31 December 2003

The Year in One Minute

(or 1 minute and 15 seconds)

I had the honour of getting the Video Renegades' film shown at Zouk yesterday. On the whole, I think the audience liked it. Then again, it's rare to see a non-abstract, non-experimental short film. I can't remember the last local short film that had an overt commentary on current affairs. The mainstream attitude is "We're Singaporeans, no politics, please."

A One Minute Review for a One Minute Film

The agenda was simple: the Video Renegades are a recently-formed association of underground filmmakers who have taken to refine their skills at producing short films on shoestring budgets.

"The Graduate" was shot in one day (4 hours, in fact), the props cost less than $5, and the humour in it is probably priceless.

When we made this film in February as a tribute to the tenacity of Singaporeans in this annus horribilus, we didn't expect the film to get more and more relevant as the months went by.

For one, the $1.99 Shop line announced its closure a month after we shot the film at its Far East branch (and with it, went our hopes of getting that shop to bless our film). Then, more and more grads remained unemployed... and our leaders said we should be more price-competitive with the workers in China. Of course, they never managed to get our wages cut to $1.88 an hour, but I suspect they're still plotting.

And yet, no matter how lousy this year was, we must agree that excessive misfortune becomes, all too easily, the blackest and funniest of comedies, especially if all this misfortune takes place in everday life, around us.

27 December 2003

Great Classics II

I had an interesting ICQ chat with a friend. Life is treating him well relatively well, you could say. Even as an overworked and underpaid management trainee with a bank, he still has one more job than me, and that's where it counts the most.

We exchanged employment histories for the past 2 years (I had the longer story, in and out of temp jobs and freelancing), and he concluded: "You know, you're not stupid. If you just stopped being a critic, the civil service would be an easy job to get. If you're not from the cookie-cutter, and you are not, you'll never get employment from them, not with that kind of attitude... Challenging ideas should be done in academia. The civil service doesn't hire dissenters or mavericks..."

The civil service is a kind of Holy Grail for Singapore graduates. Like the imperial examination system in old China - which gave us the word "Mandarin" to denote any civil servant - the best products of our education system move on to a job with the bureaucracy. Or at least, that was the way life was supposed to have worked till not so long ago.

Because of the lasting strength of the civil service, and the fact that it IS the pillar of society (You can throw away the leaders, but you can't throw away the cookie-cutter!), thousands of grads still aspire to a cushy job. It helps that with the new year, a grad's starting pay as Mandarin has been adjusted to the more 'reasonable' rate of $2100. A very modest adjustment of 20% downwards in light of the economic realities, given that the starting pay of grads in the private sector is $1500 (if you're very lucky).

Eventually, as my friend hinted, even the mavericks and dissenters have to feed themselves or secure a fatter wallet, and join the Mandarins. We should resist the urge to deny the interviewers, just give them the answers that they want in their essay questions. You're smart enough to get the job, if you just say the right stuff.

Indeed, one of the "great classics" of Chinese literature, the Outlaws of the Marsh (水浒传), depicts a band of rebels, dissenters and mavericks during the waning years of the Song Dynasty. 108 bandit chiefs led a wider resistance centred around Mount Liang against the corrupt and inept administration of a weak emperor, and believed that their dissent - robbing the rich to give to the poor, killing corrupt officials - was justified.

The 'civil service' had failed the system, producing either scholars who said the right things in the exams (but were incapable of fixing the real problems), or officials who were content to receive their guaranteed salaries, pensions, and bribes.

Much is remembered from the Outlaws of the Marsh, especially the exploits of the 108 Heroes: Wu Song killing the Tiger, the Golden Lotus, the Cannibal Inn... But the least-mentioned story is the most important, and it comes at the end of the great novel: the Dissolution of the Outlaws.

