Countercultural Insurgency

A talk by Koh Jee Leong given at the “IPS-SAM Spotlight on Cultural Policy Series Eight: Roundtable on Making Friends and Influencing People: The Art of Cultural Diplomacy,” Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, July 5th, 2019. Jee participated in the roundtable at the kind invitation of Tan Tarn How, senior research fellow of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and the convenor of the event. After explaining the aims and programs of Singapore Unbound, Jee highlights three “tenacious and malicious” cultural values in Singapore that hinder not only the development of the arts locally but also the pursuit of cultural diplomacy abroad.

Singapore Unbound is a New York City-based literary non-profit that I founded in 2016. We are dedicated to the struggle for freedom of expression and equal rights for all in both the USA and Singapore. We see the arts not as a hobby but as a way of life. We also see the arts as a way of changing society. Right now, it is a way of combating censorship, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, economic injustice, and environmental devastation. In so far as Singapore and the United States are all these things, we see ourselves not as a tool of cultural diplomacy, but as a means of counter-cultural insurgency.

We organize our activities deliberately to achieve these ends. For the biennial Singapore Literature Festival in NYC, we feature authors and artists who are not only excellent in their work but who speak to current social injustices. So, at the last festival in 2018, American novelist Chinelo Okparanta spoke about lesbian love in Nigeria on the same panel as Singaporean novelist Balli Kaur Jaswal, who spoke about misogyny and violence within the Punjabi community. We were also very fortunate to have Cake Theatrical Productions, led by Natalie Hennedige, present their subversive version of the Greek tragedy of Medea. In its anti-colonial thrust, the production rejects both American neo-imperialist ambitions and Singaporean neo-colonial Bicentennial celebrations. All festival events being free and open to the public, we draw a diverse audience—Singaporeans and others—to engage with a true diversity of ideas and works.

In between literary festivals, we organize a monthly gathering called Second Saturdays Reading Series. We have volunteers opening their homes to host the event. Attendees bring food to the potluck to share. We have featured Singaporean writers, such as Jeremy Tiang, Amanda Lee Koe, and Philip Holden, as well as such well-regarded North American writers as Madeleine Thien and Min Jin Lee. Personal encounters at these events are important, but equally so are the long-form book reviews we publish on our blog. We have Americans reviewing Singaporean books and Singaporeans reviewing American books so that the dissemination of ideas can be captured in writing as well.

Last year we set up our own press called Gaudy Boy, with the mission of publishing authors of Asian heritage. The name of the press is taken from a poem by Singaporean author Arthur Yap. Our first title was an American edition of Alfian Sa’at’s short-story collection Malay Sketches. We chose the book not only for its literary excellence, but also for its nuanced and empathetic take on a marginalized community in Singapore. We have just released the co-winners of the 1st Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize. The winning books are by Lawrence Ypil, a Filipino poet teaching at Yale-NUS, and by Jenifer Park, a Korean American teaching at the University of Alabama. Yes, we want to put Singapore literature in the hands of Americans, but we also want Singapore literature not to be parochial nor to look to the West solely, but to be in dialogue with other Asian literatures.

To encourage young Singaporean writers to look outwards, we award an annual fellowship to visit New York City and Southeast Asia on alternate years. Our first fellow, playwright Nur Sabrina bte Dzulkifli, who writes about feminism, queerness, and mental illness, visited New York for two weeks last year. Our second fellowship was awarded to Jason Soo, the filmmaker of “1987: Untracing the Conspiracy,” about Operation Spectrum, to go to Thailand to interview the Singaporean Old Left before they pass away. We have just announced the recipient of our third fellowship. Poet Ally Chua will be going to New York City to investigate the lives of ordinary workers who work the night shift.

The judges of the Singapore Unbound Fellowship are chosen not only for their literary expertise but also for their involvement in social action. They include the veteran activist Constance Singam, the writer and social critic Alfian Sa’at, the New Naratif Editor-in-Chief Kirsten Han, and the artist Seelan Palay, who was arrested and jailed for mounting a one-man art performance outside Parliament House.

To preserve the independence of our policies, programming, and personnel, it is crucial to us not to depend on state funding. Our funding comes, instead, from private individuals, both American and Singaporean. I took that decision not to apply for any state funding back in 2015. To give you an idea of my reasons, I’d like to read from an open letter I wrote then, included in my book of essays Bite Harder.

