To Singapore, With Love: “If You Care Too Much About Singapore, First It Breaks Your Spirit, Then It Breaks Your Heart”

Alfian Sa’at, Tan Pin Pin, Amanda Lee Koe

Amanda Lee Koe [A.L.K.]: I wanted to begin with an anecdote I came across in n+1, about how the left-wing Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o felt he was “producing one of Empson’s versions of “pastoral”—proletarian literature for non-proletarians—and had stopped writing in English altogether. He composed subversive plays in Gikuyu and performed them in villages, deliberately forsaking “global literature” for pieces addressed to a specific community. His gamble that Gikuyu was more threatening to power than English proved correct: he was thrown in prison by the Moi dictatorship […]; in 1982, he went into exile. In the university, Ngugi’s analysis of the uses of language by those in power had faded into a wan poststructuralism.”

How do you feel about this idea of “proletarian literature for non-proletarians” in a local context, in relation to your practice?

Alfian Sa’at [A.S.]: Currently I have no illusions about the idea that Singaporean theatre is quite an elitist art form. It has been accused of playing for the gallery; for the converted. Certain things like ticket prices, people’s unease with the theatre auditorium as a space that is patronized only if you’re from a certain social class—these things prevent us from capturing the masses, so to speak.
So even though the nature of the work itself is not always very elite or highbrow, the political economy of theatre is that it is not a mass activity. That’s also why we’ve been allowed a certain (relative) freedom over the years, and why we don’t see things happening to theatre as we would have seen in the 1970s—for example in Chinese theatre, there was the big round up, with Kuo Pao Kun. This was when they would want to go and perform in factories. So yes, there was that idea of proletarian art for the proles.
As for English theatre, the worst crackdown was of course in 1987 with the Third Stage, and even then the fear was about these people performing outside traditional theatre venues. They had this play called Esperanza, which was about a domestic maid who was accused of stealing, and they performed a preview of it for domestic helpers at the Catholic Welfare Centre, which had a halfway house for Filipino maids. So there was this notion of performing to a non-traditional audience. Even though it was in English, it really did affect the largely Filipino audience, in ways it might not have affected the—perhaps more detached—Singaporean audience.
The question keeps coming back—are we preaching to the choir? Would our art be a lot more significant if we brought it into the street? That’s why until today there is still that unease with forum theatre—as you would know, forum theatre was proscribed for ten years.

A.L.K.: What about the film form? Pin Pin?

Tan Pin Pin [T.P.P.]: With my latest film—which is probably political, given that it deals with Singaporean political exiles—it was quite clear to my mind that it should be accessible. I wanted both my aunt and the man on the street to be able to take something away from it and not be distracted by the form the film took.
The film didn’t have the experiments in form that were present in say, Invisible City, with its hard edits in sound and image. For someone who likes to play with form, I felt a bit sad… Having to not take those flights of fancy. When we were constructing the film, we agreed to just let the people speak. For Singaporean political exiles whose voices had been absent for such a long time… that’s all there is. There’s no reason to layer their voices with anything else.

A.L.K.: If we could be more specific—what do you think are the actual interstice(s) of politics and art, in the here and now in a Singaporean landscape?

A.S.: I’ll speak from my main discipline, theatre. I think for a very long time, theatre was seen by theatre makers as the alternative public sphere or forum in a country where there is some kind of media control by the state—but it is also a very sophisticated form of control. They don’t use blunt instruments. Because of that, there has been the baggage of dissent; I think Paul Rae terms it as such—of doing works “scripted by dissent”. You try to use that space, thinking, “Okay, I have to use this in a deserving way, to address the things that are being left out in mainstream discourse.”
In the early years, the work would be a lot more metaphorical, such as with Kuo Pao Kun’s The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole, which is about bureaucracy in Singapore. Yet I think we are now approaching politics in theatre in more direct ways. All that said though, I’m also very wary of just using the space of dissent to have an alternative politics. That’s because I’m wondering if at the end of the day, that can trivialize the work of theatre. You don’t want to be seen as a bunch of dissident opportunists who are just using that particular space to vent or add layers to certain issues. They need to be addressed but not be the sole reason for making plays in Singapore.
We’ve been having this discussion for a very, very long time: what comes first, is it the art, or the politics? Is too much politics agitprop? If there’s too much art, does the formal dimension over-aestheticise issues? Now it seems as if the need to have theatre as a place for dissent has been reduced by the presence of the internet.

Film stills from To Singapore, With Love, by Tan Pin Pin, 2013.

T.P.P.: Theatre’s been freed!

A.S.: In a way, yes, by the Internet. Though I have to say, just the other day I was thinking about whether censorship has affected my work, and I’d like to think and say no, but at the same time you can never know for sure, right? That’s because the thing about self-censorship is that it works on a subconscious level, and you’re never able to diagnose yourself towards particular limits.

T.P.P.: Occasionally you can.

