art to an often fearsome place.

By Sonia Sarkar

The metal gate at 120A on Prinsep Street in the heart of Singapore is nondescript. A casual glance and you might think what lies beyond is a run-down shipping yard. But within the stacked black shipping containers something unexpected is taking place.

Welcome to DECK, Singapore’s independent art space. Ascend the metal staircase and you’ll find three galleries, an analog darkroom, a library and a studio, all free from government control and censorship, a rarity in this artistically conservative city-state.

artist Tristan Cai at his exhibition at DECK.

Artist Tristan Cai at his exhibition at DECK, “The Aesthetics of Disappearance.”

SOURCE SONIA SARKAR

DECK — it stands for “Discovery Engagement Community Knowledge” — is a space that “gives photographers and the public an opportunity to discover, question and reinforce their creative processes and be inspired by photography,” says artistic director Gwen Lee. The idea for the gallery came to Lee and her colleague Jay Lau while they were organizing the 2012 biennial Singapore International Photography Festival. Both were looking for artistic space in crowded Singapore. Shipping containers, which also reflect the character of the port city, made sense. Two years later, thanks to donations and sponsorships, the 4,450-square-foot structure, designed by Ho Tzu Yin of Laud Architects, opened on a narrow strip of land in Singapore’s central business district.

The gallery’s main goal is to provoke conversations — sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes downright taboo — through photography. “Censorship comes down hardest when the artist touches upon issues related to LGBT, [the] state’s perspective of race and multifaith policies, and [its] past security operations,” says Singapore artist Jason Wee.

INDEPENDENT ART SPACES ARE NECESSARY IN A NANNY STATE LIKE SINGAPORE…

In April, during bicentennial celebrations in which British colonizers were commemorated by the government, DECK featured an exhibition by U.S.-based Tristan Cai. His “The Aesthetics of Disappearance” examines the relationship between houseboys and their colonial masters and questions how history is constructed and narrated by those in power. In 2016, the gallery hosted a book launch party for Broy Lim, whose and now they know  explores his coming out (homosexuality is still illegal in Singapore). “Silenced Minority,” a photo essay of Singapore’s general elections that included opposition rallies, a topic rarely covered in mainstream media, was featured in 2015.

Deck ii

The minimalist interior of one DECK gallery.

SOURCE DECK, DARREN SOH

So how does DECK get away with giving an artistic middle finger to state censorship? First, the building is independently owned — most visual arts galleries in Singapore lease space from the National Arts Council (NAC). Second, it’s mostly independently funded. These conditions allow the gallery to run the exhibitions it wants to (work shown in galleries that lease space from the NAC is subject to government approval). However, any exhibitions that involve nudity and sexuality require an M18 certificate (no one under 18 years is allowed entry).

Independent art spaces are necessary in a nanny state like Singapore, where state funding influences art, says local artist Seelan Palay. It’s a situation that “contributes to the climate of control” and fear, which leads to censorship and self-censorship, adds Palay, who runs Coda Culture, another independent art space.

As expected, DECK has encountered its share of opposition. Sometimes newspapers print exhibition announcements late, or not at all, Lee says. There have been delays on M18 certificate approvals, and repeated requests for assurances from gallery owners or curators that pieces have “been exhibited elsewhere without censorship,” she adds. “As of today, we have managed to carry out what we have planned. And we continue to keep trying without giving up.”

singapore shipping gallery v1
Video source: Sonia Sarkar

Such is not the case for other independent art galleries here. Many have closed down due to lack of funding. DECK has managed to stay afloat operating on revenue from artwork sales, open house events, public workshops and public donations. Still, it’s challenging to compete with the bigger institutions when it comes to visitors, Lee says, since photography is only one aspect of the arts scene. “The challenge of sustainability is a constant,” she says.

Deck photo

DECK has three galleries, an analog darkroom, a library and a studio

SOURCE DECK, DARREN SOH

Despite this, DECK presses on, offering educational programs for young photographers and collaborating with educators on incorporating photography into arts curricula. There are plans to work with historians and researchers to gather more research and writing on Singapore photography in the region.