The leader of the outlaws, 宋江, used to be a low-ranking civil servant who couldn't get promoted because he wasn't corrupt enough, who believed in some principles, until his desertion. For 100 chapters in the book, Song Jiang frustrates the venal and incompetent administrators and paper generals who come to destroy the bandits. Yet, in the end, the bandit king himself was bought off with an amnesty, a high rank in the civil service, praise for his "patriotic duties", and his bandit army recognised and given official military titles.

Join the civil service. You can't go wrong.

The comeuppance for the Song Jiang was swift. In return for his amnesty, his title, his recognition, the weak Emperor orders his army to combat the Golden Horde of the Mongols in the north. A quarter of the 108 Heroes (and their soldiers) are sacrificed.

Then, on the urging of the same venal, corrupt, and incompetent civil servants, the bandit army is sent south, to quell a rebellion from another group of bandits. The civil servants were farsighted: the capable Song Jiang won the war for them. And his bandit army was exterminated in the battles, eliminating any challenge to their control.

A great bandit leader, a gracious robber is lured by promises of Respectability and a position as a Mandarin, and crosses over. Nothing in Western Lit prepares us for a noble hero "selling off" his principles for a position in the Establishment.

It would be as though Robin Hood, another righteous bandit leader, gave up his fortress in Sherwood Forest, disbanded his Merry Men... for a position as a general. And then, getting sent off to fight a bunch of rebels in some other forest, and having his own army exterminated.

I'd like to prove my friend wrong, of course. I hope... not everyone wants to sell their soul to the civil service, not everyone will say the "right things" just to get the job. But seriously, how many of you here would?

24 December 2003

The Gift of the Gab

or, Why the Great Library of Alexandra Burned Down

LIBRARIAN of the Great Library: ...

MOTHER of the Librarian of the Great Library: Look, this place is in a mess! The scrolls are everywhere!!! Look at this shelf! It's full of SCROLLS!

Librarian: ...

Mother: There are scrolls dating from a few hundred years ago! Are you inviting the bookworms to eat this place up?

Librarian: ...

Mother: Look, are you listening to me or not? I'm going to start spring cleaning in an hour, and I won't be able to clean this place with all these scrolls here!

Librarian: I never asked you to clean the Great Library.

Mother: Look, this chest of useless pamphlets! "Aristotle's Poetics: The Tragedy and the Comedy"??? These lecture notes are worthless, and you're still keeping them?
(hauls chest into the incinerator)

Librarian: !!!

Mother: Now, you listen to me. I'll not have this MESS! These scrolls have been lying here for a few hundred years, and you're collecting them, piling them on the shelves, on the tables, on the floor...

Librarian: Well, I told you we needed more shelves, but you just prefer to throw things out.

Mother: I'm not going to do that this year, oh no... Why should I do the job and SUFFER? It's such a thankless task. You lazy, worthless, pathetic fool who can't even keep things in order...

Librarian: ...

Mother: Blahblahblah yakettyyakyak nagnagnagnagnag just throw the damn scrolls away, idiot blahblahblah don't understand why you're keeping all this trash yakettyakyak oh, you're torturing me to death on purpose aren't you, you're putting all this mess to annoy me aren't you nagnagnagnagnag

Librarian: ...
(Burns down the Great Library in a state of madness)
There, you happy? Next time you EVER mention about 'a mess' again, or throw stuff out without asking me, I'll knock out every tooth in your mouth.

Mother: WHAT DID I EVER SAY? You're the unreasonable one here! That's it, I don't want to see you for the rest of today, I'm going shopping.

(picks up phone): Yo, Euphygenia, you can't believe what my AUNT said yesterday. She's the most insufferable woman I've ever met... Any sequence of words from her mouth would drive the listener stark raving mad! I don't understand why people like her exist in the world! And why I'm related to her! Blahblahblah yaketyakyak, oh poor me, nagnagnag...