A.S.: Occasionally, yes—but the thing is, it might work on a subconscious level, but most of the time, you try to make it conscious. You know, I’ve always been having this cat and mouse game with the censors, and I’ve also always been told, “Your stage directions are so minimal; you give a lot of freedom to directors!” Honestly, I don’t know whether this is one of those instances where the politics has really affected the aesthetics. It could be about giving freedom to myself as a playwright, so I have these margins to move within—a sort of “wiggle room”.
If I hand in a script with minimal stage directions to the censors, then they can only zoom in on these particular lines, and words, and the like. Theatre is of course much more than text, though. The silences are important, as are the spaces in those silences. The gestures a character makes, or the juxtaposition of two bodies in space will create a meaning that is not reflected in the text itself.

A.L.K.: How might it differ in film, Pin Pin?

T.P.P.: After the screenings of Singapore Gaga or Invisible City, during the question and answer sessions, someone will invariably ask, “So is your film political?” It’s so sad that the word “political” has been colonized in Singapore to only mean being critical of the system. We need to reclaim the word “political”. It is good citizenry to be “political”.

A.L.K.: For me, what is strange is that there’s more anxiety about To Singapore With Love because it is explicit in its politics. Your work is already an abstracted kind of politics. I wonder if it’s a kind of condescension on the part of censors that you would be allowed to show everything else just because it isn’t direct—they are more poetic in their politics, while there might be a problem with To Singapore With Love.
You’re now facing some anxiety about how the Board of Film Censors will deal with
To Singapore With Love, but well, two things should be noted here: that The Act of Killing could be shown here in Singapore, and that you won Best Director for the Documentary section of the Dubai International Film Festival, and the UAE is not exactly the arbiter of freedom of expression either. Do you think, perhaps, that it’s a question of the localization of—

T.P.P.: —That’s exactly why when Pussy Riot came to Singapore, it was very strange. The women in the band became famous for being jailed for being critical of Putin in their musical act. Although there were some parallels of that in Singapore, no connections were made between their experience and that of Singapore. They were packaged as a global art act, passing through our prestigious art fair.
We could say that The Act of Killing passed the censors possibly because it wasn’t about Singapore. If it was, I am not sure it would have passed. The Indonesian government made a smart move of not banning it. It is shown and discussed widely there now

A.L.K.: Indeed. Related to that is the statement made at the end of the 2010 position paper on censorship, put forth by members of the Singaporean arts community:
At present, the decision to censor is taken far too lightly in Singapore. This is because it has become routinized to such an extent that individuals are shielded from the ethical implications and practical consequences of their actions. Some blame for this must be laid at the door of successive CRCs, whose pro-forma insistence that ‘all societies censor’ has stood in for any meaningful discussion of what is really at stake in an act of censorship: the arbitrary exercise [sic] of power.
As artists whose primary function is cultural expression, and whose first responsibility is to our audiences, we feel that the government can do more to separate out regulation from censorship, and to implement a regulatory system that is user-friendly, transparent and accountable.
Interfacing this with what just happened with the proposed self-classification scheme offered by the Media Development Authority (MDA) in relation to state censorship, do you think that the governmental position that it would “empower” was well-intentioned and more of a bureaucratic one-size-fits-all (mis)approach? Or was it something more—knowingly—insidious?

A.S.: I can’t say. Indeed, these are the two theories. Was it that they genuinely believed that this was what liberalization looked like, but that maybe someone on the board said, “Oh, but we can’t relinquish control, let’s still maintain certain checks.” There might be some sincerity, but old habits die hard, so there’s still that itch to keep artists on a leash.
The other one though, the idea of insidiousness, is that yes, we have a façade of liberalization, and we’ll do, in a sense, what we do with film distributors in Singapore. That is to say, I’ve seen interviews in which, previously, Amy Chua used to say that the name “Board of Film Censors” needs to be changed. Because—“Oh, uh, the MDA does not really censor, distributors are free to cut the films however they see fit, and send it to us for classification.” Their position is one of “We’re not getting our hands dirty, we’re not the ones wielding the scissors,” and “We don’t do censorship… we only classify.” I found that disingenuous…

T.P.P.: Really disingenuous…

A.S.: Perhaps they want to do this with theatre as well. Tell me, what’s the equivalent of distributors in the theatre industry? There isn’t really a specific group of people performing that function, so let’s ask the theatre makers themselves—to cut their own stuff. It’s great that forty-five arts groups have put up a paper and said no.

A.L.K.: Right. Yet even if we go out on a limb to give them the best of the benefit of the doubt, and assume it was a genuine act rather than an insidious one, do you think the notion of wanting to make artists “content assessors” simply also shows a lack of understanding and respect for artists’s practices and processes? This is also in relation to what I see as the aspirational utilitarianism of terms like “Renaissance City Plan”, “creative industries”, and “cultural soft power”.

A.S.: Sometimes you don’t know if it’s a game that is being played via mutual dependency. Obviously, the funding stream is from the National Arts Council, and it needs to be given the green light by the MDA. The thing is that from their side they also can’t antagonize the cultural producers / artists too much. What with the “international branding” initiatives, we need to seem as if we’re building up “cultural capital”… There is co-dependency, but I would say it’s not completely equal and reciprocal. They still hold a lot more cards.

