30 August 2007

Architectures of Control

From the introduction to Architectures of Control:

Increasingly, many products are being designed with features that intentionally restrict the way the user can behave, or enforce certain modes of behaviour. The same intentions are also evident in the design of many systems and environments.

I usually add to my blogroll without much fanfare, but here's a site that I would make some noise about. And I'm sure Singaporean readers would find this fascinating - architectures of control exist everywhere in the world, and it's time we start recognising in our own landscape, geography, and urban design as well.

Need proof of this blog's mandatory reading status? You might want to begin with:

Casino design and slot machine winning chances
Why your third-party battery lasts shorter on a Nokia
The default choice in OSes, programmes, and Starbucks
How airports keep people moving

28 August 2007

Founding legends

Was vaguely aware of the Army Half-marathon run on Sunday; I had to wait twice as long for my bus to come from Marina. It turns out that a 25-year-old Captain collapsed and died after completing his run that morning.

That's tragic, but what can one expect from a sport whose founding legend involves someone dying after the run? The Greek soldiers were hardly a sedentary bunch; if they could collapse after a 22km run, anyone could - regardless of preparation or physical condition.

Everyone in Singapore had to read the founding myth of the Marathon as part of their second language/mother tongue syllabus - surely they must have learnt something?

24 August 2007

Nazi board games

Excerpts from the BBC:

Nazi board games under the hammer

A collection of Nazi era board games - including one where players are given points for bombing British cities - are being auctioned in the UK...

The rare trove of wartime board games also includes a version of Snakes and Ladders based on the exploits of U-boat captain Gunther Prien.

"They say a lot about the Nazis, and about the German regime. Our kids were still playing trains and Meccano and hopscotch and things like that. These show how the Nazis were determined that children as young as four or five needed to get into the swing of things."

The two word that come to my mind, though, are National Education.

Think about it, few other countries in the world incorporate national goals, ideology, and the official slant on current affairs into child education and childplay as much as Singapore.

One imagines the family of National Education learning tools that inhabit the same social space as the Nazi boardgames: The Fall of Malaya board game, Command and Conquer, SAF edition...

And for the wired generation, The Fall of Malaya/Japanese Occupation MMORPG!
Play as 3 factions! The Japanese 25th Army , the Malaya Command (i.e. Percival and his Australian and Indian minions), and the Communist irregulars!

Each faction has its unique strengths! Play as the Japanese with their Mobility doctrine, Malaya Command with its Manpower doctrine (easy recruitment from the Commonwealth), and the Communist irregulars with their Progaganda doctrine!

And of course, the moral of the game is: We must ourselves defend Singapore! Woohoo...

22 August 2007

From the mouth of a scholar

You just can't write these stuff up.

The Straits Times
Aug 17, 2007

President's Scholar follows in dad's footsteps

The money quote that appeared below the headline: 'I think the President's Scholarship is, more than anything else, responsibility. It tells you you can't slack off, but have to try to enrich yourself in as many ways as possible.' - Stephanie Koh 18, on what it means to be a President's Scholar.

Seriously. Scholars in Singapore now think their duty is to enrich themselves in as many ways as possible.

My friend the Samurai Blogger points out that not all President's Scholars end up in plum positions within the state bureaucracy, as it's not a bonded scholarship and recipients aren't ushered into academic paths by the scholarship. It's an unfair stereotype, he claims, that all scholars have silky smooth ride even if they are good.

Even so, I'm reminded of a conversation I had with some friends on National Day, shortly after watching the NDP, where my opposite number put forth the view that it is natural and expected that scholars are promoted to positions in the bureaucracy where they can prove and exercise their leadership qualities. That's another unfair stereotype for you.

And Straits Times coverage of "where are these scholars now?" basically conflates and celebrates these 2 stereotypes together: the worthy scholar who will one day lead us into the great future, the worthy scholar whose bond is surety of leadership and success, the scholar whose sole duty to the state, once they have received the scholarship, is to enrich themselves in as many ways as possible.