And this is how today, more than $500 worth of CDs, manga, books (notably: Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival - bought TWO DAYS AGO, Hillary Clinton's Living History, Roland Barthe's S/Z, an English translation of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms) were thrown down the chute by my mum and me. I'm not counting the board games in my cupboard that I threw away so that I could move all my "piles of worthless thrash" in. Risk, Monopoly, Scrabble (and not the cheapo mini "travel version"), a full-sized Chess set, 2 photo albums...

21 December 2003

Review for Stray

So you’ve written a sardonic, anti-establishment play that pokes fun of, even punctures straitjacketed Singaporean society. Knowing smiles broke out in the audience each time Stray highlighted the insanity of a nanny state that produces conservative, play-it-safe clones. Silent laughter, the most dangerous kind, erupted each time the play held its mirror to a citizenry which has been so disempowered, deprived of most liberties (especially creative ones) that it is only free to participate as vacuous actors in the futile and fashionable pursuit of consumerism and the sham social charades that include televised charity drives, National Day parties, celebrity-watching, economic restructuring exercises... And of course, the obligatory, but oh-so-stinging deconstruction of sound bites from our leaders and typical Singaporeans by the chorus, never failed to bring the house down with genuine laughter.

Yet, to the credit of its playwright Emeric Lau, director Aaron Tan, and talented cast of Stage Pals, Stray never comes across as heavy-handed or polemical when it expresses the rage, alienation, and irreverent, iconoclastic humour of the 20-somethings, its ideal audience. It helps that the humour is always at the expense of the powers-that-be - and the 20-somethings are the first generation in Singapore to openly and savagely mock their leaders in everyday speech - but more importantly, this play is the honest collaboration of people who know and love Singapore too much to want to present the topic in any other way, and in such damning detail.

In his preamble, Lau writes of his struggle against the “dearth of well-written, well-performed original material in the local theatre scene in recent years”. It is a fact that most ‘big’ Singaporean productions are either adaptations of acknowledged Great Plays of the civilised West (modern or classic); huge musicals (any of the interchangeable Dick Lee productions); or “seem to pander to niche audiences” - a code for the Gay Play, which can be dissected into the Gay Martyr Play where every gay person emotes existential angst (the recent stage adaptation of Cyril Wong’s poetry), or the Gay Camp Play that merely celebrates the spending power of its niche community (the vulgarly shallow and consumerist Asian Boys Vol. 1, Shopping and F***ing, among others); or the multi-disciplinary, multilingual, multinational “Pan-Asian” play that has no real message aside from its own salad-bar conception of an ersatz, exotic, and auto-erotic Asian identity. Lau and Tan are right in lamenting that the tradition begun by Kuo Pao Kun seems to have been forgotten.

In this respect, Stray has managed to avoid the pitfalls its creator identifies as endemic to current Singapore theatre. The play is unapologetically original and Singaporean - its themes and issues, sensibility and psyche are undeniably “20something Singaporean”, and most importantly, the play has a real heart and soul; it grapples with real issues. In other words, an attempt to resurrect the tradition of Kuo Pao Kun, a tradition of writing and performing original Singaporean plays while maintaining the intercultural and eclectic osmosis of creativity.

16 December 2003

A New Dream

Kill the 30somethings, they ruined Singapore with their naive borrow/spend/re-sell/upgrade cycle, their economic bubble that burst on us. And while we're reaping their bitter fruits, they're cosily planning on the next upgrade, the next job, the next baby.

No matter. I have an alternative dream to their 6Cs dream that's easily achievable, and has lower expectations fit for the dire straits of our generation.

30something Dream:
Club membership

20something Dream

The new economy for the 20somethings is a contracting economy, in both senses of the word. Gone are the days of the Singapore salaryman, and the Career. Companies are only interested in giving out contracts, so that you, the 20something worker, will never get any medical, leave, and seniority benefits that the 30somethings have managed to cling on to.

Credit is out, as most 20somethings are temp workers in this economy, with no guaranteed income to qualify for a Credit Card. Debit is in, and the cheapest debit card that doesn't require a bank charge is the Cashcard.