In the end, it’s all about staying true to art. DECK values critical discourse over fear of backlash, says Cai, who also teaches photography at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. With exhibitions that he calls “diverse, challenging and relevant,” the gallery offers a unique opportunity to see uncensored photography in a place where censorship is often close at hand.

DECK is open Tuesday to Saturday, 12 – 7 pm, and Sunday, 12 – 5 pm. Admission is $4.

  • Sonia Sarkar, OZY Author 

Link: https://www.ozy.com/good-sht/the-gallery-giving-an-artistic-middle-finger-to-censorship-in-singapore/95830/

 

By Sonia Sarkar

 

All of 5ft, 6 inches, Ramaswamy Madhavan looks unassuming. But as he begins to recite his poem, Empty World, one is drawn to his rich and resonant voice, eagerly telling his story—a story of struggle and existence in Singapore.

Madhavan, 28, originally from Tamil Nadu’s Karaikudi, is a site engineer at a construction firm in Singapore. Every day, after working for more than 10 hours, he returns to the room he shares with five others and sits down to write in Tamil. It is poetry that gives him solace, away from home and family—his farmer parents, three sisters and fiancée.

Like him, many migrant workers in Singapore have taken refuge in the written word. They highlight their daily lives of drudgery and the wrenching heartache of being away from home through their poetry. They publish memoirs, participate in literary workshops, win competitions and make short films inspired by their life experiences.

“Writing is cathartic to me. I write to express my pent-up emotions,” says Madhavan as he fiddles with his phone, which stores about 100 poems he has written in his three years in Singapore.

Madhavan, who earns around $43 (around 3,060) a day, is one of 972,600 lower-skilled and low-wage migrant workers with work permits in Singapore, according to Singapore’s ministry of manpower. Dressed in high-visibility vests, mud-stained trousers, rugged boots and white helmets, migrant workers can be spotted everywhere in this ever-expanding city, but not many Singaporeans and expats interact with them.

Ramaswamy Madhavan and local poet and playwright Nabilah Said with copies of ‘Call And Response’.

Ramaswamy Madhavan and local poet and playwright Nabilah Said with copies of ‘Call And Response’.

Besides India, there are workers from Bangladesh, Malaysia, China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar, who are employed at Singapore’s construction sites, in the marine sector and at people’s homes. They arrive believing Singapore to be a city of dreams, but soon encounter the harsh reality.

Foreign workers have to grapple with exorbitant recruitment fees to agents, non-payment and underpayment of salary, lack of contracts or employment terms, injury, lack of medical care, forced repatriation and premature termination, says Debbie Fordyce, president of the Singapore-based non-governmental organization Transient Workers Count Too.

The ministry of manpower’s June report, however, claimed foreign workers were satisfied with their working conditions. A spokesperson for the ministry declined to comment on the problems of migrant workers.

But their voices are now finding an outlet. Shivaji Das, a Singaporean writer-photographer of Indian origin, started the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition in 2014 with a few others. “After listening to their poetry, many people, in a condescending tone, have told me, ‘I didn’t know migrant workers have such sophisticated thoughts,’” he says.

Many cases of abuse or negligence have been reported in this city state. In early August, a Singaporean woman was sentenced to 11 years in jail for physically abusing an Indonesian domestic worker, who was hit with a hammer, stone pestle and bamboo pole. In March, a Singaporean couple was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for caning their foreign domestic helper. In 2017, a Bangladeshi worker died after falling off the edge of a building at a construction site.

Migrant workers generally earn $13-57 for 10-12 hours of work. Sometimes, they work for three months at a stretch. Some workers can afford to visit their homes only once in three-four years. Male workers live in cramped dormitories. Women, most of whom are domestic workers, live with the families they work for. “Many employers of both domestic and construction workers take away mobile phones and confiscate passports too,” says Md Sharif Uddin, an author whose memoir of living as a migrant worker in Singapore won the Best Non-Fiction Title at the Singapore Book Awards last year. Stranger To Myself (2017), which also has a collection of his poems, talks about inhumane working conditions and his longing for home.

