27 July 2015

Living with Myths IX: Cultural medallions, poverty, histories

Being a review of the 9th in a year-long series of seminars

Poor people don't like oats either

Teo You Yenn is a sociologist who studies Singapore's social welfare ecosystem. What happens after the cabinet fixes a policy stand on social welfare? How does policy get enacted by ministries, semi-government bodies, and social organisation? What does social welfare look like when it is delivered to the poor?

Apparently the poor get welfare packages that include packets of ready-to-eat oats. Somewhere, a conscious decision was made: even though oats are alien and unpleasant to Asian tastebuds, the poor had better make do with them. After all, they're poor...

From her ongoing research and advisory participation in welfare work, Teo presents several narratives about the poor (they lack agency so policy and execution of welfare tend not to assume they possess or desire agency), their culture of poverty (poor people have boatloads of dignity and would rather not seek help even if they truly need it), and their displacement from Singapore society and politics (Singapore is a deliberate meritocracy but resulting poverty and inequality are externalities which policymakers do not take responsibility for).

Stopping short of examining how the concept of the stoic, uncomplaining, and deserving poor has been created by the state and reinforced by how various welfare organisations conduct means tests and interact with welfare recipients, Teo's presentation would make an excellent triplebill with Ho Chi Tim's presentation on the social welfare ecosystem, and Jack Chia's exposition on the rise of Buddhist social charities in Singapore.

Kuo Pao Kun: Beyond multilingualism and multiculturalism

CJ Wee Wan-ling charts the post-detention career of Kuo Pao Kun as the "doyen of Singapore theatre". Wee selects excerpts from Kuo's extensive writings about his life and art to make a claim that Kuo wasn't just a "multiculturalist director" but a masterful playwright whose work struck a chord with cultural developments in Singapore in the 1980s and 1990s, when the "Singapore as cultural desert" discourse became popular.

"History has proved that there is no way [Singaporeans] could reconnect to their parent cultures per se. However, having lost their own—cut loose and therefore set free—they have thus become natural heirs to all the cultures of the world."

This is a representative quote from Kuo Pao Kun's writing in Wee's presentation. Wee acknowledges he is a member of a profession responsible for curating a Singapore canon and canonizing its Shakespeares, but yet lacks a certain self-awareness necessary to realise that Kuo Pao Kun has been also actively involved in creating his own myths and narratives of Singapore art and culture. Yes, even when presenting quote after quote similar to this.

The key thing to take away isn't just the hagiographic nature of this presentation (as pointed out by Huang Jianli during the Q&A), or that Wee never quite established there was a myth of a multilingual and multicultural Kuo Pao Kun. Interestingly, Wee never reconciles the agit-prop theatre of Kuo's pre-detention years with his post-detention genius playwright narrative, choosing to whitewash Kuo's agit-prop with the euphemism of "social realism", presumably because socialist realism is as damaging to the mythology of Kuo as is agit-prop.

It appears Kuo got his cultural medallion because his narrative and myth of Singapore culture was similar, if not the same as the "cultural desert" concept of its mandarins, and ultimately flattered its mandarins, by claiming their efforts in modernising and industrialising Singapore could wipe out all culture.

The myth that a singular historical narrative moulds good citizens

Mark Baildon and Suhaimi Afandi are respectively the head and lecturer of the Humanities and Social Studies Education Academic Group at the NIE. What this means is they have some influence over Singapore's largely state-mandated history textbook content, by advising on history teaching methods, training history teachers, studying how students approach history learning.

One can guess that they also lobby quietly and subtly for basic concepts of history to be taught in textbooks, as opposed to the government's line that there is only one definitive and objective history of Singapore.

Their presentation though centres on the empirical research on student approaches to history learning. Yes, some students really think there's only one correct history. Others think there's many different histories, all of which are equally valid and need to be averaged out to get the truth. And there are some who realise that there exist some historical standards to evaluate historical narratives.

Following the international theory of citizenship education, Baildon argues for a more sophisticated approach to history education in order to create engaged citizens in Singapore's democracy. Afandi offered a counter-proposal that good history education has its own benefits and should not be politicised or put to use for creating "good citizens". The audience in the Q&A were adamant that Baildon and Afandi's concept of teaching history standards fall short of allowing students to use primary material to engage in their own historical research, and that the real problem in Singapore is a lack of primary archival material.

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