The Willow Tree

From the Iranian director who gave Children of Heaven to moviegoers everywhere and Homerun to Jack Neo, comes a rare movie revolving around adult characters. One might be forgiven for thinking that this marks a move away by Majid Majidi from his trademark magic realist, sometimes rustic, but always emotionally effective directing style, but nothing can be further from the truth. Yet at the same time, The Willow Tree does offer a subtle and sophisticated philosophy of cinema to critics who say the director relies too much on trite metaphors and cliched symbolism.

In Majid Majidi's latest masterpiece, Youseff (Parviz Parastui) is a kindly and awkward university don who has been living with blindness since a childhood accident involving fireworks. It is not an uncomfortable life that Youseff leads: he has a loving wife who reads his students' thesis for him, as well as perform clerical tasks like typing transcripts of his essays, a child who adores him, and an extended family who is there for him, no matter what. Hampered by his disability, true and complete happiness eludes him until the man regains his sight through a cornea transplant procedure - and this is where the film begins in earnest.

From the setup, it's clear in advance how the film will roughly proceed: the rediscovery of the delights of sight, the end of Youseff's long childhood and innocence, and the deflating of his dreams of having his sight complete his happiness. What makes this film a piece of art are the eventual choices that the director makes to cover these plot points, out of the scores of far easier, emotionally hamfisted, or visually showy options available.

Take for example the representation of sight regained - in the hands of a showy, less creative director, you'd have lots of camera candy, distorted, oversaturated, or just overdone visual effects to present to the audience the world from the eyes of the formerly blind man. It's just the sort of cheap repertoire that gives cinema the reputation of being an overly literal medium, where every visual metaphor is unimaginatively direct. In fact, audiences only get to see directly from the eyes of Youseff about three times in The Willow Tree. What we see, and what is more important in this story, is how Youseff begins to see things for the very first time, and not what he sees. In a way, Majid is far more acquainted with the limits of film as a representational medium than any of the younger, MTV-inspired directors of this day and age. Yet there is no doubt that when you are watching Youseff see things anew, that there is a certain mood of exuberance and uncertainty that is conveyed, far better than any distorting lenses or filters. What Majid has done here is to create a highly symbolic, but anti-symbolist visual language - an achievement in itself. This visual language is paralleled and augmented by the director's painstaking efforts to evoke the lost sense of touch in cinema - the audience can only see Youseff grasp, grapple, play with surfaces and textures, but can never do so themselves.

In a way, the director's ironic treatment of the representation of sight and touch in film leads on naturally to the twist and the true story of the movie: the end of Youseff's prolonged childhood and his simultaneous loss of innocence. What is paradise to a blind man - will it remain a paradise once he regains his sight? What is love and care to a blind man - will his relation to his caregivers and loved ones remain the same once he is able-bodied and able to fend for himself again? Filmed at times as a tone poem, the transition to emotional drama that begins to take over is handled very well - as the film burst with ironies and seething with resentment, what's noteworthy is how Majid's script and directing is extremely subtle and restrained, compared to how a Mediacorp television drama would play out the exact same scenarios. And if this isn't enough, do note that the emotional drama is infused with a philosophical and melancholic touch, courtesy of Sufi devotional poetry by Rumi.

Acting-wise, this marvellous if subtle film is bolstered by the efforts of Parviz Parastui, who effectively plays two different roles that are not entirely separate from each other: the likeable if helpless, childlike don and the troubled but reborn, re-sighted man who grows in self-hood. Roya Taymourian shines, in a classic movie sense, as his onscreen wife - she compares well to a younger Lee Heung Kam!

The Willow Tree is a movie I'd recommend for arthouse fans, as well as any moviegoer hankering for some subtle fare after last month's summer blockbusters. Buy a ticket, take in the movie slowly, and you won't be disappointed.

07 August 2007

More great moments in television history

(Part 2 in a continuing series)

Very shortly after touching down in Singapore, Sir Ian McKellen begins to ask reporters for directions to the nearest gay bar. The climate of oppression against homosexuals in Singapore has either dissipated recently, or has always been a myth invented by certain activists - luckily for everyone, The New Paper, former (or supposed) scourge of many a gay agenda in the early 1990s, did not publish this headline in font size 42 on the front cover of the following day's issue:

"Ian McKellen, gay sex tourist?"