Migrant workers taking a break in the central business district.
Migrant workers taking a break in the central business district. (Photo: Reuters)

The stories that don’t make news are narrated by migrant workers themselves. Madhavan, with Zakir Hossain Khokan—a TEDxSingapore speaker who encourages migrant workers to be vocal about their problems through art and literature—has just wrapped up production of their short film, Salary Day. It highlights how a worker’s meagre monthly salary of SGD$450 (around 23,000) finishes on the first day itself after he pays off debts, buys basic necessities and sends some money home.

Another Indian worker, N. Rengarajan, in his poem Life Overseas: Pluses And Minuses (originally written in Tamil), narrates what it is like to live in a foreign land where they can “buy everything that has a price” but not “love and affection”. Thirty women domestic workers have penned down their experiences in a book, Our Homes, Our Stories, released in 2018.

Sherwin Mendoza of De Anza College in California, in his paper Singapore’s Migrant Worker Poetry, Worker Resistance, And International Solidarity, released in July, writes that such poems are part of the “broad continuum of working-class poetry”.

For Rengarajan, the 33-year-old from Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai who has been working in Singapore since 2014—first as a construction worker and now as a supervisor—poetry “fills the vacuum” in his life. “I write even in my sleep,” laughs Rengarajan, who won the third prize in the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition in 2014 for Lessons From Circumstances.

For Khokan, 41, winner of the 2014 competition, poetry “soothes and enriches” the soul. Indonesian domestic worker Deni Apriyani, 29, who won the same competition in 2017 for her poem Further Away, says writing gives her “a sense of liberation”.

Yeo Siew Hua, the Singaporean director of A Land Imagined, a film on migrant workers in the city state, says film and literature help create awareness of injustice.

Some Singapore-based independent publishers, such as Math Paper Press, Landmark Books and Ethos Books, have released anthologies and books carrying translated versions of the poems as well as memoirs written by the migrant workers in their mother tongues. Their aim is to nurture these voices in the growing literary community in Singapore.

Locals have started helping migrant workers to get their voices heard. A Bengali paper, Banglar Kantha, has reserved space for Bangladeshi workers-turned-poets to showcase their literary work, while a cultural space called Dibashram has come up in Little India, a migrant-worker dominated area, to showcase their music and poetry. Sing Lit Station, a non-profit literary group, conducts writing workshops for migrant workers.

In this nanny state which keeps a strict vigil on its people, migrant workers often “self-censor” their poetry. “They haven’t written as much on issues such as work-injury related claims and employer apathy. They fear that if they write about these issues, they will be sent back home,” says Das. Starvation, penury and death, however, are often addressed in poems.

Filipina worker-turned-poet Rolinda Onates Espanola, in her poem My Story, which won the 2016 Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, highlights the torture of domestic worker Thelma Oyasan Gawidan by her employers. The employers were eventually convicted and jailed in 2017.

It reads: Not allowed handphone not allowed to bathe every day even brushing teeth too/ Can’t talk to anybody not even to my fellow Filipino/ Worst to my disgrace, noodles and slices of bread is my only sustenance.

Sharif Uddin writes about an Indian construction worker, Velu, who was knocked down by a bus in 2013, in Velu And A HistoryLook, there Velu goes with empty hands/ while Development, Progress, Civilization laughs.

In an untitled poem, Madhavan writes about how migrant workers sell everything to come to work in Singapore.

A migrant workers’ centre in Singapore.
A migrant workers’ centre in Singapore. (Photo: Reuters)

Sold off agricultural land/ Left the farming job/ Stepped on to the aeroplane and landed in another land/ Woke up early morning and hurried to shed the tears/blood.