There were high hopes in the last days of Lee Kuan Yew that Singapore society will breathe more easily and freely. This was not to be. First, the government restricted the screening of Tan Pin Pin’s documentary film “To Singapore, With Love” about Singapore’s political dissidents and exiles. Then, NAC, under Kathy Lai, withdrew the publication grant from Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, because the graphic novel was deemed politically sensitive. These actions may seem to show the lightening of the censoring hand, since neither film nor book was banned outright, but they do not. They are, instead, carefully calculated to mute any protest from the artistic community and to prevent the dissemination of film and book to the populace. The state is not bothered by film screenings to small groups of like-minded individuals. It knows that they are a lost cause and, anyway, their opinion leaders depend on it for arts funding. By restricting screenings, the state has achieved its purpose of restricting the exposure of the populace to what it considers to be undesirable ideas. The same goes for the graphic novel. Withdrawing funding is a sufficient warning to schools and other institutions to stay away from the disapproved publication. The strategy is clear: let the tiny liberal fringe protest while watching their film and reading their book, but cordon off the populace from any liberating ideas. As Tan Tarn How observed on Facebook, “things are changing, but backwards.”

That the NAC is one of the state instruments for carrying out this policy is clear from Kathy Lai’s letter. After dividing the “well-traveled, deeply engaged” arts lovers from “others who want the arts to uplift them, to be simple expressions of joy and beauty” (meaning the HDB heartlanders), she warns that “The one thing we won’t – and must not – do is to be patronising or even insulting to audiences and potential audiences on their choices.” By her twisted logic, to encourage Singaporeans to eschew the ersatz and the simplistic, to appreciate the profound and the complex, is to patronize (even insult!) them. This statement alone disqualifies her to be the chief of the National Arts Council. But we must not overlook the political hackwork done by the statement. In political terms, the statement says to artists and art lovers, do what you like but leave the electorate alone.

Just as insidious, and even more upsetting, is her argument that artists’ complaints about censorship are exaggerated. Look at “our lively theatre scene,” she wrote. “Similarly, the marketplace has never seen a more diverse range of Singaporean-authored and published books than today - from the reverential and celebratory to all manner of contrarian narratives.” In arguing thus, she is using works produced under a restrictive regime to prove a lack of restrictions, conveniently ignoring the fact that many of the most vibrant works were produced despite of these restrictions. What she argues is tantamount to saying that queer writers cannot be oppressed in Singapore since they can publish their books in the country. This kind of logic is what has stopped LGBT writers such Cyril Wong and Ovidia Yu from representing their country. To display the vitality of Singapore writing is to contribute to their own oppression. You can write and publish, right? So you cannot be so badly off. In the meantime, 377A, the law against sodomy, remains on the books, and prevents any progress towards achieving equality. Kathy Lai seems oblivious to the irony in her phrase “all manner of contrarian narratives.” What did she do to The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye under her watch? Whitewashed tomb.

Because of the reasons above, I have decided to embark on a policy of non-cooperation with the NAC until it changes its approach, until it champions freedom of expression….

I wish, instead, to heed Haresh Sharma’s clarion call, given in his speech on receiving the Cultural Medallion: “The most fundamental frontier of change is the mind. If our mindsets can’t change then there is very little hope for our attitudes to change. Our attitude towards censorship and regulation, our attitude towards openness and dialogue, our attitude towards risk-taking, and ultimately, our attitude towards the value of the artist in society.” I wish to decolonize my mind.”

—From “Decolonizing the Mind: Open Letter in Response to Kathy Lai”

What are these cultural attitudes or values that Haresh Sharma is asking us to change? In the remainder of my talk, I will highlight, briefly, three tenacious and malicious values that hinder not only the development of the arts in Singapore, but also the pursuit of cultural diplomacy abroad.