Lessons for gay activists

In part, the nonreaction and the unscandalised treatment of this affair could stem from the charm of Sir Ian. In just one day, the actor managed to continue his 20-year history of gay activism in Singapore with a fresh and winsome approach that must have endeared him to the journalists at Channelnewsasia (even if they had to feign some embarrassment) and Class 95FM.

Unlike the "father of the gay equality movement in Singapore", Sir Ian delivered his plea for delegalisation of section 377A with skill, style, and panache. At CNA, it was done in a jokey manner that still got the point across. At Class 95FM, Sir Ian repeated his query on gay bars in Singapore (the gay sex tourist joke becomes increasingly difficult to avoid!) to an amused Vernetta Lopez. Yes, he made an additional statement, about how antiquated Section 377A is - and left it at that. Short, sweet, and simple.

Ian McKellen's model of gay activism should be studied very closely by those who purport to fight for the community here. Alex Au would do well to note that Sir Ian did not have to be confrontational. He made his point without slamming the government and the civil service or calling them insincere liars, without slamming the Church or deriding the Bible, without insinuating that the civil service and church are in cahoots with each other, and without forcing security to throw him out of the building so he could prove to the world that indeed the state of Singapore has failed his test of tolerance. This is real activism, Alex. Look, listen, and learn!

Ian McKellen, pink tourist

And so, someone must have told Sir Ian of Singapore's gay bars. For days after his arrival, the actor made it a point to tell anyone who asked about his experience in Singapore, that this country has over 20 gay bars and pubs. That's something to put in one of those Lonely Planet guides.

Enterprising establishments which hosted Sir Ian during his stay in Singapore should seriously consider naming their bars or rooms after him. You know, like "The Sir Ian McKellen Room".

Even though Sir Ian cannot be the first pink tourist in Singapore, there's no better way to celebrate this actor. If Singapore has commemorated the stay of another LBGT artist for almost 70 years by naming a room in its most famous and oldest hotel after him, I can't see why we can't do the same towards this luminary.

05 August 2007

Asian Boys Vol. 3

At the end of Kill Bill Vol. 2, Uma Thurman as The Bride walks out of the mansion with her young daughter- not into the sunset, for that fate has been reserved for Bill (David Carradine). Instead, the lioness and her cub retire to a hotel where The Bride, resolved of the burden of her karmic duty, experiences joy mixed with an equal amount of sorrow, held together by tremendous relief.

Uma Thurman crying and sobbing next to the water closet, in a closet-like room

Asian Boys Vol. 3 is a theatrical adaptation as peculiar as the novel on which it is based. The 2-act drama takes Singapore's first published gay novel, Peculiar Chris, and does very different things to it in each act - the first half takes a playful, postmodern view on the original text, while the second "plays it for real", as a straightforward speculative continuation of the novel, almost 2o years on. What makes ABV3 a peculiar fish is how the concepts of these 2 acts struggle at odds with each other.

The idea behind Act 1 is a postmodern presentation of Peculiar Chris: Joe the author is himself a character in this play, in the process of completing Singapore's first published gay novel; amidst the reenactment of the novel's highlights, the author - doubling in the part of Chris - is on occasion reproached and interrogated by his muse and all other characters of the novel.

The metatextual repartee between the author and his subjects make up much of the wit in this act, but it is a wit that dulled by the simultaneous urge of the play to pay tribute to the landmark status of the novel. Act 1 is queer fish indeed; one cannot decide whether this is a somewhat straightforward adaptation of the original material, a gushing tribute to the importance of Peculiar Chris and Johann S Lee, or with the references to sometimes naive writing of a 19-year-old, a arch deconstruction of the novel. It is unfortunate, because the script fails to see through any of these 3 approaches far enough.

Armed with the best lines of the play (all taken from Peculiar Chris) and a playful and inventive approach, it's a mystery how Act 1 falls a short distance off the mark it should have reached.

This scene with Uma Thurman stretches for almost a full minute

Act 2 is a fresh beginning, a fresh approach: imagine if all the characters of Peculiar Chris were "real characters" existing in the current milieu. The setup is brilliantly done: Chris returns from the UK to a Singapore changed radically (at least for the gay community), and in revisiting old friends, finds himself embroiled in the politics of gay activists in the island, amidst a gathering movement for a repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code, an upcoming talk by an ex-gay ministry, and the sacking of a gay teacher from MOE.

