I/you am/are nothing without you/me

[Warning/Apology: This is a long post, plus it doesn't have pictures or drawings for now! An accompanying drawing will be uploaded only later.]

Maybe I remember wrong, but I think my first encounter with the idea of "co-option" was in Cherian George's Singapore the Air-Conditioned Nation: Essays on the Politics of Comfort andControl 1990-2000. The argument goes that the ruling party/government has dominated whatever intellectual millieu of this country by co-opting the voices of the intellectuals. This co-opting can be literal - by recruiting individuals into government or even politics. The co-opting can be literary or linguistic - by absorbing the critical words or works into the official imagining of Singapore, the Singapore "canon", hence neutralising, or sometimes distorting its language or meaning.

All this sounds abstract (though, at the same time, I am sure I have over-simplified many things); even irrelevant to the lives of many Singaporeans - you, I, he, she, us, them. Instead, Cherian George has written many cogent essays on how the pursuit and provision of comfort over-shadows our quesions about the political process - and I recommend the book.

Where all this started for me was at this afternoon's screening of Singapore Gaga by Tan Pin Pin at the Singapore Art Museum. It was there where this issue of "co-opting" or being "co-opted" arose.

My thoughts from the 55min film are still disorganised. Partly because I have been up the past 3 days rushing a short story (but more on this later), and also because they are somewhat mixed up with my thoughts frm a talk we had attended on Friday about "Documenting and the Document", organised by p-10 as part of their Exchange05 series with artists, researchers etc (still more on this later!). I will just list some of my responses to the Singapore Gaga screening and its Q&A session: [If you haven't watched the film...maybe these comments won't make much sense?]

1. A young but already accomplished writer was the first to raise this issue of "being co-opted". He asked if Tan Pin Pin was worried that her film would be "co-opted by the establishment". He cited the reviews in ST Life! as an example, where the reviewer had praised the film's representation of Singapore's multi-lingual and multi-racial landscape as being truly representative. Tan Pin Pin, I think, gave a mature response, that while she may worry about interpretations and "mis-interpretations", she also accepts that her responsibility as a film-maker is not to dictate audience's responses and that the diversity of views (even mis-interpretations) is part and parcel of an on-going dialogue (my words). I think the young writer who asked the question has much to learn from the generosity, graciousness of this response. (Though, perhaps, he has reasons I will never know.)

2. This, as well as the film's depiction of individual eccentricity (again, the term "eccentrics" was used by this young writer), led me to wonder whether the film does not "co-opt" the personal as the national/public. Of course, all published works and all art make public, in different degrees, the domestic, the private, the intimate. Many questions from the audience were about the title, and I think rightly so. Tan Pin Pin said that her earlier choice for a title was "I am nothing without you" (or "You are nothing without me", she joked) - as a sort of cliche and drawing on the love song "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" which brackets the film. She decided on "Singapore Gaga" after testing the earlier title on some friends, and finding it possibly too "obscure". I prefer the obscure approach, always! For by taking on "Singapore", the film I think assumes a different voice - or rather, invites a certain response. Responses about "the establishment", "the eccentrics in Singapore", "the marginalised"... (tired and tiresome terms!)

3. I had sensed that while these were definitely issues/concepts/realities the filmmaker confronted, the motivation and the heart of the film lies still with the personal and the relational (between persons first, then between communities or ideologies or classes) - the relationship first between the filmmaker and the subject on which she trains the camera's eye. I must applaud Tan Pin Pin for doing this so effectively: to bring the national/public to the realm of personal instead. She summarised it with two phrases/words - "yearning" and "anger and bitterness". She said that while the project had started as a collection of "sounds" she was fond of in Singapore, she soon discovered that the sense of "yearning" lay behind many of the sounds and stories. The question which she sought to answer, not explicitly, was "what was it that kept people going." "Yearning" is something that cuts both ways - never to have, and a hope to have. To yearn and to desire (whether for a past, a better future, success, recognition, God's peace etc) is what keeps the people she records going, but also what makes for the anger, the sadness, the despair, the bitterness. And the film is powerful because the filmmaker shares in this ambivalence (hmmm, ambivalence is probably not the right word...).

4. The most touching scene or story in the film for me was that of Yew Hong Chow (harmonica master). And hearing Tan Pin Pin describe her sessions with Yew Hong Chow as her favourite explained why. Yew and Alex Abishinegan (sic?) would play a duet of the harmonica and guitar, respectively, for Tan Pin Pin, though Yew spoke no English and Abishinegan no Mandarin. And it is his absolute dedication to the instrument and its music that moves - the "obscurity", if you will, of his expressions of yearning. And it is the relation of the filmmaker to another artist, or to another dedication, that allows the story and images and sounds she records and interprets to move, and not just to argue.

5. If we cannot engage the personal, the political has no relevance, no reference point, no power, maybe no meaning. After all, audiences are persons first. But in all this, I I reveal only my own bias.

If you want to catch the film, it will be screening at the Substation on 1-3 July05. Or check the Singapore Gaga website for details.

Yearning for other sounds by Singaporeans? Sad is the Man.


saw the book at borders but wasn't sure. will prob pick a copy up now! =)
ampulets said…
It's actually surprisingly easy to read... actually i can't remember if cherian george had talked about co-opting the intellectual. you read lah, then tell me!
will do!

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