THE FOLLOWING EXCERPT IS FROM OUR chat Between singaporean nominated member of parliament and artistic director of dramabox, Kok Heng Leun, and Melanie Chua, artist Yom Bo Sung and Kirin Heng ON 18 august 2017. THIS CONVERSATION was about various issues arising from ‘the’ Singaporean identity, as well as what the arts mean to Singaporeans. owing to the depth of each issue discussed, this Brackchat excerpt is split into four parts. It IS PART OF THE ARTIST-WRITER PAIR SERIES. READ MORE in the upcoming Energy Issue.
On the Singaporean Identity: Liquid Modernity
Y: Given that my works play with the Singaporean identity, I was just wondering what some of your views are of what constitutes the Singaporean identity.
KHL: Definitely not the CMIO – the Chinese, Malay, Indian, Other.
I think what constitutes the Singaporean identity… Definitely we are right smack in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is what we are. But we are a bit distanced from it. Yet at the same time we have actually fully colonised ourselves by the Western and British. We have never decolonised ourselves in some ways. So we embrace English language as our working language. It’s our first language. So that Southeast and that Asian bit is part of our being that is slowly [being lost]. The western influence is strong in the way we do business, the way we run our systems, the type of systems from the Industrial Revolution till now. That’s how I define Singapore, [according to these] kinds of complexities. And so because we are in Southeast Asia and we have migrants, we have racial mixes, we have religious mixes… But the thing that ties us together is a certain economic intention. So are we a nation yet? Trying to be. Are we a city? Yes, very much a city. So I would think that’s how I describe the identity itself. [With such complexity], how do you then…
[You have to ask] in the first place,
who wants to define this? Am I defining this for myself? Or the government is defining this? An individual may not want to define himself in that way, you see. For them, Singapore may not be important. Being gay may be more important. Being an artist. Being a gay artist may be more important.
KH: Do you think that local art makes use of the unique identity of Singapore?
KHL: What we don’t make use of enough is the Southeast Asian perspective of things. We have taken it for granted. We have not consciously excavated it. I think it is also because each of the community gave up their indigenous treasures very quickly. [Once] you give it up, and there’s nothing left, how do you expect the next generation to pick it up?
Then the migrants with their own indigenous culture also gave it up themselves. So we are sort of floating somewhere. Kuo Pao Kun used to call us cultural orphans. I can’t say that [term] still functions now, I can’t say that we don’t have a culture. Its just that we haven’t found…
Y: I think we can’t accurately say what it is. It’s so difficult to…
KHL: So difficult to… Because it is evolving. When you define a culture, looking back at what was still remaining, 50 years back, and we are so globalised. Before anything stays, it changes again.
KH: In terms of cultural influences that are present in Singaporean art, what do you think is [the most prominent influence]?
KHL: Consumerism. [laughs] Was it Bauman who talked about liquid modernity?
I think we live in a liquid modernity. So culturally, we have turned ourselves into a kind of thing [that] keeps evolving. And we keep asking ourselves “let’s move on, let’s move on”. So culture is actually [made up of] sediments that take time to settle and root themselves before they become something real. So our biggest culture is actually the act of being liquid and constantly evolving, I feel.
I think we should give ourselves another 50 years.
KH: I was hoping next generation.
KHL: I mean, America too, about 100 years before they can understand what that thing called American culture means. Of course we are smaller. But being smaller does not mean that we are closer. We are such an open economy. Which really means people come and go. […] We allow this type of flux, which makes Singapore what it is. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t come and go, we must also understand the world has really changed a lot. We are caught in that moment where we are trying to find our own identity, but we are also caught in an ever-changing flux, and yet we don’t have a strong something as our baseline. The Chinese have that. The Americans have it. The Europeans have it.
I think in Singapore we really have that issue: we are caught in the middle of that flux. And we are embracing that flux. Because that’s how to keep one’s survival. And I think that’s a very interesting problem for cultural workers and artists to reflect and think on.
(Featured image is of Sandro Masai as he interprets the worlds of Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman and artist Nina Saunders as a part of the current exhibition by Saunders, “Embodying the Concept of Liquid Modernity“, from Sandro Masai’s official website, source: https://sandromasai.wordpress.com/2017/05/20/embodying-the-concept-of-liquid-modernity/)