A graduate in civil engineering from Chennai’s Sree Sastha Institute of Engineering and Technology, Madhavan would have stayed back in India if job prospects had been better. He began penning his thoughts, and months after arriving in Singapore in 2016, submitted a poem on food scarcity, titled Offering To God, to Das’ poetry competition. Shortlisted as among the best 12 entries, it motivated him to write more. His poem Empty World, on his desire to meet his fiancée, featured in an anthology of poems called Call And Response, published by Math Paper Press, in which 30 migrant poets paired with local writers last year.

Select publishers may have provided space to such workers but writer Cyril Wong is doubtful if mainstream publishers would take a chance on the work of migrant workers not writing in English. “It would take forever for any migrant worker to gain enough social and cultural traction in order to penetrate mainstream writing. Which migrant worker has the time to gain such traction?” asks Wong, who helped Bangladeshi migrant-worker poet Md Mukul Hossine “transcreate” his book of poems, Me Migrant, in 2016

Indeed, writing comes to them only after a day’s hard work, when they are travelling back to their residences in the empty MRT, bus or company van.

Singaporean film-maker Upneet Kaur-Nagpal, who made the documentary Poets On Permits (2017), featuring five workers-turned-poets, says the conversation about migrant workers is growing, but it still lacks empathy. They are individuals with “dreams, aspirations, joys and fears, familiar to all of us”, she adds.

It’s a long haul but the poetry competition has given them recognition, says Madhavan. “Because of our literary accomplishments showcased at the competition, we have made a place in the heart of a few locals,” he says. “Sometimes, when we eat our lunch at food courts, locals smile at us and say makan well (meaning “eat well” in Malay).”

One of their biggest dreams is to go back home—but they often feel they have no choice. “My family takes lot of pride that I live in Singapore. It is difficult to explain to them my condition here,” says Sharif Uddin, who has been home only four times in 11 years.

Sometimes, huge debts back home tie them to the jobs forever.

And there is never enough money, as Rengarajan writes in his poem MoneyA peculiar disease/ The world’s deadliest afflictions/ cancer, AIDS, ebola/ even love/kill by their presence./ Money alone kills by absence.

Madhavan, however, is looking forward to going home in November for his wedding and saving enough to bring his wife along. For home is where there is hope—“a hope for a new beginning”.

The story was published in Lounge, the Sunday edition of Live Mint: https://www.livemint.com/mint-lounge/features/poetry-of-the-proletarians-1565942432596.html: August 16, 2019.

 

Largely conformists, Singaporeans, for a change, are asking, ‘Why are we celebrating colonial rule?’

It’s celebration time in Singapore. Exhibitions, heritage walks, light and sound shows, and fireworks — Singaporeans are spoilt for choice. Ideally, celebrations should make one happy; but it isn’t the case here. The ruling People’s Action Party is commemorating 200 years of the arrival of the British statesman, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, in Singapore with a bicentennial pageantry. Largely conformists, Singaporeans, for a change, are asking — ‘Why are we celebrating colonial rule?’

People are cynical about the government’s intentions as they suspect that the bicentennial is another attempt by the PAP to propagate nationalism before the elections in 2020. The apprehension is genuine. At the inauguration of the bicentennial in January this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “Without 1819 (the year Raffles arrived), we may never have launched on the path to nationhood as we know it today.” In this speech, which sounded more like a National Day address, Loong added, “For we are never done building Singapore. It is every generation’s duty to keep on building, for our children, and for our future.”

Loong’s critics say that the bicentennial is an occasion for the PAP to not only legitimize existing colonial policies and laws on repression and detention without trial but also drum up nationalistic fervour. The year-round festivities, which are likely to get bigger during the National Day Parade on August 9, will surely have a feel-good effect on voters because the people are now repeatedly reminded about the early turbulent days before the British, who turned Singapore into a modern port, arrived in 1819 and how the PAP took over the responsibility to make Singapore a first-world economy after decolonization.

The last time the PAP invoked nationalistic sentiments as part of a big celebration was during ‘SG50’ in 2015 when Singapore completed 50 years of its Independence and separation from Malaysia. It was the PAP’s idea to let the people celebrate all things that are ‘uniquely’ Singaporean months before the previous election. It was a national project in which the party wanted to build history, memories and a national identity. The PAP wanted every citizen to have an attachment to the country and foster a national team spirit in the next 50 years.