2nd-hand HDB flat
While those evil 30somethings upgrade their old flats for condos, we will get their cheap castaways, instead of buying direct and incurring a 30-year debt from the HDB. Besides, the worst thing that can happen to an old flat is leaky pipes. I prefer that to the new flats that show signs of premature aging even before 5 years have passed, like: exploding bathroom screens, popping marble tiles, falling windows, leaking walls....

Friendster membership
Here's a social club that allows people to do heavy-duty networking, for free. Members gain social recognition with each additional testimonial they receive from other members.

With the new economy, everyone's realised that the higher your certificate, the less help it gives in your job hunting. The diploma is now the in thing for this, and the next generation. For once, 30somethings can rest assured that they will be more educated than future Singaporeans.

It's not a case of sour grapes. 30somethings can go on upgrading their cars every few years... but I'm banking on the Northeast MRT line. At the staggering pricetag of One Billion Dollars, it far outranks their cheap cars. And in two years' time, I'll upgrade to the Circle Line, which will probably cost even more. Now, for this kind of expensive transport, shouldn't the social prestige be correspondingly high?

15 December 2003

Rivalries and Competitions

Recently, Annhell made mention of a certain Asian Blog Awards where he was nominated. The good writer was not impressed by the competition itself, or by the very personal attacks between some of the Singaporean nominees.

Perhaps we Singaporeans do have some unique national trait that enable those few to behave very badly in their blogs, but then again, I believe some sniping is inescapable in literary contests. Unlike other contests or competitions where talent or accomplishment can be gauged objectively on say, the Guiness Book of Records or its TV show ("Biggest Eater", "Most Pierced", "Fastest X"), the literary is entirely a field of strategic positioning, or as some might more pointedly put it, strategic posturing. Hence, it does make sense for any interested literary participant or observer to stake out their own position, to articulate their view on what makes a good blog, play, poem, film, novel, etc...

Ten centuries ago, Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon were the leading diarists, poets, and novelists of their time (and I believe they still count in the all-time top 5 of Asian writers), in the Japanese court. Yet, from the diary of Murasaki, we find her writing:

"Sei Shonagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction. Yet, if we stop to examine those Chinese writings of hers that she so pretentiously scatters about the place, we find that they are full of imperfections..."

What Sei Shonagon would've said in response is not known to historians, but we might have a clear idea. Literary critics and historians dub Shonagon as "the witty diarist": frank, sarcastic, witty, and young. In other words, someone who would get away with her sharp comments, as long as they were tastefully done.

In comparison, Murasaki would've been the dignified "Elder Stateswoman". Widowed at 30, she enters the Japanese court at a ripe old age, schooled in Chinese and writing more like a sensitive scholar. One must wonder if the "dull people" in Sei Shonagon's diary entry of "Things I hate in people" might've been a dig at her rival...

Such sniping... even 10 centuries ago! And they didn't even have a competition or award for diary-writing. Then, as with the modern "invention" of the blog, the great Japanese diarists never wrote for themselves, but for a public audience, who waited impatiently for a new entry in anyone's diary.

Then, as now, literary competitions were an exercise in posturing and poseurship for their contestants and nominees, and perhaps much more significantly so for the organiser. The ability to confer "greatness" is greater than the gift itself, and organisers and judges are not unaware of this fact, when they set up or adjudicate at awards... even when that ability is mostly dependant on the social illusion on the part of a number of people, who by their participation, comments, and other behaviour, give "credibility" to the organiser, the judges, and the competition itself.

It is here that I disagree with Annhell on what makes a credible competition: it doesn't matter whether the awards are handed out by a panel of judges, or by a "democratic" vote from the public. There is zero credibility in literary competitions; it all boils down to posturing again. A panel of judges will make annoint a contestant that best represents the political negotiation of their literary agendas and positions on what is "suitably literary", and which judges are the more influential. Pure audience voting will boil down to how well-connected the nominees are to their voters, and how well they marshall these people. Hence, the best blogger might not even be in the XYZ polls, if his/her readers don't tend to read the site where that poll is from. In addition, how the categories for prizes/awards are constituted will also signal clearly the agendas and biases of the organiser.

