2.8.05

The Island of One?

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Island of One

Many Singaporeans lament that our island is small (just 3.5times the size of Washington D.C.), hence boring. What is there to see or do in this country that is still struggling to free itself from its many labels - amongst the more stubborn ones are "cultural dessert", "sterile", "nanny state", and the more recent "air-conditioned nation". We are Nemos in a dentist's aquarium!

For close to 2 years, I've kept a sketchbook with me wherever I go. It has become a habit that whenever I am in a train, waiting or alone somewhere, I'll take out the sketch book and something or someone interesting will inevitably wander into my line of sight. I just have to wait - and see.

I have always wondered if those who lived before the days of the internet, air travel, the locomotive, the automobile... in villages whose piece of sky is as large as the dense vegetation allowed... had had similar misgivings about their homes. Are their palettes less rich? Their imaginations reined in? Is the immediate, the personal, the domestic, always less interesting or valuable than the national, the foreign, the international? Is it really a case of "nothing to see" in Singapore, or have we not trained our eyes to see?

Something reminded me and I dug out an old copy of Emerson - he who saw the whole universe reproduced, in miniature, in a drop of dew, would have this to say:
It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Travelling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans...The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home,and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still...But the rage of travelling is a symptom of a deeper unsoundness affecting the whole intellectual action. The intellect is a vagabond, and our whole system of education fosters restlessness. Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home. - "Self Reliance"

It seems a little contradictory on a post urging the value of the domestic to be quoting Emerson, a foreigner (i.e. dead white guy). Emerson was writing at a time when America was writing and fighting itself into existence as a nation - metaphysical, political and geographic, so maybe there's a narrow common ground as this country is nearing only its 40th anniversary in its current definition. What I mean to say is, of course, simpler: that there are things on this island worth documenting, writing or singing about, taking a photograph of - or worth as much as you make of it.

5 comments:

Tym said...

There are certainly things worth observing, documenting, seeing --- just that it's sometimes hard to pick them out when they're obscured by all the other things we're supposed to appreciate about Singapore.

ampulets said...

Yah, you are right. All that self-conscious, conscientious rhetoric of who we are...

As a result, even in protest, we end up using the very vocabulary (linguistic or visual) or debating within the very parameters that we hope to escape from - locked into an official-vs-independent dialectic. At best, we get an allegory from the artist; if lucky, a satire that whistles and bites - and only once in a very long while, something which shows us that we've never seen before, and not by arugument or protest.

robotJ422 said...

wonderful post.
it reminds me of something Tan Pin Pin said after a screening of Singapore Gaga... somebody asked her if she had any plans to shoot films overseas, and she said she wanted to go on shooting in Singapore, because there were still so many things here that people have yet to really portray on film ... pretty much just like what you said, "there are things on this island worth documenting"...

yup, against this is our whole culture of complaining, of yearning for the foreign (I indulge in this too) ... I suspect it has little to do with smallness -- I mean look at Bhutan, the complete opposite, with an identity wrapped around cultural seclusion... or so it seems. (who knows what a Bhutanese man/woman/boy/girl thinks? maybe they yearn for the bright lights and the big city?)

...it looks like Singapore is the anti-Bhutan (like one of Calvino's mirror-image cities), a people whose identity is somehow all about looking to foreign places, whether with yearning or competitive self-assertion ...

so we come full circle -- try to look inward (to document things on this island) and you end up looking outward again, or at least looking at people looking outward...

ampulets said...

hey robot - yearning, competitive self-assertion...that's very true. We always trying to be "London of the East", "Renaissance City" (like the sinking Venice?)...and even "Uniquely Singapore", without referencing any other city, somehow smacks of the same need.

I really admire Tan PinPin leh, not so much because her subject is here and around us, but more because, somehow, I never get the sense that she is asserting some grand narrative (except her slip in the naming of Singapore Gaga...). Her premise and the narrative is the personal. And the culture of the One person is infinitely more secluded and inward than even Bhutan's, yet infinitely broader than the most global of islands. I attended a post-screening dialogue for Singapore Gaga, and was thinking these things too.

Did Bhutan not have some first-class scandal about a serial murder in the royal family a few years ago? oooh, nothing beats the violent spilling of royal blood. In this respect, we are also anti-Bhutan. No imperial scandals... at least none that we will ever know. ;>

robotJ422 said...

i think you're referring to the massacre in Nepal?
yah, no such drama here, only scandals about golden taps and SPGs ...

anyway, yah, i agree about Singapore gaga ... it's good in not trying to expound some grand message, even if there are some connecting themes hinted at ... i actually think the title is something of a tease, kinda tempting you to see some grand national narrative, but dissolving this into blur baby-talk nonsense ... ga ga goo goo... well, it's a better title than "Singapore Musical" anyway (one of her other discarded titles ... can you imagine? it would sound like some reality TV show with Dick Lee)

the personal narrative ... this reminds me of Alfian Sa'at actually... i don't know if you might find him too overtly political (too much involving argument and protest), but to me, his best writing is grounded in the personal, in the stuff of life ... and this in its own way is unavoidably 'political' too...

JL
[P.S. thanks again for the book.]

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