T.P.P.: I agree with you (A.L.K.) that there is a lack of understanding for artists’s practices and processes. They need to start from first principles: “What is the role of the state?”, and “What is the role of artists?” Then they need to figure things out from there. Instead, the MDA got themselves in a pickle because they were thinking administratively. In trying to resolve the censorship bottleneck quickly, they simply thought “Oh! Let’s just get the artists to assess themselves!”
As for expressions like “Renaissance City Plan”, “creative industries”, and “cultural soft power”, it’s the lingua franca of arts councils around the world and we have adopted it for ourselves in trying to create economic sense of our Art. Yet it has been without totally understanding the role or processes of artists, so it all seems very disconnected to us as artists. As a consequence, it rings hollow.

A.S.: Of course, all these communications—this is what happens in a one-party state—all the ministries are so wired into each other; so interconnected. Sometimes you send in a script that you believe that at the most will go up to the Media Development Authority (after having been thorough the National Arts Council), but then it goes right up into the higher levels, maybe to the Ministry of Culture, Communications and Youth, and there’ll be instances where you know they’d have also passed it to Ministry of Home Affairs.
I did this play called Causeway, which is about bilateral relations between Singapore and Malaysia, and I know they passed it to Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well. That’s because it’s all about setting the agenda; controlling the discourse. It’s only the government or the (state-sanctioned) newspapers that can address bilateral relations. If you’re outside of it, you can’t. It goes back to Catherine Lim, what Goh Chok Tong said to her: “Oh, if you want to comment on these weighty major issues, you have to enter the political arena. If not you are just unelected, out there on the fringe.”

A.L.K.: Alfian, you end off all your emails with the signature: If you care too much about Singapore, first it breaks your spirit, then if breaks your heart. With this as a primer, how do you think artists here can and should engage with the idea of Singapore?

A.S.: When I first wrote those lines, there was some kind of disillusionment. However I don’t necessarily always share that sentiment; it’s more of a provocation. It’s taken from this play of mine called Fugitives; it’s a line spoken by a character who finds himself too invested in caring about Singapore, and at the end of the day, he is left feeling a little betrayed by that kind of investment. It was in response to this idea that Singaporeans are usually politically apathetic or indifferent—and whether this is actually some kind of protective coping mechanism: that if you really start giving a shit, you do risk becoming thwarted and fatigued along the way.

A.L.K.: Do you think we have internalized (or not) imperatives of power as well as state narratives when we produce work; does this lead to some sort of “deconditioning”?

T.P.P.: A fish isn’t aware of the water it swims in, so it’s a very long process of becoming aware of the water. A process of which I myself, slowly—pore by pore, gill by gill—am still waking up to. Why do I have to question the air that I breathe in the first place? It’s not intuitive to do it. Yet there are events that jolt us out of the water. If we are just a bit more observant, we realize that there are just too many contradictions that need to be addressed.
About the line, “If you care too much about Singapore, first it breaks your spirit, then it breaks your heart”, when I first came across it in Alfian’s work, I thought it really captured the zeitgeist. A sort of, “Up yours; I’m going back into my cocoon, I don’t wanna deal with this.”

A.S.: If I might add, it’s interesting that Pin Pin brought up that there’s sometimes that sense of “Ah, I don’t want to engage anymore, I want to go into my own cocoon and not be hurt”, so to speak. Other times, however, I’ve seen the phrase as meaning, “Okay, it’s going to break your spirit, and it’s going to break your heart, but do it anyway.” It’s about going all out and facing the consequences of your actions. It’s about—what do you do after you’ve had your heart broken?

A.L.K.: I don’t want to make direct references to To Singapore, With Love since it’s a sensitive time now, but I just wanted to round off with something that Ang Swee Chai, the widow of Francis Khoo says in the film; a thought that’s been haunting me.

A.S.: Wait—so you’ve seen the film?

Film still from To Singapore, With Love , by Tan Pin Pin, 2013.

A.L.K.: Yes, in private, in Pin Pin’s studio, in preparation for this interview.

A.S.: Oh wow—we all want to see it!

T.P.P.: I would love to show it here. It is still with the Censors; I am awaiting their reply to our application to show it.

A.L.K.: So Ang Swee Chai—alone in London mind you, and granted a special permit to return to Singapore just the once after decades, and only for the occasion, the occasion of bringing back Francis Khoo’s ashes—she wonders aloud if future generations will think that her generation didn’t try hard enough.

A.S.: I’m getting goosebumps just listening to you saying that.

A.L.K.: I think my heart broke a little there.

Editorial note: On September 10, 2014 the Singaporean government classified Tan Pin Pin's film "To Singapore with Love" as NAR, or “Not allowed for all ratings.” This means it can neither be distributed nor shown in Singapore, except in private screenings.