Soft Power

On GA's strong recommendation, PN and I watched David Henry Hwang's new play Soft Power at the Public Theater on November 2. It was a very clever, even mind-bending, re-write of The King and I, with a Chinese producer playing the part of a counselor to Hilary Clinton. Some of the dualism depicted by the play were too crude for my taste, such as the opposition between American individualism and Chinese family duty, but it was still fun to see Chinese political culture presented as a viable competing ideology, in some cases, superior to that of the USA. Since right at the start the play criticized the use of the Broadway musical as a vehicle for American soft power, the ending extolling the virtues of American democracy must be viewed with the intended ambiguity. If we felt the appeal of American ideals, we also knew that we were being put upon. In this way, Hwang had his cake and ate it. The party was also about the wonderful number of Asian American actors on stage. They acted…

Accent on the Ascent

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"Did your accent hold you back?" The question came from a participant of, a social enterprise that brings young Singaporean creatives to meet artists, entrepreneurs, and media workers in New York in order to deepen their own creative pursuit. Fielding questions from the nine young women, we were a poet, a pianist, and an actress on the panel held in the intensely casual atmosphere of the WeWork lounge in lower Manhattan.

What is my accent? Many Singaporeans describe it as American, American friends detect British elements in it, and British acquaintances often pronounce it Singaporean. How can I forget that very uncomfortable incident at the private school on the Upper East Side where I had taught English for 10 years, an incident uncomfortable to all concerned, when a student with a hearing disability said she could not understand my "accent" and asked to be transferred to anothe…

Ritwik Ghatak, Bengali Filmmaker

Last week Film at Lincoln Center screened a retrospective series of restored black-and-white films by Bengali master Ritwik Ghatak. I caught two films: A River Called Titas, an epic about the dying of a village, told in linked stories; and The Cloud-Capped Star, a more domestic film about a young woman who gave her life working for her family. Both films could be described as social realism, but I would rather call them lyrical realism, so beautifully crafted are the images and sequences.


This is one of the few novels by Singaporeans that I did not feel was a duty to read, but a real pleasure. I admire the ambition, not only in its range of characters, settings, times, and scenes, but also in its daring depiction of such well-known historical personages such as Hitler, Goebbels, and Walter Benjamin (in addition to the three female stars, Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Reifenstahl). It could have fallen on its face, but it did not; it throbs with life. The self-awareness invested in Benjamin, in particular, is Shakespearean. If the prologue about the Berlin Press Ball, which brings together the three female protagonists, feels stagey, the reader lives the last days of Benjamin with him as in a dramatic monologue.

The novel does own a few non-fatal weaknesses. The slight over-deliberateness in the construction and juxtaposition of scenes. The occasional flamboyance in the language, including distracting puns and wordplay. The chapter titles are coquettish, and…


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If you can't kill it, I guess you may as well call it Evergreen. Launched in 1957, with work by Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Mark Schorer, and James Purdy, Evergreen Review thrived for 16 years on scandalizing American propriety with audacious writing. Then it went silent for many years before it was revived on-line in 1998, and again in 2017. Now under the leadership of publisher John Oakes and Editor-in-Chief Dale Peck, the magazine has just published the first of four installments of its Fall issue, and is again kicking against the pricks.

Headlining the issue is Guatemalan journalist José García Escobar's report on the immigrant caravan traveling from Honduras to the United States. Having embedded himself among the refugees, he was privy to their stories of hardship and to the moral ambiguities of covering them. Looking at the problem from the other end, the American side, Natascha Elena Uhlmann argues …

Bad Speech? More Speech!

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Facebook's refusal to take down Trump's false ads has generated great controversy and backlash. Its own employees have just published an open letter urging Mark Zuckerberg to reconsider his policy towards political ads. While thinking about this question, I recalled vaguely some slogan that went like "the solution to bad speech is more speech." Looking it up on the internet sent me on a crash course on U.S. law on free speech.

The debate on free speech and its limits is of long standing, but the course of the development of U.S. law has clearly been towards the expansion of free speech against arbitrary limits. In the 19th century, the common practice was called prior restraint, defined as censorship imposed by a government or institution that prohibits particular instances of expression. To give an example from a different jurisdiction, the Singapore government's ban of Tan Pin Pin's …

Defense Against the Dark Arts

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The Yale Faculty Senate meets today to discuss, among other matters, the cancellation of the "dissent" learning module at Yale-NUS in Singapore. Big thanks to everyone who wrote to Yale. I hope the Senate discussion at today's meeting will not expend itself on general questions about academic freedom at Yale's satellite campus, as this Yale Daily News report did. Obviously there is academic freedom for most topics and most people at Yale-NUS. Singapore is not yet a Stalinist state. It is, however, an extremely sophisticated practitioner of the dark arts of (self-)censorship.

Instead, the Senate meeting could examine the analysis of Senior Counsel Harpreet Singh Nehal, which casts serious doubts on the Yale Report on the module cancellation. The Yale Report was written without taking into account the emails and text messages between Yale-NUS and the module instructor Alfian Sa'at. The senior cou…