Go with a smile!

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Singapore and Culture

Somebody wrote this comment about Singaporeans: We don’t have any culture. We just like to complain about everything. That may have some truth about it, but I think there’s some blindness there.

Regarding the forging of a Singaporean identity, it doesn’t help very much when people say that we derived all our culture from elsewhere. When we haven’t really invented anything of our own. When we are but not much of a small country.

There are 2 versions of what you understand by culture. Some people think that culture is what you do, and how you live your life. Other people think that culture is what your great great great grandparents did and how they lived their lives. At the moment, the latter definition is what most people think of when they say culture. But I think that the first definition is vastly underrated.

There is a bit of frustration when I think that there’s not much that Singaporeans can really call our own. No doubt, we are proud of Singlish, since it’s a postmodernist blend of languages that you can’t find anywhere. And since Singaporeans don’t have that much to call their own, they end up being proud of the English accent. Some angmoh guys have asked, “why is this aspersion for people who speak with Caucasian accents?” And the answer is obvious to us but doesn’t come to them easily: because when we go to Western countries, we have to change our accents. Shouldn’t it be the case that when Westerners come to our country, they have to change their accent too?

Thing about Singapore is, anybody who has something interesting to contribute to Singaporean culture will get a voice. We are, right now, in the process of writing our own culture. The great artists of any culture are the ones who filled a piece of empty space in the landscape. And in Singapore, there is empty space everywhere. People like Corrine May and Electrico got to write National Day songs. I’m not any less of a songwriter than those guys (at least I don’t think so, and much work remains to be done before I prove or disprove this).

I think that there are many energetic people who might realise this. Even though I’ve lived in Singapore long enough to know that as a rule, Singaporeans hate change, they don’t like new things, I believe that there is a possibility for good things to take place in our cultural landscape.

Conversely, I think that if a place has too much culture and tradition, there is the ability to stifle whatever’s come before. I remember what it was like to play classical music, and being constantly told by music teachers that you just had to conform to their idea of what classical music was all about. Of course, it’s always good to be a little strict with children, but I don’t think I learnt that much about classical music like that.

One of the big problems, though, is that Singapore has always been a postmodern society. When I look at the history of Southeast Asia as a whole, I feel that there is something paradoxical about living in an archipelago. You get a lot of visitors from the sea. Indians, Chinese, Arabs and Angmohs. And we have absorbed a lot of our cultures from these people. But we encounter them as “the other” and we can always maintain an arm’s length from them. There’s not that immediacy that comes from living side by side.

We don’t have that sort of relationship with another culture, the way that the British and the French do, a kind of intimacy that comes about from living side by side for hundreds of years, seeing each other grow, exchanging ideas, occasionally exchanging disparaging comments, but always your cultures have a long term relationship with, and are growing side by side. You really think that Shakespeare is quintessentially English? He set his plays in Verona (Romeo and Juliet), Venice (Merchant of Venice), Rome (Julius Caesar), Scotland (Macbeth) and North Africa (Othello). Pretty damn cosmopolitan for somebody living in the 16th century I’d say.

Maybe this is not such a loss. In Asia civilizations that have grown up side by side eventually end up not liking each other. The Viets and the Khmers don’t like each other. The Viets and the Chinese don’t like each other. The Koreans and the Japanese don’t like each other. The Thais and the Cambodians don’t like each other. The Thais and Malays don’t like each other. Perhaps they haven’t really attained the level of modernity or prosperity that makes cordial exchanges possible, and perhaps one day they will.

The problem with the kind of relatively superficial contact that Singaporeans have with the rest of the world is that there’s no serious percolation of cultural influences on a deeper level. We just take the best and leave the rest. And we end up with rojak. Possibly it makes it even more difficult for Singapore to produce great art, because great art demands a mastery of all your influences, all your sources, and it demands the harmonization of everything in the universe in which it breathes and lives.

I’m starting to wonder if multiculturalism and postmodernism are a good thing for art and culture. We see quite a few negative effects when myriad influences are absorbed without the proper time and effort to see how every piece fits in, without being able to assimilate the parts into the whole.

I think about what pop music has been like since the internet took over the world. In fact, there’s not much of value that people anywhere have invented in the 21st century. The first decade of the 21st century has ended, and when I compare the music of the 2000s with that of the 90s it is utterly depressing. Of course, one must always make allowance for how I was in my teens in the 90s, and how new music always sounds more appealing to people in their teens.

It’s like ever since rock and roll till now, music has been evolving. You had new styles coming up every few years: Beatles. Rock. Hard rock. Heavy Metal. Soul. Funk. Disco. Progressive rock. Punk. Post-punk. Alternative / Indie. Hip hop. Techno / Rave. Ambient. And after the internet? Nothing. Or else, everything else has been a blending of styles.

Somebody came up with a taste test: play something from the internet era, and try to guess whether it’s 90s or 00s music. It’s impossible. Whereas play something from the pre-internet era, it’s possible to guess which decade it came from. Is this due to the internet – postmodern era, or is it due to how so much of what could possibly be invented has already been invented? This is the first time in my lifetime that something strange like this has happened.

Another hidden aspect about Singapore is, I think, comes from something that I read about the population of overseas Chinese. Apparently the greatest populations of overseas Chinese are to be found in Southeast Asia. There are 23 million in Taiwan. (I don’t know if you’d call them Southeast Asia). Then there are 7 million each in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. And probably 4 million in Singapore. That would probably mean that there is a “ghost” nation of at least 25 million overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, and it’s possible that Singapore would be the capital of that ghost nation. But I just feel that the Chinese communities of all these countries pass through each other like ships in the night. I just realized this because my workplace may be called extremely cosmopolitan, except that most of the foreigners there come from this ghost nation.

It’s like a big part of Singapore is actually part of a larger nation and we’re not even aware of it! The guy, though, I think he’s from the PRC, although he can’t be sure. I think people from China would find it very weird to be coming to places in southeast Asia and finding that people lose their Chineseness to a shocking extent – or even worse, add supremely unfamiliar elements to it. Aspects of Chineseness that don’t originate from China – now there’s a sacrilege if ever there was one.



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