The setup is well-done and mostly carefully constructed, garnering laughs from its skewering of current affairs. However, what follows feels more like a pleasant evening at the 4th National Bolshevik Theatre for the People. Audiences will find themselves lectured at by several characters serving as mouthpieces for various ideological positions within the community - all shouting at each other. One must have a great reserve of patience to sit through the laborious and lengthy speeches, all telegraphed beforehand so you know when it's coming. One must have a great deal of curiosity for Singapore's gay politics to stomach through a Communist purge style denunciation of the class traitors, the fifth columns within the community. And above all, one must have a great deal of tolerance and forbearance for the out-of-control ranting and constant references to gay teachers sacked by MOE.

Well, you know what they say when art imitates life, but I'm very curious to know how Act 2 of ABV3 could have turned out if Alfian bin Sa'at had not had his unfortunate run-in with the Ministry of Education. Surely, a playwright who has more than 15 years of writing experience can do far better than the second act of ABV3.

The Bride rolls on the floor, at times laughing, at times sobbing

Looking at both acts, one realises that ABV3 is afflicted with the same problems as most of Alfian bin Sa'at's plays - often the latter halves fail to match the first halves, in terms of coherence as well as quality. Often, the two halves are more like 2 self-contained plays, conceptually complete in themselves. Now, there are 2 things I don't get in the play - two things that illustrate Alfian's continuing problems with the 2-act structure:

1. Act 1 ended with the muse revealing himself to be Chris, and inviting the Author to hop into Act 2 with him, to find out what happens to his characters after more than 10 years.
A. Where is the Author in Act 2?
B. Why, if Act 1 allows the Muse to deconstruct, comment on, and at times poke gentle fun at the self-seriousness and naivete of the Author and Peculiar Chris, does Act 2 not extend the same self-reflexivity?

2. Why does the play end with the Muse asking the Author how things will turn out in the end, when Act 1 ended with the Muse inviting to show the Author how things turn out in 10 years?

"Thank you. Thank you. Thank you." The Bride whispers this gratefully between her tears and laughter

Let me make it clear that it is possible to like Asian Boys Vol. 3. It's a good play to watch if you haven't been exposed to the theatre, or if you're a gay person seeking some form of self-validation through the gay play, through community theatre. And even if you're not that way, Act 1 of ABV3 is probably one of the best postmodern adaptations ever attempted in Singapore theatre - it is far more sincere and authentic than certain other postmodern plays like the "Amazing Asia" production of Lear, for example. It's a pity that the level of invective in Act 2 may well de-endear any audience to the homosexual cause, and for queer people who are more comfortable in their skins, the artistic shortcomings of this play will be what they'd latch onto, instead of the fact that it's a gay play.

The Summary

Asian Boys Vol. 3, as a gay play and a piece of politicised community theatre, can only find justification for its existence from closetted and newly-out gay people who need to find justification for their existence from the play. There is something off-putting about the strident politics of this play - from its fast and loose attacks at the evil oppressive government1, the class traitors, the fifth columns, and the almost Marxist project of creating class consciousness: that gay people must act as a class-for-itself, and stop existing as a class-in-itself.

The disconcerting thing is how ABV3 leaves no room - no, glosses over entirely the existence of well-adjusted gay people who reject both a life spent in local gay activism and a life spent in clubs and saunas. In the universe of Asian Boys, in the politics of Alfian bin Sa'at, you cannot exist, you do not exist.

1. References were made in Act 2 to the police raids of gay saunas. The truth is, gay saunas are a legitimate business in Singapore and have been allowed to operate unmolested for much of their existence. There has been a grand total of 1 drug bust at a sauna. Once every 2 or 3 years following lurid sauna exposes by The New Paper, the police feel obliged to make general and cursory inspections - to check for alcohol licenses and serving of underaged customers. That hardly qualifies as a "raid", and this frequency hardly qualifies as a pattern of oppression. One could argue artistic license - except when this is a community play.