Nationhood and national identity are the two favourite words in the PAP’s dictionary as Stephan Ortmann noted in a paper titled Singapore: The Politics of Inventing National Identity. Over the years, the PAP has reiterated that Singapore prioritizes ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘communitarianism’ for ‘nation-building’. There is a concerted effort to promote multiculturalism in schools, public housing estates and the National Service as these are places for communities to mix with one another. Those in power claim that they articulate the true will of the collective nation.

This idea of nationhood has also been built upon a sense of insecurity that has been instilled in people who are forced to believe that the PAP is the only party that can protect Singaporeans from the ‘enemy’ which is, of course, neighbouring Malaysia. The frosty Singapore-Malaysia relation has worked as an advantage for the PAP.

It is somewhat similar to what the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is doing in India — telling people that it is only the BJP that works for the nation’s interest and that only the BJP has the ability to protect Indians from the ‘enemy’ — Pakistan.

Again, like the BJP government in India, which has made a slogan of brave Indian jawans to fan nationalistic sentiments, even using them as a weapon to fight elections, the PAP has often used the armed forces as a card to stoke nationalism. Of late, glossy advertisements of men in uniform carrying guns are spotted in public spaces. Gun-toting men are seen guarding the MRT stations in the central business district, giving an impression of a potential threat. This, once again, fits into the government propaganda of geopolitical ‘dangers’ threatening the country.

Critics allege that this is also a diversionary tactic by the government that is being used at a time when people are complaining about rising prices, low wages and growing inequality. This is also an attempt to turn people’s attention away from the subtle voices that are demanding greater accountability, transparency and democracy from the government. Not surprisingly, such voices are also being silenced by a growing number of over-zealous, self-styled vigilantes — online and offline — who deeply believe in the government’s nationalistic narrative that Singapore will fail as a nation without the PAP at the helm. They call these critics ‘communists’ or ‘traitors’, terms used by the PAP to describe its opponents.

Sounds familiar?

Thankfully though, every country, no matter how tiny it is, has its own bunch of ‘traitors’ or ‘anti-nationals’ who know the difference between loving the country and loving the government.

This appeared in The Telegraph — https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/singapore-s-bicentennial-pageantry-and-scepticism/cid/1689767  on May 2, 2019

The last time the PAP invoked nationalistic sentiments as part of a big celebration was during ‘SG50’ in 2015 when Singapore completed 50 years of its Independence and separation from Malaysia. It was the PAP’s idea to let the people celebrate all things that are ‘uniquely’ Singaporean months before the previous election. It was a national project in which the party wanted to build history, memories and a national identity. The PAP wanted every citizen to have an attachment to the country and foster a national team spirit in the next 50 years.

Nationhood and national identity are the two favourite words in the PAP’s dictionary as Stephan Ortmann noted in a paper titled Singapore: The Politics of Inventing National Identity. Over the years, the PAP has reiterated that Singapore prioritizes ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘communitarianism’ for ‘nation-building’. There is a concerted effort to promote multiculturalism in schools, public housing estates and the National Service as these are places for communities to mix with one another. Those in power claim that they articulate the true will of the collective nation.

This idea of nationhood has also been built upon a sense of insecurity that has been instilled in people who are forced to believe that the PAP is the only party that can protect Singaporeans from the ‘enemy’ which is, of course, neighbouring Malaysia. The frosty Singapore-Malaysia relation has worked as an advantage for the PAP.

It is somewhat similar to what the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is doing in India — telling people that it is only the BJP that works for the nation’s interest and that only the BJP has the ability to protect Indians from the ‘enemy’ — Pakistan.

Again, like the BJP government in India, which has made a slogan of brave Indian jawans to fan nationalistic sentiments, even using them as a weapon to fight elections, the PAP has often used the armed forces as a card to stoke nationalism. Of late, glossy advertisements of men in uniform carrying guns are spotted in public spaces. Gun-toting men are seen guarding the MRT stations in the central business district, giving an impression of a potential threat. This, once again, fits into the government propaganda of geopolitical ‘dangers’ threatening the country.