First, Singapore, the state and the people, believes that culture is instrumental to obtaining some greater good, but no, it is not, culture is not instrumental but essential to life, it is a good in itself.  I know I said at the start that the arts can be used to change society, but it changes society by effecting deep and lasting change within individuals. When we read the novel Abraham’s Promise by Philip Jeyaretnam, we re-examine youthful idealism and adult cynicism and experience their possible reconciliation. When we look, really look, at the artwork “Sungai, Sejarah,” by Boedi Widjaja, we feel our beings simultaneously flow like rivers of time and solidify like river pebbles. We feel we belong somewhere and nowhere at the same time.

The idea that art is merely instrumental can lead to the crassest of mistakes in cultural diplomacy. I can still remember the opening of an art show of both Singaporean and Thai artists in a prestigious New York art gallery some years ago. The Singapore Tourism Board must have given the show quite a bit of money, as the head of STB was invited to speak at the opening. He had obviously not looked at the artworks on show at all. Instead of speaking about the show, he gave his spiel about the opening of National Gallery Singapore to encourage tourism. It was the most embarrassingly blatant act of marketing in front of a discerning crowd of New York art lovers. This is not to blame any one. The STB head was but a symptom of a more general malaise in Singapore, the instrumental use of the arts for economic gain. The sickness will not be cured by teaching our cultural ambassadors art criticism or marketing savvy. The problem lies deeper. We don’t really love the arts for its own sake.

Second, Singapore believes that culture is a zero-sum game, but it is not. Culture, in its essence and direction, enriches. Whatever impoverishes, oneself or others, is not culture. However, the belief in a zero-sum game is deeply embedded in us; in fact, it is preached by the highest echelon of our political leadership. TODAY newspaper reported not so long ago that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong exhorted Singaporeans not only to protect their own lunches but to steal other people’s lunches too. This way of thinking justifies our exploitation of foreign workers within the country and our exploitation of natural resources, such as sand and fishing grounds, belonging to our neighbors.

This idea of culture as a zero-sum game is undergirded by the use of competitions and quantifiable KPIs as measures of success, as if the arts is a kind of Olympic Games, in the first instance, and a kind of widgets, in the second. We need much more holistic and qualitative measures. We need to invest at least as much in arts criticism as in arts administration. We need to be able to explain the origins, processes, and functions of our artworks to ourselves before we can successfully explain them to others. And we explain to others in order to enrich them, just as we are enriched by their explanations of their culture, and not in order to impoverish them.

Third, Singapore believes that culture is a form of presentation, a spectacle, but it is not. It is, instead, a form of criticism. Life is nasty, brutish, and short, as the pig Old Major from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, reminds us, but we have culture to prove that life does not have to be that way. The strongest artwork of a time is one that mounts the most stinging critique of its time. We have in Sonny Liew’s graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye such a masterpiece, which, by winning 3 Eisner Awards and being translated into multiple languages, showed that it spoke to audiences beyond Singapore. Why aren’t we mounting around the world colloquiums and exhibitions around this work and what it says about history and art, futurity and love? We can’t, for the simple reason that Someone Upstairs disapproves of it.

Instead, what we had, to celebrate SG50, was Singapore Inside Out. A gimmicky presentation of Singaporean arts that did not have the fun of a gimmick or the wow of a presentation. At the New York iteration, which I attended, visitors were more excited about Shake Shack’s Singapore Spice Burger than about any of the artists on display. What on earth is Singapore Spice? Certainly not the Singaporean authors reading at the event since they could hardly be heard in the carnival-like setting.

What I hope to have drawn to your attention is the subtle but persistent link between basic values and outward manifestations. As long as Singapore believes that the arts is merely an instrument to obtaining some greater good, that the arts is a zero-sum game, and that the arts is only a form of presentation, and not a form of criticism, all efforts at cultural diplomacy will not only fail, but discredit Singapore. If, however, efforts are bent towards eradicating these beliefs and cultivating their opposites, why, you would be engaging not in cultural diplomacy, but in countercultural insurgency.

Jee Leong Koh is a poet, editor, publisher, and activist. Originally from Singapore, he lives in New York City, where he heads the literary non-profit Singapore Unbound, which is dedicated to the advancement of freedom of speech and equal rights for all through cultural exchange and literary activism.

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Jee Leong Koh in front of the Singapore Consulate in New York on Oct 9, 2018. In tribute to Seelan Palay's original art performance, the mirror reads "Interrogation of the Mirror 2."