In real life, it's pretty easy to find horrendous and comic examples of all that. The Asian TV Awards, for example, consists of 140 entries from 15 countries in Asia. Now, how many countries are there in Asia? How many entries did each TV station enter in this competition? (Which is a really sneaky way of asking how few stations dominated the entire "competition").

The Singapore A Cappella Awards decided to go for the online voting system, starting from 2 years ago. As I recall, in 2001, a certain group won the Audience Favourite Award without appearing for any performance on the public showcase dates at Suntec.

For the Asia Star Search award... the organisers must really hope that audiences don't not get too deep into questioning why "ASIA" is represented solely by Singapore, Hongkong, China, and Taiwan. Or, for some other Asian awards, why the first few categories are always from these few countries, then some other technical categories, and then followed by a few other Asian countries, as if they are an afterthought. Or why "Miss UNIVERSE" doesn't have any extraterrestrial contestants.

I don't believe in any credibility of competitions. But a literary competition I'd give two hoots about would rather have

1. Consistent and coherent, meaningful poseurship and strategic posturing from judges, organisers and participants.
2. Not too much of inbreeding, such that the winner is the one with more friends, or a blog circle that marshalls voting from members.

As thebeastz has pointed out, it is unlikely that the Asian Blog Awards would be repeated next year. For the sake of serious bloggers everywhere, I hope that it will never be repeated in its current state/concept.

14 December 2003


A haunting line from a short film. Listening to it articulate my innermost.


12 December 2003


Q: Where does the Minster Without Portfolio work?
A: In the Ministry At Large.

09 December 2003

Long post on cutting things short

As old as the human urge to create art is the equally human urge to creatively truncate art. Call it what you will - editing, expurgating, censorship, summarising, adaptation - this urge has remained with us ever since the First Reader yawned on the umpteenth sentence of the First Writer's manuscript. Today, we bring you on a magical mystery tour across the ages on the fascinating and underappreciated human will to cut things short, to simplify, to reduce.

The Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, whom Harold Bloom credits with "The Invention of the Human", is regarded by most of the English-speaking world as the greatest dramatist in history. Whole forests are sacrificed for scholarly criticisms of Shakespeare's plays.

Yet, there is precious little in these criticisms concerning the bawdy language, crude jokes, and blasphemies that the Bard used. Perhaps the most inventive Shakespearean line that combines all three elements comes from Ophelia, in Hamlet: "Young men will do't, if they come to't; By cock, they are to blame." Act 1, scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet begins with two Capulets making the infamous "maidenhead" joke...

There is no surprise then, that for every William Shakespeare, there is a Thomas Bowdler. The easily-offended prude decided in 1807, that in the interests of family values and politeness, the legacy of Shakespeare should be preserved in an edition where "nothing is added to the original text, but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family." Enter well-meaning censorship. And the world has never quite been the same ever since Bowdler's The Family Shakespeare.

Not that Shakespeare was terribly prolific with blush-inducing phrases and jokes; most of his contemporaries like Ben Jonson had the more inventive phrases like "whoreson base fellow" and "I fart at thee" (not to be confused with Monty Python's "I fart in your general direction"!).

Ever since performance art was unbanned here and with WWE showing at prime-time, our censors have precious little to protect Singapore's morals from. Perhaps they should take a leaf from Bowdler, and produce The Family Diablo: "Re-introducing a popular computer game in a palatable form to the God-fearing Christian family"...

Shakespeare still has fans even in this modern, post-colonial age. The Reduced Shakespeare Company puts on very concise plays (or comedy skits?) that summarise all of Shakespeare's plays AND sonnets in just 97 minutes. And that's just one of their takes on the Bard. There's another offering that claims to present Hamlet backwards and forwards in just 30 seconds flat... In contrast, Kenneth Brannagh's Hamlet runs for an amazing 4 hours.