Critics allege that this is also a diversionary tactic by the government that is being used at a time when people are complaining about rising prices, low wages and growing inequality. This is also an attempt to turn people’s attention away from the subtle voices that are demanding greater accountability, transparency and democracy from the government. Not surprisingly, such voices are also being silenced by a growing number of over-zealous, self-styled vigilantes — online and offline — who deeply believe in the government’s nationalistic narrative that Singapore will fail as a nation without the PAP at the helm. They call these critics ‘communists’ or ‘traitors’, terms used by the PAP to describe its opponents.

Sounds familiar?

Thankfully though, every country, no matter how tiny it is, has its own bunch of ‘traitors’ or ‘anti-nationals’ who know the difference between loving the country and loving the government.

A 37-year-old White man sailed to Singapore on Jan. 28, 1819, and transformed “an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis.” Or so the story goes — never mind that British statesman Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles’ mission was actually part of the colonial plan. Today, his marble statue stands tall at this site — as if he’s looking at Singaporeans with a sense of pride. And a bicentennial is on throughout the island nation with art installations, musical performances, exhibitions and multimedia-storytelling to “commemorate” Raffles’ arrival.

But many Singaporeans are in no mood to celebrate. Instead, they’re raising a pertinent question: “Is there a need to celebrate the arrival of a colonizer?”

In this nanny state, where free speech isn’t encouraged, people have taken to social media to register their protest. One post on the official Facebook page of Singapore Bicentennial mockingly says: “By PAP’s [the ruling People’s Action Party] logic, I think, we will soon celebrate the Japanese occupation from 1942–1945 renaming Singapore as ‘Syonan-to’ [Japanese renamed Singapore Syonan-to meaning ‘Light of the South’].” Another Singaporean’s post says, “The romanticized version of Raffles and British Empire in Singapore highly questionable” given the “atrocities committed by the British Empire in their colonies,” including the murder of many indigenous people.

Gettyimages 840499822

The marble statue of Sir Stamford Raffles looms large in more ways than one in modern Singapore.

SOURCE GETTY IMAGES

That sentiment is echoed by a section of students, historians, sociologists and political analysts. “The celebratory emphasis of the bicentennial adds to the impression that there is less desire to have a serious conversation about the less palatable aspects of colonialism and its consequences,” says Ja Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore.

But there’s a reason why it makes sense for Singapore to look uncritically at its colonial history. Recalling the British era with fondness helps draw a line of continuity that justifies why so many of the country’s policies, institutions and mechanisms still mirror colonial rule. Singapore still relies on laws of repression from those times, such as the Internal Security Act. This allows preventive detention of those committing acts deemed subversive by the regime, and it’s been used against political opponents and trade unions. Then there’s mass surveillance — the government has the right to access all communication data of citizens — that remains a reality for Singaporeans. The country’s heavy reliance on “low-wage labor, particularly from Bangladesh and the Philippines, who live and work in quasi-slavery conditions,” says historian Pingtjin Thum, also carries shades of the indentured labor brought to the Malay peninsula by the British in colonial times.

NOBODY IS BEING TOLD THE PRECOLONIAL SINGAPORE WAS ALREADY MODERN.

NAZRY BAHRAWI, CULTURAL CRITIC

For sure, the British colonial period saw economic prosperity and stability that remain hallmarks of Singapore today, including that it has the world’s eighth-highest per capita GDP, second only to Qatar in Asia. The city’s free port, built by the British, is one of the world’s most important maritime hubs. But British rule also came with a significant human cost.

 

According to historical evidence, the British segregated the working class into enclaves according to race and forced them to live in subhuman conditions. Critics have accused the British of fanning racial conflicts first, then suppressed them with laws in order to exercise “control.” Opium addiction took a toll on the working class. You won’t find these dark tales at the bicentennial though.

