New Year Letter to Lovers of a Better Singapore
I’d wish you a happy new year if last year had not been so bitter. We had high hopes that Singapore would become a freer, fairer, and kinder society after the death of Lee Kuan Yew. We had high hopes that the 50th year of our independence would herald a new phase of social, political, and artistic maturity. For only the second time in my forty-five years, I was able to vote. With Lee Kuan Yew gone, the PAP did not enjoy a walkover in Radin Mas constituency, but faced two challengers. On Election Day, I made my way in the rain to the Singapore Consulate in New York. I knew the PAP would win Radin Mas, but I had to make my voice heard and my vote count. Like many of you, I had high hopes that the general election would prove a watershed in the history of our country. We had high hopes that, despite the gerrymandering, vote-buying tactics, state control of mass media, and creeping influence of Christian fundamentalism on government, the people of Singapore would speak and vote without fear. The election results dashed our hopes. The PAP was returned to power with a reinforced majority. Out of choice, we knew we were a minority before the election, but after the election we learned what it was to be minoritized.
To be minoritized is to be shown by the majority that we don’t count. (It’s a first-past-the-post system, after all. Proportional representation would have given the opposition 26 seats, instead of 6, for winning 30% of the popular vote.) The minoritized may be tolerated but the tolerance is at the pleasure of the majority. We may even be considered useful, since having a vocal fringe releases the pressure of internal resentment and softens the country’s hard image abroad. We are now in the same unenviable position as other traditionally minoritized groups, such as racial, sexual, and economic minorities, tolerated within arbitrary limits, useful for others’ purposes. The Indian appears on national posters and banners, alongside the Chinese, Malay and Eurasian, but he will not become Prime Minister. The lesbian playwright wins multiple Life! Theatre awards, but she and her kind are still proscribed by law. The migrant worker is given media attention for his poetic talent, but he is not given legal protections for his working person. To be minoritized by the last election is to taste the bitter aftertaste in the mouths of other long-minoritized peoples.
If we are to change Singapore as minoritized citizens, we must hold on to our bitterness, the taste of our disappointment. It’s too easy to exchange it for the sourness of cynicism. Out of sentimentality, complacency, indifference or ignorance, the majority of our fellow citizens voted for more of the same, in the delusion that the status quo is sweet. We know it’s not sweet. Those of us working for social justice, free speech, and free information know the status quo is not sweet for other minoritized peoples, whether they are migrant workers, the LGBT community, artists of various stripes, refugees, victims of human trafficking, the working poor, or the aged. We know, in fact, that the status quo makes sweets for the majority out of the salty blood, sweat, and tears of the minoritized. One anecdote may stand for a thousand similar stories. A friend, a middle-class professional, said to my sister, “If we raise the wages of the food court workers, food prices will go up, and we won’t be able to eat out cheaply.” We must chew on this story and others like it, chew the bitter cuds of our outrageous prosperity until the unequal status quo changes.
Singapore has ramifications beyond its 716 square kilometers. Singapore’s hyper-success has attracted many imitators in the global South. In a talk based on a forthcoming paper “Aspirational City: Desiring Singapore and the Films of Tan Pin Pin,” NYU’s English professor Jini Kim Watson spoke about Singapore’s ascendancy to the status of “aspirational city” to countries such as China, Brazil, the U.A.E., and Rwanda, all ruled by authoritarian regimes. Singapore has actively encouraged this imitation by exporting its urban planning techniques to these countries. If the thought of historic neighborhoods demolished to make space for Singapore-style shopping malls, temples of mind-destroying consumerism, does not fill you with dismay, you can stop reading this letter since it’s not for you. Against the apparent reproducibility of Singapore anywhere, Watson read the documentary films of Tan Pin Pin as a record of disregarded, because culturally specific and therefore non-reproducible, spaces in the city, and as an index of desires for heterogeneous, not homogeneous, connections. These spaces and desires are fast disappearing from Singapore. Not only the state, but also the majority of Singaporeans does not care enough to keep them. Remember the old National Library at Stamford Road demolished to make way for a tunnel?
To hold on to our bitterness is to hold on to our hopes and our disappointment. It is to remember SG50 in our mouths and our bodies, so that we will not forget its political lesson. When I was young, I hated to eat bitter gourd. My mother would tempt me by frying it with fish cake and soy sauce. Not to be tempted, I’d spear the meat out of a ring of gourd and leave the green rind behind. As I grow older, however, I discover a growing taste for everything, including bitter gourd, because everything tastes of the world, and I can’t get enough of the world. What is bitter nourishes too, if we chew hard and swallow it. In his book-length poem Lines from Batu Ferringhi, the Singapore poet Goh Poh Seng wrote about his encounter with Pak Din, the aged owner of a failing restaurant. In his former life, Pak Din was a bomoh, or witchdoctor. Once, he was called to attend to a rich Chinese towkay (boss) who had just died. By swaddling the dead man with herbs and native medicine, Pak Din raised the man back to life, this towkay “who was already dead / Except for his mouth!” Nothing is quite completely gone, not the towkay, not the restaurant, certainly not Pak Din, so long as we eat and remember. With hindsight, the better part of 2015 may very well turn out to be the bitter.
Jee Leong Koh
December 31, 2015