I'm hoping someone would produce a Complete LOTR (abridged). Doesn't matter whether it's on film or text... but a very abridged version of the book should be top priority.

Or, since the RSC has proven that Shakespeare's plays are so similar to each other that they can be hilariously summarised together as a single play, I'm hoping some guerilla filmmaker will produce a Reduced Wong Kar Wai. Many people point out that the characters from different WKW movies like In the Mood for Love, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, are all similar right down to their personality traits and quirks, as well as what happens to them in the movies.

Speaking of adaptations, do any of you still remember The Illustrated Bible? It had most of the books intact, except for Psalms, Proverbs, and some of the Epistles, which couldn't really be illustrated. What could be achieved was still spectacular: the Bible as a brilliant, visually-captivating story. Of course, sans graphic nudity (I don't recall many panels with Adam and Eve in Eden, the entire sequence was very abstract and subtly handled) and violence, although graphic, realistic depictions of leprosy and plague were okay.

As a lesson from the inspired creators of the Illustrated Bible, our tax department should put in more effort to release The Illustrated Guide to Filling In Tax Forms.

So, next time we hear about great artists, let's not forget their even greater editors, censors, summarisors, and adaptors.

04 December 2003

With Apologies...

Because our national arts council chairman recently gave a speech denouncing "avant garde art", and any art that was too deep for the public and the market, this is my reply to him.

High art isn't inaccessible, you moron.

Today, I will take a break with the politics. Instead I will take three very difficult artistic texts - a very surreal tale from a Czech writer, a very postmodern collection of interconnected short stories from an Italian novelist, and a campy, sardonic stage remake of an old Hollywood movie - and re-interpret them, make them understandable, and speak out to any Singaporean reader.

I. "This is Not Kafka"

How would we tell Metamorphosis without turning K. into a cockroach? I don't believe we've seen a version of the story that's stripped away of its fantastical elements. Can audiences connect with a socially realist and bleak drama?

This phenomenon happens frequently in Japan: a young man, bothered by either work, depression, or even lack of work, will lock himself in the bedroom for years, sometimes more than a decade. Hikikomori is the name given to this affliction of self-isolation.

That's K. Passive, unwilling to become a burden to his family, he enters seclusion in his bedroom one morning. Because he has lost his job, he considerately removes himself from life in the family. He will not be a burden to them as he searches for a job from his room...

After all, Kafka wrote and set Metamorphosis in a turn-of-century Prague, where an earlier economic miracle had turned into a distant dream very suddenly. And instead of a bright future, a bleak desolation lies ahead for everyone. A bleak desolation that will drive young men to despair, seclusion, and self-negation.

II. "This is not Italo Calvino"

This is not "If on a Winter's Night A Traveler..." But something of conspiratorial proportions has been stifling the development of art in this small city for the past 30 years. An art historian, a student, takes up a research project on "the great unfinished works" of a small circle of artists, now dead and forgotten.

In the forest of images, where a painting tells the story of a book about a film documentary on musicians, can the student find the key to the mystery of the disappearance of artists in the city?

III. This is not Sunset Boulevard

Lydia is an aging comedian. An old pal who got invited to take over a TV station in a foreign land gives her a chance to resurrect a career on its last legs.

Reality-TV style, an expose on the disaster follows. The megalomaniacal diva who doesn't realise her star has faded. The lame jokes from the uninspired scriptwriters who would rather work on something else, except they're TV station employees. A series that is watched by very few, yet qualifies as a "hit" only because Lydia has sufficient clout to demand/bargain for more seasons.

And the final insult? When the scriptwriters finally walk off the set, a completely unknown bunch of maverick writers going by the name of "The Video Renegades", with a secret plan to take over the world beginning with the TV station, con themselves into the job. And perhaps, just perhaps... their offbeat humour might work.