In that embrace of colonialism, Singapore is rare. Other ex-British colonies in Asia, such as Malaysia, Indonesia and India, have been overtly critical of their former colonizers.

What’s also irking many Singaporeans is the narrative that Singapore’s success story began only with the British — devaluing the contributions of Malays, Javanese, Bugis, Indians and Chinese, who were part of the island’s history long before Raffles arrived. “Nobody is being told the pre-colonial Singapore was already modern,” says cultural critic Nazry Bahrawi of Singapore University of Technology and Design. He points to the 17th-century Johor Sultanate naval base on the island by way of example.

Only recently has Singapore installed statues of four early community leaders, including of Prince Sang Nila Utama, who founded the Kingdom of Singapura (pre-colonial name of Singapore) in 1299, next to where Raffles stands today on the banks of the Singapore River. Multimedia messages about Bugis, Javanese, Orang Lauts and other communities who lived in the precolonial era have been posted on the Facebook page of Singapore Bicentennial following the criticism. But the celebrations remain centered on the British period and its legacy.

There’s another reason to view the bicentennial celebrations with skepticism. The PAP has ruled Singapore continuously since the country’s separation from Malaysia in 1965 — and even earlier, when it was part of Malaysia. For its political future, the party needs to defend the country’s modern history with pomp and show — the PAP, after all, can’t blame anyone else for continuing colonial institutions and laws. Four years ago, in August 2015, the PAP government marked 50 years of separation from Malaysia with extravagant celebrations — just before elections that brought it back to power by defeating a fragmented opposition.

So, it was really no surprise when, at the inauguration of the bicentennial celebrations, Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong was uninhibited in his praise of the British colonial period. “Without 1819, we may never have launched on the path to nationhood as we know it today,” he said. So it’s a legitimate question to ask: Are the bicentennial celebrations also a political ploy in the run-up to the country’s next elections next year?

 

This story appeared in Ozy.com on April 25, 2019: https://www.ozy.com/opinion/singapore-celebrates-colonialism-to-justify-modern-shortcomings/93340

Singapore has been organizing a series of events marking the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Stamford Raffles on the island. But not everyone is happy to see a British colonizer being remembered with such fondness.

The white polymarble statue of the British statesman Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles (main picture) stands tall on the banks of the Singapore river. Raffles landed here on January 28, 1819. 200 years later, Singapore is fondly remembering his arrival with an extravagant bicentennial.

Exhibitions, heritage tours, light art installations and musical shows have been lined up throughout the year to “commemorate” his arrival because he changed Singapore’s destiny “from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis.” But not everyone in this island city-state is happy to see a British colonizer being remembered with such fondness.

25-year-old Singaporean Mysara Aljaru sees the bicentennial events as a celebration of colonizers and colonialism. “Whether you call it celebration or commemoration, it is all about glorifying the oppressor, and it is highly questionable,” said Aljaru, a first-year postgraduate student of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Raffles stayed in Singapore for only 10 months over three visits between 1819 and 1923. But eventually under the colonial rule, Singapore became key to British trade in Asia.

Mysara Aljaru

‘Whether you call it celebration or commemoration, it is all about glorifying the oppressor, and it is highly questionable,’ said Aljaru

‘Inappropriately salutary’

There wasn’t much reason for the natives to cheer about though. There is historical evidence that colonialism marked poverty for the communities who were living in Singapore before the British arrived.

Various races were segregated in enclaves where they were forced to live in inhumane conditions. Cholera, malnutrition, smallpox and opium addiction took a toll on the working class. Prostitution was common and the life of a prostitute in colonial Singapore was “horrendous,” as per records at Singapore’s National Heritage Board (NHB).

“The motivation of the colonizers was profit, control and the projection of power, nothing else. There was no fairness or altruism in mind,” said Ja Ian Chong, associate professor in the department of political science at National University of Singapore. Former British colonies in the region like India and Sri Lanka have always criticized the colonizers for subjugating and exploiting natives, but Singapore never did that.

Since a section of local elites, who were beneficiaries of colonial rule or their descendants, remained at the helm in the post-independence period and the independent Singapore state maintained a cordial relationship with Britain, motivation to criticize colonial rule in public was limited, explained Chong. “As a result, some of the depictions of colonial rule ended up being inappropriately salutary,” Chong pointed out.

Sense of indebtedness

The statue of Raffles, erected in 1972, is an indication of the sense of indebtedness Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has toward the British. PAP has governed the city-state since it gained its independence.

Singapur ASEAN Gipfel Premierminister Lee Hsien Loong

‘Without 1819, we may never have launched on the path to nationhood as we know it today,’ said PM Loong

The narrative that British rule brought prosperity, peace and stability, is also being promoted in school textbooks. “The history textbooks in schools barely looked into anything else beyond the British. It didn’t mention about life of the Malays, Chinese and Indians, who had immense contribution in the making of the modern Singapore,” says Aljaru.

Indeed, Singapore’s history goes beyond the colonial era and Singaporeans also have ancestors to look back to. Various communities such as Malays, Javanese, Bugis, Indians and the Chinese had been part of the island’s history long before Raffles arrived.

Cultural critic Nazry Bahrawi of the Singapore University of Technology and Design said, “Marking the start of modern Singapore as 1819 downplays indigenous contribution, especially that of the Malays, in modernizing Singapore. For the longest time, Singapore was described as a ‘sleepy Malay village’ before the coming of Raffles, which feeds into the longstanding stereotype of the ‘lazy native.'”

“The pre-colonial Singapore, however, was quite busy and modern. In the 17th century, the island became the site of Johor Sultanate’s naval base and a functional trading port,” the expert added.

Singapur Skyline mit Hafen

Singapore is now one of the world’s most prosperous nations

A deeper understanding?

But Tan Tai Yong, a member of the government’s bicentennial advisory panel, argued that the bicentennial is an opportunity “to generate deeper understandings of how communities, society, the Singapore state and our current orientation as a country have evolved out of that past.”

While inaugurating the bicentennial, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also provoked a sense of national identity by saying, “Without 1819, we may never have launched on the path to nationhood as we know it today.”

Historian Pingtjin Thum says that only a select few are allowed to participate in the making of “nationhood” and “national identity,” while the rest of Singapore are only expected to swallow it.

But the current debate, on social media and otherwise, over bicentennial has forced the government to do some course correction, even if it’s cosmetic. The official Facebook page of Singapore bicentennial now has information on the Bugis, Javanese and on Srivijayan prince Sang Nila Utama, who founded the Kingdom of Singapura (pre-colonial name) in 1299.

Recently, Utama’s statue has been erected along with that of three community leaders from the pages of history, next to where Raffles stands.

Now the government also wants people to celebrate the 700-year-old history of Singapore and engage in a conversation on the past, but it has to revolve in and around 1819. “1819 is being recognized as a crucial turning point (in a 700-year-old history) that set Singapore on a different trajectory towards modernity. By looking at the developments in Singapore’s history, before and after 1819, the significance of 1819 can be situated in a larger perspective,” said Tan Tai Yong.

Legitimizing policies

British rule in Singapore ended in 1963, and Singapore merged with the Federation of Malaya and former British colonies North Borneo and Sarawak to form Malaysia. The union, however, proved unstable and Singapore was expelled two years later, in 1965.

Bicentennial, perhaps, is also an occasion for the PAP government to justify the separation, as PM Lee said, “…this history since 1819 explains why after separation, Singapore not only survived but thrived.”

By saying this, critics point out that Lee wants to legitimize PAP’s policies, institutions, and mechanisms which have reflected those of the colonial period. “The use of colonial-era laws of repression such as the Internal Security Act, projection of Singapore’s status as a capitalist client state, its dependence on foreign investment and reliance on low-wage laborers working and living in quasi-slavery conditions, reflect how its policies are fundamentally a continuation of colonial rule,” Thum argued.

Back on the banks of Singapore river, Raffles stands tall, hands folded, as if signaling a sense of self-pride to see his legacy living on.